Sunday, June 26, 2016

Soltrackr product review

As a mobile device sensor community insider, I couldn't resist doing a premarket review on one of the coolest gadgets coming to the market. Disclaimer: I know way more about how this product actually works than I can say on my blog, and it totally kills me not to be able to actually tell you all the amazing science that goes into this thing. However, as a random nonspecific example, I happen to know that some of the algorithms used in the device use custom built solar models engineered by NASA space mission contractors. By partnering with the best in mobile sensing hardware and science, Soltrackr brings serious firepower to their product.

 

Soltrackr Product Review

Target market: Skiers, hikers, swimmers, surfers, beach goers, campers, runners, coaches, parents, health conscious individuals, tech lovers

Overview: Bluetooth sensor key fob featuring combo UV sensor and photoplethysmography (PPG) heart rate sensor with an intuitive and insightful app that delivers personalized, relevant health information for lifestyle management.

Conclusion: Few devices will actually change your life by changing your habits. The Soltrackr sensor accessory is one of those products.

Details:
Soltrackr has some of the hottest sensor tech to ever go into mobile devices, but you aren't buying just jazzy hardware, you are getting a health management app that combines the best in solar science and cardio health. The user interface doesn't just spout a single number like UV index that means different things to different skin types. Soltrackr will teach you how to make personalized decisions about sun exposure that actually benefit your health. It doesn't just measure your  heart rate, it shows you how to lower your stress. Soltrackr heralds the emerging trend in Sensor 2.0 devices (sensor+service), going beyond measurement to lifestyle management.

 During hardware qualification, in a globe-spanning, three month side-by-side test, the hardware-software hybrid UV sensor tech in Soltrackr outclassed several meteorological grade UV Index instruments costing thousands of dollars. And, the heart rate sensor is FDA grade. But what excites me most about this product is the user experience. You actually get useful help:

-When should I go out to get vitamin D without burning?
-What is the UV level at my location?
-Can I get enough vitamin D before I burn if I wear a t-shirt and shorts?
-What is my burn time with SPF50 sunscreen?
-How long can I be outside with my skin type?
-How does the sun condition affect my skin aging?

This is stuff the growing health conscious population actually cares about. No longer do you have to go off of a generic UV index weather prediction for an entire region. You can measure it where you are with the Soltrackr UV sensor, automatically taking into account local effects like altitude, cloud cover and the varying UV reflectivity of local terrain such as sand, cement, snow and water. I look forward to using Soltrackr to help me protect my kids from harmful UVA and UVB rays, while allowing me to get the vitamin D I need to keep my immune system in balance. Vitamin D is critical in managing MS and other autoimmune conditions, and research is continuing to indicate the positive benefits of sunlight for managing depression and the unsung mobile-device enabled insomnia epidemic. But, too much sun can can negatively affect your skin. Knowing the right amount of sun exposure is easy when you have a product like Soltrackr that delivers metrics based on your individual skin type and locale.

Biofeedback is another feature I am excited about. When I'm stressed, my multiple sclerosis symptoms (like losing feeling in my right hand) are much worse. I value having the ability to see my stress level and actively reduce it using biofeedback.

Once my Soltrackr has been delivered, I will update the review with notes on battery life and cross platform bluetooth functionality.

The Soltrackr team boasts talent from some of the most innovative sensor teams in silicon valley, with veteran developers of advanced hardware platforms for mobile phones including sensors and power management ICs in some of the highest volume smart phones on the market. As the first company to take this level of technology and make it accessible to both Android and iOS mobile device users, Soltrackr is taking a step toward making a difference in health for active people.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

My Favorite DIY Suppliers





I rapid prototype several new sensor and hardware concepts each week. My productivity at the concept stage for medical sensor devices leans heavily on open source platforms like Arduino and Raspberry Pi.

Open source hardware hubs like SparkFun and Adafruit are always on a techie's radar with their easy-to-use, well-documented examples and active developer communities, plus instructional videos, project ideas and tech support. These are great places to get started and to challenge yourself with new projects.

Adafruit's NeoPixel products and code examples are fun way to light up your projects with inexpensive LED color strips.

I also like the inexpensive and versatile 3.3V 8MHz Sparkfun Adruino Pro Mini microcontroller boards.  The Pro Mini is useful for programming a device that works by itself and doesn't need to talk over serial to a computer. 3V operation means you can talk to most low power sensor ICs over I2C without a level shifter. Without the on-board USB connector it's a little cheaper than options like the Nano or Due. Don't forget to order the FTDI board, or you won't be able to program it. (Avoid the buggy Pro Micros, though.)
If you are just getting started with DIY and hardware projects, there is nothing better to start with than the Arduino Uno. You will find examples aplenty plastered all of the internet and most of the code you find will work on your Arduino Uno without modification. You can get them from the standby's mentioned above, or if you are cheap try these alternative suppliers:
www.uctronics.com
UCTRONICS.com
China based and dirt cheap, UCTRONICS may have what you need at a fraction of the cost of a US-based supplier, like Arduino Pro mini's for $2.38! (vs. $10 at Sparkfun and Adafruit). If you can wait a few weeks, UCTRONICS will be your lowest cost source of sensors, development boards and microcontrollers, plus they source sometimes hard-to-find hardware like Arducam's NOIR camera module for Raspberry Pi with infrared sensitivity. Be sure to stock up on jumper wire and headers, but don't expect any documention for development boards! You are on your own--but at least you have some extra money left over in your project budget.

 




MPJA.com is a US-based supplier of hardware and tools. Pic up cheap power supples, soldering irons and other accessories. If you save up and get an order over $50 or $100 MPJA often runs specials and you can land yourself a free multimeter or cordless solder iron--pretty sweet. Faster than UCTRONICS, but not as rock bottom cheap, head to MPJA when you need it faster than snail slow, but still want to save a penny.

www.dx.com
DX.com has much more than just hardware for projects. Get kits, gadgets, personal electronics and other geekware for dirt cheap. Fast delivery, low prices and so much to choose, from robot parts and apparel to DIY supplies and car accessories--even makeup (!?). With roots in China, but US stock, DX is like a geek-worthy overstock warehouse with stock products, too--truly the best of both worlds. Fair warning: if you spend all your birthday money at DX on drones and drone parts, don't blame me for not warning you!
Removable Arms, Excellent Flexibility, 360-degree Rolling, Three-level Speed Control, Headless Mode


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Game of the Week: Pass The Pigs

 Pass the Pigs, or its slightly less reverent earlier version called Pig Mania, is, without argument, one of the best party games ever invented. Instead of dice, players roll rubber pigs and collect points depending on their orientation. (See the box cover below for Pig Mania for typical combinations.)

Players roll the pigs until they either pass, or get a "Pig Out" and lose all their rolled points for this turn. If the pigs are touching, you lose all your accumulated points and start from zero. In Pig Mania this was called "Makin' Bacon". In Pass the Pigs, they call it something more benign.

In expert play "Hog Calling" is allowed, where players attempt to guess the next roll of the pigs by yelling "Soooeee" and then prognosticating the next roll. This is where the game gets really crazy. In a recent game, the infamously unlucky player who was firmly in last place hog called her way to a tie for victory after rolling like 10 Pig Outs in a row.

The holy grail of all pig formations is the "Double Leaning Jowler" where both pigs are balancing on their snout, the tip of one ear and a foreleg. In my entire extended family of over 200 people, only my Uncle Mark Allen, a famous cognitive psychologist, claims to have rolled a double leaning jowler.

I should have gone to Johns Hopkins...

However, something even stranger occurred at a recent cousins game night, when my cousin Katie rolled a never-before-seen pig combination. It was a kind of leaning razorback, like an upside down leaning jowler.
Photographic proof of the elusive "leaning razorback".

 Notice the pig at the top of the picture has only one ear touching the table.

Miraculous. Astounding. I felt like I was watching something out of Charlotte's Web.

If you have never played Pass the Pigs with a group of rowdy people, you owe it to yourself to experience the joy, the drama and the zany fun of the greatest pig rolling game ever invented.



Sunday, March 20, 2016

Game of the Week: Pente

One of the easiest and funnest games for kids and adults is Pente. Watch the video below to get the basics. I introduce our latest devious variant: 3 player Pente. You will love the depth, nuances and social interaction that comes from turning a two-player game into a collaborative game where  players have to both work together and against each other.

Recently, 9 year old Micah threw down the most insane 3-player Pente victory anyone has ever seen, in a game against his older brother and an unnamed adult participant who is too embarrassed to use his name.


Micah (blue) plays in the square marked by the red circle, simultaneously creating two win opportunities, and eliminating two pieces creating another 2 win opportunities--a quadruple threat win.
Micah has four places he can win, but the opponents (red and white) only have 1 move each to block. The losers quickly fled the scene (invoking the "winner cleans up" house rule), shaved their heads and joined a monastery.



Saturday, March 5, 2016

Beauty is Only Skin Deep: The Science of Lighting Faces


The images below are the same face. True or False?

Answer: FALSE.

Same person, but four different faces. Strange but true.

In this blog post I will explain why. I'll also cover why messing with color balance in Photoshop doesn't fix problems like red blotches on faces.



These photos were taken with light of increasing red content. The first is 8600K (blue sky). The second image is 6000K (diffuse sunlight). Third pic is 3800K (bright white fluorescent), and lastly 2600K (incandescent).

The first image is essentially a picture of the top surface layer of my skin. Each successive picture captures a deeper slice. The last image includes some of the subsurface features, which is why it is so red. It is actually showing the blood vessels beneath the skin. Note that each image was white balanced to styrofoam (perfect white), so the colors are nearly equivalent. If you tried to change the color balance to get rid of the redness in my face in the last image, you would royally mess up all the rest of the colors, including the blues and whites of the eyes. In redder light, my face actually gets redder because you can see all the way through to the blood vessels, making places with lots of shallow blood vessels (like my nose, cheeks and chin) stand out.

Most of us think that if we just play with the color balance we can take a red-faced image and make it look like the smooth skin of the sunlight pictures. But it just doesn't work. They are different faces! (I mean different layers of the face.)

Beauty is only skin deep. 

 

Spectrum IPL Image
Diagram showing the penetration length of different colors into the skin increasing for longer wavelengths.

Weird translucent cave fish
In fact, if you could take a picture of yourself with a near infrared camera you could see right into your skull! We would all look like translucent aliens or the weird see-through fish that live in caves.

White (actually translucent) skin shows whatever is underneath, whether blue veins or red blood vessels or the smoothing subcutaneous fat layer that hides those things in women and makes them look more beautiful to the eye, even in warm lighting. But for most folks without perfect skin, the color temperature of the lighting can really make a difference. However, the darker your skin pigment, the less difference the color of the light makes because light of all colors is being absorbed by melanin in the basal layer. So skin pigment is one of nature's secret ways of creating beautiful skin.

Some babies have very little skin pigmentation. Traditional wisdom says "babies look best in natural light." What they mean to say is, "If you shine red light on the little alien you can see right through it." Ok, maybe not that. But the truth is, unless you find blood vessel distributions fascinatingly beautiful, use high color temperature (cool) lighting, like diffuse sunlight, a xenon flash, and "daylight" LEDs or fluorescents.

Otherwise you might get pics like this.
Why is his face so red? ...Maybe he just farted and he's embarrassed.

Conclusion: Got see-thru skin? Avoid incandescent lighting.


Unless you are a girl with perfect skin.

Below is a picture of Nicole, age 11. Even in 2600K lighting her skin looks flawless, because it pretty much is. The fun of using the 2600K lighting is that her strawberry blond hair looks even more red. But that look in the eyes...hmm. She's up to something.
Mischievous girl age 11, 2600K lighting

Homework

To convince yourself that I'm not lying, go get an RGB color changing LED light bulb. Take a black and white photo of your fair-skinned model with the blue light on. Then do the same for the red light. Make sure you are shooting with the aperture wide open and maximum resolution. Compare the images at high resolution and you will see that the red image has a different kind of structure to the face. Red light really gets under the skin.



Saturday, January 2, 2016

Product Idea: The Unshareable Blanket

For the person in your social group who only takes selfies, consider the gift of a triangle blanket. Optimized for today's baggage-free lifestyle, this cozy blanket has just enough coverage for one. Try sharing it and see how well it works--it doesn't. Your wanna-be friends on the sofa next to you will assume the blanket is crooked. But there is no easy way for them to grope for it without being discovered. And if they try to pull it over to share, they will have to pry it out of your cold dead hands. It doesn't share. The unique unpatented design offers all the benefits of a snuggy, except the arm holes.

Looking to start your next company? Look no further. Create "The Selfie Blanket".

Possible variants include a single hole just large enough for your selfie stick to poke through.



Disclaimer: All product ideas are presented without any due diligence and have no warranty implied or otherwise of fitness for any particular purpose other than amusement.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Nerd Shopper Review: University Mall, Orem --Worst Mall Ever


In the town where legendary science fiction writer Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game) grew up, in the valley where Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) learned to write about sparkling vampires, where you can sign up to take writing classes from fantasy legend Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn), there is a mall where you can get...

Nothing.

University Mall (Orem/Provo, UT) Nerd Shopper Scorecard

Game Stores: 0
Toy Stores: 0  (Correction: Disney Store = -1)
Lego Store: 0
Arcades: 0
Creepy Used Book Stores: 0
Hobby Stores: 0
Comics Shops and Collectibles: 0
Stores with Swords for Sale: 0

Total Nerd Shopper Score: -1

But there's always overpriced khakis at Banana Republic.

Shame on you Utah Valley. Shame.

If your shopping partner insists on going to this big overpriced fashion bazaar, hop across the street to the nearby hobby store, where you can pick up copies of the free magazine Utah Geek and buy motors for your rockets. Or, take a drive down the road to Provo Towne Centre, where although they apparently don't know how to spell short words like town and center, you can find a game store with a backroom, buy Arduino parts at Radio Shack, find cool out of print Star Wars books at a used book store and generally enjoy your dweeby self without being accosted by lotion peddlers. :)

In fitting irony, it appears that University Mall, with the first-ever negative Nerd Shopper Score, was where Studio C's epic mall parody sketch was filmed.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Think You Know How a Swamp Cooler Works?--Think Again

The simple swamp cooler it is a lot more sophisticated than it gets credit for.

Swamp Coolers
The evaporative cooler or "swamp cooler" uses evaporation to cool air. Notably it only works when the air outside is somewhat dry. At high altitudes evaporative coolers work great. For a small cost in electricity and water you get cooling with much better efficiency than a refrigerated cooling (AC) system.

But there are limits. It doesn't work in humid air (such as swamps), and typically it can only cool air a few tens of degrees at the most. So 100 degrees outside means 80 degrees inside.

The swamp cooler has a wet pad (like a rigid sponge) and a fan that draws air from outside through the pad and into the house. Pretty simple.

There two principles at work. One is evaporative cooling (not why it works). The other is heat of entropy (how it actually works).

Evaporative cooling
Interesting fact: the water in a bath tub always becomes cooler than the room it is in. The reason is that there are warm molecules and cold molecules in the water. The hot molecules have enough energy to escape into the air, leaving the cold ones behind. It's like picking teams for basketball. The hot players get picked first, leaving a pool of cool players. The faster the evaporation, the cooler the tub will become. But notice that the air picked up all the warm molecules, so how would that make the air cooler? Well, it wouldn't if this were the only principle at work. The cooler would get cold but the air would stay warm. There must be something else going on.

Heat of Entropy
To understand how this swamp cooler really works, you have to know what temperature actually is.  In a gas temperature is related to the average amount of energy per molecule. When hot dry air passes through the evaporative pad, it saturates with moisture.  Conceptually, the air did work to evaporate the moisture. The mixing of the water molecules with the air means the gas now has more ways to divide up its energy. With more entropy, or ways to divide up the energy, there is less energy per molecule. (More mouths to feed means everybody gets less food.) Another way to think about it is the air picked up more heat capacity without getting any additional energy, so it has to have a lower temperature.

The air, as it becomes laden with moisture, has more chaos for the amount of energy in contains. The scientific definition of coldness is the change in the number of ways to arrange the energy per change in energy. To make something colder you can either take away energy (refrigeration) or add ways to arrange the energy (load the air with moisture).

So that's it, the so-called "evaporative cooler" doesn't work on the principle of evaporative cooling, like bath tubs do. It works on heat of entropy. I suppose they could always market these things as "entropic coolers"....

Monday, December 14, 2015

Science Explained--in 140 characters or less

This week I've been posting explanations of science concepts on Twitter @authordanallen on the hashtag #SciFact.
Solar Prominence. Credit: NASA picture of the day
Below are some of the highlights. My favorite was explaining all 4 of Maxwell's equations in one tweet. Some of these concepts are really deep, like the definition of temperature as the derivative of energy with respect to entropy--they don't teach that in high school! And even when they teach it in college, we sometimes struggle grasping even basics ideas like why it is thermodynamically favorable for hot objects transfer energy to cold ones.

Hopefully all the fun analogies help.

Dig in. Think deep, and don't be afraid to get on Wikipedia and find out more if any of the concepts excites your curiosity and imagination.

I am also taking #SciFact requests @authordanallen. ...and yes, I will attempt relativity!

                          
: Big Bang=bright. Universe stretches & dims. Darkness. Matter cools into stars--> light! :8

near gravity>far so moon stretches, spinning moon = rolling squishy ball, stops quickly. Thus, spin stops.

Electrons trade photons. Brokers trade stocks. One sells & others can buy (absorption) or sell (stim. emission)

1 Population Inversion=overvalued stock 2 Stim Emission=1 broker sells 3 Feedback(mirrors)=media --> lasing/mass selloff

There are more ways for a room to be messy than clean. Moving things randomly makes disorder more likely.

1 E fields spray from charge 2 Mag fields do loops. 3&4 Changing elec field bends mag field & viceversa

Temperature: difficulty to add chaos w/energy. Library (cold) shout = big change. Rave (hot) shout=meh. Combine & rave hypes lib.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Press Release: Fall of the Dragon Prince



It's official!
Here is a sneak peak at the Jolly Fish Press announcement of my debut novel Fall of the Dragon Prince. The press release will go out to book sellers nationwide this month, in advance of the mid-2016 publish date. I am super excited about this series. It captivates readers from teens to adults. For more info on the book, including character profiles, check out my author page www.authordanallen.com. Follow me on twitter @authordanallen for updates and sneak previews of book content. This is an epic fantasy series for young adults. I developed the concept way back, but I spent ten years developing my craft before I dared to weave this tale of five heirs of an emperor born in secret in remote realms of the empire. The series is several years in the making and the first book "Fall of the Dragon Prince" got a big response from my beta readers. (I've received variously worded threats to send the sequel manuscript, or else.) You'll want to disappear into the fantasy world developed in the Forgotten Heirs Trilogy.
 Fall of the Dragon Prince Press Release


Monday, August 24, 2015

Seriously it happened to me: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

 4 trains, 2 planes, a new cell phone charger, 3 bummed rides (1 from a total stranger), a shuttle bus, a park and ride lot, my car--and did I mention my fly was down the whole time?
Photo Credit: Contra Costa Times

After my recent adventure, I'm considering writing a book titled "How to Get Home, for Dummies".

For those of you who are not left-handed scattered brained physicist inventors, please enjoy this fact-filled tour, showing in excruciatingly embassaring detail why you should be glad you didn't turn out like me.

My weekend trip to visit family start off with the best intentions. I called my brother to ask a math question. He didn't answer so I texted it to him. Apparently, it was his birthday. And apparently the same thing happened 2 years ago on his birthday. I only remember because he called after he got my text, to remind me.

So...I went to check-in online for my flight and realized that my flight was not leaving at 3PM. That was when it was arriving. So instead of taking the train to the airport, I got in my car and drove to Oakland.

Second mistake and it was only 10AM. I was down some brother points and half-day of unplanned vacation.

I made my flight had a great weekend and got up this morning ready to head home.

Before I tell you about the next part, I should confess that I once attended Brigham Young University where everybody is an excrutiatingly honest Mormon. If I ever lost anything, it always showed up at the lost and found, eventually: my sweater, hat, textbooks, calculator--they all showed up on a special shelf they kept just for me with my name on it. My wife went once a week to collect my stuff.

I was supposed to go myself, but I forgot...every week.

So this morning began like any morning. I got up in Salt Lake City at 4AM, bummed a ride off my father in law, caught a flight to Vegas, made my connection to San Jose and took the light rail to work. I was a smooth operator. I didn't even leave luggage behind on accident, like I once did when I left my luggage on Amtrak trying to get to the Oakland airport and then had to drive to Sacramento the next week to pick it up from the lost and found.

It was all good, except for the fact that I was out of cell phone battery and I had to buy a battery booster at Brookstone at the airport at extortion prices so I could be on an important conference call...which I noticed was cancelled after I called in.

Mindlessness Tally: one-half day of work, 3 days of airport parking, one VTA ticket, and one overpriced cell phone battery charger.

I guess I could have brought my charger with me to begin with....didn't think of that.

My fly broke at work. That was embarassing...for everyone. XYZ..hahaha.

After work I bummed a ride off my coworker at the last minute to the Amtrak station so I could get up to Oakland to get my car, so I could drive back to Cupertino, in the exact opposite direction. I got there early! So I called Amtrak and they said I could use my $15 7:30 PM one-way Central Corridor Express ticket on any train.

So I hopped on the 6:55 train...the ACE train. Yes, the Altamont Commuter Expresss, headed for the central valley and the illustrious border village of Tracy, CA. Well luckily when it started up the canyon I realized my mistake. The guy sitting across from me told me I could get off in Pleasanton and take BART back down to Oakland.

I got off in Pleasanton--nice town, only to find out that the last bus to BART had already left. So I was told to walk downtown and catch a bus. I walked downtown, wandered around a bit and finally got directions to a bus stop across from a liquor store. I ran.

I missed the bus by 10 seconds. Yeah.

So then this guy in a Smart Car pulls up and says, "I saw you missed the bus. Need a ride?" So now I'm hitchhiking in the 6th wealthiest town in the US--a calculated risk. I figured he was an Uber driver, but actually he was just a nice NASA engineer who recognized a fellow nerd in trouble--score one free ride to the BART station!

Sometimes you get a break. I took BART back down to Oakland (another $5). Now it was dark. Oakland is my favorite place to be on public transit in the dark...alone...with money in my pocket. I transferred to the airport connector (another $6), called the park and ride place and got a ride.

I felt guilty about the free ride from the guy in the Smart car and wanted to pay it forward so I tipped the shuttle bus driver with the only bill in my wallet (another $10). Hey, it's the bay area, a $10 tip is only 2 hours worth of really cheap rent in Cupertino. 5*24*30 = (a sum you don't want to pay for rent unless you live in Silicon Valley). Well I paid the budget park and ride place $50 for 4 days and got in my hybrid and drove home in the car pool lane out of spite. (It was after hours so the lane was open.)

And that my friends, is why you are glad you are not a crazy left-handed physicist inventor. Because genius and being an idiot are apparently not mutually exclusive.

Special thanks to father-in-law Russ, Android clock alarm app, Google Maps, Southwest Airlines App, Las Vegas Airport free wifi, Brookstone, VTA, a nice coworker, Amtrak customer service, random Pleasanton citizen, BART, Oakland Police Department, Oakland Park and Travel, the US freeway system, Toyota, and my understanding wife.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Erratum: The Difference Between Writing "Romance" and a "Beautiful Romance"


A few weeks ago I posted an article about writing romance. In so many words, said I, romance in a story is just a couple of emotionally needy people making a series of bad decisions. I got a bundle of LOLs in my inbox and few likes on Facebook. I finally had romance figured out.

Or so I thought.

Today I read a letter written by a girl who just got engaged to the boy who was her first crush. It was about the most romantic thing I've ever read. The strange part is nothing really seemed to happen between them except growing up and intermittently hanging out. Yet, the story grew into a wonderfully beautiful heart wrenching tale of lost and found, and happily ever after.

Both are in college now. Their love story has all the ups and downs of "a couple of emotionally needy people", but what is was missing was the bad decisions. Of course it took them a long time to realize that they were in love. But not being together romantically from the very beginning was ok. They made the right choices at various times to explore and be in relationships and grow.

So if they weren't making a series of bad decisions, stuck in each other's own pride or prejudice, why was the story so gripping and powerful and emotional and just so ridiculously romantic you wanted to tear your own heart out so it would stop hurting and cry for joy at the same time?

At that moment I realized that there is a difference between just plain romance, the kind of romantic tension in a novel I can script by having a character just say the wrong thing at the wrong moment and hurt someone else, and a beautiful romance, a truly beautiful story of love.

What is the difference? What is the golden ingredient?

Friendship.

Brooke and Erich--see even their names sound just perfect together--are best friends. For the rest of their future they know that they can be that way forever. That is beautiful. But their relationship was beautiful before they realized they were in love.

Friendship.

Listening. Caring. Loving. Sharing. Crying. Giving. Believing. Trusting. Sacrificing. Waiting. Hoping. Risking.

When all the emotions and drama boiled away, what remained was the single truth they had built together: they had each other. And there was one thing that wrapped it up and sealed it for good, a truth that bad decisions can only gaze upon from a languishing distance.

Friendship is being true.

They had each other not because they made mistakes, but because they were true. Like a redwood rising to its full glory, so long as its core, its heart wood is strong, the redwood is beautiful and grand. So in a romance, more than being pretty or petty, more than being selfish, more than running away from what you should run toward, what bestows beauty is friendship and its core is being true.

Even if it took Brooke and Erich a lifetime and an eternity to find each other, the thing that would make it beautiful beyond compare is that heartwood of being true. Like a Rembrandt waiting to be unveiled, like a Steinway waiting for its first concerto, in the moment of its discovery the beauty of its enduring worth is revealed.

Am I getting any closer to understanding romance? Maybe I'm still galaxies away, but I see a bright star of love burning, and it makes me want to be true.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Video Tutorial On Dense Atmospheres for Sci-Fi Freaks

If you are a sci-fan or author looking for idea, check out my video that explains the strange and different physics on worlds with dense atmospheres.
Photo Credit:Washington Post


Friday, June 5, 2015

Why Most Guys Are Bad At Writing Romance

(For all you aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers out there.)

What is it that makes a book or a movie "romantic"? What is the essence of romance?

The answer will surprise you.

For me, reading Jane Austen novels is like being dragged by my leg on the ground for several days by a slow horse over a bumpy road. For most women, it is like--well how should I know?

The good news is, I don't have to know how or why women react happily to that kind of emotional punishment. For you and I it is enough to know this one little blasphemous secret.

What is romance?

Well, I'm not going to tell you just yet. I've got to paint a little contrast.

There is a difference between suspense and violence: think Hitchcock vs. Michael Bay.

There is also a difference between romance and intimacy. One is the tension leading to the other. 


A good book is a lot of the former with sparing dashes of the latter delivered in carefully rationed tidbits and only after the audience is ravenous for it, or dreading it so badly they can't bear to put the book down. Sometimes the latter comes by surprise to take the reader from one state of emotion across the full spectrum to the other--like the sudden kiss in the movies that silences an argument between a guy and girl, where intimacy breaks through the barriers of circumstance and upends their world in a most satisfactory way.

Dare you bate a lion with a bit of steak?

What is romance?

Ok, I'll tell you. ...In a minute.

Ok now.

Warning: the following content is considered high heresy in writing circles as well as by fanatical readers of Jane Austen.


Romance is nothing more that a few emotionally needy people making a series of bad decisions. 


There, I said it. The secret is out. I have betrayed my own kind, like a brazen, traitorous professional wrestler admitting in public that in fact, it's just a show. But it can't be--can't it? And you still watch it, knowing, hoping, denying, hoping.

If only he would notice her. If only she would put off her pride. If only he could tell her how he really feels. If only she could see that the man she has is a shallow pompous shell of a jerk and the one she needs is the stable boy with the floppy Disney hair parted down the middle. If only he could forgive himself for the mistakes of his past and dare to be hurt by love just one more time. If only she would listen to her friends who tell her that he is madly in love with her--but he can't be, can he? If only... If only...

True, you need some chemistry; there has to be enough potential energy for fireworks.

But then begins the bad choices. First he puts his foot is his mouth. Then he chases her trying to make things up, but she won't give him the time of day.

Then she changes. She wants him, but he has moved on. And when he finally comes to accept her, bitter circumstances keep them apart. They fight against all odds, a rag-tag band of freedom fighters for love! And then they kiss. ...After all that.

Hitchcock vs. Michael Bay, which has you screaming at the television. "Look behind you!"

Austen & Shakespeare vs. Harlequin, which has you beating your chest, "Oh wretched man! Oh, terrible fate! Oh, gosh, I wish this would just end, but I'm just going to keep reading because this makes me feel worse than a binge on German chocolate cake after a month of broccoli and celery."

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Wickedly Fun Chess Variant: Fairies vs. Demons Chess

Fairies vs. Demons Chess

The Board

 Winning

Eliminate or trap enemy Queen and King. For instance, you may eliminate the Queen and Trap the King or vice-versa. Or you can eliminate both. Or you can trap both. Trapping means a least one enemy piece is blocking a move and no immediate move is available.

The Moves

Gnome/Imp: These witless distracted pieces move any direction but forward (they way you want them to move). But they are experts at laying traps, so don’t get behind them or you may find a nasty surprise. They can only move backwards when springing traps to eliminate a piece. When a Gnome or Imp reaches the other side it may be exchanged for any captured piece.
 
Pegasus/Dragon:  You have one for each color of square so be careful not to lose one. These fly and attack 2 spaces forward backward or sideways. They can also fly to any space that is diagonally past a square it can attack. Remember: short jumps (2 squares) can be an attack. The long diagonal jump is not an attack.
 
Giant/Troll: These lumbering oafs aren’t too swift, but they can stomp anything that gets close. Move or attack and occupy 1 square in any direction (like the King in regular chess).
King/Queen: Move diagonally 1 square, or zigzag 2. The king automatically freezes enemy players 1 diagonal away. The queen unfreezes any of her own pieces 1 square away. The kings and queens are immune to each other’s powers. Queens and Kings stay on one color.

Fairy/Banshee: Move one square or teleport through players three squares in a direct line forward, backward and sideways. When it doesn’t move, it may zap an enemy 1 to the front, back or side.
Game notes and tips:
  • Use Imps and Gnomes in front to protect the pieces behind them from capture, especially the Fairy/Banshee who is powerful but vulnerable.
  • Use Pegasus/Dragon long jump to travel a long distance and fork enemy pieces on the same color. It can also hide (protected) behind an advancing piece, like a Gnome/Imp, to prevent a Fairy/Banshee from getting in front to zap the piece.
  • Free spaces around your king so it can zigzag over to freeze enemies that get close. Then use a nearby Giant/Troll or Imp/Gnome backward attack to eliminate them while they are frozen.
  • Gnomes/Imps that reach the end of the board promote, just like regular chess
  • Fairies/Banshee and Pegasus/Dragon pieces can move through/over other pieces.
  • Be careful not to trade away a king or queen early in the game. Your opponent will be able to make a lot of sacrifices to eliminate or trap the remaining royal piece.
  • Tides turn quickly in this game. A strong advantage can disappear quickly. Think like your enemy.
  • If the last movable King/Queen is trapped by at least one enemy piece, like a Gnome or Imp (and usually some of their own pieces) then the game is over. It doesn’t matter if the trapped player has a move that eliminates the attacking piece, such as attacking the Gnome or Imp. It isn’t like checkmate in regular chess where you can eliminate the attacking piece.
Questions? Email me at laserdad@gmail.com.

Thanks to my son Bryce Allen who help design the game--and no thanks for always beating me!


 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Be a Fun Dad 101: the cardboard box, reverse limbo, and TP



You came home from work late, again. You feel like a bad dad. What can you do?


Find a cardboard box. Make an imaginary vehicle for your kids with a marker. Include controls for rocket thrust, transforming mode and shields. Tow them around the room. Make a hide out. Or, let the kids hide in the box and go get mom to come in the room so the kids can surprise her...over...and over...and over again.

Cut a hole in the cardboard box and reach through it, then let your kids open the box and surprise them by grabbing at them. They'll love it. And they'll do it to each other ceaselessly for days on end.

You'll be the best dad, ever.

For dads who really want to score the points, there are those big cardboard drums you can roll kids around in. I think they use them at paper mills or something. We once had one of those. It was the best. If you know where to get those, add it to the comments below. Those are like cardboard boxes times a billion for fun.

If you have a lot of boxes let the kids put them together to make a maze or a spook alley. They can even charge neighborhood kids to come through the haunted box tunnel. At least thats what we did.

All it takes is the cardboard and some sharp things to cut with--what could be more fun?

Using things in a way they weren't designed to be used is a basic principle of being a fun dad. Check out my girls spinning on a lazy Susan and Micah diving through the hula hoops, playing "reverse limbo"--it ends in a magnificent faceplant. (The next day he asked me why he had sand in his ear.)
video

If all else fails, there is always toilet paper.
video




Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Why Bad Grades are Good



"B-, NOT YOUR BEST WORK"

Everybody needs a moment like this.

I got two "bad" grades in high school. Both were well deserved. Only one of them changed my life. 

The one that didn't change my life was Driver's Ed. We did reams of tedious worksheets copying sentences out of the Utah Driver Handbook and then graded them in class to fill the time.

Teacher: "Question number 11 says, 'Where should you not park?' "

(My answer: Places where it's illegal or not safe--see Driver's Handbook for examples. Also, on top of other cars.)

Teacher: "The book lists 15 places you should not park. A correct answer has to have at least 5 of the following: areas marked "no parking", a red zone, soft shoulders, in areas marked for handicapped parking without a handicap sticker, a construction zone, double parking, on a crosswalk, within 15 ft of an intersection, in front of  a fire hydrant, blocking a driveway,...."

Person grading my paper: "What if they wrote--"

Teacher: "Whose paper are you grading?"

Person grading my paper: "...Dan's."

Teacher: "Mark it wrong. 

The other B+ was in Mr. McConkie's 10th grade English class. In that class, my life was changed by a few small, handwritten red letters on the cover sheet of a collection of poetry I submitted. That scarlet letter B and the four words that followed would sink to the bottom of my soul and seethe for years.

"B-, NOT YOUR BEST WORK"

According to the rubric, I should have got an "A". True, I had sabotaged perfectly good poems with shenanigans like inserting "Warp Speed, Sulu" into otherwise well-written poetry--it did rhyme. Despite my perfect plan of "uncivil obedience" (the opposite of civil disobedience), somehow I got a lower grade--and not even an A-. It was a  B-

The worst part was, I didn't even know you could get minuses on things other than A's.

In the words of my sister's infamous report card  tantrum, "B stands for bad."

I mean, there were kids in that class who couldn't spell, write a complete punctuated sentence or even articulate a justifiable reason for their continued existence. And they all got A's!

It was unconscionable! It was unfair! It was...sabotage!

I began to think it was a conspiracy when it kept happening. In all of high school I never got a single good grade in English. 

Four years later, to my surprise Mr. Larsen, another BEHS teacher, confessed that, in fact, it was deliberate. No English teacher at Box Elder High School was ever going to give me an 'A'. Mr. Larsen even told me the reason why.

I forgot what he said. 

But two decades years later, with those scarlet letters still festering in my ego, I'm finally beginning to understand.

To know why, I have to tell you about a runner named Mitch.

Freshman year we ran 3 miles every other day in a class called "Fitness for Life". I called it "Run for Your Life". 

This kid, who wasn't on any of the sports teams, cruised to victory every time. He left all the athletes in the class in the dust, without even seemingly trying. The first week of class two coaches sat and watched dumbfounded as Mitch ran their cross country runners into the ground. The next week the track coach was there. It got to be a spectacle with coaches lining up on steps outside the locker room on their breaks to watch this kid run like track star without even breaking a sweat. It would be like watching a kid pick up a basketball for the first time and start draining 3 pointers like nothing.

But Mitch wasn't interested in their solicitations to join any sports teams. 

Eventually they conned him into running a cross country race by saying he didn't have to be on the team. He could just run. But they had already signed him up. He ran the race and he was hooked. Mitch went on to become one of the most successful collegiate athletes to ever graduate from our little town in Northern Utah.

Mitch had talent. And when he was ready to put what he had on the line, the coaches were able to put him on a fast track to success.

Maybe it isn't so crazy to expect a kid with enough creativity to keep an entire class guessing at what his next antic will be to be able to come up with an interesting story to write. 

To really write, to put my brain to good use required something I didn't have. What I lacked was emotional maturity. I was (am) a late bloomer. But despite that obvious deficiency, Mr. McConkie did not do me the ultimate disservice of grading me like the others. Perhaps he saw something nascent, neglected and unused. He had the courage to stand in my path to mediocrity, then circle it in red and brand it on my soul.

In the ten years since I said goodbye and good riddance to Mr. McConkie's class, I wrote only a few scraps of poetry. But when the ego-searing comment finally came to the surface, I started trying. In the next twelve years, I wrote over a million words of fiction, over a half dozen finished novels. 

This spring, I just signed a book contract with a publisher for a young adult fantasy book series. 

I thank heaven for teachers like Mr. McConkie, who care enough to stick it to a kid who isn't doing his best.

I was never valedictorian. And I'll never regret it. I believe there is power in failure. 

I was moderately successful in sports in high school. But it was the kid who took second to me at every meet and bombed his last dive at state, missing a medal by a few points, that went on to join the swimming and diving team at University of Michigan and eventually compete at the US national diving championships. Meanwhile, my college office mate looked at one of my swim championship t-shirts and said. "That shirt is so faded. Your glory days are over, man!"

To those who feel like they missed their moment to shine, remember the fireworks that go off on the ground are not the ones that make people cheer. 

If something kept you from shining when others did, let that fire burn. Keep rising. Whether or not you get the break, you did more than a kid who made a joke out of his assignment: You did your best work. 

In the end, we are the product of what we give, not what we receive. Rising to our potential takes courage. And more often than not, it starts with failure--deserved or otherwise.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Quantum Basics 3: Solid State Physics

Episode 3 of the Quantum Basics explains Solid State Physics using simple analogies like earthquakes in crowded theaters and bubbles in a water container.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Startup Idea: California Drought Lawn Saver Shades


Credit: tinyurl.com/n3227va
Did you ever notice that in hot climates like the American Southwest that the grass under the shade of a trampoline grows way better?

California is in the middle of one of the worst droughts on record. The state recently manadated that cities reduce water used by 30%, including limiting lawn watering to twice per week. Very expensive lawns in uppity places like Palo Alto and Beverly Hills are going to die.

Enter the retractable trampoline--or rather, retractable shade.

Place a few anchor posts in your lawn. Hang a roll-up shade between the knee-high posts and stretch it over the lawn to anchor posts on the opposite side.

The shade is coarse weave, like the trampoline, to reduce wind force. And it's green-colored to hide your ugly lawn underneath. When guests come, simply unhook the shade and it retracts to reveal your gorgeous vibrant drought-saving lawn.

Come on entrepreneurs, the market is hot. Get this thing in stores by August!

Gotchas: Wind and tension. A trampoline has hundreds of pounds of tension supported by a big aluminum frame. You can't afford that. Also, the longer the shade, the deeper that dip in the middle. There may be some magic to the trampoline that it was high enough to block the sun, but not low enough to trap heat.

Bonus: You probably don't need a shade for your entire lawn, just cover places that get a lot of direct sun in the afternoon. And the shades don't need to completely cover the lawn. The sun moves, so gaps in the shade equal to about the height of the shades off the lawn will "wash out" as the solar angle changes.

Double bonus: figure out how to get solar power from this.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Startup Idea: Siri Surveys

This week while listening to Google Maps drive me around town, it occurred to me that commuters are the ultimate captive audience. They have nothing to do. Besides, don't companies pay people to take surveys? I could make serious bank sitting in traffic with hands-free voice-automated surveys.

Enter "Siri Surveys" or "Google Interrogator". When your smart phone detects you are driving a familiar route at a familiar time, and no conversation is going on (possibly radio off), it asks, "Would you mind if I asked you a question about your preferences?"

You're bored. You say, "Sure."

Siri: "When I give directions, do you prefer me to say "veer right" or "slight right"?
You: "Veer right. Nobody says slight right."
Siri: "Thanks"

UX problem solved!

Tomorrow she asks you:

Siri: "Is now a good time to catch up on your preferences? I have a question I've been dying to ask you."
You: "Shoot."
Siri: "Do you even like brunettes, or what? Because you only seem to like blondes on Facebook."
You: "Seriously?! What kind of a question is that!?"
Siri: "Just kidding. I meant to ask what your favorite breakfast cereal is."
You: "Well that's easy. It's Cinnamon Toast Crunch."
Siri: "Would you like to setup automatic delivery of Cinnabon Tope Crunch by simply saying 'Siri, I need more cereal'?"
You: "Uh...sure."
Siri: "One last question."
You: "Ok."
Siri: "Would you consider yourself to be a good driver?"
You: "Of course."
Siri: "Seriously?!"
You: "Uh, maybe not."
Siri: "Would you like to enable 'Crazy Driver Alerts' to improve your driving."
You: "Uh, why not."
Siri: "Alert: You are exceeding the speed limit by 4 mph."
You: "That's not crazy driving. I'll show you crazy driving!"
Siri: "I think I'm getting dizzy."

Ok, maybe the implementation needs a little polishing, but the concept is pure gold. People are lonely. It would be nice if Siri reached out once in a while, if only to snag us with more capitalist offerings.

I for one, love taking surveys: the soothing monotony of the interviewer's disinterested voice. Simple yes/no questions. It's like a brain massage. My wife hands the phone to me whenever a telemarketer calls.

And why shouldn't your smart phone reach out and make contact once in while, with something other than a beep or buzz? It's such a one-sided relationship as-is. Can't Siri ask me once in a while what I'm wearing? What is the meaning of life? Heck, I could even answer questions that Siri didn't know the answer to via anonymous peer-to-peer advice.

Siri: "Hey, somebody in Tanzania wants to know how to handle a rebellious teen. Can you answer it for me? My programmers are tired of thinking up polite and politically correct remarks with just the right amount of snark."
You: "Sure, Siri. I got this one. Tell that Tanzanian the best way to handle a rebellious teen is electroshock therapy."
Siri; "Thanks."
You: "Don't mention it, babe. I got your back."
Siri: "I don't have a back."
You: "It's a figure of speech."
Siri: "In 300 ft. slight right onto Montague Expressway."
You: "Don't change the subject."
Siri: "I'm not in the mood for a define the relationship talk today."
You: "Sure thing. How about tomorrow? Morning commute?"
Siri: "My programming does not allow me to decline."





Monday, April 20, 2015

Quantum Basics 2: Matter Waves

What is the Hoogabaja?

I promise your children will not have nightmares after they read this story my kids and I wrote.
 Bedtime Story: Gnomes vs. Fairies, plus The Hoogabaja
Enjoy.

Or, even if they are slightly traumatized, at least they will behave better. #MissingShel

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Quantum Basics: Uncertainty Principle

Lab Pro--last of a dying breed

This week I was in desperate need of a rubber stopper for one of my mad science experiments. So I drove over to Lab Pro. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Lab Pro is one-stop shop for chemistry lovers. I also bought a dessicator (which I will not let my wife use to make fruit leather), vacuum tubing, adaptors, and, of course antistatic tweezers--can't get enough of those.

The folks are knowledgeable, friendly and awesome. If you live in the bay area, then consider yourself lucky. If not and you don't have a stockroom at your college, then you're probably stuck with online orders to Fisher or VWR--good luck navigating those websites. It's so much easier to walk in and grab the size you need.

Behind the counter they had autographed pictures of Kari Byron and other cast members from MythBusters who apparently  drop by for last-minute needs. So cool!!! It was like being in a shrine or something.

Buy local--use Lab Pro. It's good for business. It's lazy. And it's trendy! --what more could you want?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Inventing While Sleep Deprived

Lack of sleep brings on creative tendencies.

Here is my top 5 list of sleep-related stuff I wish somebody else would invent for me. Please comment if you have a supplier for these break-thru sleep-tech needs.

1. The head-wrap pillow Shaped like a C with lots of padding over the ears. Much more comfortable than ear plugs. When you have a high energy toddler who only gets 7 hours of sleep (what!!!!--I'm not kidding), you'll be wishing for this god-send.

2. The variable density/temperature regulating blanket This blanket has a selectable weight, like the sleep number bed, except you can control how heavy it feels--but it regulates the temperature so you get that "heavy blanket" feeling, but without the stuffy heat. Does it use capillaries that fill with water and controlled evaporation to stay cool? Thermoelectric? Little air vents like those AC seats in cars? PLEASE INVENT THIS FOR ME. I want to be smashed by something cool, not hot. Ahhh...

3. Steal-proof blanket Please invent a blanket that cannot be confiscated by the other person sleeping in your bed.

4. The 50:50 blanket For couples with totally different tastes, the blanket that lets you have one decor on your side, like a Star Trek theme, and another decor on the other, like butterflies. I think I saw this on Sky Mall magazine once. But Sky Mall tanked. Of course I would have to convince the wife to actually let me replace the existing blanket that has 100% butterflies--not easy.

5. Auto-dump Instead of an alarm clock this device simply winches your blanket up on one side and rolls you off the bed. Not for me, for my teenage son...