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November 2006 Archives

November 1, 2006

Abe Lincoln Says...

“Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes crimes out of things that are not crimes.”

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

Maybe our legislators in Washington should have stayed awake during history class.

and finally...

"In a closed society where everybody's guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity." -Hunter S. Thompson

November 5, 2006

PCB Tools Overview

Michael Ang and I are teaching a DriveBy at ITP on Monday the 13th about electronics without breadboards, which is to say PCB design, production, and surface mount soldering. In the meantime, I thought I'd give a quick overview of my toolchain from PCB design to production. More details to come, both at the DriveBy and on this site. But for now...

PCB Design

CadSoft Eagle (Mac version requires X11 from Apple)

The freeware version of this package lets you draw boards up to 4" x 3.2". It's a great package, with solid part libraries, and good functionality to easily add your own custom patterns. It's equally at home with surface mount or through-hole designs, and it's the tool we will focus on at the DriveBy.

There are a few quirks to the interface that take some getting used to. First, in order to act on a group defined by the Group tool, you need to right click. On the Mac, this is substituted with a command-click (Make sure 'Emulate three button mouse' is active in the X11 Preferences). So to move a group of items, group them with the Group tool, then switch to the Move tool, command-click, and you're off.

Secondly, the Copy tool oddly only works with single items. To copy a whole group, you first use the Group tool to select them, then switch to the Cut tool. Command-click (note that this doesn't cut in the sense that Windows users are used to, but actually is more like copy), and then switch to the Paste tool to lay down the copy.

The next stumbling block is getting your files exported in the right format to get PCBs manufactured. Virtually always this means Gerber files. Here is a good tutorial from SparkFun about this. For my recent project, a 3D dimensional spherical surface display (PCB shown at left), I actually used the .cam file from the tutorial to do my export. The job is still processing, so we'll see how it goes.

Panelizing Jobs

For my last few projects, I have used Gold Phoenix PCB for production, and have been very satisfied with the service. They can go down to 4 mil trace/space (for an extra fee), and also have cool extras like colored soldermask (also for an extra fee), and a good expedited service (also for an extra fee - surprise?).

The special at Gold Phoenix typically is for one board of around 1 square foot. This means that, since the free version of Eagle can't handle designs over about 3"x4", we need a way to combine multiple designs after the fact into one panel.

GerbMerge to the rescue. This is a Python app that takes the Gerber files exported from Eagle and combines them into a single design using random placement to find a near-optimal layout.

It requires mxBase 2.0.4 and SimpleParse to install. Once installed, you control it using a configuration text file, which you have to customize to the specifics of your project (filenames, number of copies of each board, etc.). There is a sample configuration file in the documentation that will help you get started. Here is mine from this last project, if it might help.

Viewing Gerbers

Finally, once your boards are designed and panelized, you will want to take one last look at your files to make sure that all is correct before sending them (and your money) off to have the PCBs fabricated. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but my favorite of the moment is gerbv, an open source package created specifically for this task.

There is a Windows port linked from the SourceForge page, but for Mac, the easiest way to get it is through DarwinPorts. It grabbed a whole list of dependencies for me completely seamlessly. You will have to add /opt/local/bin to your path if it isn't already included, though.

When it is all installed you can run it with the files you want to see as command-line parameters, giving you a view of your output files like the one shown here.


This skips about 99% of the process of designing a board, but hopefully will be helpful in getting some tools setup and being able to start playing. Again, the DriveBy on Monday the 13th will cover this and more in more detail, so come with your questions or feel free to post them in the comments to this entry.

November 9, 2006

Your next job interview: Raise or fold?

The Philadelpha Inquirer published an article last month about Susquehanna International Group L.L.P.'s inaugural college Texas Hold 'Em poker tournament, a way for the company to learn how would-be employees handle decision making under pressure by watching how they handle themselves at a real money poker tournament, where first place is worth $25k.

"Poker and trading have a lot of similarities, such as making good decisions under pressure," Yass [cofounder and managing director of Susquehanna] said. "It teaches you to deal with losing even when you make the right decision."

Yass said the game remained instructive, even as exchanges moved to electronic trading, where computer screens substitute for human interaction.

Besides traders, the company is hiring programmers and research analysts.

John C. Giesea, president of the New York-based Security Traders Association, said trading firms more often judged job candidates on whether they had participated in sports, or how long it took them to order lunch.

"I always felt there were a lot of comparables between trading and athletics: the ability to act under pressure; the ability to make quick, on-the-fly decisions; and the ability to admit a mistake as opposed to overlooking it and forging ahead," he said.

Susquehanna isn't alone in the realization that poker can be a good supplement to or substitute for a formal business education. Bill Gates is perhaps the most famous, but certainly not the only, member of the billionaire community to have gotten his start around the green felt, and with books like The Poker Face of Wall Street and The Poker MBA, the community is officially taking note of a phenomenon that has long been an unofficial part of business culture.

A knack for statistics and, of ultimate importance, tenacity and coolness in the face of apparent failure, valuable traits in any high-pressure endeavor, are strengthened and tested by the game, making it both a breeding ground and a good testbed for the power players of tomorrow.

Stacey Briere Gilbert, a Susquehanna options analyst and former American Stock Exchange trader, said the company was looking for job candidates who let the odds be their guide.

"Over time, you're not lucky; it's statistics that are in favor of you," she said. "Poker can teach you that you can lose a lot, but still be profitable in the long run."

November 10, 2006

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg

How did I miss this? Colbert is always great, but this (especially the first part, delivered live) is Colbert at his absolute finest, in the company of the President. Incredible. If only this clip would last two more years, it would be perfect.

(shown in two parts)

Thanks to Austin of Java Lava for the tip

November 12, 2006


The PCBs for the 3D spherical display are in, and here's a sneak preview of the beginning stages of assembly:

As I get farther into the assembly process (the entire system will use four identical copies of this board) I will attempt to get some action photos detailing my surface mount soldering process. This is my first time soldering a .5mm pitch QFP package (the PIC18LF8722) and I was pleased to find that it wasn't bad at all. The only remaining question mark then is the 8CASON package of the 64Mbit Atmel flash memory (shown at left upside-down next to its final home). It fits an SOIC-8 footprint, but with no width to spare, and it is a leadless package, so there is no pad or lead for me to solder with my iron. I'm optimistic about soldering it with ITP's rumored hot air station, so hopefully tomorrow you will be seeing photos of at least one fully completed board and one smiling student, and maybe a hot-air soldering tutorial from a rookie's perspective.

Otherwise, all is proceeding well. Here's a preview shot of the fantastic frame and support mechanism that my father is currently crafting for the project. This photo is a few days old, and the piece is coming along great. We should be starting to put all the pieces together within the next few weeks. Stay tuned...


I should also mention that I am trying Kester 331 Water Clean flux and the matching solder for the first time and it is incredible. At the first impression at least, soldering is just as easy as with the standard 44 flux/solder that I have been using for years, but the flux residue comes off the boards with a hot water rinse almost instantly. It's far easier to clean 331 with hot water than it is to clean 44 with acetone and alcohol, and obviously much more appropriate to do so in my apartment. I highly recommend it. Of course it is still leaded solder, so don't forget to wash your hands.

November 18, 2006

Orb: First glimpses

I'm back in St. Louis (Jersevyille actually) and just got to see the frame for the Orb for the first time about an hour ago. It looks fantastic. Here are a couple of photos. I can't wait to start putting the pieces together. The red and amber streaks are just a pair of LEDs rotating on the frame in 3D space. 64 tri-colors addressing somewhere between 16k and 32k points in space should be pretty mindblowing.



November 29, 2006

melabs Serial PIC Programmer on MacBook Pro

I'm going to be travelling for the next few days to present GSPS at Nordic Exceptional Trendshop in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The orb waits for no one however, and so I borrowed a melabs Serial PIC Programmer for the trip (thanks Christian).

I'm pleased to say that the programmer setup was effortless and problem-free, paired with an Iogear GUC232A USB-Serial converter. Along with the student (free) version of the Microchip C18 compiler, I'm fully set up for hotel room PIC development on the MacBook Pro.

Now it's time to go stuff my soldering iron into my suitcase. See you all again from across the pond.

Giving us what we want: Why the long tail is really growing and how it could break our society

To start, I haven't yet read Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, but I have seen him speak on the subject. So to some degree this is informed by Mr. Anderson's views, but if this feels like a chapter from the book, let me apologize in advance and claim independent invention.

The domain

As many of you probably are already aware, the 'long tail' refers to a section of the power law distribution which comes up in countless aspects of our world — very commonly specifically referring to media distribution, wherein a 'chosen few' make up a disproportionately large share of sales. The long tail is the huge number of items which each have a small number of sales. More specifically, the concept points to the fact that as modes of distribution change for largely technological reasons, the hits (think Britney and Star Wars) are becoming less important and indie pieces and cult classics out on the tail of the curve are selling more and becoming more relevant.

If you don't believe this, go see Mr. Anderson speak, or I would presume that you could just read his book as well. You could also find a quick introduction to the topic on Wikipedia. I think it's pretty clear that things are changing, and that most arguments on the topic will take place over the degree of change and its implications, not the presence thereof. Remember Tower Records?

Isn't this great?!?

Rosy-eyed and inspired by the promise of a new world of our own creation, in the beginning I saw only the upsides to this trend. Isn't it fantastic, I thought, now I can finally escape those lousy radio singles and hollow Hollywood action flicks and find media with real substance, something that really speaks to me. And if I can't find it, I can always just roll my own.

No really, isn't this great?!?

I still largely do think it's great actually, particularly the user-generated aspects, but I'm starting to see a big potential cultural downside. As we have more choices across the board, that means a denser distribution along almost any axis of view: more hardcore punk, more Gelugpa chanting, more documentaries about peanut farming, you name it — just more.

Again, isn't this great? Well, at first glance it is, at least through the idealist's lens that would tell us that given all of this wide and varied information that we will graze across it, gobbling up wide and varied cross-section of opinions, knowledge, and inspiration.

But is that really what we will do?

When I listen, I only hear myself

Signs point to no. In online communities, I can't see a lot of evidence that Air America fans are drifting over to Fox News or Ann Coulter for a little balance. They might, however, nominate their favorite liberal blog for an award. Or vice versa.

When we're given an all we can eat information buffet, it seems that we tend to just stuff ourselves on the same old meat and potatoes we're used to, while ignoring that wide diversity that brought us to the table in the first place. orgnet.com has an interesting piece called Political Books and Polarized Readers that analyzes the 'also bought' data from Amazon to show this effect in sharp relief.

But that's all I care to hear

And so then, instead of just measuring our increasing engagement in a broadening scope of opportunities, the growth in the long tail is actually fueled in large part by a narrowing of individual focus. When we read, hear, or watch something we like or agree with, we can now hunt down more of the same, almost effortlessly. And few, if any, of us can resist the temptation of being told over and over again that we are absolutely and completely right.

So the tail grows and grows, as we snatch up long lost import singles and director's cuts and books that express the same opinions as that last book we liked so much. And we are happy, but perhaps not fulfilled.

Now it's all I can find at all

Throw in an effective recommendation system of the future and now you've really got a problem, not because it won't work, but because it will. Given an infinitely long tail, you can find an infinite number of works that align with any narrow point of view (exaggeration to be sure, but within the scope of our media consumption capabilities, not excessively so). And how to browse an infinite catalog but through an innovative recommendation system? But then given that perfect system it will know that since I loved that Bill O'Reilly book so much that I must want nothing more than books by a selection of Bill O'Reilly clones. And I probably do — or at least I'll gobble them up happily if that's all I see.

But at least I know I'm right

With all of this confirmation of our viewpoints, what do we get but a polarized world where each side shares little but an adherence to our opinions that borders upon the religious? And think not of a two party system of disagreement, but of a hectagon where each side, though small, can be just as polarized and isolated from the rest.

The big three networks aren't enough either

At least at some ranges of scale, the value of media as a whole grows with the number of options presented. Television is worth much more with two channels with one, and more still with ten channels or fifty. I believe that in an ideal world this trend has the chance to continue onward to infinity. It's up to us as consumers and especially as technologists to attempt to continue to create and extract this added value.

There's a world of information out there — use it. Not just to read a rehash of that same blog post you just read six times in theme and variations, but instead to truly expand your horizons. We all would do well to expose ourselves to the other side from time to time. In the worst case, we are better informed and prepared to discuss or argue for our side, and in the best case we might learn something truly profound that shifts our viewpoint entirely.

On the technologists' side, Wikipedia comes to mind (as it so often does) as a good example of a structure that can encourage this kind of growth. Even ignoring the fact that it is user-generated, simply through diverse content and dense hyperlinking, I find it almost impossible to read about just one topic on any given visit, and often these journeys lead to surprisingly diverse content even after only a few links. Recommendation systems will need to be designed with these thoughts in mind and encourage us to learn, not just buy the same old comfortable materials and tired entertainment, while keeping enough comfort and familiarity to maintain market share and thus relevance. How about a reco system with a 'how crazy are you feeling today?' slider that lets you fine tune the amount of diversity that suits your current mood?

This is the end - this is only the beginning

I do believe that the exploding mass of content available online and otherwise is an inherently good thing at its core, but we need ways to manage it efficiently and most importantly we need to be of the mind to use it responsibly and effectively. Mental laziness disguised as a voracious appetite for learning (the same thing over and over again) is nothing strange in this new world, so let us not become victims of this masquerader.

Sorting by popularity so that the favorites of the group float to the top achieves little more than what the 'old media' has been doing for decades: letting the majority decide for the diverse minorities. Conversely, as collaborative filtering systems improve, there will be a point where increased absolute filtering performance will only serve to amplify the echo, as our individual past is projected forward to become our future, preventing us from growing and expanding mentally and philosophically. Between and along the edges of these regions lies a land of great need and opportunity.


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