Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Review; Brinno TLC200 Pro Time Lapse Camera

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

One nice fallout from the smartphone revolution is that cheap embedded controllers, camera sensors, and flash memory has dropped in price while the capabilities have jumped by leaps and bounds.

Unfortunately, the quality of the user experience has not seen the same revolution.

After having played with time-lapse photography on my iPhone, I concluded that there was much more to explore, but I would ideally want a dedicated camera that I could set, forget, and still be able to use my iPhone or iPad for something else.

Searching around revealed that the Brinno TLC 200 Pro is the best timelapse camera currently available.

The Brinno is a small, dedicated, timelapse (or still frame animation with external trigger) 720p camera that supports interchangeable lenses (and there is a microscope attachment. Brinno also makes a waterproof case that both fits perfectly and can be mounted to a tripod.

The camera has a slew of your typical manual controls; white balance, shutter speed, HDR levels, etc… but the adjustments are hidden in a maze of menus and the three buttons used to navigate make for a shoddy user experience. Livable, but shoddy.

Fortunately, once the camera is configured, you can basically bang on the big OK button to start recording. The built in LCD allows you to align the camera, but does not support playing back captured content.

The Brinno writes videos in the AVI format. Makes sense; AVI can be as simple as a file with a sequence of JPG stills. Unfortunately, neither iOS nor OS X will decode AVI directly. I use Smart Converter Pro 2 to convert the videos. The free version works, but doesn’t give you quite as much control over the process and is strictly one video at a time (the Brinno splits movies at 4GB, so there is often multiple movies to convert).

You can control the frame rate of playback. This, combined with the ability to set the duration to wait between shots taken means that, with Brine’s handy calculator, you can easily create a time-lapse for any length of time (and the Brinno has a “timer” feature that will cause the camera to turn on only during preset blocks of time.)

Ultimately, I find it is preferable to leave the Brinno in ASAP mode; it takes a new shot as soon as the current shot is done (i.e. if the shutter speed is 8 seconds, then you get one shot every 8 seconds). I then compress time however much I desire using Final Cut Pro.

Fun device. Beyond clouds and sunrise/sunsets, I will be capturing all kinds of chemical and physical processes that are then brought from a glacial pace to human speed.



At left is the Brinno in its waterproof case sitting on a Gorilla Pod to record a timelapse of the reflections on the pond. You can see the all too small display and the rather poor two 3 button UI.

While the UI is bad, the camera’s battery life is good to excellent (it can last many months when shooting a frame every hour or more). The video quality is mostly quite good, but suffers from low light noise and the exposure tends to bump down in lock step as the amount of light increases, leading to sudden changes in light level in videos of sunrises and sunsets.

Even with the criticism, I can still recommend the device if you either need to compress time when recording video or simply want to play with different time scales. It is really a lot of fun to set it up and then see what 5 hours (or days? months? The Brinno can do it) of the world looks like compressed into a couple of minutes!

KitchenAid Compatible All Stainless Steel Meat Grinder / Food Chopper

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Unfortunately, our 20+ year old KitchenAid mixer was lost in the fire. Of course, it had to be replaced because such a mixer is a staple in any kitchen. After doing a ton of research, it was both confirmed that KitchenAid continues to be of excellent make and that one should really go with at least the 6 qt model as it has a significantly more powerful motor than the 5 qt motor.

Yes, we went with the Candy Apple Red model. It looks quite stunning on the black granite and against the blue tile backdrop of our remodeled kitchen.

Beyond mixing dough, the KA mixers can drive a whole series of attachments. Frankly, it works the same way as a John Deere tractor. There is a little port into which you plug various attachments and the high torque motor then drives said attachment. This includes everything from ice cream makers to grain mills to juicers to pasta makers to, yes, meat grinders.

Oddly, the KitchenAid meat grinder is largely made of plastic. It doesn’t have anywhere near the same build quality as the rest of the mixer.

Quite a bit of searching turned up Smokehouse Chef’s very well reviewed Stainless Steel, Dishwasher Safe, Meat Grinder / Sausage stuffer / Food Chopper. It is worth every penny of the price. It features a rock solid all metal build, a much much larger food hopper than the KA grinder and quite a few more cutting discs. I haven’t tried the sausage stuffer, but it seems quite high quality, too.

Quite a significant upgrade. It’ll work with all models of KA mixers, but they recommend — and my experience confirms — that it really works best with the higher wattage motors.

Note: Instead of a tilt head, this model has a lifter that lifts the bowl while the head is fixed. While the mixer is larger capacity, it requires less vertical space than the 5 qt model.

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PhotoSweeper: Photo De-Duplicator for Aperture / iPhoto / Lightroom / etc.

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Since I started taking photos 15 years ago, I’ve amassed a pile of images. 25,000 or so photos sourced from various cameras, phones and a handful that were scanned and imported. They have been managed manually, in various flavors of iPhoto, the occasional random application, and — for the past few years — in Aperture. Copies of the photos have lived on various computers and, even, have been recovered from backups after a rare hard drive death (multi-point backup strategy FTW!).

End result?

25,000 images of which somewhere between 5% and 20% are duplicates. Many of them are straight up duplicates; copies of the same image with different filenames resulting from merging various libraries or importing source media to multiple destinations that were later merged. Some are more insidious. Somewhere, something decided to down-res a slew of images and re-import them. Somewhere else, something decided to re-encode all my JPEG images (before RAW) at the same resolution, but with much higher compression.

Slogging through all those images would take hours. Days, really, as it’d have to be done in my spare time. And, given that it is a task I’ve been avoiding — digging the whole deeper — for a decade+, clearly not going to happen soon.

Clearly, there has to be a better way. And there is!

A quick search yielded PhotoSweeper.

On first pass, it quickly eliminated all straight up duplicates where the actual contents were identical. This took less than ten minutes to do on those 25,000 images and it eliminated nearly 4,000 dupes (and triplets and the occasional quad).

The second pass is where this software really shines. I configured it to do a content comparison and flag any sets of images that were pretty close, but not necessarily exactly, similar. In this case, I used the “approximate, align and blur” method. That is, PhotoSweeper re-renders each image as a 144×144 grid of pixels, then blurs it slightly, and aligns the edges. The resulting icon-ized images are compared and any that are similar enough are flagged as potential dupes. It is then a matter of review-and-compare. The arrow keys are used to navigate and the return key to toggle whether or not the image will be trashed.

One click and all the identified dupes are dumped in the trash.

What would have taken days of tedium was reduced to less than an hour. Personally? I would have paid $50 — nay, $100 — for this and have considered it a bargain. It saved me that much time (frankly, it finished a task in short order I’ve been putting off for a decade) and now my remaining organization task is largely one of actually looking at, tagging, and categorizing the photos.

And sharing them with my family. Because that’s what it is all about (for me).

Philips Hue: Almost the Perfect Lighting Solution

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

Update (3/28/14): Today, Philips announced the “Tap” switch for the Hue..

While it is very very cool technology (battery-less, wireless, scene direction for the Hue), it still doesn’t solve the very basic problem of integrate the Hue with the dead, simple, stupid, 100 year old this switch controls that light model of lighting control in use in just about every household that exists.

While you could hardwire the existing light switch to be always on and then use the Tap to control various lights, it would be aesthetically unpleasing and not nearly as convenient.

Until there exists a Tap-like device that is the same form factor and provides the same dead, simple, stupid “flip this to turn on/off that” mode of operation, the Hue — and every other pending solution like it — will not be a true home lighting solution.

Worse, it won’t achieve the promise. Right now, I have two if-this-then-that recipes that control the lights in our bedroom to wake us up and tell us about the pending day. One light will glow yellow or blue to indicate sun or rain. The other light glows from blue to orange to yellow to red (which, btw, was a pain in the butt to set up in IFTTT) depending on the high temperature for the day.

And we never see these programs run. Why? Because the last thing we do before going to bed is hit the light switch on the wall, cutting power to the Hues entirely. As does pretty much everyone.

Nearly a year ago, I upgraded all of the standard incandescent lights in the house to Philips Hue. The Hue is an LED lamp that gives off a decent amount of light — 60 watt incandescent range.

The Hue can also be remotely controlled via ZigBee. The Hue starter pack comes with a hub and 3 lamps. The hub has an ethernet port (no Wifi) and communicates with the Hue lamps throughout the house wirelessly.

It works really well. Better yet, there is a full API for controlling the Hue lamps and, as a result, there are a couple of dozen apps for controlling the Hue for both iOS devices and OS X. As well, the fabulous if-this-then-that site can control the Hue lamps based on various inputs. Want to have the Hue in the living to glow red on a warm day and blue on a cold day? No problem. What the Hue in your office to glow red when $AAPL is down and green when it is up? Easy peasy.

Yet, unfortunately, I can’t really recommend the Hue as anything beyond a novelty. Not because of any flaw in the Hue itself as it is a fantastic product, but because of what is lacking.

The critical missing piece is Hue compatible light switch. For example, when I walk into the bedroom at night, I hit one or both of the wall switches at the door, and I expect there to be light. Similarly, when I flip the switch off, the lights should go off. Now, unfortunately, this — as expected — kills all power to the Hue. No amount of remote control is going to light a lamp that isn’t plugged in!

One possible solution is to use something like the WeMo switch. It can be integrated with if-this-then-that to turn on/off a Hue or set of Hues when the switch is toggled. Beyond being expensive ($50/switch), there is a 7 to 10 second lag between the switch being activated and the light state changing. That assumes, of course, that the myriad of moving virtual parts between the light switch and the light are all up and running.

Way too Rube Goldberg to be acceptable.

Another possibility would be to configure a web server on a computer to receive the WeMo input, then fire a command off against the Hue hub. This would, at least, confine the Complex Machine to our house, but I’m really not interested in adding yet another server that needs administration to my life.

Kickstarter Opportunity!

To complete the Hue as a home lighting solution, there needs to be a light switch optimized to the Hue hub itself. Ideally, it would communicate over Zigbee to talk directly to the hub, reducing the switch-light hop count to 1. The switch would leave the Hue always powered. While it could be automatically configurable, that really isn’t necessary. The Hue management app could easily provide a list of switches and lights. Toggle the switch and it highlights. Select which lights should be controlled by the switch and you’re all set.

Alternatively, there is definitely a Kickstarter opportunity here and no one has come close (there have been a couple of “TCP/IP switches” on KS, but they all go for the kitchen sink of features). The key is dead simple; the switch could be as simple as on/off. Even basic dimming isn’t really necessary. Just an on/off toggle that doesn’t power off the device it is connected to, but sends a command to the Hue Hub over Wifi (because Philips has not opened ZigBee interface). Only need a 2-way switch because 3-way could be done entirely in software and could be implemented as n-way. The switch could be Hue compatible primarily, but that pretty much implies that it is a TCP/IP switch. Configuration is an obvious challenge; a bit of a chicken and egg situation there. Unless something like WPS (Wireless Protected Setup) could be used to automatically configure the switch, then I suppose it would have to have a USB port or something.

In any case, keep it simple. Go for maximal cost reduction while still producing an attractive product. I’d back it in a heartbeat, as I expect would many Hue owners.

Bluetooth Keyboard Caps

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013
Redesigned Keyboard Cap

v1.0, pictured below, proved lacking.

v2.0, in red, appears at the left.

The size difference between the end cap and the bit that rests against the end of the keyboard was widened considerably. The old piece would slip over the keyboard and the closed end would activate the power button. The open end combined with the wider overhang, seems, so far, to be a better, more durable, design.

Yes, my printer’s belts need to be tightened.

Thingiverse Updated.

Apple BT Keyboard End Caps

Recently, I’ve been carrying an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard with my iPad mini so I can compose relatively long emails. Nothing beats a keyboard for text entry!

While I love the keyboard, it does have an annoying habit of turning on when floating about my murse.

A few minutes in Autodesk Inventor Fusion and I whipped up some printable caps that slide over the ends of the keyboard. The cap protects the power button from accidental activation (there are two styles of caps, one more defensive than the other) and by placing a cap at both ends, they can be left in place while using the keyboard and it remains level.

The STL files and some more photos can be found on

Aside: I clearly need to reprint that piece. I had some schmutz on the print bed, leading to the end not being smooth. That and it looks like my belts need tightening. I’ll switch colors to clear and re-print someday soon.

Aside^2: Something snapped in my brain since the last time I messed with Inventor Fusion. In particular, I went from nerver using to completely embracing the construction feature. Basically, construction allows you to place axis or planes relative to features on the model. Thus, if you want to bisect the model to, say, make the inside wall of a tube a bit fatter for a few millimeters near the end, you simply place a plane parallel to the end face, offset a few millimeters into the tube and then bisect the model with the plane.

OS X Client Software for Owon SDS7102 Digital Storage Oscilloscope

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Ever since using my first Oscilloscope in the ’80s, I’ve wanted one. Though I’m a software person by trade, my hobbies have long included electronics in many forms. Heck, I’ll take a well tuned, clean, pinball game over a video game any day (and if it isn’t well tuned and clean, I’ll do that, too). An oscilloscope has long been the ultra-expensive super tool that my hobbyist pursuits just couldn’t justify the expense.

Not any more.

Recently, I picked up a cheap treadmill to turn into a “walking desk”. It works fine, save for the annoyance that it turns off ever 30 minutes and the control box is this big, ugly, clunky thing that clearly is a whole lot dumber than the LED display indicates. In adding some extra length to the control box’s cable, I noted there were only three wires; power, ground, and a signal wire.

Clearly, given price point and lack of real communication between control box and treadmill, the “protocol” between the two is likely nothing more than a PWM signal.

Which, given that the treadmill (Confidence Treadmill) is for my health, health is vital, and the best way to explore that signal deeper, I investigated picking up an oscilloscope for the first time in 15 years.

Boy howdy. What a difference those 15 years made! I was used to seeing depressing 4 digit numbers on scopes that were somewhat slow, very bulky and had little to no means of exporting data save for snapping a picture. Now? Less than $500 gets you a multi-input ‘scope capable of handling up to 100MHz signals with lots of analysis features and the ability to dump it all to USB or, in some cases, the network.

A bit of research revealed that the Rigol DS1102E is the most popular of the sort of entry level digital scopes.

However, the Owon scope pictured at left was only $50 more, has a much larger screen, and a LAN port. Rigol’s ds2072 is similar, but nearly $400 more and is backordered pretty much everywhere. While the Owon has had some negative reviews, the latest version seems to have addressed almost all of the criticisms. That, combined with the realization that I’m not exactly going to be pushing it (and a bit of a desire for immediate gratification) and I went with the Owon.

Couldn’t be happier. The Owon SDS7102 seems to work just fine; more than enough for my needs. The user interface is pretty mediocre, but passable.

I’ll let people far more competent than me properly review the scope.

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Ratchet & Clank Infinite Bolt Hack (and Much Much More)

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

The whole Ratchet & Clank series of games is just fantastic (save for the last one or two that kinda lost the plot). This year, the first 3 games were remastered for the PS3; 1080p and a bunch of new content. If you like 3D platformers and haven’t played R&C, I highly encourage you to do so.

R&C features a whole slew of upgradeable weapons. You collect bolts — the in-game currency — and use those to buy new weapons (and ammo). There is one incredibly powerful black market weapon available called the R.Y.N.O. (the “Rip Ya A New One” gun). Priced at 150,000 bolts, it would take many, many hours of repetitive game play to harvest enough bolts (until you beat the final boss once and start over in challenge mode where bolt collection is 2x to 3x faster).

Photo 1

There aren’t any cheat codes that’ll get bolts any faster, but there are bugs that can be exploited. Specifically, you can exploit a flaw in the geometry engine to go through a wall, fly through a roof and then fly to a race track where the game engine rules are tuned to you being on a hoverboard. In particular, you can use “the taunter” to break boxes of bolts in a way that the boxes keep breaking for as long as you hold down the “taunt” button.

It takes about 3 or 4 hours of taunting boxes to generate the 150,000 bolts to grab the R.Y.N.O.

Now, of course, this hack — “cheat” implies a Konami-Kode, this is much more of an exploit than a purposeful feature — is well documented online. This is a pretty typical example video.

It, however, is the hard way. A much easier way to do this is to go to the room containing the two health globes (screenshot(s) forthcoming) that said video shows you flying to. Once in the room, stand in the corner behind the globes and knock yourself through the wall using the decoys. Once through the wall, walk to the left along the narrow ledge until you are between the building and a really tall wall that goes over the race track. Wall jump up to the top of the building and fly to the race track as the video shows.

Much, much easier than the video for several reasons. First, going through a right-angle corner is a lot easier than that nuttiness in the raceway plaza. Secondly, no need to fly nearly blind from way up high through the roof of the building.

Of course, the hacker in me immediately asked “Why does this happen and can we exploit this further?”

Turns out that the answer is a resounding yes. It is really easy to find flaws in the game geometry that can be exploited. Look for sharp corners and aim your decoy gun (or any gun with a target) into them. If the gun’s target jumps between planes rapidly — better yet, if there are places where it will steadily oscillate between two planes — you can almost assuredly use the Decoy trick to knock yourself through that spot into whatever is beyond.

The glitches that result can be pretty mind bending. I have yet to see the game crash, but “divide-by-zero” would be an apt description of some of the results.

I’ve now used this in a few places in the game to complete a mission without doing any of the intervening bits or to get into a secret room without bothering to find the oft-well-hidden entrance.

Roger & I now have quite a few worlds to explore!

Xcode: Sometimes a return is not a return (emacs brain damage)

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012
Indention and Insertion Prefs

Every now and then, I’ll be coding along merrily in Xcode and I’ll get an error much like the one at left. Or “expected identifier or ‘(‘” is another variant.

Huh? That code is fine. Maybe it is an invisible character? Nope. Nothing shown.

Took a bit, but I figured out the cause; 25 years of using emacs as my command line editor of choice, along with the folks at NeXT that implemented the AppKit’s text editor.

In emacs, you quite commonly navigate about by holding down the ctrl- key and banging on various keys to go to the beginning/end of lines, etc. Many of these control sequences are honored by Cocoa’s text editing system and quite a few more are supported in Xcode’s editor.

Seemingly unrelated, ctrl-return is mapped to Insert Line Break.

Thus, if you are an emacs head and you commonly hit ctrl-e<return> to start a new line of code and you happen to hold down the return key just a tad too long, it causes the error shown (or a variant depending on where the insert happens).

The easiest way to tell if this is the case is to go to the line of code after the line reporting the error and hit ctrl-a. If the cursor ends up at the beginning of the previous line, that line is ended by a line break and not a true newline. (ctrl-n – backspace – return to quickly fix).

While it is easy enough to fix once you know the ctrl-a trick, a better fix is one that makes it such that it’ll never happen again.

To do that, go to Xcode’s Key Bindings Preferences, click on “Text”, and scroll down to Insertions and Indetions. On Insert Line Break, delete the ctrl-return (hat + u-turn arrow) key sequence. For convenience add the same to Insert Newline.

Problem solved.

3D Printing: A Tour of Stuff

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

Since picking up an Ultimaker nearly a year ago, I’ve printed many things (and wrote a very well received article for Make: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing).

These are many of them and some lessons learned from each.

Printed Ornaments

Koch Snowflake Tree Ornament Baubles

This is Thingiverse Object #35561.

Every year, we have an annual ornament exchange in our neighborhood. Last year, I used EMSL’s Egg-Bot to create an Eichler themed ornament.

This year, I started down the path of custom designing an ornament for printing, but grabbed the Koch snowflake baubles from Thingiverse.

Lesson Learned: Design software is hard to use. 3D design software is harder. You’d think a simple circle with some stars and words extruded in 3-space would be easy to do. Still, people totally dig the unique texture and shapes of these. In hindsight, I probably should have used Inkscape (awful, but works and is what is used for the egg-bot) to do a 2D design and then extrude that.

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Printing the NASA 3D Models

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Update: Thinking about it for just a moment, I realized the print quality would likely be higher if I printed in “launch position”. Doing so would greatly improve the wing quality while also, hopefully, improving tail quality in that there would be fewer really small layers (that cause the print head to slow way down, causing blobbing). The disadvantage would be a lot more support material, especially around the engines, and, thus, a potentially difficult, if not destructive, post print cleanup.

And it worked! I only lost one control jet off the back during cleanup, even!

There are more photos of the final printed piece and of the print in progress in my Flickr feed (link goes to a photo in the middle of the set).

I remember watching the first Shuttle launch way back in 1981. If you’d told me then that I’d be casually printing a small copy of the Shuttle on my own personal 3D printer 32 years later, I might have thought you were crazy. Or, at 11 years old, I probably would have have asked, “Why so long from now?”

3D Printed Shuttle

NASA has kindly dumped a treasure trove of 3D models available for free download.

Obviously, these beg to be printed. Doing so is a matter of jumping through a couple of file conversion hoops. The files start out as Autodesk 3DS files.

Meshlab can be used to import said files and then export them to STL. You might need to do some mixup after. Using netFabb, I found several errors in the model’s geometry and fixed it. I believe Meshlab can do the same, but I’m not familiar enough with the tool

Slicing for printing is tricky. The models give zero consideration, no surprise, for 3D printing. In fact, they are entirely sub-optimal for printing. For example, the shuttle’s cargo bay is empty, leading to a bit of a support mess, and it would print much better if the wings sat flat on the print bed. Thus, even the simple Space Shuttle model has a curved bottom. You’ll probably want to enable support when slicing. Some of the models, like the lunar landers, are unlikely to be able to be printed using an extruded plastic printer without support material that can be dissolved away afterwords (i.e print in PLA or ABS with PVA support material.

As a first print, I sliced using Cura with 20% infill, 0.2mm layer height, and support material turned on. It actually turned out better than expected!