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Hackaday Links: July 3, 2022

Looks like we might have been a bit premature in our dismissal last week of the Sun’s potential for throwing a temper tantrum, as that’s exactly what happened when a G1 geomagnetic storm hit the planet early last week. To be fair, the storm was very minor — aurora visible down to the latitude of Calgary isn’t terribly unusual — but the odd thing about this storm was that it sort of snuck up on us. Solar scientists first thought it was a coronal mass ejection (CME), possibly related to the “monster sunspot” that had rapidly tripled in size and was being hyped up as some kind of planet killer. But it appears this sneak attack came from another, less-studied phenomenon, a co-rotating interaction region, or CIR. These sound a bit like eddy currents in the solar wind, which can bunch up plasma that can suddenly burst forth from the sun, all without showing the usually telltale sunspots.

Then again, even people who study the Sun for a living don’t always seem to agree on what’s going on up there. Back at the beginning of Solar Cycle 25, NASA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were calling for a relatively weak showing during our star’s eleven-year cycle, as recorded by the number of sunspots observed. But another model, developed by heliophysicists at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, predicted that Solar Cycle 25 could be among the strongest ever recorded. And so far, it looks like the latter group might be right. Where the NASA/NOAA model called for 37 sunspots in May of 2022, for example, the Sun actually threw up 97 — much more in line with what the NCAR model predicted. If the trend holds, the peak of the eleven-year cycle in April of 2025 might see over 200 sunspots a month.

So, good news and bad news from the cryptocurrency world lately. The bad news is that cryptocurrency markets are crashing, with the flagship Bitcoin falling from its high of around $67,000 down to $20,000 or so, and looking like it might fall even further. But the good news is that’s put a bit of a crimp in the demand for NVIDIA graphics cards, as the economics of turning electricity into hashes starts to look a little less attractive. So if you’re trying to upgrade your gaming rig, that means there’ll soon be a glut of GPUs, right? Not so fast, maybe: at least one analyst has a different view, based mainly on the distribution of AMD and NVIDIA GPU chips in the market as well as how much revenue they each draw from crypto rather than from traditional uses of the chips. It’s important mainly for investors, so it doesn’t really matter to you if you’re just looking for a graphics card on the cheap.

Speaking of businesses, things are not looking too good for MakerGear. According to a banner announcement on their website, the supplier of 3D printers, parts, and accessories is scaling back operations, to the point where everything is being sold on an “as-is” basis with no returns. In a long post on “The Future of MakerGear,” founder and CEO Rick Pollack says the problem basically boils down to supply chain and COVID issues — they can’t get the parts they need to make printers. And so the company is looking for a buyer. We find this sad but understandable, and wish Rick and everyone at MakerGear the best of luck as they try to keep the lights on.

And finally, if there’s one thing Elon Musk is good at, it’s keeping his many businesses in the public eye. And so it is this week with SpaceX, which is recruiting Starlink customers to write nasty-grams to the Federal Communications Commission regarding Dish Network’s plan to gobble up a bunch of spectrum in the 12-GHz band for their 5G expansion plans. The 3,000 or so newly minted experts on spectrum allocation wrote to tell FCC commissioners how much Dish sucks, and how much they love and depend on Starlink. It looks like they may have a point — Starlink uses the lowest part of the Ku band (12 GHz – 18 GHz) for data downlinks to user terminals, along with big chunks of about half a dozen other bands. It’ll be interesting to watch this one play out.

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Hackaday Links: December 13, 2020

Our Sun is getting a bit frisky these days, and has rewarded us with perhaps the best screensaver image ever taken. The incredibly detailed photo of a sunspot was actually taken back in January by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, a 4-meter instrument with adaptive optics that can image the sun from the near-infrared to visible wavelengths and resolve surface details down to 20 km. The photo, with a distinct “Eye of Sauron” look, shows the massive convection cells surrounding the dark sunspot; an accompanying animation shows the movement of plasmas along the tortured lines of magnetic flux that cause the sunspot to form. It’s fascinating to watch, and even more interesting to mull over the technology that went into capturing it.

With the dustup surrounding the youtube-dl DCMA takedown by GitHub fresh on the open-source community’s minds, GitHub Universe 2020 had an interesting discussion about maintaining open-source software projects that’s worth watching. They focused on the challenges that youtube-dl maintainers face in keeping the tool working, and the impact their effort has on the people and groups that rely on them. To underscore that point, they featured a researcher with Human Rights Watch who depends on youtube-dl in her work, and made it quite clear that keeping up with all the API changes that constantly break open source tools like youtube-dl make the role of the maintainers that much more critical.

Speaking of GitHub, here’s a frightening and fascinating new tool: Depix, the password de-pixelizer. Developer Sipke Mellema noticed that his company often used pixelization to obscure passwords in documentation, and wondered if he could undo the process. He wrote up an article describing the pixelization process using a linear box filter and his method for attacking it, which involves generating a De Bruijn sequence in the same font, text size, and colors as the original document and feeding a screenshot of that and the pixellated password into the tool. We suspect it’ll only work for a subset of obfuscated passwords, but it’s still pretty clever.

‘Tis the season for Advent calendars, and the folks at QEMU have posted theirs. Open each of 24 doors on the calendar and you’re rewarded with a downloadable QEMU disk image that implements something fun. Minesweeper, a ray tracer that fits into a boot loader, and of course Conway’s Game of Life. The GW-BASIC image on Day 3 caught our eye — brings back some memories.

For anyone who has ever watched a Pixar film and wondered how all that animation actually works, here’s a great lesson in making art with math. The video is by Inigo Quilez and goes through the basics of rendering images using raymarching SDFs, or signed distance functions. In the beginning, it seemed like it was going to be a little bit like drawing an owl, but his descriptions of the math involved and how each element of the animation is just another formula is fascinating. What’s more, there’s a real-time rendering tool where you can inspect the code and edit it. Alas, my changes only made things worse, but it was still fun and instructive to play with. Check out the video after the break!

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Welcome To Solar Cycle 25; Our Sun Enters A New 11-Year Period

Most of us perceive time as an arrow, a one-way trip into the future. And while that’s true, nature has a way of interpolating circular patterns onto that linear model — day follows night, the seasons progress through the year, and generations are born, live, and die after creating the next generation to do experience the same cycles in the future.

Our star, too, follows this cyclical model, and goes through observable, periodic changes that are of keen interest to solar scientists. So it was with some fanfare that they recently announced that the sun had transitioned into Solar Cycle 25. But what exactly does that mean? Does the Sun’s changing face make much difference to the average person’s daily life? History shows that it can, so it pays to know what we’re in store for over the next couple of decades. Welcome to your primer on Solar Cycle 25.

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Hackaday Links: September 1, 2019

The sun may be spotless, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t doing interesting things. A geomagnetic storm is predicted for this weekend, potentially giving those at latitudes where the Northern Lights are not common a chance to see a cosmic light show. According to SpaceWeather.com, a coronal hole, a gap in the sun’s atmosphere that can let the solar wind escape, is about to line up with Earth. The last time this hole was on the Earth-facing side of the sun, the resultant storm gave aurora as far south as Colorado. So if you’re in any of the northern tier states, you might want to find somewhere with dark skies and a good view to the north this weekend.

It’s not only space weather that’s in the news, but weather-weather too. Hurricane Dorian will probably make landfall as a Category 4 storm, probably along Florida’s Atlantic coast, and probably in the middle of the night on Monday. That’s a lot of uncertainty, but one thing’s for sure: amateur radio operators will be getting into the action. The Hurricane Watch Net will activate their net for Dorian on Saturday afternoon at 5:00 PM Eastern time, ready to take reports from stations in the affected area. Not a ham? You can still listen to the live feed once the net activates.

Hams aren’t the only ones getting geared up for Dorian, though. Weather satellite enthusiasts are pointing their SDRs at the sky and grabbing some terrifyingly beautiful pictures of Dorian as it winds up. Some of the downloaded images are spectacular, and if you’ve got an SDR dongle and a couple of pieces of coat hanger wire, you too can spy on Dorian from any number of satellites.

Speaking of which, over on r/RTLSDR, someone has done a little data mining and shown that NOAA 15 is still very much alive. u/amdorj plotted the scan motor current draw and found that it steadily decreased over time, possibly indicating that the bearings aren’t as worn as previously thought. We recently covered the story of the plucky satellite that’s almost two decades past its best-by date; here’s hoping our report on its death was greatly exaggerated.

In one of the weirder bits of marketing we’ve seen lately, NASA decided to name a rock on Mars after septuagenarian rockers The Rolling Stones. The golf ball size rock was blasted about a meter across the Martian landscape when the Mars InSight lander touched down in 2018, leaving a small scar in the dust. The stone had obviously rolled, so phone calls were made and one thing led to another, and before you know it, Robert Downey Jr. is making the announcement before a Stones concert at the Rose Bowl, right in JPL’s backyard. There’s even a cute animation to go along with it. It’s a nice piece of marketing, but it’s not the first time the Stones have been somewhat awkwardly linked to the technology world. We dare you not to cringe.

We’ll finish up today with something not related to space. As Al Williams recently covered, for about fifty bucks you can now score a vector network analyzer (VNA) that will do all sorts of neat RF tricks. The NanoVNA sounds like a great buy for anyone doing RF work, but its low price point and open-source nature mean people are finding all kinds of nifty uses for it. One is measuring the length of coax cables with time-domain reflectometry, or TDR. Phasing antenna arrays? the NanoVNA sounds like the perfect tool for the job.

FT8: Saving Ham Radio Or Killing It?

It is popular to blame new technology for killing things. The Internet killed newspapers. Video killed the radio star. Is FT8, a new digital technology, poised to kill off ham radio? The community seems evenly divided. In an online poll, 52% of people responding says FT8 is damaging ham radio.  But ham operator [K5SDR] has an excellent blog post about how he thinks FT8 is going to save ham radio instead.

If you already have an opinion, you have probably already raced down to the comments to share your thoughts. I’ll be honest, I think what we are seeing is a transformation of ham radio and like most transformations, it is probably both killing parts of ham radio and saving others. But if you are still here, let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on in ham radio right now and how it relates to the FT8 question. Oddly enough, our story starts with the strange lack of sunspots that we’ve been experiencing lately. Continue reading “FT8: Saving Ham Radio Or Killing It?”

Joan Feynman Found Her Place In The Sun

Google ‘Joan Feynman’ and you can feel the search behemoth consider asking for clarification. Did you mean: Richard Feynman? Image search is even more biased toward Richard. After maybe seven pictures of Joan, there’s an endless scroll of Richard alone, Richard playing the bongos, Richard with Arline, the love of his life.

Yes, Joan was overshadowed by her older brother, but what physicist of the era wasn’t? Richard didn’t do it on purpose. In fact, no one supported Joan’s scientific dreams more than he did, not even their mother. Before Richard ever illuminated the world with his brilliance, he shined a light on his little sister, Joan.

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