05/03/2014 at 20:26 •
Before Techcrunch and Pando, it was Wired Magazine who held the role of defining zeitgeist on the Web. And before that, it was Mondo 2000 and a whole range of hacker/cyberpunk zines. But it all started with a couple of psychedelic guys in San Francisco, back in the 1984...
At first sight, it would be hard to imagine this publication has anything to do with technology. Nor it would at second. As a matter of fact, you can stare at it all you want, and still won't be able to make a connection with anything other than a bunch of stoned Upper Haight Yippies that somehow managed to get a hold of a printing press. And that wouldn't be too far from the truth. It's only real relationship with the upcoming tech scene was cultural, very much along the lines of the Whole Earth Catalog and other Stewart Brand's escapades from decades before. Only this time the head honcho was someone even more extreme - a counter-culture madman called R. U. Sirius. And this one makes Brand look like a middle-aged buttoned-up IBM employee on his way to work.
Bruce Sterling does a great job at portraying R. U. Sirius in his preface to "The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook":
R.U. Sirius basically resembles Gomez Addams in a purple fedora with an Andy Warhol badge pinned to the brim. The moment I met R. U., I felt a strong need to pitch him and examine his viscera. I'm sure there are many other freelance biomedical researchers who will feel the same intellectual impulse.
Given the editor of such profile, it was only natural for magazine to feature similar nutbags such as William Burroughs, Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary. As a matter of fact, R.U. Sirius's publications became the main vehicle which enabled Leary to rebrand himself as a "cyberpunk guru" in the 80ies and 90ies. Escapism apparently never goes out of vogue.
Leafing through the pages of High Frontiers (some of which are available online, digitalized as a part of the Mondo 200 history project), there isn't really all that much to see - "Smart" drugs, Grateful Dead, kaleidoscope of New Age and Fight-the-system ideas, more "Smart" drugs...
But published in the Bay Area it was...
Sitting at the nexus of counter-culture activism and burgeoning "Information Age" revolution coming from the peninsula, this generation of neo-hippies and freaks had something new to project their ideas on - the Internet. Though most of them did not really understand the underlying technology in that much detail, they got all the key concepts: free information, universal connectedness, virtual reality... And went crazy with them. Pages of High Frontiers are filled with weird extrapolations of "what does it all mean", how this new "computer reality" changes everything, and all the ways in which it can be (ab)used for fun & profit.
San Francisco/Berkley freaks being what they are, still managed to draw silly parallels between drug-induced "distortion" and computer-powered "crafting" of the data, and end up creating an altogether quite unhealthy "proto-cyberpunk" lifestyle. Most of this is history now but, interestingly enough, some of the ideas that came about during this era (Transhumanism, Singularity-fetishism..) are still alive and well, even picking up steam lately.
Looking backwards, it seems pretty obvious that mixing psychedelics and technology only happened because computers failed to immediately deliver on all the hype that cyber-freaks created around them. After all, you can dream all you want, but a 768x240 pixel black-green screen tends to get boring pretty quickly unless you understand what's going on inside.
But as 80ies were coming to an end, more and more interesting things started happening with all these green pixels, and a whole new generation of counter-culture characters began to emerge. That's when R.U. Sirius decided to close down the High Frontiers shop and start a new adventure - 'Reality Hackers', magazine that will change everything...
(To be continued)
04/14/2014 at 03:03 •
It's official: all the hype around IoT is starting to get a bit annoying. Not because there's anything wrong with building Internet-connected devices, but because so many people are trying to jump on the bandwagon with the same old "Future: brought to you by Megacorp #07"-mindset. Recycled visions of estranged professionals, with their homes, offices, business meetings and hotel rooms, all powered by the latest "one IoT platform to rule them all" - are back on. Even though the mythical "Smart" refrigerator haven't changed the world back in 2001, I guess that there's no harm in trying it again. After all, we have seen this working out great in software, with redos of dot-com era ideas turning into massive successes a decade later.
That's all fine, and we wish everyone the best of luck, but the future we're the biggest fans of is a hackable, community-built, open-hardware one. So when the guys from FTF2014 called us to host a two-day "lab" in which engineers would play around and try to come up with an interesting IoT product, we were more than happy to do it. We got roughly two dozen engineers to drop their lectures and training classes and hang out with us in the lab. We got Freescale to hand out a whole bunch of FRDM-K64F boards and a couple ofmbed.org guys to join us on-site and help out with dev tools. Two days later, we had our winner - "Don't Not Enter" by David Isbister and Ernie Aguilar. They did an amazing job, both in hacking up a great product (elaborate internet-connected cat flap door), but more importantly, in fixing a whole bunch of issues in the hardware/firmware/tools stack that we had on our hands. However, a true "disruptive" technology that came out of the whole event was our second-prize winner - Eli Hughes, and his project called: The Internet of "Thing". You've guessed it - it's the (Internet-connected) Thing! In this ultimate display of subversive playful cleverness, Eli did more than just creating an interesting project. He called out a large audience of otherwise buttoned-up "professional" engineers to start thinking beyond RFID and "Smart" devices and try to bring back a little bit of that wacky hacker spirit back into their work.
Eli's project is pretty interesting on the implementation side too. He did some surgery on Fantasma Toys Hand Runner to boost the power and created a circuit that interfaces Thing's built-in IR remote to the WiFi. He also built a cool command line interface and a touchscreen app, which communicate with the Thing via TCP server running on K64 board with RX-XV module. This setup allows for endless hours of fun, either by controlling the Thing via touch interface, or more importantly - by scripting it's movement using the DSL shell.
For more details, check out hisproject entry at hackaday.io . Hopefully Eli's project will serve as a great reminder for all of us that the future is not going to be just a"photorealistic version of Second Life" and if we're to built it, we will have to come up with some great and truly creative ideas.
04/07/2014 at 04:05 •
Bob Widlar (1937-1991) is without a doubt one of the most famous hardware engineers of all time.
In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he is the person who single-handedly started the whole Analog IC Industry. Sure, it's Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby who invented the concept of Integrated Circuit, but it's Widlar's genius and pragmatism that brought it to life. Though he was not first to realize the limitations of planar process and designing ICs like discrete circuits, he was the first one to provide an actual solution - µA702, the first linear IC Operational Amplifier. Combining his engineering genius, understanding of economic aspects of circuit design and awareness of medium and process limitations, he and Dave Talbert ruled the world of Analog ICs throughout 60s and 70s. F or a significant period of time, they were responsible more than 80 percent of all linear circuits made and sold in the entire world.
The list of his designs includes gems such as
µA709, improvement over original µA702, predecessor to LM741 and a Fairchild's flagship product for years, µA723 - first integrated voltage regulator and LM10 - first ultra-low-voltage opamp, which is still in production today. Students usually learn about Widlar via textbook-classicWidlar Current Source, a key piece in many of his designs, and the Bandgap Voltage Reference - both of which provide an infinite supply of mind-boggling exam problems. If there one theme that's common across all of Widlar's designs, it's that he has never designed an obvious circuit in his life. Every Widlar's design comes with a twist, a unique idea and very often, a prank. Classical example of this is the story of LM109, industry's first three-terminal adjustable voltage regulator and a predecessor to LM317. In 1969, Widlar wrote a paper in which he argued against feasibility of monolithic voltage regulators due to temperature swings and packaging limitations. Since he was an engineering legend by that time, industry took it seriously and people gave up trying to pursue such devices. Then in 1970, he has presented a circuit - LM109, which used his bandgap voltage reference to achieve exactly such "impossible" functionality. It is most likely that he has submitted both works within days from one another.
In addition to being a brilliant designer, Widlar was a personification of age to come in Sillicon Valley, combining counter-cultural, in-your-face attitude with entrepreneurial passion and desire to build products that people love.
He worked directly with customers and wrote his own app notes and data sheets. In fact, Widlar's µA702 laid out the blueprint for how all analog IC data sheets are to be written in the future. His principle was "designing for minimum phone calls" - 'if you make a million ICs; you get half a million phone calls if they don't work right". He was both destroyer of the worlds and creator of new markets - he came into Fairchild claiming that "what they do in analog is BS", but left the company as a dominant player in linear IC for years to come, mostly on wings of his designs. He then moved to Molectro (owned by National) but quickly ended up turning the parent company upside down and making into a Analog powerhouse. At the age of 33 he cashed out and retired in Mexico. But his hands couldn't stay idle for too long. He soon came back as contractor for National and in 1980, together with Robert Swanson and Bob Dobkin, ended up founding Linear Technology.
Still, he always remained troublemaker, free thinker and a HR nightmare, closer in spirit to someone like Hemingway than a fellow "professional" engineer. Such attitude was contagious and it inspired a whole new wave of "prankster" analog geniuses like Bob Pease and Jim Williams. Widlar's pranks are too many to count and it's really hard to pick one that captures spirit of the times the best.
Maybe it's when Widlar brought the sheep in front of National as a reaction to firm not mowing the lawns due to cost-cutting (he really just needed an excuse to annoy the upper management). Or when hecherry-bombed the intercom speaker , again, just to upset one of National's Vice Presidents. Some of the pranks were actual hardware, like a “hassler” circuit he built to detect audio, convert it to a very high audio frequency and play back the converted sound. Net effect of such design was - the louder someone talked in the office, the more annoying "ringing" effect caused by the feedback was, but as a person would stop shouting to hear what's causing the ringing - the effect would disappear as well. This way, he eventually he managed to get everyone in the office into speaking quietly, Pavlov-style.
Widlar passed away in 1991 but his legacy lives on. He truly was the original hardware hacker and more than just an engineer - he was an Artist. It's because of guys like him that Analog still has that special feel and is still more about "invention" than just following the straightforward path between A and B. And that is why Analog guys still greet everyone else with a "Widlar Salute".
Now, when I have finished my inspection, and I am still mad as hell because I have wasted a lot of time being fooled by a bad component - what do I do? I usually WIDLARIZE it, and it makes me feel a lot better. How do you WIDLARIZE something? You take it over to the anvil part of the vice, and you beat on it with a hammer, until it is all crunched down to tiny little pieces, so small that you don't even have to sweep it off the floor. It makes you feel better. And you know that that component will never vex you again. That's not a joke, because sometimes if you have a bad pot or a bad capacitor, and you just set it aside, a few months later you find it slipped back into your new circuit and is wasting your time again. When you WIDLARIZE something, that is not going to happen. And the late Bob Widlar is the guy who showed me how to do it.
Bob Pease - Troubleshooting Analog Circuits; Circuit Design : Know it All (2011)
 Bo Lojek - History of Semiconductor Engineering http://www.amazon.com/History-Semiconductor-Engineering-Bo-Lojek/dp/3540342575
04/05/2014 at 22:07 •
A number of Tape recorders planted in the woods and the village. As many as possible so as to lay down a grid of sound over the whole festival. Recorders have tapes of prerecorded material, music, news, broadcasts, recordings from other festivals, etc. At all times some of the recorders are playing back and some are recording. The recorders recording the crowd and the other tape recorders that are playing back at varying distances. This cuts in the crowd who will be hearing their own voices back. Play back, wind back and record could be electronically controlled with varying intervals. Or they could be hand operated, the operator deciding what intervals of play back, record, and wind to use. Effect is greatly increased by a large number of festival goers with portable recorders playing back and recording as they walk around the festival. Back in 1970, William Burroughs wrote an essay called"The Electronic Revolution" . In this surprisingly lucid work (at least compared to the rest of his fiction), he contemplates the concept of "tape recorder as weapon". At the most basic level, it can be read as a howto manual on using tape recorders in a crowd... "to create a sense of unease and unrest by playback of random noises cut with random recordings of the crowd itself". Because doing so, means disrupting Control (as popularized in all of Burrough's mythology) by "cutting down the lines of association" that mass media, and spreading of "language virus", depends on.
technology people are likely to disregard the rest of his work as abstract nonsense on the ontology of language or random ramblings of an old junkie, The Electronics Revolution is different because it brings the cut-up context to the level we're all comfortable with - as recordings and playbacks on portable tape recorders. Inspired by this piece, a whole new wave of bands such as Cabaret Voltaire started playing around with samples, tape loops and feedback in the early 70ies and the whole thing eventually ended up changing the face of pop culture and creating an explosion in music hardware. As usual, the whole usage of the tape recorder as a mean of cutting-up the reality and fighting Control with technology, never took off.
So why is this interesting?
Burroughs's essay surfaces the problem of Control (not in the "big brother" sense, but as "nefarious, ill-defined body all the more impossible to spot because the organs of control now control the controllers") and talks about tactical use of consumer electronics as a way to fight it. No matter how bizarre putting the two in the same sentence sounds today, it reflects a sense of empowerment technology once used to give. Tape Recorder. What a device! I can record the passage of time and play it back at will. Burroughs used to describe the man as "the time binding animal" and this is the path that consumer electronics continued to venture, with camcorders, mobile phones... and ultimately, Instagram. Still, it has been a while since I last heard someone trying to challenge our human weakness by using a new Web product. Instead, technology followed the path of Media, optimizing for lowest common denominator and ultimately regressing towards the mean. None of that "bicycles for our minds" stuff anymore. But hardware is different. If modern Web products have a natural tendency for becoming "media" (because of network's propensity for connecting people), good-old hardware is still more likely to become a "tool" first and, therefore, still bound to provide some concrete value and novel functionality. Indeed, we see a whole new wave of hardware products coming up - Oculus, Pebble, Nest... all of them delivering innovation and new experiences. As a matter of fact, some of them like FitBit and Pavlok are (ironically) directly after the whole "challenging our human weaknesses" thing, although in a somewhat counter-evolutionary (or perhaps post-evolutionary?) way. Maybe that's a good thing too. All in all, things are looking up.
Still, the question is - what will the whole new "Internet of Things" wave bring? That is where the two worlds collide. It's where tools become media and media becomes tools. Will these products still allow for creative abuse or will they lead to the ultimate self-imposed prison? We all know IoT is about the data, data about every move every single atom in the real world makes.
That's why everyone is going crazy about it. But what happens after we have exploited "instrumenting the real world" to its full potential? If "mass media control" was all about the language, memetics engineering and "laying down the lines of association", this new thing could be about the ultimate manifestation of Control - tyranny of the data. Data that all of us produce and nobody controls. Maybe that's a good thing too. But if it's not - what would be a tool to fight it? Will Cut-up still work in the age of Big Data?
Or maybe we can just build hackable, open-hardware future and won't have to worry about things like this...
03/30/2014 at 23:29 •
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." - Alan Kay
It used to be all about the future. Then it was not. "Software was eating the world" and we became focused on the present, felt proud that we're growing up, learning how to make money and 'disrupt' real industries. We became boring. But we thought that having handlebar moustache will somehow make all the difference. That we're really geniuses because, you know, building that photo sharing website using Bootstrap requires one.
Then, ten years in, the same geniuses started to complain - "what kind of future is this?" .... "where is my jetpack"? What in the world are all these scientists doing?
What they have forgotten is - that it was our job, not someone else's. And we have failed at it.
Now, it's not like everyone went crazy chasing the Web mammon. Some people just couldn't resist the urge to build things. They needed creative outlets, wanted to reach through the computer screen or simply had to see that LED blink. It was great!
But before they got the chance to change the world, the whole thing became mainstream. Facebook bought Oculus, Google bought Nest and everyone is trying to figure out what comes next. People are wallowing in self-righteousness about how they didn't back Oculus so that they could sell to Facebook before even launching, that Nest didn't really invent anything new and Google is either crazy or has some devious reasons for buying them. The more exits happen, the more will we troll because, you know; we were the first ones here. We were building hardware before it was cool. We blinked LEDs, read accelerometers, stepped these motors and printed 3d printer parts again & again deep into the night. And now some good looking dude with a SparkCore and a billion-dollar idea will get to say he's 'hardware engineer' too?
Sorry to break it to you, but it will happen. We can choose to sit on the sidelines and complain, or we can jump in and actually try to invent the future, before it happens.
That's what Hackaday Projects is all about.
As a matter of fact, it's already happening. Just take a look at
all the projects. If you want to see where this whole "Internet of Things" buzz is going, just browse around and add a little bit of commercial twist.A rubik's snake-like robot that senses different kinds of touch and responds in kind ? Add a wifi module and service that synchronizes these gizmos between two people online. Perhaps to play a game or communicate in a more "immersive" way. Sold! Look at theSci-Fi Contest Entries . Imagine simple forks of these and what happens when they're mass produced...
It could be all here, ideas, people, support. At this point in time, nobody is more qualified to do this than us.
But it probably won't happen. We have learned from Open Software that we can get together to solve problem, re-implement something that already exists or fight an evil corporation. But getting together to do something creative and actually build what never existed before, seems out of reach.
Still, we at least have to try. That's what Hackaday Projects is here for. To bring together creative people from all sides - hardware and software engineers, industrial designers, product guys, supporters, backers that "get it"... anyone that can help in turning our one-man-show toy projects into something that could change people's lives.
Bruce Sterling once said, "when a child writes a story, he does not do it because he wants to be a professional writer, but because he wants other kids to hang out with him".
It's time to grow up.