We’ve Heard Of Bricking A Hard Drive, But…

Mass storage has come a long way since the introduction of the personal computer. [Tech Time Traveller] has an interesting video about the dawn of PC hard drives focusing on a company called MiniScribe. After a promising start, they lost an IBM contract and fell on hard times.

Apparently, the company was faking inventory to the tune of $15 million because executives feared for their jobs if profits weren’t forthcoming. Once they discovered the incorrect inventory, they not only set out to alter the company’s records to match it, but they also broke into an outside auditing firm’s records to change things there, too.

Senior management hatched a plan to charge off the fake inventory in small amounts to escape the notice of investors and government regulators. But to do that, they need to be able to explain where the balance of the nonexistent inventory was. So they leased a warehouse to hold the fraud inventory and filled it with bricks. Real bricks like you use to build a house. Around 26,000 bricks were packaged in boxes, assigned serial numbers, and placed on pallets. Auditors would see the product ready to ship and there were even plans to pretend to ship them to CompuAdd and CalAbco, two customers, who had agreed to accept and return the bricks on paper allowing them to absorb the $15 million write off a little at a time.

Unfortunately, the fictitious excellent financial performance led to an expectation of even better performance in the future which necessitated even further fraud. The company had turned around, but only on paper. A downturn in the computer business and maxed-out credit signaled the beginning of the end. Suppliers and employees weren’t getting paid. A senior manager violated insider trader rules and dumped a lot of stock.

The turnaround CEO finally resigned and a new CEO found the fraud and released the findings that they were in the hole for $100 million. Bankruptcy pushed the company’s assets to Maxtor and criminal charges against 16 people ensued ending in fines and jail time. It isn’t clear if any of the boxed bricks were shipped to anyone by accident or by a disgruntled employee with a rubber paycheck. [Tech Time Traveller] speculates that if someone has one, it would be quite the collector’s item.

We hear about companies doing questionable things, of course, but this really is impressive in scope. At least they weren’t scamming end users as some tech companies have done.

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A Nitrogen Soldering Iron Review

If you’ve ever welded, you know that some welders blow a shield gas over the work for different reasons. For example, you often use a gas to displace oxygen from the area and avoid oxidation. You can also solder using a nitrogen shield. This allows higher temperatures and a reduction of flux required in the solder. Wave soldering often uses nitrogen, and JBC offers a soldering iron that can employ nitrogen shield gas. [SDG Electronics] puts that iron through its paces in the video below.

As you might expect, this isn’t a $50 soldering iron. The price for the iron is just under $1,000 and that doesn’t include the power supply or the nitrogen source. The nitrogen generator that converts compressed air into nitrogen is particularly expensive so [SDG] just used a cylinder of gas.

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Engineering On A Deadline For Squid Game

If you asked us for an epic tale of designing and building under a deadline, one of the last places we would think to look is a MrBeast video.  Yet here we are, thanks in no small part to the epic skills of one [William Osman].

What do you do when a major YouTube celebrity asks you to handle a project with an impossible deadline?  If you’re [William], you say “heck yeah” and figure out the details later. In this case, it was famed YouTuber [Jimmy Donaldson], aka MrBeast, who was planning his own version of Squid Game. In this version, no one dies, but a few players do walk away with a lot of cash.

The premise is simple — “kill” people with a motion-sensing gun turret, just like the one in the show. The problem is that the show had all the tools of movie magic – multiple takes, video editing, you name it. [William] was tasked with handling a live event, with 456 real people, and no do-overs. Oh, and the whole thing had to be ready in 3 weeks.

The kills had to be pretty obvious too – we’re talking simulated blood squirting everywhere. So [William] decided to build his own version of a blood squib – the device Hollywood has used for decades to simulate bullet wounds. Initial work with pneumatic systems proved to be impractical. That’s when he put on his manager hat — and hired people to solve the problem for him. You might recognize a few of them — [Allen Pan] makes an appearance, as well as chemical genius [NileRed]. Even [TheBackYardScientist] shows up.

The video documents [William]’s journey, getting 500 copies of a board built and delivered on deadline. As such, there isn’t a ton of detail about the internal workings of the system. A pair of AA batteries feed into a boost converter, which powers an ESP8266 inside an ESP-WROOM-02 module. The ESP drives a few LEDs and a MOSFET. The MOSFET is connected to the star of the show – an MGJ firewire initiator – think of it as a model rocket igniter on steroids.  The initiator hides behind a bag of YouTube-friendly yellow “blood”. When the system is commanded to kill, the initiator pops the bag, spraying blood everywhere.

Doing this for one device isn’t so bad, but we’re following Squid Game rules – which means 456 competitors. Further, there were 100 iPhones loaded with a custom kill app for the workers. Add a central server into the mix, and you’ve got 557 devices in close quarters basting on 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz. Did we mention that [William] had never done a test with more than a handful of devices?

Want to find out what happens? Check out the video below!

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Several relays and switches mounted on a metal frame

The Simplest Electro-Mechanical Telephone Exchange That Actually Works

While rarely seen by users, the technology behind telephone exchanges is actually quite interesting. In the first hundred or so years of their existence they evolved from manually-operated switchboards to computer-controlled systems, but in between those two stages was a time when dialling and switching was performed electromechanically. This was made possible by the invention of the stepping switch, a type of pulse-operated relay that can connect a single incoming wire to one of many outgoing wires.

Public telephone exchanges contained hundreds of these switches, but as [dearuserhron] shows, it’s possible to make a smaller system with way fewer components: the Cadr-o-station is built around one single stepper switch. Although it looks rather complicated, the only other components are a bunch of ordinary 24 V relays and a few power supplies. Together they make up a minimal telephone exchange that connects up to ten handsets.

It doesn’t have all the functionality of a larger system however, as only a single voice circuit is made to which all phones are automatically connected. Still, it does allow users to dial a number and let the other phone ring, which might be good enough for a home or indeed the hackerspace where it’s currently sitting. It’s also a fine demonstration of how relatively simple technology can be applied to make a surprisingly complex system.

[dearuserhron] wrote an in-depth article on the workings of electromechanical telephone exchanges, which might come in helpful to anyone who’d like to design such a system for their own home. For a more general introduction into analog phone technology, check out our analysis of a 1970s rotary telephone.

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2022 Sci-Fi Contest: Nixie Calculator Is Resplendent In Walnut Enclosure

The Nixie tube is one of the most popular display technologies amongst the hacker and maker set. Glowing numerals can warm even the coldest heart, particularly when they’re energized with hundreds of volts. [ohad.harel] used these glorious displays to build the TORI Nixie Calculator, with beautiful results. 

The build uses seven IN-12 Nixie tubes for numerals, along with an IN-15A which displays mathematical symbols like +, %, and M. It’s equipped with a 32-key keyboard using mechanical key switches. Everything is wrapped up in a beautiful walnut enclosure that fits the tubes and keyboard perfectly, giving the final build a nice mid-century aesthetic.

Impressively, it goes beyond the basic usual calculator functions, also handling conversions between metric and imperial units. It’s a nice feature that would make it a wonderful tool to have on one’s desk beyond the simple aesthetic charm of the Nixie tubes.

Nixie projects never seem to die. Their beauty and warmth captivates builders to this day. Indeed, we’ve even seen some makers go to the trouble of creating new tubes from scratch!

Remoticon 2021 // Jeroen Domburg [Sprite_tm] Hacks The Buddah Flower

Nobody likes opening up a hacking target and finding a black epoxy blob inside, but all hope is not lost. At least not if you’ve got the dedication and skills of [Jeroen Domburg] alias [Sprite_tm].

It all started when [Big Clive] ordered a chintzy Chinese musical meditation flower and found a black blob. But tantalizingly, the shiny plastic mess also included a 2 MB flash EEPROM. The questions then is: can one replace the contents with your own music? Spoiler: yes, you can! [Sprite_tm] and a team of Buddha Chip Hackers distributed across the globe got to work. (Slides here.)

[Jeroen] started off with binwalk and gets, well, not much. The data that [Big Clive] dumped had high enough entropy that it looks either random or encrypted, with the exception of a couple tiny sections. Taking a look at the data, there was some structure, though. [Jeroen] smelled shitty encryption. Now in principle, there are millions of bad encryption methods out there for every good one. But in practice, naive cryptographers tend to gravitate to a handful of bad patterns.

Bad pattern number one is XOR. Used correctly, XORing can be a force for good, but if you XOR your key with zeros, naturally, you get the key back as your ciphertext. And this data had a lot of zeros in it. That means that there were many long strings that started out the same, but they seemed to go on forever, as if they were pseudo-random. Bad crypto pattern number two is using a linear-feedback shift register for your pseudo-random numbers, because the parameter space is small enough that [Sprite_tm] could just brute-force it. At the end, he points out their third mistake — making the encryption so fun to hack on that it kept him motivated!

Decrypted, the EEPROM data was a filesystem. And the machine language turned out to be for an 8051, but there was still the issue of the code resident on the microcontroller’s ROM. So [Sprite_tm] bought one of these flowers, and started probing around the black blob itself. He wrote a dumper program that output the internal ROM’s contents over SPI. Ghidra did some good disassembling, and that let him figure out how the memory was laid out, and how the flow worked. He also discovered a “secret” ROM area in the chip’s flash, which he got by trying some random functions and looking for side effects. The first hit turned out to be a memcpy. Sweet.

[Neil555]’s Rosetta Stone
Meanwhile, the Internet was still working on this device, and [Neil555] bought a flower too. But this one had a chip, rather than a blob, and IDing this part lead them to an SDK, and that has an audio suite that uses a derivative of WMA audio encoding. And that was enough to get music loaded into the flower. (Cue a short rick-rolling.) Victory!

Well, victory if all you wanted to do was hack your music onto the chip. As a last final fillip, [Sprite_tm] mashed the reverse-engineered schematic of the Buddha Flower together with [Thomas Flummer]’s very nice DIY Remoticon badge, and uploaded our very own intro theme music into the device on a badge. Bonus points? He added LEDs that blinked out the LSFR that were responsible for the “encryption”. Sick burn!

Editor’s Note: This is the last of the Remoticon 2 videos we’ve got. Thanks to all who gave presentations, to all who attended and participated in the lively Discord back channel, and to all you out there who keep the hacking flame alive. We couldn’t do it without you, and we look forward to a return to “normal” Supercon sometime soon.

3D Printing Pills All At Once

To the uninitiated, it might seem like a gimmick to 3D print pharmaceuticals. After all, you take some kind of medicine, pour it in a mold, and you have a pill, right? But researchers and even some commercial companies are 3D printing drugs with unusual chemical or physical properties. For example, pills with braille identification on them or antibiotics with complex drug-release rates. The Universidade de Santiago de Compostela and the University College London can now 3D print pills without relying on a layer-by-layer approach. Instead, the machine produces the entire pill directly.

According to a recent report on the study, there are at least two things holding back printed pills. First, anything medical has to go through rigorous testing for approval in nearly any country. In addition, producing pills at typical 3D printing speeds is uneconomical. This new approach uses multiple beams of light to polymerize an entire tank of resin at once in as little as seven seconds.

With 3D printed drugs, it is possible to tailor release profiles for individual cases and make hybrid drugs such as a French drug that joins anticancer drugs with another drug to manage side effects. Is this a real thing for the future? Will doctors collect enough data to make it meaningful to tailor drugs to patients? Will regulators allow it? For hybrid medicine, is there really an advantage over just taking two pills? Only time will tell.

Sure, technology can help dispense pills. We know, too, that 3D printing can be useful for prostheses and medical devices. We aren’t so sure about pharmaceuticals, but in the meantime you can already order custom-printed vitamins.