Hobby Horse

Susan Kare's original happy MacFor the record, I was 39 years old before I had a hobby.

I mean, I do things outside of work and school, but none long enough to move from amateur to hobbyist. Then, when I got around to picking out a hobby (or maybe it picked me), it ended up looking a lot like my profession.

It’s not though. Its technical, but there’s no way I’ll ever get paid to do it. It’s nerdy, but not in a way that has any commercial value. And its geeky, but not the kind of geeky that redeems itself. And it took 39 years and moving to rural Ohio before I actually had the spare time.

If you want to read about it, there’s a new section of the website and a separate RSS Feed: the Restoration Museum. For everyone else, normal posts will remain in this category.

That Time I Talked to Apple’s Co-Founder

In the fall of 2000, I signed up for a fledgling online auction site called eBay. I wanted to find a relatively obscure piece of Apple Computer kit I’d always wanted, called a Newton MessagePad. I didn’t quite understand how eBay worked, so I offered the maximum I’d be willing to pay on 6 different listings… it was probably a full hour before I realised I’d just committed to buying 6 Newtons! Fortunately, I was out-bid on 5 of them, and only had to pay for one.

Nonetheless, I was a proud owner of a Newton MessagePad 120 — proud, that is, until I learned about the MessagePad 2100. The grand-father of portable computing, killed off in its prime by Steve Jobs in his return to Apple Computer in 1997, the Newton remains an audacious and ambitious piece of computing history.

In 2002, after saving up, I managed to get my hands on an upgraded MessagePad 2000 and began my first experiments with wireless networking and different kinds of after-the-fact hacks and expansions to the long-dead platform. An impressive community of hobbyists had sprung up to keep Newton alive, adding Bluetooth, Wifi, MP3 playing and web surfing. It may have been my first experience in coaxing new usefulness out of abandoned hardware.

I didn’t do much for the community, but I did talk about it a lot — on this very home grown website, and other early-Internet forums. Enough, I guess, that a writer for Wired Magazine found me and scheduled an interview for an upcoming article in his series about the culture of Apple fans. That article appeared a couple months later, and you can still find it if you search the right keywords.

18 years later, that article got me invited to speak at a Worldwide Online Newton Users Conference. Turns out there’s still interest in the little green machine, and more than 70 nerds were gathering online to share their recent hacks, collections and uses for Newt. Of the participants in attendance were some of the original Newt dev team, a well-known tech journalist, and the remaining co-founder of Apple Computers, Steve Wozniak.

Steve was mostly a silent observer — in fact, at first we weren’t quite sure it was really him. At the outset, I challenged the participant bearing his moniker to turn his camera on and prove it. I’m sure we were all delighted when the real deal himself appeared and shared his memories of Newton. He receded back into silence until we had a break. As other participants shut their cameras off to attend to biological needs, I decided to go for broke:

“Is Woz still on?” I asked

A couple seconds of silence…

“Yup! I’m here! I’ve been here listening the whole time!”

“Would you be willing to take a few questions?”

“Absolutely!” says the fabled millionaire, as his camera springs back to life.

He held court with us for 20 minutes. I asked a series of off-the-cuff questions to start the impromptu interview, mostly about nerdy things, but we also talked about teaching kids computers, Covid-19, and travel. After a few minutes I yielded the floor so other participants could pile on. It ended too quickly and Woz remained a silent participant for the rest of the event, but it sure was cool! He’s remarkably down to earth — just one of the nerds, who likes experimenting with technology and talking about his passions. In fact, that’s how Apple started.

The slides for my little talk are hereDownload

They’re mostly just memories, as this event will be in a couple years. But don’t ever doubt the power of technology — and community — to have an impact on people’s lives. The Newton community made a documentary on just that, and its worth watching.

How to Read the News Online

This post is probably long overdue. I’m guilty myself of scrolling through Google News and letting an algorithm decide what I should see. But now, more than ever, its important to get the best information possible. Outlined here will be my attempt to provide some tips to escape the echo chamber, see past ideological spin, and find better sources of information online.

I should start with the caveat that of course this isn’t perfect. But its preferable to the norm…

App and website developers build for “stickiness” — that’s a primary goal. The longer they can keep you inside their experience, the more you are worth to them. That worth is often in advertising dollars, but its always in data: user and behavior information that lets providers create better personas (digital “voodoo dolls“) of their audiences. To restate that more clearly: the main goal of your favorite news app or website is not to inform you — its to make money off you. The longer you stay inside their experience, the more you are worth to them.

With this in mind, its easy to understand how content is created and prioritized. Content creators want to develop content that is interesting to their audiences. Content selection algorithms want to provide content that you resonate with — even when that’s not good for you. The “news” system is designed to affirm your biases, and reinforce the beliefs that brought you there.

Even information aggregators, like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are running algorithms trying to find what you like and give it to you. They’re everywhere, and they’re cloyingly sycophantic. About once a day Google News offers me a bikini pic of a celebrity along-side other headlines — they know I’m an adult male, and they’re sure I want to see that content. All it takes is one tap to confirm that interest, and tip the algorithm toward more of it.

So if you’re ready to escape the fun house mirror that is Internet news, here’s what to do:

  1. Dump your current News app or go-to website. Google News, Apple News, MSN News, Fox News, CNN news… whatever you use, its all the same. I’m not even talking network bias yet, I’m just talking about algorithm-driven content providers. They’ve all got to go.
  2. Identify raw sources. In the US almost all news comes from the Associated Press first. Each network gets those stories, and puts their own ideological spin on that news. Skip the spin, and find the source: AP, and Reuters are both good for North America.
  3. Identify alternative sources. I’m not talking about fringe sites with extreme beliefs, I’m talking about a source of news that is further removed from the reach of your country’s political parties. In the US, the BBC or the CBC are reasonably impartial observers of what’s happening in your country. Find world news sources that aren’t reported from within your country — you’ll still get the big news items, but the context will be improved.
  4. Once you’ve selected better news sources, find their RSS feeds. OK, I know that sounds like techno-babble, so let’s break out of the numbered list and explain…

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication (or Rich Site Summary), and its been a backing technology for the web since 1999. If you listen to podcasts, you use it regularly. An RSS feed is just the content from a site, none of the ads, none of the tracking technology, and none of the algorithms. Just the raw content.

Increasingly sites are hiding or obscuring their RSS feeds, because they want you on their site in your browser or on their app, so they can track you. But so far, no one has succeeded in removing it entirely. If you’re technically inclined, you can use tools in your browser to find the feed URL, but if not, there’s easier ways to get it.

I use a service called InoReader. They have a pro version, but the free one has everything you need to search for RSS feeds from the news sources you trust. Once you create an account in InoReader, you can add your selected news sources directly. The content is sucked out of the site via RSS, in aggregate, anonymously and automatically, then made available at the InoReader website or on the InoReader app on your phone or tablet, in a neatly organized fashion. Its a curated news stream that breaks the algorithms that taint the information you’re getting.

InoReader’s RSS Based News Feed

Like I said, its not perfect. InoReader knows what you’re reading — but because it serves raw feeds, it can’t alter them without detection (you can always look at the RSS directly to see if they’re changed; in 4 years of monitoring, I’ve never seen it happen.) Another challenge is that sometimes news sites only publish the first sentence or two into their RSS feed, and you have to click through to their website to read the whole article — but when you do, you can visit as a signed-out, anonymous reader (there are other work-arounds, for those comfortable with deploying a little open source software.) And of course, your critical thinking skills are always needed for any media you consume.

But even with the challenges, and the little bit of extra work it takes to make good selections, the difference is night-and-day. Do this for awhile, then compare the real headline with the liberal and conservative spin carried by other sources, and you’ll realize just how bad things are.

The dangers of the filter-bubble are real, and the increasing polarization in the US (and Canada too!) is a very real result. If you’re going to use technology, you should use it responsibly. The onus is on you to consume information that challenges your beliefs, educates you, and makes you more empathetic toward people who are different than you. Popular “news” technology does the opposite.

On Protests and Conspiracy Theories

This virus has drawn some truly amazing behavior out of us as a society, hasn’t it? We’ve seen leaders step up and take decisive action to protect people. We’ve seen science and medical professionals rise to the challenge of treating patients and finding cures. We’ve seen people learn new ways to connect and stay in touch with their loved ones. There’s been a lot to commend us.

But we’ve also seen a lot of really spiteful behavior. We have a president desperately deflecting responsibility for failures, while smirkingly taking credit for small victories that he had nothing to do with. We’ve seen people putting the lives of others at risk to impotently protest the actions designed to keep them safe. And we’ve seen a whole new wave of virulent misinformation and loathsome deception spread across the internet.

I want to give those who act on, and share, these absurd ideas some grace. Most of those doing the sharing are squarely in Dunning-Kruger territory — possessing a false confidence that comes from knowing a little bit about a subject, but not enough to understand how much information they’re missing. I also realize that fear drives people to lash out, and that things they don’t fully understand (like how cell phone towers or viruses work) make prime targets for irrational reactions.

I want to give them some grace, but when you see pictures of nurses calmly blocking an intersection in front of a hospital, literally using their bodies to protect the sick from the misguided protestors who think their rights are being impinged… I just haven’t got any grace left to offer.

In 2009 the FCC ended the broadcast of analog television content, freeing up radio spectrum that had been reserved for this kind of broadcast since at least 1949. 5G is the result of this, and other moves, to re-purpose existing radio frequencies for advanced wireless services. What this means is that the very signals people are afraid of right now have been around for over 70 years! Instead of carrying TV content, those radio waves are carrying Internet data packets, but its still just modulated data. Modulated data cannot be used to transmit or activate a biological virus. It can, however, be used to spread fear and misinformation.

In 2000, one of the world’s most successful business leaders redirected his considerable brain power and money from selling software to solving problems with sewage treatment and medical infrastructure in third world countries. Bill and Melinda Gates could do literally anything they wanted, and they chose to invest their time in helping people deal with poop. In 2015, after fighting the spread of disease for 15 years, Bill warned everyone that we were unprepared for a global pandemic, and that we were heading for trouble. 4 years later, we got trouble, and within weeks people are blaming the person who predicted it would happen, and insisting on their right to be reckless with other people’s lives.

These things are frustrating, because obviously they’re stupid. Obviously no rational person would believe that Bill Gates is using 5G radio signals to cause a pandemic so he can lock people in their houses and take over the world… Except that rational people are actually sharing these ideas like they’re truth. And I can’t escape the correlation that its the people who are most impacted economically, and who have the least formal education, that are the ones spreading these poisonous ideas. I know it sounds arrogant, but it shouldn’t be wrong to point out when someone is doing something stupid out of ignorance and fear. As much as I have been a proponent of, and participant in, a free and open Internet, I am opposed to the distribution and glorification of ignorance.

Conspiracy theories are fun intellectual exercises — they’re a “what if” exploration, that in better times make for good entertainment (I mean, who didn’t love the X-Files in the 90s?) But they are not news, they are not supportable with science and research, and they should not be shared with the same weight or given the same attention as actual information. If you see something on the Internet that sounds like it explains a part of the world you don’t understand, you owe it to yourself, to your social media connections, and to civilization as a whole, to respond responsibly. You can either:

A) Pursue a degree in the topic from an accredited higher education institution, or seek out 3-5 years of equivalent on-the-job experience. Because yes, its hard work to develop actual expertise.

B) Shut up, admit to yourself you are not competent on the matter, and acknowledge that your opinion is not worth the bytes of memory it gets stored on.

I have more to say on professional sources of opinion (so called “news”) but I’ll save that for another post — suffice it to say, yes, there is an alternative to the “main stream” media that doesn’t foment conspiracy theories. But instead of going into that right now, I’m going to close this with an additional admonishment to those who follow Jesus. As Christians, the standard for Godly wisdom is clearly provided for us in the book of James:

Wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peace-loving, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere.

If what you’re reading is not reasonable, not impartial, and not peace-loving, don’t share it. You damage your testimony by embracing hateful opinions. You malign your Savior by spreading fear. And worst of all, your gullibility makes your faith look foolish.

M-m-m-my Corona

It was a strange progression, from something sort of abstract happening elsewhere in the world, to some minor inconveniences here at home, and finally, suddenly a “stay at home” order from the State government. Nowhere was it stranger than in the White House, where it changed almost overnight from “totally under control” to a full on disaster. It was like a watching a car accident in slow motion, only the whole continent was about to get hit, and there was nothing we could do but wait for the impact.

To be self-centered and honest, though, it hasn’t really impacted us that much. There’s been some cancelled events — Ben’s big class trip to Chicago, Eli’s girl scout camping trip, Abi’s birthday, and numerous work trips. But those are inconveniences at worst. Unlike some of those around us, I’m at no risk of getting laid off, nor do either of us have to go into a job where we might get exposed to someone who is sick. Our little cul-de-sac in the country is pretty well isolated on a normal day, with a couple acres between each house, so crowded situations aren’t something we have to worry about. And the common complaint of boredom certainly doesn’t apply to us — we’ve got even more to do than usual!

That’s not to say this situation is ideal. Like everyone else, we’ll have to ration toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes. Grocery shopping is a pain due to the panic buying that has swept the nation. And one of our two cars is stuck in the shop for the duration. But overall, there’s more opportunity for us in a situation like this — which isn’t fair, I know, but its true. The Fed’s questionable decision to continually drop interest rates until they had nowhere left to go allowed us to lock in a mortgage re-finance at a historically low rate shortly before banks started closing. And our income tax return left us with spare funds to invest while the stock market is the lowest its been in over a decade.

Its hard to extrapolate from here where things will go. China seems to be on the mend, and if those numbers are true and directionally analogous, then the US and Canada will recover in a similar fashion eventually too. Its unlikely that the economy will ever be quite the same after this, but its equally unlikely that it will completely fail. There’s a sort of twisted fascination with imagining a worst case scenario that looks like a zombie movie or Mad Max situation that I’ve observed others entertaining, but in my estimation, things are not heading in that direction — this time.

Still, the vegetable garden in the backyard has taken on a new level of importance, and I regret that I never got around to the project where I augment our electric well with a manual back-up, in case of emergencies. It really does seem like as individuals, and as a nation (and I’ll include our home country of Canada in this generalization) we are pretty ill-prepared for these kinds of scenarios. The rapid and stealthy spread of this pandemic is tempered by its relatively low mortality rate — should this happen again (and it probably will) with a flavor of disease that is a less discriminate killer, I’m not sure we could really handle it.

The kids are taking it all in stride — they don’t have enough run-time on the planet to understand just how unusual this situation is. Some day they’ll tell their own kids about this period as a generation-shaping event. Hopefully there’s only this one in their lifetime, but if not, hopefully we’re all better prepared — and better people — from having coming through this one.

When the Sorting Hat Fails

Watching my son struggle with his education has to be one of the most humbling, challenging and enlightening experiences of my adult life. Quantifiably gifted, and objectively smart as a whip, yet his ability to focus on classroom material, organize his homework, articulate his thoughts on a page, or even get completed work safely from home to school is astoundingly limited. Not every teacher he’s had has been helpful, but many have tried really hard to accommodate and help him, and have come out as frustrated as his parents. Its like his output is binary – he either innately understands a thing completely, and sees no need to explain himself, or he can’t be bothered with it at all and is un-phased by his inability to grasp it. Yet for every failure, or near failure, on a classroom test or assignment, there’s a standardized test that says his cognitive ability is “superior” and his intelligence is dramatically above average.

I recently read a report about the skill gap in manufacturing work force development, and it made me wonder how I managed to make it this far. My kid is lucky to have this contrasting evidence that keeps people plugging for him. If the only metric was his report card, he’d have been written off as a dummy years ago. If he went into manufacturing, he’d have ended up on a vocational path, focused on purely manual labor. The other path is theoretical – robotics or AI research – and those are generally reserved for the kind of student who can make it into a Masters program (or higher). Whether my son can pull off a higher education career is yet to be seen, but 20 years ago, I could not have. If it weren’t for community college, my path would have been significantly different.

For most of my career I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. Fresh out of college I found myself lecturing a packed room full of engineers on how my company had applied web technologies to manufacturing. Years later, and still without any advanced degrees, I found myself as the product manager for what is possibly the most sophisticated embedded AI in manufacturing. And somewhere in-between I tricked two tech titans, Microsoft and Amazon, into hiring me. Surely someone was going to figure out that I was faking at some point!

What I’m figuring out, two decades into my career, is that people like my son are rare. An instinctual grasp of theoretical concepts – maybe not good enough to research new ones, but at least good enough to apply them – and sufficient technical skill to manipulate the real world into the right shape to make those concepts useful, is a relatively unique combination. Add to that a skill I’d like to think I have, but that my son definitely has in spades: empathy for others. This combination of attributes makes for a bridge – a person who can connect ideas, people and technology into better tools, easier user interfaces, and more delightful experiences. People with these skills are translators, connecting humanity and technology in ways that are simpler to understand and more comfortable to use.

But our education system, and often our incentive system, fails these kinds of people. A two path approach, that accommodates either vocational technical training or theoretical advanced education, doesn’t equip someone who straddles both worlds. I returned to theoretical education in my 30s, and found I was a better at school than in my youth, but I’m still not likely to be a successful Masters student any time soon. On the other hand, had I found myself in a manual labor career path, I’m sure I would have succumbed to depression and boredom years ago – as flawed as my brain might be, I do love learning and exploring new things. If I couldn’t take something apart to see how it worked, and think of ways it might work better, my loving wife would probably have had no choice but to have me committed.

Additionally, if it weren’t for my self-directed employer-hopping, I likely would have hit a career brick wall long ago. My education really does not qualify me for most of the jobs I’ve had. The only reason employers can rationalize hiring me is the experience I’ve had. It was nearly 10 years before one of those employers had the thought (or perhaps the immigration sponsorship requirement) to have a University professor evaluate my experience and effectively assign me honorary degree equivalency. Imagine the vindication when this Cs and Ds student got a 6 page report concluding that I was good enough for the job I was doing!

So how does someone who barely made it, with a minimum of education, whose only redeeming value proposition is curiosity and a drive to try to make things work better, help a kid with all the same flaws find his place in the world? I can’t let his D in English slide when I know how important communication is to his future career. On the other hand, its hypocrisy for me to tell him its not good enough. I can’t tell him that getting into University doesn’t matter – even though I know for a fact that experience is more valuable.

Because of changes in our county’s education funding, this year, his 7th grade year, is the end of his elementary career. Next year he starts high school. Already he’s facing limitations to his options, and decisions about whether he should be pursuing less advanced classes. I know this doesn’t compare to places like Germany, where he’d already have faced the higher education sorting hat, but it still feels so early to be making decisions that could permanently shape his future. The other two have it easy – they’re good students. No one will question their potential!

I once read that adults learn through analogy. There’s no greater analogy for self than watching your own kids face the same struggles you did. Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out the lesson of how to navigate classroom learning, when the only kind of learning that ever worked for me was just diving in and trying something. On the other hand, I guess that’s kinda how parenting works. We can only hope that we can learn the necessary skills fast enough to be of some use to him!

Getting to Know Your Digital Voodoo Doll

Cambridge Analytica LogoIf the Cambridge Analytica scandal told us one thing, its how poorly people understand how data is being used. Although the folks at CA may not have had the most altruistic of intentions, they were really only exploiting what was freely available. That they used some data Facebook didn’t intend them to use doesn’t change the fact that the data was there for the taking. People volunteered it willingly, so it was inevitable that it would be put to use.

What is probably less clear in this tale of targeting was that they weren’t really targeting you or I. Rather, the technology allowed them to identify what kind of people we are like, and target people of that kind. This aggregate group identity makes up a persona — a fictional person that has traits and attributes, gathered from the self-provided data of real people, that are useful for addressing many actual individuals that are similar to that persona.

This is not new. In fact, in programming, type inheritance is a powerful concept that is useful for generalization. What’s new in the last decade or so is the volume of self-identified human data, and a few primary keys that allow that data to be associated with unique donators. Lots of web sites have data on you as a mostly anonymous visitor. There’s identifying information, for sure, but nothing you deliberately confirm or setup, so its a “weak link”. When a website requires you to create an account, then they truly have uniquely identifying information for tracking you within the properties that account uses. Facebook is mostly unprecedented because of the scope of that account. As an identifier, its used far beyond the actual Facebook website — its used on other Facebook properties (WeChat, Instagram) and on millions of partner sites that use Facebook log-in, or Facebook data sharing (when you see “Like on Facebook” on a website that is not Facebook, they are sharing data using your identity as a key.)

The effect is that activities spanning the web are opted-in to Facebook data collection, whether you’re aware of it or not. Suddenly a single primary key has a rich repository of information about billions of individuals. Realistically, it would take an incredible effort to actually target a single individual, but it does become very easy to group individuals based on activity. Individuals who “Like” a Republican candidate, individuals who participate in discussions about vaccinations, individuals who view religious videos, etc…

The field of psychographics is the emerging social science of identifying groups based on these common activities, then determining what methods are most effective at influencing the individuals within those groups. Facebook helps out even more, due to a built-in concept called Graph Relationships. These are the links between individuals that can be used to tie people to groups even if those linked individuals provide no explicit data that identifies them as part of the group. You may not have shown any visible interest in a particular political candidate, but if you’re linked to many people who have, you may find yourself targeted as part of that group.

https://www.businessinsider.com/explainer-what-exactly-is-the-social-graph-2012-3

This self-identification increases with your social network, and with your activity. If you’ve seen ads for something you recently thought about (but could swear you didn’t write down or say out loud) the odds are good that you’ve been targeted based on your activities or affiliations, and advertisers “knew” you would be interested in that product or service, because other people like you are interested in it.

I recently saw this concept described as a digital voodoo doll, and the analogy is apt. Advertisers and other influencers aren’t interacting with you directly, instead they’ve created an avatar that is like you, they’ve experimented to determine how best to impact those like you, and then they’ve launched their digital onslaught against the group. When the voodoo doll gets really precise, its called micro-targeting, and you really should be scared of it.

So what can you do about it? Well knowing the importance of identifier keys, you can participate in the web more strategically. It may be easier to sign up for a new service with your Facebook account (keeping track of multiple passwords is hard!), but know that when you do, Facebook gets all that data. Use different keys (new accounts) for different services, to reduce the chance of your activity being linked. You don’t have to quit Facebook entirely, but be careful what you indulge within their scope of view.

On that topic, there are ways to keep fences around that garden. FireFox has an extension that does just that — blocking Facebook tracking on sites not owned by Facebook. The same cautions should apply to any service whose tendrils extend beyond their own .com front-end. Microsoft, Amazon, Google all offer useful developer tools for web creators — in exchange for data collected from those sites. Diversify your digital activity: use different services for different features, and don’t mix and match. For example, Microsoft hosts our email, but not our voice commands. Amazon gets our voice commands through Alexa, but doesn’t store any of our documents. Opt out of data collection when given the choice.

As tech providers find newer, more clever ways to collect data, and the legal framework struggles to keep up, be aware of how you’re inevitably being targeted. Information is neutral — it doesn’t have a bias. Human beings, on the other hand, are biased. If something is presented as information but appeals to your natural bias, question the source — odds are that you’re being manipulated.

The dream of the Internet was that information could be shared instantly and freely with everyone. Those altruistic nerds that invented it may have forgotten that someone has to pay for technology somehow, and perhaps unknowingly, we backed our technology revolution into an ad-supported model. Being willing to pay for content that isn’t ad sponsored seems to have a tendency to inspire a little less subterfuge in the content provider. If you want to learn something new, or engage with a community on a topic, consider private online services — even those that aren’t free, or require a little more work.

There’s no quick fix for Facebook, or Google or even Apple. To make the Internet a better place, its citizens must be aware, involved and active. You can be online without responding to your baser instincts for affirmation or attention, but if you find the dopamine rush too irresistible, you might be better off closing those accounts after all…

Demarc 3.0

Back in the days of land-line phones, your demarc, or demarcation point, was the part of your house where the public utility phone network entered your home. Each outlet in your home connected here in what was called a POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) network, and connected to one or more lines going out of the house. Frequently this was located near where power entered your home, and later, cable TV. This makes it an excellent point to retro-fit tech into a house that maybe wasn’t designed with nerds in mind.

I know this looks a little crazy, but in version 3.0 of my setup, its much, much cleaner than its ever been. To quote Morpheus, this is the core where we broadcast our pirate signal and hack into the Matrix! This diagram might be a little easier to read:

There’s some really cool stuff in this architecture that I’m pretty proud of. On one hand, its a modern 1gbps network, with distributed 802.11N WiFi, that can filter out ads and pornography, and support remote connections via VPN. On the other, it can also connect any device from the early 1980s to other devices, or to the Internet.

For the very oldest machines, a Raspberry Pi Zero, running the DreamPi image, connects to our home’s POTS network (long since disconnected from the public phone network), inducing the correct voltage, and playing back a dial-tone sound. A Python script on the the Pi listens for an old-school modem trying to dial out, then plays back the handshake sounds of an ISP, then continues to pretend to be a modem, bridging the device onto our network (and thus the Internet.)

For 90s and 2000s era Macs, either physical Ethernet or an old Airport Classic, provide an on-ramp onto our network. The Airport is configured with a whitelist of allowed machine IDs, so that it can run with only WEP security (since that’s the best it can do!) A Performa provides an EtherTalk to LocalTalk bridge, and a PhoneNet ring running around the basement networks the earliest of Apple and Mac computers.

For newer devices, that have always-on Internet connections, another Raspberry Pi runs PiHole DNS, which filters out ads, with OpenDNS upstream, configured to filter adult content. Dubbed the NetPi, it also runs an OpenVPN server, giving us the same safety when we’re away from home. The NetPi, and a little media PC next to it, also host Plex Media servers that share our content with our devices, no matter where we are.

With more of the Internet abandoning HTTP for HTTPS (whether its needed or not) and newer SSL cryptography ruling out connections from machines with lesser cryptography libraries, the NetPi will probably be pressed into service again running a SSL-stripping Proxy. I haven’t quite figured out how to do this yet, but I do have a RSS+Site Scraper utility running, which means I can still read a lot of content on older devices.

Although this one wall in the house is a little complex, the tech is effectively invisible throughout the rest of the house. Ben and I are working on a Raspberry Pi project using a PowerBook from 1999 as the programming terminal, but the 2019 home theater can also stream 4k content — all without touching or re-configuring anything. I can literally start a document on a Mac Plus, revise it on a Performa, print it from there, or pick it up off a combined AppleTalk/SMB share on the NetPi and publish it to the web from my 2019 Surface Laptop. In fact, I sort of just did…

Update: Squid SSL Bump Proxy running!

So I Tied An Onion To My Belt – 2019 Edition

The start of 2019 required patience — sticking to the same patterns for nearly 4 years doesn’t come easy for me, but sometimes that’s best. Fortunately, we had our first escape in March: a couple’s vacation to Mexico with some great friends from college. Going somewhere just to relax is a relatively new experience, but it went well — aside for a couple days of Montezuma’s Revenge near the end!

When we got back, we started putting things in place for some needed changes. First, Nic got a new car, to keep us in shape for road trips to Canada. Then, after finally getting some clarity on professional transitions, we were able to nail down our summer plans. A July start for a new job meant that we got one more trip to Florida from my previous employer — and allowed me to stick around long enough to launch my second product.

After Nic and the kids were done with Universal Studios, I handed in my two-weeks notice, and we went off to Family Camp — during which I signed the final papers for my new job. We squeezed in one more little get-away with some friends at Darien Lake, then the kids were back to school and I was thrust into almost non-stop business travel. As a result, the fall was necessarily a little more quiet on the home front. Simpler things like tinkering with projects, going on Girl Scout trips, horse-back riding, and kayaking in our beautiful State parks provided small escapes from responsibility.

The best escape had to wait until the end of the year. Ben pushed through another challenging half school year, on the brink of becoming a teenager. To celebrate his 13th birthday, we planned a surprise trip to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where he and I got to explore the new Galaxy’s Edge Star Wars land. An early morning got us into the brand new Rise of the Resistance ride, and let us see most of the rest of the park as well. Ben built a droid, we drank blue milk, and got to nerd out together on this, the last of his Star Wars birthdays.

We flew out, via Atlanta, where we met up with the girls, en route to Grand Cayman. There we spent a wonderful week with my parents, enjoying their sunny paradise. Nic and I got to try a scuba diving lesson, she and the kids got to play with some dolphins, and we all got to explore the coral reef as we snorkeled around 7 mile beach.

It was a wonderful cap on a pretty great year. 2020 will be an interesting one. Of course, we have some travel planned, having ended up in sort of an every-other-year pattern for some of our favorite adventures. But there will have to be new ones too. Our new teenager starts high school (a year early here) and we’ll have to figure out what makes the most sense for him — as well as thinking hard about what kinds of family experiences are important for our kids in the few years we have left with them.

For now, though, we’re happy and healthy in Ohio, and looking forward to what God leads us through in the next year. Family Photos have been updated — find the link and password hint on the home page.

Einstein Newton Emulator on Android Oreo through 10

I recently brought my Newton MessagePad 120 back to life — for a brief window of time. It died again after less than 48 hours, but it was fun to play with while it lasted.

In lieu of finding more old hardware, I started playing with the Einstein Emulator. I’ve had it running on my Mac for awhile, but since the Newton was portable, it sure would be nice to have the emulator be in my pocket.

Unfortunately, Einstein hasn’t been updated in awhile and didn’t work on my Pixel 3a, nor would the source build in Android Studio on my Mac. A little hacking at it identified two issues:

  • The project had an undocumented dependency on a tool called ninja. Reported here, running this from the command line resolved: brew install ninja
  • Android notifications have changed since the project was created. I found how to update the notification, and implemented it as a work-around. I’m not sure its 100% backward compatible, so I’ve built and signed an APK of the original code and one with my updated code.

These updated bits, plus the necessary dependencies are assembled here.