Whenever we write up a feature on a microcontroller or microcontroller project here on Hackaday, we inevitably get two diametrically opposed opinions in the comments. If the article featured an 8-bit microcontroller, an army of ARMies post that they would do it better, faster, stronger, and using less power on a 32-bit platform. They’re usually right. On the other hand, if the article involved a 32-bit processor or a single-board computer, the 8-bitters come out of the woodwork telling you that they could get the job done with an overclocked ATtiny85 running cycle-counted assembly. And some of you probably can. (We love you all!)
When beginners walk into this briar-patch by asking where to get started, it can be a little bewildering. The Arduino recommendation is pretty easy to make, because there’s a tremendous amount of newbie-friendly material available. And Arduino doesn’t necessarily mean AVR, but when it does, that’s not a bad choice due to the relatively flexible current sourcing and sinking of the part. You’re not going to lose your job by recommending Arduino, and it’s pretty hard to get the smoke out of one.
But these days when someone new to microcontrollers asks what path they should take, I’ve started to answer back with a question: how interested are you in learning about microcontrollers themselves versus learning about making projects that happen to use them? It’s like “blue pill or red pill”: the answer to this question sets a path, and I wouldn’t recommend the same thing to people who answered differently.
For people who just want to get stuff done, a library of easy-to-use firmware and a bunch of examples to crib learn from are paramount. My guess is that people who answer “get stuff done” are the 90%. And for these folks, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to recommend an Arduino variant — because the community support is excellent, and someone has written an add-on library for nearly every gizmo you’d want to attach. This is well-trodden ground, and it’s very often plug-and-play.
For some people to join a new group is an exciting proposal, to meet new people and interact with them to accomplish a goal is their idea of a good time. If this describes you then you’re all set to jump in there and make some new friends! There are other people who see social interaction as not such a good time. They would rather avoid that situation and go on about their normal day, I get it. In general my level of comfort is inversely proportional to the number of people with me. This is not a character trait that I chose, I’m an introvert by nature.
The stereotype depicts hackers, nerds, or geeks as people without many friends who spend most of our time alone or you might just call us “loners”. I should make it clear that I’m writing this article from a table for 1 at my local diner and it would be out of the ordinary if there was another person at this table with me. Just in case someone feels the need to speak to me I’m wearing headphones as a deterrent, audio delivery is not their use at this time (headphone hack). I can feel the first comment brewing so let me nip that in the bud real quick: I’m in a restaurant AND actively being alone because there are often too many distractions at home to get things done in a timely manner. And I like the pancakes.
Before I climb up on this soapbox let me say that many of you are already involved in the community and are doing a great job, in fact I’m pretty sure many of the old-timers I talk about are Hackaday readers. This article is a result of my self reflection regarding my lack of community involvement as of late. I can’t think of any reasons why I shouldn’t take myself down a peg or two publicly, enjoy.
I won’t bother with the “Ra-Ra! Team Spirit!” garbage to get you all jazzed up to be a part of the team. But I will tell you what you’re missing out on by not being active and participating. It’s similar to the saying “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make that horse join a group of like-minded horses that would all benefit from a wealth of horse-knowledge.” The saying changes depending on where you’re from, that’s how it was told to me.
Penn and Teller once had a show about “What is the best?” Engineers know that’s not a complete question. Think about a car. What makes the “best” car? It depends on why you want a car. For a race car driver, it might be that speed is the most important factor. A mom might value safety. Someone who commutes four hours a day might like a car that’s comfortable. A teenager wants something affordable.
If you think about it, though, it is even more complicated than that. For example, just about everyone wants a car that is safe. Reliability is pretty important, too. So the reality is, most people want a car that has multiple attributes. Worse still, they sometimes conflict; making one better will make some other ones worse. Mom wants a safe car, but not one that takes half a day to drive to the corner market. Nor does she want to pay a half million dollars for a safe car.
Although the Internet of Things (IoT) is a reasonably new term, the idea isn’t really all that new. Many engineers and hackers have created networked embedded systems for many years. So what’s different? Two things: the Internet is everywhere and the use of connected embedded systems in a consumer setting.
Like anything else, there’s a spectrum of usefulness to IoT. Watching The Expanse, the other day (which is not a bad show, by the way), I noticed that if you had the right IoT lights, you could run an app that would change your lighting to suit the show in real-time. I don’t have those lights, but I suppose when the action moves to a dark sub-basement, your lights dim and when you are in a space ship’s reactor room, they turn red, and so on. Fun, but hardly useful or life-changing.
On the other hand, there are some very practical IoT items like the Nest thermostat. It might seem lazy to want to monitor and control your thermostat from your tablet, but if you are frequently away from home, or you have multiple houses, it can be a real positive to be able to control things remotely. With the recent blizzard on the U.S. east coast, for example, it would be great to turn on the heat in your weekend cottage 150 miles away while you were still at work or home. However, the Nest recently had a hiccup during an upgrade and it has made many of their customers mad (and cold). I’ll get back to that, in a minute. First, I want to talk about the problems with deploying something that will be in many varied environments (like people’s homes) that controls something real.
Have you heard that Microsoft is testing underwater data centers? On the surface (well, actually on the ocean floor) it’s not a bad idea. Project Natick seals a node of servers in a steel pipe for an undersea adventure planned for at least 10 years. The primary reason is to utilize cold ocean temperatures to keep the machines cool as they crunch through your incessant Candy Crush Saga sessions.
Passive cooling is wonderful, and really drops the energy footprint of a data center, albeit a very small one which is being tested. Scaled up, I can think of another big impact: property taxes. Does anyone know what the law says about dropping a pod in the ocean? As far as I can tell, laying undersea cabling is expensive, but once installed there are no landlords holding out their hands for a monthly extraction. Rent aside, taking up space with windowless buildings sucking huge amounts of electricity isn’t going to win hearts and minds of the neighborhood. Undersea real estate make sense there too.
But it’s fun to play Devil’s Advocate, and this one immediately raised my eyebrow. I read as much Sci Fi as time allows, and am always interested to see which authors are registering the best technology predictions. This is the second time in short order that I turn to [William Hertling’s] work. Back in November, Google announced a project to add predictive responses to Gmail. This parallels the premise of [Hertling’s] Singularity Series which begins with Avogadro Corp. Another major point in that novel is the use of offshore data centers.
Many engineers of a certain age have one thing in common: Their early interest in science and engineering came from watching the US and Russian space programs. To me, regardless of any other benefit from the space program (and there are many), that ability to inspire a future generation of engineers made the entire program worthwhile.
We live in a world where kids’ role models are more likely to be sports or entertainment figures that have regular visits to police stations, jails, and rehab centers. The value of having role models that “do science” is invaluable.
This time of the year is a dark time for NASA missions, though. On January 27, 1967, the Apollo I crew (Grissom, White, and Chaffee) died in a fire. The investigation led to NASA limiting how much Velcro you can use in a cabin and moving away from pure oxygen in the cabin.
In 1971, a non-profit formed that holds the World Economic Forum each year. The Forum claims it “Engages the foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” This year, the Forum hosted a session: What If: Robots Go To War? Participants included a computer science professor, an electrical engineering professor, the chairman of BAE, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, and a Time magazine editor.