Southern California is known for its nearly perfect year-round climate, excellent surf, and extremely high cost of living, but once you get away from the coast things are radically different. Rural California has huge tracts of land run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is publicly accessible to anyone willing to venture into the deserts. There’s not much in the way of infrastructure out there, but [Ryan] does have a unique way of traveling through it using abandoned railroad lines and this custom rail cart.
The frame of this cart is simple enough, it’s little more than 2×3 framing with a plywood deck. Some extra support is added for the motor mount and for the seating location. It uses slightly longer go-kart axles to accommodate the width of the railroad, and a small six horsepower gas engine with a single gear to power the rear axle. There are no brakes other than the riders’ shoes, and while this all seems straightforward enough the real hack here is [Ryan]’s custom wheels. He found that steel or cast wheels were not particularly comfortable on long journeys so after a few attempts he has come up with a home-built polyurethane wheel which is cast in a mold around a steel go-cart wheel and then trimmed on a lathe.
For pure exploration, there’s almost no better place to go than the American west thanks to all the public BLM land available. In this cart, you can explore long distances using an extremely low-cost method of transportation. We’ve added another video of [Ryan] exploring this area below the break to show the cart being used, too, but if you’d like a more multipurpose vehicle to use on abandoned rail near you, take a look at this bicycle which is converted to operate on the railroad.
Continue reading “Cart Cruises Abandoned California Rail” →
Of the computers produced and prototyped by Commodore, most people are likely well-acquainted with the PET, VIC-20, C64 and C128, as well as the never released Commodore 65. Of these systems many examples and plentiful of documentation exist, but probably among the most rare is the Commodore 900, as recently covered by [Neil] over at RMC – The Cave on YouTube. The Commodore 900, conceived in 1983, was intended to become a microcomputer based on the 16-bit Zilog Z8001 CPU that targeted businesses as a UNIX workstation.
Only fifty prototypes were ever built of the C900 and no hardware was ever sold, even though the intended UNIX-based OS (MWC’s Coherent) had already been ported to the Z8000 and the rumor mill suggested a release in 1984. Although UNIX workstations were rather popular during the 1980s — with HP and Sun featuring prominently in this market segment — Commodore was more known for its home computers, which probably played a major role in C900 development being cancelled. At the time Commodore was also in the process of acquiring Amiga, with the C900 perhaps unsurprisingly featuring similar design language as the Amiga 2000.
Perhaps ironically, the Z8000 CPU that features in the C900 had a bit of a tragic history as well. Although featuring a range of interesting features, such as the ability to use its registers as 8-, 16-, 32- or even 64-bit registers by combining them as needed. Although this and the general performance of the Z8000 made it a solid CPU, it could not compete against the Motorola 68000 and Intel 8086/8088 CPUs when those appeared on the market.
In the video, [Neil] takes us through a detailed history of the C900, its feature list and the hardware inside the C900 prototype he got his hands on. It’s a fascinating glimpse at a part of Commodore history where this company almost went toe to toe with Sun, HP and other workstation giants.
Continue reading “The Forgotten Commodore 900: A Look At A Rare Prototype” →
Like the incandescent bulb before it, the compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb is rapidly fading into obscurity as there are fewer and fewer reasons to use them over their LED successors. But there are plenty of things to do with some of the more interesting circuitry that made these relatively efficient light bulbs work, and [mircemk] is here to show us some of them.
Fluorescent bulbs require a high voltage to work properly, and while this was easy enough for large ceiling installations, it was a while until this hardware could be placed inside a bulb-sized package. When removed, the high voltage driver from the CFL is used in this case to drive a small inductive heating coil circuit, which can then be used to rapidly heat metals and other objects. After some testing, [mircemk] found that the electronics on the CFL circuit board were able to easily handle the electrical load of its new task.
When old technology fades away, there are often a lot of interesting use cases just waiting to be found. [mircemk] reports that he was able to find these light bulbs at an extremely low price due to low demand caused by LEDs, so anyone needing a high voltage driver board for something like a small Tesla coil might want to look at a CFL first.
There are plenty of reasons to devote oneself to the care of houseplants — after all, a room full of bright, glossy-leaved plants can be a joy to behold, and that’s not even one of the more tangible benefits they bring. But as any green thumb knows, there’s a fine line between a healthy, vibrant plant and one that’s soon to give up the ghost.
If your thumb tends less toward green and more toward the brown and crusty side of things, something like [Jon]’s Smart Plant system might be just the thing for you. These low-power plant tags are built around increasingly ubiquitous e-Paper displays, like the kind you might find in a retail shelf price tag system. The current version of [Jon]’s tags uses a Waveshare 2.9″ tricolor display and a PCB with capacitive probes that stick into the plant’s soil. An ESP32-S lives on the top section of the PCB, along with a 1,000 mAh LiPo pack that’s charged off USB-C. The design includes an optional solar panel for keeping the battery topped off, which may or may not help depending on the plant’s place in your personal jungle.
In addition to the soil moisture sensor, the Smart Tag has an ambient temperature and humidity sensor and a light sensor — everything to keep your plant happy. The power-hungry sensors are only powered on when the Smart Tag pops out of deep sleep; this gives and estimated five to six weeks runtime between charges, without solar charging of course. The e-Paper display shows custom graphics of the plant’s current environmental state, and the same data is also available via Home Assistant thanks to the ESPHome firmware.
These are nice-looking plant tags that can really pull a lot of weight in keeping plants healthy. Check out the other offerings in our Low Power Challenge Contest, and maybe get an entry together yourself.
Modern WiFi-enabled microcontrollers have made it affordable and easy to monitor everything from local weather information to electricity usage with typically no more than a few dollars worth of hardware and a little bit of programming knowledge. Monitoring one’s own utility data can be a little bit more difficult without interfering with the metering equipment, but we have seen some clever ways of doing this over the years. The latest is this water meter monitoring device based on a Raspberry Pi Pico.
The clever thing here isn’t so much that it’s based on the tiniest of Raspberry Pis, but how it keeps track of the somewhat obscured water flow information coming from the meter. Using a magnetometer placed close to the meter, the device can sense the magnetic field created as water flows through the meter’s internal sensors. The magnetic field changes in a non-obvious way as water flows through it, so the program has to watch for specific peaks in the magnetic field. Each of these specific waveforms the magnetometer detects counts to 0.0657 liters of water, which is accurate for most purposes.
For interfacing with a utility meter, this is one of the more efficient and elegant hacks we’ve seen in a while. There have, of course, been other attempts to literally read the meter using web cams and computer vision software, but the configuration for these builds is much more complex than something like this. You can interface with plenty of utility meters other than water meters, too, regardless of age.
As Tom quipped on the podcast this week, if you have an idea for a program you’d like to write, all you have to do is look around on GitHub and you’ll find it already coded up for you. (Or StackOverflow, or…) And that’s probably pretty close to true, at least for really trivial bits of code. But it hasn’t always been thus.
I was in college in the mid 90s, and we had a lab of networked workstations that the physics majors could use. That’s where I learned Unix, and where I had the idea for the simplest program ever. It took the background screen color, in the days before wallpapers, and slowly random-walked it around in RGB space. This was set to be slow enough that anyone watching it intently wouldn’t notice, but fast enough that others occasionally walking by my terminal would see a different color every time. I assure you, dear reader, this was the very height of wit at the time.
With the late 90s came the World Wide Web and the search engine, and the world got a lot smaller. For some reason, I was looking for how to set the X terminal background color again, this time searching the Internet instead of reading up in a reference book, and I stumbled on someone who wrote nearly exactly the same random-walk background color changer. My jaw dropped! I had found my long-lost identical twin brother! Of course, I e-mailed him to let him know. He was stoked, and we shot a couple funny e-mails back and forth riffing on the bizarre coincidence, and that was that.
Can you imagine this taking place today? It’s almost boringly obvious that if you search hard enough you’ll find another monkey on another typewriter writing exactly the same sentence as you. It doesn’t even bear mentioning. Heck, that’s the fundamental principle behind Codex / CoPilot – the code that you want to write has been already written so many times that it will emerge as the most statistically likely response from a giant pattern-matching, word-word completion neural net model.
Indeed, stop me if you’ve read this before.
It’s the most basic of functions for a camera, that when you point it at a scene, it produces a photograph of what it sees. [Jasper van Loenen] has created a camera that does just that, but not perhaps in the way we might expect. Instead of committing pixels to memory it takes a picture, uses AI to generate a text description of what is in the picture, and then uses another AI to generate an image from that picture. It’s a curiously beautiful artwork as well as an ultimate expression of the current obsession with the technology, and we rather like it.
The camera itself is a black box with a simple twin-lens reflex viewfinder. Inside is a Raspberry Pi that takes the photo and sends it through the various AI services, and a Fuji Instax Mini printer. Of particular interest is the connection to the printer which we think may be of interest to quite a few others, he’s reverse engineered the Bluetooth protocols it uses and created Python code allowing easy printing. The images it produces are like so many such AI-generated pieces of content, pretty to look at but otherworldly, and weird parallels of the scenes they represent.
It’s inevitable that consumer cameras will before long offer AI augmentation features for less-competent photographers, meanwhile we’re pleased to see Jasper getting there first.