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.

Continue reading “Bibles You Should Read: PoC || GTFO”

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.

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.

Book Review: The Art Of The Patent

In bringing suitable illustrations to our articles, we Hackaday scribes use a variety of sources that offer images featuring permissive licences. Among the usual free image libraries there is one particularly rich source, the line drawings contained within the huge archives of patents granted by the various countries around the world. These are the illustrations used as part of the patent itself to describe the working of the patent being claimed. We use them because though the items they depict are legally protected from copying by the patents they are part of, they as part of the patents themselves are in the public domain. Thus we can easily find detailed hand drawn pictures of all kinds of technical innovations from the last couple of hundred years or so, and from time to time you as our readers reap the benefit.

The beauty in hand-rendered fonts from patent artwork, collected within the book.
The beauty in hand-rendered fonts from patent artwork, collected within the book.

If you spend a while browsing old patents through a search engine such as Google Patents, you can quickly become engrossed in these beautiful images of inventions past. Though their purpose is a functional one to convey the workings of an invention, the anonymous artists have often poured all of their skill into rendering them as considerably more than mere draughtsmanship. In those dusty Government archives lurk masterpieces, just waiting to be found.

It seems we here at Hackaday are not alone in sharing a fascination with these images, for a US patent agent, [Kevin Prince], wrote a fascinating exploration of the medium in his book, The Art of the Patent. Continue reading “Book Review: The Art Of The Patent”

Books You Should Read: Making A Transistor Radio

When a Hackaday article proclaims that its subject is a book you should read, you might imagine that we would be talking of a seminal text known only by its authors’ names. Horowitz and Hill, perhaps, or maybe Kernigan and Ritchie. The kind of book from which you learn your craft, and to which you continuously return to as a work of reference. Those books that you don’t sell on at the end of your university career.

Ladybird books covered a huge range of topics.
Ladybird books covered a huge range of topics.

So you might find it a little unexpected then that our subject here is a children’s book. Making A Transistor Radio, by [George Dobbs, G3RJV] is one of the huge series of books published in the UK under the Ladybird imprint that were a staple of British childhoods for a large part of the twentieth century. These slim volumes in a distinctive 7″ by 4.5″ (180 x 115 mm) hard cover format were published on a huge range of subjects, and contained well written and informative text paired with illustrations that often came from the foremost artists of the day. This one was published at the start of the 1970s when Ladybird books were in their heyday, and has the simple objective of taking the reader through the construction of a simple three transistor radio. It’s a book you must read not because it is a seminal work in the vein of Horrowitz and Hill, but because it is the book that will have provided the first introduction to electronics for many people whose path took them from this humble start into taking the subject up as a career. Including me as it happens, I received my copy in about 1979, and never looked back. Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Making A Transistor Radio”

Books You Should Read: The Car Hacker’s Handbook

I just had my car in for an inspection and an oil change. The garage I take my car to is generally okay, they’re more honest than a stealership, but they don’t cross all their t’s and dot all their lowercase j’s. A few days after I picked up my car, low and behold, I noticed the garage didn’t do a complete oil change. The oil life indicator wasn’t reset, which means every time I turn my car on, I’ll have to press a button to clear an ominous glowing warning on my dash.

For my car, resetting the oil life indicator is a simple fix – I just need to push the button on the dash until the oil life indicator starts to blink, release, then hold it again for ten seconds. I’m at least partially competent when it comes to tech and embedded systems, but even for me, resetting the oil life sensor in my car is a bit obtuse. For the majority of the population, I can easily see this being a reason to take a car back to the shop; the mechanic either didn’t know how to do it, or didn’t know how to use Google.

The two most technically complex things I own are my car and my computer, and there is much more information available on how to fix or modify any part of my computer. If I had a desire to modify my car so I could read the value of the tire pressure monitors, instead of only being notified when one of them is too low, there’s nowhere for me to turn.

2015 was the year of car hacks, ranging from hacking ECUs to pass California emissions control standards, Google and Tesla’s self-driving cars, to hacking infotainment systems to drive reporters off the road. The lessons learned from these hacks are a hodge-podge of forum threads, conference talks, and articles scattered around the web. While you’ll never find a single volume filled with how to exploit the computers in every make and model of automobile, there is space for a reference guide on how to go about this sort of car hacking.

I was given the opportunity to review The Car Hacker’s Handbook by Craig Smith (259p, No Starch Press). Is it a guide on how to plug a dongle into my car and clear the oil life monitor the hard way? No, but you wouldn’t want that anyway. Instead, it’s a much more informative tome on penetration testing and reverse engineering, using cars as the backdrop, not the focus.

Continue reading “Books You Should Read: The Car Hacker’s Handbook”

An Improvement to Floating Point Numbers

On February 25, 1991, during the eve of the of an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, a Scud missile fired from Iraqi positions hit a US Army barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. A defense was available – Patriot missiles had intercepted Iraqi Scuds earlier in the year, but not on this day.

The computer controlling the Patriot missile in Dhahran had been operating for over 100 hours when it was launched. The internal clock of this computer was multiplied by 1/10th, and then shoved into a 24-bit register. The binary representation of 1/10th is non-terminating, and after chopping this down to 24 bits, a small error was introduced. This error increased slightly every second, and after 100 hours, the system clock of the Patriot missile system was 0.34 seconds off.

A Scud missile travels at about 1,600 meters per second. In one third of a second, it travels half a kilometer, and well outside the “range gate” that the Patriot tracked. On February 25, 1991, a Patriot missile would fail to intercept a Scud launched at a US Army barracks, killing 28 and wounding 100 others. It was the first time a floating point error had killed a person, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Continue reading “An Improvement to Floating Point Numbers”