Hacker Reads Magnetic Stripe Card With Flatbed Scanner

[anfractuosus] has been reading magnetic stripe card… optically!

While hackers routinely read and write stripe cards, this is the first time we’ve reported on optically imaging and decoding data from the magnetic stripe. [anfratuosus] used a magnetic developer which is designed to allow visual inspection of the magnetic stripe. The developer uses micron sized iron particles in a suspension which are dropped onto the stripe. To the particles, the magnetic stripe looks like a series of magnets lined up. Long magnets striperepresent 0s and short magnets 1s. With each bit the orientation of the magnet changes, something like the diagram to the right. The magnetic field is strongest where the poles meet. So the iron particles are attracted to these flux reversal points on the stripe creating a visible pattern . There’s an awesome video of the process in action below.

While magnetic developer was designed for debugging faulty recording systems [anfratuosus] went a step further scanning the “developed” card, and writing a tool to decode the images and extract the card data. [anfratuosus] doesn’t mention any particular application, we love this circuitous hack anyway!

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Visualizing RF Standing Waves

Standing waves are one of those topics that lots of people have a working knowledge of, but few seem to really grasp. A Ham radio operator will tell you all about the standing wave ratio (SWR) of his antenna, and he may even have a meter in the shack to measure it. He’ll know that a 1.1 to 1 SWR is a good thing, but 2 to 1 is not so good. Ask him to explain exactly what a standing wave is, though, and chances are good that hands will be waved. But [Allen], a Ham also known as [W2AEW], has just released an excellent video explaining standing waves by measuring signals along an open transmission line.

[Source: Wikipedia]
[Source: Wikipedia]
To really understand standing waves, you’ve got to remember two things. First, waves of any kind will tend to be at least partially reflected when they experience a change in the impedance of the transmission medium. The classic example is an open circuit or short at the end of an RF transmission line, which will perfectly reflect an incoming RF signal back to its source. Second, waves that travel in the same medium overlap each other and their peaks and troughs can be summed. If two waves peak together, they reinforce each other; if a peak and a trough line up, they cancel each other out.

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Build a Baby Plasma Cutter–Right Now!

What hacker doesn’t want a plasma cutter? Even if you aren’t MacGyver, you can probably build this one in a few minutes using things you have on hand. The catch? You probably can’t cut anything more than tin foil with it, and it is probably more a carbon-air arc gouger (which uses plasma) than a true plasma cutter. Still, as [Little Shop of Physics] shows on the video, it does a fine job of slicing right through foil.

If you are like us, you are back now after getting four 9V batteries, some tin foil, a pencil lead, and some clip leads and trying it. If you have more self-restraint than we do, you might want to think about what you are going to put the tin foil over. In the video, they used a laundry basket and a rubber band, but anything that keeps the foil suspended would do the trick.

Although it isn’t really a practical plasma cutter, we were thinking about strapping something like this to a 3D printer and cutting foil stencils. The jagged edges on the video are, hopefully, more from being operated by hand and less from the jagged mini-lightning bolt vaporizing the foil.

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Building a Battery from Molten Salt

During World War II a scientist named Georg Otto Erb developed the molten salt battery for use in military applications. The war ended before Erb’s batteries found any real use, but British Intelligence wrote a report about the technology and the United States adopted the technology for artillery fuses.

Molten salt batteries have two main advantages. First, you can store them for a long time (50 years or more) with no problems. Once the salt melts (usually from a pyrotechnic charge), the battery can produce a lot of energy for a relatively short period of time thanks to the high ionic conductivity of the electrolyte (about three times that of sulfuric acid).

[OrbitalDesigns] couldn’t find a DIY version of a molten salt battery so he decided to make one himself. Although he didn’t get the amount of power you’d find in a commercial design, it did provide 1.6V and enough power to light an LED.

The electrolyte was a mixture of potassium chloride and lithium chloride and melts at about 350 to 400 degrees Celsius. He used nickel and magnesium for electrodes. Potassium chloride is used as a salt substitute, so it isn’t dangerous to handle (at least, no more dangerous than anything else heated to 400 degrees Celsius). The lithium compound, however, is slightly toxic (even though it was briefly sold as a salt substitute, also). If you try to replicate the battery, be sure you read the MSDS for all the materials.

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RIP: HitchBot

Equal parts art project and social media experiment, with a dash of backyard hackery “robotics” thrown in for good measure, hitchBot was an experiment in the kindness of strangers. That is, the kindness of strangers toward a beer bucket filled with a bunch of electronics with a cute LED smiley face.

The experiment came to a tragic end (vandalism, naturally) in Philadelphia PA, after travelling a month across Canada, ten days in Germany, and yet another month across the Netherlands. It survived two weeks in the USA, which is more than the cynics would have guessed, but a few Grand Canyons short of the American Dream.

Professors [David Smith] and [Frauke Zeller] built hitchBot to see how far cuteness and social media buzz could go. [Smith], a former hitchhiker himself, also wanted hitchBot to be a commentary on how society’s attitudes toward hitching and public trust have changed since the 70s. Would people would pick it up on the side of the street, plug it in to their own cigarette lighters, and maybe even take it to a baseball game? Judging by hitchBot’s Twitter feed, the answer was yes. And for that, little bucket, we salute you!

But this is Hackaday, and we don’t pull punches, even for the recently deceased. It’s not clear how much “bot” there was in hitchBot. It looks like it had a GPS, batteries, and a solar cell. We can’t tell if it took its own pictures, but the photos on Twitter seem to be from another perspective. It had enough brains inside to read out Wikipedia entries and do some rudimentary voice recognition tasks, so it was a step up from Tweenbots but was still reassuringly non-Terminator.

Instead, hitchBot had more digital marketing mavens and social media savants on its payroll than [Miley Cyrus] and got tons of press coverage, which seems to have been part of the point from the very start. And by writing this blog post, we’re playing right into [Smith] and [Zeller]’s plan. If you make a robot / art project cute enough to win the hearts of many, they might just rebuild it. [Margaret Atwood] has even suggested on Twitter that people might crowdfund-up a hitchBot 2.0.

Our suggestion? Open-source the build plans, and let thousands of hitchBots take its place.

How to Rescue Your Quadcopter from a Tree

Whether it’s a new rocket, your latest quadcopter, or [Charlie Brown]’s kite, it always seems like there’s a tree waiting to catch and eat airborne projects. Sometimes you get lucky and find a way to climb up the tree to retrieve your wayward build, but most times you’re reduced to looking for rocks or sticks to fling up there in an attempt to shake it loose. But if you want to improve your chances of getting your stuff back, [U.S. Water Rockets] has a build for a retrieval tool made mostly from scrap bin parts that will help.

All you need is some PVC tubing, an old fishing reel and line, some latex surgical tubing, and a few dowels for projectiles. You can tell everything about the build from the BOM and stills, but the video after the break gives detailed instructions and shows it in action. Adding some fins to the dart or even substituting a cheap arrow from the sporting goods department of your favorite retailer might help with your aim. Even without fletching, the accuracy of the launcher is pretty good, and the range isn’t half bad either. Once the fishing line is over the branch that ate your quad it can be used to haul up successively stouter ropes, and pretty soon you’ll be shaking the tree like a boss.

Even if getting stuff out of trees isn’t on your immediate to-do list, this little hack could be put to other uses. Hams will use it to loft antennas up into trees, and tag-line placement for tree removal could be simplified with this tool. But if you still find yourself needing to retrieve stuff, you might want to be proactive and make your aerial robot tree-proof. That still won’t eliminate the need for drone-on-drone rooftop rescues.

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Shinewave Gamecube Controller Reacts to Smash Brothers

[Garrett Greenwood] plays Smash Brothers, and apparently quite seriously. So seriously that he needed to modify his controller with five Neopixels so that it flashed different color animations according to the combo he’s playing on the controller; tailored to match the colors of the moves of his favorite character, naturally.

All of this happens with an ATtiny85 as the brains, which we find quite ambitious. Indeed, [Garrett] started out thinking he could simply read each of the inputs from the controller directly into the microcontroller at the heart of the whole thing, but then counted up how many wires that would be, and looked at how many pins he had free (six), and thought up a better solution.

[Garrett]’s routine instead reads the single line that the Gamecube controller uses to send back to the console. The protocol is well understood, using long-short and short-long signals to encode bits. The only trick is that each bit is sent in four microseconds, so the decoding routine has to be fairly speedy. To make it work he had to do quite a bit of work. More about that, and the demo video, after the break.

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