new antenna rotator webcam Saturday, April 24 2010
So much of what America consumes is manufactured in China, and much of it represents astounding acts of industrial sophistication. It's not easy to fabricate microchips or even to solder them to breadboards. Still, there are plenty of Chinese manufacturers who are looking for the quick buck and are willing to cut any corner to get there, even if it means losing future business. If you make enough money on one crucial swindle, you can survive to do it again under some other name. It's easy to set up a new Ebay account or even an export concern. Sparkfun.com, my favorite online electronics parts provider, was recently swindled by a Chinese manufacturer of counterfeit of Atmega328 microcontrollers whose surface mount packages didn't actually contain any electronics. That's ballsy! But much of the corner-cutting by Chinese manufacturers is more subtle. They end up producing marvelously complex devices such as 300 kilopixel webcams, but because they're selling them on Ebay for $6, there are inevitably problems. For one thing, they have nowhere near the upwards of 80 megapixels that is claimed (I've mentioned this in the past). Another is that their drivers are so poorly-written that your computer will start misbehaving after installation (and who knows what logic bombs the Chinese secret service is implanting for use come Digigeddon). For example, I found that after installing a driver for a cheap Chinese webcam, my computer had trouble going into standby, sometimes hanging on the "preparing to enter standby" screen and requiring a reboot. (That's the kind of thing that really pisses me off, particularly if I show up at my computer in the morning and realize it's been in that mode all night.) It used to be that the worst of these cheap Chinese devices were on the margins of American consumer culture, but they're drawing closer and closer to its retail core. For example, increasingly you'll find that the tools at your local big box stores are made not of the solid (possibly Taiwanese) steel of yesteryear but instead of the considerably-crumblier off-brand Chinese steel. Is it even steel if the source material is galavanized cans, engine blocks, and crushed lead acid batteries?
Nevertheless, even the crappiest $6 Ebay camera is considerably better than the $20 webcams of five years ago. Five years ago, almost to the day, is when I first installed a webcam on an antenna rotator near the north end of the house (that was before the solar deck, so it had started out its life above the laboratory balcony instead). That webcam produced a grainy 320 by 240 pixel image and it kept demanding that I reinstall its drivers every time I powered it up (you cannot imagine how infuriating that sort of behavior is). Today I replaced it with a cheap Chinese webcam having a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels. To provide a weatherproof housing, I found it easiest to strip it out of its plastic case and install its tiny eye-equipped circuit board between a short piece of 1.25 inch PVC pipe and a matching 90 degree fitting. Into the other end of that fitting a stuck a longer piece of 1.25 inch PVC pipe that I ripped for half its length to make it so it would fit firmly against the back of a WiFi dish (one of the things the antenna rotator rotates).
Once I had the new webcam installed, the half-light of evening was making for an ideal outdoor webcamportunity. (Webcams are typically overdriven by the outdoor light in the middle of the day.)
The new webcam attached to the back of the WiFi dish. Note the floodlight and upside-down bucket of electronics, all of which can be rotated.
A close-up of the PVC housing for the new webcam. I didn't bother to glue any of these PVC pieces together.