Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Cure for a Stroke

A good friend of mine suffered a stroke in December. He is one of those really healthy guys that just has bad genetics as he has suffered through several heart attacks as well. Unfortunately the stroke left him without the ability to speak. He is also unable to to use his right hand effectively but you wouldn't know that unless you are very observant or someone pointed it out to you.

Another friend came to me a month or so ago and said we need to use technology to help our friend recover and come up with a way for him to talk. He proposed creating a Google Glass application that can pair with a smartphone and talk for him. The original idea included looking at a keyboard on the Google Glass screen and spelling out words to be spoken by the phone. It sounds like a great idea, right?

Anyone who knows a stroke victim knows that there is often more damage than first meets the eye. While our friend can still read somewhat, he can't write, type, nor can he spell very well. It is very difficult for him to communicate with the rest of the world even though he can hear us and knows what we are saying. Talking with him is like playing 20 questions all the time and it gets old quickly.

A few more friends gathered with our stroke victim several weeks ago and flushed out some solutions. We decided that instead of trying to have our friend spell out words, we would use icons and pictures to represent phrases. We are doing prototyping work on a tablet computer. By selecting icons, we can create sentences to help our friend communicate. Now the trick is deciding what phrases are the most important and should be created first.

We have our friend's speech therapist who created a book of phrases that deal with time, eating, and other seemingly important stuff. While that is all fine, it doesn't represent the important conversations in our lives. I suggested a few more important phrases that probably need to be gathered first. Things like, "Are you single?" or "I'm a good listener." My friend is divorced and could probably use a date. These phrases are important for such activities but did not show up in the therapist's book. When I proposed them, you should have seen my friend light up.

The ability to communicate is important to us all. When my friend lost his ability to speak, he lost his purpose in life. Now we are trying to help him help others who have gone through similar ailments. Wouldn't it be great to add phrases like, "I have a tiny idea of what you are going through because I also suffered a stroke and lost the ability to speak," or, "Let me help you."

This is one of those projects that will never really end but it is a worthy cause for my time. I wish I could do more. While this may not be a cure for every stroke victim, it is something that will help a number of them and is very important to my friend. If you are interested in helping with the project, don't hesitate to leave a comment or contact me. One of the easiest ways to help is simply to think about your daily conversations and give us ideas of what phrases we should include in our app.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Fixing a 24-Year-Old Air Conditioner

Yesterday afternoon my wife texted me and asked me to call her. I couldn't because of a meeting and so she sent me another message saying the air conditioner in our house broke. When I could finally call her, I had her run through some troubleshooting steps to see if we couldn't isolate the problem. Ultimately nothing we tried would bring the AC back on. As this is the really hot part of the year in Utah, cooling the house is very important.

I left the office and rode back to my boat trying to figure out what the problem could be. I thought about all of the steps I had my wife try and figured that we either lost the blower motor, the capacitor for the blower motor, or the computer that controls the blower motor. Based on some issues we had a few weeks ago, I figured it was a 95% chance the computer died. Using the power of a smartphone with a camera, my wife helped me figure out the part number for the old computer and find a replacement part on the Internet. The only problem is that I couldn't guarantee the arrival before the end of the weekend when I would have to catch a flight from Utah back to the Bay Area.

This morning I had my wife call around and see if she could find a replacement part locally. She did and it cost $175 while the same part can be purchased for $75 on the Internet. When it is 95 degrees outside, $100 is a small price to pay for being able to cool the house immediately and so I had her pick up the part.

This evening I boarded a plane back to Utah and my wife picked me up at the airport. We came home and I began working on fixing the AC. One would think it would be as simple as labeling all of the dozen or so wires and plugging them back into the new computer. Nope, the new board had a completely different configuration and only a few of the wires had the same labels.

I went to my desktop computer and looked up part numbers on the Internet. My old AC computer is part number ST9120G2008 and my replacement is ST9120U1011. I searched for a bit but couldn't find instructions on how to rewire the computer but I did find one clue: white wires are neutral. I found all of the neutral connections on the computer and started there. Next I found labels on the the old computer and matched them with the new one. That left only five unknown wires. Fortunately the instruction manual came with a very nice wiring diagram. I just had to recall all of my Electrical Engineering homework from a long time ago and I matched the remaining wires.

While carpenters like to measure twice and cut once, electrical engineers like to recheck their work and so I did. Then I checked it again. Once you let the magic smoke out of electrical components, they don't work very well after. I didn't want to have to spend another $175 for a wiring mistake. Once I convinced myself everything worked, I did a quick test. The blower motor started right up. I then tested the AC and it is now working to bring my house down from an unbearable 85 degrees to a more manageable 76.

I am not an HVAC specialist and normally I would call a repairman for such a job. In fact I have done that in the middle of winter when the heater stopped working. The problem turned out to be a $4 light switch. I still had to pay $120 for the service call. I figure at that rate, I can spend a bit of my own time and try to figure it out. Furthermore buying a new part through the repairman would run me about $300. I figure I saved myself around $245 doing the work myself. I also learned a lot in the process.

If you find yourself in a similar situation but have the slightest concern that you didn't correctly diagnose the problem, then call the repairman. If you think the Internet will help guide you through the fix, then give it a shot. You might just save yourself some serious cash.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Video Game Review: King Oddball

I am always looking for games to play on my PS Vita during my weekly flights between Salt Lake and San Francisco. I started playing Spy Hunter but quickly lost interest. PlayStation Plus offered King Oddball free for PS3, PS4, and PS Vita last month. I downloaded it to both my Vita and PS4 and started playing it on the PS4 in my office right before heading to the airport to catch my flight home. Let's just say that the game is very addicting and I had to rush to the airport even though I knew I could play it on my Vita while on the go.

The game is available on almost every platform possible. It is very similar to the Angry Birds series in that you have an object you lob at tanks and army men in an effort to destroy them. Each puzzle lasts a few minutes at most and then you move around the map faced with increasingly complex scenarios. There are a few areas on the map where you have additional challenges such as tossing grenades instead of rocks or trying to win with at least one remaining piece of ammunition. Then when you complete the game there is the secret game.

King Oddball kept me entertained for a month's worth of airplane flights and is great for someone looking to be entertained during a bus, plane, train, or ferry commute (don't play it while driving). You can get it for your phone or tablet and so you don't require a PlayStation device to enjoy the game.

King Oddball is rated E 10+, meaning it is suitable for anyone over the age of 10. Why not everyone? The fantasy violence. Tanks explode and little army men go poof. I got the game for free as part of my PlayStation plus subscription and it is worth every penny.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Creating Computer Map Animations

One nice thing about creating a video for YouTube is having a good example of technology that I can reference. Collecting videos and photos is relatively easy. When it came to adding animated maps of where Goblin Valley is located, I did not know what to do. I knew that Google has a pretty good maps of anywhere in the world and so I started there. I tried to do everything with Google Maps but then thought about using Google Earth. Earth is better for doing flyovers like I have at the beginning of the video (at 0:29). You are limited with the web version of Google Earth and I recommend the stand-alone application as it is significantly more flexible.

So how did I do the animations for the other 2 maps (at 1:25 and 5:56)? I asked one of my coworkers for ideas and he suggested using Microsoft PowerPoint. I know how to do that and so I took a screen shot from Google Maps, loaded it into PowerPoint, then added some circles and arrows. Now I just needed to record the animation on my screen. I used the Quicktime player on my Mac to do that. How? Well Quicktime allows you to do screen recordings. I simply started Quicktime and went into the "File" menu where there is a "New Screen Recording" menu item. It brings up a red record button. When I clicked on the button, it asked me to select the part of the screen I wanted to record. Once I selected it, a large "Start Recording" button appeared. Then when I was done recording, I brought up the application bar and right-clicked on the Quicktime icon. It brought up a menu with a menu item to "Stop Recording." Quicktime then allows you to save the MP4 movie file anywhere you want.

Once I had all of my videos, photos, and animations, I combined them all together using iMovie. Everything came together quite easily looked great. The last thing I did was to add in music and my narration. For that I used GarageBand, but this is a topic for another post.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

My First YouTube Video

I have spent the past couple of months putting together my first YouTube video. It is not nearly as easy as throwing together a blog post and so I don't plan on doing very many of them. I did learn a lot about the process though and that is why I put together this one.

While I enjoy spending time in front of my computer, I much prefer spending time outside. I wanted to start putting together some videos about our National Parks. Then I discovered that you need to have an expensive permit if you plan to record video for anything other than your personal use. So instead of starting with a National Park, I decided to start with Goblin Valley State Park. Note that there is no such restriction for photographs.

There are a lot of poor quality YouTube videos and I didn't want my video to fall into that same category so I tried to do it right the first time. I created my own script before heading down to the park. That gave me an idea of what video I needed. Then in March I drove to Goblin Valley State Park where I met my son with his wife and puppy. We spent the next day wandering around the park taking pictures and gathering video. I had 3 other people helping me take pictures along with 2 separate video cameras. One is an old camcorder unit while the other is an older action camera. We used the action camera for all of the rappelling shots. I plan to update both video cameras in the future but wanted to use what I had for this experiment.

As I compiled the video and showed early versions to family, I got some very important feedback. While I had a lot of video of the park, most people liked the still camera shots except for the rappelling scene. Video made that part more dramatic.

No video is complete without a soundtrack. I had all of my video edited together and then found a piece of music that I can use for free with attribution to the artist. It is no coincidence that my video is around 7 minutes long and exactly the same length as the music.

The last thing to do was to record the narration soundtrack. Recently I purchased a high-end condenser microphone complete with shock mount and pop guard. Then I locked myself in my bedroom which had the best acoustics in the house for recording my voice. Combining the narration with the music and my edited video didn't take long at all.

As I mentioned, I created the video as a learning experience. I am very interested in feedback. Is the video boring or does it hold your interest? Do you want to visit Goblin Valley State Park now? Please feel free to send me comment as I am looking to improve for my next video.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Video Game Review: Horizon Zero Dawn

In January I started playing Horizon Zero Dawn while spending evenings on my sailboat in the Bay Area. That means I only got to play for an hour or two on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings. Last week I finally finished the game. I have about 100 hours into the game and completed all of the side missions except tutorials. I also only have a few other tasks until I complete all of the trophies.

A lot of my coworkers and friends have played Horizon Zero Dawn and encouraged me to do so. I hesitated playing it because I knew it would take a long time to complete. I am glad I did though as I thoroughly enjoyed the game. My youngest son also loves the game and I can see why. The story is very compelling and while I thought some of the tasks would get old, it turns out I needed that much time learning how to take down all the different machines available in the game. I also discovered that having the shield-weave armor really helps when trying to take down some very difficult enemies. If you decide to play the game, I highly recommend doing a bit of research and making sure you acquire it as early as possible.

Horizon Zero Dawn is an open-world game that allows you to go anywhere and do missions in almost any order. Towards the end of my game, I discovered there were plenty of earlier quests I hadn't done and so I went back and completed them before the final battle. Completing everything helps ease the difficulty towards the end.

Horizon Zero Dawn is rated T for Teen because of blood and violence. I enjoyed the game and highly recommend it for anyone over the age of 12. You can find a used copy of the game for around $25 and new for $30. It is well worth that price. I would also spend the extra money and get "The Frozen Wilds" DLC as I want to continue playing the game. I am a big fan of the PlayStation 4 console and this is a console exclusive so it is not available for the PC nor the Xbox platforms. That may be a deal breaker for some.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Narrating Text Messages

I had to visit the post office this afternoon and had a guy behind me narrating his text messages. That means he used his phone's speech-to-text capability to send a regular text message. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of a text message? Why not just call the guy on the phone. Then you don't annoy the rest of us in line while you have your conversation.

The guy in the post office really annoyed me today. Yes, it is much faster to speak into your phone and have it convert your message to text than it is to type it in yourself. Perhaps I am strange and only use text messaging when I know that someone is busy and can't talk on the phone or I can't talk on the phone. This guy held a conversation like he was talking on the phone, yet he kept having to correct the text message because speech to text isn't perfect. If you insist on texting instead of using the phone, make sure that is the most efficient use of communication. Otherwise you are just annoying those around you.