PC AT mainboard with both 16-bit ISA and 32-bit PCI slots. (Credit: htomari, Flickr)

How Intel Gave Us The PCI Bus While Burying VESA’s VL-Bus

Gigabyte GA486IM mainboard from 1994 with ISA, VLB and PCI slots. (Credit: Rjluna2, Wikimedia)
Gigabyte GA486IM mainboard from 1994 with ISA, VLB and PCI slots. (Credit: Rjluna2, Wikimedia)

The early days of home computing were quite a jungle of different standards and convoluted solutions to make one piece of hardware work on as many different platforms as possible. IBM’s PC was an unexpected shift here, as with its expansion card-based system (retroactively called the ISA bus) it inspired a new evolution in computers. Of course, by the early 1990s the ISA bus couldn’t keep up with hardware demands, and a successor was needed. Many expected this to be VESA’s VLB, but as [Ernie Smith] regales us in a recent article in Tedium, Intel came out of left field with its PCI standard after initially backing VLB.

IBM, of course, wanted to see its own proprietary MCA standard used, while VLB was an open standard. One big issue with VLB is that it isn’t a new bus as such, but rather an additional slot tacked onto the existing ISA bus, as it was then called. While the reasoning for PCI was sound, with it being a compact, 32-bit (also 64-bit) design with plug and play and more complex but also more powerful PCI controller, its announcement came right before VLB was supposed to be announced.

Although there was some worry that having both VLB and PCI in the market competing would be bad, ultimately few mainboards ended up supporting VLB, and VLB quietly vanished. Later on PCI was extended into the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) that enabled the GPU revolution of the late 90s and still coexists with its PCIe successor. We covered making your own ISA and PCI cards a while ago, which shows that although PCI is more complex than ISA, it’s still well within the reach of today’s hobbyist, unlike PCIe which ramps up the hardware requirements.

Top image: PC AT mainboard with both 16-bit ISA and 32-bit PCI slots. (Credit: htomari, Flickr)

You Could Be Relatively Cooler In Diamond-Coated Clothing

We vaguely remember what we believe was a DuPont commercial in the late ’80s or early ’90s touting that one day, they would make clothing that could cool you. And sure, there is clothing that allows heat to escape — fishnet shirts come to mind most immediately — but a group of scientists at Australia’s RMIT University have applied a coating of nanodiamonds to cotton in order to make fabric that goes a step further, drawing heat away from the body.

While you may be picturing blinged-out blouses, the truth is that nanodiamonds are cheap and non-glittery. They bear the same carbon-lattice structure as regular diamonds, which gives them great thermal conductivity.

In order to create cooling fabric, the scientists combined nanodiamond powder with polyurethane and a solvent, and applied the solution to one side of a sheet of cotton via electrospinning. This technique uses electric force to spin charged threads up into the diameters of fiber. The other side was left uncoated so that it doesn’t draw in heat.

Studies showed that the treated samples released 2 to 3 ºC (3.6 to 5.4 ºF) more heat via the coated side throughout the cooling period. While a couple of degrees may not seem like much, it could mean the difference between using a fan or using an air conditioner to cool off further.

Another application could be to keep buildings from overheating. We’ve seen developments in that area, usually in the form of ultra-white paint.

Why Stealing A Car With Flipper Zero Is A Silly Idea

In another regular installment of politicians making ridiculous statements about technology, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, [François-Philippe Champagne], suggested banning Flipper Zero and similar devices from sale in the country, while accusing them of being used for ‘stealing cars’ and similar. This didn’t sit right with [Peter Fairlie] who put together a comprehensive overview video of how car thieves really steal cars. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main method is CAN bus injection, for which a Flipper Zero is actually a terribly clumsy device. Rather you’d use a custom piece of kit that automates the process.

You can also find these devices being sold all over the internet as so-called ‘Emergency Start’ devices for sale all over the internet, all of which use weaknesses in the car’s CAN bus network. The common problem appears to be that with these days even the lights on the car being part of the CAN network, an attacker can gain access for injection purposes. This way no key fob is needed, and the ignition system can be triggered with the usual safeties and lockouts being circumvented.

Ultimately, although the Flipper Zero is a rather cutesy toy, it doesn’t do anything that cannot be done cheaper and more effectively by anyone with a bit of CAN bus knowledge and a disregard for the law.

Thanks to [Stephen Walters] for the tip.

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Brushless ESC Becomes Dual-Motor Brushed ESC With A Few Changes

What is a brushless ESC, really? Well, generally, it’s usually a microcontroller with a whole lot of power transistors hanging off it to drive three phases of brushless motor coils. [Frank Zhao] realised that with a little reprogramming, you could simply use a brushless ESC to independently run two brushed motors. Thus, he whipped up a custom firmware for various AM32-compatible ESCs to do just that.

The idea of the project is to enable a single lightweight ESC to run two brushed motors for combat robots. Dual-motor brushed ESCs can be hard to find and expensive, whereas single-motor brushless ESCs are readily available. The trick is to wire up the two brushed motors such that each motor gets one phase wire of its own, and the two motors share the middle phase wire. This allows independent control of both motors via the brushless ESC’s three half-bridges, by setting the middle wire to half voltage. Depending on how you set it up, the system can be configured in a variety of ways to suit different situations.

[Frank’s] firmware is available on Github for the curious. He lists compatible ESCs there, and notes that you’ll need to install the AM32 ESC firmware before flashing his version to make everything work correctly.

The VESC project has long supported brushed motor operation, too, though not in a tandem configuration. Meanwhile, if you’ve got your own neat ESC hacks, don’t hesitate to hit us up on the tipsline!

Retrotechtacular: Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid Of A Nuclear Bomb

It may seem a bit obvious to say so, but when a munition of just about any kind is designed, little thought is typically given to how to dispose of it. After all, if you build something that’s supposed to blow up, that pretty much takes care of the disposal process, right?

But what if you design something that’s supposed to blow up only if things go really, really wrong? Like nuclear weapons, for instance? In that case, you’ll want to disassemble them with the utmost care. This 1993 film, produced by the US Department of Energy, gives a high-level overview of nuclear weapons decommissioning at the Pantex plant in Texas. Fair warning: this film was originally on a VHS tape, one that looks like it sat in a hot attic for quite a few years before being transferred to DVD and thence to YouTube. So the picture quality is lousy, in some points nearly unwatchably so. Then again, given the subject matter that may be a feature rather than a bug.

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Linux Fu: Curling C

Sometimes, it pays to read the man pages of commands you use often. There might be a gem hidden in there that you don’t know about. Case in point: I’ve used curl (technically, cURL, but I’m going to stick with curl) many times to grab data from some website or otherwise make a web request. But what happens if you want to do the same thing from a C program? Well, you could be lazy and just spawn a copy of curl. But it turns out curl has a trick up its sleeve that can help you. If only I’d read the man page sooner!

First Things

The simplest use of curl is to just name a URL on the command line. For example, consider this session:

$ curl http://www.hackaday.com 
<head><title>301 Moved Permanently</title></head>
<center><h1>301 Moved Permanently</h1></center>

This isn’t so useful because it is a 301 response (to send you to the https server, in this case). The -L option will make curl go get the page instead of the redirect. Try:

$ curl -L http://www.hackaday.com

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A 1960s PLC Gives Up Its Secrets

When it comes to process automation, the go-to part in most industrial settings is a Programmable Logic Controller, or PLC. These specialized computers will have a modern microcontroller running the show, but surprisingly the way they are programmed still has echoes of a time before electronic PLCs when such control would have been electromechanical.

[Thomas Scherrer] has an interesting design to tear down, it’s a Siemens electromechanical motor controller from the early 1960s. It’s not quite the huge banks of relays which would have made a fully-blown PLC back in those times, but it’s a half-way house with some simple programming capability in the form of several channels of adjustable time delay.

We’re partly sad to see this unit being subjected to a destructive teardown, but nevertheless it’s interesting to see all those very period components. The current sensor has a mechanism similar to a moving coil meter, and the four-channel timer is a mechanical sequencer with four adjustable cam-driven switches. We’re not sure we would be cracking open selenium rectifiers with such nonchalance though.

These units were built to a very high quality indeed, and though it’s obvious this one comes from a decommissioned installation it’s not beyond possibility to think there might be some of them still doing their job over six decades after manufacture. Have any of you seen one of these or something like it in operation recently? Let us know in the comments. Meanwhile the video is below the break.

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