A Brief History Of Viruses

It was around the year 1590 when mankind figured out how to use optical lenses to bring into sight things smaller than the natural eye can observe. With the invention of the microscope, a new and unexplored world was discovered. It will likely be of great surprise to the reader that scientists of the time did not believe that within this new microscopic realm lay the source of sickness and disease. Most would still hold on to a belief of what was known as Miasma theory, which dates back to the Roman Empire. This theory states that the source of disease was contaminated air through decomposing organic materials. It wouldn’t be until the 1850’s that a man by the name of Louis Pasteur, from whom we get “pasteurization”, would promote Germ Theory into the spotlight of the sciences.

Louis Pasteur experimenting in his lab.
Louis Pasteur. Source

Pasteur, considered by many as the father of microbiology, would go on to assist fellow biologist Charles Chameberland in the invention of the aptly named Pasteur Chamberland filter — a porcelain filter with a pore size between 100 and 1000 nanometers. This was small enough to filter out the microscopic bacteria and cells known at that time from a liquid suspension, leaving behind a supply of uncontaminated water. But like so many other early scientific instrumentation inventions it would lead to the discovery of something unexpected. In this case, a world far smaller than 100 nanometers… and add yet another dimension to the ever-shrinking world of the microscopic.

This is when we began to learn about viruses.

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A Surefire Way To Make Masks

By now, the wearing of a facemask to protect ourselves from pandemic infection is for many of us a daily fact of life. Perhaps that means a cheap disposable mask, but there’s no reason that has to be the case. It’s easy to make more durable masks that can be washed and re-used time and time again, and our Hackaday colleague [Kristina Panos] has shared her pattern and workflow to help you do it.

Her pattern isn’t a complex cut-out but a simple rectangle, and the trick of sewing them together and flipping them inside out makes for a very tidy result. With three pleats pressed in and the elastic sewn up the result is a mask that’s neat, attractive, effective, and cheap, which is a win in our book.

It’s worth repeating her important point that these are not for use in medical environments, instead they’re the standard street-wear aerosol catchers we’re all used to. This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at masks here at Hackaday, or indeed though [Kristana]’s are by far the tidier neither is it first time one of us has made a mask. We looked at them in depth last year in our surviving the pandemic as a hacker series.

Analyzing The “Source Code” Of The COVID-19 Vaccine

Computer programs are written in code, which comes in many forms. At the lowest level, there’s machine code and assembly, while higher-level languages like C and Python aim to be more human-readable. However, the natural world has source code too, in the form of DNA and RNA strings that contain the code for the building blocks of life. [Bert] decided to take a look at the mRNA source code of Tozinameran, the COVID-19 vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer.

The analysis is simple enough for the general reader, while nonetheless explaining some highly complex concepts at the cutting edge of biology. From codon substitutions for efficiency and the Ψ-base substitution to avoid the vaccine being destroyed by the immune system, to the complex initialisation string required at the start of the RNA sequence, [Bert] clearly explains the clever coding hacks that made the vaccine possible. Particularly interesting to note is the Prolase substitution, a technique developed in 2017. This allows the production of coronavirus spike proteins in isolation of the whole virus, in order to safely prime the immune system.

It’s a great primer and we can imagine it might inspire some to delve further into the rich world of genetics and biology. We’ve featured other cutting edge stories on COVID-19 too; [Dan Maloney] took a look at how CRISPR techniques are helping with the testing effort. If there’s one thing the 2020 pandemic has shown, it’s humanity’s ability to rapidly develop new technology in the face of a crisis.

Automatic Sanitizer For Your Cupholder

Why is it so hard to remember to use hand sanitizer between going into the store and driving back home? We tried hanging a bottle off the windshield wiper stalk, but it gets in the way and is hard to use and share with passengers. The ideal thing would be to have a hands-free pump in the car that reminds you to use it.

You don’t have to wire this to the ignition or anything — all you have to do is power it with the cigarette lighter (or straight-up outlet, if you’re lucky). Every time you turn the key, this pump powers up and performs a little song to remind you to use it. Electronically speaking, it couldn’t be simpler — an Arduino UNO reads your hand from the distance sensor and activates a servo that dispenses three short pumps of isopropyl alcohol. Check it out in action after the break.

Want a hands-free solution for the house? Just build something you can step on.

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Distance Learning Land

[familylovermommy] has been homeschooling her kids even before the pandemic, so she’s pretty well-versed on being a learning coach and a teacher. One of the activities she designed for her boys has them creating 3D models using Tinkercad. In the spirit of openness and cultivating freethinking, she did not give them very many constraints. But rather, gave them the liberty to creatively design whatever scene they imagined.

In the Instructable, she shares her sons’ designs along with instructions to recreate the models. The designs as you’ll see are pretty extensive, so she embedded the Tinkercad designs directly into it. You can even see a number of video showcases as well.

This is a really cool showcase of some pretty stellar workmanship. Also, maybe a bit of inspiration for some of our readers who are creating work from home activities of their own.

While you’re at it, check out some of these other work-from-home hacks.

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COVID-tracing Framework Privacy Busted By Bluetooth

[Serge Vaudenay] and [Martin Vuagnoux] released a video yesterday documenting a privacy-breaking flaw in the Apple/Google COVID-tracing framework, and they’re calling the attack “Little Thumb” after a French children’s story in which a child drops pebbles to be able to retrace his steps. But unlike Hänsel and Gretl with the breadcrumbs, the goal of a privacy preserving framework is to prevent periodic waypoints from allowing you to follow anyone’s phone around. (Video embedded below.)

The Apple/Google framework is, in theory, quite sound. For instance, the system broadcasts hashed, rolling IDs that prevent tracing an individual phone for more than fifteen minutes. And since Bluetooth LE has a unique numeric address for each phone, like a MAC address in other networks, they even thought of changing the Bluetooth address in lock-step to foil would-be trackers. And there’s no difference between theory and practice, in theory.

In practice, [Serge] and [Martin] found that a slight difference in timing between changing the Bluetooth BD_ADDR and changing the COVID-tracing framework’s rolling proximity IDs can create what they are calling “pebbles”: an overlap where the rolling ID has updated but the Bluetooth ID hasn’t yet. Logging these allows one to associate rolling IDs over time. A large network of Bluetooth listeners could then trace people’s movements and possibly attach identities to chains of rolling IDs, breaking one of the framework’s privacy guarantees.

This timing issue only affects some phones, about half of the set that they tested. And of course, it’s only creating a problem for privacy within Bluetooth LE range. But for a system that’s otherwise so well thought out in principle, it’s a flaw that needs fixing.

Why didn’t the researchers submit a patch? They can’t. The Apple/Google code is mostly closed-source, in contrast to the open-source nature of most of the apps that are running on it. This remains troubling, precisely because the difference between the solid theory and the real practice lies exactly in those lines of uninspectable code, and leaves all apps that build upon them vulnerable without any recourse other than “trust us”. We encourage Apple and Google to make the entirety of their COVID framework code open. Bugs would then get found and fixed, faster.

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Fog-Free Mask Hack Solves Mask Versus Glasses Conundrum With Superb Seal

If you have worn a mask and glasses together for more than a quarter of a second, you are probably annoyed that we don’t have a magical solution for foggy lenses. Moisture-laden air is also a good indicator of where unfiltered air is escaping. Most masks have some flexible metal across the nose bridge that is supposed to seal the top, but it is woefully inadequate. The Badger Seal by [David Rothamer] and [Scott Sanders] from the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering is free to copy during the COVID-19 pandemic, even commercially. It works by running an elastic cord below the jaw and a formable wire over the nose to encourage contact all around both mouth and nose.

You can build your own in three ways. Each configuration is uniquely suited to a different situation. The first design is the easiest to make and should work for most people. The second is best for folks who need a better seal on the lower half of their face, like someone sporting a beard. It can also have ear loops, and that means your 3D printed ear savers have another use. The Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin also has fun with lock cracking and graphene experiments.
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