Thoughts on being a one-armed embedded engineer

I had a bit of a scare recently. It gave me pause for thought, and the thought at the forefront of my mind was: “If I were to lose my left arm, how would this impact my ability to create my electronic hobby projects?”

Yes, I know that there's more to life than electronic hobby projects, but that really was the first thing that popped into my mind (and I use the term “mind” in its loosest sense LOL).

So here's how this all came about. About five months ago, I arose from my bed and meandered into the bathroom to get ready for work. Whilst brushing my teeth, I happened to notice that my left elbow was badly bruised.

When I say “badly bruised,” it's hard to convey just how bad it was — it looked as though someone had taken a sledgehammer to the little scamp. If I took my right hand and clasped the entirety of my left elbow, then that was the extent of the bruising.

I couldn't recall banging it on anything, and there wasn't any pain, but it did look pretty scary. On the other hand, bruises do tend to appear now and again, so I decided to wait and see what happened. Over the course of the following week, the bruise went through the usual color cycle — from brown to red to purple — and eventually it almost faded away.

But a week or so later it was back again! So I went to the doctor, who took some blood and sent it off for analysis to see if I had arthritis or anything obvious. The results came back negative, so the doctor said to wait and see if anything else happened.

Which brings us up to about a month ago, when one of the guys who works in the building where I have my office said “Your elbow is still bruised — it's been that way for months now — you really should have it looked at.” Now, he'd had a scare with a blood clot a while back, so he's hyper-sensitive to stuff like this, but what he said made sense, so I ambled back around to my doctor's again.

This time, my doctor referred me to a left elbow specialist. Apparently there aren't as many of these around as you might expect; it seems that most elbow specialists succumb to the siren song of the more glamorous right elbow, because that's where all the adulation and money is to be made.

After examining me, the left elbow specialist said “That's funny.” This made me quite proud, because I'd come to the same conclusion myself without the benefit and expense associated with years of medical training. The upshot of all this was that he set me up with an appointment for an MRI to take place on Monday (three days ago at the time of this writing). He also presented a list of possibilities, most of which had long names I didn't understand, but one of which certainly caught my attention — I'm sure you can guess what this was.

This past weekend — the one just before the MRI — I spent a happy time working on my Vetinari Clock hobby project. This little rascal is based on the use of antique analog meters, which will be the topic of this talk at ESC Boston.

Now, if you look at this YouTube video that I just posted a few minutes ago as I pen these words, you'll see the first elements in the wiring harness starting to appear.

Surprisingly enough, I haven't wandered off into the weeds; this is all relevant to the story at hand (no pun intended).

So I had the MRI first thing on Monday morning on the way into work. I'd forgotten how noisy those things are — and also how they cram you in; it's lucky I'm not claustrophobic. Later that afternoon, I received a call from the nurse at the left elbow specialist's office asking if I could come in the next day because the doctor wanted to discuss the results with me in person.

Now, you can call me a “Nervous Nelly” if you wish, but this did seem to be rather enthusiastic of them — I'm more used to weeks of delay when it comes to communications from doctors and suchlike, so same-day response made me wonder. Generally speaking, I'm a “glass half full” type of guy, but I must admit that I started wondering as to what the future held.

On Monday evening, whilst lying in bed, my mind turned to the wiring harness I'd been working on over the weekend. I don't know about you, but the inside of my head tends to be a bit chaotic, with ideas popping into existence and ricocheting around my skull with gusto and abandon.

My first thoughts were how tricky it was to do this sort of thing with two hands. Then I started going through all of the individual actions — stripping wires, soldering contacts, gathering and bending groups of wires, restraining them with ties — all the time pondering how one might achieve these tasks with only one arm at one's disposal.

My conclusion was that most of the tasks I take for granted would become major pains in the rear end if I tried to perform them using only one hand. On the other hand (again, no pun intended), others have surmounted far worse situations before me, so I determined that — if the worse came to the worse — I would learn the tricks of the trade and work my way around any obstacles.

I also thought of an episode from the classic TV series MASH — the one where a soldier who was looking forward to a career as a concert pianist after the war lost the use of one hand. He was in despair, until one of the doctors — Charles Winchester III as I recall, but it may have been Hawkeye — played some recordings and/or gave the soldier some music created especially for one-handed pianists. As a follow-on from this, I also considered the real-world story involving hard rock drummer Rick Allen, who has played with Def Leppard since 1978, and who overcame the amputation of his left arm in 1985.

It also crossed my mind that sometimes even having two arms is barely sufficient for requirements. Being a big science fan, I of course thought of The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. This is a really good “First Contact” tale in which the aliens — called “Moties” — have a large arm on one side of their bodies for heavier work, and two smaller arms on the other side for use in more detailed and delicate tasks.

I'm not sure if I'd like the Motie arrangement myself — although I can see how it could be rather advantageous — but I guess you'd get used to it over time. Actually, when you come to think about it, having two arms on each side would be quite handy (yet again, no pun intended). For example, you could be eating a meal using two of your arms to hold a knife and fork, while using your third arm to be texting on your smartphone, and still have an arm left over to scratch any itches that might arise.

Of course, should this somehow come to pass, the downside of my spontaneously growing two extra arms would be that I'd have to purchase a whole new wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts, but we digress… As it turned out, my left elbow specialist was just being ultra-efficient; he prides himself on offering way better service than you could hope to receive from a regular old right elbow practitioner. Although there is fluid in my elbow, and although we still have to track down exactly what's going on in there, the MRI has ruled out anything that would require radical surgery.

Phew! I have to say that I ended up feeling like I dodged a bullet there. But even after I discovered that everything is OK, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how difficult it would be to cope with only one hand. All I can say is that, for those of us who still have the use of both our arms, it behooves us to take a moment to ponder just how fortunate we are.

— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting
Circle me on Google+


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55 thoughts on “Thoughts on being a one-armed embedded engineer

  1. “@max: I can only say “Bravo!” This may become the classic example of your talent for tieing together a veritable passel of seemingly unrelated items into a coherent tale. Or not! (lol) Reminds me of the wonderful “Connections” programs we have disc

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  2. “I'm glad to hear that a surgeon's knife is not waiting in the wings for you. A few months ago, I had an insect bite in my left arm become infected with one of those antibiotic resistant strep infections. While in the ER getting IV antibiotics, after the f

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  3. “MaxnnI can partially identify with your concerns about the loss of an arm. Many years ago now, I had a pinched nerve in my neck with a resultant loss of the use of my right arm. I am so right handed that I always joke that you could cut off my left arm

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  4. “I'm almost as left handed as you are right handed but I've been forced to learn to do some things with my right hand because the world is oriented toward right handed people. For instance, because of having to share a computer, I've actually learned to mo

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  5. “Training yourself to do certain tasks with your non-dominant arm can prove very useful should an injury prevent use of your dominant arm, even temporarily. Think hygenic functions.”

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  6. “My mother used to teach shorthand and typing at college — she begged me to learn, but this was back in the late-1970s before the widespread use of computers, and I never thought I'd have to type anything.nnImagine my surprise with when I ended up writi

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  7. “For many of us, it's amazing just how big the differences are between our dominant and non-dominant hands — you certainly wouldn't want to see me throw a ball with my left hand LOL”

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  8. “One thing that's stopping us is expense — but I know what you mean. When I'm working at my kitchen table with my hobby projects, I often avail myself of one of those magnifying glasses with the “helping hands” in the form of two crocodile (alligator) c

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  9. “What you really need is a high-precision computer controlled helping hands — but it needs embedded vision and embedded speech capabilities (see my CEVA blog from a couple of days ago) — plus some artificial intelligence — so it could work out what you

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  10. “Hi Mark — thank you for the kind words — I really want to watch that Connections Program again. But there's no time at the moment — would you like to borrow the DVDs — I could drop them in the post to you if you wish (send me an email if you're intere

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  11. “If you search the web for images of an Airbus A380 cockpit, you may be surprised to see that instead of having a yoke mounted in front of each pilot, there is a joystick located next to the outer leg of each pilot. That means the pilot is using her left h

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  12. “Back when Windows 3.0 was bright, shiny and new it was pointed out that the numeric keypad was neatly positioned to be used by the right hand so, from an efficiency point of view it made sense to use the mouse with your left hand. You could then select t

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  13. “Hi Bob — that's very interesting — I always imagine the yoke as being mounted in front of the pilot — in addition to allowing him/her to use the best hand, this would seem to make sense in case of a violent incident that left the pilot without the use

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  14. “Do you know, I had never even thought about the numeric keypad being on the right-hand side. I rarely use it, so I never considered the problem of switching between the keypad and the mouse … I learn something new every day!”

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  15. “We may not be out of the woods yet — we got hit by an ice storm two days ago — the roads are still really bad (the temperature is rising now and hopefully they will have cleared up later today).nnThe think is that the left-elbow specialist mentioned i

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  16. “Max: I have a right hand and about half a forearm on the left. I have been an embedded guy for decades. I build stuff – robots, houses, cars. So – no need to panic.nnThe Thunder Ghod is one of my favorite examples. Dude has the right attitude – one has

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  17. “MaxnnThis story has a familiar ring to it. I do hope your outcome is better than mine.nnD nt base any conclusions on what you heard on the answering machine. My ophthalmologist's answering machine says she is only interested in Glaucoma, but she is ha

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  18. “Max, Thanks for the offer, but I won't have any time for that in the foreseeable future either; even after I've officially retired, I have a huge number of house, garden, and other projects that will keep me busier than ever! Plus Hamvention, and several

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  19. “Max, I'm not a doctor of anything, but some years back my wife had similar symptoms: apparent severe bruising, no pain or visible damage. It got REALLY bad to the point her thigh was more than twice its normal size! She had had an (unnecessary) angiogram

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  20. “Hi Mr Bandit (can I call you Bandit for short? 🙂 It's great to meet you. With regard to your discount … be careful what you offer, I might take you up on it LOLn”

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  21. “Hi Mark — I think that's the way they are leaning. In fact I just got back from the appointment (the ice had melted enough for me to get through) — they took more vials of blood than I've ever seen before — like 20 or so — the nurse couldn't wrap her

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  22. “I'm sure it is trivial — but you can't help having a little “niggle” at the back of your mind until you get the “all clear””

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  23. “@max: “..they took more vials of blood than I've ever seen before “nnMaybe they ae trying to make you anemic; THAT they can treat! I've heard that beer is good for treating anemia!”

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  24. “But I can't drink beer because of my diet (I'm down 16lbs since Jan) — it's like being between a rock and … a place where they don't sell beer LOL”

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  25. “I gave up my left arm to be a two-fisted drinker.nnI'm ambidextrous – I use one hand just as well as the one hand.nnI get to do everything single handedly.nnMy off-handed puns are in my second-hand shop.n”

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  26. “On a – ahem – serious note, I am a *big* fan of putting 0.1 inch headers on traces, unused mpu pins, etc, just so I have something to attach a scope probe to, so I don't need that extra hand to hold the probe while I type the CLI command. Note to EE's: do

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  27. “I'm still living in the age of 0.1″ pitch and lead through-hole components myself — and I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of scattering 0.1″ headers around my own hobby boards like confetti.”

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  28. “I've made several attempts to learn to touch-type using software teaching programs — but I never seem to have the time (or willpower) to follow through.nnDid you ever see the paper on the evolution of the computer keyboard? There's some interesting stu

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  29. “I can use a fork adequately with either hand but you don't want to see me try to use a cutting tool or soldering iron with my right hand LOL. Of course, I'm the only person I know who has managed to burn a finger on the same hand that was holding the sold

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  30. “@Elizabeth: I am right handed but hated sharing my computer at work, so I reversed the mouse buttons for use with my left hand. It was great to see how often my co workers gave up on using my workstation. “

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  31. “Years ago I was having some problems with tingling in my right hand so I switched the mouse over to the left and had WinDoze NT swap the Left and Right button functions so that a Left Click was still with the forefinger and the Right Click was still with

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  32. “I will have to try training myself to do this — you never know when it will come in handy (no pun intended)nnI can imagine your co-worker's surprise. One of the things we used to do to new engineers back in the early 1980s was pry off two keys from the

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  33. “I didn't take typing until senior year of high school, but it helped me in college – first with typing term papers for others ($1.00 per page including paper and spell-checking and grammar checking – it was my beer money), and then with key-punching compu

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  34. “Mr. Bandit, I, too, am ambidextrous; I play golf just as badly left-handed as right-handed. I usually shoot in the low-to-mid-nineties on the front nine …nnWe had a guy here at work who got Bacterial Meningitis (which only 10% survive). He lost his f

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  35. “There was a bank that refused to deposit a check because the guy did not have any thumbs, so could not give a valid thumb print. He won the lawsuit.nnSorry to hear the guy at work died – sounds like the infection damaged enough of his body that it just

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  36. “I am watching the trend of 3d printing hands for little kids. I am concerned the people making them feel pity for the kids. I can also tell by the language the parents use is some both feel guilty they have a “crippled” child (because they feel it is th

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  37. “Ah, yes, now I remember what I was going to say about the one-handedness; my boys, ages 9 and 10, play baseball with other special needs kids (they are high-functioning autistic, as are many of us, most likely), and the newest addition to the team is a bo

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  38. “Ah, the Dayton Hamvention! I'll have to get out there sometime. Fortunately my sister-in-law lives not far from Dayton, so we could perhaps schedule a trip to southwestern Ohio to coincide with the Hamvention one of these years. Alas, the wife is not s

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  39. “Our kitchen table is currently buried under my BADASS Display — I have to finish it up this coming weekend in order for the radiance of my wife's smile to once again lighten my life :-)”

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  40. “Hi Aubrey, well — yes and no. They called me back and took more blood. Then yesterday they called and said I have a low platelet count — they've scheduled me for an ultrasound of my spleen in a couple of weeks — I'm not sure exactly where the spleen is

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  41. “Ho ho ho :-)nnNot yet — I'm off to England for a week leaving tomorrow evening — I get the Ultrasound when I return — fingers crossed…”

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  42. “Max…can I suggest you try raising your beer to your lips with your right hand instead?nnI had a teacher at school who was ambidextrous. He'd be writing something on the board, pause for thought, then carry on writing with the other hand.nnI'm ambid

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