LCaaS – Lawn Care as a Service?

As often happens while engaged in a mundane task, my mind wandered while I was mowing my small suburban plot of green this weekend. “Why, in 2017, am I still mowing the lawn?” In a lot of ways we’re living in the future  — we walk around with fantastically powerful computers in our pockets, some of us have semi-autonomous cars, and almost anything can be purchased at the touch of a finger and delivered the next day or sooner. We even have robots that can vacuum the floor, so why not a robot lawnmower?

It turns out we do have robotic lawnmowers, but unfortunately, they kind of suck: Continue reading “LCaaS – Lawn Care as a Service?”

Free as in Beer, or the Story of Windows Viruses

Whenever there’s a new Windows virus out there wreaking global havoc, the Linux types get smug. “That’ll never happen in our open operating system,” they say. “There are many eyes looking over the source code.” But then there’s a Heartbleed vulnerability that keeps them humble for a little while. Anyway, at least patches are propagated faster in the Linux world, right?

While the Linuxers are holier-than-thou, the Windows folks get defensive. They say that the problem isn’t with Windows, it’s just that it’s the number one target because it’s the most popular OS. Wrong, that’d be Android for the last few years, or Linux since forever in the server space. Then they say it’s a failure to apply patches and upgrade their systems, because their users are just less savvy, but that some new update system will solve the problem.

There’s some truth to the viruses and the patching, but when WannaCry is taking over hospitals’ IT systems or the radiation monitoring network at Chernobyl, it’s not likely to be the fault of the stereotypical naive users, and any automatic patch system is only likely to help around the margins.

So why is WannaCry, and variants, hitting unpatched XP machines, managed by professionals, all over the world? Why are there still XP machines in professional environments anyway? And what does any of this have to do with free software? The answer to all of these questions can be found in the ancient root of all evil, the want of money. Linux is more secure, ironically, at least partly because it’s free as in beer, and upgrading to a newer version is simply cheaper.

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Heathkit’s New RF Meter: Who is it for?

Electronic hackers and ham radio operators of a certain age have a soft spot for the Heathkit brand. Maybe that’s why we had a rush of nostalgia when we saw the Heathkit site had a new product. You may recall that Heathkit had gone the way of the dodo until a few years ago when the brand started to resurface. Their latest kit is a precision RF meter which is available on preorder.

Before there were websites and hacker spaces and all the modern push to “do it yourself,” Heathkit was teaching people electronics through kit building. Sure, they were known for ham radio and test equipment, but many people built stereos (hi-fi), TVs, radio control gear, computers, and even robots. All with manuals that are hard to imagine if you haven’t seen one. They were world-class.

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Megabots, Colliders, Rockets, Tunnels Underground, and Other Big Dumb Ideas Will Save Us

Humanity is a planetwide force. We have the power to change our weather. We have the power to change the shape of the land. We have the power to selectively wipe a species from this earth if we choose.  We’ve had this power for a while and we’re still coming to terms with it. Many of us even deny it.

With such power, what do we do? We have very few projects which are in line with our ability. Somewhere in the past few years, I feel like most of us have lost our audacity. We’ve culturally come to appreciate the safe bet too much. We pull the dreamers and doers down. We want to solve the small problems first, and see if we have time for the big problems later. We don’t dream big enough, and there is zero reason for this hesitation. We could leverage our planetwide power for planetwide improvements. Nothing is truly stopping us. No law, no government, nothing.

To put it simply, as far as technology goes, everything is still low-hanging fruit. We’ve barely done anything. Even some of our greatest accomplishments can happen randomly in nature. We’ve not left our planet in any numbers or for any length of time. Our cities are disorganized messes. In every single field today, the unexplored territory is orders larger than the explored. Yet despite this vast territory, there are very few explorers. People want to optimize the minutia of life. A slightly faster processor for a slightly smaller phone. It’s okay.

Yet that same small optimization applied to a larger effort could have vast positive impact. Those same microprocessors could catalog our planet or drive probes into space. The very same efforts we spend on micro upgrades could be leveraged if we just look at the bigger picture then get out of our own way. All that is lacking is ambition. Money, time, skill, industry, and people are all there, waiting. We have the need for and have the resources to support ten thousand Elon Musks, not just the one.

Big projects make us bigger than our cellphones and Facebook. When you see a rocket launch into the sky, suddenly, “the world” becomes, simply, “a world.” Order of magnitude improvements reduce the order of our perception of previously complex problems. They should be our highest goal. Whatever field you’re in, you should be trying to be ten times better than the top competitor.

However, there are some societal changes that have to occur before we can.

Continue reading “Megabots, Colliders, Rockets, Tunnels Underground, and Other Big Dumb Ideas Will Save Us”

Alexa, Sudo Read My Resistor! A Challenge for Hackers

Nothing makes us feel more like we’re on Star Trek then saying “Computer, turn on desk light,” and watching the light turn on. Of course, normal people would have left the wake up word as “Alexa,” but we like “Computer” even if it does make it hard to watch Star Trek episodes without the home automation going crazy.

There’s a lot of hype right now about how voice recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming everything. We’ve even seen a few high-profile types warning that AI is going to come alive and put us in the matrix or something. That gets a lot of press, but we’re not sure we are even close to that, yet. Alexa and Google’s similar offerings are cool, there’s no doubt about it. The speech recognition is pretty good, although far from perfect. But the AI is really far off still.

Today’s devices utilize two rather rudimentary parts to provide an interaction with users. The first is how the devices pattern match language; it isn’t all that sophisticated. The other is the trivial nature of many of the apps, or — as Alexa calls them — skills. There are some good ones to be sure, but for every one useful application of the technology, there’s a dozen that are just text-to-speech of an RSS feed. Looking through the skills available we were amused at how many different offerings convert resistor color codes back and forth to values.

There was a time when building electronics meant learning the resistor color code. With today’s emphasis on surface mount components, though, it is less useful than it used to be. Still, like flossing, you really ought to do it. However, if you have an Amazon Alexa, it can learn the color code for you thanks to [Dennis Mantz].

Don’t have an Alexa? You can still try it in your browser, as we will show you shortly. There are at least eight similar skills out there like this one from [Steve Jernigan] or [Andrew Bergstrom’s] Resistor Reader.

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Don’t be a Code Tyrant, Be A Mentor

Hardware hacking is a way of life here at Hackaday. We celebrate projects every day with hot glue, duct tape, upcycled parts, and everything in between. It’s open season to hack hardware. Out in the world, for some reason software doesn’t receive the same laissez-faire treatment. “Too many lines in that file” “bad habits” “bad variable names” the comments often rain down. Even the unsafest silliest of projects isn’t safe. Building a robot to shine lasers into a person’s eyes? Better make sure you have less than 500 lines of code per file!

Why is this? What makes readers and commenters hold software to a higher standard than the hardware it happens to be running on? The reasons are many and varied, and it’s a trend I’d like to see stopped.

Software engineering is a relatively young and fast evolving science. Every few months there is a new hot language on the block, with forums, user groups, and articles galore. Even the way software engineers work is constantly changing. Waterfall to agile, V-Model, Spiral model. Even software design methodologies change — from pseudo code to UML to test driven development, the list goes on and on.

Terms like “clean code” get thrown around. It’s not good enough to have software that works. Software must be well commented, maintainable, elegant, and of course, follow the best coding practices. Most of these are good ideas… in the work environment. Work is what a lot of this boils down to. Software engineers have to stay up to date with new trends to be employable.

There is a certain amount of “born again” mentality among professional software developers. Coders generally hate having change forced upon them. But when they find a tool or system they like, they embrace it both professionally, and in their personal projects. Then they’re out spreading the word of this new method or tool; on Reddit, in forums, to anyone who will listen. The classic example of this is, of course, editors like the vi vs emacs debate.

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The Long Tail of DIY Electronics

These are the Golden Years of electronics hacking. The home DIY hacker can get their hands on virtually any part that he or she could desire, and for not much money. Two economic factors underlie this Garden of Electronic Eden that we’re living in. Economies of scale make the parts cheap: when a factory turns out the same MEMS accelerometer chip for hundreds of millions of cell phones, their setup and other fixed costs are spread across all of these chips, and a $40 million factory ends up only costing $0.50 per unit sold.

But the unsung hero of the present DIY paradise is how so many different parts are available, and from so many different suppliers, many of them on the other side of the globe. “The Internet” you say, as if that explains it. Well, that’s not wrong, but it’s deeper than that. The reason that we have so much to choose from is that the marginal cost of variety has fallen, and with that many niche products and firms have become profitable where before they weren’t.

So let’s take a few minutes to sing the praises of the most important, and sometimes overlooked, facet of the DIY economy over the last twenty years: the falling marginal cost of variety.

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