Spy Tech: Nonlinear Junction Detectors

If you ever watch a spy movie, you’ve doubtlessly seen some nameless tech character sweep a room for bugs using some kind of detector and either declare it clean or find the hidden microphone in the lamp. Of course, as a hacker, you have to start thinking about how that would work. If you had a bug that transmits all the time, that’s easy. The lamp probably shouldn’t be emitting RF energy all the time, so that’s easy to detect and a dead give away. But what if the bug were more sophisticated? Maybe it wakes up every hour and beams its data home. Or perhaps it records to memory and doesn’t transmit anything. What then?

High-end bug detectors have another technique they use that claims to be able to find active device junctions. These are called Nonlinear Junction Detectors (NLJD). Spy agencies in the United States, Russian and China have been known to use them and prisons employ them to find cell phones. Their claim to fame is the device doesn’t have to be turned on for detection to occur. You can see a video of a commercial NLJD, below

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In-Band Signaling: Quindar Tones

So far in this brief series on in-band signaling, we looked at two of the common methods of providing control signals along with the main content of a transmission: DTMF for Touch-Tone dialing, and coded-squelch systems for two-way radio. For this installment, we’ll look at something that far fewer people have ever used, but almost everyone has heard: Quindar tones.

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A Video Game Odyssey: How Magnavox Launched the Console Industry

What was the first video game console? If you said the Atari 2600, you would be wrong, but we’d forgive you. After all, the Atari was early and widely sold. It also had the major features you expect from a video game. However, there was an earlier console available. the Magnavox Odyssey.

This system was black and white, had two wired controllers, and while it didn’t quite have cartridges, you could select from one of several games. The system seems inexpensive today at $100 (not including the optional light gun). However, adjusting for 1972 currency value, that’s equivalent to about $600 today.

It was not an impulse buy, and the differentiation between games was mostly an exercise in imagination. But the the Magnavox Odyssey nevertheless brought computer technology into the home and that was exciting. It proved a market existed for home video gaming, and served no small part in the success of Atari.

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I’ve Seen the Future and It’s Full of Freakin’ Huge Bricks

“Did you know you can 3D-print LEGO bricks that can actually be used as regular LEGO?”–me, in 2009

Those magical words made real to me the wonder that was 3D printing. It was a magical time! Everyone was 3D printing everything, though most of it wasn’t very good because the technology wasn’t there. But just as every technology goes through an evolution, the goalposts of coolness move on past what used to be remarkable to the new thing everyone’s talking about.

These days, no one is going to be more than mildly curious about your 3D-printed LEGO brick. Still, when you look at that uneven lump of plastic as being just one step in an evolution, it’s pretty momentous. What I’m saying is that we’re looking at a future that can be described in three words: Freakin’ Huge Bricks.

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In-Band Signaling: Dual-Tone Multifrequency Dialing

One late night many decades ago, I chanced upon a technical description of the Touch-Tone system. The book I was reading had an explanation of how each key on a telephone sends a combination of two tones down the wire, and what’s more, it listed the seven audio frequencies needed for the standard 12-key dial pad. I gazed over at my Commodore 64, and inspiration hit — if I can use two of the C64’s three audio channels to generate the dual tones, I bet I can dial the phone! I sprang out of bed and started pecking out a Basic program, and in the wee hours I finally had it generating the recognizable Touch-Tones of my girlfriend’s phone number. I held the mouthpiece of my phone handset up to the speaker of my monitor, started the program, and put the receiver to my ear to hear her phone ringing! Her parents were none too impressed with my accomplishment since it came at 4:00 AM, but I was pretty jazzed about it.

Since that fateful night I’ve always wondered about how the Touch-Tone system worked, and in delving into the topic I discovered that it’s part of a much broader field of control technology called in-band signaling, or the use of audible or sub-audible signals to control an audio or video transmission. It’s pretty interesting stuff, even when it’s not used to inadvertently prank call someone in the middle of the night. Continue reading “In-Band Signaling: Dual-Tone Multifrequency Dialing”

Way to Go, Einstein; His Time Spent Being Wrong

When you hear someone say “Einstein”, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Is it high IQ… genius… or maybe E=MC2? Do you picture his wild grey hair shooting in all directions as he peacefully folds the pages back from his favorite book?  You might even think of nuclear bombs, clocks and the Nobel Prize. It will come as a surprise to many that these accomplishments were a very small part of his life. Indeed, Einstein turned the world of classical physics upside down with his general theory of relativity. But he was only in his early twenties when he did so.

What about the rest of his life? Was Einstein a “one-hit-wonder”? What else did he put his remarkable mind to? Surely he tackled other dilemmas that plagued the scientific world during his moment in history. He was a genius after all… arguably one of the smartest people to have ever walked the earth. His very name has become synonymous with genius. He pulled the rug out from under Isaac Newton, whose theories had held the universe together for over 300 years. He talked about enigmatic concepts like space and time with an elegance that laid bare the beauty hidden within their simplicity. Statues have been made of him. His name and face are recognizable across the globe.

But when you hear someone say “Einstein”, do you think of a man who spent the better half of his life… being wrong?  You should.

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Lu Ban’s Axe and Working with Your Chinese Suppliers

It is nearly impossible to build any kind of hardware these days without at some point in the process dealing with China — Chinese suppliers, and so by extension Chinese culture. Difficulties can be as simple as the usual inconvenience of everything stopping for weeks up to and after Chinese New Year, or engineers that you know to be otherwise reasonably competent simply choosing not to bring up glaring and obvious problems. Having encountered my share of Western hardware entrepreneurs on the verge of a breakdown, and just as many flummoxed Chinese bosses completely unable to see exactly why they’re so upset, I thought I’d try to offer at least a little insight into one of the many issues that comes up.

Nearly any school child in the world will be able to tell you whom they were taught invented the lightbulb, the telephone, the radio transmitter. Those same children will usually be able to tell you of at least a few Chinese inventions as well — gunpowder, paper, the compass etc. But with one key difference, even the Chinese children are unlikely to be able to credit even a group of people for their invention let alone a single (usually misattributed) individual.

China does not really have an Edison, or Tesla, or Bell — oh we’ve had people as brilliant, but they are not celebrated in quite the same way for cultural reasons. If you were to do an alternate history of China where we went through the Industrial Revolution first, you’d want to split the timeline around Mozi (墨子). The Mohists (followers of Mozi) had advanced siege engine design, schools of logic, mathematics and theory for the physical sciences. much of the same foundation that set the West on its particular trajectory. In the end, Confucian ideals won out and China became a culture that celebrated scholarship over ingenuity (to vastly oversimplify things).

Even our respective terms for engineer reflect this. The word engineer (Latin ingeniator) is derived from the Latin words ingeniare (“to contrive, devise”) and ingenium (“cleverness”). Yet in Chinese 工程师, the first character for engineer in Chinese is the carpenters square 工. He or she is a simple worker (工人 literally “Work Person”). Even now, engineers are not held in anywhere near the same regard in China as they are in the West.

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