Books You Should Read: The Soul of A New Machine

If there was one book that describes what it means to be in the trenches of a cutting edge design, that book is The Soul Of a New Machine. Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer prize-winning book has been an inspiration to thousands over the years.

Soul is the story of the creation of the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, code-named Eagle. Eagle was Data General’s first 32-bit minicomputer. If you’re not a retrocomputing aficionado, minicomputers were a major industry back in the 70’s and 80’s. Starting in 1964 with the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-8, minis provided a low-cost means for companies to get a computer. The only other option was a huge mainframe from companies like IBM. Minicomputers chugged along until the 1990s when microprocessor-based PCs and workstations passed them by. The market, and the industry evaporated.

Today, more than 30 years later, minicomputers are all but forgotten. Data General itself is long gone, purchased by EMC in 1999. DG’s mark on the landscape has all but been erased by the swiftly moving sands of technical progress. All except for the snapshot Kidder set down in Soul.

An MV/8000 installation (from DG literature)
An MV/8000 installation (from DG literature)

The technical side of designing a new computer is just one part of this book. The Soul of a New Machine is three stories: the story of the engineers, the story of the managers, and the story of the machine they built. For this reason, the book has found itself on the reading list of engineering schools and management institutes alike.

The thing that makes this book appeal to the masses is Kidder’s uncanny ability to explain incredibly complex topics in layman’s terms. He manages to explain the inner workings of a 32-bit CPU, all the way down to the level of microcode. He delves into Programmable Array Logic (PALs), forerunners of the CPLD and FPGA devices you read about on our pages today. PALs were a hot new technology back in the late 70’s. They allowed the Eagle team to make changes quickly — without pulling out their wire wrapping tools.

Kidder manages to explain these things in a way that doesn’t leave the average Joe scratching their head, yet doesn’t bore the technically savvy. If he ever decides to stop writing non-fiction, Tracy Kidder would have a career writing user manuals.

The Soul of a New Machine starts in a very unlikely place – on the deck of a sailing ship during a rough storm. The scene is our introduction to the star of the book – Tom West, a manager at Data General. West is multifaceted and enigmatic to say the least. A folk guitarist who was inspired to work on electronics by the Apollo program. He was a few years too late for NASA though. Eventually he found himself travelling the world building and adjusting incredibly accurate clocks at astronomical observatories for the Smithsonian. This meandering path eventually led him to DG, where he was hired as a computer engineer and quickly worked his way up the ranks.

Continue reading “Books You Should Read: The Soul of A New Machine”

A Refrigerator Cooled by Rubber Bands

Ever noticed that a rubber band gets warmer when it’s stretched? The bands also get cooler when allowed to snap back to relaxed length? [Ben Krasnow] noticed, and he built a rubber band cooled refrigerator to demonstrate the concept. The idea of stretching a rubber band to make it hotter, then releasing it to make it cooler seems a bit counter intuitive. Normally when things get smaller (like a gas being compressed) they get hotter. When pressure is released the gas gets cooler. Rubber bands do the exact opposite. Stretching a rubber band makes it hot. Releasing the stretched band causes it to get cooler.

No, the second law of thermodynamics isn’t in jeopardy. The secret is in the molecular structure of rubber bands. The bands are made of long polymer chains. A relaxed rubber band’s chains are a tangled mess. Stretching the band causes the chains to untangle and line up in an orderly fashion. By stretching the band you are decreasing its entropy. The energy of the molecules in the band don’t change, but entropy does. All the work one does to stheatwheelretch the band has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is heat. This is all an example of entropic force. For a physics model of what’s going on, check out ideal chains. If you’re confused, watch the video. [Ben] does a better job of explaining entropic force visually than we can with text.

To test this phenomenon out, [Ben] first built a wheel with rubber bands as spokes. Placing the wheel in front of a heater caused it to slowly rotate. [Ben] then reversed the process by building a refrigerator. He modeled his parts in solidworks, then cut parts with his Shaper handheld CNC. The fridge itself consists of an offset wheel of rubber bands. The bands are stretched outside the fridge, and released inside. Two fans help transfer the thermal energy from the bands to the air. The whole thing is hand cranked, so this would make a perfect museum or educational demonstration. Cranking the fridge for 5 minutes did get the air inside a couple of degrees cooler. Rubber is never going to displace standard refrigerants, but this is a great demo of the principles of entropic force.

For more thermodynamic fun, check out [Al Williams] recent article about building a DIY heat pipe.

Continue reading “A Refrigerator Cooled by Rubber Bands”

Roomba vs Poop: Teaching Robots to Detect Pet Mess

Imagine this: you come home after a day at work. As you open the door, your nose is the first alert that something is very, very wrong. Instead of the usual house smell, your nose is assaulted with the distinctive aroma that means your dog had an accident. The smell is stronger though — as if Fido brought over a few friends and they all had a party. Flipping the lights on, the true horror is revealed to you. This was a team effort, but only one dog was involved.

At some point after the dog’s deed, Roomba, your robot vacuum, took off on its scheduled daily run around the house. The plucky little robot performed its assigned duties until it found the mess. The cleaning robot then became an agent of destruction, smearing a foul smelling mess throughout the space it was assigned to clean. Technology sometimes has unintended consequences. This time, your technology has turned against you.

This scene isn’t a work of fiction. For a select few families, it has become an all too odoriferous reality just begging for a clever fix.

Continue reading “Roomba vs Poop: Teaching Robots to Detect Pet Mess”

D.Va For Real: Playing An FPS With Flight Sticks

[Rudeism] loves playing Blizzard’s hit game Overwatch. He wanted to make his gaming experience a bit more realistic though. One of the characters is D.Va, who according to game lore is a member of the South Korean Mobile Exo-Force (MEKA). D.Va pilots her MEKA in game using two joysticks. Overwatch is a standard FPS with WASD and mouse controls, so the realism ends at the screen.

d.va-thumb[Rudeism] didn’t let that stop him. He used two flight sticks to create the  ultimate D.Va experience. [Twitch recording link – language warning] A commercial software package called Xpadder allowed him to map movements on the joystick to mouse and keystrokes. The left joystick maps to WASD, left shift, Q, and right click. The right stick corresponds to mouse movements, E, and left click.

This isn’t exactly the tank style steering we’re used to from classic mech games like Virtual-On, but it’s pretty good for a software solution. It makes us wonder what would be possible with a bit of hardware hacking – perhaps a Teensy handling the analog and button inputs.

People have been coming up with interesting ways to play video games for years. Check out this hack with the classic Microsoft Kinect, or these arcade hacks.

Via Reddit

Hacklet 121 – Tea Hacks

Last week on the Hacklet I covered coffee hacks. Not everyone likes coffee though. A good portion of the world’s population enjoys a nice cup of tea. Different cultures are rather particular with how they prepare their drink of choice. Americans tend to use teabags, while British, Chinese (and much of the rest of the globe) generally prefer loose tea leaves. Everyone has their own particular style, which has led to quite a few tea hacks. This week’s Hacklet is all about some of the best tea projects on Hackaday.io!

teapiWe start with [James P.] and Tea Pi. Tea Pi is designed to emulate commercial tea makers costing hundreds of dollars. The heart of the operation is a Raspberry Pi, making this one of the first Linux powered tea makers we’ve ever heard of. An Adafruit PowerSwitch Tail allows the Pi to control a standard tea kettle. The Pi monitors water temperature with a DS18B20 temperature sensor. A simple servo drops a tea basket into the water for brewing. When the time is up, the servo pulls the basket up and the tea is ready to serve. [James P] planned to add voice control to his tea creation. I’m betting that would be pretty easy with Amazon’s voice services for the Raspberry Pi.

eyeoteaNext up is [Tom] with Eye-O-Tea. With this project, even your cup of tea can join the Internet of Things. Eye-O-Tea essentially is a web connected coaster with temperature monitoring built right in. Temperature is measured with a Melexis MLX90615 IR thermometer. An Arduino Pro Mini reads the temperature and passes it on to an ESP8266 WiFi module. The entire device is powered by a LiPo battery, and neatly housed in a gutted cup warmer. On the cloud side, [Tom] used ThinkSpeak and freeboard.io to make an interface he can access with his cell phone. If his tea is too hot, Eye-O-Tea will let him know. It will also send him an SMS if he’s forgotten his cup and it’s going cold.

chaiNext we have [Adrian] and ChaiBot. Chaibot was created by [Adrian’s] son [Oliver] to combat a common problem. Both father and son would pour cups of tea, then get involved in a project. By the time they came back, they had ink. ChaiBot steeps the tea for a set amount of time, stirring every minute. The mechanics of the project came from an old CD-ROM drive. A PIC16F887 runs the show, ensuring the steep time is accurate, and activating the motor drive. When the tea is done, an ESP8266 sends a push notification to the user’s phone. The project is housed in a wooden case that fits perfectly on the kitchen counter.

inductFinally, we have [Siggi] with Camper Induction Cooker, a 2016 Hackaday Prize entry. [Siggi] needed hot liquids on the go, but he didn’t want to fool around with heating elements. An induction heater was the way to go. A Cypress PSOC micro controls the system. Metal travel style mugs can be used without modification. For ceramic or plastic mugs, a metal washer (hopefully coated with something food safe) acts as an immersion heater. The project is definitely a bit unwieldy at the moment, but I could see [Siggi’s] idea being incorporated into automotive cup holders. [Siggi] put his project on hold back in June. I hope seeing his work on the front page will get development moving again.

If you want to see more tea projects, check out our new tea projects list. See a project I might have missed? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Skin Bling: Wearable Electronics from Golden Temporary Tattoos

MIT Media Lab and Microsoft have teamed up to take wearable devices one step further — they’ve glued the devices directly to the user’s skin. DuoSkin is a temporary tattoo created with gold leaf. Metallic “Flash” temporary fashion tattoos have become quite popular recently, so this builds on the trend. What the team has done is to use them to create user interfaces for wearable electronic devices.

weeding-gold-leaf-temporary-tattooGenerally speaking, gold leaf is incredibly fragile. In this process to yield the cleanest looking leaf the gold is not actually cut. Instead, the temporary tattoo film and backer are cut on a standard desktop vinyl cutter. The gold leaf is then applied to the entire film surface. The cut film/leaf can then be “weeded” — removing the unwanted portions of film which were isolated from the rest by the cutting process — to complete the temporary tattoo. The team tested this method and found that traces 4.5 mm or more thick were resilient enough to last the entire day on your skin.

The gold leaf tattoos make excellent capacitive touch sensors. The team was able to create sliders, buttons, and even 2 dimensional diamond grids. These controls were used to move a cursor on a computer or phone screen. They were even able to create a wearable NFC tag. The gold leaf is the antenna, and the NFC chip itself is mounted on the temporary tattoo backer.

These devices all look great, but with the exception of the NFC chip, we’re not seeing the electronics driving them. Capacitive touch sensors used as a UI for a phone will have to have a Bluetooth radio and a battery somewhere. We’re that’s all hidden under the arm of the user. You can see what we’re taking about in the video after the break. That said, the tools and materials are ubiquitous and easy to work with. Take a quick read through the white paper (PDF) and you can be making your own version of this today.

Continue reading “Skin Bling: Wearable Electronics from Golden Temporary Tattoos”

Hacklet 120 – Coffee Hacks

Hackers need fuel to hack. In general that fuel comes in the form of food, water, and caffeine. Not necessarily in that order. While soda or energy drinks will do in a pinch, the best hackers know that the purest form of caffeine comes from coffee. This of course means that there have been decades of coffee hacks. The first Internet-connected coffee pot dates all way back to 1991, before the web even had pictures. We’ve come a long way since then. This week on the Hacklet we’re checking out some of the best coffee hacks on Hackaday.io!

coffee1We start with [opeRaptor] and CoffeeOfThings. [OpeRaptor] has created a wireless, internet connected coffee carafe. The carafe has three CdS cells which enable it to detect how much black gold is left in the pot. A TMP36 sensor reports the current coffee temperature. Data is sent out via a NRF24l01 radio. The brains of the coffee pot is an MSP430 microcontroller. All this runs from a simple CR2032 coin cell. A base station receives the coffee data, displays it on a very nice Vacuum fluorescent Display (VFD). An ESP8266 then passes the data on to the internet.

 

coffewarmerNext up is [magnustron] with quad-386 coffee heater. No one likes a cold cup of coffee. Everyone loves old CPUs. [Magnustron] turned these two shower thoughts into a the world’s first USB powered quad CPU coffee warmer with data logging capabilities. A simple ATtiny461 micro runs the show. PC connectivity is via USB using the V-USB library. [Magnustron] has gotten the CPUs to warm up, but is having some issues with switching. them on. Turning all four heaters on too quickly causes the rail to droop, leading to dropped USB connections. Those power-hungry 386 chips may be a bit too much for a single USB connection. It might be time to add an external power supply.

groundsNext is [kesh1030] with Using Waste Coffee As A Biodiesel Source. Coffee isn’t just liquid energy. There’s oil in them there grounds. Millions of pounds of used coffee grounds produced every year can be converted to biodiesel fuel. [Kesh1030] experimented with different coffee grounds, and different ways to prepare them. The oil was extracted from the coffee using hexane, which is a bit of a nasty solvent. [Kesh1030] used a fume hood to stay safe. He found that homogenized coffee grounds had an 11.87% oil yield. Used homogenized coffee grounds weren’t far behind, with 9.82% yield of oil. Nearly 10% per weight yield isn’t too shabby, considering this is all going into the trash.

dripperFinally, we have [saadcaffeine] with Caffeinator: gravity powered geek fuel dripper. This is a project of few words, but the images tell much of the story. [Saadcaffeine] created his own cold drip iced coffee maker using upcycled and found components. Three clothes hangers form an ingenious tripod. The tripod holds two soda bottles – the water reservoir and the brew pot. Water is restricted by small holes in the soda bottle caps. This allows it to drop slowly though the machine, giving it time to soak up all the caffeinated goodness. The result is a fresh cup of cold drip. Just add ice and enjoy a quick power up!

If you want to see more coffee hacks, check out our new coffee projects list. See a project I might have missed? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!