Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Other Kind of Fox News

You know, news involving an actual fox. Today, as I was finishing up my run, I was shocked to see a fox casually stroll across the street and into a random yard. Naturally, I tried to grab a photo (or 10), but I was pretty far away. Here's my best shot:

The fox was just, so, foxy. I mean, it looked absolutely unmistakably like a fox. Apparently we have a sizable fox population in Arlington, but I'd never come across one in the "wild." What a treat!

Occupy Wall Street's Clever Communication Hack

When I say Occupy Wall Street you think, hand signals to allow a group to come to consensus, right? Yeah, me neither. But apparently, it's true, the Occupy Movement had a series of gestures to allow groups of protesters to give feedback on a large scale without interrupting the speaker. Combining this with the human microphone and you've got a facility to involve large groups in a decision making process.

Don't believe me? See the hand signals in action here. And here's a cheatsheet to print out and refer to until you've got them mastered:

The part of me that loves an elegant, low tech solution, thinks this idea is downright awesome. The rest of me finds this pretty cringe worthy. I'd love to meet the Tea Party protester who remarks, "this movement is alright and all, but what it really needs is a way to find consensus as a group."

Still, a clever hack is a clever hack, even if I don't fully get its purpose.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

From Fiction to Fact to Hate, A Remarkably Short Path

About 5 weeks ago CNN highlighted a study on how we share misinformation. The study is found here and says exactly what you think it says. Thanks to our internal narratives, the power of echo chambers, and our unprecedented ability to share information, we can turn rumors into beliefs "which, once adopted, are rarely corrected."

As if to drive home the point, CNN's Fareed Zakaria was sucked into this exact process and the result wasn't pretty. It started with a piece of "satire" on

I'm not sure you call an article with the headline "CNN host Fareed Zakaria calls for jihad rape of white women" satire, but I suppose you could argue that the site is obviously over the top and shouldn't be considered the source for a breaking scandal. But, the cycle didn't stop there. Site's like and picked up the story and repeated it as news.

(Note the 58,019 shares of this article; yikes!)

As the comments of the article show, people reading the post assumed it was true:

Of course, Twitter had to get in on the fun, too. On Twitter, an individual's Tweet more-or-less carries the same weight as any institution. So when Nathan Pole offers up a clever Tweet on the topic, it looks totally legit:

Naturally, I'm appalled by all of this. So, how do we fix it? Well, that's where things get hazy for me. Consider where we are at.

First, we have sites dedicated to debunking rumors, crowd-based article ranking and ferreting out facts; people choose to ignore them or better yet, discount them as not to be trusted.

Second, there are the echo chambers. The above study captures the dark side of this phenomena well:

Users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization. This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia

And while the online world has made these "communities of interest" more robust than ever, they're also far more accessible. With one click, you can explore communities that that you would normally have no access to. From Home Schooling to Men's Rights to Children of Deaf Adults, it only takes a few clicks to jump into these communities. Simply put, stepping out of our echo chambers and into our neighbor's has never been easier.

And finally, the same technology that flattens the hierarchy and allows bad ideas to be spread with ease, can be used to spread good ideas. Shira's been following the case of Adnan Syed, an individual who may get his murder charge retried thanks to a podcast. The advocates of Adnan leverage Twitter, and my new favorite toy: Periscope to do on the spot public broadcasts of the latest changes in the case. The whole arrangement is a master class in using technology to effect change.

So how do we keep fiction from turning into fact, and these facts from being the basis for our decision making? At the end of the day, I've got no idea. But I know the problem is real, and that any solution could do just as much harm as good.

How would you address this conundrum?

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The $0.72, Indestructible Compass

I've always liked carrying a compass on my keychain, but as I recently noted, delicate instruments and front pockets don't mix. While the TAC Compass I'm currently carrying seems to be holding up, I'm already thinking about the day when it fails me.

Inspired by this now defunct magent compass, I got to thinking: what if instead of carrying a compass I carried a high powered magnet and a way for it to pivot? That's really all a compass is, as a magnet will naturally point North/South if given the chance. So taking a cue from a project like this one, I picked up a 10 pack of 4x8mm Magnet N35 Rare Earth Neodymium magnets from eBay.

When they arrived, I put a piece of dental floss between two magnets, and like magic, the magnets aligned themselves on the North/South axis. I added a bit of red nail polish to the side that points North, and my "compass" was basically complete. The neodymium magnets are remarkably strong, and even with a twist or two in the dental floss, they'll hold their North/South position. The dental floss is optional, as long as the magnets can freely position themselves, they'll show you North; like using the old leaf floating in water trick.

This is all well and good in my kitchen, but I was obviously curious how this setup would perform in the great outdoors. So last night, while on my run, I stopped to take take some readings. It was cold, dark and windy. For reference, I dropped my Metro compass on the grass and shot a photo:

North is to the left. Then I dangled my magnet compass. I helped steady it, and even then, it took a few moments before it settled on a location:

And sure enough, the red dot is pointing left, or North. That's good. Sure, it's far from precise, but it did get the right general direction. And then I snapped a photo for reference. That's the Washington Monument off in the distance, and I'm standing between the Marine Corps Memorial and Arlington Cemetery:

And this is why I need to carry a compass: with every fiber of my being, I was absolutely sure that both compasses were wrong, North was obviously straight ahead. I know this because when we drive North to Baltimore we often head through DC. That's just simple reasoning. And it's also 100% wrong:

The above is a screenshot of Google Maps, where North is up. You can plainly see that I was facing East, as both compasses were trying to tell me. Like I said, I just need to carry and trust a compass.

What the magnet compass loses in terms of accuracy it gains in terms of durability and cost. I picked up 10 magnets for $3.60, which means that each compass is a $0.72 investment (not including the dental floss; you do floss don't you?). For now, I've stashed the magnets in my Chap-Kit, they fit in there effortlessly. Given my terrible sense of direction and how compasses tend to go on me at the most inopportune times, I may start carrying this little magnet setup as a backup. Either way, it's a nice little tool in the toolkit.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Huntley Meadows and Lake Accotink, Two Fantastic Hikes Just Outside the Beltway

Yesterday was chilly and overcast, but that hardly seemed like a good reason to stay indoors. I managed to get not one, but two little hikes in! The first was to do some geocaching at Huntley Meadows and the second was to catch up with our Cousin Doug over at Lake Accotink. I'd been to both locations, but they are both fantastic and well worth multiple visits.

A word of caution about accessing Lake Accotink. We followed the Google Recommended directions, and ended up here:

I didn't catch it until we "arrived," apparently Google expected us to stop at a random suburban street and hoof it over forest and water until we reached the center of the park. In other words, the random road that you stop at is nowhere near the official entrance to the park. Re-routing us to the park entrance, we realized we needed to drive another 10~15 minutes before we'd be at the parking lot.

Luckily, Cousin Doug made the same error assumption we did and we both arrived at this random point at the same time. It was a thing of beauty.

Rather than drive to the park entrance, Doug noticed a trail access point not too far down the road. We ended up parking our cars at Inverchapel Rd and Ellet Rd. The Accotink trail is a loop, so jumping on it here was equivalent to driving to the main entrance. Good catch Doug!

What a fun way to spend a Sunday!

Friday, February 05, 2016

If You Have Your Parents Pass Through DC

If your parents pass through DC, you're going to have to take them to lunch. If you're going to take them to lunch, you might as well take them to a delicious Kosher restaurant.

And after the restaurant, Mom's going to want to take a walk. And if you're going to take a walk, you might as well take in some history. And in DC, history is always a few blocks away.

And because you're parents are both scientists, you're going to want to show them one way DC tried to be the scientific center of the world.

And because you're parents are just passing through this trip, but coming back to stay for a month in a few weeks, you're going to want to take them to the Smithsonian Vistor's Center, aka, the Castle.

And if you're in the Smithsonian Castle, you're going to want to visit the very cool Commons Gallery, which is a sort of preview of what you can find in Smithsonian museums.

And because you had such a great time hanging out with your parents, they're going to want to pass through DC again.

This post is inspired by If you Give a Moose a Cookie. Apologies to the author for my groan-worthy parity.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

LED Blinker, Simple Circuit Style

Continuing on my LED theme of late, I decided to implement a LED blinker using something far simpler than a Raspberry Pi: a 555 Timer enabled circuit. I actually had all the components lying around and so all I had to do was find a YouTube video worth following and plug stuff in. I ended up using this video for the actual setup instructions.

When it was all connected up, to my shock and amazement, it worked!

And sure enough, by swapping in different sized capacitors, I could impact the speed of the flashing. For an explanation of how the circuit actually works, check out this video.

My basic electronic skills are truly pathetic. In the amount of time it took me to *find* the three resistors needed in the above circuit, I could have programmed not just a LED blinker, but a morse code generator. But I suppose you've got to start somewhere and practice, practice, practice.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Practical and Pretty: Chopstick Wrapper Origami

A couple of weeks ago we're at dinner at a Japanese restaurant, and without thinking, I do this:

I then look over and realize our friend Jenna has done this:

I'm humbled. She showed me a few quick folds and before I knew it, I had a similar contraption to rest my chopsticks on.

Turns out, Chopstick Wrapper Origami is a Thing and there are lots of recipes out there to achieve similar results. Here's a few to try: simple, bird, snail, boat and snake (sorry Sis!).

Turn waiting for your food to show up into a crafting session? I'm in!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

New House, Some Assembly Required

There was an unusual amount of backup-alarm noise outside our home today and I finally went and took a peek.

Oh my! Looks like the empty lot down the street is getting a home placed on it today.

It's hard to tell from the photos, but there's at least 4 modules to the home, one of which is currently being put in place as I type this.

As a programmer, I approve of anything modular; even homes.

For Your Inner Secret Agent: Covert Message Passing in Plain Sight, on the Cheap

Last week, while playing with my Raspberry Pi LED Blinky setup it hit me: how cool would it be to have the Pi flash an LED that was invisible to the naked eye, but with the right filter, visible to those in the know?

A couple of Google Searches showed just how easy this is to do. It boils down to two options: replace the standard LED with either an Infrared or UV one. As your 6th grade science teacher would remind you, people can't see Infrared or UV light, even though the rays are very out there.

I decided to focus on using an infrared (Ir) LED. Why? First off, they seem safer than UV (when was the last time you saw a you'll blind yourself if you look at this remote wrong! type of message). And second of all, I had a free and easy source to get a hold of the LEDs: ancient and now seemingly useless remote controls.

I grabbed a now defunct remote control and did a bit of surgery on it:

After desoldering the LED from the remote, I just dropped it into my Pi circuit.

OK, I've got a source of Infrared, now how can I view it? Turns out, this is even more trivial than getting the LED in the first place. A digital camera will apparently pick up infrared by default. Fancier cameras actually have special filters to remove this light. Luckily, my Galaxy Note 5 doesn't strip out infrared light.

All this means that plugging the Ir LED into my Pi and taking a photo results in this shot:

That doesn't look especially interesting, except to the naked eye, the LED looks totally off. That's 007 cool, if I do say so myself.

You can actually strip this project down even further, as suggested by this instructable. All you need is an Ir LED, battery, a little tape, and maybe a magnet. The result is a dirt cheap, easily assembled, covert signaling device:

Again, to the naked eye, the setup looks like this:

None of this, as you can imagine, is particularly novel. In fact, for $20 bucks you can buy an Ir Beacon, which is little more than a few Ir LEDs, a battery and some electronics to make it blink in a predefined pattern. These are built with night vision goggles in mind, but they'd work with the above camera hack without a problem.

Of course, there's no reason to limit the Ir LEDs to signaling uses. It would be trivial to pack a number of LEDs together, creating an Ir visible only flashlight. That would make photography in low or no light a very interesting proposition to say the least. Heck, combine such a flashlight, a cardboard VR mount and you'd have a functional night vision goggles on the very cheap.

Oh science, you never cease to amaze!


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