Hackaday Links: July 2, 2023

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Members of Pixelbar woke up to shocking news on Wednesday morning this week as they learned that a fire had destroyed the building housing their Rotterdam hackerspace. Pictures of the fire are pretty dramatic and show the entire building ablaze. We’re not familiar with Pixelbar specifically, but most hackerspaces seem to share space with other businesses in repurposed warehouses and other industrial buildings, and it looks like that was the case here. Local coverage doesn’t indicate that a cause has been determined, but they do say that “large batches of wood” were stored in or near the structure, which likely contributed to the dramatic display. There don’t seem to be reports of injuries to civilians or first responders, so that’s a blessing, but Pixelbar seems to have been completely destroyed. If you’re in a position to help, check out their GoFundMe page. As our own Jenny List, who currently lives in The Netherlands, points out, spaces suitable for housing a hackerspace are hard to come by in a city like Rotterdam, which is the busiest port in Europe. That means Pixelbar members will be competing for space with businesses that have far deeper pockets, so anything you can donate will likely go a long way toward rebuilding.

NASA released the James Webb Space Telescope’s first official portrait of the Saturnian system this week, and the results are truly stunning. The images were captured using the NIRcam instrument, and show the famously ringed planet and three of its larger moons, Tethys, Enceladus, and Dione. The planet itself appears dark and muddy since the methane gas that makes up so much of its atmosphere absorbs IR light strongly. But those rings — man, do the pop! The icy bits and pieces are super reflective in the IR wavelengths, and the rings look amazing. And by way of technical context for these photos, Dr. Becky has a YouTube Short that explains how JWST can take pictures of Jupiter and Saturn while Betelgeuse is too bright to image.

Also in space news but closer to home, there’s a great article over on Space.com with an animation showing the entire path of the upcoming “Great American Eclipse.” It shows the entire path of the Moon’s shadow from landfall off the Pacific coast of Mexico until it finally zips off the edge of the globe in the North Atlantic off Newfoundland. It’s fascinating to watch the size and shape of the shadow change as it moves along, as well as seeing the shadow move faster and faster as the event proceeds. Animations like this are helpful in choosing a place to watch the eclipse; trust us, totality is where it’s at, and the closer to the centerline, the better.

Speaking of useful visualizations, we found another great animation that shows the popularity of various operating systems over the years. The animation is based on market share, so “popularity” may be stretching things a bit since we consumers generally face the Henry Ford-esque “Any OS you want as long as it’s Windows, Mac, or Chrome” choice. Still, it’s interesting to see how the distribution of OS prevalence has changed over the last 20 years. Particularly interesting is watching each new iteration of Windows chasing away the previous one — except for Windows XP, which proved remarkably resilient. Also of note is the absolutely horrible uptake of Windows 8 and 8.1, which together never managed to eclipse Windows 7. It’s also neat to see how Mac OS market share grew from barely larger than the catch-all “Other” category to more respectable numbers, and how Windows XP was still earning a slice up until 2019.

We know, we know — someday AI is going to take over the world, steal all our jobs, and reduce the planet to a radioactive cinder just to be rid of us. So we’ve got that to look forward to, but while we wait, here’s a use for AI we can really get behind: creating fake victims for scammers. Cybersecurity researchers at Macquarie University have developed multilingual chatbots that can be deployed en masse and keep scammers on the phone for extended periods of time, which based on some of the human-based “scamming the scammers” videos we’ve seen, they really, REALLY hate. So while it may not be as satisfying to observe, AI-based professional victims can probably put a real crimp in the value proposition of scamming, and make these people question why they’d spend all day crowded shoulder to shoulder in a call center trying to take advantage of the elderly and technologically unsophisticated. Or maybe not, but we still think it’s devilishly clever and wholeheartedly endorse it.

And finally, as a former “lab rat” we found this tale of woe out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute particularly relatable. It seems that a hapless janitor is being blamed for the loss of a million dollars worth of biological samples after accidentally turning off a supercold freezer. Freezers such as these, which typically operate in the range of -80° C, are used to preserve some of the most heat-sensitive samples, and are universally alarmed in case of temperature fluctuations. This particular freezer had alarmed earlier in the day, and the alarm continued to sound while waiting for a service tech to arrive. The janitor noticed the annoying alarm and attempted to help by fiddling with the lab’s circuit breakers. Unfortunately, he mistakenly switched the circuit off, with predictable results. The university is suing the cleaning service that employed the janitor, of course, who claims he thought he was being helpful. It’s hard to know who’s right and who’s wrong here without knowing the specifics better, but having been in a similar position before, we can say one thing for sure: if you’ve got a million bucks worth of samples in a dodgy minus-80, you don’t just leave it — you either move the samples or you post someone to make sure the freezer doesn’t turn off. That’s literally what grad students are for.

21 thoughts on “Hackaday Links: July 2, 2023

  1. The RPI incident occurred during the COVID lockdowns, when universities (like mine) mandated all the grad students and professors work from home. The service tech was also working under COVID restrictions, and couldn’t get there immediately.

    They put a big sign on the freezer saying service had been called, and explicitly saying “don’t turn off this freezer”. The cleaner isn’t the target, their employer is, for not training their employee to “touch nothing and contact your supervisor, who will contact people who can deal with the issue”. Labs are dangerous places for workers who aren’t trained. In my facility, cleaners don’t even sweep the labs unless the researcher requests it, and secures active experiments.

    1. Not just a big sign, but they locked off the power cable and socket too. Which should have been enough to make anyone trying to turn off the freezer have to *actively* bypass their measures and impossible to do it by accident.

      They didn’t expect anyone to ignore all of that and go straight to the fusebox. Nobody but an electrician should be going anywhere *near* the fusebox. So it’s a reasonable oversight.

        1. I disagree with both of you. I didn’t check what kind of “fusebox” we are talking of, but here in Europe the fuseboxes are made so that even a child can operate the levers(?) without any risk (because IP2x). And the box should be accessible all the time if something goes wrong and you need to cut power really quick (like some device emitting (magic) smoke…).
          Of course, if the “fusebox” is some device with uninsolated, energized bars and stuff like this (which might be the case in a lab or industrial site) it should be locked and only be accessible to an electrician or anybody properly trained.

          1. In a private house, the “fuse box” (“breaker box would be more accurate) should be pretty easy to access for anyone in the home.

            In a public building, they should be behind a locked door. Do you really want everyone in the grocery store to be able to walk over and flip the breakers on the refrigerated shelves?

            There’s emergency shutoff buttons to kill power in a hurry. They are like the fire alarm buttons in public places – a glass cover that you have to break to press the button.

    1. I doubt it, those scammers haven’t proven to be particularly smart in the past.

      I saw a video recently where someone pretended to transfer nearly half a million dollars in Bitcoin, and proceeded to mistype the recipient wallet identifier. The squirming was hilarious.

    2. The scammers bosses *are* criminal organization who increasingly use indentured “workers” (economic slaves) who can only get out by buying themselves out with money scammed from the other victims.
      We live in a truly sad world that hasn’t gotten any better since fiefdoms were en vogue.

  2. It reminds me of an old joke about the cleaner in a bank contacting the bank manager.

    Cleaner: “Could I please have a key to the vault?”

    Bank manager: “Er, why would you need that?”

    Cleaner: “It’s just that it takes too much time picking the lock every night.”

  3. If I had a freezer with a million dollars worth of samples, you better believe I would have it on a UPS that would contact a list of people when the power goes out, and temperature alarms that would also contact people if the temperature starts to get out of spec.

    1. It is super easy to have $1M worth of samples in a freezer. It depends on how you assign value (it took a grad student a year to make that) though. Unlikely they are, for example, selling recombinant enzymes at retail. Places that do that don’t have a huge $1M inventory just sitting there I wouldn’t think. One medium sized academic lab may have a decade’s worth of samples in one minus 80. Which is, as described, alarmed, on a backup generator, with lockout tags.
      We occasionally had to move samples from one to the other for defrosting the freezer itself occasionally and stuff.
      Thinking about it too- it would be a huge pain but anything in the -80 gets thawed to use anyway and everything is stored in glycerol or DMSO and pretty stable at room temp. Or at least in the fridge. So even if it was thawed you could propagate whatever it is and not lose it entirely. Can’t really think of anything store that would die that fast.
      Finally though yeah the cleaning service needs to pay something. That’s what the bond and insurance are for. Not-catastrophic is different than not a huge pain.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.