Monday, July 29, 2013

America's Cup Racing on the San Francisco Bay

I could only capture the two boats together at the start.
After that they were never close together again

You may recall that we went to see some sailboat racing a few months ago.  Yesterday we braved the foggy San Francisco weather again to see the Louis Vuitton Cup races on the San Francisco Bay.  If you haven't been following sailing, you may be excused for not knowing that 3 years ago team BMW/Oracle won the America's Cup in the Mediterranean Sea and now team Oracle is hosting the challengers to the oldest active trophy in international sports, here in the San Francisco Bay.  The America's Cup is a match race between two boats; the defender and the challenger.  The defender is the last winner and current holder of the cup.  They get to write the rules for the next competition.  The challenger, who will compete against the Team Oracle and the Golden Gate Yacht Club in this case, is being decided through a series of races called the Louis Vuitton Cup.  Whoever wins that series of races will compete against Team Oracle in September in the America's Cup.

I have two sporting events that I try to follow; the Tour De France and the America's Cup.  Both have been difficult to watch in the last few years.  Just as it appears that Tour De France has been decided by doctors with pharmaceuticals, the America's Cup is decided by lawyers.  There are constant challenges to the rules and court decision that have a significant effect on the outcome of the race.  It feels like something where deals are struck in smokey back rooms.  

Still, I am mesmerized and watch.  The technology in these boats is crazy.  I first got interested in the America's cup as a boy many years ago when the boats were 12 meter, mono-hull sailboats.  Now they are carbon fiber miracles with wings for sails that literally fly over the water at 40 knots (~45mph) in a 20 knot (~23mph) breeze.  When you see a 70+ foot boat "foiling" (rise out of the water) using only wind power, it is invigorating.  It is magical.  And it is over much too fast as they sail out of view.
Team New Zealand "flying" over the water
This brings us to the competition itself.  There are three contenders for the Louis Vuitton cup;  Emerates Team New Zealand, Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge and Sweden's Artemis Racing.  Artemis Racing had an accident in which their boat was heavily damaged and sadly one crew member died.  They are rebuilding their boat, but in the mean time there are only two contenders for the Louis Vuitton Cup.  Those are the two we saw this weekend.  Team New Zealand cleaned Luna Rossa's clock.  New Zealand got an advantage at the start and never looked back.  They were significantly faster on every point of sail.  This led me to the weird perspective that Luna Rossa, flying along at 35 knots, was "slow."  The boats we are used to sailing will do about 8-10 knots under ideal conditions.  This bears very little resemblance to the sailing sport that I know.

The "slower" Luna Rossa speeding across the bay
As I mentioned before, the holder of the cup gets to make up the rules for the next challenge.  These high-tech wonders are the result of something called the AC72 rule.  It defines what is allowed and not allowed in the race.  The boats and the race itself are designed to make sailing into a more interesting sport for TV.  The boats are big, fast, beautiful, shiny and extreme.  Sailing hasn't traditionally been a big spectator sport, but these boats are designed to race close to shore where we can watch the race.  The boats go so fast that they disappear from view pretty quickly, but they are still very impressive to see live.  From a spectator point of view, I think a real issue is that the competition hasn't been very exciting so far.  Because Artemis is out until they have their new boat ready, the only races between multiple boats have been between Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa.  Every time, Team New Zealand has won decisively.  It's not much of a competition so far.  I think there are a few issues that need to be addressed to make this more exciting for viewer.  The boats are so expensive that only a few of them exist.  Several challengers dropped out because they weren't able to raise the many millions of dollars to build a competitive boat.  When a single accident can cost 10s of millions of dollars, it isn't something you are going to casually make in your garage.  This limits the number of teams that compete, which in turn limits the appeal to the spectators.  Add to this the fact that the boats move so fast that boats that are even just a few seconds apart seem pretty separate on the water.  They don't interact with each other much.  Hopefully as we get further along in the competition they will be more closely matched and the competition will get more interesting.

So far, the technology involved is compelling to me, including the TV coverage on Youtube which is interesting to watch.  If you'd like to see for yourself, you can find the schedule of races here, and the America's Cup YouTube Channel is here.  Or you can watch the recording of the race that we saw live here.  I do hope the competition gets more interesting soon because this has the potential to be quite an exciting spectacle.  All I know is that in September, I expect to knock another item off my life list if I get to attend an America's Cup race live.

For the gadgeteers in the crowd, you can see an inside view of the America's Cup boats through the eyes of the Maker Camp hangout below.  They visited Team Oracle in a couple weeks ago and give you a little glimpse into the technology and expertise that goes into building a world class racing sailboat, like a sewing machine that can sew through carbon fiber sails.

For more information see the official America's Cup site or

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Build a WaterColorBot and paint that masterpiece...

Super Awesome Sylvia is at it again. This time she has teamed up with the folks at Evil Mad Scientist Labs to create a printer that paints with watercolors. It is pretty clever and seems like quite a bit of fun.  They have started a Kickstarter campaing to get it off the ground, and only a couple days in they have already reached their target goal of $50,000.  Good job!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How the Tesla Model S is built

Here in Silicon Valley, the all electric Tesla Model S is showing up everywhere.  We have a little game we play when we go out where we try to spot as many Tesla's as we can.  It is a gorgeous car and an exciting glimpse into the future of automotive design.  One thing that you don't see on the street is how the car is manufactured.  My grandfather worked for GM, but I'm not sure he would recognize this factory at all.  The video below gives a glimpse into how the Tesla Model S is built.  I find it fascinating to watch the robots at work.

In case you are interested, I also came across this nice article for a behind the scenes look at the Tesla Headquarters

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Raspbery Pi Microwave Oven

A developer by the name of Nathan Broadband has created a Raspberry Pi based microwave oven.  Why?  Why not?  Here is a list of features according to Nathan:

  • Re-designed touchpad
  • Nicer sounds
  • Clock is automatically updated from the internet
  • Can be controlled with voice commands
  • Can use a barcode scanner to look up cooking instructions from an online database
  • There weren't any online microwave cooking databases around, so I made one:
  • The microwave has a web page so you can control it from your phone (why not), and set up cooking instructions for products
  • Tweets after it's finished cooking something (See
I particularly like the database of settings based on the barcode of the food.  Very nice.

What do you do with a Raspberry Pi powered microwave oven?  Obviously, you make a real Raspberry Pi.

Details of the project can be found here.

Nicely done Nathan!

Aero Velo wins the AHS Sikorsky Prize

Here at Digital Diner, we have showed you human powered quadcopters before.  Several of these have been built to try to capture the AHS Sikorsky Prize of $250,000.  This prize was created back in 1980 for the first human powered helicopter that could hover for one minute and reach a height of 3 meters in altitude while staying within a 10m x 10m box (complete rules are here).  For over 30 years teams have tried to win the prize and failed.  On June 13th, AeroVelo Inc was able to fulfill the requirements as seen in the videos below and win the prize.

It is interesting to me that while some teams built machines that used both arms and legs, in the end a simple bicycle style, legs only, form of locomotion won.  It is an impressive feat of engineering and human ability for sure.  Congratulatiosn to all involved!

...AND, as if that weren't enough, Aero Velo has several projects going.  My favorite is the human powered ornithopter (an airplane that flies by flapping its wings!).  Check out the video of test of this baby at the bottom of the page.

The prize winning flight

The world's first human powered ornithopter

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How a electronic gadgets are made

I like watching machines at work.  The video above shows how the very cool development board, the BeagleBone Black, is made.  The process is pretty similar for many electronic devices these days whether it is a cellphone or a set top box.  A circuit board gets solder paste applied to it, then parts are placed on the board in the proper position and orientation by a pick-and-place machine.  The resultant assembly goes through an oven to melt the solder.  Any extra components are attached and then the unit is tested, and packaged up for shipping.

For comparison, below is a video that I made back in 2009 showing the process we used to make Sun SPOTs.  You can see that the sequence of events is very similar.  This process, on a large scale, is what  makes it possible for us to have the magical electronic devices that we have at the prices we have them.

The process you see in these videos is also partially responsible for the demise of the hobbyist electronic kit (and places like Heathkit).  The ecosystem is being optimized for the machines in the video.  The parts being placed on these boards are mostly "surface mount" parts that sit on top of the board, not "through-hole" parts that are more practical for individuals to solder.  While the surface mount parts are very small, inexpensive and efficient for the machines to deal with in large quantities, they are very difficult for people to handle with their fingers and solder manually.  Because the parts optimized for the machines have the higher volumes, the "through hole" parts are getting less common and difficult to find.  Also, because of regulations about the use of lead (RoHS), the solder has been reformulated to melt at very high temperatures that make extra challenges for hobbyists.  It certainly limits what a maker can build in their own workshop today.  It is very straight forward for hobbyists to get a printed circuit board made, but getting the parts put onto it can be a difficult and/or expensive proposition.

The forces of nature that are moving the world in this non-hobbyist friendly direction are fairly strong and not likely to change.  The question is how can hobbyists and makers take advantage of this manufacturing technology when building in small numbers?  I think there is hope.  It might not make sense for you to have a pick-n-place machine in your garage,  but there could be inexpensive mail-order services that will stuff the parts in your boards for you.  The difficulty is making this cost effective for us hobbyists.  Loading up the proper parts in a pick-and-place machine is a very manual process.  The different "reels" of parts must be loaded up and programmed into the computer so that it knows where to find the appropriate parts.  When you are building thousands of boards, this preparation time is not a problem.  When you are only building a few boards, this set-up can cost much more than the build.

What is needed is a system that lets me, a hobbyist, spend my own time preparing my parts for the production run.  Better yet would be a system where the parts are delivered from the parts supplier to the fabrication house in machine readable, and robotically manipulatable packaging that works for small numbers of parts (not a reel that has thousands of parts).  If the parts could be automatically loaded into the machine, and I could spend my own time preparing my design for the placement machine then the preparation costs could be minimized.   If we can find a good way to cut down on the set-up costs, I'm certain a new age of custom electronics manufacturing will be on its way.   In the mean time, I think I'll just watch the videos a few more times.

How do you wash your hair in space?

I've always thought that living on the International Space Station would be fun, but it appears that there are a few things that aren't so great.  For instance, washing your hair in space seems like a bit of a pain.
Hey NASA, I don't have that much hair left, so this really isn't a big deal for me... I'm sure the time saved would help me be an extra productive crew member.  Call me.

What would happen if you swallowed and entire orchestra?

I'm not sure if this guy, Tom Thum, swallowed an entire band or if he is just the illegitimate child of Bobby McFerrin and Mel Blanc.  Whatever the explanation, he can make more sounds with his mouth than, well, Gerald McBoing-Boing (an awesome short film based on a story by Dr Suess and winner of the 1950 Academy Award for Best Animated Short)

Of course, watching is fun, but trying it yourself is even more fun.  You can learn how to do a little bit of your own beat boxing by just following along with the video below.  C'mon!  Say it with me!  Boots, Cats, Boots, Cats, Boots-n-cats-n-boots-n-cats...

Monday, July 8, 2013

Maker Camp is under way

This is a boat... no really.
As we reported earlier, Maker Camp is under way.  It started yesterday and so we here at Digital Diner decided to try it out.  Bix made a lovely paddle boat out of some plastic bottles, and we were able to float it in the bath tub.  Simple yet somehow awesome.  You can learn to build your own here.  And, by the way, it is important to actually go through the exercise of building stuff.  As our acquaintance Jim Wiltens says, "there is a difference between knowing and doing."

The boat in action
Every day they will have new projects and things to learn in live Google hangouts online which you can attend as they happen or tune in later.  ...and its all free.  Tomorrow will be all about balloon blimps.  It sure seems like a fun way to spend a summer day.  

More info at Maker Camp online.

Friday, July 5, 2013

This time lapse of plants growing is simply amazing

We live in an incredible world.  If you have any doubts, just watch this video.  Filmmaker Daniel Csobot has created this macro time-lapse video of seeds growing into plants over a four month period.  I find it stunning, and it just makes me feel that plants are incredibly animate  but they live on a different time scale than us.  Who says watching the grass grow is dull?

The film itself is beautiful.  To learn a few tricks about how to make your own, check out the website novalapse.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields

In yesterday's post I mentioned my interest in ham radio as a youngster.  I think part of the intrigue comes from the idea that there are these invisible fields around us all the time and they can be used to communicate information.  It seems like magic.  Some folks have been coming up with techniques to visualize this hidden world.  I like this idea.  The video above shows the electromagnetic fields around electronic devices by taking long exposure photos while moving an android phone configured as an electromagnetic field meter along the device in question.  It is a great technique and the results are informative and artistic.

Someone else did something similar with RFID below.  In this case they used a device that blinks whenever the RFID reader senses it.  The space it defines is the area in which the reader can sense an RFID (ie how close an RFID tag needs to be in order for the reader to sense it).

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Is Heathkit back?

Heathkit HW8 QRP Transceiver - Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user F1jmm

Back in the day, I used to spend hours pouring though the Heathkit catalog wishing for all the kits that would let me build everything from ham radios to stereo components.  Heathkit helped me to learn to solder, understand basic electronics, gain a respect and fascination for physical things and the hidden world inside them.  Heathkit helped feed my interest in ham radio and taught me that people can build cool stuff.  It was the Maker movement back in the 70s, long before 3D printers and Arduinos.  It was a sad day when Heathkit disappeared... or did it?  I lost track of Heathkit in the 80s an then in the 90s they appeared to be some sort of an educational/training company and that carried through to the modern age as chronicled by the wayback machine.

Well, recently I discovered that there is a mysterious website at  I heard some rumors last fall, but now the web site simply says, "the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated."  Hidden in the legalistic fine print are two links that you wont find unless you move your mouse over them.  One is the privacy policy.  The other is a FAQ.  The latter link leads you to a page that begins like this:

Q. Is Heathkit back?
A. Yes. We're back.
Q. So are you really going to make Heathkit® kits?
A. Yes.
Q. Wow! That simple? “Yes?”
A. Yes.
This is exciting.  Also hidden in the links is a survey that you can take that gives you some idea of what they have in mind.  They appear to be returning to their roots and will be selling electronic kits, possibly including ham radio gear.  If you follow the survey through, you get a chance to get on a "Heathkit insiders" email list presumably to learn more as the news become available.  They may finally provide a little competition for our friends at Elecraft (who we like very much).