Hackaday Links: May 24, 2020

We’re saddened to learn of the passing of Gershon Kingsley in December 2019 at the age of 97. The composer and electronic music pioneer was not exactly a household name, but the things he did with the Moog synthesizer, especially the surprise hit “Pop Corn”, which he wrote in 1969, are sure to be familiar. The song has been covered dozens of times, in the process of which the spelling of the name changed to “Popcorn.” We’re most familiar with the 1972 cover by Hot Butter, an earworm from our youth that doesn’t hide the Moog as deeply in the backing instruments as Kingsley did in the original. Or, perhaps you prefer the cover done by a robotic glockenspiel, because robotic glockenspiel.

A few months back, we covered the audacious plan to recover the radio gear from the Titanic. At the time, the potential salvors, Atlanta-based RMS Titanic, Inc., were seeking permission to cut into the submerged remains of the Titanic‘s Marconi room to remove as much of the wireless gear as possible. A federal judge granted permission for the salvage operation last Friday, giving the company the green light to prepare an expedition for this summer. The US government, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service, argued strenuously to leave the wreck be and treat it as a tomb for the 1,527 victims. For our part, we had a great discussion about the merits in the comments section of the previous article. Now that it’s a done deal, we’d love to hear what you have to say about this again.

Although life appears to be slowly returning to what passes for normal, that doesn’t mean you might not still have some cycles to spare, especially when the time spent can bolster your skillset. And so if you’re looking to adding FPGAs to your resume, check out this remote lab on FPGA vision systems offered by Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University. The setup allows you to watch lectures, download code examples, and build them on your local computer, and then upload the resulting binaries to real hardware running on the lab’s servers in Germany. It sounds like a great way to get access to FPGA hardware that you’d otherwise have a hard time laying hands on. Or, you know, you could have just come to the 2019 Hackaday Superconference.

Speaking of skill-builders, oscilloscope owners who want to sharpen their skills could do worse than to listen to the advice of a real scope jockey like Allen Wolke. He recently posted a helpful video listing the five most common reasons for your scope giving “wrong” voltage readings. Spoiler alert: the instrument is probably doing exactly what you told it to do. As a scope newbie, we found the insights very helpful, and we can imagine even seasoned users could make simple mistakes like using the wrong probe attenuation or forgetting that scope response isn’t flat across its bandwidth.

Safety tip for the gearheads among us: your jack stands might be unsafe to use. Harbor Freight, the stalwart purveyor of cheap tools, has issued a recall of two different models of its jack stands. It seems that the pawls can kick out under the right conditions, sending the supported load crashing to the ground. This qualifies as a Very Bad Day for anyone unlucky enough to be working underneath when it happens. Defective jack stands can be returned to Harbor Freight for store credit, so check your garage and be safe out there in the shop.

And finally, because everyone loves a good flame war, Ars Technica has come up with a pronunciation guide for common tech terms. We have to admit that most of these are not surprising; few among the technology literate would mispronounce “Linux” or “sudo”. We will admit to a non-fanboy level of ignorance on whether the “X” in “iOS X” was a Roman numeral or not, but learning that the “iOS” part is correctly pronounced as three syllables, not two was a bit shocking. It’s all an exercise in pedantry that reminds us of a mildly heated discussion we had around the secret Hackaday writers’ bunker and whether “a LED” or “an LED” is the correct style. If the Internet was made for anything, it was stuff like this.

Dumpster Finds Combined Into 4K Desktop Monitor

Dumpster diving is a time honored tradition in the hacking community. You can find all sorts of interesting hardware in the trash, and sometimes it’s even fully functional. But even the broken gadgets are worth taking back to your lair to strip for parts. If you’re as lucky as [Jamz], you might be able to mash a few devices together and turn them into something usable.

In this case, [Jamz] scored a LG 27UK650 monitor with a cracked display and a Dell OptiPlex 7440 “All-in-One” computer that was DOA. Separately these two pieces of gear were little more than a pile of spare parts waiting to be liberated. But if the control board could be salvaged from the monitor, and the working LCD pulled from the Dell…

After taking everything apart, [Jamz] made a frame for this new Frankenstein monitor using pieces of aluminum channel from the hardware store and 3D printed side panels. With the Dell LCD mounted in the skeletal frame, the control board from the LG monitor was bolted to the back and wired in. Finally the center section of the LG monitor’s back panel was cut out and mounted to the new hybrid display with a 3D printed frame.

Admittedly, these were some pretty solid finds as far as trash goes. You won’t always be so lucky. But if you can keep an open mind, the curb is littered with possibilities. How about some impressive home lighting that started life as a cracked flat screen TV?

Raising The Titanic’s Radio Room

For some reason, of all the ships that have sailed the oceans, it’s the unlucky ones that capture our imagination. Few ships have been as unlucky as the RMS Titanic, sinking as she did on the night of April 15, 1912 after raking across an iceberg on her maiden voyage, and no ship has grabbed as much popular attention as she has.

During her brief life, Titanic was not only the most elegant ship afloat but also the most technologically advanced. She boasted the latest in propulsion and navigation technology and an innovation that had only recently available: a Marconi wireless room, used both for ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communications.

The radio room of the Titanic landed on the ocean floor with the bow section of the great vessel. The 2.5-mile slow-motion free fall destroyed the structure of the room, but the gear survived relatively intact. And now, more than a century later, there’s an effort afoot to salvage that gear, with an eye toward perhaps restoring it to working condition. It’s a controversial plan, of course, but it is technologically intriguing, and it’s worth taking a look at what’s down there and why we should even bother after all these years.

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Stinger: The Hacked Machine Gun Of Iwo Jima

During the Second World War, the United States was pumping out weapons, aircraft, and tanks at an absolutely astonishing rate. The production of military vehicles and equipment was industrialized like never before, and with luck, never will be again. But even still, soldiers overseas would occasionally find themselves in unique situations that required hardware that the factories back at home couldn’t provide them with.

A Stinger machine gun in WWII

Which is precisely how a few United States Marines designed and built the “Stinger” light machine gun (LMG) during the lead-up to the invasion of Iwo Jima in 1945. The Stinger was a Browning .30 caliber AN/M2, salvaged from a crashed or otherwise inoperable aircraft, that was modified for use by infantry. It was somewhat ungainly, and as it was designed to be cooled by the air flowing past it while in flight, had a tendency to overheat quickly. But even with those shortcomings it was an absolutely devastating weapon; with a rate of fire at least twice that of the standard Browning machine guns the Marines had access to at the time.

Six Stingers were produced, and at least on a Battalion level, were officially approved for use in combat. After seeing how successful the weapon was during the invasion of Iwo Jima, there was even some talk of putting the Stinger into larger scale production and distributing them. But the war ended before such a plan could be put into place.

As such, the Stinger is an exceedingly rare example of a field modified weapon that was not only produced in significant numbers, but officially recognized and even considered for adoption by the military. But the story of this hacked machine gun actually started years earlier and thousands of kilometers away, as Allied forces battled for control of the Solomon Islands.

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Deep Discounts Yield Deep Reverse Engineering Of Biotech Hardware

Hitting the electronic surplus shop is probably old hat to most of our readership. Somewhere, everyone’s got that little festering pile of hardware they’re definitely going to use some day. An old fax is one thing, but how would your partner feel if you took home an entire pallet-sized gene sequencing rig? Our friend [kaspar] sent along an interesting note that the folks at Swiss hackerspace Hackteria got their hands on an Illumina HiSeq 2000 last year (see funny “look what we got!” photo at top) and have generated a huge amount of open documentation about whats inside and how to use it.

Okay first off, what the heck is this machine anyway? The HiSeq is designed to automatically perform the sequencing step of Illumina’s proprietary multi step gene sequencing process (see manufacturer’s glossy for more), and to do so with minimal human intervention. That means that the unit contains a microfluidics system to manipulate samples, an extremely high performance optical scan system complete with controllable stage, imager, fluorescence modes, etc, and lots of other things this author isn’t sufficiently trained to guess at.

The folks at Hackteria have done a pretty thorough teardown of the system and produced block diagrams of most of its modules. They’ve also run some of the tools and recorded logs of what they were up to, including the serial commands sent to and from the machine to control certain subsystems. Of course a tool like this was meant to be driven by Illumina’s specific software, but unusually those are available and surprisingly usable which is how the aforementioned logs were captured. Right now it looks like Hackteria has put together tools to use the system as a fluorescent microscope.

Oddly the most interesting thing here might be how available these systems are. It appears that they’re being replaced en masse and have become easily available in the range of thousands of dollars on the secondary market. At that price point they’re almost worth snapping up for the enclosure and parts! But we prefer Hackteria’s goal of enabling the Citizen Scientist to make use of these incredible machines for their intended purpose. Who knows what exciting projects we’ll find when hackers start sequencing their cats!

Thanks for the tip [kaspar]!

Beautiful Moving Origami Light Made From Scrap

Whenever [MakerMan] hits our tip line with one of his creations, we know it’s going to be something special. His projects are almost exclusively built using scrap and salvaged components, and really serve as a reminder of what’s possible if you’re willing to open your mind a bit. Whether done out of thrift or necessity, he proves the old adage that one man’s trash is often another’s treasure.

We’ve come to expect mainly practical builds from [MakerMan], so the beautiful ceiling light which he refers to as a “Kinetic Chandelier”, is something of a change of pace. The computer controlled light is able to fold itself up like an umbrella while delivering a pleasing diffuse LED glow. He tells us it’s a prototype he’s building on commission for a client, and we’re going to go out on a limb and say he’s going to have a very satisfied customer with this one.

Like all of his builds, the Kinetic Chandelier is almost entirely built out of repurposed components. The support rods are rusty and bent when he found them, but after cutting them down to size and hitting them with a coat of spray paint you’d never suspect they weren’t purpose-made. The light’s “hub” is cut out of a chunk of steel with an angle grinder, and uses bits of bike chain for a flexible linkage.

Perhaps most impressive is his DIY capstan which is used to raise and lower the center of the light. [MakerMan] turns down an aluminum pulley on a lathe to fit the beefy gear motor, and then pairs that with a few idler pulleys held in place with bits of rebar welded together. It looks like something out of Mad Max, but it gets the job done.

Finally, he salvages the LED panels out of a couple of cheap work lights and welds up some more rebar to mount them to the capstan at the appropriate angle. This gives the light an impressive internal glow without a clear source when viewed from below, and really gives it an otherworldly appearance.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a hacker put together their own chandelier, or even the first time we’ve seen it done with scrap parts. But what [MakerMan] has put together here may well be the most objectively attractive one we’ve seen so far.

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Steady Hand Repurposes Cheap SSD Modules

For hackers, cheap (and arguably disposable) consumer hardware makes for a ready supply of free or low-cost components. When you can walk into a big box store and pick up a new low-end laptop for $150, how many are going to spend the money to repair or upgrade the one they have now? So the old ones go to the bin, or get sold online for parts. From an ecological standpoint our disposable society is terrible, but at least we get some tech bargains out of the deal.

Case in point, the dirt cheap 32 GB eMMC SSDs [Jason Gin] recently scored. Used by Hewlett Packard on their line of budget laptops, he was able to snap up some of these custom drives for only $12 each. Only problem was, since they were designed for a very specific market and use case, they aren’t exactly the kind of thing you can just slap in your computer’s drive bay. He had to do some reverse engineering to figure out how to talk to them, and then some impressive fine-pitch soldering to get them plugged in, but in the end he got some very handy drives for an exceptionally low price.

[Jason] starts by figuring out the drive’s pinout using the cornerstone of the hacker’s electronic toolkit: the multimeter. By putting one lead on an obvious ground point such as the PCB’s screw holes, you can work through the pins on the connector and make some educated guesses as to what’s what. Ground pins will read as a short, but the meter should read power and data pins as a forward-biased diode. With a rough idea of the pin’s identities and some luck, he was able to figure out that it was basically a standard SATA connection in a different form factor.

To actually hook it up to his computer, he pulled the PCB off of a dead SATA hard drive, cut it down to size, and was able to use fine magnet wire to attach the conductors in the drive’s ribbon cable to the appropriate pads. He sealed everything up with a healthy dose of hot glue to make sure it didn’t pull loose, and then ran some drive diagnostics on his cobbled together SSD to make sure it was behaving properly. [Jason] reports the drive isn’t exactly a speed demon, but given the low cost and decent performance he still thinks it’s worth the work to use them for testing out different operating systems and the like.

[Jason] seems to have something of an obsession with eMMC hacking. Last time we heard from him, he was bringing a cheap Windows tablet back from the dead by replacing its shot eMMC chip.