Is It A Toy? A Prototype? It’s A Hack!

Some of the coolest hacks do a lot with a little. I was just re-watching a video from [Homo Faciens], who after building a surprisingly capable CNC machine out of junk-bin parts and a ton of ingenuity, was accidentally challenged by Hackaday’s own [Dan Maloney] to take it a step further. [Dan] was only joking when he asked “Can anyone build a CNC machine out of cardboard and paperclips?”, but then [Homo Faciens] replied: cardboard and paperclip CNC plotter. Bam!

My favorite part of the cardboard project is not just the clever “encoder wheel” made of a bolt dipped in epoxy, with enough scraped off that it contacts a paperclip once per rotation. Nor was it the fairly sophisticated adjustable slides and ways that he built to mimic the functionality of the real deal. Nope.

My favorite part of this project is [Norbert] explaining that the machine has backlash here, and it’s got play there, due to frame flex. It is a positive feature of the machine. The same flaws that a full-metal machine would have are all present here, but due to the cheesy construction materials, you can see them with the naked eye instead of requiring a dial indicator. Because it wiggles visible tenths of an inch where a professional mill would wiggle invisible thousandths, that helps you build up intuition for the system.

This device isn’t a “prototype” because there’s no way [Norbert] intends it for serious use. But it surely isn’t just a “toy” either. “Instructional model” makes it sound like a teaching aid, created by a know-it-all master, intended to be consumed by students. If anything, there’s a real sense of exploration, improvisation, and straight-up hacking in this project. I’m sure [Norbert] learned as much from the challenge as we did from watching him tackle it. And it also captures the essence of hacking: doing something unexpected with tech.

Surprise us!

This article is part of the Hackaday.com newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 200+ weeks. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

Want this type of article to hit your inbox every Friday morning? You should sign up!

How Much Is DIY Worth To You?

It all started with an article about Wink Labs putting a monthly fee on their previously free service. It wasn’t so much the amount they were asking ($5 / month) that raised my hackles, but rather the fact that they would essentially render a device that you ostensibly bought worthless unless you paid up. I’ve ranted about this enough recently, and the quick summary is that IoT companies seem very bad at estimating their true costs, and the consumer ends up suffering for it.

So I started thinking about the price myself. Is $5 per month for a home automation service a lot or a little? On one hand, if you stretch that out to, say, 10 years, you end up with a net present value of something north of $400, plus $70 for the device. That’s a lot, right? Surely, I could DIY myself a solution for less? Or am I falling into the same IoT trap?

This isn’t hypothetical, because I already have a modest DIY home automation system. We run a bunch of switches, have temperature and humidity loggers in relevant rooms, and the washer and dryer notify us when they’re done. I also use the MQTT infrastructure for all sorts of fun projects, but that’s a bonus. Our hub is a $10 Orange Pi and a long-since depreciated WRT54g router, and it’s run for four years now, and probably will last another six. So that looks like $460 in my pocket.

On the other hand, it’s only really a bargain for me because I already knew what I was doing when I set the system up, and what I didn’t know I wanted to learn. Realistically, I probably spent around 20 hours on the system in total, but most of that has been adding in new devices and tweaking old ones. You’d have to do this sort of thing with any other system too, although my guess is that the professional systems are more streamlined at enrolling new gadgets: I have a whole directory full of Python scripts running as daemons and have to do a lot of hand editing. Still, assuming nothing else drastic happens to the system, I’m probably winning by DIYing here.

But imagine that I had little or no technical clue, and even flashing an image of a pre-configured home automation system to a Raspberry Pi were new. How much time does it take to learn how to do something like that? How much time to learn to administer even such a simple system on your home network? If it took the real me 20 hours, it could be easily twice that much for the hypothetical me. Let’s say 46 hours of time invested. $10 / hour is below minimum wage in many places, and this isn’t minimum wage labor, and that was fairly optimistic.

In the end, the $5 per month is probably pretty fair if the system works. Indeed, when I look around at all of the systems I’ve built, most all of them have taken more time to build than I thought when I was starting. Of course, I’ve enjoyed it most of the time, so maybe it’s not fair to apply my full consulting rates. (Which if I charged my father-in-law for tech support, I’d be rich!) But it’d probably be naive to say that everyone should just DIY themselves a home automation solution when the going gets tough.

So look around you and revel in the hours you’ve spent on your various DIY projects. Who knew that they were worth so much?

This article is part of the Hackaday.com newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 200+ weeks. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

Want this type of article to hit your inbox every Friday morning? You should sign up!

Hardware Hacker’s Marie Kondo: How Many LM386s Is Too Many?

We’re running a contest on Making Tech at Home: building projects out of whatever you’ve got around the house. As a hacker who’s never had a lab outside of my apartment, house, or hackerspace, I had to laugh at the premise. Where the heck else would I hack?

The idea is that you’re constrained to whatever parts you’ve got on hand. But at the risk of sounding like Scrooge McDuck sitting on a mountain of toilet paper, I’ve got literally hundreds of potentiometers in my closet, a couple IMUs, more microcontrollers than you can shake a stick at, and 500 ml of etching solution waiting for me in the bathroom. Switches, motors, timing belts, nichrome wire…maybe I should put in an order for another kilogram of 3D printer filament. In short, unless it’s a specialty part or an eBay module, I’m basically set.

But apparently not everyone is so well endowed. I’ve heard rumors of people who purchase all of the parts for a particular project. That ain’t me. The guru of household minimalism asks us to weigh each object in our possession and ask “does it spark joy?”. And the answer, when I pull out the needed 3.3 V low-dropout regulator and get the project built now instead of three days from now, is “yes”.

And I’m not even a hoarder. (I keep telling myself.) The rule that keeps me on this side of sanity: I have a box for each type of part, and they are essentially fixed. When no more motors fit in the motor box, no more motors are ordered, no matter how sexy, until some project uses enough of them to free up space. It’s worked for the last 20 years, long before any of us had even heard of Marie Kondo.

So if you also sit atop a heap of VFD displays like Smaug under the Lonely Mountain, we want to see what you can do. If you do win, Digi-Key is sending you a $500 goodie box to replenish your stash. But even if you don’t win, you’ve freed up space in the “Robot Stuff” box. That’s like winning, and you deserve some new servos. Keep on hacking!

This article is part of the Hackaday.com newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 200+ weeks. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

Want this type of article to hit your inbox every Friday morning? You should sign up!

You Need More Weird

What do you do when you need to solve a problem creatively? Me, I go for a walk, preferably in the woods. It’s about as far away from the desk and computer as possible, and somehow getting outside of the box that is my office helps me to think outside of the metaphorical box as well. Maybe it’s the fresh air, maybe it’s the exercise. Or maybe, it’s putting my physical head in a different (head)space that helps me to think differently.

Psychologists are finding that being outside, being an outsider, or even just being exposed to the straight-up strange can help you think weirder, that is, more creatively. That artists, authors, and other hyper-creative folks are often a little bit odd is almost a cliche. Think of the artists who did their best work while under the influence of drugs, mental illness, or drastic dislocations.

The good news is that you might not have to go so far. Psychologists are able to measure increases in creative problem solving simply by exposing people to weirdness. And you don’t have to go on a magic-mushroom trip to get there either. In one study, this was playing in an upside-down VR world before answering a questionnaire, for instance. Ray Wilson meant it tongue-in-cheek when he suggested that building a silly synthesizer would help you think, but who’s laughing now that science is backing him up?

So if you find yourself, as I do, stuck inside the same four walls, make sure that you break out of the box from time to time. Expose your brain to weird, for your own creativity’s sake. Make some time for a completely wacky project. And of course, read more Hackaday! (We’ve got weird.)

This article is part of the Hackaday.com newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 200+ weeks. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

Want this type of article to hit your inbox every Friday morning? You should sign up!

The Game That Launched 1,000 Hackers

John Conway passed away this week. Even if you don’t know much about mathematics, you will probably know nearly everyone’s favorite cellular automata ruleset: Conway’s “Game of Life”. It’s so much a part of our cultural history, that proto-hacker Eric Scott Raymond suggested using the glider as the hacker emblem.

The idea that a very simple set of rules, applied equally and everywhere, could result in “life” was influential in my growth as a young hacker, and judging from the comments on our article about Conway, I’m not alone. But I won’t lie: I was a kid and thought that it could do much more than make pretty patterns on the screen. I was both right and wrong.

Although amazingly complex machines can be built in Conway’s Life, just check out this video for proof, in the end no grand unifying theory of cellular automata has emerged. As a research topic Conway’s chosen field of mathematics, cellular automata is a backwater. It didn’t really go anywhere. Or did it?

Implementing Conway’s Life in BASIC on a Tandy Color Computer was one of the first things that launched me on my geeky path. It ranks with MENACE: the matchbox-based machine learning algorithm from the 1960’s and an introduction to Markov Chains in the form of a random text generator in my young algorithmic life, all of which I incidentally read about in Martin Gardner’s column in “Scientific American”. Conway’s Life, along with some dumb horse-race game, also taught me about bad random-number generators: the screen would populate the same “randomly” every time on the old CoCo.

So maybe Conway didn’t want to be remembered just for his “Life” because it was a bit of a mathematical dead-end. But in terms of its impact on the world, an entire generation of hackers, and my own personal life, it was able to fill up significantly more than a screen full of pixels. Here’s to Conway, his “Life”, and everyone else who is inspiring the next. You’re not just gliders, you’re glider guns!

This article is part of the Hackaday.com newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 200+ weeks. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

Want this type of article to hit your inbox every Friday morning? You should sign up!

[Game of Life example shown in this article is John Conway’s Game of Life – 1.0 written in Python by Nick Jarvis and Nick Wayne]

Can Solid Save The Internet?

We ran an article on Solid this week, a project that aims to do nothing less than change the privacy and security aspects of the Internet as we use it today. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who invented the World Wide Web as a side project at work, is behind it, and it’s got a lot to recommend it. I certainly hope they succeed.

The basic idea is that instead of handing your photos, your content, and your thoughts over to social media and other sharing platforms, you’d store your own personal data in a Personal Online Data (POD) container, and grant revocable access to these companies to access your data on your behalf. It’s like it’s your own website contents, but with an API for sharing parts of it elsewhere.

This is a clever legal hack, because today you give over rights to your data so that Facebook and Co. can display them in your name. This gives them all the bargaining power, and locks you into their service. If instead, you simply gave Facebook a revocable access token, the power dynamic shifts. Today you can migrate your data and delete your Facebook account, but that’s a major hassle that few undertake.

Mike and I were discussing this on this week’s podcast, and we were thinking about the privacy aspects of PODs. In particular, whatever firm you use to socially share your stuff will still be able to snoop you out, map your behavior, and target you with ads and other content, because they see it while it’s in transit. But I failed to put two and two together.

The real power of a common API for sharing your content/data is that it will make it that much easier to switch from one sharing platform to another. This means that you could easily migrate to a system that respects your privacy. If we’re lucky, we’ll see competition in this space. At the same time, storing and hosting the data would be portable as well, hopefully promoting the best practices in the providers. Real competition in where your data lives and how it’s served may well save the Internet. (Or at least we can dream.)

This article is part of the Hackaday.com newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 200+ weeks. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

Want this type of article to hit your inbox every Friday morning? You should sign up!

COVID-19 Statistics: Reading The Tea Leaves

If you’ve been tracking the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, as we have, you’ve doubtless seen a lot of statistics. The raw numbers look shocking, and in many cases they are, but as always it’s crucially important to ask yourself what the numbers mean.

For instance, our own Tom Nardi put together a counter that displays the total number of COVID-19 cases in the US. It’s a cool project that puts together some web-scraping, a nice OLED screen, and a 3D-printed network display. When this is all over, it can be easily re-trained to show some other statistic of interest, and it’s a great introduction to a number of web APIs. However, it’s looking at the wrong number.

Let me explain. Diseases spread exponentially: the more people who have it, the more people are spreading it. And exponential curves all look the same when you plot out their instantaneous values — the raw number of COVID-19 cases. Instead, what distinguishes one exponential from another is the growth parameter, and this is related to the number of new cases per day, or more correctly, to the day-to-day change in new cases.

If left unchecked, and especially in the early stages of spread, the number of new cases grows every day. But as control efforts, mainly social distancing, take effect, the rate at which the number of new cases can slow, or even go negative. That’s the plan, anyway.

As is very well explained by this video from 3 Blue, 1 Brown, if this were a naturally spreading epidemic, the point at which the new cases just starts to decline marks the halfway point in the course of the disease. Here, we’re hoping that particularly strict quarantining procedures will cut this run even shorter, but if you’re interested in how the disease is spreading, the point when daily new infections turns around is what you’re looking for.

Why not put the daily difference in new cases on your desktop, then? These numbers are noisy, and the difference jumps all around. To be serious, you would probably want to put a moving average on the new cases figure, and look at that difference. Or simply show the new cases instead and look for it to drop for a few days in a row.

Still, this won’t be a perfect measure. For starters, COVID-19 seems to incubate for roughly a week without symptoms. This means that whatever numbers we have, they’re probably a week behind the actual situation. We won’t see the effects of social distancing for at least a week, and maybe more.

Further complicating things is the availability of tests, human factors like weekends when more people get tested but fewer government reporting offices are open, timezones, etc. (What happened on Feb. 13?)

I’m not going to go so far as to say that the COVID-19 stats that we see are useless — actually far from it. But if you’re going to armchair quarterback this pandemic, do it right. Plot out the daily new cases, maybe apply a little smoothing, at least in your head, and realize that whatever you’re seeing now probably represents what happened last week.

When you finally see the turning point, you may celebrate a little, because that means the halfway point was a week ago. We’ve seen it happen in China around Feb 2, and I’m looking forward to it happening here. I hope it happens wherever you are, and soon.

We will get through this. Stay safe, all. And keep yourself uninfected to keep others uninfected.

This article is part of the Hackaday.com newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 212 weeks or so. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

Want this type of article to hit your inbox every Friday morning? You should sign up!