Sep 282015
 

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking on my ride this morning.  A few weeks ago, a school student in the US decided to use his interest in electronics and his knowledge to make a digital clock.  Having gotten the circuit working, he decided to bring the device to school to show his physics teacher.

The physics teacher might not have been alarmed, but another certainly was, and he was frogmarched to the Principal’s office who then called the police.  It was a major uproar, and shows just how paranoid a society (globally) we’ve become.

Back in 2001, I used to have a portable CD player which I’d listen to on my commutes to and from school.  It was a basic affair, that took 4 AA cells that were forever going flat.  I tried rechargeable cells, but wasn’t satisfied with their life either.  Having gotten fed up with that, I looked to alternatives.  The alternative I went for was a small 12V 7Ah SLA battery about the size of a house brick.

Yes, heavy, but I carried it in the backpack with my textbooks, and it worked well.  I could go a week on a single charge.  In addition, I could run not just a CD player, but any 12V device, including a small fan, which made me the envy of a lot of fellow students in the middle of summer.  (Our classrooms were not air conditioned.)  I still use a cigarette lighter extension lead/4-way adapter that I made back then to give me extra sockets on the bicycle.

If I tried it today, I half expect I’d be explaining this to the AFP.

It raises a real serious question about what our future generations are meant to do with their lives.  Yes, there’s clearly a danger in experimenting with these things.  That SLA battery, if it ruptured, could leak highly dangerous sulphuric acid.  If I charge it or discharge it too fast (e.g. by shorting the terminals), the internal resistance would build up heat inside the cells which would then start boiling the water in the electrolyte and gas would build up, possibly triggering the cell walls to fail.

But, I had contingency plans.  The battery was set up with fuses to cut power in the event of a short.  Cables were well insulated.  Terminals were protected.  It never caused an issue.  These days, I use LiFePO4s, which, while forgiving, also have their dangers.  I steer clear of LiPol cells since they are very volatile.

The point being, I had been experimenting with electronics from a very young age.  I also learned about computer programming from a very young age.  I learned about how they worked, and learned how to control them.  You could compare it to learning to ride a horse.

One [way] is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks.  The latter system is the safest, but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders.

— Wilbur Wright in his speech “Some Aeronautical Experiments”, 18th September, 1901.
(source: David McCullough, “The Wright Brothers: The Dramatic Story-Behind-the-Story”)

I learned to ride a couple of “horses”.  One in particular, was the computer.  Understanding the electronics behind it greatly helped here.  I was already familiar with the concept of DC current by the time I hit university and I was well advanced in my understanding of how to control a computer.  What University specifically taught me was some discipline in how to structure code and the specifics of particular languages.  The bulk of my study was done long before I applied for any degrees.

There seems to be a thinking in today’s society that “task X is difficult, leave it to the professionals”.  There are some fields, where one would do well to heed that advice.  Anything involving gas ducting or mains electricity being two examples.

You can possibly get quite a bit of plumbing work done yourself, however some professional oversight is usually a good idea.  You have a right to DIY in most cases, but rights come with responsibilities, and one is taking responsibility of something goes wrong.  They go together.

(Extra) Low voltage, at low current levels, there’s very little you can actually do that would result in serious harm.  If you go about things carefully in a controlled manner, this experimentation can be a great vehicle for serious study in a chosen field.  Computers, unless you’re doing something really risky like flashing boot firmware, are not easily “bricked” and can be recovered.  Playing with a second-hand old desktop (not a production machine) or a cheap machine like the plethora of ARM-based and AVR-based single-board computers available today is not likely to result in life-threatening injury.

Banning the experimentation in such fields is not going to serve our community in the long term.  This is a typical knee-jerk reaction when someone’s experimentation is seen to be doing harm, even if, like the US student’s case, the experimentation is completely benign.  Following this road over time is only going to leave to a nation of cave-dwelling hermits that shun technology as black magic.

Technology is mankind’s genie, you cannot simply stuff it back in the bottle.  The genie here is quite willing to grant us many wishes, but unlike the ones of myths and legends, this one expects some effort to be done in return.  It is not simply going to vanish just because we’ve decided that it’s too dangerous.  We as individuals either need to study how the genie operates, or we pay someone else that has studied how it operates.  If everyone chooses to do the latter, who is left to do the former?