Heading for the Hills

Assuming all goes well, the weather holds, and nothing tragic happens, by this time next week I’ll be well ensconced in the White Mountains, one day into 4 days of backwoods backpacking.

All my outdoor adventures have been leading in this direction, and this is the logical next step. I’m taking 4 days to hike the Pemi Loop, a 31-ish mile loop of trails that covers a half dozen 4000′ foot peaks. Even though I have done hiking like this before (90-miles-ish on the Appalachian Trail when I was a young lad), this is the first overnight in the wilds I’ve done since then.

I’m going alone, but I am taking a few precautions. Probably the biggest is that I’ll be carrying a GPS tracker that will report in my position every half hour or so (a couple close friends will have a way to check up on me). The tracker also has a big red SOS button on it that once activated, functions similar to an EPIRB on boats. It’ll keep broadcasting my position until someone comes to help.

Other than that, I’m on my own. I’m carrying my own food, bedding, shelter, clothing, and rain gear, plus maps and all the other things that’ll keep me healthy, warm, and fed for 4 days in the back country.

Why? A good question, and one I and my loved ones have asked a few times. Part of it is my strong self-reliance streak. I’m not going to be dependent on anyone, anywhere for days. It’s a personal challenge to make it to the waypoints I’ve mapped out, through conditions that can and do change. I’ll be watching the weather pretty closely leading up to departure time, and if it appears unsafe, I won’t go. I’m not foolhardy. But I know there’s a good chance it’ll be cold, and wet, and certainly not giving me all the comforts of home, but to me that’s good.

I’ll have a small camera with me (not hauling my full kit with me, natch), so expect photos at some point, and if I can pull it together, there’ll be a decent writeup.

I Played With Lasers, and I Liked It

It’s no secret I’ve been having a great time hanging with the folks at MakeIt Labs in Nashua, NH. Many of the projects I’ve been working on have only been possible with their help and collaboration. Not in a “here lets do this for you” sense, but in providing a community where ideas can be bounced around, coupled with a physical space with every tool a geek could ever need at hand.

I’ve unofficially become the person organizing the parts supplies. These are ranks and ranks of bins that hold everything from capacitors to stepper motors to hot glue sticks to arcade pushbuttons. Understandably, these things can easily get out of control, so constant pruning and management is sort of a requirement. I can do that!

80w CO2 Laser in use
80w CO2 Laser in use
A new set of drawers we picked up are super-handy, but they’re just empty metal boxes. About 10″x12″x4″. Nice, useful, and stackable, but we tend to store lots of little parts, so we need to be able to divvy up that space a little more. We needed something like trays that could go into the drawers (which are all about the same size), to store small parts. The tray should be easily removable (take the tray out, use some of the parts, put it back), and easy to make many of them. We have about 120 drawers that need inserts. This sounds like a job for our 80w CO2 laser!

I had done some basic work on the laser, but this would be my first ‘build from scratch’. After measuring out the drawers, I decided to make a 9″square baseplate, with 4 sides, and a single divider down the middle that could easily be picked up. I used Adobe Illustrator to set where the cuts would be (Illustrator is great primarily because drawings measured in it translate perfectly to the laser cutter. No scaling / stretching problems. When I say ‘cut something 9″x9″‘, what I get is something 9″x9″.)

I manually did all the crenelations where the pieces would fit together. A fellow maker pointed out there’s software that helps do this, but for this first runthrough, I was okay doing it by hand. The material I was using is 1/8″ acrylic sheeting. Somewhere the lab picked up a metric buttload of the stuff, so we literally had dozens of square meters to work with.

First complete cut of the tray inserts.
First complete cut of the tray inserts.
Total cutting time was about 3 minutes. The laser had no problems working with the material. After removing the pieces from the machine and taping them together, I had a mocked up tray insert! Hooray!

It wasn’t all peaches and cream. I did mess up measurements on two of the tabs, and forgot to put in a cutoff for one small extension. After assembling what I’m referring to as the ‘1.0’ version, I realize there should be some changes. The central divider should tuck under the end pieces to give it better strength (it’s slotted in on the top now), and I should make a version of this that has 3 spaces in it, not just two. Tighter tolerances on the slots are needed (I measured 1/8″, but the ablation from the laser takes off a little bit more, so the slots are wider than they need to be).

Next step will be to re-do the cuts with the supporting tabs, remove the paper from the acrylic, and glue things together. If all goes well, I’ll have a nice insertable tray, and the ability to crank out many more without much work. Going full-on production of over a hundred of these trays will require an inventory of how much acrylic we have, and a decision on if we want to just pick up a few dozen sheets of 1/8″ birch (which would negate the ‘peeling off the paper’ problem).

I’ll post when there’s an updated sample. But for now… I played with lasers, and it was awesome.

Pilot G-2 07 – The Best Pens Ever?

I’ll admit it. I hang out with geeks. But not just geeks who love computers or tech or whatever, but also writing geeks, library geeks, and, well, you get the idea. Among the literary circles, I’ve found people sometimes go on and on about a certain pen or pencil they love. This always mystified me, as to me, a pen is a pen, a pencil is a pencil, and the greatest amount of thought I put into the process is trying to figure out where I just put one down.

pilot gel pensAlas, I may have levelled up. I’ve moved into the realm of “This is something I really like”. About a year and a half ago I started writing a fulltime journal (on paper, sorry, no URL). Naturally, I used whatever pen I had lying around. Somewhere along the line I picked up a Pilot G-2 07 pen, and… wow. I found a pen that was comfortable, had a great flow to it, and looked good.

Have I finally gone off the deep end? I found myself two weeks ago placing an order with Amazon to keep a stock of these pens in my carrying bag, and at my desk at work. I have never, ever done this before (okay, qualified – I did it once for mechanical pencils, which I use when sketching out projects), and certainly never for a single style, brand, whatever of pen.

Maybe it’s the fact these are ‘gel pens’, which have a smoother stroke than your typical roller ball pen. That combined with a good feel (rubber grip, etc) just make them a joy to use.

I’m going on about enjoying using a certain pen. Definitely cracked.

Vainglory

I’ve been on the lookout for a new game to put my new Moto X Pure Android through, a device that’s extremely high powered and seems perfect for games. Ever since I saw the tablet revolution taking over gaming, I’ve been hoping for a decent, realtime, immersive game that I could get behind. (Why WoW and Eve aren’t on tablets yet is beyond me).

My son Zach was a huge booster of MOBA games before they were cool. DOTA2, and later League of Legends were daily activities. I tried them off and on, but found the complexities and knowledge curve too much for casual gaming.

Enter Vainglory.

Many companies have claimed to make the MOBA experience enjoyable on a mobile device, but this is the first one that’s gotten me completely hooked. I’m still in casual play mode, but I’m finding it intensely enjoyable. The graphics are magnificent, the characters interesting and varied, and the gameplay is perfect. It’s a dead-on implementation of the MOBA ideals (and yes, it has last hits :).

I’ve put in a couple hours so far, getting a feel for 3 of the heroes. There’s so much more to learn – if you watch the videos on the Vainglory channel on Youtube, watch the detailed rundowns of how to play each hero. The technicalities are vast and deep, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to that point with more than 1-2 favorites, but I’m ecstatic that the company behind the game (awesomely named ‘SUPER EVIL MEGACORP‘), spared no expense in making the game easy to get into, but also having huge depth to it.

Anyone want to team?

RC Racecars are AWESOME.

Yeah, I’ve been pretty focused on drone racing, but this is pretty epic.

My first ‘radio control’ experience was building a Tamiya “subaru brat” model when I was in my 20’s, and that helped later when I started building drones. These cars are a little different, but the feeling is similar. Pretty nifty stuff.

2016 New England Auto Show

Yesterday Zach and I went to the New England Auto Show at the Boston Convention Center. it was right next door to Arisia, so we thought “what the heck, lets take an hour or two to go look at shiny cars.” He’d never been to a commercial car show before, so we trundled over.

2016-01-1717.jpgOn the way in, we ran the usual gauntlet of free coupons, surveys, and other marketing nitwits. The line to buy tickets was super-fast (literally walked right up to the next person selling), but someone had already stopped me in line “Hey, I bought an extra, want mine?” er…. sure! That was $15 not spent.

Once on the show floor it was acres and acres of carpeting with shiny cars and trucks parked on them. I realized quickly that Zach knew more about modern car lines than I did, so I let him identify some things. I helped out with things like “Yes, that really is a Bentley, and yes, they really do cost a quarter million dollars, and no, I can’t tell you why.”

There were some important wins that made the show worth while. I was able to look at the 2016 Volt, and in particular, whether I could fit in it (spoiler: yup). I also love that Chevy redesigned the Volt’s center console, which was a mess. That plus the new battery layout and longer range (about 53 miles on battery, as opposed to the 41-ish I get with my 2015) makes me want to see about changing my lease over.

Two other high points of the show. Zach has decided that his dream car is the Mazda MX-5 Miata. I’ll admit that when it first came out as the Miata 25 years ago, I was pretty taken with it. No way I could sit in it though. 2016-01-1715.jpgZach had never had the opportunity to ‘try one on for size’, so now was our chance. He fit! The soft top closed comfortably over him, and he was over the moon. If you’re going to be in love with a car, at least he’s picking a stylish, not stupidly over the moon expensive one.

The one other bit of fun we had was Zach was able to climb into a real live Modified-class track racecar. We were gaping at it when the owner said “Want to try it on for size?” “Not me”, I said, “But could he try?” I pointed to Zach and he said “heck yeah!”. So after some wriggling in through the window, he socketed into the drivers seat (which was conveniently sized about right for him), and he got a feel for what real racecars feel like.

All in all, a nice 2 hours spent with my son geeking about cars. For me, it was also a chance to try out my lovely new Canon 11-16mm ultra wide angle lens. Here’s the full gallery. This was my first time doing any decent work with such a short focal length, and I was pleasantly surprised with the results. I like it!

Visualizing Content Flow on Social Media

About two years ago, I re-launched this blog. Since then it’s become my primary “I gots stuff to say” mechanism. For quite a while I hoped Google Plus would reign supreme, but it’s become readily apparent that platform is buckling via “Death from a Thousand Cuts.” Google is destroying any hope it had of dethroning Facebook one feature at a time..

Realizing that, I put more effort into making Planet Geek my main sounding platform. I re-launched the site, imported all the old content into it, gave it a facelift, and started writing again. Sadly, with the most popular services not supporting RSS, just having the blog there means many people I’d like to keep in touch with simply won’t ever see the content. I needed a way to stay in touch with my friends, family, and social connections, without having to repost the same thing over and over and over again.

By far the industry leader is Facebook. I briefly considered using it as my primary soapbox, but I just can’t bring myself to subscribe to their “We will capture all the content, all the clicks, and all the users, and share none of it outside our walled garden” approach to media. The final straw is their constant tweaking of “We will only show you what we think you should see” (more rants on this in another post). So, no Facebook for me… so where should I go?

In the end, with respect to which social media platform I should settle on, I’ve chosen none of them, and all of them.

Planet-geek, running WordPress, is my go-to platform. I do 99% of my writing here, and whatever writing I have that passes for “creativity” is created using WordPress content tools. But that isn’t enough, is it? Our online social circles are fragmented and isolated. One group lives on Facebook, another lives on Livejournal, some are still on Plus, etc etc.  They would never see the posts unless I manually reposted either the entire article or direct links to everything I write.

socialmediaflow
Visualization of Social Medi

There’s no way to cover all the bases, so I’ve done the next best thing. I chose carefully where I create and publish content, but I’ve also built links that automatically share, if not the entire content, at least a notification to all the media channels I want to reach. I have to shout out to Nextscript’s SNAP tool for making this as painless as possible. SNAP (Social Network Automatic Poster) can link my blog to just about every social network out there. I’ve set up many links, and the tool works flawlessly.

But I do create content in other places. My photography needs a creative channel, and WordPress just isn’t the tool for it. So, Flickr and Instagram come into play. Wait, but sometimes I post to Twitter directly, what about that? Yeah, okay, that’s there too.  Fortunately, many of these sites (unlike Facebook) allow for external notification / sharing of content.  If I post a picture to Flickr, it has an automatic notification mechanism to Facebook.  Instagram does the same thing.  Sadly, Google Plus has none of these tools, and also has no easy API for posting content, so it tends to be the last thing updated (I need to do it by hand).

Thinking about this, I realized that my ‘communication flow’ would make a nice visual. The graphic above is a map of the public sites I use for social media / interaction. I’ve deliberately left off chat systems and email (I use IRC, Slack, Hangouts, Skype, and of course Email). For the most part, all these services notify me back via Email, so in theory, I should be able to just watch my inbox for interactions. A lot of times that doesn’t work so well.  Still working on that part!

This was a fun chart to put together. It shows the results of months of tool configuration, auto-linking, loop detection (yeah, don’t set up auto-posters to one service that is auto-posting back to the original), etc.

Am I missing anything? Let me know… er, on the blog if you can. 🙂

Holiday Giftings – Thinking it through

As we slide down the last stages of the gifting season, I feel it’s a good time to step back and take a meta-approach to what’s around us. For me, that means taking a look at my friends, family, relationships, and community and getting a feel for how we’re doing in relation to the rest of the world..

Traditional gift-giving has always been an oddity to me. Giving ‘things’ to other people in the past was special and heartfelt. I have wonderful memories of a childhood full of delight on Christmas morning (yes, we did Christmas, don’t ask) – and opening up gifts and things that were magical and special. But in this modern world, where everything and anything you could ever want is an amazon- or ebay-click away, what’s the point of buying something online, having it Prime shipped, and handing it to someone right next to you? “I clicked this mouse button just for you.”

Further, I have to recognize that I am in a privileged position in a wealthy society. I’m on the “benefitted” side of almost every metric. I’m white, living in an affluent part of the US, and full-time employed. I’m healthy, tall, and male. I live in a safe, strong, wonderful community. I don’t really need ‘things’, and most of my family doesn’t either.

But there are plenty of people in the world who DO need things, and there are plenty of places and needs that could do a lot more with that $100 I was going to spend on a smartwatch. So I thought I’d post today talking about the things I’m doing with that privilege to make the world a better place for others.

Lets start with the easiest, and, for me, most stark indication of inequality and unfairness. I am constantly horrified that, in this modern world, and in particular the US, one of the richest nations on earth, that people go hungry. And despite what certain political factions say, they are not hungry from laziness or indifference. They go hungry because affluent societies like America look down on those who are unable to provide for themselves and their families, no matter what the reason. I can’t fix our culture, but I can make food as available as possible to those who need it.

I used Charity Navigator to select an organization that is highly ranked at turning contributions into meals for people who need it. I chose Feeding America and set up a monthly donation. For what is essentially the cost of a dinner out for me, I’m giving 361 meals, per month, to people who need them. Talk about underlining disparities.

After that, I targeted organizations I feel are doing work that is important for our culture and society.

  • EFF – Electronic Frontier Foundation
    Right from their mission statement: “EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows.” They are the people countering the fear-speak so prevalent in government circles.
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation
    Religion in politics is a poison. It skews logic and clear thought into ideology and dogma. Separation of church and state is a critical core concept that needs defenders.
  • National Public Radio
    The last 20 years have seen news organizations corrupted into silos of spin and commercialism. The network news programs that presented well thought out stories (such as 60 minutes – and even they got things wrong sometimes) are gone. NPR is the only balanced, sane news source left.

Are these all the groups that need support? Not even remotely. There are hundreds of thousands of organizations out there that can benefit from donationst. But for me, donating to these groups does far more good in the world than the latest gadget from Best Buy could ever do.

Soylent – An update.

It’s been a while since I posted an update in my experimentation with Soylent as a food substitute, so here’s what’s new.

The biggest change is that Soylent has released what they’ve dubbed “Soylent 2.0” – this is a premixed version that comes in 12oz-ish bottles. The mix has been revised to be smoother, creamier, and has lost much of the ‘grainy’ issues that were in previous versions.

Soylent 2.0
Soylent 2.0
I still have a box or two of 1.5, the last version of the powder form (which Soylent has said they will continue to produce). That’s handy when I know I’m going to do an entire weekend worth of work, and want to be able to top off at any time.

The new handheld bottles sure are convenient, and I’ve taken to tossing one in my backpack as my ‘snack food’ for when I’m out and about. The new mix doesnt’ have the strong need to be refrigerated that the powder did – in fact, it seems just fine at room temperature.

My usage goes in cycles. Some weeks I’ll do 10 meals purely on Soylent. Other times I’ll go an entire week without having any. It really depends on where I am and how busy things are. For example, I’ve been home sick the last 2 days, and having ready-to-consume food right at hand has been super-helpful.

It’s a little odd to toss away a plastic bottle after every use. Granted the bottles are as recyclable as they can get, but I somewhat enjoyed the “I’ve had 3 meals from this bag of powder, and I’m throwing away one small bag”. Yes, us americans have been hard wired to place ‘tossing out a plastic bottle’ in the same category as ‘stepping on kittens’. So it’s a hard feeling to shake.

Sick.

Colds suck. Colds that aren’t really colds but just make your life uncomfortable suck. Colds that aren’t sniffly, but just something sitting in your throat making you sound like James Earl Jones suck… well, okay, the JEJ part doesn’t suck that much… kinda cool actually.

This has been rattling around since last Wednesday (5 days now). I’m at work, but have the energy of an overweight cat on a midsummer day. Just wanna lie around and meh.

Hopefully I’ll be back to full functionality soon. This cold has the weird pattern of a) I’m sleeping really well at night, and b) I want to eat CONSTANTLY. The latter is both good and bad. Good because I have an appetite and it makes me feel good when I eat. Bad because, well, yesterday I ate half a box of donuts. Hmm.

I’d like to be better soon, plz.

Retreating a bit from the world

I’m going to be pulling back from social media, particularly Facebook, for a while. The level of bigotry, hate, willfull ignorance, and just flat out stupidity is just getting to be too much. I found myself browsing today and got depressed and furious at the same time. Not only in government, but also in people I thought knew better. I don’t need to sit down to relax and check in, only to find a complete loss of rational, critical thought.

The entire dialog makes me very sad, and in the end, we as ordinary citizens have almost nothing we can do to change the course of government or policy. I’ll still see direct mentions or shares, but I probably won’t see general “Here’s what’s up in my life” sorts of things, so if you really want my attention on something, feel free to reach out. I’ll be using my blog to post, feel free to subscribe to it via Feedly.

Want to do something good that will directly help people in need? Support a charity. I support Feeding America, because no one should ever be hungry …

“Feeding America is the nationwide network of 200 food banks that leads the fight against hunger in the United States. Together, we provide food to more than 46 million people through 60,000 food pantries and meal programs in communities across America. Feeding America also supports programs that improve food security among the people we serve; educates the public about the problem of hunger; and advocates for legislation that protects people from going hungry. Individuals, charities, businesses and government all have a role in ending hunger. Donate. Volunteer. Advocate. Educate. Together we can solve hunger.”

Using a Raspberry Pi as a Realtime Voice Changer for Halloween

As most readers know, I’ve been working on my magic staff project for the last year and a half. I incorporated into the ‘Technomancer’ costume for Halloween and Arisia last year, and it was a big hit. I’m continuing to expand the costume, and one thing I’ve always wanted was a voice changer that would let me have a nice sepulchral voice to go with the creepy visage. My own voice from behind the mask is extremely muted, so it’s hard to carry on conversations or even talk to someone, so some external hookup was needed.

My 'bench' test run of the Pi with external USB sound board.
My ‘bench’ test run of the Pi with external USB sound board.

What surprised me was… no one had done this. I searched all over the web for realtime voice processing setups using a Raspberry Pi or Arduino, and while some folks had come close, no one (that I found) had put all the pieces together. So, it was time to do it!

The first component is naturally a Raspberry Pi. I used the pretty awesome CanaKit, which included lots of goodies (most importantly a good, solid case for the board, as well as a microSD card and other accessories). $69 was a great price.

Next, the Pi has onboard audio, but… well, it sucks. I needed separate mic input and outputs, and off-CPU sound processing. Fortunately, there’s huge numbers of these USB sound adapters going for less than $10 a pop. I got 2 just to be careful.

Pyle Audio portable PA
Pyle Audio portable PA

Next, I needed an amplifier. Something portable, loud, and with a remote microphone. This is one just for my setup. Obviously whatever you choose for your own project, pick whatever audio options you’d like. THe sound adapter has standard 1/8th” jacks for mic in and audio out, so just plug right in (I had a small problem with my Mic connection, in that the mic cable I used needed to be ‘out’ a quarter inch to connect properly. I used a small O-ring to keep the spacing proper). The amp I used is Pyle Pro PWMA50B ‘portable PA system’. At $29, it’s well worth it. Comes with a mic, built in rechargeable batteries, a belt mount, and, most importantly, an Auxiliary input.

Now comes the hard part. Getting the audio set up so it could handle recording and playing back in realtime required installing the ‘sox’, toolset, as well as all the alsa tools (most of ALSA comes with the Pi, but make sure they’re there). First, make sure you can play audio through the USB card to the PA. I used ‘aplay’ for this (this ALSA simple player), and a small WAV file I had lying around.

I also recommend running ‘alsamixer’ beforehand, to make sure you can see all the devices, and they’re not muted. ‘aplay -l’ and ‘arecord -l’ are handy in making sure you’re seeing everything you need.

Assuming you have working audio, now comes the fun part. Set up a sox pipe to read from the default audio device and write to the default audio device. Like this:

play "|rec -d"

If all goes well, you should be able to speak into the microphone, and have it come out the speaker. There will almost certainly be a delay of anywhere from a tenth to a half a second. There’s ways to mitigate that, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

If you have that path working, you’re 90% of the way done!

For my costume, I needed a deep voice, so I added -pitch -300 like this

play "|rec -d pitch -300"

I also had a problem with a very high pitched whine coming through the speakers, so I added a band filter to remove that (this syntax means “Remove sound centered on 1.2khz, with a bandwidth of 1.5khz on either side”) :

play "|rec -d pitch -300 band 1.2k 1.5k"

Only a little more tweaking, adding some echos, and I had the voice I wanted. The –buffer command shortens how much data is buffered for processing. This helped cut down the delay a bit, but runs the risk of buffer overruns if you talk a lot.

play "|rec --buffer 2048 -d pitch -300 echos 0.8 0.88 100 0.6 150 .5 band 1.2k 1.5k"

Here’s a sound sample of what it sounded like. Note this is before I added in the band filter, so you can hear the whine…
(direct link here)

The last thing needed was to have the changer start up when the pi reboots. I’m planning on carrying the Pi in a pouch on my belt, powered via one of those cell phone external battery packs. I can’t log in and start the tool whenever it boots. The fix is to put the ‘play’ and other amixer commands into a simple shell script (I put it in /root/setup.sh), and using the @reboot entry that the Pi’s version of Linux supports, add this line to root’s crontab:

@reboot sh /root/setup.sh > /root/sound.log 2>&1

Rebooting now works without a monitor and keyboard attached, and the sound processor starts right up. Ready to go!

Leave a comment if you have any questions, this post will be updated as I continue work on the system…

Travelling to Tennessee

Over the next few days I’ll be travelling with my Mom to Knoxville, TN to visit relatives neither of us have seen in many many many years. I’m both looking forward to and nervous about this trip, as there’s lots of chances for things to go off the rails.

I hope to be tweeting fairly constantly during the trip, checking in, posting pictures, etc. Please follow me! 🙂

I’m also going to enable Facebook cross-posting from Twitter. If you’re on Facebook, hopefully whatever they use for an algorithm will allow you to see my tweets.

When Sites Get Stupid – Techspot Raspberry Pi Ripoff

I have a pretty comprehensive RSS collection, using Feedly as my portal into all things awesome. I’m also really enjoying playing with my Raspberry Pi teeny computer, so when I saw a posting come up saying “The Complete Raspberry Pi 2 Starter Kit – just $115 in the TechSpot Store – gives you all the tools and resources you need to start your Raspberry Pi experience right.“, I had to give it a look.

techspots shameful bundling
Shame on Techspot for an idiotic bundle.

What a scam. Shame on you Techspot. Take a look at that “Kit”. It’s the baseline Raspberry Pi, at a slightly higher, but still “in the realm of normal” price. An case / kit – well, okay, that’s helpful, though pricier than what you can find on Amazon with 5 seconds of searching… and 4 ‘courses’, at $200 each. Yes kids, they’re valuing information anyone can get with 10 seconds of googling at $200 a pop.

A new low Techspot. A new low.