Hackaday Prize Entry: Making A Book Reader That Can Survive Kindergarten

[atomicthomas] is a dedicated teacher. One only has to look at the work he’s been putting into book readers for for the past sixteen years. With hardware like the Pi Zero threatening cheap computers just over the supply chain horizon, he’s begun to set his sights higher.

It all started with headphones and audio tapes. For all of us who got to use tapes and school headphones, we know the flaws with this plan. Nothing lasted the sticky and violent hands of children for long. When video recordings of book became available, DVD players suffered similar fates.

So, he began to rip his tapes and DVDs to his computer. However, the mouse has a warning about small parts on it for a reason, and didn’t last long either. So, he built a computer with arcade buttons and a Raspberry Pi. This one ran a heavily simplified version of a media manager and worked well. Even the special needs children had no problem navigating. A second exploration with an iMac and a Nintendo controller worked even better. Apparently all five year olds instinctively understand how to use a Nintendo controller.

Using the user test data, in his most recent iteration he’s working on a sub-twenty-dollar reading computer in a Nintendo controller. It’s not the most technically in depth hack we’ve ever covered, but it certainly ranks up there for harsh environments.

Hello 3D Printed Dolly

[Ivan] likes to take time lapse videos. Using his 3D printer and a stepper motor he fashioned a rig that allows him to control the camera moving any direction on a smooth floor.

The dolly has a tripod-compatible mounting plate and scooter wheels. An Arduino runs the thing and a cell phone battery provides power. A pot sets the speed and [Ivan] provides code for both a linear pot, which he suggests, and for a logarithmic pot, which he had on hand. You can see a video of the results below.

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The Art of Making A Nixie Tube

Three years ago we covered [Dalibor Farnby]’s adventures in making his own Nixie tubes. Back then it was just a hobby, a kind of exploration into the past. He didn’t stop, and it soon became his primary occupation. In this video he shows the striking process of making one of his Nixie tubes.

Each of his tubes get an astounding amount of love and attention. An evolution of the process he has been working on for five years now. The video starts with the cleaning process for the newly etched metal parts. Each one is washed and dried before being taken for storage inside a clean hood. The metal parts are carefully hand bent. Little ceramic pins are carefully glued and bonded. These are used to hold the numbers apart from each other. The assembly is spot welded together.

In a separate cut work begins on the glass. The first part to make is the bottom which holds the wire leads. These are joined and then annealed. Inspection is performed on a polariscope and a leak detector before they are set aside for assembly. Back to the workbench the leads are spot welded to the frame holding the numbers.

It continues with amazing attention to detail. So much effort goes into each step. In the end a very beautiful nixie tube sits on a test rack, working through enough cycles to be certified ready for sale. The numbers crisp, clear, and beautiful. Great work keeping this loved part of history alive in the modern age.

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A Quickly-Hacked-Together Avalanche Pulse Generator

There are times when you make the effort to do a superlative job in the construction of an electronic project. You select the components carefully, design the perfect printed circuit board, and wait for all the pieces to come together as they come in the mail one by one. You then build it with tender care and attention, printing solder paste and placing components by hand with a fastidious attention to detail. There follows an anxious wait by the reflow oven as mysterious clouds of smoke waft towards the smoke detector, before you remove your batch of perfect boards and wait for them to cool.

Alternatively, there are other times when you want the device but you’re too impatient to wait, and anyway you’ve only got half of the components and a pile of junk. So you hack something a bit nasty together on the copper groundplane of a surplus prototype PCB in an evening with ‘scope and soldering iron. It’s not in any way pretty but it works, so you use it and get on with your life.

Our avalanche pulse generator schematic. The pulse generator itself is the single 2N3904 on the right.
Our avalanche pulse generator schematic. The pulse generator itself is the single 2N3904 on the right.

When you are a Hackaday writer with some oscilloscope bandwidths to measure, you need a picosecond avalanche pulse generator, and you need one fast. Fortunately they’re a very simple circuit with only one 2N3904 transistor, but the snag is they need a high voltage power supply well over 100 V. So the challenge isn’t making the pulse generator, but making its power supply.

For our pulse generator we lacked the handy Linear Technologies switcher used by the avalanche pulse generator project we were copying. It was time for a bit of back-to-basics flyback supply creation, robbing a surplus ATX PSU for its base drive transformer, high voltage diode and capacitor, and driving it through a CRT line output transistor fed by a two-transistor astable multivibrator. Astoundingly it worked, and with the output voltage adjusted to just over 150V the pulse generator started oscillating as it should.

We’ve looked at avalanche pulse generators once before here at Hackaday, and very recently we featured one used to measure the speed of light. We’ll be using this one tomorrow for a ‘scope comparison.

Glitching USB Firmware for Fun

[Micah Elizabeth Scott], aka [scanlime], has been playing around with USB drawing tablets, and got to the point that she wanted with the firmware — to reverse engineer, see what’s going on, and who knows what else. Wacom didn’t design the devices to be user-updateable, so there aren’t copies of the ROMs floating around the web, and the tablet’s microcontroller seems to be locked down to boot.

With the easy avenues turning up dead ends, that means building some custom hardware to get it done and making a very detailed video documenting the project (embedded below). If you’re interested in chip power glitching attacks, and if you don’t suffer from short attention span, watch it, it’s a phenomenal introduction.

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Raspberry Pi, Send Me a Letter

The abundance of small networked boards running Linux — like the Raspberry Pi — is a boon for developers. It is easy enough to put a small cheap computer on the network. The fact that Linux has a lot of software is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a good bet that anything you want to do has been done. On the other hand, some of the solutions are a bit large for a tiny embedded system.

Take, for example, e-mail. Historically, Linux hosts operate as mail transfer agents that can send and receive mail for all their users and possibly even relay mail to others. In today’s world, that’s usually overkill, but the capability is there. It is possible to install big mail transfer agents into a Raspberry Pi. The question is: should you?

What Do You Want?

The answer, of course, depends on what you want to do. If you have a dedicated board sending out text and maybe even files using an external mail server (like, say, Gmail), then the answer is no. You don’t need a piece of software listening for incoming connections, sorting through multiple users, and so on.

Luckily, there are some simple solutions if you know how to set up and configure them. The key is to avoid the big mail programs that do everything you don’t need.

Mail Front Ends

Let’s tackle sending mail first. If you try to grab the mailutils package, you’ll see it drags along a lot of stuff including mysql. Keep in mind, none of this will actually send mail. It just gives you some tools to get mail ready to send.

Luckily, the bsd-mailx package has a lot less overhead and will do the job. Look at the man page to see what options you have with mailx; you can do things like attach files, set a subject, and specify addresses.

It is a little difficult to set up for Gmail, though, thanks to Google’s security. You’ll need the certutil tool from the libnss3-tools package. You’ll need to create a certificate store, import Google’s certificate, and then set up a lot of options to mailx. I don’t suggest it. If you insist, though, you can find directions on the Web.


By default, programs like mailx and other Linux mail commands rely on a backend (often sendmail). Not only does that drag around too much overhead, it is also a full mail system, sending and receiving and relaying–overkill for our little Pi computers.

Luckily, SSMTP is available which only sends mail and is relatively lightweight. You need a configuration file to point it to your mail server. For Gmail, it would look like this:

# Config file for sSMTP sendmail
# The person who gets all mail for userids < 1000
# Make this empty to disable rewriting.

# The place where the mail goes. The actual machine name is required no 
# MX records are consulted. Commonly mailhosts are named mail.domain.com

# Where will the mail seem to come from?

# The full hostname
# Are users allowed to set their own From: address?
# YES - Allow the user to specify their own From: address
# NO - Use the system generated From: address

You can use a mail agent like mailx or you can just use ssmtp directly:

ssmtp someone@somewhere.com

Enter a message on the standard input and end it with a Control+D (standard end of file for Linux).

Google Authentication

There’s only one catch. If you are using Gmail, you’ll find that Google wants you to use stronger authentication. If you are using two-factor (that is, Google Authenticator), this isn’t going to work at all. You’ll need to generate an app password. Even if you aren’t, you will probably need to relax Google’s fear of spammers on your account. You need to turn on the “Access for less secure apps” setting. If you don’t want to do this on your primary e-mail account, considering making an account that you only use for sending data from the Pi.

Sending Files

Depending on the mail software you use, there are a few ways you can attach a file. However, the mpack program makes it very easy:

mpack -a -s 'Data File' datafile.csv me@hackaday.com

The above command will send datafile.csv as an attachment with the subject “Data File.” Pretty simple.

Receiving Mail

What if you want to reverse the process and receive mail on the Pi? There is a program called fetchmail that can grab e-mails from an IMAP or POP3 server. It is possible to make it only read the first unread message and send it to a script or program of your choosing.

You have to build a configuration file (or use the fetchmailconf program to build it). For example, here’s a simple .fetchmailrc file:

poll imap.gmail.com
protocol IMAP
user "user@gmail.com" with password "yourpassword" mda "/home/pi/mailscript.sh"
folder 'INBOX'
fetchlimit 1

You can leave the “keep” line out if you don’t mind fetchmail deleting the mail after processing. The file should be in your home directory (unless you specify with the -f option) and it needs to not be readable and writable by other users (e.g., chmod 600 .fetchmailrc). According to the fetchmail FAQ, there are some issues with Gmail, so you might want to consider some of the suggestions provided. However, for simple tasks like this, you should be able to work it all out.

In particular, the mailscript.sh file is where you can process the e-mail. You might, for example, look for certain keyword commands and take some action (perhaps replying using ssmtp).

Special Delivery

You might not think of the Raspberry Pi as an e-mail machine. However, the fact that it is a pretty vanilla Linux setup means you can use all sorts of interesting tools meant for bigger computers. You just have to know they exist.

$12 Quadcopter Frame from PVC Pipe

Flying ready-made quadcopters is fun. Eventually, though, most hackers get the urge to build their own. One of the most challenging parts is building a robust airframe. [Thomas Jarrett] has an interesting approach: he uses schedule 21 PVC pipe to build a sturdy airframe that is inexpensive and can house the craft’s electronics to boot. You can see a video of the sizeable aircraft, below.

The 1″ pipe is lightweight but sturdy and big enough to hold some circuitry. The rest is secured with Lexan. [Thomas] used off the shelf avionics, but it is obvious you could use the frame with your own choice of flight systems easily.

Perhaps the trickiest part is flattening the PVC for the motor mounts over a stove. The landing gear are also PVC, and formed in boiling water. Just be careful since hot PVC can give off nasty fumes (we aren’t experts on that, but it makes sense that it would be; you can watch a video about safety when heating PVC pipe). The total cost, including some prototyping parts, was under $300.

We’ve talked about building up drones in the past. If you don’t like PVC, you could always try old motherboards.

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