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Hackaday Links: July 18, 2021

Tell the world that something is in short supply, and you can bet that people will start reacting to that news in the ways that make the most sense to them — remember the toilet paper shortage? It’s the same with the ongoing semiconductor pinch, except that since the item in short supply is (arguably) more valuable than toilet paper, the behavior and the risks people are willing to take around it are even more extreme. Sure, we’ve seen chip hoarding, and a marked rise in counterfeit chips. But we’d imagine that this is the first time we’ve seen chip smuggling quite like this. The smuggler was caught at the Hong Kong-Macao border with 256 Core i7 and i9 processors, valued at about $123,000, strapped to his legs and chest. It reminds us more of “Midnight Express”-style heroin smuggling, although we have to say we love the fact that this guy chose a power of 2 when strapping these babies on.

Speaking of big money, let’s say you’ve pulled off a few chip heists without getting caught, and have retired from the smuggling business. What is one to do with the ill-gotten gains? Apparently, there’s a big boom in artifacts from the early days of console gaming, so you might want to start spreading some money around there. But you’d better prepare to smuggle a lot of chips: last week, an unopened Legend of Zelda cartridge for the NES sold for $870,000 at auction. Not to be outdone, two days later someone actually paid $1.56 million for a Super Mario 64 cartridge, this time apparently still in the tamperproof container that displayed it on a shelf somewhere in 1996. Nostalgia can be an expensive drug.

And it’s not just video games that are commanding high prices these days. If you’ve got a spare quarter million or so, why not bid on this real Apollo Guidance Computer and DSKY? The AGC is a non-flown machine that was installed in LTA-8, the “lunar test article” version of the Landing Module (LM) that was used for vacuum testing. If the photos in the auction listing seem familiar, it’s with good reason: this is the same AGC that was restored to operating condition by Carl Claunch, Mike Stewart, Ken Shiriff, and Marc Verdiell. Sotheby’s estimates the value at $200,000 to $300,000; in a world of billionaire megalomaniacs with dreams of space empires, we wouldn’t be surprised if a working AGC went for much, much more than that.

Meanwhile, current day space exploration is going swimmingly. Just this week NASA got the Hubble Space Telescope back online, which is great news for astronomers. And on Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter just keeps on delivering during its “operations demonstration” mission. Originally just supposed to be a technology demonstration, Ingenuity has proven to be a useful companion to the Perseverance rover, scouting out locations of interest to explore or areas of hazard to avoid. On the helicopter’s recent ninth flight, it scouted a dune field for the team, providing photographs that showed the area would be too dangerous for the rover to cross. The rover’s on-board navigation system isn’t great at seeing sand dunes, so Ingenuity’s images are a real boon to mission planners, not to mention geologists and astrobiologists, who are seeing promising areas of the ancient lakebed to explore.

And finally, most of us know all too well how audio feedback works, and all the occasions to avoid it. But what about video feedback? What happens when you point a camera that a screen displaying the image from the camera? Fractals are what happens, or at least something that looks a lot like fractals. Code Parade has been playing with what he calls “analog fractals”, which are generated just by video feedback and not by computational means. While he’d prefer to do this old school with analog video equipment, it easy enough to replicate on a computer; he even has a web page that lets you arrange a series of virtual monitors on your screen. Point a webcam at the screen, and you’re off on a fractal journey that constantly changes and shifts. Give it a try.

Psst – Wanna Buy A Control Panel From A Nuclear Power Station?

Doing the rounds today is an interesting lot in an otherwise unexciting industrial dispersal auction in Lincolnshire, UK. On sale is an “Ex nuclear plant reactor control/monitoring system“, at the time of writing attracting the low low bid of £220 ($270), but we guess it will rise. Everyone who has watched Chernobyl (or maybe The Simpsons) is now gazing awestruck at a crescent of metal consoles covered in screens, buttons, and joysticks just waiting for a staff of white-coated technicians to pore over them.

Chernobyl Unit 3 control room (still active). [Source: IAEA Imagebank on Flickr CC-SA 2.0]
It’s a very cool lot indeed, but it raises more questions than it answers. The auction house has very little information indeed, so we’re left guessing, where did it come from? From this image showing the unit 3 control room at Chernobyl it’s obvious didn’t come from there (/s). Since it is for sale in the UK, and the country has decommissioned the majority of its first-generation reactors by now, so there is no shortage of candidates. But that intriguing possibility raises another question. Is it even a reactor control panel in the first place?

British civilian nuclear plants have tight security but they are hardly a secret, so plenty of photos are online showing their interiors. And in studying those we hit a problem, this panel doesn’t resemble any of the control panel images we can find. The first generation of Magnox (Magnetic Oxide Magnesium Non Oxidising) plants had panels covered in analogue dials and chart recorders so it’s unlikely to be one of those. The second-generation AGR (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor) stations had similarly complex panels, and it’s evidently not one of them.

Looking closely at the photos it becomes apparent that there are a lot of camera controls and monitors, and even what looks like a uMatic video recorder. It’s definitely nuclear-related and the 1980s look of it suggests maybe it could have come from an Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor (AGR) station, but could it be a little closer to Sector 7G than the centre of the action? Is it a video monitoring console used to keep a physical eye on its operation?

Be careful if you bid, you could end up with a rather cool but absurdly large 1980s CCTV system. Can any of our readers shed any light on the matter?

Thanks [Gregg “Cabe” Bond] for the tip.

How 5G Is Likely To Put Weather Forecasting At Risk

If the great Samuel Clemens were alive today, he might modify the famous meteorological quip often attributed to him to read, “Everyone complains about weather forecasts, but I can’t for the life of me see why!” In his day, weather forecasting was as much guesswork as anything else, reading the clouds and the winds to see what was likely to happen in the next few hours, and being wrong as often as right. Telegraphy and better instrumentation made forecasting more scientific and improved accuracy steadily over the decades, to the point where we now enjoy 10-day forecasts that are at least good for planning purposes and three-day outlooks that are right about 90% of the time.

What made this increase in accuracy possible is supercomputers running sophisticated weather modeling software. But models are only as good as the raw data that they use as input, and increasingly that data comes from on high. A constellation of satellites with extremely sensitive sensors watches the planet, detecting changes in winds and water vapor in near real-time. But if the people tasked with running these systems are to be believed, the quality of that data faces a mortal threat from an unlikely foe: the rollout of 5G cellular networks.

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Pristine Apple I Sells At Auction For A Jaw-Dropping Price

If you think Apple products are overpriced now, wait until they’re 50 years old.

This original Apple I recently sold at auction for $375,000, making it one of the most expensive 6502-based computers in history. Given that only something like 60 or 70 of the machines were ever made are known to exist, most built by hand by [Jobs] and [Wozniak], it’s understandable how collectors fought for the right to run the price up from the minimum starting bid of $50,000. And this one was particularly collectible. According to the prospectus, this machine had few owners, the most recent of whom stated that he attended a meeting of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club to see what all the fuss was. He bought it second-hand from a coworker for $300, fiddled with it a bit, and stashed it in a closet. A few years later, after the Apple ][ became a huge phenomenon, he tried to sell the machine to [Woz] for $10,000. [Woz] didn’t bite, and as a result, the owner realized a 125,000% return on his original investment, before inflation.

The machine was restored before hitting the auction block, although details of what was done were not shared. But it couldn’t have been much since none of the previous owners had even used the prototyping area that was so thoughtfully provided on the top edge of the board. It was sold with period-correct peripherals including a somewhat janky black-and-white security monitor, an original cassette tape interface, and a homebrew power supply. Sadly, there’s no word who bought the machine – it was an anonymous purchase.

Hackers, check your scrap bins. Anything hanging out there that might be worth six figures in a few decades? It’s unlikely, but if you get lucky, hacking just might turn into your retirement plan.

Thanks to [my wife] for the tip on this one.

Wrecked Civic Rides Again As Cozy Camp Trailer

It may not be the typical fare that we like to feature, but you can’t say this one isn’t a hack. It’s a camp trailer fashioned from the back half of a wrecked Honda Civic, and it’s a pretty unique project.

We don’t know about other parts of the world, but a common “rural American engineering” project is to turn the bed and rear axle of an old pickup truck into a trailer. [monickingbird]’s hacked Civic is similar to these builds, but with much more refinement. Taking advantage of the intact and already appointed passenger compartment of a 1997 Civic that had a really bad day, [monickingbird] started by lopping off as much of the front end as possible. Front fenders, the engine, transmission, and the remains of the front suspension and axle all fell victim to grinder, drill, and air chisel. Once everything in front of the firewall was amputated, the problem of making the trailer safely towable was tackled. Unlike the aforementioned pickup trailers, the Civic lacks a separate frame, so [monickingbird] had to devise a way to persuade the original unibody frame members to accept his custom trailer tongue assembly. Once roadworthy, the aesthetics were tackled — replacing the original interior with a sleeping area, installing electrics and sound, and a nice paint job. Other drivers may think the towing vehicle is being seriously tailgated, but it seems like a comfy and classy way to camp.

Now that the trailer is on the road, what to do with all those spare Civic parts? Sure, there’s eBay, but how about a nice PC case featuring a dashboard gauge cluster?

Just In Time For The Holidays: Give The Gift Of Cray

The name Cray, as in [Seymour Cray] is synonymous with supercomputing. If you hurry, you can bid on a Cray J90/J916 on eBay. You might want to think about where to put it though. It is mounted on a trailer, requires 480V, and the shipping is $3,000!

First introduced in 1994, the J90 was an “entry level” machine. This particular machine supported up to 16 CPUs (each CPU was actually two chips) running at a blazing 100 MHz. The memory system was more impressive, achieving 48 GB/s.

The Cray T90 computer was much faster (and more expensive) but none of these computers had the performance of a typical PC’s graphics card these days. Even your phone may have more raw computing power, depending on how you choose to measure. Don’t fear, though. Cray Research still makes supercomputers that can eat your phone for lunch.

Still, at the time, this was big iron. The I/O system used SPARC processors that would have been entire workstations in that era. The eBay listing says it might need a little work — we weren’t clear if the seller meant in general or just the cooling system, but you can assume this is a fixer-upper. Apparently, the Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island restored a similar beast so it can be done.

If your holiday budget doesn’t have room for a real supercomputer, here’s one that is 1/10 the size and much less expensive. Or, you could just pretend.

Take Robby Home

Ok, we’ll stipulate it right up front: this isn’t a hack. But you have to admit, it would make a fine starting point for a truly epic one. Robby the Robot — the robot from the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet is up for sale. Well, technically he isn’t so much a robot as he is a suit with some animatronics. The auction lot includes Robby, his (non-functioning) vehicle, a control panel, and some other accouterments. If you have deep pockets, you’ll need to bid before November 21.

MGM reportedly spent $125,000 on Robby which was a crazy amount of money in the 1950s. In today’s currency, that would be well over a million bucks. They got their money’s worth, though, as Robby appeared in movies and TV shows including Lost in Space and several episodes of the Twilight Zone. He even made a motionless cameo on The Big Bang Theory.

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