Trackball Gets Bolt-On Button Upgrade

The question of whether to use a mouse versus a trackball is something of a Holy War on the level of Vi versus Emacs. We at Hackaday want no part of such things, use whatever you want, and leave us out of it. But we will go as far as to say that Team Trackball seems to take things mighty seriously. We’ve never met a casual trackball user: if they’ve got a trackball on their desk then get ready to hear all about it.

With that in mind, the lengths [LayeredDesigns] went to just to add a couple extra buttons to his CST trackball make a bit more sense. Obviously enamored with this particular piece of pointing technology, he designed a 3D printed “sidecar” that you can mount to the left side of the stock trackball. Matching the shape of the original case pretty closely, this add-on module currently hosts a pair of MX mechanical keys, but the plans don’t stop there.

[LayeredDesigns] mentions that all the free room inside the shell for this two-button modification has got him thinking of what else he could fit in there. The logical choice is a Teensy emulating a USB HID device, which could allow for all sorts of cool programmable input possibilities. One potential feature he mentioned was adding a scroll wheel, which the Teensy could easily interface with and present to the operating system.

We’ve seen our fair share of 3D printed keyboards and keyboard modifications, but we can’t say the same about the legendary trackball. Ones made of cardboard, sure. Pulled out of a military installation and hacked to add USB? You bet. This project is just more evidence of what’s possible with a 3D printer, a caliper, and some patience.

[via /r/functionalprint]

Neat Odroid & GlusterFS Build Stashes Data, Sips Power

Most of us accumulate stuff, like drawers full of old cables and hard drives full of data. Reddit user [BaxterPad] doesn’t worry about such things though, as he built an impressive Network Attached Storage (NAS) system that can hold over 200TB of data. That’s impressive enough, but the real artistry is in how he did this. He built this system using ODroid HC2 single board computers running GlusterFS, combining great redundancy with low power usage.

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VCF East: Cactus, Retro Because it Wants to Be

Among the rows of digital dinosaurs, one blinking front panel stood out. It certainly looked the part of a retro computer; with banks of blinking LEDs and multicolored paddle switches. But upon closer inspection, the laser cut wooden front panel betrays the fact that this machine is an impostor. It may have the appearance of a machine from the heady days where home computers looked like they could have doubled as a prop on the bridge of Kirk’s Enterprise, but it’s actually a product of much more modern provenance.

It’s called the Cactus, a love letter to the homebrew microcomputers of the 1970’s, designed and built by somebody at least 20 years too young to have experienced them the first time around. Alexander Pierson created the Cactus not because he had fond memories of putting together an Altair 8800 in 1975, but because he’s fascinated with the retro computer experience: the look of the front panel, the satisfying clunk of era-appropriate switches, and the idea that the computer’s inner workings aren’t an abstract black box but rather something you can interact with and study. Judging by all the attention the Cactus got at VCF East XIII, he’s not the only one.

Let’s take a look at everything Alexander poured into this retrocomputer build.

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Chromebook Trades Camera for WiFi Freedom

There are a number of companies now providing turn-key computers that meet the Free Software Foundation’s criteria for their “Respects Your Freedom” certification. This means, in a general sense, that the computer is guaranteed not to spy on you or otherwise do anything else you didn’t explicitly ask it to. Unfortunately these machines often have a hefty premium tacked on, making it an unpleasant decision between privacy and performance.

Freedom-loving hacker [SolidHal] writes in to tell us about his quest to create a FSF-compliant laptop without breaking the bank. Based on a cheap Asus C201 Chromebook, his custom machine checks off all the appropriate boxes. The operating system was easy enough with an install of Debian, and the bootloader was rid of any Intel Management Engine shenanigans with a healthy dose of Libreboot. But there was one problem: the permanently installed WiFi hardware that required proprietary firmware. To remedy the issue, he decided to install an internal USB Wi-Fi adapter that has the FSF seal of approval.

As the Chromebook obviously doesn’t have an internal USB port, this was easier said than done. But as [SolidHal] is not the kind of guy who would want his laptop taking pictures of him in the first place, he had the idea to take the internal USB connection used by the integrated webcam and use that. He pulled the webcam out, studied the wiring, and determined which wires corresponded to the normal USB pinout.

The FSF approved ThinkPenguin Wi-Fi adapter he chose is exceptionally small, so it was easy enough to tuck it inside some empty space inside of the Chromebook. [SolidHal] just needed to solder it to the old webcam connection, and wrap it up in Kapton tape to prevent any possible shorts. The signal probably isn’t great considering the antenna is stuck inside the machine with all the noisy components, but it’s a trade-off for having a fully free and open source driver. But as already established, sometimes these are the kind of tough choices you have to make when walking in the righteous footsteps of Saint Ignucius.

Internal laptop modifications like this one remind us of the Ye Olden Days of Hackaday, when Eee PC modifications were all the rage and we still ran black and white pictures “taped” to the screen. Ah, the memories.

It’s UNIX. On A Microcontroller.

It’s difficult to convey in an era when a UNIX-like operating system sits in your pocket, how there was once a time when the mere word was enough to convey an aura of immense computing power. If you ran UNIX, your computer probably filled a room, and you used it for Serious Stuff rather than just checking your Twitter feed. UNIX machines may still perform high-end tasks, but Moore’s Law has in the intervening years delivered upon its promise, and your phone with its UNIX-like OS is far more powerful than that room-sized minicomputer of the 1970s. A single chip for a few cents can do that job, which begs the question: just how little do we need to run UNIX today? It’s something [Joerg Wolfram] could advise you upon, because he’s got a functional UNIX running on a microcontroller.

Of course, the UNIX in question is not exactly the same as the one you’d find on a supercomputer, either in the 1970s or now. Mini UNIX is a minimalist version of the operating system developed by [Heinz Lycklama] at Bell Labs four decades ago. It gives you a complete UNIX V6 system for the DEC PDP-11, but which needs only 56K of RAM, and no MMU. Emulating a PDP-11 on an STM32 microcontroller allows it to run happily, and while it’s not the most minimalist of microcontrollers it’s still a pretty cheap part upon which to run UNIX.

It’s doubtful whether a 1970s version of an operating system on a commodity microcontroller will take the world by storm, but that’s hardly the point of such a neat hack. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen similar work, though this PIC32 offering has a little more in the way of resources to offer.

Header image: Golonlutoj [CC BY-SA 3.0].

Distorted Text Says A Lot

Getting bounced to a website by scanning a QR code is no longer an exciting feat of technology, but what if you scanned the ingredient list on your granola bar and it went to the company’s page for that specific flavor, sans the matrix code?

Bright minds at the Columbia University in the City of New York have “perturbed” ordinary font characters so the average human eye won’t pick up the changes. Even ordinary OCR won’t miss a beat when it looks at a passage with a hidden message. After all, these “perturbed” glyphs are like a perfectly legible character viewed through a drop of water. When a camera is looking for these secret messages, those minor tweaks speak volumes.

The system is diabolically simple. Each character can be distorted according to an algorithm and a second variable. Changing that second variable is like twisting a distorted lens, or a water drop but the afterimage can be decoded and the variable extracted. This kind of encoding can survive a trip to the printer, unlike a purely digital hidden message.

Hidden messages like these are not limited to passing notes, metadata can be attached to any text and extracted when necessary. Literature could include notes without taking up page space so teachers could include helpful notes and a cell phone could be like an x-ray machine to see what the teacher wants to show. For example, you could define what “crypto” actually means.

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Flash your Libre Firmware with a Libre Programmer

Whether or not you personally agree with all the ideals of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), you’ve got to give them credit: they don’t mess around. They started by laying the groundwork for a free and open source operating system, then once that dream was realized, started pushing the idea of replacing proprietary BIOS firmware with an open alternative such as Libreboot. But apparently, even that’s not enough, as there’s still more freedom to be had. We’re playing 4D Libre Chess now, folks.

To flash your libre boot firmware on your libre OS running computer without any proprietary funny business, you’re going to need a libre chip programmer. Luckily, the FSF has just awarded the Zerocat Chipflasher their “Respects Your Freedom” certification, meaning every element of the product is released under a free license for your hacking enjoyment. According to the FSF, this is a major milestone towards their goal of providing users a truly free and open source computer, from the browser all the way down to the BIOS.

Of course, you don’t need to be Richard Stallman to appreciate a fully open chip programmer. With the software, wiring diagrams, and PCB files available on the Chipflasher’s website, the project is an excellent educational reference. Is also means that with a clone the Chipflasher’s Git repository, you’re well on the way to spinning up your own build of the device.

Given the roughly $350 USD price tag on the first generation Zerocat Chipflasher, it seems fairly likely we’ll be seeing some DIY builds of this device before too long. Not that we want to deprive Zerocat commercial success for this very neat piece of gear, but for many it’s a mighty steep price; even if you do get all the Freedoms.

It may use a device of slightly more nebulous morality than the Zerocat Chipflasher, but our own [Bryan Cockfield] documented the saga of getting Libreboot installed on a Thinkpad X200 if you’d like to know more about the high stakes world of BIOS replacement. Whatever it takes to get that Intel Management Engine off your penguin-powered box.