Educational Radio, Educates

Analyzing and troubleshooting a modern AM/FM radio, digital radio, or TV can be a pretty daunting task. However, a common AM radio is easy to understand, experiment with, and repair. Learning about that will help you understand more complex circuits later. That’s the idea behind the Elenco AM radio which is built on a wide-open PCB with markings for all the important sections. [The Offset Volt] uses one of these to explain how a receiver works, especially how a diode detects the signal and how the automatic gain control works.

Between a series of diagrams and live scope demonstrations, you can see the effects of capacitance in the receiver along with other circuit effects.

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Hackaday Links: April 26, 2020

Gosh, what a shame: it turns out that perhaps 2 billion phones won’t be capable of COVID-19 contact-tracing using the API that Google and Apple are jointly developing. The problem is that the scheme the two tech giants have concocted, which Elliot Williams expertly dissected recently, is based on Bluetooth LE. If a phone lacks a BLE chipset, then it won’t work with apps built on the contact-tracing API, which uses the limited range of BLE signals as a proxy for the physical proximity of any two people. If a user is reported to be COVID-19 positive, all the people whose BLE beacons were received by the infected user’s phone within a defined time period can be anonymously notified of their contact. As Elliot points out, numerous questions loom around this scheme, not least of which is privacy, but for now, something like a third of phones in mature smartphone markets won’t be able to participate, and perhaps two-thirds of the phones in developing markets are not compatible. For those who don’t like the privacy-threatening aspects of this scheme, pulling an old phone out and dusting it off might not be a bad idea.

We occasionally cover stories where engineers in industrial settings use an Arduino for a quick-and-dirty automation solution. This is uniformly met with much teeth-gnashing and hair-rending in the comments asserting that Arduinos are not appropriate for industrial use. Whether true or not, such comments miss the point that the Arduino solution is usually a stop-gap or proof-of-concept deal. But now the purists and pedants can relax, because Automation Direct is offering Arduino-compatible, industrial-grade programmable controllers. Their ProductivityOpen line is compatible with the Arduino IDE while having industrial certifications and hardening against harsh conditions, with a rich line of shields available to piece together complete automation controllers. For the home-gamer, an Arduino in an enclosure that can withstand harsh conditions and only cost $49 might fill a niche.

Speaking of Arduinos and Arduino accessories, better watch out if you’ve got any modules and you come under the scrutiny of an authoritarian regime, because you could be accused of being a bomb maker. Police in Hong Kong allegedly arrested a 20-year-old student and posted a picture of parts he used to manufacture a “remote detonated bomb”. The BOM for the bomb was strangely devoid of anything with wireless capabilities or, you know, actual explosives, and instead looks pretty much like the stuff found on any of our workbenches or junk bins. Pretty scary stuff.

If you’ve run through every binge-worthy series on Netflix and are looking for a bit of space-nerd entertainment, have we got one for you. Scott Manley has a new video that goes into detail on the four different computers used for each Apollo mission. We knew about the Apollo Guidance Computers that guided the Command Module and the Lunar Module, and the Launch Vehicle Digital Computer that got the whole stack into orbit and on the way to the Moon, but we’d never heard of the Abort Guidance System, a backup to the Lunar Module AGC intended to get the astronauts back into lunar orbit in the event of an emergency. And we’d also never heard that there wasn’t a common architecture for these machines, to the point where each had its own word length. The bit about infighting between MIT and IBM was entertaining too.

And finally, if you still find yourself with time on your hands, why not try your hand at pen-testing a military satellite in orbit? That’s the offer on the table to hackers from the US Air Force, proprietor of some of the tippy-toppest secret hardware in orbit. The Hack-A-Sat Space Security Challenge is aimed at exposing weaknesses that have been inadvertantly baked into space hardware during decades of closed development and secrecy, vulnerabilities that may pose risks to billions of dollars worth of irreplaceable assets. The qualification round requires teams to hack a grounded test satellite before moving on to attacking an orbiting platform during DEFCON in August, with prizes going to the winning teams. Get paid to hack government assets and not get arrested? Maybe 2020 isn’t so bad after all.

Hacking Apollo Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, April 22 at noon Pacific for the Hacking Apollo Hack Chat with “CuriousMarc” VerdiellKen ShirriffMike Stewart, and Carl Claunch!

When President Kennedy laid down the gauntlet to a generation of scientists and engineers to land a man on the Moon before the close of the 1960s, he likely had little idea what he was putting in motion. The mission was dauntingly complex, the science was untested, and the engineering was largely untried. Almost everything had to be built from scratch, and entire industries were born just from the technologies that had to be invented to make the dream come true.

Chief among these new fields was computer science, which was barely in its infancy when the 1960s started. By the end of the decade and the close of the Space Race, computers had gone from room-filling, power-guzzling machines to something compact and capable enough to fly men to the Moon and back. The computers that followed all built on the innovations that came about as a result of Apollo, and investigating the computers of the era and finding out what made them tick is an important part of our technological culture.

That’s where this retrocomputing dream team came into play. Together, they’ve poked and prodded at every bit of hardware from the Space Race era they could find, including a genuine Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) that was rescued from the trash. What’s more, they actually managed to restore it to working condition with a series of epic hacks and sheer force of will.

Marc, Ken, Mike, and Carl will stop by the Hack Chat to talk about everything that went into getting the AGC working again, along with anything else that pops up. Come ready to have your Apollo-era hardware itches scratched by the people who’ve been inside a lot of it, and who have seen first-hand what it took to make it to the Moon and back.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 22 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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Apollo Guidance Computer Saved From The Scrap Yard

NASA needed a small and lightweight computer to send humans on their journey to the Moon and back, but computers of the day were made out of discrete components that were heavy, large, complicated, and unreliable. None of which are good qualities for spaceflight. The agency’s decision to ultimately trust the success of the Apollo program on the newly developed integrated circuit was an important milestone in computer history.

Given the enormity of the task at hand and the monumental effort it took, it’s surprising to learn that there aren’t very many left in existence. But perhaps not as surprising as the fact that somebody apparently threw one of them in the trash. A former NASA contractor happened to notice one of these historic Apollo Guidance Computers (AGC) at an electronics recycling facility, and thankfully was able to save it from getting scrapped.

The AGC was actually discovered in 1976, but it was decided to get the computer working again in time for the recent 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. A group of computer scientists in California were able to not only get the computer up and running, but integrate it into a realistic simulator that gives players an authentic look at what it took to land on the Moon in 1969.

Restoring a computer of this age and rarity is no easy feat. There aren’t exactly spare parts floating around for it, and the team had to go to great effort to repair some faults on the device. Since we covered the beginning stages of the restoration last year, the entire process has been extensively documented in a series of videos on YouTube. So while it’s unlikely you’ll find an AGC in your local recycling center, at least you’ll know what to do with it if you do.

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Hackaday Links: July 28, 2019

It looks like Apple is interested in buying Intel’s modem chip business. Seriously interested; a deal worth $1 billion could be announced as early as this week. That might look like a small potato purchase to the world’s biggest company – at least by market capitalization – but since the technology it will be buying includes smartphone modems, it provides a look into Apple’s thinking about the near future with regard to 5G.

It turns out that Make Magazine isn’t quite dead yet. [Dale Dougherty], former CEO of Maker Media, which went under in June, has just announced that he and others have acquired the company’s assets and reformed under the name “Maker Community LLC.” Make: Magazine is set to resume publication, going back to its roots as a quarterly publication in the smaller journal format; sadly there’s no specific word about the fate of Maker Faire yet.

The hoopla over the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 may be over, but we’d be remiss not to call out one truly epic hack related to the celebration: the full restoration of an actual Apollo Guidance Computer. The AGC was from a test model of the Lunar Module, and it ended up in the hands of a private collector. Since November of 2018 the AGC has been undergoing restoration and tests by [Ken Shirriff], [Mike Stewart], and [Carl Claunch]. The whole effort is documented in a playlist by [Marc “CuriousMarc” Verdiell] that’s worth watching to see what was needed to restore the AGC to working condition.

With the summer sun beating down on the northern hemisphere, and air conditioners at working extra hard to keep things comfortable. [How To Lou] has a quick tip to improve AC efficiency. Turns out that just spraying a fine mist of water on the condenser coils works wonders; [Lou] measured a 12% improvement in cooling. It may not be the best use of water, and it may not work as well in very humid climates, but it’s a good tip to keep in mind.

Be careful with this one; between the bent spoon, the syringe full of amber liquid, and the little candle to heat things up, this field-expedient reflow soldering setup might just get you in trouble with the local narcotics enforcement authorities. Even so, knowing that you can assemble a small SMD board without a reflow oven might prove useful someday, under admittedly bizarre circumstances.

From the “Considerably more than 8-bits music” file, check out the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra’s “8-Bit Symphony.” If your personal PC gaming history included a Commodore 64, chances are you’ll recognize songs from titles like “Monty on the Run”, “Firelord”, “Green Beret”, and “Forbidden Forest.” Sure, composers like [Ben Daglish] and [Paul Norman] worked wonders with the three-channel SID chip, but hearing those tunes rendered by a full orchestra is something else entirely. We found it to be particularly good background music to write by.

Space Age Bitcoin Mining On An Apollo AGC

Imagine you’ve got an Apollo Guidance Computer, the machine that took men to the Moon 50 years ago. You’ve spent ages restoring it, and now it’s the only working AGC on the planet. It’s not as though you’re going to fly to the Moon with it, so what do you do with it? Easy – turn it into a perfectly awful Bitcoin mining rig.

The AGC that [Ken Shirriff] and others have been restoring barely resembles a modern computer. The AGC could only do about 40,000 operations per second, but raw speed was far less important than overall reliability and the abundant IO needed to run a crewed spacecraft. It was a spectacular success on the Apollo missions, but [Ken] wanted to know if turning it into a Bitcoin mining rig was possible.

[Ken] gives a great overview of how Bitcoin mining works, with one of the best explanations of the hashing algorithm we’ve seen. Getting that to run on the AGC was no mean feat, especially with limits imposed by the memory addressing scheme and the lack of machine instructions for manipulating words. He eventually got it working, though, clocking in at a screaming 10.3 seconds per Bitcoin hash. [Ken] estimates that the first coin will be successfully mined in a mere 400 zettaseconds, which is about a billion times older than the universe. With about 13 quadrillion years to the first ka-ching, you have plenty of time to watch a block mined in the video below; alas, it was an old block, so no coins were awarded to compensate the team for their efforts.

This isn’t the first time [Ken] has implemented a useless Bitcoin mine. The Xerox Alto mine was actually fast compared to the AGC, but it sure beats the IBM mainframe and punchcards.

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Manufacturing New Connectors For The Apollo Guidance Computer

The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – the flight that first took man to the surface of the moon — is coming up. By the time this post is published, some YouTube channel will invariably be running a real-time-but-delayed-fifty-years live stream of all the mission events, culminating on the wee hours of July 20th where we wait hours for someone to figure out how to open the door.

[CuriousMarc] and space hardware collector [Jimmie Loocke] have a different type of anniversary in mind. They have an Apollo Guidance Computer sitting on a bed in a motel room, and they’re going to get it up and running by July 20th. That’s the plan, at least. This is no easy feat: the Apollo Guidance Computer looks like two 19-inch, 1U rack units, with no standardized connectors to talk to any other hardware. They’ve just figured out the hardest part of this build by making their own NASA-spec contacts. They can now connect external hardware to the AGC, probably for the first time in decades.

As it stands now, there are external ports on the gigantic bricks of aluminum enclosure that comprise the two AGC modules. These ports are just female pin headers, completely unlike any standard that can be found today. However, the folks at Samtec managed to build the male versions of these pin headers for this project. These pins fit the female sockets on one end, and are standard, square-shaped wire wrapped headers on the other. They are mounted in a milled plastic block, and after everything is wired up, [Marc] and [Jimmie] had a direct electrical connection to the Apollo Guidance Computer. The machine lives again.

There’s still a lot of work to do to get these bricks of computer up and running for the 20th, but this is fantastic progress. Already they’re single-stepping the AGC and running the P63 program that landed on the moon. Check out the video below.

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