Friday, December 5, 2014

Hacking Coffee

copyright WJ Kowalski, 2014
Hmm, where do I start? A number of years ago I was at Coffee Fest, the international coffee and tea show in Seattle. I wholesale tea, among other things, so I was checking out what was available. Among the cool tech on display was the newly invented Clover, an $11,000 single-cup-of-coffee machine. It made great coffee! But no matter how much tech it included, I wasn't even going to try to sell my wife on the idea that it was a necessity.

Fortunately, an aisle or two over, Alan Adler, inventor of the Aerobie (flying ring for sports) was demonstrating his new Aeropress for making coffee. It was about $25-30, and it too made great coffee - in my opinion, maybe even better than the Clover. I bought a case of his devices (and more afterwards) and shared a great deal on this rig for making excellent coffee with friends, family, and co-workers. Both devices were invented in 2005, so this was probably 2005, but no later than 2006.

Single-serve coffee machines have come to dominate many home counters - the Senseo, the Keurig, the Tassimo, the Nespresso, and others. All offer convenience, but at a price of relatively high cost per cup and not the best coffee.

Fast forward to 2014, and the Kowalskis in Indonesia. I still have my original Aeropress, along with a hand grinder, the Hario Slim. It still makes great coffee, but it's not practical for serving a large group, or so I thought. I wanted (reluctantly - I hate serving coffee that's not incredible) a Nespresso, but they're not yet available in Indonesia in the retail market, they're expensive to buy and to feed - about $0.70/cup for the capsules, and arguably a good regular cup takes a couple of capsules. But if we're having people over, what other game was there? The other similar options offered no improvement in price and were lower in quality.

So I began to ponder doing something with the Aeropress, using it to produce coffee concentrate. I found a number of articles, and settled on this procedure by Marco Arment to make super-concentrated iced coffee or hot, as needed. We're on the island of Java, and Kopi Aroma here in Bandung makes terrific coffee, arabica as well as robusta. It costs under $2 for 250 grams, a bit more than half a pound. That'll produce enough concentrate for 20-25 excellent cups of coffee. I can make the concentrate in advance (it'll keep for a couple weeks in the fridge). I buy ground coffee at the factory, ground just before I walk out the door, and prepare the concentrate right away. When it's time to serve company, the jug comes out, along with our super-fast Kamjove induction kettle, sweetened condensed milk, milk, sugar, and cups. For the purists who demand their coffee straight, that option is of course there. But I find that a lot of Indonesians enjoy a bit of coffee with their sweetener, and the condensed milk is pretty popular. 

Oh yes, see that photo up top? I just made myself a cup of iced concentrated coffee, except it needed no ice. There's a story behind that cute little cup, which is an espresso cup and saucer set from Indo Porcelain (we were able to get our dishes at wholesale from the maker, in Jakarta). I offer folks the option of the cold concentrate, straight or with additives, or I'll put a jigger (an ounce to ounce and a half) of concentrate in a regular cup, add really hot water, and you have instant coffee that does not inhale sharply (suck).  In fact, it's smooth, delicious, and not even the slightest bit bitter.  This coffee has produced nothing but raves. I'm afraid I may have induced some folks to be rather more addicted.

That square on the saucer? Just the best cookie/squares ever - something my darling wife concocted. Maybe I can talk her into sharing the recipe. And for those who believe that this has not enough tech to fit this blog, let me point out that without coffee (or Mountain Dew or the like), precious little programming would get done. It's fuel, baby!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Keeping your iDevice safe, and other observations on life abroad

Greetings from warm and sunny Bandung, Indonesia! In days to come I'll follow up with some more info on staying safe and connected while traveling, as I am now having to actually implement stuff I've studied and taught in sessions like the LEAD seminars. This first overseas post has to do with securing your iPhone, iPad, etc.

The urgency of having a secured iDevice was impressed on us when Rosemarie's purse, including ID and iPhone, were left in a cab and initial attempts to retrieve it didn't work. We now have contact with someone who apparently bought the iPhone 5 from the cab driver, but can't make it work because of the protections I've enabled. We have high hopes of getting it back, but only because of this process.

  • When you get an iPhone or iPad, first enable a passcode. This will be under Settings, and on my 5s it's a tab called Touch Id & Passcode - it may be different on your device. You will basically set a 4-digit PIN here, which you'll have to enter every time you fire up your device unless you have an iPhone 5s with Touch ID (fingerprint authentication). Other settings: Require Passcode Immediately, and Erase Data. You're setting things up to have the passcode mandatory for use of the phone, and also setting things up so that 10 faulty attempts to guess your passcode will erase the phone so that no one can access your data. You can also choose a non-Simple Passcode (longer, not just 4 digits), and this is not a bad idea with a 5s where you'll typically just enter with a touch of your finger anyway. On other devices this may be too much hassle. RESULT: if someone finds your iOS device, they can't just start using it as their own.
  • Next, enable the Find My iPhone service. On my phone this is located under iCloud. Yes, you want an iCloud account. This is linked to your iTunes account (Apple ID) and will enable backups and other goodies that you really do want. Once devices are registered with Find My iPhone, you can locate them on a map. You can also, if they're in the house but not where you thought they should be, play a sound on the device (a kind of sonar ping) that'll help you locate it.
  • Last, make sure your version of iOS (the operating system that runs your device) is up to date. Apple is continually beefing up security and generally improving things, and one of the features of iOS 7 (the current version as of mid-July 2014, with 8 on the horizon) is an activation lock which renders your device useless to thieves and opportunistic "finders" unless they're able to validate your device with your Apple ID.
What happens when your device goes missing? First, you pray: request for retrieval and gratitude for having followed this process. Next, fire up Find My iPhone and see if its location can be determined. Rosemarie's phone was offline (battery was dead) but I set it to relay a message to anyone who found it (Please call xxx-xxx-xxxxx) and notify me when it was back online. I could also set it to erase itself, keeping corporate and personal data secure. In this case I chose not to do that immediately, in hope that the phone would show up. By the way, this erasing of the phone doesn't seriously inconvenience you, the owner, as long as you've backed the phone up with iTunes or to iCloud. Here's another reason to want iCloud: you can have the phone back itself up every time it's connected to power and on wifi - very handy! This makes restoring your data a pleasurable chore (pleasurable compared to the alternatives).

What happened? Rosemarie's phone was offline, so I couldn't track it. In some cases, people have actually been able to track their lost/stolen phones to where they were being held. (Strong hint: let the police apprehend the bad guys - don't do it on your own.) I had a message to call an Indonesian friend on the phone, and when the new "owner" tried and failed to be able to use the phone, that message prompted a call to her and initiated what we hope will be the return of the phone.

In future posts I'll talk about options for data access while traveling (T-Mobile is an excellent partner for this) and about other elements of doing your work and staying safe while in a foreign country. Some of this will be useful also for working outside your home, by the way...

In the meantime, practice safe computing and keep an eye or hand on those valuables!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Getting Connected

A friend recently asked for some advice on how to stay connected on the road, specifically for her Nook. I thought I'd post what I wrote up in response in case anyone else had similar questions.

There are basically two methods for us (consumers) to get internet access without wires: wifi and cellular connections. Wifi is great in the house, at Starbucks, the library, McDonalds, etc., but consumer wifi doesn't go long-distance. For that you need a cellular connection.

You can either buy a device which itself connects to a cellular network (cell phones, of course, but quite a few tablets and laptops can be purchased with this capability as well) or you can create a wifi connection from some cellular devices. Most smartphones can do this (it's called a hotspot), but some cellular providers make this very expensive or severely restrict you.

You can also buy a stand-alone portable hotspot. The best known ones are the MiFi-type devices, but most require a monthly contract of $60 or so. An option I've used quite happily in many parts of the country is a little gizmo called a Karma ( which is inexpensive to buy, requires no contract, and is quite reasonable on its $/GB costs. It can even be free to use under certain circumstances. Its biggest disadvantage is that coverage is not the equal of what you get from Verizon or AT&T, but if it works where you need it to (they have a coverage tab on their website) then it's quite a good solution.

Hope this helps some of you!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Need to remove a background on a photo? Check out Clipping Magic

I just discovered a site that offers quick and easy removal of busy backgrounds. Check it out at

You drag and drop a photo file in the box, as instructed, and then start painting - red for remove, green for stay. Zoom in and use the eraser and smaller brush sizes to fine-tune things. The fourth icon on the left, the four-way arrow, lets you move around if you're zoomed in.

It just took me a few minutes to go from the picture on the left to the result on the right.

After clipping

You can choose different colors for the background. Yes, a professional piece of software will handle the delicate tracing of Kinsey's hair somewhat better, and I could have invested a few more seconds in getting the right bottom area of her dress correct, but free and quick are both rather powerful concepts!

This service is currently in alpha testing, and is free during this time. There's no indication what the pricing might be after that, but you can sign up now and get freebies once the testing is over. In the meantime, go and play!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Free Software Bundle for Mac Users

One of the great ways to get some good deals on software is to watch for software bundles. I've often gotten something I was planning on getting anyway for a lower bundle price (along with other programs) than I would have to pay for that single piece on its own.

Well, there's a very good deal going on right now: Mac users can get 8 pieces of software with a regular retail value of $117 for the great price of $0 - completely free. You could even win an iPad mini!

Check it out at - no drawstrings or hidden surprises that I've seen, and the price is rather good. The deal is good until Jan 30th, 2013, so don't miss it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

CES 2013

I had the privilege of walking miles and miles of show floor at CES 2013 in Las Vegas this past week, looking for solutions for Northwest University as well as ideas to share in my Tech Roadshow sessions and classes. Some impressions follow:

This was a pretty decent show: better than the previous year or two. TVs have been big for a while (in multiple senses of the word). 3D is still on display, but not as much as previous years. The stress now seems to be on quality: OLED, and UltraHD (4K etc.). Impressive, but probably not of great importance to me/us, at least until it trickles down into affordable territory.

Something else that was pretty prevalent was the whole 3D printing scene: many vendors and options here. Makerbot, one of the pioneers in terms of "affordable" printing, was well represented ( and the Replicator 2x looked great. I was impressed with the 3D Systems CubeX printer ( which starts at about $1300. I expect these to change many aspects of our lives, especially as prices decrease and materials improve. I think we're going to see a major revolution in years to come, as we print many items ourselves instead of running to the store to buy them.

A lot of stuff was happening in the wireless and home automation world. Besides the Belkin WeMo (, which I spotted at Costco recently, the Iris system available from Lowe's ( was impressive. Some real potential for affordable energy efficiency and remote monitoring and control of home systems.

The items of greatest potential impact I spotted were the new Fujitsu ix500 ScanSnap ( and the Improv Electronics Boogie Board Sync (press release info at, otherwise not yet on their website, but google search for boogie board sync). The Fujitsu scanner has internal processing to output pdf files, and can do this wirelessly to your iOS or Android device. It is superb in being a quick (25 pages/minute, double-sided) scanner which handles a lot of different sizes and formats without complex setup. I'm excited to see how this could assist us in moving to a paperless system - maybe I can get my office cleared! (For some ideas on how to do this, using EverNote as an engine and repository, check out This article uses the Doxie scanners, but the Fujitsu would do even better.)

I think that the Boogie Board Sync has phenomenal potential for our classrooms, and probably for a number of other contexts. This is a very light and easy to use LCD pad, which can function in the classroom like a wireless affordable Smart Board/ whiteboard alternative, at a cost of about $100. This is one of those things that I could probably describe at length to no great avail, but when you try it for yourself you'll see its potential. Very excited about this. I love my iPad, but for handling note taking and projection of such, this is incredible.

There was all sorts of other stuff, and as I process the sensory overload I may add more info. In the meantime, though, I'm excited about getting this stuff working for us.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Best Ink/Drawing Program for iOS

I am often asked for advice on "best-of-breed" apps to do various things on the iPhone/iPad, and one of the most-requested apps is a drawing or note-taking app. I've just found what meets my needs best: Ink, available free at

Besides the fact that it's free, what makes it fabulous? Almost nothing, and I mean that with the highest of praise. Although I like other apps for more complex notes (info below), when you open Ink what you see is essentially nothing - a blank screen, ready to written on, with a little menu indicator at bottom right. That's it. No need to choose notebook, change mode/font/color/ink width, etc. Just scribble away. When you're done, pull up on the screen and that screen has been saved in your photo roll. Double tap on the menu indicator, and you can email it, clear it, and do some other sharing things. But basically, this is a note card that needs no preparation to use: just scribble and save. Absolutely fabulous! I'm putting this on my home page, perhaps even in the dock area. The only drawback: the current version does not have "palm rejection" - if you touch the screen with your palm or another part of your hand, that messes up the inking capability. I would imagine it'll be added soon, though.

Need something more full-featured? If I need to be able to make drawings as well as type, I personally like PaperDesk (, $3.99 for the full-featured version;, free for the lite/trial version). It lets you do pretty much whatever you want, including recording audio and incorporating that as well as photos in your notes. The power of PaperDesk, however, means that it takes a bit of time to get going, while Ink is ready right away.

Hope this helps some of you with your decision.