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Hackaday Links: May 8, 2022

Russia’s loose cannon of a space boss is sending mixed messages about the future of the International Space Station. Among the conflicting statements from Director-General Dmitry Rogozin, the Roscosmos version of Eric Cartman, is that “the decision has been made” to pull out of the ISS over international sanctions on Russia thanks to its war on Ukraine. But exactly when would this happen? Good question. Rogozin said the agency would honor its commitment to give a year’s notice before pulling out, which based on the current 2024 end-of-mission projections, means we might hear something definitive sometime next year. Then again, Rogozin also said last week that Roscosmos would be testing a one-orbit rendezvous technique with the ISS in 2023 or 2024; it currently takes a Soyuz about four orbits to catch up to the ISS. So which is it? Your guess is as good as anyones at this point.

At what point does falsifying test data on your products stop being a “pattern of malfeasance” and become just the company culture? Apparently, something other than the 40 years that Mitsubishi Electric has allegedly been doctoring test results on some of their transformers. The company has confessed to the testing issue, and also to “improper design” of the transformers, going back to the 1980s and covering about 40% of the roughly 8,400 transformers it made and shipped worldwide. The tests that were falsified were to see if the transformers could hold up thermally and withstand overvoltage conditions. The good news is, unless you’re a power systems engineer, these aren’t transformers you’d use in any of your designs — they’re multi-ton, multi-story beasts that run the grid. The bad news is, they’re the kind of transformers used to run the grid, so nobody’s stuff will work if one of these fails. There’s no indication whether any of the sketchy units have failed, but the company is “considering” contacting owners and making any repairs that are necessary.

For your viewing pleasure, you might want to catch the upcoming documentary series called “A League of Extraordinary Makers.” The five-part series seeks to explain the maker movement to the world, and features quite a few of the luminaries of our culture, including Anouk Wipprecht, Bunnie Huang, Jimmy DiResta, and the gang at Makers Asylum in Mumbai, which we assume would include Anool Mahidharia. It looks like the series will focus on the real-world impact of hacking, like the oxygen concentrators hacked up by Makers Asylum for COVID-19 response, and the influence the movement has had on the wider culture. Judging by the trailer below, it looks pretty interesting. Seems like it’ll be released on YouTube as well as other channels this weekend, so check it out.

But, if you’re looking for something to watch that doesn’t require as much commitment, you might want to check out this look at the crawler-transporter that NASA uses to move rockets to the launch pad. We’ve all probably seen these massive beasts before, moving at a snail’s pace along a gravel path with a couple of billion dollars worth of rocket stacked up and teetering precariously on top. What’s really cool is that these things are about as old as the Space Race itself, and still going strong. We suppose it’s easier to make a vehicle last almost 60 years when you only ever drive it at half a normal walking speed.

And finally, if you’re wondering what your outdoor cat gets up to when you’re not around — actually, strike that; it’s usually pretty obvious what they’ve been up to by the “presents” they bring home to you. But if you’re curious about the impact your murder floof is having on the local ecosystem, this Norwegian study of the “catscape” should be right up your alley. They GPS-tagged 92 outdoor cats — which they dryly but hilariously describe as “non-feral and food-subsidized” — and created maps of both the ranges of individual animals, plus a “population-level utilization distribution,” which we think is a euphemism for “kill zone.” Surprisingly, the population studied spent almost 80% of their time within 50 meters of home, which makes sense — after all, they know where those food subsidies are coming from.

Hacking Multiplication: Binary Multiply On Paper

We’ve often noted that whether had ancient man known binary, we could all count to 1023 on our fingers. We thought about that while watching [Numberphile’s] latest video about “Russian” multiplication (see below). Apparently, the method dates back quite a way, sometimes known as Ethiopian or peasant multiplication. Even the ancient Egyptians did a form of it.

If you’ve ever written long multiplication code for a microcontroller, you can probably tell how this works. Each halving of the number amounts to a right shift. Each doubling is a left shift. Throwing out the even numbers means you only take the values when the least-significant bit is zero. Booth’s algorithm is more efficient, but the “Russian” method is simple to do on paper.

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3D-Printer And CNC Make This Russian Calculator Bilingual

Let’s be clear right up front: there are probably more obvious solutions to the problem of using a Russian calculator when you don’t speak Russian than printing new keys and engraving translated markings on them. But easy solutions are boring and generally considered beyond the scope of Hackaday articles, so let’s dive in.

They say that mathematics is the universal language, but that’s only true to an extent. Still, even with our limited non-existent Cyrillic skills, the Russian keyboard on this RPN calculator isn’t that hard to figure out. But as [Amen] points out, in the midst of fevered calculations, one prefers not to mentally translate Χ→П to STO or remember that В↑ is the Enter key. So he printed a set of replacements for the confusing keys from PLA. While pondering how to safely fixture such small parts for the later engraving step, [Amen] hit on a genius solution: move the print bed to the CNC router and fixture everything in one go. The resulting characters are large enough to be legible and deep enough to be filled with air-drying polymer clay for contrast. After sanding and polishing, the calculator looks like it came from the Министерство электронной промышленности that way.

Honestly, we’d love to get a look inside this calculator. The insides of Russian electronics can be fascinating, and we’ve even seen entire forums dedicated to decapping Russian parts. But we understand the desire to keep it intact.

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In Soviet Russia, Computer Programs You

We admire [Alex Studer’s] approach to schoolwork. His final assignment in his history class was to do an open-ended research project on any topic and — this is key — using any medium. He’d recently watched a video about how Tetris came from the former Soviet Union, and adding in a little eBay research set out to build a period-accurate Soviet computer replica. The post covers the technical details, but if you want to read the historical aspects the school paper is also online.

The first decision was what CPU to use and [Alex] picked the U880 which is a Soviet Z80. All the usual parts you would use with a Z80 have U880 equivalents, so that fleshed out the rest of the design. There were a few concessions made. Instead of a bulky analog monitor, the replica uses an LCD display. Instead of an audio cassette recorder, the new machine uses a CompactFlash socket. We don’t think those are bad decisions. He also replaced the Soviet EPROMs with modern parts. Although the original parts appeared to program correctly, they were unreliable in operation. [Alex] theorizes that his programmer did not generate enough programming voltage to fully program the cells, so they would pass at the low speeds used by the programmer, but not work in the actual circuit.

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The Electronics Of Cold War Nightmares

It is a good bet that if you look around you, you’ll be able to find at least one smoke detector in sight. If not, there’s probably one not too far away. Why not? Fires happen and you’d like to know about a fire even if you are sleeping or alert others if you are away. During the cold war, there were other things that people didn’t want to sleep through. [Msylvain59] tears down two examples: a Soviet GSP-11 nerve agent detector and a Polish RS-70 radiation alarm. You can see both videos, below.

In all fairness, the GSP-11 is clearly not meant for consumer use. It actually uses a test strip that changes colors and monitors the color change. Presumably, the people operating it were wearing breathing gear because the machine could take quite a while to provide a positive output. Inside reminded us of a film processing machine, which isn’t too far off.

The radiation monitor looks more like a miniature version of an old floor-standing radio. The case design, the thick-traced, single-sided, hand-drawn printed wiring board, and the –by today’s standards — huge parts within all contribute to making this look like a piece of radio gear from the 1970s or even earlier.

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Rescue An Old Washing Machine With Modern Controls

The humble washing machine is an appliance that few of us are truly passionate about. They’re expected to come into our lives and serve faithfully, with a minimum of fuss. In the good old days, it was common for a washing machine to last for well over 20 years, and in doing so ingratiate itself with its masters. Sadly now while the simple mechanical parts may still be serviceable, the electronics behind the scenes can tend to fail. This is a Russian story (Google Translate link) about giving a new brain to an old friend.

The machine in question is known as an Oriole, and had served long and hard. Logic chips and entire controllers had been replaced, but were continuing to fail. Instead, a replacement was designed to keep the machine operational for some time yet. Rather than relying on recreating the full feature set of the machine it was decided to eliminate certain things for simplicity. Settings for different fabric types or wash modes were eliminated, which is an easy choice if like most people all your washes are done in the same mode anyway. A water level sensor was found to be no longer functioning properly and was simpler to eliminate than repair.

The brain is a PIC microcontroller, with an ESP12 acting as a webserver for monitoring and control. Additionally, a glass lens was taken from some former medical equipment and neatly installed in the control panel of the machine before an OLED display, giving the machine far more feedback than before. Control is still done with the machine’s original buttons. Temperature sensors were added as well to allow the machine to shut itself down in the event of an overheating problem. It’s all tied together on what looks to be a classic single-sided homebrew PCB.

It’s a great project that shows it’s easy to bring modern electronic might to bear on vintage mechanical hardware, with great results. A washing machine lives to see another day, another load – and the landfill remains just that much lighter, to boot.

We’ve seen controller builds for old washing machines before, too – like replacing mechanical control with an Arduino.

[Thanks to Tirotron for sending this in!]

Radio MDZhB

If you have a shortwave receiver, tune it to 4625 kHz. You’ll hear something that on the surface sounds strange, but the reality is even stranger still. According to the BBC, the radio station broadcasts from two locations inside Russia — and has since 1982 — but no one claims ownership of the station, known as MDZhB. According to the BBC:

[For 35 years, MDZhB] has been broadcasting a dull, monotonous tone. Every few seconds it’s joined by a second sound, like some ghostly ship sounding its foghorn. Then the drone continues.
Once or twice a week, a man or woman will read out some words in Russian, such as “dinghy” or “farming specialist”. And that’s it.

If you don’t have a shortwave handy, you can always try one of the many web-based software defined radios. Search for 4.6 MHz, and pick a location that should have propagation to Russia and you are all set.

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