Linux Fu: Troubleshooting Incron

You probably know about cron, a program that lets you schedule programs to run at various times. We’ve also talked about incron, which is very similar but instead of time, it reacts to changes in the file system. If you ever wanted to write a program that, say, detects a change in a file and automatically uploads it to a programmer, backs it up, e-mails it somewhere, or anything else, then incron might be for you. Although we’ve talked about it before, incron has some peculiarities that make it very difficult to debug problems, so I thought I’d share some of the tricks I use when working with incron.

I was thinking about this because I wanted to set up a simple system where I have a single document directory under git control. Changing a markdown file in that folder would generate Word document and PDF equivalents. Conversely, changing a Word document would produce a markdown version.

This is easy to do with pandoc — it speaks many different formats. The trick is running it only on changed files and as soon as they change. The task isn’t that hard, but it does take a bit to debug since it’s a bit nontrivial.

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Bringing High Temperature 3D Printing To The Masses

Despite the impressive variety of thermoplastics that can be printed on consumer-level desktop 3D printers, the most commonly used filament is polylactic acid (PLA). That’s because it’s not only the cheapest material available, but also the easiest to work with. PLA can be extruded at temperatures as low as 180 °C, and it’s possible to get good results even without a heated bed. The downside is that objects printed in PLA tend to be somewhat brittle and have a low heat tolerance. It’s a fine plastic for prototyping and light duty projects, but it won’t take long for many users to outgrow its capabilities.

The next step up is usually polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG). This material isn’t much more difficult to work with than PLA, but is more durable, can handle higher temperatures, and in general is better suited for mechanical parts. If you need greater durability or higher heat tolerance than PETG offers, you could move on to something like acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polycarbonate (PC), or nylon. But this is where things start to get tricky. Not only are the extrusion temperatures of these materials greater than 250 °C, but an enclosed print chamber is generally recommended for best results. That puts them on the upper end of what the hobbyist community is generally capable of working with.

Industrial 3D printers like the Apium P220 start at $30,000.

But high-end industrial 3D printers can use even stronger plastics such as polyetherimide (PEI) or members of the polyaryletherketone family (PAEK, PEEK, PEKK). Parts made from these materials are especially desirable for aerospace applications, as they can replace metal components while being substantially lighter.

These plastics must be extruded at temperatures approaching 400 °C, and a sealed build chamber kept at >100 °C for the duration of the print is an absolute necessity. The purchase price for a commercial printer with these capabilities is in the tens of thousands even on the low end, with some models priced well into the six figure range.

Of course there was a time, not quite so long ago, where the same could have been said of 3D printers in general. Machines that were once the sole domain of exceptionally well funded R&D labs now sit on the workbenches of hackers and makers all over the world. While it’s hard to say if we’ll see the same race to the bottom for high temperature 3D printers, the first steps towards democratizing the technology are already being made.

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Ode To An AVO 8 Multimeter

I’m moving, and in the process of packing all of my belongings into storage boxes to disappear into a darkened room for the next year. Perhaps I could become one of those digital nomads I hear so much about and post my Hackaday stories from a sun-kissed beach while goldfish shoals nibble at my toes. But here in a slightly damp British autumn, box after box of a lifetime’s immersion in tech needs sorting and directing. Why on earth did I hang on to three Philips N1500 VCR system video cassette recorders from the early 1970s! (Don’t worry, those have found a good home.)

Say Hello To An Old Friend Of Mine

Instantly recognisable, the AVO 8
Instantly recognisable, the AVO 8

As I was packing up my bench, I happened upon a multimeter. I have quite a few multimeters and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about these indispensable instruments, but this one’s a little special.

It’s a treasure from my youth, that most venerable of British test equipment: the AVO 8. This was the ubiquitous multimeter to be found in all manner of electrical and electronic workshops across most of the 20th century, and remains to this day one of the highest quality examples of its type.

It’s a relatively huge Bakelite box about 190mm x 170mm x 100mm in size, and it is instantly recognisable  by its dual rotary selector switches and the window for viewing the needle, which forms a characteristic circular arc kidney shape.

The earliest ancestors of my meter appeared in the 1920s, and the first model 8 in the early 1950s. Mine is a Mk III that a penciled date on the inside of its meter movement tells me was made in November 1965 and which I bought reconditioned from Stewart of Reading in about 1991, but manufacture continued until the last Mk VIII rolled off the production line in 2008. It’s to my shame that my AVO is a bit dusty and that maybe I haven’t used it much of late, but as I picked it up all the memories of using it to fix dead TV sets and set up optimistic experiments in radio came flooding back. If there’s one instrument that connects me to the youthful would-be electronic engineer that I once was, then here it is. Continue reading “Ode To An AVO 8 Multimeter”

Engine Trouble Delays SpaceX’s Return To The ISS

A crewed mission to the International Space Station that was set to depart from Kennedy Space Center on Halloween has been pushed back at least several weeks as NASA and SpaceX investigate an issue with the company’s Merlin rocket engine. But the problem in question wasn’t actually discovered on the booster that’s slated to carry the four new crew members up to the orbiting outpost. This story starts back on October 2nd, when the computer aboard a Falcon 9 set to carry a next-generation GPS III satellite into orbit for the US Space Force shut down the engines with just two seconds to go before liftoff.

The fact that SpaceX and NASA have decided to push back the launch of a different Falcon 9 is a clear indication that the issue isn’t limited to just one specific booster, and must be a problem with the design or construction of the Merlin engine itself. While both entities have been relatively tight lipped about the current situation, a Tweet from CEO Elon Musk made just hours after the GPS III abort hinted the problem was with the engine’s gas generator:

As we’ve discussed previously, the Merlin is what’s known as an “open cycle” rocket engine. In this classical design, which dates back to the German V-2 of WWII, the exhaust from what’s essentially a smaller and less efficient rocket engine is used to spin a turbine and generate the power required to pump the propellants into the main combustion chamber. Higher than expected pressure in the gas generator could lead to a catastrophic failure of the turbine it drives, so it’s no surprise that the Falcon 9’s onboard systems determined an abort was in order.

Grounding an entire fleet of rockets because a potentially serious fault has been discovered in one of them is a rational precaution, and has been done many times before. Engineers need time to investigate the issue and determine if changes must be made on the rest of the vehicles before they can safely return to flight. But that’s where things get interesting in this case.

SpaceX hasn’t grounded their entire fleet of Falcon 9 rockets. In fact, the company has flown several of them since the October 2nd launch abort. So why are only some of these boosters stuck in their hangers, while others are continuing to fly their scheduled missions?

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Console Identity In The Age Of PlayStation 5 And Xbox Series

Consoles are obsolete the minute they are released. The onward march of silicon innovation ensures that consoles never are able to keep up with the times, but technical superiority rarely results in being remembered. That kind of legacy is defined by the experiences a device provides. A genre defining game, a revolutionary approach to media, or a beloved controller can be enough to sway popular opinion. But really…it all boils down to a box. All the spurious promises of world-class hardware specs, all the overly ambitious software ship dates, and even the questionable fast-food crossover promotions exist in service to the box. The boxes vying for attention in 2020 A.D. are the PlayStation 5 (PS5) and Xbox Series X/S/Seriessss (XSX or whatever the common nomenclature eventually shakes out to be). These boxes likely represent the minimum spec for the next decade in big-budget video games, however, it is the core identity of those consoles that will define the era.

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Get Over Your Fears

Some projects are just too complex, that’s for sure. But I’d be willing to bet that some things you think are too difficult actually aren’t, and it may be that all you need to get over your personal hurdle is a good demonstration. Here come three cases in point.

I was looking at the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module last weekend. They have a whole bunch of high-speed traces: things like Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, and those crazy-fast SDI serial camera interfaces. I have no experience in high-speed design and layout at all, and frankly it gives me the willies. But the Raspberries also shipped me an IO demo board, and concomitant KiCAD design files, with the review board. Looking at it, they were just wires — maybe pairwise length-matched and impedance controlled — but also just wires. Opening up the KiCAD board file and clicking on the traces just like I do with my own designs, I’m a lot less scared. That was a revelation for me.

In a great writeup of his experience building ten different Linux single-board-computers from scratch, Jay Carlson had a similar effect on me. I would never have considered breaking out the hotplate for some CPU-and-DRAM action, and I’ve never had to lay out a PCB with a high density BGA chip before either. I’m not quite into Dunning-Kruger territory yet; I still have a healthy respect for the layout intricacies in fanning out a tight BGA CPU into a DRAM. But Jay’s frank assessments of what is easy and what is hard make it all seem within the realm of the doable.

As Mike and I were talking on the podcast about Jay’s work, Mike came clean about his fear of BGAs. I’ve done enough reflow-plate soldering, with parts that have a lead pitch that’s a factor of two finer than the 0.8 mm pitch BGAs in question, so it doesn’t seem implausible to me. And I’m 100% sure Mike could pull it off too, but he is in need of a BGA guru. Any good hobbyist videos out there?

Being a nerdy type, I’m much more focused on the knowledge and the inspiration, but maybe the courage is equally important — at least I think I undervalue it. I don’t need to lay out HDMI lines, or build a from-scratch Linux box, but I am no longer afraid that I couldn’t, and that’s because I’ve seen detailed examples of fellow hackers who’ve done the same. I might not get it right on the first shot, but I’m not afraid to try, and I wouldn’t have said the same before looking over other folks’ shoulders. Forza e corragio!

Hackaday Podcast 090: DIY Linux SBC, HDMI CEC, Fake Bluepills, And SCARA Arms

Hackaday editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys chat about our favourite hacks from the past week. We start off with a bit of news of the Bennu asteroid and the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module. We drive ourselves crazy trying to understand how bobbin holders on sewing machines work, all while drooling over the mechanical brilliance of a bobbin-winding build. SCARA is the belt and pulley champion of robot arms and this week’s example cleverly uses redundant bearings for better precision. And we wrap up the show looking in on longform articles about the peppering of microcontrollers found on the Bluepill and wondering what breakthroughs are left to be found for internal combustion.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Direct download (~60 MB)

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