Ah Berlin!

I’ve recently returned from an extended stay in Berlin, Germany.  Berlin has quickly become one of my favorite places in Europe and, like Saint Louis, it has been experiencing its own startup boom.   A low cost of living, a stellar public transportation system, an abundance of energetic, educated (and highly inked) young people from diverse cultures, and some smart investors are driving the startup scene forward.  Places like the BetaHaus are popping up everywhere, repurposing once rundown, state-owned buildings and providing cool, low-cost workspaces to many startups and aspiring entrepreneurs (as well as a place to build a shelf or fix your bike).  If you’re in Berlin, stop by the BetaHaus for a tour (you might even get interviewed by the BBC).  Don’t worry, most people there speak perfect English if your Deutsch ist nicht so gut.

Building a Pirate Box.

I love playing with technology and the satisfaction I feel after successfully adapting it to suit my whims.  For me, this primarily involves manipulating software, but recently I came across an article on how to hack a wireless router equipped with a USB flash drive to create an anonymous, offline file sharing system.  Having some free time and a few unused Amazon gift cards lying around, I decided to give it go.  The hardware required wasn’t expensive (I’ve paid more for lunch in some cases) and the software is free.

The build process involves replacing the wireless router’s firmware with the pirate box software which allows the router to act as a standalone web server disconnected from the internet.  Although there were only a dozen or so steps required, it took me multiple attempts (and recoveries) before the router’s firmware was successfully reprogrammed and the router booted properly.  Once set up, the router appears to your computer or mobile device as a normal wifi hotspot but connecting to it directs all requests to the internal server rather than the internet.  The result is that it displays a web page that contains some basic information about what a pirate box is, a chat server, and a file server where you upload, download and stream digital media.  With some basic web programming knowledge and a little hacking it is easy to modify these services to provide your own custom functions.

There are many possible uses for such a device:

1. Share files anonymously.  This is the what the stock pirate box software is primarily designed to do.  Set up the box, plug in it, and anyone who connects to it can upload and download files.  Use it in your office for your team to share documents.  Put one in your dorm or apartment building and share digital content (that you*cough* own the rights to *cough*) with your neighbors.

2. Distribute content to a select audience.  Because it is small and disconnected (possibly even battery or solar powered), it’s easy take the box to a special event loaded with exclusive content for event participants.  Since the server isn’t connected to the internet and the router has a limited wifi range, only those people at the event can access the server’s contents.  I imagine bands using these to distribute exclusive or pre-release music and videos to their fans at their concerts.

3.  Encourage people to explore their city with citywide cyber scavenger hunts.  Build and hide multiple boxes throughout the city each containing clues on where to locate the next “treasure” box.  Preload each box with historical trivia, old photos, and other information about the current location as well as rewards.  Allow users to upload photos of themselves at that location as a digital time capsule.

4. Be completely evil (please don’t do this).   Because the box is so portable, disconnected and untraceable it is possible take one to a cafe or other public place, power up the wifi hotspot and then (because you are evil hacker) use the internal server to create your own “fakenet”.  By hacking the server software, you can mimic the login pages of popular websites and capture the ids and passwords that users unwittingly type in (most internet users don’t know how to ensure a server’s authenticity).  Once you have their credentials all you need to do is program the server to display a “Down for unscheduled maintenance.  Try again later.” message so the user doesn’t catch on to the fact that they are not connecting to the real internet. Thinking there is an issue the site (happens all the time) they will try logging into another one (and provide yet another set of credentials).   Scams like this are all too common and it is why you should never enter your login credentials for any site when using a open public wifi, but people still do it.

There are probably dozens of other uses for such a device (good or evil).  With the costs of hardware dropping all the time, there is no valid reason not to experiment and have fun. But please boys and girls use your superpowers for good.  Happy hacking!


Fun with Javascript

I recently came across 2 nifty javascript frameworks by the same developer Ian Lunn.   Sequence is a framework for creating basic animations by defining the elements in your HTML and the animation effects in CSS.   Parallax is a script for creating a background image parallax effect.  Both are solid and do what they should.  Good job Ian.

Here is another cool parallax framework that I haven’t played with yet but it looks pretty interesting.

The practical use of these effects is probably limited by they might add a little eye candy to your otherwise boring webpage.

Keep coding!

A short hiatus

Well it’s been a little while since I’ve given this blog any attention.  I will get back to it, I promise.

I was traveling most of December, recharging my creative battery which had been severely drained over the past couple of months by my current job.  When I returned from vacation I was full of new ideas and since then I’ve been heads down working, building, creating.  There is a lot of new stuff to talk about and document, hopefully you’ll find some of it interesting.

Stay tuned.