HOPE XII: A FOSS Operating System for e-Readers

Free and open source software (FOSS) was a recurring theme during many of the talks during the HOPE XII conference, which should probably come as no surprise. Hackers aren’t big fans of being monitored by faceless corporate overlords or being told what they can and cannot do on the hardware they purchased. Replacing proprietary software with FOSS alternatives is a way to put control back into the hands of the user, so naturally many of the talks pushed the idea.

In most cases that took the form of advising you to move your Windows or Mac OS computer over to a more open operating system such as GNU/Linux. Sound advice if you’re looking for software freedom, but it’s a bit quaint to limit such thinking to the desktop in 2018. We increasingly depend on mobile computing devices, and more often than not those are locked down hard with not only a closed proprietary operating system but also a “Walled Garden” style content delivery system. What’s the point of running all FOSS software at home on your desktop if you’re carrying a proprietary mobile device around?

That’s precisely the thinking that got Marc Juul interested in the possibility of bringing a FOSS operating system to e-reader devices. During his talk “Liberate Your E-book Reader with fread.ink!”, he gave examples such as Amazon’s infamous remote deletion of 1984 off of users’ Kindles as a perfect example of the sort of control these companies exert on our personal devices. Marc believes the goal should be to completely replace the operating system on these devices with a free software alternative that still retains the ability to open electronic book formats. Not only would this keep the likes of Amazon or Barnes and Noble out of our reading habits, but turn these cheap readers into more capable devices in the bargain.

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HOPE XII: Make Your Own Holograms

Prior to this weekend I had assumed making holograms to be beyond the average hacker’s reach, either in skill or treasure. I was proven wrong by a Club-Mate box full of electronics, and an acrylic jig perched atop an automotive inner tube. At the Hope Conference, Tommy Johnson was sharing his hacker holography in a workshop that let a few lucky attendees make their own holograms on site!

The technique used here depends on interference patterns rather than beam splitting. A diffused laser beam is projected through holographic film onto the subject of the hologram — say a bouquet of flowers like in the video below. Photons from that beam reflect from the bouquet and pass back through the film a second time. Since light is a form of electromagnetic radiation that travels as a wave, anywhere that two peaks (one from the beam the other from the reflected light) align on the film, exposure occurs. With just a 1/2 second exposure the film is ready to be developed, and if everything went right you have created a hologram.

Simple, right? In theory, at least. In practice Tommy’s been doing this for nearly 30 years and has picked up numerous tips along the way. Let’s take a look at the hardware he brought for the workshop.

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HOPE XII: Time Travel with Software Defined Radio

It’s easy to dismiss radio as little more than background noise while we drive.  At worst you might even think it’s just another method for advertisers to peddle their wares. But in reality it’s a snapshot of the culture of a particular time and place; a record of what was in the news, what music was popular, what the weather was like, basically what life was like. If it was important enough to be worth the expense and complexity of broadcasting it on the radio, it’s probably worth keeping for future reference.

But radio is fleeting, a 24/7 stream of content that’s never exactly the same twice. Yet while we obsessively document music and video, nobody’s bothering to record radio. You can easily hop online and watch a TV show that originally aired 50 years ago, but good luck finding a recording of what your local radio station was broadcasting last week. All that information, that rich tapestry of life, is gone and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Or can we? At HOPE XII, Thomas Witherspoon gave a talk called “Creating a Radio Time Machine: Software-Defined Radios and Time-Shifted Recordings”, an overview of the work he’s been doing recording and cataloging the broadcast radio spectrum. He demonstrated how anyone can use low cost SDR hardware to record, and later play back, whole chunks of the AM and shortwave bands. Rather than an audio file containing a single radio station, the method he describes allows you to interactively tune in to different stations and explore the airwaves as if it were live.

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HOPE XII: Chelsea Manning

Saturday’s talk schedule at the HOPE conference was centered around one thing: the on-stage interview with Chelsea Manning. Not only was a two-hour session blocked out (almost every other talk has been one hour) but all three stages were reserved with live telecast between the three rooms.

I was lucky enough to get a seat very close to the stage in the main hall. The room was packed front to back. Even the standing room — mapped out on the carpet in tape and closely policed by conference “fire marshals” — was packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. The audience was alive with energy, and I think everyone lucky enough to be here today shares my feeling that moments like these tie our community together and help us all focus on what is important in life, as individuals and as a society.

Chelsea was very recently released from prison. So recently, that the last time this conference was held back in 2016, she and her close circle of friends were under the impression that she was very far from the end of her sentence. One such friend, Yan Zhu, joined Chelsea on stage in a comfortable armchair-setting to guide the interview.

Chelsea Manning was sentenced to serve 35 years in Leavenworth maximum-security prison, having been convicted in 2013 of violating the Espionage Act. This talk (and the article I’m writing now) was not about the events leading up to that conviction, but rather about Chelsea’s life since being released, with a bit of background on the experience of being incarcerated. Her early release came as the result of a commutation of sentence by President Barack Obama that returned her freedom just over one year ago.

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HOPE XIII: Oh The Fun You’ll Have With a Bit of Social Engineering

I’ve been aware of the Social Engineering panels, talks, and villages at many conferences over the past few years. For some reason, be it the line to get in or conflicting schedules, I haven’t made it to one. Today was my day and I had a blast. The Social Engineering Panel at HOPE XIII is a great introduction to the dark(ish) art and a stroll through memory lane with some notables in the field.

Social Engineering (SE) is the pseudo-science of getting what you want by convincing people to share information, usually without them even knowing they’re doing so. This particular panel focused on over-the-phone SE and the four panel members began with a simple illustration. SE has changed over the years in large part because it is increasingly difficult to get a human on the phone. For about ten minutes an attempt was made to reach a person at Verizon, AT&T, and Spectrum Cable. With a two minute limit per phone number, all were fails.

But this didn’t derail the talk, which featured story time from Emmanuel GoldsteinAlexander J. Urbelis, Flyko, and Cheshire Catalyst. As phreakers back in the day, and tele-social engineers still, the stories were very entertaining. The panel was live streamed but doesn’t look like the video is available on demand yet so I’ll give you a quick and entertaining overview.

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Hackers on Planet Earth, Here We Come!

This weekend is HOPE XII. The Hackers on Planet Earth conference is a biennial event held in New York City.

Dating all the way back to 1994, HOPE is an excellent collection of people and ideas. I was lucky enough to attend two years ago (my first time) and had a fantastic time meeting Cory Doctorow after his rousing talk about DMCA 1201, I got to hear Richard Stallman discuss why all software must be free, the talent show was off the hook, and there were fun people to hang out with at every turn.

The Hackaday Crew is making the pilgrammage to this event and you still can too! Tickets are available at the door. Come find us at a table in the vendor area — we’d love to see some hardware projects so bring those along! If you can’t make it to the event, you can still help guide our reporting. Check out the schedule for the weekend and help recommend what talks we should be at, just leave suggestions in the comments below.

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