Clockwork DevTerm R-01 Takes RISC-V Out For A Spin

If you’re anything like us you’ve been keeping a close eye on the development of RISC-V: an open standard instruction set architecture (ISA) that’s been threatening to change the computing status quo for what seems like forever. From its humble beginnings as a teaching tool in Berkeley’s Parallel Computing Lab in 2010, it’s popped up in various development boards and gadgets from time to time. It even showed up in the 2019 Hackaday Supercon badge, albeit in FPGA form. But getting your hands on an actual RISC-V computer has been another story entirely. Until now, that is.

Clockwork has recently announced the availability of the DevTerm R-01, a variant of their existing portable computer that’s powered by a RISC-V module rather than the ARM chips featured in the earlier A04 and A06 models. Interestingly the newest member of the family is actually the cheapest at $239 USD, though it’s worth mentioning that not only does this new model only include 1 GB of RAM, but the product page makes it clear that the RISC-V version is intended for experienced penguin wranglers who aren’t afraid of the occasional bug.

Newbies are persona non grata for the R-01.

Beyond the RISC-V CPU and slimmed down main memory, this is the same DevTerm that our very own [Donald Papp] reviewed earlier this month. Thanks to the modular nature of the portable machine, this sort of component swapping is a breeze, though frankly we’re impressed that the Clockwork team is willing to go out on such a limb this early in the product’s life. In our first look at the device we figured at best they would release an updated CPU board to accommodate the Raspberry Pi 4 Compute Module, but supporting a whole new architecture is a considerably bolder move. One wonders that other plans they may have for the retro-futuristic machine. Perhaps a low-power x86 chip isn’t out of the question?

Author with book

Learn All About Writing A Published Technical Book, From Idea To Print

Ever wondered what, exactly, goes into creating a technical book? If you’d like to know the steps that bring a book from idea to publication, [Sara Robinson] tells all about it as she explains what went into co-authoring O’Reilly’s Machine Learning Design Patterns.

Her post was written in 2020, but don’t let that worry you, because her writeup isn’t about the book itself so much as it is about the whole book-writing process, and her experiences in going through it. (By the way, every O’Reilly book has a distinctive animal on the cover, and we learned from [Sara] that choosing the cover animal is a slightly mysterious process, and is not done by the authors.)

It turns out that there are quite a few steps that need to happen — like proposals and approvals — before the real writing even starts. The book writing itself is a process, and like most processes to which one is new, things start out slow and inefficient before they improve.

[Sara] also talks a bit about burnout, and her advice on dealing with it is as insightful as it is practical: begin by communicating honestly how you are feeling to the people involved.

Over the years I’ve learned that people will very rarely guess how you’re feeling and it’s almost always better to tell them […] I decided to tell my co-authors and my manager that I was burnt out. This went better than expected.

There is a lot of code in the book, and it has its own associated GitHub repository should you wish to check some of it out.

By the way, [Sara] celebrated publication by making a custom cake, which you can see near the bottom of her blog post. This comes as no surprise seeing as she has previously managed to combine machine learning with her love of making cakes!

The hairclip-embedded tool being used on a Tiger 99x game console, clipped onto a spot where the plastic ribbon meets the LCD panel itself, heating it up

World’s Smallest Hair Straightener For Fixing Old LCD Ribbons

[Stephen] writes to us about an LCD repair tool he has created. We’ve all seen old devices with monochrome LCDs connected by thin film, where connections between the PCB and the LCD have deteriorated and the LCD would no longer show parts of the picture. This is a connection heating gadget, that [Stephen] affectionately dubs as World’s Smallest Hair Straightener, made specifically to bring cool old tech back to life.

A resin-printed mold houses a coil of Kanthal wire, easy to source and simple to make. He reuses a hair clip as a housing for the heating element, which also provides pressure needed to squish the film-printed conductive traces into the LCD as the adhesive melts. High-temperature epoxy brings the two together, and with a variable power supply, this tool successfully brought an old Tiger 99x handheld back to life.

This hack was made possible, in part, because of [JohnDevin Duncan] in Hackaday comment section sharing his experience on repairing LCD ribbons back in 2015, giving valuable insights on the problem that we initially thought would be solve-able with a soldering iron. The knowledge shared was distilled by [Stephen] into a tool that we all can now use when we encounter a device we really, really want to revive.

Last time we covered this topic, quite a few hackers popped up with their stories and suggestions. Old game console fix stories are a staple here on Hackaday, a few pop to mind – this high-effort trace repair of a water-damaged GameBoy cartridge, a badly designed NES cartridge socket reinvention, and this GameBoy LCD sunburn damage restoration guide.

Reliving Second-Hand Nostalgia With The PDP-11

Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution is something like required reading for the hacker subculture, and Hackaday by extension. The first section of that book is all about early hackers and their adventures with the PDP-1 at MIT. The PDP-11 has earned a special place in hacker history for being the minicomputer used to write the first Unix. We’re always amazed to find how many of our readers have stories about programming PDP microcomputers, usually the PDP-11. Those of us young enough to have missed out on the PDP experience often have something of a second-hand nostalgia for the old machines. An exceptionally detailed article over at Ars Technica promises to get us started reliving the glory days, even if it is for the first time.

It turns out that there’s an emulator for the old minicomputers, the History Simulator, abbreviated SimH. The article gives step-by-step instructions to get the emulator running, booting Unix 2.11 on a virtual PDP-11. The fun doesn’t stop there. The write-up includes an intro the the PDP-11 hardware, and a crash-course to assembly programming for the beast. It’s a great look at how the stack, branching, and subroutines work under the hood. Most of it still applies to computing today, so it really is worth the read.

Looking for more PDP-11 lore? Check out our coverage of DEC’s history.

The image above is “PDP-11” by ToastyKen, and is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A styrofoam head wearing an electronic headband with cat ears

These Mind-Controlled Cat Ears Move With Your Mood

As any cat owner will tell you, a cat’s ears are great indicators of its state of mind: pointed forward if they want your attention, turned backwards if they’re angry, and folded down flat when they’re afraid. Humans sometimes don cat ear headbands as a fashion statement, but sitting motionless those ears are more likely to confuse a cat than to provide any meaningful communication.

[Jazz DiMauro] aims to fill that gap by designing a cat ear headband that actually responds to your emotions. It does so by continuously taking an EEG measurement and extracting the “attention” and “meditation” variables from it. Those values are then applied to a set of servos that allow two-axis motion on each 3D printed ear. The EEG readout device is an off-the-shelf MindWave headset, which outputs its sensor data through Bluetooth. An Arduino then reads out the data and drives the servos.

Turning all this into a usable wearable device was a project on its own: [Jazz] went through several iterations to find a suitable power source and wiring strategy until they settled on a pair of lithium-polymer batteries and a single flat cable. The end result looks comfortable enough to wear, and the ears’ motion looks smooth and natural. All that’s left is to test it with real cats, to find out if they can now finally understand their human’s emotions too.

We’ve featured a few moving cat ear headbands before: one that moves along with your head’s motions, and another one with manual control. Today’s EEG-powered one shows yet another application for EEGs, which have been used for anything from invoking lucid dreaming to playing beer pong. Continue reading “These Mind-Controlled Cat Ears Move With Your Mood”

Impedance Mismatch

There are a few classic physics problems that it can really help to have a mental map of. One is, of course, wave propagation. From big-wave surfing, through loudspeaker positioning, to quantum mechanics, having an intuition for the basic dynamics of constructive and destructive interference is key. Total energy of a system, and how it splits and trades between kinetic and potential, is another.

We were talking about using a bike generator to recharge batteries on the Podcast last night, and we stumbled on a classic impedance mismatch situation. A pedaling person can put out 100 W, and a cell phone battery wants around 5 W to charge. You could pedal extremely lightly for nearly three hours, but I’d bet you’d rather hammer the bike for 10 minutes and get on with your life. The phone wants to be charged lightly — it’s high impedance — and you want to put out all your power at once — you’re a low impedance source.

The same phenomenon explains why you have to downshift your internal combustion automobile as you slow down. In high gear, it presents too high an impedance, and the motor can only turn so slowly before stalling. This is also why all vibrating string acoustic instruments have bridges that press down on big flat flexible surfaces, and why horns are horn shaped. Air is easy to vibrate, but to be audible you want to move a lot of it, so you spread out the power. Lifting a heavy rock with human muscle power is another classic impedance mismatch.

If these are fundamentally all the same problem, then they should all have similar solutions. The gear on the bike or the car, the bridge on a cello, the flared horn on the trumpet, and the lever under the boulder all serve to convert a large force over a short distance or time or area into a lower force over more distance, time, or area.

Pop quiz! What are the common impedance converters in the world of volts and amps? The two that come to my mind are the genafsbezre and the obbfg/ohpx pbairegre (rot13!). What am I missing?

A large PCB with empty sockets

Sensor Playground Keeps Track Of Indoor Air Quality Through The Cloud

When [tdw] wasn’t feeling well one day, his wife suggested that it might be due to poor air quality in their home. While an ordinary person could have simply opened a window after hearing such an idea, [tdw] instead showed his true hacker spirit and set about measuring the indoor air quality. He began by designing a simple PCB to measure CO2 and volatile organic compound (VOC) levels, but eventually broadened his scope to end up with the Sensor Playground: a plug-and-play platform to read out various sensors and store the results in the cloud.

A large PCB with several sensor modules and a microcontrollerDeliberately designed to be easy to assemble with minimal soldering skills, the Sensor Playground consists of a big two-layer PCB onto which various modules can be plugged. It supports either an ESP32 DevKit or an Adafruit Feather module to provide processing power, and provides sockets for a bunch of sensors, conveniently wired with power and SPI or I2C. It also provides a rotary encoder and two buttons for user input. All source files are available on [tdw]’s GitHub page, ready to be applied to any kind of sensing task.

[tdw] set up his Sensor Playground with sensors measuring CO2, VOC, PM2.5 (particulate matter), as well as temperature and relative humidity. A web interface allows anyone to track these measurements in real-time. The open and modular design should make it easy to extend this system with various other sensor types: we can imagine that things like solar irradiation, outside temperature and wind speed would also add useful data to the mix. Perhaps even a Geiger counter to keep track of radiation levels?

As indoor air quality sensors go, this one is definitely comprehensive and easy to use. We’ve featured other air quality sensors before, some of which also link their data to the cloud.