I commute and recreate by bike, and I like keeping track of my cumulative miles with a little bike computer. Maybe I'm too OCD, but it kind of ticks me off when the connections corrode and the bike computer has the temerity to miss some of my miles. But the worst is when the battery runs out, and I don't know how many miles were on the computer when it died. Plus, I've got these oddball miles accumulating on my mountain bike that don't get counted. The tragedy!
Well, the road bike odometer started getting dim a couple weeks ago, so I ordered a pack of new batteries direct from Hong Kong ($1.28 for 10!). I made a point of tracking my mileage, so I knew it when it died. I track miles by the whole thousands on a web page, but what do I do with the odds and ends of odometry I have lying around?
The new batteries showed up this week. So, as a fun afternoon hack, I decided to whip up a little breadboard to drive the bike computer, to put the miles back on the odometer.
Jeremy and I came across the Atmega1248. Atmegas are awesome to begin with: give them ground and power, and without any other parts, you've got a computer. The 1284 is particularly awesome: it's a dip package, so it's easy to pop into a breadboard. It's 40 pins, so it's hard to run out of I/O pins. It has 16K of RAM and 128K of program flash: very cushy. And the pin layout is very thoughtful. Six adjacent pins form the programming header; solder up a single cable to your USBTiny, and now you can have a breadboard running just by plugging in one cable. The UART pins are near the power pins, too, so with one more simple cable, you've got a serial console for debugging.
So I plugged my 1284 into my breadboard, hung a mosfet off an I/O pin, and started driving the computer. I learned that, past about 69mph, it starts missing beats. (I've never been past 51mph, so I doubt that's a problem in practice. :v) I coded up the program to compute the correct driving interval and number of counts to arrive at a desired mileage.
Today, I need the odometer to read 370 miles, which is going to take around five hours. So I've left the little breadboard plugged into a wall wart, doing its thing. Fun!
If you want to try making one, here's a schematic. Yes, it only has two parts: a microcontroller to generate pulses at a suitable frequency (about 14Hz max, for my computer) and to count them; and a MOSFET to translate those voltage pulses into the switching behavior the computer expects to see from its reed switch. (Being a semiconductor, the MOSFET will only conduct electricity in one direction, so you'll need to either measure your bike computer's steady-state voltage with a voltmeter, or just try the circuit both directions.)
It used to be that the best recommendation for equipping your hobby electronics lab was to find a used high-end soldering iron or a used Tektronix oscilloscope, where the price had come down an order of magnitude from sticker.
Times have changed. Nowadays (2011), you can get a surprisingly capable (and pleasantly portable: no 50-pound CRT) digital storage oscilloscope for under $400. I've been playing with Jeremy's Rigol 1062E, and love it so much I just ordered the (newer) 1052E model for $341 via dealextreme. 50MHz bandwidth, automatic measurement functions, spectrum analysis, and upload of data & screen shots via usb stick or usb to a PC. Pretty sweet.
I've been soldering with the same Radio Shack $15 open-loop soldering iron since Andy taught me to solder in the 80's. Thermostatically-controlled irons are much nicer: they heat up really fast, and handle both small and large parts well. That's because they can dump power in when needed, and then shut it off when the temperature back up. I'd never gotten one, because commercial units run several hundred bucks, or $100 for a basic Weller. So then I was over at Jeremy's, and got spoiled by his, and said, hey, why isn't there an affordable knock-off? Then I came across the CSI-STATION1A from Circuit Specialists -- $30; $40 shipped. I've used mine once, and am already in love. And at barely twice the cost of the Radio Shack, I advise electronics hobbyists to not even waste their time with a non-thermostatic iron. You can see my iron zip-tied to the top of the cart in the photo.
(Beware: there's a model of iron floating around on eBay that has a knob, but no clear indication that it's actually a thermostat; it's calibrated in power, not temperature. Don't get that thing. Get a thermostatically-controlled iron.)
Then I decked out my lab with a 2000-piece assortment of resistors, some assortments of capacitors (little ceramic and big electrolytic), an assortment of diodes and transistors, and a few baggies of LEDs; all told, less than $50 on ebay. I'll probably spend more on little plastic bins to sort them in.
I'm still trying to find a great value on a dual bench power supply with current limiting.