Hackaday Links: November 8, 2020

Saturday, November 7, 2020 – NOT PASADENA. Remoticon, the virtual version of the annual Hackaday Superconference forced upon us by 2020, the year that keeps on giving, is in full swing. As I write this, Kipp Bradford is giving one of the two keynote addresses, and last night was the Bring a Hack virtual session, which I was unable to attend but seems to have been very popular, at least from the response to it. In about an hour, I’m going to participate in the SMD Soldering Challenge on the Hackaday writing crew team, and later on, I’ll be emceeing a couple of workshops. And I’ll be doing all of it while sitting in my workshop/office here in North Idaho.

Would I rather be in Pasadena? Yeah, probably — last year, Supercon was a great experience, and it would have been fun to get together again and see everyone. But here we are, and I think we’ve all got to tip our hacker hats to the Remoticon organizers, for figuring out how to translate the in-person conference experience to the virtual space as well as they have.

The impact of going to a museum and standing in the presence of a piece of art or a historic artifact is hard to overstate. I once went to an exhibit of artifacts from Pompeii, and was absolutely floored to gaze upon a 2,000-year-old loaf of bread that was preserved by the volcanic eruption of 79 AD. But not everyone can get to see such treasures, which is why Scan the World was started. The project aims to collect 3D scans of all kinds of art and artifacts so that people can potentially print them for study. Their collection is huge and seems to concentrate on classic sculptures — Michelangelo’s David is there, as are the Venus de Milo, the Pieta, and Rodin’s Thinker. But there are examples from architecture, anatomy, and history. The collection seems worth browsing through and worth contributing to if you’re so inclined.

For all the turmoil COVID-19 has caused, it has opened up some interesting educational opportunities that probably wouldn’t ever have been available in the Before Time. One such opportunity is an undergraduate-level course in radio communications being offered on the SDRPlay YouTube channel. The content was created in partnership with the Sapienza University of Rome. It’s not entirely clear who this course is open to, but the course was originally designed for third-year undergrads, and the SDRPlay Educators Program is open to anyone in academia, so we’d imagine you’d need some kind of academic affiliation to qualify. The best bet might be to check out the intro video on the SDRPlay Educator channel and plan to attend the webinar scheduled for November 19 at 1300 UTC. You could also plan to drop into the Learning SDR and DSP Hack Chat on Wednesday at noon Pacific, too — that’s open to everyone, just like every Hack Chat is.

And finally, as if bald men didn’t suffer enough disrespect already, now artificial intelligence is having a go at them. At a recent soccer match in Scotland, an AI-powered automatic camera system consistently interpreted an official’s glabrous pate as the soccer ball. The system is supposed to keep the camera trained on the action by recognizing the ball as it’s being moved around the field. Sadly, the linesman in this game drew the attention of the system quite frequently, causing viewers to miss some of the real action. Not that what officials do during sporting events isn’t important, of course, but it’s generally not what viewers want to see. The company, an outfit called Pixellot, knows about the problem and is working on a solution. Here’s hoping the same problem doesn’t crop up on American football.

A Double Shot Of Vintage Computing This Weekend

Going anywhere interesting this weekend? No, of course you aren’t. None of us are. So why not tune your computer or smartphone to the online stream of one of the virtual Vintage Computer Festivals that will be taking place between October 10th and 11th. Granted only one of them is in English, but we’ve often thought of blinky lights as something of a universal language anyway.

Vintage Computer Festival East, which normally would have happened in the Spring, has finally decided that 2020 is a wash for any in-person meetings and has decided to switch over to virtual. Interestingly, it sounds like they’ll be live streaming at least some of the exhibitor tables from the InfoAge museum in New Jersey where the physical event would have been held. So from an attendee perspective, the virtual event should be a bit closer to the real thing than if everyone had to figure out their own streaming setups from home. Presentations will run from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM Eastern on both days.

On the other side of the globe, Vintage Computing Festival Berlin will be broadcasting their own exhibitions, workshops, and lectures. In an interesting use of the virtual format, they’ll be giving viewers an intimate look at vintage computers and technology that’s held in private collections, museums, or otherwise inaccessible storage and research facilities. Content will be streaming from 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM CEST on both days, with a musical performance overnight.

While there’s an understandable tendency to bemoan the trend of moving events online in the face of COVID-19, there are certainly situations where the format can actually bring you more content than you’d have access to otherwise. Especially when they end up being free, as is the case with both of these Festivals. We’re still eagerly awaiting the point where we can get back to attending these events in person, but we certainly aren’t complaining when so many incredible people are willing to put on these presentations without seeing a dime.

Hackaday Links: July 5, 2020

Remember all the hubbub over Betelgeuse back in February? For that matter, do you even remember February? If you do, you might recall that the red giant in Orion was steadily dimming, which some took as a portent of an impending supernova. That obviously didn’t happen, but we now seem to have an explanation for the periodic dimming: an enormous dark spot on the star. “Enormous” doesn’t begin to describe this thing, which covers 70% of the face of a star that would extend past Jupiter if it replaced the sun. The dimming was originally thought to be dust being blown off the star as it goes through its death throes, but no evidence could be found for that, while direct observations in the terahertz range showed what amounted to a reduction in surface temperature caused by the enormous star spot. We just think it’s incredibly cool that Betelgeuse is so big that we can actually observe it as a disk rather than a pinpoint of light. At least for now.

F-15c cockpit
F-15a cockpit

If you think you’ve seen some challenging user interfaces, wait till you get a load of the cockpit of an F-15C Eagle. As part of a new series on human interfaces, Ars Technica invited Col. Andrea Themely (USAF-ret.) to give a tour of the fighter she has over 1,100 hours on. Bearing in mind that the Eagle entered service in 1976 and has been continually updated with the latest avionics — compare the video with the steam gauges of the cockpit of an F-15A — its cockpit is still a pretty busy place. As much as possible has been done to reduce pilot load, with controls being grouped by function and the use of color-coding — don’t touch the yellow and black stuff! — and the use of tactile feedback. It’s a fascinating deep dive into a workplace that few of us ever get to see, and we’re looking forward to the rest of the series.

Sad news from Seattle, where the Living Computers: Museum + Labs is closing up shop. The announcement only says they’re closing “for now”, so there’s at least some hope that the museum will be back once the COVID-19 downturn has run its course. We hope they do bounce back; it really was a great museum with a lot of amazing hardware on display. The Vintage Computer Festival PNW was held there in its inaugural year, an event we covered and had high hopes for in the future. We hope for the best for these educational and cultural institutions, but we can’t help but fear a little for their future.

So you suffer a partial amputation of your left hand, leaving you with only your thumb and your palm. That raises an interesting conundrum: you haven’t lost enough to replace the hand with a prosthetic one, but you still don’t have any fingers. That appears to be what happened to Ian Davis, and so he built his own partial prosthetic to replace his fingers. There’s not much backstory on his YouTube channel, but from what we can gather he has gone through several designs, most of which are myomechanical rather than myoelectric. Through a series of complex linkages, he’s able to control not only the opening and closing of the fingers, but also to splay them apart. It’s all in the wrist, as it were — his input gestures all come from flexing and extending his hand relative to his forearm, where the prosthesis is anchored. This results in a pretty powerful grip — much stronger than a myoelectric hand in a head-to-head test. And the coolness factor of his work is just off the scale. We’re looking forward to more from Ian, and hopefully enough background information for a full story on what he has accomplished.

Hackaday Links: May 3, 2020

In a sign of the times, the Federal Communications Commission has officially signed off on remote testing sessions for amateur radio licensing in the United States. Testing in the US is through the Volunteer Examiner Coordinator program, which allows teams of at least three Volunteer Examiners to set up in-person testing sessions where they proctor amateur radio licensing exams. The VEs take their jobs very seriously and take pride in offering exam sessions on a regular schedule, so when social distancing rules made their usual public testing venues difficult to access, many of them quickly pivoted to remote testing using teleconferencing applications. Here’s hoping that more VEs begin offering remote testing sessions.

Another aspect of life changed by COVID-19 and social distancing rules has been the simple pleasure of a trip to the museum. And for the museums themselves, the lack of visitors can be catastrophic, both in terms of fulfilling their educational and research missions and through the lack of income that results. To keep the flame alive in a fun way, Katrina Bowen from The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge has recreated her museum in loving detail in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. For being limited to what’s available in the game, Katrina did a remarkable job on the virtual museum; we especially like the Megaprocessor wallpaper. She even managed to work in that staple last stop of every museum, the gift shop.

To the surprise of few, “spatial computing” startup Magic Leap has announced that it is laying off half its workforce as it charts a new course. The company, which attracted billions in funding based on its virtual retinal display technology, apparently couldn’t sell enough of their Magic Leap One headsets to pay the bills. The company is swiveling to industrial users, which honestly seems like a better application for their retinal display technology than the consumer or gaming markets.

And finally, as if 2020 hasn’t been weird enough already, the Department of Defense has officially released videos of what it calls “unidentified aerial phenomena.” These videos, taken from the head-up displays of US Navy fighter jets, had previously been obtained by private parties and released to the public. Recorded between 2004 and 2015, the videos appear to show objects that are capable of extremely high-speed flight and tight maneuvers close to the surface of the ocean. We find the timing of the release suspicious, almost as if the videos are intended to serve as a distraction from the disturbing news of the day. We want to believe we’re not alone, but these videos don’t do much to help.

Hiring From A Makerspace Pays Off

A makerspace is a great place to use specialty tools that may be too expensive or large to own by oneself, but there are other perks that come with participation in that particular community. For example, all of the skills you’ve gained by using all that fancy equipment may make you employable in some very niche situations. [lukeiamyourfather] from the Dallas Makerspace recently found himself in just that situation, and was asked to image a two-million-year-old fossil.

The fossil was being placed into a CT machine for imaging, but was too thick to properly view. These things tend to be fragile, so he spent some time laser cutting an acrylic stand in order to image the fossil vertically instead of horizontally. Everything that wasn’t fossil had to be non-conductive for the CT machine, so lots of fishing line and foam was used as well. After the imaging was done, he was also asked to 3D print a model for a display in the museum.

This is all going on at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science if you happen to be in the Dallas area. It’s interesting to see these skills put to use out in the wild as well, especially for something as rare and fragile as studying an old fossil. Also, if you’d like to see if your local makerspace measures up to the Dallas makerspace, we featured a tour of it back in 2014, although they have probably made some updates since then.

Big Beautiful Vintage Computers, And Where To Find Them

An IBM 3380E disk storage system, 5 gigabyte capacity.

[Ken Shirriff] recently shared some pictures and a writeup from his visit to the Large Scale Systems Museum, a remarkable private collection of mainframes and other computers from the 1970s to the 1990s. Housed in a town outside Pittsburgh, it contains a huge variety of specimens including IBM mainframes and desk-sized minicomputers, enormous disk and tape storage systems, and multiple 90s-era Cray supercomputers. It doesn’t stop there, either. Everything through the minicomputer revolution leading to personal home computers is present, and there are even several Heathkit HERO robot kits from the 80s. (By the way, we once saw a HERO retrofitted with wireless and the ability to run Python.)

Something really special is that many of the vintage systems are in working order, providing insight into how these units performed and acted. The museum is a private collection and is open only by appointment but they encourage interested parties not to be shy. If a trip to the museum isn’t for you, [Ken] has some additional photos from his visit here for you to check out.

An Evening With Space Shuttle Atlantis

When I got the call asking if I’d be willing to fly down to Kennedy Space Center and cover an event, I agreed immediately. Then about a week later, I remembered to call back and ask what I was supposed to be doing. Not that it mattered, I’d gladly write a few thousand words about the National Crocheting Championships if they started holding them at KSC. I hadn’t been there in years, since before the Space Shuttle program had ended, and I was eager to see the exhibit created for the fourth member of the Shuttle fleet, Atlantis.

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned that the event Hackaday wanted me to cover, the Cornell Cup Finals, would culminate in a private viewing of the Atlantis exhibit after normal park hours. After which, the winners of the competition would be announced during a dinner held under the orbiter itself. It promised to be a memorable evening for the students, a well deserved reward for the incredible work they put in during the competition.

Thinking back on it now, the organizers of the Cornell Cup and the staff at Kennedy Space Center should truly be commended. It was an incredible night, and everyone I spoke to felt humbled by the unique experience. There was a real, palpable, energy about it that you simply can’t manufacture. Of course, nobody sitting under Atlantis that night was more excited than the students. Though I may have come in as a close second.

I’ll admit it was somewhat bittersweet to see such an incredible piece of engineering turned into a museum piece; it looked as if Atlantis could blast off for another mission at any moment. But there’s no denying that the exhibit does a fantastic job of celebrating the history and accomplishments of the Space Shuttle program. NASA officially considers the surviving Shuttle orbiters to be on a “Mission of Inspiration”, so rather than being mothballed in a hangar somewhere in the desert, they are out on display where the public can get up close and personal with one of humanities greatest achievements. Judging by the response I saw, the mission is going quite well indeed.

If you have the means to do so, you should absolutely make the trip to Cape Canaveral to see Atlantis and all the other fascinating pieces of space history housed at KSC. There’s absolutely no substitute for seeing the real thing, but if you can’t quite make the trip to Florida, hopefully this account courtesy of your humble scribe will serve to give you a taste of what the exhibit has to offer.

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