Puzzle Box is Rigged to Blow

[Sande24] needed a gift for his father’s birthday. He decided that rather than simply give his father the gifts, he would present his father with a unique challenge. The gifts are locked inside of a multi-stage puzzle box. This isn’t your average puzzle box though. This one is rigged to blow.

The puzzle box was designed to test his father’s reflexes, mind, and luck. The finished product looks sort of like a wooden crate made from particle board. The box contains three levels, each with its own gift and its own task to be completed.

With the lid opened, the first compartment and puzzle is revealed. Inside of the compartment were a new pair of gloves, meant to protect the father’s hands when working on the puzzles. The first puzzle is built into a sheet of wood with several custom-made levers. The levers must be moved into position in order to remove the wooden sheet and reveal the next level.

The first lever triggers a home-made detonator that eventually lights a series of fireworks placed around the box. You need to solve the puzzle box fast enough to prevent the fireworks from destroying the gifts that lay inside. [Sande24] was unable to legally purchase fuses where he lived, so he had to make his own.

The second level held a gas mask, also meant to protect the father from the booby traps of this mysterious box. This level, also made from a sheet of wood, has nine squares drawn on it. Each square is labeled with a different number which goes into solving a mathematical function (x^5-25x^4+233x^3-995x^2+1866x-1080 = 0). The solution to the function would reveal the safe path to be used to cut the wooden platform in half. Unfortunately [Sande24’s] father cut the wrong squares and released a huge amount of vinegar into the box. Oops.

The bottom level contained the final puzzle and the locked treasure compartment locked with an ordinary padlock. To find the key, another puzzle had to be solved based on a series of wooden levers labeled with different shapes. The shapes provided clues to the order in which the levers should be pulled. Once the levers were moved into position, two compartments were unlocked. One of them contained the key to the treasure box. The other contained another booby trap which would set off more fireworks, destroying the final gift of four cans of Kuld beer. That’s a lot of work to get a a few cans of frothy beverage!

[Thanks Ellery]

This Little Amiga Still Runs School District’s HVAC

It’s the rare tech worker that manages a decade in any one job these days – employee loyalty is just so 1980s. But when you started your career in that fabled age, some of the cultural values might have rubbed off on you. Apparently that’s the case for an Amiga 2000 that’s been on the job since the late ’80s, keeping the heat and AC running at Grand Rapids Public Schools (YouTube video link.)

The local news story is predictably short on details and pushes the editorial edge into breathless indignation that taxpayer dollars have somehow been misspent. We just don’t see it that way. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is somewhat anathema to the hacker ethos. After all, there’s no better time to “fix” something than when it’s working properly and you can tell if you’ve done something wrong. But keeping an important system running with duct tape and wire ties is also part of the hacker way, so we applaud [Tim Hopkins] and his colleagues at the GRPS Facilities and Operations Department for their efforts to protect the public purse. And a round of applause is also due not only to the Amiga design team, who produced a machine that can run for nearly three decades, but also to Johnson Controls, whose equipment – apparently a wide area radio modem linking the HVAC systems in the district’s buildings – is being run by The Little Amiga That Could. Sounds like they built stuff to last way back when.

So when this machine is finally retired, here’s hoping they give it a good sendoff. Perhaps we’ll see it with some other Amigas at some future Vintage Computer Festival. Or maybe it’ll be one of those active retirees and start a career in the music industry.

[Thanks Thinkerer!]

Hacking a Telecoms Frequency Standard for Your Lab

[Shane Burrell] came across a Nortel GPSTM and re-purposed it as a 10MHz reference for his lab. The GPSTM is designed to slot into a backplane, most likely for telecoms applications. So [Shane] needed to hack the board to run from a 48v PSU. Once powered up, it was relatively easy to interface as the card appears to contain the well known Trimble Thunderbolt module and is compatible with its software.

We’ve covered frequency references before and they can be a valuable addition to a lab. On the back of most scopes, spectrum analyzers and function generators you’ll find a 10MHz reference input allowing the user to supply a reference more accurate than that generated internally. Not only is an external reference often more accurate, it also allows you to keep all your equipment in sync with a common reference, which can be particularly important in some measurements. While some hackers opt for Rubidium sources, the GPS disciplined temperature-controlled oscillator in the Nortel unit should provide a nice stable reference.

A word of warning to [Shane] though, get sucked into hacking frequency references and you may become a time nut finding yourself climbing mountains to test the theory of relativity.

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Fast ADC Uses Old School Scope Hack for 48 MSPS

[Carlos] needed an ADC with a 50 nanosecond sample period for his laser lab, that’s 20Msps! (20 million samples a second). While in recent years, commodity ADCs reaching into the low GSPS have become available, integrated acquisition systems are still somewhat expensive. So [Carlos] decided to do what every good hacker does, and built his own solution. His project post pretty much just links to a whitepaper he wrote (PDF) so we’ll try and boil it down for you:

In order to simplify development [Carlos] borrowed a technique commonly used in the first era of digital oscilloscopes, Equivalent Sampling Time.

est

The figure to the right is from the TDS460 manual. While it may seem counter intuitive to those only familiar with modern scopes, the TDS460 achieved a 400MHz bandwidth using a 100MSPS ADC. In order to achieve this the scope acquires a single trace in multiple cycles, each time offsetting the acquisitions as shown and combining the result.

In this way, early digital scope developers could sidestep the limitations of the available ADCs to achieve a higher effective bandwidth. However there is of course one catch: the technique only works for periodic signals.

This was fine for [Carlos] who implemented a technique on a Cypress PSoC 4, which provides analog FPGA-like functionality. By offsetting the ADC trigger he has able to achieve an EST of 48MHz using a ADC sampling at 1MHz. If you want a little help getting into PSOC 4 yourself, check out the guide that [Bil Herd] made.

Neat hack [Carlos] and we hope to hear more about your laser lab in the future.

Why Is There Liquid Nitrogen On the Street Corner?

Any NYC hackers may have noticed something a bit odd this summer while taking a walk… Giant tanks of the Liquid Nitrogen have been popping up around the city.

There are hoses that go from the tanks to manholes. They’re releasing the liquid nitrogen somewhere… Are they freezing sewer alligators? Fighting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Or perhaps, cooling our phone lines??

Luckily, we now have an answer. Popular Science writer [Rebecca Harrington] got to investigate it as part of her job. As it turns out, the liquid nitrogen is being used to pressurize the cables carrying our precious phone and internet service in NYC. The cables have a protective sheath covering them, but during construction and repairs, the steam build up in some of the sewers can be too much for them — so they use liquid nitrogen expanding into gas to supplement the pressurized cables in order to keep the them dry. As the liquid nitrogen boils away, it expands 175 times which helps keep moisture out of the cables.

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Trick Google Used Hides Secret Messages on LCD Screens

[Travis] didn’t get picked to go to Google I/O this year, but he did have some I/O inspired fun after the fact. His friends who did go told him about specially modified LCD screens Google had scattered around the event. The screens showed normal show information when viewed with the naked eye. When viewed through a special transparent badge included with the I/O swag though, a URL for Google’s scavenger hunt would magically appear. [Travis] was intrigued by the effect, and became hell-bent on reproducing it himself.

[dual-lcd-3Travis] figured out the transparent badge was actually a polarizing filter. Every standard LCD has two of them, usually bonded to the glass of the LCD itself. If you remove the filters from a LCD, you’ll get a prime view of the backlight – unless you’re wearing polarizing glasses of course. Google’s monitors didn’t have that effect though. They showed a full color display, with a second full color hidden display only visible through the polarizer. [Travis] is intelligent and experienced, so it only took a bit of three-dimensional thinking for him to figure out Google’s trick. There are actually two LCDs used in the display. The first is a standard LCD with backlight. The trick is to strip the polarizing film off a second LCD and place it in front of the first. The second LCD will be invisible to anyone – without the polarizer.

[Travis] quickly set about replicating the display using several obsolete VGA LCDs. He quickly found that the hard part was peeling the polarizing plastic from the thin glass LCD sandwich. Several LCDs gave up their lives in the effort, but in the end [Travis] was successful. He made everything fit in one case by using a thin LED backlight in a case designed for a monitor with a Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamp (CCFL).  The result looks exactly like a standard LCD – that is, until viewed through a polarizing filter. Click past the break to see the hidden message LCD in action!

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Vintage Electronics Magazines Predicted Our Current Future

Do you remember the magazine Popular Electronics? What about Radio Electronics? These magazines were often the first exposure we had to the world of hacking. In December we learned that Americanradiohistory.com has gone to the trouble of scanning nearly every copy of both, and continues to add many many others — posting them online for us to enjoy once more. Since then we’ve been pouring through the archive pulling out some of the best in terms of nostalgia, entertainment, and fascinating engineering.

Yes much of this material is very dated; CB Radios, all-mighty computers, phasors, stun guns, levitating machines, overly complex circuits for simple tasks, and aviator eyeglasses. But found among all of this, many innovative mixed-signal circuits and other interesting ideas that have been developed into our tech-centric world. Many of those modern inventions you’ve welcomed into your life actually started long-long ago in the forward-thinking hacks shown off in these publications. The Google Glass precursor seen above is but one example. Keep reading to see the early roots of the tech we tend to think of as “new”.

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