My God, it's full of Beer…

This may be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.

All-In-One Brewing Device

It’s an all-in-one brewing machine made by a photographer at Popular Science. He spent about $4300 making it, but it brews, chills, ferments, and pours, all in the same device. Apparently, a little manual intervention is required, in the form of swapping CO2 hoses around to move the brew along through the machine from time to time. But the brew itself is never exposed to air, thus eliminating the risk of contamination.

They also have a slideshow of how the device actually works on PopSci’s website.

And, of course, a YouTube video of him demonstrating it. :)

Amazon Price Drops and You

I found a site a while back that has a rather interesting concept to it. So I used it when I had the chance, and today it paid off in a very nice way…

See, Amazon guarantees their prices for 30 days. So if you buy something from them and the price drops within 30 days, they’ll refund you the difference. Proof of this is right on Amazon’s Customer Service pages. Very cool, but many retailers will do much the same thing.

Slight problem with this is that you have to notice the price drop and then request the refund. So the most likely scenario is that you get no refund. Which is presumably fine with Amazon. And why not?

Anyway, NukePrice is really clever. When you buy something from Amazon, you go there and put in the link to the item you just bought and your email address. Then, for 30 days, it will check the price of the item and if it drops, it emails you. Not just emails you, but gives you a link to the Amazon refund request page and instructions on how to get your refund.

I used it back on the 31st when I bought my new Samsung 4642H. Today, it emails me and tells me that the price has now dropped $100. So, woo hoo! Free $100. Very cool.

They also have a downloadable tool which can do price watching for you automatically, on all your Amazon purchases. Very clever. I haven’t tried it yet, but if you do a lot of buying, then it’s probably worth the trouble.

Virtual Bartender

Paul found a thing called MyFountain on somebody’s website. It’s basically an automated bartender.

Now, I’ve seen these before, but mostly as do-it-yourself type projects. The basic idea is that you get a bunch of liqour and beer and such, hook it up to a bunch of pumps and tubes, and hook those to a computer to portion each one out properly. Simple enough. The trick, of course, is programming the computer properly. Running pumps and such is no big deal.

This MyFountain thing takes it to a whole other level. The cheap version (which is still $2500 or so) is a basic bartender. It can go online to get new recipes and such, and it knows what you have in the fridge so it can tell you what you’re capable of making. The advanced version is basically geared towards managing an entire bar, in that it networks with multiple units, can estimate drinking patterns and call headquarters to schedule deliveries of more beverages automatically, etc, etc. Very clever indeed.

Still, I think it would be a fun project to build my own unit. I’ll need a mini fridge or freezer of some design to hold the beverages, but I’ll have to be willing to cut holes in the thing for the necessary tubes to pass through. So if anybody knows of a fridge/freezer design suitable for such a project, capable of holding, say, 6-10 bottles of liquor and possibly 1 or 2 mini kegs, let me know.

Perseids Meteor Shower this Weekend

While it happens every year, it’s still worth seeing as the peak time falls on a weekend this year.

The peak time for the shower will be early Sunday night/Monday morning (2 am), but it will be going on Saturday night too, which is when I’ll probably head up to the roof to see what I can see.

Should be a hell of a good show.

More information can be found here: http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2007/11jul_greatperseids.htm

Finally bought a TV

So, I finally caved and bought a big HDTV.

I talked about getting one before, but I’m essentially broke at the moment, having spent so much on moving and such. However, I finally compromised my inherent desire for “the best” and decided to get one that “will work for now”. But, everybody that commented there, and most people I talked to, told me that Samsung has the current best LCD panels. They got the highest reviews pretty much everywhere, so I satisfied the inherent need to have the best that way instead. :)

On the plus side, I was able to get a powered wall mount for free through my American Express rewards points, so that’s pretty cool. It’ll let the Samsung TV be wall mounted and movable with the remote, so I can tilt and angle the thing easily. It also makes it mount flush to the wall when the set is off, but allows it to come out from the wall 4-5 inches when the set is on. Neat.

The set and wall mount should arrive sometime next week. Amazon has pretty awesome shipping policies with regard to their higher end items: Free white-glove shipping. Very nice. I highly recommend buying your next set from them, unless you know somebody who can hook you up with wholesale price. Even then, the sales tax costs might make it a better deal to go online. It did in my case.

Fun with a Roomba

So I purchased a Roomba at the Woot off the other day. After I bought the condo, a good friend of mine (who also lives here) mentioned the device, but didn’t know the name. Being the consummate geek that I am, I knew he was talking about the Roomba, and furthermore knew that they had several flavors of it now. And the fact of the matter is that he was right, it seems perfectly suited for this place. So when I saw one at the Woot off for only $120 (+$5 shipping), it seemed like a good idea. In fact, I think it turned out to be one of the best bargains ever.

The one I got is a “Discovery 4296” which is nothing more than a word with a number, really. The thing is basically an automatic sweeper. With hardwood or low carpets/rugs (not shag) it’s clearly perfect. Basically it sweeps the floor with rotating brushes and sweeps the crap into a bin, whereupon you dump it. It’s particularly good with hair and other small debris, like the weird pebbles that keep falling out of my ceiling. It also does a decent job of dust in general, although it tends to throw it about a bit. But it seems to get it after a few passes.

One thing I do not like is the bin. It’s too small, and it’s positioned wrong. The upshot of this is that you have to use it every other day, and you have to be *extremely* careful when emptying it. The first time I emptied it, I dumped a large amount of crap onto the floor. Takes some practice, so expect it.

Naturally, being a geek, I’m interested in the algorithms involved. It has a few. They probably have technical names, but here’s the lowdown:
1. Roaming – It roams off in some random direction for a long distance. This is the primary way that it cleans the center of rooms. However, when you consider it, the center areas of rooms don’t tend to be the dirty ones.. It’s the edges that build up the mess. So it has…
2. Edge finding – I think the manual calls this wall roaming. It tends to do this a lot, however I’ve seen it walking the edge of my rug as well. Which is actually a good thing, as those edges tend to pick up debris too. Finally, it has:
3. Spot cleaning – This is an interesting mode. You can force it by placing it somewhere and hitting the “spot” button, but in normal “clean” mode, it will wander around and occasionally switch into this mode. A blue light labeled “dirt detector” comes on, and it runs around in circles for a while, eventually heading off in some random direction.

Few other things:
– Home base – If you get the model with the home base charger, then after it’s satisfied with the area or low enough on battery, it will go home and dock for charging. This can be forced as well with the remote (if you have one). Watching it dock is a lot of fun for your average geek, because the way it does it is clearly via two infrared beams on either side of the dock. It hits them, and turns away from them, back and forth, hunting, until it finds the home point. Very clever.
– Virtual Walls – These are similar, just infrared transmitters (each takes 2 D-cell batteries!) that shoot out a beam which cause the thing to act like it hit a wall and turn. It will follow the beam just like it follows walls. The beams are a bit wide, so put them back a bit inside doorways and such.

The primary way it knows about things is hitting them. The whole front piece, about 140-150 degrees or so, is a movable bump mechanism. When it hits something, this pushes in and the thing stops and turns around some seemingly random amount, or just a bit in edge finding mode. It also appears to be able to sense distance from any wall, because in edge finding, it will follow a wall very precisely without touching it at all, which is weird, because I can’t find any obvious sensors there.

As far as cleaning goes, the one I got is basically a sweeper/vacuum. Works great on hardwood, decent on low cut rug/carpet, probably would not work on shag or similar. The gist of it is that it has a side sweeper to pull in things, a front sweeper to push things up, a rotor brush to pull things in, and a ramp to force things into the bin. There’s also a spinning mechanism inside which might produce some very minor vacuum effect, to get things “over the hump” of the bin and keep dust inside. The bin is on the back, and it sucks. Pick the thing upright before removing the bin. You’ll see the method after 1 spill, trust me.

The docking station does not work particularly well on hardwood floors. It slides, and the Roomba drags it around while trying to disengage. Put it on rug or carpet. I ended up putting it on some carpet samples underneath my bar area. Speaking of which, the dock *MUST* be in an area where it has a pretty good view of the room. Otherwise the Roomba will not find it. So forget a closet or something, it must be in the main area, somewhere.

The cat is completely freaked out by the thing, but the Roomba does not appear to mind his presence. :D

It’s loud. Not as loud as an actual vacuum cleaner, but the Roomba takes longer. However, given that mine has a scheduling feature, I can set it to work when I’m not here. Haven’t tried that yet, might try it later this week. The scheduler is cool, built into the remote. You program the times, and then send the schedule to the Roomba and to the virtual wall units. It runs for that time and the wall units turn on at the same moment. Very conservative on battery power that way.

One thing that bugs me is that the remote doesn’t offer any easy way to really remote control the thing. You can send it commands, but they’re really more like suggestions as far as I can tell. Which is frankly too much work. It covered my living room and kitchen by itself twice before running out of power, and since I didn’t follow the charging directions, it didn’t find home base when it did so. Follow the damn directions, charge it for 16 hours before the first use. Trust me on this one.

Hacking: There are myriad abilities to hack the thing. It has a serial port, and can accept commands to move around and such, as well as provide feedback of all the sensors on it. Worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m considering building a bluetooth serial link to it and hacking it a bit. With some minor effort (okay, maybe not so minor), I could control the thing and make it work much better for my specific space. Given that the unit’s more or less “random” method works pretty well, it does seem to take a while to accomplish anything. I mean, it works, but seems inefficient. I could improve that. I browsed through the documentation on irobot.com while it was working, and it’s pretty comprehensive. Worth a look if you’re the hackish type.

All in all, I’d say it’s worth the $125. Maybe $170. But not the default $220 price. Find the bargains on it, stick with those. Amazon has the remanufactured ones on the cheap (this is the same one I got). And if you’re all hardwood with no rugs/carpets, look for the one that actually mops instead of just sweeps and vacuums.

Bought a Roomba

Bought me a Roomba today. They had a deal going on Woot! and anyway I kind of need one. The hardwood in the new condo is proving difficult to keep clean on a regular basis. Since Mandy claimed to have gotten one while at the car dealership the other day, I figured I’d give it a shot too.

BTW, if you don’t check out Woot! daily, you should. It’s good stuff. Even when the deal of the day sucks, the text is pretty good. The daily podcast is usually pretty funny as well. Worth the trouble.

T-Mobile's new killer phone feature

An article in the New York Times talks about a new thing T-Mobile introduced last week, but which few people noticed… It’s called “HotSpot@Home”, which is a dumb name, but still:

For $10 more on your cell phone bill, T-Mobile will give you a cell phone that also works over WiFi, and a WiFi router at home for you to hook to your own broadband internet connection.

The plus side to all this: When your phone calls are using the WiFi, they’re free. No minutes get used up. When the calls are using the normal cell phone network, you’re charged as per usual. It can also seamlessly switch between the two.

Think about this.. You’re at home, so your phone calls are using your own WiFi and therefore are “free”. No cell phone minutes used. Or you’re at the Flying Saucer, having a beer… The saucer has free WiFi… your phone detects that, uses it, and your calls are free there too. Walk out of the saucer on the phone and out of range, and the phone switches back to the normal cell network and you never notice it.

With a phone like this and the plan to allow it, you could probably reduce the number of minutes you actually pay for each month. If, for example, you pay for 1000 minutes but use 800 of them while at home or work (assuming you have WiFi at work), then you could switch to a 250 minute plan and save the difference.

Neat idea, I thought.

More about the iPhone

I made an iPhone post earlier, and Paul pointed to it, which was cool of him and got me a lot more views than I’m used to. But I got some feedback on the topic as well, so I figured I’d go into it a little more.

First off, If you’re getting the thing for free (like through work or something), then go for it. It’s cool looking, the interface is neat, and it’s very blingy. My issue with the thing is that it’s $600 and somewhat “low-tech”. Here’s what it breaks down to: Stuff they can fix, and stuff they can’t.

Stuff they can fix via a future software update:

  • No custom ringtones. Period. It doesn’t allow for MP3’s, music tracks, or anything else. What’s in the phone is all you get. Although iTunes 7.3 appears to support selling ringtones. Look forward to rebuying your songs as ringtones.
  • The camera is 2 megapixels, but can’t record video.
  • The phone cannot send “MMS” messages. These are like text messages with pictures or video or what have you. For some people, this is no big deal. And it can still send email, so that’s something to consider as well.
  • There’s no instant messaging in the thing. It can do “iChat”, but it can’t do AIM, MSN, GoogleTalk, any of that.
  • The only “push” email it supports is Yahoo Mail. Don’t use Yahoo Mail? Tough luck. It can do IMAP based email, which excludes most email systems and isn’t “push”. Blackberries can do better than this.
  • No games. None. Zero. Zilch. Which is annoying, since they sell iPod games on iTunes that, in theory, could work on the thing.
  • It’s not user expandable. You can’t put your own apps on it, yet. Even if they fix this, it’ll probably be a purchase mechanism thing.
  • The Bluetooth only works with phone calls. So you can’t use your neato Bluetooth stereo headset and have a wireless iPod functionality.

Stuff they *can’t* fix:

  • The massive SLOW of the thing. Unless you’re able to find a WiFi access point, you’ll be using AT&T’s “EDGE” network. Which, as you’ll notice very rapidly, is extremely slow. What really irks about this is that HSDPA is available in cheaper phones and is much faster and extremely reliable (albeit only found in big cities). This can NOT be fixed with a future software update, it’s a hardware problem. Who wants to bet that the “iPhone 2” comes out just as the iPhone price drops down to “free” in a year or so? Who wants to bet that the iPhone 2 will have HSDPA?
  • No GPS. If you’ve seen the commercial with the big screen Google Maps giving turn by turn directions, then you’ll be disappointed to discover that a) the iPhone does not have GPS and so it has no idea where you are (you have to tell it) and b) it can’t actually give turn by turn based directions. You have to tell the iPhone when you make each turn. Which makes it pretty useless for this unless you have a buddy using the phone as you go. No software fix for this, the GPS hardware ain’t in the phone.
  • The thing works as an iPod Nano, basically. It has 4 or 8 GB of storage. But not all the iPod capable things will work with it. Also, because of the jack plug size, you’ll need to buy a special adapter to make some of your normal headphones work with it.

The software problems are enough to keep me from buying one until they fix them. But these last few hardware issues are enough to make me wait until new iPhone hardware appears in a year or two. Why pay extra for something worse than what I already have?

Gizmodo published a list of things you should know before getting one, so don’t take my word for any of the above.

Why I won't be getting an iPhone

Kat wrote about wanting an iPhone yesterday, but I’ve known for a long time that I’m really just not interested in the thing. Today I found this story on Gizmodo that really lays out why:

Finally Confirmed: What the iPhone Doesn’t Have

  • Songs as Ringtones
  • Games
  • Any flash support
  • Instant Messaging
  • Picture messages (MMS)
  • Video recording
  • Voice recognition or voice dialing
  • Wireless Bluetooth Stereo Streaming (A2DP)
  • One-size-fits-all headset jack (May have to buy an adapter for certain headphones)

Stuff we already knew it didn’t have

  • 3G (EV-DO/HSDPA)
  • GPS
  • A real keyboard
  • Removable battery
  • Expandable Storage
  • Direct iTunes Music Store Access (Over Wi-Fi or EDGE)

For reference, my existing cheap-as-in-free LG CU-500 phone has all but 3 of the the things above. The iPhone looks to be like it’s a major downgrade. I kinda wonder if it’s even capable of making phone calls.

On the plus side, you’ll soon be able to find out which of your friends has more money than brains, because they’ll be sporting their shiny new useless blingy phone! And that is going to be the most useful feature ever.

Edit: I just noticed that Amazon has several books available for a phone that actually hasn’t even been released yet! Including “iPhone for Dummies“. Amazing.