The Technology Optimist

I suppose I could rightfully be accused of thinking too often that I can solve a problem around my house with the application of just a little more technology. Guilty as charged. But for some problems, technology is the best answer, or the only rational answer.

Nicholas Negroponte is also a “TO.” I love the vision of the One Laptop per Child organization he helped to found, to “empower the world’s poorest children through education” and to provide that education, in part, by providing

each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

I bought two of these XO laptops, for my two older children, when the devices first came out. The organization had a “Buy One, Get One” campaign at that time. I would have called it a “Buy Two, Get One” campaign, though, because you paid for two devices and only received one. The other one went to a child somewhere the organization was deploying them, generally in conjunction with federal governments. Each “pair” of laptops cost $400 at the time. They were really nifty devices, so well thought out for their purpose like no commercial product could be. They were designed to be serviceable and rugged. The screen was an amazing piece of technology developed just for the XO — it was a color display, but had a monochrome mode that was enabled by turning the backlight all the way down. And in the monochrome mode, the screen was completely readable in the bright sun. This was important to them, because in rural African villages, which were one of their target “markets” that’s where school is held!

The devices were also designed to work together to provide a “mesh” network, so that if there was internet access in a village, the laptops themselves could extend the network outward to homes. They also came up with innovative chargers, and other adjunct bits of support technology. Later on, I bought a third one from a friend who had bought a couple, but wasn’t using one.

In the end, my kids treated the devices more as toys than anything else, at least in part because they had easy access to computers at home that were much more powerful. And I happily donated the three back to the foundation. They continue to work on innovative hardware and software to help spread knowledge and educate children.

So today my Twitter Feed had a link to an IndieGoGo campaign that sounded intriguing and very “TO” — the Lantern. This is a nifty, pocket(ish) sized device that receives all kinds of content over a satellite link, and can provide a wifi hotspot that any wifi enabled device can connect to in order to consume the content. It’s not an “active” connection to the internet, but rather acts like a web server with static content. They plan to provide the content of wikipedia, among many other things, including near real time news and weather info. This can help in areas where other infrastructure has been affected, or where governments restrict access to the internet. And as it’s a broadcast technology, nobody can easily track who’s receiving the data. They compare the drive to get these devices out to people like Andrew Carnegie’s building of public libraries, and it’s not hard to see why.

Whither Weather?

A long, long time ago, we had an amateur weather station (Oregon Scientific WMR-968) at our house. It had a wind vane/anemometer; a rain gauge; an outdoor thermometer/hygrometer; and an indoor thermometer/hygrometer/barometer. It came with a nice LCD display, and all the instruments communicated their data to the display wirelessly. The instruments also had a small solar panel, and a battery compartment, all weather-tight. The solar panels charged a built-in pair of small rechargeable batteries, and the batteries would power the instrument and the radio. There was also room for you to install fancy/expensive Lithium AA batteries which would allow the instruments to work down to -40 F. The console could be connected to a computer as well, and the computer could run software to gather the data from the instruments, log it, and even post it on the internet! We ran our own little weather site, a sub-domain of tastewar.com, but also posted the data to some other sites, notably The Weather Underground. (Not to be confused with the Weather Underground). It was fun knowing that we were helping to provide a “public service” and conceptually having all that weather data on file.

Well, eventually (after a good number of years), the instruments began to fail. I think a big part of it was the built-in rechargeable batteries. I made a half-hearted attempt at building new battery packs from rechargeable cells I bought on eBay, but never really succeeded, and the station fell into disuse until it was only a clock (yet another clock that had to be reset whenever the power went out). And long before that, the PC that had been logging the weather and posting it to the internet had been replaced with a Mac, and I never took the time to find good Mac software to do the same thing. So we’ve been out of the weather picture for a long time. But it’s always been on my mind to get back in the game.

This Christmas, I used my Christmas money to buy an inexpensive weather station from Costco.

It’s an Acurite 5-in-1 with a snazzy display.

It provides the same basic instruments as the old station, but all the outdoor instruments are housed in a single package. This certainly makes installation easier, but the downside is that the location for each instrument is somewhat compromised. Your anemometer/wind vane is supposed to be up as high as possible, away from any obstructions. Temperature readings, on the other hand, are supposed to be taken at four feet above ground, and the instrument should be out of direct sun, yet away from buildings, etc. Similar for the rain gauge, etc. Oh well! I am just excited to have a weather station again!

The console for this station can also be connected to a computer, and of course, you can run software on the computer to log the data, post to the internet, etc. This time, though, it’s not connected to a big, traditional PC, but rather to a Raspberry Pi,

so it’s very unobtrusive. We are using Meteohub software which is the only Linux package I could find that supports this station. You can view our weather data at The Weather Underground. Someday, we may re-create our own weather site as well.

Going out of Business!

As a kid in high school, I loved reading through the catalogs that came in the mail. Biking catalogs were a favorite. Bike Nashbar and Performance Bicycle I remember. Campmor was another with all kinds of cool outdoorsy gear. But one of the most interesting that came in our mailbox was the Hidalgo Sunglasses catalog. It was printed on cheap newsprint, in black and white, but came loaded with interesting information about sunglasses, and prescription glasses as well. It had actual size pictures of the frames, so you could cut them out and try them on for size. Of course, back then I couldn’t afford anything in the catalog, but I learned a lot by reading it.

Since the dawn of the web, I’ve kept looking for Hidalgo on the web, but they were very late to the game. They did finally arrive, however, in more of a “Web 1.0” style than the “2.0” that was gaining traction. It still looks rather dated, but is full of good information and you can still actually download the entire old fashioned catalog as a PDF. According to the Wayback Machine, they first had a web site around 2001, but it was just a handful of static pages until 2010, when you could finally order from it!

I just visited again today, mostly to find the right URL to pass along to a friend, and discovered that Hidalgo is going out of business. Now I have to decide whether to buy a pair of sunglasses from them before they go out of business…

A Very Placid Day

Today we spend largely in the Lake Placid area, after an excellent breakfast at the ADK Cafe on Rt. 73 where Emma had the best French Toast she’s ever had, made with homemade bread. From there, it was just a few miles up the road to Lake Placid, and on the way we stopped at one of the Olympic Training Centers to look into letting the kids have a bobsled run (with trained driver and brakeman). They were a bit busy, but we bought tickets for later in the day for Emma and Tyler, as Clara wasn’t interested. We then drove up into the little resort town, with a very brief stop at the ski jumping area, but you had to pay to drive closer, and we had a pretty good view from the road, and nobody was particularly interested in taking the elevator up to look down the jump and ride back down the elevator. We did see a few kids coming down into the parking lot on luges, which was presumably something else you could pay to do. In the town, it started to rain, and in fact it even hailed a bit! We parked and walked; had some ice cream, then split into two groups for the rest of the afternoon while the weather continued to rain on and off. Clara and Tom stayed in town, checking out all the little shops, while Susan, Emma, and Tyler went back to the bobsled area. Emma and Tyler had an excellent run on the bobsled, though apparently their run was at the height of the rain. Emma is pretty convinced at this point that its her pants that are cursed, bringing on downpours while she’s outdoors and unable to shelter. After we met up again, we drove back down the mountain and to the next town over, and had a nice dinner at the Noon Mark Diner.

Keene to get back to the U.S. of A.

Today was largely a travel day, but we did start the day with fresh from the boulangerie croissants, etc. On our way out of town, we stopped at one final attraction, St. Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal. It really is an amazing shrine, and many people were passing through at the same time as us. Many healings there have been attributed to Frère André, who has since been canonized.

Our visit to Montreal would have been incomplete without having eaten crepes, so we went to La Bulle au Carré for lunch,IMG_1157.JPG and had some savory crepes as well as some chocolate crepes for dessert. In addition to the food, they had a foosball table, books, and other time passers. With that accomplished, we did get back on the road to NY. One thing we were pleased to have accomplished was not using the car during our stay in Montreal. We walked (a lot), and took the Metro (some), and even biked once (well, some of us). Our lodging was ideal for this, located within walking distance of a number of Metro stops, and much of what we wanted to see.

The drive to Keene, NY, was about as uneventful as possible, and included another delightfully easy border crossing, though as per usual, the U.S. border agent was more stern than his Canadian counterpart.

We made one sightseeing stop on the way into Keene, at AuSable Chasm. It is mostly a tourist trap, and you have to pay to walk near it. But you can at least see what spectacle there is from the nearby bridge, so we did that.

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Last Full Day in Montreal

Today’s forecast looked pretty good in the morning, with an increased chance of rain in the afternoon, so we decided to head over to the Botanical Gardens early, and make our way over to the BioSphere later, since we’d be mostly inside. The gardens were lovely

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20140805-232017-84017391.jpg and we got to see many styles of garden, but still felt like we barely scratched the surface.

The Gardens are also right across he street from the main stadium from the 1976 Olympics, so we got to see the outskirts of that as well

After an unintentionally expensive lunch, we went to the BioSphere, which had interesting exhibits about the environment and our effect on it. We got to see a presentation on cyclones, which used Katrina and Hyaiyan to highlight their destructiveness. Emma had just lived through Rammasun while visiting there and saw some of the devastation that Haiyan wrought up close. Another exhibit showcased artistic ways of turning refuse into dresses. Here’s an example

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Once we had finished at the BioSphere, we split into two groups. Susan and Tyler took the Metro back to the Old Port where they rented a bicycle car

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and on the walk home from there, they came upon (but did not fall into) a Burning Ring of Fire

20140806-083901-31141677.jpg. Meanwhile, the girls and I rented Bixi bikes and rode to the Old Port. Along the way, while we were riding across a bridge, the skies opened up on us like never before. Emma and Clara had puddles in their shoes. But we did get something out of it

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Trip Tech

I used to have a Linksys Travel Router that I’d bring with me on trips. It was one I’d bought on eBay and had loaded special 3rd party firmware (dd-wrt) onto it. But it became unreliable. So naturally, I bought another one. But this time I decided not to complicate my life by changing the firmware on it.

Well, this is now the first trip where I’m wanting to use it, and I was immediately reminded why I’d bothered with the alternative firmware in the first place: the original Linksys firmware had a nifty feature that let the router connect to one wifi network, but then offer a different one for its clients. That means that you don’t have to start connecting to new wifi nets on all your devices. Only the router needs to connect to the new one, and everything else connects to it. Problem is, the Linksys firmware only let you connect to open networks. So at some point I’ll have to invest the hours and anxiety to see if I can put better firmware on it.

Our apartment was not advertised as having internet access, so I was anticipating having to find the occasional coffee shop (*not* hard to find here!) to stop in at and catch up on email, etc. Thankfully, it was just an oversight in the listing, because our phones, set to Airplane mode, are basically glorified iPods here in Canada, unless we want to pay roaming charges. Going without makes you realize how much we take for granted, and also how possible it is to do without.

Night Lights

So tonight, after dinner, we took another walk through parts of Old Montreal, for the light show. Apparently, there’s been an ongoing effort to add lighting effects to many old buildings to showcase some of their architectural details. The highlight of the tour is certainly Notre Dame Cathedral.

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A Full Day of Montreal


When we woke up this morning, and started planning our day, it was drizzly, and the forecast called for possible rain until mid afternoon. So we planned more of an indoorsy day, including the Underground City and a Metro trip out to the BioSphere but by the time we were ready to go, the rain had stopped and the sky was blue.

So, we changed plans somewhat, and walked some distance in the Underground City,20140804-195234-71554705.jpg then hopped on the Metro to get back close to Old Montreal. We spent a good part of the morning walking around the Old City, enjoying the geography, architecture, historic sites, 20140804-194306-70986440.jpgand the artists on Place Jacques Cartier. 20140804-194306-70986136.jpgWe ended up eating lunch at a restaurant where the rest of the family ate lunch last time they were in Montreal, then we walked down to the Old Port and enjoyed more little shops, etc. Afterwards, we wound our way back through the Old Port,20140804-194305-70985752.jpg found an ice cream shop on a side street en route to Notre Dame, where we stopped to take photos.20140804-194305-70985385.jpg Then back to our cozy apartment where we cooked a simple dinner of pasta and Caesar Salad.

 

 

 

 

Zip, Basin, Montreal!

We started our day, as planned, with an early departure from our lodge, and headed out for our big adventure of the day — “ziplining” at Alpine Adventures, but before that we did make a stop for breakfast at the White Mountain Bagel Co. We noticed that some of the tour guides from Alpine Adventures were also getting breakfast there, so we felt as though we had made a good choice. On the ZipLine tour, we were told to leave all our valuables in our car, so we didn’t actually take a camera with us. We also didn’t quite want to splurge on the GoPro camera rental to record our adventure for posterity. So you’ll have to take our word for it that it was fun, and not at all like the SouthPark episode.

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After our adventure, we drove back up I-93 to the Basin. The kids had a blast here; the fun rivaled that of ziplining in fact. As a parent, it was a little more nerve wracking watching them walk across the fast moving stream, on slippery rocks, etc. I tried to always remain downstream, just in case. An interesting contrast to the ziplining which might well have more inherent danger, but which is offset by the professional guides and abundant safety equipment. In any case, we all managed to survive yet again.

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After that, we got back on I-93N and finally, finally drove further north than our lodge. We’d managed to spend a lot of time driving south on I-93 from our lodging, then heading back north to it. This is what comes of a trip with planned lodging and spontaneous activities. Or one possible outcome, anyway. We had a good stretch of driving left to get to Montreal, so we planned to have lunch in St. Johnsbury, where I-93 and I-91 meet. We found a nondescript Chinese restaurant there, and had a mediocre lunch. We fueled up the car, confirmed our lodging, and headed up I-91 for the remainder of the U.S. portion of the driving. The border crossing couldn’t have been easier, and we made it to our rental apartment at about 5:30.

This was a bit of an experiment — we arranged some of our stays through Airbnb where we get to rent people’s apartments (or homes) for short term stays. So our accommodations in Montreal are cute — we’re in a small, garden level apartment a couple of blocks from Old Montreal (in Chinatown, I guess).

After getting settled, we walked a couple of blocks to the big IGA supermarket and bought some groceries so we could have a couple of breakfasts in the apartment, as well as one dinner. After that, we walked through the Place des Arts where there was some indigenous festival going on, with live music, and native arts being demonstrated, etc. From there we walked a bit more to find dinner at a local pizza restaurant, Il Focolaio. This was a lovely restaurant, and we got to eat at a table (actually, three adjacent tables that couldn’t be pushed together because they’re screwed to the flooring 🙂 ) outdoors, and it was a perfect night for it. An older, apparently Italian couple came and sat at the table next to us a bit later, and as if to demonstrate for us the cosmopolitan feel of the city, our waiter, whose parents were apparently from Italy, started chatting with them in Italian.

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