Confluence Of Nerdery

You might find yourself, dear Hackaday reader, attracted to some pretty strange corners of the tech world. Who knows when that knowledge of stenography, ancient retrocomputing, and floppy disk internals will all combine to get someone falsely accused out of jail? Go read this story and come on back, but the short version is that [Bloop Museum] helped recover some 40+ year old court evidence off of some floppies to right an old wrong.

If you looked at the combination of extremely geeky topics, you’d say it’s unlikely to find anyone well versed in any one of them, and you’d say that the chances of anyone knowing enough in each these fringe domains to be helpful is exceedingly low. But I’m absolutely sure that the folks at [Bloop Museum] had some more to throw into the mix if they were called for. Or better yet, they might know exactly the right geeks to call in.

And that’s the other heartwarming part of the story. When [Bloop Museum] didn’t know everything about old stenography formats, they knew the right people to reach out to – the Plover open stenography project. Who is going to know more? Nobody! Together, the nerd community is an unstoppable resource.

So remember, when you’re hanging out with your geek friends, to keep a running catalog of everyone’s interests. Because you never know when you’re going to need an expert in re-gilding frames, or relocating bee hives, or restoring 1930’s radio sets. Or decoding obscure data formats to get someone out of jail.

Hackaday Halloween

We’re running the 2023 Halloween Hackfest and it’s your chance to document your Halloween projects, and win fame, fortune, or at least one of three $150 DigiKey gift certificates, plus some Arduino schwag courtesy of the contest’s sponsors! You’ve got until the end of October, so get on it!

Blinded With Science

So the room-temperature superconductor was a super disappointment, but even though the claims didn’t stand up in the end, the even better news is that real science was done. A paper making extraordinary claims came out, the procedure to make LK-99 was followed in multiple labs around the world, and then it was tested. It didn’t turn out to conduct particularly well at all. After a couple weeks of global superconductor frenzy, everything is back to normal again.

What the heck happened? First of all, the paper itself made extravagant claims about a holy-grail kind of material. There was a very tantalizing image of a black pellet floating in mid air, which certainly seems like magic, even though it’s probably only run-of-the-mill ferromagnetism in the end. But it made for a great photo-op in a news-starved August, and the then-still-Twitterverse took to it by storm. And then the news outlets piled on the hype fest.

If you’re feeling duped by the whole turn of events, you’re not alone. But the warning signs were there from the beginning, if you took the time to look. For me, it was the closing line of the paper: “We believe that our new development will be a brand-new historical event that opens a new era for humankind.”

That’s not the kind of healthy skepticism and cautious conclusion that real science runs best on. Reading the paper, I had almost no understanding of the underlying materials science, but I knew enough about human nature to suspect that the authors had rushed the paper out the door without sufficient scrutiny.

How can we keep from being fooled again? Carl Sagan’s maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a good start. To that, I would add that science moves slowly, and that extraordinary evidence can only accumulate over time. So when you see hype science, simply wait to draw any conclusions. If it is the dawn of a new era, you’ll have a lot of time to figure out what room-temperature superconductivity means to you in the rosy future. And if it’s just a flash in the pan, you won’t have gotten your hopes up.

The Right Benchmark For GPT

Dan Maloney wanted to design a part for 3D printing. OpenSCAD is a coding language for generating 3D objects. ChatGPT can write code. What could possibly go wrong? You should go read his article because it’s enlightening and hilarious, but the punchline is that it ran afoul of syntax errors, but also gave him enough of a foothold that he could teach himself enough OpenSCAD to get the project done anyway. As with many people who have asked the AI to create some code, Dan finds that it’s not as good as asking someone who knows what they’re doing, but that it’s also better than nothing.

And this is where I start grumbling. When you type your desires into the word-follower machine, your alternative isn’t nothing. Your alternative is to fire up a search engine instead and type “openscad tutorial”. That, for nearly any human endeavor, will get you a few good guides, written by humans who are probably expert in the subject in question, and which are aimed at teaching you the thing that you want to learn. It doesn’t get better than that. You’ll be up and running with your design in no time.

Indeed, if you think about the relevant source material that the LLM was trained on, it’s exactly these tutorials. It can’t possibly do better than the best of them, although the resulting average tutorial might be better than the worst you’ll find. (Some have speculated on what happens when the entire Internet is filled with these generated texts – what will future AIs learn from?)

In Dan’s case, though, he didn’t necessarily want to learn OpenSCAD – he just wanted the latch designed. But in the end, he had to learn enough OpenSCAD to get the AI code compiling without error. He spent an hour learning OpenSCAD and now he’s good to go on his next project too.

So the next time you hear someone say that they got an answer back from a large language model that wasn’t perfect, but it was “better than nothing”, think critically if “nothing” is really the right benchmark.

Do you really want to learn nothing? Do you really have no resources to get started with? I would claim that we have the most amazing set of tutorial resources the world has ever known at our fingertips. Compared to the ability to teach millions of humans to achieve their own goals, that makes the LLM party tricks look kinda weak, in my opinion.

Who’s Afraid Of Assembly Language?

This week, [Al Williams] wrote a great thought piece about whether or not it was worth learning an assembly language at all anymore, and when. The comments overflowed, and we’re surprised that so many people basically agree with us: yes. Of course, it’s a Hackaday crowd, but I still didn’t expect the outpouring of love for the most primitive of languages.

Assembly language isn’t really one language, though. Every chip speaks its own dialect. Of course there are similarities: every CPU has an add function, right? But almost no CPU has just one add – there are variants with and without carry, storing and reading from working registers or RAM. And once you start talking about memory access, direct or indirect, the individual architectures of the chips demand different assembly languages.

But still, although the particular ways that CPUs do what they do can be incompatible from a strictly language perspective, they are a lot more similar in terms of the programming idioms that you’ll pick up along the way. Just as learning a set of solid algorithms will help you no matter which higher-level language you use, learning the concepts behind crafting loops and simple memory structures out of raw assembly language will serve you no matter which CPU you choose.

I have only written assembly language for a handful of CPUs, and not much of it at that, but I’ve found the microcontrollers to be the friendliest. So if you want to dip your toes in that water, pick up an AVR or an MSP430. Or maybe even the new hotness – a RISC-V. You’ll find the instruction sets small enough that you have to do most of the work yourself. And that is, after all, the point of learning an assembly language: learning to think like the silicon. If you treat it like a fun puzzle to solve, you’ll probably even enjoy the experience.

[Al]’s original question was when you should learn an assembly language: before or after a higher-level language. For 99% of our readers, I’d say the answer is right now.

Sweet Hacks

While talking about a solar powered portable Bluetooth speaker project on the podcast, I realized that I have a new category of favorite hacks: daily-use hacks.

If you read Hackaday long enough, you’ll start to categorize everything. There are the purely technical hacks, beautiful hacks, minimalist hacks, maximalist hacks, and then the straight-up oddball hacks. Sometimes what strikes us is the beauty of the execution. Sometimes it’s clever choice of parts that were designed to do exactly the right thing, and simply watching them do their job well is satisfying, and other times we like to see parts fooled into doing something they have no right to.

While I really like the above speaker build because it’s beautiful, and because it uses a clever choice of audio amplifier to work with the supercapacitors’ wild voltage swings, what really struck me about the project is that [Jamie Matthews] has been using it every day for the last nine months. It’s on his desk and he uses it to listen to music.

That’s a simple feat in a way, but it’s a powerful one. Some of my absolutely favorite projects of my own are similar – they are ones that I use all the time. Not the cliche “life hack”, which are usually like a clever way to peel a grapefruit, but rather hacks that become part of daily life. So look around you, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find a number of these “daily driver” hacks. And if you do, celebrate them.

(And maybe even send ’em in to the tips line to share!)

99% Partspiration

Thomas Edison once said that genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. That doesn’t leave much room for partspiration.

I’m working on a top-secret project, and had to place a parts order on AliExpress with a minimum order quantity of five in order to get decent shipping times. No big deal, financially, and it’s always great to have spares as backup for the ones you fry.

But as I started lighting up the little round smartwatch displays to put them through their paces, I started thinking of all sorts of ways that I could use something like this. I had no idea how easy to drive they were, or frankly, how good they looked in person. When you get a round display in your hands, you find that you need dial indicators everywhere.

And then my son came by and said “Oh neat. I want one!” and started thinking up all sorts of gizmos that I could put them in. Two of them would make awesome eyes, and he’s been on a chameleon kick – the animal, you know. So we’re looking for chameleon eye animations online.

And all of a sudden, I have more projects lined up than I have remaining screens. I’m calling this phenomenon “partspiration”. You know, when you figure out how to use something and then you see uses for it everywhere? Time to place another Ali order.

Gearing Up for the Hackaday Prize

And don’t forget, we just started the next round of the Hackaday Prize: Gearing Up. In this challenge round we want to see your best DIY tools, jigs, and workflow accelerators. Custom reflow plates, home-built power supplies, or even software tools – as long as it helps you get the job done, it has a place here. You’ve got until Aug. 8 to get your entry finished, but head on over to and get started now.

Shall We Hack A Game?

A fantastic summertime game has consumed many of the kids in my neighborhood. It’s basically a treasure hunt, but the treasures are all shoebox-sized NFC readers that are “easily” findable on a map. Players all have a smart card and run around from box to box, collecting points that depend on how far apart the boxes are from each other. Walk, skate, or bike 1 km between check-ins, and ten points show up on the e-paper screen.

It’s been going on for a few weeks now, and it’s not uncommon to see a line of two or three kids at any given box, all with the purple lanyards and smart cards around their necks. So far, the highest-rated plausible single efforts have 450 km (280 miles) under their belt. My son’s grade-school average is 45 km (28 miles) over three weeks. The goal is getting kids out on the early summer afternoons, and that seems to be working!

Of course I had to reverse engineer the infrastructure, so here’s what I started with. Each box knows your point standing as soon as you tap the card, with a small delay. Scores appear online about every four hours. And the boxes are all ~1 km from each other or less.

My first thought was some kind of mesh network – that would be by far the coolest solution. Each box could simply report your card number to a central database, and the rest is a simple matter of software. LoRa radios rounded out my fantasy design.

But the length of time between getting the points and their appearance online suggests otherwise. And, a little bit of playing around with my cellphone’s NFC reader gives up the juice – they are MiFare Classic cards with data storage. So I got my own card, ran around town, and diffed the results. I haven’t cracked the location/time-stamping yet, but I know exactly where my total points are stored.

I’m going to keep observing until I’ve got it figured out completely, but I’m so tempted to tweak the points and see what happens. Are some of the digits in what I think are a timestamp in reality a checksum? Will I get disqualified? Or worse, what if I make a mistake and get myself publicly into first place? OK, better to sit this one out on the sidelines – I really don’t want to be the jerk who crashes a fantastic kid’s game. Sometimes you’ve gotta know when not to hack.