Remoticon Video: How To Reverse Engineer A PCB

You hold in your hand a circuit board from a product you didn’t make. How does the thing work? What a daunting question, but it’s both solvable and approachable if you know what you’re doing. The good news is that Eric Schlaepfer knows exactly what he’s doing and boiled down the process of reverse engineering printed circuit boards into this excellent workshop. It was presented live during the 2020 Hackaday Remoticon, and the edited video, which you’ll find below, was just published. Slides for the talk have been published on the workshop project page.

Need proof that he has skills that we all want? Last year Eric successfully reverse-engineered the legendary Sound Blaster audio card and produced his own fully-functional drop-in replacement called the Snark Barker. And then re-engineered it to work with the ancient MCA bus architecture. Whoa.

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DSP Spreadsheet: The Goertzel Algorithm Is Fourier’s Simpler Cousin

You probably have at least a nodding familiarity with the Fourier transform, a mathematical process for transforming a time-domain signal into a frequency domain signal. In particular, for computers, we don’t really have a nice equation so we use the discrete version of the transform which takes a series of measurements at regular intervals. If you need to understand the entire frequency spectrum of a signal or you want to filter portions of the signal, this is definitely the tool for the job. However, sometimes it is more than you need.

For example, consider tuning a guitar string. You only need to know if one frequency is present or if it isn’t. If you are decoding TouchTones, you only need to know if two of eight frequencies are present. You don’t care about anything else.

A Fourier transform can do either of those jobs. But if you go that route you are going to do a lot of math to compute things you don’t care about just so you can pick out the one or two pieces you do care about. That’s the idea behind the Goertzel. It is essentially a fast Fourier transform algorithm stripped down to compute just one frequency band of interest.  The math is much easier and you can usually implement it faster and smaller than a full transform, even on small CPUs.

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Local And Remote Debugging With GDB

As a debugger, GDB is a veritable Swiss Army knife. And just like exploring all of the non-obvious uses of a those knives, your initial response to the scope of GDB’s feature set is likely to be one of bewilderment, subsequent confusion, and occasional laughter. This is an understandable reaction in the case of the Swiss Army knife as one is unlikely to be in the midst of an army campaign or trapped in the wilderness. Similarly, it takes a tricky debugging session to really learn to appreciate GDB’s feature set.

If you have already used GDB to debug some code, it was likely wrapped in the comfort blanket of an IDE. This is of course one way to use GDB, but limits the available features to what the IDE exposes. Fortunately, the command line interface (CLI) of GDB has no such limitations. Learning the CLI GDB commands also has the advantage that one can perform that critical remote debug session even in the field via an SSH session over the 9600 baud satellite modem inside your Swiss Army knife, Cyber Edition.

Have I carried this analogy too far? Probably. But learning the full potential of GDB is well worth your time so today, let’s dive in to sharpen our digital toolsets.

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Axe Hacks: Spinning Knobs And Flipping Switches

From a guitar hacking point of view, the two major parts that are interesting to us are the pickups and the volume/tone control circuit that lets you adjust the sound while playing. Today, I’ll get into the latter part and take a close look at the components involved — potentiometers, switches, and a few other passive components — and show how they function, what alternative options we have, and how we can re-purpose them altogether.

In that sense, it’s time to heat up the soldering iron, get out the screwdriver, and take off that pick guard / open up that back cover and continue our quest for new electric guitar sounds. And if the thought of that sounds uncomfortable, skip the soldering iron and grab some alligator clips and a breadboard. It may not be the ideal environment, but it’ll work.

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How To Shoot A Great Project Video

Creating projects is fun, but the real value, as far as the imaginary Internet points are concerned, is how well you show them off for the clout. Taking a few snaps is fine, but if you want to produce a quality video of your project, it pays to put some thought and effort into the process.

Telling The Story

Before setting out to document your project on video, think about what you’re trying to communicate to the viewer. Are you attempting to create a step-by-step guide on how to recreate what you’ve done, or are you simply trying to show off the awesome finished product? These are two very different types of video, and will require different content and delivery entirely. It also guides how you shoot your video.

If you want to show off your build process, you’ll need to shoot as you go. This can be time consuming, but also a great way to show the reality of what goes into your work. I always like it when people convey the pitfalls and successes they faced along the way, and get people involved in the story. It also means that you’ll end up shooting a lot of footage and you’ll spend plenty of time editing it all together. Continue reading “How To Shoot A Great Project Video”

Choosing The Right RTC For Your Project

When it comes to measuring time on microcontrollers, there’s plenty of ways to go about things. For most quick and dirty purposes, such as debounce delays or other wait states, merely counting away a few cycles of the main clock will serve the purpose.  Accurate to the tens of milliseconds, they get the average utility jobs done without too much fuss.

However, many projects are far more exacting in their requirements. When you’re building a clock, or a datalogger, or anything that relies on a stable sense of passing time for more than a few minutes, you’ll want a Real Time Clock. So called due to their nature of dealing with real time, as we humans tend to conceive it, these devices take it upon themselves to provide timekeeping services with a high degree of accuracy. We’ve compiled a guide to common parts and their potential applications so you can get things right the first time, every time.

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Linux Fu: Moving /usr

Linux has changed. Originally inspired by Unix, there were certain well understood but not well enforced rules that everyone understood. Programs did small things and used pipes to communicate. X Windows servers didn’t always run on your local machine. Nothing in /usr contributed to booting up the system.

These days, we have systemd controlling everything. If you run Chrome on one display, it is locked to that display and it really wants that to be the local video card. And moving /usr to another partition will easily prevent you from booting up, unless you take precautions. I moved /usr and I lived to tell about it. If you ever need to do it, you’ll want to hear my story.

A lot of people are critical of systemd — including me — but really it isn’t systemd’s fault. It is the loss of these principles as we get more programmers and many of them are influenced by other systems where things work differently. I’m not just ranting, though. I recently had an experience that brought all this to mind and, along the way, I learned a few things about the modern state of the boot process. The story starts with a friend giving me an Intel Compute Stick. But the problems I had were not specific to that hardware, but rather how modern Linux distributions manage their start-up process.

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