BlocksCAD is Browser-Based 3D Modeling that Teaches You CAD

Considering all of the projects the Raspberry Pi is used for now, the fact that it was originally envisioned to be an educational tool is sometimes forgotten. One of the tools commonly available with it is Scratch, a programming language that is easy to learn and can be seen as a gateway into other computer science realms. Building on this principle, MIT has come up with a new block-based educational tool called BlocksCAD.

BlocksCAD is essentially Scratch combined with OpenSCAD and allows the user to use blocks (similar to Scratch) to build a 3D model. The interface is fairly intuitive, and with some practice even complex shapes can be created using the tools available. Also, everything runs in a browser like the 3D modeling tool we featured a few days ago, so there isn’t anything to download or install.

The key to this project (like the key to Scratch) is that the user isn’t bogged down by syntax, which is often one of the largest hurdles for anyone who is just starting to learn to program. Since it’s possible to avoid syntax but still develop 3D models, this new tool should help anyone interested in the field of 3D modeling or CAD get a start without getting scared away too easily. Of course, if you do end up deep in the field of computer science and want to learn more about this project, the developers have opened up the source code as well.

Thanks for the tip, [Matt]!

Panopticlick: You Are A Beautiful And Unique Snowflake

We all like to think we’re unique, but when it comes to remaining anonymous online that’s probably not such a good idea. By now, it’s common knowledge that advertising firms, three-letter agencies, and who-knows-who-else want to know what websites you’re visiting and how often. Persistent tracking cookies, third-party cookies, and “like” buttons keep tabs on you at all times.

For whatever reason, you might want to browse anonymously and try to plug some of the obvious sources of identity leakage. The EFF and their Panopticlick project have bad news for you.

The idea behind Panopticlick is simple: to try to figure out how identifiable you are even if you’re not accepting cookies, or if you’ve disabled Flash, or if you’re using “secure” browsers. To create a fingerprint of your browser, Panopticlick takes all the other little bits of identifying information that your browser gives up, and tries to piece them together.

For a full treatment of the project, see this paper (PDF). The takeaway from the project is that the information your browser gives up to servers can, without any cookies, specifically identify you.

fooFor instance, a server can query which plugins your browser supports, and if you’ve installed anything a tiny bit out of the ordinary, you’re fingerprinted. Your browser’s User Agent strings are often over-specific and tell which browser sub-sub-sub version you’re running on which OS platform. If you’re running Flash, it can report back which fonts you’ve got installed on your system. Any of these can be easily as rare as one-in-a-million. Combining them together (unless they’re all highly correlated) can fingerprint you uniquely.

You can’t necessarily win. If you disable Flash, the remote site doesn’t get your font list, but since only one in five browsers runs with Flash disabled, you’re still giving up two bits of information. If you run a “privacy-enhancing” niche browser, your chances of leaving a unique fingerprint go through the roof unless you’re also forging the User Agent strings.

I ran the Panopticlick experiment twice, once with a Firefox browser and once with an obscure browser that I actually use most of the time (dwb). Firefox runs a Flash blocker standard, so they didn’t get my font list. But still, the combination of browser plugins and a relatively new Firefox on Linux alone made me unique.

It was even worse for the obscure browser test. Only one in 1.4 million hits use dwb, so that alone was bad news. I also use a 4:3 aspect-ratio monitor, with 1280×1024 pixels at 24-bit color depth, which is apparently a one-in-twenty-four occurrence. Who knew?

fooFinally, I tried out the Tor browser, which not only routes your traffic through the Tor network, but also removes a lot of the specific data about your session. It fared much better, making me not uniquely identifiable: instead only one in a thousand. (Apparently a lot of people trying out the Panopticlick site ran Tor browser.)

If you’re interested in online anonymity, using something like Tor to obscure your IP address and disabling cookies is a good start. But Panopticlick points out that it may not be enough. You can never use too many layers of tinfoil when making your hat.

Try it out, and let us know in the comments how you fare.

Web Browser Pushes Arduino’s Limits

Some projects that we build fulfill a genuine need for a new piece of hardware or software that will make life easier or fix a common problem. Other projects, on the other hand, we do just because it’s possible to do. [Gilchrist] has finished work on a project that fits squarely in the second category: a web browser that runs exclusively on an Arduino Uno with an ethernet shield.

The Arduino can serve plain-text web pages to an attached LCD and can follow hyperlinks. User input is handled by a small joystick, but the impressive part of the build is on the software side. The Arduino only has 2KB of RAM to handle web pages, and the required libraries take up 20KB of memory, leaving only about 12 KB for the HTML parser/renderer and the LCD renderer.

The Arduino browser is a work in progress, and [Gilchrist] mentions that goals for the project include more robustness to handle poor HTML (the Hackaday retro edition loads flawlessly though), a terminal, and WiFi capabilities. To that end, maybe a good solution would be using the new ESP8266 chip to keep things small and inexpensive?

Recording audio with Chrome using HTML5


The Dubjoy project was stopped dead in its tracks when the newest version of the Google Chrome browser stopped using Adobe’s flash plugin and transitioned to their own called Pepper Flash. The aim of development was to produce a browser-based editor for translating the audio track of a video clip. After a bit of head scratching and a lot of research they decided to try ditching the use of Flash and implemented a way to record audio using HTML5.

There were quite a few issues along the way. The initial recording technique generated raw audio files, which are not playable by Chrome’s HTML5 audio player. This can be worked around by buffering the raw audio, then converting it to a different format once the recording is finished. The user also needs to monkey with the Chromes flags to enable HTML5 audio. So they did get it working, but it’s not yet a smooth process.

We love seeing the neat stuff you can do with HTML5. One of our favorites is the use of a tablet’s accelerometer as a browser game controller.

[via Reddit]

Turning a plush Dalek into a WiFi enabled robot

You can now “EX-TER-MIN-ATE!” with one finger since this plush Dalek from Doctor Who has been turned into a wireless robot. The build started out with the toy whose only trick was to spout quotes from the popular science fiction television series. [Madox] took it apart to see how it worked, then added some of his own goodies to make it better.

We just looked in on a project from this guy on Tuesday. It was a light painting wand that used the TP-Link TL-WR703N wireless router. This uses the same tiny hardware as the controller. Since it’s a WiFi router it’s quite simple to serve up a control interface on any browser. To make it all work [Madox] designed and printed a new base plate. This provides brackets on which the two servo motors can  be mounted. It also gives him a place to anchor the driver board and the router itself. The original voice hardware is still there, driven by a connection to the router hardware. See the final product in the clip after the jump.

Continue reading “Turning a plush Dalek into a WiFi enabled robot”

Control Raspi GPIO pins in the browser

Now instead of wrangling Python or PHP to do your bidding, [Eric] came up with a way to control the GPIO pins on his Raspberry Pi in a browser.

[Eric] calls his project WebIOPi, and it’s the perfect tool if you’d just like to blink a LED or control a relay over the internet. Simply by pointing his browser to the IP of his Raspi, [Eric] can turn GPIO pins on and off, directly from his desktop browser.

All the code for WebIOPi is available on [Eric]’s Google code page. The UI of [Eric]’s project is fully customizable, so it’s entirely possible to control your garage door from a smart phone simply by loading up a web page hosted on your Raspi and pressing a button.

Right now WebIOPi is only able to turn GPIO pins on and off. That will change as [Eric] implements UART, SPI, and I2C in his project, making it possible to do a lot of cool stuff without having to write much – if any – code.

Speed up Web Browsing in Linux

In modern computer systems, the biggest bottleneck of information tends to be in communicating with the hard disks. High seek times and relatively slow transmission rates when compared to RAM speeds can add up quickly. This was a necessary evil back when RAM space and costs were at a premium, but now it is not uncommon to see 4GB of RAM on laptops, and even 12GB on desktops. For  users whose primary computer use is browsing the internet (either for work, writing articles, or lolcats) and have some extra RAM, moving the browser cache to the RAM from the hard disk is a definite option for increasing speed.

In Linux systems (specifically Fedora and Ubuntu systems), this can be achieved for Chrome and Firefox by creating a larger ramdisk, mounting the ramdisk after boot, and then setting the browser of choice to use that ramdisk as a cache. The necessary commands to do this are readily available on the internet, which makes life easy. Using ramdisks for performance boosts are not exclusive to browsers, and can be used for other software such as Nagios for example.

We have previously covered a tool called Espérance DV for moving cache to RAM in Mac OSX, and for any Windows users feeling left out, there are ways of making Firefox bend to your will. Obviously you will see an increase in RAM use (duh), but this shouldn’t be a problem unless you are running out of free RAM on your system. Remember, free RAM is wasted RAM.