LVL1 Hackerspace Builds A DOOMcano

When you need a DOOMcano, there’s no real substitute. And they’re not just selling these things on the street-corner. Nope, friend, you’ve got to get the hackerspace together and build your own.

plastic_thumbnailFor a fundraiser, and we suspect for the fun of it, the folks at LVL1 in Louisville, KY built a metal case with four (4!) flame-thrower jets. The idea is that you donate, and they’ll burn stuff for you.

Or you could build your own, following their detailed build log. LVL1 earns clever points for the use of 3D printer nozzles as gas jets, and for the laser-cut boxes that hold spray-cans of combustible fluid with servos to depress the buttons. It’s Rube-Goldbergy, but it works. Battery-powered grill igniters provide the spark, and an Arduino provides the control.

If you need more fire-breathing madness, check out this duck decoy (naturally) or this RC flamethrower turret build for further inspiration. And be safe!

Forge Your Own Neon Signs With EL Wire

Neon tube signs radiate an irresistible charm, which has been keeping them alive to this day. The vintage, orange glow is hard to substitute with modern means of illumination, but never trust a neon sign that you didn’t forge yourself. [NPoole] shows you how to build remarkably realistic faux neon tube signs from plastic tubing and EL wire.

After sourcing some polycarbonate tubing from a pet shop, where it’s more commonly used in aquariums, [NPoole] simply inserted some orange EL wire into the tubing. He heated one end of the tubing with a heat gun and twisted it off, sealing one end of the tube and welding the EL wire in place. [Npoole] then went on bending his neon tube to shape, repeatedly heating it up with the heat gun, bending it carefully, and blowing into the open end of the tube to prevent kinking of the tube.

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MIT Researchers Can Read Closed Books (and defeat CAPTCHA)

Ten years ago, MIT researchers proved that it was possible to look through an envelope and read the text inside using terahertz spectroscopic imaging. This research inspired [Barmak Heshmat] to try the same technique to read a book through its cover. A new crop of MIT researchers led by [Heshmat] have developed a prototype to do exactly that, and he explains the process in the video after the break. At present, the system is capable of correctly deciphering individual letters through nine pages of printed text.

They do this by firing terahertz waves in short bursts at a stack of pages and interpreting the return values and travel time. The microscopic air pockets between the pages provide boundaries for differentiation. [Heshmat] and the team rely on these pockets to reflect the signal back to a sensor in the camera. Once they have the system dialed in to be able to see the letters on the target page and distinguish them from the shadows of the letters on the other pages, they use an algorithm to determine the letters. [Heshmat] says the algorithm is so good that it can get through most CAPTCHAs.

The most immediate application for this technology is reading antique books and other printed materials that are far too fragile to be handled, potentially opening up worlds of knowledge that are hidden within disintegrating documents. For a better look at the outsides of things, there is Reflectance Transformation Imaging.

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Diodes With Hats: Zener and Schottky

For beginners, diode types can sometimes be a bit of mental gymnastics. If all it does is act like a magic pixie check valve, why are there so many kinds? Schottky diodes are typically  hard to mentally set apart from the standard when described by a data sheet. Zener diodes can be downright baffling for beginners, especially when mistakenly thrown in a circuit in place of a regular 1N4001. [Afrotechmods] put together a great video explaining their difference and use cases.

In both videos he does an excellent job of describing the pros and cons while setting up experiments to exhibit each. For the Schottky it’s the faster switching and lower voltage drop. For Zener it’s less about the cons and more about exploiting its strange configuration for voltage clamps, regulators, and making expensive guitars sound bad with audio distortion circuits.

He finishes both videos with good design tips for selecting and using the parts as a burgeoning circuit designer. Diode data sheets should be less of a mystery afterwards.

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Decapsulation Reveals Fake Chips

A while back, [heypete] needed to get a GPS timing receiver talking to a Raspberry Pi. The receiver only spoke RS-232, and the Pi is TTL level serial. [Pete] picked up a few RS-232 to TTL conversion boards from an online vendor in China. These boards were supposedly based on the Max3232, a wonderchip that converts the TTL serial to the positive and negative voltages of RS-232 serial. The converters worked fine for a few weeks, before failing, passing a bunch of current, and overheating.

On Mouser and Digikey, the Max3232 costs about $1.80 in quantity one, and shipping is extra. You can pick up a ‘Max3232 converter board’ from the usual online marketplaces for seventy five cents with free shipping. Of course the Chinese version is fake. [Pete] had some nitric acid, and decided to compare the die of the real and fake Max3232s.

After desoldering two fake chips from their respective converter boards, and acquiring a legitimate chip straight from Maxim, [Pete] took a look at the chips under the microscope. The laser markings on the fakes are inconsistent, but there was something interesting to be found in the date code markings. It took two to four weeks for the fake chips to be etched with a date code, assembled into a converter board, shipped across the planet, put into [Pete]’s project, run for a little bit, and fail spectacularly. That’s an astonishing display of manufacturing, logistics, and shipping times. Update: The date codes on the fakes had 2013 laser etched on the plastic package, and 2009 on the die. The real chips had a date code just a few weeks before [Pete] decapped them — a remarkably short life but they gave in to a good cause.

Following the Zeptobars and CCC (PDF) guides to dropping acid, [Pete] turned his problem into solution and took a look at the dies under a microscope. The legitimate die was significantly larger, and the fake dies were identical. The official die used gold bond wires, but the fake ones didn’t.

Unfortunately, [Pete] isn’t an expert in VLSI, chip design, failure analysis, or making semiconductors out of sand. Anything that should be obvious to the layman is not, and [Pete] has no idea why these chips would work for a week, then overheat and fail. If anyone has an idea, hit [Pete] up and drop a note in the comments.

“Nixie” Tubes Sound Good

A tube is a tube is a tube. If one side emits electrons, another collects them, and a further terminal can block them, you just know that someone’s going to use it as an amplifier. And so when [Asa] had a bunch of odd Russian Numitron tubes on hand, an amplifier was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

A Numitron is a “low-voltage Nixie”, or more correctly a single-digit VFD in a Nixiesque form factor. So you could quibble that there’s nothing new here. But if you dig into the PDF writeup, you’ll find that the tubes have been very nicely characterised, situating this project halfway between dirty hack and quality lab work.

It’s been a while since we’ve run a VFD-based amplifier project, but it’s by no means the first time. Indeed, we seem to run one every couple years. For instance, here is a writeup from 2010, and the next in 2013. Extrapolating forward, you’re going to have to wait until 2019 before you see this topic again.

Giant-Scale Physical Pong

At first, we thought we were having deja vu, but then we saw this video embedded below. [Thijs Eerens] is a creative technologist (dare we say, a “hacker”?) who builds giant-scale games for a living. For the Lowlands festival in the Netherlands, he contributed to the build of a huge Pong game that looks as big as a cinema screen.

The paddles appear to be controlled by pulling ropes, and the “ball” is driven around on a system of wires and stepper motors. Code running in the background tracks the player paddles, drives the ball, and keeps score. From the video, there seem to be sound effects involved. It looks like a lot of fun.

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