The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for January, 2006

Bored? WordPress 2.0 + Red Vines = Tasty Delicious

Posted by Deliverator on 19th January 2006

I missed today’s monthly Seattle Weblogger Meetup as I was busy with robotics till pretty late, so I wasn’t able to pickup the Carputer from Len’s Automotive. Len’s has always done a great job servicing the Marsh family vehicles. They have beaten just about every estimate I ever got for work and provide very prompt service. I highly recommend them. Dave Montague was nice enough to go out of his way and give me a ride home from Larry’s, where we were working on the robot. By the time I got home it was really just too late to go about borrowing a car and then beat my way through traffic to get into the heart of Seattle. Anita Rowland plays host every month and usually does a pretty good job at tracking down all coverage of the month’s activities, so I will have to obsessively load her site from my bookmarks to see what went down, as she doesn’t do RSS yet.

I still had blogging on the brain, so I upgraded the site to WordPress 2.0. Like the prior WordPress upgrade to 1.5.1, upgrading to 2.0 was a breeze. I took Matt Westervelt‘s recommendation and just untarred the new copy over the old one. For a while, I have been automagically backing up my site, so what’s the worst that could happen, right? I haven’t had a chance to checkout all the nifty new features yet, but so far I like the changes to the admin pages, especially the (gag me with a spoon) Web 2.0-ish WYSIWIG posting tools.

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Robot Build Meeting – 01-18-06

Posted by Deliverator on 19th January 2006

we made good progress on the drive train tonight.

Larry got the troublesome sprockets made, thanks to a nifty jig.

Sprocket Sprocket Jig

Cheuk bored out the sprocket holes on the Lathe & Mill.

Cheuk at Lathe

Greg and I demonstrated our manly
prowess by cutting key slots into the sprockets using the Arbor Press. Heleen
helped build the frame cross-members and motor mounting plates and was a
regular wiz at the mill by the time the night was over.

Heleen at Mill

All the wheels, chains, bearings, etc. have been mounted and the frame itself is clamped and ready for Larry to weld.

Robot Frame Clamped

We should be able to move on to mounting the electronics at Friday’s meeting! Friday’s meeting is only scheduled for 3 hours, but Larry has been hard at work and has already adapted the TRC codebase to the new controller, so it is conceivable that we might even get to drive the robot about a bit!

Here are the rest of the pictures of today’s build session.

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Via EPIA SP13000 based mini-media center

Posted by Deliverator on 17th January 2006

My new Via Epia SP13000 arrived today. This is the 5th EPIA motherboard I have owned over the years and it is the fastest to date. The MII 12000 that powers the carputer comes close, but this new board edges it out in several ways. The SP 13000 has Via’s latest generation EDEN processor clocked at 1.33 ghz and is the first Via Mini-ITX system to support DDR 400 memory. All previous systems ran on slower PC133 or DDR 266. The SP 13000 also features 2 SATA ports (in addition to 2 eide ports). Given the small places people try to cram mini-itx boards, the nice thin cables used by SATA is a very welcome change from trying to deal with big fat eide ribbon cabling. The SP13000 also features USB 2.0 and Firewire, although the board only has two backplane mounted USB ports and all other ports are offered as pin headers only. Given the increasingly universal use of USB for connecting to virtually all peripherals, it would have been nice if they had included a few more USB ports on the backplane.

I installed my new SP13000 motherboard along with 512 MB of Kingston DDR 400 into my existing media center case and did a fresh install of XP and all the fixings. Along the way I updated the bios to 1.07, which I am happy to note adds support for 1280*768 resolution. The picture looks fabulous on the Hitachi 32″ now. I broke in the new system by playing some high resolution + high bitrate XVID encoded videos. The system handled playback like a champ and didn’t come close to pegging the CPU. I need to perform some additional upgrades, though before I am ready to call this project done. Here is what I have in mind:

– The existing single platter hard drive is lacking in capacity and voom. Will probably replace with 250 GB SATA drive from my main desktop and upgrade the desktop drive to a 400-500 GB SATA drive, likely one of the Seagate 7200.9 series drives.

– Replace existing case with a mini-itx case that can support a PCI card or two via a riser.

– Get a PCI 802.11g card with a decent external antenna to replace the Orinoco USB 802.11b client adapter I am currently using. I recently installed a Linksys WAP54G in G only mode upstairs and I just need a good G client adapter to go with it. I have pretty much decided trying to do streaming on a .11b link is a pain in the ass. NO, I CAN’T/WON’T RUN CABLE.

– Install recently purchase slimline DVD-RW

– Mount all gear out of sight.

– Set up software on minimedia to automatically download all Tivo content and de-drm it. Get .11G client adapter for Tivo to improve transfer rates (currently still on a WET11 bridge).

Posted in General, Media, Tech Stuff, The Boob Tube, Tivo & PVR | 27 Comments »

Robot Shop Work

Posted by Deliverator on 16th January 2006

Today was the first day of construction on this year’s FRC robot over at Larry’s Garage. Turnout was good and Larry did a good job ensuring that there were no idle bodies. I am too tired for real narrative, so here are the bullet points:

– Frame side pieces milled and drilled
– 6 wheel shafts cut and end stoppers created
– 4 lenghts of drivetrain chain created
– 4 “sims” motors tested
– 2 gearboxes assembled without instructions thanks to Rachel and her dad
– 2 200 tick quadrature optical encoders centers and mounted on gearboxs, along with sims
– Lobbying for 2 wheel shooter done – we will be building a prototype tomorrow
– Larry got the TRC codebase running on the new controller – fooled around with the new gyros.

The major sticking point was trying to figure out how to mount two – twenty tooth sprockets for our #25 chains on a common hub. We have a collection of the unmounted sprockets as well as single sprockets mounted on a hub. Larry was going to turn a lip for the unmounted sprocket to rest in on one end of the hub, tack weld it in place, bore out the center shaft for our larger, keyed shafts and then use a special tool to create the key. The problem was it was very difficult to mount the sprocket on Larry’s lathe in a way that centered it properly. Larry spent some time searching a number of websites for a company that had them ready-made. We found several companies that make similar sprockets, but the size chain + tooth number + shaft size seems to be odd enough that we are having trouble finding an “off the Shelf” solution. Larry is no doubt dreaming of an extremely clever way to mount these on his lathe. We are meeting again tomorrow afternoon to continue construction.

Here are pictures of the day’s robot build meeting.

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Today We Design…Tomorrow We Build

Posted by Deliverator on 15th January 2006

Tomorrow (ok, I am up late once again, so it is really today) is the first real build session of the season. We are just working on generic drive-train related stuff, so we aren’t commited to a particular design just yet. Larry is advocating one design and Ryan and I have been discussing another. Larry has done some work modelling his design in Inventor 7 and has a pretty well articulated vision for how everything will mesh together. I was definitely having to do some hand waving at the last meeting, so Ryan and I sat down to work out the details. We used graph paper to start and then used Second Life to play around with moving components around. Second Life doesn’t give you cad level accuracy, but as a rapid prototyping/visualizing tool, I have found nothing easier.

Robot Mock-up in SL

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Eat, Breathe, Sleep Robots

Posted by Deliverator on 14th January 2006

It is now a week since the 2006 FRC competition was announced and the TRC is hard at work. I have been at school every day this week except Wednesday. Tomorrow (really today at this point), Ryan is coming over and we are going to mock up some hopper designs using cardboard, duct tape and whatever else we can bodge together. Parts have been coming in all week (bearings, gyros, chain and sprockets, etc.) and an all day construction meeting is being held in Larry’s garage this Sunday. We hope to have Codename: Gaia on her feet…er wheels by the middle of next week. Larry has been working on the codebase this year with kids from Bellevue HS and International on Tuesday evenings and hopes to be able to easily adapt the code to this year’s IFI controller. Hopefully we should have a remotely controlable base by the end of next week.

In my spare time, I have been taking a much needed break from robots by….playing with robots. I just couldn’t stand staring at all the unopened Vex accessories that I received as Christmas gifts any longer. I took apart my Vex trike (with pan & tiltable camera) and built a tank tracked robot. I am driving the tracks with 4 motors, all of which are geared down somewhat. This robot doesn’t go very fast, but very little stands in its way. I have driven my newest creation over Tivo remotes, 500 page book, loose tangled wiring and even a pillow! I will see about adding the pan and tilt camera (as well as some lasers I recently purchased) back soon, but I think I have finally had my fill of robots for the day and am going to call it a night.

Tracked Robot

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Server Ready – Needs a Home

Posted by Deliverator on 9th January 2006

My new server is ready for deployment. I ended up having to replace the built in raid controller. I attempted to flash it with the latest firmware (1.5) to fix a few known bugs and the board went dead. I have performed similar upgrades on literally hundreds of near identical (same server model) pieces of Compaq server hardware and never had this problem. Thankfully, the raid controller, though onboard is of the “raid on a chip” aka ROC, making it easy to replace. I just needed to replace a daughterboard the size of a sodimm to get raid working again. I was able to get the smart array raid controller daughterboard on ebay for 99 cents (+12 bucks shipping). The smart array controller just adds raid functionality and the onboard scsi controller functions just fine in its absence. While waiting for my new controller to arrive, I finished applying all the other firmware updates and played around with a few distros of Linux. I also went ahead and purchased a RILOE card.

For those not hip with technical acronyms not of the tla variety, RILOE stands for Remote Insight Lights Out Edition. RILOE is an add-on card that you can put in a server that gives you full local console access (you can move the mouse, type on the keyboard, see whats on the screen, etc.) to said server over an independent ip connection. Why is this cool? While most of the time server admins can perform their functions adequately using tools like Terminal Services, SSH and VNC, there are some circumstances when these tools fail miserably. What if your server has crashed? What if a piece of hardware has failed and is stuck at a pre-os boot screen? What if power was interupted and you simply need to turn your server back on? Data centers often charge as much as $50 for basic troubleshooting that may simply involve pressing the reset switch. RILOE lets a admin take full control of a box. RILOE goes far beyond being just an “IP based KVM.” With RILOE you can power cycle your server remotely, start installation of a new OS from a virtual floppy/cd, access a server’s fault log and so much more, all from the comfort of your favorite web-browser! While I was at Microsoft, we used a “headless” lab management system called Freevision, which was in some ways superior to RILOE, but I am beginning to see RILOE and Freevision as much more complimentary products. I can definitely see room for both in a large data-center. On a smaller scale, though, RILOE wins hands down.

The server is now fully up and running with ebayed RILOE card and replacement raid controller. I played around with a couple Linux distros, but decided W2k is where I am most comfortable in terms of running a reliable platform that I can easily fix/diagnose remotely. I installed W2k Server and got it all patched and ship-shape. Thanks to the RILOE card, I should be able to upgrade the server to a new OS from home while the server sits purring away in the datacenter. I still need to acquire some rails somewhere so that the server can be rack mounted, but other than that, it is ready to go.

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First Robotics Competition – Kickoff 2006

Posted by Deliverator on 8th January 2006

Yesteday was the kickoff event for this year’s First Robotics Competition. The team I mentor, the Titan Robotics Club played host for the kickoff for 14 schools from Washington and parts nearby. I got up at 5 am to go to the kickoff and given how anxious/excited I was, I didn’t really get to sleep the night before. Anything the manages to get 250+ students in a school at 6 am on a SATURDAY has to be doing something right. The kickoff itself was televised with help from NASA, with the University of Washington doing the local rebroadcasting. We made good use of the International School‘s new theater facility (called IPAC for some reason) to house everyone while watching the video. Afterwards, the crowd headed to the Gym, where Larry Barello and Dave Montague had been hard at work to construct half of a game field (it is symetrical, so you only need half to demonstrate/practice). The game this year is quite ambitious, with six robots attempting to score points by launching nerf balls through hoops for 3 points or rolling them through slots at the top of short ramps for 1 point. I was disappointed by how short they made the autonomous period this year – only 10 seconds. The importance of scoring points in autonomous mode has also been raised, with the alliance scoring the most points getting a 10 point bonus AND taking control of the field in the second of the game’s four rounds. I could talk about the game/strategy for hours and did so yesterday. Needless to say, this year’s competition is quite ambitious, perhaps overly so.

Pictures from the event are up on my FRC Kickoff gallery. There will also be more pictures from the First Lego League challenge up shortly.

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Media Center Mark 2

Posted by Deliverator on 6th January 2006

I managed to get my exisiting media computer working on the new Hitachi 32″ HDTV – mentioned previously. I had great difficulty getting my media box to output a VGA signal to which the Hitachi could sync. I managed to get an old IBM laptop with VGA out to work with little difficulty, so I knew the VIA Epia M motherboard was at fault. To get the Epia working with the Hitachi’s VGA input I needed to flash the bios, update the display drivers and perform a little registry hacking. I was eventually able to get the Epia working at 1024*768, but not at the more optimal 1280*768. At 1024*768 I either waste large areas of potential screen real-estate to the left and right of the area being displayed to black columns, or I can choose to stretch the image and distort everything being displayed. At 1280*768 I would only be wasting a small ammount of space, as the Hitachi’s native resolution is 1366*768. Unfortunately, VIA only wants to output extremely common resolutions like 640*480, 800*600, 1024*768 and 1280*1024. I tried using Entech PowerStrip, an extremely powerful tool for doing all sorts of wacky things with video cards. I have used PowerStrip a number of times over the years for overclocking and setting custom resolutions/refresh rates. Unfortunately, the video chipset used by the VIA boards is not supported. It seems my only option is a PCI video card – preferably one with DVI-D output capabilities. My current case can’t support a PCI riser card and the M6000 motherboard is marginal for a lot of video playback tasks, so it looks like I am in the market for a new system. I am currently thinking:

– Via SP 13000 motherboard – Over twice the speed of my current system’s processor with support for DDR 400 ram and SATA devices. The SATA is nice as big fat ribbon cables and tiny cases do not go well together. Problem with this route is motherboard has same crappy resolution support as my existing motherboard, so I would have to add a PCI video card as well.

– I am currently thinking about either a Morex Venus 669 case in black or a Travla C158 also in black. The Morex case would allow for more flexibility in component choice, but the Travla has more of a “shelf component” look to it that wouldn’t be as visually distracting in the room.

– I would likely add to this base package a good sized HDD, a slot loading DVD-RW and an in-face media card reader. I might also add a PCI 802.11g card or a better sound card using the second video card slot.

– Low profile VGA out card, preferably with DVI and support for oddball resolutions. Any suggestions all knowing interweb?

– DVI cable

– 802.11g bridging (In the straight through wireless < -> ethernet sense) AP.

As you can see, my shopping list has gotten rather long an expensive. At this point I am wondering whetherI should just bite the bullet and move up to a Pentium-M based SFF system and a good AGP or PCI Express based system with significantly greater processing muscle. A Pentium-M based system would allow for gaming, PVR functions, etc. that a Epia couldn’t hope to perform. I don’t like throwing good money after bad, but I also whether my enjoyment of such a system would be commensurate with the significantly greater expense.

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32″ HDTV – Hitachi 32HDL52

Posted by Deliverator on 3rd January 2006

The major gift at the Marsh household this year was a 32″ HDTV. It is a Hitachi, model 32HDL52. My dad has been itching to get a big screen for quite a while (major understatement). At his behest, I spent a lot of time reading reviews, prowling various forums and picking brains over at Magnolia HiFi (sorry, I can’t bring myself to call it Magnolia Audio Video). Despite all the “due dillegence” work, my father ended up making an unresearched impulse buy while at Circuit City, based largely on picture quality. I did at least make sure that the unit featured a ATSC (over the air) HDTV tuner, a plethera of video inputs and various other features, but I didn’t get the chance to do the slightest bit of research. All in all, this is a very nice unit with excellent image quality. For a LCD, it produces remarkeably deep blacks, has very few image artifacts, has impressive off-angle viewing and doesn’t seem to suffer from much (if any) motion blur problems. The unit features a motorized pedestal mount that allows one to rotate the display using the remote control, should you want to view the TV from another location in the room. This is a very neat feature and one that I hope becomes more readily available. I do have a few caveats that may limit this unit’s appeal for certain types of home theater enthusiasts.

– While the display itself is first rate, the remote control feels cheap and has poor quality, small round chicklet buttons for many major functions. The remote is not ergonomic in the least and one has to constantly shift ones hands to access major functions. Because of the often uniformly sized keys, one needs to glance at the remote to choose the appropriate key. As the keys are not backlit, one pretty much needs to keep a light on to use the tv, which really spoils the whole “home theater” experience. I would definitely recommend a good programable remote if you want to use this TV.

– Only certain video inputs can be displayed in combination using the picture in picture and splitscreen views.

– No Cable-Card or HDMI inputs.

– Analog RGB and DVI-D inputs are a plus, but it appears that the RGB input will only display at very specific resolutions and vertical/horizontal refresh rates combinations. The display will supposedly sync to a number of resolutions between 640*480 at the low end to 1280*768 (actual native resolution of the display is 1366*768) at the high end, I could not get it to sync to ANY of the resolution/refresh rate combos offered by the VGA output of my current VIA EPIA based media PC. I will try playing with the DVI input tomorrow, but this unit may be a poor choice for hooking up to a PC. If they weren’t going after the PC market, why not throw some HDMI connectors on and go after the home-theater crowd? They even went to the trouble of including a very high quality VGA cable in the box.

– The HDTV tuner takes a LONG time to do its initial channel scan and didn’t find several of the major channels in my area, despite a strong signal. I had to add these channels manually. My brother’s 56″ Samsung DLP on the other hand took hardly any time to set up and detected all channels in his area, whether it could get a good picture from them or not.

– The “Operating Guide” is a poorly written joke. I honestly nearly returned the TV because it would not power on when I pressed the power button on either the remote or the TV itself. The manual made no mention of the fact that there is a hidden, recessed main power button located out of sight on the bottom side of the LCD. My dad found it by accident after I had already placed several irate calls to Circuit City. Not only do none of the diagrams show this switch, but the manual mentions several times to just push the power button on the right side of the screen to turn the unit on/off. The manual isn’t even an “all your base” style bad translation. It is just plain bad.

All in all, this unit has a great picture and some unique features, but is lacking the “total package” feel that it really needs, especially given that it is priced unfavorably compared to many other, more feature rich units in the 32-37″ range.

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