Tag Archives: hack

fukushima car batteries

Fukushima MacGyver

I tuned into Frontline last night to watch Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown which was quite topical after Martin Fackler’s New York Times front page story harrowing tale of how close the Japanese government had come to abandoning the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant and evacuating Tokyo. Most of what happened I already knew but the one detail that amazed me was how some smart engineers (they are nuclear scientists after all) used car batteries to avert a nuclear meltdown.

The Frontline documentary tells the story of events as they unfolded after the earthquake. Workers at the plant calmly looked after the reactor which had already gone into automatic shutdown as it is designed to do after any major earthquake. As we all know, the tsunami (40 feet by the time it hit the sea wall outside the reactor) overwhelmed the plant’s defenses and flooded the backup generator cutting off power to the pumps which were vital to keeping the nuclear fuel cooled down.

And this is where it gets scary. Not having power meant there was no light in the reactor control room. There also was no power going to the gauges that measured the temperature in the reactor core, an all important measurement if you’re trying to keep the thing from overheating and melting down.

Someone (that person deserves a medal) had the brilliant idea to have everyone run out to their cars and pull the batteries so they could hook them up via jumper cables to the control room instruments and get enough of a current to power the gauges.

fukushima car batteries

Car batteries rigged together to power gauges

As the operators surveyed the damage, they quickly realized that the diesel generators couldn’t be salvaged and that external power wouldn’t be restored anytime soon. In the plant’s parking lots, workers raised car hoods, grabbed the batteries, and lugged them back to the control rooms. They found cables in storage rooms and studied diagrams. If they could connect the batteries to the instrument panels, they could at least determine the water levels in the pressure vessels.

– ieee spectrum, 24 hours at Fukushima cover story

What they found was that the reactor core was overheating and in danger of exploding which would have sent radioactive debris all over Tohoku. Using this data, they then made the very difficult decision to send personnel in to manually (remember they didn’t have power) turn the valves that would vent off steam to reduce pressure. This was a crucial action that, if not taken, would have made an already severe situation ten times worse.

Further Reading: Letter from Fukushima, The New Yorker

Clever Hack for Mobile User Studies

For less than $100 you too can whip together a pocket cam rig to film test users of your mobile app and spot trouble areas. From the Artefact blog:

Staring over your participant’s shoulder isn’t creating the most natural situation when testing user experiences. You get less than ideal viewing angles, participants can’t get into a flow and it’s hard to get good video of it all. So how do you get around that? I’ll introduce to you a few key pieces of hardware and software that can make your life a little easier. Maybe even the coolest researcher in your department, in less than an hour.

Cheap POV video for mobile phone studies

Oulu Open Hack

I spent a couple days last week in Oulu (a city in Northern Finland) helping out on a hackfest. For more on the what, who and why, check out my previous post (Why we Hack). This post is to thank the sponsors and share how it went.

What always amazes me with these type of self-organizing events is the quality of the output. There were only four people volunteering in our spare time to put this together but we managed to pull it off. All the entries were good quality and I’m pretty sure everyone had fun.

Things kicked off with Kristian and I giving a brief overview of the ground rules and history of hack. We then stepped away to give the floor to Ivan Kuznetsov from HeiaHeia who came in on a night train from down south to join us and help get people inspired about their API. HeiaHeia is a cool concept. Kind of like a Foursquare for health where you check-in your workouts and receive praise (or jeers) from your friends.

Next, the UBI-Oulu guys showed us their platform which connects to 40+ interactive monitors around town. Each monitor has a bluetooth and gps sensor as well as a camera and they all talk to the UBI Platform which can read data from the web. With two huge projectors also running all night (nights are long during the Winter too) throwing images up on the side of the opera house in Oulu Harbor, you can let your imagination run wild on what you can build. If you think you have a good idea, I’d encourage you to submit it to their challenge by the end of November because the folks at UBI are granting 7000 – 10,000 EUR to the winning proposal.

Things hummed along and teams quickly settled into their groove. The one thing, in retrospect that I regret, is that we skipped over a round of introductions to get some cross team communication going. People did eventually chat with each other but, as a chatty American, I sometimes forget that it’s helpful to break the ice a bit to get things going.

The one highlight of the night (for me at least) was when I stepped outside to get some fresh air to wake me up a bit. I had an electronic key for the front door that I had been using all day but, unbeknown to me, this key no longer worked past midnight. All the people for whom I had a phone number had left so when I discovered that my key no longer worked, I tried to figure out what I could do. I tweeted using the #ouluopenhack hashtag to see if I could get the attention of anyone upstairs but, of course, they were all busy hacking.

So let me paint the picture. Oulu is North of Iceland, North of Fairbanks, Alaska, basically way the hell up there. In November it’s getting dark at around 3pm. By midnight, the time I’m standing there figuring out what I’m going to do, it’s pitch dark and very, very cold. It wasn’t quite life or death, I was dressed for the weather and I could have called a cab back to the hotel but I’m sure everyone upstairs would have been like, “What the hell happened to Kennedy?” so I resolved to figure out how to get back in but time was ticking.

Snow was on the ground but I luckily found one pebble and took at look up at the windows up on the second floor, the only ones lit, and and tried to imagine the room layout. I picked the one 2 feet x 2 feet window that I remember was next to a table with some guys working and threw the pebble, my single chance to get some attention. I lucked out and hit the window and two scruffy guys peered into the darkness to see me waving frantically and shortly afterwards padded down in their socks to pop open the door.

All the world’s technology at my disposal and I had to resort to communication technology made famous by Shakespere’s Romeo. Those that know what I’ve been working on at Nokia now know that my prototype now has a real-life use case!

I went back to playing with some Nokia APIs before moving on and fiddling around with the Twilio API to make a hack that, would allow someone to leave a message that would get transcribed by Google Voice and emailed to the Oulu Open Hack mailing list (just in case I got locked out again). I think I finally finished up and headed back to my hotel around 2am.

Prizes, we had three

One for the best app using Qt or QML, one for the best UBI hack, and the overall favorite by popular vote.

Alexander Savin won the Nokia C7 with a cool QML app which connected to HeiaHeia to visualize your workouts and automatically upload them to the service.

Ville Alatalo and Jyrki Laurila won the UBI hack prize with their 4squbi app that used the Foursquare API to show you tips from around each UBI screen and who was checked in nearby.

Jason Brower won the overall with his very ambitious hack which sensed the rhythm you shook your phone to a playing song and played it back to you via the phones vibration engine. The final application is so that people could share vibration-enhanced ringtones.

All the hacks along with videos are listed on the Oulu Open Hack wiki.

Shout Outs

Kristian Luoma (CasCard) managed to score a high-quality venue with free bandwidth and good lighting (and a zen rock garden to boot!) from the University of Oulu’s Center for Internet Excellence. I can’t think of a better place to host a hackfest and we all thank them for bearing with our 24-hours of streaming random tunes from our Spotify channel and the use of their staff kitchen refrigerator where we chilled our cans of energy drink.

Thanks go to Jyrki’s company Codemate who paid for the t-shirts and very professional badges and lanyards for everyone.

Also, thank you Forum Nokia for paying for the pizza and drinks (I’ll be sending you my receipts!) and tossing in a C7 phone as the prize for the best QML hack.

Ville did an amazing job on the designs for the shirts, website, and posters. I think in all Kristian, Jyrki, Ville, and I put no more than 10-15 hours total work towards organizing the hackfest but it was due to Ville’s artwork that we managed to look more professional than we actually were! Ville also captured the video on a hacked up N8 and spliced up all the demo videos and created a highlight reel below.

Why We Hack

Reposted (with modifications) from ouluopenhack where I’ll be tomorrow.

It all starts with an itch. Something that bugs you. It’s some kind of “pattern” that you identify. A manual task that you find yourself doing over and over again that you want to automate. Why is the color  printer always default to printing in black & white? How can I patch the OS on my phone so that it pauses the music player when the headphones slip out of the audio jack? Software engineers are inherently lazy and are always looking for ways to optimize the world around them, automate menial tasks. This itch is motivation to hack.

To back up, “hack” is not, what Hollywood tells you. It’s not about breaking into a mainframe to steal data or wreak havoc. No, the modern term for “hack” is the software equivalent of duct taping some things together to try out an idea. You know that site There, I Fixed It – it’s kind of like that but with software. Definitely not ready for prime time but it gets you thinking of what’s possible.

Why Oulu. Why November. Who’s behind this anyway?

This all started when I  joined Nokia and found myself in Helsinki posting to an internal mailing list about this thing called Hack Day that was a fun thing they did at Yahoo to let off steam and try out new ideas. Kristian Luoma bit and he and I worked together to put on the first, internal Nokia hack event in Oulu which we called a “Hackfest” in November of 2009.

A follow-up event was held in Helsinki the following year and then Kristian left Nokia to work at his start-up and I got busy with other projects. With the gentle nudge of Ville Alatalo, Jyrki Laurila and others from the original Hackfest in Oulu, the project was brought back and because 11-11-10 is a nice pattern falling conveniently on a Thursday, Ville, Jyrki, Kristian, and I set the date for the 2nd Annual Oulu Hackfest and got to work.

Slideshare presentation of previous Nokia Hackfests

In order to involve the greater Oulu community (why keep all the fun to ourselves?), we decided to open up the event to non-Nokia people for a greater exchange of ideas. While no one knows really what to expect at these events, like any good dinner party, we all look forward to making it come together as we go along and making sure everyone has fun. Who knows what ideas will be dreamed up and tried out? What problems will the group tackle? What is broken in our world? How can we make things better?

The fun starts on November 11th at 11am on the Center for Internet Excellence campus in Oulu and find out. If you just want to drop by at Noon for the final demo presentations, join us at Noon on November 12th. For all the details, follow the links at ouluopenhack.org. or tune into twitter at #ouluopenhack.

Are you a Hacker or a Hustler?

Micah Baldwin has a great post on what it takes to make a successful startup. One of the first questions you need to ask is if you have both a Hacker and a Hustler.

A Hacker is more than a code monkey, who can quickly build software and find interesting ways to hack together code. Thats a developer. Thats someone who is definitely an important part of a startup, but not critical to its success. A Hacker is someone who looks the problem, and solves it in a unique and special way. A Hacker finds the process of problem solving exciting and interesting, and spends the majority of their time looking at the problem in multiple ways, finding many potential solutions.

<snip>

A Hustler on the other other hand is a relationship builder. Someone who can build direct relationships with their customers. They arent really promoters, although they do a lot of promotion. They arent salespeople, although they do a lot of selling. They are passion people. They have the ability to articulate their passion clearly and in a way that gets other people equally passionate.

Micah also writes about the current Posterous campaign, releasing a blog import service every few days, building buzz over the weeks. Bold and audacious the campaign has certainly generated its fair share of buzz, shaking a mostly complacent blog platform industry into reaction. The snarky headlines of each announcement are targeted perfectly towards the users of each platform and leave you wondering where they will aim next.

Riffing ideas like two jazz musicians

Todd Sampson and Eric Marcoullier of MyBlogLog fame are a classic Hacker & Hustler pair. It was great working with them and to see how these two childhood friends bounced ideas off of each other. Eric (the Hustler) was brilliant at latching MBL on to the latest meme trending on Techmeme as a way to garner attention and Todd (the Hacker)  never ceased to amaze me with his unique insight on the problems of the day. If you haven’t had the chance to try out their latest idea, definitely check out OneTrueFan, the browser plug-in that talks back.

So which one are you? The Hacker or the Hustler?


How to Create a Thumbnail Blogroll, a 20-minute hack

hdsep06.jpg

Yahoo! had one of its internal hack days [1] today and while work kept me from devoting enough time to work on an effort on the scale of last time, an email at 9am this morning did give me the chance to show at least something at today’s show-n-tell.

I’ve been thinking of picture-in-picture badges for a while now and like the concept of a blog’s sidebar acting as a portal to your editorial view of the world. Match this navigational concept to the fact that badges are becoming more and more like the online equivalent of wearing a branded t-shirt and colleague Cody Simms thought was there’s an opportunity for a badge which showed a collection of websites you liked.

So when I got an email from FavoriteThingz (no longer in service) that they have opened up their service to allow you to create multiple badges of just about anything you could think of, neurons fired off on a way to update the tired-looking plain text blogroll.

Faces of people you read like those you see on MyBlogLog (which is totally rad for its own reasons) don’t really work in the context of a blogroll when it’s faces of people you don’t really know. Japanese salarymen have a saying that your business card is your “face” and in much the same way, your blog is “your face” on the internet.

It’s not really a hack (more like a “hand-cranked mashup”) but it’s a cool concept just dying for a little scripting. So here it is, in five easy steps:

1. Go to the webpage thumbnail creation service, webshotspro.com, and enter the URL of a blog on your blogroll into the form on the page.

2. Right click on the 400×300 pixel image and save the image file locally.

3. Go to favoritethingz.com (no longer in service) and create a new badge. Click “add thingz” and “add items manually” on the next page.

4. Select “custom” from the dropdown and enter the blog’s title, URL, and “browse” to select the image file you just saved. Click “save & add another”

5. Repeat.

There you have it! Generate the code for the badge and copy it into your sidebar or anywhere else on your page for a cool looking interactive widget which is way more interesting than a long list of text links. For an example, check out how it looks on my blogroll page. (Favoritethingz, the service that hosted this hack is no longer in service.)

[1] Thank you Leonard & Chris Plasser for organizing a bang up Hack Day. I think I’m safe in saying that my hack was by far the least technically spectacular of the bunch. I had to leave early but did get the watch a few of the demos via the live feed and have to say that the hacks (over 100 by my count) this time around were even more impressive than before. The theme seemed to be, “simple yet revolutionary” – it’s amazing what you can do with a few lines of code these days.