The Mini Maker Faire kind of blew my mind

I always wanted to attend the original Maker Faire in the Bay Area and the annual shows that followed, but they started soon after I moved to Oregon and they never overlapped with my travel down there. I recently noticed they were touring around Mini Maker Faires to different cities and I was delighted when my local science museum (OMSI) mentioned it was coming up this weekend. I bought tickets for my family and figured it’d be a lot like the parking lot at O’Reilly conferences I’ve attended: mostly nerds with their hobby gadgets, stuff like robots and rockets and a car converted to run on coffee grinds. My daughter is 8 now and we’re always trying to push her towards having the best STEM education she can get and I figured this might be good for a few science demos. I planned to go on Sunday and looked at random Twitter/Flickr photos from the opening day on Saturday and saw only somewhat interesting looking robots and rockets and figured it’d probably take an hour to see it all and honestly I just hoped my daughter wouldn’t be bored by the dry presentation of it.

I got it all hopelessly, completely wrong, and it kind of blew my mind a bit.

First off, my estimate of spending an hour with a bored child turned out to be showing up soon after it opened followed by forcing ourselves to leave about 90min before closing. It was incredible, they had a huge variety of demonstrations that covered not only all aspects of science, but also art, anthropology, cooking, and even some swords and archery. The demos were well-tailored to a young audience but were also fun for adults (I got to make my own pewter coin!). Another aspect I thought was handled well was the mixture of commerce and education. Many of the demos were done by local businesses and they sometimes offered stuff you could buy to do more of the same thing at home. This could have gone very wrong and seemed really crass if vendors only showed up in an effort to sell their junk disguised as a science demo, but it worked out well where if you really liked making a bit of fresh cheese in a booth, you could buy a cheesemaking kit for doing larger batches in your own kitchen.

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 2.23.04 PMLastly, the thing that really blew my mind was seeing my daughter learn how to solder and assemble basic electronics by building what was a essentially a LED throwie. The LED Throwie is a small battery, a magnet, and a few LED lights that experimental graffiti artists came up with at Eyebeam and plans on how to make them launched on the early Instructables website. I recall Throwies pissed off a lot of major cities as random blinking lights started appearing on their public metal sculptures. I remember watching Throwies blow up in popularity while Jonah Peretti was at Eyebeam, who likely used those lessons to help push content viral when he started Buzzfeed and Huffington Post later on. Then I thought about Tim O’Reilly always watching the alpha geeks at the edges, knowing those people are 3-5 years ahead of the curve and that we could look to what they were interested in as what the mainstream would someday be into, and how today’s Mini Maker Faire was a lot like the Emerging Technology conferences I attended 5+ years ago. I also thought about Dale DoughertyMark Frauenfelder launching Make Magazine that turned into this.

It was amazing to see what was once an experimental graffiti project loved and hated around the world morph into a simple teaching tool for kids that could expose them to science, art, and fun by letting them create a small blinking object they could pin on their clothes. This all grew from geek hobbyists in a parking lot much like the one I stood in today, and the magazine that launched from that. The Mini Maker Faire quite literally was helping pass along the wonder and knowledge I saw over the last decade to a new generation of Makers.

Needless to say, if you’re a parent and one of the Mini Maker Faires is in your town, by all means do everything you can to attend one; you’ll have a great time.

On Lanyrd, investing, and selling

Lanyrd blew me away from the day it launched. It’s a way to track speakers and attendees of upcoming conferences, but it’s also a social web application. It was the first site/app I used that didn’t require yet another login (it used the then-new Twitter auth). It was the first Twitter-powered app that was instantly useful the moment I connected my accounts. Being a tech nerd that speaks/goes to conferences and follows lots of other tech nerds that speak at/attend conferences, my first post-login screen at Lanyrd was filled with information about dozens of conferences my friends were speaking at & attending that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.

Frankly, I was amazed. I went from hitting the homepage of a new app I’d never heard of to having screens full of useful information about my friends and the industry I work in, in about 30 seconds. I immediately dashed off a message to Simon Willison (one of the co-founders) saying Lanyrd was really impressive and if they ever opened up a round of funding to keep me in mind. Simon and Nat got back to me soon after and there were lots of Skype calls and documents sent to lawyers and in the end I got to become the very first investor in Simon and Nat while also being an early advisor to Lanyrd.

Recently they sent out an email announcing an acquisition by Eventbrite and I was surprised to get the news out of the blue but also happy to hear who was doing the acquiring. If you haven’t used it lately, Eventbrite is a great site for arranging/selling/buying tickets for events. As Eventbrite has grown over the last few years, I’ve realized it plays a larger role in my life. In the beginning, it was just a small events site, like a more formal version of Evite and I would attend local industry events for maybe 20 people. Lately, I’ve used it to pay for $1,000+ conference tickets, woke up early to get tickets for high demand small events that sell out within minutes, while still using it for beer bar meetups for a couple dozen friends. I find the biggest problem with Eventbrite these days is discovery; that unless I happened to catch a single tweet from a friend at 11pm one night announcing an event, I wouldn’t know that event existed.

Usually startup acquisitions are bumpy affairs, where a new owner tacks on a new vision for a product, morphs it into their existing infrastructure and inevitably shuts the old site down. I was happy to hear about an Eventbrite/Lanyrd deal because it’ll be a great addition to both properties. My Lanyrd page will extend from technology conferences to every local event on Eventbrite that friends are throwing and attending. The ginormous list of local events offered to me at Eventbrite will filter into things my friends are organizing and/or attending, through my Lanyrd-powered friends. It’s going to be win-win for both companies.

On Investing

Over the last few years, I’ve put some energy, effort, and money into companies I like and want to see do good in the world. To date, I’ve invested in four things: Kickstarter, Lanyrd, Little Bird, and Original. Mostly, I’m investing in friends, people I’ve known for a while that I believe in and have good ideas that can become big. Part of this also comes from working in the Bay Area during the 2000-era tech boom, and watching my friends build amazing things in the aftermath of the bust. I remember seeing the first Flickr shoebox/chat app and asking Stewart if I could invest a couple thousand bucks I had in savings because I thought this could revolutionize the photography world. There were complicating issues at the time (they’d already taken larger rounds of funding) but I told myself if I ever got a chance to see a new app really early on that I felt had greatness and a great team behind it, I’d do whatever I could to help it along.

So far, it’s been a real waiting game. You see demos from friends, you talk over small friends & family style funding, you exchange lots of paperwork with lawyers, and eventually you help the founders meet other people for larger funding rounds while you often get to help steer the product as an early user/advisor. In four years of investing, this is the first acquisition I’ve been through, so I can see why VC firms place lots of bets on lots of companies, since they probably like to see more action than one sale every four years.

On Selling

I’ve neglected to mention it on my blog or Twitter until now, but last Fall, Paul and I sold to a guy named Andy that runs a bunch of car sites. He had been following us for years, had run similar sites, and had a much larger community of car enthusiasts that could really push Fuelly to new heights. We quietly announced it on Fuelly recently and Andy has the time/energy (that we didn’t) to tackle loads of new features for the site. They recently bought and integrated a popular iPhone app for Fuelly and the upcoming APIs will accomplish a lot of the ideas we hoped to get to someday.

Not all acquisitions end with horror stories from “our incredible journey“, sometimes a person or company comes along that is doing something similar to what you’re doing and offers to take over and build up all the things you dreamed about, without losing the original purpose for the site and service. I think that’s the case for both Lanyrd and Fuelly today.

Pulling off a surprise party in this day and age

Pulling off a surprise birthday party in this day and age isn’t as easy as it seems, especially when the subject of a surprise (Andy Baio in this case) is totally plugged in with the technology world. Every movement and moment in our digital lives can leave a trace. Think about all the status updates, phone photos, and check-ins that 25 people can produce, and now think about how hard it is to hide all that from someone that is connected to all those 25 people. It’s not easy, but it is possible. Here are some things that made one party a success:

  • I live outside of Portland and once every month or two I meet up with Andy when I head into town. Andy’s wife came up with the idea I could lure him pretty much anywhere if I just said “oh hey, I’m nearby, want to meet up at this nearby location?”
  • She created a private event Facebook group of everyone but Andy, and it actually worked. No accidental leaks into his friend timeline, everyone got status updates, calendar reminders, and could see the guest list. I’m kind of surprised this part worked, about the only hard part was stealth inviting everyone we could think of (did our Facebook friends overlap with enough/all of his?)
  • When he asked about throwing a party for his birthday, Andy’s wife lied to him saying she was too busy this weekend and maybe they could plan something a week after.
  • A couple hours before the party I faked a Foursquare check-in at the OMSI museum (I was actually driving into Portland at the time), knowing Andy might see it and think I was nearby (at the party Andy said yeah, he saw it and completely believed it).
  • At a precise time in the afternoon I sent a text that I was leaving the museum with my family, we were thinking of grabbing a beer at a pub by his house, and if he wasn’t doing anything, to drop by.
  • Andy’s wife was stalling him all day, he was dying to go out and get some fresh air and said yes immediately, and they showed up 15min later.
  • He didn’t realize it was a huge surprise until the last possible second when he walked in and saw everyone waiting for him. We even had the proverbial out-of-state friend to seal the deal and make it a really great surprise party.

3d Printing and the speed of progress

image from

This is fascinating, someone has made a 3d printed insert for the Elevation Dock to hold a new lightning cable. In August, I received a few Elevation Docks after funding it earlier this year, and I loved using it each day as my phone finally had a nice bedside charger. Since I replaced my iPhone I've missed using it and disassembled an Elevation Dock the other day to see if I could wedge one of the new iPhone cables into it. Unfortunately, the plastic trim that holds the 30-pin connector in place is too narrow to squeeze/hold the lightning adapter high enough for charging in the dock.

I was considering cutting some of the plastic and trying to get it to work but found out Mike Hellers already solved this by putting up a design on Thingaverse which you can get printed/shipped for about $10 from Shapeways.

This is great for owners of a new iPhone that backed the Elevation Dock. I'm impressed at how quickly this 3d model was conceived and printed and is now available. As I was disassembling my dock, I looked at the electronics that Casey, the designer behind the Elevation Dock created and realized it was mostly unnecessary if you could just bend/hold an existing iPhone charger cable. Casey told me at the XOXO conference he was working on a new connector for the lightning connector, but rumors are there's a chip in the cable that would make 3rd party cables impossible.

The most interesting aspect is how 3d printing disrupts things. Casey built these heavy, beautiful docks and spent months creating a circuit board to support charging that is now incompatible and likely impossible to replicate for the new connector. In some industries, I could see a company/creator going after someone making rogue parts like this printed cable holder, but I really hope in this case Casey partners with Mike and figures out a way to print/ship these to existing Elevation Dock owners. It would reduce the Elevation Dock to basically a hunk of heavy aluminum that simply holds a cable inside, but from the outside the existing dock isn't much more than that. (via jdd)

Ten months with a Nest

With the recent news of a new version of the smart thermostat Nest coming out, I figured I should finally write up what it has been like living with the first version of the product since last November, when mine arrived.

Overall, it's been a great little tool, smart in lots of smart ways and dumb in just a very few and eons ahead of similar products I've used. Back in the early 2000s, I spent some time in my first house trying to automate everything. I used x10 to control my lights and set up schedules to turn lights on and off at certain times and I bought a programmable thermostat in the hopes of not only saving energy but also allowing me to wake up to a pre-warmed house in the winter.

I recall how quickly my adoration with home automation faded when I decided to stay up 15 minutes later than normal only to have the entire downstairs lighting shut off to pitch black per the schedule I created. I also remember spending hours programming the thermostat with complicated weekday versus weekend programs, and how after a couple months I just gave up and used it like a normal thermostat that sat at fixed temperatures.

When I heard about the Nest, I immediately ordered one and patiently waited the months until it arrived. It came with a free professional installation that would be scheduled a couple weeks later, but I decided to try it myself and like my last house it was pretty easy to do and 20 minutes after I started, everything was running and it was downloading software updates from wifi (pictured above).

In use

After about a week of using the thermostat to adjust temps (fun bonus: cranking up the heat on a cold December morning from the comfort of your bed, using the Nest iPhone app), it started to realize our patterns and follow them (I rarely have to run the iPhone app these days). It was a nice change from the hours of programming I did in the past and it just seemed to work for my family, realizing that we woke up around 7am most days, went to sleep around 11pm, and started shutting itself off whenever we were gone for the day. After about a month, I went onto the website to check the schedule and it only required a minor amount of tweaking to follow a perfect pattern.

Let me say straight up that the motion sensor in it is pretty amazing. It realizes when no one has been home for a couple hours and sets your thermostat to auto-away mode, saving energy by going to prescribed temp extremes (colder than normal in winter, warmer than normal in summer). I've never had it go to auto-away while I was home working even though it's in a different room. I should also say that if I had a normal office job, the Nest would be doing an even better job. I'm at home about five days a week so it doesn't get tripped into away mode as often as typical houses where most people are gone during the daytime weekday hours.

It's hard to say what the bottom line is on energy savings for me. I don't watch our electric bills super closely and our bill includes charges for water too (which usage fluctuates wildly), making quantifying the post-Nest world a bit tougher, but I do know the system goes into auto-away mode reliably several times a week and it's been great to set the whole system to away mode when we've been on vacation. Having a vacant house heated and air conditioned is a lot like running your lawn sprinklers during a rainstorm, a total waste of money. It's also great to have the iPhone/web connections to control it even though I don't need it very often. I remember bringing up the phone app and taking the house out of away mode at the airport when we landed from a vacation, and arriving to a cool house in the summer an hour later.

About the only downsides are how it sometimes acts a bit too eager to please. You might have a dinner party and turn on the air conditioning a few degrees cooler than normal to keep guests comfortable, and the thermostat is supposed to ignore one-off moments like this, but I found it slightly adjusting itself at odd times that reflected short term changes. This also happened when I left the country for a week while the rest of my family stayed behind, introducing a new schedule where I wasn't home all week in my home office that had to be adjusted later when I went back to my old schedule.

Apart from those minor schedule nits, the Nest has been great, warming the house on winter mornings, shutting down each night about an hour before we typically go to sleep, following our coming and going patterns appropriately and being completely controllable in real time from either the web or our phones (and also by the nice weighty dial on the unit itself) if we need to change things. I won't be buying a new one (for the same reasons Marco states here the software updates make getting a new one unnecessary) but I can wholeheartedly recommend it to all my friends as a neat way to save a bit of energy and turn a dumb appliance like your heating and air conditioning into an automatically configured smart object that works with your own patterns of behavior.

World travel with the unlocked US Verizon iPhone 4S

I've had the Verizon iPhone 4S since it launched last Fall, and I've now taken trips to three countries to use it. I've spent extensive time in Belgium and New Zealand using local micro SIM cards to great effect, and due to a Verizon snafu I've had to use their international service in Belgium as well and I can report it indeed is grossly overpriced. I figure I would share a couple tips and do a quick review after a few weeks abroad.

Step 1: Call Verizon after 60 days and ask for an "International Unlock"

The key step before you go abroad is to make sure you own your Verizon 4S for at least two months and then call customer service to request an International Unlock (I found out about that at ZDnet). They will try to pitch you their international calling plan but refuse it or say you will consider it if the unlock doesn't pan out. 

You have to do this over the phone, the reps I talked to inside a Verizon store couldn't do the procedure. Also, make sure the person on the phone knows how to do this, because the first time I called it was the person's first attempt at ever doing it and it turned out they didn't complete the task properly, causing problems later on.

Step 2: When you get off the plane and through customs, look around the airport for SIM card kiosks

In Belgium after I got my bags and before I left the airport, there was just one little booth selling cards from, a local mobile provider. They were fantastic, offering 500Mb of data plus 15 Euro of talk time and texting for only 15 Euro. I also set up topping up the card via SMS, so after a few phone calls and some heavy downloading on my laptop (you can tether the connection) I could simply send a text to get more credit. 

In New Zealand's Auckland international airport, there were two options, Vodafone or Telecom and I selected Vodafone since I'd heard of them before (seen them on soccer jerseys). They offered 250Mb of data plus a bunch of texting and calls for $45NZ. I used up all the bandwidth halfway through my week and topped it up again via SMS.

My local Verizon rep said the USA is the only country in the world that requires you to have an expensive phone plan with hundreds to thousands of minutes of talk time plus data plus texting. Every other country does fine with these cheap pay-as-you-go cards. I would LOVE to have the same setup I had in Belgium, where 10 Euro could last me weeks of heavy phone use instead of the $70/month plan I have with Verizon.

Step 3: Carry a paperclip and a holder to keep your old Verizon SIM in when you're not using it

I have an old SD card case (pictured above) I carry in my travel backpack with all my old micro SIMs and a paperclip. It's really easy to pop the paperclip into the side of your iPhone, slide out the tray, and drop another card in. Every card has its own unlock code and you have to be sure to remember them because they can get locked out from use if you fail on four attempts. It's also fun to feel like a character in The Wire as you can jump from SIM to cheap SIM, switching to a new number each time. Be sure to keep your original Verizon SIM for when you get back home to the US, otherwise you'll have problems.

Warning: don't use Verizon for international use

Since my first attempt at unlocking didn't work, my first use of an International SIM in Belgium didn't quite work out. I could get onto the new network, but I couldn't make calls or get any data. I eventually had to pop in my Verizon card and call Verizion to have them double check (and I also enabled an international plan in case that didn't work out). Data cost me $20.54/Mb in Belgium as I checked the site for a contact number, then I had to wait on hold at several dollars per minute. When they fixed my unlock, new SIMs worked fine, and in the meantime I tried out another local provider and it seemed to work too. I also had no trouble using my Verizon phone in roaming mode in Canada while at the airport, using data from Verizon's own plan.

Verizon's top international plan costs $125 for only 300Mb of data (On AT&T last summer, I used their $200 800Mb plan for two weeks in Australia without going over) and thankfully Verizon counted my international call/data time before I enabled it into my $125 option (I didn't have to pay the $20.54/Mb price). 

Bonus: crazy local numbers aren't all bad

You might want to keep your phone's local US number when abroad (especially when traveling with other Americans that want to call you easily), but I'm more of a texting person and thanks to Apple's iMessage feature, I could text any other American I knew while traveling using data instead of my SMS allocation. Getting a local number proved handy for having a way for local people to contact me without them having to use international talk time as well.

Beware of international data hogs

One last tip: in my experience and talking with friends, it seems like Google Maps is the worst culprit when it comes to data use. It is super useful for getting around, but all those map tiles quickly add up. I was lost in Sydney my first afternoon in Australia last summer and by the end of my first 24hrs, I had amazingly used up 200Mb of my 800Mb allocated for the 2 weeks. After that I took the advice of friends and moved to using OffMaps as much as I could, which uses OpenStreetMaps along with your GPS location to give you a good idea of where you are without tons of network use (you download your maps on wifi, then use them in an offline way). 

It's also a good idea to take advantage of free/cheap WiFi in cafes, hotels, and at business offices as much as possible.

Conclusion: international unlock rocks

Considering that in Belgium I got more than Verizon's top plan for the equivalent of $13, it's a no brainer: get your Verizon 4S unlocked and always go with the cheap local SIM option. It's quick and easy to get a local SIM at the airport, and pop it in. The first time I did this, I had to be on WiFi and connected to iTunes to "activate" my SIM slot, but my last trip to New Zealand didn't require that and a new SIM worked fine after popping it in.

Yamhill County Jury Duty

I've been doing jury duty this month and so far I've been called in three times, sat for 20 minutes each time, and then was told to go home for the day as they would not need any jurors. It's pretty frustrating because I've had trouble keeping appointments and meetings all month as the jury instructions were to keep your entire month clear if you could, so I was expecting action. Also, I'd really like to do this, but I wish it was all more efficient: less people (50-60 people show up each morning when only 10-20 are needed), shorter time frame (1 week of daily actual jury stuff vs. 1 month of on/off stuff), and higher chance of actually serving on a jury.

Towards that strive to efficiency, I noticed my county recently started doing some of the jury stuff online, including filling out your availability in the summons and my favorite feature: getting your nightly jury reporting information online instead of having to call a number and listen to a 1 minute long recorded message. The website option is great because it takes two seconds to figure out if you need to report at the courthouse the next morning, but the URL is hard to find on the county site and whenever I google search common phrases, I'm dropped a couple levels above it and have to search and hunt for the jury info page.

So I bought and I'm redirecting to the specific, exact page on the county courts website that you need to check nightly to figure out if you have to report for jury duty the next morning. I don't know if it'll help anyone beyond me, but it's nice to have shortcuts.

Three phone tips for antisocial people like me that hate phones

In no particular order:

1. A friend recently got a new phone & number on Verizon, and neglected to set up his electronic voicemail account for the first few weeks. When you call, after 4-5 rings it goes to voicemail but the message is simply "This user has not set up their voicemail yet. Goodbye."

Now, this won't work for everyone, but if you spend a minimal amount of time being interrupted by phone calls and you have a stable job and relationships and don't need to get every single call that comes in, this no-voicemail thing is kind of awesome because it is one less inbox for this friend's life. I know when I get that message I'll either text, call back later, or just send an email. I'm envious and may not set up voicemail for future new phones I get.

2. In the spirit of Last Year's Model, my home landline is connected to a 11 year-old cordless phone we have no reason to replace. It works for the hour or so total talk time we use it each week, but since the phone sits in the cradle charging constantly, the batteries tend to go bad after a few years. The batteries are currently dying so the phone has to stay on the charger all the time, and when you do get a call, you get about 10 minutes of talk time before the batteries are dead and the call drops. 

Instead of replacing the rechargable battery pack, I've been enjoying this feature for a few months now. I know it's kind of asshole-ish, but it's really nice to be able to keep things short and sweet with everyone that calls my house. It's really handy and I don't spend hours on the phone chit-chatting because the phone simply can't do it, and I have no guilt about cutting a call short. I can always have a long conversation on my cell phone if need be.

3. There are several web services out there to answer the question "Who owns that unlisted number that just hit my mobile phone?" but my favorite is WhoCalled.Us. It's an awesome free service where people report details of who called them and what they wanted when they called, think of it as crowd-sourced telemarketer reporting. It's handy because you can safely ignore most calls to your phone after looking up the numbers at this site.

If a weird unknown number comes into my iPhone, I ignore it and look up the number later. 9 times out of 10, it was a sales call from a bank, a timeshare company, or a bullshit work-at-home offer. I wish it was integrated in my phone, so I could just hit a button to do auto lookups from the missed calls page on my phone, or if an incoming call had known records at, it could display the top three rated comments on my screen before I hit accept or reject.

(this post was also translated into the Czech language)

The Chokehold of Calendars

Meetings may be toxic, but calendars are the superfund sites that allow that toxicity to thrive. All calendars suck. And they all suck in the same way. Calendars are a record of interruptions. And quite often they’re a battlefield over who owns whose time.


That's a glorious intro sentence, worth quoting here for posterity.

Facebook’s Privacy Whiteboard


Last year, when Facebook started going lax on their default privacy settings (in opposition to how they'd always defaulted settings) I had this idea. It's obvious why Facebook would push their userbase in that direction, because it would mean more public outfacing pages to sell internal and external advertising on. If you're running a giant private walled garden, you can only sell ads to other users — but when you open that page up to the world (and Google) you can sell ads to everyone.

So my thought upon seeing a major change in privacy at Facebook was there must be a whiteboard in a Facebook office somewhere listing all the changes necessary to their privacy settings in order to maximize revenue. I'd guess there are maybe 20 items on the list, and it seems every few months they pluck a couple off the list and make it live. Sure, they're also releasing other features to offset the bad publicity of further privacy changes, but this excellent blog post and infographic (one of which is shown above) demonstrate exactly how they've progressed on implementing their changes over time. I'd guess at this point, they're about 3/4 of the way through that list.

Now I'm just waiting until the day an engineer at Facebook is fed up enough to take a photo of the Privacy Nightmare Punchlist whiteboard and post it on the web for all to see. It has to exist, but I'd still like to see it.