Honor Your Hacker Heroes

We recently ran an article on a sweet percussion device made by minimal-hardware-synth-madman [Gijs Gieskes]. Basically, it amplifies up an analog meter movement and plays it by slamming it into the end stops. Rhythmically, and in stereo. It’s got that lovely thud, plus the ringing of the springs. It takes what is normally a sign that something’s horribly wrong and makes a soundtrack out of it. I love it.

[Gijs] has been making electro-mechanical musical hacks for about as long as I’ve been reading Hackaday, if not longer. We’ve written up no fewer than 22 of his projects, and the first one on record is from 2005: an LSDJ-based hardware sequencer. All of his projects are simple, but each one has a tremendously clever idea at its core that comes from a deep appreciation of everything going on around us. Have you noticed that VU meters make a particular twang when they hit the walls? Sure you have. Have you built a percussion instrument out of it? [Gijs] has!

Maybe it’s a small realization, and it’s not going to change the world by itself, but I’ve rebuilt more than a couple projects from [Gijs]’ repertoire, and each one has made my life more fun. And if you’re a regular Hackaday reader, you’ve probably seen hundreds or thousands of similar little awesome ideas played out, and maybe even taken some of them on as your own as well. When they accumulate up, I believe they can change the world, at least in the sense of filling up a geek’s life. I hope that feeling comes across when we write up a project. Those of you out there hacking, we salute you!

Why Can’t We Have Pretty Things?

I was reading [Al Williams]’ great rant on why sometimes the public adoption of tech moves so slowly, as exemplified by the Japanese Minister of Tech requesting the end of submissions to the government on floppy diskettes. In 2022!

Along the way, [Al] points out that we still trust ballpoint-pen-on-paper signatures more than digital ones. Imagine going to a bank and being able to open an account with your authentication token! It would be tons more secure, verifiable, and easier to store. It makes sense in every way. Except, unless you’ve needed one for work, you probably don’t have a Fido2 (or whatever) token, do you?

Same goes for signed, or encrypted, e-mail. If you’re a big cryptography geek, you probably have a GPG key. You might even have a mail reader that supports it. But try requesting an encrypted message from a normal person. Or ask them to verify a signature.

Honestly, signing and encrypting are essentially both solved problems, from a technical standpoint, and for a long time. But somehow, from a societal point of view, we’re not even close yet. Public key encryption dates back to the late 1970’s, and 3.5” diskettes are at least a decade younger. Diskettes are now obsolete, but I still can’t sign a legal document with my GPG key. What gives?

Who Is Responsible For Your Safety?

We recently posted a video where some ingenious metal-shop hackers made a simple jig to create zig-zag oil grooves on the inside of a cylinder, and the comment section went wild. What ensued was a flood of complaints that the video displayed unsafe shop practices, from lack of safety glasses to wearing flip-flops while operating a lathe.

Where the comments went off the rails were people asking Hackaday to remove our discussion of the video, because the commenters thought that we were somehow implicitly encouraging open-toed footwear in the presence of machine tools. We certainly weren’t! We wanted you all to see the clever machining hack, and be inspired to build your own. We figure that you’ve got the safety angle covered.

Now don’t get me wrong – there were safety choices made in the video that I would not personally make. But it also wasn’t my shop and I wasn’t operating the machines. And you know who is ultimately responsible for the safety in my basement shop? Me! And guess who is responsible for safety in your shop.

But of course, none of us know everything about every possible hazard. (Heck, I wrote just that a few weeks ago!) So while we’re sympathetic with the “that’s not safe!” crew, we’re not going to censor inspiring hacks just because something done along the way wasn’t done in the way we would do it. Instead, it’s our job, in the comment section as in Real Life™, to help each other out and share our good safety tips when we can.

You’ll see some crazy stuff in videos, and none of it is to be repeated without thinking. And if you do see something dodgy, by all means point it out, and mention how you would do it better. Turn the negative example around for good, rather than calling for its removal. Use the opportunity to help, rather than hide.

But also remember that when the chips are flying toward your personal eyeballs, it’s up to you to have glasses on. We all do potentially hazardous things all the time, and it’s best to be thinking about the risks and their mitigation. So stay safe out there. Keep on learning and keep on hacking!

Streamlining The Toolchain

Sometimes I try to do something magical, and it works. Most of the time this happens because other people have done a good part of the work for me, and shared it. I just cobble a bunch of existing tools into a flow that fits my needs. But the sum of all the parts is often less than the whole, when too many of the steps involve human intervention. Tools made for people simply keep the people in the loop.

For instance, I wanted to take a drawing that my son made into a stamp, by way of a CNC machine and whatever scrap wood we have kicking around in the basement. It’s easy enough, really. Take the photo, maybe use a little tweaking in GIMP to get the levels right, export it into Inkscape for the line detection and maybe even make the GCode right there, or take it off to any convenient SVG-to-GCode tool.

While this works straight out of the box for me, it turns out that’s because I have experience with all of the sub-tools. First, it helps a lot if you get the exposure right in the first place, and that’s not trivial when your camera’s light meter is aiming for grey, but the drawing is on white paper. Knowing this, you could set it up to always overexpose, I guess.

Still, there’s some experience needed in post-processing. If you haven’t played around with both image processing and image editing software, you don’t know how they’re going to interact. And finally, there are more parameters to tweak to get the CNC milling done than a beginner should have to decide.

In short, I had a toolchain up and running in a jiffy, and that’s a success. But in terms of passing it on to my son, it was a failure because he would have to learn way too many sub-tools to make it work for him. Bummer. I’m left wondering if I can streamline all of the parts to work together well enough, or whether I’m simply needed in the loop.

The Quiet Before The Storm?

My wife and I are reading a book about physics in the early 1900s. It’s half history of science and half biography of some of the most famous physicists, and it’s good fun. But it got me thinking about the state of physics 120 years ago.

What we’d now call classical mechanics was fully settled for quite a while, and even the mysterious electricity and magnetism had been recently put to rest by Maxwell and Heaviside. It seemed like there was nothing left to explain for a while. And then all the doors broke wide open.

As much as I personally like Einstein’s relativity work, I’d say the most revolutionary change in perspective, and driver of the most research in the intervening century, was quantum mechanics. And how did it all start? In the strangest of ways – with Niels Bohr worrying about why hydrogen and helium gasses gave off particular colors when ionized, which lead to his model of the atom and the idea of energy in quantum packets. Or maybe it was De Broglie’s idea that electrons could behave like waves or magnets, from slit and cathode-ray experiments respectively, that lead to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

Either way, the birth of the strangest and most profound physics revolution – quantum mechanics – came from answering some ridiculously simple and straightforward questions. Why does helium emit pink, and how do TVs work? (I know, they didn’t have TVs yet…) Nobody looking at these phenomena, apart or together, could have thought that answering them would have required a complete re-thinking of how we think about reality. And yet it did.

I can’t help but wonder if there are, in addition to the multi-bazillion dollar projects like the Large Hadron Collider or the James Webb Space Telescope, some simpler phenomena out there that we should be asking “why?” about. Are we in a similar quiet before the storm? Or is it really true that the way to keep pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance is through these mega-projects?

Dream Projects Face Reality

Do you ever get a project stuck in your mind? An idea so good you just keep thinking about it? Going over iterations and options and pros and cons in the back of your mind, or maybe on paper, but having not yet subjected it to the hard work of pulling it into reality? I’ve had one of those lurking around for the last couple weeks, and it’s time for me to get building.

And I’ve got to get started soon, because it’s rare that any project makes the leap from thought to reality unscathed, and when I hold on to the in-thought project too long, I become far too fond of some of the details and nuances that just might not make the cut, or might get in the way of getting a first pass finished. When I really like a (theoretical) solution to a (theoretical) problem, I’ll try to make it work a lot longer than I should, and I can tell I’m getting attached to this one now.

The only cure to this illness is to get prototyping. When the rubber hits the road, and the bolts are tightened, either the solution is a good one or it’s not, and no amount of dreaming is going to change that. Building is a great antidote to the siren song of a dream project. Although it feels now like I don’t want the fantasy to have to adapt to reality, as it inevitably will, I know that getting something working feels a lot better. And it frees me up to start dreaming on the next project… To the workshop!

When Is One Pixel Cooler Than Millions?

On vacation, we went to see a laser show – one of the old school variety that combines multiple different lasers of many different colors together into a single beam, modulates them to create different colors, and sends it bouncing off galvos to the roof of a planetarium. To a musical score, naturally.

When I was a kid, I had no idea how they worked, but laser shows were awesome. As a younger grownup hacker, and after some friends introduced me to the dark arts, I built my own setup. I now know how they work from the deepest innards out, and they are no less awesome. Nowadays, you can get a capable set of galvos and drivers for around a hundred bucks from the far east, it’s fair to say that there’s no magic left, but the awesome still remains.

RGB laser
“laser show” by Ilmicrofono Oggiono

At the same time, lasers, and laser shows, are supremely retro. The most stunning example of this hit me while tearing apart a Casio projector ages ago to extract the otherwise unobtainable brand new 455 nm blue laser diodes. There I was pulling one diode out of an array of 24 from inside the projector, and throwing away the incredibly powerful DSP processor, hacking apart the precision optical path, and pulling out the MEMS DLP mirror array with nearly a million little mirrors, to replace it with two mirrors, driven around by big old coil-of-wire electromagnets. Like a caveman.

But still, there’s something about a laser show that I’ve never seen replicated – the insane color gamut that they can produce. It is, or can be, a lot more than just the RGB that you get out of your monitor. Some of the colors you can get out of a laser (or a prism) are simply beautiful in a way that I can’t explain. I can tell you that you can get them from combining red, blue, green, cyan, and maybe even a deep purple laser.

What you get with a laser show pales in comparison to the multi-megapixel projectors in even a normal movie theater. Heck, you’ve really got one pixel. But if you move it around fast enough, and accompany it with a decent soundtrack, you’ve still got an experience that’s worth having while you still can.

[Banner image from a positively ancient RGB laser hack. We need more! Send us yours!]