Part One of Phase Dock LIVE featuring Glen Popiel for a wide-ranging conversation on Arduino, interesting projects, what it takes to write technical “how-to” books, and how to protect your projects when you share an electronics lab with two enormous and curious cats.

Glen Popiel is the author of ARRL’s “Arduino for Ham Radio”, “More Arduino for Ham Radio”, and “High Speed Multimedia for Amateur Radio”. By day, he is a Network Engineer and Technology Consultant for Ciber, Inc. and the Mississippi Department of Education, specializing in Open Source technology solutions and has worked in the computer and electronics field for over 40 years.

This is a transcript of Phase Dock LIVE, January 9, 2021 with Chris Lehenbauer and Glen Popiel.

It has been edited for length, clarity and readability.  Occasional time stamps are shown in square brackets [4:52] so you can watch the action and animations as they are described in the video.

We’ve split it into two parts for easier access.

  • Part One: Introductions, writing technical books, and Maine Coon cats – this post.
  • Part Two: Arduino, future technology directions and LOTS of projects – coming soon!

Watch the Video. 

Part One: Writing Arduino project books, plus large & curious cats.

CHRIS: Welcome to all our friends. I’m Chris Lehenbauer, CTO and founder of Phase Dock. This is our third Phase Dock LIVE, so we’re excited to have you here.

If you are new to Phase Dock, we’re a manufacturing start-up here in beautiful Raleigh, North Carolina. We focus on single-board computers like Raspberry Pi and microcontrollers like Arduino, but we do more on the mechanical side and not so much on the electronics. Because our main product is a prototyping platform, we’ve seen lots of fascinating projects from smart, interesting people who are our customers.

We realized that sharing some of those projects would make a great livestream. That’s why we’re here.

Today we plan to take two paths with our conversation:

  • Technology…specifically Arduino and microcontroller [See Part 2]
  • Writing…because our guest is an author of several books (available on Amazon) and he also reviews products and writes articles. [Part 1]

These sessions are meant to be highly interactive, so please let us know in the chat if you have questions or comments. So, without further ado…

Our guest speaker today is Glen Popiel. Glen is the author of ARRL’s “Arduino for Ham Radio”, “More Arduino for Ham Radio”, and “High Speed Multimedia for Amateur Radio”. He has worked in the computer and electronics field for over 40 years.

Since discovering the Arduino several years ago, Glen has developed a passion for this powerful, inexpensive microcontroller and has given a number of seminars and hamfest forums on the subject of the Arduino and Open Source.

Glen is also a former cat show judge and has exhibited Maine Coon cats all over the country. He now lives in Southaven, MS, where he continues to create fun and exciting new Arduino projects for amateur radio with his two new lab companions, Angel and Shadow [also known as Godzilla and Rodan.]

Welcome, Glen.  Tell us a little more about yourself and about your new book.

GLEN: Hey Chris. It’s good to be here. You pretty much nailed it. I’ve been doing electronics for nearly 40 years. Got into the Arduino nine, ten years ago. It’s one of those things, like a duck to water, and I’ve been into it ever since. The books have just been fun. I write them as much for me as anyone else.

I did just finish the fourth book, which is the third in the Arduino series, finished it the week before Christmas. We are currently in the final editing and layout stage. Hopefully, it will be out in time for spring. 

CHRIS: Let’s talk a little bit about what it takes to create a book of projects. I’m sure a lot of creative people have this fantasy about being an author. So, how did you get started? And how would you advise someone who wanted to go down that path?

GLEN: It’s kind of funny. Back in 1979, I was first published as a result of a dare. I was working with the RCA 1802 microprocessor way back then. My co-workers saw a call for articles in Kilobaud Magazine and dared me to write one. I did. And it got published! That was the beginning.

I wrote a monthly column for Computer Trader magazine back in the ‘80s. That’s really where I got my start. You learn how to write. You learn what the readers are looking for and how to put it together in a way that they would enjoy reading it.

So, my first advice to anybody wanting to get into this is—write! Write magazine articles, blog articles. Hone your craft. You don’t have to be perfect. I am not perfect. In fact, in high school I would have been voted “Most Un-likely to Ever Be Published.” Find your style. Find what works and work with it. Eventually it will start clicking.

CHRIS: So really, your time with Computer Trader, all those articles were like an on-ramp to the books, right? They kind of prepped you, and also gave you a built-in audience, right?

GLEN: Yeah. When the book opportunity came along, I was in the right place at the right time and I had the tools to pull it off. It was because of the foundation work that I did.

As you’ll see, I am big on foundation. I’m a firm believer that if you have the foundation, and understand how things work, and what you are doing, then you can do just about anything.

CHRIS: So, talk about your methodology. As we were preparing for today’s presentation, you showed us a lot of the work that you go through to get ready for a book. Tell us about that.

GLEN: OK. I can actually show you a little bit here. This is how I start out with a book.

I have a list of projects, a description of the project and any notes—who it would interest, technologies, things of that nature.

That’s what I start with. I hone this list down. I’ve determined that when I am writing a book, I need anywhere between 12 and 15 projects. That’s my target size. That gives me a book in the size range that I want, that my publisher wants and things like that. So we start there.

Then, when I start working on the book itself, I break out the chapters and the projects. You notice, I’ve got it all color-coded here. I’ve got the chapter name, sub-topics in the chapter, how many words are in the chapter, whether the chapter is complete, whether it has been submitted, my drawings are done and submitted, photographs and every little piece that that chapter requires. It’s a checklist. At the end of the book, I can look back and say, “oh my…I forgot that chunk” and get it in. Or I know it’s all been turned in and I’m finished. So that’s my method of organization. [7:17]

This [photo] is actually the research material for the book. I acquired it, in this case, over a period of two-to-three years. Everything about that project is in each folder and is broken out by project or chapter. Of course, I’ve got one of the projects right there in front.

CHRIS: Wow. You really took a couple, three years of work to get ready for a book?

GLEN: Not really. It did in this case because I was basically not working on the book for a year in the middle. In addition, I had already finished the first two books and I was kind of out of projects, so I needed the extra time to think up some new projects. It’s kind of funny. Now that I’ve finished this one, I’ve already got about a half-a-book’s worth of projects ready to go.

When I’m putting a book together the biggest thing is: organize, organize, organize. Have it in folders. Have it in chapters. For example, my editor and I have been going back and forth this week on one of the chapters. There were a couple of errors. All I had to do was grab the file folder and say, “This is what it is.” So…we’ve written it wrong, but the facts are correct. We had to reconcile all of that. That’s the other thing…getting a great publisher and a great editor has been a godsend. Of course, ARRL has been fantastic for me as my publisher. Mark Wilson is my editor. Oh gosh, he is absolutely one of the best. We’re on the same page. When he retouches what I do, you can’t even tell.

BARBARA: Hey Glen. We have a comment from one of your followers who says, “I will never look at your books the same way again!” He’s obviously learning a lot about how you put a book together.

CHRIS: I think that’s a good thing!

GLEN: That’s it. People just think books magically appear. They don’t. There’s a ton of work that goes into them. You see, I talk about organizing. Believe it or not, every paper and piece on that floor is organized, by chapter or project in that particular case. I can literally walk across the floor and grab it. That was before I started using a file folder process. This has been an evolving thing. And, of course, I have my helpers.

CHRIS: [laughing] Your lab assistants who are also apparently editors.

GLEN: Yes! This is my second book. You can see how big it is. On the left, that’s the actual folders and organized material for that book. The ruler behind it shows 19 inches. The pile on the right is the actual finished chapters that I turned in before we started doing the PDF layouts.

CHRIS: So essentially, you’ve condensed the big stack into the small stack.

GLEN: [11:14] Exactly. That’s pretty much the initial book process.

CHRIS: You weren’t kidding about thoroughness, preparation and organization. So really, those are the keys, right? Once you’ve done the homework, and paid your dues honing the craft, it’s about that level of work and attention to detail?

GLEN: You look at a book…a 300-to-400-page book… and you go “Oh my gosh, I will never be able to climb that mountain!” I had never written more than 2000 words in a sitting when I wrote my first book. I had no idea what I was doing. But I had an idea of what I wanted done, what I wanted it to look like. You break it down into little chunks like you saw in that spread sheet. Then it doesn’t become as big of a mountain. It’s a “divide and conquer” methodology. When I’m working on one particular chapter, I don’t care what the rest of the book looks like. I’m focused on that piece, that project.

[12:41 knocking sound] Excuse me a minute. [he turns to grab a very large cat and the cat toy of interest.] We have a small problem.

CHRIS: No, I think you have a large problem.

GLEN: Now she’ll be happy. It [the cat toy] has been in the drawer for an hour.

Now we can continue here. The biggest thing, of course, is the organization and just breaking it down. Eventually you realize “If I only do 1000 words a day, one schematic a day, one project a week,” it breaks that mountain down into small, manageable chunks. If a project doesn’t work, it’s built into your deadline. Perhaps ten to twenty percent of your projects are not going to work. Or you just don’t have the time to devote to them. There were several in this book that I really wanted to do, but they would have taken too long, and I would have missed the deadline. So, they went off to the side for further research. When I get to the next book, those projects will be all figured out.

CHRIS: What I was going to say was “Aren’t you afraid of running out of projects?” Apparently, the answer is “No!”

GLEN: It all boils down to an initial philosophy that some friends and I fell into several years ago. When you’re trying to think this stuff up, you look around and say “Can I automate this? Wouldn’t this be kind of neat to do?” My catch phrase has become: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”

For example: One of the very first projects that I started with was a lightening detector. [14:22]. This will detect lightening out to 40 kilometers, which is about 24 miles or so. That came from a ham radio club meeting. You know we live in Mississippi. We have a lot of thunderstorms and tornados. And someone said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you had a lightening detector that could disconnect your antennas and equipment?” And someone else said, “Yeah. But those things are expensive!”

Next thing I know, I found this little sensor for like $25. And boom!, you’ve got an Arduino-powered lightening detector for about $40. So, it’s that philosophy. As you get more involved in the writing process, you find yourself walking around asking “What’s cool? What can I do? Wouldn’t it be interesting…?” The ideas suddenly start to flow.

The biggest thing. Write them down. Keep a notepad handy. Don’t trust your memory. And then at your leisure put the idea into your spreadsheet. Then you’ve got projects to choose from. You can decide what are the best for a particular book, or which supports your theme.

Every one of my books has a sub-theme. The first one was “Introduce the Arduino with new and exciting unique projects.” The second one was “How far can you really go with Arduino?” This third one is like “Let’s fall back a bit and catch that middle ground of fun things to do with Arduino that are not expensive and not super complex. Things that everybody can understand and go from there.”

CHRIS: Something you told us about the other day that I really liked was, your philosophy of how you introduce your readers to the concept and lead them forward. Talk about that a little bit. [16:40]

GLEN: That’s the thing. So many people start out with the Arduino and ask “Where do I start? What do I do? I don’t know what I want to do.”

What I do in each chapter, and that’s part of my sub-theme process, is that I’m trying to introduce a new technology, an area that hasn’t been fully explored, not well documented perhaps. A lot of the Arduino books are basic: “Here’s how you blink a light. Here’s how you move a servo.” They’re not tailored to more fancy applications as you’ll see when we get into some of the projects in a little bit. [See Part 2 for the projects.]

What I do is, I find the technology…like I did a USB CW keyboard, a morse code keyboard, where you can type and it will send morse code. But the USB functionality of the Arduino hasn’t been really well documented. So I break that down, I explain it and document it so readers can see this and say “Oh, I don’t need to be a rocket scientist with the technology, I just need to know how to do ‘this’ and the Arduino libraries will take care of that for me.” I show you how to get into those functions. So basically, I demystify and take some of the fear out of that process.

CHRIS: That’s actually one of the things I read in the reviews on Amazon that I thought was most complimentary. A couple of readers would say, “These books say they are for ham-oriented projects, but really they are just great introductions to Arduino, regardless of whether you are interested in ham radio or not.” I thought, that’s quite a compliment. I think that is because of your philosophy.

GLEN: I saw those comments. I really like that. It’s true.

BARBARA: We’ve got a question for you, Glen, from Arne. He wants to know which project you are most proud of. The top, most unique project.

GLEN: Wow. [19:17] This one is going to leave the non-ham radio people behind. In my very first Arduino forum that I did at the Huntsville Ham Radio convention, eight or nine years ago, we introduced the Arduino. And at the end somebody asked: “Can you use it [an Arduino] to operate JT65?” which is one of the ham radio digital modes. I didn’t even know what JT65 was at the time. So, I asked for a brief explanation…and I’m thinking “If you can do this, this, this and this…there’s no reason it can’t be done.”

Three weeks later, we had pulled together a team and had a working proof of concept and put it on the air. Basically, we had created an entirely new method of digital modulation that nobody had ever considered. That one I was most proud of.

[20:19] It’s actually in the second book here. I’ve got a picture of its “brother.” When we get to the projects, I have a picture of one similar to it. [See Part 2 for the projects.] That was fun because it was total ground breaking in so many different areas and a team pulling together to make it happen.

That’s pretty much it for Arduino… [see Part 2 of the LIVE event for the technology and project discussion.]

GLEN: I think you wanted to cover the “demon children” a little bit.

CHRIS: Those are very large, very smart, but thankfully very happy cats.

GLEN: Yes, they are really what they call “gentle giants.” I’ve got a little show here for you. Because a lot of people have never heard about the Maine Coon cats. They are North America’s only native purebred cat. [see 21:18 for a slideshow of cat photos]

CHRIS: I had not…until you introduced them to us.

GLEN: They are wonderful. This is how they come “from the factory.” Relatively small. You’ve heard me say “Godzilla” and you’ll see her in a minute.

This is Rodan. This is the one who’s been up here all morning.

That’s Godzilla. She’s in the other room sleeping. Just like the movies, you don’t want to wake Godzilla. This is her now. That’s a full-size treadmill. Now you know why she is this big. She doesn’t exercise. The treadmill is for sleeping.

This is her now. Full-sized. At a cat show. You have to realize this cat is not at home. This cat is in a strange place with all these noises, people, smells, and other cats. Nothing bothers them. They are like, ”Whatever. Just hold me.”

The one that you’ve seen all morning, in and out here, this is her fully stretched. She’s roughly 40” from tip of the nose to tip of the tail. And she’s the smaller of the two. This is her glamour shot.

This is the two of them. You can see this rug…it’s about four feet across. People come over to the house, and they see them…and they say, “Do you need to put the bobcats up?”

CHRIS: Seriously. That’s what they look like. You’re lucky they are such good-natured cats because they look like they could hurt you if they felt like it.

GLEN: This is the poster that inspired their nicknames. They are sisters and they fight like sisters.

I’ve been showing Maine Coons and been involved with them for about 35 years. This is the one I showed in 1989. She took a Best-In-Show at the Madison Square Garden Cat Show which at that time, was the cat world equivalent of the Westminster Dog Show. This one here is actually the great-great-great-great whatever aunt to these two. Her litter sister is that side of the line of the two I have now.

That was her glamor shot. She was actually the best female Maine Coon in the world, back in 1989.

[24:15] But, we talk about these and the Phase Dock and the cover. OK? They are into everything.

I can’t take pictures without them having to be involved.

[24:26] This is one of those component testers. That’s also a tool that I would highly recommend. It will give you the pinout and orientation and value of various components. But I have to borrow it from Rodan when it’s time.

I was taking this photograph for the book. It’s showing you a transistor being tested. But you can see I was not being granted much leeway.

[24:54] Of course, they also edit. They evaluate my projects. The funny thing is…this was a project that failed horribly. And we get the evaluation from the “inspectors.”

CHRIS: The look on her face…

GLEN: Oh, yeah. It’s total disgust. Like she’s saying, “You really knew this wasn’t going to work, didn’t you?” [25:16] Then, finally, there’s her sister. They are both in on the action.

CHRIS: Well, we’re joking now, but seriously…a lot of folks have that issue in their shops.

GLEN: Exactly. That’s why the Phase Dock works so well for me. I can now build something, put the cover on it. It may be on the floor, but it will be there the next morning, intact.

CHRIS: Honestly, that one thing that originally inspired [the Phase Dock WorkBench]. I went over to my friend André’s house and he had a project on his desk and I said, “André, I was here a few weeks ago and it was right there.” And he said “I can’t move it. It will not survive the move.” That’s kind of how the WorkBench evolved. It helps to protect projects. It’s great to hear feedback.

GLEN: Plus, taking it to a club event or forum. I can build something like you saw in that photograph and know that when I get there it’s going to work. It’s not going to fall apart.

CHRIS: This is such a community-based activity, right? That’s one of the beautiful things about our world is that everyone is willing to share, loves to teach, loves to get together and show what they’ve done. We want to help that along. That’s a good point at which to mention again your community, the ham world with ARRL and all those communities there, Dr Duino, Guido Bonelli has been a really wonderful support to us. That’s been the best part of our start-up company has been getting to know some really smart and good people who are so willing to support and share what they know.

GLEN: Exactly. That’s the way I feel. It’s one reason I enjoy the Arduino so much is the open-source world. Everybody is willing to help and share.

That’s the way I write my books. They are not a “Gee, look what I did. Now you can build one.” My approach is “Let’s build this. Here’s how. Here’s how it works. I’ve given you a working one…now you add the bells and whistles and make it really cool!”  I leave the reader a challenge to learn. At the end of the day, the reader can say: “Look what I did! I used his stuff, but look what I did to it.” That’s really where I get my thrill and enjoyment out of sharing and teaching the Arduino.

CHRIS: I think that’s why your books have done so well. When I read the reviews, I was like “Wow!” I think it is because of your attitude and approach.

GLEN: You know, how I fell over into writing the books? I saw one out there and said “I can do better than that.” Somebody heard me and asked me to put my money where my mouth was. And I did.

The highlight of all of that was “Oh, man. I’m gonna do this because I’m not gonna fail.” But, at the end of the day, what really got me…and I hadn’t thought about it…because when you’re caught up in the moment of producing the book, you’re focused strictly on your work. But when I finished and sat back, I was like “OMG. I’m going to be on Amazon. People are going to read and review me. Oh, what have I done?” Fortunately, it’s been very well received. I’ve enjoyed it.

One of the things I’ve got here. Back when we were able to go out and do things. At the Dayton Hamfest in Ohio I get to do book signings and meet my readers!

CHRIS: I understand that from our experience at Maker Faires. Don’t you love meeting folks?

GLEN: I enjoy it. It’s just so much fun. Of course, here’s the other book [High Speed Multimedia for Amateur Radio]. That’s on microwave networking technology.

The Arduino is really where I’m happy and at home. But it’s great to meet the people who buy the books and read them, to hear their personal experiences with the book and with the Arduino. Sometimes I’ll get a recommendation, or a piece of advice, or even criticism. You know what? I can be better. I’m not perfect. Like I said, I was never a writer. I was never supposed to be. You’re always learning…both with the technology and with the writing itself.

CHRIS: Well, we are glad that you took that path. It’s clearly worked out well for you and you’ve helped a lot of folks move forward and learn. Props to you for that. We can’t thank you enough for joining us today. It was just so much fun. You were so well prepared it made my job completely easy. All I had to do was to sit back and get out of the way. Thank you for that!

GLEN: I enjoyed doing it, so thank you Chris. This has been fun and I hope everybody watching has had fun.

CHRIS: Our next Phase Dock LIVE session is February 13 with Walker Archer, who has built TARA… a robot based on an electric wheelchair base. A fascinating story. He’s done some amazing things with it. If you’re interested in robotics, or fabrication, or anything along those lines please join us.

Again, Glen, thank you so much for joining us today.

GLEN: Real quick…that’s book four!  [shows the stack of paper]  It’s already started. And the editor [Rodan] is already set to go too. Thank you so much.

CHRIS: Thank you Glen! Thank you everybody, keep making! Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you next month.

Links to Glen’s books:

We will post Glen’s new Arduino Projects book once it becomes available this year.