Katrina Nguyen Automates Her Mice

When embarking on a career in the life sciences, it seems like the choice of which model organism to study has more than a little to do with how it fits into the researcher’s life. I once had a professor who studied lobsters, ostensibly because they are a great model for many questions in cell biology; in actuality, he just really liked to eat lobster. Another colleague I worked with studied salt transport in shark rectal glands, not because he particularly liked harvesting said glands — makes the sharks a tad grumpy — but because he really liked spending each summer on the beach.

Not everyone gets to pick a fun or delicious model organism, though, and most biologists have had to deal with the rats and mice at some point. It’s hard to believe how needy these creatures can be in terms of care and feeding, and doubly so when feeding is part of the data you’re trying to collect from them. Graduate student Katrina Nguyen learned this the hard way, but rather than let her life be controlled by a bunch of rodents, she hacked a solution that not only improved her life, but also improved her science. She kindly dropped by the Hackaday Superconference to tell us all about how she automated her research.

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A Universal USB To Quadrature Encoder

Computer mice existed long before the Mac, and most of the old 8-bit computers had some software that could use a mouse. These mice had balls and quadrature encoders. While converters to turn these old mice into USB devices exist, going the other way isn’t so common. [Simon] has developed the answer to that problem in the form of SmallyMouse2. It turns a USB mouse into something that can be used with the BBC Micro, Acorn Master, Acorn Archimedes, Amiga, Atari ST and more.

The design of the SmallyMouse2 uses an AT90USB microcontroller that supports USB device and host mode, and allows for a few GPIOs. This microcontroller effectively converts a USB mouse into a BBC Micro user port AMX mouse, generic quadrature mouse, and a 10-pin expansion header. The firmware uses the LUFA USB stack, a common choice for these weird USB to retrocomputer projects.

The project is completely Open Source, and all the files to replicate this project from the KiCad project to the firmware are available on [Simon]’s GitHub. If you have one of these classic retrocomputers sitting in your attic, it might be a good time to check if you still have the mouse. If not, this is the perfect project to delve into to the classic GUIs of yesteryear.

Peripherals Behind The Iron Curtain

The article Home Computers Behind the Iron Curtain sparked a lot of interest, which made me very happy. Therefore, I decided to introduce more computer curiosities from the Iron Curtain period, especially from the former Czechoslovakia (CSSR).

As I mentioned in the previous article, the lack of spare parts, literature and technology in Czechoslovakia forced geeks to solve it themselves: by improvisation and what we would today call “hacking.”  Hobbyist projects of one person or a small party was eventually taken over by a state-owned enterprise, which then began to manufacture and deliver to stores with some minor modifications. These projects most often involved a variety of peripherals that could only be found in the Czechoslovakia with great difficulty.

Much like the production of components, the production of peripherals was also distributed throughout the eastern block so that each country was specializing in certain types of peripherals. For example, East Germany produced matrix printers, and Bulgaria made floppy disks drives. This meant industrial enterprises had to wait for vital computer parts, because the production in another country was not sufficient to cover even the local requirements, let alone the home user.

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UC Davis Researchers Use Light To Erase Memories In Genetically Altered Mice

Much like using UV light to erase data from an EPROM, researchers from UC Davis have used light to erase specific memories in mice. [Kazumasa Tanaka, Brian Wiltgen and colleagues] used optogenetic techniques to test current ideas about memory retrieval. Optogenetics has been featured on Hackaday before. It is the use of light to control specific neurons (nerve cells) that have been genetically sensitized to light.  By doing so, the effects can be seen in real-time.

For their research, [Kazumasa Tanaka, Brian Wiltgen and colleagues] created genetically altered mice whose activated neurons expressed GFP, a protein that fluoresces green. This allowed neurons to be easily located and track which ones responded to learning and memory stimuli. The neurons produced an additional protein that made it possible to “switch them off” in response to light.  This enabled the researchers to determine which specific neurons are involved in the learning and memory pathways as well as study the behavior of the mouse when certain neurons were active or not.

Animal lovers may want to refrain from the following paragraph. The mice were subjected to mild electric shocks after being placed in a cage. They were trained so that when they were put in the cage again, they remembered the previous shock and would freeze in fear. However, when specific neurons in the hippocampus (a structure in the brain) were exposed to light transmitted through fiber optics (likely through a hole in each mouse’s skull), the mice happily scampered around the cage, no memory of the earlier shock to terrify them. The neurons that stored the memory of the shock had been “turned off” after the light exposure.

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Resurrecting A Hi-Fi Cabinet

[VintagePC] pulled this old stereo out of a barn. It was in pretty shabby shape, but he managed get it running again and make it look great as well.

While it had been protected from the elements, it had not been protected from the rodents. Mice had chewed their way through the fiberboard backing and made a nice home inside. He mentions that they chewed the string which operates the tuning dial, and we’re sure they were the cause of other problems as well. He gives the wise advice of not powering on an old set like this until you have a chance to assess the situation.

The insides of the amplifier were about as disorderly as the last radio repair we looked at. But after carefully working his way through the circuits, replacing capacitors and resistors as needed, he started to make some progress. The receiver coil needed to be rewound and he used wire from an old CRT monitor for this purpose. The loop antenna was remounted and the record player arm was given a new cartridge and balanced using a clever LEGO apparatus. Some veneer work and wood finishing brought the case itself back to its original beauty. We’d say the hard work was well worth it. He’s got a big piece of furniture he can always be proud of!

Keeping Tabs On Your Pets’ Busy Lives

mouse_wheel_tracking

[Stephen’s] daughter has a pair of mice she keeps as pets, who happen to be quite active at night. After they kept her awake for an entire evening by running like mad in their treadmill, they were moved from her bedroom. Since they were so active in the treadmill, [Stephen] thought it would be cool to try measuring how much the mice actually ran each night.

To keep track of their activity, he built a simple circuit that records how many rotations the treadmill makes. He fitted it with a rare earth magnet, installing a reed switch on the outside of case that ticks off each spin of the wheel. Any time the wheel starts moving, his PIC begins counting the rotations, displaying them on a 7-segment LED display. To mitigate data loss in the event of a power outage, the PIC stores the current number of rotations in its EEPROM every 10 seconds or so.

The counter keeps track of the total number of rounds the mice have completed, which his daughter uses to manually calculate their running sessions. Since they started tracking the mice, they have run over 700,000 rounds, sometimes completing as many as 20,000 in an evening.

We think it’s a pretty cool project, especially since it makes it fun for his daughter to stay involved in her pets’ lives.

Five Concept Mice Add Multi-touch Control

Microsoft is showing off five concepts for added mouse functionality. All of them seek to replace traditional move-and-click with touch sensitivity through either capacitive sensing, video recognition, sensor articulation, or laser scanning. We’re excited about the prospects of some of these features but at the same time wonder what this does to the price of this much-abused peripheral. After the break we’ll touch on each of the devices, along with time references for the video embedded above. Continue reading “Five Concept Mice Add Multi-touch Control”