A Raspberry Pi Grimoire For The Command Line Wizard

Who says there’s no such thing as magic? Not anyone who knows what a Unix pipe is, that’s for sure. If you do some of your best incantations at a blinking cursor, this scratch-built Raspberry Pi Zero “Spellbook” laptop created by [Calvin] might be just what the apothecary ordered. Lucky for us, he was kind enough to document the design and construction of this penguin-powered tome for anyone else who wishes to dabble in the GNU Dark Arts.

In the series of videos after the break, viewers have the opportunity to watch a project go from idea to final product. The first video was uploaded nearly a month before the project was completed, and goes over some of the design elements of the project as well as different ideas [Calvin] had in terms of things like component placement. Throughout the video, he illustrates his ideas in TinkerCAD, which might not have been our first choice for a project this complex, but it does go to show what’s possible in the free web-based CAD package.

By the second video, [Calvin] has printed some parts and now has the hardware coming together. The general idea is that the outside panels of the “book” are made out of steel cut from the side panel of an old computer, with the 3D printed components taking the form of spacers between the electronic components. These plastic “pages” are not only easier and faster to print than a complete case, but help sell the appearance of the book when viewed from the sides.

[Calvin] has shared his TinkerCAD design so that others can print out the necessary components for the book, though you’ll have to source your own steel plates. He also breaks down all the principle components he used and gives links to where you can buy them, from the display and keyboard down to the screws and standoffs. He went with the Pi Zero and sticks to mainly console work, but if you want something with enough power to throw around a graphical environment, he says there’s room in the case for a Pi 3.

Hackers seem to enjoy hiding hardware inside of books, PLA or otherwise. We’ve recently seen an iPad nestled snugly into a notebook, and of course no house would be complete without a book doubling as a hidden switch.

Continue reading “A Raspberry Pi Grimoire For The Command Line Wizard”

Software: It Is All In The Details

Who’s the better programmer? The guy that knows 10 different languages, or someone who knows just one? It depends. Programming is akin to math, or perhaps it is that we treat some topics differently than others which leads to misconceptions about what makes a good programmer, mathematician, or engineer. We submit that to be a great programmer is less about the languages you know and more about the algorithms and data structures you understand. If you know how to solve the problem, mapping it to a particular computer language should be almost an afterthought. While there are many places that you can learn those things, there is a lot more focus on how to write the languages,  C++ or Java or Python or whatever. We were excited, then, to see [Jeff Erickson] is publishing his algorithms book distilled from teaching at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for a number of years. The best part? You can read the preprint version online now and it will remain online even after the book goes to print.

When you were in school, you probably learned math in two ways: there was the mechanics (4×4=16) and then there were the word problems (Johnny has 10 candy bars and eats 4, how many are left?). Word problems are usually the bane of the student’s existence, yet they are much more realistic. Your boss has (probably) never come in your office and asked you what 147 divided by 12 is. If she did, you could hand her a calculator. The real value comes in being able to synthesize the right math for the right problem and — if you are lucky — gaining intuition about it (doubling the price will only increase profit by 10%). Software is pretty much the same, for example no one rushes into your cubicle and says “Quick! We need a for loop written!” You get a hazy set of requirements if you are lucky, and you then need to map that into something that computers can do. For that reason, we’ve always been more of a fan of learning about algorithms and data structures rather than specific language features.

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Secret Book Light Switch

You enter a study and see a lightbulb hanging on the bookshelf. You try all the switches in the room — nothing is turning it on. Remembering you’re in [lonesoulsurfer]’s home, you realize that you’re going to have to start yanking on every book in sight.

While often associated with the likes of Bat-caves and other complicated hidden passageways, turning a shelved book into a secret switch isn’t complex in its own right. [lonesoulsurfer] is basing their build on one by B.Light Design revolving around a fan switch, some aluminium strips, a block terminal, fishing line, a hinge, and — of course — a book with a dust jacket and something to trigger.

Bend the aluminium into an angle bracket and drill a hole to attach the fan switch — ensuring the whole is small enough to fit behind and not distinguish the book you’re using. Cutting the hinge to the size of the book and screwing a strip of aluminium to it, both this lever and the fan switch’s bracket are then mounted on the shelf. Once a length of fishing twine is tethered to the lever and fitted through the book’s pages to the fan switch — ensuring the line is taut — sliding the dust jacket back onto the book completes the disguised switch!

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Books You Should Read: IGNITION!

Isaac Asimov described the business of rocket fuel research as “playing footsie with liquids from Hell.” If that piques your interest even a little, even if you do nothing else today, read the first few pages of IGNITION! which is available online for free. I bet you won’t want to stop reading.

IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants is about how modern liquid rocket fuel came to be. Written by John D. Clark and published in 1972, the title might at first glance make the book sound terribly dry — it’s not. Liquid rocket fuel made modern rocketry possible. But most of us have no involvement with it at all besides an awareness that it exists, and that makes it easy to take for granted.

Most of us lack any understanding of the fact that its development was the result of a whole lot of hard scientific work, and that work required brilliance (and bravery) and had many frustrating dead ends. It was also an amazingly dangerous business to be in. Isaac Asimov put it this way in the introduction:

“[A]nyone working with rocket fuels is outstandingly mad. I don’t mean garden-variety crazy or a merely raving lunatic. I mean a record-shattering exponent of far-out insanity.

There are, after all, some chemicals that explode shatteringly, some that flame ravenously, some that corrode hellishly, some that poison sneakily, and some that stink stenchily. As far as I know, though, only liquid rocket fuels have all these delightful properties combined into one delectable whole.”

At the time that the book was written and published, most of the work on liquid rocket fuels had been done in the 40’s, 50’s, and first half of the 60’s. There was plenty written about rocketry, but very little about the propellants themselves, and nothing at all written about why these specific substances and not something else were being used. John Clark — having run a laboratory doing propellant research for seventeen years — had a unique perspective of the whole business and took the time to write IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants.

Liquid rocket propellant was in two parts: a fuel and an oxidizer. The combination is hypergolic; that is, the two spontaneously ignite and burn upon contact with each other. As an example of the kinds of details that mattered (i.e. all of them), the combustion process had to be rapid and complete. If the two liquids flow into the combustion chamber and ignite immediately, that’s good. If they form a small puddle and then ignite, that’s bad. There are myriad other considerations as well; the fuel must burn at a manageable temperature (so as not to destroy the motor), the energy density of the fuel must be high enough to be a practical fuel in the first place, and so on.

The actual process of discovering exactly what materials to use and how precisely to make them work in a rocket motor was the very essence of the phrase “the devil is in the details.” For every potential solution, there was a mountain of dead-end possibilities that tantalizingly, infuriatingly, almost worked.

The first reliable, workable propellant combination was Aniline and Red Fuming Nitric Acid (RFNA). “It had the one – but magnificent – virtue that it worked,” writes Clark. “Otherwise it was an abomination.” Aniline was difficult to procure, ferociously poisonous and rapidly absorbed through skin, and froze at an inconvenient -6.2 Celsius which limited it to warm weather only. RFNA was fantastically corrosive, and this alone went on to cause no end of problems. It couldn’t be left sitting in a rocket tank waiting to be used for too long, because after a while you wouldn’t have a tank left. It needed to be periodically vented while in storage. Pouring it gave off dense clouds of remarkably toxic gas. This propellant would go on to cause incredibly costly and dangerous problems, but it worked. Still, no one wanted to put up with any of it one moment longer than they absolutely had to. As a result, that combination was not much more than a first step in the whole process; there was plenty of work left to do.

By the mid-sixties, liquid rocket propellant was a solved problem and the propellant community had pretty much worked themselves out of a job. Happily, a result of that work was this book; it captures history and detail that otherwise would simply have disappeared.

Clark has a gift for writing, and the book is easy to read and full of amusing (and eye-widening) anecdotes. Clark doesn’t skimp on the scientific background, but always in an accessible way. It’s interesting, it’s relevant, it’s relatable, and there is plenty to learn about how hard scientific and engineering development actually gets done. Download the PDF onto your favorite device. You’ll find it well worth the handful of evenings it takes to read through it.

Book Review: The Art Of The Patent

In bringing suitable illustrations to our articles, we Hackaday scribes use a variety of sources that offer images featuring permissive licences. Among the usual free image libraries there is one particularly rich source, the line drawings contained within the huge archives of patents granted by the various countries around the world. These are the illustrations used as part of the patent itself to describe the working of the patent being claimed. We use them because though the items they depict are legally protected from copying by the patents they are part of, they as part of the patents themselves are in the public domain. Thus we can easily find detailed hand drawn pictures of all kinds of technical innovations from the last couple of hundred years or so, and from time to time you as our readers reap the benefit.

The beauty in hand-rendered fonts from patent artwork, collected within the book.
The beauty in hand-rendered fonts from patent artwork, collected within the book.

If you spend a while browsing old patents through a search engine such as Google Patents, you can quickly become engrossed in these beautiful images of inventions past. Though their purpose is a functional one to convey the workings of an invention, the anonymous artists have often poured all of their skill into rendering them as considerably more than mere draughtsmanship. In those dusty Government archives lurk masterpieces, just waiting to be found.

It seems we here at Hackaday are not alone in sharing a fascination with these images, for a US patent agent, [Kevin Prince], wrote a fascinating exploration of the medium in his book, The Art of the Patent. Continue reading “Book Review: The Art Of The Patent”

Books You Should Read: The Hardware Hacker

There’s no one quite like Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang. His unofficial resume begins with an EE degree from MIT, the author of Hacking the Xbox, creator of the Chumby, developer of the Novena, the first Open Source laptop, and has mentored thousands of people with dozens of essays from his blog.

Above all, Bunnie is a bridge across worlds. He has spent the last decade plying the markets of Shenzhen, working with Chinese manufacturers, and writing about his experiences of taking an idea and turning it into a product with the help of Chinese partners. In short, there is no person better suited to tell the story of how Shenzhen works, what can be done, and how to do it.

Bunnie’s The Hardware Hacker ($29.95, No Starch Press) is the dead tree expression of years of living and working in Shenzhen, taking multiple products to market, and exploring the philosophy that turned a fishing village into a city that produces the world’s electronic baubles.

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Wooden Puzzle Book Will Twist and Dazzle Your Brain

In what might be one of the coolest applications of laser cutting, joinery, puzzles, writing, and bookbinding, [Brady Whitney] has created the Codex Silenda — a literal puzzle book of magnificent proportions.

[Whitney] had originally conceived the idea of the Codex for his senior thesis research project at Iowa State University, and the result is something for almost everyone. On each of the Codex’s five pages lies a mechanical puzzle that must be solved to progress to the next, while an accompanying text weaves a story as you do so. These intricate pages were designed in SolidWorks and painstakingly assembled from laser cut wood. Breaking the fourth wall of storytelling by engaging the reader directly in uncovering the book’s mysteries is a unique feat, and it looks gorgeous to boot.

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