Do Your Research

We were talking about a sweet hack this week, wherein [Alex] busts the encryption for his IP web cam firmware so that he can modify it later. He got a number of lucky breaks, including getting root on the device just by soldering on a serial terminal, but was faced with having to reverse-engineer a binary that implemented RSA encryption and decryption.

Especially when they’re done right, and written to avoid side-channel attacks, encryption routines aren’t intuitive, even when you’re looking at the C source. Reversing it from the binary would be a tremendous hurdle.

That’s when [Alex] started plugging in strings he found in the binary into a search engine. And that’s when he found exactly the open source project that the webcam used, which gave him the understanding he needed to crack the rest of the nut.

Never forget! When you’re doing some reverse engineering, whether hardware or software, do a search for every part number and every string you find in memory. If you’re like me, it might feel like cheating a little bit, but it’s just being efficient. It’s what all your hacker heroes say they do, and if you’re lucky, it might just be the break you need too.

It’s Not Unusual To Love Hacking

Most of what we do here at Hackaday is look out for cool projects and then write them up so that you all know about them. Nothing is better than being really stoked about a clever hack and then being able to share it with tens of thousands of like-minded folks. Sure, it’s our job, but we really do it because we love to share. And it’s clear that you all do too! After all, we write up the hacks that you document for us.

We recently featured a hack where the guy who did the work in question said that he didn’t think it was “worthy of Hackaday”. (Of course, it was!) And I don’t like that sentiment at all, honestly, because a hack that you enjoyed doing is a hack worth sharing, even if just for sharing the joy of doing it, and that came across fully.

Of course we gladly feature the ultra-bravado hacks where the nearly impossible is made real. But there’s equal value in the simple hacks that inspire others to pursue one odd path or another. Or even pieces where there’s no hack involved, but simply the sharing of something cool.

This week, [Arya Voronova] wrote a piece about her experience using MicroPython on embedded devices, and it apparently resonated with a lot of our readers. It’s not a deep-dive into MicroPython, or a mind-bending abuse of the language. Instead, it’s a simple “this is what I love about doing things this way”, and that’s a great perspective that often gets lost when we get deep in the technical weeds.

I had the same realization a few months back at Hackaday Europe. In the lightning talks, most everyone gave talks about cool projects that they are working on, and they’re absolutely worth watching for that. [Jaap Meijers] gave a wonderful talk about making animated QR codes, but it wasn’t about how he invented animated QR codes, because he was just using someone else’s project. Instead, it was about how neat he thought someone else’s work was, and how he really wanted to share it with us. (And now you know too.)

Epic hacks are fantastic, no question. But the simple expression of the love of hacking, whether in words or in the doing, is equally important. Show us your work, but don’t forget to show us your joy along the way.

Hack All The Things, Get All The Schematics

When I was growing up, about 4 or 5 years old, I had an unorthodox favourite type of reading material: service manuals for my dad’s audio equipment. This got to the point that I kept asking my parents for more service manuals, and it became a running joke in our family for a bit. Since then, I’ve spent time repairing tech and laptops in particular as a way of earning money, hanging out at a flea market in the tech section, then spending tons of time at our hackerspace. Nowadays, I’m active in online hacker groups, and I have built series of projects closely interlinked with modern-day consumer-facing tech.

Twenty three years later, is it a wonder I have a soft spot in my heart for schematics? You might not realize this if you’re only upcoming in the hardware hacking scene, but device schematics, whichever way you get them, are a goldmine of information you can use to supercharge your projects, whether you’re hacking on the schematic-ed device itself or not. What’s funny is, not every company wants their schematics to be published, but it’s ultimately helpful for the company in question, anyway.

If you think it’s just about repair – it’s that, sure, but there’s also a number of other things you might’ve never imagined you can do. Still, repair is the most popular one.
Continue reading “Hack All The Things, Get All The Schematics”

Danger Is My Middle Name

Last week, [Al Williams] wrote up a his experience with a book that provided almost too much detailed information on how to build a DIY x-ray machine for his (then) young soul to bear. He almost had to build it! Where the “almost” is probably both a bummer because he didn’t have an x-ray machine as a kid, but also a great good because it was a super dangerous build, of a typical sort for the 1950s in which it was published.

Part of me really loves the matter-of-factness with which “A Boy’s First Book of Linear Accelerators” tells you how you (yes you!) can build a 500 kV van der Graff generator. But at the same time, modern me does find the lack of safety precautions in many of these mid-century books to be a little bit spooky. Contrast this with modern books where sometimes I get the feeling that the publisher’s legal team won’t let us read about folding paper airplanes for fear of getting cut.

A number of us have built dangerous projects in our lives, and many of us have gotten away with it. Part of the reason that many of us are still here is that we understood the dangers, but I would be lying if I said that I always fully understood them. But thinking about the dangers is still our first and best line of defense. Humility about how well you understand all of the dangers of a certain project is also very healthy – if you go into it keeping an eye out for the unknown unknowns, you’re in better shape.

Safety isn’t avoiding danger, but rather minimizing it. When we publish dangerous hacks, we really try to at least highlight the most important hazards so that you know what to look out for. And over the years, I’ve learned a ton of interesting safety tricks from the comments and fellow hackers alike. My ideal, then, is the spirit of the 1950s x-ray book, which encourages you to get the hack built, but modernized so that it tells you where the dangers lie and how to handle them. If you’re shooting electrons, shouldn’t the book also tell you how to stay out of the way?

The Book That Could Have Killed Me

It is funny how sometimes things you think are bad turn out to be good in retrospect. Like many of us, when I was a kid, I was fascinated by science of all kinds. As I got older, I focused a bit more, but that would come later. Living in a small town, there weren’t many recent science and technology books, so you tended to read through the same ones over and over. One day, my library got a copy of the relatively recent book “The Amateur Scientist,” which was a collection of [C. L. Stong’s] Scientific American columns of the same name. [Stong] was an electrical engineer with wide interests, and those columns were amazing. The book only had a snapshot of projects, but they were awesome. The magazine, of course, had even more projects, most of which were outside my budget and even more of them outside my skill set at the time.

If you clicked on the links, you probably went down a very deep rabbit hole, so… welcome back. The book was published in 1960, but the projects were mostly from the 1950s. The 57 projects ranged from building a telescope — the original topic of the column before [Stong] took it over — to using a bathtub to study aerodynamics of model airplanes.


[Harry’s] first radiograph. Not bad!
However, there were two projects that fascinated me and — lucky for me — I never got even close to completing. One was for building an X-ray machine. An amateur named [Harry Simmons] had described his setup complaining that in 23 years he’d never met anyone else who had X-rays as a hobby. Oddly, in those days, it wasn’t a problem that the magazine published his home address.

You needed a few items. An Oudin coil, sort of like a Tesla coil in an autotransformer configuration, generated the necessary high voltage. In fact, it was the Ouidn coil that started the whole thing. [Harry] was using it to power a UV light to test minerals for flourescence. Out of idle curiosity, he replaced the UV bulb with an 01 radio tube. These old tubes had a magnesium coating — a getter — that absorbs stray gas left inside the tube.

Continue reading “The Book That Could Have Killed Me”

Thanks For The Great Comments!

Every once in a while, there’s a Hackaday article where the comments are hands-down the best part of a post. This happened this week with Al Williams’ Ask Hackaday: How Do You Make Front Panels?. I guess it’s not so surprising that the comments were full of awesome answers – it was an “Ask Hackaday” after all. But you all delivered!

A technique that I had never considered came up a few times: instead of engraving the front of an opaque panel, like one made of aluminum or something, instead if you’re able to make the panel out of acrylic, you can paint the back side, laser or engrave into it, and then paint over with a contrast color. Very clever!

Simply printing the panel out onto paper and laminating it got a number of votes, and for those who are 3D printing the enclosure anyway, simply embossing the letters into the surface had a number of fans. The trick here is in getting some contrast into the letters, and most suggested changing filament. All I know is that I’ve tried to do it by painting the insides of the letters white, and it’s too fiddly for me.

But my absolute favorite enclosure design technique got mentioned a number of times: cardboard-aided design. Certainly for simple or disposable projects, there’s nothing faster than just cutting up some cardboard and taping it into the box of your desires. I’ll often do this to get the sizes and locations of components right – it’s only really a temporary solution. Although some folks have had success with treating the cardboard with a glue wash, paint, or simply wrapping it in packing tape to make it significantly more robust. Myself, if it ends up being a long-term project, I’ll usually transfer the cardboard design to 3DP or cut out thin plywood.

I got sidetracked here, though. What I really wanted to say was “thanks!” to everyone who submitted their awesome comments to Al’s article. We’ve had some truly hateful folks filling the comment section with trash lately, and I’d almost given up hope. But then along comes an article like this and restores my faith. Thanks, Hackaday!

Sometimes It’s Not The Solution

Watching a video about a scratch-built ultra-precise switch for metrology last week reminded me that it’s not always the projects that are the most elegant solutions that I enjoy reading about the most. Sometimes I like reading about hackers’ projects more for the description of the problem they’re facing.

A good problem invites you to brainstorm along. In the case of [Marco Reps]’s switches, for instance, they need to be extraordinarily temperature stable, which means being made out of a single type of metal to avoid unintentional thermocouple joints. And ideally, they should be as cheap as possible. Once you see one good solution, you can’t help but think of others – just reading the comments on that article shows you how inspiring a good problem can be. I’m not worried about these issues in any of my work, but it would be cool to have to.

Similarly, this week, I really liked [Michael Prasthofer]’s deep dive into converting a normal camera into a spectrometer. His solutions were all very elegant, but what was most interesting were the various problems he faced along the way. Things that you just wouldn’t expect end up mattering, like diffraction gratings being differently sensitive across the spectrum when light comes in from different angles. You can learn a lot from other people’s problems.

So, hackers everywhere, please share your problems with us! You think that your application is “too niche” to be of general interest? Maybe it’s another example of a problem that’s unique enough to be interesting just on its own. Let’s see what your up against. A cool problem is at least as interesting as a clever solution.