It’s been over two weeks since DEF CON ended, and in many ways I feel I’m still recovering. First, you have the initial exhaustion of running around at a four day event with an average of 4-6 hours of sleep. Then there’s the continuing exhaustion of getting bio-hacked and returning with the flu. And finally, there’s the overwhelmingly empty feeling you get after being surrounded by incredibly passionate and intelligent people.
I’ve heard it said that it’s impossible to explain what DEF CON is like to those who have never attended. So, this article ends here.
I believe the best way to describe DEF CON is ‘anarchy with an advanced IQ’. Simply put, there are so many different talks, competitions, projects and parties going on all at once, and you’ll never know where or when you’ll come across most of them. It’s essentially a constant overload of awesome.
While I had always been interested in DEF CON, I would always pass on it every year because I didn’t consider myself as a “computer hacker”. Sure, I know the basics of password hacking techniques and did consider getting my masters in digital forensics, but I am more closer to the n00b side of the scale when compared to others at the conference. So I always sat out, too afraid that I wouldn’t have a place there and/or would get majorily pwned.
Upon arrival, the first thing I realized was that my past fears were completely unwarranted. On the whole, the DEF CON community is incredibly friendly and welcoming. Not to mention, there’s a whole lot more than computer hacking going on - there’s an entire community of hardware hackers with a room full of soldering irons and miscellaneous parts.
Not that my fears of being pwned were completely unfounded. It’s common knowledge to not use the ATMs in the hotel the event is held in as they are almost immediately hacked. (Rumor has it that one year they found no less than six network splices on one ATM in the hotel.) It’s also a good idea to go completely off-the-grid. Which to me seemed a little paranoid before the event but after hearing horror stories and having a friend who got hacked I realized that I don’t think there is such a thing a “too paranoid” at DEF CON. Although, it was very strange to have my iPhone only be able to make calls and send text messages.
Now I would be remiss if I failed to mention how awesome the badges were this year. Of course, I may be a little biased as I work for Parallax and we manufactured them. For those new to DEF CON, the badges are really the heart of the conference. They not only served as an attendees’ credentials but also contained clues to participate and solve the badge challenge. Since I had a sneak peek at the badge firmware, it was incredibly entertaining to eavesdrop in groups as they tried to unlock the board’s mysteries.
A personal favorite section of mine was DEF CON Kids, but that could be because I have a soft spot for inspiring the younger generation to pursue technical fields. I had the pleasure this year of helping Joe Grand with his learn to solder session, and it was a lot of fun! These kids were unlike any I had worked with before: astonishingly polite, talented, and bright. Some even stuck behind after to solder additional parts onto their badges and it was incredibly rewarding to see that they not only learned something, but also wanted to learn more.
As for the ‘seedier side’ of DEF CON, females have been known to have issues with inappropriate remarks and gestures made by members of the male populace. In fact, before I went I was warned that I was going to get raped. However, I found this to be wildly untrue. The most offensive comment made to me was ‘you look hot’ in response to my circuit board leggings (which, incidentally, earned me my hacker handle - femb0t). Granted I did travel with a couple male companions and did have a fair share of puppy dogs, pick-up-lines and blowhards, but it wasn’t any worse than an average night at a bar.
The main thing to be wary of is the blowhard. They can eat up your night in an instant if, like me, you’re too polite to tell them to eff-off. There was one guy who not only was a massive ‘personal space’ violator but also spoke so intensely that I never found an opportunity to break out of the conversation. As such I ended up speaking with him for over an hour! Do not fret, this did come with some good stories. Not only was this guy the inventor of the OLED, LCD, and DVD player, he also saved the entire world from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. We were just days away from the end of the world, he made some calls, suggested the cooling system solution and SAVED US ALL!
Sadly, he had also just lost a patent for a dual-view 3D television the week prior. Never mind that is was already a product Samsung demoed at CES in January.
The real value in DEF CON is simply meeting people. I learned so much just by conversing with strangers over a beer. You never know who you’re talking to or what opportunity will crop up. One of the most interesting people I meet was Johnny Long from hackersforcharity.com. He’s moved to Uganda to develop hackerspaces and technology in the developing world. To me, that’s incredibly amazing and inspirational and made me want to help in any way that I could, and I may not have learned about the program otherwise.
If you have never attended DEF CON before and have any interest in hacking, engineering or other technical arenas, I highly suggest you go. Despite being exhausted, I left DEF CON feeling inspired, giddy and thirsty for more knowledge. I’ll certainly be going back next year - Parallax or no.
A couple months ago, I bought the EL wire starter pack from Adafruit with the intention of doing something 'really cool' with it. Alas, as with most things, it got shelved for a few months while I waited for the 'really cool' idea to strike.
Then, this weekend, I road-tripped from Sacramento to LA. And like any good maker, I tried to think of a project to work on during the 6+ hour drive...enter the abandoned EL wire. I figured instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, I'd instead geek-ify my purse. By lovingly adapting the TRON bag project by Ladyada & Becky Stern, I created the YATB (Yet Another TRON Bag).
In all honesty, it was the perfect car project. I do have a tendency to get a little carsick, and looking down at a bag and stitching didn't always help that problem. Thankfully most of the drive wasn't along curvy roads, so I didn't run into that issue too often.
Plus, I fell in love with EL wire. Seriously, this stuff is the best. Super easy to work with and has the power to transform everyday items into geeky goodness, just like YATB.
Since I was working via automobile, I had pretty limited resources and needed to devise a way to use all 2.5 meters fo EL wire. So I decided to get a little crafty on the interior of the bag. I was going for a damped sine wave, but couldn't get the amplitude changes to come out just right without tape.
So are you planning a long car trip and need something to pass the time? I would highly suggest making your own YATB! All you need is some clear thread, a needle, EL wire and some patience as you stitch, and stitch, and stitch, and stitch...
Since the spread of the Arduino wildfire, the gap between art and technology has been slimming. The Creators Project is a testament to this fact. Since it's inception in 2010, this festival has travelled to cities all over the globe showcasing innovative artwork, installations and musical performances. This weekend was the first time the event travelled to San Francisco, and myself and thousands of others braved the rain (and hail) to partake in this epic showcase of awesome.
The majority of the day was spent watching the musical performances in one of the coolest venues I've ever been to. While I don't consider myself an musical connoisseur, I do rather enjoy some good tunage. From the shows I was able to attend, the artists put on a really great show, my favorite being New Pants & Feng Mengbo's Bruce Lee VJ Project. I can honestly say I've never seen an act quite like them and I loved every second of it!
The other half of the festival touted interactive art installations. Now personally, I am a big fan of adding technology to art (surprise, surprise). It makes the installations more relatable when I can appreciate the level of effort and work put into them. Not that I can't do that for normal art as well, it's just that I've never painted a piece of abstract art or sculpted something from nothing so I don't have that level of understanding. Also, the ability to interact with the installation instead of just stare at it provides a deeper look into the artist's intent. You're experiencing exactly what they experienced, and in my 'uncultured' opinion - that's pretty cool.
The installation that demonstrated this the best was Chris Milk's The Treachery of Sanctuary. In this piece, three different viewers stepped into the range of a Microsoft Kinect, which portrayed their silhouette on a large white screen. They then used their bodies to control the installation. The most mesmerizing was the part that projected wings onto the viewer, which then responded to movement as if they were actually a part of the person's body. The level of intricacy was just incredible.
To see if The Creator's Project is coming to a city near you, visit www.thecreatorsproject.com/events. If you can make it, I highly recommend taking the time. It's an experience you won't soon forget.
Choosing a name is one of the most important (and arguably the hardest) parts of getting your hackerspace off the ground. It serves as a springboard for all future development (logos, stickers, T-shirts, etc.), yet you want it to embody what you represent as a group.
We decided on 'Dweeb Den' after a marathon brainstorming session one Saturday afternoon. Here are some tips that helped make our naming process much less painful.
Use Those 'Lame Corporate Exercises'
By this I mean, take a piece of paper (or open a spreadsheet) and start jotting down adjectives and nouns which you think are descriptive of your hackerspace. Ask yourself the following questions: Who are you trying to attract? How do you want people to feel when they're visiting? What words do you want people to use when talking about the hackerspace?
Once you've got a good list going, you can start pairing up words and see what combinations work and sound good together.
For example, our main goal is for people to feel comfortable when hanging out at Dweeb Den. We don't want people to be daunted by the knowledge of other members or feel like they can't do something because they don't know enough. We want people to feel welcome and at home; comfortable enough to try new things and feel safe enough to fail without ridicule. In our opinion, a den embodies that idea perfectly.
Then we got to thinking about what type of members we wanted to attract; machinists or crafters; artists or engineers? And the answer was - everyone! Anyone is welcome, particularly those of the geeky persuasion.
And so Dweeb Den was born.
Keep the Naming Group Small
I had heard from a person who was part of an effort to start another Sacramento hackerspace that the group didn't get off the ground because too much time was spent trying to decide on a name. While opinions are important and should be valued, I think it's imperative to keep the naming committee small. We were just three people and as such were able to come to a consensus fairly quickly - the more people you add, the more you have to please.
If starting the hackerspace with a large group, start with a small naming committee of 3-5 people. Choose 5-6 names that you really like and bring it to the rest of the group for a vote. That way, everyone gets a say and you save time by narrowing the field. Plus, something even better may arise from the list!
Check Who.Is and Hackerspaces.org
One of the worst things is deciding on a name and finding out it's been taken. However, it's a necessary evil. We constantly perused who.is to make sure domain names were available and checked hackerspaces.org to make sure another hackerspace wasn't using something similar.
Several times, in fact, I thought of a "totally awesome" name only to realize I just read it somewhere else. But, no sense in getting excited over a name if someone's already using it.
Super Extra Bonus Tip Funtime: Try and decide on a name which allows you to purchase both .com & .org for your site. It's common practice to use .org for hackerspaces, but .com is so engrained in people's heads that it's best to buy both and have your .com address redirect to your .org one so that you don't miss potential members.
Let's face it, choosing a name sucks. It's incredibly difficult to summarize the whole essence of a group in just one or two words. Just don't forget to have fun. After all, you're embarking on a totally rad and exciting adventure, and choosing a name just gets you one step closer to departure!
When returning to Florida to visit family this Christmas, I lead a short Propeller class at the FamiLAB hackerspace in Orlando. It was my first visit to a hackerspace, and I fell in love. There was this an incredible vibe emanating all throughout the building and left me with a fantastic feeling that I can't quite put into words.
When you're in a hackerspace, you can't help but be inspired. You're surrounded by brilliant, enigmatic personalities who all seem to be working on incredibly cool projects. So I decided one thing when I got back on my plane to Sacramento...
I need to join a hackerspace - STAT.
However, that goal wasn't as easily attainable as I thought. Even though Sacramento has several tech companies in the area (Parallax, Intel, HP and Oracle to name a few), there isn't a single hackerspace. You see, Sacramento is a city often overlooked. With the San Francisco Bay Area being only 80-ish miles away, it's easy to just assume that's where all the cool tech projects are happening.
But it's just not true! And now my task of joining a hackerspace has morphed into a tougher, but far more rewarding task: I'm going to start a hackerspace.
So yesterday, along with my two other co-founders, we started laying the groundwork for Dweeb Den, a new hackerspace coming to Sacramento. You can follow our progress on Twitter (@DweebDen), through our website (dweebden.org), or voice your opinions on our forums (dweebden.org/forums).
As we're embarking on this epic quest, we're encountering a plethora of questions that need to be answered: Should we establish ourselves as a non-profit? How do you write bylaws? What membership do you charge? While the interwebs is a great source for these questions, there's not a whole lot of substance to those answers.
My goal is to help provide that substance here, through 'Hacking a Hackerspace'. Check back here as I chronicle our steps while we create Sacramento's very first hackerspace! Hopefully it will help inspire you to create a hackerspace in your city.
I think Thanksgiving gets a bum rap. It's the "middle child" of our major holidays in the US, often outshone by its younger sibling Halloween and older sibling Christmas.
I mean, don't get me wrong, I love Christmas. It's the most wonderful time of the year. But I also think it can wait its turn. I like Thanksgiving. I've got a real soft spot for cranberry sauce, which apparently is only socially acceptable to eat on Thanksgiving. Why don't we include it in more meals during the year?
But I digress.
Thanksgiving. It's rad. But it doesn't get the fanfare other holidays get; you don't decorate your lawn with turkeys or dress up as a scantily clad pilgrim. You do, however, get to hang out with close family/friends, eat a lot of delicious food and get an automatic 4-day weekend. Those are all really great things.
So I decided to give Thanksgiving the attention it deserves. As a kid, I loved making decorations for the Thanksgiving table. I thought whoever came up with the idea that your hand could be traced and transformed into a turkey was a genius. I made hand turkeys like they were going out of style - I even colored my fingers look like feathers so it would be more realistic.
Since I loved this so much as a kid, why wouldn't I love the same activity as a so-called adult? Which is how the idea struck me, and I embarked on my second e-textile project: a LED hand turkey sweater.
My first idea was to have the turkey centered on a sweater. But while sweater shopping I discovered that apparently solid color crew necks are 'sooooo last season'. I then went with plan B and moved the design to the lower-right corner of an orange v-neck sweater I picked up on the cheap.
Then it was turkey time! I traced my hand on a piece of brown felt and cut it out. Then, I sewed alternating rows of yellow and red LEDs onto my felt fingers with conductive thread. I then hand-stitched the felt to the sweater, added my batteries and stitched a beak, legs and an eye and....voilà!
I am a little proud of how cute it turned out, and this project was much easier than my first e-textiles venture. This is mostly because sewing to felt is a lot more stable than the previous fabric I used and therefore much easier to keep the positive and negative connections separate.
For you techies, each LED in each feather row was sewn in parallel. Then, the first two and last two LED rows were connected in parallel with a 3V coin cell battery, sewn to the back of the shirt. (You can almost see them if you look to the right of the turkey in the photo.)
There's approximately 25 mA of current running through each circuit, but the batteries do last all day.
So there you go, Thanksgiving. I hope you feel some much needed holiday love. Here's the full torso shot, so you can get the full effect. But I warn you, I'm no model (or photographer).
I hope to 'light up' this Thanksgiving's feast! (Oh man, I'm hilarious.)
If you're like me, you're an engineer who thinks this whole E-Textiles craze is pretty awesome. It's a chance to quite literally wear your geekcr3d on your sleeve.
But if you're also like me, the extent of your sewing skills is limited to re-sewing buttons and maybe sewing up holes in shirts. So the part that makes you nervous about getting started with E-Textiles is not the circuity but the stitching.
To overcome this hurdle and like any good bookworm starting a new hobby, I picked up a couple of books to help me get started: Fashion Geek by Diana Eng and Fashioning Technology by Syuzi Pakhchyan. I highly recommend both books - not only to they teach you the basics of sewing, but they also give you great project ideas to help get you on your way.
I decided to start easy with an embroidery pattern for a shirt of a robot with two LEDs for eyes from Fashion Geek. I didn't have any tracing paper, so I decided that a carbon copy slip from my checkbook would do in a pinch. It worked out pretty well, although my sewing could most certainly stand to be improved.
What They Don't Tell the Engineering-Types
In my first E-Textiles experience, I definitely learned quite a bit about the "soft" side of soft circuits. Some of this may seem like common sense, but for someone who has never sewn much of anything, I most certainly learned some lessons.
Choose your Fabric Wisely
For this project, I just picked up the first suitable T-Shirt I found from Target. However, the fabric was incredibly thin and stretchy so when I took my carbon copy pattern off, the fabric scrunched together and I had a couple of shorts. When I wear the shirt it gets better and stretches out, but I would certainly choose a thicker and less-stretchy fabric next time.
A different fabric would have also allowed me to keep my stitching neater on the back of the shirt as well, allowing me to better keep power and ground threads separate.
Mark your Thread
Even though this is a simple pattern, I quickly lost track of which tie-offs were ground and power. When breadboarding or soldering to a proto board, I can use different colored wires to separate connections. With E-Textiles the thread is always the same color, so making a black or red mark on the thread would certainly help.
Use an Embroidery Hoop
Maybe it was because I was using a slip of carbon-copy paper instead of tracing paper or maybe it was the fabric, but it was incredibly tricky to keep the paper precisely lined up with the fabric - even after using several pins. When I was a kid, I used to do cross-stitches with my grandma over summers in Wisconsin, and we used an embroidery hoop to hold the fabric in place. I kept thinking as I was sewing that it would be incredibly useful, so I plan to pick one up and use it in the future.
Normally the advice for starting a new hobby is to start small, but in this case a larger pattern would have been much easier to work with. The pattern I chose was relatively small, so it required some maneuvering and it was tricky to place the thread to avoid shorts. In the future I'll be able to match fabric choices with pattern size.
In all, I'm really happy with my first E-Textiles attempt. But there's definitely much to learn about sewing, fabric choices and general seamstress-ing. Stay tuned for my updated in my attempts!
As an electronics geek, one of your most powerful experimentation tools is the breadboard. It provides an easy way to prototype your electronics projects, or just a means to get "down and dirty" and experiment with different types of electronic circuits.
Breadboards are radtastic and are also a great place to start if you're new to electronics. The concept can seem tricky at first, but once you master it you'll be a circuit building machine!
So as a tribute to this modern world of recycling and other green initiatives, check out this recycled video that I did for Parallax. It's chock-full of useful breadboarding tips and tricks. Enjoy!
We're living in the midst of a technological revolution. Thanks to the evolution of the internet, directions for anything you wish to accomplish is quite literally at your fingertips. And that's an amazing thing!
Accompanying this revolution is the ascension of the geek. Nowadays, being a "geek" is a title that some people wear proudly. A badge of honor for those unabashed by their good grades, electronics know-how, and/or computer whizery.
If you fall into this category, or would like to, this site is for you! Check back soon for a variety of projects, hacks, at-home repairs, and general information to help increase your geek cred.
Because street cred was SO 1995.