Hackaday Links: September 22, 2019

Of all the stories we’d expect to hit our little corner of the world, we never thought that the seedy doings of a now-deceased accused pedophile billionaire would have impacted the intellectual home of the open-source software movement. But it did, and this week Richard Stallman resigned from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, as well as from the Free Software Foundation, which he founded and served as president. The resignations, which Stallman claims were “due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations”, followed the disclosure of a string of emails where he perhaps unwisely discussed what does and does not constitute sexual assault. The emails were written as a response to protests by MIT faculty and students outraged over the university’s long and deep relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the late alleged pedophile-financier. This may be one of those stories where the less said, the better. If only Stallman had heeded that advice.

They may be the radio stations with the worst programming ever, but then again, the world’s atomic clock broadcasting stations can really keep a beat. One of the oldest of these stations, WWV, is turning 100 this year, and will be adding special messages to its usual fare of beeps and BCD-encoded time signals on a 100-Hz subcarrier. If you tune to WWV at 10 past the hour (or 50 minutes past the hour for WWVH, the time station located in Hawaii) you’ll hear a special announcement. There was also talk of an open house at the National Institute of Standards and Technology complete with a WWV birthday cake, but that has since been limited to 100 attendees who pre-registered.

For the machinists and wannabes out there, the Internet’s machine shop channels all pitched in this week on something called #tipblitz19, where everyone with a lathe or mill posted a short video of their favorite shop tip. There’s a ton of great tip out there now, with the likes of This Old Tony, Abom79, Stefan Gotteswinter, and even our own Quinn Dunki contributing timesaving – and finger saving – tips. Don’t stop there though – there’s a playlist with 77 videos at last count, many of them by smaller channels that should be getting more love. Check them out and then start making chips.

Most of us know that DLP chips, which lie behind the lens of the projectors that lull us to sleep in conference rooms with their white noise and warm exhaust, are a series of tiny mirrors that wiggle around to project images. But have you ever seen them work? Now you can: Huygens Optics has posted a fascinating video deep-dive into the workings of digital light processors. With a stroboscopic camera and a lot of fussy work, the video reveals the microscopic movements of these mirrors and how that syncs up with the rotation of a color filter wheel. It’s really fascinating stuff, and hats off to Huygens for pulling off the setup needed to capture this.

And speaking of tiny optics, get a load of these minuscule digital cameras, aptly described by tipster David Gustafik as “disturbingly small.” We know we shouldn’t be amazed by things like this anymore, but c’mon – they’re ridiculously tiny! According to the datasheet, the smaller one will occupy 1 mm² on a PCB; the larger stereo camera requires 2.2 mm². Dubbed NanEye, the diminutive cameras are aimed at the medical market – think endoscopy – and at wearables manufacturers. These would be a lot of fun to play with – just don’t drop one.

Atomic Power Gets Small

There was a time when nuclear power plants were going to save the world. Barring accidents, the plants are clean and generate a lot of power. However, a few high-profile accidents and increased public awareness of some key issues have made nuclear power a hard sell, at least in the United States. The fastest growing nuclear power-related business in the US — according to sources — is companies decommissioning nuclear power plants. However, there’s a move afoot to make nuclear power a viable solution again. The company behind it says their plants will be cheaper to build, cheaper to operate, and are much safer than conventional plants. Are those claims reasonable?

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No Signal For Your Radio-Controlled Watch? Just Make Your Own Transmitter

You can win any argument about the time when you have a radio controlled watch. Or, at least, you can if there’s any signal. [Henner Zeller] lives in a place where there is no reception of the DCF77 signal that his European wristwatch expects to receive. Consequently, he decided to make his own tiny transmitter, which emulates the DCF77 signal and allows the watch to synchronise.

A Raspberry Pi Zero W is the heart of the transmitter, and [Henner] manages to coax it into generating 77500.003Hz on a GPIO pin – close enough to the 77.5kHz carrier that DCF77 uses. The signal is AM, and transmits one bit/s, repeating every minute. A second GPIO performs the required attenuation, and a few loops of wire are sufficient for an antenna which only needs to work over a few inches. The Raspberry Pi syncs with NTP Stratum 1 servers, which gives the system time an accuracy of about ±50ms. The whole thing sits in a slick 3D printed case, which provides a stand for the watch to rest on at night; this means that every morning it’s synchronised and ready to go.

[Henner] also kindly took the time to implement the protocols for WWVB (US), MSF (UK) and JJY (Japan). This might be just as well, given that we recently wrote about the possibility of WWVB being switched off. Be sure to check the rules in your area before giving this a try.

We’ve seen WWVB emulators before, like this ATtiny45 build, but we love that this solution is an easy command line tool which supports many geographical locations.

High Energy Gardening Means Nuking Plants

We live in a world transformed by our ability to manipulate the nucleus of atoms. Nuclear power plants provide abundant energy without polluting the air, yet on the other hand thousands of nuclear warheads sit in multiple countries ready to annihilate everything, even if it’s not on purpose. There are an uncountable number of other ways that humanity’s dive into nuclear chemistry has impacted the lives of people across the world, from medical imaging equipment to smoke detectors and even, surprisingly, to some of the food that we eat.

After World War 2, there was a push to find peaceful uses for atomic energy. After all, dropping two nuclear weapons on a civilian population isn’t great PR and there’s still a debate on whether or not their use was justified. Either way, however, the search was on to find other uses for atomic energy besides bombs. While most scientists turned their attention to creating a viable nuclear power station (the first of which would only come online in 1954, almost ten years after the end of World War 2), a few scientists turned their attention to something much less obvious: plants.

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Retrotechtacular: Gone Fission

This week’s film begins as abruptly as the Atomic Age itself, though it wasn’t produced by General Electric until 1952. No time is wasted in getting to the point of the thing, which is to explain the frightening force of nuclear physics clearly and simply through friendly animations.

[Dr. Atom] from the Bohr Modeling Agency describes what’s going on in his head—the elementary physics of protons, neutrons, and electrons. He explains that atoms can be categorized into families, with uranium weighing in as the heaviest element at the time. While most atoms are stable, some, like radium, are radioactive. This evidently means it stays up all night doing the Charleston and throwing off neutrons and protons in the process of jumping between atomic families. [Dr. Atom] calls this behavior natural transmutation.

Artificial transmutation became a thing in the 1930s after scientists converted nitrogen into oxygen. After a couple of celebratory beers, they decided to fire a neutron at a uranium nucleus just to see what happened. The result is known as nuclear fission. This experiment revealed more about the binding force present in nuclei and the chain reaction of atomic explosions that takes place. It seemed only natural to weaponize this technology. But under the right conditions, a reactor pile made from graphite blocks interspersed with U-235 and -238 rods is a powerful and effective source of energy. Furthermore, radioactive isotopes have advanced the fields of agriculture, industry, medicine, and biochemistry.

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Make Your Own Atomic Clock

We see plenty of clock projects come through, but usually it is their visual or mechanical design that stands out. The DCF-77 LED PIC clock is fun because it is synchronized with the Atomic clock in Braunschweig Germany. The clock picks up the radio signal at 77.5 KHz known as DCF77, and that’s where it got its name.

The circuit looks surprisingly simple and usually costs less than $30 to build, depending on how you piece it together. You can download the schematics and code from the site, but you may have to do a little research about how to catch the signal from your location. The person who wrote this was located in Europe.

[found via HackedGadgets]

Master Clock System Uses All Logic, No Microcontrollers

What you see above is a master clock. It is the center of a system that can run an unlimited number of slave clocks, keeping them on-time thanks to its ability to synchronize with an atomic clock. [Brett Oliver] put together the project back in 2005 using digital logic chips, and no programmable microcontrollers. This includes everything from the binary decoders that drive the 7-segment displays, to the radio transceiver board that gathers the atomic clock data, to the various dividers that output 1 second, 2 second, 30 second, 1 minute, 1 hour, and 24 hour signal pulses. It’s  a well document and fascinating read if you’re interested in digital logic clocks.