When I was a kid, Radio Shack was my happy place.
Radio kits. Walkie-talkies. Enough various bits of wires, resistors, and spare parts to build just about anything my nerdy little mind could dream up. And computers! Real ones. The kind that load software off floppies and cassette tapes -- and communicated with the outside world using 300 baud acoustic coupler modems. The way it was meant to be.
I couldn't even begin to count the number of hours I spent in Radio Shack, playing with TRS-80's and various other computers from that time period.
It's been said before, but it's worth repeating: Radio Shack in the 1980's -- before the word "maker" was first uttered -- was a magical place. For young nerds like me, it had an almost religious significance. It was our temple.
Alas, those days are gone. Radio Shack, during the late 1990s and early 2000's, slowly changed from a computer nerd haven... into a store that mostly sold super "hip" cell phone cases. A move that assured Radio Shack's inevitable slide towards certain death.
Luckily, all was not lost. There, amongst the darkness, was a small glimmer of hope.
In 2005, a young lady by the name of Limor Fried began selling her own electronic hobby kits online -- an endeavor that would quickly lead her to found Adafruit Industries, a company focused on open source hardware.
Nowadays Adafruit sells single board computers, hobby kits, development boards, LED's, and (of course) various bits of wires. The company has become a sort of online haven for nerds like me that miss the glory days of Radio Shack.
And, like any good nerd haven, Adafruit has a long history of embracing open source... and, specifically, Linux. (And Linux related projects.)
"You should interview the founder of Adafruit," you say?
Well... what a coinkydink...
Lunduke: Hey there, Limor! What do you... do? What does the day the life of the Adafruit big kahuna look like?
Fried: Hi! I’m the founder and lead engineer. I spend a lot of my time engineering! I design the hardware that goes into the shop, as well as the test jigs that we use to verify functionality. I also test samples that become the products we stock - to make sure that they’re good enough to put in the adafruit shop. We also do weekly videos like our Wednesday night Show and Tell hangout (everyone’s welcome!) and Ask an Engineer (where we go over the weekly news for makers, hackers and engineers)
Lunduke: A company founder that gets to keep engineering... a rarity nowadays! Adafruit has made a name for itself in the open source hardware world... How would you explain Open Source Hardware to someone who has never heard of the idea? Why should the average person care?
Fried: Open source hardware is how we can publish the work that we do here at Adafruit so other engineers and makers can learn by observation. It’s a little like the Bob Ross paintings where you see how everything comes together step-by-step, even if the final painting looks magical.
Lunduke: Open Source (and Free) Software has caught on in pretty large segments of the computer industry. Do you see Open Source Hardware catching on in a similar way?
Fried: We think RISC-V will be a major, major player in open source hardware at the chip level - and of course there’s Open Hardware and Software in hundreds of thousands of student, maker, and prototype projects.
Lunduke: The last Adafruit kit project I put together was the PiGRRL 2. The process was an absolute blast -- I still show that bad mamajama off to people. Because of the work your team does, I now have a Pi-based "Gameboy" with an Ethernet port. Doesn't matter who you are... that's doggone nifty, right there. What's your favorite project kit that you're team has created? Which one makes you smile biggest, goofiest grin?
Fried: My favorite kit is the Circuit Playground Express - its the simplest, easiest, and least expensive way to get started with a ton of sensors, LEDs, and using a wide range of programming styles from block-based to Rust. I love to see pictures of kids making their very first project, being creative with electronics and coding - not just following along in a text book. There’s always more we can do to make STEM accessible!
Note: The Circuit Playground Express is a circle shaped board, about twice the size of a U.S. quarter coin, with a number of different sensors (temperature, light, etc.), multiple LEDs, and a built in chip with a python interpreter. Rather nifty.
Lunduke: If you could build one thing -- one awesome doodad, gadget, or gizmo -- that you can't currently build... what would it be?
Fried: We’re getting close to having low-cost, low-power secure wireless/networking support for microcontrollers, but its not quite here yet! Hopefully soon we’ll have wireless cores in microcontrollers the same way we have ADCs or I2C.
Lunduke: Oh, that's pretty rad! You know what else is rad? CircuitPython. I don't have a question around that, I just want you to talk about how rad it is for a moment.
Note: CircuitPython (a port of MicroPython) is an implementation of Python 3, written in C, that is built to run on microcontrollers. Adafruit builds CircuitPython into a number of their microcontroller-based kits.
Fried: CircuitPython is pretty rad! We think Python is an excellent language for beginners and experts - it’s easy to pick up but can be used to write full applications. Scripts can be concise or structured into large projects. It’s great for IoT projects, and I love the memory safety and type flexibility. Bringing that to microcontrollers, and also single-board-computers will let us take advantage of the low cost hardware available these days. We have over 60 boards supported in CircuitPython (more each week) and a dozen different SBCs, with 150+ libraries for a wide range of sensors, displays, and robotics devices.
Lunduke: For this part, I'm going to ask all the readers to skip to the next section. Don't read Limor's next answer. Ok. Just you and me know. You can tell me... What's the worst thing about Python? Like... what really makes you want light Python on fire and rain fury down from the heavens?
Fried: The transition from 2.7 to 3.x was really tough - and a lot of Linux distros still depend on 2.x, and changing versions breaks things.
Lunduke: Yeah, that migration was pretty brutal. What project do you, personally, want to see made that includes CircuitPython... but hasn't been done yet? What's your CircuitPython dream project?
Fried: CircuitPython is quite young still - but we see it as incredibly powerful for robotics, where there’s a high iteration cycle.
Lunduke: Python powered robots! Dig it! How about on the video game front?
Fried: Check out the PyGamer for our new design on a fully-open source handheld gaming platform. It’s got controls, screen, and audio, all running CircuitPython. Our favorite new project is Python-Your-Own-Adventure, which is an engine for making 90s-multimedia-games. Sort of a cross between between text adventures and Hypercard.
Lunduke: Oh, text adventures and Hypercard... how I love those. Changing focus a bit, what does the future hold for the makers and tinkerers of the world? When you envision "the maker movement" in 5 years... what does that look like?
Fried: The move to teach STEM topics with hardware has really caught on, and the evolution from logic chips, to Basic Stamp, to Arduino, to now Raspberry Pi and CircuitPython means we’ll have more powerful technology. (Probably all running embedded linux) The extra power means we’ll have higher level projects that can programmed from any phone or tablet using scripting languages. All that means that the technology itself won’t be the big part of the project, because it’s easier, but rather how the project will be customized and integrated into a costume, home automation controller, or assistive technology. Hopefully less yak shaving, more yak decorating!
"Yak shaving" - Noun
1) Any apparently useless activity which, by allowing you to overcome intermediate difficulties, allows you to solve a larger problem.
2) A less useful activity done consciously or subconsciously to procrastinate about a larger but more useful task.
The term "yak shaving" originally was inspired by an episode of the cartoon "Ren and Stimpy" which featured a short titled, "Yak Shaving Day," a Christmas-like Holiday where participants hang diapers instead of stockings, stuff rubber boots with coleslaw, and watch for the shaven yak to float by in his enchanted canoe. Carlin Vieri PhD, while at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, was the first to use the term in this way.
Lunduke: I love the phrase "less yak shaving, more yak decorating." People need to use that more. Are there any other phrases, saying, mantras, etc. you'd like to spread in the world?
Fried: “We are what we celebrate” - Dean Kamen
Lunduke: If you could tell a 10 year old version of yourself what you are doing now... what would kid-Limor think?
Fried: What I’m doing now is totally awesome and I think 10-year-old me would be psyched - we see young girls make kits and build projects all the time and they don’t know how lucky they are to live in a time where all this info and technology is available! It was a lot harder and more boring to build stuff when I was younger.
Lunduke: What was it that prepared you to create Adafruit? Was it school... or a mentor... or a book with a somber animal on the front... or...?
Fried: The best reference we’ve found for learning how to start a business, the technical parts at least, is Nolo press. They’ve got great books on accounting and contracts - all the stuff you can’t learn in school!
Lunduke: I've gotta ask, what Linux distribution do you use most often and/or makes you smile the most?
Fried: Right now I’m using WSL (“Linux for Windows” a bunch) running Debian a lot, and of course Raspberry Pi computers all run Debian/Raspbian. Most of our customers run Windows so I use Win10 for my day to day work, and Linux when doing machine learning or other Linux-only projects.
Lunduke: Windows 10, eh? Well, that's ok. We won't hold it against ya, since you're running Linux elsewhere. :)
Fried: I’ve been running Linux for a long time and it’s wonderful to see it turn into a platform for creation and sharing. The Linux ethos has inspired a lot of the maker community in how they share and document and build together!
A big thank you to Limor Fried for spending time with me -- and for working to make cool things for people of all ages to tinker with.
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