Birdbath Hack

 

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My kids love watching birds in the backyard, so I decided to put up a bird feeder and install a birdbath. Bird feeders are relatively straightforward; birdbaths, I discovered, not so much.

It only took me about an hour of shopping to discover that buying a birdbath presents three general challenges:

  1. There isn’t a very good selection at most home and garden stores. I suppose birdbaths are probably pretty passé at this point — relics from our grandparents’ generation — so there wasn’t much of a selection. Which leads to the second challenge…
  2. The overwhelming majority of birdbaths we found were, in my opinion, gaudy at best, and at worst, outright unsightly. Not much available for the modern, minimalist backyard. But lest you assume an ugly birdbath is a cheap birdbath…
  3. Most high-quality birdbaths we found were somewhat pricy, ranging from $75 to over $300. It’s not that I don’t consider clean birds to be a worthwhile investment, but when you’re expecting to spend $25 – $50, that’s a fair amount of economic recalibration.

So I decided to assemble my own. The base is a $13, 9-inch, painted steel plant stand, and the bath itself is a $20, 16-inch, ceramic planter saucer similar to this one. Total cost was about $35, and so far the beta testers seem to love it. It even has the added benefit of being very convenient to clean since I can pick up the saucer, dump it out, hose it down, and refill it in about sixty seconds.

Which leads me to my next ornithological epiphany: birds are surprisingly dirty. If you decide to take on the responsibility of avian hygiene, expect to change out the bath water every few days.

And finally, if you’re curious about why birds bathe in the first place, the answer is that we’re not entirely sure, but here are some pretty good guesses.

Another Attempt at Tablets

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I’ve owned a lot of tablets. I’ve had iPads and Android devices, tablets with seven and ten inch screens, and devices with WiFi and LTE radios. I’ve probably had at least a dozen different tablets spanning almost every possible configuration, but there’s one thing all of them had in common: none of them were able to hold my interest.

No matter how hard I try—and how much I love the idea of tablets—I just don’t have any use for them. I put up with the limitations of my phone because it’s always with me and always connected, and I put up with the bulk of my laptop because it’s powerful enough for just about everything I need a computer to do. But tablets, for me, sit in this awkward space in-between where they’re too limited to be all that useful (at least for the things I do most often) and too big to be easily portable.

Refusing to give up, however, I’ve developed a new theory: maybe I’m simply not using tablets correctly. If I find them too big to replace my phone, that means I’m not trying to use them for anything beyond what my phone can already do. And if I find them too limited to replace my laptop, that means I’m trying to do things that are better left to a fully capable computer. Perhaps what I should be doing are only those things that a tablet can do better than any other device.

To test my theory, I bought a brand new iPad Air, but rather than resorting it with an image from one of my many former iPads, I’m only going to install apps that are better on tablets than on any other device. That means no email, no calendar, no office applications, and no social networking. No Evernote, no weather apps, no navigation, and no restaurant finders. Basically, anything that I can do more conveniently on my phone or more fluidly on my laptop, I simply won’t even attempt on my new tablet.

In an attempt to make my iPad more useful, I’m going to intentionally limit it.

Admittedly, this approach probably won’t leave as many applications as I’d like. Even four years after the launch of the iPad, I think we’re still a long ways away from really figuring out and implementing the best multi-touch surface experiences. But I’ll start with apps for drawing, watching video, and reading (books, magazines, and news), and maybe a game or two. Maybe I’ll try Garage Band, or another music synthesis application. I’ll probably give a lot of different apps a try, but the moment I start feeling more frustrated by the limitations of the device than empowered by its unique capabilities, I’ll uninstall it and move on.

Let me know if you have ideas for apps I should try. It should be very interesting to see, after a month or two, which are left.

An Underappreciated Factor in the Decline of PC Sales: Solid-state Drives

hard_drive_backupAs soon as I started using SSDs, I suspected they would eventually have an impact on PC sales. I expressed as much in an email to the Daily Tech News Podcast which elicited a good discussion. If you’d rather just read the message, here you go:

While catching up on episodes, your recent discussion of the continued decline of PC sales brought to mind a theory of mine: I think one of the reasons PC sales might be declining are SSDs.

It used to be that when computers started to feel old, people would open up their weekly Best Buy insert, go over to Dell.com, or start lamenting the expense of Macs. But what is it that makes computers feel old? Usually CPU contention, excessive swapping due to lack of RAM, and the aging of mechanical hard drives.

CPUs are plenty fast now, obscene amounts of RAM are cheap, and mechanical disks are being replaced with SSDs that don’t have most of the mechanical disadvantages of magnetic storage platters. In fact, you can take almost any computer built within the last five to seven years, and as long as it either has an SSD, or you put an SSD in it, it’s still a very usable machine. (Several of my old laptops are still in service thanks to fewer moving parts.)

Of course there are many reasons for the fate of the PC (more of our disposable income going to phones and tablets, increasing use of web applications, lack of innovation in the PC space, etc.), but I think one contributing factor is that SSDs are keeping computers from feeling “old” as quickly as they used to.

What do you think? Solid theory?

(Hard drive icon courtesy of Joe Harrison.)

Create Your Own Private Phone Line Free of NSA Wiretaps

personal_phone_lineThe other day, my good friend Mike Chambers mentioned that he was planning on building a closed-circuit phone system as a toy for his kids. Since my kids already think his pancakes and popcorn are better than mine, I decided to beat him to it. It turns out that creating a simple closed-circuit system is extremely easy, and can be done for just a few dollars in parts (especially if you already have a couple old disused phones lying around).

As I was wiring the whole thing up, it occurred to me that building your own private phone line would be an effective (if slightly inelegant) way to ensure that your point-to-point electronic voice communication wasn’t being intercepted by the NSA. You’d probably want something more robust than a few 9 volt batteries, a resistor, and some electrical tape, but it wouldn’t take much more work or money to build something fairly serviceable for a small number of endpoints in relatively close geographic proximity.

I’m certainly not one to advocate using a system like this to break the law, but I am a proponent of civil liberties, and I do feel strongly that citizens of all nations have a right to communicate freely without being spied on by their own governments. The gradual erosion of American civil liberties is a major theme of my new novel Kingmaker which has recently become much more realistic than even I anticipated.

Need Some Perspective? Ask a Taxi Driver.

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Taxi drivers are among some of the most interesting people I come into contact with on a regular basis. Most of the drivers I encounter in the cities where I travel are immigrants, and many have unique and very interesting perspectives on the United States. While traveling last week, I had conversations with two such drivers which, together, I believe really capture the ethos of this country.

The first was a Russian Uber driver who was granted political asylum just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He had nothing but positive things to say about the United States, unhesitatingly declaring it the best country in the world (the Canadian I was with took some exception which was duly noted). In over twenty-one years of living in the United States, he had not returned to Russia a single time, and had absolutely no intention of ever doing so.

The second good back-seat conversation I had was here in the Washington, D.C. area. It was with an Ethiopian who had been in the United States for eight years and was every bit as dismayed by this country as he was enamored. The school shooting in Connecticut was a big topic of conversation during my trip, but I don’t think I encountered anyone so upset by it as my driver. There was certainly plenty of killing in Ethiopia, he told me, but it could always be traced back to specific issues. The idea of killing simply for the sake of killing — shooting people with whom you had no quarrel whatsoever — was something he could not even begin to wrap his head around. I assured him that he wasn’t missing anything — that natively born Americans were no closer to understanding it than he was. The only difference was that we were growing accustomed to it.

I usually wouldn’t ask someone I just met what they hoped to do with the rest of their lives, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have several drivers volunteer their aspirations. I’ve heard some selfless and inspiring plans over the years from improving access to healthcare all over the world to trying to solve the problem of food distribution, but I found the simplicity and elegance of my Ethiopian driver’s dream to be particularly interesting. If he ever had enough money, he told me, every year, he would pick two people from every state in the country and send them on a two-week trip to Africa. That’s it. He would not require them to volunteer, and he would not ask anything of them in return. All he wanted them to do was spend two weeks on a sublime, culturally rich, and war-torn continent, then return to their normal lives. The rest, he told me, would take care of itself.

AirPlay is Another Nail in Cable’s Coffin

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I had an interesting experience while sitting around with some friends Saturday night. The subject of awkward pregnancy photos came up (my sister-in-law is weeks away from giving birth), so we decided to bring up the pregnancy category of Awkward Family Photos for a few good laughs at other people’s expense. Having just installed Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8), I decided to use AirPlay from my 11″ MacBook Air (best laptop ever) to my Apple TV so everyone could see better. The conversation eventually turned to politics and TED talks as it so often does, so I threw up Nick Hanauer’s excellent and very controversial TED talk. Eventually control of the Apple TV was passed around the room via iPhones, iPads, and AirPlay, and in addition to playing a few hilarious rounds of Draw Something and laughing at hundreds of photos, we watched some Olympics highlights, Portal: No Escape, Lego Black Ops, the JK Wedding Entrance Dance (there was an uninitiated among us), and finally, one of Stephen Colbert’s many excellent interviews with Neil deGrasse Tyson. By that time, it was getting late, however we’d barely scratched the surface of our favorite videos, sites, games, photos, memes, etc. so I’m certain we’ll pick right back up where we left off next weekend.

There were three things that really struck me about the evening:

  1. All of the entertainment throughout the course of the night was entirely free. We did have to watch a few YouTube pre-roll ads, but they were quick and relatively tasteful.
  2. The evening was much more interactive than if we’d watched a movie or a few TV shows.
  3. The experience was extremely collaborative and inclusive as control of the Apple TV was passed around the room and everyone got to have their say in what we all experienced.

I’ve been a cord-cutter for a long time now which means we’re as likely to spend our evenings with our phones, laptops, and tablets as we are with our TV. In fact, since I do most of my gaming either on a PC or handheld device, I’ve frequently wondered if we still actually need a 52″ LCD taking up space in our living room. However last night was the best reason I’ve come up with in probably two years to keep my TV.

If you’re a cord-cutter, next time you have people over, ask them to come up with some of their favorite internet content and put together your own interactive and collaborative programming. I’ve never been so certain in my decision to cancel my cable service as I am now.

(Note that AirPlay is not the only technology for making this kind of thing work, but in my experience, it’s probably the most hassle-free. I have a Nexus Q which I hope to use more for this kind of thing in the future, and I’ve experimented with all kinds of streaming media solutions in the past. At least for now, Apple’s technology is probably the easiest to use, most robust, and — since so many people have iPhones, iPads, or Mac laptops — it’s more or less ubiquitous.)

Controlling Web Based Music Players with Global Keyboard Shortcuts

Ever since I switched from iTunes to using web-based music players (Google Music, Amazon Cloud Player, and Pandora), I’ve wanted the ability to control them with global keyboard shortcuts. The other day, I finally took the time to set it up, and I’m very happy with the results:

If you’re interested in setting this up for yourself (or simply learning about how it works), download the project files here, then follow these instructions:

  1. Unzip the project files. You should see a directory called “music_control”.
  2. Make sure you have node.js installed, then cd into the “music_control” directory and start the server with: node server.js.
  3. Cd into the “extension” directory and open “background.html” in your favorite editor. Change the SERVER_HOST variable to reflect your host name.
  4. In Chrome, go to Window > Extensions. Make sure “Developer Mode” is checked.
  5. Click on “Load unpacked extension,” then navigate to the “extension” directory. (You can also package the extension and install it normally by double-clicking on the resulting “music_control.crx” file.)
  6. Install any application that lets you map global keyboard shortcuts to shell scripts (or AppleScripts, but I prefer bash). I used an app called Shortcuts, but I’m sure there are plenty of free alternatives.
  7. Setup whatever keyboard shortcuts you want to map to the following bash commands (note that you can use something like wget rather than curl if you prefer):
    • curl "http://localhost:8000/music?play"
    • curl "http://localhost:8000/music?next"
    • curl "http://localhost:8000/music?previous"
  8. You’re done! You should now be able to control you web-based music players with keyboard shortcuts.

I realize there are a lot of moving parts here, and any number of ways to accomplish the same thing. If you decide you don’t want to use this exact implementation, hopefully this will at least get you started down the right path of your own setup. Let me know if you get this working and/or if you adapt the concept to something equally or even more interesting. I have lots of ideas for where this could go.

Inspired by the Past

Not long ago, I took my two daughters out of school for the day and the three of us went on a field trip to Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum. I made a deal with them: they could miss school for the entire day if they promised to listen to everything I told them, read everything I asked them to read, and answer questions at the end of the day. I wasn’t taking them out of school to ride simulators and eat freeze-dried ice cream; we were going in search of inspiration.

The idea was prompted by the arrival of Discovery (which I also took them out of school to watch). I was about the age of my youngest daughter when the Space Shuttle Columbia first launched on April 12, 1981, and now, thirty-one years later, we were witnessing the (hopefully temporary) end of manned space flight in the United States. It suddenly occurred to me that without adequate education, children today might never know that:

  • Putting astronauts into low Earth orbit was once considered almost routine (the Space Shuttle fleet flew a total of 135 missions);
  • Forty-three years ago — more than four years before I was even born — man first walked on the moon, accomplishing a feat that doesn’t seem even remotely possible in today’s economic and political climate;
  • As children, we frequently saw the Concorde — a supersonic transport jet capable of traveling at over Mach 2 — fly overhead as it landed or took off from Dulles airport, conveying passengers from New York to Paris in only 3.5 hours — over twice as fast as brand new passenger jets being built today.

While I recognize that there’s a lot of fantastic innovation going on right now, we also appear to be in an era when the best way to inspire future generations is to look to the past.

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The retired Space Shuttle Discovery.

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The retired Space Shuttle Discovery.

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The retired Space Shuttle Discovery.

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The nose of the Concorde.

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The unmistakable delta-wing configuration of the Concorde.

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The SR-71 Blackbird.

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Probably the best view in the entire museum. The SR-71 Blackbird in the foreground, and the Space Shuttle Discovery in the background.

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The top of the SR-71 Blackbird.

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Some of the toys that inspired me as a child.

4th Grade Egg Drop Project

My 4th grade daughter was recently given the customary elementary school egg drop project. I was out of town for the week leading up to the event which meant I couldn’t help her with the design, so we took a separate but collaborative approach. She designed a solution on her own, and when I got back into town (the day before the event), I designed my own solution. The plan was to take the best ideas from each design and combine them into one.

The rules of the challenge were as follows:

  • No parachutes, streamers, or balloons.
  • No bubble wrap or Styrofoam.
  • No food products (other than the egg, of course).
  • Each project had to have an easily accessible door so the teacher could load the egg.
  • The entire project couldn’t be more than 1.5 pounds (including the egg).

My daughter went with an empty peanut butter jar lined with foam squares:

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I went with a plastic food container suspended by rubber bands inside of a 6″ x 6″ box:

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Both seemed to be sound concepts, so we combined them into one:

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It turns out the box we used wasn’t deep enough and the rubber bands weren’t quite secure so the egg broke when dropped off the roof of the school. So the next iteration used a 12″ x 12″ box, popsicle sticks to hold the rubber bands in place (on the outside of the box), and velcro to keep the lid closed:

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Both her project and mine were thoroughly tested, and both were a success. We celebrated with a lunch of scrambled eggs:

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Building The Virtual Keyboard From TRON Legacy

tron_keyboard_500I’ve become a bit of a keyboard geek (proof here and here), so when I re-watched TRON: Legacy recently and saw Sam use that very cool blue-green virtual keyboard, I decided I had to try it for myself. I built one using two iPads and discovered it’s much more difficult to use than it looked in the movie. Below is an explanation of the project as well as my conclusions.

If you’re interested in the code I used to build the prototype, it’s all available on GitHub.