Friday, January 19, 2018

DSLRs on a Plane - A new strategy for getting my camera to its final destination

Over the last few years I've managed to tune my murse man-bag so that it works as my airline carry-on bag. It's got earbuds, a Buff to act as a sleep mask, foam earplugs, common medications, a Bluetooth keyboard and battery and other items that are handy mid-flight. And, it's smaller than a backpack, so I can stuff it under the seat in front of me and have some bonus leg-room.

It's a great system until I need to bring along either a laptop or DSLR.

For short'ish or international trips, I can usually get away with leaving the laptop at home. But the DSLR is a trickier proposition. During the planning stage, it's easy to imagine leaving the DSLR with its heavy telephoto lens at home. But when you're in the field, and there's a monkey peaking out from the canopy 75 feet above you, that telephoto lens is invaluable. So for nearly all personal travel, the DSLR has to come along.

The question: what's the best way to transport it on the airplane? I've never been a big fan of the obvious answer: use a single purpose camera bag. They seem bulky and too limited for my taste. On the other hand, putting my camera and lens in bulk-free neoprene sleeve and dropping them into a backpack is a recipe for disaster.

I've even tried carrying the camera through the airport without storing it in a bag. This method has promise because it's such a useful habit to actually have the camera available and ready to shoot with. But I've found that there's just not enough need for a DSLR while in-flight or making my way through a terminal. Not to mention, there was that time when I left the camera at security because I wasn't thinking about it.

This last trip I do believe I found my solution! Check it out:

As you can see, I grabbed one of the handful of kids lunch boxes we have lying around and placed my camera, telephoto zoom lens and a couple of batteries in it. I then dropped the lunch box into a dirt cheap, but super practical 10 liter backpack.

The result was a secure way of carrying my camera, without a lot of bulk, or emphasis on single purpose gear. As a bonus, the setup doesn't look like it contains hundreds of dollars of photo equipment. I like that the backup is compact enough that it pairs well the man-bag I'm using already. I'm not sure why I didn't try this setup earlier?

If Princess lunch boxes aren't your thing, another option would be to order a camera bag insert to use in a regular bag. Though the above items fit so well, I plan to stick with them for now.

How do you opt to schlep your DSLR or other fragile equipment when you travel?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Universal Studios - How much fun can you squeeze into one day?

OK, the Bone Museum was fun and all, but nobody goes to Orlando, Florida to learn about natural selection. Including us. Our true mission was to spend one epic day playing at Universal Studios. The fact that the weather was unseasonably cold wasn't going to stop us. After taking a luxurious dip in the hot tub the night before, we were ready to go at 7:00am.

After a short water taxi ride, followed by a short walk, we found ourselves 3rd in line to get into the park. At 8am, we burst in and quickly headed to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™, a 3D simulator ride that's supposed to be the best in the park. J. loved it. Shira got mildly nauseous. I waited in the gift-shop with the bags. This would pretty much be the theme for the day. Shira and J. tackled ride after ride while I stood back and ruminated about how amusement parks so aren't my thing.

I tried, really I did. I took J. on Poseidon's Fury, a tough sounding ride with absolutely no motion. But he got freaked out by the story line and pyrotechnics, so we bailed. I also took him on the Men In Black Ride, where you attempt to rack up the highest score possible. And I did pretty well, with a score of over 35,000. J. racked up over 55,000, trouncing me, which was perhaps the greatest gift I could have offered him.

But this is truly Shira and J.'s thing. For one day, they're not hearing me go on and on about history or logging more miles on the trail. Instead, it's just fun. Shira's not the biggest fan of the 3D simulator rides that Universal is known for. Give her a good o'l fashion roller coaster. But J. sure enjoyed being part of a Transformers and Spiderman story, among others.

We opted to get express passes, which while pricey, were totally worth it. All of the lines moved fairly quickly.

We all enjoyed the Horror Make Up Show, which is more comedy schtick than anything else. It was fun to grab a laugh, and unlike some stunt-shows I've seen in the past, it was fresh material (for me, anyway). As a bonus, J.'s the perfect age to get schooled in the topic of horror effects, which teach him that what looks real, isn't always so.

While I can't speak to the rides, I can say that Universal does go all out with their characters and surroundings. The Simpsons town was packed with jokes, from the obvious ones like being able to get a drink at Moe's, to more obscure references, like getting a fish sandwich from the Flying Dutchman. J. enjoyed meeting Spiderman, Green Goblin and other characters from that universe. And I was left amazed and baffled by the Megatron character. Is it a remote controlled robot? A guy in a suit? An actual Decepticon? Who knows. I'm sure if you were a die hard Harry Potter fan you would have loved that land as it was packed full of interesting storefronts and things to see. Even the parade was fun to watch, being just the right length to keep it interesting.

We didn't opt to get sit down food service in the park, instead picking up sandwiches and pizza on the go. The service was surprisingly slow, but the food was OK and the fruit tart fresh. We had a dinner at the end of the day at Antojito's a Mexican place on City Walk and it was tasty.

The only let down of the day has to be the wand experience over at Harry Potter land. The concept is a good one: park attendees use a 'magic wand' to cast spells in storefront windows which trigger animatronic effects. My beef? The wands cost $50.00, the sensors in front of the windows are finicky, and the weather was too cold to stand outside and enjoy the experience.

Seriously, a 'magic wand' is little more than a stick with passive sensor in it. I get that it makes sense to offer $50.00 wands so Harry Potter fans can indulge in a high quality replica; heck offer $500 and $1000 wands while you're at it. But given the (insane) price of admission, would it kill Universal to offer a $10 or $15 version? And they really need to up their game with respect to the technology. I watched multiple kids try their best to cast spells, only to walk away from storefronts disappointed. As for the weather being too cold, I'll grant that's not on Universal.

J. obviously wanted a wand and was disappointed we didn't get him one. He even looked at the map and found the money exchange and Grigott's bank, explaining to us that we could pick up cash if we needed it. Such a helpful little guy! If I had this to do again, I suppose we could have planned this better and made the wand his birthday and Christmas gift or something. But even then, I'm not sure if the hassle of not being able to get the spells to work would have been worth it.

One of the highlights of our Disney Trip from a few years ago was participating in the Pirates of the Caribbean treasure hunt challenges. The idea is that you get a free map, unravel clues, and use your NFC based wristband to unlock animatronic treasures. There was no extra fee, an interesting puzzle to solve and the tech worked reliably. In my mind, Universal could learn a thing or two from Disney on this one.

Wand frustrations aside, Universal really did deliver one very fun and memorable day. If pressed, I think Shira would still rank Disney higher given their emphasis on old school rides as well as not having to carry around and worry about losing paper tickets as your Express passes. And I sure did love the Lego component of Lego Land. But if you've got a Transformers, Harry Potter, Spiderman or other theme obsessed kid, it's hard to argue with what Universal delivers.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Field Testing makePad v1.0

This past weekend I had perfect conditions to field test makePad v1.0. We were traveling in Orlando Florida with a friend's 8 year old. He was the ideal beta tester to try my content-creation-only device.

I had a pretty good idea as to how this was going to go down. First, he'd be disappointed that the device had no movies or games on it. Then he'd create a Bitmoji character and start to see the light. I expected him to experiment with the drawing and music apps, but quickly give up on them. I figured PicSay, the photo editing app would be the winner, as it's easy to snap a photo and throw a hat or mustache into the pic. Ultimately, I figured the lack of games and other content would cause him tire of the device.

I was wrong on nearly every point.

First, Bitmoji was a bust. On my LG G6, the app is fun and easy to use. You can create your likeness by making a few simple selections. But the BLU Advance 4 phone that I used just doesn't have a enough oomph to run the app. Or maybe it was the lack of network bandwidth. Regardless, I spent a disappointing few minutes with the makePad struggling to get Bitmoji running.

My test subject then moved on to PicSay, which he did enjoy. He turned out to be more interested in the visual effects (like, say 'Neon') then using the stickers. But what really pulled him in was the drawing app, Sketchbook, and the music app, Walk Band.

He was especially fascinated by Sketchbook's pen selection options. Another win was his discovery of the mirrored drawing mode, which as the name suggests mirrors every stroke. He came up with some slick abstract drawings using this tool. Check out his work below.

And he really got a kick out of noodling around in Walk Band. In fact, when he was telling his folks about the device, he explained that there aren't any games on 'my phone' except for Walk Band. I'm clueless as to how to help him turn his random mashings on the guitar and drums into music, but I suppose that's OK. The point is for him to discover and create.

He never did tire of experimenting with the device. The phone form factor (versus, say a tablet) was definitely a novelty and helped. At the same time, I was pleased that the device wasn't so addictive that for the vast majority of our day at an amusement park he didn't even think about it.

The only point I got right was his quick detection that the device had no games on it. He was adorable in that he asked if Google Play was on the phone, and if it was, he would be glad to install some games for me.

The use of the BLU Advance 4 phone was mostly positive. The camera is slightly sub-par in ideal lighting conditions, and most of the time the conditions aren't ideal. I'd forgotten how crappy cell phone cameras used to be. These days my LG G6 takes as high quality photos as my DSLR, but back in the day, a "real camera" definitely trounced a cell phone. Still, the ability to capture, edit and send off pictures make up for the lack of quality. Simply put, better a mediocre camera with these capabilities than a high quality camera where the images sit on an SD card.

The BLU Advance 4 also had limited battery life. This turned out to be more feature than bug. For one thing, it gave us natural breaks to disconnect from the phone. It also teaches a valuable lesson on resource management. You can snap tons of photos now, but then you'll have no battery juice later, so plan accordingly.

On the sharing side of things, e-mail worked well, while publishing to the blog, not so much. For one thing, I don't think he's as jazzed as I am about sharing content with the whole world. And for another, the Blogger app struggled to keep up. Posting a single photo required multiple attempts. Perhaps I drop the Blogger app altogether and just use Blogger's post by e-mail capability?

In many respects, this little experiment went well. I wanted him to take an active approach to tech, and he did. But still, it was a reminder how of much of an attention magnet a device can be. He had other goodies in his backpack, but almost always opted to fiddle with the phone. On a more existential level I can't help but wonder: is drawing in an app the same as drawing in a sketchbook? Is fiddling around with a ukulele the same as strumming virtual strings in Walk Band? I'm not sure. He certainly never tired of the device, as I had predicted he would.

As it stands, I'm planning on picking up a few more of the BLU phones. They're sluggish, but their compact form and core functionality make up for this. I'm curious what happens when a group of kids all have the same device at their disposal. Do they learn from each other? Do they go into their own zones? Will they form a mesh network to watch movies and play games? I'm not sure, but the results are sure to be interesting!

Here's a sample of items made with makePad v1.0:

And here's a Walk Band creation. He's got a future in death metal, no?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Good to the Bone: Orlando's Museum of Osteology

We started off our Orlando adventure with a trip to the Museum of Osteology, or the Bone Museum. Even as you're paying the entrance fee, you can't help but notice the massive skeleton of the killer whale (if memory serves) that peeks out the gallery and think: c'mon, is this for real? I mean, this is Orlando, a place that specializes in fake make believe. But, as the signs on the wall repeatedly mention: it's all real.

We made our way through the gallery and ooh'd and ahh'd at all the amazing skeletons on display. From massive rhinos to fragile looking bats, the museum had an impressive collection of all things vertebrate. The skeletons are grouped not only by animal type, but also into fun displays. One of the first displays shows a human riding a horse. I think we blew J.'s mind when we pointed out that both humans and horses both clearly have tail bones.

For my part, I have to say my favorite skeletons in the museum were the elephant skulls. Check out these examples:

I can totally get how'd you'd find one of these and think: whoo! uh-oh, I've stumbled on cyclops remains! Alas, what looks to be a socket for a big 'ol eye is actually the elephant's nasal cavity.

Another display I found fascinating was on the placement of eyes and the resulting field of vision. I believe the display compared a tiger and a gazelle. The tiger has vision not that far off from ours, but a gazelle's field of vision is massive. It's not hard to imagine how natural selection would work its magic to arrive at this distinction. The gazelle who can't see the tiger lurking nearby gets eaten. The gazelle with better vision lives another day and makes more baby gazelles. You can read more about this phenomena here.

On our way out of the museum we were chatting with one of the guides when he mentioned that the man who just walked by was the founder of the museum himself. Sure enough, it was Jay Villemarette. I asked Jay how he got into the bone business and he explained that he had found a skull in the woods when he was a 7 year old. Rather than recoiling in disgust, his parents encouraged him to ID it. And the rest, as they say, was history.

In many ways, this little museum reminded me of Treasure Museum in Ocean City Maryland that we visited last year. Both are small, authentic, outstanding collections in areas dominated by schlock. In both cases, we had a chance to chat with the founders and learned that a young boy's interest can turn into a life long passion.

One word of caution: The Smithsonian's Natural History Museum has The Bone Hall which has many of the same specimens on display as the Museum of Osteology. If you've been to the DC exhibit, then the Bone Museum is going be far less novel. On the other hand, if you've never see a large display of various creatures' skeletons side by side, then this is a must see. Oh, and you can consider the flesh eating beetles the icing on the cake. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Monitoring the Monitors: Removing NaNs from rtl_power data and signal spike dection (Part 2 ½)

My first attempt at using rtl_power to capture motion detector signals was a bust. The data was riddled with NaN values, making it useless. Stumped for options, I dropped an e-mail to the author of this rtl_power article. His answer couldn't have been simpler: are you sure you're using the most up to date version of rtl_power?

I wasn't. As I had noted, to install rtl_power power on my Raspberry Pi I followed this transcript. It pulls the source for rtl_power as follows:

$ git clone git://

The latest version of the code, which fixes the NaN issue can be found here:

I re-ran the build commands as suggested in the transcript (substituting the right git source URL) and found myself with a new version of rtl_power. A quick test showed that my NaN's were now gone!

Here's some test data:

I recaptured a short snapshot of motion detection data using rtl_power. The first set of data captures signals when there's no motion; the second set of data contains signals generated when I was tripping the motion detector. I did this by running commands like the following:

for i in `seq 1 3` ; 
  do rtl_power -f 344M:346M:20K -e 30 -i 1 > nomotion.$i.csv ;
  sleep 10;

I then wrote a quick PHP script to detect spikes in the data. My hope was that the 'nomotion' files would contain no spikes, while the 'motion' files did have spikes. Here's that script:

 * A PHP file for reading in a rtl_power CSV file and printing out any blips
if(count($argv) != 2) {
  echo "Usage: php -f {$argv[0]} data.csv\n";

$last_snap      = array();
$data_col_start = 6;
$blip_threshold = 6;
$fd             = fopen($argv[1], "r");

while($row = fgetcsv($fd)) {
  $row = array_map('trim', $row);

  for($col_i = $data_col_start; $col_i < count($row); $col_i++) {
    $bin  = $col_i - $data_col_start;
    $freq = number_format(($row[2] + ($row[4] * $bin)) / 1000000, 4);
    $level = $row[$col_i];

    if(isset($last_snap[$freq])) {
      $diff = abs($last_snap[$freq] - $level);
      if($diff > $blip_threshold) {
        echo "$freq:$bin:$diff:$level\n";

    $last_snap[$freq] = $level;

Notice the value above for blip_threshold. This is an arbitrary value and one that I arrived at through experimentation. My thinking is that there's naturally noise in the system, so even when the motion detectors aren't sending messages, there's going to be some spikes.

And here's the output of running the PHP code against some sample files:

$ php -f ../find_blips.php nomotion.1.csv  # whoo! No spikes detected!
$ php -f ../find_blips.php motion.1.csv

Will you look at that?! I'm detecting spikes in the motion data, and can filter out noise in the nomotion data. I've got to say, this is really promising.

Up next is to refine this and map spikes to specific monitor detector behavior.

A huge thanks keenerd for making all of this possible!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

makePad v1.0 - A content-creation only device

Our nieces and nephew know that when they hang with us, they're going to have epic adventures. They also know they aren't going to get a lot of screen time. I'm sure they're tired of hearing the refrain: you can have iPad time anytime, but we have limited Uncle and Aunt time. And while there's a time and place for joyfully and mindlessly consuming content, we often strive for more active play than what the kids' devices can deliver.

This last visit there was a moment when the kids were all done with their homework and they were getting some iPad time. There three of them sat, passively attached to the screens in front of them. Had the living room been on fire, I doubt they'd have noticed. It was then that I had a spark of an idea: what if they had a device that only allowed them to create content?. A so called makePad.

By being a separate device, the kids wouldn't be tempted to get stuck in the consume only mindset. Instead of looking at tech as a brain sucking nemesis, it would be put in its rightful place as helpful tool.

Given how cheap tablets are, I quickly imagined having a whole stack of makePads ready to lend to the various kids who find themselves in our orbit. I mentally cycled through the following options in about 2 minutes:

It'll be awesome! I'll build a device from scratch using micronctrollers! Wait, that's crazy, I'll never get that project done. Oh I know, I'll buy a Fire tablet. Those are super cheap and reputable. But wait, they're built around consuming content, will I really be able to re-shape the device as I see it? I know, I'll get a cheap knock off Android tablet from eBay. If it's Android, I can do anything I want with it.

While there are many cheap Android tablets out there, I did realize that they aren't without limitations. RAM, camera quality and other stats begin to degrade when you're targeting the cheapest option.

I ended up switching gears and rather than focusing on tablets, I looked at Android phones. Here, too, I found a whole class of cheap phones that showed promise. In the end, for makePad v1.0 I settled on using a Blue 4.0 Advanced phone.

Using the BLU feels like stepping back in time. The screen is tiny and there's lag when launching a new app. But, it's also completely functional, with a 5 megapixel camera and screen resolution that matches the Kindle Fire. I've already got plans to use this phone for root experimentation and I may pick up another to use as a warm-backup ready to save day should my LG G6 go south. Heck, the phone comes with a case and screen protector. Does the phone really compare to my $800 LG? Of course not. But when you factor in the $40 price tag, you see that the BLU 4.0 Advance truly rocks.

When it comes to content creation, my guess is that the larger screen of a tablet would have been ideal. However, the smaller footprint of the phone does have its advantages. I could see our nieces and nephew toting their devices everywhere. Also, every 6~8 year old kid I know already has a tablet; but rarely do they have a phone. I'm hoping that will be a selling point.

Of course, hardware is only half the equation. To be an effective device, it has be powered by useful software.

First off, I wanted to install a custom launcher. While I can't remove YouTube and Google Chrome from the device (not to mention Google Play and the Dialer), I know that a good launcher will let you hide them. The most promising launcher I found was the oddly named Business Taxi Shell. This launcher has two modes: a simple UI to launch selected apps, and an admin side where you can use the phone normally and control what apps are visible. The problem with this and other launchers that specialize in locking down devices is cost. The Business Taxi Shell is $10, that's a quarter of what I paid for the phone, and a bit too steep for this stage of the project.

Instead of using a formally locked down launcher, I went with Apex Launcher. This launcher lets you hide apps and customize the experience so it's fairly bare bones. A clever kid will no doubt figure out how to unlock things and get to the good stuff, but if they can do that, they deserve to watch a few YouTube videos. And then I'll buy a truly locked down launcher.

As for the actual apps, I decided to focus on quality over quantity. I figure a few smartly selected apps would be better than an ad-filled, junk experience. The apps ended up getting clustered into four categories.

First, there's photography. Besides making the camera app readily available, I also installed PicSay Pro. I've used PicSay for years, and it's an easy way to add goofy stuff (think hats and mustaches) to photos, as well as more abstract photo editing. I purchased the pro version to avoid having ads get in the way. Finally, I added Google Photos to the main screen, which is helpful for sharing, a topic I'll mention below.

Next up, I tried to come up with some drawing apps. This area is a bit trickier because I don't have any goto apps for this genre. I installed Sketchbook by Autodesk which looked like a very legit sketching app. I also installed BitMoji on the phone, which allows you to quickly make a digital version of your own likeness. These apps both seem high quality, but I won't be shocked if I end up swapping them out.

Another obvious content creation outlet is audio. I made the built in voice recorder app available, and installed Walk Band. For $0.99 I was able to turn off ads in Walk Band which was totally worth it. I have only cursory experience with Walk Band, but so far I'm impressed. You can mess around with virtual instruments as well as setup tracks in a sequencer. Most importantly, it allows you to record your work.

And finally, I added support for sharing content. What good is making stuff if you can't share it with others? I setup the e-mail address that powers the phone to have myself and Shira as contacts, so any pictures or other works of art can be easily shared via GMail. I also setup, so kids could publish content to the web. This is obviously something that needs to be done with care, but I think learning the lesson of what gets shared publicly, privately and not at all, is a critical lesson.

So now I've got makePad v1.0 in my hand. What will my nieces and nephew have to say about this gadget? Will they see through my efforts to suck fun out of their devices? Will they have the device hacked and be watching My Little Pony in a matter of minutes? Or will they make something great? I've got no idea, but I'm sure looking forward to finding out.

Have any suggestions for content creation friendly apps? I'd love to hear them in the comments.


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