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A 5-post collection

Who am I, really?

Written by Michael Earls
 michael  programming

Due to various circumstances, I recently found myself in the job market again. There was a particular job that emerged that I got very excited about. They cold contacted me through LinkedIn, not knowing that I was even looking for a job.

I had to drive two hours for the first interview, but the job was for working remotely with a little travel. Once in the interview, I noticed that they were asking questions based off of my LinkedIn profile, not off of the resume that I had so carefully crafted to be my own representation of myself.

Honestly, I'm was glad they were using LinkedIn and not my resume because I hate resumes. After working in this industry for over twenty years, the resume that I'm most comfortable with has grown to over six pages long. It's my understanding that it's not supposed to exceed two pages.

So, when I became aware that I was going to have to sell myself again, I created a new resume that was going to be my short version. I even named it "Michael Earls resume 2 page.docx". It's terrible. I still have not found the best way to squeeze over twenty years of knowledge, experience, and wisdom onto just two pages.

During the interview, they asked some good questions about my experience and asked about the projects I had worked on. Remember, this is a job that I really wanted to get as it had to do with industrial automation and that was a field I have been interested in for a very long time.

I finished the interview and felt pretty good about it. Days went by and I never heard anything back. So, I sent an email asking if they had any news. They told me that they were still making a decision.

After a few weeks, I finally just gave up all hope and continued with the other job prospects as normal. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from them asking me to drive up for another interview, this time with the president of the company and other executives. I agreed.

This time, however, I was asked to perform one of those in-depth personality profiles that companies pay for. They were serious and I knew it. I get nervous taking these personality profiles because they make me feel like I'm being analyzed (because I am).

When I got to the interview, it was intense. They were armed with 10 reports about my personality and asked me very pointed questions about who I was and how I would respond to certain scenarios.

During both interviews, I specifically remember telling them that I viewed the work that I do as a creative endeavor. I told them that I see programming as an art form and the act of writing code is like painting a picture.

When asked what my greatest gift was, I said "I make order out of chaos".

Utter bullshit.

I never heard back from them after the second interview, even when I sent an email asking if they had made a decision because I had received another job offer. Personally, I think it was unprofessional to not even tell me that I had not been selected, but each company handles things in their own way.

Going back through the interview, I can remember times when they kept trying to get me back on track. All I had to do was confirm to them that I was the same person from my LinkedIn profile. Nowhere in my career have I ever "painted a picture with code".

I am a software engineer, not an artist. But why did I say those things? What led me to spout off so much untruth?

After some self reflection, I finally realized why I had told them that and why I have had that view of myself since the beginning.

It started in 7th grade.

When I was growing up, I used to draw a lot. I even got in trouble in school for drawing during class to the point where most of my artwork ended up in the trash can (the evil teachers tore it up before placing it there).

I was a huge Iron Maiden fan in Junior High. I loved heavy metal music and I used to draw demons, skeletons, skulls, flames, you get the idea. Iron Maiden's "mascot" is a skeleton with rotting flesh falling from his bones.

I used to emulate that style in my drawings and I drew a lot of it. I also drew post-apocalyptic scenes (much like you see now in The Walking Dead TV show).

One day, there was an announcement that students were encouraged to join the art club. Just show up to the art room after school with some of your drawings to get in. When I knocked on the door, the teacher opened the door, looked at my drawings and said "this is Satanic, you can't be in the art club".

I was deflated. I don't think I've drawn another picture since that day. Yet, somehow, I never stopped thinking of myself as an artist. I originally wanted to go to art school and be a 3-D animator, but that was too expensive and very unrealistic coming from the financial demographic that I come from.

I've somehow been lying to myself all these years that I am an artist, yet nothing that I do is art. It's all engineering and science.

I can imagine that I must come across as a dishonest person when I discuss how I view myself because I have been so clueless for so long.

Now I know who I am, I'm a software engineer and I write code for a living. I don't "paint with code". I solve problems. I am a problem solver and I'm a damn good one.

One input, two different results

Written by Michael Earls
 michael  development  programming  teaching  Gaming  Memories  writing

As if to give life to itself, two separate careers started as a simple "choose your own adventure" game on early 1980's home computers.

The setting

In the early 80's, myself and my best friend Joshua had home computers. Unfortunately, they were not the same model. He had the popular Apple II with the disk drives and I had the Coleco Adam with dual high speed tape drives.

Apple II

Apple II

Coleco ADAM Home Computer

Coleco ADAM Home Computer

However, despite being different hardware, they both shared the same version of the BASIC interpreter that allowed us to write code on one computer and manually transfer it to the other.

Natural role discovery

It quickly became evident that I enjoyed writing computer programs, but I wasn't that good at coming up with ideas for games. Joshua has an enormous imagination and is a natural writer. He easily found plenty of source material in his head to write stories that we turned into games. Games were not the only product of his imagination that I would emulate. He taught me how to just "let go" and not fuss over the technical details of writing comics and developed a simple "egg based" approach to character drawing. He would start with an oval and then fill in the details for each individual character. They each had enough detail to tell them apart, but not so much that drawing them got in the way of his story. Honestly, I was very jealous of his talents and worked hard to (unsuccessfully) emulate his process.

The game development process

We worked together on our games with him writing the stories and me expanding the computer code (he was also a good BASIC developer for the "choose your own adventure" style games that we created).

He would type the game into his computer, play it through, and then print it out on his printer. The next day, he would come over to my house with his printouts and I would manually type the program into my computer while he read the lines out. Doing it this way, I got to preview the results of decisions and how they led to either a nasty death or a victory. It was fun to play the game through because it was a matter of which decisions resulted in which outcomes.

I became more and more interested in how to expand on the simple GOTO statements and learned about subroutines (GOSUB statements that returned to where you left off) to provide more advanced logic. Eventually, I learned that you can POKE binary data to memory locations and take advantage of built-in capabilities of the computer. I also learned what an array was and how to take advantage of it to store related information for easy retrieval.

As I learned new programming tricks, I would share them with Joshua and they would show up in subsequent versions of his games.

It was a great partnership that grew into even more fun as we got older.

I have a big imagination and I am naturally creative. However, my creativity and imagination are very static and technical. I use my creativity to recognize and take advantage of technical abstractions and my imagination helps me envision ways to connect the abstract ideas with a concrete implementation (usually in the form of computer code). I occasionally stretch my wings with graphic design or music composition, but my gifts, talents, and experience are mostly related to computer software design and programming.

This has been developing in me since those early days when Joshua and I would partner to create all sorts of computer creations. He was always the idea factory and I would find a way to make it happen with his help. We had a lot of overlap because he had a good grasp of computer programming and I had a somewhat workable grasp of storytelling.

In addition to learning how to program, my parents bought me the MODEM add-on for the ADAM computer. It plugged into the peripheral bus and the telephone wire came out of the top of the unit and plugged into the wall. I used it to log into the local Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in Atlanta and met people from all over the city.

ADAMLink MODEM

ADAMLink MODEM

It was the beginnings of the online systems (AOL - originally QuantumLink for C-64 users, Compuserve, EarthLink, etc.) These online systems were in place when the well-connected techie nerds began to offer consumer access to the budding Internet, which had previously only been accessible from colleges and government agencies. I was very much into the early days of the Internet and knew it was how I was going to make a living from a very early age. I can't imagine doing anything else.

I once built a speech digitizer for my Commodore 64 computer using the schematics from a home computer magazine. Once I finished it and tested that it worked, I didn't know what to do with it. Joshua was quick to find an application and we had a big laugh at the resulting confusion it generated.

As time went on and he moved away, I lost touch with Joshua. I recently learned that he has been very busy as a college educator and frequently teaches many of the topics that we grew up exploring together. He has published multiple novels and leads a group about academia on the web.

We are still the same people we were back then, but now we get to be adults about it and follow our passion to share our discoveries with the world.

He recently wrote a great article titled Would You Rather Read or Play a Novel? that inspired me to create this post. His article reminded me of the joy I get out of playing modern video games like "Elder Scrolls: Skyrim", where you wander around in an enormous open world, meeting people, doing side jobs, dungeon crawling, casting spells, and even crafting your own armor, weapons, and spells. Within this world are numerous book shelves. Most of the books on the shelves can be opened and read in-game. They contain small bits and pieces of the game lore that give you an insight into the environment you are playing in.

Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

It's just a more advanced version of the very first games that we wrote back in the 80's, fleshed out to take advantage of modern graphics, sound, and computing power.

Even though we both started out as computer programmers and authors, one of us became a college professor and author and the other of us became a professional programmer and technology hobbyist.

I think the main point of this post is to communicate that it is important to follow your desires and work hard to pursue the things you are passionate about, turning them into a career.

In short, I like to say, "To get a great job, find something you love doing and convince someone to pay you to do it for them."

That time I owned the VW Bus

Written by Michael Earls
 michael  VW  VW Bus  Memories  jail  Six Flags

When I was in my late teens, I bought a Volkswagen Bus for about $300. The floor was rusted out, so the previous owner had installed a wooden floor. The back was full of spare parts and it had a four seat bench that looked like it came from the waiting room of some government agency. The long shift lever had a rubber Golf ball as the handle.

VW Bus

One day, as I approached a stop sign, the brakes completely failed. When I put my foot on the pedal, it sank to the floor and the bus kept moving. Knowing how manual transmissions work, I immediately downshifted through the gears until I was in first gear (that is extremely hard on the transmission). Since I couldn't stop completely, I slowly rolled through the stop sign.

When I finally got the bus stopped, I inspected each wheel to see which one was the culprit. One of the wheels had brake fluid all over it, so I knew that was the one. I took the brake drum off and removed the brake cylinder.

VW Rear Brake Cylinder

VW Rear Brake Cylinder

Fluid was leaking from one side of the cylinder, so I removed the rubber seal and took the plunger arm out. The gasket was broken. I had this inspired voice in my head that reminded me that I had seen this exact part among all of the spare parts in the back, so I went digging around until I found it. I took that gasket and put it in the brake cylinder and reassembled the whole thing. There was even a huge bottle of brake fluid in the back already that had come with the van when I bought it. So, I refilled the master cylinder reservoir, bled the lines, and continued on with my day. However, my repair meant that the brakes would leak just a little bit of fluid each time I used them, so I had to add fluid every now and then or I'd lose my brakes altogether. I began using the downshifting method as a way to preserve brake fluid because I could exhaust the entire master cylinder reservoir on a long trip if I wasn't careful.

To this day, I think it was great luck that all of this happened. To think that I had the tools to do the work, had the parts I needed already in the van, and the brake fluid just makes me shake my head with wonder. My life has been a stream of blessings, one after another (to help counterbalance the curses I've been given, I suppose).

One of the problems with the van was that the transmission couldn't go into the highest gear, so I could only go about 45 miles per hour in it. That meant I couldn't get on the Interstate. Traveling from Clayton County to Cobb or Gwinnett county using nothing but back roads is a very time consuming endeavor. But, I made it where I was going eventually and enjoyed the "trip".

The van had a huge "Sun Roof". The problem was that the weather seal was missing. So, When it rained, water would collect between the outer roof and the inner ceiling. When I came to a stop, the water would rush forward and splash into the cabin right behind the front seats. I had to make sure I didn't stop so fast that I got wet. It was a fitting problem to have considering that I worked at the Six Flags amusement park at the time and it was like one of those rides that gets you wet.

One of my friends on Facebook shared this story with me about the van:

"Remember the time we were late to work because it had a flat tire? And Roscoe (and his trusty assistant [I forgot his name]) couldn't get the lug nuts off? So he had to chisel each one off using a power drill? I remember his assistant took a wrench and turned. It didn't move. He tried two other methods on other lug nuts....they didn't work either. He said; "uh oh." Turned and yelled "ROSCOE! We gotta problem." Roscoe was working on another car and when he got to a stopping point came over....he tried the same things and same result. But Roscoe had a secret weapon: he had a longish wrench and then he also had about a 6 foot pole to to add torque and power to the mix. One of those greek guys is quoted as saying "If I had a lever long enough I could move a mountain." A mountain maybe but not one of those lug nuts. The bus itself moved when Roscoe put his shoulder into it but the lug nut wouldn't budge. I think we were supposed to be at work that day at 4pm and we showed up around 8......after Roscoe chiseled each lug nut off (about a 20 minute process for each one) and then he had to borrow one lug nut from the other wheels to mount the tire....I remember walking up those merch (we worked in the merchandising department at Six Flags) stairs, into the hallway of judgement, standing before someone who asked; "why are you two late?!?!?" We fish in our pockets for the twisted and shredded metal shards of what remained of those damnable lug nuts and tossed them onto the desk.....they just looked disgusted and waved us to stop slacking and get to work.... good times! (Found out later one Mr Earls had the same tire flatten a day or two earlier and had it fixed....but standing there chatting with the tire changer using a power drill to screw the lug nuts back on.....maybe he got a little distracted? Important safety tip; sometimes it's better to let the workers do their job....alone?"

Six Flags

Another friend reminded me of a trip to Six Flags that we took when he came to visit me. I had to drive all the back roads. However, since I had no confidence in my brakes (they leaked fluid since I had "fixed" them), I used the downshift method to stop the whole way there. It took us three hours to get there from the South side of Atlanta.

When I moved out of my parents' house into an apartment with friends, I learned the reality of living on your own for the first time. The biggest challenge was that there wasn't enough money to pay for rent, food, and car insurance. So, I canceled my car insurance. That meant I could no longer drive the bus.

One day at work, I made an innocent offhand remark to an elderly lady that I was working with at one of the shops inside Six Flags on how I couldn't wait until payday so I could buy some food. She invited me to her house to have a spaghetti dinner that night with her husband. I accepted. Neither of my roommates was home that night, so I didn't have a ride to get there. Feeling too proud to ask her to come pick me up, I decided to drive my van. She didn't live very far from me, so I thought it would be OK (there was only one traffic light between my apartment and her house). After dinner, I drove home. The first thing I encountered was that her driveway was a very steep downhill decline. I had to use my brakes (which meant I was losing a lot of fluid). The entire way home, I was very nervous that my brakes might fail. As I approached the stop light, there was a police car in the left turn lane that i needed to be in. Fearing that I would rear-end the police car, I decided to get in the lane next to him. Once I was able to stop, I nervously glanced over at him and waved. Yes, I waved at a cop. From a VW Bus with a fried egg spray painted on the side. I was dressed up as nice as I knew how in a matching outfit that Laurie had put together for me and given me as a gift (her and her mother were very kind to me and bought me clothes during this time as I was extremely poor and didn't have the right kind of clothes to go on job interviews with).

I got pulled over for a faulty tail light. When he asked to see my license and insurance, I honestly told him that I didn't have insurance. He asked me to step out of the car, then frisked me, put me in handcuffs (really), and asked if he could search my van. I said, "yes" and he opened the sliding door only to be met with a nightmare mess (I never had anywhere to put all of those spare parts, so I left them in the back of the van). I had organized them a bit and put some of them in containers, but the back was a mess. He just took a quick glance and closed the door.

He radioed in my driver's license information and learned that I had no warrants or any priors. However, he called to have another officer pick me up. Apparently, having no insurance is a "go directly to Jail and do not pass Go" kind of thing.

When the other police officer got there, they put me in the back of the car and off to the jailhouse we went. On our trip there, the other officer apologized to me for having to take me to jail. He said to me, "You had some pretty bad luck tonight. That officer that pulled you over is a dick. He was off-duty when he pulled you over. He didn't have to call it in or get me involved. Unfortunately, he's already called it in and the Sheriff is waiting on your arrival."

Once we got to the jail, the officer handed me over to the sheriff and I was directed to the drunk tank until I could be "processed". The officer that brought me in submitted the paperwork, chatted a little bit, and on his way out, said to me, "Sorry about this. Good luck".

JAIL!

There were a few other people in the cell with me. It was very scary. They looked strung out, mean, and violent. After a few minutes, the Sheriff in charge instructed one of the other sheriffs to move me to a different cell. The new cell was empty. When he left the cell, he didn't close the door behind him. So, there I sat, in a jail cell with an open door. A police officer came in a few minutes later, and as soon as he saw me in the cell, he took it upon himself to yell at me, "Hey! What are you doing? Close that door! This is a jail, not a playground." The sheriff in charge told him, "Shut your trap. That isn't your concern".

The Sheriff let me use the free phone on his desk to make calls to my roommate to come pick me up. After a few failed attempts at trying to reach my roommate, I finally got him on the phone and asked him to come pick me up at the county jail.

The sheriff was using his power to release me on my own recognizance. From the description:

Sheriff Pretrial Release Programs

With budgetary constraints looming, many county sheriff departments use their discretionary authority to "O.R." custodial suspects even before their first court appearance. Some sheriff departments call this system "supervised pretrial release," whereas others call it "citing out a defendant," meaning the suspect has been given a citation with a notice to appear upon threat of warrant.

The sheriff told me, "If you don't show up for court, I will personally hunt you down and put you in jail myself". I replied, "yes sir, I understand", thanked him, and went outside to wait for my ride.

Related post

When I went to court, I represented myself (I felt that I was guilty, so I didn't need a lawyer, and was going to tell the judge the whole truth, being completely ignorant of the true nature of the judicial system). I guess my pure honesty worked, because the judge gave me some community service and had me write a paper on why car insurance is important. He also made me promise that I would not drive that van ever again (I told him the story of the faulty brakes as part of my case).

I had always wanted to own a VW Bus. I did and now I can strike it off of my bucket list. Incidentally, Laurie and I owned a VW Eurovan camper in the early 2000's and went camping in it a lot. It had a table in the back for eating and we would go to downtown Atlanta and get Nancy's pizza (before they had an eat-in restaurant), park in the Krispy Kreme parking lot on Ponce de Leon and eat our pizza. Then, we'd go inside and get some doughnuts and eat them in the van.

Before and after

Good times!

What's happening lately?

Written by Michael Earls
 personal  michael  marvel  GoT  entertainment

What's happening?

It's been a while since I posted to the blog, so I thought I'd update it. I post somewhat frequently to my Facebook page, but with it being so heavy with political posts, I have to work hard to stay away. It's currently presidential election season in a year where both candidates are so rotten and devoid of morality that we're fighting the "my side is superior to your side because my side is lower in Satan's military hierarchy" battle, and it's getting very ugly here in the US of A. We may have to rename the country The Divided States of America if this keeps up.

Update - February 2, 2017 - I am now working for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. It's an awesome job and I am enjoying the environment, our client, and my coworkers.

Where are we now?

Montgomery, AL

We're living in Montgomery, AL and loving it. The people here are very friendly and the service is great. We're about to buy a house in the County Downs neighborhood. It's the perfect house for us, since we have four adults (Laurie's mother and brother live with us). It's a one story house, which is very important for our aging knees. We were under contract for a home in the same neighborhood that we're in now, but we've had a crime spree break out in the last two months. There have been an enormous number of burglaries in our neighborhood and we decided to pass on the house (it was also a bit too large for us - and it had a pool, which would add more monthly expenses to the whole thing).

Out of the frying pan...into the fire

The devil is in the details

I try hard not to post about politics, sex, or religion, but I keep getting sucked into the political mosh pit. I'm seriously considering contacting my Facebook friends that I am closest to and getting their email addresses so I can close down Facebook once and for all.

Family matters

Kathy walking down the aisle

My younger sister Kathy got married last weekend. It was awesome. She was born with a severe heart defect and the doctors told the family that she wouldn't live past six months. She did and then they kept telling us that she wouldn't make it to her next birthday for many years. After my mother kept insisting that they operate on her anyway, she survived so long that the doctors just gave up trying to predict her death and treated her condition. Now, here we are, over thirty years later, and she got married. She married a guy that was a good friend to me when I used to go on church youth group trips as a kid. I have always been an odd nerd, and the youth group kids weren't any different than any other group of kids, they treated the odd kids the same. Jeff was odd, too, so we got along well. He taught me how to play chess one time by using a checker board and some bottle caps that I dug out of the Coke machine with my skinny arms. We used Sprite caps for one type of piece (Rook, Knight, Queen, King, etc.) and each different drink for another piece. It was fun.

Are you not entertained?!

Winter is coming

Game of Thrones

We binge-watched Game of Thrones on HBO Now. Aside from the unnecessary sexual content and nudity, the story was absolutely incredible. I am a poor reader of anything that is not of a technical nature, so I probably won't read the books that the show is based on (I also read comics because they force my brain to slow down long enough to take in the art so I can get the context of the dialog visually).

Our Democracy is being hacked

Mr. Robot

We're currently watching Mr. Robot. I love this show because the protagonist (or is he the antagonist?) talks about the same conspiracy theories that I am known to ramble on about (the top 1% of the top 1% running the world in a little meeting room in some secret location, the use of our private habits for commercial gain, politicians being "owned" by corporate interests, the fact that the world was in love with Steve Jobs, yet he built the iPod and the first two versions of the iPhone on the backs of child labor across the world, etc.) We're still wondering if this is going to be like Fight Club and Q2hyaXN0aWFuIFNsYXRlcidzIGNoYXJhY3RlciBpc24ndCByZWFs <-- Paste that text in the box at the link and click the "Decode" button to see the spoiler text.

Shoot that poison arrow

Oliver Queen

I watch Arrow from time-to-time. I like the show, but it is a bit simple as far as plot lines and acting go. It's still entertaining, though. I used to read the Green Arrow comic book when I was in high school. He's one of my favorite characters because he's all human, with no super powers. He has to use his brain and his skills to survive...and he's not bullet proof.

The Walking Dead

Walking Dead

I think the show is named appropriately. Even though it has been extended for another season (Season 8), I just don't know if I care about the characters any more. It's bouncing back-and-forth between desperate survival and abundant life tropes and it's getting tiresome to watch. I'm not even sure if I really care who got their head smashed in at the end of the last season.

It is your...DESTINY!

Destiny Warlock

I am somewhat obsessed with the game Destiny. I don't play it nearly as much as the most well-known players (Datto does Destiny, My Name is Byf, etc.), but I play it enough to be pretty good at it. I haven't bought the most recent expansion yet (it's only $30, but I have been spending my $30 on other things lately), so perhaps I'm not as addicted as you might think. Though, I still have three level 40 characters above 320 light level.

Stuck in a loop

Time is on their side

We recently saw Ms. Peregrine's home for peculiar children. I really enjoyed that movie. It was a great exploration of the nature of time. Another awesome job by one of my favorite directors (Tim Burton). I also enjoyed the last Alice in Wonderland movie that he directed (it was also about the nature of time).

MARVELous

Iron Man

I am subscribed to Marvel Unlimited on my iPad, which gets me access to the backlog of Marvel comics (I have to wait about six months to read anything current). I usually read a lot at night before bed. I have been following the cinematic universe pretty closely. The only movies I haven't seen are the Thor movies. I just can't get into them, but I'm sure I'll watch them at some point. I haven't seen X-Men Armageddon, yet, so I'm looking forward to that.

DRAW!

Westworld

Holy cow! Westworld on HBO Now is incredible. We love this show. Laurie read that they did not secure the actors for more than four episodes, so it seems we are almost through the whole season (we watched episode three last night).

Update - Shawn Wildermuth informed me that the actors were signed for four years, not four episodes. I'm very glad because we love this show. The depth of the subject matter is so on point. The question at the back of my mind is whether or not Anthony Hopkins' character is the only living human in the building.

Tap target artifact

Magic: the Gathering

I've started playing the Magic: the Gathering card game again. I haven't played regularly since Urza's saga (1998, I think). I started playing just before fifth edition. The new expansion is awesome. I love artifact decks and this new expansion has a lot of artifact related cards. I'm thinking of playing at the local game store, but the new iPad, iPhone, and XBox One app are satiating my need to play for now. I play it on all three. My iPhone and iPad games are synchronized with each other, but unfortunately, it doesn't sync with my XBox One account, so I have to replay the same games.

What does the future hold?

We're seriously considering adding to our family. It will probably happen this time, so stay tuned for details.

Star Wars forever

Rogue One

I'm anxiously awaiting the next Star Wars movie Rogue One. I can't wait to see the story of the Bothan spies that stole the plans to the Death Star (I'm assuming they're Bothans, but who knows?)

Update: Rogue One was THE BEST Star Wars movie ever made (besides the original). It is my opinion that you can just watch Rogue One, Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and the first act of Return of the Jedi and have the full Star Wars story. No teddy bears, no Midi-chlorians, just pure space opera.

The rest of the story

Sarah is doing well. She's living in downtown Atlanta, GA California and working at the largest haunted house in Georgia, called Netherworld Starbucks.

My niece got married a few months back and her husband is a military recruiter. They live about an hour away from us in Opelika, AL. I wonder if we will see them more often...

After 30 years, I have returned to my favorite hobby

Written by Michael Earls
 electronics  michael  programming  diy  projects  hobbies  computing

The past

When I was a teenager, I was a major nerd. Well, actually, I have been a major nerd for my entire life, but it really started to emerge during puberty.

On my exterior, I was a "metal head" who wore Iron Maiden and Metallica t-shirts, ripped up blue jeans (I don't think my father will ever forgive me for cutting up a perfectly good pair of new jeans so I could wear - this is so embarrassing - a zebra patterned leotard under it like some sort of Whitesnake poser. I only did it once, and regretted it for the rest of my life).

Anyway, awkward teenage clique memberships aside, I was into all things "computery" (as I had been since my parents bought me my TI-99/4A computer in 1982).

In Junior High, I bought a makeup kit that had latex appliques for your face that gave the appearance of a skull. It came on a piece of plastic that was shaped like a skull. By filling it with plaster (which I later replaced with a papier mâché alternative), I could get a skull shaped face.

I drilled holes in the center of the eye sockets and glued red LEDs to the insides of the holes. I then ran the wires to a AA battery pack, soldered it all together with a switch, painted them with a paint called "Fleckstone" (which gave the appearance of being made from granite) and gave them to my friends to hang in their locker.

FleckStone

I named it "Norman" (after Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock's famous movie, Psycho.

Psycho!

I also read a lot of computer magazines.

One day, one of my computer magazines featured an article on how to make your Commodore 64 talk. A light bulb as bright as a supernova lit up over my head and I immediately turned to the article.

I cut the parts list out of the magazine and asked my dad to take me to Radio Shack to buy the parts. My father was very frugal and did not part with money lightly. I remember one time begging (my memory of it is clear, I was extremely obnoxious about this) for him to buy me an ambulance GoBot (the long lost predecessor to Transformers). This persisted for a few days until he finally got tired of hearing me whine (sorry dad) and bought it.

GoBots, Unite!

We had a rule in the house, we only got gifts for Christmas, Easter, and our Birthday. There were a few exceptions from time-to-time (like a brief behavior modification scheme recommended by one of my teachers in elementary school when I stopped doing my homework (because I was spending all of my time writing BASIC programs on my computer after school) that failed miserably because my father believed that hard work was its own reward - and I'm glad he did, because it taught me, ever so brutally, that you have to work to survive in the real world). Incidentally, I ended up working hard doing EXACTLY the thing that kept me from doing my school work for all of those years - and it pays better!

So, my dad agreed to pay for the parts (thank goodness electronics parts (even at Radio Shack retail prices) are so inexpensive). My grandfather had already given me a lot of parts (he was a vocational high school teacher at the time and had a lot of cool stuff). One of the items my grandfather gave me was a capacitor from a microwave. When he gave me the box of parts (along with an awesome work/test bench that had a built in adjustable power supply and a breadboard), he pulled the capacitor out and specifically warned me to never hook that up to AC power. He said if I ever charged it to its full capacity, it would kill me upon discharge. So, I never even touched it (because I knew that I wasn't mature enough to fully understand how it worked). My dad bought everything that I needed for my project and we came home.

SP0256-AL2 in its original package

The SP0256-AL2 Speech Chip

There was no Internet to refer to back then, so I had to figure out how to read the schematics. My grandfather had given me a "cheat sheet" that had the symbols and what they meant. I believe the magazine also had a small section on how to decipher the plans.

I got started right away. I built the circuit on a breadboard using the schematics in the magazine. The plans that came with the chip were slightly different, so I studied both to try and figure out why they differed.

I never could get the stand-alone audio amplifier working (using the well-known LM386 chip), so I took the advice of the author and ran the output pin to a hole in one of the input jacks on the C-64 for audio (probably the cassette interface). One of my goals for the near future is to get a working audio amplifier going with the LM386 chip (I got one with my starter box the other day).

The female plug that attached to the C-64 was too long and had to be physically cut with a hacksaw to make it the correct size. I also had to solder every single pin that I was using on it, then attach the leads to my breadboard.

SP0256-AL2 on Breadboard

This picture shows the SP0256-AL2 on a breadboard with an Arduino microcontroller

The magazine article explained that the crystal specified on the datasheet that came with the chip was extremely rare, so they offered up an alternative crystal that caused the pitch of the final voice to be higher than it should be.

Once completed, I began the arduous task of typing in the program from the back of the magazine that I could use to trigger allophones one after the other to make my computer talk. I then altered the code so that I could put in some common words without typing all of the allophones each time.

My best friend at the time was dating a girl and we (probably just me) decided to prank call her and have the computer say an offensive sentence. I remember it well, but the adult in me is preventing me from sharing due to its graphic nature. It wasn't too bad, but it doesn't bear repeating.

I still have that chip lying around on the same breadboard I used to make the project. I see it from time-to-time (usually during a move when we're packing boxes).

A few years back

Back in 2009, I made a "robot" for Laurie to use in the classroom for teaching special education preschoolers. I created it using off-the-shelf parts from Radio Shack and a little bit of soldering. It had a button on the back that lit up the eyes when you pressed it. It reinforced correct answers to questions. It was quite boring. I always wanted to print up a fancy sticker to put on the face and body, but never got around to it.

Cerkit the Robot

Cerkit the Robot - A preschool teaching aid

The present.

I recently ordered a bunch of components off of the Internet. Included in my purchases were 2 Raspberry Pi Zeroes. The Raspberry Pi zero is a full computer on an extremely small motherboard (~1 x 2 inches). It can run Linux and even has an HDMI output so you can plug it into a TV.

Raspberry Pi Budget Pack

Link: Raspberry Pi Zero Budget Pack

I also bought some other components to support my projects.

Last night, I spent about four hours playing with a 555 timer Integrated Circuit (IC).

555 Timer IC Circuit

It just blinks a light at a frequency depending on the resistance coming from the blue potentiometer. As I turn the pot, the light blinks faster or slower.

I tried to use a second 555 timer IC triggered by the output of the first so that I could have a light blink twice for every cycle of the first timer, but I couldn't get that to work before it was time to go to bed.

I then put together a simple circuit to help me learn how to use transistors. I used a momentary switch to trigger current through a NPN transistor to turn on an LED. That was fun as I never really grokked transistors when I was younger.

When I created my domain name in 1996, I had every intention of eventually writing about electronics (hence the name cerkit). Even though at the time, I used the name cerkit as a shorthand way of referring to the "Cerebral Kitchen.

It works both ways now as I can include non electronics stuff, as well.

Ultimately, all of my hobbies (as well as my 20+ year career experience as a programmer) are coming together in a symphony of exquisite mental pleasure.

I have been "cerkit" for a very long time. My BBS handle was "cerkit", and I use it whenever I can (someone beat me to it on Soundcloud, so I have to be "cerkit-music").

I like that it hints at electronics, but also allows me to be the Cerebral Kitchen, too.