Think You Know C? Find Out

I’ve had the fortune or misfortune of interviewing a lot of job candidates over the years. It amazes me how often someone will claim to know something, sound reasonable, but then if you quiz them on it, it becomes really obvious that they don’t know much. To flush this out, we had a three-question test that would tell you a lot. People who got the right answer were ahead of the game, of course, but even looking at how people approached the answer (right or wrong) would tell you a lot, too.

I remember one case where the answer involved casting a value. A candidate had impressed me until faced with the question to which he said (more or less): “Well, there’s this function. I think it is called ‘cast’…” I think the look on my face told him that I actually knew the answer (not surprising, since I was giving the test) and that wasn’t it.

[Oleksandr Kaleniuk] has a C quiz of only five simple questions. They reminded me of at least one of my old company’s three-question quiz. I don’t want to say too much about the character of the test because I don’t want to give away the answers, but if you think you are a C wizard, go check it out. Then come back in the comments and tell us how you did. Just try to avoid posting spoilers (although you should probably avoid the comment section until you come back).

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Codebender Shuts Down

Codebender.cc was a cloud based IDE for Arduino development. It was made for hackers by a few fellows in Greece. Unfortunately, while they saw some serious success, they were never able to convert it all the way into a viable business.

By November 31st Codebender.cc will be completely shut down. They assure users that the site will be in read-only mode for as long as the end of the year, but longer if the traffic justifies it. Codebender made it all the way to 10,000 monthly active users, but hosting and administration overshadowed this success to the tune of 25,000 dollars a month. Not so much as far as businesses go, but without revenue it’s more than enough to shut down a site. Their business plan aimed to tailor their services for specific chip manufacturers and other companies but those deals never came together.

It’s a pity, we were excited to see if Codebender could continue to grow. They were certainly doing some really interesting stuff like remote code upload. As the comments on the site show, many users, especially educators and Chromebook users, loved Codebender — your code isn’t stuck on one computer and where there was a browser there was an IDE.

Two paid services will remain (starting at $10/month) at addresses with different TLDs. But the post does mention that the Codebender project started as Open Source. Their GitHub repo isn’t a clear path for rolling your own, but if you do manage to hack together a working Codebender implementation we’d love to hear about it.

RadarCat Gives Computers A Sense of Touch

So far, humans have had the edge in the ability to identify objects by touch. but not for long. Using Google’s Project Soli, a miniature radar that detects the subtlest of gesture inputs, the [St. Andrews Computer Human Interaction group (SACHI)] at the University of St. Andrews have developed a new platform, named RadarCat, that uses the chip to identify materials, as if by touch.

Realizing that different materials return unique radar signals to the chip, the [SACHI] team combined it with their recognition software and machine learning processes that enables RadarCat to identify a range of materials with accuracy in real time! It can also display additional information about the object, such as nutritional information in the case of food, or product information for consumer electronics. The video displays how RadarCat has already learned an impressive range of materials, and even specific body parts. Can Skynet be far behind?

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This EAGLE Script Gets Quotes For Your Boards

Weary of manually entering manufacturing parameters into PCBShopper’s web form, [Jeremy Ruhland] created an awesome shortcut: His ULP script lets you obtain quotes from 26 PCB manufacturers around the world directly from your EAGLE board layout.

The script extracts all relevant data from your layout, including board size, the layer count, minimum trace widths and hole diameters. It then let’s you specify a few more in a tidy dialogue before sending you to the PCB manufacturing price comparison site PCBShopper.com with a custom query for board quotes.

It works like a charm, and [Jeremy] also plans to add a shortcut button to the EAGLE layout editor’s toolbar. Since the script implements the entire PCBShopper API, for which [Jeremy] cooperates with PCBShopper.com owner [Bob Alexander], it’s also a great starting point for the development of scripts that work with other board layout tools.

Thanks to [Matthew Venn] for the title photo (via Flickr)!

Code Craft – Embedding C++: Multitasking

We’re quite used to multitasking computer systems today. Our desktops run email, a couple of browsers in different workspaces, a word processor, and a few other applications, apparently all at once. Looking behind the scenes using a system monitor or task manager program reveals a multitude of other programs running in support of our activities. Of course, any given CPU is running a maximum of one program at a time. Multitasking is simply the practice of switching between active processes fast enough to give the illusion of simultaneity.

The roots of multiasking go way back. In the early days, when computers cost tons of money, the thought of an idle system was anathema. Teletype IO was slow compared to the processor, and leaving the processor waiting idle for a card reader to slurp in the next card was outrageous. The gurus of the time worked to fill that idle time with productive work. That eventually led to systems that would run multiple programs at one time, and eventually to more finely grained multitasking within a program.

Modern multitasking depends on support from the underlying API of an operating system. Each OS uses its own techniques, making it difficult to write portable code. The C++ 2011 standard increased the portability of the language by adding concurrency routines to the Standard Template Library (STL). These routines use the API of the OS. For instance, the Linux version uses the POSIX threading library, pthread. The result is a minimal, but useful, capability for building upon in later standards. The C++ 2017 standard development activities include work on parallelism and concurrency.

In this article, I’ll work through some of the facilities for and pitfalls in writing threaded code in C++.

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Flying with Proportional – Integral – Derivative Control

Your quad-copter is hovering nicely 100 feet north of you, its camera pointed exactly on target. The hover is doing so well all the RC transmitter controls are in the neutral position. The wind picks up a bit and now the ‘copter is 110 feet north. You adjust its position with your control stick but as you do the wind dies and you overshoot the correction. Another gust pushed it away from target in more than one direction as frustration passes your lips: ARGGGHH!! You promise yourself to get a new flight computer with position hold capability.

How do multicopters with smart controllers hold their position? They use a technique called Proportional – Integral – Derivative (PID) control. It’s a concept found in control systems of just about everything imaginable. To use PID your copter needs sensors that measure the current position and movement.

The typical sensors used for position control are a GPS receiver and an Inertial Management  Measurement Unit (IMU) made up of an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and possibly a magnetometer (compass). Altitude control would require a barometer or some other means of measuring height above ground. Using sensor fusion techniques to combine the raw data, a computer can determine the position, movement, and altitude of the multicopter. But calculating corrections that will be just right, without over or undershooting the goal, is where PID comes into play. Continue reading “Flying with Proportional – Integral – Derivative Control”

ImplicitCAD: Programmatic CAD Built with 3D Printing in Mind

Cornerstone of many useful things: This Prusa i3 part was modeled in OpenSCAD.

Programmatic CAD, in particular the OpenSCAD language and IDE, has accompanied the maker movement for a while now. After its introduction in 2009, it quickly found its way into the 3D printing toolbox of many makers and eventually became what could be called an Industry Standard among open hardware labs, makerspaces and tinkerers. The Prusa i3, one of the most popular DIY 3D printers, was designed in OpenSCAD, and even Makerbot, the company that sold 100.000 3D printers, uses the language for its “Customizer” – an online tool that allows users to customize 3D printable models with minimal effort.

OpenSCAD is indeed a wonderful tool, and we have been using it a lot. We have become used to its quirks and accepted working with polygon mesh approximations of the models we are trying to design. We have made our peace with excessive rendering times, scripting workarounds and the pain of creating fillets, and we have learned to keep our aesthetic expectations low. We are happy with the fact that there is a way to programmatically create and share virtually any object, but sometimes we wish there was a better way in the open source world. Hint: there is.

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