A better debugger - a very short story of why I love VHS

When I arrived at VHS the first time, I hadn’t done hardware projects much more complicated than wiring LEDs up to a battery (and even then, I still burnt out plenty of LEDs). I had done a little bit of Wiimote work for various fun things, such as a mocap system using multiple Wiimotes, like a budget version of a Vicon system.

I arrived at the hackspace shortly after moving here. I was starting a team at a new location for the company that got me here, and I wanted to unify the team. All of the team was somewhat interested in classic video games, so we decided to build a MAME cabinet together (for the office).

I arrived at the space looking for things the space didn’t have at the time, but I stayed for so much more. I eventually did complete the MAME cabinet and office-dwellers loved it. Our team got close as we all worked to scrap this thing together. Under all measurements, it was very successful. Just as VHS got our laser cutter, I was able to cut the control panel, I was helped in wiring up the harness for all the controls, and gained so much knowledge about how circuits actually work.

Then, something changed. I found something at VHS that needed help. I didn’t exactly know how to fix it, but I was invested. Prior to me joining, a group of hackspace members had pooled their money to buy our first 3d printer, the ■■■■■■■■ thing-o-matic. It wasn’t printing well, though.

I looked up the assembly manual, and realized that the linear bearings were installed incorrectly. I took a portion of it apart, fixed the bearings, and reassembled it. It worked!

After that, the printer worked for WEEKS! (at that time, weeks without much tweaking was an amazing feat, haha). I’m sure I made other things less good as I fixed the biggest offender, but I pushed the whole system forward. I felt so good.

Then I bought my first Arduino after seeing people make things (I think it was a line following robot). Getting a light to blink the way I programmed it was a thrill. I discovered Arduino on a breadboard and started making my own arduinos that only cost about $8 in components. At the time I was pulling the Atmel out of my Arduino after programming (that didn’t last long).

I went on to building a pressure sensitive tablet pen. While I got it functioning, I had no ability to miniaturize at the time (no SMD). So while it wasn’t pen-shaped, it worked. Well before the release of the Apple Pencil, it worked on an iPad (by emulating a keyboard and encoding pressure values in keystrokes)

I built widgets and gizmos, most of which never went anywhere but improving my knowledge. I made things for my wedding, I made gifts for my wife, I made wordclocks for friends and family, I made drawbots, and fixed my bike, and all sorts of little things.

The last few years, I’ve focused on more physical creation. I’ve learned to woodwork and turn wood (even made two ukuleles, one normal, one travel). I’ve learned to do molds and castings, and I’ve been taught how to turn metal and use a CNC, and even honed my CAD skills at VHS. Because of these recent skills, I’ve been able to help various projects at work (believe it or not, even though I’m in Software) and I’ve been able to fix things in my house, and keep furniture I love that had a weak point break out of the landfill. I’ve (I think) contributed to the woodshop at VHS while doing this, especially with bringing woodturning classes to VHS. I got so much back from these classes, a satisfaction I didn’t realize I could have.

This year I’ve had a baby and haven’t been able to make it, physically, down to VHS that much, but I love the online community. They keep helping me and I’ve learned that I can focus more on designing circuits. In addition to furthering my own goals, I’m trying to use this to bring back content to VHS by creating buildable kits to bring value to VHS members and future members. I am very active on slack, probably too much :).

I have intentionally not @ the various people who have helped me over time in this post. Not because your contributions to my informal education aren’t worth it (a million thanks to each of you), but because this is a story about VHS. None of this would have happened without VHS. VHS brought us together, and each person is what makes up VHS.

Cut to today.

I have a chair that I bought for my wife. It has a motor in it to move the back/legs and it stopped working. I got on the phone with the people who made it and they were just going to send me a replacement cable that I was pretty sure wasn’t the problem.
I asked “Do you want me to go and get my multimeter? I’m sure we can narrow this down so you don’t have to ship a bunch of different parts”
She was floored. She had never had a customer ask her that. We sat on the phone and I read out voltages, we debugged things, and pretty quickly we got a good idea of what the most likely problem was. They also just changed a component in their product. They were very interested in this since I’m one of the first people with the new part. They are now trying to test my failure case to see how the rest of the system reacts.
I’m happy that not only can I help with my own support case, but I feel like I’m potentially saving others from this problem.

I just wanted to share a silly little story about all the awesome I’ve gotten at VHS; and how that helped me out this morning. Thank you.

Turns out I was able to debug it even further, I’ve narrowed it down to a single failed component that caused other things to stop working. Yay!

They sent me a replacement, I have fixed my chair, and based on my research, they are getting the component back so they can do even more analysis. Yay!