Ken Shirriff Explains His Techniques For Reverse Engineering Silicon

When it comes to reverse engineering silicon, there’s no better person to ask than Ken Shirriff. He’s the expert at teasing the meaning out of layers of polysilicon and metal. He’s reverse engineered the ubiquitous 555 timer, he’s taken a look at the inside of old-school audio chips, and he’s found butterflies in his op-amp. Where there’s a crazy jumble of microscopic wires and layers of silicon, Ken’s there, ready to do the teardown.

For this year’s talk at the Hackaday Superconference, Ken walked everyone through the techniques for reverse engineering silicon. Surprisingly, this isn’t as hard as it sounds. Yes, you’ll still need to drop acid to get to the guts of an IC (of course, you could always find a 555 stuck in a metal can, but then you can’t say ‘dropping acid’), but even the most complex devices on the planet are still made of a few basic components. You’ve got n-doped silicon, p-doped silicon, and some metal. That’s it, and if you know what you’re looking for — like Ken does — you have all the tools you need to figure out how these integrated circuits are made.

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The Circuit Sculpture Contest

Many artists are inseparably associated with their medium: Vincent Van Gogh had oil paint, Auguste Rodin had bronze, and Banksy has the spraycan and stencil. You have ICs, passives, wire, and solder. So often electronics are hidden away, but not today! We want to see you build electronic circuits that are beautiful in and of themselves.

This is Hackaday’s Circuit Sculpture Contest and we bet you already have everything you need to enter. Leave behind the drab flatland of 2D PCBs and break out into the third dimension! Or break away from the PCB entirely. Our inspiration comes from a few recently featured projects by Mohit Bhoite and by Eirik Brandal that show functional electronic circuits supported by their own wiring:

There’s something beautiful in these works. They take what would be unnoticed traces and bring them to the forefront of the project. The core of the challenge is simple: built a sculpture where an electronic circuit is the main building material (or medium if you prefer the artistic vernacular).

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Amazon Thinks ARM is Bigger than your Phone

As far as computer architectures go, ARM doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. Since nearly every mobile device on the planet is powered by some member of the reduced instruction set computer (RISC) family, there’s an excellent chance these words are currently making their way to your eyes courtesy of an ARM chip. A userbase of several billion is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and that’s before we even take into account the myriad of other devices which ARM processors find their way into: from kid’s toys to smart TVs.

ARM is also the de facto architecture for the single-board computers which have dominated the hacking and making scene for the last several years. Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone, ODROID, Tinker Board, etc. If it’s a small computer that runs Linux or Android, it will almost certainly be powered by some ARM variant; another market all but completely dominated.

It would be a fair to say that small devices, from set top boxes down to smartwatches, are today the domain of ARM processors. But if we’re talking about what one might consider “traditional” computers, such as desktops, laptops, or servers, ARM is essentially a non-starter. There are a handful of ARM Chromebooks on the market, but effectively everything else is running on x86 processors built by Intel or AMD. You can’t walk into a store and purchase an ARM desktop, and beyond the hackers who are using Raspberry Pis to host their personal sites, ARM servers are an exceptional rarity.

Or at least, they were until very recently. At the re:Invent 2018 conference, Amazon announced the immediate availability of their own internally developed ARM servers for their Amazon Web Services (AWS) customers. For many developers this will be the first time they’ve written code for a non-x86 processor, and while some growing pains are to be expected, the lower cost of the ARM instances compared to the standard x86 options seems likely to drive adoption. Will this be the push ARM needs to finally break into the server and potentially even desktop markets? Let’s take a look at what ARM is up against.

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Fail of the Week: How Not to Electric Vehicle

If you ever doubt the potential for catastrophe that mucking about with electric vehicles can present, check out the video below. It shows what can happen to a couple of Tesla battery modules when due regard to safety precautions isn’t paid.

The video comes to us by way of [Rich], a gearhead with a thing for Teslas. He clearly knows his way around the EV world, having rebuilt a flood-soaked Tesla, and aspires to open an EV repair shop. The disaster stems from a novelty vehicle he and friend [Lee] bought as a side project. The car was apparently once a Disney prop car, used in parades with the “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” theme. It was powered by six 6-volt golf cart batteries, which let it maintain a stately, safe pace on a crowded parade route. [Rich] et al would have none of that, and decided to plop a pair of 444-cell Tesla modules into it. The reduced weight and increased voltage made it a real neck-snapper, but the team unwisely left any semblance of battery management out of the build.

You can guess what happened next, or spin up to the 3:00 mark in the video to watch the security camera mayhem. It’s not clear what started the fire, but the modules started cooking off batteries like roman candles. Quick action got it pushed outside to await the fire department, but the car was a total loss long before they showed up. Luckily no other cars in the garage were damaged, nor were there any injuries – not that the car didn’t try to take someone out, including putting a flaming round into [Lee]’s chest and one into the firetruck’s windshield.

[Rich] clearly knew he was literally playing with fire, and paid the price. The lesson here is to respect the power of these beefy batteries, even when you’re just fooling around.

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Hackaday Links: December 2, 2018

CircuitPython is becoming a thing! CircuitPython was originally developed from MicroPython and ported to various ARM boards by Adafruit. Now, SparkFun is shipping their own CircuitPython board based on the nRF52840, giving this board an ARM Cortex-M4 and a Bluetooth radio.

You like contests, right? You like circuit boards too, right? Hackster.io now has a BadgeLove contest going on to create the Blinkiest Badge on Earth. Yes, this is a #badgelife contest, with the goal of demonstrating how much you can do in a single circuit badge. Prizes include a trip to San Francisco, a badass drone, a skateboard, a t-shirt, or socks. YES, THERE ARE SOCKS.

We have a date for the Vintage Computer Festival Pacific Northwest 2019. It’s going down March 23 and 24 at the Living Computers Museum in Seattle. The call for exhibitors is now open so head over and check it out. So far the tentative list of exhibits and presenters include Attack of the SPARC Clones, and I must mention that SPARC systems are showing up on eBay with much higher frequency lately. I have no idea why.

Need another con? How about a KiCAD con? The inaugural conference for KiCAD users is happening next April in Chicago and the call for talk proposals just opened up. The con focuses on topics like using KiCAD in a manufacturing setting, what’s going on ‘under the hood’ of KiCAD, and how to use KiCAD to make an advanced product.

Spanish police have stopped a homemade scooter. Someone, apparently, was tearing around a public road in Galacia on a homemade scooter. From the single picture, we’re going to say ‘not bad.’ It’s a gas-powered weed wacker mounted to a homemade frame.

Every year, in December, we take a look back at what Hackaday has accomplished in the past twelve months. Sure, we gave out hundreds of thousands of dollars in awards in the Hackaday Prize, and yes, we’ve pushed our coverage of tech advancements into weird, uncharted, but awesome territory. Our biggest accomplishment, though, is always how many readers we reach. This year, we had a slight fall-off in our readership in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. We’re down from 156 views in 2017 to 75 views this year. While the year isn’t over, we don’t expect that number to change much. What was the cause of this drop-off? We’re not quite sure. Only time will tell, and we’re looking forward to serving fresh hacks every day to the DPRK in 2019.

Retrotechtacular: Some Of The Last CRTs From The Factory Floor

It seems crazy having to explain what a piece of technology was like to someone who is barely fifteen years your junior, but yet we have reached that point when it comes to CRTs. There may still be remnants of CRT televisions and monitors left out in the wild, however, the chances that a kid preparing to enter high school has encountered one is slim. While there may be no substitute for the real thing, there is this raw video from [Glenn] who shared his tour of the Sony Trinitron assembly line in the early 2000s. Sony Trinitron Television

Sony Electronics’ cathode ray tube manufacturing facility was located alongside headquarters in Rancho Bernado, CA. The facility was shuttered in 2006 when Sony transitioned wholly onto digital displays like the flat-panel LCD line of Bravia televisions. [Glenn]’s video shows that the manufacturing process was almost entirely automated from end to end. A point that was made even more clear with the distinct lack of human beings in the video.

The Trinitron line of televisions first appeared in 1968. At a time where most manufacturer’s were offering black and white picture tubes, Sony’s Trinitron line was in color. That name carried through until the end when it was retired alongside tube televisions themselves. Sony’s focus on technological innovation (and proprietary media formats) made them a giant in the world of consumer electronics for over forty years in the United States, but in the transition to a digital world saw them seeding market share to their competitors.

A quick word of warning as the video below was shot directly on Sony’s factory floor so the machinery is quite loud. Viewers may want to reduce the volume prior to pressing play.

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Building Portable Linux Devices: Never Been Easier, But Still Hard

We live in a Golden Age of single-board computers. There was a time when a portable computer that was any good was a relatively rare and expensive device, certainly not something you could expect to replicate for yourself. A Psion, or later a Palm or perhaps a WinCE device would have been a lot more than an impulse purchase, and could not easily have been replicated using the components then available to the experimenter.

Thanks to spin-offs from technology developed for set-top boxes and mobile phones we can now buy any one of a pile of different boards that have almost equivalent power to a desktop computer. The experimenter can leverage that computing power to create their own small portables. Zerophone creator Arsenijs Picugins spoke about the tricky parts of designing a LInux portable at the recent Hackaday Superconference. You’ll find his talk below the break, which makes for a fascinating primer for those tempted to walk in his footsteps.

Zerophone – a Raspberry Pi Smartphone

Minor Details of Portables are the Majority of the Build

In theory, it’s pretty easy to use one of these boards to make a portable computer. Take one of the smaller members of the Raspberry Pi or Beaglebone families, add a battery and a display, and away you go. But as always the devil is in the detail, and for a truly successful build there are a wealth of variables to attend to.

In his talk, Arsenijs takes us through the challenges of power supplies, connectors, and interfaces. In particular there is considerable challenge to running an SBC from a battery small enough to be portable, as efficiency concerns and the ability to easily recharge make for a critical set of choices. Then we learn of another pitfall, that of using USB as a default interface. Power loss in converting 5V to 3.3V that is inconsequential for a desktop computer is a battery-killer in a small device, so we’re pointed at the array of alternatives.

Zerophone screen menu [via @ZeroPhoneOSHW]

Screen Size is a Tricky Spec to Settle

If you’ve been tempted by one of those cheap Raspberry Pi touch screens, you’ll certainly understand that while a full desktop on a screen the size of a playing card looks cool, the reality is almost unusable. Your device will require a user interface that fits its form factor, which from his experience, Arsenijs suggests is best achieved through the medium of buttons rather than a touchscreen on smaller screens. There are a variety of UI and display libraries he introduces us to which make the whole process significantly easier.

Arsenijs’ Zerophone Raspberry Pi smartphone was a finalist in the 2017 Hackaday Prize, and remains an exemplary portable project from which many others can gain inspiration. We are privileged that he was able to bring his experience to speak at the Superconference, and his talk makes for a fascinating watch.

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