Sonoff Postmortem Finds Bugs, Literally

While nobody is exactly sure on the exact etymology of the term, Thomas Edison mentioned some of his inventions being riddled with “bugs” in a letter he wrote all the way back to 1878. In the context of computers, any loyal Hackaday reader should know Grace Hopper’s infamous account of a moth being caught in an early electromechanical computer’s relays. To this pantheon of troublesome insects, we would humbly summit the story of a Sonoff TH16 switch being destroyed by a lowly ant.

According to [CNX Software], the Sonoff TH16 had been working perfectly for a year and a half before the first signs of trouble. One day the switch wouldn’t respond to commands, and a power cycle didn’t seem to clear the issue. Upon opening up the device to see what had gone amiss, it was clearly apparent something had burned up. But upon closer inspection, it wasn’t a fault with the design or even a shoddy component. It was the product of an overly curious ant who got a lot more than he bargained for.

Consulting the wiring diagram of the Sonoff, it appears this poor ant had the terrible misfortune of touching the pins of a through hole capacitor on the opposite side of the board. Bridging this connection not only gave him a lethal jolt, but apparently caused enough current to surge through a nearby resistor that it went up in smoke.

Now, some might wonder (reasonably so) about the conditions in which this switch was operating. If bugs could climb into it, it’s not unreasonable to assume it wasn’t well protected from the elements. Perhaps damp conditions were to blame for the failure, and the image of the ant “riding the lighting” is nothing more than a coincidence. Maybe. But sometimes you just gotta believe.

Incidentally, if you’d like to learn more about the woman who helped secure “bugs” in the IT lexicon, here’s a good place to start.

Ed Note: If you think you’re having deja vu all over again, we did point to this story in the Sunday Links roundup, but the graphics are just so good we couldn’t resist running it in full.

Learn Programming From Ants

Humans and insects think on a different scale, but entomologists study the behavior of these little organisms, so they’re not a complete mystery. There isn’t much intelligence in a single ant or a cubic millimeter of gray matter, but when they all start acting together, you get something greater than the sum of the parts. It is easy to fall into the trap of putting all the intelligence or programming into a single box since that’s how we function. Comparatively, itty-bitty brains, like microcontrollers and single-board computers are inexpensive and plentiful. Enter swarm mentality, and new tasks become possible.

[Kevin Hartnett] talks about a paper researching the simple rules which govern army ants who use their bodies as bridges when confronted with a gap in their path. Anyone with a ruler and a map can decide the shortest route between two places, but army ants perform this optimization from the ground, real-time, and with only a few neurons at their disposal. Two simple rules control bridge building behavior, and that might leave some space in the memory banks of some swarm robots.

A simpler example of swarm mentality could be robots which drive forward anytime they sense infrared waves from above. In this way, anyone watching the swarm could observe when an infrared light was present and where it was directed. You could do the same with inexpensive solar-powered toy cars, but we can already see visible light.

We’re not saying ants should be recruited to control robots, but we’re not objecting to the humane treatment of cyborg bugs either. We’ve been looking into swarm robots for a long time.

Thanks for the tip, [JRD].

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Microsoft Bug Tracking Hacked

It seems that the database containing descriptions of critical and unfixed bugs and/or vulnerabilities in some of the most widely used software in the world, including the Windows operating system, was hacked back in 2013. This database is basically gold for any security researcher, regardless of the color of their hat. To know which programs fail and the preconditions for that to happen is half an exploit right there.

Microsoft discovered the database breach in early 2013 after the highly skilled hacking group Morpho a.k.a. Butterfly a.k.a. Wild Neutron broke into computers at a number of major tech companies, including Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. The group exploited a flaw in the Java programming language to penetrate employees’ Apple Macintosh computers and then use them as pivots into the company internal network.

Official sources say that the Microsoft bug database was poorly protected, with access possible via little more than a password. Four years later, we have official confirmation that it happened. To measure the breach impact, Microsoft started a study to correlate the potential flaws in their databases and subsequent attacks. The study found that the flaws in the stolen database were actually used in cyber attacks, but Microsoft argued the hackers could have obtained the information elsewhere, and that there’s “no evidence that the stolen information had been used in those breaches.”

There is really no way to know besides asking the actual hacking group, which will most likely not happen… unless they are HaD readers, in this case they can feel free to comment.

[via Reuters]

Spy Tech: Nonlinear Junction Detectors

If you ever watch a spy movie, you’ve doubtlessly seen some nameless tech character sweep a room for bugs using some kind of detector and either declare it clean or find the hidden microphone in the lamp. Of course, as a hacker, you have to start thinking about how that would work. If you had a bug that transmits all the time, that’s easy. The lamp probably shouldn’t be emitting RF energy all the time, so that’s easy to detect and a dead give away. But what if the bug were more sophisticated? Maybe it wakes up every hour and beams its data home. Or perhaps it records to memory and doesn’t transmit anything. What then?

High-end bug detectors have another technique they use that claims to be able to find active device junctions. These are called Nonlinear Junction Detectors (NLJD). Spy agencies in the United States, Russian and China have been known to use them and prisons employ them to find cell phones. Their claim to fame is the device doesn’t have to be turned on for detection to occur. You can see a video of a commercial NLJD, below

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Fixing the worst video game ever: E.T. for Atari 2600


This hack has got to be every gamer’s dream. Someone actually took the time to dig through the binary file of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and fix the errors that made it an abomination of a title for the Atari 2600.

This is quite a feat in many ways. First off, you need to know the game well enough to understand where they problems lie. The Internet is a huge help in that regard as there’s no shortage of sources complaining about the game’s shortcomings. This turns out to be one of the articles strongest points as the author takes time to address the most common myths about bugs in the game. From there he goes on to discuss the problems that were actually fixed. Some are just general tweaks like the color fix listed above. But most of them are genuine improvements in the game play, like the falling fix which prevents E.T. from falling in this pit when his feet are obviously not anywhere near the edge.

So you couldn’t get your hard earned bucks back for a bummer of a game back in the day. But at least a few decades later you can fix the things that made it suck and play it through the way it should have been.

[via Reddit]

Ubuntu 9.10 beta now available


The latest version of the world’s most popular Linux distribution is now available. Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala continues the six-month development cycle of this free OS. We’ve used Ubuntu since 2005 and, after a short adjustment period, never looked back at those other operating systems.

Never used Linux? This distribution is for you but we recommend waiting until the release makes it out of beta to the stable version on October 29th.

Comfortable with Linux and want to get your feet wet? The Hack a Day team is calling on all of you to test, report, and improve upon this community driven project. Get yourself a copy of the beta (we recommend using the torrents) and start reporting bugs. You can help fix them by joining the bug squad, or use your coding skills to become a developer.