The MiniITX Retro System

There are hundreds of modern, retrocomputing projects out there that put ancient CPUs and chips in a modern context. The Neon816 from [Lenore] is perhaps one of the most impressive projects like this we’ve seen. It’s a classic system in a modern form factor, with modern video output, mashed together into a MiniITX motherboard.

The powerhouse of this computer is the Western Design Center W65C816 CPU. This is the second generation of the venerable 6502 CPU, the same chip found in everything from the Commodore 64 to the Apple II to the Nintendo Entertainment System. The 65816 is a 6502 at start-up until you flip a bit in a register, at which time the signalling on the address bus becomes much weirder. We’ve seen some single board computers based on the 65816 before and The 8-Bit Guy has a few ideas to build a computer around this CPU, but for the foreseeable future work on that will be trapped in development hell.

Of note, the Neon816 will feature DVI output (I guess technically you can just run the analog signals through the connector), a PS/2 Joystick input, two Atari / Sega joystick ports, MIDI in and out, a PC-style floppy disc connector, and a Commodore serial bus. It’s a hodge-podge of classic retrotainment, all in a single MiniITX motherboard.

The key other feature of the Neon816 is an FPGA, specifically a Lattice XP2 8000 LUT chip that is used for video and audio. This is combined with 1MB of main RAM (looks like a simple SRAM) and 128k of Flash storage for the ROM. There’s also an SD card in there for storage.

Right now, [Lenore] is populating the first prototype board, and we can’t wait to see some video generated with this impressive little system.

NES on RISC-V

RISC architecture might change the world, but it runs an NES emulator right now. That’s thanks to MaixPy, the new MicroPython for the K210, the recently released RISC-V microcontroller that’s making waves in the community. [Robot Zero One] has the tutorial and [Other Dave] of EEVBlog has a video of the thing in action.

The Sipeed K210 came to the English-speaking world in the form of a weird pre-order thing on Taobao last October promising a dual-core RISC-V CPU for just a few bucks. Seeed, the same people who brought the ESP8266 into mass distribution quickly latched on and started selling modules last February. Now, Seeed is looking at a Raspberry Pi hat using a Sipeed module, and the future for RISC-V microcontrollers is looking great. Now someone just needs to write some software. That’s exactly what the engineers at Sipeed did, and somewhere in one of the released binaries there’s an NES emulator.

The parallel to the question of if something can run Doom is if something can run an NES emulator, so with the release of MicroPython support for the K210, the obvious thing to do is to release an NES emulator. The hardware required is a Maix M1w Dock, available from Seeed and Banggood.

The new support for MicroPython is great, and an NES emulator is amazing, but this should really come as no surprise. From our first hands on with the first Open Source microcontroller two years ago, RISC-V was obviously faster. Now it’s cheap, and we can’t wait to see what’ll come next.

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Do-It-Yourself Scratch Cards

The lottery is to some a potential bonanza, to others a tax on the poor and the stupid. The only sure-fire way to win a huge fortune in the lottery does remain to start with an even bigger fortune. Nevertheless, scratch-off tickets are the entertainment that keep our roads paved or something. [Emily] over on Instructables came up with a way to create your own scratch-off cards, and the process is fascinating.

For [Emily]’s scratchers, there are five layers of printing on the front of the card. From back to front, they are the gray ‘security confusion layer’ printed with a letterpress, black printing for the symbols and prize amounts, also printed on a letterpress, a scratch-off surface placed onto the card with a Silhouette cutter, the actual graphics on the card, printed in blue with a letterpress, and a final layer of clear varnish applied via screen printing. There’s a lot that goes into this, but the most interesting (and unique) layer is the actual scratch-off layer. You can just buy that, ready to cut on a desktop vinyl cutter. Who knew.

After several days worth of work, [Emily] had a custom-made scratcher, ready to sent out in the mail as a Christmas card. It’s great work, and from the video below we can see this is remarkably similar to a real scratch-off lottery ticket. Not that any of us would know what scratching a lottery ticket would actually be like; of course that’s only for the gullible out there, and of course none of us are like that, oh no. You can check out a video of the scratch-off being scratched off below.

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Proposed NASA Budget Signals Changes To Space Launch System

The White House’s proposed budget for 2020 is out, and with it comes cuts to NASA. The most important item of note in the proposed budget is a delay of the Space Launch System, the SLS, a super-heavy lifting launch vehicle designed for single use. The proposed delay would defer work on the enhanced version of the SLS, the Block 1B with the Exploration Upper Stage.

The current plans for the Space Launch System include a flight using NASA’s Orion spacecraft in June 2020 for a flight around the moon. This uncrewed flight, Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, would use the SLS Block 1 Crew rocket. A later flight, EM-2, would fly a crewed Orion capsule around the moon in 2022. A third proposed flight in 2023 would send the Europa Clipper to Jupiter. The proposed 2020 budget puts these flights in jeopardy.

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Hackers Turn Hard Drive Into Microphone That Can Listen In On Your Computer’s Fan Whine

As reported by The Register, hackers can now listen in on conversations happening around your computer by turning a hard drive into a microphone. There are caveats: the hack only works if these conversations are twice as loud as a blender, or about as loud as a lawn mower. In short, no one talks that loud, move along, nothing to see here.

The attack is to be presented at the 2019 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, and describes the attack as a modification of the firmware on a disk drive to read the Position Error Signal that keeps read/write heads in the optimal position. This PES is affected by air pressure, and if something is affected by air pressure, you’ve got a microphone. In this case, it’s a terrible microphone that’s mechanically coupled to a machine that has a lot of vibrations including the spinning platter and a bunch of fans inside the computer. This is an academic exercise, and not a real attack, and either way to exfiltrate this data you need to root the computer the hard drive is attached to. It’s attacks all the way down.

The limiting factor in this attack is that it requires a very loud conversation to be held near a hard drive. To record speech, the researchers had to pump up the volume to 85 dBA, or about the same volume as a blender crushing some ice. Recording music through this microphone so that Shazam could identify the track meant playing the track back at 90 dBA, or about the same volume as a lawnmower. Basically, this isn’t happening.

The interesting bit of this hack isn’t using a hard drive as a microphone. It’s modifying the firmware on a hard drive to do something. We’ve seen some hacks like this before, but the latest public literature on hard drive firmware hacking is years old. If you’ve got a tip on how to hack hard drives, even if it’s to do something that’s horribly impractical, we’d love to see it.

Panelizing Boards In KiCad

Panelization of printed circuit boards is a very helpful trick for any PCB design tool to have. By panelizing boards, you can get them ready for automated assembly. You can put testing rigs right on the panel. You can combine different boards to reduce your PCB production cost. But Eagle, Fritzing, and KiCad don’t have proper panelization tools, only hacks and third-party tools to get something close to proper panelization. [Flemming] just created a new utility for KiCad that makes multiple copies of a board connected via mouse bites. It’s not complete panelization functionality, but for a lot of us, it’ll be good enough.

The video demo for this utility (try not to click on that because we’re going to blow some bandwidth with this link) starts off by importing a board into Pcbnew, making several copies of the board, arranging these boards to have 3-4mm spacing, and drawing ‘hint lines’ for the script, telling it where the mouse bites should go. The script runs, and boom, mouse bites and a panel.

This is a KiCad specific tool, and we’ve seen other tools for KiCad that make multiple copies of a board. We’ve also seen tools that take raw Gerbers of multiple designs and turn them into a panel. [Flemming]’s efforts are the closest we’ve seen to having all the features you want out of a panelization utility bild exclusively for KiCad.

While this tool will give you a set of Gerbers with multiple copies of a board connected with mouse bites, this is not in any way a complete solution to panelizing PCBs. If you’re panelizing PCBs, you’ll want to add fiducials in the corners of the full panel, which this tool does not allow you to do. You might want to have one complete ‘frame’ as a panel — effectively a rectangular piece of fiberglass that holds all your PCBs — which this tool does not allow you to do. Since you don’t get a frame, it’s impossible to run programming or testing signals to the frame that would be needed for assembly, but not necessary in production. That said, unless you’re going to spend thousand on Altium or use Open tools that have critical flaws such as GerberPanelizer, this is the best option you’ve got.

Finally, An Open Source Calculator

Microsoft has released the code for the Calculator app. This move is the latest in Microsoft’s efforts to capitalize on the Open Source community. Previous efforts have been the Open Sourcing of an extremely old version of DOS, and shoehorning Linux into Windows somehow in a way that’s marginally more user-friendly than spinning up a VM or popping over to your Linux partition. Oh yeah, Microsoft bought Github. Can’t forget that.

The release of the code for the Calculator app means now you too can truly verify all your calculations are correct. To build the Calculator app, you’ll need a Windows 10 computer and Visual Studio. You might think that this is the same code that’s been shipping for 30 years — it’s a simple calculator, right? Not so: the Calculator for Windows 8 had a strange and odd bug where the square root of 4, minus two, did not equal zero. Floating point is hard, kids.

Of special interest to the community, it’s now possible to disable telemetry sent from the Calculator app to Microsoft servers. Yes, the Calculator app knows you forgot how to divide, and wow man, six times nine, you needed help with that?  Fortunately, telemetry can be disabled in developer’s builds by disabling the SEND_TELEMETRY build flag. Now Microsoft won’t know you don’t do math so good.

At the time of this writing, we could not be bothered to contact Microsoft to find out when the pinball game or Ski Free will be updated and Open Sourced.