Demystifying your tech (with a bit of help from Confucius and Tolstoy)

There must be a word for that simultaneous feeling of awe, helplessness, bafflement and frustration we feel with the technology we rely on, or at least there should be.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is great. There’s an affordable gadget or app for almost anything and most of the time, they just work.

Until they don’t.

Take smartphones: I have a drawer of old phones which haven’t broken, but are now too slow doing the same things they used to do in a flash. The apps need a newer operating system, which can’t be updated and so they go in the drawer. Not to mention all the little gadgets – fitness trackers, satnavs, wireless routers…

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Farmers in the Indus Valley 5,000 years ago must have been flummoxed (perhaps that’s the right word…) when their ploughs broke. They probably couldn’t fix them by themselves either and would need to start being nice to the local blacksmith, but at least they had an idea of what was wrong.

I bet they didn’t get broken-tech deja vu. My phone stopped working when I dropped it in a rock pool, so I opened the cover only to find another cover underneath. It replayed that feeling of opening the bonnet of my broken car, only to find another cover underneath.

And let’s not get started on data – the information being gathered by all our technology and sent who knows where. Of course I’ve consented to it – who wants to read all the terms and conditions?

However, Confucius can help us:

Give someone a fish and feed them for a day, but teach them to fish…

Technology is the post-industrial fish that we should learn to catch, even if we would prefer to go to the supermarket.

So, I wanted to go ‘fishing’, but what type of metaphorical fish should I catch and what tackle should I use?

For my ‘fish’, I decided I wanted to make something that could help me improve at fencing. I took it up after visiting the Engarde fencing school in Haapsalu, Estonia and I am rubbish. Maybe a bit of tech could help me.

At this point, it’s worth noting that I can write code, so I have a bit of a headstart. Nevertheless, I tried to approach this from the point of view of someone who might know nothing.

For the ‘tackle’, I picked out three different prototyping platforms.
– Arduino
– Raspberry Pi
– BBC Micro:bit


Arduino was originally made to help students at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy to produce their own electronics. The hardware is inexpensive and there is plenty of help to get you writing your own software.

Because they made everything freely open for others to copy, there are a number of companies who offer Arduino compatible components.

I bought a Bluefruit Feather from Adafruit to provide the brains and communication and a Propmaker to measure my movement.

The two bits needed soldering together, which I made a complete pig’s ear of. But despite the ugliness, the board did work.

Adafruit provided instructions on how to get your devices up and running along with some examples. After running the sample code I decided to get cracking on my own thing which is when I realised the problem.

My gadget needs to be able to talk to other things. All the samples were for the device but there weren’t simple examples for the thing it needs to talk to, like a smartphone. This device would do that using Bluetooth, in much the same way a fitness tracker would.

Eventually I got there but it took a lot of digging around and trawling not just through Adafruit documentation but also that of the manufacturer, Nordic, who make the chip that sits on the Bluefruit board. I also read up about Bluetooth standards.

By then end, I felt like a Bluetooth ninja and it had one unexpected outcome.

The next time my partner’s fitness tracker failed to sync with the app on her smartphone, I felt myself taking the side of the little device. Now I had learned how heart monitors and fitness trackers talk to smartphones and was seeing its point of view. I empathised and sympathised with it.

Or as Teo Tolstoy put it:

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. (Understanding everything is forgiving everything)

Then, just as things were fitting into place, the accelerometer stopped working. I guessed it was because of the abuse it received at the end of my soldering iron – again, I was taking its side.

This platform is best suited for people who really want to dive deep into electronics, have some coding knowledge and have the skills to write that software that will talk to it as well.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity based in the UK to make computing and electronics accessible. The devices they make are small cheap Linux (an alternative to Windows or Mac) machines with plenty of accessories for electronics projects. There are also lots of examples to work on.

This was perfect for me, I have regularly worked with Linux machines over the years and so starting this up and communicating with it was like talking to an old friend.

However, again, I struggled with Bluetooth. Things became easier when I changed libraries but I found the process a bit tricky and again, the key was making something (in my case on an Android phone) for the Raspberry Pi to talk to.

This is a great platform for software engineers who already know Linux. There’s a lot of help for beginners but a project like mine would probably put most newbies off.

BBC Micro:bit

Micro:bit started as an initiative to make sure every Year 7 school kid in the UK could have a go at programming and electronics.
Plug it into a computer and get started using blocks. Then when you feel more confident (or frustrated with blocks) move on to writing JavaScript or Python.

There are plenty of starter projects to get familiar with the features. Crucially, work has also been done to provide simple connectivity to other devices such as Android. A programme is provided by MIT to make it easy to write code for your Android device using blocks.

Having both parts of the puzzle was the game changer. Rather than needing to dig deep to understand Bluetooth, the examples just work and you can get on with what to do with the information once it’s on your phone.

There are working examples on how to show the information on screen or upload it to a spreadsheet in the Cloud. I decided to use my existing knowledge to make a nice Android app with some pretty graphs.

I also made something to hold the Micro:bit while I’m practising. In entrepreneurial fashion, I have named it the smartSock(™) (I made it from an old thickSock).

Now I have no excuses for not being a fencing champ. Touche!

Pretty much anyone should be able to get started making their own things and learning how technology works. How far you take it is up to you.

It’s nice to know that the next generation, at least in the UK, will grow up learning how to make their own tech, even if they do end up buying most of it. And it’s not too late for any of us to have a go.

We may not end up making anything that useful (I doubt my fencing will really improve), but at least we will learn how these things work. And by doing so, perhaps be more at one with our tech.

Meanwhile, it’s time for me to get practising my fencing moves.