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Fearless Experiments With Microcomputers

Fearless Experiments With Microcomputers

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Fearless Experiments With Microcomputers

308 pagine
2 ore
Feb 28, 2017


Fearless Experiments with Microcomputers will guide you through the amazing world of very low-cost microcontrollers that you program from your laptop or desktop. You'll control light, sound, music and motion using a variety of sensors. The software is free and the hardware is so inexpensive that you or your children or students can be completely fearless as you play and learn by doing.

You can master the basic building blocks of modern exponential electronic technology that power our world.

You can put the power of a computer into art projects, toys, models and gadgets around your home for less than $5.

You can learn the basics of software coding using the same simple software that many of today's computer wizards used to master their craft.

And you can learn these things in a few hours of play, even if you have never studied electronics or computer programming.
Feb 28, 2017

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Fearless Experiments With Microcomputers - Gregg Maryniak






The Secret Sweet Spot for Learning Microcomputers

Learn why using low-cost microcontrollers is the key to understanding the electronic marvels that are the core of modern exponential technology.


•Understand that microprocessors are at the heart of modern technology.

•Learn how Moore’s Law drives modern technology development.

•Discover the sweet spot for learning about the hardware and software that shape our modern world.

What if you could master the basic building blocks of modern exponential electronic technology?

What if you could put the power of a computer into art projects, toys, models, and helpful gadgets around your home?

What if you could command household electricity safely without flicking a switch?

What if you could do all these things (and much more) in a few hours of play, even if you never studied electronics or computer programming?

You can, and in much less time than you might guess.

Fearless Experiments with Microcomputers will guide you through the amazing world of ultra-low-cost microcontrollers that you program from your laptop or desktop. You’ll learn to control light, sound, music, and motion using a variety of sensors. The devices that you build can range from toys and demonstrations to lunar rover simulators and autonomous underwater robots for real exploration.

You’ll do this using the same simple software that today’s computer wizards used when they learned how to write code. The hardware is so inexpensive, that you (or your children or students) can be completely fearless as you play and learn by actually doing.

The result of your fearless play will be that you will acquire a new superpower! You will gain the ability to understand and use the devices that are at the heart of modern exponential technology. Along the way, you will gain the confidence that comes from real, hands-on experience —and gaining this power and confidence is fun! You will know how to do things that only a small percentage of the population understands. Many of your friends will think that you are a wizard! After basking in the acclaim of your associates, you’ll probably find yourself sharing your newfound knowledge and power.

Microcomputers are the basic building blocks of our modern electronic world.

Today nearly every product that uses electricity contains one or more tiny computers. These tiny computers are known as microcomputers. A typical new car might contain as many as 50 microcomputer chips. Even kitchen appliances (such as dishwashers and ovens) feature control systems that use microcomputers in their controls. When used for control systems, microcomputers are often referred to as microcontrollers.

Microcontrollers Are Exponential Magic

At the heart of all microcomputers are integrated circuits. These are simply large arrays of transistor on and off switches. If you can fit enough of these switches in a small space, you can make circuits that can perform logic and mathematics, and remember things. Programming allows you to make these devices behave in a wide variety of ways without changing the hardware. By the 1960s, it first became possible to put many transistors on a single chip. By integrating transistors and other parts on a single chip, it became possible to fit very capable computers into machines that could fit on a desktop instead of needing an entire building. The amount of electricity that it took to run a computer plummeted as well. One of the first large customers for this new capability was the early space program. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was one of the largest customers of the Intel Corporation, a leading provider of integrated circuits. (For a fascinating history of the early years of Silicon Valley’s microelectronic revolution, I recommend the book The Intel Trinity, by Michael S. Malone.)

One of the founders of Intel, Gordon Moore, made a now-famous observation about the rate at which integrated circuits were improving. He graphed the number of transistors that could be fit on a chip over time. His observation that the number of transistors was doubling just about every 18 months has come to be called Moore’s Law. Singularity University co-founder Raymond Kurzweil has observed that this sort of doubling of capability has actually been going on since the beginning of the information age-even before the advent of transistors.

Graphic courtesy Wikipedia

By Wgsimon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Moore’s Law is not a physical law like the speed of light. Rather it is a sort of target that our modern electronics industry has managed to hit every year for several decades (much to everyone’s amazement). This doubling of computer power has created enormous benefits for society. People have access to vast amounts of information and knowledge. The cost reductions alone are difficult to comprehend. People have pointed out that if automotive technology had changed at the same rate as microelectronics, a Rolls Royce automobile today would get more than 10,000 miles per gallon and cost less than a penny!

Systems with rapid doubling rates are called exponential systems. To picture the growth rate of exponential systems, imagine a chess board with a coin on the lower left square. Double that one coin in the square to the right, and we have two coins. Double those two coins in the next square, and we have four coins. If we double the number of coins on each square along the row, we get a series that looks like this: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. By the 8th square we have 257 coins, with 128 coins on that 8th square alone.

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The exponential growth of improvements in integrated circuit technology has led to widespread use of microcomputers that are now found in a wide variety of consumer products and machine systems of all types. They have truly become the building blocks of our modern world.

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Our mobile phones have become as powerful as supercomputers were just a few years ago, and all of this power comes with incredible complexity.

The great science and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. We are now at the stage where we have personal electronic devices that have seemingly magical powers. While we can learn the necessary incantations and button presses necessary to invoke this magic, most of us have little if any idea of what is actually going on inside our gadgets. The problem with too much magic is that you need to be a wizard (or think you need to be a wizard) to understand what is going on.

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Magic: Too Much and Just Enough

Astronomers searching for potentially habitable planets around other stars in our galaxy are looking for planets of approximately the same mass as our Earth and within a suitable band of distance from their home star that they call The Goldilocks Zone. As you recall, the heroine of Goldilocks and the Three Bears was very particular about the temperature of her food, the softness of her bed, etc. Astronomers are looking for planets in a region where the energy from the star will not make the planet too hot or too cold but just right for it to have liquid water at the surface. Is there a Goldilocks Zone for learning about microcomputers? Yes!

Microcomputers with all their amazing capabilities seem to have magical properties. Too much magic is not necessarily a good thing, however, when you are trying to learn how something works. Tablet computers and smart-phones are enormously capable and indeed would have looked like magic to people even a few decades ago, which means their internal complexity makes them a poor starting point for understanding their underlying technology. (While I advocate having your toddler play with and learn from tablets, I do not recommend that they attempt to learn how they work by inspecting them internally with the aid of such delicate electronic tools as hammers, axes, rocks, or knives, to paraphrase that inimitable philosopher Dave Barry.)

When I was growing up, lots of teenagers enjoyed tinkering with the engines of cars. If you look under the hood of a 1950’s or 1960’s car, it is easy to trace the major systems and accessory devices like alternators, starters, and the like.

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Car technology was so widely known that it was often incorporated into the pop music of the era. For example, the Beach Boys described the modifications to their Little Deuce Coupe. The lyrics to that song included: "It’s ported and relieved and it’s stroked and bored, it does a hundred and forty in the top end floored" (and kids knew what all that stuff meant)! By contrast, a modern car is quite complex and mysterious, often containing dozens of microcomputers.

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Indeed, one of the first things today’s mechanic does is plug an analysis computer into the car’s electrical nervous system, just as Han Solo used C3PO to talk to the Millennium Falcon to diagnose the ship’s mechanical problems in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Many automotive training schools and high schools that teach auto repair keep one or more older, simpler cars so that their students can have a reasonable starting point for their learning. We are going to introduce you to a simple and ultra-low-cost microcontroller that provides an ideal entry point for people of all ages who wish to learn microcontroller magic.

The Sweet Spot for Learning about Microcomputers

What is the Goldilocks Zone for learning about microcomputers and programming? The people who created the powerful software that gives our modern computer devices magical properties appreciate that there are great benefits to learning computer technology with relatively simple devices and software. Linus Torvalds, who created the LINUX open-source operating system, even used the under the hood metaphor to describe his good fortune in starting his experimentation with simple hardware and software.

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Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators points out that Torvalds felt lucky to have learned on a very simple device, saying, Computers were actually better for kids when they were less sophisticated, when dweebie youngsters like me could tinker under the hood. (Isaacson, p. 374).

Google co-founder Sergey Brin learned to code on a simple Commodore 64 computer using BASIC, a computer language that stands for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.

Can You Master This Wizardry?

Today, anyone interested in learning how to harness the power of modern microcontrollers has many choices of equipment. There is a bewildering array of names, including Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone, and many different flavors of the exotic-sounding Italian-designed marvel, the Arduino.

Thanks in large part to MAKE Magazine, a microcontroller called the Arduino has become quite popular in the United States. Massimo Banzi, one of the originators of the Arduino project, wrote an excellent introductory book, Getting Started with Arduino, that helped me begin my own exploration of the power of microcontrollers. In just a few days of experimentation, I learned the surprising truth that it was now possible for people without electrical engineering degrees to incorporate the power of computers into toys, art, devices for the physically challenged, etc., for less than $50. Not only could regular folks do this, but they could accomplish such things for tens or hundreds of times less money and time than it would have taken when I was in school.

I wanted to share this knowledge and power with as many people as possible. At Singularity University, at NASA’s Ames Research Park at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, we established an Innovation Lab that enables our students to work with the latest technologies like robotic aircraft, three-dimensional printers, individual interactive displays like Oculus Rift, and the like. I donated some Arduino microcontrollers and enjoyed helping our Summer Graduate Student Program participants learn to incorporate them into prototypes as they strove to impact the lives of at least a billion people with exponential technology.

A great benefit of teaching at a place like Singularity University is that you get the chance to learn from your brilliant and innovative colleagues. Leading much of the work in our Innovation Lab was Dr. Dan Barry. Dan is not only an astronaut, jet pilot, and medical doctor, but also an accomplished roboticist. We spent lots of time together in the lab, and I had the chance to tell him about programs I was working on to provide experience with modern technology to middle school kids.

I mentioned that I wanted to increase the number of young people who could participate, and I wanted them to be able to keep the devices that they built. However, even at the very low cost of about $30 dollars per Arduino, the number of students that we could subsidize was limited. Dan made a brilliant suggestion that resulted in this book being in your hands.

He advised me to work directly at the level of the programmable microcontroller chip (sometimes called programmable integrated circuits or PICs) instead of at the Arduino board level. He said that if I were willing to invest in a $100 machine, I could use that machine to program $5 microcontroller chips (from a laptop) that could do many of the things that we used to do with the Arduino. This notion excited me so much, that I almost immediately began to investigate whether such a thing was possible. Here’s what I learned:

1. It is indeed possible.

2. It is much easier (and even less expensive) than Dan had suggested.

To my surprise, it turned out to be possible to program a family of programmable integrated circuits, not with a $100 box, but with a $20 (or less) cable that plugs into the USB port of a laptop or desktop computer running free, downloadable software.

To my further surprise, the programmable chip is not a $5 investment, rather it costs less than $3, even if you only buy a single one. With costs this low, the potential for experimentation and education is quite remarkable, as you shall shortly experience—if you dare.

Having played with a variety of microcontrollers, I am convinced that the Arduino and the PICAXE are within the sweet spot for new learners who want to get under the hood. As much as I love the Arduino, I discovered that the PICAXE enjoys a couple of very significant advantages over the Arduino.

The PICAXE Microcontroller

It turns out that an ideal

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