Hackaday Links: February 5, 2023

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Well, this week’s Links article is likely to prove a bit on the spicy side, thanks in no small part to the Chinese balloon that spent the better part of the week meandering across the United States. Putting aside the politics of the whole thing — which we’ll admit is hard to do, given the state of the world today — there are some interesting technical aspects to this story, which the popular press has predictably ignored. Like the size of this thing — it’s enormous. This is not even remotely on the same scale as the hundreds of radiosonde-carrying balloons sent aloft every day, at least if the back-of-the-envelope math thoughtfully sent to us by [Dr_T] holds up. If the “the size of three buses” description given in most media reports is accurate, that means a diameter of about 40 meters, for a volume of 33,500 cubic meters. If it’s filled with helium — a pretty safe bet — that makes its lifting capacity something like three metric tons. So maybe it was a good idea to wait until it was off the Carolinas to shoot it down.

In other potentially spicy news, we stumbled upon an article this week that provides details on Toyota’s seeming foot-dragging when it comes to electric vehicles. Toyota has staked out a pretty staunch “hybrids-only” approach to its vehicle lineup, and although it’s working on a battery-only platform, it’s pretty safe to say that the Japanese carmaker has not been favorably disposed to converting to an all-electric lineup. The numbers they use to defend that position are interesting, too, when taken with the appropriate amount of salt. They claim their position is based on the limits to lithium production, which of course is essential to building batteries. Given a fixed supply of the metal, they feel it’s smarter to build many smaller batteries and put them in hybrid vehicles, rather than commit to building just a limited number of giant batteries for a smaller fleet of EVs. Again, this has to be tempered with the knowledge that Toyota just happens to have a lot of its production capacity devoted to hybrid cars, so it may be a little self-serving. But it still makes sense, at least until we can lasso a lithium-rich asteroid and tow it back to Earth.

Have you ever felt like your phone battery is running down far quicker than it should? If so, you’re not alone, and it may be due to something called “negative testing” on Facebook Messenger. This is according to whistleblower and now ex-Facebook engineer George Hayward, who claims he was fired for refusing to partake in such testing. He claims Meta can run code that runs the battery down on a specific phone, apparently because that’s how data science is done. We agree with George that this is unethical and dangerous — imagine needing to dial emergency services because you’re having chest pain only to find out your phone battery has been depleted by a random test you didn’t know you had signed up for when you signed off on the EULA.

If you’ve ever had to scan through a modern scientific paper, one of the hardest bits is coming up against acronyms that you’re not familiar with. This usually means you have to go back in the text to find where the acronym was instantiated to get a translation, or perhaps even Google it in the worst case. But with so many forced and cutesy acronyms — looking at you, NASA; SHERLOC, and WATSON? — the signal-to-noise ratio on a search can make meaningful results difficult to obtain. To look into the prevalence of acronyms in scientific literature and how they might be impacting understanding, a bunch of Danish scientists came up with a paper entitled “SearCh for humourIstic and Extravagant acroNyms and Thoroughly Inappropriate names For Important Clinical trials (SCIENTIFIC): qualitative and quantitative systematic study.” It’s actually a pretty good read, and has some funny bits, like the two criteria they define for acronym quality: a positive factor, known as BEAUTY (Boosting Elegant Acronyms Using a Tally Yardstick), and negative factors, denoted CHEATING (obsCure and awkHward usE of lettArs Trying to spell somethING). Extra points for misspelling “awkward” and making the extra letter the only one from the word to make it into the acronym.

And finally, if you’ve been having trouble concentrating at work lately as much as I have, then you might want to hop in the WABAC machine and check out “The Isolator.” It dates from the 1920s and was the brainchild of none other than Hugo Gernsback, the father of science fiction (or at least science fiction publishing) — as well as magazines like Radio Electronics. Old Hugo apparently has a hard time staying on track at the office thanks to both audible and visible stimulation, so he came up with something that looks like a cross between a pith helmet and an old-timey diving helmet. The thing was substantial, made of layers of wood, cork, and felt, presumably for their sound-absorbing qualities, and also limited visual distractions with just a tiny pair of portholes, which would have exactly zero chance of lining up with your axis of view at any given moment. To prevent suffocation, and possibly as a quick hangover remedy, Hugo thoughtfully included an inlet for an oxygen supply, which appears to blow directly at the wearer’s nose. We can’t imagine how stifling it would have gotten inside that thing.


33 thoughts on “Hackaday Links: February 5, 2023

  1. The Isolator looks like Dark Helmet’s pith helmet from Spaceballs.

    The portholes are even worse. One of the diagrams in the article shows that they’re mostly painted black with only a tiny slit that is clear.

  2. The negative-testing thing doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I guess FB got bored of “leaving people with a dead battery overnight for the crime of putting their phone in airplane mode to disable notifications, thus cutting the app off from the mothership” and decided to expand it to “whoever we want at random, following the Duolingo-pioneered method of infinite permutations of A/B testing combinations”.

    (For the confused, a long-standing WONTFIX/NOTABUG of both the main Facebook app as well as Messenger is, there’s no rate-limiting on network retries when the app fails to phone home, whether due to DNS hiccups, going out of cell range, or – gasp – turning airplane mode on at night as a nuclear option of disabling ALL non-alarm notifications from ALL apps, because sometimes even Do Not Disturb is sufficient, and setting the phone to silent disables alarm clock notifs along with everything else. So you enable airplane mode and cut off network, the FB app checks for new messages, gets a “cannot reach network” error, freaks out, and keeps trying indefinitely until you wake up in the morning to 5% battery.)

  3. Interesting to note that β€œthe size of three buses” was repeated everywhere. I mean, what? Length? Diameter? Stacked one on top of the other? Volume?

    Back in the sane world it would be reported something like: ” 40m in diameter (about three buses end to end).”

    The extent of the dumbdownedness is astounding.

    But anyway with that out of my system, according to wiki, high altitude balloons typically fly at an altitude of between 180 football fields and 120 Eiffel Towers or more, so possibly well above F22 maximum at only 65 cruise ships. I wonder how one would go about destroying a balloon at 200 Hoover Dams or more. Would it even be possible?

    1. [𐂀 𐂅 ] said: “If the balloon did not contain hydrogen where did the water vapour come from when they hit it with a missile?”

      I do not think that was water vapor you saw. It is typical for manufacturers to dust the inside surface of their balloons with a small amount of talc (strictly: magnesium silicate [1], or variously: calcium carbonate [2]) or similar fine powder to prevent the balloon material (usually rubber or latex) from adhering and/or cohering (sticking) to itself which makes the balloon difficult to fill.[3] When the Chinese balloon exploded, the powder inside it was released as a small cloud of particles. That’s what you saw.

      * References:

      1. Talc (Food Grade)


      2. Calcium Carbonate


      3. Storing Balloons


  4. The isolator is a silly idea. Why not just build a fully enclosed booth to sit in with a desk and such. Add the ability to open parts of the sides up like a food truck for when you don’t want or need to be so isolated.

    1. Did you just reinvent a room with doors and windows?

      Hugo is already in his private study in the photo so I’m thinking he’s just looking for reasons to wear his special “hat”.

    1. ^ this, Toyota loudly bet the farm on Hydrogen and can’t admit they were wrong. There was an excruciating series of videos recently where they bought off a Youtube “science” channel and the presenter lady spent 3 or 4 videos spouting all their PR talking points whilst being absolutely roasted in the comments for selling out and spouting unsubstantiated BS.

      1. I guess you mean Physics Girl?

        Her hydrogen videos were annoying but not entirely full of shit. It’s not uncommon for youtubers to do this, stretch into areas they don’t belong and look a bit foolish. It’s happened to many of the big ones, Physics Girl, Veritasium, AvE, Smarter Every Day. Most of them ended up falling back to what they’re good at and what they know, thankfully.

    2. Or their original view was correct and ahead of others. Doesn’t really matter. No large organisation will continue the this long in a direction if it doesn’t fully believe the numbers it’s working with (whether they’re right or wrong).

    3. It can be both. If you assume that the lithium supply is limited, even in the short term, the best thing to do with it is use it for as many vehicles as possible. And given that the average commute is 41 miles in the US, plug in hybrids use the limited resource as efficiently as possible. Plus, hybrids are useful in all situations from a short daily commute to a long distance trip, so you only need one car.

      I say this all as someone with an EV. I like it but I bought it for the acceleration and the $7500 rebate. If PHEVs could accelerate as fast, I would have gotten one of them.

        1. Looks like it’s 5.7 second 0-60. That is extremely fast for a PHEV. I got a Mach E and it’s 4.9 seconds. I very much wish I had paid more and gotten the Mach E GT at 3.5 seconds. Of course you can go faster still but everyone’s got a budget.

  5. In a “Nature” paper a year or two back I came across a reference to some scientific apparatus with the acronymnic name BATGUANO. Unfortunately I have not been able to trace this on the Internet.

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