My Vacation in Crawford Notch

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Around mid-November of this year, my boss pulled me aside and said “Son… I’m kickin you outta here.” Okay, he really didn’t say that, but he did let me know if I didn’t take some vacation time by the end of the year, he was going to be cranky. Since my company only rolls over 2 weeks of time each year to the next, and I had something like 4 weeks stored up, I needed to skedaddle.

But what to do? I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, but I also REALLY wanted to get away and have some time to myself.

The end result was a week on my own in the White Mountains in New Hampshire…

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Soylent – 10 days in.

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A full batch in mid-preparation

On September 1st, I started what I was calling “my great experiment“. Altering my diet in a significant way to make me more aware of what I was eating, how I was eating, and where my food came from was a huge step for me. So now it’s a week and a half later, how has it worked out?

Short version: remarkably well!
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Soylent – The great experiment begins

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2014-09-01 11.23.306-8 months ago I participated in a kickstarter for Soylent – an artificial food mix that is compact, nutritionally complete and storeable. I received my 2 weeks of food on Friday. The cup in this picture contains an entire meal – all the nutrients a body needs to function well.

There are people who have switched to 100% soylent meals, 3 times a day. I probably won’t go that route, at least initially, but this morning’s breakfast consisted of blending the mix, pouring it over ice, and sitting down to write this post. The rest of the blend (I made half a batch) is in the fridge for lunch.

I’m attracted to a bunch of aspects of Soylent. I like that an entire weeks worth of food is $65. I like that it doesn’t go bad (2 year shelf life). I like that prep and cleanup time is almost non existent.

On a social scale, it’s making me look at the food and food delivery industry very closely. Thousands of gallons of fuel burned so I can have a head of lettuce in january? Huge resources burned so I can enjoy a cheeseburger? This seems silly. Is it possible to feed humanity without burning the planet in the process?

Lets find out.

Some notes:
The website for Soylent is – note that the ‘recipe’ for soylent is open and documented, and there are hordes of people who have made their own soylent mix (DIY). (Best name I’ve heard – People Chow).

What does it taste like? Slightly gritty milk shake. Has a muffin-y smell to it.

Aren’t you going to miss the social / enjoyable experience of eating meals? Dunno. I like gaining another hour or three a day.

Are you going to stop eating ‘normal’ food? Not at all, I’ll enjoy grillings, dinners out, common meals, whatever. But that dosn’t mean I need to do that every day.

#soylent #food


How not to compliment a photographer

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Not too long ago an acquaintance of mine asked if I would do them a favor and come  photograph their event.  No problem, I enjoy shooting, and any chance to work is an opportunity to improve my skill.   I went to the event, spent a few hours taking pictures, and had a great interaction with everyone.  Later on I sat down and did all my post processing, tuning, and polishing – a process that can take hours, depending on the size of the shoot and the complexity of the imagery.  

Zach at arisia

Zach at Arisia

This particular event wasn’t that difficult, and I ended up with several dozen shots I was pretty happy with.   I published the pictures and sent the link out.  Over the next day or two, I got good feedback from the event coordinator and several attendees.

One message I got was simply this…

“These pictures are beautiful!  That sure is a great camera!”

Needless to say, this pushed my buttons.

If you’re a photographer, and  understand why this statement could be irritating, feel free to skip the following rant.

In the modern age of high pixel count cell phones, cheap high resolution point and shoot cameras, and “entry level” DSLRs, even the simplest, auto-everything, “shoot and post” pictures can come out looking great.   But whether you get a good picture or not with these tools alone is, frankly, luck.  Sure, you could get a great picture – but that’s mostly the result of chance.  Please don’t assume that’s what I do.

I am a photographer (among other things).  I spend a lot of time thinking about framing, light, setting, angles, subjects, and timing.  When I take pictures, sure, I take zillions (a typical hour or two shoot can result in 500+ exposures).  But to me a photographers’ art consists of an end to end process that may take days.   The camera is one of the tools in that process, but saying things like “that sure is a great camera!” while it may be true, really diminishes the work that goes into creating really good imagery.

So folks, next time you see a picture by someone you know is a photographer, compliment them on the picture, or better yet, on their skill, not on the camera.


Today, I tried to read a book.

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I tried. I really did try.

Books books books

Books books books

The book is “The Republic of Thieves” by Scott Lynch, third in the Gentlemen Bastards series. A neighbor had a copy here, and he loaned it to me.

I’ve been reading books on my phone for years now. This is the first time I only had a physical copy for quite some time… and a hardcover to boot.

“Heck, why not”, I thought. “It’s been a while, and people go on about how reading digital books just ain’t the same. Lets give it a whirl.”

Except… it wouldn’t fit in my backpack, so I couldn’t have it with me at work, where I usually sit and read during lunch. It stayed at home.   When I had some spare time at skating, it wasn’t there.  Didn’t have it with me when I went out for a burger tonight… so nope, not then. The only time I had access to it is at home, maybe just before I go to sleep, when I usually check my mail, do my last gaming, and spend some time with my sweetie.

But through all those times, I did have my phone with me.

I returned the book to my neighbor, and bought a digital version on Amazon.

Now I’ll get to read it.


Arduino Code for driving the Staff LEDS

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A couple people have asked me to post the code I use in the Staff.  I’ve uploaded it to Github, and I’ll try and keep copies active there.

I’ll give you a fair warning, the code ain’t pretty :)  It works wonderfully, but it was “Hack it until it works, doesn’t crash, and does what I want, beyond that, we’re done!”


The Technomancer at Arisia!

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This past weekend I packed up and headed to Arisia to work, play, socialize, and, finally put all the costume elements together and become… THE TECHNOMANCER.

The Technomancer!

The Technomancer!

This was the final unveiling of the entire costume the magic staff was created to drive. I’d been adding parts and components for weeks, waiting for others to come in, etc – and in the last week, it all came together.

In summary? It went GREAT. Lots and lots of awesome feedback, oohs and ahs, and tons of geeky conversation around the staff and other parts of the costume. I did learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t work when doing a costume this involved, and while I’m nowhere near done, I’m at a point where I can pick up all the pieces and go to an event, and I’m pretty sure it’ll work well.

Here’s a rundown of everything I added to make the full image work:

  • First, thanks very much to Starlit Creations for making a custom ‘wizards robe’ for my 6’6″ form. She did a great job, exactly to my specs, and it fit me wonderfully.
  • The second big add was a UVEX “Bionic” (yeah, not my name, sorry) faceshield.  I’d been digging around for some sort of ‘mask’ that I could mirror and cover my face, giving that ‘blank look’.  After looking at various environmental filter systems and masks, this shield was exactly right.
  • I added a sheet of ‘one way’ reflective film on the inside of the mask – this turned out to be tremendously difficult as the faceshield needs to flex both horizontally and vertically when being installed, so I couldn’t set the film on the surface while it was on the flat, I had to do it while it was installed, which ended up with some bubbles and wrinkles.  All in all not bad, but I’d like to try to get it perfect.
  • A turtleneck shirt to hide ‘skin’ showing on the neckline, and hide my arms.
  • A pair of black leather driving gloves
  • An extra long belt from my SCA garb
  • My boots from said SCA garb
  • Two lengths of light green lit EL wire and battery packs.  These unfortunately were a disappointment.  Not very bright, and awkward to work with.  I’ll be reworking this part of things.

All assembled, it felt comfortable, looked great, and I was ready to go out in public.

A couple things became apparent really fast…

  • If a person can’t make eye contact with you, they’re nervous and aloof.  They couldn’t see my face – and at least in US culture, the first part of a conversation is making eye contact, which is sort of like “Is it okay to talk to you?” – I guess that’s sort of the point of the ‘faceless’ costume – to make people a little uncomfortable.
  • The mask made it very hard for me to speak loud enough for people to hear me.  Sometimes if I got into a geeky conversation, I’d just flip the mask up – which, naturally, destroys the presentation.  I’m considering a voder-type arrangement moving ahead so I can talk and people will hear me.
  • The mask / hood arrangement can get hot.  Here’s a little secret, I was actually wearing shorts under the robe – so that part was nice and cool (and no one noticed), but I may need to come up with some sort of air circulation solution for the mask.
  • Also, the hood and mask pretty much eliminated my peripheral vision.  Might need to work on that part.
  • The gloves made it hard to feel where the control buttons on the staff were.  That’s definitely up for a change.

I wore the costume and staff for a few hours on Saturday night, and had lots of people taking pictures.  The pic above is from the hotel room before I went out (when I was out in public, the hood was actually pulled forward much more) – but you get the idea.  The EL wire is barely visible :(

I have tons and tons and TONS of ideas moving forward, all workable within this costume design (vast improvements on the staff, some small changes to the robes and mask), but for a first time out, I’m pretty psyched!


CONGO is going GPL.

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(This announcement is also being posted on

Over the last 12 years I’ve been working hard to develop CONGO into the best convention registration system I can manage. Since 2002, CONGO has been used for many events of all sizes, registering and printing badges for tens of thousands of attendees. There have been many successes and a few bumps, but all in all it’s been a great adventure.

Several events now rely heavily on CONGO for year-to-year attendee tracking, allowing online registration, keeping up-to-date history, managing thousands of attendees, as well as the relationship CONGO has to Zambia, the scheduling system.

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Arduino Nano “Programmer Not Responding” on a Mac

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Arduino Nano v3

Arduino Nano v3

For the Staff project, I’m going to be replacing the existing Arduino Uno R3 with a smaller, more easily embedded Arduino Nano.  The Nano is a heck of a lot smaller than the Uno (makes sense – it’s meant to be permanently installed, while the Uno is a prototyping platform).  I received my Nano a few weeks ago, but immediately ran into a frustrating problem… code would compile, begin to upload, and I’d get the error “stk500_recv(): programmer not responding”

The intarwebz are full of people reporting this problem, unfortunately most are not finding answers.

I went through the usual debugging problems – changing out the USB cable I was using, checking to make sure USB drivers were correct – I could still upload and use code on my Uno, but the Nano flat out refused to accept the new code (and I did check the very common problem of not selecting the correct board in the IDE).

Finally, came across a general discussion about bootloaders, and there was a comment that sometimes these boards do not reset properly.  After some more research, I found some folks using various ‘reset button’ hacks to sort of nudge the board into accepting code.  With a lot of trial an error, I have a procedure that seems to work pretty consistently.  There’s occasional twitches, but with persistence it always loads.

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Video Demo of the Staff

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Several people have asked how the project’s coming along, and I realized that the most recent video only showed a little bit of the functionality.  So I dusted off my iMovie skills and whipped up a little demo (complete with background music!  Aren’t you impressed?).  All the current modes are displayed, though the most recent one isn’t quite done yet.



23andMe – A Scientific Look into Myself

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European.  Whoddathunkit?

My genetic backround

A couple months ago, a friend pointed me to the website   Their mission statement is pretty straightforward.  “23andMe’s mission is to be the world’s trusted source of personal genetic information.”

Here’s how it works.

After signing up online and coughing over my $100, 23andme sent me a small kit.  Inside the kit is a little plastic tube.  All you need to do is fill part of the tube with saliva, seal it up, and mail it back to them.  It’s all postage paid, so it’s just a matter of dropping the box in the mail.

About 4 weeks later, you’ll get a piece of email saying your results are ready to be viewed.  And then things get interesting.

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Notifications on all Logins on a Linux Host

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Putting this one out there because I spent some time surfing various Well Known Sites and couldn’t find a complete answer.

We had a need to log whenever users logged into a production host – just a notification send to the admins saying someone was on one of the production boxes.  The other requirement was to have it be low impact – didn’t need a ton of monitoring packages installed, etc.

The result is a pair of scripts.

The first is ‘’:

 # Nov  6 13:35:25 inf-1 sudo: dshevett : TTY=pts/0 ; PWD=/etc/munin ; USER=root ; COMMAND=/etc/init.d/munin-node restart
 AGO=`date "+%b %e %R" -d "1 min ago"`
 grep "$AGO" /var/log/auth.log | grep 'session opened for user' | grep -v CRON > /tmp/$TMPFILE
 grep "$AGO" /var/log/auth.log | grep 'sudo:'| grep -v pam >> /tmp/$TMPFILE
 cat /tmp/$TMPFILE | /tools/sysconf/scripts/mail_if_not_empty "[]"
 rm /tmp/$TMPFILE

This simply looks for some patterns within the auth.log file. The only real trick here is making a date formatted string that is ‘one minute ago’. If this script is run once a minute via a cron job, it’ll send mail within a minute of someone logging into the host.

The other script is a simple utility tool I use for most of my cron jobs called ‘mail_if_not_empty’:

 cat >  $TMPFILE
 if [ -s $TMPFILE ]

Super-duper simple, it just sends mail if there's any output.  This makes sure that mail will only be generated if anything interesting happens.


The Arduino Mini 05 is… well, mini!

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Arduino Mini 05

Arduino Mini 05

I’m looking to replace the Arduino Uno in the staff with a smaller controller that will fit in the body of the internal tube. The Mini 05 seemed like the best option… well, received it this weekend, and I have to admit, I’m a little daunted.

On the one hand, it sure will fit in the staff, on the other hand, there’s a lot of very small contact points here. My soldering is pretty crude. I’ll have to put in a header for the USB port first, after that I can probably use a socket, which’ll make connections a lot easier.


Magic Staff – FAQ and Build Details

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Idling staff


Well I’m back home after taking the staff out for Halloween.  I carried around as part of my costume, costume – greeting people coming to the community for trick or treating, but also to hang out with my neighbors.   A lot of people were asking about the staff – both seeing it in action and having heard about me working on it for the last 2-3 months.

Now, I’m back home, the staff is sitting in the corner, still running.  I’m using this as a battery test.  It’s running the ‘sparkle’ pattern, which everyone agrees is the prettiest (see the video from my previous post).  It’s been on, showing patterns and lights now for about 5 hours, easily surpassing what I expected from the 8 C NiMH cells.

People on Hackaday and people I meet in person ask a lot of questions, so I decided to write up an FAQ….

Lets start with the first one…  “Why did you build this?  Where’d you get the idea?”

It all started with a book…

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Magic Staff – Takin it out for a spin

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Zach and staff

Zach holds the completed staff

The day finally arrived! After a marathon work session on Saturday, I was able to take the staff to a party last night! The batteries held up great, the staff was a great hit, and everyone was asking about it and wanting to see what it did. Talk about inspiring!

There were naturally some ups and downs, with some wins and some losses:

  • WIN: Never. Ever. Underestimate the power of  HOT GLUE.  I solved the ‘solder joints are not strong enough’ problem by embedding the LED strip ends in a few mm of hot glue.  WIN!
  • WIN: By repurposing a shipping container for my son’s new skate wheels, I was able to fashion an enclosure that would hold the Arduino Uno R3 and all the support wiring until my new Arduino Mini 05 arrived.  It gave the staff a ‘navigation light’ look, but the glow of the board lights was sort of nice.
  • WIN: Soldering irons can be used to make holes in plastic.  Shhh, don’t tell anyone.
  • OOPS: I made one major miscalculation.  The battery mounts are custom formed blocks widh hand wound springs for tension.  I put the tension spring on the BOTTOM of the mount, which means the batteries would push down on the spring and disconnect at the slightest bounce.  I’m not looking forward to reworking that section, but this is a learning experience, no?
  • OOPS: I didn’t get a chance to install a power switch, so there’s no ‘off’ state without pulling the cap and disconnecting the power leads.  Oh well.
  • WIN: The batteries lasted much longer than I expected.  The ‘sparkle’ mode draws very little current (the algorithm has one in every 3 LED’s on, and the values it’s using are at 1/4 brightness:
    uint32_t on = strip1.Color(random(64),random(64),random(64));
  • WIN: the coded interrupt routine that uses the button to switch modes works perfectly.  I could change patterns with a quick touch.  I need some more interactive modes, but as a pure display item, total win.
  • WIN? : I totally want to add more features and functions.  A sound sensor so the staff can react to noise / music around it.  A shock sensor (other than the batteries bouncing) so a tap on the floor will cause a ripple function or something.  AN OFF SWITCH.  More interesting patterns.  An external USB port, etc etc.  Many of these things are simple coding updates, but others will require research.

I’ll try and fix the battery tray problem by Halloween, but I think we’re in pretty good shape!

ETA Here’s a video of the staff in action.