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Egg++ and My USB Microscope

Something a little peculiar happened this morning. I cracked an egg into a (white) bowl for scrambling, and the albumen looked a little pink rather than clear. Blood, fersure, though I already knew (I don’t know why) that blood in an egg doesn’t necessarily mean that the egg was fertilized. However…next to the yolk was a little brown thing about 3/8″ long. It was about the right shape for an embryo, but it was too small to pick out any details. So…

…I cranked up my new USB microscope, which I got from Carol for my 65th birthday this summer. Worked like a champ:

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I’m no expert in chicken embryology, so this is still a guess, but I’ve never seen anything like it in an egg before. The pink in the albumen suggests blood, after all.

Here’s the setup I used to take the photo, which will show you the microscope and its focusing stage:

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Like any reasonable optical microscope (we have one from Carol’s college years in biology) it has a coarse focus (the knurled column attached to the metal base) and a fine focus on the end of the camera tube itself. It plugs into any USB port and draws whatever power it needs from the port.

The device shown above costs $77.95 from Amazon.

If you don’t think squicky blobby things do the instrument justice, here’s something on the hardware side. This is a surface-mount LM386 audio amp, measuring just a hair over 3/16″ long:

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The imaging software I’m using (free) is called MiniSee, and it works tolerably well. Other packages exist, and as time allows I’m going to try them.

The real challenge with the microscope is lighting. Lighting makes a huge difference in the quality of the image coming in from the sensor. There are eight white LEDs in a circle around the sensor, with a brightness control built into the USB cable. These work well for looking into dark places (like the back of my mouth) but don’t do well with objects lying on the metal stage. A flat black background is useful, especially for metallic objects. I intuit that some sort of small gooseneck desk lamp would do the trick, and I’m looking.

The instrument comes with a number of plastic probe tips for looking at your ear canal, up your nose, and, well, where the sun don’t shine. The mini-CD wouldn’t spin up on my quadcore, and as it turns out I didn’t need it, given MiniSee. (One of the reviewers on Amazon claims it’s all in Chinese, anyway.)

Overall, I’m more than pleased, especially for something in the $75 price class. There may be better ones. I see quite a few on Amazon. But this one will do.

Oh…I scrambled the egg and ate it, once I picked out the embryo. What’s a little chicken blood when dinner generally hits the table medium-rare and still dripping?

The Other Fry’s

Sure, you’ve got Amazon Prime. (I do too.) But I have something that (most of) you don’t have: Fry’s Electronics. It’s a 12-mile drive from here, so I can’t just dash over anytime I want, like I can to Artie’s Ace Hardware. However, I realized after stopping in after a 15-year hiatus the other day that I need to go there more often.

Fry’s is hard to describe. It’s a double-big box store, done up in Aztec decor to look something like a pyramidal temple. It’s the ultimate nerd supply house, and has everything you might expect: motherboards, memory sticks, power supplies, cases, monitors, hard drives, Flash drives, software, and so on. Want to build your own desktop? It’s all there. However, Fry’s is remarkable for going even deeper into the wild country of the word “electronics,” right down to resistors and capacitors, soldering stations, shrink tubing and wire in any color you could name, and aluminum chassis. Good lord, they even have panel meters. Tools, wow: multitesters of every sort, needle-nose pliers, dykes (sorry; I still call them that), Dremels, Internet cable connector crimpers, and on for page upon page.

It gets a little nuts after that: toys, kites, CDs, DVDs, candy, all kinds of snacks, light bulbs, night lights, swamp coolers, refrigerators, camping gear, CB radios (!!), and fifteen varieties of fidget spinner. There was a display of something I truly don’t understand: body shapers (which is I think the generic term for things like Spanx) printed to look like bluejeans. Yes, I know, there are plenty of women nerds…but underwear in a resistor shop?

Crazy world.

Why was I there? I’ve noticed over the past year that the Mozilla codebase has grown ever more memory-hungry. Waterfox has taken to gagging with just six or seven tabs open. I’ve been meaning to add more RAM to my quadcore for some time, on general principles. It started out as an XP machine, and so had a scant 4 GB since I bought it. Now I had an excuse. Windows 7 Pro 64-bit can manage 192 GB of RAM, so throwing 16 GB at it is no big deal. But since I dropped those sticks into the quad, I haven’t heard the least little feep out of Waterfox.

Excellent prices, overwhelming selection, and people in the aisles who know what they’re talking about. Still another expression of the boggling richness of Phoenix’s retail sector. Fry’s Electronics is legally unrelated to Fry’s supermarkets, but was created by the sons of the man who founded the supermarket chain. If you’re ever in town for some reason, make sure you go over there. If you do, call me and I’ll come along.

Buy some hot pink shrink tubing. Dare ya!

Odd Lots

  • Solar cycle 24 is crashing, and we’re still three years from Solar minimum. 24 really does look to be the weakest cycle in 100 years or more.
  • And if you don’t think the Sun influences Earth’s climate, read this, about the Sun’s indirect effects on climate and why they make climate so hard to predict.
  • I doubt the payback would be more than the cost of the equipment and the electricity, but you can mine bitcoin with a Raspberry Pi–or better yet, a whole farm of them. (Run them from a solar panel?)
  • Speaking of the RPi: I burned a new NOOBS micro-SD last week, and used it to install the latest stock Raspbian. What I discovered is that this latest release has a terrible time detecting any monitor that isn’t straight HDMI. I’ve been using the RPi with older 4:3 DVI monitors through an adapter cable ever since I got my first board, and the board had no trouble figuring out the size of the raster. I’ve screwed around with the config file with only partial success; even telling the board precisely what mode your monitor speaks (1600 X 1200, 75 Hz) doesn’t guarantee correct video.
  • When I was much younger I wanted a PDP-8. And then a PDP-11, which I almost got because Heathkit actually made a hobbyist PDP-11 desktop. I settled for an S-100 8080, because there was actually software for it. I recently stumbled on a hobbyist PDP-8 system based on Intersil’s IM6120 chip. It’s not hardware you can buy; you download the PCB design and the software, get somebody to make the board (not hard these days) and then stuff it yourself. Runs FOCAL-69 and OS/8. Paleocomputing at its best!
  • From the It’s-Dead-But-the-Corpse-Is-Still-Twitching Department: Aetna is pulling out of the Obamcare exchanges entirely next year, citing $200M in losses.
  • You won’t believe where Earth’s atmospheric xenon comes from! (Actually, you will…but you have to say that these days because clicks.)
  • Excellent long-form piece on why we should fear an ideologically uniform elite. From the article: “If you really want to live in a world without tyranny, spend less time trying to show others why you are right and more time trying to show yourself why you are wrong.” Bingo. Because no matter what you think, you are always wrong. About everything. Nothing is simple. Nobody has the whole story. Ambiguity is everywhere. Certainty is poison.
  • How many times do we have to say this? Eat fat to lose weight.
  • We could use more research here (can’t we always?) but it’s certainly possible: Eating more salt may help you lose weight. Could be; I determined by experiment that salt doesn’t affect my blood pressure, so it couldn’t hurt to try.
  • A correlation has been found between consuming lowfat or nonfat dairy products and Parkinson’s disease. No such correlation is seen with full-fat dairy products. My guess: Your brain is mostly made of fat, and people who eat low-fat dairy tend to eat low-fat everything. So this is yet another reason to go low-carb high fat, even if you don’t need to lose weight. Fat is a necessary nutrient!
  • After decades of difficult research, scholars have finally decoded the lyrics to the “O Fortuna” movement of Carmina Burana. And…they aren’t in medieval Latin at all. (Thanks to Sarah Hoyt for the link.)

A Two-Arm Monitor Stand for the Raspberry Pi

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If what I’ve heard is true, most Raspberry Pi installations consist of the naked circuit board lying atop a nest of wires on the desk behind a monitor. I think it’s true; that was certainly my Raspberry Pi installation for a long time. Now, I’ve decided to use my steampunk computer table as my Raspberry Pi 3 workstation. And I got an idea: Use one of those VESA-standard 2-arm monitor stands that clamps to the edge of a desk without any drilling into or other hacking-up of the desk. One arm holds the monitor, and the other holds the Raspberry Pi itself.

The trick is to buy one of several Raspberry Pi cases that includes a flange with VESA 75 or VESA 100 holes. VESA is a standard for TV and monitor mounting hardware. Its two smallest configurations are a 75mm square, and a 100mm square. Most modern flat-panel TVs and many monitors have threaded holes on their back faces arranged in one of the several VESA configurations. I’m pretty sure (having looked at a lot of monitors and TVs in the past few years) that the 100mm configuration is the commonest. It’s the one on the Dell 1907fp monitor that I’ve been using for Raspberry Pi boards since the beginning. VESA-compatible displays generally use metric screw threads in the mounting holes, with M4 the standard for the smaller configurations, including 100mm. M4 screws can be had at Ace Hardware, and probably also at Home Depot and Lowe’s. (I go to Ace first for such things.)

The Raspberry Pi case that I used is this one:

RPi VESA Case.jpg

It has four little wings with both the VESA 75 and VESA 100 holes. The holes in the wings aren’t threaded, and easily pass standard 8-32 machine screws, which I used to hold the case to the second arm of the monitor stand. I oriented the Raspberry Pi with its USB ports on top, so I can reach over the monitor and plug in peripherals or thumb drives easily.

This approach isn’t limited to the Raspberry Pi. There are VESA cases for the Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing) boards, and most of the higher-end embedded boards like BeagleBone. On a small table like the one I made, there’s not a lot of flat space to park a case of any size, so whatever computer I’m going to be using on it should be able to hang on that second monitor arm. The arms on the unit I bought can hold up to 12 pounds each. Most of the small-form factor Dell machines I use are that weight or lighter. Dell’s Micro 3000 series has an optional VESA bracket, and brackets for other models may be available. And hey, you guys could rig something, right?

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

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LED Bulbs, RF Noise, and a Crazy Idea

Carol and I were in Costco last week, stocking up on consumables (everything from toilet paper to Hoody’s Peanuts) when we spotted something that made me do a double-take: a package of four Feit LED dimmable 60W equivalent light bulbs for $10. I’ve never seen them for less than twice that. We grabbed a pack to try at home, because our new house here contains a lot of 60W bulbs.

How much of a lot? There are nine Hampton Bay ceiling fan/lamp fixtures, each holding three 60W bulbs. (We found later that the fixture over the dining room table had three 75s in it.) That’s 27 bulbs right there, plus another twelve or fifteen in bathrooms and outside light fixtures. Figuring 40 60W bulbs, that’s 2,400 watts. Granted, not all of them are on at once, and several fixtures (like the one in the guest room and the two outside on the patio) are rarely on at all. However, there are another eighteen 65W ceiling floods, so I’m guessing our typical evening use is about 2,500 watts overall. It adds up. If bulbs are now as cheap as Costco was offering them, I was ready to jump.

A sidenote: There was some sort of utility company instant rebate, so the register price was about 1/3 less than the package price. Outside the Phoenix area, your prices may (and almost certainly will) vary.

This being Arizona, there was a thick layer of brown dust (over and above the dead bugs) on the lamp globes and on the existing bulbs themselves. We ran three loads of lamp globes through the dishwasher because their spatter finish tears threads off the ScotchBrite pad by the sink. I put three bulbs in the fixture in Carol’s office, then stood back to gauge the quality of the light.

Marvelous! Three $2.50 LED bulbs gave brighter and slightly whiter light for a total power draw of 28.5 watts. We went back to Costco and bought 24 more, plus a test pack of 65W equivalent LED ceiling floods. I spent a day on a ladder swapping out bulbs, and although the ceiling floods aren’t all done yet, we’re looking to cut our lighting power draw to 1/6 of what it would be on incandescents.

This isn’t all about money. It gets hot in Phoenix in the summer (duhh!) and the heat that you pay for when you light your bulbs you then have to pay to pump out of your house with the AC. Ok, so maybe it is all about money. In some respects, LED bulbs are a twofer.

Now, there’s a downside. Both CFL and LED bulbs require power at entirely different voltages than incandescent lamps. Every bulb has a little power supply in it, and to keep the power supply circuitry small, the supply uses a technology that generates a lot of RF noise. If the whole house is running LED bulbs, I’m guessing that my IC736 will deliver audio that sounds like the center of a raging thunderstorm, only 24/7. I don’t have my shack wired up yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens when I run a temporary longwire out to the pool shed later this year.

Now, it won’t happen this year and perhaps not next year, but the 5-year plan includes a new building in the NW corner of our 5/8 acre lot to house my workshop and radio shack. (I’m using the small garage for now, and although I was clever and got everything in, it’s…cramped.) I’m sure I’ll hear our LED bulb symphony (and perhaps the neighbors’) but if I don’t use LEDs or CFLs in the shack, things may be a lot better.

So…what are the chances of opening up the bulbs, pulling out or bypassing the power supplies, and running them at the LEDs’ native voltage? This isn’t an idea original with me, and in fact one chap has a very nice article up on Instructables. The 40W bulb he dissected delivers 30VDC to its LED array, and he had to do some major surgery to rewire the array to take 12VDC instead. My approach would be to figure out what DC voltage a given type of bulb generates for its LEDs, and then build a high-current passive (i.e., non-switching) power supply to deliver exactly that voltage to all the modded bulbs in the building. (Note that there’s nothing magical or standard about his 30V figure. That’s just what the maufacturer happened to use in that particular model of bulb.) This would require running a separate 30VDC (or whatever) power network inside the workshop building, but since it’s going to be a custom building, I can do that.

We’re not nearly done with the house and landscaping here yet, and I won’t have a great deal of loose time until the summer. (We still have work to do on our Colorado house before we sell it.) I’ll start a research binder on LED bulbs in the meantime, and maybe allow myself a few hours at some point to pull a cheap bulb apart to see what its LEDs are eating. If any of you have played around with LED bulb internals, (or have come across any pertinent links) by all means share in the comments. I have a hunch that a lot of very clever guys are pondering this problem right now, and I’m looking forward to hacking the hardware myself. I haven’t done much building in the last couple of years for various reasons, and damn, I miss it!

Odd Notes on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4

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Way back in my entry for November 24, 2015, I explained how we lucked into a pair of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 smartphones. The Note 5 was out by then, but I didn’t want it. Why? It has a non-replaceable battery and no internal card slot. That was a deal-killer for me, and something I’ll go into more detail on a little later. We stayed with Verizon, because several people said Verizon has the best local network in Phoenix. (I’ll state from experience that they did not have the best local network in Colorado Springs.)

Why did we want a Note phone at all? I have a lot of Samsung gear, and for the most part it’s been reliable and delivers what was promised of it. The Note 4 is bigger than my 2011-era Droid X2 (a feature I wanted, irrespective of the ghastly coinage “phablet”) but still small enough to fit in my shirt pocket. (I made scale cardboard cutouts of all the major phones I was considering and did the test on several shirts.) More compute power was basically assumed, since my Droid was almost five years old. I wanted a larger, brighter, higher-res display. I wanted S-Health, a piece of Samsung software that does several useful things, like tracking steps and measuring blood oxygen. Carol wanted a stylus. Her fingers have a somewhat strained relationship with touchscreens, and unlike me, she texts a lot. The stylus works perfectly for her.

I didn’t really intend for this to be a review, because by this time I’m guessing it’s pretty hard to find anybody selling Note 4s. Several people have asked me what I think of it, and what I’m doing here is gathering my thoughts on its first ten or twelve weeks in my pocket.

I like the phone a lot, and most of that cooks down to one thing: It consolidates several functions into a single slab. Prior to getting the Note 4, I did most of my ebook reading on my Kindle Paperwhite, which is still a marvelous item. However, it’s another slab, and if I’m running around it has to be carried somewhere. I was poleaxed at how good the Note 4 display is for text, assuming you’re not out in the sun. It runs the Kindle app, and it’s in my pocket any time I’m awake. So if I need an e-reader to kill some time in an unexpectedly bad line at the Post Office, it’s always there. In the photo above we have, L-R, the Kindle Paperwhite, the Galaxy Note 4, and the Droid X2, all running the Kindle app. I still lean toward the Paperwhite when I’m sitting in my comfy chair at home, but the Note 4 comes very close to the same experience.

It has a surprisingly capable digital camera, which (given sufficient light) takes very good HD video. The pedometer/blood oxygen/heart rate monitor serve specific needs of mine right now. I’ve tested the phone performing those functions against other instruments I have at home, and it agrees with all of them. I actually measured out a two-mile walk on MapPoint and walked it with the Note 4 in my pocket and its pedometer feature active. It agreed with MapPoint on the distance to within a couple hundred feet. I’m guessing that GPS helps out a little, as S-Health makes no attempt to physically measure my stride.

On the downside, battery life is nowhere near as good as on the Droid X2. I suppose that’s reasonable, given the device’s greater compute power, but it is annoying. When I’m at home, I find myself plugging it into the charger no later than 3PM and sometimes sooner. I’m not entirely sure how well it would handle a full 14 hour day. When the battery falls below 40%, I simply stop using it. If I had to be away from a charger for over a day (unlikely but possible) I would carry an extra charged battery.

Which brings me to the second point of this entry: The mysterious disappearance of replaceable batteries and SD card slots in modern smartphones. I specifically wanted the Note 4 because the Note 5 has no SD slot, and a non-replaceable battery that limits the useful life of the phone to the life of a single battery. Some say it’s a cost issue, which is nonsense, especially on a $500 high-end phone. Some say it’s a security issue, which puzzles me, since the phone can be set not to deal with apps installed on an SD card. No, these are excuses. I am pretty damned certain that the carriers are putting enormous pressure on the manufacturers (who sell most of their phones through carrier upgrades) to get rid of the card slots. The reason is simple: The carriers want to charge you bigtime for network data, and if you can sideload all your music and movies onto a 128 GB SD card, they won’t get paid when you don’t have to pull them down from the cloud. The battery is collateral damage, because the best excuse for a missing SD slot is to give the phone a back that can’t be removed.

Planned obsolescence is a particular loathing of mine. When I like a piece of gear, I want to be able to use it as long as I choose. (We drove our 1995 Plymouth Voyager for almost 20 years. We’ve had our 4Runner for 15 years now, and intend to go for 20 there as well.) Microsoft’s enormously pesty Windows 10 upgrade offer falls into that category. I like Win7, and feel that it’s by far the best version of Windows yet. I see no reason to stop using it. Sooner or later, MS is going to make the upgrade mandatory, or at least slip it in under the door in the middle of night, rather like Congress did with Obamacare. What happens then I don’t know and probably won’t talk about, except to say that I will keep on using Win7. Or perhaps switch to a Linux distro that’s been tweaked to look just like Win7. I have Zorin (if not the latest version) and may consider something like RoboLinux that runs Win7 in a VM. We’ll see.

Carol and I have now had enough experience with our phones to decide that we’re just not going to have a landline put in down here in Phoenix. We haven’t had one here for two months now, and haven’t missed it a bit. That’s a first for us: Neither of us has ever lived for more than a few days without a landline. (We also bought an indoor TV antenna and so far have not missed cable, either.)

The note 4 runs all the apps I’m used to running: Voice Search, Google Maps, Weather Underground, Sky Map, Waze, GPS Test, SoundHound, a couple of dumb puzzle games, and whatever else comes with the phone. Response is more than perky enough for my needs, which are nowhere near as smartphone-centric as a lot of people’s.

Bottom line: It’s a good phone. It can be loaded to the gills with Flash memory, and you can keep a spare battery in your pack. If you have one, take care of it, because given the carriers’ data-based business model, we may not see its like again.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots