37C3: The Tech Behind Life With Quadraplegia

While out swimming in the ocean on vacation, a big wave caught [QuadWorker], pushed him head first into the sand, and left him paralyzed from the neck down. This talk isn’t about injury or recovery, though. It’s about the day-to-day tech that makes him able to continue living, working, and travelling, although in new ways. And it’s a fantastic first-hand insight into how assistive technology works for him.

If you can only move your head, how do you control a computer? Surprisingly well! A white dot on [QuadWorker]’s forehead is tracked by a commodity webcam and some software, while two button bumpers to the left and right of his head let him click with a second gesture. For cell phones, a time-dependent scanner app allows him to zero in successively on the X and Y coordinates of where he’d like to press. And naturally voice recognition software is a lifesaver. In the talk, he live-demos sending a coworker a text message, and it’s almost as fast as I could go. Shared whiteboards allow him to work from home most of the time, and a power wheelchair and adapted car let him get into the office as well.

The lack of day-to-day independence is the hardest for him, and he says that they things he misses most are being able to go to the bathroom, and also to scratch himself when he gets itchy – and these are yet unsolved problems. But other custom home hardware also plays an important part in [QuadWorker]’s setup. For instance, all manner of home automation allows him to control the lights, the heat, and the music in his home. Voice-activated light switches are fantastic when you can’t use your arms.

This is a must-watch talk if you’re interested in assistive tech, because it comes direct from the horse’s mouth – a person who has tried a lot, and knows not only what works and what doesn’t, but also what’s valuable. It’s no surprise that the people whose lives most benefit from assistive tech would also be most interested in it, and have their hacker spirit awakened. We’re reminded a bit of the Eyedrivomatic, which won the 2015 Hackaday Prize and was one of the most outstanding projects both from and for the quadriplegic community.

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37C3: You Think It’s Bad With Pluto? A History Of The Planets

Not every talk at the Chaos Communication Congress is about hacking computers. In this outstanding and educational talk, [Michael Büker] walks us through the history of our understanding of the planets.

The question “What is a planet?” is probably more about the astronomers doing the looking than the celestial bodies that they’re looking for. In the earliest days, the Sun and the Moon were counted in. They got kicked out soon, but then when we started being able to see asteroids, Ceres, Vesta, and Juno made the list. But by counting all the asteroids, the number got up above 1,200, and it got all too crazy.

Viewed in this longer context, the previously modern idea of having nine planets, which came about in the 1960s and lasted only until 2006, was a blip on the screen. And if you are still a Pluto-is-a-planet holdout, like we were, [Michael]’s argument that counting all the Trans-Neptunian Objects would lead to madness is pretty convincing. It sure would make it harder to build an orrery.

His conclusion is simple and straightforward and has the ring of truth: the solar system is full of bodies, and some are large, and some are small. Some are in regular orbits, and some are not. Which we call “planets” and which we don’t is really about our perception of them and trying to fit this multiplicity into simple classification schemas. What’s in a name, anyway?

Don’t Give Up

I’m at Chaos Communication Congress this weekend, and it’s like being surrounded by the brightest, most creative, and being honest, nerdiest crowd imaginable. And that’s super invigorating.

But because of the pandemic, this is the first in-person conference in four years, and it’s been a rather unsettling time in-between. There are tons of unknowns and issues confronting us all, geeks or otherwise, at the moment. I know some people who have fallen prey to this general malaise, and become more or less cynical.

Especially in this context, watching a talk about an absolutely bravado hack, or falling into a conversation that sparks new ideas, can be inspiring in just the right way to pull one out of the slump. Every talk is naturally a success story — of course they are, otherwise they wouldn’t be up there presenting.

But all of the smaller interactions, the hey-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that moments or the people helping each other out with just the right trick, that give me the most hope. That’s because they are all around, and I’m sure that what I’m seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. So stick together, nerds, share your work, and don’t give up!

35C3: Biggest Communication Congress, Yet Little Chaos

Every year for the past 35 years, the German Chaos Computer Club has met just after Christmas for a few days of “Spaß am Gerät” — having fun with the machines. And that’s everything from trying to bring an old PDP-8 back into running condition to forging new software to replace the old and busted social media platforms that permeate our lives. The sum total of around 17,000 people doing the nerdy stuff that they love, and sharing it together, is both amazing and inspiring. Four days of little sleep and much socializing later, I bet there was still another four days’ worth of stuff to see.

The official theme this year was “Refreshing Memories” which honestly sounds a bit too much like a cola slogan, but was a great opportunity to think back on the hacks of the past that got us where we are. Assemblies put up shrines to their hacker heroes of the past. Retro computers were everywhere, in the talks and on the floor. This year’s Congress was a great time to look back and remember, but also to create new memories for the future. On that front, it was a total success.

But the unofficial theme this year was “Smooth Running”. Everything went very well, which is no small feat considering that the infrastructure, decoration, security, and even the medical response teams are from the Chaos community. It’s the depth of engagement that makes this work: of the 17,000 people who showed up, just over 4,000 of them volunteered for “angel” shifts — meaning they helped guard the doors, staff the info desks, or build up or tear down. It was the largest ever CCC, and you could feel it, but they pulled it off, and then some.

The angels are geeks just like you and me, and since everything went so smoothly, they had time to play. For instance, the phone operations people offer DECT phone service so that attendees can bring in their home phones and use them at Congress. In years past, the lines to register and enroll phones were painfully long. This year, it all happened online, and the result is that the phone ops crew got bored. That explains how they had time to establish roaming home-phone wireless service in some of the normal Leipzig city trams. Wait, what?

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Hackaday Assembling At 35C3

Hackaday is going to be at the 35th annual Chaos Communication Congress (35C3), December 27th – 31st, and we’re putting together an assembly. If you’re coming to 35C3, come join us!

If you’ve never been to a Congress before, it’s an amazing scene. This year over 15,000 hackers will take over the Leipzig Congress Hall, bringing whatever they’re working on with them, and showing off their last-minute dazzlers. Congress is awesome in both senses of the word: simultaneously incredible and a little bit intimidating.

With the scale of the Congress approaching absurd proportions, it’s nice to have a home base. “Assemblies”, small-ish gatherings of friends, members of a hackerspace, or even just like-minded folks, join forces and get some table space and Ethernet connections to call their own, and this year we’ll be flying the Jolly Wrencher.

November 28th is the deadline for changing our headcount, so if you’d like to take part, click over to the Hackaday 35C3 Assembly IO project ASAP and leave a comment or join the team so we have a good estimate. If you’ve already got a home away from home, we’ll keep some extra seats warm for you to come by and chat. [Elliot] will also be wearing his press hat, so if you’ve got a project in desperate need of a Hackaday writeup you’ll know where to find him.

Hackaday, assemble!

Great People And Culture At 34th Chaos Communication Congress

If you’ve been to a Chaos Communication Congress, you know the feeling — the strange realization after it’s all over that you’re back in the “real world”. It’s somehow alienating and unfriendly in comparison to being surrounded by computer freaks, artists, hackers, activists, coders, and other like-minded individuals over the four days of the Congress. A hand-written poster by the podcasting center read “Endlich, normale Leute” — “At last, normal people” — which is irony piled on irony but the sentiment is still right for certain strange values of “normal”. Normal hackers? You’d probably fit right in.

We cover a lot of the talks from the Congress, because they’re first-class and because you can play along at home, but the real soul of the Congress is people getting together, making something temporary and crazy, talking over their common plans, learning new things directly from one-another, and simply having fun. Here’s our chance to give you a little of the other side of the Congress.
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34C3: Ultimate Apollo Guidance Computer Talk

While it might not be as exciting as the Saturn V rocket itself, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was one of the most important developments of the entire Apollo program. While comically underwhelming compared to modern hardware, the AGC was nothing short of revolutionary when it was developed in the 1960’s. Before the AGC, the smallest computers were about the size of a refrigerator and consumed hundreds of watts; both big problems if you’re trying to pack them into a relatively tiny space capsule with limited resources. Not only did the AGC get humanity to the Moon and back, but it also redefined the state of the art for microcomputers, paving the way for the desktop systems of the 1970’s.

That said, the design and operation of the AGC is downright bizarre to modern eyes; it comes from a time of limitations we can hardly fathom. With this in mind, [Michael Steil] and [Christian Hessmann] put together “The Ultimate Apollo Guidance Computer Talk” for 34C3.

This hour-long presentation walks viewers through every aspect of not only the AGC itself, but how it interacted with the Saturn V rocket and the overall lunar mission. Even if you aren’t enough of a vintage computing aficionado to appreciate the complexities of core rope memory, the presentation gives a fascinating look at the gritty details of one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

Though very slick and easy to understand graphics, [Michael] and [Christian] break down the alien world of the AGC. Even if a lot of this part of the presentation goes over your head, just listen for the sounds of laughter or applause from the audience: that’s when you’re looking at something really off-the-wall.

Of particular note during this presentation is the explanation of how the astronauts actually interacted with the AGC. The AGC’s display and keyboard (referred to as DSKY) may seem rather obtuse even to those who used to hack on a VT100, but [Michael] and [Christian] explain how it’s not quite as complex as it seems. Comparing the input and output of the DSKY with what we would see on a more contemporary command line interface, the presentation makes the case that it’s actually a very straightforward way of talking to the computer.

There’s also a complete breakdown of the different phases of the Apollo mission from launch to landing, explaining what the AGC would be doing at any given time. The DSKY is overlaid on actual footage from the Apollo missions, giving a unique perspective as to what the astronauts would see on their computer during iconic moments such as stage separation or lunar touchdown.

If this presentation has you hungry for more Apollo-era computer technology, we’ve covered plenty of projects to keep you occupied. From building a replica DSKY to leisurely paging through the printed version of the AGC’s source code.