Impostor Syndrome: It’s Not Your Fault!

[Crispernaki] and I have something in common. We both saw this awesome project that made a scroll wheel out of a VHS head back in 2010, and wanted to make one. We both wanted to put our own spin on the gadget, (tee-hee), discovered that it was harder than either of us wanted to commit to, and gave up.

Flash forward about a million Internet years, and [crispernaki] finally made his and wrote it up. The only problem is that it was too easy. In 2010, making USB gadgets was a lot more involved than it is today. (Back then, we had to chisel device descriptors on stone tablets.) Nowadays, the firmware is just a matter of importing the right library, and the hardware is a magnetic rotation sensor breakout board, a magnet, and super glue. Cheap, and easy.

All of this led our hero to feeling insecure. After all, a hack that beat him a dozen years ago turned out to be dead easy today. Maybe it was too easy? Maybe he wasn’t a “real” hacker? These are the signs of impostor syndrome – that feeling that just because you aren’t the world’s best, or climbing the highest mountain, or hacking the hardest project, you’re not worthy.

Well, listen up. Impostors don’t finish projects, and impostors don’t write them up to share with all the rest of us. By actually doing the thing – hacking the hack – all chances of being a fake are ruled out. The proof is sitting there on your desk, in all its Altoids-tin glory.

And it’s not your fault that it was too easy this time around. You can’t do anything to turn back the hands of time, to make the project any harder these days, or to undo the decade of hacker technical progress on the software side, much less change the global economy to make a magnetic sensor unobtainable again. The world improved, you got your hack done, and that’s that. Congratulations! (Now where do I buy some of those on-axis magnets?)

The Eternal Dilemma

It’s two weeks until Supercon! We can almost smell the solder from here. If you’re coming, and especially if it’s your first time, you’re soon to be faced with the eternal dilemma of hacker cons, only at Supercon it’s maybe a trilemma or even a quadralemma: hang out with folks, work on the badge, go to talks, or show off all the cool stuff you’ve been working on the past year?

Why not all four? That’s exactly why we start off with a chill-out day on Friday, when we don’t have much formally planned. Sure, there’s a party Friday night, and maybe a badge talk or some workshops, but honestly you’ll have most of the day free. Ease into it. Have a look at the badge and start brainstorming. Meet some new people and start up a team. Or just bathe in the tremendous geekery of it all. This is also a great time to show off a small project that you brought along. Having the widget that you poured brain, sweat, and tears into sitting on the table next to you is the perfect hacker icebreaker.

On Saturday and Sunday, there will definitely be talks that you’ll want to attend, so scope that out ahead of time and plan those in. But don’t feel like you have to go to all of them, either. Most of the talks will be online, either right away or eventually, so you won’t miss out forever. But since our speakers are putting their own work out there, if you’re interested in the subject, having questions or insight about their talk is a surefire way to strike up a good conversation later on, and that’s something you can’t do online. So plan in a few talks, too.

You’ll find that the time flies by, but don’t feel like you have to do it all either. Ask others what the coolest thing they’ve seen is. Sample as much as you can, but it’s not Pokemon – you can’t catch it all.

See you in two weeks!

(PS: The art is recycled from a Supercon long, long ago. I thought it was too nice to never see it again.)

Close To The Metal

Firmware is caught between hardware and software. What do I mean? Microcontroller designers compete on how many interesting and useful hardware peripherals they can add to the chips, and they are all different on purpose. Meanwhile, software designers want to abstract away from the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the hardware peripherals, because code wants to be generic and portable. Software and hardware designers are Montagues and Capulets, and we’re caught in the crossfire.

I’m in the middle of a design that takes advantage of perhaps one of the most idiosyncratic microcontroller peripherals out there – the RP2040’s PIOs. Combining these with the chip’s direct memory access (DMA) controllers allows some fairly high-bandwidth processing, without bogging down the CPUs. But because I want this code to be usable and extensible by a wide audience, I’m also trying to write it in MicroPython. And configuring DMA controllers is just too idiosyncratic for MicroPython.

But there’s an escape hatch. In my case, it’s courtesy of the machine.mem32 function, which lets you read and write directly into the chip’s memory, including all of the memory-mapped configuration registers. Sure, it’s absurdly low-level, but it means that anything you read about in the chip’s datasheet, you can do right away, and from within the relative comfort of a Micropython program. Other languages have their PEEK and POKE equivalents as well, or allow inline assembler, or otherwise furnish you the tools to get closer to the metal without having to write all the rest of your code low level.

I’m honestly usually a straight-C or even Forth programmer, but this experience of using a higher-level language and simultaneously being able to dive down to the lowest levels of bit-twiddling at the same time has been a revelation. If you’re just using Micropython, open up your chip’s datasheet and see what it can offer you. Or if you’re programming at the configure-this-register level, check out the extra benefits you can get from a higher-level language. You can have your cake and eat it too!

Try It Out

It’s like Star Wars versus Star Trek at a SciFi convention, or asking creamy or chunky at the National Peanut Butter Appreciation Festival. (OK, we made that one up.) When Jenny reviewed the 1.0 version of LibrePCB, it opened the floodgates. Only on Hackaday!

Of course it makes sense that in a community of hardware hackers, folks who are not unfamiliar with the fine art and engineering of designing their own PCBs, have their favorite tools. Let’s face it, all PCB design software is idiosyncratic, and takes some learning. But the more fluent you are with your tool of choice, the more effort you have invested in mastering it, leading to something like the sunk-cost phenomenon: because you’ve put so much into it, you can’t think of leaving it.

The beauty of open-source software tools is that there’s almost nothing, aside from your own psychology, stopping you from picking up another PCB program, kicking the proverbial tires with a simple design, and seeing how it works for you. That’s what Jenny did here, and what she’s encouraged me to do. Whether it’s beginner-friendly Fritzing (also recently in version 1.0), upstarts LibrePCB or Horizon EDA, heavyweight champion KiCAD, or the loose-knit conglomeration of tools in coralEDA, you have enough choices that something is going to fit your PCB hand like a glove.

I certainly wouldn’t risk a swap up to a new tool on something super complicated, or something with a tight deadline, but why not start up a fun project to test it out? Maybe follow Tom Nardi’s lead and make a Simple Add-on, for a badge or just as a blinky to put on your desk? Don’t be afraid to try something new!

Horrendous Mess Of Wires

When do you post your projects? When they’re done? When they’re to the basic prototype stage? Or all along the way, from their very conception? All of these have their merits, and their champions.

In the post-all-along-the-way corner, we have Hackaday’s own [Arya Voronova], who outlines the many ways that you can start documenting your project before it’s even a fully fledged project. She calls these tidbits “breadcrumbs”, and it strikes me as being a lot like keeping a logbook, but doing it in public. The advantages? Instead of just you, everyone on the Internet can see what you’re up to. This means they can offer help, give you parts recommendations, and find that incorrect pinout that one pair of eyes would have missed. It takes a lot of courage to post your unfinished business for all to see, but ironically, that’s the stage of the project where you stand to gain the most from the exposure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the folks who document their projects at the very end. We see a ton of these on Hackaday.io and in people’s personal blogs. It’s a great service to the community, frankly, because at that point, you’re already done with the project. This is the point where the reward, for you, is at its minimum, but it’s also the point where you feel least inhibited about sharing if you’re one of those people who are afraid of showing your work off half-done. The risk here, if you’re like me, is that you’re already on to the next project when one is “done”, and going back over it to make notes seems superfluous. Those of you who do it regardless, we salute you!

And then there’s the middle ground. When you’re about one third of the way done, you realize that you might have something half workable, and you start taking a photo or two, or maybe even typing words into a computer. Your git logs start to contain more than just “fixed more stuff” for each check-in, because what if someone else actually reads this? Maybe you’re to the point where you’ve just made the nice box to put it in, and you’re not sure if you’ll ever go back and untangle that rat’s nest, so you take a couple of pictures of the innards before you hot glue it down.

I’m a little ashamed I’m probably on the “post only when it’s done” end of things than is healthy, mostly because I don’t have the aforementioned strength of will to go back. What about you?

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.