Manhattan Mystery of Creepy Jingles and Random Noises Solved

Here’s a puzzler for you: If you’re phreaking something that’s not exactly a phone, are you still a phreak?

That question probably never crossed the minds of New Yorkers who were acoustically assaulted on the normally peaceful sidewalks of Manhattan over the summer by creepy sounds emanating from streetside WiFi kiosks. The auditory attacks caused quite a stir locally, leading to wild theories that Russian hackers were behind it all. Luckily, the mystery has been solved, and it turns out to have been part prank, part protest, and part performance art piece.

To understand the exploit, realize that New York City has removed thousands of traditional pay phones from city sidewalks recently and replaced them with LinkNYC kiosks, which are basically WiFi hotspots with giant HDTV displays built into them. For the price of being blitzed with advertisements while strolling by, anyone can make a free phone call using the built-in VOIP app. That was the key that allowed [Mark Thomas], an old-school phreak and die-hard fan of the pay telephones that these platforms supplanted, to launch his attack. It’s not exactly rocket surgery; [Mark] dials one of the dozens of conference call numbers he has set up with pre-recorded audio snippets. A one-minute delay lets him crank the speakerphone volume up to 11 and abscond. The recordings vary, but everyone seemed most creeped out by the familiar jingle of the [Mr. Softee] ice cream truck franchise, slowed down and distorted to make it sound like something from a fever dream.

Yes, it’s a minimal hack, and normally we don’t condone the misuse of public facilities, even ones as obnoxious as LinkNYC appears to be. But it does make a statement about the commercialization of the public square, and honestly, we’re glad to see something that at least approaches phreaking again. It’s a little less childish than blasting porn audio from a Target PA system, and far less dangerous than activating a public safety siren remotely.

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Poetry in Motion with a Sand-Dispensing Dot Matrix Printer

Hackaday gets results! Reader [John] saw our recent Fail of the Week post about a “sand matrix printer” and decided to share his own version, a sand-dispensing dot matrix printer he built last year.

Granted, [John]’s version is almost the exact opposite of [Vjie Miller]’s failed build, which sought to make depressions in the sand to print characters. [John]’s Sandscript takes a hopper full of dry, clean sand and dispenses small piles from six small servo-controlled nozzles. The hopper is mounted on a wheeled frame, and an optical encoder on one wheel senses forward motion to determine when to open each nozzle. As [John] slowly walks behind and to the side of the cart, a line of verse is slowly drizzled out onto the pavement. See it in action in the video below.

More performance art piece than anything else, we can see how this would be really engaging, with people following along like kids after the [Pied Piper], waiting to find out what the full message is. There’s probably a statement in there about the impermanence of art and the fleeting nature of existence, but we just think it’s a really cool build.

We’ve featured other sand writers before, like this high-resolution draw bot that also dispenses sandy verses, or this literal beach-combing art bot. Guess there’s just something about sand that inspires artists and hackers alike.

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32C3: 20 Oscillators in 20 Minutes

In terms of implausible stand-up comedy, [Darsha]’s “20 Oscillators in 20 Minutes” is pretty far out there. First of all, she’s sitting down, with googly eyes on her multimeter, and five breadboards and a mess of 9V batteries laid out in front of her. “Has anybody built electronics before? Has anybody built electronics in front of this many people before? Yeah, so you’d better f**king be nice.” And she’s off!

twenty_oscillators-shot0012“Square waves are really good for your speakers.” And a few seconds later, a lub-dub beat-frequency oscillator filled the hall. And then there’s the stand-up clichés: “Anyone in the audience from Norway?!” And “Anyone know what chip I’m using here?” (The 555.) A heckler, or participant, shouts up “What are you doing?” She responds “Building this!” and shows a sketch of the basic layout.

She baits the audience — “Do you want to ask me about duty cycles?” — and tells stories: “And then one time the solder fell in my lap and burned through my crappy jeggings. Who knows what jeggings are? Whooo!!” All the while the clicking gets louder and more complicated.

Then there’s the suspense. “11 minutes left? Shit, I dunno if I’m going to make it this time!” She’s visibly panicked. A question: “How do you protect the outputs from overvoltage?” “I don’t. (pause, laughter) I use some filter caps and just, well, hope that you guys have good insurance.”

Nearing the home stretch, there’s this quasi-rhythmic ticking and pulsing slowly building up in the background. She plugs in another capacitor, and the crowd spontaneously applauds. A little bit later, she shouts “Is it loud enough?” over the din and turns it down. At the end, the timing’s getting really tight, and she calls up someone to help from the audience.

We won’t spoil it, naturally. You’ll just have to watch it run to the end. We laughed, we cried. It was better than Schroedinger’s cats.

(We’d use hex inverters.)