Building An Electron Microscope For Research

There are a lot of situations where a research group may turn to an electron microscope to get information about whatever system they might be studying. Assessing the structure of a virus or protein, analyzing the morphology of a new nanoparticle, or examining the layout of a semiconductor all might require the use of one of these devices. But if your research involves the electron microscope itself, you might be a little more reluctant to tear down these expensive devices to take a look behind the curtain as the costs to do this for more than a few could quickly get out of hand. That’s why this research group has created their own electron detector.

Specifically, the electron detector is designed for use in a scanning electron microscope, which is typically used for inspecting the surface of a sample and retrieving a high-resolution, 3D image of it compared to transmission microscopes which can probe internal structures. The detector is built on a four-layer PCB which includes the photodiode sensing array, a series of amplifiers, and a power supply. All of the circuit diagrams and schematics are available for inspection as well thanks to the design being licensed under the open Creative Commons license. For any research team looking to build this, a bill of materials is also included, as is a set of build instructions.

While this is only one piece of the puzzle surrounding the setup and operation of an electron microscope, its arguably the most important, and also greatly lowers the barrier of entry for anyone looking to analyze electron microscope design themselves. With an open standard, anyone is free to modify or augment this design as they see fit which is a marked improvement over the closed and expensive proprietary microscopes out there. And, if low-cost microscopes are your thing be sure to check out this fluorescence microscope we featured that uses readily-available parts to dramatically lower the cost compared to commercial offerings.

Copyright Data, But Do It Right

Copyright law is a triple-edged sword. Historically, it has been used to make sure that authors and rock musicians get their due, but it’s also been extended to the breaking point by firms like Disney. Strangely, a concept that protected creative arts got pressed into duty in the 1980s to protect the writing down of computer instructions, ironically a comparatively few bytes of BIOS code. But as long as we’re going down this strange road where assembly language is creative art, copyright law could also be used to protect the openness of software as well. And doing so has given tremendous legal backbone to the open and free software movements.

So let’s muddy the waters further. Looking at cases like the CDDB fiasco, or the most recent sale of ADSB Exchange, what I see is a community of people providing data to an open resource, in the belief that they are building something for the greater good. And then someone comes along, closes up the database, and sells it. What prevents this from happening in the open-software world? Copyright law. What is the equivalent of copyright for datasets? Strangely enough, that same copyright law.

Data, being facts, can’t be copyrighted. But datasets are purposeful collections of data. And just like computer programs, datasets can be licensed with a restrictive copyright or a permissive copyleft. Indeed, they must, because the same presumption of restrictive copyright is the default.

I scoured all over the ADSB Exchange website to find any notice of the copyright / copyleft status of their dataset taken as a whole, and couldn’t find any. My read is that this means that the dataset is the exclusive property of its owner. The folks who were contributing to ADSB Exchange were, as far as I can tell, contributing to a dataset that they couldn’t modify or redistribute. To be a free and open dataset, to be shared freely, copied, and remixed, it would need a copyleft license like Creative Commons or the Open Data Commons license.

So I’ll admit that I’m surprised to have not seen permissive licenses used around community-based open data projects, especially projects like ADSB Exchange, where all of the software that drives it is open source. Is this just because we don’t know enough about them? Maybe it’s time for that to change, because copyright on datasets is the law of the land, no matter how absurd it may sound on the face, and the closed version is the default. If you want your data contributions to be free, make sure that the project has a free data license.

Wizards Get Creative, Maybe Save The World

While it’s not normal Hackaday fare, we’ve covered the Dungeons & Dragons licensing kerfuffle, partially because we’re all nerds at heart, and also because it’s worrying that an Open Source styled license could be “deauthorized”. I did touch base with the Open Source Initiative, and got a telling comment that this issue was outside their purview, as the OGL 1.0a didn’t rise to the definition of an OSI approved license, and the update looked to be a disaster.

Since our coverage was published, Wizards of the Coast released part of the Fifth Edition System reference Document (SRD) under a Creative Commons license, removed the profit sharing language from the OGL update, but notably left the language in place about deauthorizing the 1.0a version of the license. As you can imagine, fans were still unamused, and we informed WotC of our displeasure when they launched a survey, asking fans their thoughts on the new license.

And the outpouring was overwhelming, with over 15,000 survey responses in just over a week. The vast majority (90% for some questions) informed WotC that they had lost their collective minds. That response, combined with a plummeting subscription count on DND Beyond, Paizo’s explosion of popularity and new ORC license announcement, and the plethora of publishers jumping ship, has finally shone the light of reason upon management at WotC.

The latest announcement is a win in basically every regard. The OGL 1.0a will not be deauthorized, and the entire 5e SRD has been released under the Creative Commons 4.0 By Attribution license. That’s an interesting choice, as CC-BY-4.0 is a very permissive license. It’s not “viral”, as it does not place any licensing restrictions on derivative works, and there are no restrictions on commercial use. The only restriction is that attribution must be included. The latest SRD is now available under both licenses, you pick your preference. So as a reward for going through the trauma, we get a sizable chunk of the game under an even less restrictive license. Bravo.

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Why Fedora Decided To Give CC0 Licensed Code The Boot

The term “open source” can be tricky. For many people, it’s taken to mean that a particular piece of software is free and that they can do whatever they wish with it. But the reality is far more complex, and the actual rights you’re afforded as the user depend entirely on which license the developers chose to release their code under. Open source code can cost money, open source code can place limits on how you use it, and in some cases, open source code can even get you into trouble down the line.

Which is precisely what the Fedora Project is looking to avoid with their recent decision to reject all code licensed under the Creative Common’s “Public Domain Dedication” CC0 license. It will still be allowed for content such as artwork, and there may even be exceptions made for existing packages on a case-by-case basis, but CC0 will soon be stricken from the list of accepted code licenses for all new submissions.

Fedora turning their nose up at a software license wouldn’t normally be newsworthy. In fact, there’s a fairly long list of licenses that the project deems unacceptable for inclusion. The surprising part here is that CC0 was once an accepted license, and is just now being reclassified due to an evolving mindset within the larger free and open source (FOSS) community.

So what’s the problem with CC0 that’s convinced Fedora to distance themselves from it, and does this mean you shouldn’t be using the license for your own projects?

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flow IO module options

Get Your Flex On With The FlowIO Platform

Hackaday Prize 2021 entry FlowIO Platform promises to be to pneumatics what Arduino is to Electronics. The modular platform comprises a common controller/valve block, a selection of differently sized pumps, and a few optional connectivity and sensing blocks. With Arduino software support as well as as Javascript and web-GUI, there’s a way to program this no matter what the level of experience the user has.

flowIO exploded view
flowIO exploded view from

This last point is a critical one for the mission [Ali Shtarbanov] from the MIT Media Lab is setting out for this project. He reminds us that in decades gone by, there was a significant barrier to entry for anyone building electronics prototypes. Information about how to get started was also much harder to by before the internet really got into gear.

It’s a similar story for software, with tools like Scratch and Python lowering the barrier to entry and allowing more people to get their toes wet and build some confidence.

But despite some earlier work by projects like the Soft Robotics Toolkit and Programmable-Air, making a start on lowering the bar for pneumatics support for soft robotics, and related applications, the project author still finds areas for further improvement. FlowIO was designed from the ground-up to be wearable. It appears to be much smaller, more portable and supports more air ports and a greater array of sensing and connectivity than previous Open Source work to date.

Creative Commons Hardware

Whilst you can take all the plans (free account signup required) and build yourself a FlowIO rig of your very own, the project author offers another solution. Following on from the Wikipedia model of free sharing and distribution of information, FlowIO offers its hardware for free, for the common good. Supported by donations to the project, more hardware is produced and distributed to those who need it. The only ask is that redundant kits are passed on or returned to base for upgrade, rather than landfill.

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3D Printering: The Search For Better Search

There’s no question that a desktop 3D printer is at its most useful when it’s producing parts of your own design. After all, if you’ve got a machine that can produce physical objects to your exacting specifications, why not give it some? But even the most diligent CAD maven will occasionally defer to an existing design, as there’s no sense spending the time and effort creating their own model if a perfectly serviceable one is already available under an open source license.

But there’s a problem: finding these open source models is often more difficult than it should be. The fact of the matter is, the ecosystem for sharing 3D printable models is in a very sorry state. Thingiverse, the community’s de facto model repository, is antiquated and plagued with technical issues. Competitors such as Pinshape and YouMagine are certainly improvements on a technical level, but without the sheer number of models and designers that Thingiverse has, they’ve been unable to earn much mindshare. When people are looking to download 3D models, it stands to reason that the site with the most models will be the most popular.

It’s a situation that the community is going to have to address eventually. As it stands, it’s something of a minor miracle that Thingiverse still exists. Owned and operated by Makerbot, the company that once defined the desktop 3D printer but is today all but completely unknown in a market dominated by low-cost printers from the likes of Monoprice and Creality, it seems only a matter of time before the site finally goes dark. They say it’s unwise to put all of your eggs in one basket, and doubly so if the basket happens to be on fire.

So what will it take to get people to consider alternatives to Thingiverse before it’s too late? Obviously, snazzy modern web design isn’t enough to do it. Not if the underlying service operates on the same formula. To really make a dent in this space, you need a killer feature. Something that measurably improves the user experience of finding the 3D model you need in a sea of hundreds of thousands. You need to solve the search problem.

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This Billboard Kills Zika Mosquitoes

Once in a great while, effective advertising doesn’t require any human engagement at all. This billboard, designed and built by a pair of Brazilian ad agencies and set free under the Creative Commons license offers a reproducible solution for trapping Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, the primary carrier of the Zika virus.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

The design seems pretty simple, although the plans leave a bit of explanation to be desired. Inside the billboard are canisters of Lurex 3, a lactic acid-based mosquito attractant that is available pretty cheaply on Amazon. The lactic acid mimics the scent of human sweat and is released outward to distances up to 4km (2.5 miles) in a fine mist along with CO₂. Together, the Lurex and CO₂ act like a sweaty, mouth-breathing human beacon to lure mosquitoes into the billboard, where they become trapped and are doomed to die of dehydration.
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