It is easy to apply computers to improve things we already understand. For example, instead of a piano today, you might buy a synthesizer. It looks and works — sometimes — as a piano. But it can also do lots of other things like play horns, or accompany you with a rhythm track or record and playback your music. There’s plenty of examples of this: word processors instead of typewriters, MP3 players instead of tape decks, and PDF files instead of printed material. But what about something totally new? I was thinking of this while looking at Sonic Pi, a musical instrument you play by coding.
But back to the keyboard, the word processor, and the MP3 player. Those things aren’t so much revolutionary as they are evolutionary. Even something like digital photography isn’t all that revolutionary. Sure, most of us couldn’t do all the magic you can do in PhotoShop in a dark room, but some wizards could. Most of us couldn’t lay out a camera-ready brochure either, but people did it every day without the benefit of computers. So what are the things that we are using computers for that are totally new? What can you do with the help of a computer that you absolutely couldn’t without?
For Europeans, August is usually a month of blistering heatwaves, day after day of cloudless skies and burning sun that ripens fruit and turns we locals a variety of shades of pink. Hacker camps during this month are lazy days of cool projects and hot nights of lasers, Club-Mate, and techno music, with tents being warm enough under the night sky to dispense with a sleeping bag altogether.
Sometimes though, the whims of the global weather patterns smile less upon us hackers, and our balmy summer break becomes a little more frigid. At BornHack 2021 for example we packed for a heatwave and were met with a Denmark under the grip of the Northern air mass. How’s a hacker to keep warm?
Have you heard about this One? At least three United States senators have, and they want to know what Amazon plans to do with all the biometric data collected by the Amazon One program. It’s their new contactless payment method that uses your unique palm print instead of cards or phones to make purchases, gain access to venues of work and play, and enter or pay in whatever other spaces Amazon can invade down the line. The idea is that one day, we’ll all be able to leave our homes without any form of money or ID of any kind, because we’ll all be stored away in Bezos’ big biometric file cabinet.
We tossed this one around in the writer’s room back when the Amazon One concept was nothing but a pile of buzzwords and a render or two, but these kiosks are now active in 50+ Whole Foods and Amazon 4-Star locations across the US. Here’s the deal: you can only sign up at a participating store that has a kiosk, because they have to scan your palms into the system. We were worried that the signup kiosk could easily take fingerprint scans at the same time, but according to the gifs in Morning Brew’s review, it just uses another of their point-of-sale palm scanners along with a touch screen and a card reader. But you still have to hover your entire hand over it, so who’s to say that the scan ends where the fingers begin?
Some friends of mine are designing a new board around the STM32F103 microcontroller, the commodity ARM chip that you’ll find in numerous projects and on plenty of development boards. When the time came to order the parts for the prototype, they were surprised to find that the usual stockholders don’t have any of these chips in stock, and more surprisingly, even the Chinese pin-compatible clones couldn’t be found. The astute among you may by now have guessed that the culprit behind such a commodity part’s curious lack of availability lies in the global semiconductor shortage.
The fall-out from all this drama in the world’s car factories has filtered down through all levels that depend upon semiconductors; as the carmakers bag every scrap of chip fab capacity that they can, so in turn have other chip customers scrambled to keep their own supply lines in place. A quick scan for microcontrollers through distributors like Mouser or Digi-Key finds pages and pages of lines on back-order or out of stock, with those lines still available being largely either for niche applications, unusual package options, or from extremely outdated product lines. The chances of scoring your chosen chip seem remote and most designers would probably baulk at trying to redesign around an ancient 8-bit part from the 1990s, so what’s to be done?
Such things typically involve commercially sensitive information so we understand not all readers will be able to respond, but we’d like to ask the question: how has the semiconductor shortage affected you? We’ve heard tales of unusual choices being made to ship a product with any microcontroller that works, of hugely overpowered chips replacing commodity devices, and even of specialist systems-on-chip being drafted in to fill the gap. In a few years maybe we’ll feature a teardown whose author wonders why a Bluetooth SoC is present without using the radio functions and with a 50R resistor replacing the antenna, and we’ll recognise it as a desperate measure from an engineer caught up in 2021’s chip shortage.
So tell us your tales from the coalface in the comments below. Are you that desperate engineer scouring the distributors’ stock lists for any microcontroller you can find, or has your chosen device remained in production? Whatever your experience we’d like to know what the real state of the semiconductor market is, so over to you!
We’re blessed to have such a great community at Hackaday. Our tipline often overfloweth with all manner of projects and builds of all stripes. We see it all here, from beginners just starting out with their first Arduino to diehard hackers executing daringly complex builds in their downtime, and everything in between.
If you’re sitting there in the grandstands, watching in awe, you might wonder what it takes to grace these hallowed black pages. In life, nothing is guaranteed, but I’ve been specially authorised to share with you a few tips that can maximise your chances of seeing your project on Hackaday.
In the movies, everything is modular. Some big gun fell off the spaceship when it crashed? Good thing you can just pick it up and fire it as-is (looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy 2). Hyperdrive dead? No problem, because in the Star Wars universe you can just drop a new one in and be on your way.
Of course, things just aren’t that simple in the real world. Most systems, be they spaceships or cell phones, are enormously complicated and contain hundreds or thousands of interconnected parts. If the camera in my Samsung phone breaks, I can’t exactly steal the one from my girlfriend’s iPhone. They’re simply not interchangeable because the systems were designed differently. Even if we had the same phone and the cameras were interchangeable, they wouldn’t be easy to swap. We’d have to crack open the phones and carefully perform the switch. Speaking of switches, the Nintendo Switch is a good counterexample here. Joycon break? Just buy a new one and pop it on.
What if more products were like the Nintendo Switch? Is its modularity just the tip of the iceberg?
Last month, large parts of the southern United States experienced their coldest temperatures since the 1899 Blizzard. Some of us set new all-time lows, and I was right in the middle of the middle of it here in Southwestern Oklahoma. Since many houses in Texas and Oklahoma are heated with electricity, the power grids struggled to keep up with the demand. Cities in Oklahoma experienced some short-term rolling blackouts and large patches of the Texas grid were without power for several days. No juice, no heat.
In places where the power was out for an extended period of time, the water supply was potentially contaminated, and a boil order was in effect. Of course, this only works when the gas and power are on. In some places, the store shelves were empty, a result of panic buying combined with perishables spoiling without the power to keep them cold. For some, food and drinkable water was temporarily hard to come by.
There have been other problems, too. Houses in the south aren’t built for the extreme cold, and many have experienced frozen pipes, temporarily shutting off their water supply. In some cases, those frozen pipes break open, flooding the house once the water starts flowing again. For instance, here’s an eye-witness account of the carnage from The 8-bit Guy, who lives at ground zero in the DFW area. Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: How Do You Prepare?”→