Circuit Sculpture Breathes Life Into Discrete Components

We’ve probably all given a lot of thought to breathing this year in various contexts. Though breathing is something we all must do, this simple act has become quite the troublemaker in 2020. They say the best art imitates life, and [bornach]’s Astable Exhalation certainly does that, right down to the part about astability. It’s especially interesting that the end result — breathing, visualized — is so calming, it could almost be a meditative device.

There is nary a microcontroller to be found on this circuit sculpture, which uses a pair of astable multivibrator(s) to light two sets of LEDs that represent air being inhaled and exhaled. We like that [bornach] used two sized of exhale LEDs to represent droplets and aerosols in this beautiful circuit sculpture, and we love that most of the components were scavenged from old electronics and older projects.

Our Circuit Sculpture Challenge runs until November 10th, so even if you’re waiting to take the Remoticon workshop before entering, there’s still a little bit of time to whip something up afterward in the post-con adrenaline rush phase. If you need inspiration, check out some of the other contest entries or just surf through all things circuit sculpture.

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Quantum Inspired Algorithm Going Back To The Source

Recently, [Jabrils] set out to accomplish a difficult task: porting a quantum-inspired algorithm to run on a (simulated) quantum computer. Algorithms are often inspired by all sorts of natural phenomena. For example, a solution to the traveling salesman problem models ants and their pheromone trails. Another famous example is neural nets, which are inspired by the neurons in your brain. However, attempting to run a machine learning algorithm on your neurons, even with the assistance of pen and paper would be a nearly impossible exercise.

The quantum-inspired algorithm in question is known as the wavefunction collapse function. In a nutshell, you have a cube of voxels, a graph of nodes, or simply a grid of tiles as well as a list of detailed rules to determine the state of a node or tile. At the start of the algorithm, each node or point is considered in a state of superposition, which means it is considered to be in every possible state. Looking at the list of rules, the algorithm then begins to collapse the states. Unlike a quantum computer, states of superposition is not an intrinsic part of a classic computer, so this solving must be done iteratively. In order to reduce possible conflicts and contradictions later down the line, the nodes with the least entropy (the smallest number of possible states) are solved first. At first, random states are assigned, with the changes propagating through the system. This process is continued until the waveform is ultimately collapsed to a stable state or a contradiction is reached.

What’s interesting is that the ruleset doesn’t need to be coded, it can be inferred from an example. A classic use case of this algorithm is 2D pixel-art level design. By providing a small sample level, the algorithm churns and produces similar but wholly unique output. This makes it easy to provide thousands of unique and beautiful levels from an easy source image, however it comes at a price. Even a small level can take hours to fully collapse. In theory, a quantum computer should be able to do this much faster, since after all, it was the inspiration for this algorithm in the first place.

[Jabrils] spent weeks trying to get things running but ultimately didn’t succeed. However, his efforts give us a peek into the world of quantum computing and this amazing algorithm. We look forward to hearing more about this project from [Jabrils] who is continuing to work on it in his spare time. Maybe give it a shot yourself by learning the basics of quantum computing for yourself.

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Community Rallies Behind Youtube-dl After DMCA Takedown

At this point, you’ve likely heard that the GitHub repository for youtube-dl was recently removed in response to a DMCA takedown notice filed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). As the name implies, this popular Python program allowed users to produce local copies of audio and video that had been uploaded to YouTube and other content hosting sites. It’s a critical tool for digital archivists, people with slow or unreliable Internet connections, and more than a few Hackaday writers.

It will probably come as no surprise to hear that the DMCA takedown and subsequent removal of the youtube-dl repository has utterly failed to contain the spread of the program. In fact, you could easily argue that it’s done the opposite. The developers could never have afforded the amount of publicity the project is currently enjoying, and as the code is licensed as public domain, users are free to share it however they see fit. This is one genie that absolutely won’t be going back into its bottle.

In true hacker spirit, we’ve started to see some rather inventive ways of spreading the outlawed tool. A Twitter user by the name of [GalacticFurball] came up with a way to convert the program into a pair of densely packed rainbow images that can be shared online. After downloading the PNG files, a command-line ImageMagick incantation turns the images into a compressed tarball of the source code. A similar trick was one of the ways used to distribute the DeCSS DVD decryption code back in 2000; though unfortunately, we doubt anyone is going to get the ~14,000 lines of Python code that makes up youtube-dl printed up on any t-shirts.

Screenshot of the Tweet sharing YouTube-dl repository as two images

It’s worth noting that GitHub has officially distanced themselves from the RIAA’s position. The company was forced to remove the repo when they received the DMCA takedown notice, but CEO Nat Friedman dropped into the project’s IRC channel with a promise that efforts were being made to rectify the situation as quickly as possible. In a recent interview with TorrentFreak, Friedman said the removal of youtube-dl from GitHub was at odds with the company’s own internal archival efforts and financial support for the Internet Archive.

But as it turns out, some changes will be necessary before the repository can be brought back online. While there’s certainly some debate to be had about the overall validity of the RIAA’s claim, it isn’t completely without merit. As pointed out in the DMCA notice, the project made use of several automated tests that ran the code against copyrighted works from artists such as Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake. While these were admittedly very poor choices to use as official test cases, the RIAA’s assertion that the entire project exists solely to download copyrighted music has no basis in reality.

[Ed Note: This is only about GitHub. You can still get the code directly from the source.]

What’s In A USB-C Connector?

Anyone who’s ever put together a bill-of-materials for an electronic device will be familiar with the process of scouring supplier catalogs and data sheets for the best choice of components. The trick is to score the best combination of price and performance for the final product, and for those unused to the process, there are always seemingly identical products with an astonishingly wide variety of prices. It’s a topic [Timon] explores in a Twitter thread, examining a 20-cent in quantity of 100 USB-C socket alongside one that costs only 5 cents, and his teardown provides a fascinating insight into their manufacture.

The parts look so nearly identical that while it’s possible to differentiate between them visually, it’s near impossible to work out which was the cheaper. Some tiny features such as a crack in a metal fold or a bit less plating on the contacts emerge, but even then it’s no guide to the quality as they don’t appear on the same part. It’s only when the metal shell is removed to expose the underlying plastic moulding that more clues emerge, as one moulding is more complex than the other. The more complex moulding provides a better and more reliable fit at the expense of a much more costly moulding process, so at last we can not only identify the more expensive part but also see where the extra cash has gone. It’s a subtle thing, but one that could make a huge difference to the performance of the final assembly and which makes for a fascinating expose for electronic design engineers.

If connectors are your thing, there’s a wealth of fascinating information in their history.

The Ground Beneath Your Feet: SuperAdobe Construction

Homes in different parts of the world used to look different from each other out of necessity, built to optimize for the challenges and benefits of local climate. When residential climate control systems became commonplace that changed. Where a home in tropical south Florida once required very different building methods (and materials) compared to a home in the cold mountains of New England, essentially identical construction methods are now used for single-family homes in any climate. The result is inefficient and virtually indistinguishable housing from coast to coast, regardless of climate. As regions throughout the world are facing increasingly dire housing shortages, the race is on to find solutions that are economical and available to us right now.

The mission of CalEarth, one of the non-profits that Hackaday has teamed up with for this year’s Hackaday Prize, is to address that housing shortage by building energy-efficient homes out of materials already available in the areas that they will be built. CalEarth specializes in building adobe, or earth, homes that have a large thermal mass and an inexpensive bill of materials. Not only does this save on heating and cooling costs, but transportation costs for materials can be reduced as well. Some downside to this method of construction are increased labor costs and the necessity of geometric precision of the construction method, both of which are tackled in this two-month design challenge.

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AMD Acquires Xilinx For $35 Billion

News this morning that AMD has reached an agreement to acquire Xilinx for $35 Billion in stock. The move to gobble up the leading company in the FPGA industry should come as no surprise for many reasons. First, the silicon business is thick in the age of mergers and acquisitions, but more importantly because AMD’s main competitor, Intel, purchased the other FPGA giant Altera back in 2015.

Primarily a maker of computer processors, AMD expands into the reconfigurable computing market as Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) can be adapted to different tasks based on what bitstream (programming information written to the chips) has been sent to them. This allows the gates inside the chip to be reorganized to perform different functions at the hardware level even after being put into products already in the hands of customers.

Xilinx invented the FPGA back in the mid-1980s, and since then the falling costs of silicon fabrication and the acceleration of technological advancement have made them evermore highly desirable solutions. Depending on volume, they can be a more economical alternative to ASICs. They also help with future-proofing as technology not in existence at time of manufacture — such as compression algorithms and communications protocols — may be added to hardware in the field by reflashing the bitstream. Xilinx also makes the Zynq line of hybrid chips that contain both ARM and FPGA cores in the same device.

The deal awaits approval from both shareholders and regulators but is expected to be complete by the end of 2021.

Ode To An AVO 8 Multimeter

I’m moving, and in the process of packing all of my belongings into storage boxes to disappear into a darkened room for the next year. Perhaps I could become one of those digital nomads I hear so much about and post my Hackaday stories from a sun-kissed beach while goldfish shoals nibble at my toes. But here in a slightly damp British autumn, box after box of a lifetime’s immersion in tech needs sorting and directing. Why on earth did I hang on to three Philips N1500 VCR system video cassette recorders from the early 1970s! (Don’t worry, those have found a good home.)

Say Hello To An Old Friend Of Mine

Instantly recognisable, the AVO 8
Instantly recognisable, the AVO 8

As I was packing up my bench, I happened upon a multimeter. I have quite a few multimeters and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about these indispensable instruments, but this one’s a little special.

It’s a treasure from my youth, that most venerable of British test equipment: the AVO 8. This was the ubiquitous multimeter to be found in all manner of electrical and electronic workshops across most of the 20th century, and remains to this day one of the highest quality examples of its type.

It’s a relatively huge Bakelite box about 190mm x 170mm x 100mm in size, and it is instantly recognisable  by its dual rotary selector switches and the window for viewing the needle, which forms a characteristic circular arc kidney shape.

The earliest ancestors of my meter appeared in the 1920s, and the first model 8 in the early 1950s. Mine is a Mk III that a penciled date on the inside of its meter movement tells me was made in November 1965 and which I bought reconditioned from Stewart of Reading in about 1991, but manufacture continued until the last Mk VIII rolled off the production line in 2008. It’s to my shame that my AVO is a bit dusty and that maybe I haven’t used it much of late, but as I picked it up all the memories of using it to fix dead TV sets and set up optimistic experiments in radio came flooding back. If there’s one instrument that connects me to the youthful would-be electronic engineer that I once was, then here it is. Continue reading “Ode To An AVO 8 Multimeter”