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VR Empathy Machine links UN dignitaries with Syrian Refugees

“My name is Sidra. I am 12 years old… I have lived here in the Zaatari camp in Jordan for the last year and a half.” Filmmaker Chris Milk took his empathy machine to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan to help us see and feel more about the lives of these vulnerable people. Read more »

Upcycling Kites with Syrian Refugee Children

kites1In the spring of 2014 we visited some friends in Jordan. Laurie and Jean of Studio Syria teach art and crafts to the people at the Zaatari refugee camp in Northern Jordan. Gaelle or DAY – Dar Al Yasmin and the brilliant Hayabi circus also work to brighten the lives of children at Zaatari village, just outside the refugee camp and give moms a break. Gaelle invited my family on what our daughter called “The most fun bus trip ever.” We sang songs to pass the time and lower relieve stress at checkpoints on the way to make kites with these Syrian refugee children. Here is the story  I originally published at

Syria’s war has killed 150,000 people and forced more than three million from their homes. About a million of these refugees live in Jordan and as many as 200,000 have lived in the Zaatari refugee camp near Jordan’s Syrian border. This Green Prophet visited nearby Zaatari village where another 500 refugees live. One of the Syrian refugees who live here is a little girl with a broken shoe. This girl and dozens of other children of Zaatari village learned a little bit about recycling on one of the many cloudless spring days in the desert.

My family and I wanted to learn about the needs of Syrian refugees. So before our recent trip to Jordan, we asked Green Prophet’s Laurie Balbo about volunteer organizations there.

Laurie was a crucial boots-on-the-ground volunteer who performed a bureaucracy-defying miracle to get thousands of donated Irish knit hats to children at Zaatari before winter’s end and long before larger relief agencies were able to complete their winter clothing distribution.

Laurie works with Studio Syria and other organizations inside the Zaatari refugee camp. She was also familiar with a French NGO named Dar Al Yasmin (DAY), which means “House of Yasmin.” It was named after Syria’s fragrant national flower. DAY was formed in 2013 to focus on the needs of families living in Zaatari village.

DAY cofounder Gaelle Sundelin has the crucial mix of organization and language skills, leadership, creativity, optimism, patience, peacemaking and enough pragmatism to recognize that she can’t do it all herself. So for this typical Habaybi (caring love) event Gaelle recruited about 50 people from France, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Sudan and Somalia. The young men from these last two countries told me that wars had forced them to leave their homelands and that they hoped to return one day.

We met Gaelle and other DAY volunteers at a bus stop in Amman Jordan on Good Friday. We would fill two minibuses with a diverse group of teachers, artists, musicians, an acroclown circus and our family of four.

Some circus performers tuned their instruments while another handed out plastic clown noses. The troupe burst into song to lighten the mood at security checkpoints and shorten the journey to Zaatari. Our ten-year-old daughter called it the most fun bus ride she has ever been on.

While other volunteers worked on a variety of craft and entertainment projects, my family was asked to help make kites. Gaelle explained that we would make the kites out of plastic bags and cardboard so that the children would learn about recycling. During the long bus ride north, Gaelle wondered aloud whether we would have enough materials for the kites. I looked across dusty fields littered with plastic bags and wondered how we could ever run out.

Volunteers Muhammad Husseis and Feras Hamwy had built a flying prototype kite made from a plastic bag and decorated with Barcelona football club stickers. This was two days after Real Madrid took home the Spanish cup but the Barcelona stickers were a huge hit with the kids as were the Cars, Angry Birds, Spiderman and smiley face stickers. I only knew how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Arabic, but “Barcelona!!!” was a universal happy word that day.

This was the first valuable lesson for us, these kids aren’t so different from our own children or from others we’ve known in Ireland, the US and elsewhere.10177222_449222468513890_2253068009041345569_n

We used a hot glue gun to assemble the traditional diamond-shaped kites. It must be natural to feel somewhat useless when trying to help others overcome seemingly intractable problems. But I soon found my purpose as goalie trying to keep the children from burning themselves on the hot glue guns. I began to wish we had used duct tape! But then I noticed that these kids were different. Their level of chaotic energy was high but nothing beyond what I’d seen in the Irish Sunday school classes. The difference being that this room full of 30 kids seemed ever so slightly more manageable than some classes of 8-10 I’ve worked with in other parts of the world.

When the kites were finished, the children took them outside and we began to clean up. But the kites were so popular that the word soon spread and had a new influx of children eager to turn every scrap of plastic and cardboard they could find into a kite. At first we shrugged our shoulders and thought why not?

But when the chaos rose and we decided to pull the plug on the hot glue guns. As they cooled off, a 5 year-old boy presented his half-finished kite, flicked out a cigarette lighter and offered to reheat the glue for me. I told him, “La shukran. (No, thank you.)”

That was when someone carried in the little girl. She wore a white and1908263_449218371847633_7037255593842234598_n-e1399403080552 pink floral dress and a beaded bracelet she had made with another arts and crafts group. She handed me the broken shoe. A plastic jewel had fallen off of its buckle.

There was just enough heat left in the glue gun to stick it back on. These children did learn something about recycling on that day. And I learned that even the smallest act of kindness is never wasted.

Photos provided by Dar Al Yasmin (DAY.)

Seabot and science hack day Dublin 2015

Many thanks to all of the organizers and contributors to science hack day Dublin.

It was fascinating to see what a roomful of fun and talented scientists can accomplish over a weekend. The event and collaboration helped me bring seabot from a concept towards reality. Here are some details and goals of seabot:


Seabot is a marine platform for electronic hacking. It was inspired by Cesar Herada’s Protei, James Gosling’s liquid robotics and 600 million year old prior art by Portuguese Man of War polyp colonies.

P. physalis. Photograph by A. E. Migotto, Center of Marine Biology, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

P. physalis. Photograph by A. E. Migotto, Center of Marine Biology, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The original plan was to begin with a data gathering buoy and progress to a moving platform. But with access to UCD’s 3d printer, the help of Mohamed and Eoin, we were able to create a sailing platform along with a 3d printed propeller for those rare days when Irish wind falls below 100kph.

We began with a multihull because it gave us a wide, stable platform with the least amount of plastic and hours on the 3D printer. The model we used was a bottle boat created by Richard Albritton on Thingiverse. Because it used ordinary 500ml soft-drink bottles as pontoons, it used even less plastic.

Richard Albritton’s bottle boat.

I had the code to make the ATiny85 blink the light at the ambient temperature. Unfortunately the source code was on an encrypted partition of a crashed laptop but when it is available, I’ll provide a link here. (which is easier, cracking Symantec’s drive encryption or decompiling the bytecode inside the Atiny?)

When we tried floating the temperature-flashing buoy in UCD’s lake,  the swans thought we were trying to feed them. This reminded me that some of the kids in Cesar Herada’s educational project suggested a shark-shaped seabot to scare fish away.

Greg was our navigator. He worked on software for reading a GPS so the Seabot knew where it was. Paul worked on hacking the remote control for an RC toy to run the motor or turn the sailboat’s rudder. We’re already beyond our original goal of a data buoy but perfecting a robotic motorsailer will take some time and sea trials.

I used an Arduino Nano to program a cheap (~1 Euro) Atiny85 processor. The processor has an internal thermister and I dual purposed a red LED as a photodetector and temperature blinker. (1 blink per degree C)

I also intended to PWM modulate red and blue LEDs, red means temperature rising, blue means temperature falling. Imagine Toro Nagashi style floating lanterns where the temperature of the water is reflected in the color of the lantern.

But we didn’t have time to make the navigation system work and the last thing we need is more plastic in our already polluted seas. If we can’t make the seabot boomerang back to us, how can we find the seabot? This is where RF comes in. I had a 433Mhz transmitter which Greg found uses a very simple protocol. Toggling the ATAD line toggles the transmitter.
If the seabot can’t come to us, we must go to the seabot. I had some experience with software designed radio, particularly gqrx and Eoin had contributed code patches to cubicSDR. Paul happened to have his HF yagi antenna with him so we decided that this would be how we would track down the seabot. As a bonus, I connected the RF ATAD pin to the Atiny’s temperature controlled PWM pin.

A little RF direction finding, a 17.3 cm antenna inside a soda pop bottle and a 3d-printed hull. We’re in business.  Thanks to all!

The LoFi warmth of vinyl and vacuum tubes is back

Mike every instrument and record with every channel turned up to 11, remove all mid-level and midrange sounds, compress the $(&* out of it to MP3. Stream that over a lossy protocol and then compress and stream that over lossy bluetooth to a final analog stage designed in ignorance of the past 100 years of analog design. Play through tinny piezoelectric monaural speakers which peak at the now-removed midrange frequencies. Yes, we’ve finally downgraded HiFi audio to what it was in 1960. Should we be surprised vinyl is making a comeback?

$800 Billion burning a hole in your pocket? Spending idea


Against the better judgment of hundreds of economists as well as the vast majority of the voting public (those annoying constituents), Congress approved Henry Paulson’s bailout plan. Now Paulson’s appointed “bailout czar”, Neel Kashkari has $800 billion tax dollars burning a hole in his pocket and he is trying to figure out how to spend it. My wife was a loan officer and defacto credit counselor way back in the late 1900s when most banks and credit unions still carefully considered credit ratings, debt/income and debt/asset ratios. She often helped people understand how to prioritize their spending. Sometimes little changes such as forgoing the daily cappuccino were enough to lift people out of debt and improve their credit rating. Our bailout czar’s job is slightly different. In order to efficiently bail out failing financial institutions, he must invest taxpayer’s money on assets that no one in their right mind would buy with their own hard-earned money. I personally don’t think this is a good plan. At best it is a temporary patch to a deflating asset bubble. If the bailout czar really wishes to use tax money to improve long term American economic growth and competitiveness, he should consider the following options for spending 800 billion dollars:

  • Bailout Chrysler 800 times (in 1979 dollars). This cash flow diagram indicates that, not so long ago, Detroit fueled a huge portion of the U.S. economy.
  • Repeat the Apollo moon lander program (including R&D from 1961-1969) 32 times (8 times in 2008 dollars).
  • Install photovoltaic solar roofs on 32 million homes (1/5th of all homes in the U.S.)
  • Pay full (unadjusted) tuition for their first year of Yale for 70% of 18-25 year old Americans. (Quoted tuition is for Yale medical school, but Yale has other specialties which could prepare students to become business leaders, presidents, senators, economists…)
  • Fund the National Cancer Institute for 165 years.
  • Provide microcredit loans for the world’s $1 billion working poor.
  • Fund UNICEF for 266 years.
  • Buy every possible ticket combination in the Florida Lotto for 57142 weeks, which means Paulson could hold a winning Florida lottery ticket every week for 1098 years.
  • SETI. Wisconsin’s former Senator and spendthrift William Proxmire once awarded his famous “Golden Fleece Award” to project SETI. Paulson’s bailout money could fund project SETI for 160,000 years.

I’m confident that any of the items on my shopping list would give U.S. taxpayers more bang for their buck than the current plan to reinflate the property bubble, an asset bubble which caused a massive misallocation of financial and intellectual resources and actually works against U.S. global competitiveness.

Incidentally, $800 billion is a lot of money, but it isn’t an infinite amount. Unfortunately it isn’t enough for the following:

  • $800 billion won’t buy enough Starbucks cappuccino to fill Lake Erie, the smallest great lake. However, if you combine all of the recent Fed and treasury bailouts, you could buy enough instant coffee to flavor the Great Salt Lake. You could also buy enough cheap off-brand root beer or Kool-Aid to fill Lake Okeechobee. Wouldn’t this be a nice modern variation on the Boston tea party?
  • $800 billion could easily fulfill Herbert Hoover’s promise of “a chicken in every pot” (in fact everyone’s pot could contain 666 $4 chickens), but to put “a car in every garage” as he also promised, you’d want slightly more money unless we’re willing to settle for a used or economy car in every garage.
  • $800 billion would fill a bag with about 80 billion decent ACE hardware hammers but apparently only 1.3 Billion military grade hammers.
  • If you sent $800 billion to the International Star Registry, they would only name 22 Billion stars after a loved one in their “official” book. But the Milky Way galaxy contains at least 200 billion stars and there are billions of other galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of nameless stars. So at best, only about one in every 10 stars in our galaxy could be named “Henry Paulson”.Billions and Billions of stars
  • By bnitz on Oct 30, 2008

Aruduino Nano programs Super Mario song onto $1 ATiny85 microprocessor

My son and I demonstrate how the Arduino playtunes library can be used in a music program which is uploaded through an Arduino Nano microcontroller development board onto a $1 ATiny85 microcontroller chip. LEDs are flashed at musical frequencies and then a photvoltaic solar sell converts this light into electricity and then polyphonic sound.


Infrared, Arduino and

What do a smartphone, TV, Wii, DVR, remote control toy flip car and Zibit remote control robot have in common? Each of these devices use an infraRed communication protocol. While searching for a method to control a Zibit and an infrared toy car whose remote is missing, I came across this website: with some very interesting projects. I haven’t yet deciphered the zibit or toy car protocol but I’ll post here if I make any progress.

Skylanders science portal of power magnetic undiction

My son and I figured out how Skylanders lightcore figures light up by magnetic induction and we learned how to tap into this power to make our own device light up.


Why Don’t We Design a Better Wheelchair?

In the 1990 film Awakenings, Robin Williams plays Dr. Sayer, a fictionalized Oliver Sachs, who discovered seemingly miraculous effects of the drug L-DOPA on patients who had been trapped in unresponsive states for more than a decade by Encephalitis lethargica. In the film, the doctor is constantly, loosing, dropping and breaking his eyeglasses.

“Where are my glasses?” Dr. Sayer asks.
“On your head!” his patient exclaims.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Sara Hendren the woman behind the Abler accessibility site, asks Why are Glasses Perceived Differently Than Hearing Aids? or wheelchairs, or prosthetic limbs, screenreaders, braille displays, miracle drugs, Stephen Hawking’s voice…
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Introduction to “Divided we fall”

#UID: 412789512M0

Dear Mr./Ms. <<%NULL DATA FIELD%>>

Orbcorp would like to thank you for choosing this personalized E-book. We have taken careful measurements of your reading habits, socioeconomic background as well as your political and/or religious beliefs in order to provide you with this optimized reading experience guaranteed to tastefully reinforce your worldview and never offend. Have a gloriously nice day!


Charle’s J <<%DECEASED%>>

President and CEO of Orbcorp Unlimited

+++ ~ATH0 <NO CARRIER>~~~~~1tr#€€$¥!”$~~~

“…(My) greatest fear is that as we drifted towards this blandly amorphous generic world view not only would we see the entire range of the human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought, but that we would wake from a dream one day having forgotten there were even other possibilities.”
— Margarate Mead