Ondophone On Point

The name Ondophone is a mash-up of two instruments, the Marxophone, and the ondes martenot. From the Marxophone, [Wintergatan] borrows the spring-loaded hammers, which repeatedly strike a string once activated. The ondes martenot loans its Theremin-like sound and ability to lean back on western semi-tone notes. Mating such different instruments requires a team, and much like the name, it produces a splendid blend.

At the left-hand side of the Ondophone, we see the spring-hammer battering away on a steel string whenever the neck moves up or down. Next to it is an Ebow that vibrates a string with an electromagnet and can maintain a note so long as it has power. Hidden within the neck are magnets to demarcate semi-tone locations, so it’s possible to breeze past them for a slide sound or rest on them to follow a tune.

The combination of intermittent hammering and droning lends well to the “creepy” phase of the song, which leads segues to the scope-creep that almost kept this prototype on the drawing board. The video talks about all the things that could have been done with this design, which is a pain/freedom we know well. KISS that Ondophone headline act goodbye.

The ondes martenot is an early electronic instrument, so we’ve some high-tech iterations, and if you haven’t heard what’s possible with a DIY Ebow, we will harp on you.

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A Really Garbage Project

No matter who you are,  you produce garbage of some kind or another. Two students decided they wanted to create a smart garbage can that could alert them when the can is full or even when it is stinky.

We will go on on the record: we didn’t know that an alcohol sensor could tell if your garbage is stinky, so if that works, that’s a new one on us. However, it makes a certain kind of sense because garbage ferments. We thought garbage smelled because of hydrogen sulfide and methane.

Trash cans have a tough life, so if you really want to duplicate this, you’ll probably want to mount things a bit more securely. The software, however, runs everything through a cloud service and from there can use Blynk for a phone app and IFTTT to ship things to a spreadsheet, should you care to track your garbage history statistics.

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An Open Source Shipboard Computer System

We’re not sure how many of you out there own a boat large enough to get its own integrated computer network, but it doesn’t really matter. Even if you can’t use this project personally, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the work [mgrouch] has put into the “Bareboat Necessities” project. From the construction of the hardware to the phenomenal documentation, there’s plenty that even landlubbers can learn from this project.

In its fully realized form, the onboard computer system includes several components that work together to provide a wealth of valuable information to the operator.

Inside the Boat Computer module

What [mgrouch] calls the “Boat Computer” contains a Raspberry Pi 4, a dAISy AIS receiver, an RTL-SDR, a GPS receiver, serial adapters, and the myriad of wires required to get them all talking to each other inside a weatherproof enclosure. As you might expect, this involves running all the connections through watertight panel mounts.

Combined with a suite of open source software tools, the “Boat Computer” is capable of interfacing with NMEA sensors and hardware, receive weather information directly from NOAA satellites, track ships, and of course plot your current position on a digital chart. The computer itself is designed to stay safely below deck, while the operator interacts with it through an Argonaut M7 waterproofed HDMI touch screen located in the cockpit.

For some people, that might be enough. But for those who want to do big, [mgrouch] further details the “Boat Gateway” device. This unit contains an LTE-equipped WiFi router running OpenWrt and all the external antennas required to turn the boat into a floating hotspot. Of course it also has RJ45 jacks to connect up to the other components of the onboard system, and it even includes an M5Stack Core with LAN module so it can display a select subset of sensor readings and navigational data.

If you’d like to do something similar on a slightly smaller scale, we’ve seen sailing computers that pushed all the data to a wearable display or even a repurposed eReader.

Poor Maintenance Could Have Led To Fatal B-17 Crash

In October the Nine-O-Nine, a fully restored Boeing B-17G bomber owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, crashed with thirteen people on board. After landing hard and skidding into the de-icing tanks at the Bradley International Airport, all but the tail and port wing of the 74 year old WWII aircraft was destroyed. Seven lives were lost in the accident, including that of Pilot Ernest “Mac” McCauley, who was regarded as one of the most experienced B-17 pilots in the world.

While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation is still ongoing and hasn’t made a final determination as to what ultimately brought down the Nine-O-Nine, enough serious maintenance issues were uncovered while examining the wreckage that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has decided to rescind the Collings Foundation’s license to conduct any more paid flights on their remaining WWII aircraft. While many have spoken out in support of these “living history” flights, the FAA says they must be conducted in such a way that they don’t hinder the safety of other air traffic.

With the vast majority of the B-17’s airframe gone, the NTSB investigation has focused on the four 1,200 horsepower Wright R-1820 “Cyclone” engines recovered from the crash site. Investigators found that hastily attempted repairs to engine number 4, which is believed to have failed in-flight, were actually hindering normal operation:

Regarding engine 4, to prevent the magneto “P” leads from separating from the
magnetos, someone had attempted to rig the magneto leads in place with safety wire.

Inspection and testing of engine 4 left magneto revealed the movement of the safety-wired lead caused grounding to the case, which rendered the magneto lead inoperative.

Further, all of the spark plugs in the number 3 and 4 engines were found to be fouled and had electrode gaps that were out of tolerance. From an examination of the aircraft’s maintenance records, it was also learned that an arcing and burned wire had been replaced without any investigative steps taken to find what caused the failure to begin with.

With basic maintenance tasks either not being performed or at least done incorrectly, the FAA has called into question the culture of safety at the Collings Foundation. The paper is careful not to directly accuse the Foundation or any of its staff with outright negligence, but the implication seems clear.

The loss of Nine-O-Nine hit especially close to home for Hackaday. Just a month prior to the crash we had the opportunity to tour the aircraft, and came away with a newfound respect for not only those who designed and built the iconic bomber but the brave young men who flew it. Losing such a rare and historically significant aircraft and its crew was already a tragedy, but to find that negligence may be to blame is truly inexcusable.

A 1950s Ampex Tape Recorder Microphone Preamplifier Restoration

So often when we read of a modification on a classic piece of tube electronics we prepare to wince, as such work often results in senseless butchery of a well-preserved survivor. With [Frank Olson]’s work on a 1958 Ampex 601 tape recorder though we were pleasantly surprised, because while he makes a modification to allow its use as a stand-alone microphone preamplifier he also performs an extremely sympathetic upgrade to modern components and retains it in substantially the form it left the Ampex factory.

The video below the break is a satisfying wallow in pre-PCB-era construction for any of the generation who cut their teeth on tube, chassis, and tag strip electronics. We can almost smell the phenolic as he carefully removes time-expired capacitors and fits modern replacements complete with period features such as sheathing over their leads. The larger multiway can electrolytics are left in the chassis, with their modern miniaturised equivalents nestling underneath them out of sight. We all know that electronic components have become a lot smaller over the decades, but it’s still a bit of a shock to see just how tiny even a high voltage electrolytic has become.

The Ampex would have been a very high quality tape recorder when new, and while this one has a problem with its mechanism it’s that quality that makes it easier for him to do this work in 2020. There’s every chance that this one could be returned to service as a tape recorder if someone was of a mind to fix it, and meanwhile it will give Frank excellent service as a high quality pre-amp. This is how resto-mods should be done!

Ampex are very much still in existence making digital storage products, but back in the 1950s they were at the forefront of analogue magnetic tape technology. We’ve written in the past about how Bing Crosby had a hand in the development of high quality tape recorders, and also about Ampex’s part in the gestation of the video recorder.

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COVID-19 Statistics: Reading The Tea Leaves

If you’ve been tracking the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, as we have, you’ve doubtless seen a lot of statistics. The raw numbers look shocking, and in many cases they are, but as always it’s crucially important to ask yourself what the numbers mean.

For instance, our own Tom Nardi put together a counter that displays the total number of COVID-19 cases in the US. It’s a cool project that puts together some web-scraping, a nice OLED screen, and a 3D-printed network display. When this is all over, it can be easily re-trained to show some other statistic of interest, and it’s a great introduction to a number of web APIs. However, it’s looking at the wrong number.

Let me explain. Diseases spread exponentially: the more people who have it, the more people are spreading it. And exponential curves all look the same when you plot out their instantaneous values — the raw number of COVID-19 cases. Instead, what distinguishes one exponential from another is the growth parameter, and this is related to the number of new cases per day, or more correctly, to the day-to-day change in new cases.

If left unchecked, and especially in the early stages of spread, the number of new cases grows every day. But as control efforts, mainly social distancing, take effect, the rate at which the number of new cases can slow, or even go negative. That’s the plan, anyway.

As is very well explained by this video from 3 Blue, 1 Brown, if this were a naturally spreading epidemic, the point at which the new cases just starts to decline marks the halfway point in the course of the disease. Here, we’re hoping that particularly strict quarantining procedures will cut this run even shorter, but if you’re interested in how the disease is spreading, the point when daily new infections turns around is what you’re looking for.

Why not put the daily difference in new cases on your desktop, then? These numbers are noisy, and the difference jumps all around. To be serious, you would probably want to put a moving average on the new cases figure, and look at that difference. Or simply show the new cases instead and look for it to drop for a few days in a row.

Still, this won’t be a perfect measure. For starters, COVID-19 seems to incubate for roughly a week without symptoms. This means that whatever numbers we have, they’re probably a week behind the actual situation. We won’t see the effects of social distancing for at least a week, and maybe more.

Further complicating things is the availability of tests, human factors like weekends when more people get tested but fewer government reporting offices are open, timezones, etc. (What happened on Feb. 13?)

I’m not going to go so far as to say that the COVID-19 stats that we see are useless — actually far from it. But if you’re going to armchair quarterback this pandemic, do it right. Plot out the daily new cases, maybe apply a little smoothing, at least in your head, and realize that whatever you’re seeing now probably represents what happened last week.

When you finally see the turning point, you may celebrate a little, because that means the halfway point was a week ago. We’ve seen it happen in China around Feb 2, and I’m looking forward to it happening here. I hope it happens wherever you are, and soon.

We will get through this. Stay safe, all. And keep yourself uninfected to keep others uninfected.

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BCD To I2C: Turning A Nixie Counter Into Whatever You Want It To Be

Whenever a project calls for displaying numbers, a 7-segment display is the classic and straightforward choice. However, if you’re more into a rustic, retro, almost mystical, and steampunky look and feel, it’s hard to beat the warm, orange glow of a Nixie tube. Once doomed as obsolete technology of yesteryear, they have since reclaimed their significance in the hobbyist space, and have become such a frequent and deliberate design choice, that it’s easy to forget that older devices actually used them out of necessity for lack of alternatives. Exhibit A: the impulse counter [soldeerridder] found in the attic that he turned into a general-purpose, I2C controlled display.

Instead of just salvaging the Nixie tubes, [soldeerridder] kept and re-used the original device, with the goal to embed an Intel Edison module and connect it via I2C. Naturally, as the counter is a standalone device containing mainly just a handful of SN74141 drivers and SN7490 BCD counters, there was no I2C connectivity available out of the box. At the same time, the Edison would anyway replace the 7490s functionality, so the solution is simple yet genius: remove the BCD counter ICs and design a custom PCB containing a PCF8574 GPIO expander as drop-in replacement for them, hence allowing to send arbitrary values to the driver ICs via I2C, while keeping everything else in its original shape.

Containing six Nixie tubes, the obvious choice is of course to use it as a clock, but [soldeerridder] wanted more than that. Okay, it does display the time, along with the date, but also some sensor values and even the likes on his project blog. If you want to experiment with Nixie tubes yourself, but lack a matching device, Arduino has you obviously covered. Although, you might as well go the other direction then.

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