Doubling Down on a Big LED Display

Last year at the 2014 NC Maker Faire, Manical Labs brought a large LED display. Blinking LEDs and pixel animations are always welcome, but at 24 inches square this build was impressive, but it wasn’t impressive enough. This year, [Adam] at Manacal Labs wanted to go bigger. Much bigger. This build is called Colossus, and at two square meters and with 1250 individual LEDs, this LED display is a colossal build.

When building a big LED display, an enormous amount of planning pays off in dividends. The backbone of this project is a sheet of 3/8″ plywood, ripped down to 1 meter by 2 meters. 1250 half-inch holes are drilled in this sheet over four or five very long and very tedious evenings. The LEDs are installed in the thousand or so holes, and a grid of foam core board encases each individual LED.

One of the biggest problems with large arrays of LEDs is the sheer scale of it all. If one LED pixel draws 60mA, 1250 pixels means a draw of 75 Amps. This current will melt most wires, so the power is delivered over custom made copper bus bars. Driving this display with a reasonable refresh rate is another important consideration; WS2812 lights, with an 800kHz signal over one wire, is far too slow for a huge display. Instead of the 2812s, [Adam] went with LPD8806 LEDs that can be clocked at 30MHz. This is controlled with two AllPixels, effectively making this two displays acting as one. It all comes together in a very big LED display. You can check out a video of it below.

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Tech Journos Link Samsung To Volkswagen, Somehow

On Thursday The Guardian published information linking Samsung to the current Volkswagen emissions fiasco. Samsung is accused of installing a ‘defeat device’ on some televisions that uses less energy during official testing conditions than would be found during real-world use.

“The apparent discrepancy between real-world and test performance of the TVs is reminiscent of the VW scandal that originated in the US last week,” wrote [Arthur Nelson] of The Guardian. This report was based on an unpublished lab test by the research group ComplianTV which found discrepancies between real-world and test performance when measuring power consumption. According to ComplianTV, this is due to the ‘motion lighting’ setting included in some Samsung TVs. Samsung vehemently denies this ‘motion lighting’ saying that it is not a method of cheating the consumption tests.

Typical results recognized during testing. Source
Typical results recognized during testing. Source

Not one to let a good controversy go to waste, the BBC reports a Samsung TV will reduce its power draw shortly after the start of the test. A graph of the power draw of a TV – not explicitly a Samsung television – demonstrating this functionality was found in a PDF of a ComplianTV workshop from last year labeled as, “Typical results recognized during testing” with a decrease in power consumption being a recognized behavior when the appropriate test video was found.

This is not the first time ComplianTV tested a Samsung TV equipped with a ‘motion lighting’ setting. Earlier this year, ComplianTV measured the power consumption of the Samsung UE55H8090 television, and found this TV was compliant with energy regulations. Incredibly, all Samsung TVs listed on the ComplianTV database were found to be compliant with the relevant energy directives.

Samsung’s rebuttal to the Guardian article states the ‘motion lighting’ technology is an ‘out of the box’ feature, active in both the lab and at home. Unlike Volkswagen’s ‘defeat device’ for their diesel engines which is only active during emissions testing, the ‘motion lighting’ technology is active whenever it is enabled in the TV’s settings menu.

Anyone in the US who has shopped for a television in the last four years will have noticed cost-per-year estimates for operating the appliance. This is only an issue if the televisions don’t actually meet that advertised benchmark. Until we see a published study we’re raising our eyebrows at The Guardian, easily one of the most trusted journalistic institutions on the planet, and reserving judgement for Samsung.

A White Hat Virus for the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is going gangbusters, despite no one knowing exactly what it will be used for. There’s more marketing money being thrown at IoT paraphernalia than a new soda from Pepsi. It’s a new technology, and with that comes a few problems: these devices are incredibly insecure, and you only need to look at a few CCTV camera streams available online for proof of that.

The obvious solution to vulnerable Internet of Things things would be to get people to change the login credentials on their devices, but that has proven to be too difficult for most of the population. A better solution, if questionable in its intentions, would be a virus that would close all those open ports on routers, killing Telnet, and reminding users to change their passwords. Symantec has found such a virus. It’s called Wifatch, and it bends the concept of malware into a force for good.

Wifatch is a bit of code that slips through the back door of routers and other IoT devices, closes off Telnet to prevent further infection, and leaves a message telling the owner to change the password and update the device firmware. Wifatch isn’t keeping any secrets, either: most of the code is written in unobfuscated Perl, and there are debug messages that enable easy analysis of the code. This is code that’s meant to be taken apart, and code that includes a comment directed at NSA and FBI agents:

To any NSA and FBI agents reading this: please consider whether defending
the US Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic, requires you
to follow Snowden's example.

Although the designer of Wifatch left all the code out in the open, and is arguably doing good, there is a possible dark side to this white hat virus. Wifatch connects to a peer-to-peer network that is used to distribute threat updates. With backdoors in the code, the author of Wifatch could conceivably turn the entire network of Wifatch-infected devices into a personal botnet.

While Wifatch is easily removed from a router with a simple restart, and re-infection can be prevented by changing the default passwords, this is an interesting case of virtual vigilantism. It may not be the best way to tell people they need to change the password on their router, but it’s hard to argue with results.

[Image source: header, thumb]

Why Aren’t We Arguing More about Mr Robot?

Editor’s note: Thar be spoilers below.

Showing any sort of ‘hacking’ on either the big screen or the small often ends in complete, abject failure. You only need to look at Hackers with its rollerblading PowerBooks, Independance Day where the aliens are also inexplicably using PowerBooks, or even the likes of Lawnmower Man with a VR sex scene we keep waiting for Oculus to introduce. By design, Mr Robot, a series that ended its first season on USA a month ago, bucks this trend. It does depressed, hoodie-wearing, opioid-dependant hackers right, while still managing to incorporate some interesting tidbits from the world of people who call themselves hackers.

Desktop Environments

In episode 0 of Mr Robot, we’re introduced to our hiro protagonist [Elliot], played by [Rami Malek], a tech at the security firm AllSafe. We are also introduced to the show’s Macbeth, [Tyrell Wellick], played by Martin Wallström]. When these characters are introduced to each other, [Tyrell] notices [Elliot] is using the Gnome desktop on his work computer while [Tyrell] says he’s, “actually on KDE myself. I know [Gnome] is supposed to be better, but you know what they say, old habits, they die hard.”

[Elliot], running Kali with Gnome
[Elliot], running Kali with Gnome
While this short exchange would appear to most as two techies talking shop, this is a scene with a surprisingly deep interpretation. Back in the 90s, when I didn’t care if kids stayed off my lawn or not, there was a great desktop environment war in the land of Linux. KDE was not free, it was claimed by the knights of GNU, and this resulted in the creation of the Gnome.

Subtle, yes, but in one short interaction between [Elliot] and [Tyrell], we see exactly where each is coming from. [Elliot] stands for freedom of software and of mind, [Tyrell] is simply toeing the company line. It’s been fifteen years since message boards have blown up over the Free Software Foundation’s concerns over KDE, but the sentiment is there.


There’s far more to a hacker ethos than having preferred Linux desktop environments. Hacking is everywhere, and this also includes biohacking, In the case of one Mr Robot character, this means genetic engineering.

In one episode of Mr Robot, the character Romero temporarily gives up his power in front of a keyboard and turns his mind to genetics. He “…figured out how to insert THC’s genetic information code into yeast cells.” Purely from a legal standpoint, this is an interesting situation; weed is illegal, yeast is not, and the possibilities for production are enormous. Yeast only requires simple sugars to divide and grow in a test tube, marijuana actually requires a lot of resources and an experienced staff to produce a good crop.

Life imitates art, but sometimes the reverse is true. Just a few weeks after this episode aired, researchers at  Hyasynth Bio announced they had genetically modified yeast cells to produce THC and cannabidiol.

The promise of simply genetically modifying yeast to produce THC is intriguing; a successful yeast-based grow room could outproduce any plant-based operation, with the only input being sugar. Alas, the reality of the situation isn’t quite that simple. Researchers at Hyasynth Bio have only engineered yeast to turn certain chemical precursors into THC. Making THC from yeast isn’t yet as simple as home brewing an IPA, but it’s getting close, and a great example of how Mr Robot is tapping into hacking, both new and old.

Why Aren’t We Arguing More About This?

The more we ruminate on this show, the more there is to enjoy about it. It’s the subtle background that’s the most fun; the ceiling of the chapel as it were. We’re thinking of turning out a series of posts that works through all the little delights that you might have missed. For those who watched and love the series, what do you think? Perhaps there are other shows worthy of this hacker drill-down, but we haven’t found them yet.

A Third Scale Mini PowerMac

We’re surrounded by tiny ARM boards running Linux, and one of the most popular things to do with these tiny yet powerful computers is case modding. We’ve seen Raspberry Pis in Game Boys, old Ataris, and even in books. [Aaron] decided it was time to fit a tiny computer inside an officially licensed bit of miniature Apple hardware and came up with the Mini PowerMac. It’s a 1/3rd scale model of an all-in-one Mac from 1996, and [Aaron] made its new hardware fit like a glove.

Instead of an old Mac modified with an LCD, or even a tiny 3D printed model like Adafruit’s Mini Mac Pi, [Aaron] is using an accessory for American Girl dolls released in 1996. This third-scale model of an all-in-one PowerPC Mac is surprisingly advanced for something that would go in a doll house. When used by American Girl dolls, it has a 3.25″ monochrome LCD that simulates the MacOS responding to mouse clicks and keypresses. If you want to see the stock tiny Mac in action, here’s a video.

The American Girl Mini Macintosh is hollow, and there’s a lot of space in this lump of plastic. [Aaron] tried to fit a Raspberry Pi in the case. A Pi wouldn’t fit. An ODROID-W did, and with a little bit of soldering, [Aaron] had a computer far more powerful than an actual PowerMac 5200. Added to this is a 3.5″ automotive rearview display, carefully mounted to the 1/3rd size screen bezel of the mini Mac.

The rest of the build is exactly what you would expect – a DC/DC step down converter, a USB hub, and a pair of dongles for WiFi and a wireless keyboard. The software for the ODROID-W is fully compatible with the Raspberry Pi, and a quick install of the Basilisk II Macintosh emulator and an installation of Mac OS 7.5.3 completed the build.

Arduino’s Long-Awaited Improved WiFi Shield

Announced at the 2014 Maker Faire in New York, the latest Arduino WiFi shield is finally available. This shield replaces the old Arduino WiFi shield, while providing a few neat features that will come in very handy for the yet-to-be-developed Internet of Things.

While the WiFi Shield 101 was announced a year ago, the feature set was interesting. The new WiFi shield supports 802.11n, and thanks to a few of Atmel’s crypto chip offerings, this shield is the first official Arduino offering to support SSL.

The new Arduino WiFi Shield 101 features an Atmel ATWINC1500 module for 802.11 b/g/n WiFi connectivity. This module, like a dozen or so other WiFi modules, handles the heavy lifting of the WiFi protocol, including TCP and UDP protocols, leaving the rest of the Arduino free to do the actual work. While the addition of 802.11n  will be increasingly appreciated as these networks become more commonplace, the speed offered by ~n isn’t really applicable; you’re not going to be pushing bits out of an Arduino at 300 Mbps.

Also included on the WiFi shield is an ATECC508A CryptoAuthentication chip. This is perhaps the most interesting improvement over the old Arduino WiFi shield, and allows for greater security for the upcoming Internet of Things. WiFi modules already in the space have their own support for SSL, including TI’s CC3200 series of modules, Particle‘s Internet of Things modules, and some support for the ESP8266.