LED Matrix Takes You Down To Nixieland

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Sure, there are some who might simply sugarcoat blatant plagiarism with fancy quotes, but there are still cases that come from well-intended, genuine admiration. The Nixie tube with its ember-like glow is a component that definitely gets a lot of such admiration, and being a fond LED enthusiast, [tuenhidiy] saw a perfect opportunity to imitate them with a RGB LED Matrix and build a virtual Nixie clock from it.

What may sound like just displaying images of Nixie tubes on a LED matrix, is actually exactly that. Using the UTFT library and converter, [tuenhidiy] turned pictures of individually lit-up Nixie tube digits into arrays of 16bit RGB values, and shows the current time on an ESP32-controlled 64×64 matrix with them. Providing two different image sizes, you can either place two tubes next to each other, or in a 3×2 arrangement, and of course have plenty of flexibility for future extensions. In the demo video after the break, you can see the two options in action while displaying both the full time, and only the seconds.

Unfortunately, it’s always difficult to judge an LED project through the lens of a camera, especially when looking for the characteristic color of a Nixie tube, but we take [tuenhidiy]’s word that it resembles it a lot better in reality. On the other hand, the pixelated look certainly adds its own charm, so you might as well go completely overboard with the colors — something we’ve seen with a different LED-themed Nixie alternative a little while back.

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Radio Shack Shortwave Goes Digital

If you spent the 1970s obsessively browsing through the Radio Shack catalog, you probably remember the DX-160 shortwave receiver. You might have even had one. The radio looked suspiciously like the less expensive Eico of the same era, but it had that amazing-looking bandspread dial, instead of the Eico’s uncalibrated single turn knob number 1 to 10. Finding an exact frequency was an artful process of using both knobs, but [Frank] decided to refit his with a digital frequency display.

Even if you don’t have a DX-160, the techniques [Frank]¬† uses are pretty applicable to old receivers like this. In this case, the radio is a single conversion superhet with a variable frequency oscillator (VFO), so you need only read that frequency and then add or subtract the IF before display. If you can find a place to tap the VFO without perturbing it too much, you should be able to pull the same stunt.

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A Foam Core Stand Against Tablet Design

We hadn’t considered how challenging it might be to try drawing long-term on a tablet, and it sounds as though Apple didn’t, either. According to [Eric Strebel], who normally designs products for other people, there are many problems to solve. The camera area creates a bump on an otherwise flat backside, so it wobbles on the table. It’s thick. It’s too easy to run your stylus off the side.

Yes there are tablet holders out there, even a few with cup holders, but almost none of them have a kickstand for holding the thing vertically. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. And so [Eric] designed his ideal stand to solve all of these problems (video, embedded below). It’s mostly made of laser-cut foam core board, with some layers of poster board added to make the bezel totally flush with the tablet.

[Eric] can snap the tablet in place and use it flat, or fold back the upper half into a stand. It even works well over on the couch, or sitting up in bed. We particularly like the window gasket feet and all the versions of his hinges, which start with strips of cheesecloth and end in grosgrain ribbon. [Eric]’s approach to design always reminds us to keep an open mind about materials and methods. If you try using what you already have, the results may surprise you. Check out the build video after the break.

Maybe you don’t need or want a tablet stand. How about a foam core spray booth?

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Looking For Pi In The 8087 Math Coprocessor Chip

Even with ten fingers to work with, math can be hard. Microprocessors, with the silicon equivalent of just two fingers, can have an even harder time with calculations, often taking multiple machine cycles to figure out something as simple as pi. And so 40 years ago, Intel decided to give its fledgling microprocessors a break by introducing the 8087 floating-point coprocessor.

If you’ve ever wondered what was going on inside the 8087, wonder no more. [Ken Shirriff] has decapped an 8087 to reveal its inner structure, which turns out to be closely related to its function. After a quick tour of the general layout of the die, including locating the microcode engine and ROM, and a quick review of the NMOS architecture of the four-decade-old technology, [Ken] dug into the meat of the coprocessor and the reason it could speed up certain floating-point calculations by up to 100-fold. A generous portion of the complex die is devoted to a ROM that does nothing but store constants needed for its calculation algorithms. By carefully examining the pattern of NMOS transistors in the ROM area and making some educated guesses, he was able to see the binary representation of constants such as pi and the square root of two. There’s also an extensive series of arctangent and log2¬†constants, used for the CORDIC algorithm, which reduces otherwise complex transcendental calculations to a few quick and easy bitwise shifts and adds.

[Ken] has popped the hood on a lot of chips before, finding butterflies in an op-amp and reverse-engineering a Sinclair scientific calculator. But there’s something about seeing constants hard-coded in silicon that really fascinates us.

Bricking Your 3D Printer, In A Good Way

In our vernacular, bricking something is almost never good. It implies that something has gone very wrong indeed, and that your once-useful and likely expensive widget is now about as useful as a brick. Given their importance to civilization, that seems somewhat unfair to bricks, but it gets the point across.

It turns out, though, that bricks can play an important role in 3D-printing in terms of both noise control and print quality. As [Stefan] points out in the video below, living with a 3D printer whirring away on a long print can be disturbing, especially when the vibrations of the stepper motors are transmitted into and amplified by a solid surface, like a benchtop. He found that isolating the printer from the resonant surface was the key. While the stock felt pad feet on his Original Prusa i3 Mk 3S helped, the best results were achieved by building a platform of closed-cell packing foam and a concrete paver block. The combination of the springy foam and the dampening mass of the paver brought the sound level down almost 8 dBA.

[Stefan] also thoughtfully tested his setups on print quality. Machine tools generally perform better with more mass to damp unwanted vibration, so it stands to reason that perching a printer on top of a heavy concrete slab would improve performance. Even though the difference in quality wasn’t huge, it was noticeable, and coupled with the noise reduction, it makes the inclusion of a paver and some scraps of foam into your printing setup a no-brainer.

Not content to spend just a couple of bucks on a paver for vibration damping? Then cast a composite epoxy base for your machine — either with aluminum or with granite.

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Using Valgrind To Analyze Code For Bottlenecks Makes Faster, Less Power-Hungry Programs

What is the right time to optimize code? This is a very good question, which usually comes down to two answers. The first answer is to have a good design for the code to begin with, because ‘optimization’ does not mean ‘fixing bad design decisions’. The second answer is that it should happen after the application has been sufficiently debugged and its developers are at risk of getting bored.

There should also be a goal for the optimization, based on what makes sense for the application. Does it need to process data faster? Should it send less data over the network or to disk? Shouldn’t one really have a look at that memory usage? And just what is going on inside those CPU caches that makes performance sometimes drop off a cliff on a single core?

All of this and more can be analyzed using tools from the Valgrind suite, including Cachegrind, Callgrind, DHAT and Massif.

Keeping Those Cores Cool

Modern day processors are designed with low power usage in mind, regardless of whether they are aimed at servers, desktop systems or embedded applications. This essentially means that they are in a low power state when not doing any work (idle loop), with some CPUs and microcontrollers turning off power to parts of the chip which are not being used. Consequently, the more the processor has to do, the more power it will use and the hotter it will get.

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Don’t Trust Your Ears For The Freshest Chips

We hear fables of how to restore the crispness to your crisp and the crackle to your crackers, but they are more hot air than some of the methods. We found one solution that has some teeth though, and it doesn’t require any kitchen appliances, just a pair of headphones. Keep reading before you mash potato chips into your Beats. [Charles Spence] co-authors a paper with [Massimiliano Zampini] titled The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips. It’s a mouthful, so folks refer to it as the “Sonic Chip Experiment,” which rolls off the tongue. The paper is behind paywalls, but you can find it if you know where to look.

The experiment puts participants in some headphones while they eat Pringles, and researchers feed them different sound waves. Sometimes the sound file is a recording of crackly chewing, and other times it is muffled mastication. The constant was the Pringles, which are a delight for testing because they are uniform. Participants report that some chips are fresher than others. This means we use our ears to help judge consumable consistency. Even people who knew all about the experiment report they can willingly fool themselves with the recordings.

What other foods would benefit from the augmented crunch, and which ones would suffer? If shapely food is your jam, we have a holy cookie which is probably best enjoyed with your eyes. If you prefer your Skittles organized by color, we have you covered.

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