Hackaday Links: June 6, 2021

There are a bunch of newly minted millionaires this week, after it was announced that Stack OverFlow would be acquired for $1.8 billion by European tech investment firm Prosus. While not exactly a household name, Prosus is a big player in the Chinese tech scene, where it has about a 30% stake in Chinese internet company Tencent. They trimmed their holdings in the company a bit recently, raising $15 billion in cash, which we assume will be used to fund the SO purchase. As with all such changes, there’s considerable angst out in the community about how this could impact everyone’s favorite coding help site. The SO leadership are all adamant that nothing will change, but only time will tell.

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Hackaday Links: May 30, 2021

That collective “Phew!” you heard this week was probably everyone on the Mars Ingenuity helicopter team letting out a sigh of relief while watching telemetry from the sixth and somewhat shaky flight of the UAV above Jezero crater. With Ingenuity now in an “operations demonstration” phase, the sixth flight was to stretch the limits of what the craft can do and learn how it can be used to scout out potential sites to explore for its robot buddy on the surface, Perseverance.

While the aircraft was performing its 150 m move to the southwest, the stream from the downward-looking navigation camera dropped a single frame. By itself, that wouldn’t have been so bad, but the glitch caused subsequent frames to come in with the wrong timestamps. This apparently confused the hell out of the flight controller, which commanded some pretty dramatic moves in the roll and pitch axes — up to 20° off normal. Thankfully, the flight controller was designed to handle just such an anomaly, and the aircraft was able to land safely within five meters of its planned touchdown. As pilots say, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, so we’ll chalk this one up as a win for the Ingenuity team, who we’re sure are busily writing code to prevent this from happening again.

If wobbling UAVs on another planet aren’t enough cringe for you, how about a blind mechanical demi-ostrich drunk-walking up and down a flight of stairs? The work comes from the Oregon State University and Agility Robotics, and the robot in question is called Cassie, an autonomous bipedal bot with a curious, bird-like gait. Without cameras or lidar for this test, the robot relied on proprioception, which detects the angle of joints and the feedback from motors when the robot touches a solid surface. And for ten tries up and down the stairs, Cassie did pretty well — she only failed twice, with only one counting as a face-plant, if indeed she had a face. We noticed that the robot often did that little move where you misjudge the step and land with the instep of your foot hanging over the tread; that one always has us grabbing for the handrail, but Cassie was able to power through it every time. The paper describing how Cassie was trained is pretty interesting — too bad ED-209’s designers couldn’t have read it.

So this is what it has come to: NVIDIA is now purposely crippling its flagship GPU cards to make them less attractive to cryptocurrency miners. The LHR, or “Lite Hash Rate” cards include new-manufactured GeForce RTX 3080, 3070, and 3060 Ti cards, which will now have reduced Ethereum hash rates baked into the chip from the factory. When we first heard about this a few months ago, we puzzled a bit — why would a GPU card manufacturer care how its cards are used, especially if they’re selling a ton of them. But it makes sense that NVIDIA would like to protect their brand with their core demographic — gamers — and having miners snarf up all the cards and leaving none for gamers is probably a bad practice. So while it makes sense, we’ll have to wait and see how the semi-lobotomized cards are received by the market, and how the changes impact other non-standard uses for them, like weather modeling and genetic analysis.

Speaking of crypto, we found it interesting that police in the UK accidentally found a Bitcoin mine this week while searching for an illegal cannabis growing operation. It turns out that something that uses a lot of electricity, gives off a lot of heat, and has people going in and out of a small storage unit at all hours of the day and night usually is a cannabis farm, but in this case it turned out to be about 100 Antminer S9s set up on janky looking shelves. The whole rig was confiscated and hauled away; while Bitcoin mining is not illegal in the UK, stealing the electricity to run the mine is, which the miners allegedly did.

And finally, we have no idea what useful purpose this information serves, but we do know that it’s vitally important to relate to our dear readers that yellow LEDs change color when immersed in liquid nitrogen. There’s obviously some deep principle of quantum mechanics at play here, and we’re sure someone will adequately explain it in the comments. But for now, it’s just a super interesting phenomenon that has us keen to buy some liquid nitrogen to try out. Or maybe dry ice — that’s a lot easier to source.

What Uses More Power Than Argentina But Doesn’t Dance The Tango?

There’s been a constant over the last few weeks’ news, thanks to Elon Musk we’re in another Bitcoin hype cycle. The cryptocurrency soared after the billionaire endorsed it, at one point coming close to $60k, before falling back to its current position at time of writing of around $47k. The usual tide of cryptocurrency enthusiasts high on their Kool-Aid hailed the dawn of their new tomorrow, while a fresh cesspool of cryptocurrency scam emails and social media posts lapped around the recesses of the Internet.

This Time It’s Different!

The worst phrase that anyone can normally say about a financial bubble is the dreaded phrase “This time it’s different“, but there is something different about this Bitcoin hype cycle. It’s usual to hear criticism of Bitcoin for its volatility or its sometime association with shady deals, but what’s different this time is that the primary criticism is of its environmental credentials. The Bitcoin network, we are told, uses more electricity than the Netherlands, more than Argentina, and in an age where global warming has started to exert an uncomfortable influence over our lives, we can’t afford such extravagance and the emissions associated with them.

Here at Hackaday we are more concerned with figures than arguments over the future of currency, so the angle we take away from it all lies with those power stats. How much energy does Argentina use, and is the claim about Bitcoin credible?

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Lowering The Electricity Bill By Mining Cryptocurrency

Wherever you are in the world, the chances are that a large portion of your utility bill is for heating. This was certainly the case for [Christian Haschek], who realized he can use a cryptocurrency mining rig to offset some of his heating costs.

[Christian]’s central ventilation and water heating is handled by a heat pump, which uses a lot of electricity, especially in the Austrian winter. When it draws in cool air, it first needs to heat it to the thermostat temperature before venting it to the house. Cryptocurrency mining rigs are also heavy electricity users, but they also produce a lot of heat, which can be used to preheat the air going to the heat pump. [Christian] had four older AMD R9 390 GPUs (equivalent to the Nvidia GeForce GTX 970) lying around, so he mounted them in a server case and piped the heat pump’s air intake through the case.

At the time he did the tests, earnings from mining were enough to cover half of his heating bill, even after paying for the mining rig’s electricity. That is not taking into account the electricity savings from the preheated air. He only shows the results of one evening, where it dropped his electricity usage from around 500Wh to below 250Wh. We would like to see the long-term results, and it would be an interesting challenge to build a model to calculate the true costs or savings, taking into account all the factors. For instance, it could be possible to save costs even if the mining rig itself is running at a slight loss.

Of course, this is not a new idea. A quick internet search yields several similar projects and even some commercial crypto mining space heaters. We do like the fact that [Christian] reused some hardware he already had and integrated it into his central heating rather than using it as a mobile unit.

When [Christian] isn’t building crypto heaters, he can be found flooding phishing scams with fake data, or tracking down corporate spies.

Hacking Hardware Bitcoin Wallets: Extracting The Cryptographic Seed From A Trezor

It’s long been common wisdom that one of the safest places to keep your cryptocurrency holdings is in a hardware wallet. These are small, portable devices that encrypt your keys and offer a bit more peace of mind than holding your coins in a soft or web wallet.

But of course, as we know, nothing is totally secure.

And we were reminded of this fact by Kraken Security Labs, when they showed us how they bypassed all of the safeguards in a popular wallet, the Trezor, to dump and decrypt it’s seed.

It’s worth noting that the hack does require physical access to the wallet — albeit only about fifteen minutes worth. And by “physical access” we mean that the hack leaves the device thoroughly mutilated. The Kraken team started by desoldering the heart of the wallet, a STM32 processor. They then dropped it into a socket on an interface board, and got to glitching.

The hack relies on an attack known as voltage glitching. Essentially, at a precisely-timed moment during the device’s boot sequence, the supply voltage is fluctuated. This enables the chip’s factory bootloader, which can read out the contents of it’s onboard flash memory. The memory is read-protected, but can be accessed 256 bytes at a time through a second voltage glitch. Neither of these attacks work 100% of the time, so if the device fails to boot or the memory remains locked, the FPGA performing the attacks simply tries again. After enough iterations, the Kraken team was able to fully dump the chip’s flash memory.

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A Xilinx Zynq Linux FPGA Board For Under $20? The Windfall Of Decommissioned Crypto Mining

One of the exciting trends in hardware availability is the inexorable move of FPGA boards and modules towards affordability. What was once an eye-watering price is now merely an expensive one, and no doubt in years to come will become a commodity. There’s still an affordability gap at the bottom of the market though, so spotting sub-$20 Xilinx Zynq boards on AliExpress that combine a Linux-capable ARM core and an FPGA on the same silicon is definitely something of great interest. A hackerspace community friend of mine ordered one, and yesterday it arrived in the usual anonymous package from China.

There’s a Catch, But It’s Only A Small One

The heftier of the two boards, in all its glory.
The heftier of the two boards, in all its glory.

There are two boards to be found for sale, one featuring the Zynq 7000 and the other the 7010, which the Xilinx product selector tells us both have the same ARM Cortex A9 cores and Artix-7 FPGA tech on board. The 7000 includes a single core with 23k logic cells, and there’s a dual-core with 28k on the 7010. It was the latter that my friend had ordered.

So there’s the good news, but there has to be a catch, right? True, but it’s not an insurmountable one. These aren’t new products, instead they’re the controller boards for an older generation of AntMiner cryptocurrency mining rigs. The components have 2017 date codes, so they’ve spent the last three years hooked up to a brace of ASIC or GPU boards in a mining data centre somewhere. The ever-changing pace of cryptocurrency tech means that they’re now redundant, and we’re the lucky beneficiaries via the surplus market.

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Hacking The FPGA Control Board From A Bitcoin Miner

For anyone serious about mining cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, we’re well past the point where a standard desktop computer is of much use. While an array of high-end GPUs is still viable for some currencies, the real heavy hitters are using custom mining hardware that makes use of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to crunch the numbers. But eventually even the most powerful mining farm will start to show its age, and many end up selling on the second hand market for pennies on the dollar.

Naturally, hackers are hard at work trying to find alternate uses for these computational powerhouses. While it won’t teach an old ASIC a new trick, [xjtuecho] has documented some very interesting details on the FPGA control board of the Ebit E9+ Bitcoin miner. Known as the EBAZ4205, this board can be purchased for around $20 USD from online importers and even less if you can find one used. Since it’s just the controller it won’t help you build a budget super computer, but there’s always interest in cheap FPGA development boards.

The Zynq SoC combines an FPGA and ARM CPU.

According to [xjtuecho], it takes a little bit of work to get the EBAZ4205 ready for experimentation. For one thing, you may have to solder on your own micro SD slot depending on where you got the board from. You’ll also need to add a couple diodes to configure which storage device to boot from and to select where the board pulls power from.

Once you’re done, you’ll have a dual core Cortex A9 Linux board with 256 MB DDR3 and a Artix-7 FPGA featuring 28K logic elements to play with. Where you go from there is up to you.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen FPGA boards hit the surplus market at rock bottom prices. When IT departments started dumping their stock of Pano Logic thin clients back in 2013, a whole community of dedicated FPGA hackers sprouted up around it. We’re not sure the if the EBAZ4205 will enjoy the same kind of popularity in its second life, but the price is certainly right.

[Thanks to Rog77 for the tip.]