Hackaday Links: July 5, 2020

Remember all the hubbub over Betelgeuse back in February? For that matter, do you even remember February? If you do, you might recall that the red giant in Orion was steadily dimming, which some took as a portent of an impending supernova. That obviously didn’t happen, but we now seem to have an explanation for the periodic dimming: an enormous dark spot on the star. “Enormous” doesn’t begin to describe this thing, which covers 70% of the face of a star that would extend past Jupiter if it replaced the sun. The dimming was originally thought to be dust being blown off the star as it goes through its death throes, but no evidence could be found for that, while direct observations in the terahertz range showed what amounted to a reduction in surface temperature caused by the enormous star spot. We just think it’s incredibly cool that Betelgeuse is so big that we can actually observe it as a disk rather than a pinpoint of light. At least for now.

F-15c cockpit
F-15a cockpit

If you think you’ve seen some challenging user interfaces, wait till you get a load of the cockpit of an F-15C Eagle. As part of a new series on human interfaces, Ars Technica invited Col. Andrea Themely (USAF-ret.) to give a tour of the fighter she has over 1,100 hours on. Bearing in mind that the Eagle entered service in 1976 and has been continually updated with the latest avionics — compare the video with the steam gauges of the cockpit of an F-15A — its cockpit is still a pretty busy place. As much as possible has been done to reduce pilot load, with controls being grouped by function and the use of color-coding — don’t touch the yellow and black stuff! — and the use of tactile feedback. It’s a fascinating deep dive into a workplace that few of us ever get to see, and we’re looking forward to the rest of the series.

Sad news from Seattle, where the Living Computers: Museum + Labs is closing up shop. The announcement only says they’re closing “for now”, so there’s at least some hope that the museum will be back once the COVID-19 downturn has run its course. We hope they do bounce back; it really was a great museum with a lot of amazing hardware on display. The Vintage Computer Festival PNW was held there in its inaugural year, an event we covered and had high hopes for in the future. We hope for the best for these educational and cultural institutions, but we can’t help but fear a little for their future.

So you suffer a partial amputation of your left hand, leaving you with only your thumb and your palm. That raises an interesting conundrum: you haven’t lost enough to replace the hand with a prosthetic one, but you still don’t have any fingers. That appears to be what happened to Ian Davis, and so he built his own partial prosthetic to replace his fingers. There’s not much backstory on his YouTube channel, but from what we can gather he has gone through several designs, most of which are myomechanical rather than myoelectric. Through a series of complex linkages, he’s able to control not only the opening and closing of the fingers, but also to splay them apart. It’s all in the wrist, as it were — his input gestures all come from flexing and extending his hand relative to his forearm, where the prosthesis is anchored. This results in a pretty powerful grip — much stronger than a myoelectric hand in a head-to-head test. And the coolness factor of his work is just off the scale. We’re looking forward to more from Ian, and hopefully enough background information for a full story on what he has accomplished.

Hackaday Links: March 1, 2020

Talk about buried treasure: archeologists in Germany have – literally – unearthed a pristine Soviet spy radio, buried for decades outside of Cologne. While searching for artifacts from a Roman empire settlement, the archeologists found a pit containing the Soviet R-394KM transceiver, built in 1987 and apparently buried shortly thereafter without ever being used. It was found close to a path in the woods and not far from several sites of interest to Cold War-era spies. Curiously, the controls on the radio are labeled not in Cyrillic characters, but in the Latin alphabet, suggesting the radio was to be used by a native German speaker. The area in which it was found is destined to be an open-cast lignite mine, which makes us think that other Cold War artifacts may have fallen victim to the gore-covered blades of Bagger 288.

Good news for Betelgeuse fans, bad news for aficionados of cataclysmic cosmic explosions: it looks like the red giant in Orion isn’t going to explode anytime soon. Betelgeuse has been dimming steadily and rapidly since October of 2019; as a variable star such behavior is expected, but the magnitude of its decline was seen by some astronomers as a sign that the star was reaching the point in its evolution where it would go supernova. Alas, Betelgeuse started to brighten again right on schedule, suggesting that the star is not quite ready to give up the ghost. We’d have loved to witness a star so bright it rivals the full moon, but given the times we live in, perhaps it’s best not to have such a harbinger of doom appear.

If you plan to be in the Seattle area as the winter turns to spring, you might want to check out the Vintage Computer Fair Pacific Northwest. We visited back during the show’s first year and had a good time, and the Living Computers: Museum + Labs, where the event is held, is not to be missed. The Museum of Flight is supposed to be excellent as well, and not far away.

Mozilla announced this week that Firefox would turn on DNS over HTTPS (DoH) by default in the United States. DoH encrypts the DNS requests that are needed to translate a domain name to an IP address, which normally travel in clear text and are therefore easily observed. Easily readable DNS transactions are also key to content blockers, which has raised the hackles of regulators and legislators over the plan, who are singing the usual “think of the children” song. That DoH would make user data collection and ad-tracking harder probably has nothing to do with their protests.

And finally, sad news from California as daredevil and amateur rocketeer “Mad” Mike Hughes has been killed in a crash of his homemade rocket. The steam-powered rocket was to be a follow-up to an earlier, mostly successful flight to about 1,900 feet (580 m), and supposed to reach about 5,000 feet (1.5 km) at apogee. But in an eerily similar repeat of the mishap that nearly killed Evel Knievel during his Snake River Canyon jump in 1974, Mike’s parachute deployed almost as soon as his rocket left the launch rails. The chute introduced considerable drag before being torn off the rocket by the exhaust plume. The rocket continued in a ballistic arc to a considerable altitude, but without a chute Mike’s fate was sealed. Search for the video at your own peril, as it’s pretty disturbing. We never appreciated Mike’s self-professed Flat Earth views, but we did like his style. We suppose, though, that such an ending was more likely than not.