Putting The Magic Smoke Back Into A Dodgy Spectrum Analyzer

The trouble with fixing electronics is that most devices are just black boxes — literally. Tear it down, look inside, but it usually doesn’t matter — all you see are black epoxy blobs, taunting you with the fact that one or more of them are dead with no external indication of the culprit.

Sometimes, though, you get lucky, as [FeedbackLoop] did with this Rigol spectrum analyzer fix. The instrument powered up and sort of worked, but the noise floor was unacceptably high. Even before opening it up, there was clearly a problem; in general, spectrum analyzers shouldn’t rattle. Upon teardown, it was clear that someone had been inside before and got reassembly wrong, with a loose fastener and some obviously shorted components to show for it. But while the scorched remains of components made a great place to start diagnosis, it doesn’t mean the fix was going to be easy.

Figuring out the values of the nuked components required a little detective work. The blast zone seemed to once hold a couple of resistors, a capacitor, a set of PIN diodes, and a couple of tiny inductors. Also nearby were a pair of chips, sadly with the markings lasered off. With some online snooping and a little bit of common sense, [FeedbackLoop] was able to come up with plausible values for most of these — even the chips, which turned out to be HMC221 RF switches.

Cleaning up the board was a bit of a chore — the shorted components left quite a crater in the board, which was filled with CA glue, and a bunch of missing pads. This called for some SMD soldering heroics, which sadly didn’t fix the noise problem. Replacing the two RF switches and the PIN diodes seemed to fix the problem, albeit at the cost of some loss. Sometimes, good enough is good enough.

This isn’t the first time [FeedbackLoop] has gotten lucky with choice test equipment in need of repairs — this memory module transplant on a scopemeter comes to mind.

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Open-Source LAMP Instrument Aimed At Clinicians And Biohackers Alike

Over the last few years, we’ve all been given a valuable lesson in both the promise and limitations of advanced molecular biology methods for clinical diagnostics. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was held up as the “gold standard” of COVID-19 testing, but the cost, complexity, and need for advanced instrumentation and operators with specialized training made PCR difficult to scale to the levels demanded by a pandemic.

There are other diagnostic methods, of course, some of which don’t have all the baggage of PCR. RT-LAMP, or reverse transcriptase loop-mediated amplification, is one method with a lot of promise, especially when it can be done on a cheap open-source instrument like qLAMP. For about 50€, qLAMP makes amplification and detection of nucleic acids, like the RNA genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a benchtop operation that can be performed by anyone. LAMP is an isothermal process; it can be done at one single temperature, meaning that no bulky thermal cycler is required. Detection is via the fluorescent dye SYTO 9, which layers into the base pairs inside the amplified DNA strands, using a 470-nm LED for excitation and a photodiode with a filter to detect the emission. Heating is provided by a PCB heater and a 3D-printed aluminum block that holds tubes for eight separate reactions. Everything lives in a 3D-printed case, including the ESP32 which takes care of all the housekeeping and data analysis duties.

With the proper test kits, which cost just a couple of bucks each, qLAMP would be useful for diagnosing a wide range of diseases, and under less-than-ideal conditions. It could also be a boon to biohackers, who could use it for their own citizen science efforts. We saw a LAMP setup at the height of the pandemic that used the Mark 1 eyeball as a detector; this one is far more quantitative.

App Detects Parkinsons Disease And COVID-19 Via Audio

One of the challenges of diagnosing diseases is identifying them early. At this stage, signs may be vague or confusing, or difficult to identify. Early diagnosis is often tied to the best possible treatment outcomes, so there’s plenty of incentives to improve methods in this way.

A new voice-based method of diagnosing disease could prove fruitful in this regard. It relies on machine learning techniques to detect when patients may be suffering from certain conditions.

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Hackaday Links: August 25, 2019

Doesn’t the Z-axis on 3D-printers seem a little – underused? I mean, all it does is creep up a fraction of a millimeter as the printer works through each slice. It would be nice if it could work with the other two axes and actually do something interesting. Which is exactly what’s happening in the nonplanar 3D-printing methods being explored at the University of Hamburg. Printing proceeds normally up until the end, when some modifications to Slic3r allow smooth toolpaths to fill in the stairsteps and produce a smooth(er) finish. It obviously won’t work for all prints or printers, but it’s nice to see the Z-axis finally pulling its weight.

If you want to know how something breaks, best to talk to someone who looks inside broken stuff for a living. [Roger Cicala] from LensRentals.com spends a lot of time doing just that, and he has come to some interesting conclusions about how electronics gear breaks. For his money, the prime culprit in camera and lens breakdowns is side-mounted buttons and jacks. The reason why is obvious once you think about it: components mounted perpendicular to the force needed to operate them are subject to a torque. That’s a problem when the only thing holding the component to the board is a few SMD solder pads. He covers some other interesting failure modes, too, and the whole article is worth a read to learn how not to design a robust product.

In the seemingly neverending quest to build the world’s worst Bitcoin mining rig, behold the 8BitCoin. It uses the 6502 processor in an Apple ][ to perform the necessary hashes, and it took a bit of doing to port the 32-bit SHA256 routines to an 8-bit platform. But therein lies the hack. But what about performance? Something something heat death of the universe…

Contributing Editor [Tom Nardi] dropped a tip about a new online magazine for people like us. Dubbed Paged Out!, the online quarterly ‘zine is a collection of contributed stories from hackers, programmers, retrocomputing buffs, and pretty much anyone with something to say. Each article is one page and is formatted however the author wants to, which leads to some interesting layouts. You can check out the current issue here; they’re still looking for a bunch of articles for the next issue, so maybe consider writing up something for them – after you put it on Hackaday.io, of course.

Tipline stalwart [Qes] let us know about an interesting development in semiconductor manufacturing. Rather than concentrating on making transistors smaller, a team at Tufts University is making transistors from threads. Not threads of silicon, or quantum threads, or threads as a metaphor for something small and high-tech. Actual threads, like for sewing. Of course, there’s plenty more involved, like carbon nanotubes — hey, it was either that or graphene, right? — gold wires, and something called an ionogel that holds the whole thing together in a blob of electrolyte. The idea is to remove all rigid components and make truly flexible circuits. The possibilities for wearable sensors could be endless.

And finally, here’s a neat design for an ergonomic utility knife. It’s from our friend [Eric Strebel], an industrial designer who has been teaching us all a lot about his field through his YouTube channel. This knife is a minimalist affair, designed for those times when you need more than an X-Acto but a full utility knife is prohibitively bulky. [Eric’s] design is a simple 3D-printed clamshell that holds a standard utility knife blade firmly while providing good grip thanks to thoughtfully positioned finger depressions. We always get a kick out of watching [Eric] design little widgets like these; there’s a lot to learn from watching his design process.

Thanks to [JRD] and [mgsouth] for tips.

IBM PCjr Revived By An ATX Power Supply And Many False Starts

The IBM PCjr was a computer only the marketing geniuses of a multi-billion dollar corporation could love. On the face of it, it seemed like a great idea – a machine for the home market, meant to complement the “big boy” IBM PC in the office and compete against the likes of Apple and Commodore. What it ended up as was a universally hated, only partially PC-compatible machine which sold a mere half-million units before being mercifully killed off.

That doesn’t mean retrocomputing fans don’t still snap up the remaining machines, of course. [AkBKukU] scored a PCjr from a thrift store, but without the original external brick power supply. An eBay replacement for the 18-VAC supply would have cost more than the computer, so [AkBKukU] adapted a standard ATX power supply to run the PCjr. It looked as if it would be an easy job, since the external brick plugs into a power supply card inside the case which slots into the motherboard with a card-edge connector. Just etch up a PCB, solder on an ATX Molex connector, and plug it in, right? Well, not quite. The comedy of errors that ensued, from the backward PCB to the mysteriously conductive flux, nearly landed this one in the “Fail of the Week” bin. But [AkBKukU] soldiered on, and his hand-scratched adapter eventually prevailed; the video below tells the whole sordid tale, which thankfully ended with the sound of the machine booting from the 5-1/4″-floppy drive.

In the end, we’ve got to applaud [AkBKukU] for taking on the care and feeding of a machine so unloved as to be mentioned only a handful of times even on these pages. One of those articles marks the 25th anniversary of the PCjr, and lays out some of the reasons for its rapid disappearance from the market.

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Modular Blocks Help Fight Disease

When engineering a solution to a problem, an often-successful approach is to keep the design as simple as possible. Simple things are easier to produce, maintain, and use. Whether you’re building a robot, operating system, or automobile, this type of design can help in many different ways. Now, researchers at MIT’s Little Devices Lab have taken this philosophy to testing for various medical conditions, using a set of modular blocks.

Each block is designed for a specific purpose, and can be linked together with other blocks. For example, one block may be able to identify Zika virus, and another block could help determine blood sugar levels. By linking the blocks together, a healthcare worker can build a diagnosis system catered specifically for their needs. The price tag for these small, simple blocks is modest as well: about $0.015, or one and a half cents per block. They also don’t need to be refrigerated or handled specially, and some can be reused.

This is an impressive breakthrough that is poised to help not only low-income people around the world, but anyone with a need for quick, accurate medical diagnoses at a marginal cost. Keeping things simple and modular allows for all kinds of possibilities, as we recently covered in the world of robotics.

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Detecting Dire Diseases – With A Selfie?

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. But with a new smartphone app, the eyes may be a diagnostic window into the body that might be used to prevent a horrible disease — pancreatic cancer. A research team at the University of Washington led by [Alex Mariakakis] recently described what they call “BiliScreen,” a smartphone app to detect pancreatic disease by imaging a patient’s eyes.

Pancreatic cancer is particularly deadly because it remains asymptomatic until it’s too late. One early symptom is jaundice, a yellow-green discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes as the blood pigment bilirubin accumulates in the body. By the time enough bilirubin accumulates to be visible to the naked eye, things have generally progressed to the inoperable stage. BiliScreen captures images of the eyes and uses image analysis techniques to detect jaundice long before anyone would notice. To control lighting conditions, a 3D-printed mask similar to Google’s Cardboard can be used; there’s also a pair of glasses that look like something from [Sir Elton John]’s collection that can be used to correct for ambient lighting. Results look promising so far, with BiliScreen correctly identifying elevated bilirubin levels 90% of the time, as compared to later blood tests. Their research paper has all the details (PDF link).

Tools like BiliScreen could really make a difference in the early diagnosis and prevention of diseases. For an even less intrusive way to intervene in disease processes early, we might also be able to use WiFi to passively detect Parkinson’s.

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