Hackaday Links: November 1, 2020

We normally chuckle at high-profile auctions where people compete to pay as much as possible for items they clearly don’t need. It’s easy to laugh when the items on the block are things like paint-spattered canvases, but every once in a while some genuine bit of history that really piques our interest goes on sale. Such is the case with what is claimed to be an original Steve Wozniak-built Blue Box, going on sale November 5. The prospectus has an excellent summary of the history of the “Two Steves” and their early business venture making and selling these devices to Berkeley students eager to make free long distance phone calls. The item on sale is a very early rev, most likely assembled by Woz himself. The current owner claims to have bought it from Woz himself in the summer of 1972 while on a roadtrip from Sunnyvale to Los Angeles. Estimated to go for $4,000 to $6,000, we really hope this ends up in a museum somewhere — while we’ve seen attempts to recreate Woz’s Blue Box on Hackaday.io, letting a museum study an original would be a great glimpse into our shared technological history.

Not in the market for old tech? No problem — Digilent wants to get rid of 3,000 PCBs, and quickly. They posted the unusual offer on reddit a couple of days ago; it seems they have a huge stock of populated boards for a product that didn’t quite take the market by storm. Their intention is likely not to flood the market with scopes cobbled together from these boards, but rather to make them available to someone doing some kind of art installation or for educational purposes. It’s a nice gesture, and a decent attempt to keep these out of the e-waste stream, so check it out if you have a need.

Speaking of PCBs, SparkFun has just launched an interesting new service: SparkFun À La Carte. The idea is to make it really easy to design and build prototype boards. Instead of using traditional EDA software, users select different blocks from a menu. Select your processor, add components like displays and sensors, and figure out how you want to power it, and SparkFun will do the rest, delivering a fully assembled board in a few weeks. It certainly stands to suck the fun out of the design process while also hoovering up your pocketbook: “A $949 design fee will be applied to all initial orders of a design”. You can get your hands on the design files, but that comes with an extra fee: “they can be purchased separately for $150 by filling out this form”. But for someone who just needs to hammer out a quick design and get on with the next job, this could be a valuable tool.

Another day, another IoT ghost: Reciva Radio is shutting down its internet radio service. A large banner at the top of the page warns that the “website will be withdrawn” on January 31, 2021, but functionality on the site already appears limited. Users of the service are also reporting that their Reciva-compatible radios are refusing to stream content, apparently because they can’t download anything from the service’s back end. This probably doesn’t have a huge impact — I’d never heard of Reciva before — but it makes me look at the Squeezebox radio we’ve got in the kitchen and wonder how long for the world that thing is. It’s not all bad news, though — owners of the bricked radios will now have a great opportunity to hack them back into usefulness.

By the time this article is published, Halloween will be history and the hordes of cosplaying candy-grubbers who served as welcome if ironic respite from this non-stop horror show of a year will be gone. Luckily, though, if it should come to pass that the dead rise from their graves — it’s still 2020, after all — we’ll know exactly how to defeat them with this zombie invasion calculator. You may remember that last year Dominik Czernia did something similar, albeit with vampires. Switching things up from the hemophagic to the cerebrophagic this year, his calculator lets you model different parameters, like undead conversion percentage, zombie demographics, and attack speed. You’ve also got tools for modeling the response of the living to the outbreak, to see how best to fight back. Spoiler alert: everyone will need to bring Tallahassee-level badassery if we’re going to get through this.

Pneumatic Zombie Will Blow Away Trick-or-Treaters

What are you doing for Halloween this year? Just gonna set the candy bowl out on the porch and call it good? That’s a risky one, ’cause if one group of mischievous preteens cleans you out, you might get TP’d by the next one. Best to keep Halloween a tad on the scary side and keep those ghouls in line. Candy is a privilege, not a right.

Halloween is a big deal in [trimbandit]’s little burg, and he builds a new attraction for the front yard every year. This year, it’s the dawn of the dead — a fresh zombie rising jerkily from the grave to say hello, world. He moves left, he moves right, he writhes and wrestles, wedged between worlds.

His life force comes from a pneumatic system designed for props. The cylinders connect to a controller with built-in relays that makes programming frightfully easy. Then it was just a matter of adding a foam head, skinning it with a scary mask, and fitting him for a suit from Goodwill. Drag yourself and your candy bucket past the break for a fun-size demo video and a couple of bonus goodies.

We bet [trimbandit] is already wondering how to step up his game for next year. He seems to have conquered the ground, so why not take to the skies for fright and delight?

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Humans Vs. Zombies Via The ESP8266

Zombies, for the most part, remain fictional and are yet to trouble human communities. Despite the many real world calamities we face, the zombie concept remains a compelling one and the subject of many books, films, and video games. [CNLohr] was at MagStock Eight when he met [Aaron], who has developed a real world game in this vein. (YouTube, embedded below.)

[Aaron]’s game goes by the name of SpyTag, and is played by a group of people who each have a small device affixed to their wrist. Two players start off as zombies, and the rest are humans. The zombies can use their devices as proximity detectors to hunt down nearby humans, and the humans can use their devices to detect nearby zombies, helping them escape and evade.

The devices operate using the ESP8266, in AP+station mode. The proximity sensing works on a very simple method. Devices show their human or zombie status by appearing as a WiFi AP by that name, and proximity detection is achieved by showing the signal strength of the opposite AP on an LED bar on the device. Once zombies get close enough to human devices, the humans are infected and become zombies themselves.

It’s a tidy and lightweight way to implement the gameplay, and requires no infrastructure or support hardware outside of the wristband hardware for the players. While this method would likely be vulnerable to spoofing, [CNLohr] reports that future work will likely switch to using the ESP-NOW protocol to make the game more secure.

[Aaron] has shared the project on Github for those interested in digging deeper into the code. We’ve seen a similar game played before, using IR instead. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Baldpower for the tip!]

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3D Printing Custom LED Bar Graphs

[BikerGlen] wanted to spice up his zombie containment unit (see video below) so he designed and 3D printed some very cool looking bar graphs. Apparently, you can get curved bar graph LEDs, but only if you buy a fairly large quantity. Hand soldering discrete LEDs at the perfect angle would be frustrating, but with a 3D printed jig, it was a piece of cake.

The devices use a MAX6954 LED driver, so it needs very few parts and takes commands via SPI. The chips were not cheap, but the small size and high integration sold [Glen] on it.

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The Curse Of The 40673: Zombie Components That Refuse To Die

As a fresh-faced electronic engineering student while the first Gulf War was raging in a far-off desert, I learned my way through the different families of 74 logic at a university in the North of England. 74LS was the one to use, the story went, because it’s quick and doesn’t use much power. At the time, there was an upstart on the scene: 74HC. Now that’s really quick. New. Exotic, even.

Thus an association was formed, when you want a quick logic function then 74HC is the modern one to go for. It could have been a lifelong love affair, but over twenty years, after many factors of speed increases and some RF tricks with gates we wouldn’t have dreamed of back then, it’s over. There is a whole world of newer logic families to choose from, and while HC is still good at what it does, it’s well past time to admit that it may just have been superseded.

40673s, probably now worth more by weight than anything else on four legs.
40673s, probably now worth more by weight than anything else on four legs. (Thanks are due to [Brandon Dunson] and Tanner Electronics)
 A tendency to cling to the past with logic families is pretty harmless. Like [Adam Fabio]’s TIP power transistors they’re pretty cheap, still very much in production, and still do most jobs demanded of them excellently. But what prompted this piece was a far more egregious example of an old component still being specified: the RCA 40673 dual-gate MOSFET. Launched in the mists of time when dinosaurs probably still roamed the earth, this static-sensitive four-pin TO72 found a home in a huge variety of RF amplifiers, oscillators, and mixers. It worked well, but as you might expect better devices came along, and the 40673 was withdrawn some time in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told a section of the amateur radio community about the 40673’s demise. Or perhaps nobody’s told them that many scrap analogue TV tuners of a certain age will yield a perfectly good newer replacement for free. Because even today, thirty years after the 40673 shuffled off this mortal coil, you can still find people specifying it. If you have a stash of them in your junk box, they’re worth a small fortune, and yours could be the bench with the throng of people at the next ham radio convention.

A different but equally annoying manifestation of the phenomenon comes when the device everyone likes to specify is not very old and very much still in production, but the designer hasn’t taken the time required to check for a cheaper alternative. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, they say, but perhaps they should be fired for specifying an AD8307 logarithmic amplifier in an amateur radio power meter. Don’t take this the wrong way, it’s a beautiful chip and probably a lot of work at Analog Devices has gone into laser-trimming resistors to make it perform to an extremely demanding specification. But eleven dollars for a chip? When a cursory search will turn up Maxim’s MAX9933 which does a perfectly good job in this application at well under two dollars? Someone isn’t doing their homework.

Sometimes there are components for which there are no perfect replacements. Germanium point-contact diodes, for example. 1N34As and OA91s are becoming like hen’s teeth these days, and though Schottky diodes can replace them in many applications, there are still a few places if you’re a radio person you’ll hanker for the original.  There are suppliers on Alibaba who claim to manufacture 1N34s, but the pictures always look suspiciously like 1N4148s, and anyway who can find a home for a hundred thousand diodes? (Hang on, this is Hackaday. There will be someone out there with a hundred-thousand-diode project, you can count on it.)

OK, maybe germanium diodes are an edge case and the examples above have a radio flavour, but you get the picture. What the full-blown rant in the previous paragraphs has been building up to is this: a plea for designers to do their homework. Please try to design every project for the next two decades, and as though any extras in the component price come from your company’s bottom line. (We’ll make exceptions for building something for which the whole point is a retro circuit. An Apple I replica like the Mimeo 1 needs old logic chips for artistic purposes.)

Is there a vital electronic engineering skill that’s being lost here perhaps? Back when the Internet was the sole preserve of boffins and Tim Berners-Lee hadn’t yet plugged his hypertext ideas into it, we relied on catalogs. Big paper-bound books the size of telephone directories were our only window into the exciting world of electronic components. If you’re an American yours was probably from Radio Shack, but for most UK-based hackers and makers who couldn’t get their hands on a commercial account from RS or Farnell that meant the Maplin catalogue. Before they moved in a consumer-electronics direction, they were a component specialist whose catalogue with its distinctive spaceships on the cover could be bought at large newsstands.

It’s difficult to describe the impact of electronics catalogues in the ’70s and ’80s to someone who has known only the abundance of information from the WWW. These publications were our only window into the world of electronic components. They contained significant excerpts from semiconductor data sheets, and we read their wealth of information from cover to cover. We knew by heart what each device was capable of, and we eagerly devoured each new tidbit of information as it arrived.

In short, when we specified a component, we did so with a pretty good knowledge of all the components that were available to us.

By comparison, nowadays we can quickly buy almost any device or component in production from a multitude of suppliers. There are millions more devices available, and if RS or Farnell don’t have the part then Mouser or Digi-Key are sure to provide. The WWW allows us to find what we need in short order, and the miracle of global distribution means that we can have it delivered within 48 hours almost wherever we live.

CPC's very aptly-named Big Book
CPC’s very aptly-named Big Book

Which means that all the new devices are available to us, but we’ve lost the ability to keep on top of them. We’ve become information rich, but knowledge poor. Printed catalogs still exist, but the sheer volume of information they contain forces brevity upon their entries and expands the size of the publication to the point at which it becomes an unwieldy work of reference. We therefore tend to stick with the devices and components we know, regardless of their cost or of whether they have been superseded, and our work is poorer for it.

We need to relearn the skill of inquisitiveness when it comes to the parts we use, and to rediscover the joy of just browsing, even if the medium is now a huge suppliers’ web site rather than a paper catalog. Otherwise we’ll still be looking at circuit diagrams containing 74LS logic and 40673 MOSFETs in the 2030s, and that can’t be a good thing!

There is of course also a slightly macabre alternative scenario. The highest online price we found for 40673s was over $30 each, so if a producer can make that kind of silly money then there’s a danger that RCA’s successors will see a business model in exhuming the corpse and re-animating it, thus ensuring that we’ll never be free of the undead. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen!

Zombie image credit: By Fabien Rougié (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Becoming A Zombie With The Hackable Electronic Badge

Last week, Parallax released an open hackable electronic badge that will eventually be used at dozens of conferences. It’s a great idea that allows badge hacks developed during one conference to be used at a later conference.

[Mark] was at the Hackable Electronics Badge premier at the 2015 Open Hardware Summit last weekend, and he just finished up the first interactive hack for this badge. It’s the zombie apocalypse in badge form, pitting humans and zombies against each other at your next con.

The zombie survival game works with the IR transmitter and receiver on the badge normally used to exchange contact information. Upon receiving the badge, the user chooses to be either a zombie or survivor. Pressing the resistive buttons attacks, heals, or infects others over IR. The game is your standard zombie apocalypse affair: zombies infect survivors, survivors attack zombies and heal the infected, and the infected turn into zombies.

Yes, a zombie apocalypse is a simple game for a wearable with IR communications, but for the Hackable Electronics Badge, it’s a great development. There will eventually be tens of thousands of these badges floating around at cons, and having this game available on day-one of a conference will make for a lot of fun.

The Best Project We Never Did Yet

Back when [Caleb] was around here at Hackaday, he was tasked with making a few YouTube videos. His Portal Gun got 1.6 Million views, and we got a takedown request because of this video even though that company was more than willing to use [Caleb] as a guinea pig at CES.

This post is not about those videos. This post is about the best project we never did yet.

The grand plan for The Best Project was a zombie survival van. It’s exactly what you think it is: a van armored and armed for driving through a herd of walkers. Proposed mods included a cow catcher and roof rack, a motorized turret, a poofer (propane tanks shooting fire from underneath the van), a bartender that launches molotov cocktails, and a beautiful little contraption called an ankler. The Ankler is just a pair of chainsaws that fold out from under the van.

The base vehicle would be a 60s VW bus. [Caleb]’s a big fan of aircooled stuff, and if you think about it, 60s VWs are pretty good for the zombie apocalypse. If you’re doubting that, just ask how many tools it would take to change out the engine in your car.

Although the dream of a Hackaday aircooled zombie apocalypse van died when [Caleb] left, that doesn’t mean we’re still not considering an official Hackaday ride. All of this is still in the planning stages, but we have a few ideas; the first, and biggest, is a mobile hackerspace on a trailer. This would be a standard semitrailer, loaded up with tools, 3D printers, a laser cutters, and a couch. It would be the perfect thing to load up with swag and haul to events.

We’re considering another more sensible vehicle, and right now the top contender is an early 2000s Astro or Safari cargo van. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: the coolest vehicle we could come up with is a minivan. There’s actually some logic to this, so hear me out.

The Astro/Safari shares a lot of parts with the S10, and that means parts are everywhere. The Astro has an AWD variant, and with a 4″ lift, upgraded suspension and big, knobby tires the Hackaday van would be very, very fun to take out into the desert. It can haul eight foot sheets of plywood, they’re cheap, everywhere, and they just don’t die.

While the best idea right now is an Astro van, we’re also considering other AWD vehicles: an AMC Eagle would be cool, and I think RedBull has a few Suzuki X-90s sitting around. An M35 Deuce And A Half would be fun. A US Mail Truck would probably last forever, and if we go with the semi-trailer concept we would probably want a smaller vehicle on site wherever we park the truck. Current options for this parasitic vehicle include a Nash Metropolitan, a Trabant, a Citroen 2CV, a Renault Dauphine, a Lada, or a Yugo. Yes, they’re all ridiculous but they’re small and can fit in the back of a semi trailer.

It’s still an idea we’re throwing around, but we really need a reason to have a van before we go out and build a hackaspace on wheels, a zombie survival van, or something to launch off some sweet ramps. We don’t go to that many events, and driving a crappy old van across the country a few times a year sounds like fun but surely isn’t.

You can check out [Caleb]’s pitch video for the zombie survival van below.

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