Archive for the ‘Ponderings’ Category

Qué romántico!

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Nothing says “I love you” quite like a fake ON-semi 16-pin SOIC.

Mitch Davis sent me this photo, posted in a Chinese-only trade group chat room for chip sellers in Huaqiangbei. The poster said, “Does anyone know who supplies this chip, my customer needs it urgently!”

I figure if you can put any fake markings on any chip, this would be a romantic way to give a sly wink to that girl in the material quality inspection office you’ve had eyes on. Now all we need are “will you marry me” chips: “Hey darling, can you help me rework this board? I can’t quite make out the part number on this chip…” Now the hard part is, what chip would be most appropriate for the big question?

From Spark: Why Kickstarters are Always Delayed

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Zach Supalla, Founder and CEO at Spark, wrote a frank introspective on why Kickstarters are always delayed. His thoughts are particularly germane, as he and his team are currently working hard to deliver on the Spark Core’s Kickstart campaign promise. They have taken an ultra-transparent approach to updating supporters on their progress, and their challenges — an approach that takes a lot of courage and thick skin.

You can read his thoughts here.

Dust, Tecate, and Solder: A Hacker’s Holiday (Burning Man 2013)

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

I went to Burning Man for the second time this year. I had an amazing time hanging out with so many interesting and fun people. I spent many a night dancing to the beats of the Robot Heart again, taking in 85,000 watts of pure, uncut bass: it’s where silicon touches the soul. If you haven’t been to Burning Man, this article gives the most balanced perspective I’ve seen to date.

This year I came early for the so-called “Working Man”: the days before Burning Man’s official start, when the art is built and the camps are pitched. As always, looking behind the curtain takes away a bit of the magic, but a lot of things made more sense to me. I chuckle a bit at my naiveté last year, when I thought the artwork appearing on the playa through the week was some sort of organized performance art experience. In reality, it’s just people running behind schedule and working feverishly through the night to get huge monuments erected just in time to be burned into ashes.

This year, as in my previous year, I camped with a group called The Phage, which is part of a three-camp complex known as The Institute (the other two camps are Relaxomatic and False Profit). The camp doesn’t happen without a lot of planning and preparation, but coming from Singapore, it’s hard to be very useful in pre-camp prep. So I did what I could do — make circuit boards.

The Phage camp’s logo is a stylized version of the bacteriophage virus, so I made a custom-styled “locator badge” for our camp this year.

I also made, more or less on a whim, a small driver board for WS2812B-style LED strips.

Below is a short movie of the two in action (sorry IE & Safari users, I only do Ogg Theora).

It’s a unique experience to see your creations being picked up, loved, and then utterly abused for an entire week. It’s even more amazing to get feedback from such friendly, understanding and intelligent users. I spent several splendid afternoons with a soldering iron, teaching people how to solder, as well as fixing and prodding various bits of hardware. As an old-school hacker there are few things more relaxing than sitting around on a lazy afternoon, drinking beers, soldering, and making new friends — and not having to worry about rushing off to my next meeting, completely free of the distractions of the Internet and mobile phones.

Phage Locator Badges

In addition to being a source of light at night, the badges have a “locator” feature. Every badge contains a 433 MHz radio transceiver. On top of this, I built a broadcast paging system so badge-wearers can press a button and cause other people’s badges to strobe in response.

I also attached a high-gain receiver to our art car, Strangelove, so some of the art car’s LED strips would also strobe when the car’s receiver detected a locate request from a badge.

There’s also a huge flame-shooting art piece on our frontage called the “Hive Queen” (on the left in the photo above). Normally, users have to walk up to it and hit buttons to make it shoot fire. Well, after a few beers, someone suggested it would be a good idea to hack another receiver into the Hive Queen (thank you Sean Stevens for loaning me the relay breakout board!). It required a few code changes to ensure that nobody could jam the fire control solenoids on, but it worked.

It’s the first time I’ve ever built a circuit that intentionally caused fire; there’s something viscerally satisfying about remote-controlling six flame throwers at once.

Only 50 of such badges will ever be made, but I figured I’d share the design files so others thinking about doing something similar could benefit. Click the various links for schematics (PDF), gerbers, and PCB source (Altium). You can also find all the firmware for the radio and blinky lights in the Phage git repo.

Compact LED Strip Drivers

The intent behind the LED strip driver was to provide a compact and minimal way to drive cut-to-length LED strips, so that no programming is required at the point of installation. An important feature is the ability to automatically measure the length of an LED strip loop, and adjust the pre-programmed light patterns accordingly. The board was made out of flex circuit material and included a microphone circuit that you could cut off with a pair of scissors, giving an extra dimension of customization with minimal tools.

I was happy to see the number of creative ways people used the LED strip drivers — they were worn as belts, around hats, zip tied to bikes, bags, etc. It was also very instructive to observe how these things failed — at Burning Man, the strips were thoroughly used; they had to survive a week of trudging around the desert, and the repetitive stress of hours of dancing.

I’m also sharing the source for the LED strip driver I made: schematics (PDF), gerbers, and PCB source (Altium). Firmware can be found at this github repo. As a final note, I wouldn’t recommend anyone actually fabricate the designs as-is — please consider them reference material only. There are some flaws in both designs, particularly the flex LED driver. Many things went right, but I would also do many things differently now that I’ve seen how people use them. But, for those who have never done a flex PCB before, the files do give you a taste of some of the quirks that go into making a flexible PCB.

Photo credits: Thanks to Princess SRB, and to Justin Jach for sharing the Phage camp photoset on flickr!

Exit Review: Samsung S-II

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Consumers tend to throw away old gadgets with little fanfare or thought. I think that’s a shame; all the knowledge and experience gained navigating the quirks of the old gadget are tossed as well. Thus, instead of raving about the latest greatest gadget, I like to jot down a few notes about my old gadgets when I retire them.

The third installment of my exit review series (previous installments were on the IBM T60p and the Blackberry 8700c) was done as a guest writer for medium.com; read it here.


The $12 Gongkai Phone

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

How cheap can you make a phone?

Recently, I paid $12 at Mingtong Digital Mall for a complete phone, featuring quad-band GSM, Bluetooth, MP3 playback, and an OLED display plus keypad for the UI. Simple, but functional; nothing compared to a smartphone, but useful if you’re going out and worried about getting your primary phone wet or stolen.

Also, it would certainly find an appreciative audience in impoverished and developing nations.


$12 is the price paid for a single quantity retail, contract-free, non-promotional, unlocked phone — in a box with charger, protective silicone sleeve, and cable. In other words, the production cost of this phone is somewhere below the retail price of $12. Rumors place it below $10.

This is a really amazing price point. That’s about the price of a large Domino’s cheese pizza, or a decent glass of wine in a restaurant. Or, compared to an Arduino Uno (admittedly a little unfair, but humor me):

Spec This phone Arduino Uno
Price $12 $29
CPU speed 260 MHz, 32-bit 16 MHz, 8-bit
RAM 8MiB 2.5kiB
Interfaces USB, microSD, SIM USB
Wireless Quadband GSM, Bluetooth -
Power Li-Poly battery, includes adapter External, no adapter
Display Two-color OLED -

How is this possible? I don’t have the answers, but it’s something I’m trying to learn. A teardown yields a few hints.


First, there are no screws. The whole case snaps together.

Also, there are (almost) no connectors on the inside. Everything from the display to the battery is soldered directly to the board; for shipping and storage, you get to flip a switch to hard-disconnect the battery. And, as best as I can tell, the battery also has no secondary protection circuit.

The Bluetooth antenna is nothing more than a small length of wire, seen on the lower left below.

Still, the phone features accoutrements such as a back-lit keypad and decorative lights around the edge.

The electronics consists of just two major ICs: the Mediatek MT6250DA, and a Vanchip VC5276. Of course, with price competition like this, Western firms are suing to protect ground: Vanchip is in a bit of a legal tussle with RF Micro, and Mediatek has also been subject to a few lawsuits of its own.

The MT6250 is rumored to sell in volume for under $2. I was able to anecdotally confirm the price by buying a couple of pieces on cut-tape from a retail broker for about $2.10 each. [No, I will not broker these chips or this phone for you...]



That beats the best price I’ve ever been able to get on an ATMega of the types used in an Arduino.

Of course, you can’t just call up Mediatek and buy these; and it’s extremely difficult to engage with them “going through the front door” to do a design. Don’t even bother; they won’t return your calls.

However, if you know a bit of Chinese, and know the right websites to go to, you can download schematics, board layouts, and software utilities for something rather similar to this phone…”for free”. I could, in theory, at this point attempt to build a version of this phone for myself, with minimal cash investment. It feels like open-source, but it’s not: it’s a different kind of open ecosystem.

Introducing Gongkai

Welcome to the Galapagos of Chinese “open” source. I call it “gongkai” (公开). Gongkai is the transliteration of “open” as applied to “open source”. I feel it deserves a term of its own, as the phenomenon has grown beyond the so-called “shanzhai” (山寨) and is becoming a self-sustaining innovation ecosystem of its own.

Just as the Galapagos Islands is a unique biological ecosystem evolved in the absence of continental species, gongkai is a unique innovation ecosystem evolved with little western influence, thanks to political, language, and cultural isolation.

Of course, just as the Galapagos was seeded by hardy species that found their way to the islands, gongkai was also seeded by hardy ideas that came from the west. These ideas fell on the fertile minds of the Pearl River delta, took root, and are evolving. Significantly, gongkai isn’t a totally lawless free-for-all. It’s a network of ideas, spread peer-to-peer, with certain rules to enforce sharing and to prevent leeching. It’s very different from Western IP concepts, but I’m trying to have an open mind about it.

I’m curious to study this new gongkai ecosystem. For sure, there will be critics who adhere to the tenets of Western IP law that will summarily reject the notion of alternate systems that can nourish innovation and entrepreneurship. On the other hand, it’s these tenets that lock open hardware into technology several generations old, as we wait for patents to expire and NDAs to lift before gaining access to the latest greatest technology. After all, 20 years is an eternity in high tech.

I hope there will be a few open-minded individuals who can accept an exploration of the gongkai Galapagos. Perhaps someday we can understand — and maybe even learn from — the ecosystem that produced the miracle of the $12 gongkai phone.