Reverse Engineering The Weather Channel’s Magic

For American readers of a certain age, Local on the 8s likely holds a special spot in your heart. The program, once a staple of The Weather Channel, would provide viewers with a text and eventually graphical depiction of their local forecast set to some of the greatest smooth jazz ever heard outside of an elevator. In the days before smartphones, or even regular Internet access for that matter, these broadcasts were a critical part of planning your day in the 1980s through to the early 2000s.

Up until recently the technical details behind these iconic weather reports were largely unknown, but thanks to the Herculean efforts of [techknight], the fascinating engineering that went into the WeatherSTAR 4000 machines that pumped out current conditions and Shakin’ The Shack from CATV distribution centers all over the US for decades is now being documented and preserved. The process of reversing the hardware and software has actually been going on for the last couple of years, but all those juicy details are now finally going to be available on the project’s Hackaday.IO page.

It all started around Christmas of 2018, when an eBay alert [techknight] had configured for the WeatherSTAR 4000 finally fired off. His offer was accepted, and soon he had the physical manifestation of Local on the 8s in his own hands. He’d reasoned that getting the Motorola MC68010 machine working would be like poking around in a retrocomputer, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he’d gotten himself into a much larger project than he could ever have imagined.

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You Too Can Be A Railroad Baron!

It’s likely that among our readers are more than a few who hold an affection for trains. Whether you call them railroads or railways they’re the original tech fascination, and it’s no accident that the word Hacker was coined at MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. So some of you like us watch locomotive YouTube videos, others maybe have an OO layout tucked away somewhere, and still more cast an eye at passing trains wishing they were aboard. Having a proper railway of one’s own remains a pipe-dream, but perhaps a hardcore rail enthusiast might like to take a look at [Way Out West Blow-in blog’s] video series on building a farm railway.

On a smallholding there is always a lot to be moved around, and frequently not the machinery with which to do it. Using a wheelbarrow or handcart on rough ground is as we can attest,  back-breaking, so there’s a real gap in the market for anything to ease the task. So a railway becomes an attractive solution, assuming that its construction cost isn’t prohibitive.

The videos below the break are the first two of what will no doubt become a lengthy series, and deals with the construction of the rails themselves including the sleepers cut with a glorious home-made band saw, and then fishplates and a set of rudimentary points. The rails themselves are off-the-shelf flat steel strip laid upon its edge, and secured to the sleepers by short lengths of galvanized tube. It’s clear this isn’t a railroad in the sense that we might understand it, indeed though it uses edge rail it has more in common for its application with some early mining plateways But assuming that the flat strip rail doesn’t twist we can see that it should be perfectly adequate for hand-driven carts, removing the backbreaking aspect of their moving. It will be interesting to follow this project down the line.

Farm railways haven’t featured on Hackaday before, but your inner rail enthusiast might be sated by the world’s first preserved line.

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Hackaday Links: March 14, 2021

It’ll be Pi Day when this article goes live, at least for approximately half the globe west of the prime meridian. We always enjoy Pi Day, not least for the excuse to enjoy pie and other disc-shaped foods. It’s also cool to ponder the mysteries of a transcendental number, which usually get a good treatment by the math YouTube community. This year was no disappointment in this regard, as we found two good pi-related videos, both by Matt Parker over at Standup Maths. The first one deals with raising pi to the pi to the pi to the pi and how that may or may not result in an integer that’s tens of trillions of digits long. The second and more entertaining video is a collaboration with Steve Mould which aims to estimate the value of pi by measuring the volume of a molecular monolayer of oleic acid floating on water. The process was really interesting and the results were surprisingly accurate; this might make a good exercise to do with kids to show them what pi is all about.

Remember basic physics and first being exposed to the formula for universal gravitation? We sure do, and we remember thinking that it should be possible to calculate the force between us and our classmates. It is, of course, but actually measuring the attractive force would be another thing entirely. But researchers have done just that, using objects substantially smaller than the average high school student: two 2-mm gold balls. The apparatus the Austrian researchers built used 90-milligram gold balls, one stationary and one on a suspended arm. The acceleration between the two moves the suspended ball, which pivots a mirror attached to the arm to deflect a laser beam. That they were able to tease a signal from the background noise of electrostatic, seismic, and hydrodynamic forces is quite a technical feat.

We noticed a lot of interest in the Antikythera mechanism this week, which was apparently caused by the announcement of the first-ever complete computational model of the ancient device’s inner workings. The team from University College London used all the available data gleaned from the 82 known fragments of the mechanism to produce a working model of the mechanism in software. This in turn was used to create some wonderful CGI animations of the mechanism at work — this video is well worth the half-hour it takes to watch. The UCL team says they’re now at work building a replica of the mechanism using modern techniques. One of the team says he has some doubts that ancient construction methods could have resulted in some of the finer pieces of the mechanism, like the concentric axles needed for some parts. We think our friend Clickspring might have something to say about that, as he seems to be doing pretty well building his replica using nothing but tools and methods that were available to the original maker. And by doing so, he managed to discern a previously unknown feature of the mechanism.

We got a tip recently that JOGL, or Just One Giant Lab, is offering microgrants for open-source science projects aimed at tackling the problems of COVID-19. The grants are for 4,000€ and require a minimal application and reporting process. The window for application is closing, though — March 21 is the deadline. If you’ve got an open-source COVID-19 project that could benefit from a cash infusion to bring to fruition, this might be your chance.

And finally, we stumbled across a video highlighting some of the darker aspects of amateur radio, particularly those who go through tremendous expense and effort just to be a pain in the ass. The story centers around the Mt. Diablo repeater, an amateur radio repeater located in California. Apparently someone took offense at the topics of conversation on the machine, and deployed what they called the “Annoy-o-Tron” to express their displeasure. The device consisted of a Baofeng transceiver, a cheap MP3 player loaded with obnoxious content, and a battery. Encased in epoxy resin and concrete inside a plastic ammo can, the jammer lugged the beast up a hill 20 miles (32 km) from the repeater, trained a simple Yagi antenna toward the site, and walked away. It lasted for three days and while the amateurs complained about the misuse of their repeater, they apparently didn’t do a thing about it. The jammer was retrieved six weeks after the fact and hasn’t been heard from since.

How To Cobble A Wobble Disk Roaster Together

As with anything else, once your knowledge of coffee expands, the more attractive it becomes to control as much of the process as possible. Buying whole beans and grinding them at home is one thing, but you’re not a real coffee geek unless you’re buying big bags of green beans and roasting them yourself in small batches.

[Larry Cotton] has made an even more portable version of the wobble disk roaster we saw last summer. Beneath the housing made of aluminium flashing is the guts of a $15 Harbor Freight heat gun pointing upward at a metal strainer. A large metal disk mounted at a 45-degree angle to the spinning axis tosses and turns the beans as they get blasted with heat from below. [Larry] used a 12 VDC motor to run the wobble disk, and an an adapter to change the heat gun from 120 VAC to 12 VDC. This baby roasts 1½ cups of beans to city plus (medium) level in 12-15 minutes. Grab a cup of coffee and check it out after the break.

Roasting beans isn’t rocket science. Even so, there are some things you would benefit from knowing first, so here’s our own [Elliot Williams] on the subject of building DIY roasters.

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Rare Diode Threatens Coast Guard’s Arctic Ambitions

The United States Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star is literally a one-of-a-kind ship. After its sister Polar Sea was deactivated in 2010 it became the most powerful icebreaker in the fleet, and one of only two US icebreakers capable of operating in the treacherous polar regions. The vessel is critical to protecting America’s scientific and economic interests in the Arctic, but according to a recent article in Business Insider, the ship’s age and scarcity of spare parts is making an already difficult mission even harder.

In the article, Captain William Woityra specifically mentions that the ship’s diesel-electric propulsion system is running on borrowed time as the diodes used in its AC/DC rectifier are no longer manufactured. With none remaining in the Coast Guard’s inventory, the crew has had to turn to eBay to source as many spares as possible. But once their hoard runs out, Captain Woityra fears his ship will be dead in the water:

We’ve got a few dozen of these in a box on a shelf, when they’re gone, the ship will not be able to run anymore. It’s really kind of disconcerting … that this ship, and this operation, and the US’s icebreaking presence in the Arctic is reliant on a box of spare parts that … there are no more of.”

The 45 year old ship received a $60 million refit in 2013, but that was only expected to extend the hard-working vessel’s life by 8 to 10 years. There was a proposal for a far more thorough overhaul, one which potentially would have keep the Polar Star in service until nearly 2040; but with an estimated cost of $400 million, Congress decided to go with the more economical stop-gap refit.

Polar Security Cutter

This story comes just days after the Air Force announced it’s looking for a few good hackers to help reverse engineer components on its aging fleet of B-2 bombers. Much like the Polar Star’s vintage rectifier diodes, spare parts for the the stealthy aircraft are getting increasingly difficult to find.

While the Air Force has enough money in the budget to get replacements made, the Coast Guard will just have to hope their stock of diodes holds out a little while longer. Congress has already approved the Polar Security Cutter Program, a fleet of next-generation icebreakers designed to be comparable to newer Russian and Chinese vessels. The first of these ships could set sail by 2024, providing the Polar Star some much-needed backup.

[Thanks to Chuckz for the tip.]

An Infrared-Activated Solder Fume Extraction Fan

Even the most safety-conscious hackers among us might overlook protective gear when we’re just doing a quick bit of soldering. Honestly, though, eye protection is always a necessity. And those wisps of smoke, which drift so elegantly off the hot part of the iron, really shouldn’t drift directly into our nostrils. This is especially true if soldering you make a daily habit, or if you use lead-based solder.

And so, in defense of his lungs, [Jeremy S Cook] added a battery-powered fume extraction fan to his custom, concrete-based solder squid. Without proper power controls, though, the fan could easily drain its battery while no actual solder activity was occurring. To tackle that problem, he recently upgraded his system with a passive infrared (PIR) sensor to control when the fan turns on and off. The PIR sensor detects motion, enabling the fan only when it sees busy hands in its view, so he no longer needs to muck around with manual controls.

Despite a large increase in functionality, the design is relatively straightforward and uses off-the-shelf components, making it an accessible project for anyone who knows their way around an iron. [Jeremy] also upgraded his power source to a LiPo battery with onboard charger, which keeps the build light, maneuverable, and easy to get close to whatever he’s working on.

Whether you build or buy, a fume extractor will help fight off the famously face-seeking solder smoke on your workbench. Which is a good thing, too, because that smoke carries more than just the alluring aromas of making.

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Your Plants Can Take Care Of Themselves Now

One of [Sasa]’s life goals is to be able to sit back in his home and watch as robots perform all of his work for him. In order to work towards this goal, he has decided to start with some home automation which will take care of all of his house plants for him. This project is built from the ground up, too, and is the first part of a series of videos which will outline the construction of a complete, open-source plant care machine.

The first video starts with the sensors for the plants. [Sasa] decided to go with a completely custom module based on the STM32 microcontroller since commercial offerings had poor communications designs and other flaws. The small board is designed to be placed in the soil, and has sensors for soil moisture as well as other sensors for amount of light available and the ambient temperature. The improvements over the commercial modules include communication over I2C, allowing a large number of modules to communicate over a minimum of wires and be arranged in any way needed.

For this build everything is open-source and available on [Sasa]’s GitHub page, including PCB layouts and code for the microcontrollers. We’re looking forward to the rest of the videos where he plans to lay out the central unit for handling all of these sensors, and a custom dashboard for controlling them as well. Perhaps there will also be an option for adding a way to physically listen to the plants communicate their needs as well.

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