Ask Hackaday: What are Your Less Extreme Brain Hacks?

Kahn — perhaps Star Trek’s best-hated villain — said: “Improve a mechanical device and you may double productivity, but improve man and you gain a thousandfold.” In fact, a lot of hacking effort goes into doing just that. Your phone has become an extension of your memory, for example. We use glasses, cameras, and hearing aids to shore up failing senses or even give us better senses than normal. But hacking your body — or someone else’s — has always been controversial. While putting an RFID chip in your finger is one thing, would you consider having a part of your brain removed? That sounds crazy, but apparently, there is a growing interest in having your amygdala removed.

To be clear: we think this is a terrible idea. The science is shaky, at best, and we certainly wouldn’t want to be among the first to try something so radical. But why is anyone even talking about it?

The amygdala is part of your brain that causes at least some of your fear and anxiety. Get rid of your amygdala, get rid of anxiety? What’s even stranger is this the procedure — an amygdalectomy — has been going on since the 1960s! Injections of oil and wax destroy the tissue and this treatment is used for some forms of epilepsy and to manage certain aggressive behavior problems in mentally ill patients. In modern times, the procedure is not very common although it appears that it does still occur in some places. But the technology to do it does exist. There have also been documented cases where people lose their amygdala from natural causes that gives us some clues of what life would be like without one.

However, it is hard to say if these people lost fear. Most of the surgical patients were already suffering from a variety of problems. There is some evidence that the naturally occurring amygdalaless patients experienced less fear in some situations, but may experience more fear in others. They also may have other problems such as difficulty understanding social cues or making eye contact. We’re not 100% sure what the amygdala does, even disregarding potential side effects.

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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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Ask Hackaday Answered: The Tale of the Top-Octave Generator

We got a question from [DC Darsen], who apparently has a broken electronic organ from the mid-70s that needs a new top-octave generator. A top-octave generator is essentially an IC with twelve or thirteen logic counters or dividers on-board that produces an octave’s worth of notes for the cheesy organ in question, and then a string of divide-by-two logic counters divide these down to cover the rest of the keyboard. With the sound board making every pitch all the time, the keyboard is just a simple set of switches that let the sound through or not. Easy-peasy, as long as you have a working TOG.

I bravely, and/or naïvely, said that I could whip one up on an AVR-based Arduino, tried, and failed. The timing requirements were just too tight for the obvious approach, so I turned it over to the Hackaday community because I had this nagging feeling that surely someone could rise to the challenge.

The community delivered! Or, particularly, [Ag Primatic]. With a clever approach to the problem, some assembly language programming, and an optional Arduino crystalectomy, [AP]’s solution is rock-solid and glitch-free, and you could build one right now if you wanted to. We expect a proliferation of cheesy synth sounds will result. This is some tight code. Hat tip!

Squeezing Cycles Out of a Microcontroller

Let’s take a look at [AP]’s code. The approach that [AP] used is tremendously useful whenever you have a microcontroller that has to do many things at once, on a rigid schedule, and there’s not enough CPU time between the smallest time increments to do much. Maybe you’d like to control twelve servo motors with no glitching? Or drive many LEDs with binary code modulation instead of primitive pulse-width modulation? Then you’re going to want to read on.

There are two additional tricks that [AP] uses: one to fake cycles with a non-integer number of counts, and one to make the AVR’s ISR timing absolutely jitter-free. Finally, [Ag] ended up writing everything in AVR assembly language to make the timing work out, but was nice enough to also include a C listing. So if you’d like to get your feet wet with assembly, this is a good start.

In short, if you’re doing anything with hard timing requirements on limited microcontroller resources, especially an AVR, read on!

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Ask Hackaday: Is There a Common Mechanical Parts Library?

Like many stories, this one started on the roof. This particular roof is located in Michigan and keeps the rain and snow off of the i3Detroit hackerspace. Being an old industrial building, things up on the roof can start getting creaky, and when an almighty screech started coming from one of the rooftop vents as it swiveled in the wind, Nate, one of the group’s coordinators, knew it was time to do something about it.

Previous attempts to silence the banshee with the usual libations had failed, so Nate climbed up to effect a proper repair with real bearings. He dug into the unit, measured for the bearing, and came down to order the correct items. That’s when it struck him: How many should I order? After all, bearings are useful devices, not just to repair a wonky vent but especially handy in a hackerspace, where they can be put to all sorts of uses. Would extra bearings be put to good use, or would they just sit on a shelf gathering dust?

That’s when Nate dropped us a line and asked a question that raises some interesting possibilities, and one which we couldn’t answer offhand: Is there a readily accessible online library of common mechanical parts?

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Ask Hackaday: What Color Are Your PCBs?

A decade ago, buying a custom-printed circuit board meant paying a fortune and possibly even using a board house’s proprietary software to design the PCB. Now, we all have powerful, independent tools to design circuit boards, and there are a hundred factories in China that will take your Gerbers and send you ten copies of your board for pennies per square inch. We are living in a golden age of printed circuit boards, and they come in a rainbow of colors. This raises the question: which color soldermask is most popular, which is most desirable, and why? Seeed Studio, a Chinese PCB house, recently ran a poll on the most popular colors of soldermask. This was compared to their actual sales data. Which PCB color is the most popular? It depends on who you ask, and how you ask it.
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Ask Hackaday: What Is The Future Of Implanted Electronics?

Biohacking is the new frontier. In just a few years, millions of people will have implanted RFID chips under the skin between their thumb and index finger. Already, thousands of people in Sweden have chipped themselves to make their daily lives easier. With a tiny electronic implant, Swedish rail passengers can pay their train ticket, and it goes without saying how convenient opening an RFID lock is without having to pull out your wallet.

That said, embedding RFID chips under the skin has been around for decades; my thirteen-year-old cat has had a chip since he was a kitten. Despite being around for a very, very long time, modern-day cyborgs are rare. The fact that only thousands of people are using chips on a train is a newsworthy event. There simply aren’t many people who would find the convenience of opening locks with a wave of a hand worth the effort of getting chipped.

Why hasn’t the most popular example of biohacking caught on? Why aren’t more people getting chipped? Is it because no one wants to be branded with the Mark of the Beast? Are the reasons for a dearth of biohacking more subtle? That’s what we’re here to find out, so we’re asking you: what is the future of implanted electronics?

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Ask Hackaday: Whatever Happened to Wire Wrapping?

Back in the 70s when I started getting interested in electronics, tons of magazines catered to the hobbyist market. Popular Electronics was my favorite, and I think I remember the advertisements more than anything, probably because they outnumbered articles by a large margin. Looking back, it seemed like a lot of ad space was sold to companies hawking the tools and materials needed for wire wrapping, which was very popular for prototyping in the days before solderless breadboards were readily available. I remember beauty shots of neat rows of small, gold posts, with stripped wires wrapped evenly around them.

To the budding hobbyist, wire wrapping looked like the skill to have. With a huge selection of posts, terminals, and sockets for ICs and discrete components, as well as a wide range of manual and powered wrapping tools, it seemed like you could build anything with wire wrapping. But fast forward just a decade or so, and wire wrapping seemed to drop out of favor. And today — well, does anyone even wire wrap anymore?

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