Book Review: How to Build A Lie Detector, Brain Wave Monitor & Other Secret Paraphsychological Electronics Projects

The authors, Mike and Ruth Wolverton, not content with the world’s longest book title, add the subtitle “Your passport to the world of the paranormal using everyday electronics!” (Exclamation point in original.) Whew! (Exclamation point, mine.)

gordon meyer holding book

I’ve been searching for this 1981 paperback book for a long time. I wanted a copy for two reasons: First, books published by TAB were some of the first books I owned. Back then, books about computing as a hobby weren’t very common, and the Computer Book Club was a rarified source of information for people like me, and many of the books that the club offered were from TAB.

computer book club ad

The other reason I wanted this book is its subject. Technical, but approachable, books about fringe science are rare, and this is one of the classics. (Which is one of the reasons it’s hard to find a copy.) And it is very nearly cover-to-cover esoterica. This book features ESP testers, UFO detectors, ley line apparatus, ghostly voice recorders, Kirlian photography, and so much more. (Sadly, there is not an Orgone energy accumulator.)

Not only is each subject accompanied by detailed instructions on building an electronic gadget to experiment with, there is also a historical (and sometimes personal) discussion of the phenomenon. Back in the day (as in, before the internet), this type of information was rare gold.

Will I actually build any of these gadgets? Maybe, the first obstacle will be translating the Radio Shack part numbers to modern components.

In a fun moment of synchronicity, when I received the book in the mail, I learned that I had purchased it from a used bookstore in Utah that wasn’t too far from where I grew up. (Amazon Marketplace obfuscates where you are buying from, so I didn’t know this until it arrived.) Moreover, tucked inside the book was a business card from a previous owner. He was a senior engineer at Hughes, in Texas. It’s interesting to see which projects he has marked with dog-eared pages. I’ve already continued the tradition by marking my own favorite chapter with my card; perhaps the next owner will enjoy that discovery too. (I chose the chapter on dowsing, which is a familial practice.)

A secret of computer cleaning

So, you’re working at your computer, and you notice a speck of dust or something on your screen. You reach up to wipe it away, and now you’ve replaced the speck with something even worse — a smeary fingerprint.

Or, you’re working at our computer, and you look down at the keyboard and notice a crumb about to slip into the depths of your computer. If you’re using a notebook computer, you can pick it up and turn upside down, hoping to dislodge the crumb (and hope the power cord doesn’t knock over your cup of coffee). Or, you can use your blunt finger to try to remove the crumb, but that will most likely force it inside while adding a few letters of gibberish to whatever it is you’re working on.

The better answer in both scenarios? Use a large foundation makeup brush. The biggest, softest one you can find. (Check the local Five Below, or the teen aisle at Target. Here’s one at Amazon.) A soft brush is an unsung hero of computer cleanliness. Seriously.

Automating Ulysses to MarsEdit hand-off

In my continuing quest to use both Ulysses and MarsEdit in my writing workflow, I’ve created a Keyboard Maestro automation. This one sends HTML from the clipboard to a new post, while remove the H1 tag and placing it as the title of the post in the MarsEdit window. It’s a bit brute-force, and could be more elegant, but it works. (See this macro on GitHub.)

For more on this topic, see: Sending text from Ulysses to MarsEdit

gordon meyer macro screenshot

Notes from a BeagleBone Black newbie

A long while back, when Radio Shack was going out of business in Cupertino, I picked up a BeagleBone Black to play around with. Thanks to the pandemic, that time has finally come.

I’m confident in my geek credibility, but this thing has really taxed my skills. All the documentation I could find was, if not obtuse, written with a lot of knowledge assumptions. Here, then, are the things that I had to either discover myself, or suss out from a lot of different places.

  • The board has an OS in firmware, so unlike a Raspberry Pi, it will boot up out of the box.
  • If you do install a memory card that contains an updated OS distro, it will boot up from that instead, provided that you flashed the card with the .img and not the .xz file. Don’t believe the misleading documentation that says the etcher will decompress the file for you. It will, but only the .img, not the .xz.
  • Bonus tip: On a Mac, use the great utility BetterZip to decompress the .xz file.
  • Apparently you can update the firmware with the new OS by editing a single line in image’s config file. You will find instructions about how to do this by booting with buttons held down, but that’s the old method. I didn’t try either method as I’m happy running from a 32GB card.
  • The Display connector is a microHDMI port. Not MiniHDMI like the Raspberry Pi Zero. Time to check your junk drawer for yet another obscure adapter.
  • The mDNS (Bonjour) name will be, by default “beagleboard.local” The only user is “root” and there is no password assigned to that account.
  • If all the LEDs on the board are lit up, something went wrong during startup. If you’re trying to run headless (see microHDMI, above) this is the only way to know there’s a problem. When the unit is running correctly one of the LEDs will flash repeatedly in what is supposed to be a “heartbeat” (but if my heart ever beats like that, please call an ambulance).
  • Raspberry Pi users will be pleased to discover that the unit has a power switch.
  • Once booted, the unit is running a web server. This will show you a few details about your device.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the device, altho it comes with a lot of stuff pre-installed and I have no idea what it’s all for. (Now I know how Android phone users feel.)

I made a pleasant discovery about how to create a box to hold the board, which I described previously: Beaglebone Black Card Box

Most of the notes above were written early in the pandemic, and so far my Beaglebone has an uptime of well over 400 days. During that period I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to restart the Raspberry Pi.

How to Select All and Copy from the iOS Notes app

I use the iOS Notes app to store templated email messages so that I can quickly respond to common enquiries that I receive for my business. This works quite well for me. (I keep them all in a group called “Copy Desk” so that I can find them easily.)

However, Notes doesn’t have an obvious way to select all the text in a note and copy it to the clipboard so that it can be pasted into a reply. In most iOS apps, when you select a bit of text, the pop-up menu that appears includes a Select All command. But, as you can see below, Notes does not.

screenshot from Notes

But there is a way to copy an entire note to the clipboard, it’s just a bit hidden:

Tap the More button (a circle with three dots, in the upper-right corner of the note).

notes screenshot showing location of control

Tap “Send a Copy.”

notes app screenshot

Tap Copy.

notes screenshot

Then switch to Mail and paste into the body of your message.

Alternatively, if you’re creating a new mail message and not replying to an existing one, tap Mail in step 3.

Macro to load remote images in macOS

I recently changed my settings so that images in mail messages are not loaded automatically. Until the new privacy features in macOS Monterey roll out, I made this change to avoid some tracking by spammers (and mailer services). (You can find this setting in Mail > Preferences > Viewing)

However, I quickly grew tired of having to click the "Load remote content" (sic) button to display legit message properly. If there were a menu command for this (ahem, Apple) it would be simple to use a keyboard shortcut to accomplish this. Unfortunately, clicking is the only way to interact with this control.

When I searched the 'net for solutions, I found several complex AppleScript solutions to the problem. (You'll find them, too.) But these didn't appeal to me at all, so I turned to the excellent Keyboard Maestro instead. It turned out to be a stupidly simple problem to solve, as you can see in the one-step macro below.

macro by gordon meyer


Hue headaches when traveling

I like Philips Hue lights — they form a mostly reliable branch in my standalone home automation strategy. (In other words, I don’t use them with HomeKit, but only because I prefer isolated systems for reliability. Keep reading for why.)

Unfortunately, the Hue system has a serious flaw that can bite you in the ass when you’re traveling. Namely, the hub firmware and the control/scheduling app have to remain in sync, but you can’t update the hub remotely.

So, when you’re away from home, never allow your Hue app to update itself. Doing so could create a situation where your entire Hue system is disabled until you return home and update the hub, too.

Until Philips fixes this, live in fear of an automatic update, or simply don’t rely on Hue as a key part of your home automation system. (See first paragraph, above.)

Bit Rot Chronicles

Some of my non-technical friends may not be familiar with “Bit Rot.” The term refers to how software tends to stop working as it gets older. This is often caused by changes in operating systems and other parts of the complicated infrastructure that supports an application. A second meaning of “Bit Rot” refers to how stored data eventually becomes unreadable. This might be because the media is no longer supported (refer to the first meaning), or because the media has degraded and there is a physical problem that prevents it from being read.

This is a tale of both meanings.

I recently discovered that my beloved collection of clip art is completely unreadable on modern Mac computers. I purchased “Art Explosion 525,000” at the 1998 San Francisco Mac World Expo. I think I paid about $75 for the CD-ROM set of clip art and other licensed resources. I have used it for countless projects since then, and in some ways it may be the best return I’ve ever gotten for an impulse purchase of software.

One reason I’ve kept returning to it is that the images on the discs are indexed in a massive (1400 page) book that makes it easy to find just the right asset.

open book held by gordon meyer

(Historical note: Yes, people actually used to buy clip art collections. This was at least three years before the introduction of Google Image searching, which of course, is where everyone steals artwork from today. I sleep well at night knowing my clip art is completely legit.)

Unfortunately, the thirty-seven CDs (this was also prior to computer having DVD drives) are in a format that Macs can no longer read. (Bit Rot in the first sense of the word.) When I discovered this, I immediately started the time-consuming task of copying the CDs to a hard disk. Fortunately, I still have an older Mac that can read the discs.

But, I couldn’t copy all of them. Bit Rot in the second sense of the word reared its ugly head as I discovered that some discs suffered from read errors. Optical media like CD-ROMs once promised to be “permanent” data stores. Alas, just as with Lasik surgery, time has revealed that nothing lasts forever.

But with persistence, and by using an even older Mac, and I could recover nearly all the files. (Let’s hope I never want to use the file “Coffee Cup 126” in a project.)

Some tips, in case you’re ever faced with a similar situation:

  • Patience is a virtue. As long as the disc is spinning, let it churn. One disc took over 3 hours to mount!
  • The external Apple SuperDrive does not have a manual eject, you simply have to wait for it to give up and eject the disc.
  • Don’t bother copying files in obscure formats that rely on old software. Each of these discs had an Extensis Portfolio image database, which is an app I didn’t even know was still around. (I wonder if it will read catalogs created 23 years ago. Given the first definition of Bit Rot, probably not.)
  • Here’s a measure of technological progress: The entire 37 disc set easily fits on one (32 GB) thumb drive, with room to spare.
  • I’m going to keep the printed directory of images, of course, so I may as well keep the discs too. It looks like there might even be a collector’s market for the set.

Have I made you nervous about the viability of your old family photos on CDs that you burned yourself? I hope so.

Using Apple TV mute function with a Sonos Playbase

If you have the latest Apple TV Siri Remote (the one with the Mute button) and a Sonos Playbase speaker, you may find that Mute doesn’t work. Briefly, the solution is to set the Apple TV to use the Playbase as an AirPlay speaker. If you use the Playbase as a wired speaker, depending on your TV, the Mute might not be a permitted action. (I have a Sony Bravia TV, which treats the Playbase as an external audio system with immutable volume settings.) Switch to AirPlay, though, and all is well.