Broadcast Engineer at BellMedia, Computer history buff, compulsive deprecated, disparate hardware hoarder, R/C, robots, arduino, RF, and everything in between.
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Microsoft doesn't require passwords anymore

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Microsoft users might be able to throw away the sticky note taped to their laptop: the company introduced a new option to delete password authentication.

Microsoft uses its authenticator app, fingerprint/facial recognition, and SMS/email verification codes to verify accounts— which may be more secure than using "soccerlover123" or "Mychemicalromance1998!" — Read the rest

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tekvax
2 days ago
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Burlington, Ontario
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What’s Cooler Than A 7-Segment Display? A 7200-Segment Display!

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If you look around your desk right now, odds are you’ll see a 7-segment display or two showing you some vital information like the time or today’s weather. But think of how much information you could see with over 1,100 digits, like with [Chris Combs’] 7200-segment display.

For [Chris], this project started the same way that many of our projects start; finding components that were too good of a deal to pass up on. For just “a song or two plus shipping”, he was the proud owner of two boxes of 18:88 7-segment displays, 500 modules in total. Rather than sitting and using up precious shelf space, [Chris] decided to turn them into something fancy he could hang on the wall.

the 7200 segment display grayscaling to show the time
The IS31FL3733 can produce 8 levels of dimming 8-bit PWM, allowing [Chris] to display in grayscale
The first challenge was trying to somehow get a signal to all of the individual segments. Solutions exist for running a handful of displays in one device, but there are certainly no off-the-shelf solutions for this many. Even the possible 16 addresses of the IS31FL3733 driver IC [Chris] chose for this project were not enough, so he had to get creative. Fearing potential capacitance issues with simply using an i2C multiplexer, he instead opted to run 3 different i2C busses off of a Raspberry Pi 4, to interface with all 48 controllers.

The second challenge was how to actually wire everything up. The finished display comes out to 26 inches across by 20.5 inches tall, much too large for a single PCB. Instead, [Chris] opted to design a series of self-contained panels, each with 6 of the display modules and an IS31FL3733 to drive them. While the multiplexing arrangement did leave space for more segments on each panel, he opted to go for this arrangement as it resulted in a nice, clean, 4:3 aspect ratio for the final display.

The end result was a unique and beautiful piece, which Chris titled “One-to-Many”. He uses it to display imagery and art related to the inevitability of automation, machines replacing humans, and other “nice heartwarming stuff like that”, as he puts it. There’a video after the break, but if you are interested in seeing the display for yourself, it will be on display at the VisArt’s Concourse Gallery in Rockville, MD from September 3 to October 17, 2021. More info on [Chris’s] website.

This isn’t [Chris’s] first adventure in using 7-segment displays in such a unique way, click here to read about the predecessor to this project that we covered last year.

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tekvax
6 days ago
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Burlington, Ontario
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Watch raw behind-the-scenes footage of the CNN newsroom on September 11, 2001

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Like so many people, I spent September 11, 2001 glued to CNN. The raw video above and below show what was happening behind-the-scenes at CNN Center Atlanta.

Over at r/ObscureMedia, JohnConquest writes:

Like most big news events at CNN, crews for promotional material decided to start recording a half hour after the initial news broke.

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tekvax
10 days ago
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Burlington, Ontario
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Books You Should Read: Bil Herd’s Back Into The Storm

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It’s a morning ritual that we guess most of you share with us; before whatever work a new day will bring to sit down with a coffee and catch up with the tech news of the moment on Hackaday and other sites. Most of us don’t do many exciting things in our everyday lives, so reading about the coolest projects and the most fascinating new developments provides us with interest and motivation. Imagine just for a moment then that by a twist of fate you found yourself taking a job at the epicentre of the tech that is changing the world,  producing the objects of desire and pushing the boundaries, the place you’d give anything to work at.

This is the premise behind our Hackaday colleague Bil Herd’s autobiographical chronicle of time in the mid 1980s during which he worked at Commodore, maker of some of the most iconic home computers of the day. We follow him through the three years from 1983 to 1986 as hardware lead on the “TED” series of computers including the Commodore 16 and Plus/4, and then the Commodore 128, a dual-processor powerhouse which was arguably the last of the big-selling 8-bit home computers.

It’s an intertwined set of narratives peppered with personal anecdotes; of the slightly crazy high-pressure world of consumer videogames and computing, the fine details of designing a range of 8-bit machines, and a fascinating insight into how the culture at Commodore changed in the period following the departure of its founder Jack Tramiel.

Jack Tramiel’s Vision For A Low-Cost Computer

TED and processor chips on a Commodore 16 motherboard
TED and processor chips on a Commodore 16 motherboard. CommodoreFriend, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Looking at the 8-bit computers of the early 1980s from our lofty perch here in 2021 it’s tempting to believe that all the machines with similar processors were equivalent to each other and in direct competition, but in Bil’s description of the landscape from which Jack Tramiel had conceived what would become the TED computers lies a reminder that the market was very much stratified. Processors such as the MOS 6502 and Zilog Z80 may have been at the heart of so many machines of the day, but their market positions depended so much more on the capabilities of their inbuilt video and sound hardware and other peripherals than it did on the microprocessor. Commodore had a runaway success story in the Commodore 64 as a premium gaming computer at the more expensive end of the market, but lacked an effective product to head off the threat from the much cheaper and less-well-specified Sinclair Spectrum at the lower end.

Tramiel’s vision was for a new architecture surrounding the 6502 that would integrate less capable video and sound into the TED, a much cheaper single chip perhaps analogous to the Sinclair’s Ferranti ULA, and simultaneously see off the competition for low-priced gaming hardware and open up an entirely new market for a budget business computer. The TED machines would be available in a three-model range starting at $49 and going up to a fully-fledged business desktop with a numerical keypad and a talking GUI.

Bil Herd speaks with Jack Tramiel at the 25th Anniversary of the Commodore 64.
Bil Herd speaks with Jack Tramiel at the 25th Anniversary of the Commodore 64. Babylon4 CC BY-SA 3.0.

Bil describes the early TED period at Commodore as his “happy time”, and reading his account of a twenty-something hardware engineer catapulted into the position of bringing a new Commodore computer to life, it’s not difficult to see why. The tone changes over the book as the culture of the company shifted following the departure of Jack Tramiel, and for those of us who witnessed the catastrophic final years of the company through the lens of Amiga fandom it’s a glimpse into the roots of the company’s ultimate decline. He provides a candid look at Jack Tramiel’s management style from the viewpoint of someone who was really there rather than through heresay, and from that we gain a sense of how Commodore became the success story that it did.

Reading the book I’m left with the sense that we’ll never hear the true details surrounding his departure from the company he founded and subsequent piloting of Atari, so students of the later years of the home computer era will have to accept disappointment on that front. The book provides a personal view of how during this period without the founder’s vision the company fell under the spell of its marketing department, and the TED computers never appeared in the forms or at the price points which they deserved.

The Last Of The Great 8-Bit Computers

Bil Herd's prototype Commodore LCD portable machine.
Bil Herd’s prototype Commodore LCD portable machine. Bil Herd

The first half of the book takes us from 1983 through 1984 and the genesis of the TED computers, then through a short interlude with the ill-fated LCD machine. The second half follows the development of the Commodore 128 up to its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 1985. This machine was the last new 8-bit mass-produced home computer platform to be released by a major manufacturer, and the tale of its development is particularly interesting because, despite Bil and his colleagues pushing at the edge of what was possible with 6502-derived parts, he describes it in such a way as to make it readily comprehensible to readers here in 2021. In some cases he’s doing things that would be relatively easy with modern test equipment but were extra-hard in the 1980s, such as when he uses persistence of vision and an analogue ‘scope to spot a transitory echo on a PCB line. This feat resulted in the bodge wire that adorns every single Commodore 128 board. The electronic engineer’s craft demonstrated in these pages as he solves bugs in custom silicon should make this book required reading for any electronics student aside from the retrocomputing angle.

The Commodore 128.
The Commodore 128. Ismael Olea, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Commodore 128 with its two different microprocessors and three different operating environments comes through as an engineer’s machine — designed despite the work of the marketeers rather than because of them. He describes quietly not implementing a request for a proprietary video connector that wouldn’t work with non-Commodore monitors because it would have compromised the final machine, and this is one of many running battles that were fought to deliver the best product that could be made. The thought of what might have been is a theme that pervades Commodore fandom, and here we see that the engineers were on “our” side, that of the customer rather than with those in the company who seemingly had little idea about the end users. One of the saddest parts of the story concerns the number of machines that the company developed and then never released; we mentioned the unreleased TED computers and the LCD machine above but he also makes reference to entire ranges of business machines that never saw the light of day. The Commodore story might still have ended in the 1990s had more of them been put on the market, but there’s a vast sense of waste that such poor decisions were made about such promising hardware.

 

Reading the book as someone with a background in the computer game business during the following decade I immediately recognise the combination of bad management, very bright teams, a frenetic atmosphere, and extremely high pressure surrounding the industry’s trade shows. It’s a world that can deliver a huge buzz at the expense of fast burnout for those who aren’t careful, and Bil’s comments about seeking the adrenaline fix continuing after he left Commodore in early 1986 ring true. I was riveted by this book and have read it again more than once during the writing of this article. I wasn’t the only one here at Hackaday who bought a copy as soon as it came out, and I can only suggest that you find yourself a copy too.

Back into the Storm: A Design Engineer’s Story of Commodore Computers in the 1980s, by Bil Herd with Margaret Morabito, can be found for sale through Amazon, at $19.96 on the Kindle and $24.99 for a physical edition.

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tekvax
12 days ago
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Burlington, Ontario
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Detect Lightning Strikes with an Arduino

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Lightning is a powerful and seemingly mysterious force of nature, capable of releasing huge amounts of energy over relatively short times and striking almost at random. Lightning obeys the laws of physics just like anything else, though, and with a little bit of technology some of its mysteries can be unraveled. For one, it only takes a small radio receiver to detect lightning strikes, and [mircemk] shows us exactly how to do that.

When lightning flashes, it also lights up an incredibly wide spectrum of radio spectrum as well. This build uses an AM radio built into a small integrated circuit to detect some of those radio waves. An Arduino Nano receives the signal from the TA7642 IC and lights up a series of LEDs as it detects strikes in closer and closer proximity to the detector. A white LED flashes when a strike is detected, and some analog circuitry supports an analog galvanometer which moves during lightning strikes as well.

While this project isn’t the first lightning detector we’ve ever seen, it does have significantly more sensitivity than most other homemade offerings. Something like this would be a helpful tool to have for lifeguards at a pool or for a work crew that is often outside, but we also think it’s pretty cool just to have around for its own sake, and three of them networked together would make triangulation of strikes possible too.

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tekvax
15 days ago
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Burlington, Ontario
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Upgrade Board Adds GPIO Pins To Your Replica PDP-11

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Like many Hackaday readers, [Steven Stallion] has had his eyes on the replica PDP-11 created by [Oscar Vermeulen] for some time now, and this summer he finally got the opportunity to build one himself. But while most owners might be content to just watch the Raspberry Pi based faux-retro computer blink away on a shelf, he wanted to explore putting the machine to more practical use. The end result is the PiDP-11 I/O Expander,  an add-on that lets the modern minicomputer interact with the world around it.

Developed after some discussion with [Oscar] himself, the Microchip MCP23016 based expander board fits neatly onto the PiDP-11 PCB, and [Steven] has made sure his installation guide meshes well with the replica’s documentation. The Pi’s I2C bus is actually broken out on the original PCB, so you just need to solder a header on and run some jumpers to where the expander is mounted. You’ll need to pull 5 V as well, and the installation guide has a few tips on convenient connection points.

The installed PiDP-11 I/O Expander

Each expander board gives you 16 GPIO pins which can be accessed over I2C, including support for interrupts which has been connected to GPIO 19 on the Raspberry Pi. [Steven] notes that you should be able to stack multiples of his expander up should you need even more free pins, though some fiddling with pull-up resistors and I2C addresses will likely be necessary.

The PCBs for the expander have been released under the two clause BSD license, so you’re free to spin up your own copies however you see fit. But if you’d like to save some time, [Steven] is offering assembled boards on Tindie.

Since [Oscar] first teased it at the 2015 Hackaday Supercon, we’ve been enamored with his fantastic PDP-11 replica. We’re always glad to see when somebody has picked up one of these wonderful kits, and doubly so when they’ve figured out a way to expand it in unexpected ways.

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tekvax
15 days ago
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Burlington, Ontario
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