Today I'm going to harp on about programmable micro controllers. Some of my older posts indicated that I was/am working on a computer-controlled pinball machine. That project is still going (albeit hasn't been worked on for a while) but while prototyping things and learning how TTL chips worked, I discovered the awesomeness of microcontrollers. I initially bought myself a Basic Stamp from parallax, which was good, although I had to program it using an RS232(serial) port, which I had a hard time finding. I had to resort to using an old laptop for this.
I learned some of Parallax's basic language and set about working out how to use 595 and 4094 and 165 and other chips that I would need. The 595 and 4094's are shift registers see one of my older posts for 4094, and wait for an upcoming post about the 595.
So things were good for a while and then on one day without warning, the magic smoke escaped from my basic stamp. God knows why, but it ended up being a good thing(tm). After some research I decided that an Arduino would be the way to go.
My Arduino (may or may not be a knock off).
I believe most Arduinos are made in italy (and say so) but mine says made in china. It could be a knock off - but who knows. One of the perils of being cheap and buying on ebay, i suppose. It's open source hardware so nothing dodgy took place, although I would have liked to support the nice people over at Arduino or wherever.
Anyway so an Arduino provides you with a bunch of IO pins that you can read/write from/to as well as some analog pins (which come in very handy when using an MQ-3 alcohol gas detector!). It's all programmed in C, using the wiring/processing library which abstracts the jesus out of port IO. I know this because I have recently successfully programmed an atMega8 chip (more about this later).
The moral here is, if you want to do anything with electronics, go out and buy yourself an Arduino. It's well worth it. Also get a breadboard and hookup wire.