Thanks to my extremely encouraging dad, I’ve been building circuits since I was seven years old. Freehanding a breakout board with my trusty Weller is second nature. Growing up, I always had a Heathkit or Radio Shack 200-in-1 kit lying around in various states of assembly and/or modification. I learned to read schematics, and got quite good at physical assembly.
But I somehow never quite made the leap to designing circuits from scratch. Computers (and also girls) were a lot more interesting to me than studying electronics design. Fast forward a couple of decades, and I’ve noticed that years of tweaking other people’s designs and building things from kits gotten me into some bad habits. I have finally reached a point where I want to make circuits that do novel things, and freehanding, while quick and dirty, is not always the best choice for building complex circuits. Especially when high voltages are involved.
So after months of putting it off, I bit the bullet and started digging into CadSoft Eagle. To get going quickly, I worked through Sparkfun’s Eagle tutorial. I must say that after a bit of a shaky start (warning: UI designed by EEs ahoy!) I’m really starting to enjoy it. Draw a schematic, link it to physical components, make your connections, and you’re building real “grown-up” circuit boards! After about a weekend’s worth of effort, I’ve made a header board for the Nixie Tube HV Volt Meter project and a new revision of the Singing Arc. These are two-layer, through-hole boards with many more connections than are practical to run by hand.
Of course I’m excited now, because my designs look perfect (to my biased and poorly schooled eye) and they aren’t yet baked into copper and fiberglass. The real fun (and likely disappointment) will come in a couple of weeks when I get to populate, power up, and debug the boards. I know I still have a lot to learn ahead of me. But this free tool is becoming addictive. Playing the Eagle video game is a lot more fun than most. Sure there’s a lot of grind in the beginning, but by the end you level-up with real electronics…
I’m going to post my designs once I get the boards back, so I can give a full report on my first PCB attempt. Keep your fingers crossed!
It’s very good to be back at the Unit. I enjoyed the work (and play!) in Italy, but five weeks is too long to be away. Here’s what I’ve been researching this week:
Particle beam physics. I have an idea for a novel, compact accelerator design. I still have much to learn about particle acceleration, so I’ve been digging in and reading Stanley Humpries’ Principles of Charged Particle Acceleration. I highly recommend it (and his companion book on Charged Particle Beams). Much of the physics is a review for me, but there are a lot of new concepts too. And while the math is getting more familiar, it isn’t getting any easier. Yet. Relativity twists my brain meats.
Making a nixie tube HV probe.My gigohm resistors arrived just before the trip, and I’m itching to use them. I’d like to use one to make a voltage divider for an Arduino-based voltmeter that drives nixie tubes for the display (via an Arduinix shield). I intend to use this with the coin shrinker for additional safety (nixies are much easier to read in the dark than an LCD!). And nothing says style like great big flashing Russian neon tubes. The code is pretty much worked out, so now it’s just down to assembly and tweaking.
Listening to the voices in other people’s heads. No, seriously. Ages ago I ran an icecast stream that I called “Laugh Out Loud”. It scraped the most recent posts from Live Journal and would read the first sentence of each post in a randomized TTS voice, mixed over some ambient electronica. It was hauntingly disturbing to listen to, and provided a background whispering zeitgeist full of LJ angst. Anyway, I’ve decided to resurrect it in the form of random voices reading my Twitter feed. No public code (or audio) yet, but stay tuned.
Two full days in Venice. First we measured the effect of strong motorboat waves on a hand-rowed two person boat called a mascaréta. We used seven wireless accelerometers (Waspmotes w/ Zigbee modules) to track five points on the boat and two points on one of the rowers. It turns out the rower is a world-famous athlete who has won a local rowing competition four times, earning the title “King of the Lagoon”. I didn’t catch his name, but I did help gorilla tape a sensor to his arm.
Next, we installed a splitter and a new antenna on the central node of our WiMAX / mesh hybrid network in the lagoon, and added two new links (8km and 11km). This included a few hours of water travel, lugging around many kilos of wireless gear, climbing sketchy ladders and walls, and generally trying not to drop anything (including ourselves!) in the lagoon. This network is helping to study the movement of the tides around Venice in realtime.
Now I’m on the train, blogging all of this from a smartphone using a data sim that cost a only few Euros. Wireless is a catalyst for rapid change, and I’m very happy to help feed it!
The ICTP wireless school rages on. On Wednesday we did the annual “long distance link” exercise from Muggia to the ICTP. This year was cold, but at least there was no snow this time. Two out of three groups made the link work, and one of them didn’t even use an external antenna!
It has been a while since I checked in on the Metaverse scene. Tonight I downloaded Snowglobe (the open source viewer from Second Life, remember them?) and OpenSimulator (the still-alpha but apparently working mono-based server simulator). In about five minutes, I had my very own grid-ready simulator running on my local network. I became a god in my very own isolated box.
Now the real question: If I invite over some friends, and we make models in this world, can we click “print” and have the results come out of the Makerbot?
UPDATE: My mistake. The viewer you’re looking for is Meerkat. It lets you export all of your old juicy Second Life data, and re-import it into your new simulator. Virtual Sushi 2.0!
I ordered some 1000 Megohm resistors today. They’ll be the basis for some new HV measuring tools. I’m finding that I could really use a high voltage voltmeter and oscilloscope lately. Using a gigohm resistor (just like we use for the quarter shrinker) I can make a voltage divider, which will let me use my regular bench tools for testing. It looks like these will be good through 40kV, which will let me measure the performance of the pole pig! The ultimate plan is to make a voltmeter with a nixie tube display.
Why does all of the best HV stuff come from Russia anyway?
A while back, I inherited a surgical lamp from a decommissioned hospital in Mt. Vernon. While astoundingly awesome in its light throwing and ambiance-enhancing abilities, it weighs about 150lbs. And so it sat on the floor of my workspace for a couple of months, waiting for the help of motived strapping lads to hold it up while I bolted it in place.
Well, it turns out that waiting for strapping lads is a silly strategy, especially when you have the able assistance of brilliant (and also quite strapping) ladies.
Rather than just hold this squirrelly hunk of steel and awesome above our heads, I installed some heavy eyelets and carabiners in the ceiling, and slipped some ratcheting straps around the lamp. With the incredibly generous help of Willow and Star, the beast was wrangled into place to mate with… the 30lb steel mounting plate.
Oh, didn’t I mention the plate? It has six 1/2″ x 4″ lag bolts that grip into a huge 16″ x 20″ timber on the ceiling. It only took about an hour of machining and wrestling with a ratchet (and round with a burly Italian) to get it in place. That plate isn’t coming down until the building comes down…
…which means that I can now do chin-ups on the awesomest work lamp in the universe. I mean really, does your Chinese luxo-lamp knockoff give you 300 Watts of cool white love with six degrees of freedom on a six foot swingarm?