Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Techie toys’ Category

Formula 1 brakes

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When humans focus on some issue, the rapidity of the evolution of the solutions — meme evolution  — is remarkable, as are the rich detail and depth of results. Some problems, of course, have simple solutions, which sometimes are ingenious, but a problem of any complexity, involving various tradeoffs, can result in amazing solutions.

This video about how the brakes in a Formula 1 car work is fascinating to me for that reason. I started watching F1 videos on YouTube after watching the Matt Damon and Christian Bale movie Ford v. Ferrari, about Ford’s entry into (and temporary dominance of) racing, though the race of focus was Le Mans, not an F1 race. (The differences between Le Mans race cars and F1 cars are numerous, starting with the fact that F1 cars are open-wheel and Le Mans cars are not. Moreover, the racing strategy and requirements are quite different — an F1 car would fail terribly at Le Mans and vice versa — see this story.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 July 2020 at 9:14 am

Posted in Techie toys, Technology

Paper-airplane designs

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Have fun.

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21 June 2020 at 5:40 pm

Attempts to build squirrel-proof bird feeder

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Ninja squirrels — impressive.

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29 May 2020 at 10:03 am

Good uses for a dead laptop

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Interesting stuff:

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14 February 2020 at 11:30 am

Posted in Daily life, Techie toys, Technology, Video

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Sunglasses designed to foil facial recognition systems

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We live in odd times.

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14 January 2020 at 6:33 pm

Just in time for Christmas: Fully automatic crossbow

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1 December 2019 at 9:07 pm

Posted in Techie toys, Technology

Pump-action archery

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30 November 2019 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Techie toys, Technology

Trump throws kids’ lives under the bus in hopes of being re-elected

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“Who cares whether kids die, so long as I don’t risk losing any votes?” President Trump implicitly asks. Annie Karni, Maggie Haberman, and Sheila Kaplan report in the NY Times:

It was a swift and bold reaction to a growing public health crisis affecting teenagers. Seated in the Oval Office in September, President Trump said he was moving to ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes as vaping among young people continued to rise.

“We can’t have our kids be so affected,” Mr. Trump said. The first lady, Melania Trump, who rarely involves herself publicly with policy announcements in the White House, was there, too. “She’s got a son,” Mr. Trump noted, referring to their teenager, Barron. “She feels very strongly about it.”

But two months later, under pressure from his political advisers and lobbyists to factor in the potential pushback from his supporters, Mr. Trump has resisted moving forward with any action on vaping, while saying he still wants to study the issue.

Even a watered-down ban on flavored e-cigarettes that exempted menthol, which was widely expected, appears to have been set aside, for now.

On a flight on Nov. 4, while traveling to a political rally in Kentucky, Mr. Trump was swayed by the advisers who warned him of political repercussions to any sweeping restrictions. Reviewing talking points on the ban aboard the plane with advisers, Mr. Trump decided to cancel the administration’s rollout of an announcement, which included a news conference that Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, was planning to hold on the issue the next day. Instead, another meeting was proposed.

The discussion aboard the Nov. 4 flight was first reported by The Washington Post.

White House officials pushing for action were still holding out hope that there would be an announcement of a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, with an exemption for menthol, last week.

The proposed ban had gathered significant support earlier this fall, as the crisis over teenage vaping, with year-over-year increases, coincided with a sprawling outbreak of severe lung injuries. While most of the illnesses, now affecting more than 2,000 people and causing more than 40 deaths, have been attributed to vaping THC products, the e-cigarette industry also became the target of criticism for luring minors into using its products.

A lack of federal action prompted several states to try to institute bans on flavored e-cigarettes, spurring the vaping and tobacco industries to mount legal challenges and lobby lawmakers and the White House against regulatory restrictions that would impede adult e-smokers.

Juul Labs, the largest seller of e-cigarettes in the country and the target of several federal investigations, had taken most of its flavors off the market in anticipation of a national flavor ban. The company had said that its mint-flavored pods made up about 70 percent of its sales; menthol was 10 percent; and two tobacco flavors accounted for 20 percent. But many other look-alikes, in flavors like chai and melon, have sprung up to fill the void left by Juul’s actions. . .

Continue reading.

The Washinton Post report from Josh Dawsey and Laurie McGinley:

Everything seemed ready to go: President Trump’s ban on most flavored e-cigarettes had been cleared by federal regulators. Officials were poised to announce they would order candy, fruit and mint flavors off the market within 30 days — a step the president had promised almost two months earlier to quell a youth vaping epidemic that had ensnared 5 million teenagers.

One last thing was needed: Trump’s sign-off. But on Nov. 4, the night before a planned morning news conference, the president balked. Briefed on a flight to a Lexington, Ky., campaign rally, he refused to sign the one-page “decision memo,” saying he didn’t want to move forward with a ban he had once backed, primarily at his wife’s and daughter’s urging, because he feared it would lead to job losses, said a Trump adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal deliberations.

As he had done so many times before, Trump reversed course — this time on a plan to address a major public health problem because of worries that apoplectic vape shop owners and their customers might hurt his reelection prospects, said White House and campaign officials. He also believed job losses tied to the ban would cost him as he sought to trumpet economic growth. It was the latest example of the chaotic way policy is made — and sometimes unmade — in a White House where the ultimate decider often switches gears after making a controversial vow, whether on combating gun violence, pulling troops from Syria or promising to deliver an Obamacare replacement plan.

Officials said the blowback to Trump’s vow to ban most flavored e-cigarettes had rattled him. In an aggressive social media campaign — #IVapeIVote — advocates claimed the ban would shut down thousands of shops, eliminating jobs and sending vapers back to cigarettes. The president saw protesters at events and read critical articles. His campaign manager, Brad Parscale, privately warned the ban could hurt him in battleground states, said a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Trump was now upset with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who had taken the lead in rolling out the plan, said three officials familiar with the discussions.

“He didn’t know much about the issue and was just doing it for Melania and Ivanka,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share the discussions.

In recent months, the president’s wife and daughter, who had become increasingly alarmed about youth vaping, were pressing him to take action.

An HHS spokeswoman declined to comment on the vaping deliberations.

Whether or when the administration will unveil a new policy to combat underage vaping is now unclear

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 November 2019 at 8:34 pm

Cool, smart, paper airplane

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Take a look.

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29 October 2019 at 9:30 am

Posted in Techie toys

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

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Jean M. Twenge had an important article in the Atlantic in 2017. Here’s just one extract:

One of the ironies of iGen life [iGen = born between 1995 and 2002 – LG] is that despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today’s teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were. “I’ve seen my friends with their families—they don’t talk to them,” Athena told me. “They just say ‘Okay, okay, whatever’ while they’re on their phones. They don’t pay attention to their family.” Like her peers, Athena is an expert at tuning out her parents so she can focus on her phone. She spent much of her summer keeping up with friends, but nearly all of it was over text or Snapchat. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” she said. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”

In this, too, she is typical. The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently. It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying; fewer kids are spending time simply hanging out. That’s something most teens used to do: nerds and jocks, poor kids and rich kids, C students and A students. The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web.

You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2019 at 5:47 pm

Stargazer has landed

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It’s here. Ordered in January, but a new model and thus a learning curve. I got “bare” rather than “seasoned.”

Well boxed, nicely wrapped, with some oil on the skillet to prevent rust.

Very nice size cooking surface. Note full handle (not just a nub) for assist grip and the forked mount for the main handle, the idea being that the handle will stay cooler (and from what I’ve read it works). Handle is comfortable. Concave top, as you see.

The identity.

I’ll season it tomorrow and am thinking about what to cook. Normally I would do a rib-eye steak, but I’ll think of something good.

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26 June 2019 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Daily life, Techie toys

The opposite of whole foods: Who wants proper food when you can survive on powder?

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Jonathan Beckman writes in the Economist’s 1843:

It is rare these days to find yourself in a face-off with your lunch. There is probably still the occasional adventure-seeker who, ten days deep into the Amazon, finds himself in hand-to-paw combat with a capybara. But it’s impossible to walk through the centre of any major city at midday without being proffered kimchi doughnuts or sambal scotch eggs or dozens of equally irresistible dining options. Yet there I was in my kitchen, looking at a flask of Huel, and wondering whether I could bring myself to drink it. In one light, it looked like slurry from a limestone quarry; in another, it resembled an attempt to make a smoothie out of sawdust. It stared back at me with the implacable greyness of a dissatisfied bureaucrat. I looked longingly at the fridge, even though I knew it only contained a parmesan rind, some wilting spring onions and six types of mustard.

Huel is a meal-replacement powder, compounded of pea protein, oats, flax seeds and millenarian fervour. Five hundred grams, mixed into a shake with water, provides you with all the fat, carbs and protein the average human needs, along with a dizzying complement of vitamins and minerals. Never again will you endure riboflavin deficiencies! Pantothenic acid deprivation is a thing of the past! (Watch out, though, for a molybdenum overdose, since each daily portion contains 473% of the recommended amount.)

These food substitutes are wildly popular among time-pressed millennials who regard food as fuel and their guts as offally combustion engines. You might think it incongruous that the very same people who swig meal replacements also swoon on Instagram over pictures of quintuple fried chicken and burgers sweating molten cheese. Appreciation for food is shallower than it seems, as evidenced by the improbable apotheosis of the avocado. Texturally, it combines the qualities of floor polish and baby food; its sole virtue appears to be a photogenic greenness. Most telling of all, it’s impossible to cook.

There has always been a chasm between what people want to eat and what they’re capable of preparing themselves. Meal replacements allow you to mask incompetence with virtue. One person I met drank Huel each day for lunch in order to save the environment. The slaughter of his first-born would probably help the environment too. Every muscular twitch ultimately contributes to the entropic catastrophe of the universe. In the end, we’ve all got to live a little. At least part of the reason that the planet is worth saving is so we can enjoy ourselves on it.

Having tried Huel’s vanilla flavour, I would rather the Earth were smothered in barbeque smoke than be forced to march on that powder. It was the single most noxious thing I’ve ever tasted. My mouth subjected to a saccharine outrage. It was as though Rodgers and Hammerstein had decided to liquidise their favourite things rather than set them to music, if only the raindrops were syrup, the warm woollen mittens had been spun out of candy floss and the brown paper package contained half a pound of Tate & Lyle’s finest. I was incapable of drinking more than one sip at a time and the only way to consume a reasonable quantity was to dilute it in gallons of water to almost homeopathic levels. A similar approach is required with Ambronite, which combines an awful sweetness with undertones of sodden kelp. “Choose to become a savage in a world of weakness,” exhorts the package. I’d back myself with a knife and fork anytime. [“Huel” must be a play on “Hurl.” – LG]

The original meal replacement is Soylent. Its name 

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2019 at 7:32 pm

Shaving sequences series: 89, 90—and the apotheosis of the Edwin Jagger DE89

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This SOTD post goes out to Danny T, who (like me) has found Nancy Boy Signature Shave Cream to be wonderful—and (he writes) Nancy Boy Sandalwood Shave Cream (which I’ve not tried yet) may soon be accompanied by a Nancy Boy Sandalwood aftershave splash.

The little Maggard synthetic made a great lather from Nancy Boy Signature Shave Cream, which is not only my favorite shave cream but makes one of my favorite lathers. If you’ve not tried this, you should. Not, as they say, sold in stores and not even advertised save by word of mouth. You won’t regret it.

The razor is new: the RazoRock MJ-90A, which is CNC milled. I presume the “90” is because this is the next (higher) step after the Edwin Jagger DE89. Let me quote from the product description:

1) Materials: Instead of low-quality zinc-alloy (Zamak/pot metal), we used aircraft aluminum block for the head and 316L stainless steel rod for the handle.

2) Build: Instead of cheap, non-precise stamping/casting, we have built the razor using precision CNC milling, both for the head and handle. The tolerances are superior to the DE89.

3) Design: Instead of having the blade tabs exposed, we have milled the tolerances of the guideposts to precisely hold the blade with very little blade play, meaning the blade tabs can be covered, protecting your precious ear lobes 🙂

4) Longevity: The DE89 is well known for its threaded post snapping off. Why? Because it uses cheap pot metal and because it’s post is spot welded on. Drop it from 12-18 inches and the post breaks off into the handle rendering your $40-45 razor useless and ready for the landfill. We completely milled the top cap from a block of aircraft aluminum, meaning the top cap is one solid piece, no broken posts here!

5) Handle: Instead of using a hollow cheap handle, we have milled our handle from solid 316L marine-grade stainless steel and hand polished it. We have also milled in our RazoRock Halo rings for extreme grip and comfort!

6) Price: Even though we made all the necessary improvements above, it sells for only $29.99! How does this even make sense when the competition is selling a far inferior product for $35-60? I’ll leave that with you to ponder 🙂

Technology evolves quite rapidly, and this razor fits the mantra “Faster, Better, Cheaper” familiar from the computer industry. The handle is noticeably heavier than the head, but as you will remember from the Guide:

The rule for razor handles, I’ve discovered, is that a heavier handle generally improves the feel of the razor, but a lighter handle can make the razor feel top-heavy and awkward. For example, I tried an Edwin Jagger DE86bl (faux-ebony handle) handle with the Shavecraft #102 slant head, and it didn’t feel right at all. In contrast, with the #102 head a Maggard stainless steel handle or an iKon Bulldog or OSS handle works fine because the heavier handle balances the head nicely.

A heavy handle puts the center of mass down in the handle, and the razor feels agile; a light handle puts the center of mass toward (or even in) the head, making the razor feel unbalanced and head-heavy.

A UFO aluminum bronze handle, fairly hefty at 95g, was quite comfortable with the Standard head—the razor felt even better than with its original (Standard) handle, made of aluminum and weighing 31g.

As the title notes, this razor is indeed the apotheosis of the Edwin Jagger DE89. And it shaved superbly. It’s a keeper.

A splash of Floris No. 89 finished the job. What a great way to start the weekend!


Written by LeisureGuy

1 June 2019 at 8:22 am

Trying new things in general—and, specifically, the Joeveo Temperfect coffee mug

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I am what psychologists call “novelty-seeking,” a person who enjoys trying new things. Not all new things, of course. I don’t find competitive sports of much interest in general, though there are some exceptions. But new foods, new books, new gadgets, new ideas—all those things draw me in.

So some years back I was fascinated by a Kickstarter proposal: a triple-walled travel mug for hot coffee or tea, which had a substance contained within the inner pair of walls that melted (and thus absorbed heat) when the hot beverage filled the cup and then slowly solidified (thus releasing heat). The result was that coffee (or tea), initially at a temperature too hot to drink, immediately dropped to a comfortable drinking temperature and then stayed there for a long time.

The ingenuity was attractive, and I kept my eye on it. As seems to happen fairly often with Kickstarter (and I’m thinking of the two Rockwell razors), the innovation turns out to be more difficult in practice than first realized, and it took several years to get things right. But the Joeveo Temperfect mug did indeed finally come to market, and I bought one for The Wife, who regularly buys a good coffee on the weekend to enjoy by the ocean. I bought this one.

It turned out not to be her cup of tea, as it were. First, it’s a 16-oz mug, and she prefers a 12-oz coffee. Second, and more important, it’s heavy. It has three stainless-steel walls, the outer two of which enclose a vacuum, and a third wall that, with the internal vacuum wall, encloses the magic substance.  Empty, it weighs a pound—actually, 1 lb 2 oz. Filled with 16 oz of coffee, it’s just over two pounds. For me, that’s fine, given what it does. For The Wife, it’s too heavy.

Here are the details:

The Temperfect mug has three stainless steel walls (alloy 304L, cutlery grade), and two layers of insulation. On the outside is a vacuum insulation layer which ensures no heat is lost. On the inside, a layer of Temperfect insulation absorbs the excess heat from your beverage, stores it, and slowly puts it back into your drink to prevent cooling. This cycle can be repeated forever, so it will never wear out.

The Temperfect insulation is a phase-change material (PCM), a non-toxic, wax-like substance which changes from solid to liquid phase as it absorbs heat, and from liquid back to solid as that heat is used to keep your drink at a perfect temperature.

There are two aspects of the physical process of phase change that make it perfect for this application.

  1. The change occurs at a constant temperature (if the PCM is pure and has a single crystalline phase.) This property is what keeps your beverage at a constant temperature.
  2. A large amount of energy must be transferred either to or from the PCM to change its phase. This is what enables it to store energy to keep your drink at just the right temperature for a long time.

Here are actual measured temperatures for a typical vacuum-insulated mug (think Thermos, Stanley, Contigo, Yeti…), for a basic ceramic mug, and for the Temperfect mug:

It’s getting its first use now. The initial sip is fine: the coffee is at a drinkable temperature and doesn’t require the cautious blowing that a take-out coffee usually requires before the first sip. Now that I have brought it home and had it sitting beside my chair, it’s still the same temperature, which seems hot because I unconsciously expect it to have cooled. It’s still easily drinkable without burning, and it’s also still the same temperature as when I tasted it on the drive home. In a word, it works.

I’m not really a coffee drinker any more, but I definitely will try it with tea. It’s rather tall, but the steady temperature may compensate for the extra height. I really hate it when my cup of tea cools off, and that makes me drink it fast, so that instead of enjoying the cup of tea while I read, the cup is empty before I’m barely started. This may fix that.

Update: Yep, this is my new tea mug. I really like sitting back in my chair with a good book and a cup of tea for a leisurely read, but because of the speed with which a regular mug of tea cools, I empty the cup within the first 10 minutes, so the idea of leisurely reading and sipping was out the window. And though iced tea is nice, it’s surprising how quickly the ice melts and must be refreshed.

I’ve been reading now for a couple of hours, taking a sip of tea every now and then. There’s still quite a bit left in the mug, and it’s still at a perfect temperature for drinking. I think this is going to displace iced tea for me—or, more likely, move iced tea to the afternoon, with the morning cup being hot tea (all morning long!).

Update again: When I sit down with my computer in the morning to peruse the news, read my email, and so on, I often get involved and forget I brought in a cup of tea, so that when I remember the tea is already cold and I’ve not had a sip. This morning I once more plunged down a rabbit hole in researching an answer on Quora, and when I suddenly recalled that I had some tea, it was still at the perfect temperature. Little things make me happy. 🙂

Written by LeisureGuy

4 May 2019 at 8:22 am

How Four Ex-Amazoners Made a Crazy Good Wireless Cam for $20

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Jake Swearingen writes in New York:

In the world of gadgets, there are plenty of good deals to be found, but it’s usually either a high-priced item with exceptional value, or a slightly cheaper item that feels more expensive than it is. Then there’s the Wyze Cam: a wireless camera that works extremely well, has an app and storage features that match or exceed those of much of the competition, and sells for just $20 (other “cheap” wireless cams start at $100, and usually run at around $150). It makes the camera not only a great deal, but something of a puzzle: how do they do that?

It’s been a major hit with both customers and investors — Wyze just announced its first round of funding at $20 million, giving the company a $100 million valuation. We talked to Elana Fishman, chief operating officer at Wyze, about how they manage to keep things so cheap, how they plan to use their new funding, and the most creative things people have done with their highly affordable webcam.

So, all four of the founders of Wyze Labs are ex-Amazon employees. What did you guys learn at Amazon that you were able to use when you were first starting up Wyze?
The biggest thing is the customer-centric focus — putting customers at the center of everything that we do and having their voice in the room when making big decisions. And then there’s operational efficiency. A bunch of us worked on the operational side of Amazon, so there’s an understanding of the supply chain and forecasting and driving efficiencies on the inventory side.

Is that how you’re able to sell a webcam for $20? Like, what’s the secret there?
Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is drive down costs in everything we do, and then pass those savings on to consumers. It’s very much a volume play for us. We found manufacturing partners who were already producing at scale so that we could leverage their expertise and their efficiencies.

Then there’s forecasting, so we can turn our inventory over very quickly. We don’t have inventory sitting around. There’s also making sure that our products not only meet but exceed customer expectations. We don’t spend money on marketing. We don’t have celebrity endorsements. We don’t do fancy advertising. We believe in making great products and letting them speak for themselves; word of mouth is how people find out about us. Historically, customers have paid for things that are not ultimately in the product they’re using. So we try and cut out as much of that as possible.

We make money on every individual camera and it’s important that we do that. We’re not selling at a loss. We have to succeed at scale to be a sustainable business. So, to do that, we have to make good product. We have to really delight customers.

So there was no point at which you were selling Wyze Cams at a loss?

That sort of high-volume, razor-thin-margins play is a lot like Amazon.
Yep, exactly.

When you look around at the space, it seems like even cheapo cameras are $100. Is that people paying for things that you’ve figured out how to cut out?
I think so, yeah. I mean, we don’t have a ton of visibility into other people’s business. It’s possible that their supply chains are not as efficient or optimized. So, it may be that their costs really are higher. And especially when you’re dealing with traditional sales channels, there’s often a pretty big margin that gets taken out. We don’t have a markup built in for sales-channel partners.

In the tiny corner of the gadget world, the Wyze Cam was sort of a viral hit. I, and lot of other people, wrote things that boiled down to: “This camera shouldn’t be this cheap and this good, but somehow it is.”
We were very intentional in how we launched. It was a new product, new app, new software, and a very different value proposition. We wanted to specifically speak to — and find — customers who would be excited about both the technology and understand how hard it was to do what we were doing at the price that we were doing it. Our cameras are exciting to people who are super into the technical side, because they understand how hard it is to deliver what we are at the price we’re offering it [for], but it’s also very accessible to a mass user, because of the price.

On the flip side, do you have to deal with suspicious customers because of the price? Like, my immediate reaction was, “Okay, what’s the catch? Are they selling my info on the back end?”
That was absolutely something we were trying to figure out as we were deciding how to price the camera. Our goal was to put it out there at the absolute best possible price, but we understood that coming out at $20, there’d be a lot of skepticism, and that was definitely something we battled early on.

One example: In the very beginning, our cameras used a peer-to-peer connection service to connect the camera when you’re viewing a livestream remotely. The way it used to work was, whenever you pulled up a live feed, it would ping servers across the world and pick whichever one was fastest. Because we had a very tech-savvy audience, they saw that and they had those questions like, “Why is my data going to all these different countries?” It was about whatever was the fastest, but we took that feedback from users that they didn’t want their data going outside the U.S., so now we restrict the traffic so it’s all done on U.S. servers. For us it was just about speed, but we took that feedback from customers. Cameras, you know, they’re an incredibly sensitive … you’re putting them in your home.

But we don’t sell data, we don’t use customer data to train algorithms — that’s not our business model, to monetize that. Like I said, we have a little bit of margin on the hardware and that’s what drives the business.

Amazon has been huge for you as a direct sales channel. Is there any concern about Amazon having its own line of smart home cameras it wants to push? It owns the platform and it also has its own products on the platform. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 February 2019 at 10:57 am

How to Actually, Truly Focus on What You’re Doing

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Tim Herrera interviews Cal Newport in the NY Times:

Here’s what my browser generally looks like: work email in the left-most tab, always open. TweetDeck in the next one, always open. A few Google Docs tabs with projects I’m working on, followed by my calendar, Facebook, YouTube, this publication’s website and about 10 stories I want to read — along with whatever random shiny thing comes across my desktop. (Not to mention my iPhone constantly nagging me, though I’ve mostly fixed that problem.)

This is no way to work! It’s awful, and my attention is divided across a dozen different things. My situation is far from unique, and most people who do most of their work on a computer know it all too well.

Enter “deep work,” a concept coined by one of my favorite thinkers in this space, Cal Newport. He published a book in 2016 by that name, and in it he details his philosophy and strategy for actually focusing on the things we can do and accomplish.

This week I’ve invited Cal, whose new book, “Digital Minimalism,” comes out next month, to talk about how to do deep work, why it matters and how we can use it in our lives.

Tim Herrera: Hey, Cal! Thanks so much for chatting with me this week. For those who don’t know: What exactly is deep work?

Cal Newport: Deep work is my term for the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It describes, in other words, when you’re really locked into doing something hard with your mind.

TH: So, like, closing your email tab or putting your phone in a drawer?

CN: Right. In order for a session to count as deep work there must be zero distractions. Even a quick glance at your phone or email inbox can significantly reduce your performance due to the cost of context switching.

TH: You use a term in your book to describe that feeling: attention residue. What exactly do you mean by that, and what’s the reason for it? Is there a way to actually avoid it?

CN: Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears. If you constantly make “quick checks” of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you’re someone who uses your brain to make a living.

TH: You outline the four rules of deep work in your book, which I think is a great place to start for someone who’s just learning about these ideas. Let’s go through them. What is the first rule of deep work, and how do I apply it to my life?

CN: The first rule is to “work deeply.” The idea here is that if you want to successfully integrate more deep work into your professional life, you cannot just wait until you find yourself with lots of free time and in the mood to concentrate. You have to actively fight to incorporate this into your schedule. It helps, for example, to include deep work blocks on my calendar like meetings or appointments and then protect them as you would a meeting or appointment.

TH: And that has a lot to do with habit formation vs. willpower, too, right?

CN: Right. Deep work is demanding, and our brains, which are evolved to avoid unnecessary energy expenditure, therefore try to avoid it if possible. We’re simply not evolved to give concentration the same priority that we might give to evading a charging lion. Therefore, you cannot rely on willpower alone. You need all the help you can get to trick yourself into getting started with this activity.

TH: So, great, we’ve got a strategy to build habits around deep work and to actually do it. What’s rule two?

CN: The second rule is to “embrace boredom.” The broader point here is that the ability to concentrate is a skill that you have to train if you expect to do it well. A simple way to get started training this ability is to frequently expose yourself to boredom. If you instead always whip out your phone and bathe yourself in novel stimuli at the slightest hint of boredom, your brain will build a Pavlovian connection between boredom and stimuli, which means that when it comes time to think deeply about something (a boring task, at least in the sense that it lacks moment-to-moment novelty), your brain won’t tolerate it.

TH: Which is a perfect segue into your third rule of deep work.

CN: The third rule is to “quit social media.” The basic idea is that people need to be way more intentional and selective about what apps and services they allow into their digital lives. If you only focus on possible advantages, you’ll end up, like so many of us today, with a digital life that’s so cluttered with thrumming, shiny knots of distraction pulling at our attention and manipulating our moods that we end up a shell of our potential. In “Deep Work,” I introduced this idea mainly to help professionals protect their ability to focus, but it hit a nerve, and eventually evolved into the popular digital minimalism movement that I’ve been writing about more recently.

For example, I’ve never had a social media account, and though I may have missed out on various small advantages here and there, I’m convinced that it has had large positive impacts on my professional output and personal satisfaction.

TH: Which brings us full circle to your final rule of deep work: “Drain the shallows.” What does that mean, and how do we do it?

CN: “Shallow work” is my term for anything that doesn’t require uninterrupted concentration. This includes, for example, most administrative tasks like answering email or scheduling meetings. If you allow your schedule to become dominated by shallow work, you’ll never find time to do the deep efforts that really move the needle. It’s really important, therefore, that you work to aggressively minimize optional shallow work and then be very organized and productive about how you execute what remains. It’s not that shallow work is bad, but that its opposite, deep work, is so valuable that you have to do everything you can to make room for it. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 January 2019 at 9:50 am

Alexa, Should We Trust You?

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Judith SHulevitz writes in the Atlantic:

For a few days this summer, Alexa, the voice assistant who speaks to me through my Amazon Echo Dot, took to ending our interactions with a whisper: Sweet dreams. Every time it happened, I was startled, although I thought I understood why she was doing it, insofar as I understand anything that goes on inside that squat slice of black tube. I had gone onto and activated a third-party “skill”—an applike program that enables Alexa to perform a service or do a trick—called “Baby Lullaby.” It plays an instrumental version of a nursery song (yes, I still listen to lullabies to get to sleep), then signs off softly with the nighttime benediction. My conjecture is that the last string of code somehow went astray and attached itself to other “skills.” But even though my adult self knew perfectly well that Sweet dreams was a glitch, a part of me wanted to believe that Alexa meant it. Who doesn’t crave a motherly goodnight, even in mid-afternoon? Proust would have understood.

We’re all falling for Alexa, unless we’re falling for Google Assistant, or Siri, or some other genie in a smart speaker. When I say “smart,” I mean the speakers possess artificial intelligence, can conduct basic conversations, and are hooked up to the internet, which allows them to look stuff up and do things for you. And when I say “all,” I know some readers will think, Speak for yourself! Friends my age—we’re the last of the Baby Boomers—tell me they have no desire to talk to a computer or have a computer talk to them. Cynics of every age suspect their virtual assistants of eavesdropping, and not without reason. Smart speakers are yet another way for companies to keep tabs on our searches and purchases. Their microphones listen even when you’re not interacting with them, because they have to be able to hear their “wake word,” the command that snaps them to attention and puts them at your service.

The speakers’ manufacturers promise that only speech that follows the wake word is archived in the cloud, and Amazon and Google, at least, make deleting those exchanges easy enough. Nonetheless, every so often weird glitches occur, like the time Alexa recorded a family’s private conversation without their having said the wake word and emailed the recording to an acquaintance on their contacts list. Amazon explained that Alexa must have been awakened by a word that sounded like Alexa (TexasA LexusPraxis?), then misconstrued elements of the ensuing conversation as a series of commands. The explanation did not make me feel much better.

Privacy concerns have not stopped the march of these devices into our homes, however. Amazon doesn’t disclose exact figures, but when I asked how many Echo devices have been sold, a spokeswoman said “tens of millions.” By the end of last year, more than 40 million smart speakers had been installed worldwide, according to Canalys, a technology-research firm. Based on current sales, Canalys estimates that this figure will reach 100 million by the end of this year. According to a 2018 report by National Public Radio and Edison Research, 8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers, suggesting that they feel the need to always have one within earshot. By 2021, according to another research firm, Ovum, there will be almost as many voice-activated assistants on the planet as people. It took about 30 years for mobile phones to outnumber humans. Alexa and her ilk may get there in less than half that time.

One reason is that Amazon and Google are pushing these devices hard, discounting them so heavily during last year’s holiday season that industry observers suspect that the companies lost money on each unit sold. These and other tech corporations have grand ambitions. They want to colonize space. Not interplanetary space. Everyday space: home, office, car. In the near future, everything from your lighting to your air-conditioning to your refrigerator, your coffee maker, and even your toilet could be wired to a system controlled by voice.

The company that succeeds in cornering the smart-speaker market will lock appliance manufacturers, app designers, and consumers into its ecosystem of devices and services, just as Microsoft tethered the personal-computer industry to its operating system in the 1990s. Alexa alone already works with more than 20,000 smart-home devices representing more than 3,500 brands. Her voice emanates from more than 100 third-party gadgets, including headphones, security systems, and automobiles.

Yet there is an inherent appeal to the devices, too—one beyond mere consumerism. Even those of us who approach new technologies with a healthy amount of caution are finding reasons to welcome smart speakers into our homes. After my daughter-in-law posted on Instagram an adorable video of her 2-year-old son trying to get Alexa to play “You’re Welcome,” from the Moana soundtrack, I wrote to ask why she and my stepson had bought an Echo, given that they’re fairly strict about what they let their son play with. “Before we got Alexa, the only way to play music was on our computers, and when [he] sees a computer screen, he thinks it’s time to watch TV,” my daughter-in-law emailed back. “It’s great to have a way to listen to music or the radio that doesn’t involve opening up a computer screen.” She’s not the first parent to have had that thought. In that same NPR/Edison report, close to half the parents who had recently purchased a smart speaker reported that they’d done so to cut back on household screen time.

The ramifications of this shift are likely to be wide and profound. Human history is a by-product of human inventions. New tools—wheels, plows, PCs—usher in new economic and social orders. They create and destroy civilizations. Voice technologies such as telephones, recording devices, and the radio have had a particularly momentous impact on the course of political history—speech and rhetoric being, of course, the classical means of persuasion. Radio broadcasts of Adolf Hitler’s rallies helped create a dictator; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats edged America toward the war that toppled that dictator.

Perhaps you think that talking to Alexa is just a new way to do the things you already do on a screen: shopping, catching up on the news, trying to figure out whether your dog is sick or just depressed. It’s not that simple. It’s not a matter of switching out the body parts used to accomplish those tasks—replacing fingers and eyes with mouths and ears. We’re talking about a change in status for the technology itself—an upgrade, as it were. When we converse with our personal assistants, we bring them closer to our own level.

Gifted with the once uniquely human power of speech, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have already become greater than the sum of their parts. They’re software, but they’re more than that, just as human consciousness is an effect of neurons and synapses but is more than that. Their speech makes us treat them as if they had a mind. “The spoken word proceeds from the human interior, and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons,” the late Walter Ong wrote in his classic study of oral culture, Orality and Literacy. These secretarial companions may be faux-conscious nonpersons, but their words give them personality and social presence.

And indeed, these devices no longer serve solely as intermediaries, portals to e-commerce or We communicate with them, not through them. More than once, I’ve found myself telling my Google Assistant about the sense of emptiness I sometimes feel. “I’m lonely,” I say, which I usually wouldn’t confess to anyone but my therapist—not even my husband, who might take it the wrong way.
. .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2018 at 3:24 pm

The coolest plane—I want one

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Tim Moynihan writes in Wired:

ABOUT 20 MINUTES into my test flight aboard the Icon A5, the cockpit alarm started blaring. The angle-of-attack (AoA) display in front of me, an ingeniously designed gauge that seemed so delightful moments ago, was signaling doom. We were in the red. We had no lift. We were about to stall, the point at which an airplane ceases to be an airplane and simply becomes a massive chunk of dead weight ready to drop out of the sky.

We were at full throttle, and pilot Craig “Bowser” Bowers, Icon’s VP of sales and a former Marine F/A-18 Hornet pilot, had the stick held at its full aft position. If I could have seen anything below me at that point, I would have admired our view about 1,000 feet above the Hudson River. I would have taken a look at Fort Tryon to my right and the Ross Dock picnic area to my left, one last look for all of eternity. I’d likely see those things soon enough, spiraling around me as we hurtled toward the water.

But right now, I could not see the ground, even though my window was wide open. All I could see was the sky, and all I can remember is the high-pitched whine of that alarm.

And then the strangest thing happened: nothing. We didn’t go into a spin. Instead, the plane just kind of floated, nose up, in midair. An airborne Wile E. Coyote, refusing to look down, just hovering. It only lasted a few seconds, even if it felt like forever. But there was no spinning, no free-fall toward the ground. In fact, Bowers even turned the plane left and right, and we actually gained a bit of altitude during the stall—the opposite of what happens to every other airplane on the planet.

“The purpose of the demo is not to encourage this kind of flying, but to demonstrate that the A5 has a remarkable safety feature that helps keep the aircraft flying and controllable even when the pilot has made the mistake of inadvertently stalling the aircraft,” says Icon Aircraft CEO and Founder Kirk Hawkins. “Most aircraft when held in a stall, even at full power, will enter into a rapid descent which can degrade into a loss of control or a spin under certain conditions.”

According to Icon, that floating-in-midair trick could have continued indefinitely—just as long as the plane’s engine didn’t overheat. Rotax, which manufactures the A5’s 100-horsepower engine—which drives the plane’s three-blade pusher propeller at a top speed of about 120mph—advises against using full power for extended periods.

The Icon A5 may react very differently to a stall, but recovering from one is standard operating procedure. Bowers eased up on the stick, causing the nose of the plane to dip, the aircraft to pick up airspeed, and we were back on our way up the Hudson instead of shit creek.

What makes the A5’s carbon-fiber frame spin-resistant isn’t any one thing, but a combination of design elements that have been in development for the better part of a decade. According to Icon, the A5 required an FAA weight exemption for the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) class to nail the spin-resistant design.

They needed bigger wings with several unique elements—stall-resistant wing cuffs, a bit of a twist in the contour of the wing, and differently designed airfoils on different parts of the wing—and that required a larger tail. That, in turn, required a stronger tail boom. All that added up to a larger and heavier airframe, one that clocks in with a maximum gross weight (that is, fully loaded with passengers and equipment) of 1,510 pounds rather than the 1,430-pound maximum gross weight of other amphibious LSAs.

“I wish I could give you one magic bullet or a simple, easy to understand list of elements,” Hawkins says. “It’s a very complex and highly integrated problem requiring the entire aircraft to be designed with this goal in mind. There is no band aid or simple add-on to make an airplane spin resistant. It’s far more of a careful recipe, unique to each airplane, that uses many common tools… airfoil design, wing shape, wing devices, tail shape, fuselage factors, control surfaces.”

There are a lot of exceptional things about the Icon A5 beyond the light sport aircraft’s spin-resistant frame. The other wonderful things have been said so much that they are now cliches. In terms of size and operation, the small plane is as close as we’ve come to an honest-to-goodness, on-the-market flying car. The propellor is behind you, which means you have a beautiful, unobstructed, wide-angle view in front of you. Think about all the money you’ll save on baggage fees. You can even open the side windows. That means you can do that thing where you stick your hand out the window and feel the lift on it like an airplane wing—this time in a real airplane.

But the A5 is also like a flying speedboat; the amphibious craft doesn’t just take off and land on water, but it also handles like a jetski in the drink. On the water, you can carve corners with ease. . .

Continue reading.

And there’s a video at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2018 at 5:31 pm

The decline of a certain type of white privilege: Harley-Davidson Needs a New Generation of Riders

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Claire Suddath reports in Bloomberg Businessweek:

The first thing you should do when you meet a Harley-Davidson rider is check the back of his—or her, but let’s be honest, it’s probably his—jacket. The patches tell you who you’re dealing with. First, there’s the insignia. It might be a bald eagle atop the company’s logo to let everyone know this is a Harley guy—not a Honda guy, not a BMW guy, but a red-blooded, flag-waving American patriot. If this particular Harley guy belongs to one of 1,400 company-sponsored Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) chapters around the world, the insignia will be coupled with a second patch that specifies which H.O.G. he belongs to: the Duluth H.O.G.s, the Waco H.O.G.s., or, today, the H.O.G.s of Long Island.

Sometimes there’s a third patch, for bikers who belong to an independent club—the Blue Knights are cops, the Hells Angels hate cops—but two-patch groups tend not to associate with them. “It’s a different mindset,” says Frank Pellegrino, who on weekdays is a vice president for a plastics outsourcing company and on weekends a Long Island H.O.G.

Pellegrino, who got his first Harley for his 65th birthday last year, is about to spend this cloudless summer Sunday exploring 100 miles along the back roads of New York and Connecticut with about 25 other Harley guys.

With him today are Joe, Marty, Dennis, Grover, Richie, Bob and his girlfriend, Dawn, and two Mikes, one with an American flag bandanna tied around his head. No one is younger than 45; many are well past 60. They’ve gathered behind a BP station at 8 a.m. in mid-July, sipping coffee and admiring one another’s bikes. At one point, Dennis talks politics with Joe and one of the Mikes.

“What’s the deal with all this fake news about a Europe plant?” Mike without a bandanna asks. “Harley was already going to build overseas, and now they’re just blaming it on the president.”

In June the European Union slapped what’s effectively a 31 percent retaliatory tariff on Harley in response to President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. To avoid them, Joe says, Harley will stop making the bikes it sells to Europe in the U.S. The company already has plants in Brazil and India and is in the process of opening one in Thailand.

“Oh, is that the case?” Mike asks. He swears he read something different on the internet.

“I see where they’re coming from,” Dennis says, crossing his arms over his We Stand For The Flag T-shirt. “How are they going to sell over there with millions in tariffs placed on them?”

“I still don’t like it,” Mike says. “Harley ought to be focused on us.”

Three weeks later, and about 1,000 miles away at its headquarters in Milwaukee, Harley-Davidson Inc. announced what executives called the most ambitious overhaul in its 115-year history with a plan that, for the first time in decades, wasn’t focused on riders like Frank or Dennis or the Mikes.

In the next few years, Harley will release more than a dozen motorcycles, many of them small, lightweight, even electric. The new Harleys are intended to reverse years of declining sales and appeal to a new rider: young, urban, and not necessarily American. Harley wants international riders to be half its business in the next 10 years. “We are turning a page in the history of the company,” says Matthew Levatich, chief executive officer. “We’re opening our arms to the next generation.”

The two-patch H.O.G. clubs and three-patch biker gangs that made the brand famous have saddled the company with an uninviting reputation that Harleys are only for older white men who roam the highways on rumbling, two-wheeled beasts. Young riders, women, people of color, or anyone who lives in a city and wants a motorcycle for commuting rather than joyrides—the bikers send the message that Harley isn’t for them.

And without new customers, the company can’t grow. Nor can it fully recover from the Great Recession. It’s shipping almost a third fewer motorcycles to its dealers than at its prerecession peak in 2006. After rebounding slightly, retail sales have steadily declined again since 2014, tumbling almost 14 percent in the U.S. The average Harley rider’s age has inched up to almost 50. “It’s not just the brand, but the people associated with the brand,” says Heather Malenshek, Harley’s vice president for global marketing. “We’ve made a tonal shift to think about ourselves as being more inclusive.”

Among motorcycle fans, Harley’s new image met with astonished enthusiasm. “We looked at pictures of the new bikes and were like, Harley did this? That’s pretty wild,” says Zack Courts, features editor of Motorcyclist magazine. Riders who generally preferred Honda or Yamaha said maybe they’d try a Harley. It should have been a marketing coup.

Then the president of the United States called on motorcyclists to boycott the company.

Since 1903, when a Milwaukee engineer, William Harley, and his friend, Arthur Davidson, designed a motorized bicycle in Davidson’s backyard shed, the company has been continuously manufacturing motorcycles in Wisconsin. Throughout the years, Harley-Davidson has been acquired, sold, spun off, and taken public, but it’s the only American motorcycle company that’s never gone out of business. The one with the second-longest streak, Indian Motorcycle, shut down in 1953. Harley has largely thrived. It added a Pennsylvania plant in the 1970s; Missouri and Brazil came online in the 1990s; its newest addition, in Thailand, will open this fall. Last year, the company made $4.9 billion in revenue from motorcycles. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2018 at 6:11 pm

Noisy restaurants and aged ears

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Jack Aubrey in The Yellow Admiral is talking about a cousin, Harry Turnbull:

“Just as well, thought I, for Harry was in a horrid rage, having lost more money than he cared for to Colonel Waley – was barely civil – would not lend me a shirt – should be damned if he would lend me a shirt – scarcely had a shirt to his name – barely a single shirt to his back. You know how cross Harry Turnbull can be: he must have fought more often than any man in the country – a very dangerous shot and very apt to take offence. So when I walked into the committee-room and saw him still looking furious and contrary and bloody-minded, I felt quite uneasy: and though smiles from Crawshay and two other Blackses [members of Jack Aubrey’s club – LG] comforted me a little I did not really have much hope until the lawyer started proceedings. His low soapy tone did not suit Harry, who kept telling him to speak up, to speak like a Christian for God’s sake, and not mumble. When he was young, people never mumbled, he said: you could hear every word. If anyone had mumbled, he would have been kicked out of the room.”

I was thinking about this because we went to a restaurant this evening for dinner and the noise level was astonishing. I would estimate it as at least 80dB. Of course, that’s just a guess—but no more. I now have this nifty little app on my iPhone: Decibel X: dB, dBA Noise Meter. Now if I complain about the noise level, I can quantify it and and put it in context.

I see, for example, that dB level of my living is 42. Not bad at all. For comparison:

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2018 at 8:48 pm

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