Hackaday Links: December 1, 2019

We can recall a book from our youth that cataloged some of the most interesting airplanes in the world. One particularly interesting beast was dubbed “The Super Guppy”, a hilariously distended cargo plane purpose-built for ferrying Saturn rocket sections around the US in the 1960s. We though the Guppies were long gone, victims like so many other fascinating machines of the demise of the Apollo program. It turns out we were only 4/5 right about that, since one of the original five Super Guppies is still in service, and was spotted hauling an Orion capsule from Florida to Ohio for vacuum testing. The almost 60-year-old plane, a highly modified C-97 Stratofreighter, still has a big enough fan-base to attract 1500 people to brave the Ohio cold and watch it land.

The news this week was filled with reports from Texas of a massive chemical plant explosion that forced the evacuation of 50,000 people from their homes the day before Thanksgiving. The explosion and ensuing fire at the TPC Group petrochemical plant were spectacular; thankfully, there were no deaths and only two injuries reported from the incident. The tie-in to the hacker community lies in what this plant made: butadiene, or synthetic rubber. The plant produced about 16% of the North American market’s supply of butadiene, which we know from previous coverage is one of the polymers in acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS. It remains to be seen if this will put a crimp in ABS printer filament supplies, or any of the hundreds of products that butadiene is in, including automotive tires and hoses.

Remember when “Cyber Monday” became a thing? We sure do; in the USA, it was supposed to be the first workday back from the Thanksgiving break which would afford those lacking a fast Internet connection at home the opportunity to do online shopping on company time. The idea seems so year 2000 now, but the name stuck, and all kinds of sales and bargains are now competing for your virtual attention and cyber dollars. That includes Tindie, of course, where the Cyber Monday Sale is running through December 6. There’s tons to chose from, including products that got started as Hackaday.io projects and certified open-source hardware products. Be sure to check out the Tindie Twitter feed and blog for extra discount codes, too.

Speaking of gift-giving, we got an interesting tip about a product we never knew we needed. Called “WorkBench”, it’s a modular development system that takes care of an oft-neglected side of prototyping: the physical and mechanical layout. Too often we just start with a breadboard on the bench, and while that’ll do for lots of smaller projects, as the build keeps growing and the breadboards keep coming, things can get out of hand. WorkBench aims to tidy things up by providing a basal platen onto which breadboards, microcontrollers, perfboards, or just about anything else can be snapped. Handles make the whole thing portable, and a clear acrylic cover protects your hard work.

We love to hear stories about citizen science, especially when the amateurs scoop the professionals. Astronomy seems to be a hotbed for this brand of discovery, usually as a lone astronomer peering into the night sky to see a comet or asteroid nobody has seen before. Catching a glitching pulsar in the act is an entirely different level of discovery, though. Back in February, Steve Olney detected a 2.5 parts-per-million increase in the 89-millisecond period of emissions for the Vela pulsar using his RTL-SDR-based observatory. Steve has some fascinating information about pulsars and his observatory on his website. Color us impressed that he was able to pull off this observation without the benefit of millions of dollars in equipment and a giant parabolic dish antenna.

Hackaday Links: November 24, 2019

It barely seems like it, but it’s been a week since the 2019 Hackaday Superconference wrapped up in sunny Pasadena. It was an amazing weekend, filled with fun, food, camaraderie, and hacks galore. For all who were there, it’ll likely take quite some time before spinning down to Earth again from the post-con high. For those who couldn’t make it, or for those who did but couldn’t squeeze in time for all those talks with everything else going on, luckily we’ve got a ton of content for you to review. Start on the Hackaday YouTube channel, where we’ve got videos already posted from most of the main stage talks. Can’t-miss talks include Chris Gammell’s RF deep-dive, Kelly Heaton’s natural electronic art, and Mohit Bhoite’s circuit sculpture overview. You’ll also want to watch The State of the Hackaday address by Editor-in-Chief Mike Szczys. More talks will be added as they’re edited, so watch that space for developments.

One of the talks we missed – and video of which appears not to be posted yet – was Adam Zeloof’s talk on thermodynamic design for your circuits. While we wait for that, here’s an interesting part that might prove useful for your next high-power design. It’s a Thermal Jumper Chip, which is essentially a ceramic SMD component that can conduct heat but not electricity. It’s intended to be used where a TO-220 case needs to be electrically isolated but thermally connected to a heatsink. Manufacturer TT Electronics has a whole line of the chips in various sizes and specs, plus a lot of other cool components like percussive igniters.

We got an interesting tip this week about a new development in the world of 3D-printing. A group from Harvard demonstrated a multinozzle extruder that can print multimaterial objects in a single pass. The work is written up in a Nature article entitled “Voxelated soft matter via multimaterial multinozzle 3D printing”, which is unfortunately paywalled, but the abstract and supplementary videos are really interesting. This appears not to be a standard hot plastic extrusion process; rather, the extruder uses elastomeric inks that cure after they’re extruded. They manage some clever tricks, including a millipede-like, vacuum-powered soft robot extruded in one pass from both soft and rigid silicone elastomers. It’s genuinely interesting stuff, and watching the multimaterial extruder head switch materials at up to 50 times per second is mesmerizing.

People really seemed to get worked up over the transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun last week, and for good reason – astronomical alignments such as these which can be seen from Earth are rare indeed, and worth taking time to see. Not everyone was in the right place at the right time with the right gear to view the transit directly, though, which is why we were glad that Justin over at The Thought Emporium did a video on leveraging online assets for space-based observations. We’ve featured a ton of hacks using SDRs and the like to intercept data from weather satellites, and while those hacks are fun and you should totally try them, Justin points out that most of these streams are readily available for free over the Internet. Clouds, lightning, forest fires and Earth changes, and yes, even the state of the Sun can all be monitored from the web.

Speaking of changes, do you know what has changed in Unix over the last 50 years? For that matter, did you know that Unix turned 50 recently? Sean Haas did after reading this article in Advent of Computing, which he shared on the tipline. The article compares a modern Debian distro to documentation from 1971 that pre-dates Unix version 1; we assume the “Dennis_v1” folder in the doc’s URL refers to none other than Dennis Ritchie himself. It turns out that Unix is remarkably well-conserved over 50 years, at least in the userspace. File system navigation and shell commands are much the same, while programming was much different. C didn’t yet exist – Dennis was busy – but there were assemblers and linkers, plus a FORTRAN compiler and an interpreter for BASIC. It’s comforting to know that if you drop into a wormhole and end up sitting in front of a PDP-11 with Three Dog Night singing “Joy to the World” on the radio in the background, you’ll at least be able to look like you belong there.

And finally, it’s nearly Sparklecon time again. Sparklecon VII will be held on January 25 and 26, 2020, at the 23b Shop hackspace in Fullerton, California. We’ve covered previous Sparkelcons and we’ve even sponsored the meetup in the past, and it looks like a blast. The organizers have put out a Call for Proposals for talks and workshops, so if you’re in the mood for some mischief, get your application going. And be quick about it – the CFP closes on December 8.

Hackaday Links: November 10, 2019

In the leafy suburbs of northern Virginia, a place ruled by homeowner’s associations with tremendous power to dictate everything from the color of one’s front door to the length of grass in the lawn, something as heinous as garage doors suddenly failing to open on command is sure to cause a kerfuffle. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, where errant RF emissions cause unintentional interference, and such stories aren’t terribly interesting because the FCC usually steps in and clears things up. But this story is a little spicier given the source of the interference: Warrenton Training Center, a classified US government communications station located adjacent to the afflicted neighborhood. WTC is known to be a CIA signals intelligence station, home to spooks doing spooky stuff, including running high-power numbers stations. The interference isn’t caused by anything as cloak-and-dagger as that, though; rather, it comes from new land-mobile radios that the Department of Defense is deploying. The new radios use the 380-400 MHz band, which is allocated to the Federal Government and unlicensed Part 15 devices, like garage door remotes. But Part 15 rules, which are clearly printed on every device covered by them, state that the devices have to accept unwanted interference, even when it causes a malfunction. So the HOA members who are up in arms and demanding that the government buy them new garage door openers are likely to be disappointed.

Speaking of spooks, if you’re tired of the prying electronic eyes of facial recognition cameras spoiling your illusion of anonymity, have we got a solution for you. The Opt-Out Cap is the low-tech way to instantly change your face for a better one, or at least one that’s tied to someone else. In a move which is sure not to arouse suspicion in public, doffing the baseball cap deploys a three-piece curtain of semi-opaque fabric, upon which is printed the visage of someone who totally doesn’t look creepy or sketchy in any way. Complete instructions are provided if you want to make one before your next trip to the ATM.

It’s always a great day when a new Ken Shirriff post pops up in our feed, and his latest post is no exception. In it, Ken goes into great detail about the history of the 80×24 (or 25) line standard for displays. While that may sound a bit dry, it’s anything but. After dispelling some of the myths and questionable theories of the format’s origin – sorry, it’s not just because punch cards had 80 columns – he discusses the transition from teletypes to CRTs, focusing on the very cool IBM 2260 Display Station. This interesting beast used an acoustic delay line made of 50′ (15 m) of nickel wire. It stored data as a train of sound pulses traveling down the wire, which worked well and was far cheaper than core memory, even if it was susceptible to vibrations from people walking by it and needed a two-hour warm-up period before use. It’s a fascinating bit of retrocomputing history.

A quick mention of a contest we just heard about that might be right up your alley: the Tech To Protect coding challenge is going on now. Focused on applications for public safety and first responders, the online coding challenge addresses ten different areas, such as mapping LTE network coverage to aid first responders or using augmented reality while extricating car crash victims. It’s interesting stuff, but if you’re interested you’ll have to hurry – the deadline is November 15.

And finally, Supercon starts this week! It’s going to be a blast, and the excitement to hack all the badges and see all the talks is building rapidly. We know not everyone can go, and if you’re going to miss it, we feel for you. Don’t forget that you can still participate vicariously through our livestream. We’ll also be tweet-storming and running a continuous chat on Hackaday.io to keep everyone looped in.

Hackaday Links: November 3, 2019

Depending on how you look at it, the Internet turned 50 years old last week. On October 29, 1969, the first message was transmitted between two of the four nodes that made up ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor network. ARPANET was created after a million dollars earmarked for ballistic missile defense was diverted from the Advanced Research Projects Agency budget to research packet-switched networks. It’s said that ARPANET was designed to survive a nuclear war; there’s plenty of debate about whether that was a specific design goal, but if it was, it certainly didn’t look promising out of the gate, since the system crashed after only two characters of the first message were sent. So happy birthday, Internet, and congratulations: you’re now old enough to start getting junk mail from the AARP.

Good news for space nerds: NASA has persuaded Boeing to livestream an upcoming Starliner test. This won’t be a launch per se, but a test of the pad abort system intended to get astronauts out of harm’s way in the event of a launch emergency. The whole test will only last about 90 seconds and never reach more than 1.5 kilometers above the White Sands Missile Range test site, but it’s probably a wise move for Boeing to be as transparent as possible at this point in their history. The test is scheduled for 9:00 AM Eastern time — don’t forget Daylight Savings Time ends this weekend in most of the US — and will air on NASA Television.

Speaking of space, here’s yet another crowd-sourced effort you might want to consider getting in on if you’re of an astronomical bent. The Habitable Exoplanet Hunting Project is looking for a new home for humanity, and they need more eyes on the skies to do it. An introductory video explains all about it; we have to admit being surprised to learn that the sensitive measurements needed to see exoplanets transiting their stars are possible for amateur astronomers, but it seems doable with relatively modest equipment. Such are the advances in optics, CCD cameras, and image processing software, it seems. The project is looking for exoplanets within 100 light-years of Earth, perhaps on the hope that a generation ship will have somewhere to go to someday.

Space may be hard, but it’s nothing compared to running a hackerspace right here on Earth. Or at least it seems that way at times, especially when those times include your building collapsing, a police raid, and being forced to operate out of a van for months while searching for a new home, all tragedies that have befallen the Cairo Hackerspace over the last few years. They’re finally back on their feet, though, to the point where they’re ready to host Egypt’s first robotics meetup this month. If you’re in the area, stop by and perhaps consider showing off a build or even giving a talk. This group knows a thing or two about persistence, and they’ve undoubtedly got the coolest hackerspace logo in the world.

And finally, no matter how bad your job may be, it’s probably not as bad as restoring truck batteries by hand. Alert reader [rasz_pl] tipped us off to this video, which shows an open-air shop in Pakistan doing the dirty but profitable work of gutting batteries and refurbishing them. The entire process is an environmental and safety nightmare, with used electrolyte tossed into the gutter, molten lead being slung around by the bucketful, and not a pair of safety glasses or steel-toed shoes (or any-toed, for that matter) to be seen. But the hacks are pretty cool, like pouring new lead tabs onto the plates, or using a bank of batteries to heat an electrode for welding the plates together. We’ve talked about the recyclability of lead-acid batteries before and how automated plants can achieve nearly 100% reuse; there’s nothing automated here, though, and the process is so labor-intensive that only three batteries can be refurbished a day. It’s still fascinating to watch.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: November 3, 2019”

Hackaday Links: October 20, 2019

It’s Nobel season again, with announcements of the prizes in literature, economics, medicine, physics, and chemistry going to worthies the world over. The wording of the Nobel citations are usually a vast oversimplification of decades of research and end up being a scientific word salad. But this year’s chemistry Nobel citation couldn’t be simpler: “For the development of lithium-ion batteries”. John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino share the prize for separate work stretching back to the oil embargo of the early 1970s, when Goodenough invented the first lithium cathode. Wittingham made the major discovery in 1980 that adding cobalt improved the lithium cathode immensely, and Yoshino turned both discoveries into the world’s first practical lithium-ion battery in 1985. Normally, Nobel-worthy achievements are somewhat esoteric and cover a broad area of discovery that few ordinary people can relate to, but this is one that most of us literally carry around every day.

What’s going on with Lulzbot? Nothing good, if the reports of mass layoffs and employee lawsuits are to be believed. Aleph Objects, the Colorado company that manufactures the Lulzbot 3D printer, announced that they would be closing down the business and selling off the remaining inventory of products by the end of October. There was a reported mass layoff on October 11, with 90 of its 113 employees getting a pink slip. One of the employees filed a class-action suit in federal court, alleging that Aleph failed to give 60 days notice of terminations, which a company with more than 100 employees is required to do under federal law. As for the reason for the closure, nobody in the company’s leadership is commenting aside from the usual “streamlining operations” talk. Could it be that the flood of cheap 3D printers from China has commoditized the market, making it too hard for any manufacturer to stand out on features? If so, we may see other printer makers go under too.

For all the reported hardships of life aboard the International Space Station – the problems with zero-gravity personal hygiene, the lack of privacy, and an aroma that ranges from machine-shop to sweaty gym sock – the reward must be those few moments when an astronaut gets to go into the cupola at night and watch the Earth slide by. They all snap pictures, of course, but surprisingly few of them are cataloged or cross-referenced to the position of the ISS. So there’s a huge backlog of beautiful but unknown cities around the planet that. Lost at Night aims to change that by enlisting the pattern-matching abilities of volunteers to compare problem images with known images of the night lights of cities around the world. If nothing else, it’s a good way to get a glimpse at what the astronauts get to see.

Which Pi is the best Pi when it comes to machine learning? That depends on a lot of things, and Evan at Edje Electronics has done some good work comparing the Pi 3 and Pi 4 in a machine vision application. The SSD-MobileNet model was compiled to run on TensorFlow, TF Lite, or the Coral USB accelerator, using both a Pi 3 and a Pi 4. Evan drove around with each rig as a dashcam, capturing typical street scenes and measuring the frame rate from each setup. It’s perhaps no surprise that the Pi 4 and Coral setup won the day, but the degree to which it won was unexpected. It blew everything else away with 34.4 fps; the other five setups ranged from 1.37 to 12.9 fps. Interesting results, and good to keep in mind for your next machine vision project.

Have you accounted for shrinkage? No, not that shrinkage – shrinkage in your 3D-printed parts. James Clough ran into shrinkage issues with a part that needed to match up to a PCB he made. It didn’t, and he shared a thorough analysis of the problem and its solution. While we haven’t run into this problem yet, we can see how it happened – pretty much everything, including PLA, shrinks as it cools. He simply scaled up the model slightly before printing, which is a good tip to keep in mind.

And finally, if you’ve ever tried to break a bundle of spaghetti in half before dropping it in boiling water, you likely know the heartbreak of multiple breakage – many of the strands will fracture into three or more pieces, with the shorter bits shooting away like so much kitchen shrapnel. Because the world apparently has no big problems left to solve, a group of scientists has now figured out how to break spaghetti into only two pieces. Oh sure, they mask it in paper with the lofty title “Controlling fracture cascades through twisting and quenching”, but what it boils down to is applying an axial twist to the spaghetti before bending. That reduces the amount of bending needed to break the pasta, which reduces the shock that propagates along the strand and causes multiple breaks. They even built a machine to do just that, but since it only breaks a strand at a time, clearly there’s room for improvement. So get hacking!

Hackaday Links: October 13, 2019

Trouble in the Golden State this week, as parts of California were subjected to planned blackouts. Intended to prevent a repeat of last year’s deadly wildfires, which were tied in part to defective electrical distribution equipment, the blackouts could plunge millions in the counties surrounding Sacramento into the dark for days. Schools have canceled classes, the few stores that are open are taking cash only, and hospitals are running on generators. It seems a drastic move for PG&E, the utility that promptly went into bankruptcy after being blamed for last year’s fires, but it has the support of the governor, so the plan is likely to continue as long as the winds do. One group is not likely to complain, though;  California amateur radio operators must be enjoying a greatly decreased noise floor in the blackout areas, thanks to the loss of millions of switch-mode power supplies and their RF noise.

Good news, bad news for Fusion 360 users. Autodesk, the company behind the popular and remarkably capable CAD/CAM/CAE package, has announced changes to its licensing scheme, which went into effect this week. Users no longer have to pay for the “Ultimate” license tier to get goodies like 5-axis machining and generative design tools, as all capabilities are now included in the single paid version of Fusion 360. That’s good because plenty of users were unwilling to bump their $310 annual “Standard” license fee up to $1535 to get those features, but it’s bad because now the annual rate goes to $495. In a nice nod to the current userbase, those currently on the Standard license, as well as early adopters, will get to keep the $310 annual rate as long as they renew, and The $495 pricing tier went into effect in November of 2018, while anyone still on the $310 annual price was grandfathered in (and will remain to be). At that time there was still a $1535 tier called Ultimate, whose price will now be going away but the features remain in the $495 tier which is now the only pricing option for Fusion 360. Ultimate users will see a $1040 price drop. As for the current base of freeloaders like yours truly, fear not: Fusion 360 is still free for personal, non-commercial use. No generative design or tech support for us, though. (Editor’s Note: This paragraph was updated on 10/14/2019 to clarify the tier changes after Autodesk reached out to Hackaday via email.)

You might have had a bad day at the bench, but was it as bad as Román’s? He tipped us off to his nightmare of running into defective Wemos D1 boards – a lot of them. The 50 boards were to satisfy an order of data loggers for a customer, but all the boards seemed caught in an endless reboot loop when plugged into a USB port for programming. He changed PCs, changed cables, but nothing worked to stop the cycle except for one thing: touching the metal case of the module. His write up goes through all the dead-ends he went down to fix the problem, which ended up being a capacitor between the antenna and ground. Was it supposed to be there? Who knows, because once that cap was removed, the boards worked fine. Hats off to Román for troubleshooting this and sharing the results with us.

Ever since giving up their “Don’t be evil” schtick, Google seems to have really embraced the alternative. Now they’re in trouble for targeting the homeless in their quest for facial recognition data. The “volunteer research studies” consisted of playing what Google contractors were trained to describe as a “mini-game” on a modified smartphone, which captured video of the player’s face. Participants were compensated with $5 Starbucks gift cards but were not told that video was being captured, and if asked, contractors were allegedly trained to lie about that. Contractors were also allegedly trained to seek out people with dark skin, ostensibly to improve facial recognition algorithms that notoriously have a hard time with darker complexions. To be fair, the homeless were not exclusively targeted; college students were also given gift cards in exchange for their facial data.

For most of us, 3D-printing is a hobby, or at least in service of other hobbies. Few of us make a living at it, but professionals who do are often a great source of tips and tricks. One such pro is industrial designer Eric Strebel, who recently posted a video of his 3D-printing pro-tips. A lot of it is concerned with post-processing prints, like using a cake decorator’s spatula to pry prints off the bed, or the use of card scrapers and dental chisels to clean up prints. But the money tip from this video is the rolling cart he made for his Ultimaker. With the printer on top and storage below, it’s a great way to free up some bench space.

And finally, have you ever wondered how we hackers will rebuild society once the apocalypse hits and mutant zombie biker gangs roam the Earth? If so, then you need to check out Collapse OS, the operating system for an uncertain future. Designed to be as self-contained as possible, Collapse OS is intended to run on “field expedient” computers, cobbled together from whatever e-waste can be scrounged, as long as it includes a Z80 microprocessor. The OS has been tested on an RC2014 and a Sega Master System so far, but keep an eye out for TRS-80s, Kaypros, and the odd TI-84 graphing calculator as you pick through the remains of civilization.

Hackaday Links: September 29, 2019

In a sure sign that we’ve arrived in the future, news from off-world is more interesting this week than Earth news. When the InSight probe landed on Mars last year, it placed the first operating magnetometer on the Red Planet. Since then, the sensitive instrument has been logging data about the planet’s magnetic field, and now there are reports that researchers have discovered a chain of pulsations in the magnetic field. Pulsations in planetary magnetic fields aren’t all that strange; pulse trains that occur only at Martian midnight are, though. Researchers haven’t got a clue yet about what this means. We assume they’ve eliminated artifacts like something on the lander being turned on at local midnight, so when they figure it out it should be fascinating.

In more news from the future, Boston Dynamics is trolling us again. We covered the announcement early this week that they’re putting their Spot quadruped robot on sale – sort of. Turns out you need to be selected to qualify based on the application you have in mind, plus have several Ferraris full of cash to spend. While everyone was watching the adorable antics of Spot as it wandered through improbably industrial vignettes, Boston Dynamics also released this slightly terrifying video of their Atlas robot running through a gymnastics routine.  It starts with a headstand and a front roll and ends with a slipt leap and whatever the gymnastics equivalent of a figure skating axel jump is. Yes, it has a special roll cage attached to make the tumbles a bit smoother, but it’s still some remarkable stuff.

How are your RF design skills? If they’re good enough to design an RF power amp, you might want to check out this homebrew RF design challenge. Put on by NXP Semiconductors, the design must use one of their new LDMOS RF power transistors. They’ll send you samples so you can build your design, and you stand to win up to $3000 plus $1000 worth of NXP products. The contest opened back in May but is running through the middle of November, so you’d better hurry.

Speaking of RF, wouldn’t it be interesting to see a snapshot of the RF spectrum over the entire planet? ElectroSense thinks so, and they’re working on a crowdsourcing model to set up a globe-spanning network of connected RF sensors. The idea is similar to what FlightAware does for monitoring the locations of aircraft with a distributed network of ADS-B receivers. But where FlightAware only monitors a narrow slice of spectrum, ElectroSense wants it all – DC to 6 GHz. You can build a sensor from an SDR and a Raspberry Pi and start contributing to the effort, which only has a handful of sensors at the moment.

Has affordable metal 3D-printing finally arrived? For certain values of affordability, it soon will, when One Click Metal launches their new selective laser melting printer. Thomas Sanladerer did a video with the principals, and the prototype looks promising. SLM is not a new process, but patents on the core process recently ran out, so startups like One Click Metal are jumping into the market. Their printer won’t be cheap — you’ll still need to write a check with many zeroes — but with more players, the price should come down.

And finally, what’s this world coming to when a startup specializing in building giant fighting robots can’t make a go of it? MegaBots is shutting down, and while that’s certainly bad news for its founders and employees, it’s great news for anyone in the market for used battle bots. The company’s flagship bot, the 15-ton Eagle Prime, is currently up for auction on eBay. Bidding started at $1 with no reserve, but if you were looking for a steal, you’re a bit late. The high bid is currently $100,100, which is still an incredible buy considering it cost $2.5 million to build. You’ll have to pay for shipping, but you’ll have a super-destructive mecha of your own to drive around. And think how cool you’ll look rolling into some kid’s backyard birthday party. Presumably one you’ve been invited to.