The Day Six Spaceships Landed In England

The BBC, as the British national broadcaster for so many decades, now finds itself also performing the function of keeper of a significant part of the collective national memory. Thus they have an unrivaled resource of quality film and audio recordings on hand for when they look back on the anniversary of a particular story, and the retrospectives they create from them can make for a particularly fascinating read.

This week has seen the fiftieth anniversary of a very unusual event, the day six flying saucers were found to have crash-landed in a straight line across the width of Southern England. It was as though a formation of invaders had entered the atmosphere in a manoeuvre gone wrong, and maintained their relative positions as they hurtled towards the unsuspecting countryside.

Except of course, there were no aliens, and there were no flying saucers. Instead there was a particularly resourceful group of apprentices from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, and the saucers were beautifully made fibreglass and metal creations. They contained electronic sound generators to give an alien-sounding beeping noise, and a fermenting mixture of flour and water for an alien-looking ectoplasmic goo should anybody decide to drill into them. The police were called and the RAF were scrambled, and a media frenzy occurred before finally the jolly hoaxters were unmasked. In those simpler times everyone had a good laugh and got on with their lives, while without a doubt now there would have been a full-blown terrorism scare and a biohazard alert over all that flour paste.

A Hackaday writer never admits her age, but this is a story that happened well before the arrival of this particular scribe. We salute and envy these 1960s pranksters, and hope that they went on to do great things. If you are a British resident you can see an accompanying TV report on their southern regional news programme, Inside Out, on BBC One South East and South today at 19:30 BST, or via BBC iPlayer should you miss it.

Flying saucer confectionery image: jo-h [CC BY 2.0].

A Touchscreen From 1982, That Could Kill With A Single Finger Press

Over the pond here in the UK we used to have a TV show called Tomorrow’s World, It was on once a week showing all the tech we would have been using in 10 years time (or so they said). In 1982 they ran with a story about a touch screen computer. Perhaps not what you would recognize today as a touchscreen but given the date and limited technology someone had come up with a novel idea for a touchscreen that worked sort of.

It was a normal CRT screen but around the edges where photodiodes pointing inwards as if to make an invisible infrared touch interface just half an inch in front of the screen. Quite impressive technology giving the times. As they go through the video showing us how it works a more sinister use of this new-fangled touch screen computer rears its ugly head, They turned it into a pretty cool remote-controlled gun turret complete with a motorized horizontal and vertical axis upon which an air pistol was placed along with a camera. You could see an image back from the camera on the screen, move the gun around to aim the weapon, then with a single finger press on the screen, your target has been hit.

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One Micro Bit Accomplishes Its Goal

Like the Raspberry Pi, the BBC Micro Bit had a goal of being foremost an educational device. Such an inexpensive computer works well with the current trend of cutting public school budgets wherever possible while still being able to get kids interested in coding and computers in general. While both computers have been co-opted by hackers for all kinds of projects (the Pi especially), [David]’s latest build keeps at least his grandkids interested in computers by using the Micro Bit to add some cool features to an old toy.

The toy in question is an old Scalextric slot car racetrack – another well-known product of the UK. But what fun is a race if you can’t keep track of laps or lap times? With the BBC Mirco Bit and some hardware, the new-and-improved racetrack can do all of these things. It also implements a drag race-style light system to start the race and can tell if a car false starts. It may be a little difficult to intuit all of the information that the Micro Bit is displaying on its LED array, but it shouldn’t take too much practice.

The project page goes into great detail on how the project was constructed. Be sure to check out the video below for some exciting races! The build is certain to entertain [David]’s grandkids for some time, as well as help them get involved with programming and building anything that they can imagine. Maybe they’ll even get around to building a robot or two.

Thanks to [Mark] for sending in this tip!

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The Micro:Bit Gets A Foundation

It has been announced that the BBC are to pass their micro:bit educational microcontroller board on to a non-profit-making foundation which will aim to take the project to a global audience. The little ARM-based board with its range of simple on-board peripherals and easy-to-use IDEs was given to every British 13-year-old earlier this year with the aim of introducing them to coding at an early age and recapturing some of the boost that 8-bit BASIC-programmable computers gave the youngsters of the 1980s.

Among the plans for the platform are its localization into European languages, as well as a hardware upgrade and an expansion into the USA and China. Most excitingly from our perspective, the platform will henceforth be open-source, offering the chance of micro:bits finding their way into other projects. To that end thay have placed a reference design in a GitHub repository.

We’ve covered the micro:bit story from the start here at Hackaday, from its launch to the point at which it shipped several months late after a few deadlines had slipped. We reviewed it back in June, and found it a capable enough platform for the job it was designed to do.

This is an interesting step for the little ARM board, and one that should take it from being a slightly odd niche product in one small country to the global mainstream. We can’t help however thinking that price is it’s Achilies’ heel. When it costs somewhere close to £13 in the UK, it starts to look expensive when compared to the far more capable Raspberry Pi Zero at £5 or a Chinese Arduino clone at about £2.50. Here’s hoping that economies of scale will bring it to a lower price point.

Hands-On With The BBC Micro:Bit

It’s been a long wait, but our latest single board computer for review is finally here! The BBC micro:bit, given free to every seventh-grade British child, has landed at Hackaday courtesy of a friend in the world of education. It’s been a year of false starts and delays for the project, but schools started receiving shipments just before the Easter holidays, pupils should begin lessons with them any time now, and you might even be able to buy one for yourself by the time this article goes to press.

The micro:bit top view
The micro:bit top view

It’s a rather odd proposition, to give an ARM based single board computer to coder-newbie children in the hope that they might learn something about how computers work, after all if you are used to other similar boards you might expect the learning curve involved to be rather steep. But the aim has been to position it as more of a toy than the kind of development board we might be used to, so it bears some investigation to see how much of a success that has been.

Opening the package, the micro:bit kit is rather minimalist. The board itself, a short USB lead, a battery box and a pair of AAA cells, an instruction leaflet, and the board itself.  Everything is child-sized, the micro:bit is a curved-corner PCB about 50mm by 40mm. The top of the board has a 5 by 5 square LED matrix and a pair of tactile switches, while the bottom has the surface-mount processor and other components, the micro-USB and power connectors, and a reset button. Along the bottom edge of the board is a multi-way card-edge connector for the I/O lines with an ENIG finish. On the card edge connector several contacts are brought out to wide pads for crocodile clips with through-plated holes to take 4mm banana plugs, these are the ground and 3V power lines, and 3 of the I/O lines.

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I Am Satoshi Nakamoto

OK, you got me. I’m not. Neither is Dorian Nakamoto, pictured above, and neither is this [Craig White] guy. Or at least, his supposed proof that he is “Satoshi” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, you can re-create it yourself and pretend to be “Satoshi” too.

If you haven’t been following along, “Satoshi Nakamoto” is the person or group of people who invented Bitcoin, and who holds a decent fortune’s worth of the currency. He’s been exceedingly careful at keeping his identity secret. So much so, that upon hearing another “We Found Satoshi” story in the news, we actually laughed at our wife this morning. But then it was picked up by the BBC and is forthcoming in the Economist. Serious journalism.

Well, if you read the BBC piece, they note that “Security expert Dan Kaminsky said the procedure was almost ‘maliciously resistant’ to validation.” Hint: If Dan “DNSSEC” Kaminsky can’t verify a signature, there’s a good chance it’s not the real deal.

The really embarrassing part is that this [Craig White] character claimed to be Satoshi in December 2015. If he actually were Satoshi, who is probably a cryptographic genius, do you think it would take him five months to figure out a cryptographically sound way of proving his identity? Nope.

So here’s how he did it, according to [Patrick McKenzie]’s GitHub, linked above. There is a hashed secret out there that only “Satoshi” knows. Hashes are one-way functions; they produce a number that’s easy to calculate if you know the original data, but devilishly hard to work from the hash backwards to get the data out. This hashed value is public, and part of the blockchain, so we can be pretty sure that it hasn’t been altered.

[Craig] claimed to have some text from Sartre hashed with “Satoshi’s” key, and that this proves his identity. But instead of providing the hash of the Sartre text, [Craig] apparently substituted a hash from the blockchain. When this supposed Sartre hash is validated against the blockchain, of course, it works. In short, he swapped hashes, and people failed to notice.

So I’m not “Satoshi”, and neither is this guy. Who is? The mystery continues. And given how careful “Satoshi” has been so far, it’s likely to remain so for a long while. But one thing’s for sure, when “he” does choose to reveal himself, it won’t be difficult to verify. After all “Satoshi” knows “Satoshi’s” password.

Image via the BBC, of another guy who isn’t “Satoshi”.

(Late Edit: Here’s another really nice writeup, this one by [ErrataRob].)

Snake On A BBC Micro:bit

The first of the BBC Micro Bits are slowly making their ways into hacker circulation, as is to be expected for any inexpensive educational gadget (see: Raspberry Pi). [Martin] was able to get his hands on one and created the “hello world” of LED displays: he created a playable game of snake that runs on this tiny board.

For those new to the scene, the Micro Bit is the latest in embedded ARM systems. It has a 23-pin connector for inputs and outputs, it has Bluetooth and USB connectivity, a wealth of sensors, and a 25-LED display. That’s small for a full display but it’s more than enough for [Martin]’s game of snake. He was able to create a hex file using the upyed tool from [ntoll] and upload it to the Micro Bit. Once he worked out all the kinks he went an additional step further and ported the game to Minecraft and the Raspberry Pi Sense HAT.

[Martin] has made all of the code available if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one of these. Right now it seems that they are mostly in the hands of some UK teachers and students, but it’s only a matter of time before they become as ubiquitous as the Raspberry Pi or the original BBC Micro.  It already runs python, so the sky’s the limit on these new boards.

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