Let The Smoke Out With This Merit Badge

Adafuit has a new product, a “magic smoke” badge for those of us who have fried a component — so basically, anyone who has tinkered with electronics.

Sometimes you need celebrate mistakes. Adafruit offers a fun and exciting “badges” of achievement for electronics, science and engineering. We believe everyone should be able to be rewarded for learning a useful skill, a badge is just one of the many ways to show and share.

This is the “I learned something, the magic blue smoke monster showed me” badge for use at classrooms, workshops, Maker Faires, TechShops and around the world to reward beginners on their skill building journey!


Ultra High Performance Double Pendulum

We covered Flickr user yamamo2′s (and his father’s) first high-performance double pendulum build back in 2009. The first version would swing for about 10 minutes, without added energy, after being started. The latest version swings for fully twice that, as the embedded video—all twenty-two minutes of it—thoroughly demonstrates. I haven’t seen any info about the design changes required to achieve this level of performance, unfortunately.

Make: Projects — Double Pendulum



Follow up – CadSoft EAGLE v6 – New XML Database Structure

Pt 10435

About 1 year ago I posted up that CadSoft EAGLE v6 promised the open-source hardware community they would include XML import/export as part of version 6. Last week they released v6 and it was in there. Here’s part of the note from last year.

  • The CadSoft EAGLE development team is developing a new format for schematic, layout and parts libraries that is XML, this means every object and line will be written out in text description.
  • You won’t have to worry about binary file corruption, you will be able to hand-edit or generate schematics and layouts and of course the magic of version-control (such as github) will be easier than ever with real text ‘diff’s!
  • This will be a fully documented format and also of course a converter for old CadSoft EAGLE binary-type formats.

And here’s the featured item on the “what’s new in v6″

XML database structure redesign. Read, edit and parse the data outside of the EAGLE tool. The new XML database structure provides the ability to write scripts that manipulate designs in the EAGLE format which will give users huge productivity benefits. You can make design changes, import information from other designs, and even translate from other formats. EAGLE is one of the first Commercial CAD Programs that adopts a ASCII XML data structure as their native file. This makes EAGLE the most flexible, user friendly and productive PCB tool on the market.

I think we’ll see many open tools like KiCAD and gEDA (and more close source tools, including EAGLE) all supporting the importing and exporting of data for more sharing. I’m also looking forward to visual diffs as services like GitHub add more features for hardware.


The Making of a New O’Reilly Media Ebook: Cool Tools in the Kitchen

Since 2003, the Cool Tools website has posted more than 2,000 reviews of tried and true stuff. In collaboration with Cool Tools, we’ve put together their first ebook compilation: Cool Tools in the Kitchen by Kevin Kelly and Steven Leckart. From Steven’s preface:

Broadly defined, a Cool Tool can be any book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that has proven utility. The reviews there are not the kind of comparative reviews you’ll find in magazines and other websites, which give pros and cons for each item. Rather, our reviews are outright rave recommendations submitted by readers who swear by the items, telling you why you should use them as well. Think of this book as a very knowledgeable best friend recommending the coolest stuff in no uncertain terms.

Unlike most O’Reilly Media ebooks, this book is available in only one format: ePUB (but like all O’Reilly Media ebooks, it’s DRM-free). That’s because the ePUB format has some unique strengths and capabilities, and we planned this project with Kevin from the beginning as an exploration of how far we could take ePUB to bring the Cool Tools experience to an ebook.

I asked Nellie McKesson, O’Reilly Media Production Specialist and ePub wrangler, to give us some background on how this book came to be.

It was really a team effort getting the final product where it is, and involved a lot of back and forth. The files were sent to [O'Reilly Media's Director of Content and Publishing Operations] Adam Witwer in Word, who had them retagged to match our standard conventions. Then he ran the files through our usual conversion to DocBook and then epub.

Adam took the first stab at building in some customizations by hand, mostly trying to mirror the Cool Tools website. [Cool Tools Research Librarian] Camille Cloutier, along with authors Steven and Kevin, came back to us with a list of ideas and changes, at which point Adam handed the project over to me.

For my part, it helped immensely that we picked one target reader: iBooks. There’s a huge amount of diversity in the different things that can be done on different readers, but iBooks is generally the most versatile. I thus had a lot more freedom to work, and also didn’t have to deal with the extensive amount of testing and QA that would have been needed to build-in broader compatibility.

Building for iBooks still has its quirks, though. First, there isn’t a desktop app to test in. I actually used Adobe Digital Editions as my test environment, and then periodically loaded it first onto Adam’s iPad, and then my own when he got sick of me sending him files to load and sprang for another iPad for me to use. There isn’t a good way to get around iBooks’ data cache, which meant that every time I wanted to QA a new iteration, I had to delete iBooks from my iPad entirely and reinstall, then reload the newest epub file.

As for the specific design, it’s hard for me to say how I finally got to the end result. I went through a lot of iterations, trying to find something that fit the authors’ and editor’s vision, and also satisfied my design sense. I actually got the idea for the tabbed chapter openers one day before my first draft was due, and raced to implement (I think I actually ended up being a little late because of that). It was only then that I really felt happy with what I had made, like I was on the right path.

For the tabs I applied a fixed width and a background color to the containing element, and used the webkit-border-radius property to round the corners. Instead of using a bottom border, I added a horizontal rule under the chapter title, and gave it a negative top margin so that it overlapped the bottom edge of the bounding box. I actually was thinking of the Kindle when I did this, since the Kindle doesn’t support borders, but it does support

s. I actually did a test conversion to Mobi a couple days ago, to see what would happen, and the chapter titles were one of my only customizations that looked halfway decent, because of the
’s. If we wanted to release a decent-looking Kindle version, I’d have to make a whole other epub first, and strip out or change a lot of stuff, and then reconvert. As I said before, if we had gone in with the intention of making a cross-compatible product, then I’d have been more careful, but it wouldn’t have looked quite as nice.

I picked up a little trick from Liz Castro’s blog to get the chapter opener grids to work. iBooks doesn’t like size restrictions applied directly to images, so I put each image within a div tag. The div is sized to 30% width, and the image is sized to 100%—basically saying, fit the image to the full width of its container, so the image ends up at 30% of the page size too. I then gave gave those divs a “display” value of “inline-block” in the css. This lets them all run together, instead of each one breaking onto its own line.

For the unique chapter colors, I was careful to build as much into the base style as possible and use real cascades. I tagged each chapter tag with a custom class for the chapter, and then just added custom CSS for the things that needed to change—background colors, etc. This isn’t revolutionary or “magic”, but it’s important and if I knew just a little bit less about CSS, I could have easily done it wrong—built an entirely new definition for each chapter class, which would have added a lot of unnecessary clutter to the code. For example, here are a few lines from the CSS for the chapter titles:

/* title and copyright page */

.chapter-title {
	text-align: center;
	color: #fff;
	-webkit-border-radius: 5px;
	-moz-border-radius: 5px;
	padding: 9px 5px 5px 5px;
	margin-bottom: 0px;
	max-width: 75%;

.ch01 .chapter-title {
	background-color: #EE0000;
	border: 1px solid #EE0000;

.ch02 .chapter-title {
	background-color: #91219E;
	border: 1px solid #91219E;

Interestingly, pagebreaks were still a bit of a battle. Reading on the web is a lot like reading on a big scroll—the page is as long as the content; eReaders are still more like print books, in that they still have a fixed page size, but the reader can change how much stuff they want on that page (by adjusting font, font size, margins, etc). In order to maintain this capability, there are going to be some presentations where the content breaks oddly. I came to grips with this idea a while ago, and it seems completely natural to me. I come from a print production background, and there are things that in a print book would drive me crazy, but in an eReader I barely even notice–widows, orphans, bad line breaks, etc.—and I’m not totally sure how to interpret this shift in myself.

Big thanks to Nellie, Adam, Camille, Steven, and Kevin for making this happen!


Ornamentation Opinions?

Moritz Wolpert etched brass analog synth faceplate

This season brings attention not just to ornaments, but to the whole idea of ornamentation and why we like it (or don’t). Here’s a question I’d love to get some opinions on. You can share in the discussion below, or if you want to contribute to opinion statistics, here is a SurveyMonkey poll. I’ll summarize and share the results.

For the purposes of this survey, ornamentation is defined as any non-functional elements in a design that are included purely for appearance.

Q: How much (1-10 scale) do you like ornamentation in the things that you…

  1. …Make yourself?
  2. …Buy?

I’d say I’m at 8 and 3.


Geiger Counter Tree Lights Respond to Radiation

I will spare you the obligatory “nuclear family Christmas” joke. From British artist Nikki Pugh.



Math Monday: What to Make from Binder Clips?

By George Hart for the Museum of Mathematics


Binder clips are one of the office supplies that aren’t always appreciated for their mathematical possibilities. Where many people see little architectural potential, Zach Abel has been pushing forward the boundaries of binder clip assembly research and offers a number of novel constructions. Here are three. Start with this six-clip exercise in which the clips are positioned along the positive and negative XYZ axes and are each held open by the loops in the handles of their neighbors.

Next, consider this open ball featuring twelve five-pointed stars and twenty hexagons. Its shape derives from a soccer ball, but there are stars instead of pentagons. A total of 120 clips are used to construct this, but sixty of them (at the concave points of the stars) have only one handle.

And for a maximum density spherical packing, check out this sturdy little ball made from 132 clips. The handles of each clip wrap around the bodies of their neighbors to make a regular weaving pattern. At the triangular openings (corresponding to the eight corners of a sphere) the handles lock in a cycle, as a nice touch.

See all of George Hart’s Math Monday columns


Toy Wooden Knight is Ready to Duel

Over at Made by Joel, the eponymous author’s son just acquired a noble knight made by Lego with a moveable arm for pretend sword-fighting. Not one to be excluded, Joel made his own version from wood, and the two staged an epic battle on video.

The notched work on the body parts are quite good. It makes me wonder if they were done by hand or routed on a CNC. All the same, the results are fantastic and inspirational for all you toy-makers toiling away at handmade pieces for the little ones in your lives. I have a spring loaded Hot Wheels launcher in the works, but shh… don’t tell my nephew quite yet. Post in the comments if you have a handmade toy in mind for the upcoming holidays.


Kit-A-Day Giveaway: MakerBot Thing-O-Matic (#4 of 5)

We’re giving away amazing kits from our new Make: Ultimate Kit Guide EVERY DAY — thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, including MakerBots!

To celebrate the release of our latest publication, the Make: Ultimate Kit Guide 2012 (and its companion website), we’re giving away at least one of the cool kits reviewed in the issue each day during the holiday season. Today, we’re giving away our fourth MakerBot Thing-O-Matic (a $1,300 value!), featured on the cover of the Ultimate Kit Guide. Here’s Make: Labs intern Eric Chu’s review of Thing-O-Matic from the issue:

If you want to get into 3D printing but don’t know where to start, the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic Kit is the way to go. It’s a complete kit, so you need no additional parts, and a large user community can back you up if problems pop up (not to mention Thingiverse, where you can find awesome open source designs). It took me about 20 hours to build the Thing-O-Matic and start printing, and I improved its accuracy with more tuning, calibrating, and tinkering with settings in the ReplicatorG software. If you have any trouble, read the discussion at the bottom of every build step. I’ve since 3D-printed many fun and handy things (everyone loves a 3D-printed gift!) and the MakerBot is now by far the most-used machine at Make: Labs.

To be eligible for today’s giveaway, all you have to do is leave a comment below in this post. Writing a haiku will not help your chances (but it may give us a laugh.) The entry period for today’s prize will be until 11:59pm PST tonight. We’ll choose one person at random, you’ll be notified by email, and you’ll have 48 hours to respond. The Winners List is kept on the Giveaway landing page. That’s it! No purchase necessary or anything else to do. Please leave only one comment per post. You can enter as many giveaways as you like until you win. This giveaway is for US residents only. You also must be 18 years old to enter (Kids: Ask your parents to enter). See the Kit-A-Day Giveaway landing page for full sweepstakes details and Official Rules.

Important Note: If you enter this drawing, when it’s over, please check the place where you registered to comment (eg. Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter). Some people are winning these kits and then not responding when we send them a message using the available means of contacting them. We want to make sure you get your giveaway!


Arduino Gift Guide 2011

For this year’s guide to the best in Arduino boards, shields, and accessories, we asked Tod Kurt to share some of his suggestions. Tod is the author of Hacking Roomba, co-founder of the Los Angeles hackerspace Crash Space, and creator of BlinkM, the “Smart LED.” He used to do web work and build Martian probe cameras. He blogs at Here’s Tod’s guide to the ever-expanding world of Arduino. -Gareth


Arduino Uno R3 (Maker Shed, $30)
The Uno R3 is the official Arduino board to get if you’re just getting started. If you already have an Arduino, chances are you want another one. Having multiple boards makes debugging easier, lets you experiment with network protocols, and gives you the option of permanently installing an Arduino-based project. You can never have too many Arduinos. No… really!

The Uno R3 is an improvement over previous Unos in only a couple of ways that are important (and only in certain types of projects). Its reset circuitry is better if you’re controlling a high-current device like a motor. Its reprogrammable USB chip has 16kB instead of 8kB, making it easier for the Uno to look like a USB keyboard, mouse or other device to your host computer. If you can’t get an R3, the R2 works just as well if you’re just starting out, and you can easily retrofit it with the reset circuitry fix.

Gameduino Game Adapter Shield (ExCamera, $53)
Getting an Arduino to make video and sound is hard. But not anymore. The Gameduino is one of the most amazing shields to emerge from the Arduino community. It turns the Arduino into an 8-bit gaming console, with VGA output and stereo sound. It’s driven by an FPGA with a custom 16-bit coprocessor that gives you access to 256 sprites on 512 x 512 pixel backgrounds and 64 voices of 12-bit sound. You can recreate pretty much any game from the 1980s now with just an Arduino, a Gameduino, and a couple of buttons.

The Excamera site has numerous examples of how to code your Arduino sketch to take advantage of the Gameduino’s capabilities using the well designed “GD” Arduino library. You can be up with a Arduino-controlled on-screen bouncing ball in a matter of minutes. I’m going to be using one of these to make a full-color video animated status display for one of my projects.

PowerSwitch Tail II (Maker Shed, $27)
Ever wanted to have your computer control Christmas lights?  Or a fan or floor lamp? The PowerSwitch Tail makes it a snap and makes it safe. Dealing with AC currents can be dangerous; the PowerSwitch Tail hides the potentially lethal AC switching in a sealed enclosure. The whole thing looks like a stubby extension cord. It has an isolated (to 5300V) low-voltage input on its side that takes a voltage between 3-12VDC. To turn on an AC appliance, you set that input HIGH from an Arduino’s output pin. The PowerSwitch Tail can switch an AC load of up to 15A (up from 10A from the original PowerSwitch Tail), meaning just about any appliance in your house can be controlled with it. Get a bunch and control one per Arduino pin!

Alpha Clock Five Kit (Evil Mad Science, $145)
I like big clocks, and I can’t deny — big clocks you can see when you can’t find your glasses.  Sure you can get a cheapie clock from Amazon for less than this kit, but those cheapies aren’t open source and reprogrammable with the Arduino software like the Alpha Clock Five. And this timepiece looks much cooler with its huge 2.3″ retro 18-segment red LEDs, custom laser-cut acrylic case, and lovely PCB. The 18-segment displays means you can display letters (show tweets!) or even make cool “screensavers” for your clock. The Alpha Clock Five kit features clear instructions that walk you through tools needed, soldering techniques, and how to test out the clock as you build it. It might not be a good first soldering kit, but would be a great second kit.

Arduino Cookbook (O’Reilly, available in the Maker Shed, $45)
This is one of the best Arduino books to take you from knowing nothing to several pretty complex practical examples. Some of the higher concepts covered include I2C and Ethernet networks, wireless communication with XBees, and working with graphical LCD displays. This comprehensiveness is reflected in its size, at 662 pages long. The Arduino Cookbook is a good reference to keep handy after you’ve mastered the basics. While the book does use the pre-Arduino 1.0 syntax, the differences are minor and an upcoming 2nd edition (due out soon) will address Arduino 1.0.

MintDuino (Maker Shed, $25)
When you start playing with Arduino, you find yourself wanting to have multiple boards, each doing their own thing. Doing that with multiple official Arduino boards can get expensive. One way to save money is with a DIY version of Arduino built on a solderless breadboard. These “breadboard Arduinos” can be pretty small and the MintDuino is an example of that — it fits in a standard mint tin. The MintDuino comes with everything you need to get started except a 9V battery and USB-to-serial adapter. (see the FTDI Friend below) Once you get familiar with how the MintDuino works, you can build even cheaper Arduino-clones using similar parts you might have laying around.

AVR Sticker for Breadboard Arduinos (Adafruit, $3)
If you end up making your own DIY breadboard versions of Arduino boards or even the MintDuino, having these chip stickers is a big help in mapping between Arduino pin names and AVR chip pin numbers.  These vinyl-cut stickers are much higher quality than the homemade versions I created and they will last longer too. You get a pack of 10 for $3.

Plastic Mounting Plate for Arduino & Breadboard (Adafruit, $5)
Keeping a breadboard and an Arduino stable is important in eliminating connection problems between the two. These problems can be annoyingly hard to troubleshoot. This laser-cut mounting plate (with LRF support! — “little rubber feet”) is great for creating a stable platform for your experiments. Setting it up is simple: attach your Arduino with the included screws, stick on your breadboard using its included double-stick tape, and you’re done. It’s an inexpensive way to prevent the headache of a project falling apart. And you can drill into it so it can be used to mount projects to another surface. As an added benefit, the design is open source, with the design files on Thingiverse so you can customize it and cut out your own versions.

FTDI Friend (Maker Shed, $15)
The first thing eliminated from DIY Arduino compatibles is the USB interface. After your project is installed and running, it’s often a wasted part. The FTDI Friend from Adafruit is a USB-to-serial interface you can use to replace that missing part, adding it only when you need it and removing it when done. It uses the same FTDI chip that’s in the original Arduino boards, and it is well-supported on Mac, Linux, Windows, as well as by the Arduino IDE. The FTDI Friend board can be set to 3.3V or 5V communication modes, making it more useful than the official FTDI cable often used. A USB-to-serial adapter like the FTDI friend is also a great tool for non-Arduino tasks too, like putting Linux on your home WiFi router or hacking your Roomba.

USBtinyISP AVR Programmer kit (Adafruit, $22)
If you play with Arduinos long enough, chances are you will eventually blow the AVR chip at the heart of it. Replacement AVR chips with the Arduino bootloader are available but can be hard to find when you need them most. If you build a lot of DIY breadboard Arduinos, having the ability to make your own Arduino AVR chips is useful. And all you need is an AVR programmer like Adafruit’s USBtinyISP. To use it, plug a blank AVR chip into the socket on the Arduino, plug the AVR programmer into the 6-pin connector on the Arduino board, and in the Arduino IDE select “Burn Bootloader.” A minute or so later, you have a fresh Arduino chip ready to use. I keep a stack of AVR chips on hand and make Arduinos out of them all the time for myself and friends.

The USBtinyISP is offered as a kit, but Adafruit has top quality instructions on how to build and test it. And, of course, the programmer’s design is open source and works on Mac, Windows, and Linux.

BlinkM Smart LED  (Maker Shed, $14)
Ever wanted a tiny light source that was a specific color or played a specific pattern? Something that could run by itself, without an Arduino? The BlinkM Smart LED is a tiny board containing an RGB LED and a microcontroller. BlinkM can be any color in a 24-bit color space and can play back stand-alone light patterns up to 48 steps long. It plugs directly into an Arduino using only two pins for I2C. The open source BlinkMSequencer app let’s you program the BlinkM’s color patterns without knowing programming. But if you do, there are tons of open-source examples of how to use BlinkM with Arduino, Processing, and other languages. If you need something even smaller, there’s the BlinkM MinM too.

Since the BlinkM uses an Arduino-like ATtiny85 microcontroller, you can treat the BlinkM as a “BlinkMuino.” essentially the world’s smallest Arduino, and run your own Arduino sketches on it. [Disclosure: I am the creator of BlinkM, so of course I think it's great!]

Ultimate Microcontroller Pack (Maker Shed, $150 w/ Arduino Uno R3)
Let’s say you know nothing about Arduino, don’t know where to find all the the various bits you need to get hacking on Arduino. What do you do? You get this pack. If you shopped around carefully, you could assemble everything in this pack cheaper, but that’s a lot of (virtual) legwork. The staff at MAKE have done that for you and put together a nicely curated set of fun sensors and actuators to play with. And they’ve given you enough infrastructure like wires and breadboards so you can actually hook stuff up. You get both a full-sized breadboard, a mini breadboard with a prototyping shield, and a couple of protoboards for more permanent soldered circuits. The pack has a nice collection of different kinds of motors too (vibration, standard DC, two micro servos) to let you play around with the essence of robotics. It’s got some really interesting sensors in the form of tilt switches, force sensors, and thermistors. And, of course, it has the expected compliment of buttons, knobs, and LEDs. If you learn how to use every component in this pack, you should be eligible for an Arduino merit badge.

Prototino Kit (Maker Shed, $24)
Once you have a standard Arduino board, chances are you’ll want to make some permanent projects with it. While you can buy a full Arduino board for each project, that can get expensive. As mentioned above, a “breadboard Arduino” can be built for a few bucks and will run your sketches identically, but the wires will get loose eventually and your project will start to fail. For something more permanent than a breadboard Arduino but still cheaper than a full Arduino, look to the Prototino Kit from Spikenzie Labs. It’s a mint tin-sized board that contains all the parts for a basic Arduino work-alike. but also includes enough protoboard space for custom circuitry. Like other econo-duinos, you will need a USB-to-serial adapter like the FTDI Friend to program it. The Prototino is a good kit to assemble for beginners, so if you know Arduino but don’t know how to solder, give this one a try.

Diavolino Kit (Evil Mad Science, $13)
If you want Arduino compatibility with an Arduino form-factor (for use with shields, for instance) , the Diavolino from Evil Mad Science is inexpensive and gives you the option of making it reasonably low-profile. It eschews even the power supply that’s on most Arduino-compatibles, allowing you to run the board at voltages lower than 5V and some real long-lived battery-powered applications. You can add back in a power supply if you want at a later time. The Diavolino is a good starter-soldering kit too. Its clear instruction manual walks you through tools needed, techniques, and how to test it all out. But like the Prototino, this should be your second Arduino, not your first, so you’re not troubleshooting both hardware and software at the same time.


Our friends at element14 sell a full compliment of Arduino microcontrollers and accessories. You can access the Arduino overview page here. Below are just a few of the items they have available.

Arduino Mega 2560
The Arduino Mega 2560, which replaces the original Mega, is a microcontroller board based on the ATmega2560 MCU. It has 54 digital I/O pins (of which 14 can be used as PWM outputs), 16 analog inputs, 4 UARTs (hardware serial ports), a 16 MHz crystal oscillator, a USB connection, a power jack, an ICSP header, and a reset button. It contains everything needed to support the microcontroller; simply connect it to a computer with a USB cable or power it with a AC-to-DC adapter or battery to get started. The Mega is compatible with most shields designed for the Arduino Duemilanove or Diecimila. -Gareth


Enclosure for the Arduino Duemilanove or Mega w/ Ethernet Shield
Now that you have an Arduino-based project you’re proud of, what do you do with it? Put it in a cardboard box? Your project deserves a durable plastic enclosure. Usually when building electronics projects, you find one of the many generic enclosures and then Dremel it up with holes and cutouts. These usually looks pretty amateurish unless you’ve got a steady hand. This clear enclosure is made specifically for Arduino-based projects and includes pop-out plates covering ready-made holes for buttons, LCDs, knobs, etc.

I think a clear enclosure is better than opaque white because it gives you the option of having indicator lights visible without needing to drill holes. If you want it opaque, here’s a tip for making it look cool and having the paint last a long time: paint the inside of the enclosure, not the outside. The clear plastic will protect the paint and give it a real depth. – Tod

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