A Few Of My Favorite Things: Amateur Radio

Hackaday has among its staff a significant number of writers who also hold amateur radio licenses. We’re hardware folks at heart, so we like our radios homebrew, and we’re never happier than when we’re working at high frequencies.

Amateur radio is a multi-faceted hobby, there’s just so much that’s incredibly interesting about it. It’s a shame then that as a community we sometimes get bogged down with negativity when debating the minutia. So today let’s talk about a few of my favourite things about the hobby of amateur radio. I hope that you’ll find them interesting and entertaining, and in turn share your own favorite things in the comments below.

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The Origin Of Cut, Copy, And Paste

I’m always fascinated that someone designed just about everything you use, no matter how trivial it is. The keyboard you type on, the light switch you turn on, even the faucet handle. They don’t just spontaneously grow on trees, so some human being had to build it and probably had at least a hazy design in mind when they started it.

Some things are so ubiquitous that it is hard to remember that someone had to dream them up to begin with. A friend of mine asked me the other day why we use Control+X and Control+V to manipulate the clipboard almost universally. Control+C for copy makes sense, of course, but it is still odd that it is virtually universal in an industry where everyone likes to reinvent the wheel. I wasn’t sure of the answer but figured it had to do with some of the user interface standards from IBM or Sun. Turns out, it is much older than that.

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The $50 Ham: A Cheap Antenna For The HF Bands

So far in the $50 Ham series, I’ve concentrated mainly on the VHF and UHF bands. The reason for this has to do mainly with FCC rules, which largely restrict Technician-level licensees to those bands. But there’s a financial component to it, too; high-frequency (HF) band privileges come both at the price of learning enough about radio to pass the General license test, as well as the need for gear that can be orders of magnitude more expensive than a $30 handy-talkie radio.

But while HF gear can be expensive, not everything needed to get on the air has to be so. And since it’s often the antenna that makes or breaks an amateur radio operator’s ability to make contacts, we’ll look at a simple but versatile antenna design that can be adapted to support everything from a big, powerful base station to portable QRP (low-power) activations in the field: the end-fed half-wave antenna.

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Pandemic Chip Shortages Are Shutting Down Automotive Production

Once upon a time, the automobile was a mostly mechanical beast, but no longer. Advanced electronics have weaved their way into the modern car, from engine to infotainment and climate control to the buttons now sprinkled throughout the passenger cabin. The gains in amenity and efficiency can’t be sniffed at, but it leaves manufacturers reliant on semiconductor suppliers to get cars out the door. Over the past year, it’s become much more complicated — with many automakers having to slow production in the face of integrated circuit shortages that can be traced back to Spring of 2020. Continue reading “Pandemic Chip Shortages Are Shutting Down Automotive Production”

Movie Magic Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, January 20th at noon Pacific for the Movie Magic Hack Chat with Alan McFarland!

If they were magically transported ahead in time, the moviegoers of the past would likely not know what to make of our modern CGI-driven epics, with physically impossible feats performed in landscapes that never existed. But for as computationally complex as movies have become, it’s the rare film that doesn’t still need at least some old-school movie magic, like hand props, physical models, and other practical effects.

To make their vision come to life, especially in science fiction films, filmmakers turn to artists who specialize in practical effects. We’ve all seen their work, which in many cases involves turning ordinary household objects into yet-to-be-invented technology, or creating scale models of spaceships and alien landscapes. But to really sell these effects, adding a dash of electronics can really make the difference.

Enter Alan McFarland, an electronics designer and engineer for the film industry. With a background in cinematography, electronics, and embedded systems, he has been able to produce effects in movies we’ve all seen. He designed electroluminescent wearables for Tron: Legacy, built the lighting system for the miniature Fhloston Paradise in The Fifth Element, and worked on the Borg costumes for Star Trek: First Contact. He has tons of experience making the imaginary look real, and he’ll join us on the Hack Chat to discuss the tricks he keeps in his practical effects toolkit to make movie magic.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, January 20 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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Hackaday Links: January 17, 2021

Sad news from Mars, where the InSight lander’s “mole” was officially declared dead. The self-drilling probe, the centerpiece of the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) experiment, was designed to ram itself 5 meters into the Martian regolith while deploying a sensor-laden tail. The mole would then explore heat flow from within the planet. But the unexpected properties of the soil beneath the lander, including lower-than-expected friction on the hull of the mole and a cement-like “duricrust” layer, confounded the probe’s downward progress for the last two years. We covered the design of the mole, which is similar to an impact drill, as well as the valiant efforts to save the mission, but after one last try on January 9 where the mole gave 500 more whacks without any progress, controllers threw in the towel. It just goes to show that space travel and exploration are anything but routine, and that there’s far, far more we don’t know about even our nearest solar neighbor than what we do know.

Sad news, too, from closer to home, this time — Ohio, to be exact: the 2021 Hamvention has been canceled. It’s not exactly a surprise given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a blow to have ham radio’s biggest party canceled for two years running. We expect a lot of cons and meetings will suffer a similar fate in 2021. We’ll be sure to bring you any announcements we hear about.

One event that hasn’t been canceled is iQuHACK, a quantum hackathon hosted by MIT. We don’t pretend to fully understand quantum computing, or even to have scratched the surface of the subject in any meaningful way. Following up on what comes out of iQuHACK after it runs next weekend might be interesting for the quantum-curious, though. But really, just the fact that we’re in an age where quantum hackathons are a thing is pretty cool.

Back on the COVID-19 theme, managing editor Elliot Williams gave us the heads up on a story about gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park testing positive for the virus. It’s not exactly surprising that some of our evolutionarily closest relatives would be susceptible to the disease, and it’s not exactly a funny story, but the conversation in the morning meeting at the zoo must have been priceless:

“Hey, that gorilla looks sick. We’d better test him for COVID.”
“Yeah, probably. Here’s the brain-tickling swab, you go stick it up his nose.”
“Nu-uh, you stick it up his nose!”
“Nope. Hey, where’s the intern?”

And speaking of dangerous work environments, behold yet another classic of corporate safety propaganda: The Color of Danger. Like Shake Hands with Danger, this film was produced by heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar. But this time, instead of concentrating on the various opportunities maintaining heavy equipment presents for traumatic amputations, the subject matter is forklift safety. We’ve spent a fair number of hours in the driver’s seat of a lift truck, so we know full well how quickly things can go wrong, and this film does a great job of showing a lot of them. But what you’ve got to admire is the trick driving and stunt work that went into these vignettes; not too many people can pull off forklift drifting safely (12:30), and putting the truck in the drink without drowning was a neat trick (13:00). And of course, with any film on forklift safety, we’d be remiss not to tip our hardhat to Staplefahrer Klaus and his oft-bloodied co-workers.

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Hackability Matters

The Unix Way™ provides extreme hackability. The idea is that software should be written as tools to accomplish discrete tasks, and that it should be modular, extensible, and play well with others. It’s like software as a LEGO set — you can put the blocks together however you want, within limits, and make stuff that’s significantly cooler than any of the individual blocks alone.

Clearly this doesn’t work for all applications — things like graphics editors and web browsers don’t really lend themselves to being elegant tools that integrate well with others, right? It’s only natural that they’re bloaty walled gardens. What happens in the browser must stay in the browser, right?

But how sad is it that the one piece of software you use all day, your window into cyberspace, doesn’t play well with the rest of your system? I’d honestly never really been bothered by that fact until stumbling on TabFS. It’s an extension to Chrome that represents the tabs on your browser as if they were files on your local system — The Unix Way™. And what this means is that any other program that can read from or write to a file can open tabs, collect them, change webpages on the fly, and so on. It opens up the browser to you.

This is tremendously powerful. Don’t like the bookmarking paradigm of your particular browser? Writing your own would be a snap in Python — and you could do cleverer things like apply a little machine learning to handle putting them in categories. Want to pop open (or refresh) a set of webpages at a particular time every day? Cron, or its significantly more complicated counterpart systemd, and a couple lines of code will do that. Want to make a hardware button that converts dark mode to light mode and vice-versa for every website starting with “H”? Can do.

I’m picking on browsers, but many large pieces of software are inaccessible in the same way — even if they’re open source, they don’t open up channels for interaction with user code or scripts. (Everything “in the cloud” or “as a service”, I’m looking at you! But that’s a further rant for another day.) And that’s a shame, because most of these “big” pieces of software actually do the coolest things.

So please, if you’re working on a big software package, or even just writing a plug-in for one, do think about how you can make more of its abilities available to the casual scripter. Otherwise, it’s just plastic blocks that don’t fit with the rest of the set.