Back to School Online

In 1961, FCC Commissioner [Newt Minow] famously described TV as a “vast wasteland.” But TV can do great things; educational programming, news coverage, and great performances do appear, just not all that often. You can draw the same parallels to the Internet. Sure, it’s mostly cat pictures, snarky comments, and posts of what your friends had for dinner. But it can also be a powerful tool, especially for education. Recently, top-name schools and other institutions have posted courses online for everything from Python to Quantum Mechanics to Dutch. The problems are finding these classes and figuring out which ones are gems and which are duds. A site called Class-Central aims to solve these problems.

The site aggregates class descriptions from a variety of sources like edX, Coursea, and more. Users can rate the classes. Many of these courses are free to take. The recent trend is to offer the content for free, but charge for people who want an assessment, such as a certificate of completion or even a full-blown degree. Even then, the cost is typically far less than traditional college costs.

There’s also news about courses. For example, a recent post highlighted that edX now offers nine online master’s degrees in conjunction with major schools. A computer science masters from the University of Texas, for example, runs about $10,000. A Georgia Tech cybersecurity masters degree costs even less. There are another seven not ready yet, including one for electrical engineering.

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Shakespeare in a Zip in a RAR, Hidden in an Image on Twitter

Steganography involves hiding data in something else — for example, encoding data in a picture. [David Buchanan] used polyglot files not to hide data, but to send a large amount of data in a single Twitter post. We don’t think it quite qualifies as steganography because the image has a giant red UNZIP ME printed across it. But without it, you might not think to run a JPG image through your unzip program. If you did, though, you’d wind up with a bunch of RAR files that you could unrar and get the complete works of the Immortal Bard in a single Tweet. You can also find the source code — where else — on Twitter as another image.

What’s a polyglot file? Jpeg images have an ICC (International Color Consortium) section that defines color profiles. While Twitter strips a lot of things out of images, it doesn’t take out the ICC section. However, the ICC section can contain almost anything that fits in 64 kB up to a limit of 16 MB total.

The ZIP format is also very flexible. The pointer to the central directory is at the end of the file. Since that pointer can point anywhere, it is trivial to create a zip file with extraneous data just about anywhere in the file.

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Speak Your WiFi

When you create a Thing for the Internet of Things, you’ve made a little computer that does a simple job and which probably has a minimal interface. But minimal interfaces leave little room for configuration, such as entering WiFi details. Perhaps if you made the Thing yourself you’ve hard-coded your WiFi credentials in your code, but that hardly translates to multiple instances. So, how to put end-user WiFi credentials easily on more than one Thing? Perhaps [Rob Dobson] has the answer with his technique of sending them as a sequence of audible tones.

There is a piece of Javascript code in a browser into which you enter your WiFi credentials, which are then expressed through the speaker as a set of FSK tones to be picked up by a microphone on the Thing. They can then be decoded into the credentials, and the Thing can connect. All the code is available, on GitHub, should you fancy it yourself.

Of course, this is nothing new, as any owner of an 8-bit machine that had a cassette interface will tell you. And on the face of it it’s much easier than those awkward impromptu hotspots with a web interface to which you connect and pass on your credentials. But while we quite like the convenience, we can’t help wondering whether expressing the credentials in audible free space might be a bit too insecure for many readers. The technique however remains valid, and we’re sure that other less sensitive applications might be found for it. Meanwhile we hope he hasn’t inadvertently shared his WiFi password in the video below the break.

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Burn Some Time with this Arduino Reddit Browser

If you’re like us, you probably spend more time browsing Reddit than you’d like to admit to your friends/family/boss/therapist. A seemingly endless supply of knowledge, wisdom, and memes; getting stuck on Reddit is not unlike looking something up on Wikipedia and somehow managing to spend the next couple hours just clicking through to new pages. But we’re willing to bet that none of us love browsing Reddit quite as much as [Saad] does.

He writes in to tell us about the handheld device he constructed which lets him view random posts from the popular /r/showerthoughts sub. Each press of the big red button delivers another slice of indispensable Internet wisdom, making it a perfect desk toy to fiddle with when you need a little extra push to get you through the day. Like one of those “Word a Day” calendars, but one that you’ll actually read.

For those curious as to how [Saad] is scraping Reddit with an Arduino, the short answer is that he isn’t. Posts are pulled from Reddit using an online tool created for the project by his wife (/r/relationshipgoals/), and dumped into a text file that can be placed on the device’s SD card. With 1500 of the all-time highest rated posts from /r/showerthoughts onboard, he should be good on content for awhile.

[Saad] has done an excellent job documenting the hardware side of this build, providing plenty of pictures as well as a list of the parts he used and a few tips to help make assembly easier. Overall it’s not that complex a project, but his documentation is a big help for those who might not live and breathe this kind of thing.

For the high-level summary: it uses an Arduino Pro Mini, a ILI9341 screen, and a 3.3 V regulator to step down 5 V USB instead of using batteries. A bit of perfboard, a 3D printed case, and a suitably irresistible big red button pulls the whole thing together.

We’ve seen a similar concept done in a picture frame a couple of years back, but if that’s not interactive enough you could always build yourself a Reddit “controller”.

Popup Notification Dinosaur

There’s a lot going on our virtual spaces, and anyone with a smart phone can attest to this fact. There are pop-up notifications for everything you can imagine, and sometimes it’s possible for the one really important notification to get lost in a sea of minutiae. To really make sure you don’t miss that one important notification, you can offload that task to your own personal dinosaur.

The 3D-printed dinosaur has a rack-and-pinion gear set that allows it to extend upwards when commanded. It also has a set of LEDs for eyes that turn on when it pops up. The two servos and LEDs are controlled by a small Arduino in the base of the dinosaur. This Arduino can be programmed to activate the dinosaur whenver you like, for an email from a specific person, a reply to a comment on Reddit, or an incoming phone call to name a few examples. Be sure to check out the video below the break.

With this dinosaur on your desk, it’s not likely you’ll miss its activation. If you’d like something that has the same function but with less movement and more lights, there’s also a notification 3D cube made out of LEDs that’s sure to catch your eye as well. Continue reading “Popup Notification Dinosaur”

It’s The Web, Basically

If you are of a certain age, you probably learned to program in Basic. Even if you aren’t, a lot of microcontroller hobbyists got started on the Basic Stamp, and there are plenty of other places where to venerable language still hides out. But if you want to write cool browser applications, you have to write JavaScript, right? Google will now let you code your web pages in Basic. Known as WWWBasic, this is — of course — a Javascript hack that you can load remotely into a web page and then have your page use Basic for customization. You can even import the thing into Node.js and use Basic inside your JavaScript, although it is hard to think of why you’d want to.

According to the project’s documentation — which is pretty sparse so far, we’re afraid — the Basic program is compiled into JavaScript on page load. There are a few examples, so you can generally pick up what’s available to use. There are graphics, the ability to read a keyboard key, and a way to handle the mouse.

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FxSolver is a Math Notebook for Engineers

If you like to rely on the web to do your electronics and computer math, you’ll want to bookmark FxSolver. It has a wide collection of formulae from disciplines ranging from electronics, computer science, physics, chemistry, and mechanics. There are also the classic math formulations, too.

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