Ask Hackaday: What Can Save RadioShack?

radioshackThe news for RadioShack is not good. The retail chain that we hackers hold near and dear to our hearts is in financial trouble, and could go under next year.  With just 64 million in cash on hand, it literally does not have enough capital to close the 1,100 stores it planned to in March of this year.

On May 27th, 2011, we asked you what RadioShack could do to cater to our community. They listened. Most of their retail stores now carry an assortment of Arduino shields, the under appreciated Parallax (why?), and even El Wire. Thanks to you. You made this happen.

Today, we are asking you again. But not for what RadioShack can do better. We’re asking what they can do to survive. To live. It makes no sense for RadioShack to compete in the brutal cell phone/tablet market, and makes every bit of sense for them take advantage of the rapidly growing hacker/builder/maker what-ever-you-want-to-call-us community. Let’s face it. We’re everywhere and our numbers are growing. From 3D printers to drones, the evidence is undeniable.

With 5,000 retail stores across the USA, they are in a perfect position to change their business model to a hacker friendly one. Imagine a RadioShack down the road  that stocked PICs, ARMs, Atmels, stepper motors, drivers, sensors, filament….like a Sparkfun retail store. Imagine the ability to just drive a few miles and buy whatever you needed. Would you pay a premium? Would you pay a little extra to have it now? I bet you would.

Now it’s time to speak up. Let your voices be heard. Let’s get the attention of the RadioShack board. You’ve done it before. It’s time to do it again. Hackers unite!

 

Ask Hackaday: Hacking lingo fails

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Ah, CSI. What other television show could present digital forensics with such two-bit dialogue?

It’s time once again to put on your hacker hats – a red fedora, we guess – and tell us the worst hacker dialogue you’ve seen in movies or TV. We’ve seen a ton of shows and movies where writers and directors spend zero time doing any sort of research in whatever technology they’d like to show off in the story they’re trying to convey. Usually this results in lines like, “I’ll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic. See if I can track an IP address.” It’s technobabble at its best, and horribly misinformed at its worst.

We’re wondering what you, the readers of Hackaday, think are the worst examples of hacker lingo fails. Anything from, ‘Enhance!’ to the frightening real-life quote, “the Internet is not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.”

We’ll compile your suggestions in a later post, but I’m betting something from Star Trek: Voyager will make the #1 technobabble/hacking lingo fails. There’s just too much in that show that isn’t internally consistent and doesn’t pay any heed to the laws of (fictional) physics. Warp 10, I’m looking at you. Of course there was the wonderful Habbo reference in last week’s Doctor Who, but I’m betting that was intentional as [Moffat] seems pretty up to speed on the tropes and memes of the Interwebs.

About a month ago, we asked you for your take on the worst hacking scenes ever shown on TV or film. The results made for good viewing, albeit with a surprising absence of Lawnmower Man. Now we want some dialogue to go with these horrendous hacking scenes. So, what say you, Hackaday? What are the worst hacking lingo fails you’ve seen or heard? Please be specific about what movie/TV show you’re referencing. Last time some good stuff probably slipped by because people just said a few words without context assuming we’d know exactly what they were referring to.

Ask Hackaday: What movies have the best/worst hacking scenes

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It’s time to do your best impression of [Comic Book Guy] as you make your case for trash or triumph in big screen hacking scenes. We watch a lot of movies, and it’s hard not to groan when the filmmakers cut corners by doing zero research into what using a computer actually looks like. But then once in a great while you have a team that does its due diligence and puts up a scene that makes sense to those of us in the know. So we’re wondering, what movies do you think have the best hacking scenes, and which ones are the worst offenders? Leave your opinion on the topic in the comments section.

We realize that you can come up with tons of poorly done ones, what we would really like to hear about is who did it right. We’ll get you started with a couple of examples. The image on the upper left is a scene from Tron: Legacy which we think did a fantastic job of portraying actual computer usage. You can read more about the huge amount of work that went into it in this article (via Reddit).

In the lower right is one of the most shady movies scenes that comes to mind. [Hugh Jackman] is compelled to do some ‘hacking’ by [John Travolta] in the movie Swordfish. The caption at the top of the screen is “COMPILER”, and who the heck knows what the rest of that is supposed to be?

On the hardware hacking side, it gets a little more difficult, we would LOVE some examples of hardware hacks or mods done right.

Ask Hackaday: What to do with a home intercom system?

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[Kyle] just moved into a new home, a 1970s abode that was very modern for its time. When the house was built, a home intercom system was installed. Of course this intercom system was eventually disconnected, but now [Kyle] would like to find a use for it.

The intercom system is a wonderful piece of engineering from the late 60s and early 70s. The base station has an FM radio, a mono input (for plugging in a turntable, we suppose), and a huge speaker. The satellite units – one for each room in the house – are much simpler with just a push to talk switch and a volume control. Yes, in classic minimalist style, the engineers for this intercom system used the speaker as a microphone.

[Kyle] would like to keep the wonderful plastic fantastic aesthetic of the intercom system, but he’s looking for something cool to do with this hardware.  This could be the beginnings of a very cool, very strange house-wide artificial intelligence build, kind of like a consumer version of HAL 9000. We’re interested in hearing what you’d do with [Kyle]‘s hardware, so leave your ideas in the comments.

Ask Hackaday: We might have some FPGAs to hack

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[Chris] is an IT guy for a medical clinic up in Alaska, and until very recently the systems he monitored, fixed, and beat with a wrench included over 100 Pano Logic “Zero Client” thin clients. Pano Logic just went out of business and all support for these little boxes have been cut off, leaving [Chris] with a hundred or so very interesting pieces of hardware.

The idea behind these “zero clients” is the ideal of a thin client – take all the storage, processing, RAM, and other goodies and move them to a server. Pano Logic took this one step further than other thin clients, removing the CPU, memory, and basically everything you’d find in a thin client. What was left was a Spartan-6 FPGA, a few chips to drive the USB ports, a pair of HDMI chips, and a few DDR2 modules. Basically, [Chris] has about 150 FPGA dev boards just sitting in a storage room. The only thing that is needed is a bunch of software and an extreme amount of cleverness.

After opening one of these zero clients, [Chris] found a Spartan-6 FPGA right next to what he thinks is a 6-pin programming port. Along with the FPGA are a few other chips that would make any FPGA dev board a very neat tool:

We’re going to agree with [Chris] these Pano Logic zero clients show a lot of potential. If you’re up to the challenge of creating a very, very cheap FPGA dev board out of some discarded hardware, head on over to ebay or chat up your local IT guy.

Ask Hackaday: How do you give a project away?

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A few weeks ago, we caught wind of a DIY version of ‘smart tweezers’ from [Kai]‘s workbench that are able to measure SMD resistors, caps, and inductors. At that time, [Kai] hadn’t quite finished the software portion of his build, leaving him with a pile of parts and non-working PCBs. The code is finished now, meaning [Kai] has a very capable and very inexpensive version of LCR meter tweezers. He’d like to give back to the open source community and figure out a way to get his tweezers into the hands of makers the world over now. The only problem is he doesn’t know quite how to do that.

We’ve seen smart tweezers before, and they’re still available commercially for about $300. [Kai]‘s version brings down the price significantly, so there is a market for these LCR tweezers. The problem, it seems, is getting these tweezers manufactured.

We’re assuming that soldering hundreds of thousand of SMD parts isn’t what [Kai] thinks is a good time; this leaves a Kickstarter as a non-starter, unless he can contract out the manufacturing. Seeed Studio might be a good place for [Kai] to sell his wares, but we’re wondering what Hackaday readers would do in [Kai]‘s situation. Obviously he deserves to compensated for his work either through licensing or royalties, but as far as actual advice and recommendations we’re turning to Hackaday readers.

Ask Hackaday: Has anyone built a radio telescope?

[Michael] sent in a question regarding the latest advances in software defined radios available for $20 on eBay:

I’ve been looking in to SDR lately, mainly for the possibility of using it for incredibly cheap radio astronomy. So far all I’ve found are whispers. I’m 18 and have very little experience, but I figured you might be able to help me find a little more info.

This really brings me back, [Michael]. I saw Contact in the theater (surprisingly, a rare case when the book and movie are equals), and in my childish exuberance went out and listened to lightning on Jupiter. The financial difficulties of expanding my setup meant the experiments stopped there, but at least I knew amateur radio telescopy was possible.

The latest and greatest advance in software defined radio – namely, a $20 TV tuner dongle – brings something new to the table. Instead of the thousands of dollars in gear that was required in 1997 when I last looked into this, it’s possible to set up a  passable radio telescope for under $100.

I’ll leave it to the Hackaday commentors to fill [Michael] in on the details, but here’s my suggestion:

Optimize your setup for 1420 MHz. There are three reasons for this: firstly, very few things in the universe absorb radio waves at a frequency of 1420MHz; there’s a reason it’s so often used in radio astronomy. Secondly, most government agencies around the world ban (or at least don’t look too kindly upon) transmitting on 1420 MHz. This frequency has been somewhat protected for use by astronomers. Thirdly, most of the Realtek TV tuner dongles have a frequency range of 64 – 1700 MHz, so it’s possible to receive 1420 MHz with this minimal setup.

As far as antennas go, your best bet is probably going to be one of those old C-band parabolic antennas from the 80s. That will make your telescope highly directional and give it a huge amount of gain. There is the problem of having a 20-foot-wide eyesore in your back yard, however. Alternatively, you could use a smaller DirecTV satellite dish, but I’m not making any promises with that. It’ll work, but it’s too small for an optimal setup.

I’ll concede the floor to anyone who has additional information. If you’ve built a radio telescope, send it in and I’ll put it up.

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