Shooting Macro

Here is an experiment which demonstrates how I take a lot of my macro shots, and what gives those photos such a smooth creamy background. For the most part I take photos with a Sony 24mm-105mm f4 full frame telephoto lens. Mostly because its a really good multipurpose lens to have around.

This lens is not a dedicated macro lens but its able to take pretty decent macros shots without any modifications.

Minimal focal point of an unmodified 24-104 f4 telephoto lens; about 195mm
With no modification or cropping a 105mm lens gets a pretty detailed picture

That looks good but what if I want to make that dime bigger? The easiest way to make something bigger in the frame is to get closer to it. With this lens we cannot get closer to the subject without losing focus, as we are already at our smallest focal length.

This is where an extension tube can help. Extension tubes are very simple and inexpensive additions which sit in between the camera body and the lens. This moves the plane of focus further back from the lens, which results in a shorter focal distance.

My extension tubes.

I have to extension tubes, one 10mm in height and one 16mm in height. My tubes have all the electrical contacts to keep the lens connected to the camera, which keeps auto focus working. A must for fast flying insects.

Lets add one tube extender and see how that changes the picture.

Increase the distance between the lens and the camera by 10mm

Adding one tube extender allows the camera to get closer to the subject which makes the subject larger in frame, with more detail.

Shifting the focal plane by 10 mm, the minimal focal point is now around 125mm
The dime takes up more of the frame, giving a more detailed shot.

The tube extenders shifting of the focal point also has some other effects. With extension tubes added a lens will no longer be able to focus out to infinity, so they cannot be used for landscapes. The shifted focal point also results in less light hitting the sensor, so it works best in bright areas or with good lighting. Lastly the focal shift narrows the depth of field making it harder to keep subjects sharp, but adding an extreme blur to the background.

Adding another 16mm for a total of 36mm

Extension tubes can also be stacked! Adding more space between the lens increase all the effects. So with 26mm of extension we can get the camera even closer.

The minimal focal point is now around 91mm
Subject crisp and large in frame, background completely blurred out.

There are many other components to macro photography and lots of other ways to get similar results. This is the setup I tend to use most often, as with out the extension the 24-105 lens is good to have for wide landscapes or tighter head shots. And now that you know the secret to large detail pictures of bees and spiders is getting as close as possible, you may appreciate the small amount of peril involved in getting some of the pictures I’ve taken.

Inside an Amp

I finally got around to cleaning out my headphone amplifier today. There was some dust in the volume potentiometer which was creating a hissing sound when adjusting the volume. Some contact cleaner has it better than new. While I had it open I thought I would take a picture to share.

A Quick Fix

Down the street there is an amazing loose leaf tea shop where I source my favorite blends. To brew my tea I like to use a Bonavita Immersion Dripper. The dripper is very elegant being made mostly of porcelain, it seemed like a reliable and durable piece. Unfortunately the base and in mechanisms are plastic and one day a small, but critical, plastic arm snapped.

Normally this would be the end for the entire piece of hardware and the entire thing would need to be replaced. Luckily the bottom is easily removable and small pieces of plastic can be 3D printed.

First size test
Second test, working but could be better

With a little over 30 minutes of modeling and printing I had a design that fit and worked well. I decided to change the design and move more the the torque to be around the metal screw points instead of the plastic pins. I think this new piece should be much stronger than the original, but I might reprint it it more neutral color.

Fixed and sturdier than the original

A New Spin on Old Wheels

My mountain bike has been sitting in the garage for more than two years. It hasn’t been ridden and it was in dire need of maintenance and repair. Its a big heavy bike that is exhausting to pedal around a hilly city. It was just taking up space.

With my recent change of jobs I significantly extended the distance of my commute. The routing for the buses are not convenient and its a little too far and hilly to bike normally. To get across lake Washington and make it tolerable the mountain bike was going to need a little help.

So I decided to add an electric motor.

Electric hub motor and battery system

I ordered a hub motor kit and battery from Ebay with the goal of converting the bike into an e-bike that will make it easier to go long distances and to chew up all the hills in the way. But ordering a lot of electronics parts from china means they don’t come with very clear instructions.

The old regular bike
Tools for the job

The bike is still mostly in working condition. There was just one small broken plastic ring in the handlebar headset that had been keeping it off the streets. Bike shop wasn’t sure it would be able to source the part and wanted to replace the entire headset.

A small piece of plastic, why not just 3D print it?

The broken piece (left) and the 3D printed replacement (right)

I didn’t print this piece myself. I outsourced it to a friend who could print it in high performance PETG plastic so the ring would be flexible and durable. It took a couple of tries to get the fit exactly right.

The new spacer fitting in nicely.
Testing the electrics

Before mounting 20 lbs of electronics to the bike I needed to test to make sure everything was working. I temporarily mounted the new front wheel without tube or tire and hooked it up to the pile of cables on the ground.

Glad to say everything was working properly.

In attaching all the electrics to the bike I did encounter one expected problem. As a safety feature, the brake leavers needed to be replaced with leavers that have integrated electric switches which will serve as emergency power cut offs for the motor, so it can never accelerate while the brake is down. This Trek bike has integrated brake leaver and gear sifters on the handlebars, so I can’t replace the brakes without losing control of my gears. So instead of mounting the new brake leavers I went with magnetic switches attached to existing brake system.

Wired up and ready for a test ride

There was still a lot more that needed to be done, but with everything critical bake in place and the electrics working I had to have it out for a test ride.

Glamour shot

The test ride was a success though a little wobbly. I found that there were a lot of things to tighten down and that the front tire was not sitting completely evenly.

The electronic cut off brakes were working, but I wasn’t happy with the physical brakes. Unfortunately this bike cannot fit disk brakes, but I replaced the old brake pads with new larger ones and tuned up the whole system.

An old bike lock, keys long lost, which needed to be cut from the frame
Cables are a rats nest but it works

There are still a lot of improvements I would like to make, integrated front and rear lights, better cable management and housing for the speed controller, a speedometer and control display, and maybe even a more conformable seat. Its serviceable as it is and I have all winter keep making improvements.

Ready to explore

The Horror

Recently I’ve been playing Arkham Horror the card game. It’s a living card game adaptation of the Arkham Horror board games with many mechanical improvements. One thing its share with its progenitor is that there are a lot of cards and pieces and it can become a confusing mess quite quickly.

blog-2018-08-21 22.45.55

The table after playing Curse of the Rougarou with the unpainted markers

One thing I do like about the Arkham Horror board game is the modular interlocking board pieces that become the setting of the game. Since all the card games has is cards each location becomes a card and instead of interlocking cardboard connectors there is complicated system of symbols on each location card noting which other locations its accessible from.


Painted and weathered token next to an unaltered one

I was not the only one who found this confusing. Users on Thingiverse had uploaded 3D models of arrow tokens which can be used instead to show the connections between the locations. Firing up the 3D printer I printed out a batch. The tokens were very nice, but the flat plastic color didn’t fit the 1920 noir theme of the rest of the game. With a little gold and black paint that was also remedied.


The markers in use


A fleet of tokens waiting to be used

Link to the Location Connectors STL

Link to the play mat

T Minus and Counting

Today I leave for vacation. This is the first time I’ve left the continent in more than 5 years. One of the best parts of planning a big trip is building anticipation leading up to the date. I took this anticipation and used it to try out the APIs for Alexa’s Flash Briefing, something I check every morning for my news podcasts.

Its very much a hack. The Alexa flash briefing it not so much an API as it is an RRS feed that you can push daily updates to. I didn’t want to set up a full RSS service just for the few weeks leading up to the trip so with some help from other blog posts I managed to use AWS Lambda behind an API gateway endpoint to mock out a bare bones RRS feed server. One that just decrements a number every day.

from __future__ import print_function
import json
import datetime

def respond(err, res=None):
 return {
 'statusCode': '400' if err else '200',
 'body': json.dumps({
 "uid": "1234",
 "updateDate": datetime.datetime.utcnow().isoformat() + 'Z',
 "titleText": str(days_to_trip()) + " days to vacation",
 "mainText": err.message if err else res['message'],
 "redirectionUrl": ""
 'headers': {
 'Content-Type': 'application/json',

def days_to_trip():
 trip = datetime.datetime(2018,8,30,0,0,0,0,datetime.timezone.utc)
 today =
 return (trip-today).days + 1

def lambda_handler(event, context):
 rawdata = "there are " + str(days_to_trip()) + " days until your trip to europe"
 reply = { "message": rawdata,
 return respond(None, reply)

The date is hard coded the python is sloppy. But it did what I wanted, telling me every morning how many days I had left until my trip, and I was able to get it together in a couple of hours.

Soon they will start boarding for my flight and the adventure will start, the count down has reached zero.

Avert Your Eyes (and Lenses)

Reflecting on the year: This year is drawing to a close and as part of a retrospective look on the year I am finishing and publishing several blog posts that at one point I started and never completed. Here is a follow up post to on seeing the total solar eclipse in August.


I’ve shared my photos of my experience viewing the total solar eclipse, but there is still another story to tell that starts weeks before the eclipse. How to prepare to be able to point a camera with a magnifying lens directly at the sun for a couple of hours without anything catching on fire.

The sun is an extremely powerful light source. Without proper protection it can melt many little parts of the camera. The camera might survive one or two quick photos but I was planning on leaving this on a tripod pointed directly at the sun for the entirety of the event. For that I needed a special solar filter. This is a much more potent filter than what is in the eclipse glasses usually 3 to 4 ND stops higher. This is needed because these filters are going in front of cameras and telescopes that are focusing a large amount of light into a small point, like burning ants with a magnifying glass.

Some solar filters come with a cardboard cutout the slips over the camera lens easily. The ones that I was able to get we’re just squares of aluminized plastic with no easy way to mount them. This is not uncommon for filters or gels; a professional photographer would have the mount needed to affix this, but I didn’t. These mounts are expensive and the eclipse is only a few days away, it would be hard to get. Maybe I can just make one?


Test printing lens attachment

Some quick measurements and some computer aided design work later and I had a working prototype that could mount the filter to a lens with some rubber bands. Testing reviled that some light was getting in behind the filter and reflecting into the picture leading to some interesting photos, but adjustments we’re needed.


Solar filter attached to printed lens hood with rubber bands


Front plate added to keep filter aligned


Testing the set-up


Early test exposure through the mounted filter

Version 2 worked much better be I wanted a faster and more reliable way to attach and detach the filter, as the solar filter would need to be removed for the two minutes of totality. Third and final iteration added magnetic latching so the filter can just snap on and off from the base. Still not perfect but good enough, it was time to head to Oregon for the eclipse.


The final more robust version with magnetic release

As seen in the previous posts the system worked well, and I’m very happy with the pictures I got. Building this system has spurred an interest in astro-photography, and there is so much that can be done with homemade equipment. This is something that I might continue.


Testing the final setup the day before the eclipse

Pocket Pen

As mentioned in my previous post on pens I like to carry a writing instrument on me as part of my everyday carry. In school I always had a mechanical pencil, moving into pens I first tried roller-ball then felt-tip pens before landing on fountain pens. Fountain pens have many advantages over other types of pens, but being pocket safe is not one of them. Because they use liquid ink drips or leaks can cause a lot of damage (think of the opening to Shawn of the Dead). Last century wanting safety from leaky pens was such a necessity that people would line their shirt pockets with plastic envelopes bring us the dweebish stigma around the pocket protector. Luckily today the fountain pen enthusiast has better options.

A large point of not spilling your ink is how you are filling your ink. Older fountain pens used latex bladders or lever activated pistons to pull ink directly into the barrel of the pen. Now it is much more common to insert a small ink filled plastic cartridge or a converter which uses a screw piston. These ink distribution methods are much more reliable and will prevent ink from seeping out of the pen. But that’s not good enough for a pen that I want to throw in my pocked with my keys and other things.


The Liliput is nearly the perfect pocket pen. It adds protection by having a twist off cap that will never come off in your pocket, and will never let ink out. Coming in at a little under four inches capped its a pocket-able aluminium ink fortress. But its only nearly perfect. Being small, slippery, and perfectly round this pen wants to roll of and get lost. To be truly useful this pen needs a clip. There are clips make by Kaweco for this pen, though the selection is very limited. Instead I tried fabricating my own.


I have a 3D printer, but the nature of a pen clip makes it difficult to print on a 3D printer. Printing a ring to fit around the pen was easy enough, but attaching a clip to it introduces structural weakness that will not stand up to being pocketed over and over again. This has to do with the direction of layers, for the ring having the layers perpendicular to the pen makes printing the shape simple. For the clip the layers should be oriented parallel to the pen otherwise the clip will just snap off at the weak layer joins.


I printed the ring to fit around the pen and then looked to some model making techniques to finish the clip. I happened to have some very fine brass rods around that would make a durable, but flexible pen clip. Using a very small drill I made inserts for the ends of the brass rod and bent it them glued it into place. A little bit of sanding to smooth out the printed plastic and I have a very functional clip for my favorite pen.


Now this little pen is perfect for a pant for shirt pocket. With the oblong shape of the plastic ring it also no longer rolls away! With this clip I have been carrying the pen around for a few weeks now. Haven’t lost it and no spills! I’ve also got a rather odd way of filling this mini pen to maximize the amount of ink it will hold, but that’s a story for another time.


On Courage and Cowardice

This week Apple made the announcement for the new iPhone 7. It was mostly what critics and leaks expected it to be. Including the controversial exclusion of the headphone port. Its been a long time since I’ve watched an Apple keynote, and long still since I’ve been an iPhone user. Normally I would just take a cursory look at what Apple was changing and then move on, but this change has gathered a lot of attention in the wrong places and I feel the need to add my two cents.

Apple is correct, wireless headphones need to be the new standard.

The core point of the new iPhone is that wireless headphones are the new standard and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to jump through hoops to maintain their hard wired connections. Most iPhone users are looking at this from the bias of already owning wired headphones, presumably expensive ones (Beats). But if we think about this more objectively, wireless headphones finally solve a major problem with headphones that has been around since before Apple designed its first set of ear buds. Wireless headphones have no cord to get tangled, nothing to yank the headphone from your ear or to disconnect when jostled. I use Bluetooth headphones, much more modest ones than the AirPods (AirBuds), and its so nice not having a wire connecting my head with my hip.

Apple is so late to the party even the janitors have left.

As always Apples ‘new’ technology is too late. Apple only enters a market when they decide that its mature enough for them to ‘innovate’ it by reselling what everyone’s already been buying. Wireless headphones are not new. I got my first pair of over the ear Bluetooth headphones around 2006 and got a 3.5mm to Bluetooth adapter for my iPod Mini because Apple was behind the times even then. The Advanced Audio Distribution Profiles (A2DP) that Bluetooth uses to send audio has improved leaps and bounds over the poor quality that was standard in 2006. I mentioned that I still use Bluetooth headphones, they are miles better than what I originally had and they cost me about $10, cheaper than the Apple wired ear buds. Wireless headphones is not something new Apple is trying to push, many top headphone manufacturers already make headphones with built in Bluetooth. Apple is just more forcefully pushing people with wired headphones to move to new (expensive) wireless headphones.

This was the worst way Apple could have made this change.

This push is the worst way Apple could have pushed this change for Apple’s customers. In the technology service industry pushing a new product that fundamentally breaks your customer interaction model is a horrible thing to do, and this is the reason legacy APIs are often supported forever. Apple is putting all its cards on the table, you lose the headphone jack or you don’t get an new iPhone, because they know few will call that bluff. People will still buy these new iPhones by the million as they are released, so Apple don’t care what’s best for their customers. Releasing the AirBuds with a normal iPhone upgrade would have been enough to get most of Apple user base to switch to wireless headphones. Market the AirBuds as the new premium status symbol from Apple and people will line up around the corner to preorder. Removing the headphone jack is just forcing the already willing hand.

This is the most profitable way to make this change.

As mentioned previously, this is not the best way for the customers to migrate over to wireless headphones, it is the profitable for Apple. Behind the cover of being ‘courageous’ and ripping the band-aid all at once, Apple has created a new AirBud and wireless headphone market, and a market for dongles and wired adapters. Today Belkin announced that they will be making a $40 dongle to enable an iPhone 7 to charge and play music through the lightning port. Apple is licencing its lightning port to Belkin for $4-$12 of that dongle. Its basic economics, create scarcity be removing the headphone jack, then create supply by providing dongles. But because its an artificial scarcity its only benefiting Apple. In a few years they will again be courageous and change the lightning port to USB C or some other standard and they will applaud themselves for embracing better standards while they get to start a whole new dongle market.

I am excited for the technology.

With Apple making all these wrong moves around the release of the AirBuds, I think they could be a great piece of technology. Independent wireless ear pods are difficult because the grey matter between them is very good at blocking radio signals. Each AirPod has an accelerometer and a contact sensor. I would bet these are able to read heart rate as well, but that will be a later feature. These could be revolutionary headphones the same way ear buds moved us all away from clunky black on ear headphones. But at $160 these AirBuds will not become ubiquitous any time soon.

These are my thoughts on the matter. I stay, for now, an Android man.

Pocket Monsters

Its been all over the news, Niantic has released a new game! Niantic of course is the small game studio that broke out the Google Maps team to build their popular geolocation game Ingress. I doubt many but a persistent few still play Ingress and even fewer probably know it ever existed, but now the company has skinned the game with Nintendo intellectual properties and it is bigger than twitter.


Of course I’m talking about Pokemon GO!

All the geolocation data that had been submitted by Ingress players over the years is now being put to use to make Pokestops and Gyms for Pokemon GO, the new geolocation Pokemon collection game. I will say I was resistant to try it initially; citing battery problems and privacy concerns, but now I’m hooked. Its been two weeks and now my Pokedex is more than half full.

Pokemon GO, is a simple game where players walk around the real world with the game open and the players geolocation data is sent to cloud severs and the servers respond with what is nearby, be it pokestops, gyms or pokemon. The players can than interact with these game elements by selecting them on their map. If a pokemon is nearby the player flicks pokeballs at the monster until it is captured. Pokestops are used to gather more resources and gyms are were one can battle other players to represent one of the three teams. There are a few more intricacies than that but that is the basics of the game.

This game is not new, novel or even well written. Frankly the only reason it got so popular is because of the Pokemon generation finally getting to fulfill there dream of being the best Pokemon trainer there ever was. I have never played any of the previous Pokemon games, and barely watched the shows or collected the cards as a child so I am not on board for the nostalgia train.

The second thing that has made GO the super success it is also makes it the envy of Twitter and Facebook and most social networking sites. Pokemon GO has social ground swell, the likes of which a social network could only dream of. To put this in perspective, I have a Facebook page: I do not want to have a Facebook page, I disagree with Facebook on privacy, technical and other issues, but I keep my page active and up to date. I do this because I can’t go anywhere else, everyone I know is already on Facebook, my parents my relatives, friends and coworkers. Facebook is the social network not because its better than others, but because it has the users to draw in an keep other users.

Once everyone who played Pokemon as a child installed and started playing the game this was enough people seeded into to thousands of social circles to encourage people who don’t know Pidgey from a Pigeot to try the game. This is of course can lead to exponential growth as the new people introduce more people, it gets popular enough to hit the news and now everyone is playing.

There are a lot of reasons to like the game. Its light and still interactive, making it a good game you can pick up for two minutes when you have downtime. The game is being heralded as the start of augmented reality (AR) games, though the AR is really just a novelty that any serious player will disable. The game use real world locations and landmarks and can teach one to find and appreciate things that one would have normally overlooked. Its a collection game with random reinforcement witch is like crack for our brains, like gambling addiction without losing one’s life savings.


Finding murals with pokemon

Best of all since everyone is playing it its a fun talking point with friends and an ice breaker for people you meet on the street. Video games have gotten a bad reputation for keeping people indoors and away from sunlight and socialization. Pokemon GO is fun because it breaks this mold, encouraging outdoors and exercise. The locations in the game are all based around local landmarks and public art, and playing the game makes one actively search for them.


My favorite pokespot

There are still major problems. The game’s unexpected popularity has been its own downfall. Its more than a week after launch in the United States and Niantic is still have problems keeping the servers up. These server failures and inability to scale are exacerbated by the application’s bugs. When the games receives a 500 response from the servers there is a chance that the game state can get stuck and it cannot retry the failed message or recover from the failure. This most often exhibits itself when a pokemon is in a pokeball but the player never gets the message if it was caught.

But bugs and server issues are temporary problems. Niantic has already pushed three patches since I’ve started playing an I’m sure they are scaling up there server fleet. The real problem with the game is that its not all there. The game play slows to a crawl around level 20 and to keep moving forward the player must move from Pokemon trainer to Pokemon hatcher.

The game can expand beyond the 151 Pokemon it currently has and as far as anyone can tell there is not level cap, but if there is nothing to do at higher levels most people are going to get bored. Those who don’t get bored will be so ridiculously high leveled that they will keep any new players out of the gyms. If Niantic want gym battles to be a big part of the game then they will have to figure out a way to address the growing power disparity between the long term players and the new and casual players.


My pride and joy

I see two things coming down the line that may improve the game play. First is trading of pokemon between players. This will allow people to fill out their pokedex must faster that the beginning and will make finding rare pokemon more special if you can give it away. This could also allow high level player to give extra pokemon to lower level players to quickly get them gym ready. The second thing this game needs is the ability to throw down with anyone anywhere. Instead of just battling in the gym for your team I want to be able to directly challenge my nearby friends to see who really is the pokemon master.