Junkbox Confidential

Thomas Edison famously quipped “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” Amen, brother. My personal junk pile (ahem, collection of pre-owned electromechanical curiosities) is certainly a source of spare parts, but also a source of surprise and wonder. Sometimes the junk itself spurs the imagination, but sometimes junk is just junk.

There are pieces of used gear that I bought for some particular plan, maybe a decade ago?, and totally forgot. While it’s fun to rediscover them — I bought six used super-soaker pump assemblies, and summer is just around the corner — the sad truth is often that the forgotten pieces were forgotten for a reason. Whatever kooky idea I had at the time has faded, and the parts are all that’s left.

But among these miserable creatures, there are some absolute gems. Parts that continually call out to be used. Bits that would fire even Thomas Edison’s imagination. Unforgetable junk.
Mostly, it’s their physicality that calls out to me. I have a stack of old 5″ hard drive platters, gutted, and converted into essentially a rotary encoder. For years, I used it as a USB scroll wheel on my desk, but most recently it has made reappearances in other goofy projects — a music box for my son that played notes in a row depending on how fast you spun it, and most recently a jog wheel for a one-meter linear motion project that hasn’t really found its full expression yet, but might become a camera slider. Anyway, when I needed a nice physical rotary encoder knob, the hard drive was just sitting there waiting to be used.

An old rotary dial phone also falls in this category. It ends in a barrel jack instead of an RJ45, so it’s easy to incorporate into other projects. Previously, it’s been the interface for a USB dial-a-password device, but it got supplanted by software that takes up less desk space. I’m sure I’ll come up with something else for it to do.

The undisputed kings of my unforgettable junk, that I haul out year after year, are two Magellan Space Mice. They are the old serial port kind, speaking 9600 baud to any microcontroller, and are easy to interface with. They put out six axes of control plus a few buttons, and they’re frankly a technological marvel. These have been used for remote control cars, and even once for a ride-on vehicle, but only briefly because it was too dangerous. I’ve never managed to use more than four axes at once, but that implicit challenge is part of their charm.

In the strangest turn of events, the maintainer of the Linux Spacenav driver project, John Tsiombikas, pulled the serial Space Mice into the code base in December. So now I’m using both of them for their intended purpose — manipulation of 3D designs in CAD/CAM software — one in the office and one in the workshop. Not a hack!

It was great to have the Space Mice in the junk box; they were truly inspirational. On one hand, being promoted into everyday use is the ultimate goal, I guess, but it still leaves a hole in my heart. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for a couple more, I think. The junk box hungers.

The False Alarm That Nearly Sparked Nuclear War

The date was September 26, 1983. A lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces sat at his command station in Serpukhov-15 as sirens blared, indicating nuclear missiles had been launched from the United States. As you may have surmised by the fact you’re reading this in 2021, no missiles were fired by either side in the Cold War that day. Credit for this goes to Stanislav Petrov, who made the judgement call that the reports were a false alarm, preventing an all-out nuclear war between the two world powers. Today, we’ll look at what caused the false alarm, and why Petrov was able to correctly surmise that what he was seeing was an illusion.

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Hackaday Podcast 114: Eye Is Watching You, Alien Art, CNC Chainsaw, And The Galvie Flu

Hackaday editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys marvel at the hacks that surfaced over the past week. An eye-popping webcam hack comes in the form of an animatronic that gives that camera above your screen an eyeball to look around, an eyelid to blink with, and the skin, eyelashes, and eyebrow to complete the illusion (and make us shudder at the same time).

Dan did a deep dive on Zinc Flu — something to avoid when welding parts that contain zinc, like galvanized metals. A robot arm was given a chainsaw, leading to many hijinks; among them the headache of path planning such a machine. And we got to hear a really awesome story about resurrecting a computer game lost to obscurity, by using one of the main tools of the copyright office.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Direct download (~60 MB)

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This Week In Security: Pwn2own, Zoom Zero Day, Clubhouse Data, And An FBI Hacking Spree

Our first story this week comes courtesy of the Pwn2own contest. For anyone not familiar with it, this event is held twice a year, and features live demonstrations of exploits against up-to-date software. The one exception to this is when a researcher does a coordinated release with the vendor, and the update containing the fix drops just before the event. This time, the event was held virtually, and the attempts are all available on Youtube. There were 23 attacks attempted, and only two were outright failures. There were 5 partial successes and 16 full successes.

One of the interesting demonstrations was a zero-click RCE against Zoom. This was a trio of vulnerabilities chained into a single attack. The only caveat is that the attack must come from an accepted contact. Pwn2Own gives each exploit attempt twenty minutes total, and up to three attempts, each of which can last up to five minutes. Most complex exploits have an element of randomness, and exploits known to work sometimes don’t work every time. The Zoom demonstration didn’t work the first time, and the demonstration team took enough time to reset, they only had enough time for one more try.

BleedingTooth

We first covered BleedingTooth almost exactly six months ago. The details were sparse then, but enough time has gone by to get the full report. BleedingTooth is actually a trio of vulnerabilities, discovered by [Andy Nguyen]. The first is BadVibes, CVE-2020-24490. It’s a lack of a length check in the handling of incoming Bluetooth advertisement packets. This leads to a buffer overflow. The catch here is that the vulnerability is only possible over Bluetooth 5. Continue reading “This Week In Security: Pwn2own, Zoom Zero Day, Clubhouse Data, And An FBI Hacking Spree”

Crew Dragon’s Short Hop Begins The Era Of Valet Parking At The ISS

They weren’t scheduled to return to Earth until April 28th at the earliest, so why did NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, suit up and climb aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience on April 5th? Because a previously untested maneuver meant that after they closed the hatch between their spacecraft and the International Space Station, there was a chance they weren’t going to be coming back.

On paper, moving a capsule between docking ports seems simple enough. All Resilience had to do was undock from the International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) located on the front of the Harmony module, itself attached to the Pressurized Mating Adapter 2 (PMA-2) that was once the orbital parking spot for the Space Shuttle, and move over to the PMA-3/IDA-3 on top of Harmony. It was a short trip through open space, and when the crew exited their craft and reentered the Station at the end of it, they’d only be a few meters from where they started out approximately 45 minutes prior.

The maneuver was designed to be performed autonomously, so technically the crew didn’t need to be on Resilience when it switched docking ports. But allowing the astronauts to stay aboard the station while their only ride home undocked and flew away without them was a risk NASA wasn’t willing to take.

What if the vehicle had some issue that prevented it from returning to the ISS? A relocation of this type had never been attempted by an American spacecraft before, much less a commercial one like the Crew Dragon. So while the chances of such a mishap were slim, the crew still treated this short flight as if it could be their last day in space. Should the need arise, all of the necessary checks and preparations had been made so that the vehicle could safely bring its occupants back to Earth.

Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary. The autonomous relocation of Crew Dragon Resilience went off without a hitch, and SpaceX got to add yet another “first” to their ever growing list of accomplishments in space. But this first relocation of an American spacecraft at the ISS certainly won’t be the last, as the comings and goings of commercial spacecraft will only get more complex in the future.

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History Of Closed Captions: The Analog Era

Closed captioning on television and subtitles on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming media are taken for granted today. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, it was quite a struggle for captioning to become commonplace. Back in the early 2000s, I unexpectedly found myself involved in a variety of closed captioning projects, both designing hardware and consulting with engineering teams at various consumer electronics manufacturers. I may have been the last engineer working with analog captioning as everyone else moved on to digital.

But before digging in, there is a lot of confusing and imprecise language floating around on this topic. Let’s establish some definitions. I often use the word captioning which encompasses both closed captions and subtitles:

Closed Captions: Transmitted in a non-visible manner as textual data. Usually they can be enabled or disabled by the user. In the NTSC system, it’s often referred to as Line 21, since it was transmitted on video line number 21 in the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI).
Subtitles: Rendered in a graphical format and overlaid onto the video / film. Usually they cannot be turned off. Also called open or hard captions.

The text contained in captions generally falls into one of three categories. Pure dialogue (nothing more) is often the style of captioning you see in subtitles on a DVD or Blu-ray. Ordinary captioning includes the dialogue, but with the addition of occasional cues for music or a non-visible event (a doorbell ringing, for example). Finally, “Subtitles for the Deaf or Hard-of-hearing” (SDH) is a more verbose style that adds even more descriptive information about the program, including the speaker’s name, off-camera events, etc.

Roughly speaking, closed captions are targeting the deaf and hard of hearing audience. Subtitles are targeting an audience who can hear the program but want to view the dialogue for some reason, like understanding a foreign movie or learning a new language.

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Magna Announces Simple Drive Solution For Electric Pickup Trucks

Thus far, the majority of electric cars on sale have been aimed at commuters, fitting into the sedan and SUV segments of the marketplace. Going forward, there’s a very real need for electrification to touch the whole spectrum of automobiles, and that includes work vehicles like pickup trucks. A company called Magna have recently thrown their hat into the ring in just this space, developing a simple drivetrain that can be readily installed in pickup trucks without major modifications.  Continue reading “Magna Announces Simple Drive Solution For Electric Pickup Trucks”