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    How To Use LEGO CAD Software To Make Amazing Custom Builds

    Over the last year, I've built about a dozen different LEGO kits, mostly Star Wars stuff, frankly. However, I haven't really explored the options that are available for building your own kits. I tried to change that this weekend, but after a few frustrating minutes sketching and messing with loose bricks, I took to the Internet in search of a better answer.

    LEGO CAD

    That's right, there are a series of open-source projects that let you design and inspect your builds in a 3D CAD environment. You can then export a parts list, and even print a LEGO-style instruction manual to help others build your creations. It all starts with LDraw.

    How To Make the Most of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean On Your Phone

    Android 4.2 Jelly Bean continues the platform's long march toward increasing usability and adds some really great new features. As is common with new versions of Android, it's rare to find phones running the software right now. That’s even more true this time around as the Nexus 4 continues to be almost impossible to order on Google Play.

    While you’re waiting to get the newest flavor of Jelly Bean in your hands, you might as well learn how to make the most of your eventual phone. Let’s go over the best tips and tricks lurking beneath the surface in Android 4.2.

    Tested: Macro Smartphone Photography with a $2 Laser Pointer

    I'm fascinated by novel implementations of macro photography: manipulating optics in cameras to take extremely up close photographs of everyday objects. Cameraphone accessories like the Olloclip let you conveniently take macro photos with the iPhone you have in your pocket--even if the attachment is a little pricey. But the coolest thing about modern macro photography is that you don't necessarily need special lenses or photography equipment to snap those beautiful shots. I've shown you how you can easily take macro photos with your existing interchangeable lens equipment or even use a drop of water to refocus your smartphone's lens. This week, I read about another macro smartphone photography employing a cheap laser pointer and had to test it out. The process turned out to be ridiculously simple and surprisingly effective. The total cost: just $2.11.

    So here's how to use a $2 laser pointer to take macro photographs, and how those photos compare with other D-I-Y methods.

    How To Protect Yourself From Amazon's and Apple's Gaping Security Holes

    You've probably seen the story by now, but Wired's Mat Honan was attacked this weekend. To say it was really bad is an understatement. The attack is well-documented at Wired and Mat's personal blog, but the impact was massive. The individuals responsible deleted his Google account, hijacked his AppleID, took over his Twitter, deleted the backups of his iPad and iPhone, wiped his iOS devices, and erased his MacBook. The people responsible claimed they did it all because they liked his 3-character Twitter handle.

    But that isn't what left me terrified, reading Mat's story. Mat wasn't vulnerable because he did something dumb--like use the same password on all his accounts or share it with the wrong person. While he is responsible for some dumb behavior, notably not backing up his PC, the attack took advantage of gaping security holes at massive companies--Amazon and Apple. On its own, neither attack would be particularly bad, but together they were disatrous.

    How To Get Better Depth of Field Photos with Your Camera

    I've recently been experimenting with the Brenizer Method of photography, a technique invented by wedding photographer Ryan Brenizer for accenting the depth-of-field in photos. Initially called "panoramic stitching" the Brenizer Method allows you to create very large full-frame photos using a standard DSLR and wide-aperture lens, the results of which have an incredibly shallow area of focus. While an off-the-shelf wide-aperture lens like a 50mm f/1.4 lens will already produce a great photo with a smooth bokeh depth-of-field effect, your shot won't be that wide because of the focal length--50mm is considered mid-range telephoto, especially with an APS-C sensor crop. That's where the trade-offs come in when buying lenses: the shorter the focal length (and hence wider the frame), the most costly it is to buy a lens with a wide-aperture. For example, while a 50mm f/1.4 lens will cost under $500, a 28mm f/1.4 lens can cost over four times as much. That's because the aperture value (f number) is directly proportional to the focal length.

    So what many photographers are learning is that they can use post-processing methods after the fact to fake the look of a more expensive lens using a more practical one. And in the case of the Brenizer Method, it's not faking bokeh by adding blur to an image, it's faking the wide frame of an ultra-wide angle lens using stitching. It's the same kind of panoramic stitching that gigapixel photographers use to create giant photos can be used to create an image with an equivalent f-number of 0.44. The exaggerated depth of field on such a large image creates a sense of focus and sharpness on the subject that's akin to what your eyes see--the focal length of the human eye is the approximate equivalent of a 22mm camera lens. Ryan Brenizer's blog gives superb examples of what you can do with photographic stitching.

    Photo Credit: Flickr user lenscrack via Creative Commons

    But most photographers using the Brenizer Method already have good DSLRs and wide aperture lenses. I wanted to find out what the Brenizer Method could do for a more affordable camera, like my Sony NEX-C3 and even the iPhone 4S. Here's what I found.

    Tips for Hassle-Free Picture Frame Hanging at Home

    As anyone who's watched a video shot in my living room may know, one of my obsessions is collecting unique art, concert, and movie poster prints. I just can't resist breaking out the credit card and ordering well-designed poster, especially when it's a limited-edition run. But once the prints are delivered, getting them out of the shipping tube and onto the wall requires a little bit of effort. First, I want to make sure I have a suitable frame for the poster. FrameUSA is my recommendation for really affordable wood frames with plastic sheets in a wide selection of sizes and colors. (For my prized prints, I opt for more expensive wood and glass frames from a local frames outlet.) These typically come with the hanging gear required to mount the frame on a wall--the most hardware you'll need is a hammer and maybe a picture hook. I don't recommend the "Super Hooks" that you may have seen on infomercials.

    The toughest part I've found to hanging a batch of frames is finding the right spot for the nail to get the frame at an exact height. In the past, I've tried using a ruler to measure the distance between the top of the frame and the hook, then applying that to the wall using a light pencil mark. It's a time-consuming process that's not always precise. The other method is trial and error, which means potentially leaving a bunch of tiny holes in your wall. But I recently discovered two tricks to marking the spot on the wall for the nail. The first comes from The Industrial Cottage blog, which recommends applying a dab of toothpaste at the end of the picture hook and then positioning the frame where you want it. That leaves a small toothpaste mark where you should hammer in the nail, and it's easily wiped away if you want to try different placements.

    The second tip comes from the Scrap Shoppe, which shows you how to create a wall marking tool with a clothespin punctured with a small nail. The clothespin part isn't really necessary--any sturdy piece of wood will work, like a ruler. You then hook the frame onto the nail, holding the clothespin or ruler over the top edge of the frame to position it close to the wall. When you've found a good place for the frame, tap it against the wall and the nail will leave a small mark where you'll want to hammer in a picture hook. It's a little more complicated and more permanent than the toothpaste method, but I've found both to work well.

    Perfect frame positioning is one of those things that's easy to get obsessive about, so here's a real pro-tip: if you ever visit someone's home and see a frame out of alignment, don't let them know. It's impossible to unsee and will drive them nuts.

    How To Properly Optimize Your Images for the Web

    One of the side effects of higher-resolution displays on mobile devices, such as the new iPad, is that compression on web images is more pronounced than ever. It's been discussed at length and even joked about in webcomics. There's no denying that compression in jpegs and gifs really stand out on high PPI screens. But web designers can't just save all their images as uncompressed PNGs--bandwidth is as much as premium on smartphones and tablets as it was on desktops back in the days of dial-up and ISDN. And as web developer Jeremy Keith points out, the art of image optimization is back in fashion again. Finding that perfect balance of image size and compression quality improves the overall user experience to a website or mobile app, and it's more than just hitting that "save for web" option in Photoshop. Here are two freeware tools that I recommend for web designers (or anyone that edits images for web publishing) that can squeeze extra bytes out of JPEGs, GIFs, and PNGs without extra lossy compression. They work by running image files through multiple open source algorithms that remove unnecessary metadata, gamma and transparency channel data.

    For OS X, ImageOptim is an extremely elegant lossless compression tool that is as simple as drag-and-drop. Just dump your files in the window and let it work. The freeware app runs each file through four different compression algorithms, though you can opt out of the slower (typically better) ones to cut down on compression time. Your compression percentage is displayed and the original files are automatically overwritten, retaining their original permissions and hardlinks. You can choose to save backups of the original files as well. ImageOptim's creator explains more about the nuances of PNG optimization in this post.

    On Windows, RIOT (Radical Image Optimization Tool) is my compression program of choice. It also offers drag-and-drop ease-of-use, but gives additional resizing and batch-processing options for bigger projects.

    Both ImageOptim and RIOT tap into PNGOUT, the powerful PNG optimizer developed by Ken Silverman (yep, of Duke Nukem 3D's Build Engine fame). PNGOUT isn't included in either of the apps so you have to download and install it manually. It's also very slow to run, even on a quad-core Sandy Bridge processor, so I recommend leaving it off unless you're under severe file size constraints.

    Building a Third-Person Camera Rig—Step 2: Concept Testing

    This is the second in a multi-part series about Will's Third-Person Live-View Camera rig project. Here's the first part.

    We're three weeks out from MakerFaire, and my third-person camera project is coming along nicely. After some initial tests, I'm pretty sure I have all the electronics stuff figured out. The GoPro HD Hero 2 handles live feed out of its HDMI port like a champ, and the Sony head-mounted display seems like it will work just fine. Yes, it's somewhat heavy, but it gives me a good high-resolution display to test with.

    I hooked everything up for the first time this morning, using my wife as a temporary camera mount, and an extension cord to power the Sony goggles as I walked around my backyard. Watch the video, and then we'll talk about what I've learned so far.

    Spring Cleaning: Find Files and Folders That Eat Disk Space

    Once or twice a year, I spend a few hours cleaning the detritus off of my hard drives. You know, the driver downloads, intermediate video rips and renders, and all the crap that's in my downloads folder. But, with modern OSes hiding a lot of the files you use on a day-to-day basis deep in the directory structure, it can be tough to know where those big files are buried.

    That's where WinDirStat (Windows) and Disk Inventory X (Universal Beta for OS X) come into play. These tools scan all the files on your hard drive, noting size and location. Then, they create a to-scale visual representation, called a treemap, of the space used by each file and folder on your machine. Small squares are small files, big squares are big files. Select a folder in the list, and you can see all the files inside it. This is very useful.

    Disk Inventory X

    While you can delete files directly from each app, it's not always a good idea. If you want to get rid of an application or game on Windows, it's better to use the Add/Remove Programs tool than just delete a folder. And if you aren't sure about the contents of a file, it's much easier to preview them using Finder or Explorer. open the folder in Finder or Explorer and delete from there.

    Why the Chemex + Kone Filter Makes Great Coffee

    I spent most of 2010 learning how to brew coffee using pretty much every technique I could find. I loved some, I feared others, but I didn't really find anything worth sticking with until I used an Able Brewing Kone in my Chemex. With the Kone + Chemex combination, I'm able to make coffee that has the velvety mouthfeel of a French press while retaining the complexity of flavor that I love in a pourover.

    The Chemex is a notoriously fickle way to brew a cup of coffee. Because the hole in its neck is so large, Chemex filters need to be thick and heavy paper, which imparts a strong paper taste to the coffee and removes many of the tasty oils. At the same time, the brewing basket is enormous--making it difficult to control the amount of time the water spends in contact with grounds while simultaneously cooling off the coffee too quickly. While you can make an awesome cup of coffee with a Chemex and its paper filters, it's difficult to do with any consistency. If you want to brew coffee using a pourover device and a paper filter, a Hario V60 or one of those plastic Melitta cones are both better than the Chemex.

    At least, this is what I thought until I learned to use the Able Brewing Kone.

    Building a Third-Person Camera Rig - Step 1: Planning

    We're trying something new! I'm starting a long-term project and we want to do more than just show you how to make whatever we end up building. We want to involve you in the process, show you how we end up with the plans we have, and (hopefully) get some input from you guys along the way as well. Part two is on the site now.

    MakerFaire is about a month away, and I want to build something silly and awesome for this year's show. What pray tell? A real-life third-person camera.

    I've wanted to build a third-person camera since head-mounted displays stopped being complete garbage. I have about a month to plan, collect parts, get the work done, and have everything ready for MakerFaire in mid-May.

    Photo Credit: Lukas Franciszkiewicz

    This has the makings of a fun project on its own, but it's also a fun experiment. I'm very interested to see how different people react to the third-person view. Will it take a long time to learn to walk around or will it immediately feel natural? Will it seem like an out of body experience?

    How Sci-Fi Propaganda Art Influenced The US and Soviet Space Race

    I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. ... in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

    On May 26, 1961, John F. Kennedy turned the world's growing fascination with space flight into a race--an overt competition with the Soviet Union, which had launched the first man into outer space just one month before. America had reason to rally behind the Space Race against the Soviet Union: Sputnik beat the United States to space in 1957, damaging its national pride and igniting fears of Soviet technology. But for years before Sputnik and the ensuing technological escalation made space flight a reality, something else was fueling the imaginations of the American people: the magazine.

    Magazine covers and the articles behind them often painted fantastic visions of future technology, using headlines like "Man Will Conquer Space Soon" and "Flying Saucers for Everybody!" The Soviet Union had its own magazines and artwork, which boldly depicted rockets and cosmonauts reaching for the stars. Every bit of science artwork published in the 50s and 60s served to propagandize one nation's plans for space, but nationalistic pride surfaced in very different ways.

    To piece together the cultural history behind magazine illustrations collected from across the Web, I needed to perform a Brain Bug-style knowledge absorption on someone who knew science (and science fiction) as well as they knew art. I found that expertise in two people: Vincent Di Fate, a Hugo award-winning artist who's illustrated for NASA, written a book on sci-fi art, and created hundreds of cover illustrations, and Gavin Rothery, who served as the conceptual designer and visual effects supervisor for the 2009 sci-fi film Moon.

    Together, we dissected the cultural influences behind Soviet and American art, compared "science" to sci-fi through mags like Mechanix Illustrated and 2000 AD, and detoured into the weird, weird worlds of Eastern European and Japanese illustrations.

    The United States Races to Space

    Which came first: the artistic vision of space travel, or the scientist's attempts to break free from Earth's orbit? Before Sputnik, there was no great, unifying national effort in the United States to reach for the stars. But there was a vision for space travel. Illustrator Chesley Bonestell tapped into a nascent interest in space with a series of paintings published in popular magazines like Life in the 1940s, including the incredibly influential "Saturn as Seen From Titan." Those paintings were collected in a book called The Conquest of Space, which paired Bonestell's work with the words of science writer Willy Ley. The Conquest of Space was written as a realistic vision of how man could make it into space. This was the beginning: art began to inspire greater interest in rockets and the stars.

    "Illustrators contributed richly to this stuff," Vincent Di Fate told me in a conversation last Friday. "It's hard for people who didn't grow up with magazines a regular part of their home lives to understand how important the magazine was, particularly in that era before television... It kinda hits you in the head like a two-by-four that there was no other way to produce these images other than through the imaginations of the artists."

    In 1951, the First Symposium on Space Flight brought together rocket scientist Wernher von Braun with other notable writers, artists and scientists, including Ley and Bonestell. While they talked rockets and space stations, an editor for Collier's Magazine, Cornelius Ryan, set the stage for the space race.

    "Ryan got the idea that he would use these scientists as consultants for the development of an extensive series of articles that would begin the following year," Vincent Di Fate explained. "So in 1952 they initiated a series of articles... that dealt with the further development of space travel... In order to team these science writers and scientists with appropriate images, Ryan arranged for Chesley Bonestell to be hired to create much of the key art."

    Ryan's coverage of the Symposium foreshadowed the US/Soviet competition that would follow in the next decade. The opening page of Collier's influential "Man Will Conquer Space Soon" series, which presented articles written by von Braun, Ley, and others, leads off like this: "... the U.S. must immediately embark on a long-range development program to secure for the West 'space superiority.' If we do not, somebody else will. That somebody else very probably would be the Soviet Union."

    The influence of the Symposium soon spread further into popular culture through television. "In 1955, Walt Disney had this weekly television series Disneyland, which ran on Wednesday nights on ABC," Di Fate said. "That took it a step farther, dealing with animation to show, for a rather naive public, how mankind would deal with issues like weightlessness and breaking away from the Earth's envelope. ... The Tomorrowland segments ... really helped sell to another generation the feasibility and desirability of space development."

    The Disneyland space series may have been on television, but it was ultimately the work of illustrators just like the magazine covers of the day. "All of the visualization that they did was artwork," Di Fate said. "Their outline of the mission to Mars is all done in a series of airbrushed paintings on acetate that are slowly moved across the frame to give the illusion of movement."

    Mars and Beyond aired in December 1957, two months after Sputnik's launch into orbit. Soon the Space Race was in full swing, but most of the interesting American artwork depicting futuristic technology was published before the development of the space shuttle. In hindsight, some of them are hilarious. Where Collier's had experts like Wehrner von Braun predicting that a space station would orbit Earth "within the next ten or fifteen years"--a guess that was only off by five years--other publications capitalized on the space craze with sci-fi articles masquerading as plausible journalism. An issue of Popular Science published in May 1958, for example, outlines a lunar program that begins with the United States nuking the moon to stir up dust for analysis and ends with a man on the moon around the year 2000.

    Gavin Rothery, who posts sci-fi artwork and videos on his blog every day, has previously written about the odd not-science that appeared in the popular magazines of the 40s, 50s and 60s. "The articles aren't really written by scientists, weirdly, especially in the case of Frank Tinsley," Rothery said. "He was writing his own articles, so he was basically just going off on one in his own head, and just coming up with the most fantastic ideas, and then illustrating them, and then writing about them as if it was real science."

    Rothery's blog post full of Tinsley's magazine articles and fantastic (though absurd) illustrations put it another way: "This guy was so forward-thinking; he just did not give a single solitary shit. Just look at some of the high-concept thinking going on here in some of his editorial work - it's amazing. Frank Tinsley is the honey badger of the 1950s science fiction editorial."

    "With our hindsight now we don't understand where they came from properly, the kind of whimsical nature of it," Rothery told me. These ideas look absurd today, but they were created in a time of enormous technological growth. Within two decades, scientists went from early rocket development to landing on the moon. Artists like Tinsley celebrated that spirit of creativity with outlandish ideas. Before scientists knew what, exactly, would be possible, everything was at least a little bit plausible.

    As it turned out, controlling the moon wasn't the key to asserting military dominance over the Earth. The moon is over 200,000 miles away, making any missile launched from the lunar surface far easier to intercept than one fired from, say, Cuba. Beating the Soviets to the moon may not have been the best catalyst for a space program, but it did its job, and for years speculative science art championed the cause.

    On the other side of the world, sci-fi magazine art was having a similar effect.

    How To Turn Your iPhone Into a Stop Motion Camera

    Shooting short time-lapse movies is time consuming, but the barrier to entry has never been lower. You're probably an inexpensive app and a $30 tripod away from having everything you need to get started.

    I have a pretty well established love of Lego, so it's no surprise that I might want to do a time-lapse video of a lego build. I've seen several great ones on YouTube, as well as great stuff posted by Crimson Jester and Fink in the forums. My goal was to do something a bit more complex than a simple time-lapse--I wanted to make a video where the model seemed to assemble itself--time lapse wouldn't cut it for that. Instead, I needed to learn about stop motion filmmaking.

    The tools I used for this are simple, but overkill for a project of this size--a Joby Gorillapod Focus with the Ballhead adapter with a Glif iPhone 4/4S tripod adapter. If you're buying a tripod specifically for this, it's much cheaper to use a dedicated iPhone tripod mount, but I already had these on hand. I used the Frameographer app to shoot the video. Frameographer includes the tools you need to make a great stop motion video at 720p. There are some more specialized apps for stop-motion, so before you start a massive, multi-hour project, make sure you do your homework to make sure Frameographer is right for you. It doesn't allow you to export individual frames, edit frame order, or make any adjustments after your set is broken down. Finally, I needed a subject. In this case, it was the midi-scale Imperial Star Destroyer I bought at Bricks by the Bay a few weeks ago.

    What's the difference between stop-motion and time-lapse? In time-lapse, you simply set the camera to shoot a frame at a fixed interval--the interval can range from a few shots a second to a few shots per day. The goal with a time-lapse film is typically to compress the passage of time. On the other hand, with stop-motion films, you manually control each time the shutter opens, painstakingly positioning your subjects, aligning them, and making sure that every frame is perfect. The downside is that this can take a long time; such a long time that there's a South Park episode about it. You typically record video at 24fps, which means you'll get about 1 second of video every 24 times you open the shutter, and it will take 1440 exposures to get a full minute of footage. I love stop motion because it lets you imbue life in objects that are normally inanimate.

    Before you start shooting, you need to secure your set and choose your subject. Because I chose to do a stop-motion Lego assembly, I didn't have to write a script or build models to shoot, but that would fall under the general rubric of "preparation" as well.

    You should also take a moment to consider lighting. While it's tempting to use natural light for your shoot, it's usually a better idea to use artificial lighting for stop-motion animation. The length of time it takes to set up each shot will make it difficult to maintain a consistent exposure throughout your shooting day. The good news is that your phone's camera probably handles low-light shooting reasonably well, so you shouldn't need to use much more than your room's existing lighting.

    It's also a good idea to prep your phone. I ran a power cable to the phone and set it to never automatically lock, which meant all I had to do to take a shot was tap the shutter button, without having to wake up the phone each time. I recommend turning vibrating notifications off or switch to airplane mode--you'll want to do everything you can to avoid moving the camera once you start shooting.

    When you're ready to start shooting, make sure your shot is framed properly, with enough room for whatever you're actually going to shoot. Take some test shots in both your starting configuration and the finished config, before you shoot your first frame. You don't want to spend a few hours on the opening, only to realize your shot positioning will need to change at the 60% mark.

    It's a good idea to shoot a few opening frames with no movement--I didn't do this, and really wish I had. It lets the viewer get used to your starting position. You'll also want to enable onion skin mode. To do that in Frameographer, tap the second icon from the left in the top row in the capture window. Onion skin mode overlays the live view from the camera over the previous frame, making it much easier to control your characters' movement and avoid having accidental movements in your film. There really isn't a trick to onion-skin mode--you just need to find a couple of points of reference on any object that moves and make sure they align properly from frame to frame.

    As a general rule, you should shoot several mostly static frames on either side of transitions with lots of movement. This helps the viewer adjust to changes in context. When something major happens, as when I attached the bridge to the Star Destroyer, it would have been smart to shoot a transition from one position to the other, and maybe even devote a second or two of the final movie to showing off the major addition. It's also wise to go back and watch every few dozen frames, to make sure your positioning hasn't drifted. A pixel or two of accidental movement each frame can make your finished movie look really janky.

    If you want to get started with stop-motion animation, Lego makes a great subject. Doing a stop-motion build is a relatively easy way to get started--it took me a mere six hours to assemble and shoot a 423 piece kit. The studs on top of each Lego brick are a great point of reference to ensure you only move what you want to during your build. When you're ready to go farther, playsets and mini-figs make great sets for your short films, at least until you're ready to build models and sets from scratch.

    I did learn a few specific things shooting a Lego build. First, the overhead 2/3rds angle that Lego uses in its instruction manuals works great for a time-lapse build. It lets you see enough detail to be interesting, without requiring a tricky overhead camera setup. The less you can move the model when placing a brick, the better off you are. Realigning your model after you've moved it takes a lot of time and is frustrating.

    Attaching bricks takes a fair amount of force, both when you push the brick onto the model and from the hand holding the model in place. Unfortunately, I found that applying enough pressure to keep the model from wiggling when you place a brick causes the model to wiggle when you release the hand that holds it in place. This is a bad thing. To fix this, I use a three-step brick placing technique. First, I apply a fair amount of pressure to the model with my left hand, locking it in place. Then, I place the brick with my right hand. Finally, I apply gentle pressure to the model with my right hand while lifting my left hand from the model. The gentle pressure from the right hand is usually enough to stop the wiggle that plagued my early efforts.

    That's really all there is to it. Be sure to post your time lapses in the forums when you've finished them. I'm going to take another stab at stop-motion later this month using a real still camera and Final Cut Pro X.