[Review] Evil Mad Scientist Discrete 555 Timer electronics kit

 

Three Fives - Discrete 555 Timer Kit

The “Three Fives” Discrete 555 Timer kit from Evil Mad Scientists is a transistor-scale replica of the ubiquitous NE555 timer IC, packaged as an easy to assemble kit.

And by easy to assemble, I mean easy.  The component values are clearly printed on the silkscreen on the board.  I never once had to look at the schematic or parts list.  In fact, I didn’t even look at the assembly instructions until it came time to test with the example circuit.

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Building the Kit

DSC_0014The Three Fives kit is one of the easiest-to-build soldering kits I’ve encountered.  It includes the circuit board, PVC foam legs, resistors, transistors, 8 color coded thumbscrew terminal posts, and assembly instructions.

To build the kit, you will need the basic electronic soldering skills and tools: soldering iron, solder, wire clippers, and a Phillips head screwdriver.  That’s it.

Using the Kit

DSC_0018Since the kit is the equivalent circuit for an NE555 timer, you can lookup one of the hundreds of 555 timer circuits freely available on the internet and implement them with spare parts.  The only caution is that if you are using a power supply above 6.5V, you cannot connect the RESET pin directly to the 6.5V source directly; you’ll have to use a 100k resistor in between the connections.

How to Breathe New Life into a Dying Mac Pro, On a Budget

As a technical mercenary, I find myself continually needing more computing power and more space, which is one reason I purchased the Mac Pro, to get ahead of the technology curve.

It has worked out beautifully, but more and more I find myself muttering, “if only I can get one more year out of it…”

Sadly, that is what I say about my 1999 F150 pickup truck.  It is now fifteen (15) years old, and keeps running year after year. 

But the idea is the same — pour just enough money into the system to keep it useful, until it absolutely needs to die.  And that is where I’m at with the Mac Pro.  Once I’m done with it, it will become a server relegated to the basement for another five years. 

Here is how I added some relatively simple upgrades to keep the rig running.

Storage

The best upgrade I can suggest is to upgrade to Solid State Disk drives (SSDs), bar none.   You won’t realize the full potential due to the limitations of the SATA controllers, but the speed increase will be dramatic nonetheless.  Also, make sure you are running Mavericks so that TRIM is supported.

If you are strapped for cash, get one SSD that is big enough to hold the operating system.  Also, get one that is at least 50% bigger than you think you will need.  I purchased one for the OS and one to put my user directories.  I’m constantly migrating data to my NAS in order to keep the system running.

Adding USB 3.0

My 2008 Mac Pro came with USB 2.0.  While looking at DAS solutions that might be used by the newer Mac Pro, I settled on USB 3.0. 

Pick up an Inateck PCIe USB 3.0 card.  The chipset is natively supported in OS X Mavericks, so no special drivers.

RAM

This was the first upgrade I did, the first year I purchased the system.  The stock 2008 systems shipped with a meager 2GB of RAM.

Those are the big three upgrades to refresh your Mac Pro.

The Weller WX2 Soldering Station Has Arrived…

IMG_0247Today, the “new” Weller WX2 soldering station has finally arrived and is in working order.  The saga began when I contacted Apex/Weller to upgrade the firmware to the latest version, and it bricked my control unit

I had purchased one of the original units as soon as they came out, and over the years the display had started to dim and it was getting harder to register presses on the touch screen.  As a result, they said they were going to send me a new unit.

When they said I was getting a “new” unit, I envisioned a shiny new unit in in a brand new box.  That didn’t happen.  This one was just bubble wrapped and packed in peanuts.  

In any event, I’m glad to have it back.  I was worried I was going to have to scramble to get a soldering iron for my EE term project.  In fact, I was shopping for a substitute soldering station when I stumbled on a promotion where if you purchase a WX1 or WX2 (or bundle) you can get a free hand piece.

Mix a few beers, quiet desperation, and a special offer like that and my brain rationalized purchasing a WX1 soldering power unit to get a free SMT tweezers set with stand…

New Mac Pro on the Horizon (for me)?

Some of the early criticisms of the new Mac Pro has been the lack of upgradability, a limited set of customizable options, and an extreme price tag. 

That appears to be changing.

OWC has debuted the first Intel Xeon Processor Upgrades for the new 2013 Mac Pro.  They offer turn-key packages; ship them your Mac Pro, and they will ship back your upgraded system.  You can also install up to 128GB RAM.

Next, LaCie has announced some very nice Thunderbolt 2 drive systems, available this quarter.

Lastly, Samsung has launched a 28-inch 4K UD590 Monitor for $700.  Dell is already selling the 28-inch 4K P2815Q for under $700.

This is definitely going to be an interesting year.

#4 Notable on the InterWebs

Another week, another post.  Random URLs that have come my way.

Review: Craftsman Axess 32 Piece Driver Set

I picked up the Craftsman Max Axess driver set a few weeks ago and finally had a chance to use it; I’ve slowly grown to like it.

Honestly, it was an impulse buy which I rationalized as something I could use around the house.  I have a growing collection of screwdriver and security bits, and I’m always fumbling for a driver.

The set stands alone or can be purchased to augment one of the other Max Access mechanics toolsets.  This particular set has something the other sets don’t provide – a screwdriver bit adapter.

Generally speaking, the Max Axess system was designed to eliminate the need for deep sockets, and can be used where no standard 6pt or 12pt sockets can fit.

The set includes a hollow-shaft driver handle which can be used with the 1/4” go-thru sockets, with or without the included 3-inch extension.

[Linux] How to Send E-MAIL (or SMS) Whenever a User Logs In

In the past, I’ve written about some of the con artist masquerading as consultants, which I’ve run into during my travels as a technical mercenary.

At one gig, a younger and inexperienced team lead was conflicted about canning a developer that wasn’t even showing up for work, but who claimed to be working remotely.

Of course, I checked the logs and he never logged in.

The team lead wanted more data, so I suggested that whenever the developer logs in, the lead would get an email.

“You can do that?”  the lead asked. 

Easy.  The solution is to add a few lines to the shell init script in the user’s home directory.  In a few minutes, it was done.

This is also a nice way to shoot yourself an SMS message via your cell phone companies email-SMS gateway when someone logs into one of your cloud instances.  It will give you an immediate notification if someone compromises a system.

In any event, the solution is extremely easy.

Put something similar to the following in the user’s .profile (csh):

mail user@yourdomain.com << EOF
From: Linux System
To: youremail@address.com
subject: user login
user $LOGNAME has logged into `hostname`

EOF

I bricked my Weller WX2 Soldering Station

Update #2: Somehow, my address got mangled and the package got flagged as a wrong address.  UPS shipped it back without any notification to me.  It will arrive back at Apex in another week.  I’ve asked that they send me another one, but it was later in the day.  I’ll have to see if they ship another one to me without waiting for the current one to slowly make its way back across the country.  I’m really not happy with UPS right now.

UPDATE #1 :  Apex tools decided to send me a brand new WX soldering station because the LCD was dimmed. I should have it soon.

Friday, I tried to upgrade the firmware on my Weller WX2.  I had purchased the unit right after they became available in the US, and still had the original firmware (0.49).

Technical support sent me the updated firmware (0.64) and the upgrade instructions.  The upgrade process hung and after well over half an hour, I powered cycled the device to try again.

Nope.  It was bricked.

That’s when I learned that WX unit has firmware more than three or versions back, it will not update, in some cases.

Yesterday, I packed it up and shipped it off to Apex tools to be reprogrammed or replaced.

How Comcast Lost a Customer, Before it Even Had One

imageFive years ago, I “cut the cord” and decided never to do business with Comcast ever again.  While I don’t recall the exact circumstances that led me to cancel Comcast, I do remember a week long stretch without any internet or TV service.  I actually remember laughing when the customer service representative tried to talk me into ordering phone service, right after telling me that the earliest appointment time to have a technician fix the cable was in a week or two.

I purchased a DTV antenna, and to my surprise, it turns out that the over-the-air digital TV signal in my area is pretty darn good.  I also bought a Netflix subscription, and later an Apple TV.

Everything was good, for five years.  But time has a way of washing away bad memories.

Sometimes, Cheap Isn’t Worth It.

Roughly four weeks ago, I saw a promotion featuring “Blast” internet service and digital cable.  For less than I’m paying for naked DSL, I could have 50mbps and cable TV.  A chat window popped up and a somewhat pushy and annoying customer service representative “helped” me order and schedule the installation appointment. 

And by “helped,” I mean slowly answering my questions and asking me if I was done yet.  Comcast obviously has their own definition of helpful.

Within a week, I started getting hang up calls on my cell phone.  I called the phone number back only to be told that they were calling (and hanging up) to offer me a self-install kit.  They would ship out the modem and cable box, waive the installation fee, cancel the installation appointment, and I’d be up and running in minutes.  It was a win-win situation, so I agreed.

Imagine my surprise when the day before the installer was originally scheduled to arrive, there is no package and I get a confirmation email reminding me that a cable technician would be arriving at my home.

Confused, I called Comcast and learned that the original installation order was never cancelled.  Moreover, I also learned that the self-installation kit was never shipped.  The customer service representative couldn’t cancel the self-install kit, but could cancel the installer appointment.  He suggested that we cancel the installation appointment and the package should arrive “in a few days.”

Several days later, I came home to find a big box on my doorstep. I immediately opened the box, and started pawing through the contents.  What I saw was disappointing. 

While everything was wrapped in plastic, and they had gone to great lengths to make it appear as if it was new, it wasn’t.  The cable box was obviously very old and very used.  No HDMI outputs.  I smelled the faint smell of stale cigarettes.  The unit, a Motorola DCT2244 was discontinued long ago, and if I read the date code correctly, it was manufactured in 2000.  That was fourteen years ago.

As an aside, these cable boxes lease for $8 a month.  14 years * $8/month = $1,344.00.  It’s no wonder why they want to keep sending them to customers.

I plugged in the cable box and started to activate the service online, but couldn’t.  Notice the screen shot, and the lack of a phone number.  I tried again in a different browser and a phone number magically appeared.

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I called the activation number and robotic voice patiently prompted me to enter my information.  The cable box clicked and shut down.  I wondered if it died.

I turned the cable box back on and we had cable.   That is when I noticed that the box was defective.  The picture was blurry, and when I changed channels, the picture rolled over and would finally sync after a second.  When I turned the cable box off, audio still played on the TV.  I had been given a defective cable box that someone had replaced.

As I started sifting through the channels, I noticed that we basically had the same local channels that we had with the antenna, and Bravo.  Just about every other channel said “Not Authorized.”

I started to regret my decision.

“You shouldn’t even have service.”

But wait, my adventure was just beginning. 

On Wednesday, I received an automated call from “Equipment Recovery Services” saying that I should return my cable equipment.

That was the weirdest telemarketing call I have ever gotten.

My phone rang again, and this time it was Sean from Comcast asking about my order, seeing that my order was cancelled he decided to call me.  After I expressed my frustration with Comcast, he talked me into upgrading the cable box and upsold me into another service tier.  He said he would call me back. 

When I arrived home, there was no cable.

I called Comcast and was connected to technical support.  After hard hitting questions like “what does your cable box look like?” and “is the cable plugged in?”  The CSR was able to reset the TAP and reactivate service.  He stated that an installer was supposed to arrive between 6pm – 9pm that night.  (no one showed up).

The next day, I received an email from Comcast stating that a technician was going to arrive that day.  Given that my wife and I would be at work, I called to cancel the appointment.

That’s when the customer service representative told me that there were two installation orders outstanding and she couldn’t close them out.  I was told I shouldn’t even have service. 

My phone rang a few hours later; it was Equipment Recovery Services robotically telling me to return my equipment.  I called back and they “made a note” on my account that I was using it.

How on earth does this company stay in business?

When I arrived home, the cable was dead.  Again.  I unhooked the cable box and plugged the antenna back in.  My wife and I watched Big Bang Theory via the Apple TV.

I can’t take anymore.  I give up.  The great cable experiment of 2014 was officially over.

When I awoke Friday morning, Sean from Comcast called again.  I told him I wasn’t interested.  I would pack up the equipment and take it to an Xfinity service center and give it back.  And that is just what I did.

#3: Notable on the InterWebs

Another week, another post.  Random URLs that have come my way.