Hackaday Printing Press Upgrade

There comes a time when your movable type becomes so over-used that you no longer get a legible print off of the printing press. For months now we’ve been at work on a new site design that maintains the essence of Hackaday while ejecting the 10-year-old dregs of the site. With each small success we’ve actually ruined ourselves on viewing the old design. It is with great relief that we unveil a site design built specifically for Hackaday’s needs.

The most notable change is in the content of our landing page. For ten years, loading Hackaday.com resulted in the most recent blog posts. The blog concept is proven, but provides little opportunity to highlight quality original content and information about upcoming events. We have tried the use of “sticky” posts but honestly I find them somewhat annoying. The solution to this is not immediately apparent, but I feel we have found the most efficient solution to our complex set of needs..

We have a lot of community members who participate in Hackaday in numerous ways. Changes found in this design are driven by that fact. The landing page will, from this point forward, be a somewhat more persistent collection of notable content from the blog, our community site (hackaday.io), as well as news regarding live events, store features, contest highlights, and more. Those hard-core fans — a label I also assign to myself — will find the same reading experience as always on the new blog URL: hackaday.com/blog.

Aesthetically, we hope that all will agree the new design far supersedes the old. There was a lot to fix, and the work of the Hackaday crew who designed and implemented this new interface is truly amazing. I hope you will take the time to leave a positive comment about their work. As with any major transition, there will be some bumps in the road. Right now most of our sidebar widgets have not been migrated but that and any other problems will be fixed soon.

In this design we strived to highlight the title and image of each post to immediately convey the core concepts of the projects shown here. The author by-line and comment count remain core to the presentation of the articles, and our link style continues to be immediately apparent in the body of each article. I think we have far surpassed the readability of the comments section, in addition to the content itself. We knew we could rebuilt it… we have the technology… long live articles worth reading.

UPDATE: We are working very hard to fix all the parts that don’t look quite right. Thanks for your patience!

UPDATE 2: Infinite scrolling isn’t a feature, it’s a regression. On our test server all the blog listings were paginated just like always. When our host, WordPress VIP, pushed live the infinite scrolling manifested itself. We’ve filed a ticket with them and are hoping for a solution shortly.

UPDATE 3: Infinite scrolling has now been fixed and the blog layout now paginates. The mouse-over zoom effect has been removed. Slideshow speed has been adjusted and if you hover you mouse over a feature it will pause the scrolling.

Forkless Motorcycle Tears up the Track

The bike above may look like a pristine Yamaha prototype, but it’s actually the work of [Julian Farnam], a motorcycle hacker of the highest level. We caught his Yamaha A-N-D FFE 350 on OddBike, and you can read [Julian's] own description of the bike on his Slideshare link.

The FFE 350 started life as a Yamaha 1990′s RZ350 two-stroke racer. From there, [Julian] gave it his own Forkless Front End (FFE) treatment. Gone is the front fork, which while common in motorcycle and bicycle design, has some problems. Fore-aft flex is one – two thin tubes will never make for a rigid front end. Changing geometry is another issue. Since forks are angled forward, the front wheel moves up and to the rear as the shocks compress. This changes the motorcycle’s trail, as well.

Forkless designs may not have these issues, but they bring in a set of their own. A forkless design must have linkages and bellcranks which are often the source of slop and vibration. [Julian's] design uses two sets of linkages in tension. The tension between the two linkages removes most of the slop and provides that directly connected feel riders associate with forks.

The FFE 350 wasn’t just a garage queen either – it laid down some serious laps at local tracks in Southern California. Unfortunately, the forkless design was too radical to catch on as a commercial venture, and the FFE has spent the last few years in storage. [Julian] is hard at work bringing it back to its 1998 glory, as can be seen on his restoration thread over on the Custom Fighters forum.

Nanobots Swim like Scallops in Non-Newtonian Fluids

The idea of using nanobots to treat diseases has been around for years, though it has yet to be realized in any significant manner. Inspired by Purcell’s Scallop theorem, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems have created their own version . They designed a “micro-scallop” that could propel itself through non-Newtonian fluids, which is what most biological fluids happen to be.

The scientists decided on constructing a relatively simple robot, one with two rigid “shells” and a flexible connecting hinge. They 3D-printed a negative mold of the structure and filled it with a polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) solution mixed with fluorescent powder to enable detection. Once cured, the nanobot measured 800 microns wide by 300 microns thick. It’s worth noting that it did not have a motor. Once the mold was complete, two neodymium magnets were glued onto the outside of each shell. When a gradient-free external magnetic field was applied, the magnets make the nanobot’s shells open and close. These reciprocal movements resulted in its net propulsion through non-Newtonian media. The scientists also tested it in glycerol, an example of a Newtonian fluid. Confirming Purcell’s Scallop theorem, the nanobot did not move through the glycerol. They took videos of the nanobot in motion using a stereoscope, a digital camera with a colored-glass filter, and an ultraviolet LED to make the fluorescent nanobot detectable.

The scientists did not indicate any further studies regarding this design. Instead, they hope it will aid future researchers in designing nanobots that can swim through blood vessels and body fluids.  We don’t know how many years it will be before this becomes mainstream medical science, but we know this much: we will never look at scallops the same way again!

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Echo, the First Useful Home Computer Intelligence?

We’re familiar with features like Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana which grope at a familiar concept from science fiction, yet leave us doing silly things like standing in public yowling at our phones. Amazon took a new approach to the idea of an artificial steward by cutting the AI free from our peripherals and making it an independent unit that acts in the household like any other appliance. Instead of steering your starship however, it can integrate with your devices via bluetooth to aide in tasks like writing shopping lists, or simply help you remember how many quarts are in a liter. Whatever you ask for, Echo will oblige.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 2.57.14 PMThe device is little more than the internet and a speaker stuffed into a minimal black cylinder the size of a vase, oh- and six far-field microphones aimed in each direction which listen to every word you say… always. As you’d expect, Echo only processes what you say after you call it to attention by speaking its given name. If you happen to be too far away for the directional microphones to hear, you can alternatively seek assistance from the Echo app on another device. Not bad for the freakishly low price Amazons asking, which is $100 for Prime subscribers. Even if you’re salivating over the idea of this chatting obelisk, or intrigued enough to buy one just to check it out (and pop its little seams), they’re only available to purchase through invite at the moment… the likes of which are said to go out in a few weeks.

The notion of the internet at large acting as an invisible ever-present swiss-army-knife of knowledge for the home is admittedly pretty sweet. It pulls on our wishful heartstrings for futuristic technology. The success of Echo as a first of its kind however relies on how seamlessly (and quickly) the artificial intelligence within it performs. If it can hold up, or prove to hold up in further iterations, it’s exciting to think what larger systems the technology could be integrated with in the near future… We might have our command center consciousness sooner than we thought.

With that said, inviting a little WiFi probe into your intimate living space to listen in on everything you do will take some getting over… your thoughts?

Continue reading “Echo, the First Useful Home Computer Intelligence?”

Make Flexible PCBs with Your 3D Printer

The last few years have seen great strides in budget printed circuit board manufacturing. These days you can have boards made in a week for only a few dollars a square inch. Flexible PCBs still tend to be rather expensive though. [Mikey77] is changing that by making flex circuits at home with his 3D printer. [Mikey77] utilized one of the properties of Ninjaflex Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) filament – it sticks to bare copper!

The TPE filament acts as an etch resist, similar to methods using laser printer toner. For a substrate, [Mikey77] lists 3 options:

.004″ thick “Scissor cut” copper clad board from Electronics Goldmine

.002″ thick pure copper polyester taffeta fabric from lessEMF.com

<.001″ Pyralux material from Adafruit, which is one of the materials used to make professional flex PCBs.

A bit of spray adhesive will hold the Flex PCB down on the printer’s bed. The only issue is convincing the printer to print a few thousandths of an inch higher than the actual bed level. Rather than change the home position on his Z axis, [Mikey77] used AutoDesk 123D to create 3D PCB designs. Each of his .stl files has a “spacer bar”, which sits at the bed level. The actual tracks to be printed are in the air a few thousandths of an inch above the bed – exactly the thickness of the substrate material. The printer prints the spacer bar on the bed, then raises its Z height and prints on the flexible PCB material. We’re sure that forcing the printer to print in mid-air like this would cause some printer software to throw errors, but the system worked for [Mikey77] and his Makerbot.

Once the designs have been printed, the boards are etched with standard etching solutions such as ferric chloride. Be careful though – these thin substrates can etch much faster than regular PCB.

FTDI Screws Up, Backs Down

A few days ago we learned chip maker FTDI was doing some rather shady things with a new driver released on Windows Update. The new driver worked perfectly for real FTDI chips, but for counterfeit chips – and there are a lot of them – the USB PID was set to 0, rendering them inoperable with any computer. Now, a few days later, we know exactly what happened, and FTDI is backing down; the driver has been removed from Windows Update, and an updated driver will be released next week. A PC won’t be able to communicate with a counterfeit chip with the new driver, but at least it won’t soft-brick the chip.

Microsoft has since released a statement and rolled back two versions of the FTDI driver to prevent counterfeit chips from being bricked. The affected versions of the FTDI driver are 2.11.0 and 2.12.0, released on August 26, 2014. The latest version of the driver that does not have this chip bricking functionality is 2.10.0.0, released on January 27th. If you’re affected by the latest driver, rolling back the driver through the Device Manager to 2.10.0.0 will prevent counterfeit chips from being bricked. You might want to find a copy of the 2.10.0 driver; this will likely be the last version of the FTDI driver to work with counterfeit chips.

Thanks to the efforts of [marcan] over on the EEVblog forums, we know exactly how the earlier FTDI driver worked to brick counterfeit devices:

ftdi_evil

[marcan] disassembled the FTDI driver and found the source of the brick and some clever coding. The coding exploits  differences found in the silicon of counterfeit chips compared to the legit ones. In the small snippet of code decompiled by [marcan], the FTDI driver does nothing for legit chips, but writes 0 and value to make the EEPROM checksum match to counterfeit chips. It’s an extremely clever bit of code, but also clear evidence FTDI is intentionally bricking counterfeit devices.

A new FTDI driver, presumably one that will tell you a chip is fake without bricking it, will be released next week. While not an ideal outcome for everyone, at least the problem of drivers intentionally bricking devices is behind us.

Watch That Windows Update: FTDI Drivers Are Killing Fake Chips

The FTDI FT232 chip is found in thousands of electronic baubles, from Arduinos to test equipment, and more than a few bits of consumer electronics. It’s a simple chip, converting USB to a serial port, but very useful and probably one of the most cloned pieces of silicon on Earth. Thanks to a recent Windows update, all those fake FTDI chips are at risk of being bricked. This isn’t a case where fake FTDI chips won’t work if plugged into a machine running the newest FTDI driver; the latest driver bricks the fake chips, rendering them inoperable with any computer.

Reports of problems with FTDI chips surfaced early this month, with an explanation of the behavior showing up in an EEVblog forum thread. The new driver for these chips from FTDI, delivered through a recent Windows update, reprograms the USB PID to 0, something Windows, Linux, and OS X don’t like. This renders the chip inaccessible from any OS, effectively bricking any device that happens to have one of these fake FTDI serial chips.

Because the FTDI USB to UART chip is so incredibly common,  the market is flooded with clones and counterfeits. it’s very hard to tell the difference between the real and fake versions by looking at the package, but a look at the silicon reveals vast differences. The new driver for the FT232 exploits these differences, reprogramming it so it won’t work with existing drivers. It’s a bold strategy to cut down on silicon counterfeiters on the part of FTDI. A reasonable company would go after the manufacturers of fake chips, not the consumers who are most likely unaware they have a fake chip.

The workaround for this driver update is to download the FT232 config tool from the FTDI website on a WinXP or Linux box, change the PID of the fake chip, and never using the new driver on a modern Windows system. There will surely be an automated tool to fix these chips automatically, but until then, take a good look at what Windows Update is installing – it’s very hard to tell if your devices have a fake FTDI chip by just looking at them.