Monday, September 26, 2005

Good blog: Engadget

Via The Best of Weblog, Inc. again, I found another good blog that is tech related, Engadget. Their biggest feature seems to be delivering news of new products, along with reviews and commentary. Because most of the content is about new items, it does kind of read like an ads site, but the blog entries don't normally read like press releases, so it keeps it feeling fresh instead of like another corporate outlet. All in all, this seems to be a nice site to keep abreast of what's new in the tech world and get a few reviews of what's out there.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Where to buy Electronic Components

For any good electronics project, you will need components in order to, well, have something to build from. Here are a few of the places that I use and their pros and cons.

My current favorite place is an online store called Digikey that has a tremendous selection of components and a catalog the size of a large phone book. Their prices are reasonable and their shipping is quick – the only caveat on the shipping is that I recently had some trouble with USPS, and was told by the (very helpful) customer service representative that they prefer that people use UPS Ground since it is insured and trackable.

Another place that I occasionally use is Radio Shack. They have a slim selection of (often expensive) parts but are local and good for getting what is needed in a pinch. I would suggest buying bulk packs of resistors and capacitors if only a specific value is needed so that the individual piece is cheaper and so that you have a nice selection of parts for future projects. Believe me, it’s always good to have more parts than you think you’ll ever need – chances are you’ll be working on finishing up a circuit late at night and run into a need for some obscure part.

Another online store that I used to use is Futurlec. I say used to use, because while their prices are great and their selection is quite decent, the shipping time is quite long (often more than a month). This alone wasn’t such a big deal, but their customer service has seemed to have gone downhill in the last couple of years. I’ve had some triacs backordered since August. Of 2004. Service has not been very helpful in getting this resolved even after several attempts. This could, of course, be an isolated incident so you might try them if you want – when I first started using them they were pretty good.

I’ve also heard good things, but never purchased from, another online store - Mouser. Since I’ve never actually used them, I can’t give a recommendation from personal experience, but they sound pretty good. Along this vein, some others that I haven’t tried but that look good are Jameco and Sparkfun which has a nice collection of tutorials to help give some ideas. One advantage to using Sparkfun’s tutorials is that they often have the specific parts you need to do them in their online store. Some advertising!

Give these sites a try, get a good anti-static drawer parts organizer, and flesh out your collection of parts so you can get your projects going in the future. Nothing helps more than having what you actually need so you don’t have to try to hack something together to finish a project when you just don’t want to wait to get the part you need.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Fun With an RGB LED!

So I bought this RGB LED (Red,Green,Blue Light Emitting Diode) from Digikey, one of the better online electronics suppliers. It comes in a rather interesting package a 6-pin DIP instead of the typical elongated hemisphere normally associated with LEDs. There are three cathodes and three anodes making each LED entirely independent from the other electrically, yet they share a common space physically, allowing for more flexibility electronically but also for good mixing of the colors.

This is all well and good, and a very interesting little piece of electronics, but - what good is it? Well - you may recall that the primary colors of light are Red, Green, and Blue - which, not coincidentally are the colors in this LED. So, by varying the intensity of the three elements of the LED, any visible color can be created. I decided that the best way (or, should I say the easiest...) to accomplish this feat would be to use three of the digital output lines of the parallel port of a PC. This works well for turning each element on and off, but does not allow for different intensities - remember, it's a digital output port. How to accommodate this feature then? Three words: pulse-width modulation (PWM). Basically - you can simulate different intensities by moving the LED from high to low really really fast. This is where we move from the hardware side to the software side.

For software, I just used my old standby for DOS programming, Microsoft QuickBASIC 4.5. Please, hold the laughter if you know about this "language" already - it works fairly well for doing this sort of thing and allows for reasonably rapid testing using the interpreter. This does, however, lead to some speed limitation, as the interpreter and even the compiled output are not terribly fast even on a good machine. Due to this limit, I can only do about 32 different levels per segment for a total of 32x32x32=32,768 different colors. I think that using a different language, such as C++ and inline assembly code I could take this a little higher and provide smoother looking output from the LED - as it is, you can definitely see some blinking going on in the lower intensities from the PWM.

Here's the code for a program that causes the LED to go through a few of the colors it is capable of - the visible spectrum in one intensity:

DECLARE SUB led (r, g, b)
DECLARE SUB lednum (col)

FOR c = 0 TO 96
lednum c

led 0, 0, 0

SUB led (r, g, b)
opt = 0

r2 = 65 - r
g2 = 65 - g
b2 = 65 - b

FOR x = 1 TO 64
IF x MOD r2 = 0 THEN opt = opt + 4
IF x MOD g2 = 0 THEN opt = opt + 2
IF x MOD b2 = 0 THEN opt = opt + 1
OUT &H378, opt

SUB lednum (col)
IF col > 0 AND col <= 32 THEN led col, 0, 32 - col
IF col > 32 AND col <= 64 THEN led 63 - col, col - 32, 0
IF col > 64 AND col <= 96 THEN led 0, 96 - col, col - 63

The function led takes the Red, Green, and Blue intensities as input and has a (I'm thinking rather inefficient, but haven't messed with it much yet) loop for doing the PWM and sending the output to the first three data lines of the parallel port. The function lednum takes a single color value for input ranging from 1 to 96 (32*3) and converts this number to the RGB value of the color at that point in the visible spectrum (ie: 1 = red, 32 = green, 64 = blue; other number are colors that fall between these). The main module just loops through all of these colors to show a spectrum until the user presses a key on the keyboard.

All-in-all this has been a fun and interesting project - I have learned some about color theory and how to change intensities with digital output. Future plans for this project include possibly using the sound card to convert the input level to a color, reds for loud, purples for soft to make an interesting color display to connect to a stereo, or possibly to use this as a way of expressing real-world data - stock prices, temperature, etc...

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Elusive Wikipedia Article

I've been searching for a while for something on Wikipedia about which I could write that hasn't already been written about, but I'm finding this to be quite difficult. This is mostly because there are so many articles already in existence that it is not an easy task to find anything that hasn't been covered, let alone something about which I have knowledge. About the only thing that I have come up with so far is that there is no article about my employer, Tenneco Automotive, so I guess that I could research and write about that, but that doesn't sound like so much fun. Unless I could do so on company time... hmm... My other thought is to find something that is barely covered, but from the sounds of the assignment on W315 Central, I think it needs to be something that doesn't yet exist. Somebody, please correct me if I'm wrong in this assumption, but that seems to be how the last bullet on this assignment reads.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Classmate's Blog That's Looking Good

Reading around, Ben's blog is starting to look pretty good. He has some posts that show some rather in-depth research and go beyond just his opinion, although those creep in occasionally - I suspect just to lighten things up and keep him from getting too bored with posting. Hmm.... interesting idea that. Anyway - Ben seems to be doing a good job at keeping up with a good posting frequency with at least one new post every couple of days, which keeps the content fresh and gives readers something to look forward to. One minor nitpick that I supose I could make would be to maybe post more than just one short one on days that he posts short, but on the other hand - he has some nice long posts that more thank make up for it.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Official Announcement: Blog Topic for the Semester+

I think that I have decided on the topic about which I will write this semester, and that is, not surprisingly, the idea of hobby electronics. I think that this will be the main topic, with perhaps a smattering of the other topics mentioned earlier - hobby robotics and the software that goes with them. In addition, I might make the occasional comment on a related topic that is becoming dear to me - amateur ("ham") radio.

I think that this will leave me with plenty of topic to write about for the coming months and should provide a chance to look into some new areas of interests I already have. Also, I think that the focus should be narrow enough that I won't be trying to write over too broad of an area, mostly by sticking to the hobby side of the topics.

With these topics, I will have posts about what other people are doing in these fields as well as some of my own projects and experiences.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Class blog topics

From the discussion in class, I found some of the topics to be particularly interesting and that could be something I could contribute to. One of these is the idea of having a section discussing the technology available to IUSB students and how it can be used to benefit them. As a CS major, I am fairly familiar with much of the technology, but could also perhaps talk to the OIT to find out what sort of "hidden gems" they might be able to suggest. Another idea that was floated around was a picture of the day. Since I enjoy digital photography and have a fairly decent camera, this could be something I could contribute to as well. I think that the picture of the day idea in addition to photos with some blog entries could add some spice to the site and keep it interesting.

I think that in addition to the topics mentioned above and in the chat room, a calendar of events might be a nice addition, even if it isn't a blog entry, but just some extra content for the site. This could be used as a way possibly to tie into some blog entries - if one of the events on the calendar gets covered in an entry. Just a thought.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Potential Wikipedia Wikis

While looking around the Wikipedia website, I think that I have found some interesting articles that I could potentially add some content to, and at the very least and am interested in. The first is an article about the programming language that I first learned, and (ashamedly) return to for the occasional project - QuickBASIC.

Another article I found that would be interesting to work with would be the entry for the Association for Computing Machinery. As a member and an officer for the IUSB chapter, this would be a good topic for me to research and write about.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Research Topic: Hobby Electronics

I think that I have decided that I can write a decent amount on the subject of hobby electronics. There aren't many other blogs dedicated to this, so I can kind of fill a niche so to speak. There are, however, plenty of sites with ideas and circuits for the amateur electronics enthusiast. One good example is a nice collection of projects and the like that a man named David Merrill has collected on his site. In addition to writing about projects that other people have done, I can also post some pictures and schematics of different projects that I have done myself which can help to add some content and get some of my ideas out for other people to critique and possibly suggest improvements for. I could also consider using this as a way for other people to submit their projects and circuits to get them on the 'net. Maybe.

Another idea would be to expand from just electronics into robotics somewhat to feature some of the more interesting things going on in that realm. I would still like to keep to just the hobby side of things instead of going into the industrial or commercial applications, except maybe for really cool stuff. This would allow for some more variety in posts and discussions and could help to draw a wider audience. Also - electronics and robotics tie together quite nicely in that for any piece of equipment in a robotics project to be truly functional it needs some pretty interesting electronics to go with it.

Along with these, another possible way for this to expand (this might be getting out of hand, but this is just some free-thought going on here) would be to tie all of the above into my major and feature some of the more interesting and useful software that can be written for electronics to control the robotics. Hat trick! Hmm... I'll have to ponder on this for a while and see what I can come up with, without the whole thing getting completely out of hand and being very difficult to manage. I might also have to start simple this semester, and then maybe build on this after I've got a good foundation going during this semester.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Another good blog?

While scrounging the web, I ran across a list on hackaday from "The Best of Weblogs, Inc." One of the links that grabbed my eye was to The Digital Photography Weblog. As an amateur digital photographer, this seems to be a very interesting and informative blog. Every day, a digital picture is featured as the picture of the day, and there are different tips for using digital technology and reviews about some of the different equipment available.

All in all, this appears to be a very good blog that I would like to continue reading, as it provides good content and fairly good writing, as well as reviews and sample photographs to get some ideas.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Classmates' Blogs

Reading around classmatess blogs is interesting and often informative, giving insight into new ideas and ways of looking at things. Keith's blog has some good posts, some long and informative, others short and to the point. He uses links to help point out ideas occasionally, which is a useful thing.

Another blog that seems to be pretty good is David's. He uses pictures quite well to emphasize posts and has longer posts with some potentially interesting ideas for topics on which to blog.

Please don't be offended if I did not mention any particular blog, as all of them seem fairly decent, these are just two that I have chosen to highlight.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Good blog: Round 2!

As a Mac user, I enjoy reading The Unofficial Apple Weblog for the latest news about Apple Computers and Mac hardware and software. The blog is well-written and informative, combining good stories, good writing, and a good amount of humor. On the humor vein, one recent post pokes fun of the new iPod Nano while discussing its release.

All in all, this is a good blog with strong community support and a myriad of new posts all the time, keeping it fresh and interesting. News isn't just limited to new products from Apple, it also covers software updates, open-source, free, and commercial as well as hardware from other manufacturers, which helps keep it from feeling like one big Apple commercial (though, admittedly, it does do a nice job of advertising).

Semi-decent electronics blog

In my quest to find some good electronics blogs upon which to base mine, I stumbled across this blog belonging to a person who goes by the name "philpem". In particular, he has a view set up that filters his posts to just the electronics-related posts. While he doesn't have a lot of posts in the electronics realm and some of them are not of the highest quality, this is one of the few true blogs I have found on this topic. The whole hobby electronics genre doesn't really lend itself to blogging terribly well, but I think that it is definitely worth a stab to try to create on that does pull it off. Who knows, it could work...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Very good blog

One blog that I read quite regularly is the nearly infamous Slashdot. It is wildly popular, with many thousands of people reading it daily. The content is composed nearly entirely of links to advances and news items in the tech world. While there are many new posts per day, with an average I would say of about a dozen new entries per day, the bulk of the content on the site comes from the comments from visitors. The comments are interesting in that they can be nested, making reading them more like a web forum than a standard blog.

The emphasis on the community aspect is one of the largest draws, and is especially evident in entries like this one from today, in which someone asks the readers in general for their opinion on a particular topic, in this case about whether the people who find bugs in software should let everybody know, or only the writer of the software. This allows for many people to voice their opinion on the topic, and opens up new ways of thinking about the idea.

As an example, I would definitely say the Slashdot is a blog that has done it right, and continues to be strong.

Good blog in the hobby electronics realm

Searching around, I found the blog for a really intersting magazine called "Make:". This magazine focuses on interesting ways to use everyday objects to do interesting things, with some focus on electronic circuits that are reasonably easy for the hobbyists to make themselves. I found one project linked from one of the blog posts to be particularly interesting as it combines some of my favorite things into one, those being old computer equipment, electronics, and an interesting way to do something. In this example, a sound card that could not possibly be used with a modern computer as it is is given new life via a simple circuit and some clever programming.

This blog provides a good way to find some new and fun projects that would be good to write about and better to actually play around with.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


A topic that I would really like to write about is hobby electronics. I have always enjoyed meddling with small components to create interesting devices, and would like to learn more about different and interesting circuits and ideas that other people have. One of my favorite blogs for information along these lines is called While the name might conjure the idea that this is a site for people who break into computers, this is nowhere near the truth. The term "hacker" has a very negative conotation to most people, due to its common misuse. "Hackers" are people who find new uses for existing hardware and software, while "crackers" are the folks who attempt to get into computer systems, often but not always with the intent to cause damage.

This, however, is completely beside the point.

Hackaday, as its name implies, presents a new "hack" every day and allows people to comment on this hack. As such, it is a fairly active blog and gets many comments per day. The topics range from electronics (my strongest interest) to mods (redesigning existing hardware) to software hacks that allow more to be done with less.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

What good are blogs?

I recently came across this blog entry on Will Richardson's site. He describes a small aspect of why blogs are important - that being that they help to bring information to the public and to prevent "ownership" of said data. I feel this is a very good way to look at the subject, and a good reason for them to exist.

Many changes in history have come from the change in the availability of data - from the printing press making literature available to the masses, to information becoming freely available via the internet.

Therefore, I would say that a good blog is one that has value and can be used in the future to help other people. Many blogs can be useful for the opinions expressed about certain events in history, without being pure fact.

My first post on Blogger

This is my first post here. Yay!