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New US Tariffs are Anti-Maker and Will Encourage Offshoring

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The new 25% tariffs announced by the USTR, set to go into effect on July 6th, are decidedly anti-Maker and ironically pro-offshoring. I’ve examined the tariff lists (List 1 and List 2), and it taxes the import of basic components, tools and sub-assemblies, while giving fully assembled goods a free pass. The USTR’s press release is careful to mention that the tariffs “do not include goods commonly purchased by American consumers such as cellular telephones or televisions.”

Think about it – big companies with the resources to organize thousands of overseas workers making TVs and cell phones will have their outsourced supply chains protected, but small companies that still assemble valuable goods from basic parts inside the US are about to see significant cost increases. Worse yet educators, already forced to work with a shoe-string budget, are going to return from their summer recess to find that basic parts, tools and components for use in the classroom are now significantly more expensive.


Above: The Adafruit MetroX Classic Kit is representative of a typical electronics education kit. Items marked with an “X” in the above image are potentially impacted by the new USTR tariffs.

New Tariffs Reward Offshoring, Encourage IP Flight

Some of the most compelling jobs to bring back to the US are the so-called “last screw” system integration operations. These often involve the complex and precise process of integrating simple sub-assemblies into high-value goods such as 3D printers or cell phones. Quality control and IP protection are paramount. I often advise startups to consider putting their system integration operations in the US because difficult-to-protect intellectual property, such as firmware, never has to be exported if the firmware upload operation happens in the US. The ability to leverage China for low-value subassemblies opens more headroom to create high-value jobs in the US, improving the overall competitiveness of American companies.

Unfortunately, the structure of the new tariffs are exactly the opposite of what you would expect to bring those jobs back to the US. Stiff new taxes on simple components, sub-assemblies, and tools like soldering irons contrasted against a lack of taxation on finished goods pushes business owners to send these “last screw” operation overseas. Basically, with these new tariffs the more value-add sent outside the borders of the US, the more profitable a business will be. Not even concerns over IP security could overcome a 25% increase in base costs and keep operations in the US.

It seems the intention of the new tariff structure was to minimize the immediate pain that voters would feel in the upcoming mid-terms by waiving taxes on finished goods. Unfortunately, the reality is it gives small businesses that were once considering setting up shop in the US a solid reason to look off-shore, while rewarding large corporations for heavy investments in overseas operations.

New Tariffs Hurt Educators and Makers

Learning how to blink a light is the de-facto introduction to electronics. This project is often done with the help of a circuit board, such as a Microbit or Chibi Chip, and a type of light known as an LED. Unfortunately, both of those items – simple circuit boards and LEDs – are about to get 25% more expensive with the new tariffs, along with other Maker and educator staples such as capacitors, resistors, soldering irons, and oscilloscopes. The impact of this cost hike will be felt throughout the industry, but most sharply by educators, especially those serving under-funded school districts.


Above: Learning to blink a light is the de-facto introduction to electronics, and it typically involves a circuit board and an LED, like those pictured above.

Somewhere on the Pacific Ocean right now floats a container of goods for ed-tech startup Chibitronics. The goods are slated primarily for educators and Makers that are stocking up for the fall semester. It will arrive in the US the second week of July, and will likely be greeted by a heavy import tax. I know this because I’m directly involved in the startup’s operations. Chibitronics’ core mission is to serve the educator market, and as part of that we routinely offered deep discounts on bulk products for educators and school systems. Now, thanks to the new tariffs on the basic components that educators rely upon to teach electronics, we are less able to fulfill our mission.

A 25% jump in base costs forces us to choose between immediate price increases or cutting the salaries of our American employees who support the educators. These new tariffs are a tax on America’s future – it deprives some of the most vulnerable groups of access to technology education, making future American workers less competitive on the global stage.


Above: Educator-oriented learning kits like the Chibitronics “Love to Code” are slated for price increases this fall due to the new tariffs.

Protectionism is Bad for Technological Leadership

Recently, I was sent photos by Hernandi Krammes of a network card that was manufactured in Brazil around 1992. One of the most striking features of the card was how retro it looked – straight out of the 80’s, a full decade behind its time. This is a result of Brazil’s policy of protectionist tariffs on the import of high-tech components. While stiff tariffs on the import of microchips drove investment in local chip companies, trade barriers meant the local companies didn’t have to be as competitive. With less incentive to re-invest or upgrade, local technology fell behind the curve, leading ultimately to anachronisms like the Brazilian Ethernet card pictured below.


Above: this Brazilian network card from 1992 features design techniques from the early 80’s. It is large and clunky compared to contemporaneous cards.

Significantly, it’s not that the Brazilian engineers were any less clever than their Western counterparts: they displayed considerable ingenuity getting a network card to work at all using primarily domestically-produced components. The tragedy is instead of using their brainpower to create industry-leading technology, most of their effort went into playing catch-up with the rest of the world. By the time protectionist policies were repealed in Brazil, the local industry was too far behind to effectively compete on a global scale.

Should the US follow Brazil’s protectionist stance on trade, it’s conceivable that some day I might be remarking on the quaintness of American network cards compared to their more advanced Chinese or European counterparts. Trade barriers don’t make a country more competitive – in fact, quite the opposite. In a competition of ideas, you want to start with the best tech available anywhere; otherwise, you’re still jogging to the starting line while the competition has already finished their first lap.

Stand Up and Be Heard

There is a sliver of good news in all of this for American Makers. The list of commodities targeted in the trade war is not yet complete. The “List 2” items – which include all manner of microchips, motors, and plastics (such as 3D printer PLA filament and acrylic sheets for laser cutting) that are building blocks for small businesses and Makers – have yet to be ratified. The USTR website has indicated in the coming weeks they will disclose a process for public review and comment. Once this process is made transparent – whether you are a small business owner or the parent of a child with technical aspirations – I encourage you to please share your stories and concerns on how you will be negatively impacted by these additional tariffs.

Some of the List 2 items still under review include:

9030.31.00 Multimeters for measuring or checking electrical voltage, current, resistance or power, without a recording device
8541.10.00 Diodes, other than photosensitive or light-emitting diodes
8541.40.60 Diodes for semiconductor devices, other than light-emitting diodes, nesoi
8542.31.00 Electronic integrated circuits: processors and controllers
8542.32.00 Electronic integrated circuits: memories
8542.33.00 Electronic integrated circuits: amplifiers
8542.39.00 Electronic integrated circuits: other
8542.90.00 Parts of electronic integrated circuits and microassemblies
8501.10.20 Electric motors of an output of under 18.65 W, synchronous, valued not over $4 each
8501.10.60 Electric motors of an output of 18.65 W or more but not exceeding 37.5 W
8501.31.40 DC motors, nesoi, of an output exceeding 74.6 W but not exceeding 735 W
8544.49.10 Insulated electric conductors of a kind used for telecommunications, for a voltage not exceeding 80 V, not fitted with connectors
8544.49.20 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, for a voltage not exceeding 80 V, not fitted with connectors
3920.59.80 Plates, sheets, film, etc, noncellular, not reinforced, laminated, combined, of other acrylic polymers, nesoi
3916.90.30 Monafilament nesoi, of plastics, excluding ethylene, vinyl chloride and acrylic polymers

Here’s some of the “List 1” items that are set to become 25% more expensive to import from China, come July 6th:

Staples used by every Maker or electronics educator:

8515.11.00 Electric soldering irons and guns
8506.50.00 Lithium primary cells and primary batteries
8506.60.00 Air-zinc primary cells and primary batteries
9030.20.05 Oscilloscopes and oscillographs, specially designed for telecommunications
9030.33.34 Resistance measuring instruments
9030.33.38 Other instruments and apparatus, nesoi, for measuring or checking electrical voltage, current, resistance or power, without a recording device
9030.39.01 Instruments and apparatus, nesoi, for measuring or checking

Circuit assemblies (like Microbit, Chibi Chip, Arduino):

8543.90.68 Printed circuit assemblies of electrical machines and apparatus, having individual functions, nesoi
9030.90.68 Printed circuit assemblies, NESOI

Basic electronic components:

8532.21.00 Tantalum fixed capacitors
8532.22.00 Aluminum electrolytic fixed capacitors
8532.23.00 Ceramic dielectric fixed capacitors, single layer
8532.24.00 Ceramic dielectric fixed capacitors, multilayer
8532.25.00 Dielectric fixed capacitors of paper or plastics
8532.29.00 Fixed electrical capacitors, nesoi
8532.30.00 Variable or adjustable (pre-set) electrical capacitors
8532.90.00 Parts of electrical capacitors, fixed, variable or adjustable (pre-set)
8533.10.00 Electrical fixed carbon resistors, composition or film types
8533.21.00 Electrical fixed resistors, other than composition or film type carbon resistors, for a power handling capacity not exceeding 20 W
8533.29.00 Electrical fixed resistors, other than composition or film type carbon resistors, for a power handling capacity exceeding 20 W
8533.31.00 Electrical wirewound variable resistors, including rheostats and potentiometers, for a power handling capacity not exceeding 20 W
8533.40.40 Metal oxide resistors
8533.40.80 Electrical variable resistors, other than wirewound, including rheostats and potentiometers
8533.90.80 Other parts of electrical resistors, including rheostats and potentiometers, nesoi
8541.21.00 Transistors, other than photosensitive transistors, with a dissipation rating of less than 1 W
8541.29.00 Transistors, other than photosensitive transistors, with a dissipation rating of 1 W or more
8541.30.00 Thyristors, diacs and triacs, other than photosensitive devices
8541.40.20 Light-emitting diodes (LED’s)
8541.40.70 Photosensitive transistors
8541.40.80 Photosensitive semiconductor devices nesoi, optical coupled isolators
8541.40.95 Photosensitive semiconductor devices nesoi, other
8541.50.00 Semiconductor devices other than photosensitive semiconductor devices, nesoi
8541.60.00 Mounted piezoelectric crystals
8541.90.00 Parts of diodes, transistors, similar semiconductor devices, photosensitive semiconductor devices, LED’s and mounted piezoelectric crystals
8504.90.75 Printed circuit assemblies of electrical transformers, static converters and inductors, nesoi
8504.90.96 Parts (other than printed circuit assemblies) of electrical transformers, static converters and inductors
8536.50.90 Switches nesoi, for switching or making connections to or in electrical circuits, for a voltage not exceeding 1,000 V
8536.69.40 Connectors: coaxial, cylindrical multicontact, rack and panel, printed circuit, ribbon or flat cable, for a voltage not exceeding 1,000 V
8544.49.30 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, of copper, for a voltage not exceeding 1,000 V, not fitted with connectors
8544.49.90 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, not of copper, for a voltage not exceeding 1,000 V, not fitted with connectors
8544.60.20 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, for a voltage exceeding 1,000 V, fitted with connectors
8544.60.40 Insulated electric conductors nesoi, of copper, for a voltage exceeding 1,000 V, not fitted with connectors

Parts to fix your phone if it breaks:

8537.10.80 Touch screens without display capabilities for incorporation in apparatus having a display
9033.00.30 Touch screens without display capabilities for incorporation in apparatus having a display
9013.80.70 Liquid crystal and other optical flat panel displays other than for articles of heading 8528, nesoi
9033.00.20 LEDs for backlighting of LCDs
8504.90.65 Printed circuit assemblies of the goods of subheading 8504.40 or 8504.50 for telecommunication apparatus

Power supplies:

9032.89.60 Automatic regulating or controlling instruments and apparatus, nesoi
9032.90.21 Parts and accessories of automatic voltage and voltage-current regulators designed for use in a 6, 12, or 24 V system, nesoi
9032.90.41 Parts and accessories of automatic voltage and voltage-current regulators, not designed for use in a 6, 12, or 24 V system, nesoi
9032.90.61 Parts and accessories for automatic regulating or controlling instruments and apparatus, nesoi
8504.90.41 Parts of power supplies (other than printed circuit assemblies) for automatic data processing machines or units thereof of heading 8471
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smarkwell
24 days ago
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PDX
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jepler
27 days ago
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bunnie lays it out for you
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
philipstorry
27 days ago
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Trade wars are never a good idea unless you have a monopoly.
Bunnie lays out the long-term implications for America's economy very effectively here.
It can't be the intended result that the big multinationals will potentially benefit by removing small competition. It can't be the intended result that this restricts access to educational opportunities.
Sadly, I doubt that those behind the trade war care about anything other than how tough they think they look...
London, United Kingdom
brennen
27 days ago
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This is pretty fucking relevant both to my interests and to my continued gainful employment.
Boulder, CO

How The New York Times Uses Software To Recognize Members of Congress

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Illustration by Greg Kletsel

Even if you’ve covered Congress for The New York Times for a decade, it can be hard to recognize which member you’ve just spoken with. There are 535 members, and with special elections every few months, members cycle in and out relatively frequently. So when former Congressional Correspondent Jennifer Steinhauer tweeted “Shazam, but for House members faces” in early 2017, The Times’s Interactive News team jumped on the idea.

Our first thought was: Nope, it’s too hard! Computer vision and face recognition are legitimately difficult computer science problems. Even a prototype would involve training a model on the faces of every member of Congress, and just getting the photographs to train with would be an undertaking.

But we did some Googling and found the Amazon Rekognition API. This service has a “RecognizeCelebrity” endpoint that happens to include every member of Congress as well as several members of the Executive branch. Problem solved! Now we’re just talking about knitting together a few APIs.

As we began working on this application, we understood that there are numerous, valid privacy concerns about using face recognition technology. And Interactive News, a programming team embedded in the newsroom, abides by all aspects of The Times’s ethical journalism handbook including how we gather information about the people we cover. In this case, we decided that the use of Rekognition’s celebrity endpoint meant we would only recognize congress people and other “celebrities” in Rekognition’s database.

By the end of the summer, Interactive News interns Gautam Hathi and Sherman Hewitt had built a prototype based on some conversations with me and my colleague Rachel Shorey. To use the prototype, a congressional reporter could snap a picture of a congress member, text it to a our app, and get back an annotated version of the photograph identifying any members and giving a confidence score.

However, we discovered a new round of difficulties. Rekognition incorrectly identified some members of Congress as similar-looking celebrities — like one particularly funny instance where it confused Bill Nelson with Bill Paxton. Additionally, our hit rate on photographs was very low because the halls of the Capitol are poorly lit and the photographs we took for testing were consistently marred by shadow and blur. Bad connectivity in the basement of the Capitol made sending and receiving an MMS slow and error-prone during our testing. And, of course, there were few places in the Capitol where we could really get the photographs we needed without committing a foul.

Gautam and Sherman got around the “wrong celebrity” problem with a novel approach: A hardcoded list of Congresspeople and their celebrity doppelgangers. We grew more confident taking photographs and only sent the ones where members were better lit.

A text-based interface is easiest for reporters to use, so while texting is slow, it’s superior to a web service in the low-bandwidth environment of the Capitol.

In addition to confirming the identity of a member, Who The Hill has helped The Times tell some stories we couldn’t have reported otherwise. Most recently, Rachel Shorey found members of Congress at an event hosted by a SuperPAC by trawling through images found on social media and finding matches.

If you’re interested in running your own version, the code for Who The Hill is open sourced under the Apache 2.0 license. The latest version includes a command-line interface in case you’d like to use the power of Amazon’s Rekognition to dig through a collection of photographs on your local machine without sending a pile of MMS messages.

Our service is far from infallible. But Times reporters like Thomas Kaplan love having a backup for when they can’t get a moment with a member to confirm their identity. “Of course,” says Kaplan, “the most reliable way to figure out a member’s identity is the old-fashioned way: Just ask them.”


How The New York Times Uses Software To Recognize Members of Congress was originally published in Times Open on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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smarkwell
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Developing Apps for Your TV the Easy and Open Way

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The biggest screen in your house would seem a logical place to integrate cloud apps, but TVs are walled gardens. While it’s easy enough to hook up a laptop or PC and pop open a browser, there’s no simple, open framework for integrating all that wonderful data over
the TV’s other inputs.

Until now. Out of the box, NeTV2’s “NeTV Classic Mode” makes short work of overlaying graphics on top of any video feed. And thanks to the Raspberry Pi bundled in the Quickstart version, NeTV2 app developers get to choose from a diverse and well-supported ecosystem of app frameworks to install over the base Raspbian image shipped with every device.

For example, Alasdair Allan’s article on using the Raspberry Pi with Magic Mirror and Google AIY contains everything you need to get started on turning your TV into a voice-activated personal assistant. I gave it a whirl, and in just one evening I was able to concoct the demo featured in the video below.



Magic Mirror is a great match for NeTV2, because all the widgets are formatted to run on a black background. Once loaded, I just had to set the NeTV2’s chroma key color to black and the compositing works perfectly. Also, Google AIY’s Voicekit framework “just worked” out of the box. The only fussy bit was configuring it to work with my USB microphone, but thankfully there’s a nice Hackaday article detailing exactly how to do that.

Personally, I find listening to long-form replies from digital assistants like Alexa or Google Home a bit time consuming. As you can see from this demo, NeTV2 lets you build a digital assistant that pops up data and notifications over the biggest screen in your house using rich visual formats. And the best part is, when you want privacy, you can just unplug the microphone.

If you can develop an app that runs on a Raspberry Pi, you already know everything you need to integrate apps into any TV. Thanks to NeTV2, there’s never been an easier or more open way to make the biggest screen in your house the smartest screen.

The NeTV2 is crowdfunding now at CrowdSupply.com, and we’re just shy of our first stretch goal: a free Tomu bundled with every board. Normally priced at $30, Tomu is a tiny open-source computer that fits in a USB Type-A port, and it’s the easiest way to add an extra pair of status LEDs to an NeTV2. Help unlock this deal by backing now and spreading the word!

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smarkwell
37 days ago
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jepler
40 days ago
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I don't need an NeTV2 but I did impulse-buy some Tomu.
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm

Mission vs Strategy: Github and Open Source

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Today, Microsoft announced it’s 7.5 Billion dollar acquisition of Github. I want to start with a congratulations to my friends at Github — I think this is a great outcome, and Microsoft is probably one of the best long term homes for Github.

I want to address some of the negativity about the acquisition. Parts of the open source community are worried that Microsoft is going to ruin Github. I think these concerns are misplaced at a tactics and strategy level. However, at a mission level, I think it is important to compare Github to an open source foundation like the Apache Software Foundation1.

I’ve been a long term user of Github and an advocate for using it for many years. I’m also a member of the Apache Software Foundation. These are two of the juggernauts of the modern open source movement. They both are trying to encourage contributions to existing projects, they are both trying to get communities to live and grow on their platforms.

I think parts of the community is missing something important: The ASF and Github are alike in so many ways, but they have massively different missions.

Different Missions

Github was a venture backed, for-profit corporation. Github has used tactics and strategy to create returns is based on growing open source communities. This means as an open source community, you had a short term synergistic relationship with Github. The Github product helped your community grow and be productive. This is great. Github also had other strategies that leveraged it’s open source popularity to create business services and an enterprise on-premise product.

Github’s mission, as a for-profit corporation, is to generate a financial return. VC backing, which also mandates the generation of a return, only reinforces this mission.

Apache is a non-profit 501(c)(3) foundation. Its tactics and strategy are to provide services and support for open source communities. Seemingly, not that different from a community point of view in the short term.

Apache’s mission however, is to provide software for the public good. It’s literally the first line on the ASF About Page.

A mission is important. When people in a place change, so will the tactics and strategy.

100 years later

In 100 years, I hope the ASF is still a relevant way to provide software for the public good. I think there is a decent chance of this.

In 100 years, I don’t know if even the Microsoft brand will exist, let alone Github.

Github was never a replacement for the ASF, and at the same time, the ASF should learn from it. Github massively widened who contributes to open source. They made contributions easier. They innovated on what open source even means. They built an amazing product that I use every day.

The communities I’m part of, I believe will outlive Github. Communities can benefit from these for-profit endeavors. Synergy between their needs and the tactics of a for-profit company are good for the community. But as a community we must understand that we are part of the product, There is a benefit to the company for helping.

Github’s strategy including building an amazing product, but don’t confuse the missions.


[1]: I used the ASF as the primary example in this post, but you can swap ASF for Node Foundation, Linux Foundation, Free Software Foundation, etc. They all have broadly similar missions around producing software and supporting communities.

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Business Update

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Our customers keep sending us their personal information, even though we've repeatedly asked them to stop. The EU told me I'm the heir to some ancient European throne that makes me exempt from the GDPR, but we should probably still try to fix that.
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smarkwell
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alt_text_bot
53 days ago
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Our customers keep sending us their personal information, even though we've repeatedly asked them to stop. The EU told me I'm the heir to some ancient European throne that makes me exempt from the GDPR, but we should probably still try to fix that.
alt_text_at_your_service
53 days ago
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Our customers keep sending us their personal information, even though we've repeatedly asked them to stop. The EU told me I'm the heir to some ancient European throne that makes me exempt from the GDPR, but we should probably still try to fix that.

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

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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.

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smarkwell
65 days ago
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