Talking Clock? That’s Nothing New

Do you talk to your alarm clock? I do. I was recently in a hotel room, woke up in the middle of the night and said, “Computer. What time is it?” Since my Amazon Echo (which responds to the name Computer) was at home, I was greeted with silence. Isn’t the future great?

Of course, there have been a variety of talking clocks over the years. You used to be able to call a phone number and a voice would tell you the time. But how old do you think the talking clock really is? Would you guess that this year is the 140th anniversary of the world’s first talking clock? In fact, it doesn’t just hold the talking clock record. The experimental talking clock Frank Lambert made is also the oldest surviving recording that can be still be played back on its original device.

In 1878, the phonograph had just been invented and scratched out sounds on a piece of tin foil. Lambert realized this wouldn’t hold up to multiple playbacks and set out to find a more robust recording medium. What he ended up building was a clock that would announce the time using lead to record the speech instead of tin foil.

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Ask Hackaday: Why Aren’t We Hacking Cellphones?

When a project has outgrown using a small microcontroller, almost everyone reaches for a single-board computer — with the Raspberry Pi being the poster child. But doing so leaves you stuck with essentially a headless Linux server: a brain in a jar when what you want is a Swiss Army knife.

It would be a lot more fun if it had a screen attached, and of course the market is filled with options on that front. Then there’s the issue of designing a human interface: touch screens are all the rage these days, so why not buy a screen with a touch interface too? Audio in and out would be great, as would other random peripherals like accelerometers, WiFi, and maybe even a cellular radio when out of WiFi range. Maybe Bluetooth? Oh heck, let’s throw in a video camera and high-powered LED just for fun. Sounds like a Raspberry Pi killer!

And this development platform should be cheap, or better yet, free. Free like any one of the old cell phones that sit piled up in my “hack me” box in the closet, instead of getting put to work in projects. While I cobble together projects out of Pi Zeros and lame TFT LCD screens, the advanced functionality of these phones sits gathering dust. And I’m not alone.

Why is this? Why don’t we see a lot more projects based around the use of old cellphones? They’re abundant, cheap, feature-rich, and powerful. For me, there’s two giant hurdles to overcome: the hardware and the software. I’m going to run down what I see as the problems with using cell phones as hacker tools, but I’d love to be proven wrong. Hence the “Ask Hackaday”: why don’t we see more projects that re-use smartphones?

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ILLIAC was HAL 9000’s Granddaddy

Science fiction is usually couched in fact, and it’s fun to look at an iconic computer like HAL 9000 and trace the origins of this artificial intelligence gone wrong. You might be surprised to find that you can trace HAL’s origins to a computer built for the US Army in 1952.

If you are a fan of the novel and movie 2001: A Space Oddessy, you may recall that the HAL 9000 computer was “born” in Urbana, Illinois. Why pick such an odd location? Urbana is hardly a household name unless you know the Chicago area well. But Urbana has a place in real-life computer history. As the home of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Urbana was known for producing a line of computers known as ILLIAC, several of which had historical significance. In particular, the ILLIAC IV was a dream of a supercomputer that — while not entirely successful — pointed the way for later supercomputers. Sometimes you learn more from failure than you do successes and at least one of the ILLIAC series is the poster child for that.

The Urbana story starts in the early 1950s. This was a time when the 1945 book “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” was sweeping through the country from its Princeton origins. This book outlined the design and construction of the Army computer that succeeded ENIAC. In it, Von Neumann proposed changes to EDVAC that would make it a stored program computer — that is, a computer that treats data and instructions the same.

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Hacking When It Counts: Setting Sail in a Submarine

By the early 20th century, naval warfare was undergoing drastic technological changes. Ships were getting better and faster engines and were being outfitted with wireless communications, while naval aviation was coming into its own. The most dramatic changes were taking place below the surface of the ocean, though, as brave men stuffed themselves into steel tubes designed to sink and, usually, surface, and to attack by stealth and cunning rather than brute force. The submarine was becoming a major part of the world’s navies, albeit a feared and hated one.

For as much animosity as there was between sailors of surface vessels and those that chose the life of a submariner, and for as vastly different as a battleship or cruiser seems from a submarine, they all had one thing in common: the battle against the sea. Sailors and their ships are always on their own dealing with forces that can swat them out of existence in an instant. As a result, mariners have a long history of doing whatever it takes to get back to shore safely — even if that means turning a submarine into a sailboat.

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I Ate a Robot Hamburger Before the Restaurant Went Out of Business

The future is upon us and the robots will soon take over. Automated cars will put Uber drivers and cabbies alike out of work. Low-wage workers, like the people working behind the counter at McDonalds, will be replaced by burger-flipping robots. The entire operation of Spacely Space Sprockets, Inc. is run by a single man, pressing a single button, for four hours a day. This cartoon future is so fully automated that most people are unemployed, and all productive work is done by robots.

The first jobs to be replaced will be the first jobs teenagers get. These are low skill jobs, and when you think about low skill jobs (certainly not low-effort jobs, by the way), you think of flipping burgers. That’s where Creator comes in. They’re a culinary robotics company with a restaurant in San Francisco. They’ve been profiled by NPR, by Business Insider, and by CNBC. TechCrunch got a sneak preview proclaiming this as the future of the six dollar burger. It is a marvel of engineering prowess with a business model that I don’t think checks out. This is not the robot that will take your job, and I’m proud to say I ate a robot hamburger before the restaurant went out of business.

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This Year’s Nobel Prizes Are Straight Out Of Science Fiction

In the 1966 science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage, medical personnel are shrunken to the size of microbes to enter a scientist’s body to perform brain surgery. Due to the work of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, laser tools now do work at this scale.

Arthur Ashkin won for his development of optical tweezers that use a laser to grip and manipulate objects as small a molecule. And Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland won for coming up with a way to produce ultra-short laser pulses at a high-intensity, used now for performing millions of corrective laser eye surgeries every year.

Here is a look at these inventions, their inventors, and the applications which made them important enough to win a Nobel.

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Hack My House: Running Raspberry Pi Without an SD Card

Many of us have experienced the pain that is a Raspberry Pi with a corrupted SD card. I suspect the erase-on-write nature of flash memory is responsible for much of the problem. Regardless of the cause, one solution is to use PXE booting with the Raspberry Pi 3. That’s a fancy way to say we’ll be booting the Raspberry Pi over the network, instead of from an SD card.

What does this have to do with Hacking My House? As I discussed last time, I’m using Raspberry Pi as Infrastructure by building them into the walls of every room in my house. You don’t want to drag out a ladder and screwdriver to swap out a misbehaving SD card, so booting over the network is a really good solution. I know I promised we’d discuss cabling and cameras. Think of this as a parenthetical article — we’ll talk about Ethernet and ZoneMinder next time.

So let’s dive in and see what the Preboot Execution Environment (PXE) is all about and how to use PXE with Raspberry Pi.

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