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Hackaday Links: August 15, 2021

Unless you’re in the market for a new car, household appliance, or game console, or if you’re involved in the manufacture of these things, chances are pretty good that the global semiconductor shortage hasn’t directly impacted you yet. But we hobbyists might be due for a comeuppance as the chip shortage starts to impact our corner of the market. We suppose it’s natural that supplies of the chips needed to build Arduinos and Raspberry Pis would start to dry up, as semiconductor manufacturers realign their resources to service their most lucrative markets. Still, it was all sort of abstract until now, but seeing dire quotes from the likes of Adafruit, Pololu, and Sparkfun about the long lead times they’re being quoted — some chips won’t be seen until 2023! — is disheartening. As are the reports of price gouging and even hoarding; when a $10 part can suddenly command $350, you know something has gone seriously wrong.

But have no fear — we’re certain the global chip shortage will have no impact on the planned 2027 opening of the world’s first space hotel. Voyager Station — once dubbed Von Braun Station but renamed for some reason — looks for all the world like Space Station V in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, or at least half of it. The thing is enormous — witness the Starship docked in the center hub, as well as the several dozen shuttle-like craft — escape pods, perhaps? — attached to the outer rim. The renders are imaginative, to say the least — the station looks very sleek, completely unfettered by such banalities as, say, solar panels. We get that a private outfit needs to attract deep-pocketed investors, and that one doesn’t do that by focusing on the technical details when they can sell a “premium experience”. But really, if you’re going to space, do you want basically the same look and feel as a premium hotel on Earth, just with a better view? Or would you rather feel like you’ve actually traveled to space?

Speaking of space, did you ever wonder what the first programmable calculator in space was? Neither did we, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t find this detailed story about the HP-65 that was sent up on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 pretty fascinating. The ASTP was the last hurrah of Apollo, and an often underappreciated engineering challenge. Linking up the two spacecraft safely was not trivial, and a fair number of burn calculations had to be made in orbit to achieve rendezvous and docking, as well as to maintain orbit. The HP-65, a programmable calculator that went for about $750 at the time (for the non-space-rated version, of course) had several programs loaded onto its removable magnetic cards, and the Apollo crew used it to verify the results calculated by the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC).

Facebook, a company that exists by providing people with a product they don’t need but now somehow can’t live without, is now dipping a toe into weird, weird waters: reverse-passthrough virtual reality. The idea, we take it, is that as users more widely adopt VR and integrate it into their daily lives, the VR headsets everyone will be wearing will make face-to-face contact more difficult. So what better way to solve that problem than by projecting a live image of the VR user’s eyes onto a screen outside the VR rig, for any and all to see? Pure genius, and not the least bit creepy. They’ve perhaps got a bit of work to go before achieving their goal of “seamless social connection between real and virtual worlds”.

And speaking of eyes, it’s good to know that developers are still hard at work keeping the most vital applications running at peak efficiency on today’s hardware. Yes, the venerable XEyes, a program for the X Window System on Unix-like operating systems that draws a pair of googly eyes on the screen to follow your mouse movements, has finally moved to version 1.2.0. It’s been 11 years since the 1.1.0 upgrade, so it was a long time coming. If you haven’t had the chance to play with XEyes, fear not — just about any Linux machine should be able to show you what you’ve been missing. Or, you know, you could even run it on a camera as the video below the break shows.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: August 15, 2021”

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Hackaday Links: August 8, 2021

Do you have burning opinions about GitHub Copilot, the AI pair programmer that Microsoft introduced a few months ago? Are you worried about the future of free and open software? The Free Software Foundation is funding a call for white papers of 3,000 or fewer words that address either Copilot itself or the subjects of copyright, machine learning, or free software as a whole. If you need more background information first, check out [Maya Posch]’s excellent article on the subject of Copilot and our disappointing AI present. Submissions are due by 10AM EDT (14:00 UTC) on Monday, August 23rd.

There are big antique books, and then there are antiphonaries — these are huge tomes full of liturgical chants and things of that nature. When one of them needs a lot of restoration work, what do you do? You build an all-in-one housing, display case, and cart that carefully holds it up and open (YouTube). Otherwise, you have to have multiple gloved people being extra careful. Jump to about the 14-minute mark to see the device, which is mostly made from extruded aluminum.

In more modern news: you may be waiting out this chip shortage like everyone else, but does it require renting out a bunch of real estate in perpetuity? We didn’t think so. Here’s an aerial photo of a stockpile of Ford Super Duty trucks that are waiting for chips at a dead stop outside the Kentucky Speedway. Thousands of brand new trucks, exposed to the elements for who knows how long. What could go wrong?

While we’re asking questions, what’s in a name? Well, that depends. We’ve all had to think of names for everything from software variables to actual children. For something like a new exoplanet survey, you might as well make the demonym remarkable, like COol COmpanions ON Ultrawide orbiTS, or COCONUTS. Hey, it’s more memorable than calling them X-14 and -15, et cetera. And it’s not like the name isn’t meaningful and descriptive. So, readers: do you think this is the worst name ever, planetary system or otherwise? Does it shake your tree? We’re on the fence.

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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.

Tales From The Global Chip Shortage: Smoothieboard

The semiconductor shortage sparked by the pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down. Although auto manufacturers were some of the first affected, the shortage has now spread and is impacting all sorts of projects, including the Smoothieboard open-source CNC controllers.

[Chris Cecil] walks through the production woes they’ve had over the last few months. It began this spring with a batch of the V1.1 boards. The prices of some of their chips started jumping, and then they were informed that the microcontroller that serves as the brains of the Smoothieboard was only available for five times the old price. In the end, they placed a smaller order, and V1.1 Smoothieboards will likely be scarce until the microcontroller’s price returns to normal.

Getting V2 of the boards into production has been even more difficult. Just weeks before the final prototype, it was discovered that the LPC4330 microcontroller the V2 was built around was also sold out worldwide. With the shortage in mind, a hole was left in the layout of the final version of V2 so that they could finish the design around whatever microcontroller they were able to get. In the end, they were able to lock down a supply of STM32H745 controllers, which are actually substantially more capable than the original device.

If you’re interested in the origins of the chip shortage, this article from January is a good place to start. This isn’t the first time parts shortages have wreaked havoc on the world of electronics—does anyone remember the global resistor shortage of ’18?

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Hackaday Links: July 11, 2021

Well, at least the acronym will stay the same. It looks like black is the new blue for Windows 11, as the BSOD screen gets its first makeover in years. It’s an admittedly minor change, since the on-screen text is virtually identical to the BSOD from recent versions of Windows 10, and the new death-knell even sports the same frowny-face emoji and QR code. Really, the white-on-black color scheme is the only major difference we can see — even the acronym will stay the same. It’s not really that newsworthy, we suppose, although it does make us miss the extremely busy BSODs from back in the Windows NT days.

As the semiconductor shortage continues, manufacturers are getting desperate to procure the parts they need to make their products. And if there’s one thing as certain as death and taxes, it’s that desperation provides opportunity to criminals. A thread over on EEVBlog details an encounter one company had with an alleged scammer, who sent an unsolicited offer to them for a large number of ordinarily hard-to-find microprocessors at a good price. Wisely, the company explored the offer in some depth and found that “Brian” (the representative who contacted them) is actually named Nick Martin and, according to an article on the Electronic Resellers Association International (ERAI) website, is apparently associated with a number of fraudulent operations. Their list of allegedly fraudulent deals made by Mr. Martin stretches back to 2018 and totals over $300,000 of ill-gotten gain.

Last year, friend-of-Hackaday and laser artist Seb Lee-Delisle spent a lot of time and effort getting together an amazing interactive laser light show for the night skies of cities in the UK. Laser Light City, with powerful lasers mounted on the tops of tall buildings, was a smashing success that brought a little cheer into what was an otherwise dreadful time. But we have to admit that the videos and other materials covering Laser Light City left us wanting more — something like that, with a far-flung installation on rooftops and the ability for audience members to control it all from their phone, really needs a deeper “how it works” treatment. Thankfully, Seb has released a video that dives into the nuts and bolts of the show, including a look at ludicrously powerful lasers with beams that can still be seen in broad daylight.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: July 11, 2021”

Ask Hackaday: How Is The Chip Shortage Affecting You?

Some friends of mine are designing a new board around the STM32F103 microcontroller, the commodity ARM chip that you’ll find in numerous projects and on plenty of development boards. When the time came to order the parts for the prototype, they were surprised to find that the usual stockholders don’t have any of these chips in stock, and more surprisingly, even the Chinese pin-compatible clones couldn’t be found. The astute among you may by now have guessed that the culprit behind such a commodity part’s curious lack of availability lies in the global semiconductor shortage.

A perfect storm of political unintended consequences, climate-related crises throttling Taiwanese chip foundries and shutting down those in the USA, and faulty pandemic recovery planning, has left the chipmakers unable to keep up with the demand from industries on the rebound from their COVID-induced slump. Particularly mentioned in this context is the automotive industry, which has seen plants closing for lack of chips and even models ditching digital dashboards for their analogue predecessors.

Chips on order everywhere on the Mouser website.
Chips on order everywhere on the Mouser website.

The fall-out from all this drama in the world’s car factories has filtered down through all levels that depend upon semiconductors; as the carmakers bag every scrap of chip fab capacity that they can, so in turn have other chip customers scrambled to keep their own supply lines in place. A quick scan for microcontrollers through distributors like Mouser or Digi-Key finds pages and pages of lines on back-order or out of stock, with those lines still available being largely either for niche applications, unusual package options, or from extremely outdated product lines. The chances of scoring your chosen chip seem remote and most designers would probably baulk at trying to redesign around an ancient 8-bit part from the 1990s, so what’s to be done?

Such things typically involve commercially sensitive information so we understand not all readers will be able to respond, but we’d like to ask the question: how has the semiconductor shortage affected you? We’ve heard tales of unusual choices being made to ship a product with any microcontroller that works, of hugely overpowered chips replacing commodity devices, and even of specialist systems-on-chip being drafted in to fill the gap. In a few years maybe we’ll feature a teardown whose author wonders why a Bluetooth SoC is present without using the radio functions and with a 50R resistor replacing the antenna, and we’ll recognise it as a desperate measure from an engineer caught up in 2021’s chip shortage.

So tell us your tales from the coalface in the comments below. Are you that desperate engineer scouring the distributors’ stock lists for any microcontroller you can find, or has your chosen device remained in production? Whatever your experience we’d like to know what the real state of the semiconductor market is, so over to you!

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Hackaday Links: April 25, 2021

There’s much news from the Jezero Crater on Mars this week, and all of it was good. Not only did the Ingenuity helicopter make history by making the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet, it made a second longer, more complex flight just a couple of days later. This time, the autonomous rotorwing craft flew to a higher altitude than the maiden flight, hovered for a bit longer, and made a lateral move before landing safely again on the surface. Three more flights of increasing complexity (and risk) are scheduled over the next two weeks, with the next set to happen early Sunday morning. I have to admit that even though the Ingenuity tech demonstration seemed a little like a publicity stunt when I first heard about it, especially when compared to the Perseverance’s main mission of searching for evidence of life on Mars, the Ingenuity team’s successes have made a believer out of me.

Speaking of technology demonstrations, NASA fired up the MOXIE experiment aboard Perseverance for the first time. Intended to explore the possibility of producing oxygen from the thin carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment made about 5.4 grams of oxygen total at a rate of about 6 grams an hour. We detailed the technology MOXIE uses, called solid-oxide electrolysis, which depends on a scandium-stabilized zirconium oxide ceramic electrolyte to strip the oxygen from superheated carbon dioxide using an electric current. Should the technology prove itself over the planned total of ten MOXIE runs over the next few months, a scaled up version of the device could someday land on Mars and produce the estimated 55 metric tons of oxygen needed to fuel a return trip from a crewed mission.

By now we’ve all heard about the global semiconductor shortage, or perhaps felt the pinch ourselves while trying to procure parts for a build. It’s easy to count the crunch as yet another follow-on from the COVID-19 shutdowns and the logistics woes the pandemic begat, so one might have hope that with lockdowns easing up around the world, the shortage will soon be over as manufacturers ramp up production. But not so fast — it looks like the machines needed to make the chips are the latest victims of the shortage. According to Nikkei Asia, wire bonding machines, wafer dicers, and laser drilling machines are all in short supply, with orders for new machines booked out for a year. Like toilet paper this time last year, chip makers are hoarding machines, ordering 50 or 100 of them at a time, in the hopes of having enough to meet production goals. And when machines are available, travel restrictions are making it difficult to get on-site installation and support from factory reps. The bottom line — this isn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

We all know the Stack Overflow memes, and few of us who are being honest haven’t squirmed a bit when thinking about just how screwed we’d be without being able to copy a bit of code to get us past that rough part in a project. But just how often do people copy code from Stack Overflow? Quite a lot, actually, if SO’s analysis of the use of copy commands on their pages is to be believed. For two weeks, SO monitored the number of times the Ctrl-C (or Command-C, if that’s your jam) key combination was pressed. They toted up over 40 million copies, most often from the answers to questions and almost always from the code blocks within them. We suppose none of this is exactly unexpected — memes are memes for a reason, after all — but what we found surprising is that one in four visitors to Stack Overflow copied something within five minutes of loading a page. Being charitable, we’d say the speed with which coders accept someone else’s work is an indication that maybe they were almost at an answer themselves and just needed a little reminder. On the other hand, it could be a sign of separation driving them to get something working.

And finally, while we know we’ve recommended videos from Grady at Practical Engineering recently, we couldn’t help but plug another of his videos as a must-watch. This time, Grady tackles the Suez Canal blockage, and he presents it in the same dispassionate, informed way that he previously handled the engineering roots of the Texas blackouts. If you think the Ever Given grounding was just a case of poor seamanship, think again — Grady makes a compelling case for possible hydrodynamic causes of the incident, including “squatting” and the bank effect. He also speculates on the geotechnical forces that held the ship fast, in the process of which he helpfully introduces the concept of dilatancy and how it explains the way your feet seem to “dry out” a zone around them as you walk across the beach.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: April 25, 2021”