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)


Amazon Dash Button for Mentos

If ever there was a frivolous device it’s the Amazon Dash Button. Unfortunately, they made one I couldn’t turn down. You all know that I’m obsessed with Mentos, so when I discovered there was a Dash Button that would send me Mentos at the touch of a button, I had to order it. It showed up in the mail today and I ran through the setup, which requires installing the Amazon App on your phone and syncing it to the button. It gave me the choice of a few Mentos items (a case of 15, mint Mentos, and a few options for Mentos Gum), confirmed my shipping address and it was ready to go. So now whenever I have a craving for Mentos (OK, that’s always), I can hit a button and they will be on my front steps in 48 hours thanks to Amazon Prime.

Mentos Dash Button

Novel concept? Sure, that’s why I bought it (and because it says Mentos on it)
Frivolous and unnecessary? Yah, that too (but it says Mentos on it!).

Making My House a Bit Smarter with SmartThings

pXeg7y-JI have been thinking about how to make my home smarter for a little while now, but never really had a truly compelling reason to make the investment. The most common use of smart home devices seemed to be turning on and off lights, which didn’t really appeal to me. I think a physical light switch is far easier (and quicker) to use than pulling out a smartphone, turning it on, entering a pass, finding and loading an app, navigating to a particular light and hitting the on button. A couple months ago, I finally found an excuse to dip a toe into the world of home automation. A few people in our neighborhood had a sewer back-flow issues and ended up with flooded basements. Not wanting that to happen to me, I started investigating water and leak sensors that send a notification or text message to my phone if water is detected. I found a few stand-alone options, but eventually opted for something that would be a little more extendable in the future. I landed on SmartThings. This company started as a Kickstarter project in 2012 and were recently purchased by Samsung. The SmartThigns model works in a hub + device model. You install a small hub, and connect it to power (it also has battery backup) and your network, and it talks to all the smart home devices (the “things”) that you install. One of the reasons I liked SmartThings was that it functions with a lot of different smart home technologies including ZigBee, Z-Wave, IP independent of the manufacturer. There are a number of products on the market that only talk to one specific brand of device. SmartThings is very open, and will work with any devices using those communication technologies.

SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit

To kick things off, I purchased the home monitoring kit. SmartThings sells just the hub alone and each of it’s “things” as well. I was keeping and eye out, and found a good sale on the full Home Monitoring Kit, which includes the hub and a number of additional devices to use with it.

  • Two Multipurpose Sensors to monitor whether doors, windows, cabinets, or your garage are open or closed
  • A Motion Sensor to monitor movement in your home
  • An Outlet to control lights, electronics, and small appliances

The hub is a small white box, a little less than 5″ in size. You plug it into power and into your network and you’re good to go. Setup is pretty straightforward. You use the hub ID printed on the device, and connect to it for the first time with the SmartThings app on Android or iOS. Once it’s configured, you use the app to interact with it and connect additional devices to it. I have only used one of the devices in the kit so far, the multipurpose sensor, which I’ll go into with my garage door setup below.

Leak Sensor

The SmartThings Water Leak Sensor is the primary reason I jumped into this in the first place. I purchased two sensors, one for the sump pump room and the other for the room with my water heater and water softener. The sensor is just a small battery-powered box with two short metal prong on the bottom. Setup is pretty easy with this “thing” as well as all things. You power up the device and then via the app select “Connect New Device.” the hub will see it and let you know what it found. From there you can set up rules and routines for those devices, and put them into groups, or “rooms” to organize them. For the water leak sensor, when water comes in contact with the two prongs on the bottom, it sends a signal to the hub which then follows the rule I set up and sends out an alert via the SmartThings App as well as a text message. The video below shows the sensor and what happens when it comes in contact with water (a wet paper towel in my demo).

Lighting Control



You’re probably reading this and thinking, “This is exactly what you said you didn’t want to do with a smart home devices! You Lying Liar!” Whoa, calm down there… The special sauce to this project are the rules that can be set up with SmartThings devices. For this project I started with a couple of ZigBee capable light bulbs from OSRAM that I found on sale at Lowes. I bought the OSRAM LIGHTIFY LED Bulb CLASSIC A Tunable White. This shows where the SmartThings system shines when compared to other proprietary systems. It has the capability to work with devices not made or manufactured by SmartThings. Since these bulbs are ZigBee capable, SmartThings picks them right up since it speaks the same language. I added the bulb via the app just like I added the water sensor, and then set up some rules for it. I previously had a lamp in the living room set up on an old mechanical outlet timer. The lamp would turn on at a set time in the evening so I didn’t come home to a dark house, and would shut off later at night after I’d gone to bed. This also served (hopefully) as a theft deterrent when I went on vacation, showing lights on in the house when I’m not there. So with these new light bulbs, I set them up to turn on at sunset (which changes automatically throughout the year), and turn off at a certain time at night on Sunday-Thursday when I go to bed a bit earlier, and then turn off a little later Friday-Saturday when I’m up a bit later. Additionally, it does give me control of the lights through my phone, as well as dimming capability. The second part of that does add some steps (like I mentioned above), but the primary use of the light control is the rules that I can set. If I wanted (and this might be a future project), I could hook the motion detector thing (that came in my kit) to this lighting rule and set up an if-then-statement saying if there is motion in the room and it’s beyond the normal turn-off time, keep the lights on until there is no motion for X minutes. There are all kinds of great ways to chain events, rules, and things together with SmartThings.

Garage Control

This third project took a little more tinkering than the other two. It’s a bit home monitoring and a bit convenience. It takes advantage of the SmartThings Multipurpose Sensor that came with the Home Monitoring Kit, as well as a smart garage door opener that I cobbled together (spoiler alert: I got to use the soldering iron!). The first part was easy. I simply activated the Multipurpose Sensor via the SmartThings App and attached it to the garage door with the included double-sided tape. This sensor can tell orientation, so I told SmartThings that vertical meant the door was closed, and horizontal meant the door was open. Now I can tell easily on my phone if the door was accidentally left open, or if it’s securely closed.

Module - Garage Remote Wiring

Module – Garage Remote Wiring

Part two of this project is using SmartThings to also control the door. I found a Z-Wave Isolated Contact Fixture Module that SmartThings can communicate with. I think the primary purpose of this module is to control a switch on or off. You could mount it behind a light switch or something similar. I took it and connected it to an extra garage door opener remote, so it makes the on connection when activated to simulate a button push on. I soldered some lower gauge wires to the button contacts on the circuit board of the remote and hooked those to the relay output wires (blue), and then connected the power (white and black) and ground (green) to a power cable (wiring manual PDF). I made sure the contact module was communicating with the SmartThings hub, and then I bundled it all up in a plastic project box to keep it together. Since this is controlling a button on the remote, I had to tell SmartThings that it’s not a simple on or off switch (which it wanted to do by default), but a button, which makes activation stay on for a couple seconds, then automatically turn off. Otherwise SmartThings would keep the button in the on position until it was switched off in the app. Once I figured that out, I grouped the sensor and the contact module together in a “room” in SmartThings, so that I can see if the door is opened or closed, and then hit the button/icon directly below it to control the door. It’s nice to be able to check if the door is closed, and then to open it if I only have my phone with me.

There you have it… the start of a smart home. I’ve still got some more devices in my smart home kit to play with and configure. What should I add next?

Present Wrapping of the Future

Furoshiki Diagram

Furoshiki Diagram

I was doing some shopping a few weeks ago at a local artists store and found an interesting item called a Japanese Furoshiki. It’s a colored cloth used to wrap presents in Japan (with no paper waste). There are a number of ways you an use it to wrap different shaped objects. The diagram to the right is actually straight from the Japanese Ministry of the Environment, and shows all the different uses of a Furoshiki. After a major Christmas wrapping session over the weekend, I started thinking about different ways to wrap presents. I actually like to wrap presents, and try to make the gift presentation look nice. I ran across a few videos this morning of another Japanese method of wrapping – apparently wrapping presents is more of an art in Japan.

This video shows a way of wrapping by setting the gift diagonally on the paper and kind of turning it while folding in the rest of the paper.

Well, you all know what happens when you get sucked into a YouTube rat hole, you end up spending more time than you planned watching videos on wrapping presents. This next video shows different ways to wrap using mathematics based on the size and shape of the item you’re wrapping.

I’ve almost completed my holiday gift wrapping this year, but might give one or two of these methods a try with those last-minute gifts that always seem to pop up. Happy wrapping!

2015 Holiday Geek Gift Guide

Techory Snowflake Black Friday 2015 has just come and gone, so it’s time for another Holiday Geek Gift Guide. I’ve been updating these gift guides for quite a few years to help with my own gift shopping for friends and family. I like  technology and gadgets (and general geekery) so I also like to give technology and gadgets. Most of the guides in the list below fall into those categories, but a few of them are 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.

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

Mentos Mentors

Well done, Mentos… well done. Kids giving adults live advice on making friends and meeting people.

Mentos, the real-life equivalent of a friend request.

Business Card Video Game

Business cards = boring
Business cards that play video games = AWESOME!

A kickstarter project called Arduboy has taken an Arduino board and stripped it down to its core components, making it small enough to fit into a credit-card sized package. The entire thing is just 1.6mm thick! So while it’s probably not priced cheap enough to hand out as a business card, how cool would it be to give out your business information on a little device that plays Tetris? Arduboy eventually plans to open up the platform for further development. You can buy one now (with improved buttons and case) on their site for $49.

Arduboy by bateske



Anil Dash and Gina Trapani (the awesome people who created Thinkup – check it out if you haven’t heard of it) recently launched a new site called Makerbase. The new site is a big database of digital projects and the people who made them. It’s kind of an IMDb for makers and their projects. Just start to search and you’ll find all kinds of cool artwork, sites, apps and other digital projects. You can add your own to the mix or set up your own maker profile (it’s pulls your info from Twitter to start).

The 1980’s JC Penney Christmas Catalogs

A real hero named Wishbook on Flickr has taken the time to lovingly scan a large number of holiday catalogs from going back to the late 60’s through the early 90’s (including the big Sears and JC Penny Wish Books). I can remember scouring these catalogs as a child picking out what I wanted for Christmas. I still want some of these toys today!

1985-xx-xx Sears Christmas Catalog P444

The clothing sections of these catalogs are pretty amazing too.

Map the Zombie Attack

Ever wondered what would happen if you were patient zero in a zombie attack? Zombie-town USA uses:

Gillespie dynamics on block-level census data from 2010 using 308 million people interacting across the continental US.

Drop the first zombie in your town and see how it moves across the nation.

Zombie-town USA

A Few New Mentos Videos

A couple new Mentos videos have made their way to my feeds lately. The first one has been making the rounds on the (odd) news sites lately. A kid scotch tapes Mentos to himself and jumps into a tub filled with Coke. Hilarity ensues…

The second video is an official commercial from Mentos for their new NOWmints (which I have not tried yet).

Google Maps Driving Simulator

Ever wanted to drive a car through your neighborhood? Oh wait, you probably do that every day. Ever wanted to drive a car through my neighborhood? Well now you can with the Google Maps Driving Simulator. It’s a bit like Grand Theft Auto but without the grand theft (no guns either). It’s actually a pretty cool little web app where you can drive a car (or bus) through Google maps. Take it for a spin.


Was Your Super Bowl Ad Worth it?

We’re a little over a week removed from “the big game” for 2015, and I recently ran across and interesting article from Embedly comparing the minutes watched in an ad and the amount that ad cost per minute. This comparison looks at the views and fall-off rate of the ads on YouTube and compares it to the cost of that ad for the Super Bowl. The premise is that a good ad will have higher engagement and more views (online). That results in a lower cost per minute for the ad. It’s an interesting way to analyze ads on TV based on their popularity online.

Super Bowl Data Explorer

Super Data Explorer (with youtube ads)

This is actually an interesting analysis on the effectiveness of advertising.

Retro Gaming Machine with Raspberry Pi and SNES Case

Final SNES Raspberry Pi Retro Gaming System

The finished system – still need to hook the reset button to the case power button.

I’ve been working on a Raspberry Pi based retro gaming machine for a few months now. It has been a bit of an extended process waiting for all the various pieces to fall into place. I am currently to a spot where it all seems to be working pretty well. I’ve got a few last rough edges to file off (not literally, that process was already done), but they are mostly cosmetic and aren’t totally necessary for it to perform.



  • RetroPie
    I started with the RetroPie SD image for the system. It was easy to get up and running with some small updates for some custom things with my setup.

    • I wanted to run and store games on the USB drive. I didn’t want to use the default method of storing my game ROM’s from the SD card, and instead wanted them on a USB drive so that I could load new games more easily.  Plus, I had a larger USB drive than I did SD cards. I used the instructions here as a starting point. The main thing that I needed to do was to change the script that automatically pulls ROM’s from the USB drive to SD card. You need to prevent that from happening, and also let RetroPie know the new location to look for ROM’s is on the USB drive.
    • The other software adjustment I made was configuring the USB controllers I purchased. This is something that anyone using RetroPie would need to do because of the different types of controllers available. The default configuration worked OK out of the box, but I ran into issues when trying to use a 2nd controller for player two. The forums on the RetroPie site were very helpful in getting the 2nd controller to actually perform as player two and not overtake the first controller.
    • Video/Audio HDMI configuration was somewhat problematic, but I think that is going to be specific to the TV you plug the pi into. I was able to make a few edits to the Pi configuration to get it working, but this will likely vary by the TV you’re using – again, the Retro Pi site and Raspberry Pi forums were very helpful in troubleshooting this.

The Build

I started by ordering (almost) all of the pieces and getting the Raspberry Pi configured and working with RetroPie (which is easy as setting up any SD image on the card). I say almost all the pieces because I determined that I was missing some things as I began to put it all together. My initial order included the controllers, USB drive, USB hub (with power) and some of the port extenders. That was enough to get me going on configuration. I installed the RetroPie SD image and just worked on getting RetroPie up and running. The RetroPie interface is really nice and lets you navigate around on a TV using just the controllers. In fact, I didn’t end up connecting a keyboard to the Pi at all. I set up SSH (which I’d recommend doing first thing in the initial Pi setup) and was able to connect directly to it to take care of any script edits for configuration or updates that needed to be done. I also used SSH sFTP to move some ROM’s onto the USB drive. You can see some of my software issues above. I was able to get things configured correctly and have RetroPie running my collection of ROM’s sans case. I chose to load up ROM’s for a number of systems (but didn’t configure everthing supported by RetroPie). I’ve got it running NES, SNES, Genisis, SegaCD, Atari and Mame.

Once RetroPie was operational, I focused on the case and how the system would look cosmetically. I ordered a nonworking Super Nintendo off of ebay. Step one was tearing the old electronic guts out of the system. To do that I needed to get the SNES open, which turned out to be more challenging than I had planned. Nintendo used a very obscure and difficult-to-remove screw for the SNES. I found a screwdriver for this screw at Amazon, but it didn’t work (I sent it back). The next thing I tried was a trick I saw online involving Bic Crystal Plastic pens. If you hold one of them under a flame to soften up the plastic and then jam it down on the screws, they take the shape of the screw and when the plastic cools and hardens, you can turn it to remove them. It took me about 6 pens total, but I finally was able to get the SNES open. Once open, getting the the electronics out was pretty simple.

Another issue I ran into with the case was that it showed up very yellowed (as you can see in the photos above), which is a common issue with the plastics used in the original SNES. After some Google-fu, I found something called Retr0Brite that has been developed by the internets to get yellowed plastics to look like their original beige/grey colors. There were a number of tutorials and youtube videos on the subject. Warning: Retr0Brite involves a few somewhat-dangerous chemicals, so take precautions when using Retr0Brite. I found most of the chemicals I needed online and mixed everything up to get rid of the yellowing plastic. Retr0Brite makes a thicker paste that you paint onto the plastic and set it in the sun to activate it. It took about 3 different applications to get the SNES close to it’s original color.

Once the Retr0Brite did its job, I started the long back and forth of getting all of the pieces to fit into the SNES case. The first step was  removing all of the plastic pieces inside the old SNES with a dremel rotary tool. I basically cut and sanded down everything I could from inside the case. The old eject button needed to be cut and sanded down too since it extended too far down into the base of the case to fit the Pi and components. I ended up gluing this to the top of the case once it was cut down. I needed to rearrange the components a lot during this process and return to sanding more out with the dremel multiple times. The trickiest spot in the case was the back panel where I wanted to pull a USB port, the HDMI port, an ethernet port, and power to one spot that would be easily accessible on the back. The extenders mentioned in the hardware section above allowed me to do this, though I had to give up on the ethernet port on the back because of space issues. It was just too much to route to a tiny spot on the back. I eventually got everything to fit after some creative routing of the extender cables and after removing the plastic enclosure on the USB/power hub.

Once everything fit (very very snugly) into the SNES case, I needed to secure the ports into the case. To do this, I used a plastic repair adhesive that I found locally at the hardware store. This comes in a striped pliable cylinder of clay-like material. You squish the two color stripes together to activate it and then place it where you want. The mixing of the colors together activates it and it becomes a hard plastic once it sets up. I wrapped the female USB ports/extenders in the plastic adhesive and it provided a good solid attachment point for them on the front of the case. I also used this to attached the ports (HDMI and power) to the back.

The software was installed, the pieces all (finally) fit into the case. The ports were routed where they needed to be. It was time to plug this bad-boy in and start playing some old school video games. I fired up the unit using my newly installed power/reset button (the plan is to eventually wire this to the SNES power switch) and it launched into the game menu, and I was off to the (arcade) races. My brothers and I really enjoyed taking some video game trips down memory lane when they were visiting for Thanksgiving. Everything worked pretty well outside of a bad ROM here and there, which can easily be removed. I’m really happy with how this little retro gamer turned out.