Where does your mind jump when you hear the mention of electroshock therapy? The use of electrical current to treat various medical conditions has a long and controversial history. Our fascination with the medical applications of electricity have produced everything from the most alarming of patent medicines to life-saving devices like pacemakers and the Automatic External Defibrillator.
The oldest reference I could find is the use of the torpedo fish to allegedly cure headaches, gout, and so on in 43 CE. Incidentally, Torpedo torpedo is an awesome species name.
Much more recently, there has been interest in transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). In essence, it’s a technique by which you pass an electrical current (typically about 2 milliamps) between strategically positioned electrodes on your head. The precise reason to do this is a bit unclear; different journal articles have suggested improvements in cognition, learning, and/or the potential treatment of various diseases.
I think most of us here spend a lot of time studying. The idea that a simple, noninvasive device can accelerate that is very attractive. We’ve covered a few people building their own such devices.
Unfortunately, what we want to be true is irrelevant. Superficially, this looks like a DARPA-funded panacea with no clearly established mechanism of action. Various commercial products are being sold that imply (but as usual, don’t directly state) that tDCS is useful for treating pretty much everything, with ample use of ‘testimonials’.
While tDCS can be prescribed by a physician in some countries to complement a stroke rehabilitation regime, for off-label purposes you may as well just go apply a fish to your face. Let’s dig into the literature and products that are out there and see if we can find the promise hiding amidst the hype.
Have you ever thought about coffee purity? It’s more something you’d encounter with prescription or elicit drugs, but coffee is actually a rather valuable commodity. If a seller can make the actual grounds go a bit further by stretching the brew with alternative ingredients there becomes an incentive to cheat.
If this sounds like the stuff rumors are made of, that’s because it is! Here in Ho Chi Minh City there are age-old rumors a coffee syndicate that masterfully passes off adulterated product as pure, high-grade coffee. Rumors are one thing, but the local media started picking up on these suspicions and that caught my attention. I decided to look to simple chemistry to see if I could prove or disprove the story.
What we want to investigate is whether price and coffee purity are related. If they are, then after accounting for the effect of price, we will want to know whether proximity to the market where artificial coffee flavoring is sold has an effect on coffee purity.
For the last few months, I had been using Sparkfun’s Phant server as a data logger for a small science project. Unfortunately, they’ve had some serious technical issues and have discontinued the service. Phant was good while it lasted: it was easy to use, free, and allowed me to download the data in a CSV format. It shared data with analog.io, which at the time was a good solution for data visualization.
While I could continue using Phant since it is an open-source project and Sparkfun kindly releases the source code for the server on Github, I thought it might be better to do some research, see what’s out there. I decided to write a minimal implementation for each platform as an interesting way to get a feel for each. To that end, I connected a DHT11 temperature/humidity sensor to a NodeMCU board to act as a simple data source.
I take coffee very seriously. It’s probably the most important meal of the day, and apparently the largest overall dietary source of antioxidants in the United States of America. Regardless of whether you believe antioxidants have a health effect (I’m skeptical), that’s interesting!
Unfortunately, industrially roasted and ground coffee is sometimes adulterated with a variety of unwanted ‘other stuff’: corn, soybeans, wheat husks, etc. Across Southeast Asia, there’s a lot of concern over food adulteration and safety in general, as the cost-driven nature of the market pushes a minority of vendors to dishonest business practices. Here in Vietnam, one of the specific rumors is that coffee from street vendors is not actually coffee, but unsafe chemical flavoring agents mixed with corn silk, roasted coconut husks, and soy. Local news reported that 30% of street coffee doesn’t even contain caffeine.
While I’ve heard some pretty fanciful tales told at street side coffee shops, some of them turned out to be based on some grain (bean?) of truth, and local news has certainly featured it often enough. Then again, I’ve been buying coffee at the same friendly street vendors for years, and take some offense at unfounded accusations directed at them.
This sounds like a job for science, but what can we use to quantify the purity of many coffee samples without spending a fortune? As usual, the solution to the problem (pun intended) was already in the room:
It’s nice to take a break from hacking together the newest bleeding-edge technology, relax, and enjoy a beverage. It’s no surprise that hacks devoted to beer and coffee roasting are popular. We’ve also seen a few projects helping brew the perfect cup of tea, but none involving the actual production of tea. Today we’re going to take a short recess from modernity and explore this ancient tradition.
Consumption of tea is about equal to all other manufactured beverages, such as coffee and alcohol, combined. It is hands-down the most popular manufactured beverage in the world, and we thought it would be interesting to make some ourselves. Also the local tea is so bitter that it’s used to clean things, and it works alarmingly well. To each their own!
I started by driving into Vietnam’s Central Highlands, down what Google simply refers to as ‘unnamed road’, to about 11°52’59.3″N 108°33’49.5″E. I asked around until I found a street vendor that knew a farmer at the nearby tea plantation, and would sell us five kilograms of fresh tea. I carried it 330 kilometers back to the city, because I’m a sane person that does normal things.
When we think of relays, we tend to think of those big mechanical things that make a satisfying ‘click’ when activated. As nice as they are for relay-based computers, there are times when you don’t want to deal with noise or the unreliability of moving parts. This is where solid-state relays (SSRs) are worth considering. They switch faster, silently, without bouncing or arcing, last longer, and don’t contain a big inductor.
An SSR consists of two or three standard components packed into a module (you can even build one yourself). The first component is an optocoupler which isolates your control circuit from the mains power that you are controlling. Second, a triac, silicon controlled rectifier, or MOSFET that switches the mains power using the output from the optocoupler. Finally, there is usually (but not always) a ‘zero-crossing detection circuit’. This causes the relay to wait until the current it is controlling reaches zero before shutting off. Most SSRs will similarly wait until the mains voltage crosses zero volts before switching on.
If a mechanical relay turns on or off near the peak voltage when supplying AC, there is a sudden drop or rise in current. If you have an inductive load such as an electric motor, this can cause a large transient voltage spike when you turn off the relay, as the magnetic field surrounding the inductive load collapses. Switching a relay during a peak in the mains voltage also causes an electric arc between the relay terminals, wearing them down and contributing to the mechanical failure of the relay.
When we think about world-famous electronics markets in Asia, usually Shenzhen, Tokyo’s Akihabara, or Shanghai’s Beijing Road come to mind.
There’s another market that I’ve had my eye on for a few years: Nhật Tảo market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It might not be as large or accessible as the more well-known markets, but it’s very much worth a visit if you’re in the area. I decided it was time to hop on my red motorbike (red things go faster) and give you a short tour of the central market, as well as some more hobbyist-friendly options.