Review: Digilent Analog Discovery 2

I recently opened the mailbox to find a little device about the size of White Castle burger. It was an “Analog Discovery 2” from Digilent. It is hard to categorize exactly what it is. On the face of it, it is a USB scope and logic analyzer. But it is also a waveform generator, a DC power supply, a pattern generator, and a network analyzer.

I’ve looked at devices like this before. Some are better than others, but usually all the pieces don’t work well at the same time. That is, you can use the scope or you can use the signal generator. The ones based on microcontrollers often get worse as you add channels even. The Analog Discovery 2 is built around an FPGA which, if done right, should get around many of the problems associated with other small instrumentation devices.

I’d read good things about the Discovery 2, so I was anxious to put it through its paces. I will say it is an impressive piece of gear. There are a few things that I was less happy with, though, and I’ll try to give you a fair read on what I found both good and bad.

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200 Years of The Stirling Engine

In the early years of the nineteenth century, steam engines were at work in a variety of practical uses. However, they were still imperfect in many ways. One particular problem were the boilers, that had a tendency to explode, causing injuries and fatalities. Reverend Dr. Robert Stirling, a Scottish clergyman, was concerned about the death toll from exploding boilers. Based on previous work by George Cayley (known for his pioneering work on aeronautics), Stirling filed his patent for a safer engine in 1816. That makes this year the bicentenary of this engine. The Stirling engine has the highest theoretical efficiency of any thermal engine. It is also a relatively simple machine. Unlike other types of engines, there are no valves, and that makes the mechanical design much simpler.

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Hackspace U

No Timmy, we're not preparing you for a life of mindless drudgery! PD, via Wikimedia Commons.
No Timmy, we’re not preparing you for a life of mindless drudgery! PD, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s funny, how obsessed we are with qualifications these days. Kids go to school and are immediately thrust into a relentless machine of tests, league tables, and exams. They are ruthlessly judged on grades, yet both the knowledge and qualifications those grades represent so often boil down to relatively useless pieces of paper. It doesn’t even end for the poor youngsters when they leave school, for we are now in an age in which when on moving on from school a greater number of them than ever before are expected to go to university. They emerge three years later carrying a student debt and a freshly-printed degree certificate, only to find that all this education hasn’t really taught them the stuff they really need to do whatever job they land.

A gold standard of education is revealed as an expensive piece of paper with a networking opportunity if you are lucky. You need it to get the job, but in most cases the job overestimates the requirement for it. When a prospective employer ignores twenty years of industry experience to ask you what class of degree you got twenty years ago you begin to see the farcical nature of the situation.

In our hackspaces, we see plenty of people engaged in this educational treadmill. From high schoolers desperately seeking to learn something other than simply how to regurgitate the textbook, through university students seeking an environment closer to an industrial lab or workshop, to perhaps most interestingly those young people who have eschewed university and gone straight from school into their own startups.

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Building Beautiful Boards With Star Simpson

Over the last decade or so, the cost to produce a handful of custom PCBs has dropped through the floor. Now, you don’t have to use software tied to one fab house – all you have to do is drop an Eagle or KiCad file onto an order form and hit ‘submit’.

With this new found ability, hackers and PCB designers have started to build beautiful boards. A sheet of FR4 is no longer just a medium to populate parts, it’s a canvas to cover in soldermask and silkscreen.

Over the last year, Star Simpson has been working on a project to make electronic art a reality. Her Circuit Classics take the original art from Forrest Mims’ Getting Started In Electronics notebooks and turn them into functional PCBs. It’s a kit, an educational toy, and a work of art on fiberglass, all in one.

At the 2016 Hackaday Superconference, Star gave her tips and tricks for producing beautiful PCBs. There’s a lot going on here, from variable thickness soldermasks, vector art on a silkscreen, and even multicolored boards that look more at home in an art gallery than an electronics workbench.

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Disassembly Required

If you really want to hack software, you are going to face a time when you have to take apart someone’s machine code. If you aren’t very organized, it might even be your own — source code does get lost. If you want to impress everyone, you’ll just read through the hex code (well, the really tough old birds will read it in binary). That was hard to do even when CPUs only had a handful of instructions.

A more practical approach is to use a tool called a disassembler. This is nothing more than a program that converts numeric machine code into symbolic instructions. The devil, of course, is in the details. Real programs are messy. The disassembler can’t always figure out the difference between code and data, for example. The transition points between data and code can also be tricky.

When Not to Use

If you are coding your own program in assembly,  a disassembler isn’t usually necessary. The disassembly can’t recover things like variable names, some function names, and — of course — comments. If you use a high-level language and you want to check your compiler output, you can easily have the compiler provide assembly language output (see below).

The real value of a disassembler is when you don’t have the source code. But it isn’t easy, especially for anything nontrivial. Be prepared to do a lot of detective work in most cases.

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Tools of the Trade – Thermoforming

Chances are good that you’ve already lost some blood to thermoforming, the plastics manufacturing process that turns a flat sheet of material into an unopenable clamshell package, tray inside a box, plastic cup, or leftover food container.  Besides being a source of unboxing danger, it’s actually a useful technique to have in your fabrication toolchest. In this issue of Tools of the Trade, we look at how thermoforming is used in products, and how you can hack it yourself.

The process is simple; take a sheet of plastic material, usually really thin stuff, but it can get as thick as 1/8″, heat it up so that it is soft and pliable, put it over a mold, convince it to take all the contours of the mold, let it cool, remove it from the mold, and then cut it out of the sheet. Needless to say, there will be details.

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Millennium Tower is Sinking; and Waiting is the Hardest Part

San Francisco’s Millennium Tower is sinking. Since its completion in 2009, the 58-story, 645-foot tall residential building has settled 16 inches and tilted perhaps 2 inches to the northwest. Since the foundation issues came to light in August 2016, the vertiginous ultra-luxury highrise has become the subject of outrage, ridicule, and at least two pieces of pending litigation.

Nothing that we build is static. Our office towers, apartment complexes, and single family homes move in response to loads applied by the environment. Buildings sway in the wind, expand and contract in response to temperature changes, and shift with the land upon which they rest. In most scenarios, these deflections are so minuscule that the occupants never even notice. Millennium Tower happens to be a large enough project with a severe enough problem that the whole world can’t help but gawk.

Millenium Tower located in San Francisco's SOMA, near the Financial District
Millenium Tower located in San Francisco’s SOMA, near the Financial District.

In foundation design, not all terra is firma. While a one or two story wood-framed building can be built safely with a shallow foundation on crummy soil, a major skyscraper requires a foundation that can transfer extremely high loads into the earth. But the strata below our city streets can consist of anything from sand to clay to solid rock, and many cities, including San Francisco, have infilled former marshes and bays with soil in order to expand their coastlines and generate valuable real estate. Millennium Tower was built in South of Market, a neighborhood that mostly used to belong to San Francisco Bay.

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