- Open Circuits: The hidden beauty of electronics components.
- Hey look at this: Delights to delectate.
- This day in history: 2003, 2008, 2013, 2018
- Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading
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!):
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."
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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)
- Notes on using a single-person Mastodon server https://jvns.ca/blog/2023/08/11/some-notes-on-mastodon/ (h/t Nelson Minar)
The Best Noir Crime Thrillers https://fivebooks.com/best-books/noir-crime-thrillers-cory-doctorow/
These Women Tried to Warn Us About AI https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/women-warnings-ai-danger-risk-before-chatgpt-1234804367/
This day in history (permalink)
#20yrsago P2P network originates in Palestinian refugee camp https://www.cnet.com/tech/home-entertainment/in-refugee-camp-a-p2p-outpost/
#15yrsago Man whose US immigration notice was sent to the wrong address is detained with untreated spinal cancer until he dies, denied access to his wife and children https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/13/nyregion/13detain.html
#15yrsago Free copyright license upheld Fed Circuit Court of Appeals https://archives.lessig.org/index0d61.html?m=200808&paged=2
#10yrsago Orwell explains Nineteen Eighty-Four https://www.thedailybeast.com/george-orwells-letter-on-why-he-wrote-1984
#10yrsago First 100 pages of Aaron Swartz’s Secret Service files https://www.wired.com/2013/08/swartz-foia-release/
#10yrsago Ruling: Copying scientific articles for patent lawyers’ reference is fair use https://web.archive.org/web/20130804061153/http://gigaom.com/2013/08/01/judge-says-patent-lawyers-have-right-to-science-articles-under-fair-use/
#10yrsago NZ prime minister John Key: We have to spy on you because al-Qaeda has training camps here. Also: FISH! https://web.archive.org/web/20130803111024/http://www.rotoruadailypost.co.nz/news/john-key-defends-Al-Qaeda-statement/1967860/
#10yrsago WinCo: worker-owned grocery chain that pays benefits, pensions, living wages — and has lower prices than WalMart https://business.time.com/2013/08/07/meet-the-low-key-low-cost-grocery-chain-being-called-wal-marts-worst-nightmare/
#10yrsago Irish government updates its Freedom of Information law with exciting new “Computers don’t exist” provision https://www.mcgarrsolicitors.ie/2013/08/12/the-irish-state-wishes-to-uninvent-computers-with-new-foi-bill/
#10yrsago Cops accidentally record themselves admitting they harassed activist at rodeo owners’ request: “God, we’re gonna get sued” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgSfCxq0hdY
#5yrsago Disney (yes, Disney) declares war on “overzealous copyright holders” https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/disney-takes-stand-overzealous-copyright-holders-1134645/
#5yrsago Qanon “codes” are consistent with an English-speaker mashing a QWERTY keyboard https://www.vice.com/en/article/9km87z/qanon-codes-are-random-typing
#5yrsago To rescue journalism, journalists must collaborate to defend free expression, not merely condemning Trump https://dangillmor.medium.com/dear-journalists-the-war-on-what-you-do-is-escalating-eb584529a271
#5yrsago Leaked FBI memo warns banks of looming “unlimited ATM cashout” https://krebsonsecurity.com/2018/08/fbi-warns-of-unlimited-atm-cashout-blitz/
#5yrsago Predatory journals aren’t just a scam: they’re also how quacks and corporate shills sciencewash their bullshit https://www.vice.com/en/article/3ky45y/hundreds-of-researchers-from-harvard-yale-and-stanford-were-published-in-fake-academic-journals
#5yrsago The platforms control our public discourse, and who they disconnect is arbitrary and capricious https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/beware-the-digital-censor/2018/08/12/997e28ea-9cd0-11e8-843b-36e177f3081c_story.html
#5yrsago None of the Above won the 2016 election https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/08/09/new-data-makes-it-clear-nonvoters-handed-trump-the-presidency/
#5yrsago English and Welsh local governments use “terrorism” as the excuse to block publication of commercial vacancies https://gijn.org/2018/08/14/meet-the-man-who-filed-1400-foi-requests-to-prove-data-acquisition-isnt-terrorism/
#5yrsago Karl Schroeder’s “The Million”: a science fiction conspiracy novel of radically altered timescales https://memex.craphound.com/2018/08/14/karl-schroeders-the-million-a-science-fiction-conspiracy-novel-of-radically-altered-timescales/
#5yrsago UK visitors wait 2.5 hours to get through immigration at Heathrow https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-45165222
#5yrsago Hackers find exploitable vulnerabilities in Amazon Echo, turn one into a listening device https://www.wired.com/story/hackers-turn-amazon-echo-into-spy-bug/
#5yrsago EU resolution aims to comprehensively limit “planned obsolescence” https://www.retaildetail.eu/news/electronics/eu-aims-abolish-planned-obsolescence/
Today's top sources:
- A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025
The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024
Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM
Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION
Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM
Latest podcast: The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation (audiobook outtake) https://craphound.com/news/2023/08/01/the-internet-con-how-to-seize-the-means-of-computation-audiobook-outtake/
- San Diego Union Tribune Festival of Books, Aug 19
Burning Man Center Camp, 1430h, Aug 29
EFF Awards (San Francisco), Sept 14
An Evening with VE Schwab (Des Moines), Oct 2
26th ACM Conference On Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing keynote (Minneapolis), Oct 16
- New Books Network
Haunted Mansion Ghost Post Panel Live From Midsummer Scream
how big tech makes the internet worse (What's Gonna Happen)
- "Red Team Blues": "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books http://redteamblues.com. Signed copies at Dark Delicacies (US): and Forbidden Planet (UK): https://forbiddenplanet.com/385004-red-team-blues-signed-edition-hardcover/.
"Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin", on how to unrig the markets for creative labor, Beacon Press/Scribe 2022 https://chokepointcapitalism.com
"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The Washington Post called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html
"How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59 (print edition: https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism/9781736205907) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)
"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html
"Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2682/Corey_Doctorow%3A_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer_HB.html#/.
- The Internet Con: A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech, Verso, September 2023
The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023
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