Pluralistic: Open Circuits (14 August 2023)

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The cover of No Starch Press's hardcover of 'Open Circuits,' showing a cross-section of the mainboard of a mobile phone.

Open Circuits (permalink)

Every trip to Defcon – the massive annual hacker-con in Las Vegas – is a delight. Partly it's the familiar – seeing old friends, getting updates on hacks of years gone by. But mostly, it's the surprises, the things you never anticipated. Defcon never fails to surprise.

I got back from Vegas yesterday and I've just finished unpacking my suitcase, and with it, the tangible evidence of Defcon's cave of wonders. My gear bag has a new essential: Hak5's malicious cable detector, a little USB gizmo that lights up if it detects surreptitious malicious activity, even as it interdicts those nasty payloads:

(In case you're wondering if it's really possible to craft a malicious USB cable that injects badware into your computer and is visually indistinguishable from a regular cable, the answer is a resounding yes, and of course, Hak5 sells those cables, with a variety of USB tips:)

But merch is only a sideshow. The real action is in the conference rooms, where hackers update you on the pursuit of their obsessions. These are such beautiful weirdos who pursue knowledge to ridiculous extremes, untangling gnarly hairballs just to follow a thread to its origin point.

For the second year in a row, I caught a presentation from Joseph Gabay about his work on warshopping: slicing up shopping cart wheels and haunting shopping mall parking lots during resurfacing to figure out how the anti-theft mechanism that stops your cart from leaving the parking lot works:

And of course, I got to give one of those presentations, "An Audacious Plan to Halt the Internet's Enshittification," to a packed house. What a thrill! It was livestreamed, and if you missed it, you'll be able to catch it on Defcon's Youtube page as soon as they upload it (they've got a lot of uploading to do!):

Me and Micah Lee, signing at the No Starch Press booth at Defcon. Photo by Bill Pollock.

After my talk, I went back to the No Starch Press booth for a book signing – which was amazing, so many beautiful hackers, plus I got to share a signing table with Micah Lee. As I was leaving, Bill Pollock slipped me a giant hardcover art-book, and said, "You're gonna love this."

A photo from 'Open Circuits,' depicting a tiny toroidal transformer, wound with copper and mounted on a package for attachment to a circuit board, balancing on a man's fingertip.

I did. The book is Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components, by Windell Oskay and Eric Schlaepfer, and it is a drop-dead gorgeous collection of photos of electronic components, painstakingly cross-sectioned and polished:

A photo from 'Open Circuits,' depicting a cross-sectioned tantalum capacitor, a yellow teardrop-shaped blob of resin with a metal core that connects to two leads.

The photos illustrate layperson-friendly explanations of what each component does, how it is constructed, and why. Perhaps you've pondered a circuit board and wondered about the colorful, candy-shaped components soldered to it. It's natural to assume that these are indivisible, abstract functional units, a thing that is best understood as a reliable and deterministic brick that can be used to construct a specific kind of wall.

A photo from 'Open Circuits,' depicting an axial inductor in cross section, a long, tapered green peanut shaped resin package with a chip at its core attached to two copper leads.

But peering inside these sealed packages reveals another world, a miniature land where things get simpler – and more complex. Inside these blobs of resin are snips of wire, plugs of wax, simple screws, fine sheets of metal in stacks, wafers of plain ceramic, springs and screws.

A photo from 'Open Circuits,' depicting a power supply transformer in cross-section. It consists of a solid rectangular core, bisected by a seam, sandwiched between two bulging resin segments, each packed with five different gauges of copper wire in bundles, separated by thin metal sheets. A metal lead depends from each of the side pieces.

Truly, quantity has a quality all its own. Miniaturize these assemblies and produce them at unimaginable scale and the simple, legible components turn into mystical black boxes that only the most dedicated study can reveal. Like every magician's trick, the unfathomable effect is built up through the precise repetition of something very simple.

A photo from 'Open Circuits,' depicting a thermal fuse in cross-section. It is an oblong horizontal rectangle of off-white resin containing two compartments. The larger outer compartment contains a spring-wound white cylinder. The inner compartment is smaller and contains a glass resistor packed with small wires. Four metal leads depend from the casing.

A prolonged study of Open Circuits reveals something important about the hacker aesthetic, a collection of graphic design, fashion and industrial design conventions that begins with this realization: that the crisp lines of digital logic can be decomposed into blobby, probabilistic lumps of metal, plastic, and even wax.

A photo from 'Open Circuits,' depicting a subcomponent of a thermal fuse, revealing its wax plug and ranks of coiled metal.

It reminds me of George Dyson's brilliant memoir/history of computing, Turing's Cathedral, where he describes how he and the other children of the scientists building the first digital computers at the Princeton Institute spent their summers in the basement, hand-winding cores for the early colossi their parents were building on the floors above them:

You can see my hacker aesthetic photos in my Defcon 31 photo set:

In this video, Eric Schlaepfer illustrates the painstaking work that went into decomposing these tiny, precise components into their messy, analog subcomponents. It's pure hacker aesthetic, and it's mesmerizing:

But Open Circuits isn't just an aesthetic journey, it's a technical one. After all, Oskay is co-founder of Evil Mad Scientist Labs, one of the defining places where hardware hackers gather to tear down, pick apart, mod, improve and destroy electronics. The accompanying text is a masterclass in the simple machines that combine together to make complex assemblies:

Defcon is a reminder that the world only seems hermetically sealed and legible to authorized parties with clearance to crack open the box. From shopping cart wheels to thermal fuses, that illegibility is only a few millimeters thick. Sand away the glossy outer layer and you will find yourself in a weird land of wax-blobs, rough approximations, expedient choices and endless opportunities for delight and terror, mischief and care.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

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#10yrsago Ruling: Copying scientific articles for patent lawyers’ reference is fair use

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#10yrsago WinCo: worker-owned grocery chain that pays benefits, pensions, living wages — and has lower prices than WalMart

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#5yrsago Leaked FBI memo warns banks of looming “unlimited ATM cashout”

#5yrsago Predatory journals aren’t just a scam: they’re also how quacks and corporate shills sciencewash their bullshit

#5yrsago The platforms control our public discourse, and who they disconnect is arbitrary and capricious

#5yrsago None of the Above won the 2016 election

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#5yrsago Karl Schroeder’s “The Million”: a science fiction conspiracy novel of radically altered timescales

#5yrsago UK visitors wait 2.5 hours to get through immigration at Heathrow

#5yrsago Hackers find exploitable vulnerabilities in Amazon Echo, turn one into a listening device

#5yrsago EU resolution aims to comprehensively limit “planned obsolescence”

Colophon (permalink)

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