Open Hardware for Open Science – Interview with Charles Fracchia

Open Science has been a long-standing ideal for many researchers and practitioners around the world. It advocates the open sharing of scientific research, data, processes, and tools and encourages open collaboration. While not without challenges, this mode of scientific research has the potential to change the entire course of science, allowing for more rigorous peer-review and large-scale scientific projects, accelerating progress, and enabling otherwise unimaginable discoveries.

As with any great idea, there are a number of obstacles to such a thing going mainstream. The biggest one is certainly the existing incentive system that lies at the foundation of the academic world. A limited number of opportunities, relentless competition, and pressure to “publish or perish” usually end up incentivizing exactly the opposite – keeping results closed and doing everything to gain a competitive edge. Still, against all odds, a number of successful Open Science projects are out there in the wild, making profound impacts on their respective fields. HapMap Project, OpenWorm, Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Polymath Project are just a few to name. And the whole movement is just getting started.

While some of these challenges are universal, when it comes to Biology and Biomedical Engineering, the road to Open Science is paved with problems that will go beyond crafting proper incentives for researchers and academic institutions.

It will require building hardware.

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Mediated Matter at the MIT Media Lab

Few things have managed to capture the imagination of hackers and engineers around the world the way Synthetic Biology did over the last couple of years. The promise of “applying engineering principles to designing new biological devices and systems” just seemed way too sci-fi to missed out on, and everyone jumped on the bandwagon. All of a sudden, the field which used to be restricted to traditional research organizations and startups found itself crowded with all sorts of enthusiasts, biohackers, and weirdos alike. Competitions such as the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) paved the way, and the emergence of community spaces like GenSpace and BioCurious finally made DNA experimentation accessible to anyone who dares to try. As it often happens, the Sci-Fi itself did not go untouched, and a whole new genre called “Biopunk” emerged, further fueling people’s imagination and extrapolating worlds to come.

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Show me the Data: Hackaday.io Year #01

Today marks exactly one year since we announced to the world the first product from our software lab – Hackaday.io. In what has been an incredibly exciting year for all of us, we evolved from a simple idea and a prototype to a truly massive community that’s making its mark on the world. Day after day, carefully listening to the invaluable feedback from our users, we have improved and moved forward, one line of code at the time.

We still have a long way to go, but we’ll pause for a second now and reflect on how far we’ve come. Then get right back to fixing bugs and developing new features.

It all started with a simple idea – building a better project hosting website. Though there are project and content websites galore out there, with new ones popping up every day, it all still felt too bland. We thought we could do better. After all, the medium is the message. The place where something lives sooner or later becomes a key part of its identity. So in order to prevent a dystopian future in which we’re all hosting our projects using the (fictional) Microsoft Maker Suite 2020 and simply don’t care, we started to work on providing an alternative.

We quickly realized that we had a much bigger mission on our hands. Sure, a better project hosting website would be nice, but what we felt we really needed was something [Brian Benchoff] has been talking about for quite some time – a “virtual hackerspace.” Not just a place where you can post your builds once you’re done (and hope someone sees it), but a living, breathing community: a place where you can start with an idea and get feedback as it develops, find collaborators, iterate, and ultimately end up building something way more amazing than you would have accomplished on your own.

This has been the aim of Hackaday for many years, but most of the collaboration was constrained to the limited space of post comment threads and biased by the editorial choice of articles and topics. With the introduction of Hackaday.io, we open up a space for anyone to unleash their creativity and expertise, and together, change the way people build things.

The Data

Unfortunately, making bold claims about how we’re out there changing the world is pretty much a commodity these days. As most Web startups can testify, it doesn’t take more than a simple landing page with nice photography and some uplifting message for any arbitrary claims to appear credible.

So instead of trying to convince you with words about how awesome the last year had been, we’ll just stick with the data.

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Hackaday’s 48-Hour Tokyo Speedrun

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed,” goes the clichéd [William Gibson] quote. Growing up on all the Cyberpunk literature and spending a more-than-healthy amount of time obsessing over [Fred Gallagher’s] Megatokyo series, I always imagined Japan to be at the very tail of this distribution. The place where the Future lives. Though it has been decades since the Bubble burst, and there’s no way this could still be the case, there was something romantic about believing it just might be. Thus, I opted for keeping the dream alive and never actually visited the place.

Not until a few weeks ago — [Bilke], one of our crazy sysadmin guys that keeps Hackaday.io alive, made me do it. He found these cheap tickets from LA, and the next thing you know – we were flying out for a 48-hours-in-Tokyo weekend. With no time to prepare, we reached out to [Akiba] from Freaklabs and [Emery] from Tokyo Hackerspace for some tips. By the time we landed, emails were waiting for us, with our full schedule completely worked out. It’s great to know that no matter where you are, there’s always a friendly local hacker willing to help.

Past the immigration, we took the JR Narita Express line into to the City that Friday evening. From there we grabbed a taxi because we couldn’t understand a word in katakana but then we hopped the JR Yamanote Metro line once we had figured things out. We checked out all the major places we had ever heard of (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, Ginza…) because the jet lag was not letting us sleep anyway.

Sometime way past midnight, it hit me – Future Shock. But this was the kind I never expected…

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Fear and Loathing at DEFCON 22

Nothing says “Welcome to Vegas” like a massive turbulence on a plane full of drunk people who, instead of holding on to their seats, frantically laugh and shout “we’re all going to die!” At 105 Fahrenheit outside, the heat was getting into everyone’s head. After a bumpy touchdown, the in-flight entertainment system rebooted, and a black terminal screen flashed onto everyone’s face:

RedBoot(tm) bootstrap and debug environment [RAM]
(MAS eFX) release, version ("540060-212" v "0.1.02") - built 12:00:35,
Nov 19 2004

Now, that was a beautiful sight – an IFE system that hadn’t been updated for almost a decade. For people who didn’t come here to participate in a big zero-sum game that is Vegas, this was a sign.

DEFCON was waiting for us right outside of that front cabin door.

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Interview: Inventing the Unix “sudo” command

It was just one of these nights. We were sitting at the O’Neil’s San Mateo Pub, taking a break after a long day at the Maker Faire. Hackaday was hosting an informal drink-up and a steady stream of colorful characters has just started flowing in. That’s when we met [Robert Coggeshall].

XKCD comic #149
[xkcd, 149]
It started off as a normal discussion – he runs Small Batch Assembly and does a lot of interesting things in the maker space. Then he brought up a fascinating detail – “Oh, did you know I also co-invented sudo back in the 80’s?”

If you ever did as much as touch a Unix system, you’ll know this is a big deal. What came as an even bigger surprise was that something like sudo had to be “invented” in the first place. When thinking about the base Unix toolkit, there is always this feeling that it all emerged from some primordial soup of ideas deep inside of Bell Labs, brought to life by the infinite wisdom of [Ken Thompson] and the rest of the gang. Turns out that wasn’t always the case. We couldn’t miss asking [Bob] for an interview, and he told us how it all came about…

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Hardware Startup Review: Spark

The Hardware Startup Review - Spark - Hackaday-01

Like it or not, a whole new wave of Hardware Startups is coming our way. Crowd Funding campaigns are making it possible for everyone with an idea to “test the waters”, tech-savvy Angel investors are eager to help successful ones cross over, and Venture Capitalists are sitting on the other side, always on the lookout for potential additions to their “hardware portfolio”. It’s these billion-dollar acquisitions that made everyone jump on the bandwagon, and there’s no going back. At least for now.

That’s all great, and we want to believe that good things will come out of this whole frenzy. But instead of staying on the sidelines, we thought Hackady should get involved and start asking some hard questions. After all, these guys didn’t think they’d be able to get away with some nicely produced videos and a couple of high-res photos, right?

For our first issue, we picked a relatively innocent target – Spark, the team behind the Spark Core development board. By embracing Open Source and Open Hardware as the core part of their strategy, Spark has so far been a positive example in the sea of otherwise dull (and potentially creepy) IoT “platforms”. So we thought we should give [Zach Supalla], CEO of Spark a call.

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