Homebrew ROM Reader Saves Data From A Vintage Minicomputer

Have you ever heard of a Centurion minicomputer? If not, don’t feel bad — we hadn’t either, until [David Lovett] stumbled upon a semi-complete version of the 1980-ish mini in all its wood-trimmed, dust-encased glory. And what does a hacker do with such an acquisition but attempt to get it going again?

Of course, getting a machine from the Reagan administration running is not without its risks, including the chance of losing whatever is on the machine’s many ROM chips forever. When finding a commercial ROM reader supporting the various chips proved difficult, [David] decided to build his own. The work was eased considerably by the fact that he had managed to read one chip in a commercial reader, giving him a baseline to compare his circuit against. The hardware is straightforward — a 12-bit counter built from a trio of cascaded 74LS161s to step through addresses, plus an Arduino Nano to provide clock pulses and to read the data out to the serial port.

The circuit gave the same results as the known good read, meaning results would be valid for the rest of the chips. The breadboard setup made supporting multiple ROM pinouts easy, even for the chips that take -9 volts. What exactly the data on the ROMs mean, if anything, remains a mystery, but at least it’s backed up now.

Before anyone notes the obvious, yes, [David] could have used a 555 to clock the reader — perhaps even this one. We’d actually have loved that, but we get it — sometimes you just need to throw an Arduino at a job and be done with it.

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Hackaday Links: August 1, 2021

Amateur radio operators have a saying: When all else fails, there’s ham radio. And that’s true, at least to an extent — knock out the power, tear down the phone lines, and burn up all the satellites in orbit, and there will still be hams talking about politics on 40 meters. The point is, as long as the laws of physics don’t change, hams will figure out a way to send and receive messages. In honor of that fact, the police in the city of Pune in Maharashtra, India, make it a point to exchange messages with their headquarter using Morse code once a week. The idea is to maintain a backup system, in case they can’t get a message through any other way. It’s a good idea, especially since they rotate all their radio operators through the Sunday morning ritual. We can’t imagine that most emergency services dispatchers would be thrilled about learning Morse, though.

Just because you’re a billionaire with a space company doesn’t mean you’re an astronaut. At least that’s the view of the US Federal Aviation Administration, which issued guidelines pretty much while Jeff Bezos and his merry band of cohorts were floating about above the 100-km high Kármán line in a Blue Origin “New Shepard” rocket. The FAA guidelines make it clear that those making the trip need to have actually done something to qualify as an astronaut, by “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” That’s good news to the “Old Shepard”, who clearly was in control of “Freedom 7” during the Mercury program. But the Bezos brothers, teenager Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” group of women who trained to be NASA astronauts but never got to fly, were really just along for the ride, as the entire flight was automated. It doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve been to space and you haven’t, of course, but they can’t officially call themselves astronauts. This goes to show that even billionaires can just be ballast too.

Good news, everyone — if you had anything that was being transported aboard the Ever Given, your stuff is almost there. The Suez Canal-occluding container ship finally made it to its original destination in Rotterdam, approximately four months later than originally predicted.  After plugging up the vital waterway for six days last March, the ship along with her cargo and her crew were detained in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, perhaps the coolest sounding body of water in the world next to the Dead Sea. Legal squabbling ensued at that point, all the while rendering whatever was in the 20,000-odd containers aboard the ship pretty much pointless. We’d imagine that even with continuous power, whatever was in the refrigerated containers must be pretty nasty by now, so there’s probably a lot of logistics and clean-up left to sort out.

I have to admit that I have a weird love of explosive bolts. I don’t know what it is, but the idea of fasteners engineered to fail in a predictable way under the influence of pyrotechnic charges just tickles something in me. I mean, I even wrote a whole article on the subject once. So when I came across this video explaining how the Space Shuttles were held to the launch pad, I really had to watch it. Surprisingly, the most interesting part of this story was not the explosive aspect, but the engineering problem of supporting the massive vehicle on the launch pad. For as graceful as the Shuttles seemed once they got into orbit, they really were ungainly beasts, especially strapped to the external fuel tank and booster. The scale of the eight frangible nuts used to secure the boosters to the pad is just jaw-dropping. We also liked the idea that NASA decided to catch the debris from the explosions in a container filled with sand.

Tales From The Sysadmin: Impending Hard Drive Doom

It should have been another fine day, but not all was well in paradise. Few things bring a creeping feeling of doom like a computer that hardlocks and then refuses to boot. The clicking sound coming from the tower probably isn’t a good sign either. Those backups are up to date, right? Right?

There are some legends and old stories about hard drive repair. One of my favorites is the official solution to stiction for old drives: Smack it with a mallet. Another trick I’ve heard repeatedly is to freeze a hard drive before trying to read data off of it. This could actually be useful in a couple instances. The temperature change can help with stiction, and freezing the drive could potentially help an overheating drive last a bit longer. The downside is the potential for condensation inside the drive. Don’t turn to one of these questionable fixes unless you’ve exhausted the safer options.

For the purpose of this article, we’ll assume the problem is the hard drive, and not another component like a power supply or SATA cable causing problems. A truly dead drive is a topic for another time, but if the drive is alive enough to show up as a block device when plugged in, then there’s hope for recovering the data. One of the USB to SATA cables available on your favorite online store is a great way to recover data. Another option is booting off a Linux DVD or flash drive, and accessing the drive in place. If you’re lucky, you can just copy your files and call it a day. If the file transfer fails because of the dying drive, or you need a full disk image, it’s time to pull out some tools and get to work. Continue reading “Tales From The Sysadmin: Impending Hard Drive Doom”

New Year Habits – What Do You Do For Data Storage?

2020 is a year of reflection and avoiding regret, and one of the biggest practices we all know we should do better is back up our data. Inevitably there will be a corruption or accident, and we mourn the loss of some valuable data and vow to never let it happen again, and then promptly forget about good data retention practices.

I believe life is about acquiring memories, so it makes sense to me to try to archive and store those memories so that I can reflect on them later, but data storage and management is a huge pain. There’s got to be a better way (cue black and white video of clumsy person throwing up arms in disgust).

Nice Cloud You Have There; Shame if Something Happened to It

The teens of the century saw a huge shift towards cloud storage. The advantages of instantly backing up files and using the cloud as the primary storage for all your devices is appealing. It’s now easier to transfer files via the cloud than with a cable. With Google Docs and WordPress we have our most important documents and writing stored as database blobs on someone else’s servers. Facebook and Google and Flickr record all of our memories as photo albums. Unlimited storage is common, and indexing is so good that we can find photos with a vague description of their contents.

These things are instantly accessible, but lack permanence. Gone are newspaper clippings and printed photos discovered in a shoebox. When we aren’t in control of those services, they can disappear without any warning. Even some big offerings have packed up shop, leaving people scrambling to back up data before the servers were shut down. Google Plus is closed, Yahoo  Groups is closed, MySpace lost all content created prior to 2016, GeoCities closed in 2009, and Ubuntu One closed in 2014. It’s safe to say that no online content is safe from deletion. It’s also safe to say that cloud storage is a difficult location from which to extract your data.

With the risk of data leaks and privacy violations occurring daily, it’s also safe to say that some of your files should probably not be stored in the cloud in the first place. So, how do we do it well, and how do we get in the habit of doing it regularly?

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DIY Photo Backup In The Field

They say a file isn’t backed up if it isn’t backed up twice. This is easy enough to do if you have access to your computer and a network, but if you’re a photographer you might end up in a place without either of these things and need a way to back up the files you just created. For that you’ll need a specialized photo backup tool which you can easily build yourself.

While commercial offerings are available which back up files locally from a camera’s SD card to another medium, they suffer from a high price. [André]’s solution can be had for a fraction of that cost. Using a Raspberry Pi Zero, a tiny USB hub, and a high capacity jump drive, a photographer can simply plug in an SD card and the Pi will handle the backups with varying levels of automation. The software that [André] made use of is called Little Backup Box written by [Dmitri Popov] and can be used typically as an automatic backup for any other device as well.

This is a great solution to backing up files on the go, whether they’re from a camera or any device that uses an SD card. Removable storage is tiny and easily lost, so it’s good to have a few backups in case the inevitable happens. Raspberry Pis are an ideal solution to data backup, and can even be battery powered if you’re really roughing it for a few days.

Google+ Communities Won’t Go Down Without A Fight

Google+ is dead. Granted people have been saying that much for years now, but this time it’s really true. As of April, Google’s social media experiment will officially go the way of Reader, Buzz, Wave, Notebook, and all the other products that the search giant decided they were no longer interested in maintaining. Unfortunately in the case of Google+, the shutdown means losing a lot of valuable content that was buried in the “Communities” section of the service. Or at least that’s what we all thought.

Thanks to the efforts of [Michael Johnson], many of those Google+ communities now have a second chance at life. After taking a deep dive into the data from his own personal Google+ account, he realized it should be possible to write some code that would allow pulling the content out of Google’s service and transplanting it into a Discourse instance. With some more work, he was even able to figure out how to preserve the ownership of the comments and posts. This is no simple web archive; you can actually log into Discourse with your Google account and have all of your old content attributed to you. Continue reading “Google+ Communities Won’t Go Down Without A Fight”

Ask Hackaday: What’s In Your Digital Bugout Bag?

Your eyes pop open in the middle of the night, darting around the darkened bedroom as you wonder why you woke up. Had you heard something? Or was that a dream? The matter is settled with loud pounding on the front door. Heart racing as you see blue and red lights playing through the window, you open the door to see a grim-faced police officer standing there. “There’s been a hazardous materials accident on the highway,” he intones. “We need to completely evacuate this neighborhood. Gather what you need and be ready to leave in 15 minutes.”

Most people will live their entire lives without a scenario like this playing out, but such things happen all the time. Whether the disaster du jour is man-made or natural, the potential to need to leave in a big hurry is very real, and it pays to equip yourself to survive such an ordeal. The primary tool for this is the so-called “bugout bag,” a small backpack for each family member that contains the essentials — clothing, food, medications — to survive for 72 hours away from home.

A bugout bag can turn a forced evacuation from a personal emergency into a minor inconvenience, as those at greatest risk well know — looking at you, Tornado Alley. But in our connected world, perhaps it pays to consider updating the bugout bag to include the essentials of our online lives, those cyber-needs that we’d be hard-pressed to live without for very long. What would a digital bugout bag look like?

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