The Solar System Is Weirder Than You Think

When I was a kid, the solar system was simple. There were nine planets and they all orbited in more-or-less circles around the sun. This same sun-and-a-handful-of-planets scheme repeated itself again and again throughout our galaxy, and these galaxies make up the universe. It’s a great story that’s easy to wrap your mind around, and of course it’s a great first approximation, except maybe that “nine planets” thing, which was just a fluke that we’ll examine shortly.

What’s happened since, however, is that telescopes have gotten significantly better, and many more bodies of all sorts have been discovered in the solar system which is awesome. But as a casual astronomy observer, I’ve given up hope of holding on to a simple mental model. The solar system is just too weird.

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RIP Lynn Conway, Whose Work Gave Us VLSI And Much More

Lynn Conway, American engineer and computer scientist, passed away at the age of 86 from a heart condition on June 9th, at her Michigan home. Her work in the 1970s led to the integrated circuit design and manufacturing methodology known as Very Large Scale Integration, or VLSI, something which touches almost all facets of the world we live in here in 2024.

It was her work at the legendary Xerox PARC that resulted in VLSI, and its subsequent publication had the effect through the 1980s of creating a revolution in the semiconductor industry. By rendering an IC into a library of modular units that could be positioned algorithmically, VLSI enabled much more efficient use of space on the die, and changed the design process from one of layout into one of design. In simple terms, by laying out pre-defined assemblies with a computer rather than individual components by hand, a far greater density of components could be achieved, and more powerful circuits could be produced.

You may have also heard of Lynne Conway, not because of her VLSI work, but because as a transgender woman she found herself pursuing a parallel career as an activist in her later decades. As an MIT student in the 1950s she had tried to transition but been beaten back by the attitudes of the time, before dropping out and only returning to Columbia University to finish her degree a few years later in the early 1960s. A job at IBM followed, but when she announced her intent to transition she was fired from IBM and lost access to her family. Continue reading “RIP Lynn Conway, Whose Work Gave Us VLSI And Much More”

PCB Design Review: A 5V UPS With LTC4040

Do you have a 5 V device you want to run 24/7, no matter whether you have electricity? Not to worry – Linear Technology has made a perfect IC for you, the LTC4040; with the perfect assortment of features, except perhaps for the hefty price tag.

[Lukilukeskywalker] has shared a PCB for us to review – a LTC4040-based stamp you can drop onto your PCB whenever you want a LTC4040 design. It’s a really nice module to see designed – things like LiFePO4 support make this IC a perfect solution for many hacker usecases. For instance, are you designing a custom Pi HAT? Drop this module to give your HAT the UPS capability for barely any PCB effort. if your Pi or any other single-board computer needs just a little bit of custom sauce, this module spices it up alright!

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Displays We Love Hacking: DSI

We would not be surprised if DSI screens made up the majority of screens on our planet at this moment in time. If you own a smartphone, there’s a 99.9% chance its screen is DSI. Tablets are likely to use DSI too, unless it’s eDP instead, and a smartwatch of yours definitely will. In a way, DSI displays are inescapable.

This is for a good reason. The DSI interface is a mainstay in SoCs and mobile CPUs worth their salt, it allows for higher speeds and thus higher resolutions than SPI ever could achieve, comparably few pins, an ability to send commands to the display’s controller unlike LVDS or eDP, and staying low power while doing all of it.

There’s money and power in hacking on DSI – an ability to equip your devices with screens that can’t be reused otherwise, building cooler and cooler stuff, tapping into sources of cheap phone displays. What’s more, it’s a comparably underexplored field, too. Let’s waste no time, then!

Decently Similar Internals

DSI is an interface defined by the MIPI Alliance, a group whose standards are not entirely open. Still, nothing is truly new under the sun, and DSI shares a lot of concepts with interfaces we’re used to. For a start, if you remember DisplayPort internals, there are similarities. When it comes to data lanes, DSI can have one, two or four lanes of a high-speed data stream; smaller displays can subsist with a single-lane, while very high resolution displays will want all four. This is where the similarities end. There’s no AUX to talk to the display controller, though – instead, the data lanes switch between two modes.

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Scrapping The Local Loop, By The Numbers

A few years back I wrote an “Ask Hackaday” article inviting speculation on the future of the physical plant of landline telephone companies. It started innocently enough; an open telco cabinet spotted during my morning walk gave me a glimpse into the complexity of the network buried beneath my feet and strung along poles around town. That in turn begged the question of what to do with all that wire, now that wireless communications have made landline phones so déclassé.

At the time, I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew what the answer would be, but I spent a good bit of virtual ink trying to convince myself that there was still some constructive purpose for the network. After all, hundreds of thousands of technicians and engineers spent lifetimes building, maintaining, and improving these networks; surely there must be a way to repurpose all that infrastructure in a way that pays at least a bit of homage to them. The idea of just ripping out all that wire and scrapping it seemed unpalatable.

With the decreasing need for copper voice and data networks and the increasing demand for infrastructure to power everything from AI data centers to decarbonized transportation, the economic forces arrayed against these carefully constructed networks seem irresistible. But what do the numbers actually look like? Are these artificial copper mines as rich as they appear? Or is the idea of pulling all that copper out of the ground and off the poles and retasking it just a pipe dream?

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Hands On: Inkplate 6 MOTION

Over the last several years, DIY projects utilizing e-paper displays have become more common. While saying the technology is now cheap might be overstating the situation a bit, the prices on at least small e-paper panels have certainly become far more reasonable for the hobbyist. Pair one of them with a modern microcontroller such as the RP2040 or ESP32, sprinkle in a few open source libraries, and you’re well on the way to creating an energy-efficient smart display for your home or office.

But therein lies the problem. There’s still a decent amount of leg work involved in getting the hardware wired up and talking to each other. Putting the e-paper display and MCU together is often only half the battle — depending on your plans, you’ll probably want to add a few sensors to the mix, or perhaps some RGB status LEDs. An onboard battery charger and real-time clock would be nice as well. Pretty soon, your homebrew e-paper gadget is starting to look remarkably like the bottom of your junk bin.

For those after a more integrated solution, the folks at Soldered Electronics have offered up a line of premium open source hardware development boards that combine various styles of e-paper panels (touch, color, lighted, etc) with a microcontroller, an array of sensors, and pretty much every other feature they could think of. To top it off, they put in the effort to produce fantastic documentation, easy to use libraries, and free support software such as an online GUI builder and image converter.

We’ve reviewed a number of previous Inkplate boards, and always came away very impressed by the attention to detail from Soldered Electronics. When they asked if we’d be interested in taking a look at a prototype for their new 6 MOTION board, we were eager to see what this new variant brings to the table. Since both the software and hardware are still pre-production, we won’t call this a review, but it should give you a good idea of what to expect when the final units start shipping out in October.

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Mining And Refining: Fracking

Normally on “Mining and Refining,” we concentrate on the actual material that’s mined and refined. We’ve covered everything from copper to tungsten, with side trips to more unusual materials like sulfur and helium. The idea is to shine a spotlight on the geology and chemistry of the material while concentrating on the different technologies needed to exploit often very rare or low-concentration deposits and bring them to market.

This time, though, we’re going to take a look at not a specific resource, but a technique: fracking. Hydraulic fracturing is very much in the news lately for its potential environmental impact, both in terms of its immediate effects on groundwater quality and for its perpetuation of our dependence on fossil fuels. Understanding what fracking is and how it works is key to being able to assess the risks and benefits of its use. There’s also the fact that like many engineering processes carried out on a massive scale, there are a lot of interesting things going on with fracking that are worth exploring in their own right.
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