Hackaday Links: May 23, 2021

The epicenter of the Chinese electronics scene drew a lot of attention this week as a 70-story skyscraper started wobbling in exactly the way skyscrapers shouldn’t. The 1,000-ft (305-m) SEG Plaza tower in Shenzhen began its unexpected movements on Tuesday morning, causing a bit of a panic as people ran for their lives. With no earthquakes or severe weather events in the area, there’s no clear cause for the shaking, which was clearly visible from the outside of the building in some of the videos shot by brave souls on the sidewalks below. The preliminary investigation declared the building safe and blamed the shaking on a combination of wind, vibration from a subway line under the building, and a rapid change in outside temperature, all of which we’d suspect would have occurred at some point in the 21-year history of the building. Others are speculating that a Kármán vortex Street, an aerodynamic phenomenon that has been known to catastrophically impact structures before, could be to blame; this seems a bit more likely to us. Regardless, since the first ten floors of SEG Plaza are home to one of the larger electronics markets in Shenzhen, we hope this is resolved quickly and that all our friends there remain safe.

In other architectural news, perched atop Building 54 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge for the last 55 years has been a large, fiberglass geodesic sphere, known simply as The Radome. It’s visible from all over campus, and beyond; we used to work in Kendall Square, and the golf-ball-like structure was an important landmark for navigating the complex streets of Cambridge. The Radome was originally used for experiments with weather radar, but fell out of use as the technology it helped invent moved on. That led to plans to remove the iconic structure, which consequently kicked off a “Save the Radome” campaign. The effort is being led by the students and faculty members of the MIT Radio Society, who have put the radome to good use over the years — it currently houses an amateur radio repeater, and the Radio Society uses the dish within it to conduct Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) microwave communications experiments. The students are serious — they applied for and received a $1.6-million grant from Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC) to finance their efforts. The funds will be used to renovate the deteriorating structure.

Well, this looks like fun: Python on a graphing calculator. Texas Instruments has announced that their TI-84 Plus CE Python graphing calculator uses a modified version of CircuitPython. They’ve included seven modules, mostly related to math and time, but also a suite of TI-specific modules that interact with the calculator hardware. The Python version of the calculator doesn’t seem to be for sale in the US yet, although the UK site does have a few “where to buy” entries listed. It’ll be interesting to see the hacks that come from this when these are readily available.

Did you know that PCBWay, the prolific producer of cheap PCBs, also offers 3D-printing services too? We admit that we did not know that, and were therefore doubly surprised to learn that they also offer SLA resin printing. But what’s really surprising is the quality of their clear resin prints, at least the ones shown on this Twitter thread. As one commenter noted, these look more like machined acrylic than resin prints. Digging deeper into PCBWay’s offerings, which not only includes all kinds of 3D printing but CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, and even injection molding services, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify keeping those capabilities in-house, even for the home gamer. Although with what we’ve learned about supply chain fragility over the last year, we don’t want to give up the ability to make parts locally just yet.

And finally, how well-calibrated are your fingers? If they’re just right, perhaps you can put them to use for quick and dirty RF power measurements. And this is really quick and really dirty, as well as potentially really painful. It comes by way of amateur radio operator VK3YE, who simply uses a resistive dummy load connected to a transmitter and his fingers to monitor the heat generated while keying up the radio. He times how long it takes to not be able to tolerate the pain anymore, plots that against the power used, and comes up with a rough calibration curve that lets him measure the output of an unknown signal. It’s brilliantly janky, but given some of the burns we’ve suffered accidentally while pursuing this hobby, we’d just as soon find another way to measure RF power.

Fun While It Lasted, Falcon 9 Telemetry Now Encrypted

A few weeks back we brought word that Reddit users [derekcz] and [Xerbot] had managed to receive the 2232.5 MHz telemetry downlink from a Falcon 9 upper stage and pull out some interesting plain-text strings. With further software fiddling, the vehicle’s video streams were decoded, resulting in some absolutely breathtaking shots of the rocket and its payload from low Earth orbit.

Unfortunately, it looks like those heady days are now over, as [derekcz] reports the downlink from the latest Falcon 9 mission was nothing but intelligible noise. Since the hardware and software haven’t changed on his side, the only logical conclusion is that SpaceX wasn’t too happy about radio amateurs listening in on their rocket and decided to employ some form of encryption.

Since this data has apparently been broadcast out in the clear for nearly a decade before anyone on the ground noticed, it’s easy to see this as an overreaction. After all, what’s the harm in a few geeks with hacked together antennas getting a peek at a stack of Starlink satellites? [derekcz] even mused that allowing hobbyists to capture these space views might earn the company some positive buzz, something Elon Musk never seems to get enough of.

Some of the images [derekcz] was able to capture from the Falcon 9

On the other hand, we know that SpaceX is actively pursuing more lucrative national security launch contracts for both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. For these sensitive government payloads, the normal on-screen telemetry data and space views are omitted from the company’s official live streams. It seems likely the Pentagon would be very interested in finding out how civilians were able to obtain this information, and a guarantee from SpaceX that the link would be encrypted for all future flights could have helped smooth things over.

At the end of the post [derekcz] echos a sentiment we’ve been hearing from other amateur radio operators  recently, which is that pretty soon space may be off-limits for us civilians. As older weather satellites begin to fail and get replaced with newer and inevitably more complex models, the days of picking up satellite images with an RTL-SDR and a few lines of Python are likely numbered.

Hackaday Links: March 14, 2021

It’ll be Pi Day when this article goes live, at least for approximately half the globe west of the prime meridian. We always enjoy Pi Day, not least for the excuse to enjoy pie and other disc-shaped foods. It’s also cool to ponder the mysteries of a transcendental number, which usually get a good treatment by the math YouTube community. This year was no disappointment in this regard, as we found two good pi-related videos, both by Matt Parker over at Standup Maths. The first one deals with raising pi to the pi to the pi to the pi and how that may or may not result in an integer that’s tens of trillions of digits long. The second and more entertaining video is a collaboration with Steve Mould which aims to estimate the value of pi by measuring the volume of a molecular monolayer of oleic acid floating on water. The process was really interesting and the results were surprisingly accurate; this might make a good exercise to do with kids to show them what pi is all about.

Remember basic physics and first being exposed to the formula for universal gravitation? We sure do, and we remember thinking that it should be possible to calculate the force between us and our classmates. It is, of course, but actually measuring the attractive force would be another thing entirely. But researchers have done just that, using objects substantially smaller than the average high school student: two 2-mm gold balls. The apparatus the Austrian researchers built used 90-milligram gold balls, one stationary and one on a suspended arm. The acceleration between the two moves the suspended ball, which pivots a mirror attached to the arm to deflect a laser beam. That they were able to tease a signal from the background noise of electrostatic, seismic, and hydrodynamic forces is quite a technical feat.

We noticed a lot of interest in the Antikythera mechanism this week, which was apparently caused by the announcement of the first-ever complete computational model of the ancient device’s inner workings. The team from University College London used all the available data gleaned from the 82 known fragments of the mechanism to produce a working model of the mechanism in software. This in turn was used to create some wonderful CGI animations of the mechanism at work — this video is well worth the half-hour it takes to watch. The UCL team says they’re now at work building a replica of the mechanism using modern techniques. One of the team says he has some doubts that ancient construction methods could have resulted in some of the finer pieces of the mechanism, like the concentric axles needed for some parts. We think our friend Clickspring might have something to say about that, as he seems to be doing pretty well building his replica using nothing but tools and methods that were available to the original maker. And by doing so, he managed to discern a previously unknown feature of the mechanism.

We got a tip recently that JOGL, or Just One Giant Lab, is offering microgrants for open-source science projects aimed at tackling the problems of COVID-19. The grants are for 4,000€ and require a minimal application and reporting process. The window for application is closing, though — March 21 is the deadline. If you’ve got an open-source COVID-19 project that could benefit from a cash infusion to bring to fruition, this might be your chance.

And finally, we stumbled across a video highlighting some of the darker aspects of amateur radio, particularly those who go through tremendous expense and effort just to be a pain in the ass. The story centers around the Mt. Diablo repeater, an amateur radio repeater located in California. Apparently someone took offense at the topics of conversation on the machine, and deployed what they called the “Annoy-o-Tron” to express their displeasure. The device consisted of a Baofeng transceiver, a cheap MP3 player loaded with obnoxious content, and a battery. Encased in epoxy resin and concrete inside a plastic ammo can, the jammer lugged the beast up a hill 20 miles (32 km) from the repeater, trained a simple Yagi antenna toward the site, and walked away. It lasted for three days and while the amateurs complained about the misuse of their repeater, they apparently didn’t do a thing about it. The jammer was retrieved six weeks after the fact and hasn’t been heard from since.

Capstan Winch Central To This All-Band Adjustable Dipole Antenna

The perfect antenna is the holy grail of amateur radio. But antenna tuning is a game of inches, and since the optimum length of an antenna depends on the frequency it’s used on, the mere act of spinning the dial means that every antenna design is a compromise. Or perhaps not, if you build this infinitely adjustable capstan-winch dipole antenna.

Dipoles are generally built to resonate around the center frequency of one band, and with allocations ranging almost from “DC to daylight”, hams often end up with a forest of dipoles. [AD0MZ]’s adjustable dipole solves that problem, making the antenna usable from the 80-meter band down to 10 meters. To accomplish this feat it uses something familiar to any sailor: a capstan winch.

The feedpoint of the antenna contains a pair of 3D-printed drums, each wound with a loop of tinned 18-gauge antenna wire attached to some Dacron cord. These make up the adjustable-length elements of the antenna, which are strung through pulleys suspended in trees about 40 meters apart. Inside the feedpoint enclosure are brushes from an electric drill to connect the elements to a 1:1 balun and a stepper motor to run the winch. As the wire pays out of one spool, the Dacron cord is taken up by the other; the same thing happens on the other side of the antenna, resulting in a balanced configuration.

We think this is a really clever design that should make many a ham happy across the bands. We even see how this could be adapted to other antenna configurations, like the end-fed halfwave we recently featured in our “$50 Ham” series.

Hackaday Links: February 7, 2021

What’s that they say about death and taxes? Apparently that maxim doesn’t apply to Flash, at least when it comes to the taxman. As we noted last week, the end of the Adobe Flash era took with it a scheduling and routing app for the railway system in a Chinese city. This time around, it’s the unfortunately acronymed SARS, for South African Revenue Services, having Flash woes. They still have several online tax forms that haven’t been migrated to HTML5, so to keep the revenue flowing they built their own Flash-enabled browser. Taxpayers are free to download and use the browser while SARS works on getting the rest of their forms migrated. It sort of reminds us of those plans the Internal Revenue Service has to ensure tax collection continues after a nuclear apocalypse — death and taxes indeed.

Trouble for Nintendo in the EU? It looks that way, as consumer groups have made the case to EU regulators that Nintendo’s wildly popular Switch consoles are showing unacceptably premature obsolescence with the notorious “Joy-Con drift” issue. The problem, which manifests as players being unable to control a game due to constant movement despite no inputs on the joystick-like controller, requires a repair, one that Nintendo initially only did for free as warranty service for consoles less than a year old. For consoles out of the warranty period, Nintendo was charging €45, which is approximately the same as what a new controller would cost. This didn’t sit well with regulators, and now they’re breathing down Nintendo’s neck. They now offer free repairs for up to two years, but they’re still under the EU microscope. The interesting bit in the linked document is the technical reason for the problem, which is attributed to premature PCB wear — possibly meaning the traces wear away — and inadequate sealing of the Joy-Con mechanism against dust intrusion.

Last year looked as though it was going to be an exciting one with respect to some of our nearest solar and galactic neighbors. For a while there, it looked like the red giant Betelgeuse was going to go supernova, which would have been interesting to watch. And closer to home, there were some signs of life, in the form of phosphine gas, detected in the roiling atmosphere of our sister planet, Venus. Alas, both stories appear not to have panned out. The much-hoped-for (by me) Betelgeuse explosion, which was potentially heralded by a strange off-cycle dimming of the variable star, seems now to be due to its upper atmosphere cooling by several hundred degrees. As for Venus, the phosphine gas that was detected appears actually to have been a false positive triggered by sulfur dioxide. Disappointing results perhaps, but that’s how science is supposed to work.

Amateur radio often gets a bad rap, derided as a hobby for rich old dudes who just like to talk about their medical problems. Some of that is deserved, no doubt, but there’s still a lot of room in the hobby for those interested in advancing the state of the art in radio communications. In this vein, we were pleased to learn about HamSCI, which is short for Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation. The group takes to heart one of the stated primary missions of amateur radio as the “ontinuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.” To that end, they’ll be holding HamSCI Workshop 2021, a virtual conference that will be focused on midlatitude ionospheric science. This appears to be a real science conference where both credentialed scientists and amateurs can share ideas. They’ve got a Call for Proposals now, with abstracts due by February 15. The conference itself will be on March 19 and 20, with free admission. The list of invited speakers looks pretty impressive, so if you have any interest in the field, check it out.

And finally, we got a tip this week about a collection of goofy US patents. Everything listed, from the extreme combover to baby bum-print art, is supposedly covered by a patent. We didn’t bother checking Google Patents, but some of these are pretty good for a laugh. We did look at a few, though, and were surprised to learn that the Gerbil Shirt is not a garment for rodents, but a rodent-filled garment for humans.

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.

Ham Radio Needs To Embrace The Hacker Community Now More Than Ever

As many a radio amateur will tell you, ham radio is a hobby with as many facets as there are radio amateurs. It should be an exciting and dynamic place to be, but as those who venture forth into it sometimes sadly find out, it can be anything but. Tightly-knit communities whose interests lie in using $1,000 stations to chase DX (long-distance contacts), an advancing age profile, and a curious fascination of many amateurs with disaster communications. It’s something [Robert V. Bolton, KJ7NZL] has sounded off about in an open letter to the amateur radio community entitled “Ham Radio Needs To Embrace The Hacker Community Now More Than Ever“.

In it he laments that the influx in particular of those for whom disaster preparedness is the reason for getting a licence is to blame for amateur radio losing its spark, and he proposes that the hobby should respond by broadening its appeal in the direction of the hacker community. The emphasis should move from emergency communications, he says, and instead topics such as software defined radio and digital modes should be brought to the fore. Finally he talks about setting up hacker specific amateur radio discussion channels, to provide a space in which the talk is tailored to our community.

Given our experience of the amateur radio community we’d be bound to agree with him. The hobby offers unrivalled opportunity for analogue, mixed-signal, digital, and software tinkering in the finest tradition of the path set by the early radio amateurs around a hundred years ago, yet it sometimes seems to have lost its way for people like us. It’s something put into words a few years ago by our colleague Dan Maloney, and if you’re following [KJ7NZL]’s path you could do worse than read Dan’s long-running $50 ham series from the start.

Via Hacker News.

Header image: Unknown author, Public domain.