Sometimes It’s Not The Solution

Watching a video about a scratch-built ultra-precise switch for metrology last week reminded me that it’s not always the projects that are the most elegant solutions that I enjoy reading about the most. Sometimes I like reading about hackers’ projects more for the description of the problem they’re facing.

A good problem invites you to brainstorm along. In the case of [Marco Reps]’s switches, for instance, they need to be extraordinarily temperature stable, which means being made out of a single type of metal to avoid unintentional thermocouple joints. And ideally, they should be as cheap as possible. Once you see one good solution, you can’t help but think of others – just reading the comments on that article shows you how inspiring a good problem can be. I’m not worried about these issues in any of my work, but it would be cool to have to.

Similarly, this week, I really liked [Michael Prasthofer]’s deep dive into converting a normal camera into a spectrometer. His solutions were all very elegant, but what was most interesting were the various problems he faced along the way. Things that you just wouldn’t expect end up mattering, like diffraction gratings being differently sensitive across the spectrum when light comes in from different angles. You can learn a lot from other people’s problems.

So, hackers everywhere, please share your problems with us! You think that your application is “too niche” to be of general interest? Maybe it’s another example of a problem that’s unique enough to be interesting just on its own. Let’s see what your up against. A cool problem is at least as interesting as a clever solution.

Institutional Memory, On Paper

Our own Dan Maloney has been on a Voyager kick for the past couple of years. Voyager, the space probe. As a long-term project, he has been trying to figure out the computer systems on board. He got far enough to write up a great overview piece, and it’s a pretty good summary of what we know these days. But along the way, he stumbled on a couple old documents that would answer a lot of questions.

Dan asked JPL if they had them, and the answer was “no”. Oddly enough, the very people who are involved in the epic save a couple weeks ago would also like a copy. So when Dan tracked the document down to a paper-only collection at Wichita State University, he thought he had won, but the whole box is stashed away as the library undergoes construction.

That box, and a couple of its neighbors, appear to have a treasure trove of documentation about the Voyagers, and it may even be one-of-a-kind. So in the comments, a number of people have volunteered to help the effort, but I think we’re all just going to have to wait until the library is open for business again. In this age of everything-online, everything-scanned-in, it’s amazing to believe that documents about the world’s furthest-flown space probe wouldn’t be available, but so it is!

It makes you wonder how many other similar documents – products of serious work by the people responsible for designing the systems and machines that shaped our world – are out there in the dark somewhere. History can’t capture everything, and it’s down to our collective good judgement in the end. So if you find yourself in a position to shed light on, or scan, such old papers, please do! And then contact some nerd institution like the Internet Archive or the Computer History Museum.

Microsoft Killed My Favorite Keyboard, And I’m Mad About It

As a professional writer, I rack up thousands of words a day. Too many in fact, to the point where it hurts my brain. To ease this burden, I choose my tools carefully to minimize obstructions as the words pour from my mind, spilling through my fingers on their way to the screen.

That’s a long-winded way of saying I’m pretty persnickety about my keyboard. Now, I’ve found out my favorite model has been discontinued, and I’ll never again know the pleasure of typing on its delicate keys. And I’m mad about it. Real mad. Because I shouldn’t be in this position to begin with!

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Wireless All The Things!

Neither Tom Nardi nor I are exactly young anymore, and we can both remember a time when joysticks were actually connected with wires to the computer or console, for instance. Back then, even though wireless options were on the market, you’d still want the wired version if it was a reaction-speed game, because wireless links just used to be too slow.

Somehow, in the intervening years, and although we never even really noticed the transition as such, everything has become wireless. And that includes our own hacker projects. Sure, the ESP8266 and other WiFi-capable chips made a big difference, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for the nRF24 chipset, which made at least point-to-point wireless affordable and easy. Others will feel the same about ZigBee, but the point stands: nothing has wires anymore, except to charge back up.

The reason? As this experiment comparing the latency of many different wireless connections bears out, wireless data links have just gotten that good, to the point that the latency in the radio is on par with what you’d get over USB. And the relevant software ecosystems have made it easier to go wireless as well. Except for the extra power requirement, and for cases where you need to move a lot of data, there’s almost no reason that any of your devices need wires anymore.

Are you with us? Will you throw down your chains and go wireless?

Horrendous Mess Of Wires

When do you post your projects? When they’re done? When they’re to the basic prototype stage? Or all along the way, from their very conception? All of these have their merits, and their champions.

In the post-all-along-the-way corner, we have Hackaday’s own [Arya Voronova], who outlines the many ways that you can start documenting your project before it’s even a fully fledged project. She calls these tidbits “breadcrumbs”, and it strikes me as being a lot like keeping a logbook, but doing it in public. The advantages? Instead of just you, everyone on the Internet can see what you’re up to. This means they can offer help, give you parts recommendations, and find that incorrect pinout that one pair of eyes would have missed. It takes a lot of courage to post your unfinished business for all to see, but ironically, that’s the stage of the project where you stand to gain the most from the exposure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the folks who document their projects at the very end. We see a ton of these on Hackaday.io and in people’s personal blogs. It’s a great service to the community, frankly, because at that point, you’re already done with the project. This is the point where the reward, for you, is at its minimum, but it’s also the point where you feel least inhibited about sharing if you’re one of those people who are afraid of showing your work off half-done. The risk here, if you’re like me, is that you’re already on to the next project when one is “done”, and going back over it to make notes seems superfluous. Those of you who do it regardless, we salute you!

And then there’s the middle ground. When you’re about one third of the way done, you realize that you might have something half workable, and you start taking a photo or two, or maybe even typing words into a computer. Your git logs start to contain more than just “fixed more stuff” for each check-in, because what if someone else actually reads this? Maybe you’re to the point where you’ve just made the nice box to put it in, and you’re not sure if you’ll ever go back and untangle that rat’s nest, so you take a couple of pictures of the innards before you hot glue it down.

I’m a little ashamed I’m probably on the “post only when it’s done” end of things than is healthy, mostly because I don’t have the aforementioned strength of will to go back. What about you?

Confluence Of Nerdery

You might find yourself, dear Hackaday reader, attracted to some pretty strange corners of the tech world. Who knows when that knowledge of stenography, ancient retrocomputing, and floppy disk internals will all combine to get someone falsely accused out of jail? Go read this story and come on back, but the short version is that [Bloop Museum] helped recover some 40+ year old court evidence off of some floppies to right an old wrong.

If you looked at the combination of extremely geeky topics, you’d say it’s unlikely to find anyone well versed in any one of them, and you’d say that the chances of anyone knowing enough in each these fringe domains to be helpful is exceedingly low. But I’m absolutely sure that the folks at [Bloop Museum] had some more to throw into the mix if they were called for. Or better yet, they might know exactly the right geeks to call in.

And that’s the other heartwarming part of the story. When [Bloop Museum] didn’t know everything about old stenography formats, they knew the right people to reach out to – the Plover open stenography project. Who is going to know more? Nobody! Together, the nerd community is an unstoppable resource.

So remember, when you’re hanging out with your geek friends, to keep a running catalog of everyone’s interests. Because you never know when you’re going to need an expert in re-gilding frames, or relocating bee hives, or restoring 1930’s radio sets. Or decoding obscure data formats to get someone out of jail.

Hackaday Halloween

We’re running the 2023 Halloween Hackfest and it’s your chance to document your Halloween projects, and win fame, fortune, or at least one of three $150 DigiKey gift certificates, plus some Arduino schwag courtesy of the contest’s sponsors! You’ve got until the end of October, so get on it!

Ask Hackaday: Why Retrocomputing?

I recently dropped in on one of the Vintage Computer Festival events, and it made me think about why people — including myself — are fascinated with old computer technology. In my case, I lived through a lot of it, and many of the people milling around at VCF did too, so it could just be nostalgia. But there were also young people there.

Out of curiosity, I asked people about the appeal of the old computers on display there. Overwhelmingly, the answer was: you can understand the whole system readily. Imagine how long it would take you to learn all the hardware and software details of your current desktop computer CPU. Then add your GPU, the mass storage controllers, and your network interface. I don’t mean knowing the part numbers, specs, and other trivialities. I mean being able to program, repair, and even enhance it.

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