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.

A Bike Tour of Boston.

Today after going to the MIT Flea with Zach I planned on taking a bike ride around Boston. The weather was supposed to be excellent, and I had 6 hours or so to kill until Mariama came into town for her Gymnastics class, so why not bring the bike along, pack up the camera, and just explore?

So explore I did. Ended up being about 8.5 miles of riding, over 5.5 hours. The Gmaps Pedometer map shows my route, starting on Albany street in Cambridge, going all the way to the harbor and back.

I set a very leisurely pace, stopping often to take pictures, admire the area, whatever. The weather was fantastic – I had brought a sweatshirt, but came nowhere near needing it. Stopped in at City Hall Plaza, where there was apparently a big bike event called “Hub On Wheels“. Fellow I ran into said there were thousands of riders in the event, must have been quite a show!

There was a big natural / home grown food festival happening on the greenway – was too crowded so didn’t spend much time there, and some very progressive something or other happening on the Common. There was a loud and well attended poetry reading going on – I didn’t stay to listen.

dave at rowes wharf
A great day for a bikeride.

Have to give thanks to Cambridge Bicycle. They opened at 11am (had to wait 10 minutes or so), and had a take-off seat for me that replaced my old, very worn, and far too narrow old seat. After adjusting my rubbing front fender, I rode the rest of the time just fine.

Lots and lots of pictures coming, but here’s me at Rowed Wharf – just to show I really did make it all the way over there.

I wouldn’t mind doing this with other people sometime. The number of events, festivals, and outdoor activities I ran into was amazing. Anyone interested?

Why You Should Drive an Electric Car

This morning, while getting ready to go to the Worcester Electric Vehicle Ride and Drive Event I put together a little placard to show next to my Chevy Volt to answer some basic questions. What is a Volt, how efficient is it, etc.

It got me thinking. How much is this really helping things? Am I really driving green?

Well, lets take a look at the numbers, purely from a CO2 emissions standpoint. I’ll use my current statistics since I bought the car May 1st. The spreadsheet is to the right.

My Volt numbers
My Volt numbers

If I were to drive all 9,546 miles on a gasoline engine at 40mpg, I would have burned 238 gallons of gas. Each gallon of gas burned releases 18 pounds of CO2. I would have released 4,295 pounds, or a little over 2 tons of CO2.

I only drove 2970 miles on gas, so I released only 900lbs of CO2.

Stark numbers, wouldn’t you say?

Now, there’s other factors. Even though I didn’t burn the gasoline myself, that energy had to come from somewhere. I purchase my electricity through National Grid and have signed up for their Green Energy program that makes sure my money goes to pay for green power, so one could argue there’s no emissions for my usage. But lets assume I get my power via normal channels.

According to the EIA, Natural Gas releases 1.21lbs of CO2 per kwh generated. I’ve used 2,389 kwh, totalling 2890lbs of CO2 if I sourced it from natural gas, bringing my total CO2 emissions to about 3790lbs. By that measure, I’ve only saved a few hundred pounds of CO2. We’re putting aside the other nasty stuff that’s generated by internal combustion engines.

But you cannot improve the cleanliness of an internal combustion engine just by checking a box on your power bill. You can do that with electric. With one checkbox (“Use green energy sources”), I cut 4tons of CO2 out of my carbon footprint every year.

Isn’t that worth it?

National Drive Electric Car Week

Tomorrow night I’ll take my Chevy Volt to WPI for National Drive Electric Week’s Worcester Electric Vehicle Ride and Drive Event. It looks like there’ll be about 35 EV’s there, so should be a great mix of technologies and equipment.

volt plugged in
My Volt plugged into the Level 2 charger at Curriculum Asssociates

My Volt has been a great addition to my daily commute, and it’s even more fun now that there are Level 2 chargers at work. I can go days without burning a single ounce of gasoline.

Tablet Ordering: The Future of Restaurants?

Anyone who works in the tech industry knows just how quickly a single new piece of technology can change the way we function, and there’s probably no example that better illustrates this than the way the mobile industry has changed how we do just about everything. We’ve gone from only being able to send short messages with our phones to being able to control drones with them, and now, reports are saying that mobile phones have made gadgets like calculators and alarm clocks obsolete.

That’s not all they’re slowly making obsolete, though. The popularity of mobile devices has skyrocketed since the invention of the smartphone, with Gaming Realms, a company that specializes in designed mobile-optimized slots with no-deposit free spins, has reported that there were 1 billion smartphone users in 2012, and this number is expected to double by the end of this year. For years, people have been talking about how e-books might be killing paper, and though all research points towards the opposite, mobile seems to be starting to trump paper in another field: restaurant menus and warehouse checkouts. Businesses in the US and the UK have begun establishing tablet-ordering systems, and results and feedback have been favorable.

The motivations for using tablet ordering systems are quite universal: they were expected to improve the efficiency and accuracy of order picking while saving in labor and paper costs. When Chili’s implemented tablet ordering with the help of Ziosk, they reduced service wait times, and boosted overall satisfaction with their services because the tablets also allowed children to play games like Z-Trivia, keeping them entertained while they wait for their food to be served. Chili’s is a prime example, because they’ve tried to strike a balance between convenient ordering through tablets and interaction with service personnel, as even though appetizers, drinks and desserts can be ordered through the tablets, main course orders are still taken by a server in person.

Casual restaurants are also starting to look into devising a similar system. According to Adam Rapoport, Editor-in-Chief of Bon Appetit, “I think the casual dining places do it for two reasons: One, it sort of expedites the whole process and gets more people in and out the door quicker. And two, it cuts down on labor costs and it’s more efficient.” It also helps that there are now several different companies that offer tablet-ordering services at competitive rates, but there are still some issues to contend with. For one, tablets, unlike paper menus, have a short lifespan of a few hours before they need to be charged, unless they stay plugged into consoles, which would then limit their portability. This system seems to work for Chili’s, however, as they’ve seen a 20% increase in dessert and appetizer sales since implementing tablet ordering.

The mobile industry has changed the way we do most of our business, and the restaurant industry is no different. With technology rapidly evolving and becoming even more accessible, it’s likely that tablet ordering will soon be in many restaurants across the world.

Experimenting with Google Voice

I’ve been working up the gumption to gain some more flexibility in how I use my cell phone. Having had the same number with AT&T for over a decade, I was loathe to try out other carriers because each time I switched I’d need to port the number, increasing the risk of losing the number.

Google Voice has long tempted me as a possible solution. It allows me to have a single phone number, and have that number forwarded anywhere I like. The big win came when Voice allowed porting of existing phone numbers in.

Today I took the plunge.

I’ve ported my main cell phone number to Voice, gone to AT&T and gotten a new line and monthly plan on my old phone, and told Voice to forward calls to the new number. One big benefit to this is incoming calls will also ring me in Hangouts on my laptop. When a call comes in, I get a Hangouts popup saying Xxx is calling, and I can choose to pick it up on the laptop, using the speaker and mic there, or pick it up on my cell phone, which will also be ringing. I find using the laptop as a phone ‘terminal’ remarkably comfortable and clear, so this is a huge win.

Last but not least, now I am free to play around with phone configurations without risking being ‘cut off’ if my main cell phone number gets screwed up. Today I’m still on my old Galaxy S4, but I hope to get a Moto G or Moto X soon, and set that up as my carry-around device. All of this is going on, and from a callers perspective, nothing has changed. I have one phone number.. just how the call gets to me has been adjusted.

Life, Camping, Drones, Travel!

The last week or two has been quite the whirlwind, and we’re not through yet!

I’m about to head off to Pawtuckaway Lake in New Hampshire to go camping with friends for 4 days, so don’t expect any screamingly exciting updates from me for a bit.

Last week’s adventure at NAFPV2015 was a blast – I’ve posted an update with pictures over on the USDRA site (if you want to Save A Click, here’s the flickr album directly).

There’s other stuff going on, but right now I want to enjoy summer vacation, so I’ll head off. Stay tuned for more excitement… in a few days.