Category Archives: Tech

Spleeter

Spleeter is an Open Source library written in Python that uses TensorFlow to separate the different components of a song.

For the less technically inclined: the folks at Deezer trained an artificial intelligence program with the ability to separate the voice and instruments from a given song; then they made the software freely availabe for anyone to use.

Given a bit of computer know-how, it was pretty easy to install and run on my Mac. Below is one of my tests using one of the all time greatest songs. It sounds pretty good, but not quite completely natural.

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Any songs you’d like me to try out?

Bye bye Backblaze

Backups: Using a computer and not backing up is like driving around without car insurance. Unlike with car insurance, you aren’t legally forced to back up. And a lot of people don’t and sooner or later they learn.

One should have two kinds of backups:
Local, incremental like Time Machine. If you delete something important by accident or your hard drive crashes, you can recover; and off-site like Backblaze so if someone breaks in to your house and steals your computer and your external hard drive, you can recover easily… like Backblaze.

Note: no, iCloud Photo, Dropbox, etc. is not an appropriate backup. When your two year-old learns to delete stuff, all the deletions will dutifully be synchronized.

I’ve been using Backblaze to backup my home Mac mini computer for over a decade. Their software has been great and so has their support. They’ve saved me before. A few months ago the external hard drive on this machine crashed. Fortunately it was all backed up off-site.

I no longer want nor need a home computer, so I sold it. Then I had Backblaze mail me a hard drive with my whole backup perfectly encrypted. The whole restore process was seamless, fast, and free after I returned the hard drive they sent me.

Make sure you back up. I recommend these guys, and I’ll use them whenever I have the need again.

Playstation VR

I’ve played with the Oculus Rift, the MS Hololens (AR not VR) and the HTC Vive.

For completeness, I had to go check out a demo of Sony’s Playstation VR which was being demo’ed at a local Gamestop.

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Free demos!

The main difference between the Playstation VR and the Rift/Vive is that it works with the Playstation 4 gaming console instead of a high end (~$1500 and up) decked out gaming PC. The headset itself is cheaper too: $400 vs $800 for the Vive. So if you don’t have any pre-requisites, this is a much cheaper way to get into VR – and no, I don’t think of Google Cardboard as a viable alternative.

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Playstation and Move controllers not included.

The VR headset itself is slick, as one would expect from Sony. The way it sits on your head feels comfortable. There’s no elastic bands nor cushions involved.

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Flying a spaceship in VR.

They would let you play one out of five games, and that’s it. I chose to play Eve Valkyrie in which you get to fly a spaceship and have space dogfights. I had never played before, and the demo dude didn’t explain how to play, so I was on my own. This compares poorly to the Vive demos at Microsoft, where they guide you through a few very simple, very different games.

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The headset is much lighter and much cooler, as in it doesn’t have plasticky cushions on you face making you sweat.

But whatever, I got to fly a spaceship. You see yourself sitting in the cockpit and it wasn’t too hard, although I had no idea who I was shooting at. You can do barrel rolls and those made me a little sick. Interestingly, I felt mildly sick for a few hours and it was those barrel rolls. YMMV.

The headset seemed to be of good quality and the immersion and tracking seemed to be on par with the other systems in spite of the cheaper price and specs. But the fact that you can walk around in the Vive still sets it apart, in my opinion.

Video: Masacotes vs PBD Stars

Manuel (of the opposing team) recorded all their Volleyball matches using a little Geek Pro. They use them to analyze their matches, correct their mistakes, improve on their technique… or to make fun of each other. He sent me the video of last Thursday’s Championship match which was right around one hour long.

Because nobody wants to watch a one hour long video of mediocre amateur volleyball, I thought it’d be a good idea to edit out the significant dead time. But that’s a lot of tedious work, even for me.

Enter: Amazon Mechanical Turk: “The Artificial Artificial Intelligence”.

Cleverly named after the 18th century fake chess playing machine; which I thought was a well known story but turns out I only know about it because of my odd childhood reading habits; Mechanical Turk is a service that allows you to set up jobs for someone else to do. It’s a great way for those who earn in US Dollars or Euros (but not British pounds!) to get people in China or India or some other low income country to do their menial tasks.

In any case, I uploaded the video to Dropbox and set up a gig, offering $5 to whoever does it.

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Boom! It’s done.

For your enjoyment, the full edited match:

HTC Vive

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They have an HTC Vive demo setup at the local Microsoft Store (a. k. a. Bizarro Apple Store). This is a Virtual Reality headset, the biggest competitor to and not too different from the Oculus Rift that I tried out two years (!) ago.

So how is this different? Well, other than the obvious two years of software polish and CPU/GPU advancements, this thing has two really cool things:

  • Positional tracking: you can walk around a small area/room and it knows where your head is. What you see matches your movements. The Oculus Rift I tried two years ago doesn’t have this, although the one going to consumers does. It doesn’t allow you to walk around though.
  • Really cool controllers: This is very impressive. While “inside” VR you cannot really see yourself. But you can see the two controllers you are holding floating in the right spot.

They had 3 demo apps.

  1. theBlue: Encounter puts you under the sea on a shipwreck. You can walk around a little but it’s mostly about looking around and listening. Very pretty.
  2. Tilt Brush by Google really wowed me. You use one of the controllers to “paint” in 3D space. With the other controller you can change brushes and colors. You can walk around your “paintings”. I started with a life-size stick figure, but when I reached the feet I figured I can draw in 3D space so started doing a running pose, one feet in front, the other in the back, etc. So much fun.
  3. Space Pirate Trainer is a shooting game in which. It’s really well made. You can hold a see-through shield on one hand. You can move around and dodge shots against little floating robots. Very neat.

(Yes, I know vertical video syndrome. Unacceptable.)

Am I going to get one? Who knows. I rarely play video games lately. But I can see this being extremely fun. It’s expensive though, $800 for the Vive + ~$1200 for a decent gaming PC that I don’t own. I’d need to set it up in a room. It sure is an attractive idea. But one needs to keep in mind that trying out demos for 10 minutes in not the same as using this for hours at a time.

At this stage these VR rigs are really impressive, and they will only  get progressively better: higher resolution (pixels are still too obvious), faster response, smoother tracking, wireless headsets, lighter headsets.

Do yourself a favor and try it out. It’s worth trying on off-peak hours in order to avoid lines.

HoloLens

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One step closer to never having to interact with humans again.

We received a HoloLens development kit in The MKX® Labs. According to Microsoft, this is what it is:

Microsoft HoloLens is the first fully untethered, holographic computer, enabling you to interact with high‑definition holograms in your world.

While this is somewhat hyperbolic (I don’t this these are holograms, it’s just really good augmented reality), I was very impressed. These are my impressions.

Continue reading HoloLens

ESP8266, NodeMCU, and my garage

The remote on one of my garage doors stopped working. Coincidentally, right around that time Trung mentioned the ESP8266, a very cheap (around $3) Chinese chip with built-in WiFi and a bunch of GPIO. Also, there’s a project called NodeMCU around this chip, which puts a Lua interpreter on it.

What does this all mean? That with very little investment and some time, I can create a small circuit that connects to the motor of my garage door so I can control it from my iPhone.

Long story short, I went through several different versions of boards with the chip. I started with the super cheap but barebones ESP-01 but using that required too many extra things (USB-Serial adapter, 3.3 V power supply, more wiring). I finally settled on the official NodeMCU devkit, which is extremely nice. I hadn’t done any electronics in many years, but that went well.

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NodeMCU devkit. It’s very nice because the built-in USB port provides power and to-serial conversion. Just pop it on a breadboard.

I ended up writing a general purpose web server for NodeMCU: the Open Source and creatively named nodemcu-httpserver. The garage door opener software is just a small web application running off the chip itself. It’s one of the demos I packaged with the server.

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My garage door opening circuit. Almost as elegant and dense as the insides of an Apple Watch. I used zip ties to attach everything to the lid of an H-E-B tupperware. A couple of relays act as the push-buttons that control the garage door motors.

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This is what the “app” looks like. It’s a simple web page served from the chip. When you push a button, it opens the corresponding garage door.

Without further ado, the video:

The nodemcu-httpserver project I started has gotten some traction. The server, while limited (the chip has very little memory), works relatively well. It’s pretty cool to see that other people are using the software and starting to contribute. And it’s making rounds:

  • It was mentioned in this tutorial online, screenshots and all!
  • On this Russian website, people are probably mocking my coding.
  • On Slide 7 of this presentation there’s a screenshot of an early version of the Garage Door application.
  • Artem Pastukhov, who has been one of the most knowledgeable contributors to nodemcu-httpserver and the NodeMCU firmware itself, posts about a little app he did for nodemcu-httpserver here.

 

 LabVIEW API for Nest

A while ago, after we installed our Nest thermostats in our respective homes, Jaramillo and I got together and created a LabVIEW API for controlling the Nest – meaning it makes it super easy to control the Nest from your LabVIEW (NI‘s graphical programming language) program.

My guess is that the number of 1) LabVIEW programmers with a 2) Nest thermostat who want to 3) write their own programs to control it is quite small. But it was a nice little learning project.

It has since been posted in LabVIEW MakerHub and improved upon. They even made a video:

I expect zero The MKX® readers to use it, but at least it’s now been recorded here for posterity.

Heartbleed Bug t-shirts

Chances are you aren’t quite sick of hearing about The Hearbleed Bug just yet. But you will be soon. While it’s still relevant and if you hurry up, you can be the coolest nerd around by wearing a new Hartbleed Bug t-shirt. Three classy designs available, way more severe than #gotofail, only at The Heartbleed Bug Unofficial Store.
heartbleed t-shirt

Leap Motion unboxing

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Over a year ago, the Leap Motion was announced and it looked to cool to resist (for me). A long time and two address changes later, it finally arrived – to the right address, mind you.

Leap Motion is a little black doohickey that plugs in to your computer and sits in front of the keyboard. It can track your hands in 3D space with surprising accuracy. I’m not sure how it does it, I suspect it uses technology similar to the MS Kinect; which projects a star field of infrared dots and then uses cameras to map out 3D space based on how the star field hits things.

Quick impressions:

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The box is huge given the size of the contents. It reminds me of the boxes used for Apple products. What a coincidence.

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It doesn’t ship with drivers. You must go to the website and download them. They have drivers for Mac and for Windows.

After you download and install the drivers , a program called Airspace launches. There’s an intro/demo with yoga music in the background that lets you wave your hands and see pretty stuff on screen. This happens while a few other programs download from the app store (how original!) in the background.

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One of these programs is Cut the Rope. This game is quite good on touchscreen…. how good can it be in thin air?

Ok, obviously this is my first game, it’s late and I’m tired, and I am recording it while I’m playing. Perhaps I’ll get better with time.