For Christmas, I got an Arduino. Well, really I got two coffee pots.
Identical ones. So I returned one of them to Amazon, and used the refund
to buy an Arduino starter
It’s a neat device, with a ton of potential. Here’s why.
Ok, so what is it?
The Arduino is an open, hackable microcontroller, designed to be easy to
program and easy to build things with. Simply put: the ultimate hacker
For about $40 (or less, if you want to buy all the parts and build it
yourself), you can have a device that you can program from any computer
with a USB port, and that is capable of interfacing with the outside
world. It doesn’t require any special training in electronics, and is
ideal for experimentation. You can add an amazing array of sensors and
add-on boards to allow you to do just about anything you can imagine,
from reading the temperature to getting GPS coordinates.
Pretty much anything you want. You can start by making an LED blink -
this is the hardware equivalent to “Hello, world”. Beyond that, the
basic board comes with an array of inputs and outputs that you can
connect up to all sorts of things: temperature and light sensors,
motors, GPS modules. You name it, you can build it.
Here’s a quick rundown of a few things people have used these for.
This is only a fraction of what’s out there. An impressive community has
sprung up around these little guys, and there is no shortage of cool
projects documented on the web.
If you want to see the Arduino in action, check out Greg Borenstein’s
presentation from RubyConf
on programming the Arduino with Ruby, in which he demos an Arduino-based
drum machine (literally, a machine that plays a drum with chopstics) as
well as a board that uses windshield washer fluid pumps to mix
It’s one of the most entertaining talks I’ve seen.
In summary, if you’ve ever wanted to play with hardware, the Arduino is
the place to start. It’s inexpensive, easy to use, and endlessly
customizable. I’ve had mine a week and it’s been great fun so far.
Ever since I discovered Bloglines some years ago, I’ve been hooked on
RSS. I subscribed to a slew of feeds and treated it like a to do list,
always trying to get it to zero. Subscribing to those feeds enabled me
to see and learn about a lot of things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Since that time, RSS feeds have been my primary source of what’s new and
interesting in the world of technology. Along the way, the feeds I was
subscribed to changed, as my interests changed, and I gave up Bloglines
for Google Reader. But my appetite for feeds has only grown.
Lately, though, I’ve seen a shift. Most days, I skim the headlines in
Google Reader, looking for specific sites, without ever getting the
unread count down to zero. What I’ve started noticing is that even when
I was keeping up on RSS feeds, I had already seen all of the interesting
stuff. The primary reason for this is Twitter.
Twitter is my social network of choice. Yes, I’m
on Facebook (though I succesfully avoided it for a long time), and I’m
also on LinkedIn, but the place I spend most of my social networking
time is Twitter. Most of the people whose blogs I’ve come to rely on for
news and insight are people I follow now on Twitter. I get more frequent
links and thoughts through that site than I ever would through a blog,
and it’s much more real-time than RSS. There are a number of sites which
even offer to send you notifications of new content through Twitter in
addition to RSS, like RubyFlow.
Additionally, I think sites like Reddit and Hacker
News are having a similar impact. Their
voting functions help to filter through the haystack to find the best
stuff and ensure that it rises to the top - at least in theory, I’m not
convinced that it always works in practice.
Perhaps the future of RSS and Atom lie as protocols that enable
applications to share information rather than as a consumer-facing
application of it’s own. They’re the plumbing, not the faucet.
While I still use RSS, and won’t likely be shutting down Google Reader
any time soon, I find that the interesting things seem to find me,
rather than me having to wade through feed after feed to find them. This
is a byproduct of me being connected to a group of people on Twitter
with similar interests, who share things as they come across them. I’m
questioning whether my use of RSS will decline as I consume more
information this way.
I’m curious if anyone else is experiencing the same thing.
Twitter bashing has become a bit of a
past-time for somepeople. I don’t think that the
criticism leveled at Twitter is fair or accurate. It is generally based
on a misunderstanding of the technical problems they are facing. In the
case of TechCrunch, it’s a desire to drive traffic to the TechCrunch
website by fabricating conflict and making personal attacks.
Twitter has had a hard time scaling. This is obvious to anyone that uses
the service, and is readily admitted by the people behind Twitter. The
present problems have brought out all of the Armchair Architects, and
I’ve seen a lot of commentary stating “I don’t understand why this is so
hard, all you need to do is [insert gross over-simplification of the
problem here]”. It’s very easy to apply some 20/20 hindsight to this
problem, but another thing entirely to be in the trenches day after day
working to keep Twitter up and running while trying to make large-scale
changes to fix the underlying problems.
Here’s the thing. Twitter was started as a side-project inside Odeo. It
was developed in Ruby on Rails, the same tool that they had used
successfully to build Odeo. While this choice is a major discussion
point for their critics, it seems to me to have been a very reasonable
decision. Ruby on Rails was what they were familiar with, and at first
glance seems to be a good fit. I suspect most people would have made the
same decision, given the same situation. The bottom line: They made the
best decision they could, based on what they knew at the time. Keep in
mind that nobody even knew whether Twitter would gain any traction -
certainly none of them could have anticipated the warm reception it has
Obviously their existing architecture isn’t working. The fine folks at
Twitter have figured this out, and they are busy rebuilding the system
to handle the current load and scale accordingly. This isn’t an
overnight fix - it will take time to rebuild Twitter with all-new
innards. Let’s be patient. Frankly, the internet needs to take a
collective chill pill on this topic.
If you’re not following me on Twitter, you can remedy that
One of the most useful ideas I’ve seen in the past few years was
Dashboard. Dashboard was an open source
project launched by Nat Friedman of Ximian (since acquired by Novell).
It’s aim was to provide a “dashboard” of information relevant to you
while you were doing work. If you were having an IM conversation with
your friend Bob, it would show you the last few emails Bob had sent you,
previous IM conversations with Bob, Bob’s contact information from your
address book, etc.
I had always thought that Dashboard was an intriguing concept, and one
of the few examples of real innovation on the desktop that I have seen
in a while. It was a bit dissapointing to see the project get sidelined,
but these things happen.
A project emerged
for OS X that is based on the same concepts, although implemented
differently. It’s called
is written by Tom Insam who is a developer at
Dopplr (though all indications are that this is an
independent project and not supported or endorsed by Dopplr).
Shelf watches the applications you are using in OS X, and displays
relevent information from applications local to your computer as well as
web sites (like Dopplr, naturally). Here is Tom’s own description from
the Shelf website:
Shelf is an app for MacOS that looks at the current foreground
application, and tries to figure out if what youâ€™re looking at
corresponds to a person in your Address Book. Then itâ€™ll tell you
things about them. … Just run it. Itâ€™ll sit in the background, and
watch the foreground application. If it can tie something youâ€™re
looking at (the current url in your web browser, for instance, or the
target of an open chat) to a person in your Address Book, itâ€™ll open
a window and show you their name and picture, and itâ€™ll try to fetch
RSS feeds for any URLs in their address card.
Although it’s a newer project (only at version .13), Shelf seems to be
off to a promising start. It provides hooks into a number of different
applications on OS X already (according to the Shelf site):
Safari - looking at the foreground url, and for microformats in the
source of the current page.
Firefox - looking at the foreground url.
Mail.app - From the email address of the sender of the currently
NetNewsWire - From the homepage url of the currently selected
Twitterrific - From the homepage or twitter page urls of the
currently selected tweet.
Adium - From the IM username of the current conversation.
iChat - From the IM username of the current conversation.
Address Book - The currently selected person.
This is an idea whose time has come, I think. There are obviously some
gaps here, for example if you use GMail as your email application (as I
do), or Google Reader for RSS feeds. Integrating with all of these
applications is a tricky problem, but it’s not insurmountable. I think
it’s certainly worth solving though, as the benefits could be huge.
I hope this project doesn’t fall by the wayside, as it has too much of a
potential impact on the way we work. It’s possible that Apple will
implement something similar, it seems like the next logical progression
One of my favorite organizational tools is
Instiki. I use it for note-taking, maintaining
reference information, and keeping lists. I have several lists that I
keep in tables, and the other day I had need to make them sortable.
Here’s how I did it.
The first thing you need is Stuart Langridge’s
library. This is a library that allows you to make any table sortable,
just by giving it a class of “sortable”, and a unique ID. It’s smart
enough to figure out how to sort most kinds of data, so it will sort a
date column as a date, and a number column as a number. Very cool piece
Next, start editing the page with the table that you want to make
sortable. At the top add the following declaration:
Next we’ll modify the table. Usually tables in Textile look something
Jason Fried’s talk from O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference is up on IT Converstaions I’m
only about halfway through, but it’s great so far. I’ve not seen Jason
speak in person(Jason & Co, PLEASE schedule another Building of Basecamp
in Chicago!), but I’ve heard several talks of his online, and they’ve
all been great. This is no different.
In this post
Robert asserts (as he has before), that “the thick client is coming
back”. I’ll agree that some apps are best as desktop applications, but
that list is dwindling quickly. Maybe you haven’t seen
Robert, you’re starting to sound a little like these
I’m not a huge fan of MS, but there’s a fascinating
article at eWeek
on how Microsoft responds to threats (particularly this last
It’s an interesting insight into how good MS has gotten at responding
to this stuff.
Words and pictures by Larry Wright. A little bit of everything, mostly nerdy.