Hackaday Links: January 10, 2021

You know that feeling when your previously niche hobby goes mainstream, and suddenly you’re not interested in it anymore because it was once quirky and weird but now it’s trendy and all the newcomers are going to come in and ruin it? That just happened to retrocomputing. The article is pretty standard New York Times fare, and gives a bit of attention to the usual suspects of retrocomputing, like Amiga, Atari, and the Holy Grail search for an original Apple I. There’s little technically interesting in it, but we figured that we should probably note it since prices for retrocomputing gear are likely to go up soon. Buy ’em while you can.

Remember the video of the dancing Boston Dynamics robots? We actually had intended to cover that in Links last week, but Editor-in-Chief Mike Szczys beat us to the punch, in an article that garnered a host of surprisingly negative comments. Yes, we understand that this was just showboating, and that the robots were just following a set of preprogrammed routines. Some commenters derided that as not dancing, which we find confusing since human dancing is just following preprogrammed routines. Nevertheless, IEEE Spectrum had an interview this week with Boston Dynamics’ VP of Engineering talking about how the robot dance was put together. There’s a fair amount of doublespeak and couched terms, likely to protect BD’s intellectual property, but it’s still an interesting read. The take-home message is that despite some commenters’ assertions, the routines were apparently not just motion-captured from human dancers, but put together from a suite of moves Atlas, Spot, and Handle had already been trained on. That and the fact that BD worked with a human choreographer to work out the routines.

Looks like 2021 is already trying to give 2020 a run for its money, at least in the marketplace of crazy ideas. The story, released in Guitar World of all places, goes that some conspiracy-minded people in Italy started sharing around a schematic of what they purported to be the “5G chip” that’s supposedly included in the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. The reason Guitar World picked it up is that eagle-eyed guitar gear collectors noticed that the schematic was actually that of the Boss MetalZone-2 effects pedal, complete with a section labeled “5G Freq.” That was apparently enough to trigger someone, and to ignore the op-amps, potentiometers, and 1/4″ phone jacks on the rest of the schematic. All of which would certainly smart going into the arm, no doubt, but seriously, if it could make us shred like this, we wouldn’t mind getting shot up with it.

Remember the first time you saw a Kindle with an e-ink display? The thing was amazing — the clarity and fine detail of the characters were unlike anything possible with an LCD or CRT display, and the fact that the display stayed on while the reader was off was a little mind-blowing at the time. Since then, e-ink technology has come considerably down market, commoditized to the point where they can be used for price tags on store shelves. But now it looks like they’re scaling up to desktop display sizes, with the announcement of a 25.3″ desktop e-ink monitor by Dasung. Dubbed the Paperlike 253, the 3200 x 1800 pixel display will be able to show 16 shades of gray with no backlighting. The videos of the monitor in action are pretty low resolution, so it’s hard to say what the refresh rate will be, but given the technology it’s going to be limited. This might be a great option as a second or third monitor for those who can work with the low refresh rate and don’t want an LCD monitor backlight blasting them in the face all day.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: January 10, 2021”

Hackaday Links: January 3, 2021

Last week we featured a story on the new rules regarding drone identification going into effect in the US. If you missed the article, the short story is that almost all unmanned aircraft will soon need to transmit their position, altitude, speed, and serial number, as well as the position of its operator, likely via WiFi or Bluetooth. The FAA’s rule change isn’t sitting well with Wing, the drone-based delivery subsidiary of megacorporation Alphabet. In their view, local broadcast of flight particulars would be an invasion of privacy, since observers snooping in on Remote ID traffic could, say, infer that a drone going between a pharmacy and a neighbor’s home might mean that someone is sick. They have a point, but how a Google company managed to cut through the thick clouds of irony to complain about privacy concerns and the rise of the surveillance state is mind boggling.

Speaking of regulatory burdens, it appears that getting an amateur radio license is no longer quite the deal that it once was. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a $35 fee for new amateur radio licenses, license renewals, and changes to existing licenses, like vanity call signs. While $35 isn’t cheap, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s better than the $50 fee that the FCC was originally proposing. Still, it seems a bit steep for something that’s largely automated. In any case, it looks like we’re still good to go with our “$50 Ham” series.

Staying on the topic of amateur radio for a minute, it looks like there will be a new digital mode to explore soon. The change will come when version 2.4.0 of WSJT-X, the program that forms the heart of digital modes like WSPR and FT8, is released. The newcomer is called Q65, and it’s basically a follow-on to the current QRA64 weak-signal mode. Q65 is optimized for weak, rapidly fading signals in the VHF bands and higher, so it’s likely to prove popular with Earth-Moon-Earth fans and those who like to do things like bounce their signals off of meteor trails. We’d think Q65 should enable airliner-bounce too. We’ll be keen to give it a try whenever it comes out.

Look, we know it’s hard to get used to writing the correct year once a new one rolls around, and that time has taken on a relative feeling in these pandemic times. But we’re pretty sure it isn’t April yet, which is the most reasonable explanation for an ad purporting the unholy coupling of a gaming PC and mass-market fried foods. We strongly suspect this is just a marketing stunt between Cooler Master and Yum! Brands, but taken at face value, the KFConsole — it’s not a gaming console, it’s at best a pre-built gaming PC — is supposed to use excess heat to keep your DoorDashed order of KFC warm while you play. In a year full of incredibly stupid things, this one is clearly in the top five.

And finally, it looks like we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our airline pilots, or at least a subset of them, aren’t seeing things. There has been a steady stream of reports from pilots flying in and out of Los Angeles lately of a person in a jetpack buzzing around. Well, someone finally captured video of the daredevil, and even though it’s shaky and unclear — as are seemingly all videos of cryptids — it sure seems to be a human-sized biped flying around in a standing position. The video description says this was shot by a flight instructor at 3,000 feet (914 meters) near Palos Verdes with Catalina Island in the background. That’s about 20 miles (32 km) from the mainland, so whatever this person is flying has amazing range. And, the pilot has incredible faith in the equipment — that’s a long way to fall in something with the same glide ratio as a brick.

Hackaday Links: December 27, 2020

We’re always pleased to see one of our community’s projects succeed, and we celebrate that success in whatever what it comes. But seeing a company launched to commercialize an idea that started as a Hackaday.io project and a Hackaday Prize entry is especially gratifying. So we were pleased as punch to see that MAKESafe Tools has managed to bring the idea of add-on machine tool braking to market. We’d love to add this to several tools in our shop. Honestly, of all the terrifying ways machine tools can slice, dice, and shred human flesh asunder, we always considered the lowly bench grinder fairly low-risk — and then we had a chance to “Shake Hands with Danger.”

Another great thing about the Hackaday community is the way we all try to keep each other up to speed on changes and news that affects even our smallest niches. Just last week Tom Nardi covered a project using the venerable TI eZ430-Chronos smartwatch as a makeshift medical alert bracelet for a family member. It’s a great application for the proto-smartwatch, but one eagle-eyed commenter helpfully pointed out that TI is shutting down their processors wiki in just a couple of weeks. The banner at the top of each page warns that the wiki is not read-only and that any files needed should be downloaded by January 15. Also helpfully, subsequent comments include instructions to download the entire wiki and a torrent link to the archive. It’s always sad to see a platform lose support, especially one that has gained a nice following, but it’s heartening to see the community pull together to continue to support each other like this.

We came across an interesting article this week that’s was a fascinating glimpse into how economic forces shape¬† and drive technological process, and vice versa. It turns out that some of the hottest real estate commodities these days are the plots of land occupied by AM radio stations serving metropolitan markets. It’s no secret that terrestrial radio in general, and AM radio in particular, are growing increasingly moribund, and the infrastructure needed to keep them on the air is getting harder and harder to justify. Chief among these are the large tracts of land devoted to antenna farms, which are often located in suburban and exurban areas near major cities. They’re tempting targets for developers looking to plunk down the physical infrastructure needed to support “New Economy” players like Amazon, which continue to build vast automated warehouses in areas that are handy to large customer bases. It’s a bit sad to watch a once mighty industry unravel and be sold off like this, but such is the nature of progress.

And finally, you may recall a Links article mention a few weeks back about a teardown of a super-sized IBM processor module. A quarter-million dollar relic of the 1990s, the huge System/390 module was an engineering masterpiece that met an unfortunate end at the hands of EEVblog’s Dave Jones. As a follow-up, Dave teamed up with fellow YouTuber CPU Galaxy to take a less-destructive tour of the module using X-ray analysis. The level of engineering needed for a 64-layer ceramic backplane is astonishing, and Dave’s play-by-play is pretty entertaining too. As a bonus, CPU Galaxy has some really interesting stuff; his place is basically a museum of vintage tech, and he just earned a new sub.

Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020

If development platforms were people, Google would be one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Android Things, Google’s attempt at an OS for IoT devices, will officially start shutting down on January 5, 2021, and the plug will be pulled for good a year later. Android Things, which was basically a stripped-down version of the popular phone operating system, had promise, especially considering that Google was pitching it as a secure alternative in the IoT space, where security is often an afterthought. We haven’t exactly seen a lot of projects using Android Things, so the loss is probably not huge, but the list of projects snuffed by Google and the number of developers and users left high and dry by these changes continues to grow. Continue reading “Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020”

Hackaday Links: December 13, 2020

Our Sun is getting a bit frisky these days, and has rewarded us with perhaps the best screensaver image ever taken. The incredibly detailed photo of a sunspot was actually taken back in January by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, a 4-meter instrument with adaptive optics that can image the sun from the near-infrared to visible wavelengths and resolve surface details down to 20 km. The photo, with a distinct “Eye of Sauron” look, shows the massive convection cells surrounding the dark sunspot; an accompanying animation shows the movement of plasmas along the tortured lines of magnetic flux that cause the sunspot to form. It’s fascinating to watch, and even more interesting to mull over the technology that went into capturing it.

With the dustup surrounding the youtube-dl DCMA takedown by GitHub fresh on the open-source community’s minds, GitHub Universe 2020 had an interesting discussion about maintaining open-source software projects that’s worth watching. They focused on the challenges that youtube-dl maintainers face in keeping the tool working, and the impact their effort has on the people and groups that rely on them. To underscore that point, they featured a researcher with Human Rights Watch who depends on youtube-dl in her work, and made it quite clear that keeping up with all the API changes that constantly break open source tools like youtube-dl make the role of the maintainers that much more critical.

Speaking of GitHub, here’s a frightening and fascinating new tool: Depix, the password de-pixelizer. Developer Sipke Mellema noticed that his company often used pixelization to obscure passwords in documentation, and wondered if he could undo the process. He wrote up an article describing the pixelization process using a linear box filter and his method for attacking it, which involves generating a De Bruijn sequence in the same font, text size, and colors as the original document and feeding a screenshot of that and the pixellated password into the tool. We suspect it’ll only work for a subset of obfuscated passwords, but it’s still pretty clever.

‘Tis the season for Advent calendars, and the folks at QEMU have posted theirs. Open each of 24 doors on the calendar and you’re rewarded with a downloadable QEMU disk image that implements something fun. Minesweeper, a ray tracer that fits into a boot loader, and of course Conway’s Game of Life. The GW-BASIC image on Day 3 caught our eye — brings back some memories.

For anyone who has ever watched a Pixar film and wondered how all that animation actually works, here’s a great lesson in making art with math. The video is by Inigo Quilez and goes through the basics of rendering images using raymarching SDFs, or signed distance functions. In the beginning, it seemed like it was going to be a little bit like drawing an owl, but his descriptions of the math involved and how each element of the animation is just another formula is fascinating. What’s more, there’s a real-time rendering tool where you can inspect the code and edit it. Alas, my changes only made things worse, but it was still fun and instructive to play with. Check out the video after the break!

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: December 13, 2020”

Hackaday Links: December 6, 2020

By now you’ve no doubt heard of the sudden but not unexpected demise of the iconic Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. We have been covering the agonizing end of Arecibo from almost the moment the first cable broke in August to a eulogy, and most recently its final catastrophic collapse this week. That last article contained amazing video of the final collapse, including up-close and personal drone shots of the cable breaking. For a more in-depth analysis of the collapse, it’s hard to beat Scott Manley’s frame-by-frame analysis, which really goes into detail about what happened. Seeing the paint spalling off the cables as they stretch and distort under loads far greater than they were designed for is both terrifying and fascinating.

Exciting news from Australia as the sample return capsule from JAXA’s Hayabusa2 asteroid explorer returned safely to Earth Saturday. We covered Hayabusa2 in our roundup of extraterrestrial excavations a while back, describing how it used both a tantalum bullet and a shaped-charge penetrator to blast regolith from the surface of asteroid 162173 Ryugu. Samples of the debris were hoovered up and hermetically sealed for the long ride back to Earth, which culminated in the fiery re-entry and safe landing in the midst of the Australian outback. Planetary scientists are no doubt eager to get a look inside the capsule and analyze the precious milligrams of space dust. In the meantime, Hayabusa2, with 66 kilograms of propellant remaining, is off on an extended mission to visit more asteroids for the next eleven years or so.

The 2020 Remoticon has been wrapped up for most of a month now, but one thing we noticed was how much everyone seemed to like the Friday evening Bring-a-Hack event that was hosted on Remo. To kind of keep that meetup momentum going and to help everyone slide into the holiday season with a little more cheer, we’re putting together a “Holiday with Hackaday & Tindie” meetup on Tuesday, December 15 at noon Pacific time. The details haven’t been shared yet, but our guess is that this will certainly be a “bring-a-hack friendly” event. We’ll share more details when we get them this week, but for now, hop over to the Remo event page and reserve your spot.

On the Buzzword Bingo scorecard, “Artificial Intelligence” is a square that can almost be checked off by default these days, as companies rush to stretch the definition of the term to fit almost every product in the neverending search for market share. But even those products that actually have machine learning built into them are only as good as the data sets used to train them. That can be a problem for voice-recognition systems; while there are massive databases of utterances in just about every language, the likes of Amazon and Google aren’t too willing to share what they’ve leveraged from their smart speaker using customer base. What’s the little person to do? Perhaps the People’s Speech database will help. Part of the MLCommons project, it has 86,000 hours of speech data, mostly derived from audiobooks, a clever source indeed since the speech and the text can be easily aligned. The database also pulls audio and the corresponding text from Wikipedia and other random sources around the web. It’s a small dataset, to be sure, but it’s a start.

And finally, divers in the Baltic Sea have dredged up a bit of treasure: a Nazi Enigma machine. Divers in Gelting Bay near the border of Germany and Denmark found what appeared to be an old typewriter caught in one of the abandoned fishing nets they were searching for. When they realized what it was — even crusted in 80-years-worth of corrosion and muck some keys still look like they’re brand new — they called in archaeologists to take over recovery. Gelting Bay was the scene of a mass scuttling of U-boats in the final days of World War II, so this Engima may have been pitched overboard before by a Nazi commander before pulling the plug on his boat. It’ll take years to restore, but it’ll be quite a museum piece when it’s done.

Hackaday Links: November 29, 2020

While concerns over COVID-19 probably kept many a guest room empty this Thanksgiving, things were a little different aboard the International Space Station. The four-seat SpaceX Crew Dragon is able to carry one more occupant to the orbiting outpost than the Russian Soyuz, which has lead to a somewhat awkward sleeping arrangement: there are currently seven people aboard a Station that only has six crew cabins. To remedy the situation, Commander Michael Hopkins has decided to sleep inside the Crew Dragon itself, technically giving himself the most spacious personal accommodations on the Station. This might seem a little hokey, but it’s actually not without precedent; when the Shuttle used to dock with the ISS, the Commander would customarily sleep in the cockpit so they would be ready to handle any potential emergency.

Speaking of off-world visitation, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft is nearly home after six years in space. It won’t be staying long though, the deep-space probe is only in the neighborhood to drop off a sample of material collected from the asteroid Ryugu. If all goes according to plan, the small capsule carrying the samples will renter the atmosphere and land in the South Australian desert on December 6th, while Hayabusa2 heads back into the black for an extended mission that would have it chasing down new asteroids into the 2030s.

Moving on to a story that almost certainly didn’t come from space, a crew from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently discovered a strange metal monolith hidden in the desert. While authorities were careful not to disclose the exact coordinates of the object, it didn’t take Internet sleuths long to determine its location, in part thanks to radar data that allowed them to plot the flight path of a government helicopters. Up close inspections that popped up on social media revealed that the object seemed to be hollow, was held together with rivets, and was likely made of aluminum. It’s almost certainly a guerrilla art piece, though there are also theories that it could have been a movie or TV prop (several productions are known to have filmed nearby) or even some kind of military IR/radar target. We may never know for sure though, as the object disappeared soon after.

Even if you’re not a fan of Apple, it’s hard not to be interested in the company’s new M1 chip. Hackers have been clamoring for more ARM laptops and desktops for years, and with such a major player getting in the game, it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing less luxurious brands taking the idea seriously. After the recent discovery that the ARM version of Ubuntu can run on the new M1 Macs with a simple virtualization layer, it looks like we won’t have to wait too long before folks start chipping away at the Walled Garden.

In the market for a three phase servo controller? A reader who’s working on a robotics project worth as much as a nice house recently wrote in to tell us about an imported driver that goes for just $35. Technically it’s designed for driving stepper motors, but it can also (somewhat inefficiently) run servos. Our informant tells us that you’d pay at least $2,000 for a similar servo driver from Allen-Bradley, so the price difference certainly seems to make up for the hit in performance.

Finally, some bittersweet news as we’ve recently learned that Universal Radio is closing. After nearly 40 years, proprietors Fred and Barbara Osterman have decided it’s time to start winding things down. The physical store in Worthington, Ohio will be shuttered on Monday, but the online site will remain up for awhile longer to sell off the remaining stock. The Ostermans have generously supported many radio clubs and organizations over the years, and they’ll certainly be missed. Still, it’s a well-deserved retirement and the community wishes them the best.