Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

A robot barista charged me for health care

August 9th, 2017

Robot health insurance
Screenshot of the receipt

Robots are handling food everywhere these days. Whether delivering falafel or attempting to scoop ice cream, there’s no escape from food robots in the Bay Area. All of which is fine with me: I, for one, welcome our new robot food service overlords.

What I’m not fine with, however, are spurious surcharges. So imagine my surprise when I paid a visit to Cafe X, the robot coffee machine at the Metreon, and found a small surcharge on my bill for health care.

While it’s not uncommon for San Francisco restaurants to add a surcharge for Healthy SF, a local subsidized medical care program for those without health insurance, this is the first time a machine has charged me such a fee.

Yes, I realize human employees maintain this robot. But if you think about it, Cafe X is nothing more than a fanciful vending machine. You put money in, make a selection, and a product comes out — that’s it. All vending machines require humans to restock it, clean it, etc. but when was the last time you went to buy a Coca-Cola from one only to find that your 99 cent beverage actually cost $1.10 because of a surcharge? Never, that’s when.

It also makes me wonder if the economics of this robot food service industry are really working out. The “robot” part of Cafe X is an off-the-shelf robot arm custom programmed to move cups around, the coffee beverages themselves are prepared by off-the-shelf automatic espresso machines. If Cafe X has to nickle and dime customers to the point where the prices are in line with Blue Bottle, why wouldn’t I go to Blue Bottle instead? It’s barely a block away, and to be honest their humans not only make better coffee, but they don’t charge an extra fee for health care.

Mini Strandbeest

August 4th, 2016

Mini Strandbeest

I received an unexpected gift at work today; a Mini Strandbeest kit. Like a wildly complex Ikea furniture set, there’s dozens of parts to stick together, but it doesn’t take terribly long if you follow the directions.

If you’ve been stuck under a rock for the past few decades and are unfamiliar with Strandbeests, check out the Wikipedia page on the artist who created them.

This particular tiny Strandbeest is powered by wind, with a small windmill and two reduction gears. Like its peers you can also just push it along with your hands, but it’s far more entertaining to blow on the windmill and watch it spring into action.

Want to see it walk? I placed it on the floor and pointed a fan at it. Here’s a short video of the result, complete with silly music to complete the effect:


How (not) to think like a product manager

July 27th, 2016

A Medium post titled Clouseau: A Postmortem has been making its rounds on the internet today. While the title isn’t particularly revealing, the subtitle gives you the gist of the story: “How I vetted and dumped a startup idea in ~20 hours and for under $1000.”

For those who haven’t read the article, here’s a quick summary:

  • A product manager from Google went on a vacation in Europe and stayed in some fancy hotels
  • Those fancy hotels did a poor job of providing rooms dark enough to sleep in
  • The product manager spent time and money investigating a business plan around measuring light levels in hotel rooms
  • This data would be offered as a service and would be a “natural monopoly” in the industry
  • Two light meters were purchased and a logo was commissioned for the project
  • This plan failed because hotels don’t let people barge into their rooms to measure light levels without reserving the room, which was cost-prohibitive

What this unintentionally illustrates is classic “product manager thinking:” marching ahead with a pre-conceived solution set in mind despite having given little or no thought to the problem space as a whole. Instead, they limit themselves to areas where they have existing domain knowledge and try to build a solution around that. In this case, that involved coming up with a data-driven approach built around a technological solution.

But just because someone has a pre-existing toolkit for solving problems doesn’t mean that toolkit is always going to be the best method — or even an adequate method — to solve every problem. As the saying goes, to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As a software engineer I’ve witnessed this type of thinking in every product manager I’ve ever encountered. No matter what the problem, somehow software was going to be the answer, because that’s what they had to work with. Is the toilet broken? Great! Since the problem is broken toilets, we’ll build an app that lets you hire a plumber. Problem solved… sort of.

So I don’t mean to single out this particular product manager when I point out that his “rapid prototype” was an unnecessary waste of time. If anything that’s the industry norm.

Instead, if he’d only taken a couple minutes to ask someone who travels frequently — or even someone who lives in a neighborhood with a lot of nightlife — he’d know that this was a solved problem. In fact, it was solved so long ago that the solution is offered in thousands of stores from dozens of different companies:

Yup. A humble sleep mask will block out light. And for good measure, buy a couple sets of earplugs. Believe me, if you travel a lot, you’re going to wind up in some loud, bright hotel rooms where you’ll need both.

The message I want to leave you with is to avoid this pitfall. Yes, sometimes gathering data and offering it as a service is a sensible solution to a problem. Or maybe some other type of technology. But unless you’ve fully explored the alternatives, don’t limit yourself with a hammer/nail mentality.

Introducing the VCR Classic Edition

July 24th, 2016


You may have heard the bad news recently: the last company making VCRs is about to stop production. But worry not, VCR fans: the VCR Classic Edition is here!

No, this won’t play your old tapes. Following in the steps of Nintendo, the VCR Classic Edition is 50% smaller than your old VCR and comes preloaded with 30 exciting tapes some guy in Cleveland recorded from his TV back in the day!

Tapes bundled with the VCR Classic Edition include:

  • A rerun of the final episode of MASH
  • Couple of really funny I Love Lucy episodes
  • News clip about a dead body some kids found down by the lake
  • That one Seinfeld episode about masturbating
  • …and many more!

Don’t run out to the store yet, the VCR Classic Edition hits shelves this November. We’ll update when we hear more, but early reports confirm that it won’t work with your existing remote control, but it does include HDMI output and relies on USB for power.

So much yes!

We’re looking forward to the VCR Classic Edition and can hardly wait to find the right tracking settings on some forgotten old tapes. This is a perfect example of how to preserve everyone’s favorite technology. We can’t wait!

Microsoft Windows Enterprise Edition

June 30th, 2016

The other day I got to thinking: what would happen if the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation was built with modern software? If it ran on Microsoft Windows, its own operating system might be bigger a danger to the crew than the Borg. Here’s how I suspect it would play out.

…and roll credits:

Graffiti just a list of Linux distributions

October 23rd, 2015

Linux graffiti

You know you’re in San Francisco when the graffiti is just a list of Linux distos.

For touchier Linux users this list of distributions will no doubt invoke very negative responses. On one side you’ll have a bunch of whiners upset that their favorite one isn’t on this list. In some other corner there will be a bunch of weirdos yelling at you for not calling it “GNU slash Linux.”

Linux users can be like that.

My solution to the world’s energy problems

April 28th, 2015

For years we’ve been hearing about the benefits of harnessing clean energy. Our reliance on fossil fuels has caused toxic pollution, led to numerous wars, and has rapidly altered the planet’s climate.

While solar and wind have potential, let me explain one untapped source of renewable energy: hot takes on Twitter. See, hot takes could be used to heat water and drive a steam engine, must like coal, nuclear, and mirror-based solar power already do.

Here’s a diagram of my proposal carefully illustrated in MS Paint:

The way this works is quite simple:

  1. Hot takes about the latest issue on Twitter create heat
  2. A container of water is placed above the hot takes
  3. The water boils creating steam, which drives a steam engine, which in turn drives an electric generator
  4. After cooling, the water goes back into the container to be heated again


In theory, if major national issues continue to be unresolved this could generate enough electricity to power the entire world. Imagine!

My own QML TreeView

February 15th, 2015

It’s Valentine’s Day and here’s the point where I have to confess my love as a software engineer for QML. It’s a markup language for building simple modern UIs with Javascript controls, and can be bound to C++ and Python via Qt. Since it’s based on Qt it runs on pretty much any modern desktop or mobile platform you can think of.

But like any relationship, sometimes one is left wanting for more. Sure, QML is great but it has flaws that are hard to overlook. For example, there’s no “tree view” component (think: file system UIs, Windows RegEdit, etc.) which is a deal breaker for some use cases.

That deficiency ends today.

I’ve been busily working on my own tree view implementation, which you can find on GitHub. It supports drag and drop rearranging and folder creation with a mouse or touch interface. Like the iOS home screen, folders are limited to one level (i.e. no subfolders.)

Here’s the sample test harness in action:

The trick? It’s all a standard QML ListView with a special type of delegate, my own RearrangeableDelegate.

The items can be rearranged by pressing (or long-pressing, see update below) on them, then dragging to the desired space. If you position it between two items a line appears, and releasing the mouse positions the item at that location. Positioning on top of an item causes the two items to pop out into a new folder. Dragging the last item out of a folder deletes the folder. If you want to have special items at the top of the list that can’t be rearranged, that’s supported via the numStationary property.

Everything is designed to be styled to your liking. Want to change the drag border, the opener image, the indentation, etc? Easy! Just set some of RearrangeableDelegate’s existing properties and you’re good to go.

The UI state of each item is stored in the list model itself, which provides an easy (if somewhat hacky) way of maintaining the UI state with a database or settings file. Here’s what you need to provide, subject to change:

ListElement {
    // Unique id (integer)
    uid: 1;

    // Used for drag and drop UI. (Persistence not required.)
    dropTarget: "none";  

    // True if a folder, else false
    isFolder: false;     

    // -1 if not in a folder, else the uid of the parent
    parentFolder: -1;    

    // For folders, this indicates whether their children are
    // displayed. Otherwise, indicates if visible.
    folderOpen: true;

Best part: I’m giving away the entire thing for free under the MIT license, which ought to satisfy pretty much everyone (except for Richard Stallman.) Take my code and do what thou wilt. If you encounter a bug please file a new issue or fix it on your own and submit a Pull Request. Either way I — and perhaps other QML developers — will be eternally grateful for your ongoing efforts to make up for this missing QML component.

UPDATE: After convincing Hryx to do some user testing, we decided that long-pressing wasn’t discoverable enough for a desktop. So now there’s a flag called dragOnLongPress to control this behavior. By default it’s set to false so that a long press isn’t required to move an item around. You can set it to true in situations where a long press to move makes sense, such as on touch and mobile devices.

Anatomy of a free energy scam [updated]

May 29th, 2014

Back in September a “free energy machine” which had crowdfunded a bunch of money on IndieGoGo came to my attention. When I followed up later, I found this same project had not one but two more crowdfunding campaigns, raising a grand total of $57,590.

Now if you really built a free energy device — that is to say a device that takes no input and emits electricity (or something that can be converted to electricity, such as motion) — you would not settle for less than $60,000. The device would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars if not more. The amount saved on coal mining and oil drilling alone would be astronomical.

Of course, anyone who remembers anything from their high school physics class knows that energy has to come from somewhere. That doesn’t stop people from trying the impossible; there’s dozens of websites and forums on the internet for those who “just want to believe.” But most of those people simply have strange ideas and too much time on their hands — they’re not asking people to pony up tens of thousands of dollars so they can take a free vacation around the world.

So let’s look deeper at this particular scam and how it came to be.

Who’s who

Let’s assess the major players here:

Naima Feagin, aka Hope Girl, runs an organization with the completely understated title “Fix The World.” According to her LinkedIn profile, this organization came about after exposing a massive conspiracy:

In 2012 Naima conducted a research project under the pen name “HopeGirl” that exposed hidden levels of global financial issues and their effects on society. This research resulted in a book of solutions written by 300 people from 37 countries titled “How to Fix the World” which quickly went viral on the [sic] blog

Sure enough, Hope Girl’s first blog post blames “the Cabal,” a nefarious group who control all major corporations and the government. Obviously their secret goal is to start World War 3 to establish a global currency system, which they’ve already begun by causing banking scandals. What the Cabal doesn’t want us to know is that free energy is real, crop circles mean we’ve encountered aliens, etc. etc. She even cites a discredited Iranian scientist who has his own personal model of the sub-atomic universe. Yikes.

She goes on to claim that in six months (from August 2012) we’ll all see that this is true because a resistance movement will have changed everything:

  • “There will be enough food and water for everyone…”
  • “Many people will not have to get sick, suffer and die…”
  • “There will be free energy for everyone.”
  • “New technology will dramatically change the way we live and do commerce, making interstellar travel possible for everyone.”

How do we know this is true? Well of course: “This is the future that I am choosing to believe in.” Sounds like someone read The Secret!

Surprisingly, there was never a follow up post after six months that explained why this future didn’t occur in six months. I guess we’re stuck with the 2,000+ years as predicted by Star Trek?


Hope Girl’s stepfather James M. Robitaille is the electrical engineer behind the QEG. There isn’t much information about him on the internet, but according to the IndieGoGo page his former accomplishments include designing an in-car vacuum cleaner for Honda.

Over at Consumerist they thought the vacuum worked well. Still, a vacuum cleaner is kinda far from a free energy device.


“Sir Dr.” Timothy Thrapp runs a religious technology group called WITTS Ministries. Among other claims, WITTS says Jesus will help us cure cancer, end pollution, and make cars that run on air and water. (I guess they have a newer version of the Bible than I do.) One of their projects is a free energy generator that claims to draw its power from the quantum field.

Birth of the Quantum Energy Generator (QEG)

Clearly, WITTS makes some pretty wild claims. But what are claims without proof? Well, WITTS would love to prove to you that their technology is sound, provided you’ll make some pretty sizable donations to their sister group, Enlightened Technology. The plans alone cost $300, and the required training starts at $1,000 an hour. Yikes!

Hope Girl’s stepfather found out about the WITTS quantum generator, somehow decided it was real, and decided to copy it without the help of WITTS and/or Jesus 2.0. Their new device would be called the Quantum Energy Generator, and Robitaille’s electrical expertise could bring this device to every corner of the world.

But WITTS countered back, explaining on their page Identifying Counterfeits:

World Improvement Ministries HAS OVER 300 independent Engineers that have made video testimonies and/or audio testimonies and or written, signed and notarized sworn to under oath, written testimonies of each of their independent verifications.

It would be interesting to compare the list of those 300 engineers with the “300 people from 37 countries” Hope Girl mentioned, wouldn’t it? Or is 300 just a number you pull out of your ass when you wish to sound like many people agree with you?

QEG goes open source

The team behind the QEG eventually open sourced the design. Or at least they open sourced something. The PDF document is a mixture of instructions, techno-babble, and a copy of a seemingly unrelated patent from Nikola Tesla. Like many of his contemporaries, Tesla didn’t believe in quantum mechanics.

The document warns you that even though the device is open source, you should never attempt to build one on your own. One such warning says that “A considerable level of knowledge in quantum physics is also required,” a field neither Robitaille, Naima, nor anyone at WITTS claim to have education in.

They later clarified this quantum physics requirement in another document, because it involves (of course) yet another conspiracy:

There are no physics papers on this as far as we know. this knowledge has been suppressed for over 100 years.

It’s bad enough that the document doesn’t describe how it works or why the Tesla patent is involved, but now we have to learn an entirely new version of quantum physics that we couldn’t have known before? Oh dear! Worse yet, Fix the World hasn’t revealed any details of their new scientific theory so far.

Perhaps the most troubling statement in their original document is this FAQ entry:

Does the QEG emit radiation?
No — it’s not that type of energy.

Exactly what “energy” is being emitted, then? It certainly can’t be electricity if there’s no radiation. So what is it, and why isn’t it defined?

Somehow this great open sourcing of the plans leaves more questions than answers. There’s even more pieces of the puzzle missing than there were before.

Fixing the world

Hope Girl said she flipped the QEG’s switch, but days later claimed there were “good reasons” that she couldn’t say whether or not the device actually worked. In fact, even asking if it worked was the wrong question, she said: instead we should be asking “How to we get this to the people?”

Nope, who needs evidence? Instead it was time to Fix the World!

Why did they need to raise money to fly to other countries to build this? Because shipping the device pre-assembled might end up with the questionable device stuck in customs, and because Robitaille’s quantum energy expertise is unparallelled, the family team hopped on a plane to Taiwan, London, and Morocco.

It was only after getting off the ground that they announced they had achieved something called “Resonance,” which they never took the time to define. It certainly does not mean (spoiler alert!) that any form of measurable electricity is generated.

Exit strategy?

Around this time, the posts on Hope Girl’s blog started to use worrying language like “managing expectations” and “full disclosure”. Something wasn’t right.

Further down the rabbit hole, she decided that negative comments left on her blog and YouTube videos were evidence of a vast government conspiracy which is proven by a couple of completely out-of-context slides from the Snowden leak. (Apparently this is a new kind of proof where you don’t have to connect all of the dots.)

In other words, anything that contradicts Hope Girl’s mentality of “it’s true because I believe it” is negative, and therefore the result of government sponsored internet trolls.

And her own internet forum echos the sentiment that all skepticism is evil:

Healthy skepticism is just another form of doubt – a negative force.

On the one hand the QEG is indeed a machine, but a totally different kind of machine than the ones we are so familiar with. It is true that she may need a skilled technician to build her, but truly requires a shift in consciousness to understand what makes her ‘tick’. And that’s where one’s attitude in this whole process can and will make a difference….

Take for example the “double-slit experiment,” where the mere act of ‘observation’ can completely change the outcome of an event. There are a number of things so far, involving the measurable part of the QEG, which currently may not make any sense… but then perhaps it needs a different level of sensitivity all together. Your presence, your state of mind, your attitude are believed to be key ingredients in observing the successful creation of this free energy device. This forum supports that belief and vision.

In short: There is no place for skepticism in this forum, you won’t get far trying to court a lady with skepticism, cause truly that is what the QEG is, a Lady with a mind and a will of her own.

When asked the simple question of how the device works, the question was met with similar hostility:

This goal cannot be achieved if your attitude is one of …. “skepticism.” The quantum realm does not work that way. Healers in general have a knowledge of how the quantum realm operates, and responds, providing what we expect, and using intention to accomplish. We have to clear and clean our emotions and minds in order to successfully heal…..

In other words, even questioning how the device works may cause it to fail! Apparently the QEG is like a drug-induced buzz, and it won’t work if you harsh its mellow, man.

But the seeds of escape were planted long before Hope Girl even announced the QEG. No, there was a free energy boogeyman all along: the government and/or corporations.

Like many people who lack basic critical thinking skills, “the government” and “corporations” are not things that exist but rather reasons in and of themselves that don’t need to be connected via evidence to indicate wrongdoing. Merely stating their names is enough; no further explanation is necessary.

Government… corporations… government… corporations… oh no, the QEG will never work now! It was entirely my fault for using those words!

Putting it all together

So what did James Robitaille build, if not a free energy device that derives its power from the quantum field? A thread on Reddit posits an interesting theory: Robitaille doesn’t seem to understand how to measure electricity and the device is a type of transformer.

There is, of course, a very simple explanation for all of this. Like Steorn Orbo and other alleged free energy devices, the QEG and WITTS generators are a mix of wishful thinking, workshop skills, and a misunderstanding of the results.

The fundraising and announcements are a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. One could conclude Hope Girl herself acknowledges this in a post saying “We are not in the prove it business, we are in the do it business.”

Finding gullible people on the internet is like shooting fish in a barrel. Building a device that breaks the known laws of physics is not something a group of conspiracy theorists are going to accomplish while vacationing around the world on someone else’s dime.

Is this truly a scam? One could argue that Hope Girl’s apparent belief in the machine indicates that it’s not an intentional scam but rather an honest mistake made by someone who takes charlatans seriously. But honest mistakes don’t involve taking money from people to travel the world and give vanity speeches. Just because people who are gullible exist doesn’t make it right for you to take their money. It doesn’t matter if televangelists disagree — even if you can find 300 of them.

Too often we reward those who sell dreams with unsubstantiated claims. And who could stop them? Consumer protection agencies can’t bother with the small timers, and it’s not always in the interest of payment processors and crowdfunding platforms to turn them away. It seems we’ve allowed crowdfunding to elevate small time scam artists — accidentally or not — to the global level.

Where are they now?

A few days before I completed this blog post, I was unsurprised to find that Fix the World released a report demonstrating that the QEG does not generate electricity and cannot run without external power, so of course they’re asking for more money.

Surprise! Only not.

UPDATE: June 8th

The dubiously named Fix the World is now claiming they have achieved what they’re calling “overunity,” where you get more power out than you put in. Of course, they also provide no evidence, just like always. There seems to be a pattern here. But that pattern hasn’t stopped them from raising over $13,000 in their latest crowdfunding scam (mentioned above.)

I was also alerted to something called an Ecklin generator, also known as a Brown-Ecklin generator. Apparently the people behind this device device promised the OMNI Magazine crowd in the 70′s and 80′s that they too could generate energy out of nowhere with some spinning magnets and whatnot. And much like the QEG, the people behind it couldn’t explain how it worked because they overlooked the most obvious answer: that it doesn’t work.

And to those like HopeGirl who labels any who dare question her as a troll, I ask you this: who is the real troll here? Is it the person who seeks donations for a seemingly impossible device that they refuse to prove actually works? Or is it the person who says you should donate your hard earned money to something that helps people, like a food bank or the Red Cross?

UPDATE 2: October 1st

I’d gotten the family relationships wrong regarding some of the people involved. Sorry about that, I’ve corrected the post to avoid confusion.

Meanwhile an attempt to achieve free energy with the same QEG design in Hungary failed and an attempt in Canada has nothing to show.

Now that the QEG is a bust Hope Girl would like even more money to move to Morocco. As much as I’m sick of people giving money to Hope Girl rather than legitimate causes, a part of me really wonders what elaborate rationalization she’ll have to concoct regarding why Morocco’s QEG still isn’t functional if she ever returns.

Mr. T demands cryptocurrency

May 20th, 2014

Mr. T demands Bitcoin

(Spotted at 1st and Howard)


According to a sticker on a pole, Mr. T would like you to send him some Bitcoin. Why? Well, it turns out, you’re a pitiful fool if you don’t. So there’s that.

At press time, however, the identity if the Bitcoin wallet could not be verified. Donate at your own risk — or risk being labeled a fool.