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The Foxee Animatronic Robot Project Blog

Archives for: August 2005

I Love the Smell of Ozone in the Morning!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

Here it is, 5:30AM in the morning, and I have just pulled an all-nighter. What could I have possibly been doing all night you ask? Soldering elctronics and listening to this week's Off The Hook and Off The Wall 2600 Hacker radio talk shows in WinAMP! In yesterday's Foxee Project Blog entry I mentioned that I had purchased an Exact Electronics Type 240 Function Generator from a scientist who worked at Fermilab, and that the function generator needed a little bit of soldering work to get it into workable condition. The problem with the function generator was that it had no wall plug on the end of its electrical cord, and that I had to solder a new one on. That would have been as easy as matching wire colors and soldering the like wires between the plug and the function generator together if the wires on the cheap three-prong power cord that I bought from American Science and Surplus used the standard wire color-coding scheme for alternating current wires, but the cord didn't so I had to look the information up online. I have never really worked much with household 120V alternating current before, so I wanted to make really sure that I had my wiring right, that I had no bear wires showing at my splice point between the two cords, and that I wasn't going to screw up by crossing some wires and as a result blow up my fancy piece of equipment.

After some searching online I found a website that told me what I needed to know. Alternating electrical current is a completely different animal when compared to direct electrical current, and because of that I found out that the wiring colors of each of the leads is of an AC power cord is different from its DC counterpart. Instead of the wires being red and black for positive and ground, AC plugs have a black lead that is the "hot" lead, a white lead that is a neutral lead, and a green lead that goes to ground. To find out which lead was which on my non-color coded plug I checked the resistance of each lead to each prong in the plug with a multimeter until the reading given by the multimeter read near zero. A near zero reading indicated that I had closed a circuit, and that I had found the lead that matched the prong that I was testing.

After soldering the power cord together and insulating it with electrical tape, I decided to hold my breath and plug the function generator into the wall power outlet, hoping that the vacuum tube-filled device wouldn't explode, catch on fire, or smoke due to some technical error on my part! Instead, the power light on the unit turned on, and all of the vacuum tubes inside the function generator began to glow and get very warm. While I haven't been able to test the function generator with an oscilloscope yet to see if it is really working since I lack the hook-up wires to do so, I will take the glowing tubes and the heat as a positive sign that it is, and that I soldered the power cord on correctly. Pretty soon I will be looking into getting some probes and hook-up wires to use with my new function generator and oscilloscopes, and then reading some tutorials on the operating my new instruments so that I can use them effectively to troubleshoot my electronic circuitry!

Bringing Out the Heavy Equipment!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

Nothing makes you feel more like a mad scientist than buying several enormous pieces of electronic test equipment out of the back of a guy's car trunk, and that's exactly what I did today!!! The man I bought the equipment from was a scientist from Fermilab who I met at the DucKon 14 Science Fictiion convention way back in June. At the convention he was one of the people running the "Build-a-Blinkie" workshops where you soldered together little blinking LED pins that you could wear, and he also gave a demonstration of his 400,000-volt Tesla coil that could throw 12-foot bolts of lightning in the Science Fiction convention's parking lot.

Being that it happened to be close to Fermilab, we decided to meet and do our exchange at of all places the American Science & Surplus store, which is like a mad scientists' paradise in and of itself! The pieces of heavy duty equipment that I bought from him for my robotics, radio, and electronics work were as follows:

  • Heathkit Laboratory Oscilloscope Model OS-01 from The Heath Company
  • Hewlett Packard Model 130BR Oscilloscope
  • Type 240 Function Generator from Exact Electronics Inc.

The function generator could use a little bit of soldering work in the form of soldering a new three-prong plug onto it so that it can be plugged into a wall outlet, but other than that the equipment I bought was said to be in working order. All three of these electronic devices are large, heavy, and use vacuum tubes, and two of them were designed to be rack-mounted. These tools have many uses in the field of electronics including many troubleshooting applications, and if worse comes to worse and I can't find a use for one of the two oscilloscopes, I could always hook it up to my stereo and watch the waveform of the music! In the meantime it has been a very long time since I used an oscilloscope, so I am going to have to hit the Internet to see if I can find the manuals for these puppies. Giving myself a refresher course on the operation of oscilloscopes and signal generators by reading through their manuals will get myself up to speed a lot quicker than the "Ooh! What does this button do?" approach!

While I was at the American Science & Surplus store I also picked up a few odds and ends for the electronics work that I have been doing these days or plan to be doing very soon. Unlike the last few visits to that tore that I have made, I didn't purchase very much this time. The big item that I picked up was a bicycle electroluminescent wire kit, which contained a small 2 "AAA" sized battery powered power-inverter and two foot-long blue electroluminescent strips that could be stuck to something with adhesive. I bought this as a cheap example of electroluminescent material technology that I can play with before I start moving onto building things with the more expensive professional-grade electroluminescent wire, which I plan to use with future robotics projects.

I also picked up a cheap laser pointer to use with some electronic schematics that I found on the Internet. These schematics showed how to send an audio signal through the laser with amplitude modulation from the headphone output of a sound source to the microphone input of a stereo system or computer sound card! While I don't plan to be building such a device anytime soon, I figured that I might as well buy a cheap laser pointer while I was at the American Science & Surplus store. Another thing that I bought was another mono-headphone because tons of my electronics projects call for wiring a device up to a mono-headphone jack, such as the above mentioned laser pointer data transmission device, my audio-pickup inductor coil, and my magnetic stripe card reader. What I do is just lob the headphone part off, toss that aside, and use the wires and the 3.5mm jack for my projects. It's always useful to have a few of these on hand since I seem to use them all of the time. Some other things that I picked up at American Science and Surplus were some battery holders that I can use to power my electronic projects, and plenty of cheap Alkaline batteries to put into them.

Along with the things related to my electronics and robotics work that I purchased today, I also received my brand new DIY Electronics K149 Version E USB Serial PIC Programmer kit in the mail yesterday! In an earlier blog entry I mentioned how the company Electronics123.com had originally sent me an older version of the kit than the one that they advertised on their website, and I wanted to make sure that I had the absolute newest version of the kit available so I made them exchange it. To their credit, the people at Electronics123.com did send me the correct kit after I asked for it, and reimbursed me for the shipping that I had to pay to send the older kit back to them. So at the very least this company showed that it valued customer satisfaction!

As far as my Replica I microcomputer wood case "practice project" goes, I will be purchasing my Apple II ASCII keyboard and encoder board a little later this week, and as soon as I get paid for some PC repair work and some artwork commissions that I am doing, I will start buying the wood and the power jigsaw that I need to start building the case with and teach myself the art of woodworking (and hopefully not chopping my fingers off in the process)! As always, I very much appreciate to hear any comments that you have about my projects, and thanks for reading!

Internet Order Frustrations

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

I received my PIC programming kit and my EEPROM programming kit in the mail yesterday, and unfortunately I was disappointed by what I opened. Even though they weren't the cheapest source of DIY Electronics kits around, I ordered from Electronics123.com because they promised that they had the very latest version of the DIY Electronics K149 USB/ Serial PIC programmer, the K149 version E. They were the only electronic kit supplier that promised to have the brand new version E kit, and I wanted to make sure that I got the best kit available that could program the most PICMicro microcontroller chips. When I received and opened my package from Electronics123.com and looked at its contents however, I saw that they had sent me an older version D model of the kit, despite the fact that my invoice showed that I had ordered a version E.

Before getting all upset and using Electronic123.com's toll-free number to jump down their throats, I decided that I would go to the DIY Electronics website, www.kitsrus.com, and see what the difference was between the version D and E kits. After spending over an hour scouring the website and several different versions of the kit's documentation PDF files, I learned what the difference was between the version A, B, and C kits, but they did not list the differences between the version D and E kits. So maybe it was something major, or maybe it was something insignificant. I just didn't know.

I decided that since the only reason why I chose Electronics123.com in the first place was because they promised to have the newest "E" version of the kit that I was going to demand either a new kit or a refund on principal. I was extremely aggravated that they dumped older inventory on me, and I wasn't about to let them get away with it. I called them up using their toll-free number, and got a very surprised sounding employee on the phone. I explained my situation, and he claimed that they must have accidentally sent me some older inventory by mistake. After some prodding, I was able to make the employee agree to mail an E version of the kit to me and to refund the shipping that I was going to have to pay to send their D version kit back to them. It was good that I was able to get them to exchange my kit, but now I am going to have to go through all of the hassle of repackaging it and sending it back to them, which is an extra activity that I didn't need. It would have been nice if they had just sent me the right kit in the first place!

Last night I was able to get ahold of the person who has the ASCII keyboard I need for my "Replica I" Apple I microcomputer clone, but I have not found this person to be the most comfortable person to deal with. Here I am, offering to pay top dollar for a 30 year old piece of computer junk, and he is not willing to take the time to test it. Instead he said to me, "It is untested and I don't have any time to set up a Apple II and try it out. It is sold 'as is' and untested. If you would rather look elsewhere that is fine by me." His take it or leave it attitude makes me kind of nervous. Unlike on eBay where you can check a seller's reputation, I found this guy through an online classified ad, so I have no way of checking how honest of a seller he is. Unfortunately, despite the high cost that he wants for the unit, it is the correct part that I need, and I have little choice but to buy it from him unless I want to delay my whole electronics project schedule by yet another month to locate another part. And since I only have 3 months time to go to build a working, talking, singing, and laughing cartoon fox, any further delay is not an option!

On a brighter note, the other day I also heard back from the scientist at Fermilab who is going to sell me an old Heathkit oscilloscope that I can use with my electronics projects. Since Fermilab is only about a mile away or so from my beloved American Science & Surplus store, the scientist and I plan to meet there sometime next week. It will be fantastic to finally be able to kit my hands on that oscilloscope, and I can't wait to start experimenting with it! I am sure that it will help me out a lot in my work!

Lastly, a couple nights ago I ordered the General Class and Extra Class FCC Amateur Radio License Exam preparation books written by Gordon West from Amazon.com. I am currently a Technician Plus-class amateur radio operator, and my license expires later this year. Since my license class doesn't even exist anymore since the FCC changed the amateur radio license structure a few years ago, I decided that instead of just trying to re-new my license that I would take all of the exams I needed to get the highest license class there is-- the Extra class. I am already 5-WPM Morse Code certified, so all I have to do is take the written exams, and if I was able to become a Technician Plus operator back in junior high school I am sure that I can pass both the General and the Extra class license exams now. Once I get those exam preparation books I am going to knuckle down and study my rear end off with them, and hopefully I will be an Extra class amateur radio operator by either September or October! And since amateur radio has a heavy emphasis on learning electronics, I am sure that studying for these exams will help me become a much better electronics designer and robot builder as well!

In any case, hopefully all of my Internet order woes will work out for the better in the end, and that I will still be able to build Foxee on time for her tentative Midwest Furfest debut. This will definitely prove to be a great challenge to me, and hopefully it will prove to be an even greater triumph! As always, comments are welcome-- I always love to hear what others think about my work!

More Microcontrollers and Another Trip to Sci Plus

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

This weekend the American Science & Surplus store, a store that is like a mad scientist's and hardware hacker's paradise, had its annual outdoor tent sale. With prices on the store items in the tent reduced by 50% or more, this sale attracts bargain hunters, scientists, and do-it-yourselfers from miles around to feast on the store's assorted electronic and mechanical oddities as well as lab equipment, tools, and toys. My chemistry student friend and I are no exception, and we try to make it to the American Science & Surplus Store's annual tent sale every year.

I found many things at the tent sale that will be useful for my Foxee animatronics project at bargain prices. The first item of interest was a pair of Coby CS-P31 2-watt dynamic sound system portable speakers. They don't exactly sound the greatest when compared to my deluxe set of stereo speakers that I have hooked up to my computer, but their small size (3.5-inches wide, 4.5-inches tall, 2.5-inches deep) and the fact that they are self-powered through their headphone mini-jack connector may make them very desirable to mount inside Foxee and become her "voice box." Originally I had bought a set of SOYO Dragon PC speakers for this task, but these Coby speakers consume a lot less space and may be better suited for the task. I will have to compare the two for both space consumption, power consumption, and performance after I have Foxee's frame constructed.

The next interesting piece of equipment that I picked up for my robotics project was a pair of elbow-length heavy rubber electrical lineman's gloves-- the same kind that the electrical utility workers use to repair power lines! As one of my earlier blog entries states, the skit that I am planning to perform at Midwest Furfest this year could possibly involve the use of high voltage electrical devices such as a Jacob's Ladder to produce special effects. Having a pair of rubber linemans gloves on hand while building, testing, and operating such devices might prove to be a very good idea! In any case, the gloves will make an excellent addition to my mad scientist costume for the skit, and make me look even more creepy and authentic!

Some other items that I picked up at the American Science & Surplus store that deal directly with my Foxee animatronics project include yet another set of electronic guts from the inside of a Worlds of Wonder Teddy Ruxpin stuffed doll, and another bag of stuffed animal eyes that I can use to make stuffed animals with when I am practicing my sewing and fox sewing pattern making.

Along with going to the American Science & Surplus store this weekend, I also purchased the DIY Electronics K149E Serial/USB PICMicro Programmer and the DIY Electronics K151 EEPROM Programmer. The K149E is the same PIC microcontroller programmer recommended to me by Dwayne Forsyth of 2DKits, who used it to program the PIC16F688 microcontroller found on their advanced blinkie kits that they had at the Duckon 14 Science Fiction convention "Build-A-Blinkie" workshop. I plan to use the K149E programmer for future animatronics projects and certainly other electronics projects if I don't end up using microcontrollers with Foxee herself.

I bought the K151 EEPROM programmer because the kit itself was fairly inexpensive and because the 24xx and 93xx series of EEPROMS that it can program are very inexpensive as well. While I don't have any particular projects demanding the use of EEPROMS at the moment, it seemed like a useful device to have, and with how cheap EEPROMS are I am sure that I will find a use for them in the future. Since these two programmers that I ordered are kits, I will have to assemble them before I can use them.

One of the other recent developments that are related to my Foxee animatronics project are that I have located a source of a Apple II keyboard and ASCII encoder board that will be compatible with my Replica I Apple I microcomputer clone. This is extremely important because I my practice project that is going to teach me how to use a jigsaw and a circular saw was building a authentic Apple I wood case for my Replica I, and I can't build the case without first having that keyboard and encoder board. The reason why this practice project is so important is because I will need to use a lot of fancy jigsaw cutting to build Foxee's main wood support frame, and I needed an easy beginner's project to hone my skills on.

While finding this Apple II keyboard and encoder board may solve my ASCII keyboard dilemma which was holding up my all-important Replica I wood case practice project, it is not without its downsides. First of all, I was really looking forward to building my own ASCII keyboard encoder board, but unfortunately, the scarcity and expense of some of the components that I needed made this approach not very feasible. The other huge downside is that this Apple II keyboard and encoder board are also extremely expensive, and are really killing my extremely small and ever-shrinking budget. The only reason why I am going ahead with this solution is because building my own ASCII keyboard encoder board will likely cost just as much if not a little more than just buying the Apple II components, that I have already wasted way too much time finding these components anyway and I can't let this drag down my progress any longer, and that this Apple II keyboard and encoder is guaranteed to work with my Replica I while my homebrew Frankenstein keyboard and encoder design that I was planning to build, which would have used a replacement keyboard originally meant for a Tandy-Radioshack TI-99/4 microcomputer, may not have actually worked with my Replica I at all. I guess this is the first case of me "throwing money at a problem" to solve it, and hopefully it is the last time since I can't really afford to solve my problems this way if I am going to have any money at all to even start building the frame of Foxee little alone complete her construction!

To end this blog entry on a positive note, I may have solved another of the obstacles to my Foxee Animatronics Project that I originally listed in my Foxee™ Animatronic Character 2005 Midwest Furfest Variety Show Act Proposal blog entry. In that entry, I reported that I required a IBM-compatible laptop computer to remotely control the Foxee robot on-site as well as perform other tasks for my company at conventions. It looks like my father may be getting a brand new state-of-the-art laptop computer for his work, and he said that I could have his old laptop if he does. This laptop happens to fall slightly below the requirements that I was looking for in a laptop machine, but its close enough to what I wanted and I definitely can't argue with the price tag! So hopefully I will be able to get my hands on it, because that would be an indescribably enormous boost to my operations!

As much as I would love to continue writing, it is about time for the first landing attempt of the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery, and I plan to watch that take place live on NASA TV! As always, I would very much appreciate to hear your comments about this blog entry, so don't be shy about posting them!


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