My Phone is Spying on Me

“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone‘ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.”
― Philip K. Dick

Oblique Strategy: State the problem in words as clearly as possible

As the Internet Of Things slowly makes its way, flooding our lives, I installed a new smart doorbell last night. The packaging was a thing of beauty, unfortunately I’m not smart enough to open it correctly and ended up having to tear it up to get the stuff out. Things were obviously carefully thought out – they had a lot of stuff in that beautiful little box – including a tiny orange plastic spirit level with a cute little bubble.

I love the postmodern slant on the installation instructions. For example, little plastic anchors are included – in case you need to put the doorbell onto brick or concrete. The instructions say, “If you’re installing on wood or siding, put the anchors in that drawer of stuff you never use and skip this step.”

It was dark and cold outside, but I managed to get the thing installed. I wondered why they were so anal to include the spirit level, but realized that, because the doorbell had a camera in it, if it was installed on a slant, the image would lean. It would look like a Batman Villain was at the door.

The only problem was that the best instructions were on videos which were played on the phone as the process proceeded. And, of course, there was some hooking up to the internet involved. The problem was, to install the thing, I had to throw the breaker to the doorbell transformer (24 volts won’t kill you, but it can make you notice your nervous system). Of course, the cable router is on the same circuit. Luckily, there was an abbreviated set of old-school paper printed instructions.

I only had to wait several time while the internet rebooted to go on to the next step.

Picatinny Rail – DIY Bicycle Light

Bicycle lights can be pretty expensive, at least for the good ones. But battery powered lights aren’t what I remember from my childhood – where you had a big D-Cell light that would work for an hour or so and then go yellow and dim. The LED has revolutionized flashlights and, by extension, bike lights.

I have a couple handlebar-mounted lights – decent ones, if not top of the line. I usually set them to blink – they are lights that are designed for me to be seen, not for me to see with. On an urban road at night, that’s the most important thing. The streetlights are bright enough for a cyclist to see where he is going – but you want the cars to know you are there. Bright blinking is the best for that… plus batteries last forever.

But riding on trails at night is a different story. I needed something so that I can see – a steady white light facing forward. For example, one night coming home from Critical Mass along the White Rock Creek Trail (actually, it was the Cottonwood Trail, the wooded section just south of the Forest Lane DART station – my destination) at a little after midnight I came upon a group of homeless people sleeping on the trail. Luckily, I saw them with my light. Hitting someone sleeping on the bike trail would not be good for anyone.

Again – the dedicated bike lights cost a pretty penny – but small LED flashlights are powerful and very cheap. They sell them by the containerloads – they take three AAAs – most are adjustable. Very useful lights.

The problem is how to mount them on a bike. I actually want to mount them as low as possible. It would seem that a helmet mount would be the best – but if they are at close to eye level they don’t cast visible shadows. It’s the shadows that help you see objects in the path ahead. A low mounted flashlight will throw long shadows – easy to see.

I tried a number of solutions – velcro straps worked pretty well – but nothing was both strong, reliable, and still removable.

Until I discovered the world of Picatinny (and Weaver) rails. These is a whole host of accessories designed to mount on pistols, rifles, shotguns, or paintball guns. Laser sights, scopes, cameras… and, especially tactical flashlights. This seemed like a perfect thing to mount on a bike.

It didn’t take much searching until I found this Weaver/Picatinny rail mount with flashlight holder on Amazon – shipped from China for less than five dollars. I ordered a couple of them (for spares and different bikes) and after a patient wait, the package arrived from halfway around the world.

Now that I am outfitting my new Xootr Swift for city riding and commuting I decided to add a small front rack. I’ve found these to be indispensable for urban riding. For bike riding in the city, it’s not always about cargo capacity, it’s about organization and a front rack helps me keep organized.

I bought the cheap rack, and then mounted the rail on the bottom of the rack. Here’s how.

The Picatinny/Weaver rail flashlight mount as it arrived.

The Picatinny/Weaver rail flashlight mount as it arrived.

Four mounting holes go into the small front rack. Do this with some care - or the flashlight won't shine straight ahead.

Four mounting holes go into the small front rack. Do this with some care – or the flashlight won’t shine straight ahead.

I could have mounted the rail with the bolts that come with the assembly, but I decided to use aluminum pop rivets for weight, strength, and neatness.

I could have mounted the rail with the bolts that come with the assembly, but I decided to use aluminum pop rivets for weight, strength, and neatness.

The rail mounted on the rack and the flashlight in the holder. My flashlight was a little too big, so I simply used the longer bolts that come with the unit - the ones that are intended to go around a barrel.

The rail mounted on the rack and the flashlight in the holder. My flashlight was a little too big, so I simply used the longer bolts that come with the unit – the ones that are intended to go around a barrel.

This is how it mounts on the rack. Strong and neat.

This is how it mounts on the rack. Strong and neat.

The rack and flashlight on the bike, along with a small pump (maybe I'll post how I hold that to the rack) and a little plastic box from Office Depot, held on with nylon bolts and wingnuts in holes drilled through the box and rack. It looks sort of stupid, but is very useful to hold my wallet, phone, keys, lock... that sort of stuff.

The rack and flashlight on the bike, along with a small pump (maybe I’ll post how I hold that to the rack) and a little plastic box from Office Depot, held on with nylon bolts and wingnuts in holes drilled through the box and rack. It looks sort of stupid, but is very useful to hold my wallet, phone, keys, lock… that sort of stuff.

Take some care in mounting the rack so that it is level. If the rack points up or down very much, you would have to shim the holder to get the light horizontal.

The flashlight is held on securely, yet it comes off easily for battery replacement. I ordered an extra set so I even have a spare flashlight to stick in if needed.

Yee Haaa.

DIY Panniers

I am an inveterate tinkerer. Bear with me.

What is a commuter bicycle without panniers? For example, one 2014 New Year’s Resolution for me is to not drive my car to the grocery store. I have a big pair of cheap panniers that works well for that, but they are hooked together and only work as a pair. I wanted two separate panniers that can be mounted together, were versatile, easy to put on and off, and a certain size – not too big, not too small.

Of course, the smart thing would be to buy a pair – there are plenty of good, professionally-designed and well-constructed bicycle panniers around. But since when do I do the smart thing?

I am too cheap.

So I decided to make my own. I’ve been getting by with buying various containers at Goodwill and hooking them on to my bicycle with carabiner or S clips. That actually works well. The most useful is a rectangular zippered bag that held an old portable Colorado brand tape-backup unit. Still, I wanted a more conventional pannier set.

So I perused the internet, looking for “DIY Bicycle Panniers” on the search engines. I found quite a bit, from used kitty-litter boxes, to 5 gallon paint pails, to the ubiquitous hipster milk crates. I copied down the best ideas and worked on my own.

A Musette Bag like the one I used for the panniers.

A Musette Bag like the one I used for the panniers.

For a bag, I settled on the Rothco Jumbo Musette Bag – the price was low, the local Army-Navy store had a selection at well under list price, and, most important, it had a stout map pocket – two layers of canvas on the back. So, I bought two, went to the hardware store for fittings, and set to work.

The pegboard is a tight fit slid into the back of the musette bag.

The pegboard is a tight fit slid into the back of the musette bag.

Once I had the bags, I cut a rectangle of pegboard (a little heavy, but I had some on hand) to size and slid it into the map pocket on the back. This would give the pannier shape and give me something to attach the hardware to. Then I had to decide on a hook system to hold the bag to the rack. After looking at all sorts of stuff, I decided on these little steel threaded hooks. I would mount two small angle brackets to the backing board, and thread the hooks through them.

The hooks as they came from the hardware store.

The hooks as they came from the hardware store.

A hook mounted onto the back of the bag. Two small angle brackets, four nuts, four washers, and two pop rivets (with washers) - and it is all in place. Be sure and use locktite (blue) to keep the nuts from going loose.

A hook mounted onto the back of the bag. Two small angle brackets, four nuts, four washers, and two pop rivets (with washers) – and it is all in place. Be sure and use locktite (blue) to keep the nuts from going loose.

I could have bolted everything to the pannier, but I used pop-rivets and aluminum washers. This worked really well, and once I had a pile of parts laid out, a drill spun up, and the pop rivet gun in hand, it was quick work to attach all the hardware. I added a metal hanger at the bottom to hold the thing down and two more at the top in case I want to bungee something on there. These extra rivets also serve to make sure the bag doesn’t tear off the backer board. It’s all surprisingly strong.

The two hooks, the ring at the bottom, and the bungee cord. Ready to go.

The two hooks, the ring at the bottom, and the bungee cord. Ready to go.

Finally, I had to figure out how to hold it down, keep it from swinging, or popping off the rack. I experimented with springs and ordinary bungee cords, but ended up using these small elastic cords with a plastic ball on the end. They are usually used to hold down tarps.

The elastic goes through the bottom hook of the rack, through the lower eye on the pannier, and then loops up around the upper hooks. This gives just enough tension to hold it all together, yet allows it to come off easy.

So here it is, a pair of workable panniers, for shopping, picnics, or general bombing around town. Total cost, about twenty dollars each. I think these may work.

The musette bag on my commuter bike.

The musette bag on my commuter bike.

The hooks on the rails of my bicycle rack. If you look close, you can see the thin, black, bungee cord running across the hooks and then down to the bottom of the rack.

The hooks on the rails of my bicycle rack. If you look close, you can see the thin, black, bungee cord running across the hooks and then down to the bottom of the rack.

Both bags hooked onto my commuter bike.

Both bags hooked onto my commuter bike.

Another Project – Kindle Case

Well, I installed a monitor on my exercise bicycle and then I built a case for my camera. Now, I decided on another stupid project – something I would be better off buying… but anyway.

You see, I lost my Kindle. It was my 2nd generation model – the one I received for Christmas two years ago. I felt awful. I know that a replacement isn’t that expensive anymore but I hate losing gifts – plus I try to take care of my valued possessions and I felt like an idiot. I do carry my Kindle with me literally everywhere (that’s the idea of having one) and will pull it out and read for a few seconds whenever a spare moment comes up (that’s the idea of having one) – so I suppose it was inevitable that I would misplace it eventually.

So after a week or so of terrible withdrawal symptoms, I gave up and waltzed over to the closest Everything Store and bought one of the little Kindle 4 with special offers. It was only 79 bucks and came with a discount and a gift card so it ended up costing less. I keep all my books organized, categorized, and  backed up with a program called Calibre (very highly recommended if you have an ebook reader) so it was a simple task to load all the books onto my new device.  I already have more books on the damn thing than I can probably read in the rest of my life.

The thing is tiny. It is also very light. I had to think a bit about how to carry it. I had spent a bit of money on a genuine Moleskine cover for my old Kindle. It protected the device well and came with a Moleskine Reporter Notebook attached for quick ideas while I was reading. I didn’t want an attached case for the new Kindle, however. The nice thing is its tiny size and feather weight – it makes it easy to hold. But I needed something to protect it while I was carrying it. I played around with some small sleeve-like things and a tiny plastic box that I lined with foam, but none of these fit the bill.

After thinking about it, I decided to make my own. I wanted something to protect it, maybe disguise it, and something that wasn’t much bigger than the Kindle itself.

So I decided to hollow out a book.

The first step was a stop down at the big main Half-Price Bookstore where I walked down the clearance sections with my Kindle measuring it against the books. I wanted a hardback that was only a half-inch or so bigger than the Kindle. I learned a little bit about bookbinding too. A lot of modern hardcovers are bound with the signatures glued directly to the spines. I didn’t want one like that – I wanted a book with the signatures glued to a flexible piece of cloth or paper that was separate from the spine. I wanted one that looked like this – so I could slice the pages out of the book while keeping the spine intact.

Most importantly, I didn’t want to pay more than one dollar.

I found a used copy of Dancing at the Harvest Moon, by K. C. McKinnon that met these requirements. I apologize to Mr. McKinnon and his fans. I apologize to book fanatics everywhere. It feels sacrilegious to carve up a perfectly good book (even a used one for sale for a buck) to make a portable home for an ereader. Sorry. Get over it. I promise to actually read another copy of the book when I get time. There is even a movie, with Jacqueline Bisset – and I promise I’ll watch it if I get the chance.

OK?

On with the slaughter.

Here is the book I chose, and the Kindle. And a razor knife. Oh, the humanity.

The first step is to cut the pages away from the spine and end boards with a razor knife.

Next, I used the knife to divide the pages into three groups, keeping each group glued together as best I could. I helps to cut at the borders of the signatures. The center section is the thickness of the Kindle, with the rest of the pages divided evenly into two groups.

I thinned out some carpenter's glue with water to stick all the pages together.

Next, I soaked each of the three groups of pages in the glue. This was pretty hard - trying to get the glue between all the pages. Then I stacked them up, with plastic between each group so they wouldn't stick together, and weighted them down to dry.

This was the part that didn’t work too well. I thinned the glue too much and it didn’t stick like I wanted it to. Also, anyone that has experience with water-based adhesives will recognize that once the pages are wrapped in plastic and weighted down they will never dry. I had to unwrap them and set them out to dry, which took a long time. I have to think of a better way to do this.

I’m thinking of epoxy resin thinned with alcohol – though that would be a real fire hazard. I’ll work on it.

When you look online, most folks only spread glue on the outside of the pages and then cut down through with a razor knife. I wanted to go a little more serious than that – I wanted to glue the pages together into something like a block of wood and then cut the center section out with a band saw.

I traced the outline of the Kindle on the center section and then cut it out on the bandsaw. One edge is open - the book spine will go there and keep the Kindle from falling out.

Again, here, I didn’t do as good a job as I should. You can see that the paper wrinkled as I was cutting. Plus I was in too much of a hurry and didn’t mark or cut the outline as neatly as I would have liked. It works great, but looks a little ragged. I’ll be more careful next time.

Then I glued the cut out center section to one of the end pieces and then glued both end pieces to the cover boards.

At this point, I spent some time applying extra glue to the sides of the stacks of paper and to the exposed paper. I thought about lining the opening with thin foam, but the paper itself is a pretty good cushion. After I took this picture I peeled away a couple pages until a nice picture of a duck was displayed. I also cut a piece of good quality paper and glued it over the ragged exposed spine – mostly to give it a bit of a neater look and for a bit of reinforcement.

It took a long time to dry. I couldn’t resist messing with it, but any problems could be fixed with a little bit of glue-water mix.

Finished, with the Kindle inside.

Closed, it looks like a perfectly ordinary boring book.

The only thing left is to put a closure onto it. I thought about concealing small magnets in the glued pages, but that’s a bit more complicated that I want to get this time. I need to go to a fabric store and buy some elastic so I can drill a couple holes and install an elastic closure, Moleskine style. I should have done this before I glued the pages to the cover boards, but I didn’t think of it.

I’ll use this for a while, and then, if it works well, I’ll do a second generation – applying what I learned. Hopefully, it will look a bit better and I’ll put in the magnetic closures… that would be cool. Maybe a space for a pen. Maybe a little spot to keep a USB charging cable…

The mind boggles.

Oh, by the way… while I was working on this, I got my old Kindle back. I left it somewhere and the people that found it couldn’t figure out how to get my information off of the Kindle. After about a week they thought of looking in the attached Moleskine Notebook where I had my name, address and phone number. I am very appreciative and thankful they called me and I was able to pick it up. After thinking about it for a while I decided to keep the new, smaller Kindle and let Lee take the old one back to school with him.

Another Project

Well, I managed to get another project crossed off of my todo list.

A while back I dropped my camera and spent too much money getting it fixed. I didn’t want to do that again, plus I wanted some way to carry my camera around with the extra lenses (I always seem to have the wrong lens when I’m out taking pictures).

So I looked around at hard, fitted cases and they simply were too expensive. So I did what I always do – make do with what I can come up with myself, no matter how crappy it is.

I dumpster dived a hard plastic case. I don’t even know what was in it, maybe a drill or something, but by the time I found it, there was nothing left. That works for me – it was tough, in good shape, generic looking, and about the right size.

So I went by the local arts and crafts superstore and bought a roll of foam. Some outlining with a sharpie, cutting, and a little glue and I have my custom fitted case. It will hold my Nikon and a couple of extra lenses. It’s small enough to fit in a backpack, but has enough space for extra batteries, filters, release cable… that sort of little thing.

It doesn’t look very good, but I think it will work.

Project