The PDP-1: The Machine that Started Hacker Culture

One of my bucket list destinations is the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California — I know, I aim high. I’d be chagrined to realize that my life has spanned a fair fraction of the Information Age, but I think I’d get a kick out of seeing the old machines, some of which I’ve actually laid hands on. But the machines I’d most like to see are the ones that predate me, and the ones that contributed to the birth of the hacker culture in which I and a lot of Hackaday regulars came of age.

If you were to trace hacker culture back to its beginning, chances are pretty good that the machine you’d find at the root of it all is the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1. That’s a tall claim for a machine that was introduced in 1959 and only sold 53 units, compared to contemporary offerings from IBM that sold tens of thousands of units. And it’s true that the leading edge of the explosion of digital computing in the late 50s and early 60s was mainly occupied by “big iron” machines, and that mainframes did a lot to establish the foundations for all the advances that were to come.

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CastAR Shuts Doors

Polygon reports CastAR is no more.

CastAR is the brainchild of renaissance woman [Jeri Ellsworth], who was hired by Valve to work on what would eventually become SteamVR. Valve let [Jeri] go, but allowed her to take her invention with her. [Jeri] founded a new company, Technical Illusions, with [Rick Johnson] and over the past few years the CastAR has appeared everywhere from Maker Faires to venues better focused towards innovative technologies.

In 2013, Technical Illusions got its start with a hugely successful Kickstarter, netting just north of one million dollars. This success drew the attention of investors and eventually led to a funding round of $15 million. With this success, Technical Illusions decided to refund the backers of its Kickstarter.

We’ve taken a look a CastAR in the past, and it’s something you can only experience first-hand. Unlike the Oculus, Google Cardboard, or any of the other VR plays companies are coming out with, CastAR is an augmented reality system that puts computer-generated objects in a real, physical setting. Any comparison between CastAR and a VR system is incomplete; these are entirely different systems with entirely different use cases. Think of it as the ultimate table top game, or the coolest D&D game you could possibly imagine.

Hacking an Inspection Microscope

Sometimes I need to be able to take photographs of very small things, and the so-called macro mode on my point-and-shoot camera just won’t cut it. And it never hurts to have an inspection scope on hand for tiny soldering jobs, either, though I prefer a simple jeweler’s loupe in one eye for most tasks. So I sent just over $40 off to my close friend Alibaba, and a few weeks later was the proud owner of a halfway usable inspection scope that records stills or video to an SD card.

Unfortunately, it’s only halfway useable because of chintzy interface design and a wobbly mount. So I spent an afternoon, took the microscope apart, and got it under microcontroller control, complete with WiFi and a scripting language. Much better! Now I can make microscope time-lapses, but much more importantly I can take blur-free photos without touching the wiggly rig. It was a fun hack, so I thought I’d share. Read on!

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MRIs: Why Are They So Loud?

My dad was scheduled for his first MRI scan the other day, and as the designated family technical expert, Pop had plenty of questions for me about what to expect. I told him everything I knew about the process, having had a few myself, but after the exam he asked the first question that everyone seems to ask: “Why is that thing so damn loud?”

Sadly, I didn’t have an answer for him. I’ve asked the same question myself after my MRIs, hoping for a tech with a little more time and lot more interest in the technology he or she uses to answer me with more than the “it’s the machine that makes the noise” brush-off. Well, duh.

MRI is one of those technologies that I don’t feel I have a firm enough grasp on, and it seems like something I should really be better versed in. So I decided to delve into the innards of these modern medical marvels to see if I can answer this basic question, plus see if I can address a few more complicated questions.

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Practical IoT Cryptography on the Espressif ESP8266

The Espressif ESP8266 chipset makes three-dollar ‘Internet of Things’ development boards an economic reality. According to the popular automatic firmware-building site nodeMCU-builds, in the last 60 days there have been 13,341 custom firmware builds for that platform. Of those, only 19% have SSL support, and 10% include the cryptography module.

We’re often critical of the lack of security in the IoT sector, and frequently cover botnets and other attacks, but will we hold our projects to the same standards we demand? Will we stop at identifying the problem, or can we be part of the solution?

This article will focus on applying AES encryption and hash authorization functions to the MQTT protocol using the popular ESP8266 chip running NodeMCU firmware. Our purpose is not to provide a copy/paste panacea, but to go through the process step by step, identifying challenges and solutions along the way. The result is a system that’s end-to-end encrypted and authenticated, preventing eavesdropping along the way, and spoofing of valid data, without relying on SSL.

We’re aware that there are also more powerful platforms that can easily support SSL (e.g. Raspberry Pi, Orange Pi, FriendlyARM), but let’s start with the cheapest hardware most of us have lying around, and a protocol suitable for many of our projects. AES is something you could implement on an AVR if you needed to.

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How To Build Your Own Convertible (For Under $500)

It’s a common sight in the farming areas of the world — a group of enterprising automotive hackers take a humble economy car, and saw the roof off, building a convertible the cheapest way possible. Being the city dwelling type, I always looked on at these paddock bashing antics with awe, wishing that I too could engage in such automotive buffoonery. This year, my time would come — I was granted a hatchback for the princely sum of $100, and the private property on which to thrash it.

However, I wasn’t simply keen to recreate what had come before. I wanted to take this opportunity to build a solution for those who had suffered like me, growing up in the confines of suburbia. Surrounded by houses and with police on patrol, it simply isn’t possible to cut the roof off a car and drive it down to the beach without getting yourself in altogether too much trouble. But then again, maybe there’s a way.

The goal was to build the car in such a way that its roof could be cut off, but remain attached by removable brackets. This would allow the car to be driven around with the roof still attached, without raising too much suspicion from passing glances. For reasons of legality and safety, our build and test would be conducted entirely on private property, but it was about seeing what could be done that mattered.

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The Arduino Foundation: What’s Up?

The Arduino Wars officially ended last October, and the new Arduino-manufacturing company was registered in January 2017.  At the time, we were promised an Arduino Foundation that would care for the open-source IDE and code infrastructure in an open and community-serving manner, but we don’t have one yet. Is it conspiracy? Or foul play? Our advice: don’t fret. These things take time.

But on the other hand, the Arduino community wants to know what’s going on, and there’s apparently some real confusion out there about the state of play in Arduino-land, so we interviewed the principals, Massimo Banzi and Federico Musto, and asked them for a progress report.

The short version is that there are still two “Arduinos”: Arduino AG, a for-profit corporation, and the soon-to-be Arduino Foundation, a non-profit in charge of guiding and funding software and IDE development. The former was incorporated in January 2017, and the latter is still in progress but looks likely to incorporate before the summer is over.

Banzi, who is a shareholder of Arduino AG, is going to be the president of the Foundation, and Musto, AG’s CEO, is going to be on the executive board and both principals told us similar visions of incredible transparency and community-driven development. Banzi is, in fact, looking to get a draft version of the Foundation’s charter early, for comment by the community, before it gets chiseled in stone.

It’s far too early to tell just how independent the Foundation is going to be, or should be, of the company that sells the boards under the same name. Setting up the Foundation correctly is extremely important for the future of Arduino, and Banzi said to us in an interview that he wouldn’t take on the job of president unless it is done right. What the Arduino community doesn’t need right now is a Foundation fork.  Instead, they need our help, encouragement, and participation once the Foundation is established. Things look like they’re on track.

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