Archive for the ‘Ponderings’ Category

Releasing free PDF of “Hacking the Xbox” in honor of Aaron Swartz

Monday, March 11th, 2013

No Starch Press and I have decided to release a free ebook version of Hacking the Xbox in honor of Aaron Swartz. As you read my book, I hope that you’ll be reminded of how important freedom is to the hacking community and that you’ll be inclined to support the causes that Aaron believed in.

Apologies in advance if there are any hiccups in the distribution of the free copy. The primary host is a server in my flat, which only has a 100Mbps up-link (currently pushing >30Mbps one hour after posting).

Open Source Geiger Counter Update

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Today, March 11, marks the second anniversary of the Tohoku-Oki earthquake that devastated Japan and triggered the meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi. In a desire to help any way I could, I joined Safecast and created an open source Geiger counter reference design, which I released last year around this time.

Since then, Safecast launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, and International Medcom has completed the monumental tasks of tooling, testing, debugging, and developing firmware for this little device.


Above: the limited edition Kickstarter version of the Geiger counter in action.


Above: the steel tools used to injection mold the ventral case of the Geiger counter.

Finally, the clear, limited-edition Kickstarter devices are shipping. You can see some photos of them on the Make Blog as Eric Weinhoffer at Make is helping to put the finishing touch on every unit: a laser-cut, limited edition serial number on the back of each case.

Having shipped many products myself, I know how hard everyone has worked to make this a reality. Congrats guys!

If you donate to Safecast between now and 11:59 PM EDT tomorrow, March 11th, Global Giving will match your donation 200%. As long as funding remains, they’ll even match your donation 100% until March 15th. Click the image below to learn more and contribute to a great project.


A Moment of Silence for Aaron Swartz

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

I am joining three academic research web sites, SIFT and Polyphen (websites for predicting disease mutations) and CRAVAT (a website for predicting cancer mutations), in a moment of silence to mark Aaron Swartz’ passing. On January 25, we will bring down our sites for the day to honor his contributions and mark the tragedy of his passing.

Aaron’s treatment by MIT is not unfamiliar to me. Back when I was a graduate student there, I extracted security keys from the original Microsoft Xbox video game console. I still remember the crushing disappointment of receiving a letter from MIT legal repudiating any association with my work, effectively leaving me on my own to face Microsoft. However, in my case, the faculty of my then-lab, the AI lab, were outraged by this treatment. They openly defied MIT legal by publishing my work as an official AI Lab Memo, thereby granting me greater negotiating leverage with Microsoft. Microsoft, mindful of the potential backlash from the court of public opinion over suing an openly legitimized academic researcher, came to a civil understanding with me over the issue.

It saddens me that America’s so-called government for the people, by the people, and of the people has less compassion and enlightenment toward their fellow man than a corporation. Having been a party myself to subsequent legal bullying by other entities, I am all too familiar with how ugly and gut-wrenching a high-stakes lawsuit can be. Fortunately, the stakes in my cases were not as high, nor my adversaries as formidable as Aaron’s, otherwise I too might have succumbed to hopelessness and fear. A few years ago, I started rebuilding my life overseas, and I find a quantum of solace in the thought that my residence abroad makes it a little more difficult to be served.

While the US legal system strives for justice, the rules of the system create an asymmetric war that favors those with resources. By and far one of the most effective methods to force a conclusion, right or wrong, against a small player is to simply bleed them of resources and the will to fight through pre-trial antics. Your entire life feels like it is under an electron microscope, every tiny blemish magnified into a pitched battle of motions, counter-motions, discovery, subpoenas and affidavits, with each action heaping tens of thousands of dollars onto your legal bill. Your friends, co-workers, employers, and family are drawn into this circus of humiliation as witnesses. Worse yet, you are counseled not to speak your candid thoughts to anyone, lest they be summoned as a witness against you. Isolated and afraid, it eventually makes more sense to roll over and settle than to take the risk of losing on a technicality versus a better-funded adversary, regardless of the justice.

The US government is by and far the most well-funded and fearsome enemy to spar with, and copyright law has some unusually large, if not cruel, penalties associated with it. I don’t know Aaron personally, but I feel the magnitude of the bullying he was subjected to is reflected by his decision to end his life. I echo Larry Lessig’s notion that the legal system in the US needs a sense of shame. At least to an outsider like me, it seems like some prosecutors in the US government are obsessed with making a big name for themselves. Winning cases gets them the recognition and credibility needed for promotions and assignments to ever higher profile cases. It’s not about justice, it’s about victory.

This system of incentives, I feel, contributes to the shameless bullying of individuals and small entities with enough guts to stand up and to do something a little daring. Individuals are robbed of the will and strength to fight for what they feel is right, as the mere act of prosecution can be as much a punishment as the verdict. As a result, I fear the era of civil disobedience may be coming to a close.

What has America become?

Sifteo Gen2: from Concept to Product

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Some readers may have already seen this, but adafruit has a great article written by Sifteo engineer Elizabeth Micah Scott about the challenges and trade-offs they encountered bringing their Gen2 product to market (full disclosure: I am an advisor for Sifteo).


I really appreciate the candidness of the writing, and the openness with which they discuss internal design aspects that many startups would normally regard as highly secret sauce. Then again, they do some amazingly clever things with very light, cheap 8-bit hardware, and they have every right to be proud of their technical accomplishments.


Sifteo has an SDK for those interested in developing for the platform.

I highly recommend the read, check out the article titled “How we built a Super Nintendo out of a Wireless Keyboard @Sifteo” here.

85,000 Watts of Pure Love

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Ever wonder what 85,000 watts looks like? Fear not, above is a handy visual aid.

This is the Robot Heart, which drove every night onto the deep playa at Burning Man and filled the desert with the cleanest, most powerful sound system I had ever heard. It was love at first beat — you can feel the bass in your chest from over a hundred meters away, and it sounds fabulous close-up. And the desert being a near-ideal infinite baffle, there are no reflections or echos to diminish the soundfield; you can still hear the clear and pure sound of the Robot Heart from almost a kilometer away. The best part is the whole thing is on wheels — it’s a rather surreal sight to see hundreds of people clad in fuzzy hats, LEDs, and EL-wire dance-walking along side the Robot Heart as it slowly migrates into the deep desert.

There’s nothing like watching the sunrise to the beats of the Robot Heart.

Shout-out to the Phage for being such an awesome and kind group of people to camp with. :) There’s no better way to spend a week camping in the desert than learning from a bunch of interesting and intelligent people.