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!

Ask Hackaday: Why Retrocomputing?

I recently dropped in on one of the Vintage Computer Festival events, and it made me think about why people — including myself — are fascinated with old computer technology. In my case, I lived through a lot of it, and many of the people milling around at VCF did too, so it could just be nostalgia. But there were also young people there.

Out of curiosity, I asked people about the appeal of the old computers on display there. Overwhelmingly, the answer was: you can understand the whole system readily. Imagine how long it would take you to learn all the hardware and software details of your current desktop computer CPU. Then add your GPU, the mass storage controllers, and your network interface. I don’t mean knowing the part numbers, specs, and other trivialities. I mean being able to program, repair, and even enhance it.

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Open Source And Giving Back

3D printing YouTuber [Thomas Sanladerer] made a fairly contentious claim in a video about the state of open source hardware and software: namely that it’s not viable “anymore”. You can watch his video for more nuance, but the basic claim is that there are so many firms who are reaping the benefits of open designs and code that the people who are actually doing the work can’t afford to make a living anymore.

[Thomas] then goes on to mention a few companies that are patenting their 3DP innovations, and presumably doing well by it, and he then claims that patenting is probably the right way forward from a business standpoint.

The irony that he says this with a Voron 3D printer sitting behind him was not lost on us. The Voron is, after all, a very successful open-source 3D printer design. It’s just rock solid, has lots of innovative touches, and an extensive bill of materials. They don’t sell anything, but instead rely on donations from their large community to keep afloat and keep designing.

At the same time, a whole bunch of companies are offering Voron kits – all of the parts that you’d have to source yourself otherwise. While not mass-market, these kit sales presumably also help keep some of the 3D printer enthusiast stores that sell them afloat. Which is all to say: the Voron community is thriving, and a number of folks are earning their livings off of it. And it’s completely open.

When [Thomas] complains that some players in the 3DP business landscape aren’t giving back to the open-source community effort, he’s actually calling out a few large-scale Chinese manufacturers making mass-market machines. These companies aren’t interested in pushing the state of the art forward anyway, rather just selling what they’ve got. And sure, there are a million Creality Enders for every Voron 2 out there. And yes, they reap the benefits of open designs and code. But they’re competing in an entirely different market from the real innovators, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

Let us know what you think. (And if you’re reading this in the newsletter format, head on over to Hackaday on Saturday morning to leave us your comments.)

Farewell American Computer Magazines

I grew up in a small town with a small library. The next town over had what I thought at the time was a big library, but it was actually more like my town had a tiny library, and the next one over had an actual small library. When I left to go to University, I found out what a real library looked like, and I was mesmerized. Books! Lots of books, many of them written in the current decade. My grades probably suffered from the amount of time I spent in the library reading things that didn’t directly relate to my classes. But there was one thing I found that would turn out to be life-changing: A real computer magazine. Last month, Harry McCracken pointed out that the last two widely-distributed American consumer computer magazines ceased paper publication. It is the end of an era, although honestly, it is more like a comatose patient expiring than a shocking and sudden demise.

Dr. Dobb’s first issue was far from the slick commercial magazine it would become.

Actually, before I had gone to college, I did have a subscription to Kilobaud, and I still have some copies of those. No offense to Wayne Green, but Kilobaud wasn’t that inspiring. It was more an extension of his magazine “73”, and while I enjoyed it, it didn’t get me dreaming. Dr. Dobb’s Journal — the magazine I found in the stacks of my University’s library — was tangibly different. There was an undertone of changing the world. We weren’t sure why yet, but we knew that soon, everyone would have a computer. Maybe they’d balance their checkbook or store recipes. A few people already saw the potential of digital music reproduction, although, I must admit, it was so poor at the time, I couldn’t imagine who would ever care.

I say it was life-changing to discover the few issues of Dr. Dobb’s that were published back then because I would go on to contribute to Dr. Dobb’s throughout its storied history. I wrote the infamous DOS extender series, produced special issues, and, when it went mostly digital, was the embedded system blogger for them for more years than I care to admit. In fact, I have the dubious distinction of having the final blog posted; although the website has suffered enough bit rot, I’m not sure any of it has survived other than, maybe, on the Wayback machine. While I wasn’t with the magazine for its entire 38-year run, I read it for at least 35 and had some function there for about 24 of those.

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All Your Robots Are Belong To Us: You Just Rent Them

Monthly bills. Everyone has them. Except if you go far enough back, not everyone had them. After all, you might live in a home your family has owned for generations. You might be able to produce all the basic necessities using your homestead: food from a garden, water from a well, textiles, soap, and candles. You might have to buy the occasional animal, but your recurring bills could be modest outside of the ever-present tax burden.

But as people moved to cities, they had to pay rent. Buy gas or coal and, eventually, electricity. Water and trash collection are pretty essential, too. But at some point, everyone realized that being in a position to bill you monthly is a good idea. Now we pay for the internet, movie subscriptions, meal plans, alarm monitoring, shopping clubs, cell phones, spa memberships. Soon we might be paying a monthly fee for our robots, too.

Rent To (Not) Own

In industry, this is a common occurrence. You often don’t buy a robot arm or similar device. That, after all, is a capital expense, and most tax codes require you to count it as an asset that slowly depreciates. Instead, you hire a robot from a service provider. Not only does that make it a pure expense, but the provider worries about software, repairs, and all that.

But at home, it is different. There’s no tax advantage in most places between owning a car and leasing it. Yet vendors want to adopt a rent-a-robot strategy. Case in point: a startup named Matician wants you to sign up for a robotic vacuum. For $125 a month, you get a super smart robot vacuum. You could, of course, buy a Roomba, but — according to Matician — the Matic robot uses computer vision to map your house and automatically finds messes. You can also voice command it to clean up areas. It also avoids wire and furniture. They didn’t mention if it can avoid presents left by your pets or not. It will avoid pets and kids, though.

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Copyright Data, But Do It Right

Copyright law is a triple-edged sword. Historically, it has been used to make sure that authors and rock musicians get their due, but it’s also been extended to the breaking point by firms like Disney. Strangely, a concept that protected creative arts got pressed into duty in the 1980s to protect the writing down of computer instructions, ironically a comparatively few bytes of BIOS code. But as long as we’re going down this strange road where assembly language is creative art, copyright law could also be used to protect the openness of software as well. And doing so has given tremendous legal backbone to the open and free software movements.

So let’s muddy the waters further. Looking at cases like the CDDB fiasco, or the most recent sale of ADSB Exchange, what I see is a community of people providing data to an open resource, in the belief that they are building something for the greater good. And then someone comes along, closes up the database, and sells it. What prevents this from happening in the open-software world? Copyright law. What is the equivalent of copyright for datasets? Strangely enough, that same copyright law.

Data, being facts, can’t be copyrighted. But datasets are purposeful collections of data. And just like computer programs, datasets can be licensed with a restrictive copyright or a permissive copyleft. Indeed, they must, because the same presumption of restrictive copyright is the default.

I scoured all over the ADSB Exchange website to find any notice of the copyright / copyleft status of their dataset taken as a whole, and couldn’t find any. My read is that this means that the dataset is the exclusive property of its owner. The folks who were contributing to ADSB Exchange were, as far as I can tell, contributing to a dataset that they couldn’t modify or redistribute. To be a free and open dataset, to be shared freely, copied, and remixed, it would need a copyleft license like Creative Commons or the Open Data Commons license.

So I’ll admit that I’m surprised to have not seen permissive licenses used around community-based open data projects, especially projects like ADSB Exchange, where all of the software that drives it is open source. Is this just because we don’t know enough about them? Maybe it’s time for that to change, because copyright on datasets is the law of the land, no matter how absurd it may sound on the face, and the closed version is the default. If you want your data contributions to be free, make sure that the project has a free data license.