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Hackaday Links: May 19, 2024

If there was one question we heard most often this week, it was “Did you see it?” With “it” referring to the stunning display of aurora borealis — and australis, we assume — on and off for several days. The major outburst here in North America was actually late last week, with aurora extending as far south as Puerto Rico on the night of the tenth. We here in North Idaho were well-situated for prime viewing, but alas, light pollution made things a bit tame without a short drive from the city lights. Totally worth it:

Hat tip to Tom Maloney for the pics. That last one is very reminiscent of what we saw back in 1989 with the geomagnetic storm that knocked Qu├ębec’s grid offline, except then the colors were shifted much more toward the red end of the spectrum back then.

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Hackaday Links: May 12, 2024

Don’t pack your bags for the trip to exoplanet K2-18b quite yet — it turns out that the James Webb Space Telescope may not have detected signs of life there after all. Last year, astronomers reported the possible presence of dimethyl sulfide there, a gas that (at least on Earth) is generally associated with phytoplankton in the ocean. Webb used its infrared spectrometer instruments to look at the light from the planet’s star, a red dwarf about 111 light-years away, as it passed through the hydrogen-rich atmosphere. The finding was sort of incidental to the discovery of much stronger signals for methane and carbon dioxide, but it turns out that the DMS signal might have just been overlap from the methane signal. It’s too bad, because K2-18b seems to be somewhat Earth-like, if you can get over the lack of oxygen and the average temperature just below freezing. So, maybe not a great place to visit, but it would be nice to see if life, uh, found a way anywhere else in the universe.

Attention Fortran fans: your favorite language isn’t quite dead yet. In fact, it cracked the top ten on one recent survey, perhaps on the strength of its numerical and scientific applications. The “Programming Community Index” is perhaps a bit subjective, since it’s based on things like Google searches for references to particular languages. It’s no surprise then that Python tops such a list, but it’s still interesting that there’s enough interest in a 67-year-old programming language to make it onto the list. We’d probably not advise building a career around Fortran, but you never know.

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Hackaday Links: May 5, 2024

It may be hard to believe, but BASIC turned 60 this week. Opinions about the computer language vary, of course, but one thing everyone can agree on is that Professors Kemeny and Kurtz really stretched things with the acronym: “Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code” is pretty tortured, after all. BASIC seems to be the one language it’s universally cool to hate, at least in its current incarnations like Visual Basic and VBA. But back in 1964, the idea that you could plunk someone down in front of a terminal, or more likely a teletype, and have them bang out a working “Hello, world!” program with just a few minutes of instruction was pretty revolutionary. Yeah, line numbers and GOTO statements encouraged spaghetti code and engrained bad programming habits, but at least it got people coding. And perhaps most importantly, it served as a “gateway drug” into the culture for a lot of us. Many of us would have chosen other paths in life had it not been for those dopamine hits provided by getting that first BASIC program working. So happy birthday BASIC!

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Hackaday Links: April 28, 2024

Well, it’s official — AI is ruining everything. That’s not exactly news, but learning that LLMs are apparently being used to write scientific papers is a bit alarming, and Andrew Gray, a librarian at University College London, has the receipts. He looked at a cross-section of scholarly papers from 2023 in search of certain words known to show up more often in LLM-generated text, like “commendable”, “intricate”, or “meticulous”. Most of the words seem to have a generally positive tone and feel a little fancier than everyday speech; one rarely uses “lucidly” or “noteworthy” unless you’re trying to sound smart, after all. He found increases in the frequency of appearance of these and other keywords in 2023 compared to 2022, when ChatGPT wasn’t widely available.

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Hackaday Links: April 21, 2024

Do humanoid robots dream of electric retirement? Who knows, but maybe we can ask Boston Dynamics’ Atlas HD, which was officially retired this week. The humanoid robot, notable for its warehouse Parkour and sweet dance moves, never went into production, at least not as far as we know. Atlas always seemed like it was intended to be an R&D platform, to see what was possible for a humanoid robot, and in that way it had a heck of a career. But it’s probably a good thing that fleets of Atlas robots aren’t wandering around shop floors or serving drinks, especially given the number of hydraulic blowouts the robot suffered. That also seems to be one of the lessons Boston Dynamics learned, since Atlas’ younger, nimbler replacement is said to be all-electric. From the thumbnail, the new kid already seems pretty scarred and battered, so here’s hoping we get to see some all-electric robot fails soon.

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Hackaday Links: April 14, 2024

The Great American Eclipse v2.0 has come and gone, sadly without our traveling to the path of totality as planned; family stuff. We did get a report from friends in Texas that it was just as spectacular there as expected, with the bonus of seeing a solar flare off the southwest limb of the disk at totality. Many people reported seeing the same thing, which makes us a bit jealous — OK, a lot jealous. Of course, this presented an opportunity to the “Well, ackchyually” crowd to point out that there were no solar flares or coronal mass ejections at the time, so what people saw wasn’t an exquisitely timed and well-positioned solar flare but rather a well-timed and exquisitely positioned solar prominence. Glad we cleared that up. Either way, people in the path of totality saw the Sun belching out gigatons of plasma while we had to settle for 27% totality.

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Hackaday Links: April 7, 2024

Folks with a bit of knowledge about network security commonly use virtual private networks (VPNs) when out and about. Whether you’re connecting to public WiFi or somebody passes you a questionable Ethernet cable at a hacker con, it’s nice to have a secure endpoint to tunnel all of your traffic. As a secondary bonus, connecting through a VPN can obscure your physical location. It’s that second feature that has a bunch of people jumping on the VPN bandwagon as they try to dodge the recent porn age checks that have gone into effect in a number of states. According to a recent article in PopSci, one particular VPN provider saw a 275% jump in demand on the same day that PornHub cut off access to users in Texas. While the debate over underage users accessing adult content is far outside of our wheelhouse, anything that gets more users connecting to the Internet via encrypted means is arguably a net positive.

If you wanted somebody from the Geek Squad to set up that VPN so you can get back on PornHub to work securely from the local coffee shop, you might be out of luck. Reports have been coming in that Best Buy’s mobile nerd division is seeing sweeping layoffs. Geeks were told to stay home on Tuesday and await a call from corporate, at which point many got the surprising news that they no longer had a job. The /r/GeekSquad subreddit has been a rallying point for staff who got the axe, with the user [jaym026] posting what we assume is an AI-generated inspirational speech from Optimus Prime. Of course, it sucks for anyone to lose their job, especially with the way things are these days. Still, we’re willing to bet almost none of those affected will look back on the day they were let go from an increasingly irrelevant brick-and-mortar electronics store as a low point in their professional careers.

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