Goodbye, TechShop

The CEO of TechShop, [Dan Woods], has hit the legal E-stop and declared Chapter-7 bankruptcy for the business. All ten US locations were shuttered on Wednesday with absolutely no advance warning. You can read the full statement from [Dan] here.

We are deeply saddened to hear of TechShop’s closing, and while it wasn’t implausible that this might happen someday, the abrupt shuttering must come as a painful shock to many for whom TechShop was an important part of their personal and professional lives. We owe a lot to the work and effort they put forth; they led the way as a pioneering makerspace and for more than ten years, TechShop provided access to tools, taught classes, and created opportunities for the DIY world that are still as important today as they were in the mid-aughts.

Leading the Way

Jim Newton, founder of TechShop, originally wanted a space to tinker with his pet projects. “I’m a frustrated inventor who needs to have access to this kind of stuff. And people always say that the best companies are the ones where the founders are passionate about what they are creating, which is exactly what I am,” Jim said in an interview in 2007, at the beginnings of TechShop.

It turned out that there were a lot of other tinkerers who wanted to work their pet projects too.

TechShop took a risk. All new business ventures are risky and most fail quite quickly, but in 2006, this whole movement, this idea that people could build things and take advantage of new technologies, personal fabrication, ad-hoc manufacturing, and rapid prototyping outside of universities and commercial R&D labs, was just a dream.

Adafruit was incubating in Limor’s dorm room. Arduino was just the name of some pub in Italy. Eben Upton was wiring prototype Raspberry Pi’s by hand. Nathan Seidle was still reflowing Sparkfun’s boards with a toaster oven. Maker Faire, “The World’s Largest Show and Tell,” wouldn’t even launch until the following year.

In the fading light of high school shop classes, people often were shown the ways of woodworking, light metalwork, and maybe how to fix a car or two. Filling a business with a smorgasbord of advanced machinery and teaching people how to use it, was, and still is, a relatively new concept. TechShop had a dream and made it real with the dedication of hardworking support staff and instructors around the country. Continue reading “Goodbye, TechShop”

The Hacker Village of Supercon

I’m utterly exhausted and still in a state of awe. The Hackaday Superconference has grown in so many ways, but one thing remains the same: the spirit of the Hacker Village — an intangible feeling that grows up around all who attend — is bliss to take part in.

There’s really no substitute for having been there in person. I’ll go into detail below and try to share the experience as best I can. But the gist of the atmosphere is this: everyone at Supercon is the type of person you’d want to be stuck in a rowboat with, or partnered with on an engineering project, or to have next to you while trying to save the world. There are no looky-loos at Supercon. It turns out we are all stuck in a rowboat together, we are all working on engineering projects, and we are all trying to save the world. And when we all get together it feels like a drug our pragmatic minds never knew existed. This is the recharge for that sense of urgency that keeps you going all year long.

So yes, you really missed it. But start now. Become friends with all of these people over the next year. Begin building your Supercon community now and it’ll feel like a reunion when it rolls around again next November.

Continue reading “The Hacker Village of Supercon”

Artificial Intelligence at the Top of a Professional Sport

The lights dim and the music swells as an elite competitor in a silk robe passes through a cheering crowd to take the ring. It’s a blueprint familiar to boxing, only this pugilist won’t be throwing punches.

OpenAI created an AI bot that has beaten the best players in the world at this year’s International championship. The International is an esports competition held annually for Dota 2, one of the most competitive multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games.

Each match of the International consists of two 5-player teams competing against each other for 35-45 minutes. In layman’s terms, it is an online version of capture the flag. While the premise may sound simple, it is actually one of the most complicated and detailed competitive games out there. The top teams are required to practice together daily, but this level of play is nothing new to them. To reach a professional level, individual players would practice obscenely late, go to sleep, and then repeat the process. For years. So how long did the AI bot have to prepare for this competition compared to these seasoned pros? A couple of months.

Continue reading “Artificial Intelligence at the Top of a Professional Sport”

Who Owns Arduino?

Who owns Arduino? We don’t mean metaphorically — we’d say that’s the community of users and developers who’ve all contributed to this amazing hardware/software ecosystem. We mean literally. Whose chips are on the table? Whose money talks? It looks like ARM could have a stake!

The Arduino vs Arduino saga “ended” just under a year ago with an out-of-court settlement that created a private holding company part-owned by both parties in the prior dispute over the trademark. And then, [Banzi] and the original founders bought out [Musto]’s shares and took over. That much is known fact.

The murky thing about privately held companies and out-of-court settlements is that all of the details remain private, so we can only guess from outside. We can speculate, however, that buying out half of the Arduino AG wasn’t cheap, and that even pooling all of their resources together, the original founders just didn’t have the scratch to buy [Musto] out. Or as the Arduino website puts it, “In order to make [t]his a reality, we needed a partner that would provide us with the resources to regain full ownership of Arduino as a company… and Arm graciously agreed to support us to complete the operation.” That, and the rest of the Arduino blog post, sure looks like ARM provided some funds to buy back Arduino.

We reached out to [Massimo Banzi] for clarification and he replied:

“Hi arm did not buy nor invest in arduino. The founders + Fabio Violante still own the company. As I wrote in the blog post we are still independent, open source and cross platform.”

We frankly can’t make sense of these conflicting statements, at least regarding whether ARM did or didn’t contribute monetary resources to the deal. ARM has no press release on the deal as we write this. Continue reading “Who Owns Arduino?”

The Hackers and the Hurricane

When natural disasters strike, particularly if they are in some of the less remote parts of the world, we see them unfolding in real-time on our television screens. They become a 24-hour rolling news exercise in disaster titillation, each fresh horror ghoulishly picked over by breathless reporters live-telecasting from windswept streets, and endlessly rehashed by a succession of in-studio expert guests.

Then once the required image of a dusty child being pulled from the rubble or a tearful mother describing her daughter being swept away is in the can, a politician somewhere is found in bed with a model or a tinpot dictator rattles his sabre, and the world moves on. The BAFTA or the Emmy is a certainty for this one, did you see the anguish!

Meanwhile on the ground, the situation remains the same. There is no power, no sanitation, no communications, no food, and help seems very far away. In the wake of the recent hurricane season across the Caribbean, there are millions of people whose worlds have been wrecked, and several international governments have faced significant criticism for their lethargic response.

In our world of hardware hackers and makers, we are on the whole practical people. We exist to make, and do, rather than to endlessly talk. Seeing the plight of the victims of Irma, Jose, or Maria leaves us wanting to do practical things to help, because that’s what we do. But of course, we can do nothing, because we’re thousands of miles away and probably lack whatever skills or training are in demand on the islands.

It’s heartening then to hear of just a few moments when our wider community has managed to be in the right place at the right time to offer some help. We’ve had a couple in our tips line lately we’d like to share.

[Csp3r] writes about the Derbycon conference held in Louisville, at which [Carlos Perez] and [Jose Quinones Borreros], information security specialists from Puerto Rico, were in attendance. They mentioned a need for emergency radios, and the community at the conference came together to raise money for much more than just a few radios. $15,000 was raised in all, spent on radios, solar chargers, generators, flashlights, USB battery packs, and tools. This amounted to a significant bulk, so Hackers For Charity helped secure some space on an aid flight to the island.

Then [Bruce Perens, K6BP] writes about a request from the American Red Cross to the ARRL for 50 radio amateurs to help with their relief efforts in Puerto Rico. They will perform the role you might expect of enabling essential communications, as well as to quote the ARRL: “help record, enter, and submit disaster-survivor information into the ARC Safe and Well system”. This is a request unprecedented in its scale, and reflects the level of damage across the island.

For most of us, the best we can do when helping out with these events will be to drop coins into an OXFAM or Red Cross collecting tin and leave it to the experts. But as we’ve noted above, for just a few of us the opportunity to do something a bit more useful presents itself. If you find yourself in that position, make it count!

We’ve looked at the role of amateur radio in public service before, and we’ve even featured it in one or two projects. This emergency box for example has all you’d need to provide this type of service.

Cyclone Catarina image from the ISS, [Public domain].

Cuban Embassy Attacks and The Microwave Auditory Effect

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you may have seen a series of articles coming out about US staffers in Cuba. It seems that 21 staffers have suffered a bizarre array of injuries ranging from hearing loss to dizziness to concussion-like traumatic brain injuries. Some staffers have reported hearing incapacitating sounds in the embassy and in their hotel rooms. The reports range from clicking to grinding, humming, or even blaring sounds. One staffer described being awoken to a horrifically loud sound, only to have it disappear as soon as he moved away from his bed. When he got back into bed, the mysterious sound came back.

Cuba has denied any wrongdoing. However, the US has already started to take action – expelling two Cuban diplomats from the US in May. The question though is what exactly could have caused these injuries. The press has gone wild with theories of sonic weaponry, hidden bugs, and electronic devices, poisons, you name it. Even Julian Assange has weighed in, stating “The diversity of symptoms suggests that this is a pathogen combined with paranoia in an isolated diplomatic corps.”

So what’s going on? Bizarre accidents? Cloak and dagger gone awry? Mass hysteria among the US state department, or something else entirely? Continue reading “Cuban Embassy Attacks and The Microwave Auditory Effect”

AI: This Decade’s Worst Buzz Word

In hacker circles, the “Internet of Things” is often the object of derision. Do we really need the IoT toaster? But there’s one phrase that — while not new — is really starting to annoy me in its current incarnation: AI or Artificial Intelligence.

The problem isn’t the phrase itself. It used to mean a collection of techniques used to make a computer look like it was smart enough to, say, play a game or hold a simulated conversation. Of course, in the movies it means HAL9000. Lately, though, companies have been overselling the concept and otherwise normal people are taking the bait.

The Alexa Effect

Not to pick on Amazon, but all of the home assistants like Alexa and Google Now tout themselves as AI. By the most classic definition, that’s true. AI techniques include matching natural language to predefined templates. That’s really all these devices are doing today. Granted the neural nets that allow for great speech recognition and reproduction are impressive. But they aren’t true intelligence nor are they even necessarily direct analogs of a human brain.

Continue reading “AI: This Decade’s Worst Buzz Word”