Almond: Open Personal Assistant From Stanford

The current state of virtual personal assistants — Alexa, Cortana, Google, and Siri — leaves something to be desired. The speech recognition is mostly pretty good. However, customization options are very limited. Beyond that, many people are worried about the privacy of their data when using one of these assistants. Stanford Open Virtual Assistant Lab has rolled out Almond, which is open and is reported to have better privacy features.

Like most other virtual assistants, Almond has skills that determine what it can do. You can use Almond in a browser, on a Google phone, or as a command line application. It all lives on GitHub, so if you don’t like something you are free to fix it.

Continue reading “Almond: Open Personal Assistant From Stanford”

Print From The ESP8266, Courtesy Of Google

The ESP8266 has become the hacker’s microcontroller of choice because it’s exceptionally easy to get the chip connected to the network and talking to other devices. The fact that it’s also absurdly cheap is just a bonus. Since nearly every piece of electronics you buy today is “smart” enough to include some form of Internet control, that means there’s no shortage of gadgets these MCUs can potentially poke and prod.

In their latest tip, [TecnoProfesor] shows how you can interface the ESP8266 with Google’s Cloud Print, a service that enables simple remote printing over the web without having to worry about having the proper device drivers. Remote printing from the ESP8266 might seem like little more than a gag at first glance, but if you’re the kind of person who likes to have hard copies of data, adding the capability to generate a daily printed report to your weather station could be a nice weekend project.

[TecnoProfesor] provides explanations and source code for printing documents of various sizes from both the ESP8266’s internal flash storage and an SPI-attached SD card. Towards the end of the write-up, there’s even some explanation of how the setPrintDocument() function of the Cloud Print API can be used in more advanced scenarios, such as printing web pages or documents stored in Google Drive.

When we see microcontrollers connected to printers, they’re usually of the small thermal kind. Being able to access “real” printers with such a simple technique offers some interesting possibilities, though like most technology, there’s potential for it to be misused.

[Thanks to Andrew for the tip.]

Blend Your Last Frogs. Google Turns A Blind Eye To Flash.

Google has announced that it will no longer index Flash files.

Journey with me to a time in a faraway internet; a time before we had monetized social media. A time when the page you shared with your friends was your page and not a page on someone’s network. Way back when Visual Basic was what Python is now and JavaScript was a hack mostly used for cool effects. A hero arose. Macromedia Flash opened the gates to the interactive web, and for a chunk of time it consumed more than a decent portion of humanity’s attention and artistic output.

Computer art was growing, but was it public? How many grandmothers would see a demo?

New grounds were paved and anyone who wanted to become an animator or a web designer could manage it in a few tutorials. Only a few years before Flash took off, people had started talking about computers as a source for art in mostly theoretical terms. There were demoscenes, university studies, and professional communities, of course, but were they truly public? Suddenly Flash made computer art an everyday thing. How could computers not be used for art? In schools and offices all over the world people of varying technical skill would get links to games, animation, and clever sites sent by their friends and colleagues.

For 23 years Flash has had this incredible creative legacy. Yet it’s not perfect by any means. It’s a constant headache for our friendly neighborhood super-conglomerates. Apple hates how it drains the battery on their mobile devices, and that it’s a little village outside of their walled garden. Microsoft sees it as another endless security violation. They all saw it as a competitor product eating their proprietary code bases. Continue reading “Blend Your Last Frogs. Google Turns A Blind Eye To Flash.”

Google Creates Debuggable IPhone

Apple is known for a lot of things, but opening up their platforms to the world isn’t one of those things. According to a recent Google post by [Brandon Azad], there do exist special iPhones that are made for development with JTAG ports and other magic capabilities. The port is in all iPhones (though unpopulated), but is locked down by default. We don’t know what it takes to get a magic iPhone, but we are guessing Google can’t send in the box tops to three Macbook Pros to get on the waiting list. But what is locked can be unlocked, and [Brandon] set out to build a debuggable iPhone.

Exploiting some debug registers, it is possible to debug the A11 CPU at any point in its execution. [Brandon’s] tool single steps the system reset and makes some modifications to the CPU after key instructions to prevent the lockdown of kernel memory. After that, the world’s your oyster. KTRW is a tool built using this technique that can debug an iPhone with a standard cable.

Continue reading “Google Creates Debuggable IPhone”

Hackaday Links: October 13, 2019

Trouble in the Golden State this week, as parts of California were subjected to planned blackouts. Intended to prevent a repeat of last year’s deadly wildfires, which were tied in part to defective electrical distribution equipment, the blackouts could plunge millions in the counties surrounding Sacramento into the dark for days. Schools have canceled classes, the few stores that are open are taking cash only, and hospitals are running on generators. It seems a drastic move for PG&E, the utility that promptly went into bankruptcy after being blamed for last year’s fires, but it has the support of the governor, so the plan is likely to continue as long as the winds do. One group is not likely to complain, though;  California amateur radio operators must be enjoying a greatly decreased noise floor in the blackout areas, thanks to the loss of millions of switch-mode power supplies and their RF noise.

Good news, bad news for Fusion 360 users. Autodesk, the company behind the popular and remarkably capable CAD/CAM/CAE package, has announced changes to its licensing scheme, which went into effect this week. Users no longer have to pay for the “Ultimate” license tier to get goodies like 5-axis machining and generative design tools, as all capabilities are now included in the single paid version of Fusion 360. That’s good because plenty of users were unwilling to bump their $310 annual “Standard” license fee up to $1535 to get those features, but it’s bad because now the annual rate goes to $495. In a nice nod to the current userbase, those currently on the Standard license, as well as early adopters, will get to keep the $310 annual rate as long as they renew, and The $495 pricing tier went into effect in November of 2018, while anyone still on the $310 annual price was grandfathered in (and will remain to be). At that time there was still a $1535 tier called Ultimate, whose price will now be going away but the features remain in the $495 tier which is now the only pricing option for Fusion 360. Ultimate users will see a $1040 price drop. As for the current base of freeloaders like yours truly, fear not: Fusion 360 is still free for personal, non-commercial use. No generative design or tech support for us, though. (Editor’s Note: This paragraph was updated on 10/14/2019 to clarify the tier changes after Autodesk reached out to Hackaday via email.)

You might have had a bad day at the bench, but was it as bad as Román’s? He tipped us off to his nightmare of running into defective Wemos D1 boards – a lot of them. The 50 boards were to satisfy an order of data loggers for a customer, but all the boards seemed caught in an endless reboot loop when plugged into a USB port for programming. He changed PCs, changed cables, but nothing worked to stop the cycle except for one thing: touching the metal case of the module. His write up goes through all the dead-ends he went down to fix the problem, which ended up being a capacitor between the antenna and ground. Was it supposed to be there? Who knows, because once that cap was removed, the boards worked fine. Hats off to Román for troubleshooting this and sharing the results with us.

Ever since giving up their “Don’t be evil” schtick, Google seems to have really embraced the alternative. Now they’re in trouble for targeting the homeless in their quest for facial recognition data. The “volunteer research studies” consisted of playing what Google contractors were trained to describe as a “mini-game” on a modified smartphone, which captured video of the player’s face. Participants were compensated with $5 Starbucks gift cards but were not told that video was being captured, and if asked, contractors were allegedly trained to lie about that. Contractors were also allegedly trained to seek out people with dark skin, ostensibly to improve facial recognition algorithms that notoriously have a hard time with darker complexions. To be fair, the homeless were not exclusively targeted; college students were also given gift cards in exchange for their facial data.

For most of us, 3D-printing is a hobby, or at least in service of other hobbies. Few of us make a living at it, but professionals who do are often a great source of tips and tricks. One such pro is industrial designer Eric Strebel, who recently posted a video of his 3D-printing pro-tips. A lot of it is concerned with post-processing prints, like using a cake decorator’s spatula to pry prints off the bed, or the use of card scrapers and dental chisels to clean up prints. But the money tip from this video is the rolling cart he made for his Ultimaker. With the printer on top and storage below, it’s a great way to free up some bench space.

And finally, have you ever wondered how we hackers will rebuild society once the apocalypse hits and mutant zombie biker gangs roam the Earth? If so, then you need to check out Collapse OS, the operating system for an uncertain future. Designed to be as self-contained as possible, Collapse OS is intended to run on “field expedient” computers, cobbled together from whatever e-waste can be scrounged, as long as it includes a Z80 microprocessor. The OS has been tested on an RC2014 and a Sega Master System so far, but keep an eye out for TRS-80s, Kaypros, and the odd TI-84 graphing calculator as you pick through the remains of civilization.

Morse Code Catches Google Swiping Lyrics

We think of Morse code in terms of dots and dashes, but really it’s a kind of binary code. Those symbols might as well be 0s and 1s or any other pair of characters. That attribute is exactly what led to a sting operation a music lyric site called Genius.com pulled on Google. At issue was a case of song lyrics that had allegedly been stolen by the search giant.

Song lyric sites — just like Google — depend on page views to make revenue. The problem is that in a Google search the lyrics appear on the search page, so there is no longer much incentive to continue to the song lyric site. That’s free enterprise for you, right? It is, but there was a problem. It appears that Google — or, according to Google, one of their partners — was simply copying Genius.com’s lyrics. How does Genius know the song lyrics were copied? According to news reports in the Wall Street Journal and other sources, they used Morse code.

Continue reading “Morse Code Catches Google Swiping Lyrics”

Wing Opens The Skies For Drones With UTM

Yesterday Alphabet (formerly known as Google) announced that their Wing project is launching delivery services per drone in Finland, specifically in a part of Helsinki. This comes more than a month after starting a similar pilot program in North Canberra, Australia. The drone design Wing has opted for consists not of the traditional quadcopter design, but a hybrid plane/helicopter design, with two big propellers for forward motion, along with a dozen small propellers on the top of the dual body design, presumably to give it maximum range while still allowing the craft to hover.

With a weight of 5 kg and a wingspan of about a meter, Wing’s drones are capable of lifting and carrying a payload of about 1.5 kg. This puts it into a category of drones far beyond of what hobbyists tend to fly on a regular basis, and worse, it involves Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS for short) flying, which is frowned upon by the FAA and similar regulatory bodies. What Google/Alphabet figures that can enable them to make this kind of service a commercial reality is called Unmanned aircraft system Traffic Management (UTM).

UTM is essentially complementary to the existing air traffic control systems, allowing drones to integrate into these flows of manned airplanes without endangering either. Over the past years, it’s been part of NASA’s duty to develop the systems and infrastructure that would be required to make UTM a reality. Working together with the FAA and companies such as Amazon and Alphabet, the hope is that before long it’ll be as normal to send a drone into the skies for deliveries and more as it is today to have passenger and cargo planes with human pilots take to the skies.