Kevin Cuzner's Personal Blog

Electronics, Embedded Systems, and Software are my breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

What is this with premade stuff??

I was recently talking to a friend online after conferring with him about my dot matrix clock circuit board layout (now to rev. 3.4) when he mentioned that all people have to do nowadays to become a hardware "hacker" is to go buy an premade Arduino kit, attach it to some other premade piece of hardware, and load a premade program into it. More and more I have noticed this to be true. People no longer design and program their own stuff; they just buy something and say they hacked it together. Although I think having a standardized hardware to work with for embedded stuff like what I mainly do would be nice, I don't see the fun in assembling and programming somebody else's code into somebody else's device. What is the novelty in that? Where is the learning?

Even with this trend I have seen a few other examples of people coming up with something cool using premade hardware. A good example is from my History of Creativity class I took my first two semesters at BYU. At the end of each semester each student had to create and present a "creativity project" which showed creativity at some level and related it to the class. My second semester, one person in the class made something that absolutely astounded me in its simplicity and how obvious it was to construct. He basically made a multitouch enabled touch screen using an LCD with the backing taken off, a bunch of infrared LEDs shining into a glass plate, and a camera with a remote control bezel over the lens. He hooked up the webcam to the computer and used open source software to interface it to his computer as a multitouch human interface device (HID). He said it cost him about $200 mainly because of the monitor he bought and cannibalized. I was impressed. I was so surprised I hadn't thought of doing something like that. It's things like that with premade stuff that I find awesome. I had never before seen a monitor like this and from what he said it was the cheapest yet from a quick look around on the web.

Now why would it bug me that people are using so much premade stuff? Well, it puts people like me who design their own custom boards and software without using very many ready made libraries or a premade circuit layout into the shadows. It really does. When I say something like "I built this...take a look..." people then ask "Oh, where did you buy that?" I never buy stuff and say I built it. I believe the only kit I have ever purchased was a solar racer from solarbotics when I was younger. Other than that everything I have made was from my own self. The only time I buy something is because I can't make it for cheaper. People buying all this premade stuff kind of dulls the novelty of people using "custom" hardware on computers and the like. Its like what happened to CB radios: When everyone was on clogging up the channels the novelty was lost. Although I have never been into CB radios, I can see the point of that. Something is novel because its something few people do. When I first started with microcontrollers in 2005, very very few people I knew had experience with them. Now, its like everyone is buying their Arduino's and sumo bot boards, programming them with some premade software, and setting them loose as their own creation. Of course, there are the people who go buy these things but then make up their own projects with them. I happen to know one person who has a sumobot that he made from premade boards that he installed a webcam on, programmed some interface software, and now has a person (or rather, bright colored object) seeking robot.

The only way in my mind that people redeem themselves from falling into the bandwagon of buy it yourself fake hacker stuff is by expanding it to fill another need. Innovation is what drives the world nowadays, not invention. The only people who can invent things now are people with clean rooms and lots of money. Since there aren't many of those people in the world, the vast majority of us "normal" people have to suffice for innovation. Being in the United States, I would mainly refer to improving American innovation so that I can live in a country that has cooler innovations than other countries, but since the internet is a global audience its better to say that the world should be more innovative.

Weekend Project: Smoke Bombs


Saltpeter or KNO3

I am not in any way responsible for injury or damage resulting from this blog entry. Do not assume that these instructions are either complete or correct. Don't be stupid either; if you can't handle fire safely then you surely can't handle this safely.

Lately I have been doing small weekend projects which are generally cheap and fun. This past weekend's project, in honor of the 4th, was making smoke bombs. I found out from a friend at work that there was a store in milwaukee which sold lab supplies, including KNO3 (saltpeter). I have been wondering how to aquire that chemical since I first read the anarchist's cookbook a few years ago. It is the main ingredient in many pyrotechnical compounds including gun powder, flash powder, and smoke bombs. So, I went to this store (Laabs, Inc.) in Milwaukee, near 30th and Wisconsin and bought two pounds of this chemical @ $7.12/lb. I got carded before I could buy it, so it is an over 18 sort of substance. It looks kind of like the rouded kind of rock salt that you can buy for water softeners.

The next ingredient was easy to get: brown sugar. I got the light brown kind, but apparently the dark brown kind works better. It cost me $1.89 at Pick'n'save (so far we are up to ~$18 on this project). Now that I have introduced the main ingredients, here is the illistrated tutorial:


  • Saltpeter or KNO3. It doesn't matter which since they are the same thing.

  • sugar.jpg



    Postal Scale

    Brown sugar. Dark brown is best, but white and light brown will also work just not as well.

  • A scale of some kind. I used a postage scale.

  • A mortar and pestle-like device. I used a baby food jar and a small piece of floor molding...anything will work as long as it isn't made of metal. It isn't like we have sparks to worry about like if we were making flash powder, but I think not using sparking materials would be a good habit to get into.

  • Paper towels

  • Rubbing alcohol

  • jarpestle.jpg

    Makeshift morter & pestle

    Something to put it on. This has to be able to withstand rather high temperatures and it will be stained black. I originally used 4 layers of aluminum foil on our driveway until I realized that a single smoke bomb was melting straight through the 4 layers down to the driveway. I used a flowerpot for the video at the end (it did crack). Sand also works since you can just bury it when you are done.

  • A lighter


  1. Weigh out the saltpeter and place it into the mortar. It is best to weigh it while it is inside the mortar so that it doesn't get all over the place from dumping into the mortar. Since this mixture is going to be 3 parts KNO3 to 2 parts sugar, it is easiest to make this a number divisible by 3. In this tutorial I used 48g of saltpeter.

  2. measured.jpg

    All the measured ingredients


    Mixing the sugar and saltpeter

    On a paper towel, weigh out the sugar. With 48g of saltpeter I had to weigh out 24g of sugar.

  3. Smash the saltpeter in the mortar until it is a relatively fine powder. Do not breathe the powder since saltpeter can cause medical issues including lung irritation and impotence (yes, I said impotence).

  4. After removing the sugar from the scale, place it on a hard surface and pour the saltpeter onto the paper towel. Mix them throughly.

  5. After mixing, fold the paper towel over the mixture to make a packet.

  6. packed.jpg

    Packed into a paper towel

    Place the packet onto a surface to light it on and put a bit of rubbing alcohol over it. It helps to make a "fuse" out of another paper towel, soak that in alcohol, and lay it across. Make sure not to get the mixture too wet since it isn't nearly as potent when it is wet.

  7. Light the alcohol. After a few seconds there should be a hissing noise and then smoke. If the paper towel burns away during the hissing noise, the boiling greenish mixture may be observed, but be careful not to get too close. The splatter from the boiling stuff does hurt (it is quite hot) and the smoke isn't too good to breathe in.

Video and Pictures


Before lighting it


After lighting it