Exploring Minecraft Pi Edition

If you are a Raspberry Pi enthusiast, you may have seen that Minecraft Pi Edition was officially released yesterday. I don't have the time to game like I used to, so I haven't really played Minecraft, but this version looked intriguing since it's free and it has an open API. So I downloaded it yesterday during a break when both of the boys were napping and give it a quick run. The performance of the game is surprisingly responsive, which shows that the GPU in the Pi is fairly capable, even if stock Raspian X Windows is slow.

With a bit of digging into the very sparse API docs included with the program, and a little Internet help, I was able to get a bit of code up and running. All it does is create a sphere 10 blocks away from the player's location in the Z direction. Here's the quick and dirty code:

You can see the results in this photo:

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Pretty fun stuff, even if it's very basic. I know that the hardcore MC fans have already been scripting some pretty fantastic stuff in the PC version. It should be interesting to see what people do with the Pi version.

3D Printed Enclosures

In my FDIM 2012 and Pacificon 2012 presentations, I mentioned 3D printing as a disruptive technology that could be useful to ham homebrewers in the construction of enclosures for our projects. This link has a good example of what I was envisioning, calling this application the "killer app" of 3D printing.

Mythbusters at The Tech

This year I made a quick trip to Pacificon (hopefully I'll have a full blog post about the trip later) but I managed to squeeze in a little time on Sunday to visit with my Mom and Stepdad, who drove down from the Sacramento area to spend a bit of time together. They took me to The Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose before dropping me off for my flight home. The museum was cool, but it reminded me of OMSI and seemed to be geared towards kids and the less tech-savvy. However, they had just opened up a special exhibit called Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition a day prior to our visit. It wasn't a huge exhibit, but it was obviously well thought-out and a ton of the actual props from the show were brought in for display, which are instantly recognizable to fans of the program. Most of it was interactive, and they even had a live stage show with audience participation. Given that M5 Industries is also in the Bay Area, it seems like a natural choice for The Tech to host this exhibit.

This was by far the best part of the day for me. I snapped some photos with my lousy phone camera, which are presented below. If you're a fan of the show and you are in the area, it's well worth your time to visit, and I think you can get admission separate from the main museum if you would like.

Resurrect Dead

Toynbee Tile

I imagine that nearly all of my readers are interested in radio in some shape or form, so I thought I would recommend a fun documentary that you can view on Netflix streaming called Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. If you enjoy the world of crazy conspiracy theories, pirate radio, and solving a mystery, then you'll get a kick out of this one.

The subject is the odd "Toynbee tiles" which have mysteriously appeared on urban streets in many of the larger cities of the East Coast of the US since the early 1980s. The documentary follows a trio of gentlemen who are determined to track down the responsible party for these bizarre messages which have been implanted into the asphalt of many city streets. I don't want to give away much of the story, but there's a significant and critical bit of the story devoted to SWL and pirate radio, so I think a lot of you will get engrossed in the story based on that, not to mention the general oddness of the topic. As I mentioned, it's available for free if you have Netflix streaming, so put it in your Instant Queue for a watch soon.

Dayton Or Bust

I've got another grab-bag of miscellaneous news for this post, but I'm going to lead off with the big one: I'm going to be a presenter at the world's preeminent QRP convention: Four Days In May 2012. The tentative topic for my presentation will be about the free and open source tools that I use in the development of my products and how you can put them to use in your own homebrewing endeavors. This will be my first time speaking to an audience larger than about 25 people, so I hope that I can provide an entertaining and informative talk at such a prestigious event. I'll be speaking in front of a lot of people who I consider to be much more capable than I and some who I consider my virtual Elmers. It is my sincere desire to not disappoint.

I am very excited for the opportunity to go back to Dayton so soon after my last trip. I really didn't expect to have the chance to go again for quite a few more years, so the ability to get back to the convention after only two years is a great blessing. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jennifer, who didn't hesitate to encourage me to go, even though she will be dealing with a 2-month-old baby and a near 2-year-old by herself for a few days while I'm away.

In other news, I feel like I've gotten over the steep part of the learning curve with Kicad, having successfully made PCBs for my little Twin-T code practice oscillator. You can see a short video of it in action above. The output level is suitable for modern, sensitive headphones, but if you want room-filling audio such as in my video, you'll need to connect it to an amplified speaker. The PCB is designed to fit in the ubiquitous Altoids tin, with room to spare for a 9 V battery.  I expect that this will eventually make it to my stable of products, but it's low priority considering the long delay on the CC-Series and the need to get it ready to sell by May. If you are really interested in the project, write a comment or shoot me an email (milldrum at gmail) and I'll see if I can't work something out to get you hooked up with a kit early.

The OpenBeacon project is cruising right along. Now that I know that I can successfully make a PCB with Kicad, I've taken the plunge and decided to migrate all of my workflow there (I think this will include the next board spin of CC-Series, since there are so many changes to be made there will be no real advantage to staying with TinyCAD/FreePCB). The OpenBeacon PCB design is nearing completion. Once I get a shipment from Mouser in the next few days to verify that my newly-created PCB footprints match the actual physical components, I'll be ready to submit my CAM files to Seeed Studio for prototype boards. With any luck, I'll have them back within about two weeks. (Protip: it's worth taking the time to place your component against a 1:1 printout of your Gerber to make sure it will fit. Don't ask me how I know this.)

Once those CAM files are off to China, it will be full-bore on the CC-Series. With the deadline of mid-May staring me down hard, I figure I will have to get those CAM files out within no more than three weeks. That will put me into mid-March for getting the PCBs back, which will give a pretty slim margin of time to beta test and prepare the kit for final sale. Going to be pulling some long, late-night shifts...that I can already see.

I've also got a few more projects in the pipeline for after FDIM and the deployment of CC-Series and OpenBeacon. The first is a fairly simple and inexpensive VXO DC transceiver that I hope to initially kit for the high bands of 10, 12, and 15 meters. It uses a topology which is somewhat unique. The other is an extrapolation of the receiver circuitry of this rig to use as a dedicated QRSS grabber receiver. But I may be getting a bit ahead of myself. Let's get this CC-Series launched, then see where the winds take us.

Another Harmonic

11 - 1

I can finally let the cat out of the bag. As I alluded to on Google+ a few weeks ago, lots of stuff was happening behind the scenes here. One of the biggest pieces of news I can now share with the world. You can probably tell from the image above: we're having another baby! Noah gets to be a big brother!

We got another small surprise today. The initial due date was estimated to be in the 2nd week of March. Jennifer went in for an ultrasound today so that her OB/GYN could estimate the baby's gestation age better and it turns out that the baby is a bit further along than we thought. The new due date is the 3rd week in February. If this one is anything like Noah, he or she might be late, so there's a chance this could be a leap year baby. Cool!

It's going to be nuts having two little ones close to the same age running around here, but we both wanted Noah to have a sibling close in age. Besides, I'm creeping closer and closer to 40, so I figured we better git 'er done now, so that the teenage kids don't break my hip when we are roughhousing.

I feel a bit crazy trying to launch a new business, develop a brand new radio, be a stay-at-home dad, and welcome a new baby into the world. But what fun is life if you don't try something crazy every once in a while?




Here's a quote from Wes describing the equipment that he was using on his end:

I hope that my signal was OK when we worked.   I was in the midst of wrapping up a frequency synthesizer project and had it running on the rig for the first time.   When I heard you on 20, I could not resist calling.  You were the first contact using that source.   But I then discovered that the PLL was oscillating.   It was a low level oscillation and didn't present an obvious problem with regard to what I heard on the air.   But it was there.   I have since then changed the phase/frequency detector circuitry and have eliminated the oscillation.   I am not thrilled with the 74HC4046.    I get much more repeatable performance from a dual D FF with a NAND gate.

This Is What Radio Is All About


Over the last few days, Jennifer has been off work, so I've been able to spend more time in the shack working on Project X. I only recently made my first QSO with the prototype rig (I think propagation was unfavorable for me when I was trying late in the evenings), so I've been leaving the radio hooked up to my bench AF amp and monitoring 7030 kHz during the day.

Late this afternoon, I heard a very strong station calling CQ just a bit up from 7030. I bumped the VFO up a bit and found that it was KE7GKM calling at a nice, comfortable speed for me (my CW is rusty after quite a few months off the air). While I called him back, the thought occurred to me that the call sounded familiar, but I couldn't remember how. After getting the QSO basics out of the way, I remembered why. Bob said that he was using a VRX-1 and homebrew QRP transmitter combo! Then it hit me that Bob had just e-mailed me about a week ago to ask me a few questions regarding the VRX-1.

I don't get on the air as much as I should (seems like I'm melting solder way more than pounding brass), but when I get a chance, it means so much to me to have a contact with someone who has built one of my radio designs. It's even more special when I get that make that QSO with a homebrewed radio on my own end as well. If I remember correctly, this is only the second time that I've done such a thing.

Bob told me that he is trying to get to 100 QSOs with his VRX-1/HB TX combo, and that I was QSO #80 (if I remember correctly, my notes aren't great). I wish Bob all the best of luck in his endeavor. It certainly looks like he doesn't have much more to do in order to meet his goal.

It's hard to beat an experience like this in capturing the essence of amateur radio for me. It is my hope that more amateurs will homebrew their own gear so that they can get that same thrill.

Shack Mk. II

Here's a cheap & cheerful (or in the American vernacular, crappy) panorama that I just did with the open source Hugin software package. Yes, there are some obviously bad stitches, but it gives you an idea of what my newly updated shack looks like. I added the KADA 852D+ rework station, upgraded the shack PC, and got a shiny new 24" TV/monitor. Wish I had more free time to play with Hugin, as I love panorama images.

On the "Project X" front, progress is continuing. The firmware is just getting going, but as soon as I have a barebones firmware, I'm going to send out for my first PCBs for beta testing. Hopefully that will be within about two weeks. Please feel free to send along any questions or suggestions in the comments below!