Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Five Rules of Science

I was excited to hear that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos has been renewed and will be airing new episodes next year. When I was in high school, I was absolutely transformed by Carl Sagan’s original series. I cannot understate the impact it had on my worldview and personal development as a critical thinker and supporter of science.

At the end of season two of Dr. Tyson’s series, he closed with, well, okay a slightly preachy, but still impactful commentary that included Dr. Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” quote. This was given during a lecture in Cornell in 1994. As Voyager 1 completed it’s mission and was getting ready to leave the solar system forever, Dr Sagan convinced the JPL to turn the Voyager camera around and take one last picture of earth from a distance of 3.7 billion miles.

I hadn’t heard the entire piece in quite some time, and it still brought me to tears.

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

This, by itself, would have been a wonderful end to the series. But Dr. Tyson continued and presented his Five Rules of Science. In so many ways, these points build on Dr Sagan’s deep philosophical thoughts, and add concrete rules and guidelines. These are the foundations we should build our debates, our discussions, our ideas on….

Only a few centuries ago, a mere second in cosmic time, we knew nothing of where or when we were. Oblivious to the rest of the cosmos, we inhabited a kind of prison, a tiny universe bounded by a nutshell.

How did we escape from the prison? It was the work of generations of searchers who took five simple rules to heart.

  • Question authority. No idea is true just because someone says so, including me.
  • Think for yourself. Question yourself. Don’t believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn’t make it so.
  • Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it’s wrong. Get over it.
  • Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgment.

And perhaps the most important rule of all…

  • Remember: you could be wrong. Even the best scientists have been wrong about some things. Newton, Einstein, and every other great scientist in history — they all made mistakes. Of course they did. They were human.
  • Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves, and each other.

There will, naturally, people who pick and choose from this list to simply further their personal agenda. These things cannot be taken in isolation. Either you accept, embrace, and follow them all, or you’re doing it wrong. Humility must go hand in hand with discovery. No one has all the answers. Be a searcher. Learn, grow, and explore.

Doing finish work on a windowsill.

I don’t do much home finishing work, but I’m sort of proud that I got this thing done myself.

After finishing the attic, the windowsill on the one window was unfinished. I decided to do the work myself. It was an ugly and glaring flaw in the otherwise well finished space, it was time to fix it.
The first step was picking up some wood of the appropriate thickness from Lowes, and cutting it to shape in the sill.

I wanted a bit of a lip over the front of it, so I ‘notched’ the side of the front board (it required two pieces because of the depth of the sill) and fit it into place. I was working with relatively rudimentary woodcutting tools (skilsaw and jigsaw), so the fit wasn’t perfect. If I had a chopsaw and/or a scrollsaw, this would be much easier, but there’s only so many tools I can fit in my house. I used my belt sander to smooth / round off the edges of the lip and the nailed the pieces in place with finishing nails, using a small punch to countersink the nails so they wouldn’t stick up.

Because the fit wasn’t perfect, and I hadn’t cut into the drywall to fit the pieces in snugly, I used some silicone to fill in the gaps and seal the wood against the wall. After that, it was just a matter of using some leftover paint I had from when the room was painted, and voila! I had a lovely new windowsill.

Is it perfect? Not even remotely, but it’s a damned sight better than the raw unfinished sill. Onward!

Installing the Back Seat on my 2000 Jeep Wrangler TJ

Winter means getting back into working on the Jeep (wait, does it? Oh heck, dunno. Vacation is a good time to do stuff). When I bought my Jeep TJ last year, it came with a rear seat, but the brackets needed to use the seat had been removed, so it’s just sat in the garage. A lot of Jeep purists remove it because it’s just extraneous, and takes up valuable storage space, but I’ve missed being able to take more than one passenger out for rides (either around town or on the trail), so I finally got around to getting this task done.

I bought new brackets and screws a few months ago, so I should have all the things neeed. What had been holding me up was the previous owner had painted the ‘tub’ of the jeep with Monstaliner, a very thick protective paint that protects the body of the jeep from rust. This paint was over everything, including the screws and bolt holes where I needed to mount the brackets. That paint would have to be scraped away before I could install anything.

I had help from a friend with some extra tools, and we were able to use a blow torch to heat up the monstaliner that was covering the side bracket screws, and, using a small pick, get the material out of the torx (torque?) heads enough to get a good solid mating of the socket. Those screws came out fine, but there was also material in the holes in the floor of the tub where the paint had dripped in.

We tried using the torch and screws on the floor holes to see if we could get the material out of the way, but it didn’t work (the screws would just jam up). In the end we used a tapping set to re-groove the holes and we were able to seat the screws into the floor of the tub

After that it was just a matter of putting the brackets in and dropping the seat in place. It fit like it was supposed to, but I realized I was missing a part. There’s a C-clip or something similar that goes on the front bar that keeps the seat from sliding sideways when folded up. That clip was missing, so I’ll need to go find that before I can declare this useable.

The next step will be to get a seat belt set (hellooooo ebay) and install those. When that’s all done, I’ll finally be able to take the family out for drives and wheeling if they want to come along! It’ll be nice being more than a 2 seater.

I Made Electronic Clocks with my Son

It’s always a challenge to find things to do with a teenager just going through his first year at college. What could ye ole dad provide that more interesting than his new experiences with friends, classes and living away from home? So it was with some trepedation I reached out to Zach and asked if he’d be interested in taking a soldering class with me at MakeIt Labs, the makerspace I’ve been frequenting the last two years or so.

The class was presented as a 3 hour introduction to soldering techniques and best practices. The lab would provide all the tools needed (soldering iron, tools, solder, and other bits), as well as the parts to build a nice little LED clock. This isn’t a ‘here’s your parts, you figure it out’ event, it was a guided walkthrough of basic technique, pitfalls to watch out for, and detailed instructions on assembly. Sounded like a great way to learn how to solder, as well as something we could do together.

“Sure Dad, sounds great. Lets go!”

So I signed for the class, and on Saturday Zach and I headed up to the lab and settled in at our stations.

Each of us had our own kit, consisting of about 30 parts, a printed circuit board, red retro LED displays, and a powersupply. The workstations were well supplied with a very good soldering iron, solder, wire snips, flux, needlenose pliers, board holder, and other small tools. Zach and I, along with 6 or so other students, got started. I had some experience soldering, having done lots of drone builds that require a fair amount of soldering work, but nothing this detailed, and certainly not mounting components on a PCB. Zach had none at all.

Our instructor had prepared well, with a full presentation on what we were going to do, what tools we’d be working with, and basics of how to use the materials and follow the instructions. After a 15-20m introduction on the hazards we should be careful for (“Soldering irons are hot, mmkay? They make other things hot too. Be careful!”) we got started. The first couple components were dirt simple. Just jumper wires across the board. After that we moved on to more and more detailed things, culminating in mounting the socket for the CPU and installing the chip. Through it all, Bill, our instructor, was patient, detailed, and obviously an expert on the subject. He answered all questions professionally and patiently, and, along with lab assistant John, helped the students when problems came up, or simple inspected work to make sure it was going okay.

Finally, after 2 hours of assembly, we were ready to test the boards out. Bill used one of the lab bench power supplies, and one by one, each student brought their board up, and it got powered up. Zach’s worked on the first try, showing bright glowing red LED digits ticking away time perfectly. Mine, of course, didn’t, and we quickly discovered 3-4 bad solder points. I went back to my bench and fixed these, and my clock came to life as well.

The kits were from a standard hobbyist supplier, and were meant for student workshops like this. they didn’t come with mounting hardware, so before the class started, Bill and John thoughtfully used the labs laser cutter to make some acrylic display mounts. A couple screws, standoff posts, and acrylic plates later, and lo, we had a lovely, hand built, LED clock!

The class was a great experience for both Zach and I, and we both had something useful we took away together. Each of us has an identical clock that we made at the same time, together, on a cold day in December.

Thanks MakeIt for providing a great learning environment, thanks Bill for putting together a great class, and thanks Zach for spending a cool day geeking out with his old man.

Atari Portfolio

This one has been on my bucket list from the beginning, and I’m happy to say, I was able to make my way through an eBay auction and pick up a mint condition unit that looks great and works even better.

In 1989, DIP Research in Surrey England developed the DIP Pocket PC. They licensed it to Atari in the US and UK, and Atari rebranded it as the Portfolio.

The Portfolio is widely recognized as the first MS-DOS Compatible palmtop computer. It runs a slightly modified version of MS-DOS 2.11.

This unit is in pristine condition, complete with expansion cards with several applications, we well as a card reader that can be plugged into a desktop PC for transferring files.

Specifications:

  • Manufactured: June 1989
  • Operating system: DIP DOS 2.11
  • CPU: 80C88 @ 4.9152 MHz
  • Memory: 128 KB of RAM and 256 KB of ROM
  • Display: monochrome LCD (no backlight) 40 characters × 8 lines
  • Graphics: 240 × 64
  • Power: 3× AA size removable alkaline batteries (Optional AC adapter)

TI-74 Basicalc

I had never heard of these machines until one came up on /r/retrobattlestations and I just had to have it.

The Basicalc is one of the early programmable calculators that was starting the trend in handheld computing from ‘calculator’ to ‘computer’. The TRS-80 PC-1 is another great example.

The TI-74 has a working BASIC interpreter, as well as the standard calculator functions. It also includes a ROM Module slot that allows for plugin expansion of pre-packaged applications.

Specifications:

  • TMS70C46 CPU
  • 31 5×7 character LCD
  • 32+4 KB ROM
  • 8 KB RAM
  • RAM/ROM memory expansion port
  • Hexbus port
  • 80 characters per line (31 visible)
  • powered by 4 AAA-size batteries

Happy to have this in the collection!

5 Mobile Titles Poised To Define AR Gaming

AR gaming is no longer just a concept. Thanks to Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore – development platforms allowing mobile developers to create AR games with relative ease – this form of gaming is now available on some of the most popular smartphones on the market. Particularly where Apple is concerned, we’ve already seen a lot of interesting games released, and there are surely many more to come.

The most interesting category that hasn’t quite exploded just yet, however, is that of mobile games being adapted to the AR format. These games have the advantage of familiarity and foundations of success, and could be some of the first major hits in augmented reality if and when they’re adapted. It’s a precedent that’s already been set by games like Stack AR and a few others, which are building on previous mobile titles. But if we were to bet on the kinds of AR titles people will be buzzing about in another six months or a year, these are some of the games we’d be keeping an eye on.

Angry Birds

It should just about go without saying that Angry Birds will always be at the forefront of mobile gaming. Through numerous versions, it has always been among the most popular titles in the app stores. What you may not know is that an Iranian company produced an AR version of Angry Birds back in 2012! It was said to make it appear as if the game were happening in 3D right in the room you’re standing in, which pretty much describes the point of AR as we now know it. We’re not suggesting this particular game will now make it big, but the fact that an AR Angry Birds has basically already been demo’d makes an ARKit or ARCore adaptation seem that much more likely. It’s a matter of time before this franchise moves into the new medium (and probably becomes the most popular AR game out there).

Monument Valley

AR is largely about visual intrigue, and in that regard no mobile game has ever stood above Monument Valley. Known for mesmerizing beauty, the game also happens to match the basic format and playing style of some of the early successes in augmented reality. That is to say, it’s effectively a puzzle game with a heavy emphasis on geometry and different angles and perspectives. You need only take a glance at some of the lists of the best early AR games to see that there are already a few titles imitating this style of gaming, and doing well with it. A Monument Valley adaptation could be the best of them all, and will probably emerge at some point.

Gonzo’s Quest

This could be a particularly interesting game because it’s already something of an innovator. Known as one of the best video slots available to online and mobile players, Gonzo’s Quest has been praised for its underlying story and video content (which take the game well beyond the slot reel). As one writer put it, the game creates a better sense of engagement by giving you something to focus on. We already know that a VR version of Gonzo’s Quest is being developed, and it could make the leap to AR as well – potentially establishing a new standard for casino arcade games in the process.

High Noon

High Noon is the least likely game on this list to see a direct adaptation, but the concept of this game still seems worthy of recognition in this discussion. This was a one-on-one duel shooter that made use of a sort of form of AR. Your job was to pull your phone from a “holster” position and use your screen to locate your enemy, tapping to fire. Duels were held in real-time, but players were represented by animated characters in a cartoonish old West. It’s fairly easy to imagine a newer version of a similar game in which players are represented by their own avatars, and opponents appear as if they’re in real physical space. Such a game probably won’t be attached to High Noon, but even under a different name it would redefine AR shooters.

The Room

The Room seems poised for success for the same reasons that Monument Valley is: it’s a beautiful puzzle game with a heavy focus on angles, which pretty much suits an early formula being developed for engaging AR games. We’re singling out The Room in particular though because its developer, Fireproof Games, has actually already produced mixed reality content. The company produced Omega Agent for HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Samsung Gear VR, stating that it wanted to stay true to the spellbinding nature of virtual reality in designing the experience. This doesn’t guarantee that The Room will get an adaptation, but it would seem to make it more likely.

Editors note: This article was a guest contribution.

Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 Linux PDA

In 2003, Sharp started making a series of PDAs under the ‘Zaurus’ name. The designs ranged from a small clamshell to a mini-tablet form factor. The SL-5000 was a development version, with the 5500 being the full release.

These units got very popular in the Linux community, because they ran a full on Linux distribution, and were easily modified. The original firmware (referred to as SharpROM) while functional, had some limitations. A new project, called OpenZaurus, was born that built a new Linux distribution specifically for these devices, coupled with an opensource graphical environment called OPIE. Later, this work was rolled into OpenEmbedded.

The SL-5500 is a full on Linux device, with enough hardware and expandability to make them really interesting to use. A built in mechanical keyboard behind a sliding cover, a good screen, CF slot for external cards, and SD card slot for storage made it a great mobile device.

Specs:

  • Running Openzaurus (linux distro) and Opie (desktop environment)
  • Screen resolution of 240×320 TFT Active Matrix display
  • 206 MHz SA-1110 StrongArm processor
  • 64meg RAM
  • Approximately 10 hour battery life

Quiet Sunday Morning at Home

There’s something pleasant about a quiet morning like this.

It’s Sunday morning. It’s rainy and cold outside, but nice and cozy inside. I can hear the water dripping on the porch and the windows… it’s soothing and relaxing. Some quiet jazz is playing on the Echo in the living room while I’m parked on the couch doing geeky things on the laptop. A nice cup of coffee sits at hand…

Nessie relaxing
We’re dogsitting this weekend, which has been going just fine. Her name is Nessie, and she’s super-low key and enjoying hanging out with us.

These times are super-special to me, and the last few weeks haven’t allowed many of them. I’m grateful I have a peaceful, safe, comfortable place I can relax and recharge.

Apple eMate 300

Back in 1997, Apple realized there was a market for computers designed specifically for classroom use. They had built much of their success on Apple II+ and IIe computers liberally distributed through schools, and, facing pressure from IBM and the ‘clone’ world, decided to leverage their moderate success with the Newton line of PDA’s.

Thus, the Apple eMate 300 was born. Building on the Newton platform, Apple took the top end configurations of the Newton Messagepad 2000 and 2100, and built a small, laptop-like device. The touchscreen remained, with the stylus, backlighting, and much of the NewtonOS, but Apple added a keyboard, rechargeable internal battery, a durable case, mounting hardware for securing the devices to desks, and some additional management tools for teachers to be able to work with roomfuls of eMates. Other changes were the addition of an internal memory expansion slot that allowed the units to be upgraded with additional RAM or customized ROM cards.

The device is quite attractive and easy to work with, light and easy to carry, and the 85% sized full stroke keyboard is comfortable to type on. As with all Newtons, it has no inherent networking support (short of Localtalk, a serial protocol used to communicate with printers and other similar devices), but does a PCMCIA socket that allows for network cards.

Specifications:

  • Screen: 480×320, 6.8″
  • Battery life: 28 hours
  • Processor: 25 MHz ARM 710a RISC processor
  • Initial cost: $799 ($1150 in modern value)
  • RAM: 1mb
  • ROM: 8mb
  • Storage: 2mb Flash

In many ways, the eMate laid the groundwork for the OLPC XO-1 computer which came out 9 years later.

Unfortunately, the eMates only lasted less than a year, when Steve Jobs cancelled the entire Newton project after Gil Amelio was fired as the CEO of Apple.

Best Amazon Echo Dot Wall Mount Ever

I have 4 Echo Dots, plus a full size Echo in the living room. Love the durned little buggers, and calling out ‘alexa!’ has become a normal part of every day life. I use it for music, news, shopping lists, and home control of lights and dimmers. I can see the days of carrying on conversations with your house getting closer and closer.

The Dots are cute, but they need to sit on a surface somewhere. That takes up space and clutter. I’d been digging around to try and find a 3d printed mount or something similar so I could mount the Dots on the wall.

This morning while cleaning up my workbench, I realized there was a very simple way of hanging the dot on the wall. A pair of 3″ framing nails later, and voila. The dot is up and off my workbench, it’s stable, the speaker is cleared enough to be heard and sounds fine, victory.

I know many people dont’ have 2×6 studs exposed everywhere, but goshdarnit, this was a quicky fix that works great.

Apple Newton Messagepad 130

The Newton was Apple’s first handheld ‘tablet’ computer. The first generation of these were the 110, 120, and 130. They were pioneers in the handheld computing realm, bringing unseen features such as full handwriting recognition and high resolution (for the time) touchscreens , with an intuitive and easy to understand interface.

The Messagepad 130 is interesting because it’s the first in the line to not only come with the vastly improved NewtonOS 2.0, but it included a backlight. The monochrome screens in all the Newtons is tricky to use in less than direct light, so this feature was a welcome addition.

Specifications:

  • Model: H0208
  • Memory: 2.5 MB
  • Storage: 8 MB ROM, 2 MB Flash (Expandable)
  • Screen: 320 × 240 monochrome , backlit
  • Introduced: March 1996

Psion Organizer II LZ

Manufactured in 1986, the Organiser II was really the first successful PDA. Psion started with the Organiser in 1984, billed as the ‘First Practical Pocket Computer’. This unit came out 2 years later and had a larger display, more RAM and a faster CPU.

One of the big innovations were ‘Datapaks’ – modules that could be plugged into the unit with either pre-loaded software or additional storage.

Specifications:

  • Dimensions: 5.6″ x 3.0″ x 1.1″
  • Weight: 8.8 oz. (without battery)
  • Display: 4 lines x 16 characters, Dot matrix LCD.
  • Keyboard: 36 keys, audible click, auto-repeat.
  • Memory: (CM) 32k ROM, 8k RAM. (XP) 32k ROM, 32k RAM.
  • Moss Storage: 2 slots for program & Datapaks.
  • Interfacing: 16-pin slot for optional peripherals.
  • Power: Standard 9 volt lang-life alkaline battery

For more information, check out oldcomputers.net page on the Psion Organiser.

Cambridge Computer Z88 Laptop Computer

The Z88 Laptop Computer was designed and developed by Clive Sinclair’s Cambridge Computer, Limited. It is a Z80 based, A4 sized computer running a 3.2MHz Z80 processor with 32k of RAM and a 64×640 LCD display. The membrane keyboard has a light touch and is quite a delight to type on.

These machines were more popular in the UK than in the US – over there the Sinclair line (ZX80, ZX81, etc) were phenomenally popular. I’d actually never seen a Z88 before, and had to do some research when I found it at the local MIT Flea market, but once I read up on it, I had to add it to the collection. This one was manufactured in 1988.

This particular one has 3 cartridges installed in the slots: some extra RAM, and 2 32k EPROM carts, one of which is labelled “PC Link” (a communications package. Looking forward to trying that out!)

Radio Shack TRS-80 PC-1 Pocket Computer

I’m super excited about adding this piece of history to the Vintage Handheld Computing Collection. When i was in high school, I had a total geek crush on these units when they were came out. Handheld, ran basic, battery powered, very nifty looking.

I acquired one back in the day (and have an interesting story about using it in a Physics exam), but haven’t had a chance to play with one since.

This one was donated by one of my coworkers. It includes the cassette interface, the original docs and boxes, and the plastic overlays that were used for ‘functions’ – basically defined keys. It’s in good physical shape, but has a bad display. I haven’t had a chance to run up the batteries and dock for it, but physically, it’s in great shape. Even came with some financial add-on software.

This particular unit is a PC-1 – the first generation of the pocket computer. They were actually made by Sharp as the PC-1211, and rebranded as the TRS-80 Pocket Computer. The PC-1 moniker was added later as the line expanded into more models.