Yesterday’s post was an attempt to explain what I’m doing, and how the bigger issues cause me to wander around a lot, working on secondary projects while trying not to stray too far from the main direction – which is to experiment with fun stuff in the home, around the topics of energy use and environmental monitoring. And a whiff of domotics… when it serves a useful purpose.
Ok, so Jee Labs is about JC’s Environmental Electronics. Doh.
Today I’d like to go into why I’m working on this stuff.
Whenever you ask people why they do what they do, the usual answers are: money, prestige, influence. But the most exciting answers in my book are from those who chase their dreams: because they can or because they want to see where it leads to. Fortunately, these answers do come up, once in a while.
Here are some “why” answers from me:
Why environmental? Because we’re on a dangerous course. I’m ashamed of what my species is doing, yet I share full responsibility. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to change the rest of the world. Them. Out there. But maybe I can change the small world I live in. Me, my family and friends. My living space.
Why electronics? Because it’s what I loved doing when I was a teenager. It was my biggest passion, before computers took over that spot. I would love nothing more than share that passion. If I can somehow reach some kid, somewhere, to discover the magic of exploration and invention, then that would be fantastic.
Why microcontrollers? Because they bring together everything I like: electronics, logic, code, mechanical design. And because nowadays, they are so low-cost and so darn easy to work with. Incredibly robust (hey, you can plug ‘em in backwards!) yet infinitely malleable (its all code, just change the flash memory!).
Why wireless? Because wireless is as close to magic as technology will ever get. Making things happen somewhere else with invisible power, literally!
Why sensors? Because it’s about time our technology started paying more attention to the “real” world out there. Out with the big and noisy machines, which operate in a strictly controlled fashion. The future belongs to sentient systems, which fit in, investigate, respect, respond to, take care of, and even protect our most valued aspects of life.
Why networks? Because this world is about information. Data which does not reach the right places and persons, has no value.
Why the home? Because that’s where people live. Factories, offices, and commutes are all artifacts of the industrial revolution. That was long ago. We’re living in the internet revolution now. Being in a specific place to make something happen is losing its grip on our lives.
Ok, so maybe that last one is pushing things a bit … :)
Now some more focused why’s …
Why JeeNodes? Because Arduino’s got it almost right, but shields are simply not modular enough to encourage real mix-and-match tinkering. Single-purpose shields are made for consumption and they restrict needlessly (try stacking them, and feel the pain!).
Why Ports and Plugs? Same reason, really. Because I want everyone to be able to experiment with combinations of sensor and actuator functions. JeeNodes are not about consuming (“I create a neat combination kit with all sorts of choices fixed in advance and you build a copy of it”) but about de-constructing and re-constructing stuff. Analyze and synthesize. Take it apart, combine it in other ways. Go and try something new, please!
Why RFM12B’s? Because they are low cost and more than capable enough. Mesh, frequency hopping, TDMA, sure… if you want to dabble in complexity, go for it. Go swim in network protocol “stacks”. Add in a micro-kernel to deal with all the required parallelism. Go overboard in failure modes and recovery mechanisms. Use beefier chips. But count me out. I can live with imperfect packet delivery, and simple manual configuration of a few dozen nodes. I cheerfully pass w.r.t. all this “self-inflicted complexity”.
Why 3.3V? Because more and more of the new and interesting sensors operate only up to 3.6V or so. And wireless chips, and Ethernet chips. And because LiPo batteries are very good power sources: very low self-discharge, very fast recharge times, and available in a huge range of sizes and capacities.
Why JeeMon? Because I want the software equivalent of a breadboard to explore lots and lots of ideas, and it doesn’t exist – not equally simple and equally powerful as a breadboard, not to my knowledge anyway. I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of software design yet, and the potential for real modularity and simplification. Hardware is much further along, in that respect.
Why Tcl? Because there seems to be nothing quite like it, in terms of simplicity, expressive power, flexibility, robustness, portability, scalability, and deployment. I don’t mean in terms of each individual issue, but in terms of the combination of those aspects. As a package deal, Tcl embodies a surprisingly clever and effective set of trade-offs. I could probably dismiss Tcl on every single issue in isolation, and name another language which would be preferable – but no single language can go where Tcl goes.
Why multi-platform? Because I want to create interesting solutions on the desktop as well as on small Linux boards. I’m fascinated by the idea of moving solutions around, modularizing larger systems into loosely coupled sub-systems, and migrating some of those pieces to dedicated miniature hardware platforms.
Why open source? Because it simplifies my life – I can work in the open, share and discuss everything, and benefit from every mode of collaboration imaginable. And because it simplifies your life. If you don’t like what I do, you have three options, instead of just the first one: 1) ignore me, 2) take what you like and change everything else, and 3) make your case and bring up arguments to steer me into a better direction. I’m against lock-in, so if there’s anything I can do to further reduce inter-independencies, let me know.
Why no standards, such as XML or ZigBee? Because in this context, standards make no sense. The context is an environment where you can choose every data structure and every side of the communication. In a world where everyone speaks a different language, you need dictionaries, translators, and interpreters. They are all essential, useful, and valuable. I should know, I speak 4 languages, 3 of them regularly within my own family (the fourth being English). But the compactness of well-chosen words and the intricacy of their nuances really take off when you’re totally on the same wavelength. XML has many virtues, but “impedance matching” and compactness are not amongst them. Standards stand in the way of creativity. XML and ZigBee add no value in this context, just tons of complexity, which then creates its own set of problems and distractions.
Speaking of complexity…
This post is starting to become a little too complex as well. So let me summarize and simplfy it as follows: why am I doing all this stuff at Jee Labs? To share my excitement, to convince those interested in technology that there are infinitely many fascinating adventures ahead in the land of Physical Computing, to give me an interesting and useful context to try out lots of new software ideas, and … for the sheer fun of hacking around and learning.
Oh, and because I can, and want to see where it leads to, of course :)
PS. The “normal” weblog posts will resume tomorrow, i.e. how to set up JeeMon for the reflow project.