Bibles You Should Read: PoC || GTFO

PASTOR LAPHROAIG ANNOUNCES THE PUBLICATION OF WHAT WILL TORMENT THE ACOLYTES OF THE CHURCH OF ROBOTRON! NO MAN SHALL BE SPARED AND THE INQUISITION WILL BEGIN PROMPTLY!

For the last few years, Pastor Manul Laphroaig and friends have been publishing the International Journal of PoC || GTFO. This is a collection of papers and exploits, submitted to the Tract Association of PoC || GTFO, each of which demonstrates an interesting exploit, technique, or software toy in the field of electronics. Imagine, if 2600 or Dr. Dobb’s Journal were a professional academic publication. Add some whiskey and you have PoC || GTFO.

This is something we’ve been waiting a while for. The International Journal of PoC || GTFO is now a real book bible published by No Starch Press. What’s the buy-in for this indulgence? $30 USD, or a bit less if you just want the Ebook version. The draw of the dead tree version of PoC includes a leatherette cover, gilt edges, and the ability to fit inside bible covers available through other fine retailers. There are no rumors of a children’s version with vegetable-based characters.

PoC || GTFO, in reality, is an almost tri-annual journal of reverse engineering, computer science, and other random electronic computational wizardry, with papers (the Proof of Concept) by Dan Kaminsky, Colin O’Flynn, Joe FitzPatrick, Micah Elisabeth Scott, Joe Grand, and other heroes of the hacker world. What does PoC || GTFO present itself as? Applied electrons in a religious tract publication. The tongue is planted firmly in the cheek here, and it’s awesome.

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Books You Should Read: IGNITION!

Isaac Asimov described the business of rocket fuel research as “playing footsie with liquids from Hell.” If that piques your interest even a little, even if you do nothing else today, read the first few pages of IGNITION! which is available online for free. I bet you won’t want to stop reading.

IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants is about how modern liquid rocket fuel came to be. Written by John D. Clark and published in 1972, the title might at first glance make the book sound terribly dry — it’s not. Liquid rocket fuel made modern rocketry possible. But most of us have no involvement with it at all besides an awareness that it exists, and that makes it easy to take for granted.

Most of us lack any understanding of the fact that its development was the result of a whole lot of hard scientific work, and that work required brilliance (and bravery) and had many frustrating dead ends. It was also an amazingly dangerous business to be in. Isaac Asimov put it this way in the introduction:

“[A]nyone working with rocket fuels is outstandingly mad. I don’t mean garden-variety crazy or a merely raving lunatic. I mean a record-shattering exponent of far-out insanity.

There are, after all, some chemicals that explode shatteringly, some that flame ravenously, some that corrode hellishly, some that poison sneakily, and some that stink stenchily. As far as I know, though, only liquid rocket fuels have all these delightful properties combined into one delectable whole.”

At the time that the book was written and published, most of the work on liquid rocket fuels had been done in the 40’s, 50’s, and first half of the 60’s. There was plenty written about rocketry, but very little about the propellants themselves, and nothing at all written about why these specific substances and not something else were being used. John Clark — having run a laboratory doing propellant research for seventeen years — had a unique perspective of the whole business and took the time to write IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants.

Liquid rocket propellant was in two parts: a fuel and an oxidizer. The combination is hypergolic; that is, the two spontaneously ignite and burn upon contact with each other. As an example of the kinds of details that mattered (i.e. all of them), the combustion process had to be rapid and complete. If the two liquids flow into the combustion chamber and ignite immediately, that’s good. If they form a small puddle and then ignite, that’s bad. There are myriad other considerations as well; the fuel must burn at a manageable temperature (so as not to destroy the motor), the energy density of the fuel must be high enough to be a practical fuel in the first place, and so on.

The actual process of discovering exactly what materials to use and how precisely to make them work in a rocket motor was the very essence of the phrase “the devil is in the details.” For every potential solution, there was a mountain of dead-end possibilities that tantalizingly, infuriatingly, almost worked.

The first reliable, workable propellant combination was Aniline and Red Fuming Nitric Acid (RFNA). “It had the one – but magnificent – virtue that it worked,” writes Clark. “Otherwise it was an abomination.” Aniline was difficult to procure, ferociously poisonous and rapidly absorbed through skin, and froze at an inconvenient -6.2 Celsius which limited it to warm weather only. RFNA was fantastically corrosive, and this alone went on to cause no end of problems. It couldn’t be left sitting in a rocket tank waiting to be used for too long, because after a while you wouldn’t have a tank left. It needed to be periodically vented while in storage. Pouring it gave off dense clouds of remarkably toxic gas. This propellant would go on to cause incredibly costly and dangerous problems, but it worked. Still, no one wanted to put up with any of it one moment longer than they absolutely had to. As a result, that combination was not much more than a first step in the whole process; there was plenty of work left to do.

By the mid-sixties, liquid rocket propellant was a solved problem and the propellant community had pretty much worked themselves out of a job. Happily, a result of that work was this book; it captures history and detail that otherwise would simply have disappeared.

Clark has a gift for writing, and the book is easy to read and full of amusing (and eye-widening) anecdotes. Clark doesn’t skimp on the scientific background, but always in an accessible way. It’s interesting, it’s relevant, it’s relatable, and there is plenty to learn about how hard scientific and engineering development actually gets done. Download the PDF onto your favorite device. You’ll find it well worth the handful of evenings it takes to read through it.

Review: TS100 Soldering Iron

Temperature-controlled soldering irons can be cheap, lightweight, and good. Pick any two of those attributes when you choose an iron, because you’ll never have all three. You might believe that this adage represents a cast-iron rule, no iron could possibly combine all three to make a lightweight high-performance tool that won’t break the bank! And until fairly recently you’d have had a point, but perhaps there is now a contender that could achieve that impossible feat.

The Miniware TS100 is a relatively inexpensive temperature-controlled soldering iron from China that has made a stealthy entry to the market, and which some online commentators claim to be the equal of far more expensive professional-grade irons. We parted with just below £50 (around $60) to place an order for a TS100, and waited for it to arrive so we could see what all the fuss was about. Continue reading “Review: TS100 Soldering Iron”

DEF CON Badgelife: The ESP Rules All

Badgelife is the celebration of independent hardware creators, working for months at a time to bring custom electronic badges to conferences around the world. This year at DEF CON, Badgelife is huge. It’s not just because this year was supposed to feature a non-electronic badge, and it’s not because the official badge imploded last month — Badgelife is all about people spending most of the year designing, and manufacturing hardware, culminating in one very special weekend.

[Garrett] owns Hacker Warehouse, a store providing all kinds of neat hacker tools ranging from software-defined radios to lock pick sets to side channel analysis toolkits. This year, [Garrett] decided he wanted to branch out his business and get involved in a little bit of hardware creation. He’s been curious about this for some time and figured a limited edition DEF CON badge made sense. What he wound up with is a beautiful little badge with games, blinkies, graphics, and potential to cause a lot of wireless mischief.

Would you look at that. RF design on an independent badge.

The design of the Hacker Warehouse badge is surprisingly simple compared to the Bender Badges and puzzling crypto badges that are also part of this year’s Badgelife hardware celebration. On board is an ESP8266 with a custom PCB implementation that includes a larger Flash chip. The other side of the board is loaded up with four tact switches in a D-pad arrangement. On top is a 96 x 64 pixel full-color OLED display, and blinkies are provided by fourteen mini WS2812 RGB LEDs. Power is provided by two AA cells and what looks to be a nice fancy switching regulator. This is real hardware, not just a few modules thrown together with a bunch of LEDs.

Oh, what wireless fun

This badge is built around the ESP8266, a very interesting WiFi-enabled microcontroller that has more features than it should. [Garrett] is using the ESP as a WiFi scanner of sorts, allowing anyone with this badge to monitor WiFi channels, APs, packets, and — this is important — deauth packets.

Over the last year, there have been a number of projects around the Internet that take an ESP8266 and spew deauthorization frames into the spectrum. These frames cause a WiFi client to stop using an access point, and basically shuts down all the WiFi in an area. It’s well documented, and people have been doing it for years, but the ESP8266 makes deauth attacks so very, very easy. We’re going to see a lot of deauth frames this year at DEF CON, and the Hacker Warehouse badge will be able to detect them. It can also generate these frames, but that capability is locked for now.

Blinking and glowing

An electronic conference badge isn’t cool unless it has obnoxiously bright and glowy LEDs, and the Hacker Warehouse badge is very cool.

Onboard the Hacker Warehouse badge are 14 RGB LEDs, programmed with 46 different patterns that are certainly bright enough to annoy someone. This is what you need for a badge, and it’s beautiful.

This is a truly fantastic badge that’s also a great development board for the ESP8266. Everything you need for portable WiFi gaming fun is already there — you have blinky LEDs, an OLED, what seems to be a fairly nice power supply, and enough buttons to do something interesting. All you need to do to program this badge is attach a USB to serial adapter to the pre-populated header and you really have something. It’s a great badge, and we can’t wait to see the hacks for this great piece of hardware next week at DEF CON.

The Cheapest Meter on Banggood

According to [pileofstuff], he didn’t really need another digital multimeter. However, when he saw a DT-832 meter on Banggood for the princely sum for $4.99 he wondered just what kind of meter you’d get for that price. You can see his conclusions in his recent video (below). He does make it clear, by the way, that he wasn’t paid for the review or given the meter. He just decided to see what $5 would buy in a meter.

Depending on your predisposition to cheap Asian electronics, you may or may not be surprised. After all, for $5 you can’t expect a top-of-the-line lab instrument. The device measures AC and DC voltage, DC amperage, ohms, transistor beta, and has a diode tester and continuity buzzer. It also has some frequency measurement capability. You can’t be too surprised it doesn’t auto range, though. To be fair, although he mentions Banggood as the source of the meter, a quick Google search shows you can get them from all the usual sources, and the price is down to $3.73 as long as you let them ship it from Canada.

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Books you should read: The Bridge

A few weeks ago, Amazon’s crack marketing AI decided to recommend a few books for me. That AI must be getting better because instead of the latest special-edition Twilight books, I was greeted with this:

“The asteroid was called the Hand of God when it hit.”

That’s the first sentence of The Bridge, a new Sci-Fi book by Leonard Petracci. If you think that line sucks you in, wait until you read the whole first chapter.

The Bridge is solidly in the generation ship trope. A voyage hundreds or even thousands of years long, with no sleep or stasis pods. The original crew knows they have no hope of seeing their destination, nor will their children and grandchildren. Heinlein delved into it with Orphans of the Sky. Even Robert Goddard himself discussed generation ships in The Last Migration.

I wouldn’t call The Bridge hard Sci-Fi — and that’s perfectly fine. Leonard isn’t going for scientific accuracy. It’s a great character driven story. If you enjoyed a book like Ready Player One, you’ll probably enjoy this.

The Bridge Is the story of Dandelion 14, a ship carrying people of Earth to a new planet. At some point during the journey, Dandelion 14 was struck by an asteroid, which split the ship in two. Only a few wires and cables keep the halves of the ship together. The crew on both sides of the ship survived, but they had no way to communicate. They do catch glimpses of each other in the windows though.

Much of the story is told in the first person by Horatius, a young man born hundreds of years after the asteroid strike. Horatius’ side of the ship has a population of one thousand, carefully measured at each census. They’ve lost knowledge of how to operate the ship’s systems, but they are surviving. Most of the population are gardeners, but there are doctors, cooks, porters, and a few historians. At four years old, Horatius is selected to become a gardener, like his father was before him. But Horatius has higher aspirations. He longs to become a historian to learn the secrets of the generations that came before him and to write his own story down for those who will come after.

Horatius sees the faces of the people on the other side of the ship as well. Gaunt, hungry, often fighting with knives or other weapons. A stark contrast to the well-fed people on his side of the vessel. The exception is one red-haired girl about his age. He often finds her staring back at him, watching him.

Horatius might have been chosen as a gardener, but he’s clever — a fact that sometimes gets him in trouble. His life takes an abrupt turn when the sleeping ship awakens with an announcement blaring “Systems Rebooting, Ship damage assessed. Reuniting the two halves of the ship and restoring airlock, approximately twenty-four hours until complete.”

The hardest part of writing a book review is not giving too much away. While I won’t tell you much more about the plot for The Bridge, I can tell a bit about how the book came about. You might call this book a hack of the publishing system. Leonard Petracci is also known as leoduhvinci on Reddit. The Bridge started life as Leonard’s response to a post on /r/writingprompts. The prompt went like this:

After almost 1,000 years the population of a generation ship has lost the ability to understand most technology and now lives at a pre-industrial level. Today the ship reaches its destination and the automated systems come back online.

Leonard ’s response to the prompt shot straight to the top, and became the first chapter of The Bridge. Chapter 2 followed soon after. In only a few months, the book was complete. Available on Reddit, and on Leonard’s website. The Bridge is also available on Amazon for Kindle, and on paper from Amazon’s CreateSpace.

The only real criticism I have about The Bridge is the ending. The book’s resolution felt a bit rushed. It would have been nice to have a few more pages telling us what happened to the characters after the major events of the book. Leonard is planning a sequel though, and he teases this in the final pages.

You can start reading The Bridge right now on Leonard’s website. He has the entire book online for free for a few more weeks. If you’ve missed the free period, the Kindle edition is currently $2.99.

Places to visit: Electric Mountain

The experience of being a teenager leaves a host of memories, of social awkwardness in the difficult process of not quite being a child any more, of tedious school days, and of team sports seemingly enjoyed only by the few. Wherever in the world you grew up will have lent a particular flavour to your recollections of that period of your life, whether your memories are good or bad.

One surprising common theme in British teenage memories, at least those of a few decades ago, are power stations. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Central Electricity Generating Board had a PR effort that involved bringing parties of teenage school geography students in for a tour of their local electricity plant, so if you talk to a British person of a certain age you’ll probably find they’ve been up close and personal with a coal-fired power station.

The true power station marvel of the age would have been too far away to tour for most kids at the time, though our geography teachers expounded on it at length. Dinorwig pumped-storage power station in Wales was opened in the early 1980s, and is a hydroelectric plant that uses excess grid generating capacity in the middle of the night to pump water into a lake at the top of a mountain, from which it can later be released at very short notice to respond to demand surges in a matter of seconds. The oft-quoted example is that when an episode of Coronation Street draws to a close there are several million British kettles turned on simultaneously, at which point Dinorwig comes online to rapidly make up the resulting shortfall.

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