Some Interesting Web Galleries

The past few weeks I’ve had a few fun web galleries fall into my lap with some unique collections of site, or taking a trip back in time exploring the history of the web.

Simone’s Collection of Web Desktops

This is a gallery of website meant to act like a computer desktop. These are a bit annoying to use, but fun at the same time.

Timeline of Web Design Evolution

This gallery includes a collection of popular websites, then lets you jump back in time to see their design evolution. It’s interesting to look at web design trends going back to the late 90’s.

Flash Game History

This one is pretty relevant given that Adobe Flash will stop working in a little over 100 days. Like the design evolution above, Flash definitely shaped what the webs looked like. This site takes a look at the history of Flash games and how it changed the video game industry. I can remember playing a lot of these games over the years.

Candy Cane Mentos

Candy Cane Mentos
Mentos Candy Cane

It has been quite some time since my last Mentos post. Don’t worry, I still love them and am still obsessed with them. I guess I just haven’t found anything newsworthy to say recently. I was browsing the holiday clearance section in Walgreens today, and ran across a roll I hadn’t seen before: Candy Cane Mentos. The roll caught my eye because it was in a red and white holiday striped package that claimed to be a new flavor. I was sad that nobody stuck one in my stocking for Christmas. They were super on sale, so I bought a couple rolls.

I popped one out as soon as I got in the car, and each Mentos candy has a small holiday icon on it. I’ve noticed that they’ve been doing more printing on Mentos lately. The flavor is really close to the standard mint, but there is a very slight hint of sweeter candy cane flavor in them. I think these were more about the packaging than the new flavor. Either way, they were a fun new roll… that I would love to find in my stocking… next year.

2019 Holiday Geek Gift Guide

Techory Snowflake

Aaaaaand… it’s holiday gift season again! Sneaks up on you doesn’t it? Black Friday has come and gone, so it’s time to get in gear and buy some stuff for the people you love (or hate?). I use this list as a helpful resource for my own gift-giving to (geeky) friends and family. Most of the guides listed below fall into geeky/techie categories, but a few are also useful for general gift-giving as well. I’ll try to keep this post up to date as I encounter additional gift lists and guides. If you know of any I may have misted, leave a comment and I’ll get it added. Happy (geeky) gifting!

(Guides from previous years: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004)

How to Backup Google Photos Locally after Google Drive Sync Changes

Google Photos Icon

Back in June, Google changed how it’s Backup and Sync product works with Google Photos. I used to rely on that tool to backup (or back down?) all the photos I had stored in Google Photos. I’ve used a Pixel phone for a number of years which includes free full-res storage in the Google Photo cloud, so that’s where most of my photos live. With the now-defunct Backup and Sync, you used to be able to sync all the photos to your desktop along with all your Google Docs. Googled killed that in June because it was supposedly “confusing to users.” In doing so, there was no longer an easy way to pull down my photos locally. Google recommends using their takeout service, which seems to be a bit flaky and time consuming (you queue up your entire backup and then wait for Google to send you a mishmash of zip files). Also, there’s no good way to automate it. I just wanted to to have a automatic sync with any new photo I added to Google Photos to the local photo library on my desktop.

So it turns out that Google has made this task, which was previously automated, fairly difficulty to do. After a lot of digging, I think I found something that gets me fairly close to how the old Backup and Sync used to function. A Python script on GitHub called Google Photos Sync seems to do the trick. This handy script can backup all the photos uploaded to Google Photos as well as photos created by Google (animations, panos, movies, collages etc.). Once running, the tool will create a directory named with the date, and filled with photos from that date, which is pretty similar to the old drive sync.

Since it’s a Python script, it takes a little bit of work to get it up and running on Windows. I found a helpful post in the GitHub comments to get things rolling. After installing Python and the script, I had a few issues with odd spaces in my file paths, but finally got things working. Now I have a Windows batch file set to run daily in scheduler to pull down any new photos. It’s been running successfully for about a month now, and I have the backup of my backup functioning again.

It’s a shame that Google broke a helpful feature, but that seems to be what Google does. Thankfully there was an alternative this time around.

2018 Holiday Geek Gift Guide

Techory Snowflake

Here we go again folks… time to buy stuff for those you love (or hate?). Black Friday is over, but we still have (badly named) Cyber Week ahead of us. This year is a milestone for my gift guide collection. We’ve made it 15 years! It started before there even was a Cyber Week a helpful list to use with my own gift-giving for (geeky) friends and family. Most of the guides listed below fall into geeky/techie categories, but a few are also useful for general gift-giving as well. As usual, I will try to keep this post up to date as I encounter additional gift lists and guides. If you know of any I may have misted, leave a comment and I’ll get it added. Enjoy, and happy geeky gift giving!

(Guides from previous years: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004)

LEGO Built an Actual (drivable) Car!

I’ve been eyeing the LEGO Millennium Falcon since it was announced last year. That’s their $800, 7541-piece set. I’ve even entered into an agreement with my nephew to go in on the purchase of said LEGO set… he has yet to contribute any funding. I told him we could just dip into his college fund, but he parents didn’t think that would be a good idea. Anyway, maybe we’ll save up enough for it some day.

Today LEGO topped that kit. They built an actual car. Not a tiny little LEGO car to play with, but a real, life size, drivable Bugatti Chiron made out of LEGO Technic parts. It doesn’t look like it goes quite as fast as the real thing, but is a pretty impressive task.

I guess we need to start saving up for this kit now.

LCD Handheld Games Now Part of the Internet Archive

Double Dragon Handheld game

I just got lost down a rat-hole of nostalgia. The Internet Archive has recently added a collection of playable old-school handheld video games. Their new Handheld History section houses close to 75 versions of retro handheld games. You can play them emulated right in your browser window! My brothers and I had a number of these games growing up. The collection includes super old school games like Simon and Electronic Quarterback. It also includes many of the the old Konami wedge shaped games (that we had a lot of as kids). I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I remember saving my allowance up for several weeks to buy that one. The collection also includes quite a few of the Tiger brand games as well. My brother had Double Dragon.

The archive blog has a post about the process that goes into archiving these games since it’s not just graphics on a screen like most emulated games. They have to physically take the game apart to determine what parts of the LCD light at which time and to save the pre-printed background image of the screen.

Handheld History Games

Check out the Handheld History Archive, and prepare to get lost in retro game history.

2017 Holiday Geek Gift Guide

Techory SnowflakeAnother Black Friday, and (the terribly named) Cyber Monday have passed us by, so that means it’s time for another Holiday Geek Gift Guide. This is year number 14 for this gift guide. It started before there even was a Cyber Monday as a way for me to help with my own gift-giving for (geeky) friends and family. I’m a self-proclaimed geek, so I like to give geek gifts (tech, gadgets, etc.). Most of the guides listed below fall into those categories, but a few are also useful for general gift-giving as well. As usual, I will try to keep this post up to date as I encounter additional gift lists and guides. If you know of any I may have misted, leave a comment and I’ll get it added. Enjoy, and happy (geek) shopping!

(Guides from previous years: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004)

 

Cutting Cable with Android TV and an OTA Antenna

It’s been quite some time since I’ve made any updates to our home media system. It’s worked really well for quite a few years. We had been using an older Windows Media Center computer with an XBox 360 as an extender to other TV’s. The last update to that system was back in 2012, adding a CableCard so that we could watch and record encoded channels from our cable provider. The time has finally come for the old HTPC system (and paying for cable) to be retired. I started to add up our yearly costs for cable (we only had a tier above basic) and decided we didn’t need the expense when we could get just about everything we had over the internet and (free!) over-the-air through an antenna. Once the new equipment comes out of the equation, we’ll be saving over $500 per year by going this route. The setup took several steps to complete, in both new hardware and services.

Antenna

The most complicated part of cutting the cord was getting the antenna installed and working. I started with a really helpful site called TVFool, that maps out all of the stats about the TV signals in your area. You put in your address, and it provides all the nitty-gritty details about pointing your antenna in the right direction, and the distance of the signals. This helped in selecting the correct antenna for me to purchase. I didn’t really want to attach the antenna to the outside of my house, so I knew I needed something a little more powerful than the maximum distance listed listed for the signals on my TVFool report since I’d be shooting through the roof. I landed on the Channel Master 4228HD, with a listed range of 80 miles. The maximum distance I needed to reach from my TV Fool Signal Analysis was about 47 miles. I figured the extra listed distance on the 4228HD would help me get through the attic and pick up those signals I wanted. Just to make sure, I also purchased a Channel Master CM-3410 1-Port Amplifier for a little extra oomph.

Now that I had an antenna and amp, I was ready for the most daunting task in this whole process, getting the antenna installed. I found a spot in my attic to place the antenna, and purchased an Antenna Mount to get it up off the floor and make it easier to aim. I also picked up a 100-foot roll of RG-6 coaxial cable from Lowes to run the connection from my attic to the basement. My initial plan was to run the cable down through the wall. I thought I’d found an unobstructed run that followed a ventilation pipe to the central home run downstairs. After a couple of trips into the (hot!) attic, I discovered that my original plan wasn’t going to work. With the slope of the roof, my attic didn’t have the clearance for me to get close enough to the external wall I was going to feed the cable through. Fortunately, there is a closet on the main floor fairly close to the area in the basement I needed to run the coax. I drilled a hole in the upper corner of the closet ceiling and then in the lower corner of the closet floor and ran the cable through there. I secured the cable to the corner of the closet with coax clips. So, while you can still see the cable running through the closet, it doesn’t matter since it’s the corner of a (closed door) closet. I also got lucky and discovered a power outlet in the attic that I could use to run the amp. I had originally planned to power the amp in the basement, but read that the closer you can get the amp to the antenna the better. The cable-running gods were smiling on me that day.

Once the cable was run, I had to mount and connect the antenna. I secured the antenna mount to the house frame, hoisted the antenna, and secured it to the pole. This allowed me to get things pointed in the right direction. My TV Fool Signal Analysis showed that the closest and most concentrated clump of signals was around the 341-degree mark. I used a compass app on my phone (and an old compass I had from Cub Scouts) to get things pointed the right way. All I was really needed for my setup was signals from the major networks (ABC, CBC, NBC, Fox, PBS). The rest of my channels would come in streaming (more on that later). I got everything mounted, powered the amp, secured my excess cables with clips and headed to the basement to hook up the tuner.

Tuner

With the antenna secured in the attic, I needed a way to capture that signal and get it through the house. I have had a collection of SiliconDust HdHomeRun devices over the years (their original tuner, and their cablecard Prime tuner). After trying my old tuner, I leared that I needed to upgrade once again to the HDHomeRun Connect Tuner to get everything working this time. I thought I could use the original Dual tuner I had, but it didn’t work with the DVR functions in Android TV (more on that later), so I grabbed a new HDHR Connect, and threw the old one to ebay. I plugged everything in and hooked up the newly run coax cable coming from the antenna in the attic, and ran the HDHomeRun software to see if this was going to work. I was slightly worried that I wasn’t going to pick up the signals I wanted. The first time I ran the channel scan, I was getting a weak signal from NBC, so I made another trip to the attic (did I mention it’s hot up there!?!) to adjust the antenna angle one more time. Bingo! I was able to pick up 23 channels over-the-air, including all of the networks I was looking for. The nice thing about all of the HDHomeRun devices is that you plug it straight into your network and it pushes the TV through your house that way, so there’s no need for a tuner on each device. The hardest parts of this new setup were out of the way now, time to get some set top boxes to pull it all together!

Android TV

Now that TV signals are flowing through the house, we need some way to get it to the TV’s, and connect up the other media services we want to use. I landed on Android TV devices because they had a good way to pull in the antenna signal and also provide DVR capabilities (when using a USB hard drive to save the recordings). There are a lot of choices out there (Roku, AppleTV, Android Fire TV), but from what I could tell at the time I was researching this, Android TV was going to be the best choice based on how it worked with the over-the-air signal. As of Android TV version 7, Google provides an app called “Live Channels” that will see the HDHomeRun signal (it also works with other tuners) over the network and pull it into an app and provide a standard schedule/channel grid as well as let you watch and record live TV on your device. There are a number of Android TV devices out there. I decided to get the NVIDIA Shield TV for our main living room TV since I wanted something a little beefier for out primary viewing spot. For the other two TV’s in the house, I got the less powerful and less expensive Xiaomi Mi Box. The configuration for the Live Channels app picked up the 23 channels that the HDHomeRun found, and worked like a charm. I also installed a number of other apps on the device that we use for entertainment (HBO Now, NetFlix, Amazon Video, YouTube, Playstation Vue, Plex to name a few). The other nice thing about the Android TV boxes, is that they also work as a Chromecast. I previously had a stand-alone Chromecast on our TV that I can now move elsewhere since that function is built in. So far I’ve been pretty happy with Android TV, and once everything is configured, it’s pretty easy to use. I’ll also mention that the NVIDIA Shield came with a game controller and provides a nice list of gaming options that I haven’t really started to play with yet… something to try out later.

Streaming TV

To round out the TV offerings, we needed to fill in the other channels that we couldn’t get over-the-air. I did a bunch of research into this as well. There are a number of streaming TV providers that have popped up the past few years that I looked at for price and for channel choices. The top of that list included SlingTV, DirectTV Now, and Playstation Vue. They all had pretty similar price points, but the one we landed on was Playstation Vue because of their channel, and more specifically, their sports offerings. We needed to be able to watch our Iowa Hawkeyes Football, so we needed a service that had all the ESPN’s as well as Big Ten Network. Playstation Vue offered all of those options at a pretty good price (also, my wife needed her HGTV!). We signed up for service at about $44/month (less than half of what we were paying for cable!) and installed the Vue app on our devices. The interface is nice with an interesting, but pretty usable side-scrolling channel grid. Vue also offers a DVR cloud service so we can select programs we want to save for watching later.

Final Thoughts

It’s been quite a process to get everything moved over, but we’re generally pretty happy with how it all landed. We’re still getting used to the new system and interface (an app for local channels and a separate app for cable channels), but it’s coming together. I’ll also mention that I was able to get everything running with my Harmony Remote and home automation, so our remote control interface hasn’t changed. The streaming service is pretty good, and there really isn’t a show or series that we’re missing. Even if we want to change to a different service later, or add another service, we can do that pretty easily with the flexibility of the Android TV… just download another app. Also it felt really really good to call the cable company (and wait on hold for 25 minutes… sigh!) and tell them it was time to break up.

Mentos History

It’s been awhile since I’ve made a Mentos post. Don’t worry, I still love them and am still obsessed with them. I still get rare Mentos deliveries from other countries (via my Mentos Ambassadors) In fact, I’m sitting next to a large pile of rare Mentos as I type this post. I was scrolling through my feed reader last night and up comes a really great article from Mental_floss that took me on a trip down memory lane through the history of Mentos.

The Bizarre History of Those ’90s Mentos Commercials (via Mental_floss)

I remember a lot of that and most of it is probably the reason I became obsessed with the candy of the gods. The article mentions the Mentos FAQ, which I fondly remember accessing via Usenet back in the early days of the Internet. Take a trip down memory lane about how Mentos gained their popularity in the US.

Also, I’ll just leave this here…

Smart Home Part Two: Smartthings, Amazon Echo, and Harmony Remote

Check out my last smart home post, Making My House a Bit Smarter with SmartThings, to see how things got started.

Echo + SmartThingsI’ve been slowly making additions to make my home smarter over the past year. I received an Amazon Echo for my birthday this year (thanks Jess!). Out of the box, it has the ability to communicate with SmartThings, so I decided to see what I could hook together. My first foray into voice control was configuring the Echo to turn my already-connected smart bulbs on and off. To set that up, I had to give them a name in SmartThings, and then hook the “smart home” section of the Echo app software at my SmartThings account. The echo then does a quick search of my connected devices to see what things it can control. It quickly found all of my connected “things,” and let me select the ones that I wanted the Echo to have access to. I can now control both lamps by asking Alexa to turn on or off “lamp right” or “lamp left” (the names I gave them when I set them up in SmartThings). I currently have both of those lamps on a timer sequence set in SmartThings, so they are usually alreaady on when they’re needed, so adding voice control wasn’t really necessary outside of novelty purposes. But it’s still pretty cool to be able to call out to the Echo from across the room to turn a lamp on or off.

Kitchen Lighting

GE Z-Wave Wireless Lighting Control Smart Toggle Switch 12727After getting a couple more OSRAM smart bulbs for Christmas this year (thanks Matt!), I started to look into some other uses for them, and to try and find opportunities to better integrate the Echo with house controls. That search led me to our kitchen. There are currently two sets of lights in my kitchen, some inset overhead flood lights, and some hanging pendant lights over the counter. We regularly use both of those sets of lights to light the kitchen and living room areas much of the time. Being able to control those lights with an app and by voice via the Echo would be the most beneficial addition. I started to investigate individual smart bulbs for all of the kitchen lights, but quickly determined that going that route might be overkill, and expensive. There are seven separate bulbs (overhead and pendant) in the kitchen, and I didn’t really need to be able to control each bulb individually, nor could I justify the price for an expensive smart bulb for each fixture. Both the ceiling floods and the pendants have their own single switch, so instead of smart bulbs, I started looking for smart switches. I landed on GE Z-Wave Wireless Lighting Control Smart Toggle Switch 12727. I wanted something that had a similar look and feel to the current switches in the house. I believe GE makes several different version of the switch if you need a different look or switch type. Installation was pretty straightforward (always remember to disconnect the circuit before doing electric work… safety first!). The most difficult part was getting the new switches to fit into electrical box, since the smart electronics take up a bit more room than the standard switches I was replacing. Once I got them in there and connected to the existing wiring, the SmartThings hub found them right away. I could control them using the SmartThings app, and set up some timers sequences and proximity actions to turn the lights on when we arrive home after sundown using the location of our phones. Once I did a simple refresh in the smart home ares of the Echo echo app, it found the new SmartThings, and I could turn them on and off with my voice using the Echo. I can now ask Alexa to turn on “kitchen pendants” or “kitchen ceiling.” I also have the lights grouped into a “room” in SmartThings, so Alexa can also turn or or off the entire kitchen with the “turn on kitchen” command. We probably use that command now more than anything else we ask of Alexa. It’s really handy when we’re coming into the house with a lot of things in our hands and can just ask Alexa to turn on the lights.

TV Control

The other somewhat recent addition to my smart home is TV control. I’ve been using a Harmony universal remote for several years. The one I had previously started to go bad, so I ended up purchasing a newer Logitech Harmony Hub Companion All in One Remote Control. My original need for that remote was just to get a working universal remote (so I don’t need 4 separate remote sitting on the coffee table), but it turned out that the Harmony Hub can also communicate with the Amazon Echo… so why not add it as a skill?!? The setup for the Harmony hub was actually a little more difficult, but that’s mainly due to the complexity of the Harmony software’s ability to control hundreds of different options on many devices. Once I got the Harmony hub and the remote configured, I just needed to make sure the items I would want to control via voice had a name that was easy to call out to the Echo. I think that the Echo can connect with Harmony natively, but I still connected it through the SmartThings Hub (they all talk the same language). I just figured it would be easier to troubleshoot if everything was running through SmartThings. I didn’t even try to connect the Echo directly to the Harmony using the native interface/skill, so I don’t know how easy or difficult that process is. The only command we really use regularly with the Harmony is “turn on tv” or “turn off tv” and it works well. I also want to put in a plug for how great the Harmony systems is on its own. The remote is nice and slim, and uses RF instead of IR, which is great so you don’t need to be pointing directly at the device you want to control. The hub comes with a mini IR blaster that sends the signals to your devices. I have the hub box hidden behind the TV out of the way, and the IR blaster pulled out in front to send signals to the TV and Xbox. It works really well.

 

The Robots are Writing Christmas Songs

I’m pretty sure this is one of the indicators of the upcoming robot rebellion. Apparently the University of Toronto pointing some artificial intelligence at a photo of a Christmas tree, and it came up with a (very odd) Christmas song. This “neural karaoke” program can look at an image and make it into a creepy song. Check out the full story on The Guardian.

I for one welcome our new holiday robot overlords.

2016 Holiday Geek Gift Guide

Techory SnowflakeAnother Black Friday has passed us by. It’s now Cyber Monday and the beginning of cyber week (is that new? how long have we called it cyber week?) so that means it’s time for another Holiday Geek Gift Guide. This is the 13th year I’ve created a gift guide. It started as a way for me to help with my own gift shopping for (geek) friends and family. I’m a geek, so I like to give geek gifts (tech, gadgets, etc.). Most of the guides listed below fall into those categories, but a few are also useful for general gift giving as well. I will keep this post up to date as I encounter additional lists. If you know of any I may have misted, leave a comment and I’ll get it added. Enjoy, and happy (geek) shopping!

(Guides from previous years: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004)