Bre Pettis | Living the DIY Dream

Bre Pettis (formerly of Make Magazine’s Weekend Projects) is hosting a new TV show that premieres on the History Channel later this month.

I’m really excited.  I just found out that my TV show pilot, called History Hacker is going to air on the History Channel on Friday, September 26th at 9PM. This photograph, which is also the current header of my blog was shot during filming of the show. I’m on set in my infinity workshop and that’s a decent sized Tesla coil.

Over the course of the show I learn about the inventors and inventions of the past and then hack the inventions together out of stuff in my closet.

History Hacker
Friday, September 26, 2008
The History Channel

Bre also has a new blog where you can check out what he’s up to, including his involvement with Etsy and uber-hackerspace NYC Resistor.

Bre Pettis | Living the DIY Dream

Generating Analog RGB Video with a PIC Microcontroller

Here is a PIC16F628 microcontroller clocked at 20MHz generating an analog RGB video signal with composite sync.

PIC Microcontroller RGB Video

This project was inspired by Rickard Gunee’s PIC Video Howto which gave me a big headstart in writing the code.  Thanks Rickard!  I have been wanting to work on this project since reading the tutorial several years ago, and finally got a chance to start it last week.

There are few fundamental differences in my approach compared to Rickard’s and others I have seen in the past.  His tutorial was written a few years ago before 20MHz PICs were commonly available (it uses an overclocked PIC16F84.)  He also focuses on generating composite video to drive a standard television (using the AV inputs).  I am generating RGB video which will interface with the Sharp LCD I had sitting on the shelf.  RGB is a little different in that it uses a separate sync signal (composite horizontal and vertical sync on one inverted TTL line) and each color is brought out as a separate 0.7Vpp signal.  These two differences make the RGB interface considerably easier (in my opinon) to work with, especially since the approach to composite video Rickard uses is limited to black and white.

So far the biggest challenges have been with getting the video timing right.  I am writing the whole program in PIC assembly and every clock cycle counts.

More on this project soon, but until then, there are a few more photos on flickr.

Code, by Charles Petzold

Andrew Milmoe of Make:SF recommended Charles Petzold’s book Code to me several months ago to help me refresh my knowledge of computer architecture as I dive into embedded systems development.  I finally finished reading it this week and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Code is both a history of the computer as well as a tutorial illustrating how to build one from the ground up using switches and gates.  Some chapters are slow reading due to the complicated subject matter, but the way he brings everything together at the end makes it a great read.  Although the book is in some ways dated (written in 1999, it talks about 128MB of memory being novel and Apple having problems in the desktop market) I found that it is still relevant.  This is particularly true for microcontrollers and embedded systems which have more in common with the 8 bit computer that is the subject of the book than a Pentium 4 in today’s desktop PC’s.

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software
Charles Petzold’s latest book, Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, crosses over into general-interest nonfiction from his usual programming genre. It’s a carefully written, carefully researched gem that will appeal to anyone who wants to understand computer technology at its essence. Readers learn about number systems (decimal, octal, binary, and all that) through Petzold’s patient (and frequently entertaining) prose and then discover the logical systems that are used to process them. There’s loads of historical information too. From Louis Braille’s development of his eponymous raised-dot code to Intel Corporation’s release of its early microprocessors, Petzold presents stories of people trying to communicate with (and by means of) mechanical and electrical devices. It’s a fascinating progression of technologies, and Petzold presents a clear statement of how they fit together.

The real value of Code is in its explanation of technologies that have been obscured for years behind fancy user interfaces and programming environments, which, in the name of rapid application development, insulate the programmer from the machine. In a section on machine language, Petzold dissects the instruction sets of the genre-defining Intel 8080 and Motorola 6800 processors. He walks the reader through the process of performing various operations with each chip, explaining which opcodes poke which values into which registers along the way. Petzold knows that the hidden language of computers exhibits real beauty. In Code, he helps readers appreciate it. –David Wall

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