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.

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Radio’s Sordid History Of Being Blamed For Everything

In the surreal world of a pandemic lockdown, we are surrounded by news stories that defy satire. The idea that 5G cellular networks are to blame for the COVID-19 outbreak and a myriad other ills has the more paranoid corners of social media abuzz with concerned citizens leaping upon random pieces of street furniture as potential 5G infrastructure.

The unanimous advice of the world’s scientists, doctors, and engineers that it is inconceivable for a phone technology to cause a viral outbreak. Amusingly, 5G has not yet been rolled out to some of the places where this is happening. But with conspiracy theory, fact denial only serves to reinforce the idea, however misguided. Here at Hackaday we have already ventured into the technical and scientific side of the story, but there is another side to it that leaves the pandemic behind and reaches back over the decades. Fear of new technology and in particular radio is nothing new, it stretches back almost as long as the public has had access to it.

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Don’t Worry, This Box Will Protect You From 5G!

As part of an investigation into opposition to 5G mobile phone networks in the English town of Glastonbury the BBC reporter [Rory Cellan-Jones] shared details of a so-called 5G protection device that was advertised as casting a bubble of 5G-free space around its owner. This set [The Quackometer] writing, because as part of his probing into the world of snake-oil, he’s bought just such a unit and subjected it to a teardown.

What he has is a plastic project box with a graphic on top, a switch and green LED on the side, and a battery compartment on its rear. Opening the battery compartment reveals a standard 9 V alkaline cell, but the real interest comes when the cover is removed. There is a copper cylinder with a coil of wire round it, though the wires from the coil to the battery have been cut. The active part of the device is simply a battery powering an LED through a switch, as he puts it the device is a £50 ($61) poor quality torch (flashlight). Of more interest is the copper cylinder, which he identifies as a short piece of copper water pipe with two end caps. He doesn’t open it up, leaving us to expect that whatever mystical component deals with the RF must be concealed within it. This is not the usual Hackaday fare, but we know our readers are fascinated by all new technologies and will provide plenty of speculation as to how it might work in the comments.

The BBC story is worth a read to give a little background. If you are a non-Brit and you have heard of Glastonbury it is probably for the famous summer music festival held on a neighbouring farm, but the town is also famous for its connections with Arthurian legend and in recent decades for having become a centre for New Age mysticism. It has also become something of a hotbed of activism against the spread of 5G mobile networks, and has made the news this week because of concerns over the impartiality of a report condemning the technology released by its local government. If you have an interest in the 5G saga then brace yourselves for this document being used to lend a veneer of official credibility.

We’ve spent a while covering 5G issues, and given that some aspects of the story are shaping up to be a gift to technical journalists that keeps on giving, no doubt we’ll bring you more in due course. Devices such as the one featured here could even supplant audiophile products as a source of technical wonderment!

Thanks [Deus Ex Silicium] for the tip.

On 5G And The Fear Of Radiation

The world around us is a scary place, with a lot of visible and invisible dangers. Some of those invisible dangers are pretty obvious, such as that of an electrical shock from exposed wiring. Some are less obvious, for example the dangers of UV radiation to one’s skin and eyes commonly known, but also heavily underestimated by many until it’s too late. In the US alone, skin cancer ends up affecting about one in every five people.

Perhaps ironically, while the danger from something like UV radiation is often underestimated, other types of electromagnetic radiation are heavily overestimated. All too often, the distinction between what is and isn’t considered to be harmful appears to be made purely on basis of whether it is ‘natural’ radiation or not. The Sun is ‘natural’, ergo UV radiation cannot be harmful, but the EM radiation from a microwave or 5G wireless transceiver is human-made, and therefore harmful. This is, of course, backwards.

Rather than dismissing such irrational fears of radiation, let’s have a look at both the science behind radiation and the way humans classify ‘danger’, such as in the case of 5G cell towers. Continue reading “On 5G And The Fear Of Radiation”

36C3: SIM Card Technology From A To Z

SIM cards are all around us, and with the continuing growth of the Internet of Things, spawning technologies like NB-IoT, this might as well be very literal soon. But what do we really know about them, their internal structure, and their communication protocols? And by extension, their security? To shine some light on these questions, open source and mobile device titan [LaForge] gave an introductory talk about SIM card technologies at the 36C3 in Leipzig, Germany.

Starting with a brief history lesson on the early days of cellular networks based on the German C-Netz, and the origin of the SIM card itself, [LaForge] goes through the main specification and technology parts of each following generation from 2G to 5G. Covering the physical basics, I/O interfaces, communication protocols, and the file system located on the SIM card, you’ll get the answer to “what on Earth is PIN2 for?” along the way.

Of course, a talk like this, on a CCC event, wouldn’t be complete without a deep and critical look at the security side as well. Considering how over-the-air updates on both software and — thanks to mostly running Java nowadays — feature side are more and more common, there certainly is something to look at.

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Hackaday Podcast 042: Capacitive Earthquakes, GRBL On ESP32, Solenoid Engines, And The TI-99 Space Program

Hackaday Editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys talk turkey on the latest hacks. Random numbers, art, and electronic geekery combine into an entropic masterpiece. We saw Bart Dring bring new life to a cool little multi-pen plotter from the Atari age. Researchers at UCSD built a very very very slow soft robot, and a broken retrocomputer got a good dose of the space age. A 555 is sensing earthquakes, there’s an electric motor that wants to drop into any vehicle, and did you know someone used to have to read the current time into the telephone ad nauseam?

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 (59 MB)

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5G Is For Robots

Ecclesiastes 1:9 reads “What has been will be again, what has done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Or in other words, 5G is mostly marketing nonsense; like 4G, 3G, and 2G was before it. Let’s not forget LTE, 4G LTE, Advance 4G, and Edge.

Just a normal everyday antenna array in a Seattle parking garage.

Technically, 5G means that providers could, if they wanted to, install some EHF antennas; the same kind we’ve been using forever to do point to point microwave internet in cities. These frequencies are too lazy to pass through a wall, so we’d have to install these antennas in a grid at ground level. The promised result is that we’ll all get slightly lower latency tiered internet connections that won’t live up to the hype at all. From a customer perspective, about the only thing it will do is let us hit the 8Gb ceiling twice as faster on our “unlimited” plans before they throttle us. It might be nice on a laptop, but it would be a historically ridiculous assumption that Verizon is going to let us tether devices to their shiny new network without charging us a million Yen for the privilege.

So, what’s the deal? From a practical standpoint we’ve already maxed out what a phone needs. For example, here’s a dirty secret of the phone world: you can’t tell the difference between 1080p and 720p video on a tiny screen. I know of more than one company where the 1080p on their app really means 640 or 720 displayed on the device and 1080p is recorded on the cloud somewhere for download. Not a single user has noticed or complained. Oh, maybe if you’re looking hard you can feel that one picture is sharper than the other, but past that what are you doing? Likewise, what’s the point of 60fps 8k video on a phone? Or even a laptop for that matter?

Are we really going to max out a mobile webpage? Since our device’s ability to present information exceeds our ability to process it, is there a theoretical maximum to the size of an app? Even if we had Gbit internet to every phone in the world, from a user standpoint it would be a marginal improvement at best. Unless you’re a professional mobile game player (is that a thing yet?) latency is meaningless to you. The buffer buffs the experience until it shines.

So why should we care about billion dollar corporations racing to have the best network for sending low resolution advertising gifs to our disctracto cubes? Because 5G is for robots.

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