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Month: February 2013



So, I recently had a Home Depot gift card about to expire.  It was going to either be another flashlight (which are always handy)

or this deal was going on for a Foscam FI8910W Wireless IP camera.  I’ve heard of these things; but figured I’d give it a shot.  It has some great features:

  • Day and night (up to about 10-15 feet – not the 8 meters they assert)
  • Wireless N or wired connectivity
  • 300 degree pan, 120 degree tilt – remotely controllable from pcs or mobile devices like phones
  • 2-way audio (listen and speak!)
  • Auto-detection of motion and broadcast+email of images from the device

The long and short is that it works great when set up; but the setup and software certainly can leave a lot to be desired.  At least the Foscam forums are easy to use and full of help.  You’ll be using them a lot.  While I was eventually able to solve my problems; I wasted a good 2 hours setting this thing up.  Unfortunately, the part that’s lacking is really the software stack.  It really does feel like a bunch of first-year computer programmers put this thing together.  They have a lot of features and they do seem to work, but they’re all very picky and error-prone.  You have to set up things jusssssst right. If you do accidentally make a mistake or set up a feature in conflict with another – it doesn’t report a problem, it just doesn’t work and doesn’t tell you why or even what is wrong.  Just 20 more minutes of coding for it to say ‘password wrong’ or ‘IP conflict’ or something like that would have solved 90% of these problems; but you won’t get that.  It’s the classic pain of trying to second-guess what the programmers were trying to do, what you know the stack needs to do, and using the woefully underpowered knobs to get it to do that. Problems that I encountered:

  1. Setting up the ability to watch the camera over the internet (not just locally)
    I credit the Foscam for the fact each camera actually gets its on unique hosting web address from Foscam.  That is slick.  However, getting it to work was a real pain.  Can’t remember all the details at this point, but check the forum for the common problems and solutions.  I remember I could easily control the camera locally on the network, but getting the camera to work through their web hosting was the pain.
  2. Setting up the auto-email on motion detection
    This was just a painful experience in bad software/firmware design.  Once you have #1 set up, it should be trivial to have the camera email you the pictures when it senses motion/audio.  The setup screen is fairly straightforward.  Type in the email address(es) you want the camera to mail pictures to; set the parameters for alerts (motion/audio events) and hit ok.  Well, I got these horrible problems where the camera would not save the settings.  I’d enter the data, enter the admin password to change the settings, then look at the info panel again and see the old settings.  Infuriating!  It turns out, the Foscam admin password CANNOT ACCEPT SPECIAL CHARACTERS.  If  you have any special characters in your admin password ($%#^!&*, etc) – then you basically just locked yourself out of changes.  I had to hit the hardware reset, pick a generic password, and only then did my changes stick.  Worse was that it didn’t tell you this anywhere or warn you when you were picking the admin password.  It would just act like it saved the settings, but not and merrily go on its way.
  3. Motion detection with still images is pretty much broken/useless
    When you use the email stills when motion happens feature, 1 out of 2 times the person is long gone by the time the shot fires.  I tested it a couple times, and you need a full 2 seconds of the person moving in the field of view before the shot is taken.  If someone just walks across the path of view, most of the time you get an email of an empty room.  I believe the recording of video option is better, but you better make the field of view big or place the camera such that it will have a full 2 seconds of the person moving in the target area before the shot fires.
  4. Auto-panning
    The camera had a nasty habit of going into auto-scanning paning/tiling mode when it got confused.  So you’d see/hear the little camera looking all over the place every now and again if you logged in or it reset itself.  I disabled the feature in software and it stopped.

Supposedly these are some of the better cameras out there.  But if that’s the case – then I’m disappointed.  It was worth it since it was nearly free to me; but if I’d paid the list price on this thing – I’d have been pretty upset and took it back.  It works great now; but the setup was painful and it’s poor auto-notification of motion detection give it two solid strikes.



Ready Player One by

Ready Player One by

Another audio book down!  This time it’s Ready Player One by Earnest Cline.

The year is 2044 and the world has not fared well. A global recession has struck and poverty is rampant with all resources scarce.  The protagonist of this story is an 18 year old named Wade Watts who has fared worse than most. Wade lives in abject poverty with his abusive aunt who simply keeps him around for extra food vouchers. Wade has one escape – the OASIS.  The OASIS started as a massively online multiplayer game, but has become all things in this dystopia. He goes to school there, works there, and plays there.
Yet the OASIS has no leader.  It’s creator, an unbelievably rich and reclusive programmer, James Halliday has died and left an easter egg in this world of the OASIS.  The person who finds it gets control of the OASIS, and all his worldly goods – a sum of billions of dollars.  Wade becomes a ‘gunter (egg hunter) in his spare time.  Hunting down the egg has gone on for years with little progress.  It requires the collecting of 3 keys – and each key is hidden and protected with challenges.  Halliday’s only hints lay in his obsession with all things 80’s: movies, D&D, music, styles and most importantly, their games.
While the independent Gunters are searching for the egg, so are the Sixers – a group of corporate lackeys – that are out to get the egg for themselves and change the utopian free OASIS into a commercial vehicle.  So the race is on.  Will Wade (Parzival as his avatar is known), along with fellow hunters Aech and Art3mis beat the Sixers and win the most amazing game prize ever?

This was one of the most enjoyable reads I’d had in a long time.  I was apprehensive when I read that it was a book about 80’s culture and games.  Often times the well-meaning author butchers or panders the topic.  But not so with this book Every great 80’s reference to classic cult/nerd content is there: Dungeons and Dragons, movies such as Wargames and The Quest for the Holy Grail, classic video games such as pac-man, and joust, and music and pop-icons such as Max Headroom and the Cap’n Crunch hacker – as well as more modern advancements such as massively multiplayer online games.  All the greats are in there in all their shining glory.

Best of all, Earnest Cline was clearly a lover and know-er of all these as well – his descriptions and treatment of each piece of history is accurate and spoken of with the same reverence as I knew and loved them.  As a nerdy child of the 80’s, I loved this trip through memory lane – and it’s clear Cline was just as much a lover.  I found myself knowing and able to play along as Wade walked through the challenges and puzzles.  I too had run the D&D dungeon The Tomb of Horrors, had played through some of the PC-based games he mentions – although I was not a very good master of classic arcade games.  Still, watching the young Wade and others of his generation learn to fall in love with the awesomeness of the 80’s was like falling in love again myself.  It made me want to whip out my old D&D set, pull out my Tandy coco and play Dungeons of Daggorath (which I DO have a copy of and a working Tandy!), and all the other great games and adventures I had as a kid.  It re-vitalized and reminded me of why I got into computers all those years ago.

I give this book a solid A.  Sure, it’s not a heady examination of the deeper things of life nor Pulitzer-quality writing – but it’s an absolutely romp if you were a child (and especially a nerdy child) of the 80’s.  I found myself sitting in the car long after I’d got home and listening to ‘just one more chapter’.  I haven’t always had that recently – and it was a great pleasure to have that much fun with a book again.

Highly recommend for the child of the 80’s

The Hobbit

The Hobbit

More audiobook time.  Now that the first part of The Hobbit movie is out – I wanted to re-read the book before seeing it to see how true it is to the book.  As usual, I went the audiobook route.

I first read The Hobbit when I was in 5th grade.  I remembered it as a HUUUGGEEEE book.  When I picked it up – I remember running my hands over the book cover and being awestruck at it’s size.  All those pages with so few pictures!  As an adult, I picked up the book and marveled at how small it is compared to other things I read now.  I guess that as with most childhood memories, fears, school teachers, and bullies – things just seemed so much more big when you’re physically little.

I won’t re-tell the story as it’s been done hundreds of times elsewhere, and much better than I could do.  So, how about a recap?

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who lives in a quiet, rural hobbit village that largely symbolizes the English idealism of calm, country living.  He’s comfortable, and likes it that way.  No adventures, no tom-foolery; 5 square meals a day and lots of relaxed pipe smoking while looking over the countryside.  Gandalf the wizard appears and invites himself, and a number of Dwarves to supper.  Bilbo’s calm, sedate home is quickly overrun with Dwarves on a mission to recover their cave home that was taken by Smaug the dragon years before.  They enlist, or rather, abscond with Bilbo as their ‘burglar’ at Gandalf’s suggestion.  They set off and have numerous adventures along the way.  They are captured by goblins and Bilbo encounters Gollum.  He finds the one ring, and escapes using it’s powers.  The party travels through a deep haunted forest and are imprisoned by the elves that live there.  They escape in barrels floating down the river and arrive at the human town of Laketown.  After getting the help of the citizens for provisions and ponies, they arrive at Smaug’s mountain to find a hidden magical dwarven door which allowed secret entrance to the mountain.  Bilbo enters and engages the dragon in verbal swordplay.  Smaug attacks the mountainside to kill the visiting party and then attacks the nearby Laketown for helping the Dwarves.  Smaug is ultimately killed by one of the city’s men after receiving a tip from a bird.  In the final scenes, the Dwarves barricade themselves into the mountain to defend their treasure while armies of men/elves and Dwarves from the north arrive outside to get their share.  Instead of fighting each other, Bilbo sneaks away a prized gem to break the stalemate and they all end up fighting the goblins that were stirred up after the Dwarves killed the goblin king during their escape.  Bilbo returns home to find he was declared dead and has to rescue his property from auction.

What can one say?  It is one of the original great fantasy novels of all time.  It introduced a number of the great themes that carry through the genre even today.  Yet, you can tell this is one of Tolkien’s early works of fantasy.  Tolkien uses a number of ‘cheats’/easy outs of coincidence to solve some of his plot problems; but all of these are forgivable.  Yet all the great writing, imagery, and important themes that will get fuller treatment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy are there.  It’s great to see his first foray.

As a side, it’s always good to note that Tolkien was a devote Catholic – and many themes of Christianity are present in his novels.  As a Catholic, one picks up on myriads of themes such as self-sacrifice, flawed heroes with realistic failings, confronting fears, the journey that takes you places you do not expect nor desire at times and changes you forever, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, and his military roots show in his concepts of nobility, duty, and honor.  For example, in this reading, I particularly was struck by the line of Bilbo as he first crept down to Smaug’s layer (ch 12):

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the
bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward
were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel
alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

It’s ideas like this that speak so well to the life of faith; and why even those who are not believers find these same themes speak to experiences in their own lives.  Whole books have been written examining the themes of Tolkien – and I think any that miss this key to many of his themes have really missed a lot.

I give this book a B+ taken on it’s own outside the hype.  It’s certainly not the best writing in the world at times (certainly not as good as Lord of the Rings or things today) – but it’s always good.  As a keystone of the genre, however, it’s definite an essential read.