No More Cows: Iconic 1990s Download Site Finally Shuttered By Tucows

In the early and mid 1990s there were a host of big players in the nascent public Internet that played their part in guiding the adventurous early Web users on their way. Many of them such as Netscape or Altavista have fallen by the wayside, while players such as Lycos and Yahoo are still in existence but shadows of their former selves. Some other companies broadened their businesses to become profitable and still exist quietly getting on with whatever they do. An example is Tucows, now a major domain name registrar, who have finally announced the closure of their software library that was such an essential destination in those times.

The company name was originally an acronym: “The Ultimate Collection Of Winsock Software”, started in 1993 by a library employee in Flint, Michigan. As its name suggests it was a collection of mostly shareware Windows software, and the “Winsock” refers to Windows Sockets, the API used by Windows versions of the day for accessing network resources. It seems odd to modern eyes, but connecting a 486 PC running Windows 3.1 to the Internet was something of a complex process without any of the built-in software we take for granted today. Meanwhile the fledgling Linux distributions were only for the extremely tech-savvy or adventurous, so the world of open-source software had yet to make a significant impact on consumer-level devices.

The passing of a Windows shareware library would not normally be a story of interest, but it is the part that Tucows played in providing a reliable software source on the early Web  that makes it worthy of note. It’s something of a shock to discover that it had survived into the 2020s, it’s been so long since it was relevant, but if you sat bathed in the glow of a CRT monitor as you waited interminably for your CuteFTP download over your 28.8k modem to finish then you probably have a space for Tucows somewhere in your heart. If you fancy a trip down memory lane, the Internet Archive have a very period-ugly-looking version of the site from 1996.

You may no longer have a 486 on your desk, but if you want to you can still build one.

What Makes A Good Antenna?

It sometimes seems as though antennas and RF design are portrayed as something of a Black Art, the exclusive preserve of an initiated group of RF mystics and beyond the reach of mere mortals. In fact though they have their difficult moments it’s possible to gain an understanding of the topic, and making that start is the subject of a video from [Andreas Spiess]. Entitled “How To Build A Good Antenna”, it uses the design and set-up of a simple quarter-wave groundplane antenna as a handle to introduce the viewer to the key topics.

What makes this video a good one is its focus on the practical rather than the theoretical. We get advice on connectors and antenna materials, and we’re introduced to the maths through online calculators rather than extensive formulae. Of course the full calculations are there to be learned by those with an interest, but for many constructors they can be somewhat daunting. We’re shown a NanoVNA as a useful tool in the antenna builder’s arsenal, one which gives a revolutionary window on performance compared to the trial-and-error of previous times. Even the ground plane gets the treatment, with its effect on impedance and gain explored and the emergence of its angle as a crucial factor in performance. We think this approach does an effective job of breaking the mystique surrounding antennas, and we hope it will encourage viewers to experiment further.

If your appetite has been whetted, how about taking a look at a Nano VNA in action?

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Hackaday Links: January 24, 2021

Code can be beautiful, and good code can be a work of art. As it so happens, artful code can also result in art, if you know what you’re doing. That’s the idea behind Programming Posters, a project that Michael Fields undertook to meld computer graphics with the code behind the images. It starts with a simple C program to generate an image. The program needs to be short enough to fit legibly into the sidebar of an A2 sheet, and as if that weren’t enough of a challenge, Michael constrained himself to the standard C libraries to generate his graphics. A second program formats the code and the image together and prints out a copy suitable for display. We found the combination of code and art beautiful, and the challenge intriguing.

It always warms our hearts when we get positive feedback from the hacker community when something we’ve written has helped advance a project or inspire a build. It’s not often, however, that we learn that Hackaday is required reading. Educators at the Magellan International School in Austin, Texas, recently reached out to Managing Editor Elliot Williams to let him know that all their middle school students are required to read Hackaday as part of their STEM training. Looks like the kids are paying attention to what they read, too, judging by KittyWumpus, their ongoing mechatronics/coding project that’s unbearably adorable. We’re honored to be included in their education, and everyone in the Hackaday community should humbled to realize that we’ve got an amazing platform for inspiring the next generation of hardware hackers.

Hackers seem to fall into two broad categories: those who have built a CNC router, and those who want to build one. For those in the latter camp, the roadblock to starting a CNC build is often “analysis paralysis” — with so many choices to make, it’s hard to know where to start. To ease that pain and get you closer to starting your build, Matt Ferraro has penned a great guide to planning a CNC router build. The encyclopedic guide covers everything from frame material choice to spindle selection and software options. If Matt has a bias toward any particular options it’s hard to find; he lists the pros and cons of everything so you can make up your own mind. Read it at your own risk, though; while it lowers one hurdle to starting a CNC build, it does nothing to address the next one: financing.

Like pretty much every conference last year and probably every one this year, the Open Hardware Summit is going to be virtual. But they’re still looking for speakers for the April conference, and just issued a Call for Proposals. We love it when we see people from the Hackaday community pop up as speakers at conferences like these, so if you’ve got something to say to the open hardware world, get a talk together. Proposals are due by February 11, so get moving.

And finally, everyone will no doubt recall the Boston Dynamics robots that made a splash a few weeks back with their dance floor moves. We loved the video, mainly for the incredible display of robotic agility and control but also for the choice of music. We suppose it was inevitable, though, that someone would object to the Boomer music and replace it with something else, like in the video below, which seems to sum up the feelings of those who dread our future dancing overlords. We regret the need to proffer a Tumblr link, but the Internet is a dark and wild place sometimes, and only the brave survive.

Physically Huge SD Card Technically Has Some Benefits

SD cards were developed and released just before the turn of the millenium. Since then, we’ve seen smaller formats, miniSD and microSD, become popular for portable devices. However, sometimes bigger is better. [Useless Mod] dared to dream that dream, and put together a (physically) gigantic SD card.

In card is a full 10x scale reproduction of a SanDisk Extreme Pro SD card,  complete with packaging, too. Built out of layers of laser cut MDF, it’s spray painted and given a high-quality label to complete the effect. The write protect slider instead serves in this case as a latch to open the assembly. Inside, there’s a simple regular SD card slot, wired up to the bigger card’s giant contacts made with copper tape. These interface with an huge 10x scale SD card slot, which acts as an adapter, allowing the giant SD to be used with regular hardware like cameras.

The giant SD might seem silly, but it has plenty of useful features. There’s flashing LEDs behind the label that make it easy to find if you drop it, along with an Apple Watch hidden inside that means it can be located using the Find My iPhone service. We’d have loved if it featured a RAID array full of 10 or more SD cards, as well, just to justify its enormous size. That said, [Useless Mod] points out that it’s big enough to keep a DSLR dry in a rainstorm when fitted to the hotshoe, so there’s that.

It’s a fun build, not a serious one, but one that we enjoyed on its merits. We suspect that, regardless of the card inside, you’ll have little luck recording at 4K with such long wire lengths in play. If you’ve ever had more normal compatability problems with the format, consider that it could be size causing your issues. Video after the break.

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Collapsible Pattern Projector Is A Bright Idea

It’s fantastic that we’re living in the age of downloadable PDF patterns, it really is. But printing out a bunch of sheets of paper and taping them together is a tedious and tiresome process that can introduce error right from the start. This goes for any type of pattern, from sewing to R/C planes.

[Quinn]’s quarantine project is designed to cover both of those and everything in between. It’s a pattern projector made from stuff already on hand — a couple of offset projectors to scavenge parts from, and a large, trapezoidal mylar mirror from an old rear projection TV. At maximum zoom it projects a 4′ x 3′ image onto the tabletop, which sounds perfect for a whole lot of sewing patterns. At minimum zoom, the projected image fits on a foam core board.

We love that this dreamy setup can be stowed away so easily on hooks in the ceiling. [Quinn] had to perform a few hacks to make it all work together, including fabricating a bracket and some adjustable ties to hold the mirror aloft at just the right correct angle.

Need something smaller? Check out this Pi-powered pocket projector. Want a cinema-quality setup? You just have to find the right auctions.

Your NES Classic Mini Controller, On Your Desktop Computer

The NES Classic Mini was one of the earlier releases in what became a wider trend for tiny versions of classic retro consoles to be released. Everybody wanted one but numbers were limited, so only the lucky few gained this chance to relive their childhood through the medium of Donkey Kong or Mario Brothers on real Nintendo hardware. Evidently [Albert Gonzalez] was one of them, because he’s produced a USB adapter for the Mini controller to allow it to be used as a PC peripheral.

On the small protoboard is the Nintendo connector at one end, an ATtiny85 microcontroller, and a micro-USB connector at the other. The I2C interface from the controller is mapped to USB on the ATtiny through the magic of the V-USB library, appearing to the latter as a generic gamepad. It’s thought that the same interface is likely to also work with the later SNES Classic Mini controller. For the curious all the code and other resources can be found in a GitHub repository, so should you have been lucky enough to lay your hands on a NES Classic Mini then you too can join the PC fun.

The mini consoles were popular, but didn’t excite our community as much as could be expected. Our colleague Lewin Day tool a look at the phenomenon last summer.

A Big Set Of Logic Gates For Teaching The Basics

Teaching students about logic gates is often done in two parts, once on the whiteboard for the theory, and again on the breadboard for the practice. [shurik179] wasn’t a fan of the abstraction between easy-to-understand symbols on the whiteboard, and small IC packages full of many gates in reality. Instead, he built a set of real-world logic gates that can be wired together as a teaching tool.

Each “gate’ consists of a PCB roughly the size of a business card that features LEDs to indicate the state of its inputs and outputs, and a silkscreen indicating the name and symbol of the gate in question. There’s also a master PCB, which features three seed values, A, B, and C, to feed into the system. Students can set these values to 1 or 0, and feed them into the gates, which are wired together with 3-conductor servo cables, and observe the input on the built-in LEDs.

It’s a great way to demonstrate logic gates in the classroom. The design also allows the PCBs to be flipped over to show the actual electronic components responsible for implementing the logic, serving as a great bridge towards better understanding of real electronic design. Of course, it’s not the only way to learn – even Fallout 4 has a fully fledged logic toolkit these days!