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Hackaday Links: February 7, 2021

What’s that they say about death and taxes? Apparently that maxim doesn’t apply to Flash, at least when it comes to the taxman. As we noted last week, the end of the Adobe Flash era took with it a scheduling and routing app for the railway system in a Chinese city. This time around, it’s the unfortunately acronymed SARS, for South African Revenue Services, having Flash woes. They still have several online tax forms that haven’t been migrated to HTML5, so to keep the revenue flowing they built their own Flash-enabled browser. Taxpayers are free to download and use the browser while SARS works on getting the rest of their forms migrated. It sort of reminds us of those plans the Internal Revenue Service has to ensure tax collection continues after a nuclear apocalypse — death and taxes indeed.

Trouble for Nintendo in the EU? It looks that way, as consumer groups have made the case to EU regulators that Nintendo’s wildly popular Switch consoles are showing unacceptably premature obsolescence with the notorious “Joy-Con drift” issue. The problem, which manifests as players being unable to control a game due to constant movement despite no inputs on the joystick-like controller, requires a repair, one that Nintendo initially only did for free as warranty service for consoles less than a year old. For consoles out of the warranty period, Nintendo was charging €45, which is approximately the same as what a new controller would cost. This didn’t sit well with regulators, and now they’re breathing down Nintendo’s neck. They now offer free repairs for up to two years, but they’re still under the EU microscope. The interesting bit in the linked document is the technical reason for the problem, which is attributed to premature PCB wear — possibly meaning the traces wear away — and inadequate sealing of the Joy-Con mechanism against dust intrusion.

Last year looked as though it was going to be an exciting one with respect to some of our nearest solar and galactic neighbors. For a while there, it looked like the red giant Betelgeuse was going to go supernova, which would have been interesting to watch. And closer to home, there were some signs of life, in the form of phosphine gas, detected in the roiling atmosphere of our sister planet, Venus. Alas, both stories appear not to have panned out. The much-hoped-for (by me) Betelgeuse explosion, which was potentially heralded by a strange off-cycle dimming of the variable star, seems now to be due to its upper atmosphere cooling by several hundred degrees. As for Venus, the phosphine gas that was detected appears actually to have been a false positive triggered by sulfur dioxide. Disappointing results perhaps, but that’s how science is supposed to work.

Amateur radio often gets a bad rap, derided as a hobby for rich old dudes who just like to talk about their medical problems. Some of that is deserved, no doubt, but there’s still a lot of room in the hobby for those interested in advancing the state of the art in radio communications. In this vein, we were pleased to learn about HamSCI, which is short for Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation. The group takes to heart one of the stated primary missions of amateur radio as the “ontinuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.” To that end, they’ll be holding HamSCI Workshop 2021, a virtual conference that will be focused on midlatitude ionospheric science. This appears to be a real science conference where both credentialed scientists and amateurs can share ideas. They’ve got a Call for Proposals now, with abstracts due by February 15. The conference itself will be on March 19 and 20, with free admission. The list of invited speakers looks pretty impressive, so if you have any interest in the field, check it out.

And finally, we got a tip this week about a collection of goofy US patents. Everything listed, from the extreme combover to baby bum-print art, is supposedly covered by a patent. We didn’t bother checking Google Patents, but some of these are pretty good for a laugh. We did look at a few, though, and were surprised to learn that the Gerbil Shirt is not a garment for rodents, but a rodent-filled garment for humans.

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Hackaday Links: January 31, 2021

There are an awful lot of machines on the market these days that fall under the broad category of “cheap Chinese laser cutters”. You know the type — the K40s, the no-name benchtop CO2 cutters, the bigger floor-mount units. If you’ve recently purchased one of these machines from one of the usual vendors, or even if you’re just thinking about doing so, you’ll likely have some questions. In which case, this “Chinese Laser Cutters 101” online class might be right up your alley. We got wind of this though its organizer, Jonathan Schwartz of American Laser Cutter in Los Angeles, who says he’s been installing, repairing, and using laser cutters for a decade now. The free class will be on February 8 at 5:00 PM PST, and while it’s open to all, it does require registration.

We got an interesting tip the other day that had to do with Benford’s Law. We’d never heard of this one, so we assumed was a “joke law” like Murphy’s Law or Betteridge’s Rule of Headlines. But it turns out that Benford’s Law describes the distribution of leading digits in large sets of numbers. Specifically, it says that the leading digit in any given number is more likely to be one of the smaller numbers. Measurements show that rather than each of the nine base 10 digits showing up about 11% of the time, a 1 will appear in the leading digit 30% of the time, while a 9 will appear about 5% of the time. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and the tip we got pointed to an article that attempted to apply Benford’s Law to image files. This technique was used in a TV show to prove an image had been tampered with, but as it turns out, Hollywood doesn’t always get technical material right. Shocking, we know, but the technique was still interesting and the code developed to Benford-ize image files might be useful in other ways.

Everyone knew it was coming, and for a long time in advance, but it still seems that the once-and-for-all, we’re not kidding this time, it’s for realsies shutdown of Adobe Flash has had some real world consequences. To wit, a railroad system in the northern Chinese city of Dalian ground to a halt earlier this month thanks to Flash going away. No, they weren’t using Flash to control the railroad, but rather it was buried deep inside software used to schedule and route trains. It threw the system into chaos for a while, but never fear — they got back up and running by installing a pirated version of Flash. Here’s hoping that they’re working on a more permanent solution to the problem.

First it was toilet paper and hand sanitizer, now it’s…STM32 chips? Maybe, if the chatter on Twitter and other channels is to be believed. Seems like people are having a hard time sourcing the microcontroller lately. It’s all anecdotal so far, of course, but the prevailing theory is that COVID-19 and worker strikes have lead to a pinch in production. Plus, you know, the whole 2020 thing. We’re wondering if our readers have noticed anything on this — if so, let us know in the comments below.

And finally, just because it’s cool, here’s a video of what rockets would look like if they were transparent. Well, obviously, they’d look like twisted heaps of burning wreckage on the ground is they were really made with clear plastic panels and fuel tanks, but you get the idea. The video launches a virtual fleet — a Saturn V, a Space Shuttle, a Falcon Heavy, and the hypothetical SLS rocket — and flies them in tight formation while we get to watch their consumables be consumed. If the burn rates are accurate, it’s surprising how little fuel and oxidizer the Shuttle used compared to the Saturn. We were also surprised how long the SLS holds onto its escape tower, and were pleased by the Falcon Heavy payload reveal.

Extensive Modification Of DSLR Includes High Quality Audio

Modern DSLR cameras are incredible pieces of technology that can take excellent high-quality photos as well as record video and audio. However, as they become jacks of all trades they risk being masters of none, and the audio quality in modern DSLRs certainly reflects that old cliche. To get true high-quality audio while recording with a camera like this Canon 80d, you’ll either need a secondary audio recording device or you’ll need to interface one directly into the camera itself.

This build from [Tony] aka [Carnivore] goes into the inner workings of the camera to add an audio mixer to the camera’s audio input, allowing for multiple audio streams to be recorded at once. First, he removed the plastic around the microphone port and attached a wire to it that extends out of the camera to a 1/8″ plug. While he had the case open he also wired a second shutter, added a record button to a custom location on the front of the camera, and bypassed a switch which prevents the camera from operating if the battery door isn’t closed.

With those modifications in place, he removed the internal flash from the camera before closing the body. A custom 3D printed mount was placed in the vacant space which now houses the audio mixer, a SR-AX100 from Saramonic. This plugs in to the new microphone wire from earlier in the build, allowing the camera to have an expanded capacity for recording audio.

While [Tony] has a fairly unique use case for all of these modifications to an already $1000 camera, getting into the inner workings of DSLRs isn’t something to shy away from if you need something similar done. We’ve even seen modifications to cameras like these to allow for watercooling during video recording.

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Flash Is Dead, But Its Culture Should Live On

Flash is all but gone already, but as we approach the official Adobe end-of-life date on December 31st, it’s picking up traction one last time as people reminisce about the days of Internet past. Back in July, [Jonas Richner] created an impressive website that catalogs not only almost 20 years of Flash games, but also testimonials for the software from dozens of developers who began their careers with it.

Flash started in 1996 with the intention of being a standard for animations and vector graphics on the early Web. With the release of Flash Player 5 in August of 2000, Macromedia (later acquired by Adobe) presented the first version of ActionScript, an object-oriented scripting language meant to bring interactivity to animated Flash movies. Since then, thousands of games made with the platform were released online through websites like Newgrounds and shared all over the world, with the most popular games easily reaching tens of millions of plays.

These games became popular in part thanks to how quickly they could be created with the Flash authoring tools, but also because it was so easy for players to run them. With a single plugin for your web browser of choice, the barrier of entry was extremely low. Most home computers from the mid-2000s were able to run Flash software without needing dedicated graphics hardware. This prompted a “creative chaos” as [Richner] puts it, spawning millions of games and animations which started genres and careers lasting to this day.

Unfortunately, browsers have been dropping support for the plugin due to vulnerabilities in the most recent iterations of its scripting engine and Google no longer indexes Flash files. It would seem this particularly creative era of the Internet is coming to an end. However, you can still relive old games and animations made with plugins such as Flash and Shockwave with [BlueMaxima]’s Flashpoint, and like [Richner], we also hope that the people building today’s platforms and technologies keep the lessons from Flash in mind.

Bringing An IPod To The Modern NAND Era

Flash storage was a pretty big deal back in the mid ’00s, although the storage sizes that were available at the time seem laughable by today’s standards. For example, having an iPod that didn’t have a spinning, unreliable hard drive was huge even if the size was measured in single-digit gigabytes, since iPods tended to not be treated with the same amount of care as something like a laptop. Sadly, these small iPods aren’t available anymore, and if you want one with more than 8GB of storage you’ll have to upgrade an old one yourself.

This build comes to us from [Hugo] who made the painstaking effort of removing the old NAND flash storage chip from an iPod Nano by hand, soldering 0.15mm enameled magnet wire to an 0.5mm pitch footprint to attach a breakout board. Once the delicate work was done, he set about trying to figure out the software. In theory the iPod should have a maximum addressable space of 64 GB but trying to get custom firmware on this specific iPod is more of a challenge and the drives don’t simply plug-and-play. He is currently using the rig for testing a new 8GB and new 16GB chip though but it shows promise and hopefully he’ll be able to expand to that maximum drive size soon.

The build is really worth a look if you’re into breathing new life into old media players. Sometimes, though all these old iPods really need to get working again is just to be thrown into a refrigerator, as some genius engineer showed us many years ago.

Hackaday Podcast 077: Secret Life Of SD Cards, Mining Minecraft’s Secret Seed, BadPower Is Bad, And Sailing A Sea Of Neon

Hackaday editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams are deep in the hacks this week. What if making your own display matrix meant a microcontroller board for every pixel? That’s the gist of this incredible neon display. There’s a lot of dark art poured into the slivers of microSD cards and this week saw multiple hacks digging into the hidden test pads of these devices. You’ve heard of Folding@Home, but what about Minecraft@Home, the effort to find world seeds from screenshots. And when USB chargers have exposed and rewritable firmware, what could possibly go wrong?

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Direct download (60 MB or so.)

Continue reading “Hackaday Podcast 077: Secret Life Of SD Cards, Mining Minecraft’s Secret Seed, BadPower Is Bad, And Sailing A Sea Of Neon”

USB Flash Drive Reveals Strange SD Card Heart

Many a hacker has dug an old flash drive out of the bottom of a backpack, and peeled apart the damaged plastic case to look inside. More often then not, you’d expect to see some SMD chips on a PCB along with a few passives, an LED and a USB port. [Gough] found something else entirely, and documented it for the interested public.

Inside the Comsol 8GB USB stick, [Gough] found an entire microSD card. One might be led to think this is a card reader and microSD masquerading as a normal flash drive, but the reality is far different. Instead, the drive contains a Flash memory controller which addresses the microSD card as raw NAND, through test points normally covered up on consumer-grade cards. The drive appears to be manufactured from factory second microSD cards that don’t pass the normal tests to be onsold to the public.

Armed with software obtained through spurious channels, [Gough] is able to dive deeper into the guts of the flash drive. The engineering tools allow the card to be optimised for capacity or speed, and different levels of error correction. It’s even possible to have the flash drive emulate a U3 CD ROM drive for OS installs and other purposes.

It’s a great dive into how USB drives work on a low level, and how the firmware and hardware work together. We’ve seen other flash drive hacks before too – like this simple recovery trick!