No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to fund my kickstarter

Really into gadgets and portability; preference for what I can wear and what leverage it gives me, but there's room for the generally awesome as well.


Data will save us all

2015-07-12 00:09:12 -0400

I've done various "light quantification" experiments over the years:

On top of that, I'll occasionally have bursts of enthusiasm for some phone-based manual activity or mood tracker app, or even graph paper and colored pens (if I'm being really obsessive, those get detailed enough to be reasonable layout descriptions of unachievable UIs) but those approaches rarely last more than 2 weeks - usually just long enough to "see" the habit I'm trying to break, but not long enough for the data gathering itself to become a habit.

About a year ago I tried to start another round of explicit lifestyle/activity tracking. The motivation this time was a bit more sophisticated: I'm trying to find a good compromise between

and that means I need to establish more regular patterns, which means being more aware of the patterns I'm in now (which for me has always required some kind of external reference, even something as simple as a diary.)

I used the FitBit One for sleep tracking when I first got it, but that meant explicitly hitting buttons when going to sleep and again when waking up, plus it meant wearing it in an ill-fitting wrist-cuff (one of my many natural advantages in my chosen field has been 20cm wrists, so I grew up aware that Carpal Tunnel Syndrome was a problem... for mechanics and carpenters; I didn't see it in typists until college.) Combine that with the data itself being relatively low quality and I fell out of the habit quickly (whereas I use the step counting to this day.)

I'm giving that another try with the FitBit Charge HR - narrow, light, comfortable band, and it automatically establishes "sleep recognition" based on heart rate. Now the only thing I have to remember is to take it off (and charge it a little) when I shower, and I get decent sleep (rather than "bed") start and stop timing (and it isn't fooled by my terrible snooze-alarm habits) along with sleep "quality" based on heart-rate which seems like it would have much more potential to catch sleep disturbances than the motion of one wrist.

The next step is to pry that data out in form that I can correlate with other events - microphones for environmental noise, temperature near where I'm sleeping (or more directly, "are the blowers for the central air system running") - and not just when I'm sleeping, I'd really like to look for heart rate patterns in my driving especially correlated with location, and possibly acceleration...

CyPhy LVL 1 Drone

2015-06-15 01:07:04 -0400

I backed the CyPhy LVL 1 Drone with 9 days to go. This led to me thinking a little about my overall kickstarter backing (138 projects in, this was a bit of long-overdue mindfulness.)

Too Many Kicks

I'd been stalling on it for a variety of reasons:

New (personal) rules for backing kickstarters

I finally concluded that I could self-justify a lot better with a few constraints:

The CyPhy Drone itself

Given all that, why am I getting a LVL 1?

I'm hoping to see what kind of model building is practical to do based on taking the video stream and doing pose-recovery and then modeling and texture-mapping; I'm not actually looking for an architectural model, but enough of a model to "look good in 3d" and maybe to calculate sunlight exposure of different parts of the yard in order to plant more flowers.

I also know more about drones at this point, so it's a more informed choice than the original Parrot was.

(3 days to go, and they've got almost 3x the original funding target...)

The Winbook TW700 Tablet

2015-03-15 03:42:24 -0400

If you're familiar with this site and my work, you're probably very surprised to see me reviewing anything even called a "Winbook", let alone a device that's an actual Windows 8.1 tablet. Turns out that Microsoft's push for low-price machines to demonstrate the breadth of the Windows 8.1 umbrella meant that we ended up with devices like this; turns out Winbook is a MicroCenter house-brand, and while it's supposedly a $200 device, it was introduced as a $70 special... which apparently never ended (you can find it from $60-$70 on Amazon even today.)

It's not a thin tablet by any stretch, but it has a nice bright IPS (good angles) screen, micro USB charging port, external micro sd, micro hdmi, headphone jack, and a full size USB port... this does not feel in any way like the usual sub $100 "cheap" tablet. 16G flash, 1G ram... 4-core ATOM cpu, and the real kicker: a real EFI BIOS... which means no jailbreaking, no "rooting"... just hit one menu option and you drop down to a flashback-inducing cyan-and-white BIOS screen, where you set boot priority to USB-stick first... and then install Ubuntu on it.

That's right, you just install Ubuntu like it's an actual computer.

Got that, Google? Got that, Samsung? A useful portable computing device that's actually open... and it's because Microsoft.

Now, there are some slightly screwy bits about the initial install process; for example, it needs a 32-bit bootloader, even though you're installing the amd64 kernel and OS... and while you can make 14.04 or 14.10 work, you need a not-quite-in-the-kernel yet wifi driver for the onboard wifi (which is still a little flaky) and you need a 3.19 kernel (the one that's going to ship in 15.04 "vivid vervet" is good enough) to handle the touchscreen. But there are a handful of webpages that walk you through a working install (par for the course for "new" hardware that isn't a ThinkPad, really) and while there are still some problems (it'll crash during initial startup 3/4 times, but if it makes it through initial startup it stays up just fine) and I've got some streamlined instructions to post soon.

It works well enough as an ubuntu box that I grabbed a git checkout of some project notes, went to a meeting with the Winbook and the ThinkPad compact USB keyboard and took notes in emacs for 90 minutes - which is the ideal environment for me, it means paying attention to the participants and only occasionally glancing at the screen, because my fingers know Emacs as well as they know QWERTY - and later rsynced them back to my desktop to research some of the points we brought up, not because of any flaw in the tablet, but because my desktop screen desktop screenis about 12 times larger...

The instructions I started from (part 2) are pretty detailed, but with a few key changes:

(Hmm, that's not "streamlined instructions" just "interesting bits that might save you some time" - basically I think a lot of the later steps in the upstream instructions involving building grub and the r8723bs wifi module can be simplified if you can start from a 14.10 desktop system, and just shove everything on the stick with the installer.)

I do need to make a bracket/stand for the Winbook to actually attach it to the keyboard, but it's already chalked up a major win as "most portable device to usefully run emacs", over Emacs for Android (which never really worked, though you could tweak some things and get it to start and not be able to access the filesystem) and Corbin Champion's GNURoot (which sort of worked, but not enough to actually run emacs on.) The Winbook plus ThinkPad keyboard is actually smaller than the Chromebook Air running crouton so we'll see if it comes with me to Pycon.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Model)

2014-10-30 03:01:42 -0400

Woot just turned up the 10.1" version of the Galaxy Note. Since I wear a Galaxy Note 3 (which is itself an upgrade from the Galaxy Note 1) phone, use the stylus extensively and actually care about finally having decent screens, when it showed up at a decent discount (refurb) I grabbed one.

Charging/battery life

The stock charger (same small USB charger that came with the Note 3) doesn't even sustain the battery in active use - it doesn't charge at all unless it's turned off. Experimenting with an Anker charger instead.

That screen

Very nice for viewing my pictures; nice enough, in fact, that it saved me from getting a Retina iPad (I much prefer having "all the rope" available, but as a nature photographer I am still very susceptible to high quality screens.)

Thinkpad Stylus

The detected point of the stylus on the Note 3 is not where the tip of the stylus touches the glass, but is instead the "root" of that tip. The ThinkPad stylus has a longer tip, so at any reasonable writing angle there's significantly more distance between where you're touching the screen and where the writing happens.

The Note 10.1 seems to have much less of an offset, but I'm not entirely sure why at this time. It's enough that I've started using the ThinkPad stylus again.


The Code Monkey Kickstarter shipped physical comics, but also digital ones in many forms; one of them was online on comixology, and I had an small lingering collection of Apple Store-purchased comics on my iPad already, so this was impetus to clean that up - as part of the iTunes vs. web-store conflict, comixology set up an "exit strategy" that let you connect your Apple id with a comixology web id, so I finally walked through that, then got the Code Monkey ones... and they all look really nice on the Samsung screen, plus the shape and size is right for "real pages". And then there was an "all of Atomic Robo" sale (announced on twitter) that dragged me in, and then I started picking up some of the classics, some of which I already had in paper - Kingdom Come, Transmetropolitan (and, well, pretty much everything else Warren Ellis has ever done, including Iron Man Extremis and Doktor Sleepless), Watchmen... at which point I discovered that the app (or Android itself) wasn't using the MicroSD card and memory filled up. (Google gets a lot of blame for this, with the Android KitKat SD Card Betrayal, but Comixology has had 6 months, it'd be nice if they got around to doing something clever...)

Carrying it around

It's a fine relatively light "big screen" to carry around, and I'd probably still be "wearing" it (my jacket has an "iPad pocket" that it fits just fine) except that woot also turned up really cheap Nexus 7 devices - cheap enough that I grabbed an extra one to be a Chumby replacement, just running AlarmDroid - which deserve a followup review of their own, but the 7 basically took over as my "read things" and "conference call" device; I haven't quite gotten things integrated to where I can usefully make it my photoblogging-on-the-road device but that's coming next.

Initial Experience with the Fitbit One

2014-10-30 02:34:22 -0400

Picked up a Fitbit One last week (and by "last week" I mean May 2014) - partly because a bunch of my friends got them (and not just the ones who actually work there now :-) Instead, enough other people got them and started talking about answers to questions I hadn't realized I wanted to ask.)

In particular, even though it's "locked down" hardware, it's very well designed - slips into a pocket, doubles as a sleep tracker, works with my android phone, haven't needed to recharge it yet (seriously, I get 10ish days on a charge, though I only sync it intentionally once or twice a day, not automatically) - and generates convincing data - and is cheaper and easier to use than many more open but less polished alternatives. (That might be the subject of a later review; this post is just about the Fitbit One itself.)

Note that I got the Fitbit not for the competitive-tracking aspects, or the daily analytics, but because it turns out that it's easier than I'd realized to get in to their "partner" program and actually get higher precision data out of it. (However, half a year later and I still haven't actually signed up...)

I do have to give them credit for the design of the competitive parts, though; how many "social" apps do you use actually have, right at the top of the friends page, a "TAUNT" button? Also, the fine-grained control of data-sharing is a pleasant contrast to everybody else on the internet so I can share steps (and specifically "allow ranking" in addition to that) without exposing the data I don't really care about or that I'm still working through issues with.

It is a little tedious to put it into a wrist-sleeve and explicitly enable the sleep tracking; I've got a mostly-reliable habit of it now, but improvement in that one area (including automatically noticing naps, which I wouldn't otherwise track explicitly) is probably going to cause me to get a Fitbit HR when they actually ship.

Zagg Autofit keyboard

2014-04-19 23:06:20 -0400

I saw this go by on The Gadgeteer - the Zagg "Autofit" Keyboard which is a basic bluetooth keyboard and integrated hinged tablet-dock, with enough spring-loaded adjustable plastic bits that you can just drop a tablet in and use it as a laptop (including closing the case with the tablet inside.)

Looks like only the 7"-ish model is shipping, with 8" and 10" on the way... but what I'd rather see is a 6" model that would fit the Galaxy Note 3 :-) The Autofit lacks an eraser-mouse, so it's still inferior to the Motorola KZ450 but the stability when used on a lap or carried around (rather than tied to a table) would probably compensate enough.

It's tempting to get the 7" anyway and kludge up some extra plastic around the Note 3 to get it to fit, but if I'm going to go down that path I should just 3D-print a shell that fits it and clips on to the Moto keyboard...


In October 2014 I'd picked up a very cheap Nexus 7 on woot, and so finally had the excuse to get one of these. I'm quite pleased with it, enough that I got side-tracked attempting to come up with a useful emacs + ssh + git environment on the N7. In any case, it works; the N7 needs to be in a specific orientation to expose the power switch, but that's ok. Long battery life. Just large enough for in-lap use, but the N7 is heavy enough to tip it over without the rear foot extended; still, it's good enough that it's a decent replacement for a full sized "work" laptop (TouchDown and other office-ish tools, plus some VPN support, mean it's a decent match for corporate writing-but-not-coding work, especially for travel where work isn't the primary goal.)

I do of course still miss the eraser-mouse, but being one integrated piece is a pretty big benefit.

Mundane Gadgets - Brother P-Touch 2730 Label printer

2014-03-29 02:52:08 -0400

The Brother PT2730 is not small, nor light, but it was the only label printer I could easily get that could print 1"-wide (24mm) labels. I'm embarking on a major reorganization of the gadgets and electronics around here - in plastic boxes on plastic shelves, so that nothing I'm not actively using is actually taking up visual space. I still need to be able to find things quickly, and this means a combination of translucent plastic boxes (so they don't look like clutter but I can still glance at a box and remind myself of what's inside) and highly visible labels...

I picked it up at a local Staples with some matching tape and batteries; turns out that it comes with a short "sample" tape cartridge that's actually the full 1" width. Popped it out of the box, put the batteries in, poked at the font size and typed some words and immediately printed some huge labels, which fit nicely on the shelf edges and on some boxes, and even around the in-line toroid of a Fuji USB cable.

At that point, I could reasonably have declared victory; it did what I needed, and enabled another project to move forward. That's not really getting enough out of a gadget; there's always some other way to use it that makes it more interesting. Reading the manual (really! I know!) turns up interesting features like timestamped labels (so there's a reason to set the clock after all) and barcodes and "forms" if I want to get really obsessive about categorized labelling. Also there are plenty of icons/emoji that are quite pretty at full width, though the arrows are what will really be useful on actual labels. Finally, you can supposedly use TrueType fonts (on Windows at least, maybe on the Mac - I don't know if it's just talking about rendering on the computer and printing pre-rendered bits, which would work basically for free on Linux too, or making the font available for local use, which would certainly be nice.)

What finally struck home from a gadget perspective was the USB port. I'd ignored it because I don't use Windows at all1, I sometimes use a mac, and I live in linux, and that's traditionally been a recipe for disappointment as far as printing goes. Still, I did some searching, and it turns out that there is CUPS support for the PT2610 which seems to work on the PT2730. You just install printer-driver-ptouch, hit the CUPS management interface and select it, and then dig up some arcane commands:

$ convert -size 100x24 canvas:white \
     -font Bookman-DemiItalic -pointsize 24 \
     -draw "text 0,24 'Magick'" -channel RGBA -stroke black \
     -draw "text 0,24 'Magick'" /tmp/fuzzy-magick.png
$ convert /tmp/fuzzy-magick.png /tmp/fuzzy-magick.pdf
$ lpr -PBrother_PT-2730 /tmp/fuzzy-magick.pdf

It really does have to end up as a PDF, and the incantation above only draws on the middle 7mm or so of the tape; it'll need more refinement to be useful. Also, it will advance the tape after printing... by the width of the characters that are currently typed in on the main label screen so be sure to clear the input before starting to print from a computer.

One surprise was that I've always thought of CUPS as an annoying complex web-wrapper around simpler things that do the real work. Turns out that there aren't simpler things - CUPS "owns" the printer, drivers get PDF from CUPS and give bytes back to it - and apparently the way to do one-off tests of the driver is to simply use it as part of a complete CUPS installation. This was a bit jarring, mostly because it suggests that my perspective on how one ought to poke at a system so as to understand needed some updating for modern tools, though possibly not in a good way. (I'm still hoping there's a way to take the existing filter and feed its output directly to a device, possibly with a little stty or screen wrapped around it, but I've stopped poking at it for now.)

My use case for this labeler doesn't really need computer output, though I'll probably come up with a reason for it some day, and maybe at that point there will be more rendering options; for now it suffices that it's possible and that I could bang on the problem some more if I had a project in mind. In the meantime, if you need a 1" labeler, just get this one; if you have priorities, go read The WireCutter's article on label makers since they've put a lot more effort into the general problem (while they always do excellent work, this is one of the few cases where their recommendations didn't match my worldview at all, simply due to different priorities.)

  1. with the exception of Portal 2 - I had to get ahold of thinkpad install media to put the version of Windows that came with the hardware back onto an alternate disk (Did you know Windows can't run off of a USB drive? What century is this again?) because the Mac I had around was barely enough to run Portal 1, and Steam for Linux was still several years away. Once I finished it, that disk went into one of the aforementioned plastic boxes :-) 

PublicLab Smartphone Spectrometer

2014-01-13 00:40:53 -0500

Got my "Smartphone Spectrometer" Open Hardware kit back in November 2013, and finally got around to assembling it. The project has a cleverly minimalistic approach: the "device" is three pieces of plastic, some anti-reflective material, an optically printed "slit", and a piece of diffraction grating film; you put it together with four screws and 8 pieces of tape - and then put it between a light source and your cellphone camera, which sees a spread-out "rainbow" spectrum. You then hit the Spectral Workbench website, and take a picture of the spectrum (through the web page directly, or uploaded from your gallery) and push it through with some comments; there's a calibration step involving orienting the image the right way (which I think could be automated, they are in color after all) and then marking 2 Mercury lines, which gives you a reference you can use for other shots with the same gear. All open hardware and open source code; PublicLab is actually an OpenId provider that Spectral Workbench uses, there's a lot of general "playing well with others" here; the workbench website code is even up on github, the CAD models for the parts are downloadable.

I successfully uploaded and processed a couple of bright-light shots, since I actually still have a small number of CFL bulbs; turns out "LED" bulbs have boring incandescent-like spectra, because the phosphors that give them their pleasant color are somewhat wide band. Haven't sampled any "easy" colored LEDs yet. So as Kickstarters go, this was an excellent and engaging experience.

The software had a few frustrations (things that are fine once you see them, but having a user-centric first-light walkthrough overlay would help for people coming from Kickstarter rather than from a specific interest in public science work.) Most of them were in areas where calibration could be made a lot more automatic, or at least guided, with checks for what you should be seeing (things like "are the pixel-colors in the image spectrally increasing left-to-right and not top-to-bottom" are easy to do in code, even if you just present them to the user as suggestions.) That said, the other models of DIY spectrometer may produce sufficiently better images (especially when they're assembled more skilfully) that it isn't as necessary on that side.

As for the assembly itself: the adhesives they shipped with are horrible for the assembly (too thick, and not repositionable at all.) Once I get around to learning enough OpenSCAD to be useful in this space, I'm definitely going to look at redesigning this to use 5 pieces of plastic; clearly clamping the diffraction grating will work better than gluing it, and I think a similar approach will work for the slit (and reduce light-leak around that end of the assembly.) That won't help with the attach-to-camera part (I do like the idea of just gluing it to a sacrificial case, but I have a Galaxy Note 3 and there aren't really any useful cases for it yet) but stealing some ideas from the Easy Macro rubberband-lens might be a good starting point, without going so far as simply making a version of the Easy Macro with a prism instead of a lens.

Not only did the Kickstarter deliver, this particular reward is available from the PublicLab Store along with the Desktop and Foldable models, so you can follow along at home. (Bonus gadget points: most of the example photos of the device have it attached to a Firefox OS phone :-)

Hexy the Hexbot Kickstarter

2013-06-26 00:45:50 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

I backed the Hexy kickstarter almost a year ago, it shipped months ago, but I finally got around to building the thing. Pictures of the build are up on flickr as usual.

It's a lot of pieces to assemble, but I've always been the one in the family that puts together the furniture-from-a-kit and this was probably easier than that, although the idioms for laser cut plastic are somewhat different. One key improvement over the stock instructions was to attach the servo "horns" to their lasercut mounts first, so the acrylic could rest flat on the desk so it was easier to apply force to the screwdriver. (Also the nice thing about a six-legged bot is that you can build one leg following the instructions very carefully, and then for the next five you can do it in simpler and faster ways since you already have one that "looks right" to compare against :-) All in all it was a nice assembly project; I did one leg per night while checking my RSS feeds, so I avoided obsessing over it all at once, so it all went together very calmly.

I still haven't gotten the board (an Arduino "Leonardo") to take a firmware update from avrdude, but I'm using the commandline tools and I think the stty hupcl trick isn't actually working. It took a day of hacking around before it occurred to me to try just controlling it directly with the python PoMoCo code, and that actually worked, but I need the new firmware to use the bluetooth module...

Next steps are to

Amazon S3 - a large, far away, widely distributed gadget

2013-05-17 23:51:58 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

Amazon S3 counts as a gadget, right? :-) I've been using it professionally for a while, and of course many of the services we take for granted until us-east-1 goes down use it too. Turns out that you can hook it in to a homebrew website without very much work...

The other day I traced a period of terrible performance (8s network latency getting out of the house) to a visit from Googlebot-Video/1.0 fetching an old AVI file from a post-hoc image stabilization project (now made mostly redundant by youtube's builtin stabilization feature.) The file was about 50M, and anyone interested in the project really wants the less-compressed original, shoving it to youtube really doesn't help... but it turns out that that's tiny by Amazon S3 standards, and the free tier covers it just fine.

There were a surprisingly small set of steps; I'm posting them here with the actual domains involved, since they're visible and public anyway, you just need to convert them to your own needs...

  1. Create yourself an AWS account. (You already shop at amazon, right? Just log in and create one...)
  2. "Better get a bucket." Go to the console web page, pick S3, hit "create bucket". Name it something obvious; in my case, although something more generic like would have been a common choice. Do this first, because the bucket namespace is global and isn't checked against DNS registration at all, so there's a very faint chance someone already has a bucket of that name; at this stage, if you find a collision you can just pick a different name, like
  3. Install s3cmd (just git clone the github version and run it from the checkout - the one in ubuntu doesn't actually handle puts with redirects.)
  4. Configure it: s3cmd --configure and get the Access and Secret keys from the console under "security"; don't bother to configure encryption or https because these are files that are already available by http, you don't want to deal with certificates, and you'll check the md5sums later.
  5. Copy your files. Note that s3 doesn't have directories per se; you just put the path with slashes in place as you go, so s3cmd put --no-encrypt kicx1440.avi s3:// works just fine, without having to do anything about me/publish directly.
  6. Make them world-readable. By default S3 is, correctly, private; s3cmd setacl --acl-public s3:// makes that single file public. At this point, there's a long convoluted url that will fetch this file, and you could stop here and just change the html that points to it, but let's handle this cleanly...
  7. Edit your DNS zone and add avi IN CNAME Carlton Bale gets credit for having the first google hit that actually said this would work. Once you've pushed this through, curl -L -v -I works - note carefully, the -I gets curl to do a HEAD (-H was already taken?) so you get back headers, not 100m of video. You should see the Location header taking you over to S3, and then a convincing ETag (md5sum of the file, in this particular case) and Content-Length.
  8. Edit your apache config and add RewriteRule ^/(me/.*\.avi)$$1 [R,L] To pick this apart:
  9. RewriteRule is the apache swiss-army-knife of URL mangling.
  10. The first bit is a regular expression that matches the entire "path" (^ for start, $ for end) and grabs everything after the leading slash (thus the slash is outside the grouping parentheses.) Within this part of the path, it has to start with me/ and end with .avi but can have anything at all in between; if we wanted literally all AVI files, we'd drop the me/ part, but I have some small ones elsewhere on the site that I didn't want to bother hunting down and uploading.
  11. The second bit is the new URL - to point to the CNAME we set up above, $1 is the first set of parentheses in the match (so, me/xxx.avi.)
  12. Finally, the last bit is what to do with this big of hatchet work; R says to make it a redirect (and because our result starts with http it automatically becomes an "external" redirect, in this case a 302, ie. "don't try to fetch this url, just tell the client to go away and find it themselves." You can't get theyah from heah, but you can get there from over there... the L is for "last" and just says to stop trying and don't do any more rewriting on this particular result.
  13. Don't forget to actually /etc/init.d/apache2 reload or however your system spells that. At this point, you can curl -L -v -I (note that we're actually starting with the primary domain here, where the original problem started) and follow our HTTP/1.1 302 Found and then amazon's HTTP/1.1 307 Temporary Redirect and the bandwidth problem (remember the bandwidth problem? This song's about a bandwidth problem) is now gone.

Future refinements:

"Chromebook Air" and a trip to Santa Clara

2013-04-03 02:12:20 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

Put my mobility and gadget obsessions to the test by going to Pycon 2013 in Santa Clara. Didn't take the X220t Thinkpad, just grabbed a Samsung Chromebook a couple of days before leaving (and installed crouton on it.) Crouton gives me a chrooted Ubuntu Precise environment, into which I poured my normal desktop coding and photography workflow. I added a 32G SD card with a couple of months of photography and my latest master index, which let me process pictures as I went; the one other useful addition to my pocket pouch was a dual-end mini-micro USB cable because most of my cameras are Canon, and so I still need Mini-USB when everything else is MicroUSB. I also happen to prefer short cables for reducing pocket clutter... but made up for it by carrying a 2ft A-A cable in the bag with the camera chargers.

The other trick was to remind myself that I was, after all, going to Silicon Valley, where they already have all the gadgets, and though "I can't Amazon-Prime things to my hotel" is a very #firstworld definition of "roughing it", clearly making several visits to Fry's Electronics would be just as good... and in fact, when I "accidentally" took a thousand pictures my first day in town (at Point Reyes) the next thing I picked up was a 64G SD card to upgrade my local picture backup... and a knife to open the package with :-)

I did prepare the Chromebook before leaving, with an old Apple sticker; rather than causing comment, I think it served more as camouflage, at least at a distant glance. On closer inspection, of course, the $250 Chromebook is relatively flimsy (hold it up by a corner and the touchpad isn't clickable anymore, for example) and the screen is very much not IPS (let alone Retina) which isn't really a problem in conference and hotel settings, but was kind of unpleasant on the flight. Interestingly, I didn't need to plug in power the entire length of the BOS to SFO flight, nor the return, even with (Gogo) wifi turned on the whole time.

That brings up "why crouton, instead of just installing ubuntu?" - first of all, I do like the idea of a limited self-sysadmining laptop, and have made on-and-off use of the CR-48 since they shipped, though I haven't been able to make the leap to programming on it (I did try koding, and it's just Not Emacs) and second, I hadn't figured out how the "12 free Gogo coupons" was implemented, and figured it was easier to just use the ChromeOS-side browser for that. Just a little thing, but crouton worked well enough that it didn't really get in my way.

Another nice thing about the Chromebook was that I didn't especially worry about it; if it got damaged, the SD card would probably be fine, and I could probably just hit BestBuy and grab another one :-) There are a lot of workplaces (not mine, sadly) where being able to salvage a business trip by expensing a laptop that costs less than two nights in a hotel room could be a huge win.

I even picked up a cheap HDMI cable at Fry's - having not noticed that the conference hotel TVs were (coincidentally Samsung branded) analog panels, with VGA inputs, no digital ones. (The "vacation" part of the trip did have HDMI-capable TVs in the hotel rooms, but part of sucessfully shooting 4000 pictures in a week was getting out and shooting and using the laptop for backup and picking out highlights, and deciding to leave serious tagging and uploading until I got home when I had time to do research and identification (after all, there were a couple of inches of snow on the ground when I got home; California was beautiful, New England hasn't actually managed spring yet.)

Other trip gadgets: I had a rental car, so I got a small, cheap, and hard-to-recommend allegedly-2.1amp 12V-to-USB adapter that couldn't keep my Gnote at equilibrium, let alone charge it, while using it as a navigation system. Still looking for a sane answer there. More helpful was the 12V camera-battery charger with little clip adapters for each different battery type, that let me top up the camera I'd used most on a given day; while it was a nice and performant gadget, I would have been better off actually being disciplined and keeping a charged backup battery for each camera every night. (Since it's 12V and 120V, it might be sensible to bring only that charger next time, for the slight benefit over the multiple 120V chargers I'd otherwise carry, though on closer inspection, one of those was also 12V capable already.)

Finally, the trip was to go to Pycon 2013, so I brought back more linux boxes than I went with :-) So far the only interesting thing I've done with the RasPi is to hook it up to a tiny keyboard and project my trip-report slides at work. The idea that you can reasonably "rummage around on your desk to find a linux box" the way you used to rummage around looking for a spare ethernet cable is highly entertaining :-)

Programming an Open Source Flashlight

2013-02-01 00:39:00 -0500

Originally posted on tumblr

After a year and a half, the HexBright Kickstarter actually delivered. Personally I think it was entirely worth the wait - the developer is clearly kind of obsessive and it's wonderful the way the internet supports (and/or exploits :-) that. Mechanically, it is very impressive, I've been carrying it for a couple of weeks - it's definitely my large flashlight of choice though I'm still wearing my Fenix E11 as well.

I've only done moderately well at using the stream of technology that KickStarter has supplied me, so it was notable that I was able to get "up and coding" for the HexBright in a couple of hours... On an ubuntu box,

$ apt-get install arduino
$ git clone
$ less hexbright/

and follow the instructions. (Note that if you're on precise rather than quantal or later, you want to grab the precise-backports version of arduino-core - 1.0.1 is the lowest tested version, though there are some patches that sort of work with 1.0, at least they work well enough to build and upload tactical.ino, a basic brightness-and-flashing firmware.)

The tactical firmware is a good starting point; the main loop is only around 35 lines of code, and if you just want to do custom flashing patterns (sliding rate changes, or morse code or something) you've got the right starting points at hand. I just made the pulse rate drop by 10ms every 1/2s which is obnoxious to look at but does visibly do something :-)

My next step is to drop the arduino GUI and just use avr-gcc and avrdude directly (since that's all the GUI does anyway.) There's an arduino-mk package that I suspect will help with that. As someone who worked at Cygnus on G++ as an embedded systems cross-compiler in the mid 90's, though, I'm a little boggled that I'm using a standard prepackaged 32 bit compiler to upload code into my flashlight :-)

Another mobility path (Asus Transformer TF300T)

2012-12-25 12:45:27 -0500

Originally posted on tumblr

Woot had the Asus Transformer TF300T on sale cheap recently, and I'd always been enamored of the form factor - I'd played around with Android/x86 on the EEEpc briefly, even without a touch screen, and I'm certainly one of the people stalling on getting a MacBook Air because it really should have a screen which is a detachable (retina) iPad :-) Likewise the Motorola Atrix was pretty tempting when it first came out (I got to poke at one and conclude that it wasn't quite there yet but was a good direction, it certainly wasn't enough to switch me over to AT&T at the time.) The TF300T is an interesting pile of neat features:

It has a touchpad, which is a negative as I've pointed out before - but there's a top-row key to turn it off entirely, so it doesn't end up bothering me (and yet I can turn it back if I must have it... or I can just touch the screen which I keep forgetting :-)

Oddly the Jelly Bean upgrade was more trouble than benefit: my two primary "content production" (as opposed to consuming/surfing) apps, Flickr and Tumblr, report themselves as "not compatible with your device." I'm actually writing this on the TF300T, using the website and Chrome - but I'm at home with solid network, and making use of tumblr's "save as draft" feature - and I'm still worrying about not actually having persistence or auto-save. (Still going through the exercise, of course; writing speed is certainly 100% anyway, the keyboard is Just Fine as long as I don't think about it too much :-) (Update: The Tumblr app now has tablet support, though it's still inconsistent about rotation.)

Having carried the Transformer for another week, I've taken a few more steps:

It's definitely working out as "mobile typewriter" - just slightly less overhead than the GNote+bluetooth approach, at the cost of making one pocket a lot bulkier. Was also useful for getting some quick cat pictures up on Flickr after all, even without the native app - the Web UI uploader is just fine, stick the card into the keyboard (haven't tried USB-to-camera yet), select the image from /Removable/SD, add some tags and a description, done. Winter is upon us (no really, just because it was 55F two days in a row, doesn't mean, umm...) so I won't be getting as many excuses to go out "in the field" and want to immediately push wildlife shots to Flickr, but I might do a few more for practice anyhow.

Another thing the transformer is letting me experiment with is the whole idea of a "MacBook Air with a removable iPad screen" - the TF300T is a fine prototype of that, and it turns out that

I haven't tried SSH or VNC from here yet; oddly, I've kept finding plenty to do that doesn't need either of them; it's not that I don't need to do those things, but if I'm forcing myself to spend time using the transformer, I can use the time well, just a little selectively. (I really need to come up with a decent programming solution - in fact, I should try Koding again, see if it works better from here than from the CR-48 ChromeBook...)

Spark WIFI, MakeyMakey, paper computing

2012-11-26 03:12:02 -0500

Originally posted on tumblr

Spark WIFI light fixture looks plausible, if only because the Belkin WEMO already exists at a comparable price point. (The Spark is indoor only, and what I actually want is either an outdoor-socket-capable one, or an indoor light switch replacement, ideally one that can be dropped in as one of a pair of three-way switches, which would actually be tricky...) sponsored, not yet funded

I finally used my Makey Makey - basically a very sensitive closed-circuit detector that comes with a pile of alligator clips, and pretends to be a USB keyboard - the reference standard demo is the banana piano - anyway, I just moved into a new office, and traded up from a well-worn Comfy Chair to a standing desk (with advanced pneumatics, very easy to move up and down.) Stories about standing desks run the gamut from "it changed my life and I need a new wardrobe" to "meh, everyone here just leaves them at the lowest setting and uses chairs". Clearly I need DATA... and a quick prototype showed I could hang some (zinc-plated) chains from the desktop, clipped to the Makey Makey, and have them trigger a key press whenever the desk was lowered enough for the chains to pool up on the base. That part was easy - the problem is that because it acts as a keyboard, it'll "hit space" when it gets a connection, but I want to treat it as a distinct channel... libusb was a messy failure, but in the end, the Python EVDEV bindings and in particular InputDevice.grab came through, barring one memory leak that I may be able to work around. (Github link to follow soon...)

Finally, the classic "choose your own adventure" book is sort of like following a program, or at least walking a tree - well, in that spirit, there's a KickStarter for doing Hamlet in that form - and if that weren't cool enough, the list of "Amazing People Who Are Doing Pictures For This Book" is about 2/3 comic artists that I read, and 1/3 ones that I probably should :-) If you haven't gone over there to look yet, do it for this quote: "But I'll warn you: Shakespeare's choices didn't lead to the best ending for the characters.". Paper and e-book versions. (Ok, that "paper computing" bit was kind of a stretch, I just needed an excuse to included it here, it's Just That Cool.) sponsored, funded, still aiming for stretch goals

Android Phone as PDA/Laptop Replacement

2012-11-11 13:09:00 -0500

Originally posted on tumblr

I’ve had a dream for a long time of carrying a useful computing environment on me, without being encumbered by it. The first interesting piece of hardware was the Cambridge Z88 (the TRS-80 Model 100 was plausible, but expensive and pretty large; it was the laptop of its day, and at least a decade after for some niches… but the Z88 was the size of an issue of Byte Magazine and ran for days on some AA batteries, by virtue of tricks like turning the CPU off between keystrokes.) I took it on various trips, fought with uploading and downloading over the serial port… In the end it was difficult to develop for, even harder to develop on, and laptops ended up covering the “real work” niche - eJournal or space age typewriter replacement didn’t catch on that broadly.

They did, however, catch on narrowly, there were fascinating glimpses in the mid to late 90s of how various (particularly UK) science fiction writers actually used science fictional working environments; Charlie Stross had various early mini-laptops, Warren Ellis pioneered the “hang out in the pub and drink and smoke over a PalmPilot and foldout keyboard” model - which became my benchmark for portability, the idea that you could pull two or maybe three pieces of hardware out of your pockets (small enough pieces that people didn’t suspect that you were smuggling or shoplifting) and suddenly be able to Do Real Work without needing an office or other chunk of Corporate (ie. Too Expensive for Individuals) Infrastructure. (I didn’t actually care about being “live”, though even PalmPilots had web browsers; from day 1 it was clear that the Net was as much a source of simulated productivity as actual, and that Real Work involved getting ideas out of the brain and onto “paper”.)

The years rolled by, producing a spectrum of Palms - the Sony ones with built in camera and keyboard marked the end of the 20th century, just in time to get entirely displaced by cell phones. This was actually a horrible time for the PDA space - the entire hardware-in-your-pocket space turned around and started building telephones, which certainly provided value to a much broader range of people - almost literally everyone as we can see today, “not having a cellphone” is just strange in 2012 - but the design effort was now going into antennas and batteries, screens got worse, keyboards got far worse (when T9 looks like a good sophisticated option, you know you’ve gone very far down a strange path.) At the same time, laptops were getting smaller and cheaper, skimming off the less demanding majority of mobile writers, luring them with nice screens and the ability to run modern (not to say good) word processing tools, and all you had to do was carry a backpack, and stay near an outlet. (I’m no exception - being able to run a compiler while hanging out with people was a big deal; in the early 2000’s, being able to fix bugs in the taxi on the way to supporting a sales call for your startup was a huge deal.)

Then Apple changed everything.

Note that I’ve never owned an iPhone (though I have an iPad) - I still have to acknowledge that the iPhone kicked an amazing competitive “arms-race” back in the right direction. All of a sudden, portable devices with long battery life, gigahertz processors, and lots of storage were The Thing, and an entire industry pivoted from trying to interest people in flippier flip-phones to trying to catch up with the idea that you had an awesome computer in your pocket, with a sophisticated development ecosystem (ok, that took longer, but it was inevitable) and oh, by the way, it takes care of making phone calls too, when you’re not using it for everything else in your (online) life.

Very rapidly, my niche was back under the big tent with everybody else and billions in R&D were going my way. Sitting in a coffeeshop and poking at your phone was a mundane thing. Writing and publishing to the internet was suddenly something everybody was doing (and while I’ll sneer at facebook and foursquare updates right along with the rest of my disdainfully elitist peers - it’s still writing and, to the extent that it’s pushed out specifically for others to read, still publishing, and it still needed the tools I wanted.)

I almost missed it.

I’ve kept an eye on the tools and toys, of course. Poked at various ways of hooking keyboards up to phones, played with various design sketches for better ways to connect the hardware (I’ve got pictures of a wood-and-styrofoam mockup that hooks an IBM Model M clicky keyboard up to an original model Oqo - which I used as my “work laptop” for weeks, but entirely failed to be more portable than the Toughbook I’d been using beforehand - the Toughbook actually had a handle and hooks for a shoulder strap right on it) but I never really sat down and did it, I just poked at the gadgets.

Turns out that “poking at gadgets” is almost as much of a distraction from Real Accomplishment as arguing on the internet. I got a hint at this a while back when laser printers first got cheap - I plugged one in to my linux box, and printed, and it just worked. (I did end up tweaking the default from 300dpi to 600dpi… 6 months later even that much wasn’t necessary; I guess I’m not a victim of the ESR curse.) Having done that, I noticed that the documentation said the printer worked on Solaris too, and almost went and tried it to see if it really did - which led a friend of mine to comment “it’s like a cat, with a mouse that’s already dead - you’ve just got to bat it around a little and see if it will start being fun again?”

This also took a while to sink in. Part of the problem is that I’m actually very good at poking at gadgets, and I work in a field where that’s encouraged, or at least tolerated as a sign that you’re the sort of person they need to have around to get the computers to actually be useful. This usefulness leads directly to a decent income, which (combined with decent shopping skills) means no end to the stream of gadgets to poke at (as you’ve seen in this blog already, KickStarter is the biggest distraction I’ve had since Amazon came along.) The end result is that I’ve basically felt no pressure at all to get back to the original goal of “being usefully portable”. At the same time, I’ve gotten relatively picky about working environments; I learned on typewriters so I’ve hated most modern non-IBM keyboards, and I find mice to be a dead end that we just haven’t escaped from, so I turn trackpads off - the Mouse Stick is just minimal enough, it’s nearby when I must use a mouse, and at the same time my hands don’t have to leave the keyboard to use it; this is rather incompatible with the huge level of compromise that goes in to making portable keyboards, let alone pocketable ones.

Thus it is that I’m sitting in front of a Galaxy Note (the I-717 phone, not the larger tablets) looking at a very readable 25 lines of this posting, and typing on a Motorola KZ450 - a bluetooth keyboard with Mouse Stick - that is itself only barely thicker than the phone, yet has enough travel that I’m typing full speed and full accuracy relative to my ThinkPad (with the caveat that typing English is much easier than typing Code, but this keyboard looks up to the challenge.) As far as writing goes, there are no compromises here - I’m not thinking in letters, I’m basically thinking in sentences and while I do expect to go back and edit, the “data entry” part of the path is not a limiting factor. There’s no interruption between intending to write and writing and having the words appear on-screen; I have actual flow going on, and I’ve been writing for an hour and a half without feeling like I’m doing a special exercise or straining or contorting myself - I’m just writing. At my stopping point, I’ll save-as-draft (in the Android Tumblr app I’m using), turn off the keyboard, put the GNote back in my shirt pocket, unfold the stand back into “keyboard cover” configuration and clip it back on to the keyboard - stuff the keyboard into a jacket pocket, have a last sip of tea, and walk away.

(In the interests of full disclosure - this is a test run; I’ve had the keyboard for a week and kept failing to sit down and use it, so I’m at a worktable at home, the tea is a late-night decaf k-cup brew, the network is my local wifi. That said, the test was a complete success; the only “challenges” were figuring out that I needed to hit “back” to get the on-screen keyboard to pop down, and that save-as-draft wasn’t a missing button, it was a setting under options that changes the “publish” button to one that just says “save”. Also I have no idea how to do a word count here, but a quick scroll and sample tells me I’ve gotten around 1500 words down. NaNoWriMo it isn’t - but it is something and I’m going to have to sink my teeth into it for real now…)

Update: I'm at Pycon.CA and although I did bring two laptops and the iPad, they're back at the hotel - I'm actually attending with only what I have in my pockets. Of course, I'm wearing a ScottEVest (winter model from a couple of years back - the newer models have fewer pockets and lower build quality, unfortunately) so I have a lot in my pockets; during the talks I primarily take notes in S/Memo, using a ThinkPad wacom-stylus, which is basically the electronic equivalent (in size and look) of a Moleskine; I occasionally hop out into Chrome to check out a URL mentioned in a talk, or hop into Plume to broadcast a choice quote on the conference hashtag. Since we just have chairs, and not tables, that's been about the limit during lectures; I'm skipping the OpenStack lecture (no discredit to the speaker, I went through the slides in advance, and it looks like it isn't going to cover anything I didn't pick up in a major cloud service evaluation I did for work a year and a half ago, so it's a good time to take a break) to hang out at the "bar" which has tables and decent chairs. I have the keyboard set up, and an Energizer "Energi To Go" battery pack boosting the Galaxy Note, and have only had one person stop by to comment on the setup. (I'm not alone in the bar; four people with conventional laptops, and one organizer reading a paperback book.) Overall it has been a pretty effective conference and blogging setup. The weak point in the short term has been photography; simple "tweet this picture" doesn't work at all, plume uploading to twitter just gives "media too large", so instead if I want real time pictures I shoot them with the pureview 808, share-to-flickr, wait for the upload to finish, then come back to the Android flickr app, pick that picture and hit share-to-twitter, add the comment and post. This is still kind of silly :-) and fails to support completely casual photo streaming. (I should try just shooting from the flickr app on the Note, but the 808 is a lot more almost-camera-like.)

I'm still pulling all of the cameras back to the laptop and managing the archive with kphotoalbum there. The next big step will probably be to use rsync-for-android (which actually works on ICS, it failed entirely under Gingerbread) to push/pull the most recent year of images onto the phone, and thus use it to synchronize the devices and push them back to my archive; then I can cherry pick things to twitter, and later pull things back to the laptop when I want to do my conventional kphotoalbum-based tag-heavy workflow. The other "next step" is to look into using git-annex to manage the diverse photo pools, but I'm stalling on that until the work from the kickstarter project goes mainstream.

Update 2: hit "edit" in the web interface, and preview shows proper markdown rendering, so re-saved. Will have to try to use the mobile website instead of the app for future writeups, I'm more likely to remember to do tags that way...

Welcome to the future!

Pycon.CA and Upverter

2012-11-10 14:04:46 -0500

Originally posted on tumblr

I’m at Pycon.CA this weekend (the first native Canadian python conference, in Toronto.) It’s more about code than gadgets, but I want to call attention to one of the sponsors, “Upverter” - I’d kind of ignored them previously as “some cloud thing” but it turns out that they’re actually rather “gadget-interesting” - they’re basically trying to be web based circuit design, github, and tinkercad combined. Haven't had a chance to see how complete it is, but they're definitely putting a lot of effort into it - I would not be surprised if sometime soon we see a kickstarter gadget where the electronics is designed in Upverter and the mechanics in TinkerCAD... The browser has been the universal platform for a while, but I don't think anyone saw it becoming the Universal Design platform, for the construction of real-world devices - perhaps the next generation of Raspberry Pi class of devices will be designed and built in a browser on a Raspi-class machine :-)


2012-10-06 00:23:25 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

TinyDuino and TinyLily The former just smaller than a quarter, the latter just smaller than a dime, yet they have pluggable modules ("shields") for a variety of features; the "Robotics Kit" pledge level is a couple of TinyLilys with a bunch of motor-drivers (1.8A H-bridge chips on washable circuit boards (pledged, funded, still available)

They'd pair really well with RadioBlocks which are a bit bigger (no handy coins for scale) and do 802.15.4 mesh networking using Open Source firmware, and draws 14mA at full power - so you can run it off of the data pins of another device, as long as one of them is set to "1". (pledged, funded, less than an hour to go!)

It's nice to see the modern "legos of computing" actually getting down to the size of lego bricks, and getting cheap too. Not quite at the level of "stick some coin cells, chips, and humidity+sunlight sensors into ping-pong balls and shake a bag of them over your garden" but definitely heading in the right direction, where it's not completely ludicrous to think about "ubiquitous computing" ideas like that at the hobbyist level...

KickSoftware: bugs, sheet music, soundtracks

2012-09-08 01:54:12 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

BugKick is an AGPL'ed bug tracker (with a hosted option.) Not that we need another bug tracker (especially given my Codes Well With Others ranting) and especially not one written in PHP... but the kickstarter itself is only aiming for a tiny amount of funding to do a couple of months of polish work (and presumably to find out if anyone cares) which would be a novel data point in the kickstarter software funding curves. (not yet funded; not backed)

Liederboard is an HTML5 sheet-music scratchpad with visions of user generated content :-) It made the initial funding target, has delivered some features already, and has a decent tech blog about the progress and goals. Not open source, but an interesting example of reaching a niche audience with a somewhat unique piece of software, and putting it all together and actually funding it. (funded to initial target, long list of stretch goals available; not backed)

Mission: Escape uses the GPS in an iPhone to track your driving, and produce an on-the-fly soundtrack for your commute. That just sounds like a lot of fun :-) (not yet funded, not backed)

KickScience: Sensors

2012-09-01 01:38:50 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

The "tricorder" may come sooner via Kickstarter than via the Ansari/Qualcomm tricorder X-prize competition, a variety of well-connected sensors have gotten funding recently. The Public Laboratory Spectrometer is the most recent (still open, until October, but already past 200% funding) project to do optical analysis of materials; what makes it interesting is that it's taking advantage of the cellphone's builtin camera - and that they've already got a community of crowd-sourced observations and presentation tools, and some very close-to-home measurements (baseline measurements of various coffees at Tosci's :-) They've still got a way to go to connect spectra to actual materials, though they've come up with wonderfully clever tricks like using the Mercury lines from ubiquitous CFL bulbs as calibration points. (Backed)

I mentioned the IO Rodeo Educational Colorimeter Kit last week, but forgot to point out that even though they KickStarter is done, the kit is available in their online store along with a bunch of other Science! gear, like optical sensors for measuring the wing-beat rates of flies...

In an entirely different sensing range, we have the Safecast pocket open source radiation sensor - designed by Bunnie and more sensitive than most commonly available devices, with sample logging, USB download, and local display of Alpha/Beta/Gamma events. Designed in response to the Fukushima event, it could also provide interesting data in conjunction with the EPA "Where You Live" program - I happen to live a couple of miles from the Starmet Superfund Site and the more "eyes" watching such things, the better.

Mobile robot platforms using cellphones as the communication link (and local "brain") are almost mundane at this point - adding simple but sophisticated sensors to them enables a lot of interesting environmental science, with locally developed data...

Hacking gadgets, working gadgets, science! gadgets

2012-08-25 00:26:59 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

The DigiSpark wins hands down as the cutest little Arduino ever, and almost cheap enough to be disposable, which really reduces the potential fear of "screwing one up" in an electronics project (on the software side, of course, you just reset them, so that's no big deal.) It's really nice to see such a range of scales for adding "a little bit" of computing to something, while still having enough power to use some modern abstractions (USB, interpreted code) instead of banging out the bits by hand (uphill, both ways, in the snow... ehem.) Backed, made target, ends 10 September.

Scanbox really qualifies more for that other tech blog that I keep failing to start in that you could slip it in a backpack or briefcase and have a nice scanning "platform" for your phone - not necessarily enabling new things you couldn't already do with your phonecam, but taking them to a surprisingly "real" level of quality, helping "doing day to day business with only my cellphone" move further out of Dancing Bear territory. (Backed, already funded, should be available commercially at some point.)

The IO Rodeo Educational Colorimeter Kit actually arrived and looks quite nice; I haven't had time to assemble it, and in any case I expect I'll end up playing with it some and then passing it on to a high school science teacher friend, if I don't find some way to use it directly for tea and or chocolate experiments myself before the end of the year.

(I'm tempted to make a spreadsheet out of the Kickstarter Transactions page, just to add a "reward arrived" column; other recent arrivals include OpenBeam, the iZen Bamboo Keyboard, the eStylo and touchfire, and I have printrbot tracking info :-)

Giving Open Source Android apps a Kick

2012-05-13 00:54:53 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

Corbin Champion has a solid start with addi (an Octave-like Android app that has an optional port-of-real-Octave engine, though the other mode is more functional at this time) and is asking for funding to make it a really solid Octave/Gnuplot for Android. He's got a convincing record of actually doing the work as open source, too.

I know a number of researchers who'd get good use out of this - but few of them have the budget to throw at something like this. I like the idea, though, so I've tossed some money in... plus I'd like to encourage the model, as a low friction way for a project to declare that they have a plan and a way to use money, if any gets sent their way, with well understood semantics for how the money collection actually happens (the reduction in bike-shedding alone might be enough of a friction reduction to make it worthwhile :-)

Colorimeters, Colorful LED displays, and Kicksaver

2012-05-05 02:12:56 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

The IO Rodeo Colorimeter kit is building a basic easy-to-assemble (no soldering!) Open Source Hardware colorimeter - a basic scientific measurement tool, which uses different frequencies of light to measure properties of a liquid sample. The design looks very student-friendly, and is a good start on understanding that instruments aren't magic...

This 8-digit 7 segment display board is a nice module for old-school lots-of-digits output - if you were doing your own version of a DeLorean back-to-the-future dashboard, it'd be a good component to have :-) I'll note that in practice, a $60 refurb android tablet might be near-useless as a portable appliance, but it would make a great embedded display with graphs and whatever simulated-digit output you want... but I like LEDs so I backed it anyway.

Given how terrible Kickstarter is at actually helping me find interesting gadget projects (hey Amazon! buy them and force them to use your recommendation engine! :-) I owe credit for finding the LED display project to KickSaver - not actually a search engine, but certainly an interesting browsing alternative - you give them a price threshold, they give you kickstarter projects that need that amount to kick them over to successful funding. (Got a better idea? Fork Kicksaver on github and let me know what you came up with...)

The importance of feedback (return of the HexBright)

2012-04-23 23:02:00 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

I've heard a lot of grumbling about the HexBright Kickstarter which raised $260k/$31k in July 2011, and the developer got trapped doing design improvements - worthy ones, from what I can tell, but there was a severe shortage of communication about the process.

Well, he's finally re-emerged and started posting details of battery tests, lens and end cap samples, etc. Yay! While I'm personally in favor of erring on the side of adding more coolness to the design, it's really worth communicating about it (which may not help convince the people who want the gadgets now but helps keep them from getting too upset with the whole process...) While there aren't formal standards for any of this, I'd like to think it's a Kickstarter Best Practice to communicate extensively once you start the work; see PrintrBot for an extreme example :-)

"CordCruncher" headphone cable tangle-preventer

2012-04-17 22:37:10 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

The CordCruncher is a bit lower-tech than usually catches my attention - it was mentioned in passing in a comment on the Pebble E-paper phone-display (record-setting kickstarter, almost $4 million at this writing with a month to go) - skip the marketing video until you've watched the "How To Crunch" one down below (or skip to the 0:30 mark to see the first bit where someone uses the product instead of just looks pretty near it.)

The unfortunate bit is that they're actually integrated with the headphones, and not a separate product. (Probably easier to sell that way, though.) Still seems a really clever way to protect a thin cable from tangling and looping around things, so maybe a later version will come along that can be retrofit. (I don't actually use earbuds, so this is one of the few kickstarters mentioned here that I won't be backing - but I still think it's clever, and it's already at 2.5x goal.)

Bluetooth Voltmeter/data-logger, cheap enough to toss around, kickstarting...

2012-03-22 01:46:00 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

"i-Voltmeter" is probably a terrible name for getting the attention of the kind of people who actually want cheap sensors for experimentation, i-Stuff is usually shiny and locked down, whereas this voltmeter is described as Open Source hardware, and really, it's pretty straightforward to talk to bluetooth devices in general, most of them are "serial ports without wires" and that's actually good enough!

On top of that, if you actually make it further down the web page, it becomes a lot clearer that "voltmeter" (or ohmmeter) is actually one of the more flexible sensors you can have, since it can usefully hook up to most environmental sensors (light, temperature, reed switch) with nothing more than alligator clips. It's "good glue" for this kind of thing; it has a different "scaling shape" than things like the Twine box - the Twine can itself hook up to a bunch of sensors and then you talk to it wirelessly, here you can have the sensors themselves farther from a computer (and farther from each other, even outside if needed.)

Unfortunately it's a high-starting-point ($65k) project, apparently because of bluetooth radio certification (compare, though, the Ubertooth One OSHW firmware-replaceable bluetooth security analysis tool only needed $16K to get off the ground, but I'm guessing it's in enough of an "experimental" category that it didn't need as much certification/overhead to get built.

Still, this kickstarter is open until 13 April 2012, so if you're interested in More Cheap Sensors (one of the interesting bottlenecks in household robotics in particular :-) it's worth a look.

update This kickstarter was canceled early, on 2012-04-05.

Lytro "Light Field" camera - interesting but limited tech, unusable software

2012-03-18 17:40:00 -0400

Originally posted on tumblr

I've taken around 300 pictures with the Lytro ("shiny red" 16G model.) since it arrived 3 days ago. Initial impressions:

As for the specific horror of the Mac(-only) software (and the reason I'm writing this post without having any pictures to attach to it, it's still not finished running):

Also, the license has terms that I would never agree to for a normal camera... or even normal software:

If it weren't for the fact that I want to screw around with an alternative approach to photography, and am already putting up with a lot just for early access to the toys, I'd return the device just for the license terms; at least in the short term, I'll put up with it, but it's very much not something I can recommend to others. (Fortunately, the device is also so limited on the photography side that I can tell people they're not missing much...)

Most of the result of shooting with it is that I want the tech in a dSLR, so I can use it with a 250mm lens, which is where I find focus and depth of field actually matter. Basically the only shots I've ever wanted to refocus were extreme zoom with very narrow depth of field, and it's always been "missed the subject", not "want to swap subject and background".

All of that said, I suspect a non-photographer (say, someone who only takes pictures with a cellphone) would have a different perspective, and possibly get more out of the device - as a substitute for learning (and doing) in-camera composition.

zDevice - let skynet into your home

2012-01-24 14:59:52 -0500

Originally posted on tumblr

zDevice (alternate link) is in the same space as the wildly successful Twine box - a "micro appliance" with WiFi and a bunch of sensor/actuator interfaces. Both are trying to be easy to configure; the zDevice looks like it wins more on openness (talks to a local server instead of a "cloud" one, for one thing.) The zDevice kickstarter project is actually including the rest of the kit needed for some "real" applications, including a smart garage door opener - it's hard to "sell" a platform, but starting with a use case gets you the attention of people who realize that they really want something close to that, and with the "bias for tweaking" that these things encourage, you can capture the people who want to make something physical from an idea but don't think they can (or simply don't have the time to) start from scratch.

The downside of "priming" the reader with existing projects is the fear that it means that people will look at the device too narrowly. I think in practice that too many options will confuse people up front, and there's plenty of opportunity for followup once it's off the ground.

I've had my own list of projects in mind for years but never really wanted to put even a mini-tower PC in every room, just to drive some sensors. The EEEpc almost made the perfect platform, except they ended up being too useful for other things - and they kept putting out newer models every couple of months with increases in price and feature set, instead of pushing the price down on the original version - at $100 each for an EEEpc 701 (fanless, ssd, webcam), you could put one in every room, enabling things like

If one of these devices gets really popular, and the price goes below even the current kickstarter prices, then I hope to see more kickstarter projects for experimental sensors - localizing microphones/vibration sensors, imaging thermal sensors, airflow detectors of some kind? Ad-hoc home environmental automation would be a fun field to be in.

And given a cheap netbook and a pile of sensors, the obvious next step is to drive them around :-) The OCULUS telepresence robot (hat tip to ladyada for reminding me of it) is still a little mispositioned in that it's mostly about you remotely driving a camera around, instead of the netbook observing and reacting and reporting - after all, the first useful thing you could do with one isn't "torment the cat from ground level", it's "Use Bundler and SLAM to produce a full interior model of your house, so you can finally figure out how large a ball-pit you can install".

Or figure out if there's room for the shark tank under the trap door after all...

Useful HDMI hardware (despite the industry's best efforts) - the NeTV

2012-01-06 00:41:19 -0500

Originally posted on tumblr

Bunnie just announced that the NeTV was actually available from Adafruit. It's unusual to see a consumer product where most of the documentation is presented at a crypto hacker conference - though if that's your thing, it's also worth taking a look at the Ubertooth One, one of last year's KickStarter successes, for a similarly near-consumer device which first appeared at ShmooCon.

This device takes something that was a simple task back in the late 80's - specifically, overlaying content on a live video stream - and making it possible again, despite the modern advances that have gotten in the way. Back then, a low-end Amiga desktop computer could "genlock" (clock synchronize) with an NTSC video signal, and then overlay its own video output on it, producing a new combined NTSC signal - without the need for expensive studio hardware. (Legend has it that these machines were used for the early episodes of Babylon 5, before it had a budget...) Thirty years later, due to accumulated fear of the "analog hole", HDCP-compliant HDMI video devices perform a key exchange to confirm that both ends of the connection are promising to be limited in the way the studios desire. Turns out that, as with DVD, "crypto" isn't magic, and cheap crypto really isn't magic. The NeTV box doesn't decrypt the signal at all; after intercepting the session and helping itself to the key, it generates precisely timed, properly encrypted, replacement pixels - from any source you want, using a webkit browser as the renderer.

I think this is going to be an honestly useful gadget; Bunnie mentions obvious cases like "overlaying the televised debates with real twitter feeds instead of sanitized news-station feeds", but it would also support a bunch of the old TiVo hacks like "display caller id of that phone" or "alert me that the laundry is done" - little things that don't deserve any continuous visual space, but should just appear and go away at will.

That said, I'd bring it up here entirely out of respect for the techno-wizardry involved :-)