Countdown to the GPS Timepocalypse

There’s a bug about to hit older GPS hardware that has echos of Y2K. Those old enough to have experienced the transition from the 1990s to the 2000s will no doubt recall the dreaded “Year 2000 Bug” that was supposed to spell the doom of civilization. Thanks to short-sighted software engineering that only recorded two digits for year, we were told that date calculations would fail en masse in software that ran everything from the power grid to digital watches. Massive remediation efforts were undertaken, companies rehired programmers whose outdated skills were suddenly back in demand, and in the end, pretty much nothing actually happened.

Yet another epoch is upon us, far less well-known but potentially deeper and more insidious. On Saturday April 6, 2019 — that’s tomorrow — GPS receivers may suffer from software issues due to rollover of their time counters. This could result in anything from minor inconvenience to major confusion, with an outside chance of chaos. Some alarmists are even stating that they won’t fly this weekend, for fear of the consequences.

So what are the real potential consequences, and what’s the problem with GPS in the first place? Unsurprisingly, it all boils down to basic math.

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WebAssembly: What Is It And Why Should You Care?

If you keep up with the field of web development, you may have heard of WebAssembly. A relatively new kid on the block, it was announced in 2015, and managed to garner standardised support from all major browsers by 2017 – an impressive feat. However, it’s only more recently that the developer community has started to catch up with adoption and support.

So, what is it? What use case is so compelling that causes such quick browser adoption? This post aims to explain the need for WebAssembly, a conceptual overview of the technical side, as well as a small hands-on example for context.

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2019 Hackaday Prize Begins Right Now

This is the 2019 Hackaday Prize, the worldwide hardware design contest focused on product development. We know you can build a working prototype, and we still want to see you do that. But a great idea should have reach beyond your own workshop. This year’s Hackaday Prize is about taking your product across the finish line, from concept to design for manufacture.

Prizes to Jump Start Your Product

$125,000 and a Supplyframe DesignLab Residency await the Best Product winner. There are five focus categories this year, with the winner of each receiving a $10,000 prize. And to help encourage those early beginnings, we have another $10,000 in seed funding set aside which means up to $500 for each of the top 20 entries who get in and gather those “likes” before June first.

There are a few areas of focus you should have in mind as you work on your products. These are Concept, Design, Production, Benchmark, and Communication. All entries are eligible to receive prizes related to these, and in addition to the $50,000 we mentioned above for the winner in each area, we have another $3,000 for each set aside to recognize an honorable mention.

$200,000 is on the line and the final results will be revealed live on stage at the Hackaday Superconference in November. Your name should be in one of those sealed envelopes!

Why You? And Why the Hackaday Prize

Something amazing happened thirty years ago. A core of very motivated hackers took on the mantle of design, software, and even business skill, to build the computers that thrust us into a new information age. As these machines matured, a wave of software engineers picked up that torch, themselves embracing product and design thinking to accelerate the startup craze to new levels, again changing the world.

Ask yourself where we are right now. What are the hot new startups? The buzz now is all about billion dollar valuation but where is the substance? What we really need are the scrappy hackers who have a flag to plant to change the world. We’ve mistakenly been waiting for software companies to use their special sauce to lead a hardware renaissance, but instead it feels like we’re solving more and more trivial problems — where are the world-changers?

This is the hunger behind the 2019 Hackaday Prize. Three decades later, it is time for Hardware Engineers to be recognized as Innovators and leaders again. This is the call for the hardware community to come together, share knowledge, acquire new skills, and embark on a journey that uses the technological raw materials at our fingertips to invent the solutions that really matter. Make the idea and the execution happen now, and that enormous valuation will follow. Now is the time to change the world, you are the hackers who will do it, and this time around hardware will be leading the charge.

Improvisation, Mentorship, and Your Ability to Do Everything

We know you can build a working prototype of just about anything. But just like the creators of the Commodore, the Sinclair, Amiga, Apple, and Atari, you need to be more than a hardware designer. You need to know your users like you know yourself. You need an eye for industrial design — each of the machines mentioned above are iconic by how they look and not just by how they work. People behind these products knew what they were up against, and chose to make them stand-out designs in terms of performance, price, and how they fit into our lives.

You don’t have every skill necessary to make a great leap forward in every one of these areas — nobody does. But with the right community around you, you will learn some of them and find collaborators for the rest. Throughout the 2019 Hackaday Prize we’ll be pushing everyone to step past where you think your skills end, to learn what makes a product great, what makes it loved by the end user, and what makes it feasible to follow through to the end of the rainbow.

Get in early and take part in Prize demo days. Get matched up with world-class mentors and work with them in a masterclass situation from which everyone can learn. Show off your work and you’ll attract good ideas and good people. This is the Homebrew Computer Club of the new millennium. You’re going to find inspiration (and become the inspiration!) from everyone in the club. You’re going to riff on the breakthroughs of others, and together we’re all going to lead that Hardware Renaissance.

Don’t let this call go unanswered. Start your Hackaday Prize entry right now, and don’t look back.

Radio Free Blockchain: Bitcoin from Space

Cryptocurrencies: love them, hate them, or be baffled by them, but don’t think you can escape them. That’s the way it seems these days at least, with news media filled with breathless stories about Bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies, and everyone from Amazon to content creators on YouTube now accepting the digital currency for payments. And now, almost everyone on the planet is literally bathed in Bitcoin, or at least the distributed ledger that makes it work, thanks to a new network that streams the Bitcoin blockchain over a constellation of geosynchronous satellites.

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Schrödinger Quantum Percolator Makes Half Decent Coffee

I couldn’t decide between normal and decaffeinated coffee. So to eliminate delays in my morning routine, and decision fatigue,  I’ve designed the Schrödinger Quantum Percolator — making the state of my coffee formally undecidable until I drink it.

At its core, the Quantum Percolator contains a novel quantum event detector that uses electron tunneling to determine whether to use caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee. The mechanical components are enclosed in an opaque box, so I can’t tell which type of coffee is being used.

The result is coffee that simultaneously contains and does not contain caffeine – at least until you collapse the caffeination probability waveform by drinking it. As the expression goes, you can’t have your quantum superposition of states and drink it too!

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Teardown Of A 50 Year Old Modem

A few years ago, I was out at the W6TRW swap meet at the parking lot of Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. Tucked away between TVs shaped like polar bears and an infinite variety of cell phone chargers and wall warts was a small wooden box. There was a latch, a wooden handle, and on the side a DB-25 port. There was a switch for half duplex and full duplex. I knew what this was. This was a modem. A wooden modem. Specifically, a Livermore Data Systems acoustically coupled modem from 1965 or thereabouts.

The Livermore Data Systems Modem, where I found it. It cost me $20

The probability of knowing what an acoustically coupled modem looks like is inversely proportional to knowing what Fortnite is, so for anyone reading this who has no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll spell it out. Before there was WiFi and Ethernet and cable modems and fiber everywhere, you connected to the Internet and BBSes via phone lines. A modem turns digital data, in this case a serial connection, into analog data or sound. Oh yeah, we had phone lines, too. The phone lines and the phones in your house were owned by AT&T. Yes, you rented a phone from the phone company.

90s kids might remember plugging in a US Robotics modem into your computer, then plugging an RJ-11 jack into the modem. When this wooden modem was built, that would have been illegal. Starting with the communications act of 1934, it was illegal to attach anything to the phone in your house. This changed in 1956 with Hush-A-Phone Corp v. United States, which ruled you could mechanically attach something to a phone’s headset. (In Hush-A-Phone’s case, it was a small box that fit over a candlestick phone to give you more privacy.)

The right to attach something to AT&T’s equipment changed again in 1968 with Carterphone decision that allowed anyone to connect something electronically to AT&T’s network. This opened the door for plugging an RJ-11 phone jack directly into your computer, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the tariffs, specifications, and certifications were worked out. The acoustically coupled modem was the solution to sending data through the phone lines from 1956 until 1978. It was a hack of the legal system.

This leaves an ancient modem like the one sitting on my desk in an odd position in history. It was designed, marketed and sold before the Carterphone decision, and thus could not connect directly to AT&T’s network. It was engineered before many of the integrated chips we take for granted were rendered in silicon. The first version of this modem was introduced only a year or so after the Bell 103 modem, the first commercially available modem, and is an excellent example of what can be done with thirteen or so transistors. It’s time for the teardown, so let’s dig in.

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Arduino Converts Serial to Parallel: the Paralleloslam

After a youth spent playing with Amigas and getting into all sorts of trouble on the school computer network, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for hardware from the 80s and 90s. This extends beyond computers themselves, and goes so far as to include modems, photocopiers, and even the much-maligned dot matrix printer.

My partner in hacking [Cosmos2000] recently found himself with a wonderful Commodore MPS 1230 printer. Its parallel interface was very appropriate in its day, however parallel ports are as scarce as SID chips. Thankfully, these two interfaces are easy to work with and simple in function. Work on a device to marry these two disparate worlds began.

Enter: The Paralleloslam

While I was gallivanting around the Eastern coast of Australia, [Cosmos2000] was hard at work. After some research, it was determined that it would be relatively simple to have an Arduino convert incoming serial data into a parallel output to the printer. After some testing was performed on an Arduino Uno, a bespoke device was built – in a gloriously plastic project box, no less.

An ATMEGA328 acts as the brains of the operation, with a MAX232 attached for level conversion from TTL to RS232 voltage levels. Serial data are received on the hardware TX/RX lines. Eight digital outputs act as the parallel interface. When a byte is received over serial, the individual bits are set on the individual digital lines connected to the printer’s parallel port. At this point, the strobe line is pulled low, indicating to the attached device that it may read the port. After two microseconds, it returns high, ready for the next byte to be set on the output lines. This is how parallel interfaces operate without a clock signal, using the strobe to indicate when data may be read.

At this point, [Cosmos2000] reached out – asking if I had a name for the new build.

“Hm. Paralleloslam?”

“Done. Cheers!”

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