Owning Hacker As A Word

To a casual observer it might seem as though our community is in the news rather a lot at the moment. It’s all about hacks on our TV screens in the soap opera of Washington politics, who hacked this, whether those people over there helped that lot hack the other lot, or even whether that person’s emails could have been hacked on that server. Keeping up with it as an outsider can become a full-time job.

XKCD 932 says it all. (CC BY-NC 2.5)
XKCD 932 says it all. (CC BY-NC 2.5)

Of course, as we all know even if the mainstream journalists (or should I refer to them colloquially as “hacks”?) don’t, it’s not us they’re talking about. Their hackers are computer criminals, while we are people with some of the hardware and software skills to bend technology to our will, even beyond what its designers might have intended. And that divergence between the way we use the word in a sense of reappropriation and they use it in disapprobation sometimes puts us in an odd position. Explaining to a sober-suited businessman as the director of a hackspace, that no, we’re not *those*hackers can sometimes  feel like skating on thin ice.

Continue reading “Owning Hacker As A Word”

The Art of Making A Nixie Tube

Three years ago we covered [Dalibor Farnby]’s adventures in making his own Nixie tubes. Back then it was just a hobby, a kind of exploration into the past. He didn’t stop, and it soon became his primary occupation. In this video he shows the striking process of making one of his Nixie tubes.

Each of his tubes get an astounding amount of love and attention. An evolution of the process he has been working on for five years now. The video starts with the cleaning process for the newly etched metal parts. Each one is washed and dried before being taken for storage inside a clean hood. The metal parts are carefully hand bent. Little ceramic pins are carefully glued and bonded. These are used to hold the numbers apart from each other. The assembly is spot welded together.

In a separate cut work begins on the glass. The first part to make is the bottom which holds the wire leads. These are joined and then annealed. Inspection is performed on a polariscope and a leak detector before they are set aside for assembly. Back to the workbench the leads are spot welded to the frame holding the numbers.

It continues with amazing attention to detail. So much effort goes into each step. In the end a very beautiful nixie tube sits on a test rack, working through enough cycles to be certified ready for sale. The numbers crisp, clear, and beautiful. Great work keeping this loved part of history alive in the modern age.

Continue reading “The Art of Making A Nixie Tube”

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.
Continue reading “Yak Shaving: Hacker Mode vs Maker Mode”

Why Aren’t We Arguing More about Mr Robot?

Editor’s note: Thar be spoilers below.

Showing any sort of ‘hacking’ on either the big screen or the small often ends in complete, abject failure. You only need to look at Hackers with its rollerblading PowerBooks, Independance Day where the aliens are also inexplicably using PowerBooks, or even the likes of Lawnmower Man with a VR sex scene we keep waiting for Oculus to introduce. By design, Mr Robot, a series that ended its first season on USA a month ago, bucks this trend. It does depressed, hoodie-wearing, opioid-dependant hackers right, while still managing to incorporate some interesting tidbits from the world of people who call themselves hackers.

Desktop Environments

In episode 0 of Mr Robot, we’re introduced to our hiro protagonist [Elliot], played by [Rami Malek], a tech at the security firm AllSafe. We are also introduced to the show’s Macbeth, [Tyrell Wellick], played by Martin Wallström]. When these characters are introduced to each other, [Tyrell] notices [Elliot] is using the Gnome desktop on his work computer while [Tyrell] says he’s, “actually on KDE myself. I know [Gnome] is supposed to be better, but you know what they say, old habits, they die hard.”

[Elliot], running Kali with Gnome
[Elliot], running Kali with Gnome
While this short exchange would appear to most as two techies talking shop, this is a scene with a surprisingly deep interpretation. Back in the 90s, when I didn’t care if kids stayed off my lawn or not, there was a great desktop environment war in the land of Linux. KDE was not free, it was claimed by the knights of GNU, and this resulted in the creation of the Gnome.

Subtle, yes, but in one short interaction between [Elliot] and [Tyrell], we see exactly where each is coming from. [Elliot] stands for freedom of software and of mind, [Tyrell] is simply toeing the company line. It’s been fifteen years since message boards have blown up over the Free Software Foundation’s concerns over KDE, but the sentiment is there.

Biohacking

There’s far more to a hacker ethos than having preferred Linux desktop environments. Hacking is everywhere, and this also includes biohacking, In the case of one Mr Robot character, this means genetic engineering.

In one episode of Mr Robot, the character Romero temporarily gives up his power in front of a keyboard and turns his mind to genetics. He “…figured out how to insert THC’s genetic information code into yeast cells.” Purely from a legal standpoint, this is an interesting situation; weed is illegal, yeast is not, and the possibilities for production are enormous. Yeast only requires simple sugars to divide and grow in a test tube, marijuana actually requires a lot of resources and an experienced staff to produce a good crop.

Life imitates art, but sometimes the reverse is true. Just a few weeks after this episode aired, researchers at  Hyasynth Bio announced they had genetically modified yeast cells to produce THC and cannabidiol.

The promise of simply genetically modifying yeast to produce THC is intriguing; a successful yeast-based grow room could outproduce any plant-based operation, with the only input being sugar. Alas, the reality of the situation isn’t quite that simple. Researchers at Hyasynth Bio have only engineered yeast to turn certain chemical precursors into THC. Making THC from yeast isn’t yet as simple as home brewing an IPA, but it’s getting close, and a great example of how Mr Robot is tapping into hacking, both new and old.

Why Aren’t We Arguing More About This?

The more we ruminate on this show, the more there is to enjoy about it. It’s the subtle background that’s the most fun; the ceiling of the chapel as it were. We’re thinking of turning out a series of posts that works through all the little delights that you might have missed. For those who watched and love the series, what do you think? Perhaps there are other shows worthy of this hacker drill-down, but we haven’t found them yet.

9th Grader Arrested, Searched for Building a Clock

A 14-year-old in Dallas, Texas has been arrested for bringing a clock to his school. [Ahmed Mohamed] could be any one of us. He’s a tinkerer, pulling apart scrap appliances and building projects from the parts. He was a member of the his middle school robotics team. The clock was built from a standard four digit seven segment display and a circuit board. [Ahmed] built the circuit inside a Vaultz hard pencil case like this one. He then did what every other experimenter, inventor, hacker, or maker before him has done: He showed off his creation.

Unfortunately for [Ahmed] one of his teachers immediately leapt to the conclusion that this electronic project was a “hoax bomb” of some sort. The police were called, [Ahmed] was pulled out of class and arrested. He was then brought to a detention center where he and his possessions were searched. [Ahmed] is now serving a three-day suspension from school. His clock is considered evidence to be used in a possible criminal case against him.

If this situation doesn’t get your blood boiling, then we don’t know what does. Not only is there a glaring racial issue here, but also an issue of allowing kids to bring their projects to school. We hope you’ll join us in expressing outrage at this whole debacle, as well as supporting [Ahmed] in any way you can. Let’s join together as a community to make sure a few small-minded individuals don’t break the spirit of this budding hardware hacker.

For anyone out there who would like to support [Ahmed]’s education even when his school won’t, [Anil Dash] is will be in contact with the family later today. We’re offering a gift card for the hackaday store and we would assume other contributions would also be welcome. -Ed.

Continue reading “9th Grader Arrested, Searched for Building a Clock”

Hollywood Finally Gets Hacking Right with Mr. Robot

Author’s note: I’m keeping spoilers out of this article, but they will surely show up in the comments.

A few weeks ago I started hearing about a new show on the USA network, Mr. Robot. The synopsis for the show was “Mr. Robot is a psychological thriller that follows a young programmer who works as a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night.” Yeah, that sounds like another Hollywood crapfest. Cue crazy GUIs and virtual reality flybys representing hacking scenes. After watching the pilot though, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was hooked for the entire 10 week first season.

elliot-hacksLet’s start with the hacking, which is the whole reason this article is here on Hackaday. Show creator [Sam Esmail] isn’t a hacker himself, but he is tech savvy enough to see how poorly hacking has been portrayed on TV and in the movies. He knew he could do it better. The solution was good consultants, in the form of [Michael Bazzell] and others. The team helped shape the show into a rather realistic portrayal of hacking techniques. Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the main character, is the “vigilante” hacker described in the synopsis. Within the first 10 minutes of the pilot, he is turning a child pornographer in to the police. How does he catch the creeper? Tor exit node exploits, of course.

The onion routing protocol is not as anonymous as you think it is. Whoever’s in control of the exit nodes is also in control of the traffic, which makes me the one in control.

This is an accurate description of some of the exploits which have been demonstrated on the tor network. There aren’t any VR hacking scenes to be found either. In fact, several characters watch and make fun of the “flu shot” scene in Hackers. In this show, the command line isn’t hidden, it’s celebrated. We see every command the characters type, from netstat to CAN bus dumps. In one scene, Elliot even fires up a windows virtual machine so he can run DeepSound on his Kali Linux box.

The hacking isn’t all software either. Everyone’s favorite Linux single board computer is featured prominently in the first season. We can’t knock a show where a character looks at another and says “Ok, we all know what a Raspberry Pi is, what’s your point?”

Continue reading “Hollywood Finally Gets Hacking Right with Mr. Robot”

Field Trip! Hackaday Visits Adafruit Industries

While still weary from our TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, The Hackaday crew had a chance we couldn’t pass up: A tour of Adafruit Industries. Adafruit isn’t open to the public, so an opportunity to see the inner workings of one of the largest companies in the hacker/maker industry was really something special.

Coming in off the hustle and bustle of lower Manhattan streets, we found ourselves in a nondescript white marble lobby. The contrast and colors made me think of a scene out of THX1138. A short elevator ride opens to a second lobby area with a large door. We weren’t alone though – a security camera stands silent witness. Any thoughts of Big Brother were quelled when the door was thrown open by none other than [Phil Torrone], welcoming us to Adafruit.

If you’ve seen any of the photos or videos of Adafruit’s offices, you know what to expect – a large, open space broken by the columns keeping the building’s 10 stories upright. It’s the perfect blank canvas upon which to build a company. Since we were there late on a Sunday afternoon, things were relatively quiet. Only a handful of the 80 Adafruit employees were at their stations. Those on hand were packing and scanning in orders, in preparation for what would be a busy Monday. It’s a bit hard to be standing in Adafruit, knowing that you’re within arm’s reach of every part, module, or device you’ve ever wanted, and not want to jump right in on a project. With 10 of us there that may have made a bit of a dent in Adafruit’s bottom line, though.

The tour started at [Phil’s] desk. Tucked in among a copy of Dune, a very respectable graphic novel collection, and the two most recent editions of The Art of Electronics was United States Export Controls, 7th Edition. Considering the amount of shipping to far-flung countries the company has to do each day, one must stay on top of little things like ITAR and other export laws.

Throughout the tour, [Phil] made it clear that he views his job as a simple one: Do everything possible to allow [Limor] to crank out designs. [Phil] keeps the business running so she can keep on engineering open source hardware. [Phil’s] touches shine through though, in the product logos, and the characters which appear in Adafriut’s Circuit Playground. If those videos strike you as kid stuff, that’s exactly what they are designed to be. During his tenure at Make, [Phil] was one of four people who ran the first Makerfaire in 2006. He still gets e-mails from people who attended it as kids and were inspired to enter the fields of engineering or computer science. Both [Phil] and [Limor] have their sights set on inspiring the next generation of hackers.

Next up on our tour was the wearables department, domain of the one and only Becky Stern. We were all struck by how incredibly neat and organized the area was. There was a well-labelled place for everything, and everything was in its place. On display was a grey hoodie with a bandolier of ninjaflex 3D printed bullets, all lit by RGB LEDs.

Click past the break for the rest of Hackaday’s Tour of Adafruit Industries!

Continue reading “Field Trip! Hackaday Visits Adafruit Industries”