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  • Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 17:43
    April Fool's Prank Contest Winners!

    It’s April Fool’s Day! Today we’re not going to try to convince you Pete built a time machine or sell you a magic blue smoke refilling kit. Rather, today is the day we announce the winners of the SparkFun April Fool’s Day Prank Contest! If you missed the announcement - here are the general rules:

    We received a lot of great entries for this contest - honestly, more than we expected. Sadly, we had to narrow the entries down to three winners. So without further ado, here are your winners (in order from third place to first place).

    The third-place entry comes to you from SparkFun customer Eric Townsend. He built an “Arduino Scream Generator” and used it to scare the beejeezus out of some hapless victim. Congratulations Eric - you’ve won $100 in SparkFun bucks. We’ll be emailing you shortly with your prize!

    The second-place entry and winner of $200 in SparkFun credit comes via SFE customer Rhett Pimentel. It’s appropriately named “Too Much Toilet Paper.” While we can’t see this project actually in action (cameras and bathrooms are generally a no-no), we love the idea behind it! Congrats Rhett!

    And finally we have your winner! 11-year-old Riley used a linear actuator from an old printer, rubber bands, popsicle sticks, a clothespin, and the electronics from an annoying greeting card to build this candy vending machine with a surprise ending. Congratulations Riley - you’re the winner of $300 in SparkFun bucks!

    Thank you to everyone who submitted - check your email for a special April Fool’s treat from us! If you recall, we will also select one project from the original announcement’s comments and build it. We’ll start sorting through those comments and build the project and let you know the winner in the coming weeks! Cheers and happy pranking!

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  • Monday, March 31, 2014 - 21:33
    In Which We Are Not Having Fun

    Hey everyone.

    As you might know, we had a pretty good sale on a bunch Arduino products on Saturday.

    Well, it turns out it may have been too good. We smashed our previous record for orders in a day, set on last year’s Cyber Monday. Back then the high water mark was around 4,000 orders, and on Saturday we saw almost 8,000 orders flood into the system.

    What the previous record for orders in a day looked like

    What the previous record for orders in a day looked like

    It’s also worth noting that we’ve made some pretty big changes to our database in the past few months - most notably moving from MySQL to PostgreSQL.

    The issue we’re seeing today has to do with how we know how much of a given product is available. Availability of a product is a loose term and has to take into account how many physical units of that product we have but also how much of those units are spoken for on active orders. Active is also a pretty loose term for an order that hasn’t shipped. All of these terms are necessarily loose to accommodate all of the edge cases common to volumes we regularly see.

    We were pumped about the move to PostgreSQL for many features afforded, but primarily materialized views. Building such things to keep track of available stock values really sped things up!

    Until this weekend. Apparently having an order of magnitude more active orders in the system makes refreshes on our materialized view for stock take a long time, and this has led to timeouts with heavily diversified orders. So far today it’s been a long haul of optimization attempts to make things hum along normally again. We’re still hammering away. It’s a technical problem in a big system, so there’s no such thing as a quick fix.

    As we continue to work on this sparkfun.com will continue to have spotty down-time. We’re trying our best to minimize this while fixing the problem at hand, so thanks for being patient.

    Update: 3:10PM

    A missing index and some other optimizations have sped things up some. We’re back to everything functioning again, but we’re watching things very closely.

    Also, to be more precise about the issue that plagued us: Like most of our back-end systems our warehouse system (called The Flow) was where the problem started. With so many new orders in the system the most important thing was to be able to ship them, and it’s a complex thing to have thousands of orders with intersecting items that can be meted out to pickers and packers roughly in the order they were placed but only if they are paid (unless they’re paying on credit terms) and only if their items are in stock enough that other orders aren’t claiming that same stock. It’s a fun problem that begets a lot of run-on sentences. There’s a massive query in that system to get orders based on even more special picking criteria and that query was locking up, causing refreshes on the materialized view to stall, causing further timeouts down the chain.

    Were we just the users and not the builders of this system the problem might have never happened. Or it might have happened and been impossible to fix without a paid support contract. Impossible to say. Either way, spending the day fighting this has not earned ire from the rest of the SparkFun crew that was left waiting for the breakage to subside. Patience was what we received, along with coffee, liquor, and Easter Candy (in that order). For that we are grateful. =)

    Update 4:10PM

    And now Tim brought us a keg of Easy Street for our efforts. Maybe we should unintentionally break things more often…

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  • Monday, March 31, 2014 - 08:00
    Hacker-in-Residence: Interactive Garments

    Happy Monday friends – it’s time to welcome a new hacker to our ranks! Say hello to Matt Pinner.

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    Hello, Matt Pinner!

    Matt is here for three weeks and has already been hard at work in our Engineering department. Let’s learn more about Matt.

    Can you share your background, interests, and some favorite past projects? What and where is your current position?

    I create environments where people get to play, interact, and ultimately learn.

    I’ve been all over the world and got into computers with the dream of working from the top of a mountain. It turns out I enjoy interaction and collaboration too much for that. I’ve been engrossed in several startups because I enjoy working hard as part of a small, passionate teams. My skill in application scalability, performance optimization, and security grew into a love of hardware and distributed systems.

    Specializing in wearable computing and mobile devices has allowed me to have really nerdy conversations in traditionally boring places: street corners, nightclubs, and in line at the market. I love Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM), and find it especially rewarding to open people’s minds to the possibilities they can create with even a minimal grasp of technology. I’ve experimented with adding sensors, batteries, and lighting to every part of the body in a effort to understand how calling attention to our parts can affect how we move.

    Most recently I’ve been 3D-printing LED buttons for use in my garments. They can be sequenced to express the theme of an event, coordinate with others, or be reactive to their surroundings. Through sensing ambient conditions, other people’s presence, and the emotional state of the wearer, a garment can more gracefully integrate the wearer into their surroundings. Subtlety is the name of the game and I’m continually striving to integrate people with technology, not distract or withdraw them with it.

    CrashSpace, a Hackerspace in Los Angeles, has been my home and studio for over 4 years. I made everyone’s favorite soldering unicorn and our mascot, Sparkles. It has been a joy to share her with the world and a valuable tool around the shop. You can build your own Sparkles here!

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    Sparkles herself, courtesy of CrashSpace

    I made an internet-connected Little Free Library as an experiment in generative art and public interactivity. It is still the most sophisticated we’ve seen. Not only does it look like miniature version of our space, but tracks deposits and withdrawals while lighting momentarily to aid in book selection. On our busy street it has shared tens of thousands of books:

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    The CrashLibrary in action

    Checkout my interactive fashion accessories and jacket, collection of motion-reactive disco balls and dance performance tools, light-up mechanical flip book, and LED installations.

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    The Sparkle Stick

    How and why did you get involved in SparkFun’s Hacker-in-Residence program? Why do you think programs like this are valuable?

    I’m at SparkFun to build along side the geniuses behind the materials that have been the center of, and inspiration for, many delightful creations. I have a few beginner projects of my own I’d love to see become a kit or breakout board for others to use.

    Investing time with SparkFun’s vast offer of sensors on the body will better enable me to design wearables for everyday use that bond people without distracting them. I hope my process and project can provide valuable insight for the Sparklers (can I call them that?) to better support all of us.

    Almost every two weeks I’d been hosting a different class/workshop. SparkFun has been an amazing alley for pulling together the materials for my workshops. I continually improve the curriculum and diversify the topics I’m able to explain. Having firsthand knowledge from SparkFun and sharing what I’ve learned from teaching workshops can be instrumental in easing the learning process for others.

    What is the project you’ll be working on at SparkFun, and how long will you be here? Why did you choose this project?

    I’ll build a jacket over my three-week stay. Into this garment I’ll build a interactive system that will sense the wearer and surrounding environment.

    Spaces have a life of their own. We can expose this through realtime data collection and visualization throughout the course of an event by unleashing coordinated mobile nodes (wearables and accessories) within an environment.

    I want to use sound as a way to localize people within a space and create a platform for collaborative gaming. I’m analyzing the variety of embeddable microphones and preamps offered for use in the widest range of accessories and environments. I’ll proceed to build a system into this jacket that will react to the environment and wearer while providing data for further development of smaller pieces to coordinate the player.

    What is your superpower and snack of choice?

    Super? Thank you. Aren’t we all.

    My superpower is the ability to sleep; not in the narcoleptic sense, but I have always been a deep sleeper. I oft use a quick nap to prepare for a long night or a long night of sleep to prepare for a busy day.

    My other superpower would have to be the ability to break anything. This makes me particularity well suited to deliver a robust system because if it’ll work for me, you cannot break it.

    I hope you find your superpower(s) and use it for good.

    Snacks!?! Yes please! Do I have to pick just one? I love avocados, spinach, guacamole, Teensies, fruits, and DARK CHOCOLATE!

    Thanks Matt, we can’t wait to see how your jacket turns out!

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  • Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 07:00
    Happy Arduino Day!

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    EDIT: 3/30/2014 Midnight - Arduino Day is over! If you placed a backorder on March 29th then don’t worry about settling your balance right away. We’ll get in touch with you when payment is due! Also, if you contacted Customer Service before the Arduino Day sale ended please be patient and we’ll respond as soon as possible.

    It’s worldwide “Arduino Day” - celebrating Arduino’s 10th birthday! Arduino has been a key player in the DIY movement and has been instrumental in 100s of our projects. To be it succinctly - we’re fans.

    So March 29th we are offering the following boards at a discount price. These discounts run March 29th, 2014, from 12:00:01 a.m. - 11:59:59 p.m. Mountain Time. There is a limit of two units for each product (per order) and back-orders are allowed.

    EDIT: 3/29/2014 3:45am (Mountain Time) - We’ve identified the backorder malfunction and enacted a work-around. Products are back-order-able again! Thank you for bearing with us.

    Distributors - these prices don’t apply to you, but we have a special discount for you (we emailed you a list of your items).

    So on March 29th, here are the deals!

    Arduino Uno was $29.95 now $18

    Arduino Uno SMD was $29.95 now $18

    Arduino Pro 328 3.3V was $14.95 now $6

    Arduino Pro 328 5V was $14.95 now $6

    SparkFun Arduino-Compatible Redboard was $24.95 now $9

    Arduino Pro 5V was $9.95 now $3

    Arduino Pro 3.3V was $9.95 now $3

    We hope this helps you build something amazing! Happy Birthday, Arduino!

    3/29/2014 5:15am (Mountain Time) - edited to add:
    A Note About Payment For Back-Orders - you don’t have to pay until the goods arrive and are ready to ship!
    See our Payments Information page for details.

    If you are paying with PayPal, and your order has back-ordered items, you may not be redirected to the PayPal site. This is because we do not take payment until your order is ready to ship. Once everything is in stock, we’ll send you a money request.

    3:45am (Mountain Time) - edited to add:
    We’ve identified the malfunction and enacted a work-around. Products are back-order-able again. Thank you for bearing with us.

    1:15am (Mountain Time) - edited to add:
    We realize the malfunction with the backorder system. We apologize for the added frustration and the unhappy surprise. Thank you for your patience.

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  • Friday, March 28, 2014 - 17:00
    New Product Friday: There is no Spoon

    We’re back, as always, with more new products for you. This week we just have a few, but one of them is mind control, so we’ve got that going for us. Be sure to check the video.

    This really is the future, isn’t it? Put something on your head, load an app on your phone, and see your brain waves. It’s a great time to be alive.

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    The Neurosky Mindwave Mobile an EEG headset that safely measures and transfers the power spectrum (alpha waves, beta waves, etc.) data via Bluetooth to wirelessly communicate with your computer, iOS or Android device. We even have a cool hacking tutorial from one of our hackers-in-residence. It’s a pretty cool way to play with brainwaves and such.

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    These long headers work well when you want to connect something in a breadboard. Because they’re centered (the pins on both sides of the plastic strip are of equal length), they fit into a breadboard snugly, and leave you enough pin length to connect female headers. These also work well for connecting two female headers together, like servo cables and such. They come in 40-pin strips that are easily cut or snapped to length.

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    We have a new version of the RFM12. The new version, the RFM12BSP is slightly different, but ultimately has the same functionality as the previous module. These are great little transceivers for sending data back and forth. They’re SMD, but can easily be used with 2mm pitch headers. They work similarly to the RFM22, which we have on a shield.

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    Lastly, we have another header. This is a 10-pin female SMD header with 0.1" spacing. We carry numerous other pin configurations of this, but didn’t carry a 10-pin, so why not?

    That’s all I have for this week. I’ll be back again next week with more new products, and the final Robotics 101 video (Tools - Part 2). Be sure to check back then and thanks for reading and watching!

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  • Friday, March 28, 2014 - 14:48
    Enginursday: Get Roving!

    Robotics competitions are a great way to hone your skills by designing with a purpose (and a deadline). There are competitions large and small all over the world, for all skill levels, with all kinds of goals, both constructive and destructive. If you’ve been following SparkFun for a while you’re probably aware of our Autonomous Vehicle Competition, which will be held at the Boulder Reservoir on June 21st. The AVC challenges are for fun and glory, but there’s another robotics competition coming up in April that challenges you to design a Mars rover and try it out in a remote and spectacular part of Colorado.


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    Ron Cogswell

    As a wise man once said, space is big. Really big. Big enough that it’s difficult, expensive, and risky sending people everywhere we’d like to go. We’ve been sending machines instead (and hopefully in advance) of us for decades, and the knowledge gained from these programs has literally rewritten the book on our solar system and beyond. The first robotic explorers just flew by planets, followed by orbiters, followed by landers; each of which provided more and more spectacular results. But even given the astonishing technical achievement of being able to softly touch down on an alien world, there was always an interesting rock just out of reach, or a mountain on the horizon, that scientists wished they could visit. Rovers have given us the mobility to truly start the detailed and long-term exploration of these worlds.


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    Brian Sanders

    The first planetary rover was Russia’s Lunokhod (“moon walker”) 1, which explored the moon for almost a year in 1970. More recently the US has had great success with Mars rovers; Opportunity is still operating after an unheard-of ten years on the ground, and the massive mobile laboratory Curiosity is providing new insight into Mars’s complex geologic past (as well as having a cranky alter-ego). Many more rovers (and flyers, and even submarines) are on the drawing boards of NASA and other organizations. Unfortunately, even the most cost-effective missions are at the mercy of agency budgets, which are currently cut to the bone and beyond. (Write your congresspeople.)


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    Brian Sanders

    Because space is so big, planetary rovers are an ideal application of autonomy (the ability to make your own decisions). The problem is the huge distances involved. For example, depending on where they are in their orbits, Mars may be anywhere between 55 and 400 million kilometers away from Earth. In the vacuum of space, radio waves travel at the speed of light, which means it takes between 3 and 22 minutes for a command to get from you to your rover. And that’s just one-way; any responses or returned video would take just as long to get back to you, so you could be waiting 45 minutes to find out whether your rover fell into a ravine or not. Imagine trying to directly control a vehicle with that kind of lag. (You think gaming is tough!) Not to mention that there are periods when the sun is directly between Mars and Earth, entirely cutting off communications for a week or so. It would be nice if your rover was able to perform investigations on its own during that time.

    In practice, rovers are such a valuable asset that their operations are very carefully planned in advance, and onboard autonomy is usually limited to catching any unforeseen problems while command sequences are being executed. But autonomy is increasingly becoming an effective cost-saving measure on numerous missions (Deep Space Network time is limited and expensive), and we’ll only see more of it in the future.


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    Michael Rael

    Which brings us to the Colorado Space Grant / Adams State University Robotics Challenge, held annually at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado. This challenge is designed to give amateur teams a taste of what it takes to create and operate a Mars rover. The vehicles need to autonomously navigate courses of varying complexity and ruggedness, with the possibility of unexpected obstacles, high and low temperature extremes (April in Colorado can have anything from 80 degree days to whiteout blizzards), and the ever-present blowing sand, which has a way of getting into everything, no matter how well-sealed.


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    Brian Sanders

    A unique part of this challenge is the central radio beacon. To more accurately simulate the conditions a rover would encounter on another planet, GPS receivers are not allowed. (GPS signals are broadcast by a constellation of satellites in earth’s orbit; these signals won’t be available anywhere else until we put similar constellations around other planets.) Instead of using GPS, a 433MHz radio beacon is set up at the center of the course area. The robots must move from the starting point toward the beacon, navigate around any obstacles in their path, and return to the original course. The various challenge courses are laid out in spokes from the central beacon, allowing multiple courses to use the same beacon simultaneously.


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    Brian Sanders

    True radio direction finding is a difficult task. To make the beacon more accessible to amateur teams, a clever technique is used. The beacon consists of a rotating Yagi antenna that continuously broadcasts the compass bearing of the beam as it rotates. The antenna pattern from the Yagi is highly directional, so the robots will only receive the beacon as the beam sweeps past them. If a robot receives the beacon, the data will contain the reciprocal bearing back to the beacon. Just knowing that information doesn’t help you if you don’t know your own heading, so an onboard compass is used to figure out what direction you’re pointing.* Once you know both of those angles, you can figure out the direction you need to drive to get to the beacon.


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    Brian Sanders

    Befitting the institutions behind it, the primary goal of this challenge is education. Instead of giving you the rules and saying “good luck,” the Colorado Space Grant Consortium provides pre-challenge workshops in basic skills like soldering and programming, and provides as much information as they can to help teams succeed. Mass and cost are constrained to give as many teams as possible the opportunity to participate; robots must weigh under 4kg or 1.5kg depending on the weight class, and the hardware cost is limited to $500. The rules are also specific about protecting the course environment (the Great Sand Dunes are a national park that contains protected and fragile ecosystems), and that the real goal of the challenge is not to win through finding loopholes, but through solid design, good craftsmanship, and testing, testing, testing.


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    Brian Sanders

    The Colorado Space Grant Consortium, and the NASA-funded Space Grant Colleges in each state, exist to give students practical engineering experience through challenges like these and numerous other opportunities. COSGC alumni have gone on to design, build and operate the current generation of Mars rovers and many other space missions, and work at many interesting places, including SparkFun.


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    Michael Rael

    This year’s Robotics Challenge will be held on April 5th from 8AM to 11:30AM, just past the visitor’s center at the Great Sand Dunes National Park which is about a four-hour drive from Denver. The public is welcome! If you’d like to be involved in next year’s competition, you can find more information at http://spacegrant.colorado.edu/statewideprograms/robotics-challenge. Registration is in December, so get roving!


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    Brian Sanders

    * Unlike Earth, Mars has a very weak magnetic field, so this likely wouldn’t work in real life, but for the purposes of the challenge you have to constrain the problem somewhere. Interestingly, there are indications that Mars had a much stronger magnetic field in the past that, like the Earth’s magnetic field, once protected the surface of Mars from being blasted by solar radiation as it is now. Why the field disappeared is an important question scientists are trying to answer. Write your congresspeople.

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  • Wednesday, March 26, 2014 - 17:17
    SparkFun Live: Temperature-sensing Lunchbox

    Greetings humans. It’s time once again for everyone’s favorite live community project build extravaganza fest, where ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. For this edition of SparkFun Live, which will take place on Tuesday, April 8 at 3:00 MT, Evan in Tech Support will show us how to build a temperature-sensing lunchbox, so you can keep an eye on the decomposition rate of your snack pack in the hot summer months.

    If you’d like to join us, and we do hope you will (what if something catches on fire or Evan makes a hilarious joke?), you can find the wishlist of parts here, and the GitHub code here. See you in a couple weeks!

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