Intuition About Signals And Systems

Signals and systems theory is a tough topic. Terms like convolution and impulse response can be hard to understand on a visceral level and most books that talk about these things emphasize math over intuition. [Discretised] has a YouTube channel that already has several videos that promise to tackle these topics with “minimum maths, maximum intuition.” We particularly noticed the talks on convolution and impulse response.

We think that often math and intuition don’t always come together. It is one thing, for example, to know that E=I times R, and power is I times E, but it is another to realize that a half-watt transmitter delivers 5V into a 50Ω load and that one watt will take just over 7V into that same load.

The example used is computing how much smoke you can expect to create by setting off fireworks. We presume the math models are notional since we imagine a real model would be pretty complex and involve things like wind data. But it still makes a nice example.

If you don’t know anything about the topic, these might not be the right ones to try to learn the basics. But we do applaud people sharing their intuition on these complex subjects.

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Your WiFi Signals Are Revealing Your Location

The home may be the hearth, but it’s not going to be a place of safety for too long.

With the abundance of connected devices making their ways into our homes, increasing levels of data may allow for more accurate methods for remote surveillance. By measuring the strength of ambient signals emitted from devices, a site can be remotely monitored for movement. That is to say, WiFi signals may soon pose a physical security vulnerability.

In a study from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers built on earlier studies where they could use similar techniques to “see through walls” to demonstrate a proof-of-concept for passive listening. Attackers don’t need to transmit signals or break encryptions to gain access to a victim’s location – they just need to listen to the ambient signals coming from connected devices, making it more difficult to track bad actors down.

Typically, connected devices communicate to an access point such as a router rather than directly with the Internet. A person walking near a device can subtly change the signal propagated to the access point, which is picked up by a receiver sniffing the signal. Most building materials do not block WiFi signals from propagating, allowing receivers to be placed inconspicuously in different rooms from the access point.

WiFi sniffers are relatively inexpensive, with models running for less than $20. They’re also small enough to hide in unsuspecting locations – inside backpacks, inside a box – and emit no signal that could be detected by a target. The researchers proposed some methods for safeguarding against the vulnerability: insulating buildings against WiFi leakage (while ensuring that desirable signals, i.e. signals from cell tower are still able to enter) or having access points emit a “cover signal” that mixes signals from connected devices to make it harder to sniff for motion.

While we may not be seeing buildings surrounded by Faraday cages anytime soon, there’s only going to be more attack surfaces to worry about as our devices continue to become connected.

[Thanks to Qes for the tip!]

NanoVNA Is A $50 Vector Network Analyzer

There was a time when oscilloscopes were big and expensive. Now you can get scopes of various sizes and capabilities on nearly any budget. Vector network analyzers — VNAs — haven’t had quite the same proliferation, but NanoVNA may change that. [IMSAI Guy] bought one for about $50 and made a series of videos about it. Spoiler alert: he likes it. You can see one of the several videos he’s posted, below.

NanoVNA is tiny but sweeps from 50 kHz to 900 MHz and has a touch screen. The device uses a rechargeable battery if you need to haul it up to an antenna tower, for example. Just as a quick test, you can see early in the video the analysis of a rubber duck antenna. The device shows return loss as a plot and you can use a cursor to precisely measure the values. It also shows a Smith chart of the reactance.

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Say It With Me: Bandwidth

Bandwidth is one of those technical terms that has been overloaded in popular speech: as an example, an editor might ask if you have the bandwidth to write a Hackaday piece about bandwidth. Besides this colloquial usage, there are several very specific meanings in an engineering context. We might speak about the bandwidth of a signal like the human voice, or of a system like a filter or an oscilloscope — or, we might consider the bandwidth of our internet connection. But, while the latter example might seem fundamentally different from the others, there’s actually a very deep and interesting connection that we’ll uncover before we’re done.

Let’s have a look at what we mean by the term bandwidth in various contexts.

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Low-Level Analog Measurement Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday 17 July 2019 at noon Pacific for the Low-Level Analog Measurement Hack Chat with Chris Gammell!

A lot of electronics enthusiasts gravitate to the digital side of the hobby, at least at first. It’s understandable – an Arduino, a few jumpers, and a bit of code can accomplish a lot. But in the final analysis, digital circuits are just analog circuits with the mystery abstracted away, and understanding the analog side opens up a fascinating window on the world of electronics.

Chris Gammell is well-known around hacker circles thanks to his Amp Hour Podcast with Dave Jones, his KiCad tutorials, and his general hacker chops. He’s also got a thing for the analog world, and wants to share some of the tips and tricks he’s developed over his two decades as an electrical engineer. In the next Hack Chat, we’ll be joining Chris down in the weeds to learn the ins and outs of low-level analog measurements. Join us with your questions and insights, or just come along to peel back some of the mysteries of the analog world.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday July 17 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Delving Deep Into High Speed Digital Design

scope capture showing ringing affect in a high speed digital signal

In high speed digital circuits, fast doesn’t necessarily mean “high clock rate”. [Jack Ganssle]  does an excellent job at explaining how the transition time of signals in high speed digital circuits is just as important as the speed of the signal itself. When the transition time is large, around 20 nanoseconds, everything is fine. But when you cut it down to just a few nanoseconds, things change. Often you will get a ringing effect caused by impedance mismatch.

As the signal travels down the trace from the driver and hits the receiver, some of the signal will get reflected back toward the driver if the impedance, which is just resistance with a frequency component, does not exactly match. The reflected signal then heads back to the driver where the impedance mismatch will cause another reflection. It goes back and forth, creating the ‘ringing’ you see on the scope.

[Jack Ganssle] goes on to explain how a simple resistor network can help to match the impedance and how these should be used in circuits with fast transition times, especially where you will be taking readings with a scope. As the scope probe itself can introduce impedance and cause the ringing.

In case you didn’t pick up on it, [Jack Ganssle] also happens to be one of the judges for The Hackaday Prize.

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Decoding News Helicopter Signals On YouTube

A serendipitous YouTube video recommendation led [Oona] to a raw copy of a news helicopter car chase video. While watching the video she noticed an odd sound playing from her left speaker. That was all it took to put [Oona] on the hunt. Decoding mystery signals is a bit of an obsession for her. We last saw [Oona] decoding radio signals for bus stop displays. She isolated the left audio channel and sent it through baudline software, which helped her determine it was a binary frequency shift keyed (BFSK) signal. A bit more work with SoX, and she had a 1200 baud bit stream.

Opening up the decoded file in a hex editor revealed the data. Packets were 47 bytes each. Most of the data packets was static. However, thee groups of bytes continuously changed. [Oona] decoded these numbers as latitude and longitude, and plotted the resulting data on Google Earth. Plotting her data against the position of the car in the video revealed a match. [Oona] had a complete track of the news helicopter as it followed the car. The telemetry data is in 7-bit Bell 202 ASCII, and is most likely part of an Interruptible Foldback (IFB) system used by the helicopter news crew and the studio producers. Click past the break for the YouTube video that started this all.

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