2014
05.21

Hertz – consistently late, consistently filthy cars.

Hertz, where I got the distinguished honor of paying for my latest, filthy rental.  The photos below show the state in which I received the car, admittedly they dont do it justice.  The interior and trunk of the car was covered in some sort of white powder, one of the rear headrests was broken off, and there was trash under the seats.

Needless to say I noticed a $50 charge on my card and “10 – 15 days and we’ll let you know what we find” from Hertz customer service.  I am done… 6 of my last rentals had “some” problem, either late, filthy or mechanical defects.  NEVER AGAIN

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2014
05.01

WOW!  What a way to get me out of my blogging slump!  I burst forth with this spectacular failure.

One of my radio clients on Cape Cod has been beset with with a spate of severe failures of his 5KW class transmitter.  First, a RF module died, reducing power by about 600 watts.  I should have let enough alone!  But in the interest of good engineering practice and doing the right thing for my client, we sent the transmitter back to the manufacturer (it’s really not field serviceable).

The newly repaired transmitter lasted 1 day when he lost 2 more modules, resulting in a reduction of power by about half.  It’s a real gamble, depending on which multiple modules you lose, output power can vary from the value equal to the two modules to 1/2 of the power rated.  The manufacturer was honestly embarrassed by this failure and did right by us, but the long and short of the story, the transmitter is starting to rot from the inside out due to the humid marine environment.

In all cases I managed to arrange a loan of a transmitter of about 1/2 the power.  The two stations are good friends and help each other with donations, trades and promotions, so the engineering part of equipment loans was no big leap.

Now we are up to speed… the transmitter lasted about a month and suffered a total failure on a dark and stormy night, with no error logs, no alarms, it simply doesn’t make any power, though you can see current consumption as it tries, but nothing comes out of the output.  The manufacturer was totally stumped though he suspected the directional coupler, the very last device that measures forward and reflected power, was defective… oh boy was he optimistic!

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We theorize that the air became humid during an intense rainstorm.  The low pass filter developed condensation, and after a brief power outage, the condensation dripped, the voltages swung around finding their place on startup and an arc developed.  A huge arc as shown by the pictures(s).

This is the downside of going with an “economizer” method of air conditioning.  A high end A/C unit will pull in outside air during the winter months, but it takes into consideration humidity and dew point.  In the early spring, it might be cool enough to still take in outside air, but it will be humid and wet.  Add salt air to this mix, and things start to oxidise and rot.

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So the long and short of this is, don’t try to second guess your A/C scheme or your contract engineer.  Though it may increase your electric bill a little, call this insurance!   In the Northeast US I can see pulling in outside air from early November to early March, with the odd wet day off.

I hope to build up a humid, temp,  air pressure, etc, sensor to control the A/C vs. the intake fan very soon.  It will also log those parameters for later review and fine tuning.  More on that later, as 90% of the work has been done, just not blogged.

2012
11.14

With the acquisition of a large HDTV, its associated 5.1 surround sound system, cable box, home theater PC and a couple of DVD players, my existing TV table was woefully inadequate.  In fact it began to collapse and finally disintegrated when I dismantled it to make room for the new IKEA hacked entertainment center.

Many people re-purpose Ikea furniture and components to other uses, my desk is one such project, using a couple of Ikea cabinets and a few other odds and ends to to comprise the drawers and supporting structure.  This project is no different but is a bit more involved as it was necessary to move a few of the “shelves” to make compartments wide enough to accommodate the electronics.

It all started with two 5×1 Xpedit bookshelves hauled back from the local Ikea store.

Everything was unboxed and I carefully measured out where I wanted the “shelves” on the top unit to end up so it made three compartments rather than the five  narrower compartments.

With the new dowel holes drilled, the bookshelf was assembled as normal.

And finally the two shelves (the bottom was left as is, simply did not install shelf #1 and #4) were screwed together from underneath to hide the screws.

A piece of 3/8″ MDF was cut to size and screwed on the back, this gives the units a bit of added stability.  The side facing inward was painted a shade of brown that matches the Expedit shelves.  1.5″ holes were drilled at the bottom center of each compartment.  Legs were fashioned out of three 2x4s cut to length to match the depth of the bookshelf and painted the same color as the MDF.  Finally, the felt bumpers Ikea supplied were stuck to the 2x4s so they would not scratch the floor when the unit is moved.

In closing, the unit is rock solid, heavy, and will hold almost anything available now or in the future.

2012
11.12

I’ve used the Arduino platform and to a lesser extent, the PIC processors, as my primary development environment for a number of years.  I have no intention of stopping, but some of my ideas have grown beyond the Arduino and it’s time for a more powerful platform.  Enter the Beaglebone.

I’m happy to see manufacturers getting behind the community to implement their products.  Not long ago, they would release something and go “oh no, our reference applications are copyrighted”.

A few years ago TI and a consortium of other companies and distributors came out with the Beagleboard, a full Linux computer in about the same size and shape of a small tablet, completely open source, hardware and software and it quickly became a huge success.  About a year ago, they came out with a smaller version, the Beaglebone, with less features (i.e. no sound, no HDMI (no video at all for that matter), only one USB, etc), in about the same form factor as a smartphone and/or slightly larger but very similar to the Arduino.  It even uses the same sort of shield scheme, called a “cape” in Beagle parlance.

Plugging it in and running it was no problem, the OS and many many utilities are already installed.  It appears as a linux machine on your network running SSH and a WWW server.  Also if you power it via USB, it appears as a drive on your Linux or Mac-OS machine automatically, some driver installation is needed on Windows.  I used the drive feature the first day to read the HTML5 presentation and get up to speed with it and never considered it again.

I’ve already got a few projects in mind for this.  My thermostat code is begining to burst the Arduino at the seams, especially since I added a LCD interface.  I want to add a nice graphic touch screen interface and this will definitely overwhelm the Arduino.  Also my bike computer was already slated to go on an Arduino Mega, but for about the same price, the Beaglebone is much more powerful.  And finally, I want to play with robotics a bit more, I’ve already ordered a couple of USB webcams to act as machine vision (and nanny cam when I travel).

In only a few short days I have managed to accomplish alot.  The next installation of this blog will be installing Ubuntu 12.10 on the Beaglebone and getting it ready for a Linux development environment.

2012
11.12

Migrating To Linux

I’ve used Windows for a very long time, since 3.1!  One day in July 2012, my main computer, running Windows XP stopped booting.  One of the OS files had become corrupted and the repair tools offered on the XP disk only made things worse.  After a few hours of playing I decided to scrap this install of Windows, salvage the license key for something else and migrate over to Linux finally.   I do not regret it one bit.

It took me awhile to get used to things being in different places and different terminology but that was not a huge deal.  For example…

  • The minimize, maximize and X buttons are on the other corner of a window.
  • Each window does not have its own menu, instead, the menu appears in the bar at the top of the desktop when that particular window has focus.
  • There is no task bar out of the box, but I found something nice in the form of Docky.  It can make a static taskbar like Win7 or a sort of round zoomy one like Mac.

I do miss some of my windows exclusive programs, like AutoCad LT2000, some games and I have an AOL account for quick networking tests (your browsing goes through AOL proxies, not your IP address).

All in all, it took me about a month to get used to things, now it’s second nature.  I have no problem alternating between Linux and Windows XP or 7.  I still run XP on the other computer right beside this one.

An added side benefit as this has set me up to do some serious development work on an embedded Linux microcontroller board, natively.  All the tools are already in the box.  I’ll be writing more on that very soon.

2012
08.26

Adding Spotify to MythTV

Now I am mystified, the article detailing the “preview” version of the Spotify client for Linux is over 2 years old, it seems they discontinued development yet it works flawlessly.  I’ve been using it on my 12.04 Precise Pangolin desktop for a few months now and, I dont know why, finally hit on installing it on the home DVR.  I’m now listing in glorious 5.1 Dolby Surround on my Mythbuntu 0.24 installation.  By the way that version of Ubuntu is 11.10 Oneric.

First things first, you will need to install Spotify.   You will find the full instructions here, but these are the basic steps.

# 1. Add this line to your list of repositories by
#    editing your /etc/apt/sources.list
deb http://repository.spotify.com stable non-free
# 2. If you want to verify the downloaded packages,
#    you will need to add our public key
sudo apt-key adv --keyserver keyserver.ubuntu.com --recv-keys 94558F59

# 3. Run apt-get update
sudo apt-get update

# 4. Install spotify!
sudo apt-get install spotify-client

That’s IT!  Pretty simple huh?

Now you will want to add a menu button on your MythTV install.  Those instructions are a bit more involved but here is a page describing adding HuluDesktop to MythTV.  Just replace references to huludesktop with spotify.

Simple huh?

2012
07.31

I purchased a Schwinn Centennial bicycle from a professional picker one weekend for $25.  Its a late 70′s T-E-N speed… none of those extra gears, just ten speeds, 2 gears in front, 5 in back.  It has the classic swept under handlebars of the era, the painful seat, but it’s built to last because of Schwinn’s signature welds.  It only took a few sprays of chain lube, WD-40 on the cables and some dérailleur adjustment to get everything working again and it had it’s inaugural ride.  Now to build a bike computer for it, building upon some of the work already done by others.

A bike computer is an evolution, not an all or nothing project.  The beauty of microcontrollers is they can be added to, revised, features deleted, and can grow with the project as features are added.  I have a million ideas from trip computation, GPS tracking, workout logging, speed and odometer, heck I even thought of implementing a subset of OBD-II! But for now, we will suffice to do only a few things, speed, distance, lap and display the results in realtime, essentially a homebrew speedometer available at any bike shop for about $15.  But with the microcontroller architecture, feature addition will be easy.

So with that in mind, first we will need a display…. I am unsure which one exactly yet, but it must be graphical and LCD.  This line from Adafruit looks nice.  Also this old Nokia monochrome display looks nice, we don’t need color for this application.

Next we will need some sort of rotational sensor for the wheel, I have seen simple alarm contacts used, but I think I’ll go more elegant with a hall effect sensor and a magnet.

Next we need a platform, I am a fan and most familiar with the Arduino line, so we will use a classic Arduino (pro version 3.3V, no bells and whistles)  and build around that.  If we need more memory or power, we can always upgrade to the Arduino Mega.

And finally, for safety’s sake, we should add a flashy light on the back of the bike.  I had long wanted to do a Morse Code message in the flashing, to amuse those that can read it, and to provide an erratic flash to make it more attention grabbing.  So a few bright LEDs mounted under the seat will do the trick.

Oh, and we’ll need some form of rechargeable battery, Probably LiPo a charger and a battery gauge.

And there you have it, the initial design specifications for a bike computer.  Now its off to gather parts.

 

2012
07.11

I had put the Arduino stuff on the back burner for awhile, concentrating on some web development work but I needed to track temperature at work and attempt to catch the air conditioning in the act of malfunctioning.  I decided to finish my porting the temperature controller I made in 2010 with the Arduino / Ethernet shield to the London HackspaceNanode-5, all with pretty good results.

Nanode Board Image

If you look closely you will see a TMP-421 temperature sensor board installed on the analog header, as outlined by Liquidware and ModernDevice, the vendor of this little breakout board.  It utilizes the I2C port which occupies two of the analog I/O and the other two are used as power and ground.  In this configuration it is possible to power down the chip for purposes of a reset or something, but this functionality is not used here.

The accompanying sketch and php scripts on github basically do the following.

  • Initialize the ethernet chip
  • Initialize the I2C bus and the TMP-421 chip
  • Read the temperature every 5 seconds
  • Push the temperature to a waiting mySQL database every 60 seconds
  • ???
  • PROFIT!

I want to add a rudimentary thermostat and relay driver, and a simple webpage to read the temperature on demand and set the thermostat setpoint.  So keep an eye on this blog and github for updates to the code.  The final feature list will be…

  • Temperature reporting and databasing (DONE)
  • Temperature graphing (DONE)
  • Simple hysteresis thermostat (IN PROGRESS)
  • Webserver to display current temp.
  • Webserver sets setpoint, persistantly through PROGMEM

Oh, I mentioned graphing….  as always click to display the latest graph…

Nanode Temperature Graph

I will release the graphing code later when I have added some functionality and cleaned it up a bit.  But if you want to play with graphing in your own, this is based on the Flot package.  It’s a little old now, but I am hesitant to change, it works!  But there is better out there and I’ll eventually get around to evaluating them.

And finally, to get this working on your server, first you will need a webhost with PHP and mySQL.  There are many packages out there, look around.  Then you will have to change the following lines of code,

In nanode_temperature.pde, between lines 45 to 60 change these parameters to match your setup

//**************************************
//**** BEGIN USER DEFINED VARIABLES ****
//**************************************
#define POST_RATE 60000 // rate to post to the db milliseconds (60 seconds)
#define UPDATE_RATE 5000 // rate to read the RSSI milliseconds (5 seconds)
#define TIME_OUT 30000 // time to wait for a response from internet (30 seconds)
float setpoint = 70.00; // default setpoint upon first use
float differential = 2.50; // differential
char HOSTNAME[] PROGMEM = “hostname.com”; // hostname of a shared hosting server here
static byte hisip[] = {***,***,***,***}; // ipaddress of the server here
#define HTTPPATH “/somewhere/nanode_temperature.php” // path to the PHP script
#define DATABASE “nanode_temperature” // database name
#define TABLE “node1″ // table name
//**********************************
//*** END USER DEFINED VARIABLES ***
//**********************************
Also between lines 77 to 80, change this to your network scheme…
#else
  static byte myip[] = {192,168,2,202}; // modify these addresses to match
  static byte gwip[] = {192,168,2,1}; // your local network scheme.
#endif
And finally in line 260, change the following line to reflect the path to your php script,
ether.browseUrl(PSTR("/path/nanode_temperature.php"), paramString, HOSTNAME, my_result_cb);

In php.db, you must put your database credentials in there, and the database name you chose above,

$host = localhost;
$user = username;
$password = password;
$database = databasename;
Thats it!  That should get you going with the functionality provided.  I’ll probably be adding more fields to the table, with on/off times, setpoints and the like, but I will write the php script such that it automatically adds them to your existing database, to make things simple.
Just to reiterate, the code can be found here.
2012
01.16

I’ve long wanted to construct an open source broadcast remote control.  I rescued the Moseley TRC-15 out of an AM station some years ago, but never got around to playing with it.  During a cleanup recently I looked into it and found that it was pretty obsolete and useless and I don’t have the studio end of it.  But it is a perfect enclosure to house my effort.  So begins the teardown.

TRC-15 Remote Control

As you can see it has the Hallikainen & Friends TEL 171 retrofit.  This converted the TRC-15 from analog to digital.  Essentially the TRC-15 would send its data as analog tones, Hallikainen converted this to a digital system and added a LCD digital meter.  Not bad for 1978!

TRC-15 Back Panel

This is the back panel of the TRC-15 and already we can see one of its limitations… where are the status (or logic) inputs?  It only does command (or relay closure) and metering.  Clearly some rearrangement will be in order.

TEL171 Revealed

TEL171 Bottom Revealed

Flipping up the top board reveals more interesting components, but there is no microprocessor!  Again, not bad for 1978!

TRC-15 Back Panel Opened

Removal of the top cover and flipping open the back panel reveals the command relays and a very robust power supply.

Power Supply Closeup

A closeup of the power supply reveals the regulation and the analog calibration pots.  I believe I will eliminate these and replace this with a blank panel.

Boards Removed

The boards have been removed and work begun on layout and rearranging the I/O.  Follow the category “Remote Control” for further updates.

2011
08.02

“This was a triumph, I’m making a note here, huge success!  It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction”

The reason I bought the Sparkfun SI4735 Arduino Shield last week was to graph and log a certain broadcast station’s signal strength to confirm or deny the “rumor” and “opinion” that they were not reducing power or changing pattern at night, a clear violation of their license grant.

I got this working tonight!!  I am now collecting data and waiting for ‘sunrise’ to see if their power jumps up, and ‘sunset’ tomorrow, to see if there is a corresponding drop in signal strength.

So far the graph is filling nicely as shown below.

The code is far too messy to release at this time, and I still have a few bugs to work out, but these are the basic steps that happen.

  1. Arduino waits 30 seconds and then checks tuned frequency, received signal strength, signal to noise ratio and AGC value.
  2. Arduino spits a comma delimited string out of its serial port.
  3. A Processing script receives this string, parses out the data and writes it to a PHP script residing on this server.
  4. The PHP script writes this data to the mySQL database.
  5. A hapless internet viewer calls up a PHP script which reads the data out of the mySQL database and graphs it nicely using the Flot graphing package.
  6. . . .
  7. PROFIT!

It should be noted that I built an AM loop antenna for this project.  It’s only 10 turns, I was getting tired and sore from keeping constant tension on the wire and flopping the cross around, but it works nicely.  I want to add more turns, weather proof it for outdoor use and make it tunable.

AM Loop Antenna

I will post construction details and a BOM in a future update when I am happy with the design.

For now, behold the graphy goodness at http://w1xbs.com/flot/fieldstrength1.php