Archive for the ‘Belongings’ Category

Other People’s Stuff

Friday, March 29th, 2013

If you collect as many things as I do, you end up with some stuff you’re not supposed to have. In this case, I’m not referring to stuff that is illegal or stuff that is unreleased. I’m talking about other people’s stuff. Personal stuff.

In a broad sense, the whole used market is a little bit bizarre when you look at it abstractly. As we live in a disposable culture, anything someone might buy has its own story. You don’t know how many hours were put into that dusty SNES with a five dollar sticker on it. How it contributed to sibling rivalries or became an item to bond over with the girl next door. We’ll usually never really know the extent of these stories.

Sometimes we accidentally inherit the stories.

In Philadelphia, there are many little second hand shops that line the grid-like streets. Tucked into corners, away from the tourist traps, these stores don’t feel like your normal thrift shops. These places lean a little more towards collectibles: antique books, crates of records, obscure (but not rare) VHS tapes- you get the idea. Some of these shops also sell photographs, but not of any famous attractions or curios of the city. They’re family photographs. Weird pictures of people posing outside their houses, sitting with their pets, or just acting goofy. Private pictures. Who would have ever thought they’d end up at a store somewhere?

So every one in a while, I buy a few. I have them scattered along the edges of my bedroom mirror. Who are these people? I’ll never know.




This concept doesn’t simply apply to pictures. From one auction, I got a lot of around thirty 7-inch tape reels. While a lot of them were simply recordings of the radio that could be played back for hours, some of them appeared to be homemade recordings. One I remember in particular appeared to be a recording of some sort of part, complete with almost unintelligible voices and faint background music. Something never meant to get out this far. A memory I own that isn’t mine.

Home movies are another area. On occasion, I’ve purchased VHS camcorders with tapes still inside. Rarely though will I find something captivating. Usually, there will be a short video of a newborn baby or the typical “I’m testing out the camera” tape where people pan around their living rooms.

Occasionally though, I’ll find something more interesting.

One flea market I frequent in Delaware usually has a lot of vendors from house clean-outs. They’re easy to spot: Giant rented truck with several dozen cardboard boxes packed full of everything imaginable. No rhyme or reason here: folded up clothes, kitchen appliances, weathered books, etc. Almost as though a family was packed away into boxes to be sold for five dollars a pop. Anyway, while most of these boxes are filled with junk, I’ve found my fair share of interesting objects from them. At one point, I came across a box of hand-labeled VHS tapes. I didn’t know what exactly they were, so I took them home and played them. I found myself with what appears to be recordings of an amateur band (or several) from the mid 1990’s.

So what did I do with them? After setting them to the side for some time, I decided it was best to transfer them and let people see them. Currently, I have one already online with more on the way. Here’s a link to go watch it. Who are these people? What’s the name of the band? I have no idea. The band might be named “Triple X” but nothing seems to enforce that. Maybe I’ll run across something as I keep going, or someone will stumble upon this video and recognize it. There’s a lot more footage to look through.

So this gives you something to think about. Be mindful of those little personal artifacts that you keep around. Those memories frozen in time. Who knows where they will end up one day.

And who knows if some 20-something punk will eventually put them on YouTube.

Get Fit with a Fitbit

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’ve had a Fibit Ultra for a bit over a month now, and it’s a pretty cool little gizmo. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, think of it as a smart pedometer. What does that mean? Your traditional pedometer will track your number of steps. The Fitbit, on the other hand, will track your steps, floors climbed, distance traveled, calories burned, activity level, and even sleep patterns. It also has basic clock and stopwatch functionality. When you buy the device, you get the Fitbit itself (about the size of a thumb drive), belt clip (the Fitbit is fashioned as a clip, but sometimes clothing is a bit too thick), arm band, and a charging station that doubles as an access point. The last item is especially interesting: You connect your Fitbit to charge once a week or so, but keeping the station hooked up via USB to your computer will allow you to wirelessly synchronize whenever you are within range (about 15 feet). This reports your stats to their online service so you can pull it up anywhere you have access to a web browser. In addition to keeping track of your daily stats, the online software will graph all of your activity in weekly/monthy segments and give you “badges” for your daily or overall progress.

I don’t talk too much about my personal life, but over the past year I’ve lost 95 lbs from a combination of vigorous walking and diet change. In this sense, I’m predisposed to exercising, which I continue to do often. That said, the Fitbit is a fantastic motivator. You can check your daily stats against goals set up, and you do get the push to go out and meet them. You might find yourself taking the stairs instead of the elevator a bit more, or walking to the store instead of going for a drive. There is even Facebook integration so if you had friends also using the Fitbit, you can choose to share your stats and “compete” with them. Overall, the Fitbit is great for walking/running activities. If you lift weights or cycle, this isn’t the device for you. I tried affixing the device to my pant leg while biking, but this just gave an inaccurate reading. Keep this in mind when considering your exercise regiment.

The Fitbit Ultra

Getting down to the technical side, the Fitbit comes equipped with three accelerometers (implying three axes of movement), which is how it tracks your paces and activity level. Unlike most other smart pedometer devices, the Fitbit also boasts an altimeter to figure out if you’re climbing any floors or hills. The Wireless station uses a proprietary ANT protocol for data transmissions. It is comparable to ZigBee in that it has a “sleep” mode and similar packet behavior for small data transfers.

Fitbit also offers a scale product which acts in a similar fashion to keep track of your weight, as well as a “personal trainer” service to help you plan meals, manage your sleep, keep track of different lifestyle habits, and give you an in-depth report of your statistics. I’m not too into these, but they’re something to think about if you are considering getting on the bandwagon. Smart phone apps are also offered for free to help you keep track of your goals, stats, and dietary habits.

Daily Activty Stats

In my experience, the Fitbit is an all around nice device. A few people complain about the durability, but I have yet to have it show any signs of wear. The display is pretty nice and put under the plastic casing. It sounds a little strange but looks sleek. The Fitbit stands up well against heat, I wore it to a cramped concert that was unbearably hot and the device was perfectly fine on exit. There have been some reports of it not holding up well in wet weather, but this is to be expected. I don’t plan on submerging it in water or anything, but if it’s raining hard out and I still feel like exercising I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to slip it into a cheap sandwich bag and be on my way. Functionality-wise, everything works as expected. The pedometer keeps track of your steps accurately and computes distance traveled (miles), so surprise there. The floor counter will count your floors (not the individual stairs). I’m not sure how it determines a “floor” as a measurement but it works. Calories are a little off since it uses your height and weight to determine amount burned, but it doesn’t make a big difference to me. The web interface works well, and generates helpful graphs. Battery life is amazing, to the point where I forget that the thing even runs on batteries. The sleep tracking is also really interesting an easy to use: You just attach the Fitbit to the wristband and activate the stopwatch before you go to sleep, and the device tracks how often you wake up to determines the quality of your sleep.

I can say that the Fitbit does everything I’d want and expect, and was a solid investment for me. If you’re liking this smart pedometer idea but aren’t sold on Fitbit, check out the Nike+ Fuelband and the Jawbone Up. I haven’t used them, but they’re also front runners on this new wave of devices.


Pogo Unplugged

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

I got a little restless while waiting for my Raspberry Pi to get here so I decided to mess around with a few other SOCs while I wait. I was drawn to the the concept of these “plug” devices that were something of a flash in the pan a few years ago. Do you remember the SheevaPlug or the GuruPlug? Anyway, for the absent minded or unacquainted, plug computers are tiny tiny servers that run on very low power. Why keep that bulky server around when you can plug a little box into the wall, tuck it away, and forget about it for a while?

Love them or hate them, plug computers are cool little pieces of technology that are highly hackable and a good way to spend an afternoon playing with. I decided to get a Pogoplug to mess around with, as they were inexpensive when compared to some of the other plugs. They’re not the beefiest machines, but they’re not meant to be. I found a coupon that allowed me to get one at 70% off, so I took the gamble. What I got was a little NAS (which wasn’t very good at its job) with a dual core 700MHz processor and 128MB of RAM. You have to go through the hassle of registering your plug with their website to enable ssh access, but it only took five minutes and afterwards you can completely open up the hardware. With a 2GB flash drive and 20 minutes of my time, I installed Arch on my plug and then further configured it with web and IRC server software. Not bad for a cheap little box.

Pogoplug v3 Running htop

I liked the simplicity of hacking the plug and the potential it offered, so I went ahead and ordered two more.

Though the boxes have identical model numbers, the Pogoplugs I got in my second order were not the same. Apparently, my first plug was a v3, while my second two were v2s. What does that mean exactly? Pogoplugs use ARM processors. The v3 plug uses an ARMv6 while the v2 plugs use an ARMv5. So, slightly older processors but the v2s also happen to run at 1.2GHz and have 265MB of RAM. Can’t complain there.

My Pogoplugs

I found an old guide for installing Debian on a Pogoplug, and though it did not work, I followed a link to the site’s forum and was able to talk with someone to help get me going. After a painless installation, I had a second hacked Pogoplug to keep my company. Now what about the third one? Haven’t cracked into this one yet, but I have plans to try my luck with Fedora just for the variety.

What am I going to do with all these? I don’t really know. An IRC network made from just Pogoplugs sounds like fun but is completely impracticable. Any ideas?

Analog Anyone?

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

I have a handful of reel-to-reel players. As an extension of this, I also happen to have around fifty or so reels to accompany the players. For the past few years, they haven’t been doing much besides serving as over-sized paper weights. Over the past couple months though, I have been recording things on to them. Music to be specific, all sorts of music.

I’ve been recording whole albums onto the reels of quarter inch magnetic tape. At 7.5 inches per second, the quality is pretty much indistinguishable from the MP3 player I record them from. At 45 minutes per side of tape, I can put at least one album per side (in most cases).

Why do all this? I like the process. It can be a bit of relaxation to string up a tape on a machine and hit the play button, watching the reels hit tension and hearing the music wind up. Also, it’s not the easiest thing to find pre-recorded music on reels. You can most likely find some jazz or easy listening albums on tape, but rock-oriented music is hard to get and can fetch a high price if you are lucky enough to locate it. As more collectors get at the harder-to-find tapes, recording yourself is pretty much the best way to go if you want your equipment used for anything other than show.

The Wall

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

I’m pretty sure I hinted that I like to digitalize old formats. I’m that guy you see digging through bins of VHS tapes at yard sales, looking to find that one piece of gold that I haven’t seen and probably won’t find any other way.

You might not know just how into this stuff I am. I didn’t really know I was, but after years of accumulating relevant equipment, it starts to add up. I used to have everything sitting around in various piles. I’d keep some stuff up by the television in my bedroom to do simple transfers, and some of the bigger stuff downstairs where I couldn’t trip over it.

I recently decided to consolidate more, and bring most things to a dedicated area where  I could do transfers.

I present the wall.

To briefly go over what we see here: The top row has some video enhancers, an audio enhancer, power station, and a DVD recorder. Next row down has some more professional video enhancers, a detailer, some boxes for stabilization and a full frame time base corrector / freeze. The next row has two Commodore 1702 monitors. 4th row has an SVHS deck and a laserdisc player on the left, and two editing VCRs with a Betamax deck on the right. The next row has 5 laserdisc players and a VHS duplicator. The last row has all my CEDs.

This doesn’t represent all of my gear (I got much more of this stuff on the other side of the room), but there is a pretty nice portion here for both storage and transferring. I can quickly wire up any format and start converting in a matter of minutes.

It has become something as a monolith to antiquated technology. I’m quite happy with it.

High Definition

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Up until a week ago, I used a standard definition television set for just about everything. I’ve always been what you could call a “late adopter.” I rarely spring for the newest and best. My computers are crumbling, my mp3 player is scratched on every surface, and my is phone brick-like. Yet, all of these will last me well into the future. I figured I would take the dive into the world of high definition. It wasn’t a necessary transition, but one I wanted to explore as my taste in cinema expands.

My first testing of the water was a year and a half ago. I got a smaller HDTV at a flea market. It was an impulse buy at $30, but had a slew of problems that prevented me from wanting to use it every day. There were vertical lines of “seemingly” dead pixels that would eventually return to full form if you happened to be watching for a few hours. The antenna jack didn’t work. The audio was shaky. It wasn’t even as big as my clunky, second-hand CRT. In all, it turned out to be a fun little 20 inch tv that could be whipped out for some gaming if I felt like treating myself to something different.

After finally deciding I wanted my own HDTV, I embarked on the process of research. I feel like this has been lost on the general public. Go to any big box electronic retailer and linger near the more expensive devices. The majority of people will basically have the decision of what they want to buy made by someone working there. That isn’t for me. I like to pour myself into Amazon and Newegg reviews, sifting through pages for days in my downtime. I finally decided on a Panasonic Viera, the S2 series to be more precise. I played the waiting game, to see if the price would drop, but it seemed to hover steadily a few notches below the MSRP. When I finally decided to spring for it a month or so down the road, finding it proved to be the most difficult task. Now, what I learned about these televisions is that when they new models are close to rolling around, different stores approach this situation in different ways. I noticed about a week before going out to buy that many stores had them taken down from their online websites, but said stores may still have them available. Visiting these stores turned out to be a bust. They had them listed for sale, had a demo unit, but no stock. Clerks informed me they were on closeout, and would not be able to get new stock. Calling other stores in the chains turned up no televisions hiding out in other store rooms, so I turned to Best Buy. Now, the clerk there informed me that the televisions were still in stock and could be ordered for at least another month. This confused me a little bit, but started to make sense considering most stores would not want to be left with stock when the new models come around. Not wanting to waste anymore time, I snagged it, bagged it, and toted it home for a quick setup.

The first thing I did was go through all of the settings, and I mean all of them. It amazes me how much can be packed into the menus on a modern television. The second thing I did was plug in the Xbox 360 to play some Halo for an hour or two. When the menu popped up on screen, I was sold. It was exactly what I wanted from gaming that I lacked with a standard definition set. The next thing I did was pop in a DVD. That impressed me almost as much as the game did. It wasn’t high definition, but you could have easily fooled me. The picture popped, the detail level was high, and I found myself noticing stuff I never did before. It was an experience.

Now, at this time, I was using the Xbox 360 through component cables. I, according to Wikipedia, have the only model of 360 lacking an HDMI port. A bit of a bummer, but one I can live with. I didn’t bother buying any HDMI cables for my other devices locally. I checked around Amazon and found nicely rated ones for four dollars a pop, so I ordered three and they got to me in about a week. So upon getting them, I hooked up my DVD player and my DVD recorder and went to town setting all the picture options and adjustments. I have to say, I’m really impressed. If you did the math, you might notice I ordered an extra cable. Hopefully, this will facilitate a Blu-ray player at some point in the near future, but that is another story.

When it came to all of my other components, they hold up nicely. My original Xbox (sporting XMBC) looks very nice when using it with the component cables. The Wii also looks pretty nice via component, but is not much of a step up from the classic composite connection. My VCR looked surprisingly good. A lot of people go on about how the image quality of a VHS tape looks awful on a big screen, but I noticed no difference between that and your basic television. It might have even looked better, but that could be stretching things a bit.

Considering my love for IPTV, I might be seeing some more bandwidth and hard drive space being gobbled up now as I could start jumping on the high definition video train. I’ve streamed a few high definition XviD’s through the Xbox 360, but it seems to have problems with some of the more popular formats. So having said that, if anyone can recommend a standalone player or something that does network streaming and can play basically any HD format, drop me a line. I’d love to get more high quality playback, and am somewhat limited with my current setup. And yes, I know the PS3 can stream, and I know there are some Blu-Ray players that can handle a wide spread of formats, but they respectively cost a bit too much and don’t seem to review well.

When I got the television, I had a bit of a fear. I love the warmth of analog. There is something that feels cold about digital that I just cannot place. Even through this, I get a great feeling from this television, and feel that nothing has been lost.

If anything, I don’t feel like I’m being pushed from my ways. Instead,  I feel like I’m being supported in them through some odd, unexpected twist.

Flea Market Find – Lineman’s Handset

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

I recently purchased a blue lineman’s handset for $12. It is quite an interesting piece of hardware. At first glance, it looks like a standard handset, but upon further review there are characteristics that set it apart. On the back of the handset is a rotary dial used for dialing numbers, a hook to connect it to the belt, and two test leads with alligator clips. The alligator clips have a piercing spike in them to connect to insulated wires. No stripping is necessary. On the side of the phone, there is a switch that can go between TALK and MON. MON in this case stands for monitor. There is also a nice “Bell System Property – Not for sale” engraving.

I brought the handset home and plugged it in. I had the switch on TALK and instantly heard a dial tone. I decided to call my cellphone, and entered the number (which can take a bit of time using a rotary dial). I got connected and heard my voice mail message. I decided to try to use my old Radioshack tone dialer next. I punched in the number on my tone dialer, and held it up to the handset. I hit the dial button on the dialer, and heard the tones through the earpiece of the handset, but the tones did not register on the handset itself, and the number wasn’t called.

Next, I flipped the switch on the handset to MON mode. At first, I didn’t hear anything on the line. I hooked up a standard phone nearby, and picked up the handset of that phone. My lineman’s handset instantly had a dial tone, and was monitoring the line. The MON setting also turns off the microphone in the handset, so there are no slip-ups when monitoring.

Other than the cool factor, there are a few things I can do with it. I could use it as a house phone, though it does not have its own ringer. I could also do some wire tapping, but that is illegal. It is not a very practical piece of hardware, but it certainly does hold my attention. Maybe the web will end up lending me some ideas of what I could do with it.

Flea Market Find – 8-Track Tape Player

Monday, June 29th, 2009

So for $5, I was able to nab a boxed (though used) Stereo 8 player. Not a common purchase I know, but it is bound to get at least some use as a stereo component.


The Box, weighing about 7 pounds while full

Eight-tracks, for those who don’t know, were once the reigning format for portable music, later being replaced by the cassette tape. Like the four-track tape, the eight-track would have multiple programs per tape that could be switched from one to the other using a button on the player. Though eight-track tapes, like the name implies, can hold more music than a four-track tape, they do so in the same amount of space. Ultimately, the sound quality of an eight-track tape is less than the quality of a four-track tape.


Queen’s News of the World

Upon adding the unit to my stereo, I can say that the sound quality is indeed low. If anything, eight-track tapes can be kept around for their novelty, or the off chance I find something on one that I cannot get anywhere else.


Front of the 8-track tape player


Angled view of the player with 8-track

The Aspiring Acer Aspire One

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Stolen from Wikipedia, A netbook is a light-weight, low-cost, energy-efficient, highly portable laptop suitable for web browsing, email and general purpose applications. This holiday season, I was lucky enough to get my hands on an Aspire One of my very own. This thing comes fully loaded; a gigabyte of RAM, 1.6ghz Intel Atom processor, 160GB hard drive, three usb ports, card slots, built in web cam and mic, audio ports, wifi, the list goes on. The model I got came with a 6-cell battery for over 5 hours of use, as well as Windows XP Home. I figured that I’d go XP over getting a prepackaged Linux install because hey, I can always install Linux for free later anyway.


So, upon first boot-up and registration, I notice there’s a load of bloatware, including some DVD app which is strange because these things lack a disc drive. After uninstalling, the Aspire One boots up in seconds, perfect for use just about anywhere and fast. Want to check my email, BAM, I’m up and running.

The two biggest complaints I’ve heard about the Aspire One were that the wifi card gives out at strange times, and the internal fan is very loud for such a small machine. After searching around I found out that the problems with the Atheros card can be easily stopped by turning off sleep mode in device properties, so I did just that as a preventative measure. Also, I don’t know if they improved anything when updating the Aspire Ones to make use of the new Intel processors, but I barely hear a fan, and thing thing hardly ever feels warm.

One qualm I do have is the built in speakers. From the first boot up when the Windows start up music chimed in, it was scratchy and underwhelming. I can say however, the HD sound achieved with headphones is a magical experience. Music sounds better on this than on my iPod. The internal microphone also proved a little soggy with its test, though I do believe the quality on that can be fine tuned if I put in enough effort.

For a web cam, this one works very well. Its spec’d at 1.3 megapixel, which blows other netbooks out of the water. The frame rate isn’t the best in the world, but its not like I’m making a movie on it, it gets the job done. On the performance side of things, with a 1.6Ghz processor, nobody is gonna be playing the newest and greatest games. The video playback seems to be very nice though. 720p  HD video plays smoothly and with no distortion. Even though the display is small, the video is crisp and detailed, as well as with no audio lag.

On the physical side of things, the Aspire One is very lite, and small enough to take just about anywhere. The 6-cell battery adds a load of weight, though and does stick out the back a bit. The keyboard is a little cramped but easily usable. The placement of the mouse buttons beside the touch pad are a bit awkward; needing two hands to comfortable operate.

In all, I can say I’m happy with it. I can easily boot up into Windows, or use a USB insallation of a Linux live cd (Backtrack 3 anyone?) and go take on the town. It also appears they have included a one year warrenty incase something breaks down, which is nice considering how paranoid I can become.

Wizzywig Volume Two

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Ever since January of this year, I have been waiting for the second book in the Wizzywig series to be ready for distribution. The first volume, subtitled “Phreak” follows a young kid named Kevin Phenicle who goes by the handle Boingthump. Let me say, this isn’t some drab piece of writing you would find in the discount bin at your local book outlet. These are graphic novels, containing anything but a boring story about some kiddie hacker acting out a stereotype. This first book I read about Boingthump was a definite, and somewhat unexpected, treat. The bulk of the story was composed of little snippets of this character’s doings. From his first experience with blueboxing to social engineering pizza, the story is rife with creative scenarios that paint a vivid picture of an anykid in the golden age of phreaking. Suffice it to say I was impressed by just how much fact went into the story, and was curious to see where it would go… or where it would take me.


Fast forward to November. I stumbled across Ed Piskor’s website after forgetting about it for a little while. I found out that the second book had been completed and was ready for purchase, so I quickly snagged myself a copy, which arrived in the mail quickly after my purchase. Upon reading the book, I was happy to see much of the same structure as was present in the first. The story bounced back and forth between present day (Kevin has been incarcerated) and his younger days when he started experimenting with computers, and became immersed in a new, exciting, and scary world found through his phone lines.


The story found in these books is not your cookie cutter hacker epic. Take your Hackers, your Die Hard 4, your Swordfish, and throw them out the window. Ed takes careful attention to detail, nothing here is a stretch of the imagination and you can see he has done his homework in the creation of these novels. Reading along, you’ll be able to see all he has done simply by what is alluded to. No Hollywood garbage trying to make hacking seem glamorous or news stories spewing out tales that this underground world is full of all kinds of dangerous people who can make a computer explode. Ed gives the honest, gritty perspective the genre has hardly ever been represented by.


Summing things up, I don’t know anyone who is showing the world of phreak/hack culture in this fashion. Ed has truely honed his craft, and the fact that he himself is only an admirer of this culture, and not a participant only ampliphies his qualities. If you liked the first one, you probably already have the second, and are waiting patiently for the third and fourth. For those of you who haven’t jumped on the wagon yet, you can purchase both books directly from Ed at his website. There are also previews of both of the books, so you can read a few panels before deciding.

Also, I happen to be “in” the second installment as an angry fellow on page 10.