Name that Ware, June 2018

June 3rd, 2018

The Ware for June 2018 is shown below.

This month we’ll start with the very zoomed in and slightly torn down view of the ware, and if nobody’s nailed it I’ll release some more contextual images throughout the month.

Special thanks to Nava for giving me this ware!

Update June 19, 2018: Looks like people are stumped by this one, so providing a little more context to see if anyone gets it…

Winner, Name that Ware May 2018

June 3rd, 2018

The NeTV2-MVP DVT1E rev shown in the May 2018 ware has 933 vias and 63 holes for a total of 996 drill hits. The closest guess for total number of drill hits was Jonathan, at 69 holes and 888 vias = 957 drill hits (39 shy of the total). Mangel was in a close second place with 84 hols and 962 vias for a total of 1046 drill hits (50 over the total). So, Jonathan’s the winner! Congrats, please email me to claim your board!

Innovation Should Be Legal. That’s Why I’m Launching NeTV2.

May 12th, 2018

I’d like to share a project I’m working on that could have an impact on your future freedoms in the digital age. It’s an open video development board I call NeTV2.

The Motivation

It’s related to a lawsuit I’ve filed with the help of the EFF against the US government to reform Section 1201 of the DMCA. Currently, Section 1201 imbues media cartels with nearly unchecked power to prevent us from innovating and expressing ourselves, thus restricting our right to free speech.

Have you ever noticed how smart TVs seem pretty dumb compared to our phones? It’s because Section 1201 enables a small cartel of stakeholders to pick and choose who gets to process video. So, for example, anyone is allowed to write a translation app for their smartphone that does real-time video translation of text. However, it’s potentially unlawful to build a box, even in the privacy of my own home, that implements the same thing over the HDCP-encrypted video feeds that go from my set top box to my TV screen.

This is due to a quirk of the DMCA that makes it unlawful for most citizens to bypass encryption – even for lawful free-speech activities, such as self-expression and innovation. Significantly, since the founding of the United States, it’s been unlawful to make copies of copyrighted work, and I believe the already stiff penalties for violating copyright law offer sufficient protection from piracy and theft.

However, in 1998 a group of lobbyists managed to convince Congress that the digital millennium presented an existential threat to copyright holders, and thus stiffer penalties were needed for the mere act of bypassing encryption, no matter the reason. These penalties are in addition to the existing penalties written into copyright law. By passing this law, Congress effectively turned bypassing encryption into a form of pre-crime, empowering copyright holders to be the sole judge, jury and executioner of what your intentions might have been. Thus, even if you were to bypass encryption solely for lawful purposes, such as processing video to translate text, the copyright holder nonetheless has the power to prosecute you for the “pre-crimes” that could follow from bypassing their encryption scheme. In this way, Section 1201 of the DMCA effectively gives corporations the power to license when and how you express yourself where encryption is involved.

I believe unchecked power to license freedom of expression should not be trusted to corporate interests. Encryption is important for privacy and security, and is winding its way into every corner of our life. It’s fundamentally a good thing, but we need to make sure that corporations can’t abuse Section 1201 to also control every corner of our life. In our digital age, the very canvas upon which we paint our thoughts can be access-controlled with cryptography, and we need the absolute right to paint our thoughts freely and share them broadly if we are to continue to live in a free and just society. Significantly, this does not diminish the power of copyrights one bit – this lawsuit simply aims to limit the expansive “pre-crime” powers granted to license holders, that is all.

Of course, even though the lawsuit is in progress, corporations still have the right to go after developers like you and me for the notional pre-crimes associated with bypassing encryption. However, one significant objection lodged by opponents of our lawsuit is that “no other users have specified how they are adversely affected by HDCP in their ability to make specific noninfringing use of protected content … [bunnie] has failed to demonstrate … how “users ‘are, or are likely to be,’ adversely affected by the prohibition on circumventing HDCP.” This is, of course, a Catch-22, because how can you build a user base to demonstrate the need for freedoms when the mere act of trying to build that user base could be a crime in itself? No investor would touch a product that could be potentially unlawful.

Thankfully, it’s 2018 and we have crowd funding, so I’m launching a crowd funding campaign for the NeTV2, in the hopes of rallying like-minded developers, dreamers, users, and enthusiasts to help build the case that a small but important group of people can and would do more, if only we had the right to do so. As limited by the prevailing law, the NeTV2 can only process unencrypted video and perform encryption-only operations like video overlays through a trick I call “NeTV mode”. However, it’s my hope this is a sufficient platform to stir the imagination of developers and users, so that together we can paint a vibrant picture of what a future looks like should we have the right to express our ideas using otherwise controlled paints on otherwise denied canvases.


Some of the things you might be able to do with the NeTV2, if you only had the right to do it…

The Hardware

The heart of the NeTV2 is an FPGA-based video development board in a PCIe 2.0 x4 card form factor. The board supports up to two video inputs and two video outputs at 1080p60, coupled to a Xilinx XC7A35T FPGA, along with 512 MiB of DDR3 memory humming along at a peak bandwidth of 25.6 Gbps. It also features some nice touches for debugging including a JTAG/UART header made to plug directly into a Raspberry Pi, and a 10/100 Ethernet port wired directly to the FPGA for Etherbone support. For intrepid hackers, the reserved/JTAG pins on the PCI-express header are all wired to the FPGA, and microSD and USB headers are provisioned but not specifically supported in any mode. And of course, the entire PCB design is open source under the CERN OHL license.


The NeTV2 board as mounted on a Raspberry Pi

The design targets two major use scenarios which I refer to as “NeTV classic” mode (video overlays with encryption) and “Libre” mode (deep video processing, but limited to unencrypted feeds due to Section 1201).

In NeTV classic mode, the board is paired with a Raspberry Pi, which serves as the source for chroma key overlay video, typically rendered by a browser running in full-screen mode. The Raspberry Pi’s unencrypted HDMI video output is fed into the NeTV2 and sampled into a frame buffer, which is “genlocked” (e.g. timing synchronized) to a video feed that’s just passing through the FPGA via another pair of HDMI input/outputs. The NeTV2 has special circuits to help observe and synchronize with cryptographic state, should one exist on the pass-through video link. This allows the NeTV2 to encrypt the Raspberry Pi’s overlay feed so that the Pi’s pixels can be used for a simple “hard overlay” effect. NeTV classic mode thus enables applications such as subtitles and pop-up notifications by throwing away regions of source video and replacing it entirely with overlay pixels. However, a lack of access to unencrypted pixels disallows even basic video effects such as alpha blending or frame scaling.

In Libre mode, the board is meant to be plugged into a desktop PC via PCI-express. Libre mode only works with unencrypted video feeds, as the concept here is full video frames are sampled and buffered up inside NeTV2 so that it can be forwarded on to the host PC for further processing. Here, the full power of a GPU or x86 CPU can be applied to extract features and enhance the video, or perhaps portions of the video could even be sent to to the cloud for processing. Once the video has been processed, it is pushed back into the NeTV2 and sent on to the TV for viewing. Libre mode is perhaps the most interesting mode to developers, yet is very limited in every day applications thanks to Section 1201 of the DMCA. Still, it may be possible to craft demos using properly licensed, unencrypted video feeds.

The reference “gateware” (FPGA design) for the NeTV2 is written in Python using migen/LiteX. I previously compared the performance of LiteX to Vivado: for an NeTV2-like reference design, the migen/LiteX version consumes about a quarter the area and compiles in less than a quarter the time – a compelling advantage. migen/LiteX is a true open source framework for describing hardware, which relies on Xilinx’s free-to-download Vivado toolchain for synthesis, place/route, and bitstream generation. There is a significant effort on-going today to port the full open source FPGA backend tools developed by Clifford Wolf from the Lattice ICE40 FPGAs to the same Xilinx 7-series FPGAs used in NeTV2. Of course, designers that prefer to use the Vivado tools to describe and compile their hardware are still free to do so, but I am not officially supporting that design methodology.

I wanted to narrow the gap between development board and field deployable solution, so I’ve also designed a hackable case for the NeTV2. The case can hold the NeTV2 and a mated Raspberry Pi, and consists of three major parts, a top shell, bottom shell/back bezel, and a stand-alone front bezel. It also has light pipes to route key status LEDs to the plane of the back bezel. It’s designed to be easily disassembled using common screw drivers, and features holes for easy wall-mounting.

Most importantly, the case features extra space with a Peek Array on the inside for mounting your own PCBs or parts, and the front bezel is designed for easier fabrication using either subtractive or additive methodologies. So, if you have a laser cutter, you can custom cut a bezel using a simple, thin sheet of acrylic and slot it into the grooves circumscribing the end of the case. Or, if you have a low-res 3D printer, you can use the screw bosses to attach the bezel instead, and skip the grooves. When you’re ready to step up in volume, you can download the source file for the bezel and make a relatively simple injection mold tool for just the bezel itself (or the whole case, if you really want to!).

The flexibility of the PCI-express edge connector and the simplified bezel allows developers to extend the NeTV2 into a system well beyond the original design intention. Remember, for an FPGA, PCI-express is just a low-cost physical form factor for generic high speed I/O. So, a relatively simple to design and cheap to fabricate adapter card can turn the PCI-express card-edge connector into a variety of high-speed physical standards, including SATA, DisplayPort, USB3.0 and more. There’s also extra low-speed I/O in the header, so you can attach a variety of SPI or I2C peripherals through the same connector. This electrical flexibility, combined with PCBs mounted on the Peek Array and a custom bezel enables developers to build a customer-ready solutions with minimal effort and tooling investment.

The NeTV2 is funding now at Crowd Supply. I’m offering a version with a higher-capacity FPGA only for the duration of the campaign, so if you’re developer be sure to check that out before the campaign ends. If you think that reforming the DMCA is important but the NeTV2 isn’t your cup of tea, please consider supporting the EFF directly with a donation. Together we can reform Section 1201 of the DMCA, and win back fundamental freedoms to express and innovate in the digital age.

Name that Ware, May 2018

May 12th, 2018

The Ware for May 2018 is shown below.

This month’s contest isn’t about naming a ware. Instead, the challenge is to guess the total amount of vias + holes on the NeTV2 PCB. The closest (or first correct) guess will get a DVT-revision of the board (same as the one shown above) as a prize! Please note: depending on your country of residence you may have to cover import duties or VAT.

At the end of this month, once the contest is over, I’ll upload the PCB source files to a public repo. The contest would be just too easy otherwise :)

Winner, Name that Ware April 2018

May 12th, 2018

The ware for April 2018 is an SAE 316L stainless steel cerclage currently embedded in my right kneecap. There’s also a pair of 2.5mm holes drilled lengthwise through the patella, and a set of sutures woven into my quadriceps, neither of which show up in an X-ray. The hardware is to repair a double-break of my knee; I simultaneously suffered a patellar avulsion fracture and a tear of the quadriceps tendon. It’s rare to get both injuries at once, but hey why do anything half-assed. As for how it happened – well, you’ll have to believe me that it’s just from falling while walking on flat ground. There was a puddle of greasy/soapy water outside a hawker stall and boom, I’m unable to walk for months. I wish I had some cooler story, so that’s why I had this month’s competition – to try and find a better bar story. To that end, gratz to perlfriend for the most imaginative story; email me for your prize!

This was my first time going through major surgery. I’ve previously had some minor patches and cuts, where I only used local anesthesia and watched the surgeon perform. As a hardware guy, I think your body is the most fascinating piece of hardware you’ll ever own so I don’t miss an opportunity to take a peek inside when maintenance is required (to clarify, I find it totally gross to watch other people’s surgeries, but somehow when it’s my own body its different – my sense of wonder overtakes my aversion to blood).

So I’ve never been put full under before. When the anesthesiologist came to interview me, I asked what my options were for local anesthesia. She then tried to convince me that general anesthesia is very safe because they have this computer running some complicated algorithm that considers my weight and height to dose me correctly. Besides the fact that they had to estimate my weight because I couldn’t stand on a scale, my inner monologue was screaming “As a hardware engineer, putting my life in the hands of a computer sounds terrifying” but instead I manage to ask politely, “and what happens if the computer has a problem?” At which point she smiles and re-assures me that she’s constantly monitoring my vital signs and trimming the dosage.

Side note, a friend of mine later on pointed me to an article where apparently some infusion pumps have Wifi that’s on during surgery and the protocol is pathetically hackable. OK, medical equipment makers: there’s some equipment that simply should not be IoT, and an infusion pump is absolutely one of them. There is simply no valid reason for the computer attending to the dosage level of a potentially fatal chemical to be spending any cycles answering TCP packets. Death by DDoS is not an acceptable scenario. If you need to push an update, do it by a USB disk or a plug-in Ethernet jack, so they can at least air gap the damn thing during an operation.

Had I known about the wifi vulnerability of anesthesia infusion pumps, I probably would not have consented to general anesthesia, or at least asked to check that the model they were using had no IoT capability. But the anesthesiologist finally convinced me under the argument that the local procedure would require sticking a needle into my spinal cord and withdrawing cerebrospinal fluid, and I’m like, I don’t know what that is but it sounds important for my brain to work and I kind of like my spinal cord intact, so maybe it’s not worth the risk.

So, I finally consent to being put under. Propofol, the drug she used to initiate anesthesia, is pretty incredible. It acts within seconds, and despite taking over an hour to metabolise in the liver, it clears from the brain in minutes so you can come out of anesthesia quickly. I have to wonder how they discovered it, or developed it. Anyways, the anesthesiologist inserted an IV into my right hand – I appreciated her attentiveness to the detail that I’m left-handed – and proceeded to administer the propofol. I could definitely feel the propofol as it entered my system. I had the same feeling of pins and needles that one gets when a limb falls asleep, a sort of searing, prickling pain. The pain quickly shot up my arm, then a warm wave of prickling across my face, and then…

I’m in the recovery room, and my surgeon is there giving me the post-op interview. About 2.5 hours of my life went by and I had no memory of it. Sure enough, no nausea or dizziness – the anesthesiologist did a good job. I was lucid and talking to the surgeon about the operation. Then, maybe about five or maybe fifteen minutes later, my body goes into shock – I’m shivering uncontrollably, and I’m starting to become acutely aware of the pain in my knee.

Apparently, during the surgery, I was given Fentanyl and Ultiva, both potent opioid painkillers. They give it to you because even though you’re out, your body has autonomous responses to pain that can complicate surgery with excess bleeding and so forth. From what I read, both clear pretty quickly, so I’m guessing the onset of shock corresponded with the painkilling effect of the injected opioids wearing off.

I know exactly what drugs and equipment they used because at the conclusion of the surgery I was given a detailed itemized bill of everything involved; above is a tiny sample of it. It was fascinating to reverse engineer the surgery from the BOM. That’s how I knew they used a 2.5mm drill bit, how I knew they put a breathing tube in me, and that I also got injected with Aloxi to help suppress nausea. I actually sort of wish I knew about the drill bit ahead of time, because I would have asked to keep it. I figured they’re throwing it away so getting the surgical-grade 2.5mm bit that was used to drill holes in my body to use later on to drill mounting bosses would be pretty neat.

Just for the record, the overall hospital bill including surgeon’s fees, surgical materials, OT rental, recovery ward, drugs, X-rays and my first round of physiotherapy was about S$20.7k, or US$15.5k at the prevailing exchange rate. This is considered expensive by Singapore standards, as I went to one of the nicer private hospitals for the operation, but as I understand it is quite cheap by US standards. Fortunately my insurance covered all but about $350 of it.

This was also my first time using opioid painkillers in a serious way. I’m deeply concerned about the addictive nature of opioids, so I don’t take them lightly. I had taken Vicodin once before when I had a wisdom tooth removed, and I remember it having the effect of “moving the pain sideways” – it felt like the pain was just outside arms length, so I could ignore it if I wanted to, but I definitely knew it was still there. Knee surgery was about a hundred times more traumatic than getting a wisdom tooth removed, and for the first day there’s a terrific amount of pain. So they gave me Targin, which is a mix of oxycodone and naloxone.

Targin is a clever way to manage opioid addictiveness. Oxycodone is the opioid; naloxone is the stuff they use to treat opioid overdoses, and it blocks the painkilling effects. Nalaxone is mixed in with the oxycodone to prevent mis-use (crushing & snorting or injecting), and naloxone is poorly absorbed through the digestive system, so when taken orally the oxycodone can still work. For a short time. When the surgical painkillers wore out, basically all the pain receptors in my knee were screaming at me and informing me rather viscerally about what I already knew intellectually – that my knee was cut up, had holes drilled in it, wired up with stainless steel, fibers woven into the muscles, and stitched back together. So I got one dose of Targin, which kicked in in about 20-30 minutes. The oxycodone effect was pretty strong – the acute pain just went away, everything felt okay and I drifted into sleep…only to be woken up about 2-3 hours later by the pain in my knee, presumably due to the nalaxone component finally kicking in and suppressing the opioid effect. However, I was only allowed one Targin pill every 12 hours, and thus had only acetaminophen to manage the pain until the next scheduled dose. It was definitely manageable with some distraction, but there was no way I was going back to sleep again. I could see how oxycodone could be addictive; everything just seemed so okay despite everything being incredibly wrong, so I’m grateful they mixed it with nalaxone and administered it such that my final memory of the trip was being clobbered with my knee pain rather than a lingering desire for more.

Of course, the pain doen’t end in 24 hours, but they “graduated” me to a weaker painkiller, Ultracet. The Ultracet is a mix of Tramadol and acetaminophen. Tramadol itself really kicks in only after it’s processed by the liver into desmetramadol by the enzyme CYP2D6, and I’m heterozygous for a copy with reduced activity. I guess that might explain why when I took the prescribed dosage of two pills it was reasonably effective, but when I halved it to one pill I felt almost nothing at all. Overall, Tramadol was less effective at painkilling and more effective in just making me feel a little dizzy and sleepy. In addition to binding to opioid receptors, it’s also a seratonin releasing agent, a bit like MDMA. So during the daytime I would just deal with the pain by distracting myself with work, and at night time when trying to fall asleep, I’d take the Ultracet and sleep like a baby – I was sleeping almost 12 hours a night for the couple weeks after surgery, which I think was extremely helpful in my recovery. Significantly, Tramadol doesn’t quite suppress pain; like my one experience with Vicoden, it turns it into a fact I’m aware of but can deal with. When I would sleep, my dreams would be deep and lucid, but my brain would often reference the pain in my knee and ascribe it to some random weird dream explanation, like trying to go in for a big penalty kick in a soccer game over and over again. Fortunately, Tramadol didn’t feel like it had too much of an addiction risk for me – the awake-state “high” was a bit unpleasant, as I don’t particularly enjoy the dizziness or drowsiness. It was more of a sleeping aid, as it allowed my mind to let go of the pain in my knee while falling asleep. I was finally able to wean myself off painkillers entirely and fall asleep drug-free about two weeks after the operation, but in a weird way I ever so slightly missed that really sound sleep I’d have while on them. Opioid painkillers are no joke. They’re absolutely essential for dealing with pain, but take them with discipline and caution.

While the story behind the accident itself wasn’t very interesting, I did find going through the surgery, healthcare system, and drugs to be an interesting learning experience.