Hackaday Links: January 24, 2021

Code can be beautiful, and good code can be a work of art. As it so happens, artful code can also result in art, if you know what you’re doing. That’s the idea behind Programming Posters, a project that Michael Fields undertook to meld computer graphics with the code behind the images. It starts with a simple C program to generate an image. The program needs to be short enough to fit legibly into the sidebar of an A2 sheet, and as if that weren’t enough of a challenge, Michael constrained himself to the standard C libraries to generate his graphics. A second program formats the code and the image together and prints out a copy suitable for display. We found the combination of code and art beautiful, and the challenge intriguing.

It always warms our hearts when we get positive feedback from the hacker community when something we’ve written has helped advance a project or inspire a build. It’s not often, however, that we learn that Hackaday is required reading. Educators at the Magellan International School in Austin, Texas, recently reached out to Managing Editor Elliot Williams to let him know that all their middle school students are required to read Hackaday as part of their STEM training. Looks like the kids are paying attention to what they read, too, judging by KittyWumpus, their ongoing mechatronics/coding project that’s unbearably adorable. We’re honored to be included in their education, and everyone in the Hackaday community should humbled to realize that we’ve got an amazing platform for inspiring the next generation of hardware hackers.

Hackers seem to fall into two broad categories: those who have built a CNC router, and those who want to build one. For those in the latter camp, the roadblock to starting a CNC build is often “analysis paralysis” — with so many choices to make, it’s hard to know where to start. To ease that pain and get you closer to starting your build, Matt Ferraro has penned a great guide to planning a CNC router build. The encyclopedic guide covers everything from frame material choice to spindle selection and software options. If Matt has a bias toward any particular options it’s hard to find; he lists the pros and cons of everything so you can make up your own mind. Read it at your own risk, though; while it lowers one hurdle to starting a CNC build, it does nothing to address the next one: financing.

Like pretty much every conference last year and probably every one this year, the Open Hardware Summit is going to be virtual. But they’re still looking for speakers for the April conference, and just issued a Call for Proposals. We love it when we see people from the Hackaday community pop up as speakers at conferences like these, so if you’ve got something to say to the open hardware world, get a talk together. Proposals are due by February 11, so get moving.

And finally, everyone will no doubt recall the Boston Dynamics robots that made a splash a few weeks back with their dance floor moves. We loved the video, mainly for the incredible display of robotic agility and control but also for the choice of music. We suppose it was inevitable, though, that someone would object to the Boomer music and replace it with something else, like in the video below, which seems to sum up the feelings of those who dread our future dancing overlords. We regret the need to proffer a Tumblr link, but the Internet is a dark and wild place sometimes, and only the brave survive.

https://commiemartyrshighschool.tumblr.com/post/640760882224414720/i-fixed-the-audio-for-that-boston-dynamics-video

Hackaday Links: January 17, 2021

Sad news from Mars, where the InSight lander’s “mole” was officially declared dead. The self-drilling probe, the centerpiece of the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) experiment, was designed to ram itself 5 meters into the Martian regolith while deploying a sensor-laden tail. The mole would then explore heat flow from within the planet. But the unexpected properties of the soil beneath the lander, including lower-than-expected friction on the hull of the mole and a cement-like “duricrust” layer, confounded the probe’s downward progress for the last two years. We covered the design of the mole, which is similar to an impact drill, as well as the valiant efforts to save the mission, but after one last try on January 9 where the mole gave 500 more whacks without any progress, controllers threw in the towel. It just goes to show that space travel and exploration are anything but routine, and that there’s far, far more we don’t know about even our nearest solar neighbor than what we do know.

Sad news, too, from closer to home, this time — Ohio, to be exact: the 2021 Hamvention has been canceled. It’s not exactly a surprise given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a blow to have ham radio’s biggest party canceled for two years running. We expect a lot of cons and meetings will suffer a similar fate in 2021. We’ll be sure to bring you any announcements we hear about.

One event that hasn’t been canceled is iQuHACK, a quantum hackathon hosted by MIT. We don’t pretend to fully understand quantum computing, or even to have scratched the surface of the subject in any meaningful way. Following up on what comes out of iQuHACK after it runs next weekend might be interesting for the quantum-curious, though. But really, just the fact that we’re in an age where quantum hackathons are a thing is pretty cool.

Back on the COVID-19 theme, managing editor Elliot Williams gave us the heads up on a story about gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park testing positive for the virus. It’s not exactly surprising that some of our evolutionarily closest relatives would be susceptible to the disease, and it’s not exactly a funny story, but the conversation in the morning meeting at the zoo must have been priceless:

“Hey, that gorilla looks sick. We’d better test him for COVID.”
“Yeah, probably. Here’s the brain-tickling swab, you go stick it up his nose.”
“Nu-uh, you stick it up his nose!”
“Nope. Hey, where’s the intern?”

And speaking of dangerous work environments, behold yet another classic of corporate safety propaganda: The Color of Danger. Like Shake Hands with Danger, this film was produced by heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar. But this time, instead of concentrating on the various opportunities maintaining heavy equipment presents for traumatic amputations, the subject matter is forklift safety. We’ve spent a fair number of hours in the driver’s seat of a lift truck, so we know full well how quickly things can go wrong, and this film does a great job of showing a lot of them. But what you’ve got to admire is the trick driving and stunt work that went into these vignettes; not too many people can pull off forklift drifting safely (12:30), and putting the truck in the drink without drowning was a neat trick (13:00). And of course, with any film on forklift safety, we’d be remiss not to tip our hardhat to Staplefahrer Klaus and his oft-bloodied co-workers.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: January 17, 2021”

Hackaday Links: January 10, 2021

You know that feeling when your previously niche hobby goes mainstream, and suddenly you’re not interested in it anymore because it was once quirky and weird but now it’s trendy and all the newcomers are going to come in and ruin it? That just happened to retrocomputing. The article is pretty standard New York Times fare, and gives a bit of attention to the usual suspects of retrocomputing, like Amiga, Atari, and the Holy Grail search for an original Apple I. There’s little technically interesting in it, but we figured that we should probably note it since prices for retrocomputing gear are likely to go up soon. Buy ’em while you can.

Remember the video of the dancing Boston Dynamics robots? We actually had intended to cover that in Links last week, but Editor-in-Chief Mike Szczys beat us to the punch, in an article that garnered a host of surprisingly negative comments. Yes, we understand that this was just showboating, and that the robots were just following a set of preprogrammed routines. Some commenters derided that as not dancing, which we find confusing since human dancing is just following preprogrammed routines. Nevertheless, IEEE Spectrum had an interview this week with Boston Dynamics’ VP of Engineering talking about how the robot dance was put together. There’s a fair amount of doublespeak and couched terms, likely to protect BD’s intellectual property, but it’s still an interesting read. The take-home message is that despite some commenters’ assertions, the routines were apparently not just motion-captured from human dancers, but put together from a suite of moves Atlas, Spot, and Handle had already been trained on. That and the fact that BD worked with a human choreographer to work out the routines.

Looks like 2021 is already trying to give 2020 a run for its money, at least in the marketplace of crazy ideas. The story, released in Guitar World of all places, goes that some conspiracy-minded people in Italy started sharing around a schematic of what they purported to be the “5G chip” that’s supposedly included in the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. The reason Guitar World picked it up is that eagle-eyed guitar gear collectors noticed that the schematic was actually that of the Boss MetalZone-2 effects pedal, complete with a section labeled “5G Freq.” That was apparently enough to trigger someone, and to ignore the op-amps, potentiometers, and 1/4″ phone jacks on the rest of the schematic. All of which would certainly smart going into the arm, no doubt, but seriously, if it could make us shred like this, we wouldn’t mind getting shot up with it.

Remember the first time you saw a Kindle with an e-ink display? The thing was amazing — the clarity and fine detail of the characters were unlike anything possible with an LCD or CRT display, and the fact that the display stayed on while the reader was off was a little mind-blowing at the time. Since then, e-ink technology has come considerably down market, commoditized to the point where they can be used for price tags on store shelves. But now it looks like they’re scaling up to desktop display sizes, with the announcement of a 25.3″ desktop e-ink monitor by Dasung. Dubbed the Paperlike 253, the 3200 x 1800 pixel display will be able to show 16 shades of gray with no backlighting. The videos of the monitor in action are pretty low resolution, so it’s hard to say what the refresh rate will be, but given the technology it’s going to be limited. This might be a great option as a second or third monitor for those who can work with the low refresh rate and don’t want an LCD monitor backlight blasting them in the face all day.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: January 10, 2021”

Hackaday Links: January 3, 2021

Last week we featured a story on the new rules regarding drone identification going into effect in the US. If you missed the article, the short story is that almost all unmanned aircraft will soon need to transmit their position, altitude, speed, and serial number, as well as the position of its operator, likely via WiFi or Bluetooth. The FAA’s rule change isn’t sitting well with Wing, the drone-based delivery subsidiary of megacorporation Alphabet. In their view, local broadcast of flight particulars would be an invasion of privacy, since observers snooping in on Remote ID traffic could, say, infer that a drone going between a pharmacy and a neighbor’s home might mean that someone is sick. They have a point, but how a Google company managed to cut through the thick clouds of irony to complain about privacy concerns and the rise of the surveillance state is mind boggling.

Speaking of regulatory burdens, it appears that getting an amateur radio license is no longer quite the deal that it once was. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a $35 fee for new amateur radio licenses, license renewals, and changes to existing licenses, like vanity call signs. While $35 isn’t cheap, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s better than the $50 fee that the FCC was originally proposing. Still, it seems a bit steep for something that’s largely automated. In any case, it looks like we’re still good to go with our “$50 Ham” series.

Staying on the topic of amateur radio for a minute, it looks like there will be a new digital mode to explore soon. The change will come when version 2.4.0 of WSJT-X, the program that forms the heart of digital modes like WSPR and FT8, is released. The newcomer is called Q65, and it’s basically a follow-on to the current QRA64 weak-signal mode. Q65 is optimized for weak, rapidly fading signals in the VHF bands and higher, so it’s likely to prove popular with Earth-Moon-Earth fans and those who like to do things like bounce their signals off of meteor trails. We’d think Q65 should enable airliner-bounce too. We’ll be keen to give it a try whenever it comes out.

Look, we know it’s hard to get used to writing the correct year once a new one rolls around, and that time has taken on a relative feeling in these pandemic times. But we’re pretty sure it isn’t April yet, which is the most reasonable explanation for an ad purporting the unholy coupling of a gaming PC and mass-market fried foods. We strongly suspect this is just a marketing stunt between Cooler Master and Yum! Brands, but taken at face value, the KFConsole — it’s not a gaming console, it’s at best a pre-built gaming PC — is supposed to use excess heat to keep your DoorDashed order of KFC warm while you play. In a year full of incredibly stupid things, this one is clearly in the top five.

And finally, it looks like we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our airline pilots, or at least a subset of them, aren’t seeing things. There has been a steady stream of reports from pilots flying in and out of Los Angeles lately of a person in a jetpack buzzing around. Well, someone finally captured video of the daredevil, and even though it’s shaky and unclear — as are seemingly all videos of cryptids — it sure seems to be a human-sized biped flying around in a standing position. The video description says this was shot by a flight instructor at 3,000 feet (914 meters) near Palos Verdes with Catalina Island in the background. That’s about 20 miles (32 km) from the mainland, so whatever this person is flying has amazing range. And, the pilot has incredible faith in the equipment — that’s a long way to fall in something with the same glide ratio as a brick.

Hackaday Links: December 27, 2020

We’re always pleased to see one of our community’s projects succeed, and we celebrate that success in whatever what it comes. But seeing a company launched to commercialize an idea that started as a Hackaday.io project and a Hackaday Prize entry is especially gratifying. So we were pleased as punch to see that MAKESafe Tools has managed to bring the idea of add-on machine tool braking to market. We’d love to add this to several tools in our shop. Honestly, of all the terrifying ways machine tools can slice, dice, and shred human flesh asunder, we always considered the lowly bench grinder fairly low-risk — and then we had a chance to “Shake Hands with Danger.”

Another great thing about the Hackaday community is the way we all try to keep each other up to speed on changes and news that affects even our smallest niches. Just last week Tom Nardi covered a project using the venerable TI eZ430-Chronos smartwatch as a makeshift medical alert bracelet for a family member. It’s a great application for the proto-smartwatch, but one eagle-eyed commenter helpfully pointed out that TI is shutting down their processors wiki in just a couple of weeks. The banner at the top of each page warns that the wiki is not read-only and that any files needed should be downloaded by January 15. Also helpfully, subsequent comments include instructions to download the entire wiki and a torrent link to the archive. It’s always sad to see a platform lose support, especially one that has gained a nice following, but it’s heartening to see the community pull together to continue to support each other like this.

We came across an interesting article this week that’s was a fascinating glimpse into how economic forces shape  and drive technological process, and vice versa. It turns out that some of the hottest real estate commodities these days are the plots of land occupied by AM radio stations serving metropolitan markets. It’s no secret that terrestrial radio in general, and AM radio in particular, are growing increasingly moribund, and the infrastructure needed to keep them on the air is getting harder and harder to justify. Chief among these are the large tracts of land devoted to antenna farms, which are often located in suburban and exurban areas near major cities. They’re tempting targets for developers looking to plunk down the physical infrastructure needed to support “New Economy” players like Amazon, which continue to build vast automated warehouses in areas that are handy to large customer bases. It’s a bit sad to watch a once mighty industry unravel and be sold off like this, but such is the nature of progress.

And finally, you may recall a Links article mention a few weeks back about a teardown of a super-sized IBM processor module. A quarter-million dollar relic of the 1990s, the huge System/390 module was an engineering masterpiece that met an unfortunate end at the hands of EEVblog’s Dave Jones. As a follow-up, Dave teamed up with fellow YouTuber CPU Galaxy to take a less-destructive tour of the module using X-ray analysis. The level of engineering needed for a 64-layer ceramic backplane is astonishing, and Dave’s play-by-play is pretty entertaining too. As a bonus, CPU Galaxy has some really interesting stuff; his place is basically a museum of vintage tech, and he just earned a new sub.

Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020

If development platforms were people, Google would be one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Android Things, Google’s attempt at an OS for IoT devices, will officially start shutting down on January 5, 2021, and the plug will be pulled for good a year later. Android Things, which was basically a stripped-down version of the popular phone operating system, had promise, especially considering that Google was pitching it as a secure alternative in the IoT space, where security is often an afterthought. We haven’t exactly seen a lot of projects using Android Things, so the loss is probably not huge, but the list of projects snuffed by Google and the number of developers and users left high and dry by these changes continues to grow. Continue reading “Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020”

Hackaday Links: December 13, 2020

Our Sun is getting a bit frisky these days, and has rewarded us with perhaps the best screensaver image ever taken. The incredibly detailed photo of a sunspot was actually taken back in January by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, a 4-meter instrument with adaptive optics that can image the sun from the near-infrared to visible wavelengths and resolve surface details down to 20 km. The photo, with a distinct “Eye of Sauron” look, shows the massive convection cells surrounding the dark sunspot; an accompanying animation shows the movement of plasmas along the tortured lines of magnetic flux that cause the sunspot to form. It’s fascinating to watch, and even more interesting to mull over the technology that went into capturing it.

With the dustup surrounding the youtube-dl DCMA takedown by GitHub fresh on the open-source community’s minds, GitHub Universe 2020 had an interesting discussion about maintaining open-source software projects that’s worth watching. They focused on the challenges that youtube-dl maintainers face in keeping the tool working, and the impact their effort has on the people and groups that rely on them. To underscore that point, they featured a researcher with Human Rights Watch who depends on youtube-dl in her work, and made it quite clear that keeping up with all the API changes that constantly break open source tools like youtube-dl make the role of the maintainers that much more critical.

Speaking of GitHub, here’s a frightening and fascinating new tool: Depix, the password de-pixelizer. Developer Sipke Mellema noticed that his company often used pixelization to obscure passwords in documentation, and wondered if he could undo the process. He wrote up an article describing the pixelization process using a linear box filter and his method for attacking it, which involves generating a De Bruijn sequence in the same font, text size, and colors as the original document and feeding a screenshot of that and the pixellated password into the tool. We suspect it’ll only work for a subset of obfuscated passwords, but it’s still pretty clever.

‘Tis the season for Advent calendars, and the folks at QEMU have posted theirs. Open each of 24 doors on the calendar and you’re rewarded with a downloadable QEMU disk image that implements something fun. Minesweeper, a ray tracer that fits into a boot loader, and of course Conway’s Game of Life. The GW-BASIC image on Day 3 caught our eye — brings back some memories.

For anyone who has ever watched a Pixar film and wondered how all that animation actually works, here’s a great lesson in making art with math. The video is by Inigo Quilez and goes through the basics of rendering images using raymarching SDFs, or signed distance functions. In the beginning, it seemed like it was going to be a little bit like drawing an owl, but his descriptions of the math involved and how each element of the animation is just another formula is fascinating. What’s more, there’s a real-time rendering tool where you can inspect the code and edit it. Alas, my changes only made things worse, but it was still fun and instructive to play with. Check out the video after the break!

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: December 13, 2020”