Documentation by Markup

Things seem to go in cycles. Writing a document using old-fashioned tools like TROFF or LaTeX is like knowing a secret code. Visual editors quickly took over, although even WordStar had some “dot commands” that you put in as text. Then HTML showed up and we were back to coding formatting as text strings.

Fast forward to the present, and HTML’s ubiquity makes that seem normal. Sure, there are visual editors, but it seems perfectly normal now to write <b> for bold text. However, as HTML grows to handle more tasks it also gets more complex. That’s led to the creation of things like Markdown which is just for simple text formatting. Continue reading “Documentation by Markup”

TruffleHog Sniffs Github for Secret Keys

Secret keys are quite literally the key to security in software development. If a malicious actor gains access to the keys securing your data, you’re toast. The problem is, to use keys, you’ve got to write them down somewhere – oftentimes in the source code itself. TruffleHog has come along to sniff out those secret keys in your Github repository.

It’s an ingenious trick — a Python script goes through the commit history of a repository, looking at every string of text greater than 20 characters, and analyzing its Shannon entropy. This is a mathematical way of determining if it looks like a relatively random string of numbers and letters. If it has high entropy, it’s probably a key of some sort.

Sharing source code is always a double-edged sword for security. Any flaws are out for all to see, and there are both those who will exploit the flaws and those who will help fix them. It’s a matter of opinion if the benefits outweigh the gains, but it’s hard to argue with the labor benefits of getting more eyes on the code to hunt for bugs. It’s our guess though, that a lot of readers have accidentally committed secret keys in a git repository and had to revert before pushing. This tool can crawl any publicly posted git repo, but might be just as useful in security audits of your own codebase to ensure accidentally viewable keys are invalidated and replaced.

For a real world example of stolen secret keys, read up on this HDMI breakout that sniffs HDCP keys.

Browsing Forth

Forth has a strong following among embedded developers. There are a couple of reasons for that. Almost any computer can run Forth, even very small CPUs that would be a poor candidate for running programs written in C, much less host a full-blown development environment. At its core, Forth is very simple. Parse a word, look the word up in a dictionary. The dictionary either points to some machine language code or some more Forth words. Arguments and other things are generally carried on a stack. A lot of higher-level Forth constructs can be expressed in Forth, so if your Forth system reaches a certain level of maturity, it can suddenly become very powerful if you have enough memory to absorb those definitions.

If you want to experiment with Forth, you probably want to start learning it on a PC. There are several you can install, including gForth (the GNU offering). But sometimes that’s a barrier to have to install some complex software just to kick the tires on a system.

We have all kinds of other applications running in browsers now, why not Forth? After all, the system is simple enough that writing Forth in Javascript should be easy as pie. [Brendanator] did just that and even enhanced Forth to allow interoperability with Javascript. The code is on GitHub, but the real interesting part is that you can open a Web browser and use Forth.

Continue reading “Browsing Forth”

Counting Laps and Testing Products with OpenCV

It’s been about a year and a half since the Batteroo, formally known as Batteriser, was announced as a crowdfunding project. The premise is a small sleeve that goes around AA and AAA batteries, boosting the voltage to extract more life out of them. [Dave Jones] at EEVblog was one of many people to question the product, which claimed to boost battery life by 800%.

Batteroo did manage to do something many crowdfunding projects can’t: deliver a product. Now that the sleeves are arriving to backers, people are starting to test them in the wild. In fact, there’s an entire thread of tests happening over on EEVblog.

One test being run is a battery powered train, running around a track until the battery dies completely. [Frank Buss] wanted to run this test, but didn’t want to manually count the laps the train made. He whipped up a script in Python and OpenCV to automate the counting.

The script measures laps by setting two zones on the track. When the train enters the first zone, the counter is armed. When it passes through the second zone, the lap is recorded. Each lap time is kept, ensuring good data for comparing the Batteroo against a normal battery.

The script gives a good example for people wanting to play with computer vision. The source is available on Github. As for the Batteroo, we’ll await further test results before passing judgement, but we’re not holding our breath. After all, the train ran half as long when using a Batteroo.

Jenkins Lights the Christmas Tree

Jenkins is open-source automation software that tries to automate parts of the software development process. When you submit code, for example, Jenkins will grab it, build the project with it and run any tests on it. If you have a large number of people submitting new code or data, Jenkins will wait and grab a bunch of the submissions to build. Depending on the size of the project, this can take a while, and if there’s a problem, you need to know quickly so that people aren’t waiting on a broken build. Email’s fine for this, but [dkt01] saw one of the desktop LED Christmas tree projects on Hackaday, and integrated it into his Jenkins system.

Like the other projects, WS2812b LED rings are used as the tree, and an Arduino Pro Mini runs the show, with an Ethernet LAN Module to communicate with the Python script that monitors the Jenkins build job. The Python script sends commands to the Arduino, which in turn lights up the LEDs. They light up green on a successful build and red if something fails, but during the build process, the LEDs show the current state of the build, tracking Jenkins’ progress as it builds.

Our previous Jenkins post used a big, red LED light that would light up if the build failed. [dkt01]’s build lets you know if the build is successful or has failed, but the build progress is a great addition.

Continue reading “Jenkins Lights the Christmas Tree”

The First Bug On Mars

Interplanetary probes were a constant in the tech news bulletins of the 1960s and 1970s. The Space Race was at its height, and alongside their manned flights the two superpowers sent unmanned missions throughout the Solar System. By the 1980s and early 1990s the Space Race had cooled down, the bean counters moved in, and aside from the spectacular images of the planets periodically arriving from the Voyager series of craft there were scant pickings for the deep space enthusiast.

The launch in late 1996 of the Mars Pathfinder mission with its Sojourner rover then was exciting news indeed. Before Spirit, the exceptionally long-lived Opportunity, and the relatively huge Curiosity rover (get a sense of scale from our recent tour of JPL), the little Sojourner operated on the surface of the planet for 85 days, and proved the technology for the rovers that followed.

In these days of constant online information we’d see every nuance of the operation as it happened, but those of us watching with interest in 1997 missed one of the mission’s dramas. Pathfinder’s lander suffered what is being written up today as the first bug on Mars. When the lander collected Martian weather data, its computer would crash.

Like many other spacecraft, the lander’s computer system ran the real-time OS VxWorks. Of the threads running on the craft, the weather thread was a low priority, while the more important task of servicing its information bus was a high priority one. The weather task would hog the resources, causing the operating system equivalent of an unholy row in our Martian outpost. A priority inversion bug, and one that had been spotted before launch but assigned a low priority.

You can’t walk up to a computer on another planet and swap out a few disks, so the Pathfinder team had to investigate the problem on their Earthbound replica of the lander. The fix involved executing some C code on an interpreter prompt on the spacecraft itself, something that would give most engineers an extremely anxious moment.

The write-up is an interesting read, it’s a translation from a Russian original that is linked within it. If the work of the JPL scientists and engineers interests you, this talk from the recent Hackaday superconference might be of interest.

[via Hacker News]

Disassembly Required

If you really want to hack software, you are going to face a time when you have to take apart someone’s machine code. If you aren’t very organized, it might even be your own — source code does get lost. If you want to impress everyone, you’ll just read through the hex code (well, the really tough old birds will read it in binary). That was hard to do even when CPUs only had a handful of instructions.

A more practical approach is to use a tool called a disassembler. This is nothing more than a program that converts numeric machine code into symbolic instructions. The devil, of course, is in the details. Real programs are messy. The disassembler can’t always figure out the difference between code and data, for example. The transition points between data and code can also be tricky.

When Not to Use

If you are coding your own program in assembly,  a disassembler isn’t usually necessary. The disassembly can’t recover things like variable names, some function names, and — of course — comments. If you use a high-level language and you want to check your compiler output, you can easily have the compiler provide assembly language output (see below).

The real value of a disassembler is when you don’t have the source code. But it isn’t easy, especially for anything nontrivial. Be prepared to do a lot of detective work in most cases.

Continue reading “Disassembly Required”