Ask Hackaday: How Small is Your Shop?

Electronics, metalwork, carpentry, sewing — however you express your inner hacker, you’ve got to have a place to work. Most of us start out small, assembling projects on the kitchen table, or sharing space on a computer desk. But eventually, if we’re lucky, we all move on to some kind of dedicated space. My first “shop” was a corner of the basement my Dad used for his carpentry projects. He built me what seemed at the time like a huge bench but was probably only about five feet long. Small was fine with me, though, and on that bench I plotted and planned and drew schematics and had my first real lesson in why you don’t reach for a soldering iron without looking first. My thumb still bears that scar as a reminder.

Many of us outgrow that first tiny space eventually, as projects (and accumulated junk) outpace the available space. Some of us go on to build workspaces to die for; personally, I feel wholly inadequate whenever I see Frank Howarth’s immense wood shop, with its high ceilings, huge windows for natural light, and what amounts to a loading dock. Whenever I see it I think The work I could do in there!

Or could I? Is bigger necessarily better when it comes to workspaces? Would more space make me a better craftsman?

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Ask Hackaday: Saving The World With Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men

This is a solution to global warming. This solution will also produce electricity, produce rain in desertified areas, and transform the Sahara into arable land capable of capturing CO2. How is this possible? It’s simple: all we need to do is build a five-kilometer tall, twenty-meter wide chimney. Hot air, warmed by the Earth’s surface, will enter the base of the chimney and flow through turbines, generating electricity. From there, air will rise through the chimney, gradually cooling and transferring energy from the atmosphere at Earth’s surface to five kilometers altitude. This is the idea behind the Super Chimney, It’s an engineering concept comparable to building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar, a system of gigantic mirrors in Earth’s orbit, or anything built under an Atoms for Peace project. In short, this is fringe engineering.

This is also, ‘saving the world with wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men.’

The idea of building tens of thousands of fabric chimneys, placing them all around the globe, and cooling the Earth while sequestering carbon dioxide is fantastic. Ideas are simple, implementation is something else entirely. There are also obvious problems with the physics presented in the Super Chimney presentation, but these problems don’t actually make a Super Chimney impossible. We need more eyes on this, so we’re opening this one up as an Ask Hackaday. What do you think of this audacious scheme, and is it even possible?

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Ask Hackaday: Selling Yourself as a Hacker

While there are plenty of hackers that hack just for the love of it, it’s no secret that many of us are looking to hit it big someday. Tales of the businesses like HP and Apple that started in someone’s garage inevitably lead to musings like, “Hey, I’ve got a garage!” and grand plans to turn that special idea into the Next Big Thing™. Many will try, most will fail for one reason or another, but hope springs eternal, and each new widget seems to start the entrepreneurial cycle again.

But for as much pressure as we may feel to be the next Packard, Wozniak, or Musk, not everyone is cut out to be the boss. Some of us have no interest in or aptitude for business — we don’t want to hire or fire people, we don’t want to wheel and deal, and we certainly don’t want to worry about salesmanship. Some of us just want to abstract all that complexity away and just find a job, preferably one that leverages the things we love to do.
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Ask Hackaday: SawStop — Bastion of Safety or Patent Troll

At first glance, SawStop seems like a hacker’s dream. A garage tinkerer comes up with a great idea, builds a product around it, and the world becomes a better place. As time has gone on, other companies have introduced similar products. Recently, SawStop successfully stopped Bosch from importing saws equipped with their Reaxx safety system into the USA. This not only impacts sales of new saws, but parts for existing equipment. Who gets screwed here? Unfortunately, it’s the owners of the Bosch saws, who now have a safety feature they might not be able to use in the future. This has earned some bad press for SawStop in forums and on websites like Reddit, where users have gone as far as to call SawStop a patent troll. Is that true or just Internet puffery? Read on and decide for yourself.

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Ask Hackaday: What About the Diffusers?

Blinky LED projects: we just can’t get enough of them. But anyone who’s stared a WS2812 straight in the face knows that the secret sauce that takes a good LED project and makes it great is the diffuser. Without a diffuser, colors don’t blend and LEDs are just tiny, blinding points of light. The ideal diffuser scrambles the photons around and spreads them out between LED and your eye, so that you can’t tell exactly where they originated.

We’re going to try to pay the diffuser its due, and hopefully you’ll get some inspiration for your next project from scrolling through what we found. But this is an “Ask Hacakday”, so here’s the question up front: what awesome LED diffusion tricks are we missing, what’s your favorite, and why?

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Ask Hackaday: Why Did Modular Smart Phones Fail?

Remember all the talk about modular smart phones? They sounded amazing! instead of upgrading your phone you would just upgrade the parts a bit like a computer but more simplistic. Well it seems modular phones are dead (video, embedded below) even after a lot of major phone manufacturers were jumping on the bandwagon. Even Google got on-board with Google Ara which was subsequently cancelled. LG released the G5 but it didn’t fare too well. The Moto Z from Motorola seemed to suffer from the same lack of interest. The buzz was there when the concept of these modular phones was announced, and people were genuinely exited about the possibilities. What went wrong?

For a start people expect their phones to have everything on board already, whether it be cameras, GPS, WiFi, high-capacity batteries or high-resolution screens. Consumers expect these things to come as standard. Why would they go out and buy a module when other phones on the market already have these things?

Sure you could get some weird and wonderful modules like extra loud speakers or perhaps a projector, but the demand for these items was small. And because these extras are already available as separate accessories not locked down to one device, it was a non starter from the beginning.

When we did our user studies. What we found is that most users don’t care about modularizing the core functions. They expect them all to be there, to always work and to be consistent. — Lead engineer Project Ara

The hackability of these phones would have been interesting to say the least, had they come to the mainstream. It just seems the public want thin sleek aluminum phones that they treat more as a status symbol than anything else. Modular phones have to be more bulky to accommodate the power/data rails and magnets for the modules, so they’ll lose out in pocketability. Still, we hope the idea is revisited in the future and not left on the scrap-heap of obsolescence.

Would you buy a modular smart phone? Even if it is bigger or more expensive? Is that really why they failed?
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Ask Hackaday: How Do You Python?

Python is the Arduino of software projects. It has a critical mass of libraries for anything from facial recognition and neural networks to robotics and remote sensing. And just like Arduino, I have yet to find the killer IDE for Python. Perhaps I just haven’t tried the right one yet, but it could be that I’m just doing Python wrong.

For Years I’ve Been IDLE

IDLE with interactive shell that has highlighting and code completion

I’m a Linux-only type of a guy so using IDLE for Python is a natural fit. It’s in the repositories for super quick and easy install and there’s basically zero configuration to be done. Generally speaking my preferred development environment is text editor and command line compiler. IDLE is just one step above that. You get a separate window for the shell and each Python file you’re working on. Have IDLE run your code and it saves the file, then launches it in the shell window.

For me, there are two important features of IDLE’s shell. The first is that it keeps an interactive session open after you run your Python code. This means that any globals that your script uses are still available, and that you can experiment with your code by calling functions (and classes, etc) in real time. The second desirable feature is that while using this interactive shell, IDLE supports code completion and docstring support (it gives you hints for what parameters a function accepts/requires).

But simplicity has a tough time scaling. I’m working on larger and larger projects spread over many files and the individual nature of IDLE editor windows and lack of robust navigation has me looking to move forward.

The Contenders

I’ve tried perhaps a half-dozen different Python IDEs now, spending the most time on two of them: Geany and Atom. Both are easy to install on Linux and provide the more advanced features I want for larger projects: better navigation, cross-file code completion (and warnings), variable type and scope indication.

The look of Geany brings to mind an “IDE 1.0” layout style and theme. It’s the familiar three-pane layout that places symbols to the left, code to the right, and status along the bottom. When you run your program it launches in an interactive terminal, which I like, but you lose all IDE features at this point, which I despise. There is no code completion, and no syntax highlighting.

I have been using Atom much more than Geany and have grown to like it enough to stick with it for now. I’d call Atom the “IDE 2.0” layout. It launches with a dark theme and everything is a tab.

Atom has symbol view that isn’t shown all the time. CTRL-R brings it up and it uses a search style but you can also scroll through all symbols

Atom depends heavily on packages (plugins that anyone may write). The package management is good, and the packages I’ve tried have been superb. I’m using autocomplete-python and tabs-to-spaces, but again I come up short when it comes to running Python files. I’ve tried platformio-ide-terminal, script, and runner plugins.  The first brings up a terminal as a bottom pane but doesn’t automatically run the file in that terminal. Script also uses a bottom pane but I can’t get it to run interactively. I’m currently using runner which has an okay display but is not interactive. I’ve resorted to using a “fake” python file in my projects as a workaround for commands and tests I would normally run in the interactive shell.

Tell Us How You Python

It’s entirely possible I’ve just been using Python wrong all these years and that tinkering with your code in an interactive shell is a poor choose of development processes.

What do you prefer for your Python development? Does an interactive shell matter to you? Did you start with IDLE and move to a more mature IDE. Which IDE did you end up with and what kind of compromises did you make during that change. Let us know in the comments below.