All posts by raudette

Growing Popping Corn on a Balcony

The apartment we live in faces east, and in the morning, we get a lot of sun.  This year, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have a little natural shade?  As corn grows tall, it seemed like a good candidate.

We successfully grew 8 popping corn plants in two large pots.  It was pretty easy – plant the seeds, water daily, fertilize.  This was not organic corn.  The plants did grow tall, but 8 was not enough to provide us with any significant natural shade.

Popcorn, ready to harvest
Popcorn, ready to harvest

This year, we also grew pole beans, carrots, tomatoes, sun flowers and some other potted flowers.  It was a pretty good reminder of how dependant we are on big agriculture, farms, transportation systems, food terminals, and grocery stores to economically feed ourselves.  Given the start up costs of the containers and soil, these were not economically viable crops – it was vastly more expensive to grow than to buy.

Would your condo board allow this garden?
Would your condo board allow this garden?

The corn did pop.  We’ll likely do this again next year.




Electricity from a Toy Windmill

Electricity and energy are such abstract concepts.  We just plug things in and they work.  One day, my daughter brought home a toy windmill from school, and I guess I thought I could take that understanding a little bit further.  So I told her: “We can make electricity with that”.

I did a little reading beforehand, and found a few people who had made wind generators online, so I had a rough idea of what I was going to build, and what parts I needed.  We took the subway to Active Surplus, picked up a couple of electric motors, some flashlight-sized light bulbs, some LED lights, and some diodes.

Toy Windmill with Generator
Toy Windmill with Generator

First, I connected the windmill to the motor, and the motor to a flashlight bulb.  I didn’t do any math.  It may come as no surprise to some of you that we couldn’t get enough power from the windmill to drive the bulb.

Toy Windmill Generator Circuit
Toy Windmill Generator Circuit

Plan B.  I built a bridge rectifier with the diodes I picked up, to get DC power from the motor, and connected it to an LED light.  It worked!  I was able to illustrate that we could convert wind energy to light: harness energy from the wind, make a little electricity, and generate light.  Every toy windmill needs this built in!

Fun with Kites

I’ve been wanting to take aerial photos for a while now.  Suspending a camera from a kite seemed like the best way of doing this.

I picked up an inexpensive camera on craigslist.  I modified it with custom firmware from , which allowed me to trigger the shutter at pre-programmed intervals.  I picked up a kite that was recommended for this sort of task, a “Sutton Flow Form”, which has a parachute-like design and has 16 square feet of surface area for plenty of lift.  Finally, I cobbled together a mounting bracket with some screws and random stationary supplies from Staples.

Camera Rig
Camera Rig

We spent our Canada Day weekend in Guelph with our friends Craig and Jan, whom have a farm just north of the city, which seemed like a great opportunity to fly a kite.

Google Satellite View Of Areas Photographed
Google Satellite View Of Areas Photographed

I am really, really glad I attempted to do this in a wide open space first for my first attempt – there were a few times I was concerned the rig was going to smash into the ground, and there’s a much greater probability of this hitting someone in my neighbourhood.  Together with Craig and his son Ben, we managed to get some great photos.

My kite, in stock form, is a little unstable in gusty winds (the instructions recommend adding tails to address this), and did not provide great photos on our first attempt.  This was addressed on our 2nd attempt with the addition of another kite. Craig happened to have a super-stable delta-style kite with a 6 ft wingspan.  We launched my kite into the air about 30 ft, and then tied the rope
to his delta kite, launched the delta kite, and then once it was 20 ft in the air, suspended the camera rig to the line.

Camera Rig With Both Kites
Camera Rig With Both Kites

The amount of lift was incredible.  We had to wear gloves to prevent rope burn.  The camera periodically took photos for about 10 minutes.  We stopped for lunch.

Richard, Ben And Craig
Richard, Ben And Craig
Kite Photo 3
Kite Photo 3
Kite Photo 2
Kite Photo 2
Kite Photo 1
Kite Photo 1

We tried again after lunch.  I only had 300 ft of kite line, but Craig had a huge bag of hay bale twine – an essentially unlimited supply of rope.  We programmed the camera to take photos every 20 seconds for 30 minutes.  We took a photo from the ground early on, and an airplane passed by.

Plane Passing By
Plane Passing By

We continued to let the line out for about half an hour.  The kites and camera rig were impossibly high – it was unbelievable.

It came time to reel the kites back in.  It was impossible.  It took incredible strength to pull the kites in.  After about 10 minutes of pulling, the line snapped, and we watched the kites drift away.  Jan and I hopped into my car to chase them down.  Fortunately, the crops were still only about a foot high, and we actually saw the kites land in a neighbouring field about 3 km away.  We recovered the kites and camera, intact.

First Kite Recovery
First Kite Recovery

Unfortunately, my craigslist-special camera didn’t capture any photos of this round.

The kites, and cameras, were subsequently re-launched.  However, they ended up caught in a very tall tree.  We are all anxiously awaiting a strong wind to pull them down…

Great times were had by all –

The Power Of One

Here is a story that is unusual in that it illustrates both the importance of traditional media as well as the ability of the Internet to empower an individual.

Our federal government is a massive institution – our 2010 budget had the Canadian government spending 280 billion dollars despite only pulling in 230 billion dollars from its 33.5 million residents (source).  There are many opinions on deficit spending, but I’m sure for most of us, we just kind of accept what our elected representatives put on the table.  We might complain amongst our peers,  45% of us vote, some write our local newspapers or directly to their MPs.

An IT professional in Nova Scotia by the name of Drew McPherson has decided to take a more active role by highlighting the decisions being made about how our money is being spent.  He’s working to improve the transparency of a politically visible component of the federal budget: travel and hospitality expenses.  The federal government is obliged to disclose this information, but not in a useful or easy to analyze format.  Mr. McPherson uses his IT skills to collect and aggregate all expense information across various sites, and place it on his own, in a useful format.

Drew McPherson’s site can be found here:

A site like this isn’t something you’re likely to stumble on, unless you happen to be researching government expenses yourself, which is where I have to thank Macleans magazine for drawing my attention to his work:

Greater transparency of the system should lead to better spending by our representatives.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Its always fun to talk about what’s around the corner.  In large part, it’s what I like to do here, playing armchair quarterback, pretending that I get to make the decisions that shape my world.  The best part about writing it down is looking back on it and checking your track record.

Growing up in the 1980s, with the rapid evolution of personal computers in the home, was a lot of fun.  It was so neat to play games as they evolved on the Vic-20, Commodore 64, Amigas, PCs.  Where would it end?  If you had asked me then what my next computer would be like, I would have said it will have better sound, better graphics, and would capable of more elaborate games.  One of these days, I’ll post papers that I wrote (in WordPerfect!) for various classes to illustrate what I was thinking at the time.  Like most, I could only think of Harder/Better/Faster/Stronger versions of what I had already.

Of course, PCs got faster, but those changes were almost inconsequential compared to other changes that were taking place.  The Internet, for one, grew to be so much more than I ever thought it would be.  Even in the mid-90s, I’d never thought it would grow to be used much beyond my peer group.  I certainly never thought of:
– grandparents viewing and posting pictures of their grandchildren on social networking sites
– collaborative projects like Wikipedia or Open Street Maps
– its potential for media streaming and distribution – completely shaking up the music and print industries, and certainly making its presence felt in the world of TV/movies

Knowing how hard it is to forecast, its kind of neat to look at a real futurist that happened to get some things right.

I present to you a local Torontonian, Steve Mann, as one of these futurists.


In the early 1980s, he obviously looks out of place, but certainly by the late 1990s, a lot of ideas he espoused were gaining traction.  By 2010, every smartphone wielding person was essentially practicing his vision of wearable computing, personal vision/sousveillance, connectivity, social broadcasting/”tweeting”, etc…  Its almost hard to think back to a time when this was really weird – but it was.

So, while it might be fun to think of what Apple will stuff into their iPhone 5 (Thinner! 5 cameras! 30 megapixels each! 3D! HD! Super-Duper-Fast Data!), a real exercise in contemplating tech would be to take a stab at guessing what the next leap might be.

Who else took a really good guess at what 2010 would hold?  Who out there is making bold predictions for 2040?

Steve Mann’s body of work:

Google AdWords Inching Closer To Grave

I exaggerate, of course.

A quick follow up to an earlier article I wrote, iAd. A big deal.

In recent weeks, Apple has essentially locked its primary mobile and advertising foes from delivering advertisements on mobile Apple devices, as covered in All Things Digital.

And, they’re a step closer to location-aware ads with a recent update to its privacy policy, which allows it to share your device location with third parties.

One thing I find odd (though perhaps I shouldn’t, given Apple’s history in developing walled garden technology) – I can’t just BUY an iAd like I can with Google AdWords.  I actually have to contact someone.  As someone who’s directed perhaps a couple thousand bucks on AdWords to market unique products to very niche markets – I have to say that my experience with Google’s system was great.

How the selection of your next phone got easy –

Not in a good way, or the way you might expect.

Rambling inspired by a recent article on CNN – What makes Apple so sticky

Not too long ago, when you bought a phone or a portable CD player, you would decide what functionality you wanted and bought the coolest looking device that fit your budget.  You were likely re-keying every phone number into your mobile’s address book no matter which one you bought.  So its 2004 and the battery in your Nokia phone no longer holds a charge – you go out and buy a Motorola Razr.

Now its 2010 and you’ve broken your second iPhone – are you going to go out and buy a Nexus One?  This time, its different.  You’ve got 10 puzzle games, that noise making app, and hundreds of dollars of music and video from the iTunes store.  You can’t throw that away.

Its starting to look like the 1980s again.  You buy a PC running MS-DOS to run Lotus.  And then you buy WordPerfect.  And then you can’t switch, because you’ve got so much invested in the PC platform, that you just buy a newer, faster one.  And before you know it, Bill Gates becomes the richest man on earth selling operating system licenses.

Perhaps its still early enough in the mobile platform game that Google can make a run at it with Android, or if everyone at Nokia and Intel crosses their fingers at the same time, perhaps they’ll pull it off with MeeGo.  If I were behind these two efforts, I’d take a look at what Palm attempted to do with WebOS, and attempt to get my system to work with iTunes.  Take a look at this fun column written by Joel Spolsky on how to take on an established competitor.

Fragile Media

Am I the only one who worries about data?


In grade 5 (this was in the 80s), I was one of perhaps two kids that typed up my projects in a word processor.  Night before a project was due, WordPerfect 4.2 froze on me, and the 286 I was running it on wouldn’t boot again, and my work was lost.  I had actually printed it, and handed in a marked up draft.  But an important lesson was learned, very early – keep backups.  Note here how resilient the daisy-wheel printed draft was, and how fragile the PC was.

Flash forward to current day.  Most of the work I produce belongs to my employer – I see that data as their responsibility – what they lose costs them, they can back up the work I produce as they choose.

But of interest to me in my personal life is MY data.  And I have lots.  I have lost my fair share of hard drives, floppies, and CD/DVDs over the years.  But I’ve been lucky – apart from:
1) MS Basic 2 games written as a primary school student on a C64
2) email from pre-2001, lost due to silly University data retention policies (and they were silly – I bet that Alumni department wishes they could reach me by email now)
I haven’t lost anything due to reasonable backups.  But I’ve never dealt with fire, loss, or theft.

I have little use for physical media.  I live in an apartment and have little use or physical storage space for prints.  So I’ve prioritized – I have little work or correspondence to back up – all of the physical stuff sits in the top drawer of a small filing cabinet.  I hope for the best for important documents.

Photos of events are shared online – not much use for prints.  Or is there?  I had been copying camera flash cards to a hard drive and optical media.  The optical media is brand name and stored in a dark place, but I still don’t trust it.  I’ve seen photos of myself as a child – I think my daughter deserves the same.  “Oh, Nameless Manufacturer put out a bunch of drives with buggy firmware in 2009 which ate your first step photos” isn’t going to cut it for me as an excuse.

What about music?  I’m still pretty old school – the indie record store across the street shut its doors last year – but I still buy CDs.  Prior to a 2009 hard drive crash, I never backed up my MP3s thinking, “I’ve got the original on CD”.  But I don’t have the time I did as a student – ripping 100s of CDs takes A LOT OF TIME.  As for iTunes – I had fun as a teen flipping thru my dad’s LPs – I don’t think any child born in 2010 will get the chance to hear the music of their parent’s youth (I can imagine “I bought that album BEFORE Apple removed DRM” or “the Avril Lavigne hard drive must have crashed in 2005”).

Hard drives are pretty cheap these days – the last time I bought a drive, I bought two, and set one up to copy over to the other once a week.  The stuff on the 2nd drive never gets deleted – so if I accidentally delete a folder on my working drive, I can get it back on the the 2nd (point in time back ups).  I run Linux at home, and use a little app called Back In Time to accomplish this task.  The last time I looked at this from the Windows side, there was an application called “Dantz Retrospect” that seemed to get a lot of these things right – it seemed like the perfect solution for a small office (I think they’ve since been bought out by EMC).

Of course, as important as making backups is making sure you can restore them.  I have to say, I’m not that forward thinking.  I think I need my own IT employee at home to think this thru.

Backups is actually something I think Apple does best for home users (but, perhaps, still not well) – I think Time Machine is probably the best thing to happen to the masses who don’t really have the time or interest in worrying about this stuff.

This still doesn’t cover loss due to fire or theft.  Fortunately, online storage is pretty inexpensive these days – cheap enough for the data I create, still too expensive and slow for the music and video I consume.  With Linux, I use s3fs to backup my work to Amazon’s S3 online storage service – it costs me a couple dollars a month.  On the Windows side, I haven’t tried either of these solutions but did come across JungleDisk for Amazon S3 backups and in previous searches.

What I don’t understand is why this is still a problem?  Thirty years of personal computing and no one has fixed this.  We’ve got a long way to go.  Anyone think the “cloud” will solve this 🙂

iAd. A big deal.

Reading these Apple announcements last week….

Apple blows me away.  Everyone’s talking about iPad, and to a lesser extent, iPhone OS4 multi-tasking.

But its iAd that seems like the huge deal to me.

If you’d me asked two weeks ago, I would have said that Google pretty much owns the future of advertising.  People just don’t watch TV or read paper media like they once did, and Google seemed to be the only one that had figured out how to make ad money.

And then Apple comes along, and I suspect will deliver a really great solution for mobile, presumably context aware (these devices have location, person, and time ) ads.  A side note here: I don’t actually know that iAds are context aware – but if they are not now, I suspect they will be.

I can see this kind of working like iTunes.  iPods initially came with a firewire jack and worked with iTunes for Mac folk –  now they’re everywhere.

So if Google can make tons of money from the time people spend in front of their PCs, imagine how much money Apple can make from the time people spend with their phones.  And if Google can charge a premium for placing ads in context with the content on a loaded web page – imagine what Apple can do with your “life” context (its 9 AM and you’re within a 3 minute walk of a Starbucks – what ad do you think you’ll see on your phone when you’re checking the mail before walking into the office).

And, once they have an established advertising network, why wouldn’t Apple port this to Windows Mobile, Android, Meego…  whatever?

Also cool – by sharing revenue with iPhone developers, they’re not even having to come up with ways to draw eyeballs to the platform – iPhone developers will take care of that.

If Apple doesn’t get this formula right with iAd, it will be interesting to see who does.  Because I think it will happen.

Crowdsourcing and Open Street Maps

I think Open Street Map is going to become a really big thing.  Wikipedia-like.

What Wikipedia is to Britannica, Open Street Maps is to Teleatlas (provider for Google Maps).  Open Street Maps are end-user created maps.  Street or park missing in your new subdivision?  Just go and add it yourself – no need to wait for Google to map out your neighbourhood.

From what I’ve seen in the last 18 months, I think it will soon be the best, most current map of anywhere.  When I first checked my Toronto address, maybe 18 months ago, the street was mapped, but the street name was incorrect.  By about a year ago, my street was properly labelled, but the Ottawa neighbourhood I grew up in was not.  Now, not only do I see Ottawa suburbs completely mapped, but I see gravel roads in cottage country properly mapped and labeled.  Incredible progress in very little time.

Here’s a neat talk on information becoming accessible:
(shows how Haiti, which had no commercial maps at all, was completely mapped by volunteers following the earthquake).

Now, the Open Street Map map of my neighbourhood is far better than Google’s.  See how the walking trails are mapped near Yonge and Lawrence in the Open Street Map:


The map data is there, but the open tools aren’t quite there yet.  You can download the raw maps, but the software to view them is still pretty simple.  Also, easy to use routing / directions just isn’t there yet…