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Magical Blue Smoke - Part 1

06/09/08 @ 12:42:05 pm, Categories: Shiny Things, Magical Blue Smoke, 1165 words, 1187 views  

You no doubt know the joke about letting ‘the magical blue smoke’ escape from your computer. Well, let me tell you, I still don’t know how the stuff gets in there in the first place. BUT, I have learned some cool shit the last couple weeks.

A couple posts back, I was talking about a foray (or rather a return) into the world of electronics… But you may ask yourself ‘Why?’. Why am I all of the sudden interested in building electronics? Well, it’s not all that sudden, I mean, I have all these varied interests, and my ADHD basically turns it all into a Magic 8-Ball. What’s Baka interested in this week? Shake it up, turn it over, and find out. But above all else, I have an overwhelming interest in making stuff. And electronics is just the most accessible canvas for me at the moment…I guess you could say.

First off, let’s go into some detail on some of the items I picked up…


Arduino Diecimila.
A small microcontroller-based board for rapid prototyping of ideas. Programming it can be simple and logical even for people with no programming experience. (Read: Me.) It uses the same type of microcontroller that I wanted to learn to work with; the Atmel AVR 8-bit RISC microcontroller. (Specifically the ATMega168)
Pictures: One - Two

LadyAda’s Arduino Protoshield
This is a board that stacks ontop of the Arduino and gives you a more suitable prototyping environment, especially handy if you drop a tiny solderless protoboard on it, but just as handy if you solder the stuff in. This was the first thing I’d soldered in like ten years… I did okay. My soldering iron was a total piece of crap, and I was using old lead-tin solder that was way too fat for this… Holdovers from like twenty years ago.
Pictures: Assembly One - Assembly Two - Completed

Now, it’s about this time I got a new soldering iron. A very nice quality adjustable temperature soldering station, not just a plug-in iron like you get from RadioShack.

Xytronic 379
I got a really good deal on it from Howard Electronics and it comes with an extremely nice stand and tip cleaner. More importantly, it can easily reflow lead-free solder, which I also purchased a roll of. A 1lb roll of Amtech no-clean lead-free solder, really good stuff. It is a 96.5% Tin, 3% Silver, .5% Copper alloy solder which means, while it requires higher temps to work with, it’s better for the environment, and complies with the EU’s Reduction of Hazardous Substances directive.
Pictures: One - Comparison to old iron

Speaking of RadioShack… I had heard there was a new one just outside town, which would require taking the bus out there… Had a whole shopping list of VERY BASIC FUCKING STUFF, only to find out that I was lucky to even get the 22-gauge solid wire for my breadboard… It was more like a ‘RadioNook‘. Fuckers. So, anyway… Waiting for other stuff to do, I decided to make my workspace a little more usable. The first step was to attempt a magnifying lamp… I literally gaffer taped a magnifying glass to the side of my desklamp…

My second attempt was a bit more successful; I used some hangers from the closet to make little wire racks for my rolls of wire and solder, so I could, in theory, feed the wire/solder with one hand. In practice, it’s so-so, but it keeps things tidy.
Pictures: Ghettolamp - Ghettospools

Now that I had a suitable workspace, I began the next two projects from what I bought at Adafruit.

DIGG Button
This is a fun little project, a little device built around another Atmel AVR microcontroller, the ATTiny2313. It has a 3-digit seven-segment display, a button, and runs off a lithium coin cell. You press the button, the display says ‘dUg!’ and the counter advances, spiffy. I figured I’d get it because it’s cheap, neat, hackable, and looks really cool. It looks even cooler when you get the cover kit though, which gives you a laser cut and etched pieces of acrylic to cover the front and back, some standoffs and screws, and a tactile switch with a longer stem on it, so it sticks out of the front cover. (The kit even came with two batteries, how cool is that?)
Pictures: Kit - Working Bits - Board Front/Back - Cover Kit

I am overwhelmingly pleased with how it turned out, finally something that doesn’t turn out sub-par because I suck at soldering. :D
Pictures: Completed Front/Back - Size Comparison

Now comes something really interesting. RGB LEDs are not totally new, but they’re pretty new, and really over-the-top. You can do awesome shit with these. It’s basically Red, Green, and Blue diodes all in one diffuser/lens. I had been contemplating making some kind of large full color pixel display… Then I saw these… This particular device is a nice little gizmo made by Garret Mace, who apparently not unlike myself, is just looking for cool stuff to make. :P

It’s a little PCB with an 8,000mcd RGB LED in the middle, six header pins sticking out of the bottom on the left and right, and a controller chip underneath. It allows very simple control of the RGB LED. Normally, your microcontroller would be responsible for handling the PWM required to individually control the intensity of each primary color element to create a given color. With this controller chip, you just run power, ground, and 4 data lines to the thing, and send it commands declaring the current (A value of 0-127) of each diode, and a brightness level (A value between 0 and 1023) for each diode, and the little chip handles the PWM and power regulation all by itself. That’s pretty goddamn cool. What’s more is you can cascade them together, if you send three sets of values, it shifts the values down the line.

Now, you probably have no goddamn idea what any of that meant, I know I barely do. To put it simply, it makes it almost painfully easy to have a high degree of control over a bunch of RGB LEDs without using a hojillion I/O pins on your microcontroller.
Pictures: Strange Candy (Not to be confused with ’stranger-candy’) - Close-up - Wired up - Back Detail

It was through the Macetech blog that I discovered SparkFun Electronics. They are quite simply awesome. In the last two weeks or so, I’ve ordered from them three times! Sure, if you want some resistors or some wire or shit, you go to RadioShack or Jameco… (A REAL FUCKING RADIOSHACK) But SFE is one-stop shopping for incredibly cool little odds and ends. Things like full color LCD screens, breakout boards, GPS chips, wireless transceivers… The works. (Even cellular dev stuff!) More about what I got in another post…

That about ties it up, in the next Magical Blue Smoke post, I’ll talk about what I ordered from SparkFun, more stuff I got from Adafruit, and just what in the hell I’m doing.


nani sore?
A peek inside the mad, mad, mind of Baka-chan. Animator, artist, hater of stupid people, and evil genius. Look upon the undoing of all order in the universe, and tremble.
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