Web Bluetooth: The New Hotness and Its Dangers

Google’s most recent Chrome browser, version 53, includes trial support for Web Bluetooth, and it’s like the Wild West! JavaScript code, served to your browser, can now connect directly to your Bluetooth LE (BTLE) devices, with a whole bunch of caveats that we’ll make clear below.

On the one hand, this is awesome functionality. The browser is the most ubiquitous cross-platform operating system that the world has ever seen. You can serve a website to users running Windows, Linux, Android, iOS, or MacOS and run code on their machines without having to know if it’s a cellphone, a desktop, or a virtual machine in the Matrix. Combining this ubiquity with the ability to control Bluetooth devices is going to be fun. It’s a missing piece of the IoT puzzle.

On the other hand, it’s a security nightmare. It’s bad enough when malicious websites can extract information from files that reside on your computer, but when they connect directly to your lightbulbs, your FitBits, or your BTLE-enhanced pacemaker, it opens up new possibilities for mischief. The good news is that the developers of Web Bluetooth seem to be aware of the risks and are intent on minimizing them, but there are still real concerns. How does security come out in the balance? Read on.

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Hackspace Websites And The Great Software Trap

Part of the job of a Hackaday writer involves seeking out new stories to write for your delectation and edification. Our tips line provides a fruitful fount of interesting things to write about, but we’d miss so much if we restricted ourselves to only writing up stories from that source. Each of us writers will therefore have a list of favourite places to keep an eye on and catch new stuff as it appears. News sites, blogs, videos, forums, that kind of thing. In my case I hope I’m not giving away too much to my colleagues when I say I keep an eye on the activities of as many hackspaces as I can.

So aside from picking up the occasional gem for these pages there is something else I gain that is of great personal interest as a director of my local hackspace. I see how a lot of other spaces approach the web, and can couple it to my behind-the-scenes view of doing the same thing here in our space. Along the way due to both experiences I’ve begun to despair slightly at the way our movement approaches the dissemination of information, the web, and software in general. So here follows a highly personal treatise on the subject that probably skirts the edge of outright ranting but within which I hope you’ll see parallels in your own spaces.

Before continuing it’s worth for a moment considering why a hackspace needs a public website. What is its purpose, who are its audience, and what information does it need to have?

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Optimizing the Spread: More Spreadsheet Circuit Design Tricks

Last time I showed you how to set up a reasonably complex design in a spreadsheet: a common emitter bipolar transistor amplifier. Having the design in a spreadsheet makes it easy to do “what if” scenarios and see the effects on the design almost immediately.

Another advantage that spreadsheets offer is a way to “solve” or optimize equations. That can be very useful once you have your model. For Excel, you need to install the Solver add-in (go to the Excel Options dialog, select Manage Add-Ins, and select the Solver Add-In). You might also enjoy OpenSolver. You can even get that for Google Sheets (although it currently lacks a non-linear solver which makes it less useful for what we need).

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Shell Game

A lot of us spend a lot of time switching between Windows and Linux. Now that platforms like the Raspberry Pi are popular, that number is probably increasing every day. While I run Linux on nearly everything I own (with the exception of a laptop), my work computers mostly run Windows. The laptop is on Windows, too, because I got tired of trying to get all the fancy rotation sensors and pen features working properly under Linux.

What I hate most about Windows is how hard is it to see what’s going on under the hood. My HP laptop works with a cheap Dell active stylus. Sort of. It is great except around the screen edges where it goes wild. Calibration never works. On Linux, I could drill down to the lowest levels of the OS if I were so inclined. With Windows, it is just tough.

War is Shell

One place where Linux always used to have an advantage over DOS and Windows was the shell. There are lots of variations available under Linux, but bash seems to be the current pick for most people. If you want more power, you can move to some alternatives, but even bash is pretty powerful if you learn how to use it and have the right external programs (if you don’t believe it, check out this web server).

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Yak Shaving: Hacker Mode vs Maker Mode

When I start up a new project, one that’s going to be worth writing up later on, I find it’s useful to get myself into the right mindset. I’m not a big planner like some people are — sometimes I like to let the project find its own way. But there’s also the real risk of getting lost in the details unless I rein myself in a little bit. I’m not alone in this tendency, of course. In the geek world, this is known as “yak shaving“.

The phrase comes obliquely from a Ren and Stimpy episode, and refers to common phenomenon where to get one thing done you have to first solve another problem. The second problem, of course, involves solving a third, and so on. So through this (potentially long) chain of dependencies, what looks like shaving a yak is obliquely working on cracking some actually relevant problem.
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Hot Wire Strippers are Probably The Best Tool You Aren’t Using

I wanted to point out a tool that I often use, but rarely see on other people’s workbenches: thermal strippers. They aren’t cheap, but once you’ve used them, it is hard to go back to stripping wires with an ordinary tool.

I know, I know. When I first heard of such a thing, I thought what you are probably thinking now: maybe for some exotic coated wire, but for regular wire, I just use a pair of diagonal cutters or a mechanical stripper or a razor blade. You can do that, of course, and for large solid wires, you can even get good results. But for handling any kind of wire, regardless of size, you just can’t beat a thermal stripper.

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In Paris Buying a 3D Printer is Cheaper than Renting Machine Time

As many of the members of the Brian Benchoff hate/fan club know, the life of a Hackaday writer is nomadic and filled with exciting adventures. Jenny List is actually crime fighting cyborg (think Bond); it’s why she knows so much about electronics. James Hobson is Iron Man. The list goes on. There are lots of unnecessary details, but to summarize: Last month I was living in Washington State, this month I am in Paris, France. It’s really nice here, the buildings are beautiful, the cathedrals stunning, and the food significantly tastier. 

However, as a contracting engineer with a project involving a deadline; I found myself in dire need of a significant amount of quick turn-around 3D printing during my working vacation to France. Through a lot of trial and tribulation, I eventually discovered that the most cost-effective way to get the prints done… was to just buy a cheap 3D printer and run it into the ground.

Appropriately, LVL1 is also home to the world's largest 3D printed trashcan (full of failed 3D prints).
Appropriately, LVL1 is also home to the world’s largest 3D printed trashcan (full of failed 3D prints).

I was spoiled by my hackerspace in Louisville, KY. They had enough 3D printers to go around and the pricing was fixed at 10 cents a gram. For the amount of printing I needed, this would be a perfectly economical arrangement. So, I set out to find a hackerspace in Paris. Whereupon I reached my first and obvious problem; I speak very little French.

Most of the hackerspaces listed in Paris are, as far as I can tell, illegally squatting in a scary part of town, exclusive to a university, exclusive to a business, or closed down.

So, I googled a bit harder. Wow! Apparently a Techshop opened up in Paris. It’s about an hour away from where I live, but having toured a Techshop before, I knew they would have the nice version of the tool I need. So, one morning bright and early I got on the metro and headed over to get a tour of the place.

What I’ve discovered is this: If you need things like a water jet cutter, welding station, or a 50 grand CNC machine, Techshop is a really economical way to get access to and play with tools like that. However, if all you want is access to a laser cutter and a 3D printer, it will set you back five-hundred dollars and you’ll have to jump through some incredibly annoying hoops just to get access to them.

Only a small fee of 400 euros to used these badboys.
Only a small fee of 400 euros to used these bad boys.

See, most pieces of equipment at a Techshop need to be reserved. Only the 150 euro and 300 euro a month membership tiers can reserve equipment. The 150 tier can reserve something for two hours, the 300, four. If you’ve ever 3D printed you can immediately spot the problem with that. For small prints this could be workable, but if you have a lot of large prints four hours is just not enough. However, there is a work around. If you’re willing to take a metro ride late at night, arriving at the Techshop at 10:00pm, you can, of course, run a print overnight.

There were two more glitches in the Techshop plan. To be able to touch the printers required a two-hour course with a 100 euros fee. The filament also ran 65 euro per 500 g. My printing needs would easily cost me tens of hours in travel and had a starting fee of 400 euros to be workable.

The entrance to Usine.io is terrifying. It's this massive pitch black hallway. I had no idea if I was in the right place until I got to the desk.
The entrance to Usine.io is terrifying. It’s this massive pitch black hallway. I had no idea if I was in the right place until I got to the desk.

Now, I’m not saying Techshop isn’t absolutely wonderful when it comes to more advanced tools. It’s probably the only Hackerspace in the world where you’re entitled to expect that the CNC machine is in working order, properly trammed, and there are actually cutting bits for it. However, if all you need is a 3D printer, don’t bother.

Now, I asked around some more and found that there was a competing space in Paris called Usine.io. It had a flat fee of 180 euros a month and the training was free. I actually did end up getting a membership here for access to a CNC and basic tools, but for 3D printing it was a bust. They only had three printers serving a sizable membership base. This left the printers with a 48 hour line to get your print started and a maximum of 40 hours of printing a month. A die-hard user of 3D printing can easily use 40 hours in 3 days. Because I had to test many iterations for my project, my need the next month was easily triple that number.

However, the shop itself is really nicely outfitted.
However, the shop itself is really nicely outfitted.

The last avenue available to me aside from 3D printer ownership was contracting someone with a 3D printer to run my prints for me. However, after asking around I found the service to be quite expensive. Rent isn’t cheap in Paris after all. If I just needed a single small print it would be worth it, but if I needed lots of printing it would quickly add up to be more money than I had.

That left me with one option. Which, honestly, sounded absolutely insane for someone visiting a country for a few months. Buy a printer. It’s an indication of the state of 3D printing that the price has come down so far that buying a printer is more economical than having someone do it for you. Even a few years ago this was not possible. However, European Amazon Prime had a workable enough import printer to my doorstep faster than any commercially available service could even process my order. We’ve come a long way since the Darwin. That’s for sure.

Featured Photo From Famous Paris buildings by LeFabShop