Thursday, December 17, 2015

Drawing electronic circuits

When I first started out playing with electronics, making printed circuits was difficult. It required tedious printing of the "mask" onto the copper-clad board, caustic chemicals, and usually multiple attempts to get it right.

It has gotten easier over the years and there are fabrication houses that can print them from drawings, but that takes time and it's not particularly cost effective for experimenters testing simple designs.

Here's an interesting option called Circuit Scribe for the budding STEM student in your house. Using a conductive ink, you can now draw circuits onto any insulating surface (even paper) and stick electronic components to them magnetically. It will certainly be useful in teaching electronics and even has connectors for Arduino.

I think I'd still prefer to do this kind of testing with a breadboard, but if your kids want to learn more about basic electronics, this might be just the thing. sells Circuit Scribe kits.
Here's a video that shows off the technology:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Basic's training for Apple gear

Computers, tablets and phones are popular gifts for the holidays. If your family gets Apple presents this year, there's a resource that's close by and helpful.

It's the Apple Store. 

I don't often go to the Apple Store, but I had something shipped there that I bought on-line. As I was checking out, I mentioned that I might be giving a MacBook Air to my wife to replace a clunky old Dell. The sales person, Ameesh, mentioned that they have workshops in the store for people to learn about the technology. And these workshops are free.

There are workshops on iPhones, iPads, Apple watches, Macs – even iPhone videography. So, if you've got a relative that needs some basic tech instruction on Apple gear, check them out!

In Toledo: 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Portable second screen

I enjoy the benefits of the additional real estate of a second monitor at my desk. Now there's an easy on-the-road option.

It's called Duet and it allows you to use your iPad as a second screen. You install Duet on your PC or Mac (for free), on your iPad (for $9) and plug in your iPad with a USB cable it just works. 

It works with either a Lightning equipped iPad or one of the older models with the 30 pin connector. I'm using it with an iPad 3 and a MacBook Pro – they say it also works with Windows PC's.

The performance isn't super but I understand it's better with a newer iPad using a Lightning connector – it's adequate for anything you're doing that doesn't require a lot of mouse movement. I'd love to see it working with an iPad Pro (but I just can't afford one.)

Pretty cool!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Huge drive from Western Digital

I've been watching disk storage advances since the 80's and I'm constantly amazed at what they're doing with this technology.

This year, for the first time, Western Digital has announced a 10TB drive, the He10

In order to achieve this density of storage, they use multiple platters, each platter storing more than a TB of data. They fill the drives with helium in order to fly the heads closer to the surface than on traditional air-filled drives.

You probably won't be getting one for the Holidays: the He10 drive is designed for datacenter rack use – high performance, low power usage, high reliability (2.5M hours MTBF.) It runs at 7200 RPM and the SAS version has a 12Gb per second transfer rate.

This kind of high density storage means lower power, less rack space and better performance for very large datacenters. 

As SSD drives increase in capacity, the competition between these technologies will continue for the foreseeable future – this is important in our increasingly data-centric world.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Browser Testing

I've recently accepted a new role at work work. I'm moving into the web team and will be picking up Dev/Ops responsibilities. I'm really looking forward to working with the new team and continuing to learn new stuff!

I'm still blogging (here and on an internal corporate blog), but the focus may change a little as I discuss more of the software side of things. Starting today!

Browser Testing

It used to be that if you wanted to test your website with, say, Internet Explorer 8 on Windows 7, you'd have to have a Windows 7 PC with Internet Explorer 8 on it. Regression testing across many machine/browser variations could get very expensive very fast.

Today there are better ways to do this. 

You could set up a lab with various virtual machines running the different versions of the operating systems and browsers. But, you'd still have to manage the underlying hardware, the virtual machines' base operating systems, the various versions of the browsers you want to test and be able to spin up a pristine version of the browser for each test. You'd also have to keep the machines patched and operating. If you wanted to do automated testing, you'd have to set up and manage your testing tools environment as well.  Still rather resource intensive – just less hardware.

The easiest option, by far, is to let someone else handle everything from the browser down to the operating system, hardware and network connection - a Platform as a Service. There are a number of cloud based services that do this. I looked at a few of them last night. Here are some highlights.

I looked at three services: CrossBrowserTesting, SauceLabs and BrowserStack.

CrossBrowserTesting supports several versions of Windows, OSX, Ubuntu and mobile platforms with all the major browsers (IE, FireFox, Chrome, Opera, etc.) It costs $30/user/month and looks like a capable product. They offer a 7 day free trial, but it only provides Windows and Mac operating systems (no Linux) to test with. It took about 20 seconds to start up and load a test page. You can run automated tests (using Selenium) or manually test.

SauceLabs supports a similar stable of platforms, but they only charge $12/user/month. It took about 25 seconds to start up and load a test page. They also offer Selenium automated testing and manual testing. They offer a free trial as well but with more combinations of platform/browser than CrossBrowserTesting.

BrowserStack also supports a number of different platforms (no Linux, though) and also automated testing with Selenium. It's $30/user/month as well. They offer a free trial, but only with the most recent versions of the browsers. (I didn't trial this one: they have a browser add-in that I would want to analyze more thoroughly before installing it.)

I like SauceLabs the best: lowest cost, it supports all the platforms I'm interested in and has an easy-to-use interface. 

These are all capable tools – check them out. They're much less work than maintaining a room full of hardware… And they're all pretty cheap.

Monday, December 7, 2015

On-site paper recycling

Here’s a novel piece of technology that Jessi Roedema forwarded to me.

It’s a paper recycling system designed for corporate/large-scale paper users. Rather than collecting, shredding, transporting and recycling, this system does it all, on-site turning used paper into new paper.

The PaperLab system takes printed sheets in, grinds them to a fine powder, removes the ink and presses them back into pristine sheets of paper at 14 pages per minute. It doesn’t use the costly bleach and water slurry system that “real” paper manufacturers use. They don’t talk a lot about the technology, but a recent patent may show what they’re using: 

For heavy paper users with serious security challenges this would solve the problem of transporting unshredded paper to a recycler as well as reducing the shredding and two-way transportation cost.  The technology is not small and it’s not cheap – ArsTechnica estimates the cost higher than $75K, no word regarding on-going consumables and power cost. They’ll go on sale in Japan in 2016, and presumably elsewhere later.

Here’s a link to the press release for more info. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Memory failures - stop blaming cosmic rays!

Here's a fascinating (really) article from IEEE on an investigation into DRAM failures. 

Most computer problems are due to these memory failures. Surprisingly, until now, no one really knew much about them. The prevalent assumption was that memory corruption was due to high-energy particle cascades from cosmic rays… (really!)

Since DRAM error events are relatively rare, it takes analysis of huge datacenters with thousands of computers storing petabytes of data to come to meaningful conclusions. 

It's a quick read and very interesting if you like to know what makes computers tick (or, rather, what makes them stop ticking…)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Newest Raspberry Pi

The newest version of the Raspberry Pi, the Pi Zero, was released last week. 

And it costs $5.

It uses the Broadcom BCM2835 processor (40% faster than the original Pi) and has 512MB of RAM. 

There's a microsSD slot for the OS, a mini-HDMI socket for full HD @60 fps and Micro-USB sockets for data and power. It's about half the size of the original Raspberry Pi but has the same 40-pin GPIO header (to connect it to real-world I/O) and it includes space for composite video header as well. Raspbian Linux has been ported to it, so it should work just like the other Pi's.

It's available from Adafruit and MicroCenter here in the US, but they expect demand to keep them out of stock for a while. They say they've produced tens of thousands of the little computers, but at $5, demand will likely eclipse even the very popular Raspberry Pi 1 when it was announced.) 

The A+, Pi 2 and the B+ models are still available (at $20, $35 and $25 respectively.)

With the incredibly low cost of these devices, they're likely to show up in everything from light switches to drones.

For more details: