TechMan Texts: A neat hack job

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A true hack is a thing of beauty, using a technology in a way that is not its primary purpose.

Former TechTalk co-host Jody Farr told me about a hack he did recently to let his kids watch a bird's nest without disturbing the bird.

I'll let Jody give the geeky details:

"The camera I am using is a Microsoft HD USB camera, which had been purchased for my wife's laptop. It has a long flexible rubber leg that can be bent at any angle to fit the top of a laptop screen. I used packing tape to secure it inside a rectangular plastic bowl, which has then been hot-glued to a wooden plank.

"The plank is held in place on my porch windowsill by the window pane itself and a 10-pound dumbbell weight. The plastic bowl is upside down to act as a rain shield, and the camera has stayed totally dry during the rains we've had over the past couple weeks.

"The camera is then hooked to a powered USB 2.0 hub, along with a USB Wi-Fi dongle, and that is connected to the Raspberry Pi computer. This was needed because the Pi has two USB ports but isn't capable of passing enough current to run both the camera and the Wi-Fi.

"The software in use is a freeware Linux library called Motion. If I point my Web browser at the Raspberry Pi's internal LAN address, I can see a video running at one frame per second. Presumably, the software is taking those snapshots and comparing them to look for motion. When it sees motion, it FTPs that snapshot to my home server.

"I also wrote a Web application in Microsoft .NET that allows you to browse the pictures at this address:

"This has been a terrific project, especially for the kids because we've forbidden them to go anywhere near the nest, but they can still get a bird's-eye view (pardon the pun) of the nest. Mama Bird is sitting watch over three eggs that should hatch within the next week.

"The camera has also captured a fair amount of intrigue. A morning dove tried to take over the nest awhile back, and Mama had to fight her off. The camera caught the entire episode."

Both a low-tech hack to mount the camera and high-tech hack to record the images. The Raspberry Pi is a miniature computer that sells for $25 to $35. A considerable hobbyist community is growing up around it.

Whine of the week: Why is it so complicated to shut down an app on the iPad? First you have to push the button twice so you can see the app on the task bar at the bottom of the screen. Then you have to click and hold until the app starts to "wiggle." Then you have to click the "X." Then you have to push the button again to stop all the wiggling.

Why should you close apps running in the background? Mostly to extend battery life but also because sometimes when an app crashes, closing is the only way out.

Cord cutters benefit of the week: TechMan wasn't a religious watcher of "The X-Files" when it was on, largely because I worked at night. But when I did see it, I always enjoyed the episodes featuring the Lone Gunmen, hackers and conspiracy theorists Frohike, Langly and Byers.

So I got the yen to watch the episodes I had missed. I looked up Lone Gunmen on Wikipedia and found a list of the episodes in which the trio appeared. I went on Amazon Prime and searched the free streaming videos for the episodes.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Amazon Prime, which is $80 a year, is one of the best deals around. In addition to a host of streaming video of TV programs and movies, you get to borrow many books for your Kindle and free shipping on anything marked Prime, which is a lot of products.

Wikipedia also reminded me that there had been a short-lived spinoff series called "The Lone Gunmen." Although Amazon Prime didn't offer the series for free, I was able to find the pilot show and several more on YouTube. They say the future of TV is watching what you want rather than what is on. I'm starting to believe that.

Smart policy decision of the week: Facebook has said it will delete videos of people being decapitated. The social network had previously refused to ban the clips, saying people had a right to depict the "world in which we live," the BBC reported.

"We will remove instances of these videos that are reported to us while we evaluate our policy and approach to this type of content," Facebook said.

Website of the week: The Webby Awards are given each year by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences to outstanding websites in a variety of categories. Their website,, is a good place to discover new sites. One that I discovered was the winner of the websites by associations. The site,, is a slick guide to all the arts resources in the city including museums and events. The site also displays pieces of art from the collections in Philly.


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