New HackadayU Classes: Antenna Basics, Raspberry Pi Pico, And Designing Complex Geometry

Get ’em while they’re hot: a new session of HackadayU just opened with classes from three fantastic instructors and seats are filling up fast.

Introduction to Antenna Basics — Instructor Karen Rucker teaches the fundamentals of antenna design as if it were your first year on-the-job. She’ll cover the common types of antenna designs and the fundamentals of radio frequency engineering that go into them. Begins Thursday, May 6th.

Raspberry Pi Pico and RP2040 – The Deep Dive — Instructor Uri Shaked guides the class through the internals of the RP2040 microcontroller, covering system architecture, hardware peripherals, and dipping into some ARM assembly language examples. Begins Wednesday, May 5th.

Designing with Complex Geometry — Instructor James McBennett helps you up your 3D modelling game with a course on using complex geometries in Grasshopper3D (part of Rhino3D). Dive into Non-uniform rational B-spline (NURBS) and go from simple shapes to incredibly complex objects with a bit of code. Begins Tuesday, May 4th.

Each course includes five weekly classes beginning in May. Being part of the live class via Zoom offers interactivity with the instructor and other attendees. All tickets are “pay-as-you-wish” with a $20 suggested donation; all proceeds go to socially conscious charities.

For the benefit of all, each class will be edited and published on Hackaday’s YouTube channel once this session has wrapped up. Check out our playlists for past HackadayU courses, or watch them all in one giant playlist.

You might also consider becoming an Engineering Liaison for HackadayU. These volunteers help keep the class humming along for the best experience for students and instructors alike. Liaison applications are now open.

Continue reading “New HackadayU Classes: Antenna Basics, Raspberry Pi Pico, And Designing Complex Geometry”

BASIC: Cross-Platform Software Hacking Then And Now

Surely BASIC is properly obsolete by now, right? Perhaps not. In addition to inspiring a large part of home computing today, BASIC is still very much alive today, even outside of retro computing.

There was a time, not even that long ago, when the lingua franca of the home computer world was BASIC. This wasn’t necessarily always the exact same BASIC; the commands and syntax differed between whatever BASIC dialect came with any given model of home computer (Commodore, Atari, Texas Instruments, Sinclair or any of the countless others). Fortunately most of these licensed or were derived from the most popular microcomputer implementation of BASIC: Microsoft BASIC.

BASIC has its roots in academics, where it was intended to be an easy to use programming language for every student, even those outside the traditional STEM fields. Taking its cues from popular 1960s languages like FORTRAN and ALGOL, it saw widespread use on time-sharing systems at schools, with even IBM joining the party in 1973 with VS-BASIC. When the 1970s saw the arrival of microcomputers, small and cheap enough to be bought by anyone and used at home, it seemed only natural that they too would run BASIC.

The advantage of having BASICĀ  integrated into these systems was obvious: not only were most people who bought such a home computer already familiar with BASIC, it allows programs to be run without first being compiled. This was good, because compiling a program takes a lot of RAM and storage, neither of which were plentiful in microcomputers. Instead of compiling BASIC source code, BASIC interpreters would interpret and run the code one line at a time, trading execution speed for flexibility and low resource use.

After turning on one’s microcomputer, the BASIC interpreter would usually be loaded straight from an onboard ROM in lieu of a full-blown operating system. In this interpreter shell, one could use the hardware, write and load BASIC programs and save them to tape or disk. Running existing BASIC code as well as compiled programs on one’s computer, or even typing them in from a listing in a magazine all belonged to the options. As BASIC implementations between different home computers were relatively consistent, this provided for a lot of portability.

That was then, and this is now. Are people actually still using the Basic language?

Continue reading “BASIC: Cross-Platform Software Hacking Then And Now”

Basic In 10 Lines Or Less

For the last 11 years [Gunnar Kanold] has run the annual BASIC 10 Liner contest, and the rules for the 2021 edition are now available. There are four categories and each category has specific definitions of what constitutes a line. All entries must run on an 8-bit computer system that can be emulated.

The first three categories are for games but differ in the line length allowed. You can elect to compete with 80 character lines, 120 character lines, or 256 character lines. There’s also a category for demos, tools, and other applications that must constrain lines to 256 characters.

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Blue Pill Vs Black Pill: Transitioning From STM32F103 To STM32F411

For many years now, the so-called ‘Blue Pill’ STM32 MCU development board has been a staple in the hobbyist community. Finding its origins as an apparent Maple Mini clone, the diminutive board is easily to use in breadboard projects thanks to its dual rows of 0.1″ pin sockets. Best of all, it only costs a few bucks, even if you can only really buy it via sellers on AliExpress and EBay.

Starting last year, boards with a black soldermask and an STM32F4 Access (entry-level) series MCUs including the F401 and F411 began to appear. These boards with the nickname ‘Black Pill’ or ‘Black Pill 2’. F103 boards also existed with black soldermask for a while, so it’s confusing. The F4xx Black Pills are available via the same sources as the F103-based Blue Pill ones, for a similar price, but feature an MCU that’s considerably newer and more powerful. This raises the question of whether it makes sense at this point to switch to these new boards.

Our answer is yes, but it’s not entirely clearcut. The newer hardware is better for most purposes, really lacking only the F103’s dual ADCs. But hardware isn’t the only consideration; depending on one’s preferred framework, support may be lacking or incomplete. So let’s take a look at what it takes to switch. Continue reading “Blue Pill Vs Black Pill: Transitioning From STM32F103 To STM32F411”

Frances Allen Optimised Your Code Without You Even Knowing

In 2020, our digital world and the software we use to create it are a towering structure, built upon countless layers of abstraction and building blocks — just think about all the translations and interactions that occur from loading a webpage. Whilst abstraction is undoubtedly a great thing, it only works if we’re building on solid ground; if the lower levels are stable and fast. What does that mean in practice? It means low-level, compiled languages, which can be heavily optimised and leveraged to make the most of computer hardware. One of the giants in this area was Frances Allen, who recently passed away in early August. Described by IBM as “a pioneer in compiler organization and optimization algorithms,” she made numerous significant contributions to the field. Continue reading “Frances Allen Optimised Your Code Without You Even Knowing”

Microsoft Releases The Source Code You Wanted Almost 30 Years Ago

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, if you had a personal computer there was a fair chance it either booted into some version of Microsoft Basic or you could load and run Basic. There were other versions, of course, especially for very small computers, but the gold standard for home computer Basic was Microsoft’s version, known then as GW-Basic. Now you can get the once-coveted Microsoft Basic source code for the 8086/8088 directly from Microsoft in the state you would have found it in 1983. They put up a read only GW-BASIC repository, presumably to stop a flood of feature requests for GPU acceleration.

You might wonder why they would do this? It is certainly educational, especially if you are interested in assembly language. For historical reasons, you might want to get a copy you could modify, too, for your latest retrocomputer project.

There are a few tidbits of interest. Some of the source is marked that it was translated. Apparently, Microsoft had a master implementation for some processor — real or imagined — and could translate from that code to 8088, Z-80, 6502, or any other processor they wanted to target.

From what we understand, GW-Basic was identical to IBM’s BASICA, but didn’t require certain IBM PC ROMs to operate. Of course, BASICA, itself, came from MBASIC, Microsoft’s CP/M language that originated with Altair Basic. A long lineage that influenced personal computers for many years. On a side note, there’s debate on what the GW stands for. Gee-Whiz is a popular vote, but it could stand for ‘Gates, William’, Greg Whitten (an early Microsoft employee), or Gates-Whitten. The source code doesn’t appear to answer that question.

We did enjoy the 1975 copyright message, though:

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ON THE PDP-10 FROM
FEBRUARY 9 TO APRIL 9 1975

BILL GATES WROTE A LOT OF STUFF.
PAUL ALLEN WROTE A LOT OF OTHER STUFF AND FAST CODE.
MONTE DAVIDOFF WROTE THE MATH PACKAGE (F4I.MAC).

It wasn’t long ago that Microsoft released some old versions of MSDOS. If you have the urge to write some Basic, you might pass on GW-Basic and try QB64, instead.

GW-Basic Disk and Manual photo by [Palatinatian] CC-SA-4.0.

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.

Continue reading “Using Valgrind To Analyze Code For Bottlenecks Makes Faster, Less Power-Hungry Programs”