Steam Pumpkin – My Steampunk Pumpkin

Halloween is one of my favorite times a year being ShadowLord and all. I was Batman three times in my life and only once as a kid. Pumpkin carving is something I also get into. My first pumpkin at age 9 was an old farmer smoking a pipe. It even had a twinkling red LED in the corncob pipe. After burning up a handful of LEDs my dad taught me about current limiting resistors.

Fast forward 20 years and I am still shoving LEDs into pumpkins. This year my inspiration comes from steampunk, a growing subculture fascinated with steam-aged garb and future technology fusion. Steampunk was born of the H. G. Wells and Jules Verne visions of futuristic technology and style. Call it what you want, Steampunk is an inspiring movement of makers and re-users of technology and materials.

Here is my steampunk-inspired pumpkin.

Where do you start?
I cobbled together whatever I could find that resonated steampunk. I found my Mom’s old purse that had some faux leather, brass loops, and a gold chain. I also grabbed an old candle holder, a lampshade, a door hinge, a metal coffee filter, and some brass brads. My Dremel was used to drill, cut metal, and cause sparks (insert grunt).
Full of hot air
I knew that I was going to add some technology to the design and I settled on an automated fog machine that would blow smoke from the ears of the pumpkin. Okay, I know it’s a little literal, but it is a steam pumpkin.
How do you do that?
Using the ioBridge IO-204, I rigged up the fog machine to trigger when someone walked in front of the pumpkin. I used a passive infrared sensor from Adafruit to detect motion. The IO-204 has an upcoming feature that allows for onboard logic, meaning you can break off of the Internet and have local controls take over. To integrate it with the fog machine, I tapped into the wireless remote control that came with the fog machine. This made it easy to control using a single relay. To light the pumpkin, I bought a BlinkM RGB LED Blaster from Sparkfun. The LEDs are high-intensity lights that you can mix colors together. It turned out to be a neat touch. When someone gets close, I set the color with the IO-204 to an evil red to accompany the smoke.
For more information and more “How-to” detail, check out
Introducing The Steam Pumpkin
Here is a YouTube video of “Steamy Wonder” in action:

Will Windows 7 be better than Vista?

“Will Windows 7 be better than Vista?” is the wrong question to be asking. We should be asking, “Will Windows 7 be better than XP?”

Chris Hernandez of Microsoft posted on his blog, “One of the main goals with Windows 7 in general has been to be better than Vista.” Chris’ quote scares me. Being better than Vista is not what I am looking for. I want an OS that makes me want to upgrade from XP. XP has served me well and I want a clear upgrade path. What are the killer new features? What makes Win7 an “upgrade”?

I have been using Windows 7 on my laptop for a few months. I do like some UI improvements, but compared to XP it misses the mark. Compared to Vista, Win7 is better. Although, Win7 requires pretty good hardware to install where XP is able to install on my pieced together machines with parts 8-10 years old in some cases. I hope by the time Windows 7 is on the shelf, someone figures out that we are not looking for an upgrade from Vista, we are looking for a real upgrade to XP.

She Thinks My Toaster is Hot

One day you put your toaster on a social networking site. And then on another day you find out that your toaster has more friends than you.

Twitter Toaster System

This little story sounds made up. Well, it’s not.

My toaster has had a Twitter page since December 2008, tweeting the status of my toast making habits for all of the world to follow. On occasion people even write to the toaster to ask what it’s toasting. Oddly enough, it can tell you.

I get asked, “Why have your toaster on the Internet?” Well, it’s a starting point for future projects and part sarcasm. I have been working on gizmos, web control, and power / resource management projects with my friend Jason Winters of ioBridge for over a decade. One day I had the idea to overlay appliance usage data onto a graph of my power consumption for my house. My theory is to use this appliance meta data to reduce the power I use everyday by pointing directly to the power hogs. It’s a start to my internet of things at my house. If you want to get start your own Skynet, visit Wired’s Wiki on making things talk. I use the IO-204 control and monitor module from

OK, mostly it’s sarcasm.

My Toaster has been recently written about on, ReadWriteWeb, PC World, Tiscali, De Morgen, XYCity China, etc. If you want to hear about it straight from the bread slot, you can get live updates from my toaster by following @MyToaster on Twitter.

I am now jealous of my toaster which has made for awkward moments when I want some crunchy Wonder Bread.

Wireshark 1.2.0 – New Version

Wireshark is a tool that performs packet and protocol analysis on a network. Packets are the virtual transport mechanism that moves are data from sender to receiver. Each packet has a header and payload – the header contains information about where the packet came from and where it’s going, as well as the protocols being used. The payload has our actual digitized data – parts of a website, text, a section of a photo, or a clip of audio from an MP3 or a phone call. If you don’t get all of the packets then a phone call may sound choppy or it may take a while to download a complete file. Wireshark allows you to take a look at the packets you are sending and receiving and learn a lot more about what it happening and what’s breaking down. Wireshark is not for the lighthearted, as the tool requires knowledge of protocols and a deep understanding of OSI, IP, and TCP/UDP at the very least. But, with time, Wireshark becomes invaluable to the troubleshooting process. I have relied on the tool for my work supporting Voice-over-IP (VoIP) and system and application connectivity. The only side-effect of Wireshark is that you will soon realize why it’s not a good idea to surf the web in a public spot (without a VPN or encryption).

The new version of Wireshark includes more protocols that it will decode, supports 64-bit Windows, and has GeoIP integrated support. Also, Wireshark works perfectly with my passive network cable. Visit to download the latest version and learn more about it.

Internet-enabled Message Center

What are you up to now?

I took the leap and bought an Arduino from LiquidWare. Arduino is an open-source microcontroller that has a processor, some digital I/O pins, and analog inputs. You can create little standalone programs that monitor inputs, control LEDs, and pretty much anything that you dream up. My favorite projects are ones that involve the Internet. A microcontroller is rather simple by itself, but what if it could use the web to get answers, send an email, maybe update my Twitter status? That means there is an unlimited number of projects ahead – Microcontrollers collaborating in cyberspace. The missing link for the web part is the ioBridge IO-204. I know you are no stranger to the IO-204, but for those of you who have not heard. The IO-204 sits on my network and relays data from its channels to servers and back into my network. It allows for remote control and monitoring without network configuration and programming. One of the expansion boards is a two-way serial board that accepts serial strings and connects them to APIs of web services that ioBridge interfaces to and sends back responses. For instance, I can send the commands, “[[[calc|9*9]]]” and this returns 81. OK, maybe not impressive on the surface, but that result came from Google Calculator. Anything Google Calculator can solve, your microcontroller has access to those results. For more examples, visit the Serial Web Services API on the wiki.

Message Center Project
I wanted to combine these two worlds with a sample project – maybe it will inspire you to come up with something better, spark some ideas that you have. I have my Arduino measuring my outside temperature here in Pittsburgh, which is an analog input scaled to Fahrenheit. At any moment I can press a button and get the temperature on the LCD screen – no Internet required. Since I have been planning a work trip to Atlanta, I also wanted to compare my temperature with hot-lanta’s. So, my project solves that. Using the “weather command”, I am able to get the weather anywhere in the world by zip code or city name.
I added a few more things to the message center. With another button, I can get Google’s current stock price. My strike price was $405, so I have been watching it closely. If it gets below $405, I get an automatic email from my message center. The stock quote comes from the Yahoo Financials API.
I have one more button that emails me a secret message when it’s pressed. I put this in here for when my mom comes into my room from when I am on the road. It’s aptly labeled, do not press. Next time, I will hook it to a light sensor in the basement to catch her when she turns on my lights. I am sure you all have the same issues with your mom.

Source Code

The Arduino requires some c-like programming and I wanted to include the sketch for you to steal and use for your projects. You will see how I send the serial commands from the Arduino to the IO-204 using the UART serial connection (pins 0/1) and receive and parse the incoming results. I use a SoftwareSerial port for the LCD results. The pushbuttons are software debounced and use pull-up resistors for solid digital connections. The LED’s linked to each button use a 330-ohm resistor to protect them. I was aided by the Arduino Inputs tutorial on, Debounce Tutorial, and the ioBridge Wiki / Forum. Please let me know if you have any questions, maybe I can help. I have learned a lot about handling strings on the Arduino.

// Message Center using Arduino and the ioBridge IO-204
// An open-souce Shadowlord Project

#include SoftwareSerial.h>

// SoftwareSerial Pins
#define rxPin 2
#define txPin 3

// Setup Software Serial
SoftwareSerial softSerial = SoftwareSerial(rxPin, txPin);

// Global Setup
int middleLED = 11;
int rightLED = 10;
int leftLED = 12;

int leftButton = 5;
int leftButtonCurrent = LOW;
int leftButtonReading;
int leftButtonPrevious = HIGH;
long leftButtonTime = 0;
long leftButtonDebounce = 200;

int middleButton = 4;
int middleButtonCurrent = LOW;
int middleButtonReading;
int middleButtonPrevious = HIGH;
long middleButtonTime = 0;
long middleButtonDebounce = 200;

int rightButton = 6;
int rightButtonCurrent = LOW;
int rightButtonReading;
int rightButtonPrevious = HIGH;
long rightButtonTime = 0;
long rightButtonDebounce = 200;

int tempPin = 5;
int tempAnalog = 0;
int tempF = 0;

char* currentRequest = "";

// Start up program
void setup() {

pinMode(rxPin, INPUT);
pinMode(txPin, OUTPUT);

pinMode(leftLED, OUTPUT);
pinMode(middleLED, OUTPUT);
pinMode(rightLED, OUTPUT);

pinMode(leftButton, INPUT);
pinMode(middleButton, INPUT);
pinMode(rightButton, INPUT);




// Setup LCD

// Test LEDs
digitalWrite(leftLED, HIGH);
digitalWrite(middleLED, HIGH);
digitalWrite(rightLED, HIGH);


digitalWrite(leftLED, LOW);
digitalWrite(middleLED, LOW);
digitalWrite(rightLED, LOW);


// Start main program loop
void loop(){

// Get Analog Input and scale as temperature for ioBridge temperature sensor on arduino
tempAnalog = analogRead(tempPin);
tempF = tempAnalog / 6.875;

// Monitor left button status and debounce
leftButtonReading = digitalRead(leftButton);

if (leftButtonReading == HIGH && leftButtonPrevious == LOW &&
millis() - leftButtonTime > leftButtonDebounce) {
if (leftButtonCurrent == HIGH) leftButtonCurrent = LOW;
else {digitalWrite(leftLED, HIGH);
softSerial.print("Outside: ");
moveCursor("02", "01");
softSerial.print("Atlanta: ");
leftButtonCurrent = LOW;
//Request temperature in Atlanta via ioBridge
digitalWrite(leftLED, LOW);
leftButtonTime = millis();

leftButtonPrevious = leftButtonReading;

// Monitor middle button status and debounce
middleButtonReading = digitalRead(middleButton);

if (middleButtonReading == HIGH && middleButtonPrevious == LOW &&
millis() - middleButtonTime > middleButtonDebounce) {
if (middleButtonCurrent == HIGH) middleButtonCurrent = LOW;
else {currentRequest = "Google";
digitalWrite(middleLED, HIGH);
softSerial.print("GOOG: $");
middleButtonCurrent = LOW;
//Request Google Stock Price via ioBridge
digitalWrite(middleLED, LOW);
middleButtonTime = millis();

middleButtonPrevious = middleButtonReading;

// Monitor right button status and debounce
rightButtonReading = digitalRead(rightButton);

if (rightButtonReading == HIGH && rightButtonPrevious == LOW &&
millis() - rightButtonTime > rightButtonDebounce) {
if (rightButtonCurrent == HIGH) rightButtonCurrent = LOW;
else {
digitalWrite(rightLED, HIGH);
softSerial.print("Alert: ");
rightButtonCurrent = LOW;
//Send email via ioBridge
Serial.print("[[[email||Alert|Mom, is pressing your buttons]]]");
digitalWrite(rightLED, LOW);
rightButtonTime = millis();

rightButtonPrevious = rightButtonReading;

// Display serial messages
if(Serial.available() > 0){


char charIn = 0;
byte i = 0;
char stringIn[32] = "";

while(Serial.available()) {
charIn =;
stringIn[i] = charIn;
i += 1;

if (currentRequest == "Google") {

int stockPrice = atoi(stringIn);
moveCursor("02", "01");
stockPrice = stockPrice - 405;
softSerial.print("Change: $");
currentRequest = "";


// End program loop

// ioBridge Serial LCD Functions and Parameters (for SoftwareSerial)

void displayMessage(char* message){

void clearLCD(){
softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void setBacklightBrightness(int level){
// level
// 0=Off -> 9=Brightest

softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void setBacklightTime(int level, byte seconds){
// level
// 0=Off -> 9=Brightest

// seconds
// 01 = 1 seconds => 06 = 60 seconds

softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);
softSerial.print(seconds, BYTE);

void moveCursorHome(){
softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void turnCursorOn(){
softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void turnCursorOff(){
softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void turnBlinkingCursorOn(){
softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void turnBlinkingCursorOff(){
softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void scrollMessage(int row, int speed, char* message){
// row
// 1=First Line -> 2=Second Line

// speed
// 0=Slowest -> 9=Fastest

softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);
softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void moveCursor(char* row, char* column){
// row
// 01=First Line -> 02=Second Line

// column
// 01=First Position -> 16=Last Position

softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void drawHorizontalGauge(int row, char* leftLabel, char* rightLabel, char* length){
// row
// 1=First Line -> 2=Second Line

// leftLabel and rightLabel
// 2 character labels

// length
// a=Empty -> k=Full (filled in from left to right)

softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);

void drawVerticalGauge(int height){
// height
// 0=Bottom -> 8=Top (filled in from bottom to top)

softSerial.print(0xFE, BYTE);


Bonus Project

It’s simple, but I hacked together a power supply for the Arduino, which gets power from USB or a coaxial input from a transformer. I wanted to only run one brick, wall wart, so I hacked a USB cable. There are 4 wires in the USB cable (from

2D-WhiteData –
3D+GreenData +

The IO-204 has a regulated 5VDC and ground (up to 1A – 4A total draw depending on supply) on each channel, so using a terminal strip, I connected the VCC and GND to a cut in half USB cable.

It’s magic – look ma, only one power source.

Clearblue Screen of Death

Everything is going digital. I know, a profound statement, but the consequences of “digital” are a future riddled with software bugs, failures, and EMP induced outages (the EPT EMP to be exact). We rely on technology to get us through our days and we will be faced with crashes when we need technology the most.

“Clearblue” has released a digital version of their pregnancy tester. My girlfriend, completely fictional to make a point, and I was discussing the ramifications of a digital pregnancy test. One day the test will be dependent on an Operating System to drive the user interface. It might even have Windows on it.

In your critical moment, of whether you will be with a child or have more time to yourself – unshackled by a disappointing version of yourself, the pregnancy tester will crash giving you an ambiguous result.

Take a glimpse of the future. You have been warned.

Death Tag – Spitball with Tic Tacs

You’re It!

Death Tag is a full contact game using a McDonald’s straw and various projectiles – the most lethal of which is the Tic Tac – 1.5 calories of pain. This is Death Tag’s story… Pass on the fun, er, the mayhem…You’re it!

I invented the game as a kid when I discovered that a Tic Tac and a McDonald’s straw had roughly the same diameter. A fresh Tic Tac fits almost perfectly into the straw. This principle makes the combination nearly lethal. Over the years, I have expanded on the design and have tested straws from every fast food chain in the United States and projectiles of all sorts.

The Straw

The McDonald’s straw has one of the largest diameters, with a straw from Starbucks a close second, and an In and Out Burger straw third (West coast glocking). Always have multiple straws on hand – you never know if you need back up muzzleloaders. Tic Tacs become sticky, so avoid copious spit.

The Projectile

The Tic Tac fits perfectly inside the McDonald’s straw. My independent testing proves that this combination is the most fierce with the highest muzzle velocity. The Tic Tac is the most accurate and longest shooting projectile I have used. It also leaves a white mark on your targets. There are two drawbacks though – stickiness and cost. Saliva + Tic Tac equals jammed barrel on occasion. I have recently switched to un-popped popcorn. This projectile is cheap and somewhat pointed to being your enemy to a swift submission. Popcorn also allows for some advanced techniques like “The Rain Maker”.


Load the projectile, use your tongue to stop up one end of the straw. Build up some pressure and move your tongue. You can gets some serious distance and accurate shots this way.
“The Machine Gun” or “The Rain Maker” technique requires a cheek full of popcorn. Load up some popcorn and shuffle the kernels into the barrel while blowing. Make it rain destruction on your opponent.

Origin of the Name

Death Tag started picking up steam in the early 2000’s. I was on the road a lot and drove solo across the country many times. On a drive from Columbia, SC to Melbourne, FL, my friend Dale and I stopped at a truck stop. The trucker’s paradise had everything, a Micky D’s and convenient snacks. I bought up a supply of Tic Tacs and grabbed a handful of straws. I explained the premise to Dale and it soon involved us shooting cars out of the window. We assigned point values to certain objects that you hit. For example, the side a truck was 1,000 points, but a minivan is 5,000 points. A car window had the point value of 10,000 points and a road sign was 15,000 (since you could shot out and arc it – we called it the golden arch). The ultimate thing we shot was a Target sign on the side of a tractor trailer – 50,000 points. The “freshmint” or white Tic Tacs also leaving a little white mark to be proof positive of a successful hit. We started calling it, “Death Tag” because we were paying more attention to hitting our targets than driving safely.

A Word of Caution

It’s called Death Tag for a reason. Be careful, you could die, lose an eye, or leave a welt. I know it sounds fun, but I am a trained professional. I recommend discussing the side effects with a doctor and always wear proper eye protection.

Making the Perfect Cup of Coffee

The only reason to make the perfect cup of coffee is to enjoy the perfect cup of coffee. My life is filled with moments connected to coffee. Nothing was better than being in New Orleans and having a coffee at Cafe Du Monde. Or blitz chess at Seatle’s Best (while they were the best). And performing at a coffee shop on an Open Mic night with bad poets, mediocre musicians, and wannabe comedians.

These sentiments might not mean much to a person that doesn’t drink coffee (or tea), but I am sure you can find a parallel substance in your life. I am not talking about drinking coffee for the sake of drinking coffee, not the times you need it to wake up, but rather the experience of coffee. When you couple a perfect moment with the perfect cup, you create a truly great experience.

“It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.”

Ernest Hemingway

I would rather have a brewed coffee or espresso vs. a latte or cappuccino. Certain large-scale coffee vendors have serialized the coffee drink to the point where coffee is second to sugar. A Cafe Americano (espresso plus hot water) is about the best value (but I noticed Starbucks raises the price $.35 every quarter). I am not a purist but I am in it for the coffee taste. I am so much not a purist that sometimes I say “Expresso” when I am in the company of those who take it too far. I like to miss use words and see the retractions, most just simply ignore me.

What are the ingredients of the perfect cup of coffee? I am going to conclude that the situation is just as significant as the actual cup of coffee. Take away the experience and it probably would taste as it tastes from a truck stop in North Dakota. When I am home I meticulously attempt to make the perfect cup of coffee using apparatuses from all over the world.

Here is my approach to the pursuit of the perfect cup:

    • Invite a friend (or better yet have the friend make your coffee)
    • Have a notebook handy for those best ideas
    • Mute the mobile
    • Grind a whole bean roast (French is one of the best coffee tastes)
    • Use a coarse grind for the French Press
    • Use medium grind for the drip
    • Use filtered water and ceramic mugs
    • Boil the water and then let it cool off for 2 minutes
    • Use a little of the hot water to warm up the carafe and cups
    • Brew in your preferred fashion (I prefer the Aeropress for dark roasts and the French press for lighter roasts)
    • Don’t overdo the steeping – bitterness is what most people don’t enjoy (bitterness is caused by overheating and over brewing)
    • Pour into mugs
    • Add warm milk if necessary (a Cafe Au Lait is equal parts coffee and warmed milk)
    • Create your moment and enjoy

It’s a lot of work that needs continual attention and improvement. A lot can go wrong, but the overwhelming ingredient is timing.

iTurn – iPhone and iPod Touch Hack

Since my toaster has been on the Internet Twittering my toasting habits, I have been flooded with email asking what I was going to do next. To be fair, most of the email suggested that I had too much time on my hands. My mom got me an iPod Touch for Christmas (she gave it to me a few days early). I have not had the thing out of my sight since she surprised me with a wonderful gift. She also gave me Batman which I transferred to the iPod. I turned the screen about 44 times a minute while watching The Joker and The Dark Knight try to out smart each other. This got me thinking, “Could I control a motor with the movement of the iPod?” I had my next hack.

The iPhone or iPod Touch has an accelerometer that detects how the device is oriented. As the devices moves off axis (from straight up and down) the screen rotates. I want to use that feedback to control the position of a motor or servo or cause specific events to happen depending on the device’s position.

Taking the ioBridge IO-204 module, I connected the servo controller and a servo to one of the channels. On the servo I taped a Best Western hotel pen to show the movement of the servo. I found from hours of testing that the Best Western worked the “Best” and Hampton Inn worked slightly worse.

iTurn Setup
On the ioBridge website, I created 3 widgets that corresponded with the orientation of the iPod. “Left” for when tilted towards the left, “Right” when I turned right, and “Forward” when I was holding the iPod normally (straight up and down).

Warning: The next part involves some light programming. I made a quick HTML file with some JavaScript that detected the orientation of the iPod and called the appropriate widget. The orientation code is below for those of you that are interested in trying this for yourself:

function updateOrientation() {
case 0: widgetExecute(“Upright Widget ID”);

case -90: widgetExecute(“Right Widget ID”);

case 90: widgetExecute(“Left Widget ID”);

Load up the completed HTML file on your iPhone or iPod Touch and now you can control a servo with the turning of your iPhone. I call it “iTurn” (didn’t see that one coming, did you?).

Here is a YouTube video of the iTurn project:

People Watching at the Airport

I travel a lot and find myself watching people at the airport to pass the time waiting for flights to depart. I watch them as they walk by Cinnabon and pretend not to want one. I am fascinated by how people behave – whether it’s good behavior or bad, I still find it interesting. After a canceled flight and Chicago weather, I finally made it back to Pittsburgh International Airport. If you have never been, it’s like a mall that opened up an airport. I was waiting for my luggage to come from the airplane. We are all standing around a belt that turns in one direction and carries our luggage from a down ramp. The first thing I noticed is that half of the crowd was on one side of the ramp and the other half was on the other side. So, half of these people are going to be waiting the entire trip around for their luggage and the other half are going to get their luggage first. A lady in her late forties and a scarf had an entirely different agenda. She was going to stand clear and wait for it to start turning and sidle up and grab her bag. I could see the anticipation well up as the horn and spinning light announced our bags were coming. She got up and cut right to the side the belt was turning ignoring the people who were there first. My page came out soon, but I wanted to see how it played out. The lady grew impatient and sighed with the exaggeration of a stage actor. I waited 10 minutes and nearly all of the bags were taken minus a few stragglers – a taped up duffel and flower print roller were the only ones left spinning. She stormed into the bag claim office. I took my flower print roller and headed to the parking shuttle. On the ride to my car, I thought about the events of the lady and her missing bag. She probably asked for it and had it coming.