Ask Hackaday: Is Bigger (E-mail) Better?

While pundits routinely predict the end of e-mail, we still get a ton of it and we bet you do too. E-mail has been around for a very long time and back in the day, it was pretty high-tech to be able to shoot off a note asking everyone where they wanted to go to lunch. What we had on our computers back then was a lot different, too. Consider that the first e-mail over ARPANET was in 1971. Back then some people had hardcopy terminals. Graphics were unusual and your main storage was probably a fraction of the smallest flash drive you currently have on your desk. No one was sending photographs, videos, or giant PDF files.

Today, things are different. Our computers have gigabytes of RAM and terabytes of storage. We produce and consume richly formatted documents, photographs at high resolutions, and even video. Naturally, we want to share those files with others, yet e-mail has turned up woefully short. Sure, some systems will offer to stash your large file in the cloud and send a link, but e-mailing a multi-megabyte video to your friend across town is more likely to simply fail. Why?

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The Virtue Of Wires In The Age Of Wireless

We ran an article this week about RS-485, a noise resistant differential serial multidrop bus architecture. (Tell me where else you’re going to read articles like that!) I’ve had my fun with RS-485 in the past, and reading this piece reminded me of those days.

You see, RS-485 lets you connect a whole slew of devices up to a single bundle of Cat5 cable, and if you combine it with the Modbus protocol, you can have them work together in a network. Dedicate a couple of those Cat5 lines to power, and it’s the perfect recipe for a home, or hackerspace, small-device network — the kind of things that you, and I, would do with WiFi and an ESP8266 today.

Wired is more reliable, has fewer moving parts, and can solve the “how do I get power to these things” problem. It’s intrinsically simpler: no radios, just serial data running as voltage over wires. But nobody likes running cable, and there’s just so much more demo code out there for an ESP solution. There’s an undeniable ease of development and cross-device compatibility with WiFi. Your devices can speak directly to a computer, or to the whole Internet. And that’s been the death of wired.

Still, some part of me admires the purpose-built simplicity and the bombproof nature of the wired bus. It feels somehow retro, but maybe I’ll break out some old Cat5 and run it around the office just for old times’ sake.

Confessions Of A Crimpoholic

Hi, my name is Dan and I’m a crimpoholic.

Honestly, I didn’t know I was a serial abuser of crimping tools until this weekend. I’ve been working on a small solar power system, and on Saturday I found myself struggling to get the BMS installed on the battery. I bought a Bluetooth dongle to connect the BMS to a smartphone app for checking the individual cells of the battery. I assumed it would just plug right into the UART port on the BMS, but alas — different connectors. So off I went to my bench, looking for a sensible way to make the connection.

My first thought was to simply log the connector off the dongle and solder the leads to the traces on the PCB right below the UART port. But then I saw that the pins in the port looked like 0.1″ pitch, so I rummaged through my stash to see what I could find. To my surprise, I had not only a kit of 0.1″ female crimps and housings, but I also had the crimping tool for them! I had no memory of making the purchase, but I thanked my lucky stars that I did, and got on with the job.

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AI Maybe Revives Dead Languages

While Star Trek’s transporter is hard to imagine — perfect matter movement across vast distances with no equipment on one end — it may not be the most far-fetched piece of tech on the Enterprise. While there are several contenders, I strongly suspect the universal translator is the most unlikely MacGuffin. After all, how would you decipher a totally unknown language in real-time? Of course, no one wants to watch 30 episodes of TV about how we finally figured out what Klingons call clouds, so pretty much every science fiction movie has some hand-waving explanation for speaking the viewer’s language. Farscape had microbes, some aliens have telepathy that works with alien brains of any kind, and still others study English from afar for decades off camera. Babelfish anyone?

I was thinking about this because of an article I read by [Alizeh Kohari] about [Jiaming Luo’s] work using AI to decode dead languages. While this might seem to be similar to Spock’s translator, it really isn’t. Human languages change over time and distance. You only have to watch the BBC or read something written by Thomas Jefferson to see that. But there is still a lot in common, at least within certain domains.

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Quantum computer

Scientific Honesty And Quantum Computing’s Latest Theoretical Hurdle

Quantum computers are really in their infancy. If you created a few logic gates with tubes back in the 1930s, it would be difficult to predict all the ways we would use computers today. However, you could probably guess where at least some of the problems would lie in the future. One of the things we are pretty sure will limit quantum computer development is error correction.

As far as we know, every quantum qubit we’ve come up with so far is very fragile and prone to random errors. That’s why every practical design today incorporates some sort of QEC — quantum error correction. Of course, error correction isn’t news. We use it all the time on unreliable storage media or communication channels and high-reliability memory. The problem is, you can’t directly clone a qubit (a quantum bit), so it is hard to use traditional error correction techniques with qubits.

After all, the whole point to a qubit is we don’t measure it until the end of the computation which, like Schrödinger’s cat, seals its fate. So if you were to “read” a bunch of qubits to form a checksum or a CRC, you’d destroy their quantum nature in the process making your computer not very useful. You can’t even copy a bit to use something like triple redundancy, either. There seems to be no way to practically duplicate a qubit.

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Why You Need To Finish

Mike and I were talking about an interesting smart-glasses hack on the podcast. This was one of those projects where, even if you don’t need a pair of glasses with LEDs on them to help you navigate around, you just couldn’t help but marvel at a lot of the little design choices made throughout.

For instance, I love the way the flex PCB is made to do double duty by wrapping around the battery and forming a battery holder. This struck me as one of those quintessential hacks that only occurs to you because you need it. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all that. There was a problem, how to fit a battery holder in the tiny space, and a set of resources that included a flex PCB substrate. Cleverly mashing that all together ended up with a novel solution. This wouldn’t occur to you if you were just sitting at the beach; you’d have to be designing something electronic, space-constrained, and on a flex PCB to come up with this.

Mike made an offhand comment about how sometimes you just need to finish a project for the good ideas and clever solutions that you’ll come up with along the way, and I think this battery holder example drives that point home. I can’t count the number of my projects that may or may not have been dumb in retrospect, but along the way I came up with a little trick that I’ll end up using in many further projects, outliving the original application.

Finishing up a project on principle is a reasonable goal just on its own. But when the process of seeing something to conclusion is the generator of new and interesting challenges and solutions, it’s even more valuable. So if you’re stuck on a project, and not sure you want to take it all the way, consider if the journey itself could be the destination, and look at it as an opportunity to come up with that next long-lasting trick.

Bad News: Arecibo

If you read the newsletter last week, you heard me wondering aloud if the damage to Arecibo Observatory had crossed the threshold into where it’s no longer economically viable to keep it running, and the sad news has just come in and the battle for Arecibo has been lost. We said we’d shed a tear, and here we are. Sic transit gloria mundi. Here’s hoping something cooler replaces it!

Ask Hackaday: Drone Swarms Replace Fireworks; Where Are The Hackers?

Your mom always warned you that those fireworks could put an eye out. However, the hottest new thing in fireworks displays is not pyrotechnic at all. Instead, a swarm of coordinated drones take to the sky with different lighting effects. This makes some pretty amazing shows possible, granting full control of direction, color, and luminosity of each light source in a mid-air display. It also has the side benefit of being safer — could this be the beginning of the end for fireworks accident videos blazing their way across social media platforms?

For an idea of what’s possible with drone swarm displays, check out the amazing pictures found on this site (machine translation) that show off the 3D effects quite well. Note that although it appears the camera is moving during many of these, the swam itself could be rotated relative to a stationary viewer for a similar effect.

 

What I couldn’t find was much going on here in the hobby space. Granted, in the United States, restrictive drone laws might hamper your ability to do things like this. But it seems that in a purely technical terms this wouldn’t be super hard to do — at least for simple designs. Besides, there must be some way to do this in US airspace since drone performances have been at the Super Bowl, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Folsom, CA.

So if the regulations were sorted, what would it take to build a swarm of your own performing drones?

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