Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: December 26, 2021

At the time of this writing, the James Webb Space Telescope was perched upon its ride to space, ready for its much-delayed launch from the ESA spaceport in French Guiana. The $10 billion space observatory suffered one final delay (knocks on wood) when predictions of high winds aloft pushed it back from a Christmas Eve launch to a Christmas Day departure, at 12:20 UTC. Given the exigencies of the day, we doubt we’ll be able to watch the launch live — then again, past experience indicates we’ll still be wrapping presents at 4:20 PST. Either way, here’s hoping that everything comes off without a hitch, and that astronomers get the present they’ve been waiting many, many Christmases for.

In other space news, things are getting really interesting on Mars. The ESA announced that their ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has detected signs of water in the Valles Marineris. The satellite found a large area of increased hydrogen concentration in the top meter of Martian soil; the assumption is that the hydrogen comes from water, meaning that as much as 40% of the material in the region scanned may be water. If so, that’s a huge find, as we thought most of Mars’ water was locked in the polar regions. The Mariner Valley stretches more than 4,000 km just below the equator, and so may prove to be an important resource for future explorers.

Meanwhile, in Jezero crater, Perseverance has decided to upstage its rotorcraft sidekick for a change by finding signs of organic molecules on Mars. It’s not the first time organic compounds have been found — Perseverance’s cousin Curiosity found some too, ESA’s Mars Express mission spotted methane from on high, and then there were the equivocal but intriguing results from the Viking missions in the 1970s. But the latest evidence is really great news for the scientists who picked Jezero crater as a likely place to search for signs of past life on Mars. The organics found are not proof of life by any means, as there are many ways to make organic molecules abiotically. But then again, if you’re going to find evidence of life on Mars, you’ve got to start with detecting organics.

Back on Earth, getting your laptop stolen would be bad enough. But what if it got yoinked while it was unlocked? Depending on who you are and what you do with that machine, it could be a death sentence. That’s where BusKill could come in handy. It’s a hardware-software approach to securing a laptop when it — or you — suddenly goes missing. A dongle with a breakaway magnetic lanyard gets plugged into a USB port, and the other end of the lanyard gets attached to your person. If you get separated from your machine, the dongle sends customizable commands to either lock the screen or, for the sufficiently paranoid, nuke the hard drive. The designs are all up on GitHub, so check it out and think about what else this could be useful for.

If you like the look of low-poly models but hate the work involved in making them, our friend and Hack Chat alumnus Andrew Sink came up with a solution: an online 3D low-poly generator. The tool is pretty neat; it uses three.js and runs completely in-browser. All you have to do is upload an STL file and set sliders to get rid of as many triangles as you want. Great stuff, and fun to play with even if you don’t need to decimate your polygons.

And finally, what have you done with your oscilloscope for the last three years? Most of us can’t answer that except in the vaguest of terms, but then there’s DrTune, who took three years’ worth of screencaps from this Rigol DS1054z and strung them together into a 60-second movie. He swears he didn’t purposely sync the video to the soundtrack, which is “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov, but in some places it’s just perfect. See if you can guess what DrTune has been working on by watching the waveforms fly by. And watch for Easter eggs.

Overall view of Alta's Projects cyberdeck

Cyberdeck Running On Apple Silicon, Though An A12 Not An M1

[Alta’s Projects] built a two-in-one cyberdeck that not only contains the requisite Raspberry Pi (a zero in this case) but also eschews a dumb LCD and uses an iPad mini 5 for a display.

We need to address the donor case right away. Some likely see this as heresy, and while we love to see vintage equipment lovingly restored, upcycling warms our hearts and keeps mass-produced plastic out of landfills too. The 1991 AST 386SX/20 notebook in question went for $45 on an online auction and likely was never destined for a computer museum.

Why is Cupertino’s iOS anywhere near a cyberdeck? If a touch screen is better than an LCD panel, a tablet with a full OS behind it must be even better. You might even see this as the natural outgrowth of tablet cases first gaining keyboards and then trackpads. We weren’t aware that either was possible without jailbreaking, but [Alta’s Projects] simply used a lighting-to-USB dongle and a mini USB hub to connect the custom split keyboard to the iPad and splurged on an Apple Magic Trackpad for seamless and wireless multi-touch input.

Alta's Projects Cyberdeck Internal USB Wiring
Internal USB Wiring, Charging Circuit, and Pi Zero

The video build (after the break) is light on details, but a quick fun watch with a parts list in the description. It has a charming casual feel that mirrors the refreshingly improvisational approach that [Altair’s Projects] takes to the build. We appreciate the nod to this cyberdeck from [Tinfoil_Haberdashery] who’s split keyboard and offset display immediately sprang to mind for us too. The references to an imagined “dystopian future” excuse the rough finish of some of the Dremel cuts and epoxy assembly. That said, apocalypse or not, the magnets mounted at both ends of the linear slide certainly are a nice touch.

Continue reading “Cyberdeck Running On Apple Silicon, Though An A12 Not An M1”

Hacker Driven To Build R/C Forza Controller

Generic video game console controllers have certainly gotten better and more ergonomic since the hard corners of the Atari joystick. As beautiful and engrossing as games have become, the controller is still the least engaging aspect. Why race your sweet fleet of whips with an ordinary controller when you could pretend they’re all R/C cars?

[Dave] found an affordable 4-channel R/C controller in the Bezos Barn and did just that. It took some modifications to make it work, like making a daughter board to turn the thumb grip input from a toggle button to a momentary and figuring out what to do with the three-way slider switch, but it looks like a blast to use.

The controller comes in a 6-channel version with two pots on the top. Both versions have the same enclosure and PCB, so [Dave] already had the placement molded out for him when he decided to install a pair of momentary buttons up there. These change roles based on the three-way slider position, which switches between race mode, menu mode, and extras mode.

We love the way [Dave] turned the original receiver into a USB dongle that emulates an Xbox 360 controller — he made a DIY Arduino Pro Micro with a male USB-A, stripped down the receiver board, and wired them together. There’s an entire separate blog post about that, and everything else you’d need to make your own R/C controller is on GitHub. Check out the demo and overview of the controls after the break.

[Dave] is no stranger to making game controllers — we featured his DJ Hero controller modified to play Spin Rhythm XD a few months ago.

Continue reading “Hacker Driven To Build R/C Forza Controller”

DIY Dongle Breathes Life Into Broken Ventilators

We have a new hero in the COVID-19 saga, and it’s some hacker in Poland. Whoever this person is, they are making bootleg dongles that let ventilator refurbishers circumvent lockdown software so they can repair broken ventilators bought from the secondhand market.

The dongle is a DIY copy of one that Medtronic makes, which of course they don’t sell to anyone. It makes a three-way connection between the patient’s monitor, a breath delivery system, and a computer, and lets technicians sync software between two broken machines so they can be Frankensteined into a single working ventilator. The company open-sourced an older model at the end of March, but this was widely viewed as a PR stunt.

This is not just the latest chapter in the right-to-repair saga. What began with locked-down tractors and phones has taken a serious turn as hospitals are filled to capacity with COVID-19 patients, many of whom will die without access to a ventilator. Not only is there a shortage of ventilators, but many of the companies that make them are refusing outside repair techs’ access to manuals and parts.

These companies insist that their own in-house technicians be the only ones who touch the machines, and many are not afraid to admit that they consider the ventilators to be their property long after the sale has been made. The ridiculousness of that aside, they don’t have the manpower to fix all the broken ventilators, and the people don’t have the time to wait on them.

We wish we could share the dongle schematic with our readers, but alas we do not have it. Hopefully it will show up on iFixit soon alongside all the ventilator manuals and schematics that have been compiled and centralized since the pandemic took off. In the meantime, you can take Ventilators 101 from our own [Bob Baddeley], and then find out what kind of engineering goes into them.

Tackling Trunked Radio With Software

For those starting to wade into radio as a hobby, one of the first real technical challenges is understanding trunked radio systems. On the surface, it seems straightforward: A control channel allows users to share a section of bandwidth rather than take up one complete channel, allowing for greater usage of the frequency range. In practice though it can be difficult to follow along, but now it’s slightly easier thanks to software defined radio.

This guide comes to us from [AndrewNohawk], who is located in San Francisco and is using his system to monitor police, fire, and EMS activity. These groups typically used trunked radio systems due to the large number of users. For listening in, nothing more than an RTL-SDR setup is needed, and the guide walks us through using this setup to find the control channels, the center frequency, and then identifying the “talk groups” for whichever organization you want to listen in on.

The guide goes into great detail, including lists of software needed to get a system like this started up, and since [AndrewNohawk] is a self-identified “radio noob” the guide is perfectly accessible to people who are new to radio and specifically new to trunked systems like these. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not too hard to scale up, either.

Faking Your Way To USB-C Support On Laptops Without It

Is there no end to the dongle problem? We thought the issue was with all of those non-USB-C devices that want to play nicely with the new Macbooks that only have USB-C ports. But what about all those USB-C devices that want to work with legacy equipment?

Now some would say just grab yourself a USB-C to USB-A cable and be done with it. But that defeats the purpose of USB-C which is One-Cable-To-Rule-Them-All[1]. [Marcel Varallo] decided to keep his 2011 Macbook free of dongles and adapter cables by soldering a USB-C port onto a USB 2.0 footprint on the motherboard.

How is that even possible? The trick is to start with a USB-C to USB 3 adapter. This vintage of Macbook doesn’t have USB 3, but the spec for that protocol maintains backwards compatibility with USB 2. [Marcel] walks through the process of freeing the adapter from its case, slicing off the all-important C portion of it, and locating the proper signals to route to the existing USB port on his motherboard.

[1] Oh my what a statement! As we’ve seen with the Raspberry Pi USB-C debacle, there are actually several different types of USB-C cables which all look pretty much the same on the outside, apart from the cryptic icons molded into the cases of the connectors. But on the bright side, you can plug either end in either orientation so it has that going for it.

Use Your Earbud’s Media Controls On Your Laptop With This Useful Dongle

[David] sends in his very nicely designed “Thumpware Media Controller” that lets your mobile phone headphones control the media playback on your PC.

We realize that some PCs have support for the extra pins on cellphone earbuds, but at least some of us have experienced the frustration (however small) of habitually reaching up to touch the media controls on our earbuds only to hear the forlorn click of an inactive-button. This solves that, assuming you’re still holding on to those 3.5mm headphones, at least.

The media controls are intercepted by a PIC16 and a small board splits and interprets the signals into a male 3.5mm and a USB port. What really impressed us is the professional-looking design and enclosure. A lot of care was taken to plan out the wiring, assembly, and strain relief. Overall it’s a pleasure to look at.

All the files are available, so with a bit of soldering, hacking, and careful sanding someone could put together a professional looking dongle for their own set-up.