The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for February, 2006

The Night Watch

Posted by Deliverator on 27th February 2006

Went and saw The Night Watch with Alex and his girl (sorry, her name eludes my pitiful memory at the moment. The Night Watch is one of the most sucessful movies to come out of Russia since Battleship Potemkin. Yes, it has been that long. I originally saw this film online a number of year’s ago, but the only available subtitles were computer translated from Portuguese, having probably been computer translated from Russian. Needless to say, I was left a bit confused. They have done a bang up job in brushing up the subtitles for the film’s US release and I was very happy to see the film again with a native speaker. I would have liked to see the film as it was originally released, as the version being shown in theaters has been cut quite severely, bypassing several major plot elements and leading to a couple of non-sequitors as a result. Still, it was a very enjoyable experience and I look forward to seeing the sequels.

The premise of the Night Watch series is that the forces of good and evil met on a bridge in Byzantine times and began the final battle. The leaders of both sides realized that they were evenly matched, so decided to call a truce and put off Armageddon till another day. Fast forward a millenia or so to modern day Moscow, where the not quite human “others” have been enforcing the much strained truce for far too long. The forces of good patrol the night keeping the bloodthirsty ghouls and vampires from eating small children as they please, but licensing them to kill on occasion, to keep them alive…er undead…so as not to force the final battle. After a thousand years of compromised virtue, the line between good and evil is drawn mighty thin indeed. The whole feel of the movie is very gritty, visually driving home this point at every opportunity.

The next movie in the series, The Day Watch, is already popping up online, although no subtitles are available save Russian ones. I am going to put off watching the sequel until proper US subtitles are available. Who knows, perhaps it will be screened at this year’s SIFF, which as Alex made a point of reminding me, is just around the corner. I will have to add it to The SIFF Spreadsheet of Doom!

Posted in General, Media, Movies | No Comments »

Regulation(s)

Posted by Deliverator on 24th February 2006

I will be heading down to Portland next Wednesday for the Pacific Northwest FIRST Robotics Competition. The robot was shipped this last Tuesday, and other people are handling most of the administrative stuff, so I have been endulging myself in a welcome break from anything that resembles responsibility. I am still working on a few robotics related projects, but they are non-essential, so I can putz with them at my leisure.

One of the things we wanted to do last year was mount a CCD camera on the robot itself and hook it into a well-protected DV camera. We got the camera mounted, but nobody had a DV camera that could capture composite video to tape (a few would capture to memory cards, but at low-resolution), so the project fell through at the last minute. This year, we are trying to anticipate any potential pitfalls.

This year, we are going to be using two hacked CVS cameras to capture on-robot footage. We have already hit our first pitfall. There is a regulation that states that all devices on the robot have to be powered by the main system battery, which is ~12 volts. The cameras run off 2 AA batteries = ~2.8 volts. In short, I have to build a voltage regulator to convert the 12 volts down to something that won’t fry the cameras. I am thinking of using a simple design based on a LM317, a couple of resistors, a diode and two capacitors to dampen transients. Ryan and I are going to head down to Frys and see what we can find in the way of components.

The other project I am working on is a regulator for LED modules, kindly donated to the ROV project by Lumileds. In the case of LEDs, the concern is current regulation. Once an initial forward voltage is surpased, LEDs will try to draw as much current as they possibly can, causing them to get VERY hot and start smoking and exploding and other un-good things. As such, you have to limit the ammount of current the LED can draw upon to something less than the LED’s exploding point. Ryan and I played around with a variable voltage/variable current power supply a few weeks ago and experimentally determined how high we could drive the LEDs with out them totally frying. You can “overdrive” LEDs by a fair ammount if you can get rid of the heat fast enough, although you will reduce the LEDs useful life by a substantial ammount. We ended up testing one module to the edge of destruction in a large glass of ice water. Even with this degree of cooling, we managed to get the LED smoking underwater! A more sensible voltage/current combo with better long-term surviveablity seems to be ~3.4 volts at ~700ma. I wasn’t in the mood to build some of the more complex circuits (many of them requiring microcontrollers) that I have seen online for doing both voltage and current control, so I searched around for something I could buy.

I found exactly what I was looking for at Taskled. They make a wide range of LED driver circuits for the Luxeon Star LEDs. I emailed the company and expained what we were trying to do and George, the owner/operator/1 man band that runs the outfit wrote me back promptly and offered to sell me whatever I wanted at cost (he still assembles, solders and tests all the units by hand). I orded five regulators to test. Five 3 watt LEDs may actually be bright enough given that we have a very sensitive CCD camera, but if not, we can already order some more. I would love to use some of the 18 LED modules. Those would certainly provide enough illumination. Unfortunately, the optimal voltage on these seems to be about 21 volts, which would require a switching power supply to achieve off 12 volts. We could use two 12 volt batteries to get 24 volts and then use a regulator to get the voltage to 21 volts and a resistor to limit the current, but that solution is less than optimal in a lot of ways.

Posted in General, ROV Project, Titan Robotics Club | No Comments »

Rockbox progress on iRiver H300 series

Posted by Deliverator on 22nd February 2006

Rockbox for the iRiver H300 series is progressing at a very rapid pace. It has only been a month since color support was released and already there are a ton of very high quality .WPS theme files available. There are even some people working on a desktop side theme browser to make choosing and downloading theme files easier. One of the neatest new developments has been the addition of support for displaying album cover art while playing back an album. It took a long time for Rockbox to get up to speed on the H300 series, but they are sure steaming along these days. I think this is really the tipping point for the Rockbox project, with Rockbox now being unquestionably superior to the official firmware in nearly every way.

H300 series with cover art!

Posted in General, iRiver, Portable Computing/Gadgets | No Comments »

Jeode Java EVM on Netbook Pro

Posted by Deliverator on 21st February 2006

One of the things that I have enjoyed about my Netbook Pro is that unlike any other HPC I have used, it ships with a pretty decent Java virtual machine. It includes an implementation of Sun’s Personal Java 1.2 specification called Jeode, made by Insignia Solutions. It include a plugin for Pocket IE 6 that allows for Java applets embedded in web pages. Most Java applications run in the applet context run just fine, but the story changes when trying to run Java programs locally. Jeode doesn’t seem to let one specify a working directory when starting a Java Application, so it is pretty much impossible to store Java Applications in their own folders, making for a lot of file clutter. I have been unable to find a way to execute any Java programs (that need access to the local filesystem) from anything other than the root directory. On a wince device, the root directory is stored in ram. I have gone to great lengths to avoid using ram as storage on my Windows CE based devices, as not only is it volatile (subject to erasure should the batteries loose power), but what little is available I try to allocate for use by running programs.

Anyone have any undocumented magic command line switches (that have not been documented in any of the official documentation or on the Interweb, afaict)? Sun’s own Personal Java implementation will do this with the -setcwd switch, but their implementation for CE is based on an earlier version of the spec and is a discontinued beta version.

Posted in General, Windows CE | No Comments »

Shipped

Posted by Deliverator on 21st February 2006

Six weeks and god knows how many man-hours later, Hoenir (aka the robot), for better or for worse, is done. We got up early this morning and crated it up. Kids started coming out of the woodwork to give Hoenir an honor guard onto the Fedex Freight truck. We packed it up as well as we could, but I am somewhat terrified by it being out of our control. A few year’s back a forklift managed to stick one of its tines through the side of the crate, narrowly missing vital parts. We reinforced the crate as best we could, but the crate has definately seen better days. I think next year we need to take some time and build a nice new crate. Many teams have very elaborately decorated crates and put on quite a PR show at their booths. We are lucky enough to have any permanent booth presence at all, and the extent of our media promotion usually stops at a few trifold posters.

The club has enough devoted students, parents and mentors to make sure the vital stuff doesn’t get dropped, but only just. The club would benefit greatly if we could get some students and parents to be as devoted to fundrasing and PR as we currently are to the building of the actual robot. As we boxed up the robot, I was really struck by the lack of appropriate tools. We didn’t have a proper saw to cut 2×4’s to reinforce the crate. We only had a single, underpowered cordless drill , and that was loaned for the day by one of the parents. We couldn’t even find a tapemeasure! Right now we are forced to rely very heavily on Larry’s willingness to let us abuse his hospitality & tools at short notice. Much more of the robot’s construction could be accomplished on the school grounds if we just had some basic tools, and general participation could be increased greatly (Larry’s garage really only allows for a couple adults and maybe 4 studnets at a time) if we could hold more build meetings at school.

Anyways, enough gripeing! Please wish us luck as we head to Portland this coming Wednesday to defend our two back to back Pacific Northwest Regional Championships!

Oh, and for the most confusing gallery title of the year, here are some pics of the post-preship and the ship.


Escort

drive team

Posted in General, Titan Robotics Club | 3 Comments »

First Robotics Pre-ship

Posted by Deliverator on 18th February 2006

Today, the TRC played host to a bunch of schools from around the Seattle area in order to allow everyone to test out their robots on a field, prior to the upcoming regional competition. I am really tired, so I am not going to write much about today’s pre-ship event. I think we got a good sense for what the game is going to be like and figured out some of our robot’s weak points. We stayed late and Ryan worked on the autonomous programming. We are going to tweak some mechanical stuff tomorrow and hopefully have time for a few more autonomous runs before having to tear down the remaining field equipment. We really haven’t gotten enough autonomous programming time in, imo, so we will have to see what more we can do at the PNW regional event before the actual matches start.

Here are my pics from the pre-ship.

Posted in General, Titan Robotics Club | No Comments »

The last build meeting?

Posted by Deliverator on 17th February 2006

Today’s build meeting was very productive. We are very close to being finished with the robot. We will be getting up bright and early to finish off the remaining items, prior to the pre-ship event. Our guess is a lot of the other teams will be tweaking their bots all morning, so we don’t expect actual matches to start until after noon. Here is my mental to-do list for what remains to be done:

-Hopper sides
-Flapper
-Ball guide for shooter
-Anti ball-jam mechanism
-Raised lip around ball exit
-Armor
-Wheel blocking (like on Tyr) plus possible wheel shields?
-Permanent mounting for the shooter assembly

After the build meeting, we headed to school. Ryan worked on programming with the drive team, while a hoard of volunteers from IS, Bellevue and Issaquah assembled the game field for tomorrow. It was quite the undertaking. Thanks to everyone that pitched in and stayed late.

As usual, here are pics from today’s proceedings.

Posted in General, Titan Robotics Club | No Comments »

Psion Netbook Pro – An Informal Review

Posted by Deliverator on 17th February 2006

For the last week, it has been my great pleasure to play with the newest HPC in my growing collection, a used Netbook Pro. I have been eyeing the Netbook Pro with envy for quite a while, but was intimidated by the sky high price (~$1300 new) and lack of availability in the US. I finally managed to find one used on eBay for a reasonable price from a reputeable dealer. The Netbook Pro is very sought after and is a frequent target of eBay scammers, so I did my research before ordering.

I received my unit this Monday, but wanted to spend some time with the unit before conveying my thoughts. Here they are, in no particular order.

Pros:

-Bright 800*600 touchscreen with good daylight visibility
-Lots of connectivity options (CF type II, SD/MMC, PCMCIA, USB)
-Modern OS (Windows CE 4.2) with ongoing support from the manufacturer. Flashrom allows for updates. An update was released just a few days ago, in fact.
-Fast processor and lots of ram compared to other HPC options. Carries a 400 MHZ Xscale PA255 processor and 128 MB of ram (though only 80 someodd is available to the user).
-High quality, touch typeable keyboard.
-Much better application compatibility with modern Windows CE applications, without the need for as much hex-editing of executables and stub dll files.
-IE 6 properly renders almost all the websites I commonly use and has good ssl support for banking/ecommerce sites. In addition, the latest Minimo (a port of Firefox for mobile devices) builds run with the simple addition of a cellcore.dll file. This is a huge improvement over browsing on the Jornada 720, which was fairly limited with IE 4 and Netfront 3.3 as the only real options.
-High quality Java support through Insignia’s Jeode JVM opens the Netbook Pro to a much larger pool of applications. I am currently using the excellent free Mindterm JAVA SSH client from AppGate for my SSH needs.
-Remote Desktop client and VPN connectivity make for excellent remote admin capabilities.
-USB connection supports mice, flash drives and other UMS devices.
-Novel screen hinge design allows for a much larger screen than typical on such a small device. Also allows for the screen to be tilted to almost any angle without projecting backwards from the unit. This would be very useful on cramped airline food trays and the like. Also allows the unit to be easily held by its “spine” for one handed use/book reading.
-Battery life is ~8 hours with my used battery. The Netbook Pro callibrates each battery to give a very accurate estimate of remaining battery life.
-Includes Windows Media Player 9, letting you play back a wide variety of audio and video media formats.

Cons:

-Much larger than a Jornada. Not pocketable. At 2.2 pounds, it is in the same class as some sub-notebooks. The NB Pro’s excellent battery life and instant on/off serve as good compensations, though. I bought an excellent Targus carrying case designed from holding a portable DVD player, which comfortably holds the Netbook Pro, charger, portable wireless mouse, my digital camera and all accessories, while still being much smaller than a notebook bag.
-USB port is a sub-mini type, so to use a USB device one needs a short adapter cable. There seems to be adequate space for a fullsize USB port on the side, so why was one not included. My unit did come with the adapter, though.
-Stereo headphone port is a 2.5 mm mini port instead of a standard 3.5 mm port. Again, there seems room for a standard port, so why was it not included. A chance to sell yet another pointless accessory? – Update – The required adapter is sold by Radio Shack for $4 and actually kinda “locks” into the recessed port on the Netbook Pro, so no additional strain relief is needed.
-Official accessories are hard to find in the US. PsionTeklogix, the Netbook Pro’s maker is based in the UK and doesn’t seem to go out of its way to participate in the US market. The HPC form factor is much more popular in Europe and Asia and never really caught on in the US, so this is understandable, if not convenient.
-Includes viewer applications for PDFs, Images, Office Documents, but does not include Pocket Office applications for document editing, except for Pocket Word. Includes spreadsheet application, SpreadCE from Bye Design, if you update to the newest rom image (which you should do anyways). Microsoft’s “Pocket” Office applications are of limited use, anyways, as they require conversion from the desktop version of the file formats, often stripping out major formatting features like tables and embedded images. Your best option for mobile Office document editing is the excellent Textmaker and Planmaker applications from Softmaker software. These allow one to work with documents in Microsoft Office format, without any conversion needed to “pocket” formats.
-The Netbook Pro does not include a graphics accelerator chip, so play back of video is extremely CPU dependent. XVID and other modern codecs are extremely processor intensive. Decoding anything greater than quarter VGA is out (320*240), unless you use a less processor intensive codec like MPEG-1. The Netbook Pro has a beautiful, high resolution screen. It would have been nice if Psion had included better support for video and other tasks that require a graphics accelerator chip.

Tips and Tricks:

-The key marked delete on the upper right of the keyboard is really just backspace. To produce the equivalent of a true delete, hit the FN key next to the spacebar and the “delete” keyboard. Extremely useful while plowing through the spam in your inbox.
-Upgrade to the latest rom image. It adds some applications, features and drivers not found in earlier version of the Netbook Pro rom image, as well as fixing some bugs. To gain access to the files on the Psion site, you need to log in to the “Teknet” section of their site. You can bypass the mandatory registration by using the excellent bugmenot plugin for Firefox.
-Get an SD card and use it for storing all your applications/data. This leaves your memory free for running applications and leaves your CF and PCMCIA card slots free for Wifi and Bluetooth cards. You can get Wifi and Bluetooth SD cards, but they are more expensive than CF and PCMCIA ones and as the SD card slot is in the front, the antenna for such cards would interfere with your typing. I highly recommend the Socket CF Wifi and Bluetooth cards. They are well supported by Windows CE, use very little power and don’t extend out too far from the side of the Netbook. In fact, the bluetooth card doesn’t extend out at all! You can use either card in the PCMCIA slot by getting an inexpensive (<$10) pcmcia to CF adapter. -Back up your Netbook using the "Total Recall" application found in the control panel and place the backup file on your SD card. A lot of the system data is stored in ram. If you loose both your main and backup batteries, it is possible for your system to be "hard reset" back to factory default settings. Using Total Recall you can restore all your preferences in a few minutes. I highly recommend creating a backup before installing any new, untested application. It only takes a minute and it can save you a lot of time if something goes wrong. -Get the TCPMP media player. It plays back many more formats than the included Windows Media Player. Install GAPI from Wincesoft and select GAPI. Play back video files at their native resolution (zoom 100%). Do not play back video at anything other than native resolution, as the math to scale the video to fit the new size will increase the burden on the CPU and will likely greatly slow the framerate.

Posted in General, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff, Windows CE | 5 Comments »

Crunch Time

Posted by Deliverator on 16th February 2006

Crunch Time

It is most definitely crunch time in robot-ville. TRC members met again today at Larry’s to work on the build. Two people from Bellevue’s team were there as well, working on their robot, with Larry splitting his sanity between the two teams. Bellevue’s robot is really taking shape and I finally understand how it is intended to work. It is an interesting design, to be sure, but they can only pick up balls off the floor after their initial pre-load. I think this is going to really work against them, as human loading is definitely quicker. A significant ammount of the weight of their robot is up high, which may make getting up the ramps difficult.

We spent most of our time crimping & soldering new wiring for two additional motors, adding a motor speed controller to the back of our control board (we used up all available space on the front, and coming up with a motor mount for our “flapper.” The flapper is simply a flat rectangle of metal attached to a shaft, which we can rotate to direct balls into the shutes leading to our two ball handling mechanisms. The flap covers one shute entrance or another, forcing incoming balls to go into the desired mechanism. Larry worked on a gating mechanism for the shooter, before we arrived, so thankfully we didn’t need to do much on that, although I ended up replacing the wiring going to the motor due to a misinterpration of the rules on my part (I thought they needed to be red and black wiring, but that is only required for higher amperage motors). Dave lead a group in the construction of the flapper while a couple of the kids and I worked on the wiring. It was nice to have many projects going on in parallel for a change. Often times we end up doing things in a very linear process and end up having to take turns with the hands-on stuff in order to keep everyone feeling involved.

We are meeting again tomorrow to finish the hopper and hopefully add code for the two new motor systems. After that, we will take the (hopefully, substantially finished) robot to school for the drive team to work on autonomous programming. There is going to be a lot of commotion at school tomorrow, as teams help set up for the pre-ship event on Saturday. The pre-ship event is an informal, unofficial competition (dress rehersal) between Seattle area FIRST teams. If you aren’t going to drive down to Portland for the regional competition, this is your best bet to see some robots in action! The event is free and open to the general public and will be held in the lower gym at the International School between 10am and 3 pm this Saturday.

Pictures of the last two build meetings can be found here and here

Posted in General, Titan Robotics Club | No Comments »

Going Deep

Posted by Deliverator on 15th February 2006

This Monday my dad and I had an interesting little adventure. We hopped on the ferry to Bainbridge Island and then drove south to the Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport, where Don Walsh was giving an evening talk on the battleship Bismark.

Don Walsh is most famous for his 1960 dive to the deepest point in the ocean, the Challenger Deep. Don and Jacques Piccard descended some ~35,800 to reach bottom. Since then, no manned expedition has come even close to reaching this depth. The deepest manned submersibles now in operation can go ~20,000 feet, I believe. There has only been one other unmanned probe that has gone as deep, and it was lost in 2003. More people have walked on the moon than have visited the deepest areas of the ocean.

Don has gone on to do many noteworthy things since his 1960 trip and is very well known as a polar explorer. He is currently involved in a group called Deep Ocean Expeditions that is keeping poorly funded deep ocean exploration alive through extreme tourism. The group has done dives on the Titanic, Black Smokers and in 2001 they became the first to visit the Bismark. If you have ~$40,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you too can take part in one of their expeditions. This is a steal compared to other forms of extreme tourism.

Don’s talk on the Bismark was very interesting. Don is most definitely well-versed in the ship’s history, historical significance, design, etc. and conveyed the information in a much more human way than the History Channel could. Don was very passionate about the history of the Bismark, but was also very respectful of the wreck’s status as a war grave.

After the talk, I was struck by how closely the history of exploration has been tied to military endevours. War seems to be one of the few expedients to paying for and engineering the devices needed to convey our fragile selves to unvisited places. It deeply saddens me that the only commercial interest in space seems to be in the launching of satellites and sending wealthy people into near earth orbit.

Don Walsh Bismark Bismark2

Posted in General | No Comments »