Change is Good

When I start to get bored I start thinking about things and fiddling with things and you never know what I’m going to come up with. Once the weather got colder and I couldn’t get out in the gardens or on the bike I retreated to my little mad scientists laboratory down in the basement and started tinkering and thinking. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it keeps me out of MrsGF’s hair and keeps me from hanging around on street corners selling unlicensed cats. What emerged from this brainstorm was the Wowbagger 2000.

Sidenote: Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged was a minor character in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. His self appointed task was to insult every single person in the entire universe, in alphabetical order.

The Wowbagger 2000 is an insulting robot. It will, when fully developed, home in on a specific target, someone who deserves to be insulted, someone like, oh, Elon Musk, for example. I’m thinking of sending him the prototype when it’s finished. It will follow them around and at the most potentially embarrassing time, like when one is on the phone with one’s boss or mother in law or something, make snide, cutting remarks about the person’s physical appearance, mental capacity and/or family history. I figure the world needs something like this very badly. Unfortunately my Kickstarter campaign has resulted in a total investment of twelve cents and something that looks like a bit of fossilized chewing gum from the Milwaukee public transit system, so my budget for this project is severely limited.

I almost immediately ran into problems. Normally with a little project like this I’d reach for a Raspeberry Pi computer. These are very small, rather powerful Linux based computers that are extremely useful for little projects like this. I used to get a RaspPi for about $40. Not any more. When I went looking for one they were going for $250, and there was no way I was going to enrich the profiteering scalpers who trying to scam people. So I looked for a possible alternative and came up with the Arduino.

This is where the “change is good” thing comes in. Arduinos have been around for ages but they always seemed to be a bit limited in their abilities and inconvenient to work with. And they aren’t really computers.

Well, okay so technically they are computers, but I mean they aren’t designed to be used like you would use a desktop, laptop or even a RaspPi. Technically it is a microcontroller. It has lots and lots of addressable pins that can be used to control other things. to read data from sensors and things like that. They’re great for projects like robotics and remote sensing platforms like weather stations and things like that. Including a lot of stuff I used to use the RaspPi computers for.

And did I mention they were cheap? They are very, very cheap. I can pick up an Arduino Mega clone for around $15 and even the genuine Italian made ones aren’t all that much more. The cheapest RaspPi I can find is going for about $130. So, $130 compared to $15? Guess which one I bought.

Yeah, right. Well, bought more than one. I got about 8 of the things laying around now but never mind that.

I am now wishing I’d started tinkering with these things a long, long time ago. Yes, they can be awkward to work with. Yes, they are fairly limited when it comes to things like built in memory, speed and convenience. Yes, I need to write the code on a separate computer and download it. Yes, I have to write code in a variation of C++, a language which is, frankly, an abomination on the face of the Earth.

But my goodness they’re fun to play with.

Oh, and I should mention that because they are very popular, very cheap, and have been around for a very long time, there are a tone of add ons available for them that are very fun indeed. And cheap. Very cheap. I can pick up a full color, 3″ touch screen video display, with an SD card reader, for $15??? Seriously?

So I’ve been locked up in my lab (MrsGF lets me out for lunch) fiddling with these things and breadboarding things and puttering around and keeping the nice delivery companies in business shipping me resistors and capacitors and servomotors and stepper motors and even resorting to actually learning stuff.

And the result is…

Yes, the Wowbagger 2000 lives! With a full color touch screen for the display and user input. And it actually works????

Yeah, it works <evil grin>

Artificial Intelligence, Art and Controversy

I don’t often talk about computer technology and software here because A) it’s generally pretty boring, and B) there are far better sources for information about this stuff than me. But I want to talk about “artificial intelligence”, or AI as it’s known, because it has some serious implications for all of us as it comes into more widespread use. While I used to be a programmer I’m not so much interested in the technology of AIs as I am in the ethical and social implications of AIs, and that’s what I want to talk about briefly.

Take a look at that painting up there. It isn’t bad, really. Personally I’d like it if it were a bit brighter, but overall it isn’t horrible. It’s sort of a generic winter scene, peaceful, pleasant even.

Or what about this one —

Both of these paintings are originals that I just did in the last few days, but I didn’t make them in the usual way by applying paint to a surface or even a using a stylus on a drawing pad as I usually do. These were done by an app on my cell phone that is available for free on Apple’s app store called Draw Things. And as you can see it is pretty damn good. Well, sometimes. I will admit that about 8 out of 10 of the images it generates are, frankly, a bit, well, surreal. Like this one below.

I found myself wondering what kind of drugs my iPhone was on to make it produce something like this.

But that being said, that it works at all is, I think, a bit amazing. What’s even more amazing is that unlike some of the other art AIs out there which actually run on some massive server somewhere out there on the internet, Draw Things runs entirely on the phone, no external processing power required. You can try it yourself although I’ll warn you that your phone will need a lot of free memory (the libraries the software uses are a gigabyte+ in size and you need at least one for the program to work) and using the program frequently will suck up a hell of a lot of battery as well because it really makes that processor work hard.

When you run the program, what you do is type in words and phrases that verbally describe the scene you want painted. Let’s say you type in something like “A white cat sitting on a table with vases of flowers” as an example. What you get is something like this –

MrsGF thinks that image is just creepy but personally I think it’s kind of charming, but everyone’s tastes are different.

But these art AIs have also generated a hell of a lot of controversy as well, and for good reasons.

Yes, this one was generated by that app running on my cell phone.

First of all, artists, actual real world artists who create real world art, are very nervous about all of this and for very good reasons. There are thousands of artists out there who earn their living as graphic artists, illustrators, etc. for advertising agencies, magazines and the like. Publishers and corporations don’t give a fig about things like ‘artistic integrity’ or keeping illustrators gainfully employed. They only care about money. So if it comes down to paying an illustrator money to create a piece of artwork for them, or generating something essentially for free with an AI, guess which option they’re going to take? They’re going to go with the AI everytime.

Another controversy is how these AIs are trained. Before these things will work properly they have to be trained by feeding them literally millions of illustrations. They do this by scraping the internet for every image they can get their hands on, whether those images are protected by copyright or not. Under a strict interpretation of copyright law some claim that this is an illegal use of those copyrighted images. Others claim that this use qualifies as what is known as “fair use” and is legally and ethically acceptable. I’m not a lawyer and I’m not even going to try to figure out whether how these things are trained is legal or ethical or not.

Then there is the question of who “owns” the artwork generated by an AI. That image over there on the right was generated by Draw Things. So who actually owns the rights to that image? You could argue that the image was generated by my phone, using an application that I own, so therefore the image is mine and I own all rights to it.

But it isn’t as simple as that. These days you don’t actually “own” the software you are using. You’re merely licensing it. Basically you’re renting it. That’s been the case for decades now. Under the licensing agreement you agree to, and which you almost certainly haven’t bothered to read because you’d have to hire an attorney to figure it out for you, the maker of the software can set any conditions they like, and it is claimed that your mere use of that software means that you agree to all of the conditions in the license, whether you read them or not. It would be entirely within the realm of possibility for the maker of the AI you’re using to claim any and all rights to any artwork generated by the program. Unless you carefully read the fine print in the license agreement, you have no idea what you are agreeing to.

Some people have started to claim that the AI that generated the image “owns” it. The people who are making this claim either need to find a new hobby or stop taking whatever drugs they’re on because this is just stupid. An AI isn’t an intelligence, it is a computer program. Period. It is no more ‘alive’ than the old Eliza programs people were playing with back in the early days of computing. They’re little more than a complex series of “IF-THEN-ELSE” choices pre-programmed into a computer. Oh, all right it’s a lot more complex than that, but what it boils down to is that an AI is just a computer program like the one I’m using to write this. It is no more “intelligent” or self aware than the calculator you use to figure out your taxes.

The other thing that makes people very nervous is the fact that these things can be used to generate images that mimic specific artists. Want to have your very own original Van Gogh to hang on the wall? You can. These things can easily mimic the artistic style of most well known artists, living or dead. Living artists claim that this reduces the demand for their original artwork. People who like their work don’t need to buy an original or, more likely, an authorized print of the original work, they can use an AI to generate their own in the style of that artist.

I would imagine that the companies that have become wealthy selling stock images for use in publications, companies like Getty, are terrified by this kind of technology because it would very easily put them out of business. Let’s say you’re writing an article about, oh, shopping malls, and you want to put in a photo of a nice looking mall. Instead of going to one of these stock photo companies and buying one, just make your own. Like the one over there on the left. It took Draw Things a little over a minute to generate that. My cost? Zero. So why would anyone ever need to buy generic photos for illustrating articles any more? So let’s just say that investing your pension fund in companies that sell stock images probably isn’t a good idea.

And these things can be used to produce some not so nice images as well. Pornography, s0-called ‘deep fakes’ that portray celebrities, politicians or other well known persons in, oh, compromising positions, let’s call it, can all be generated with nothing but a program like this and a few written descriptions of what you want to see.

Some of the developers of these programs are starting to put filters into the systems to try to prevent or at least limit their capabilities so they can’t be usfed for illicit purposes, but that is ultimately futile. The technology is now out there. A lot of it is open source, meaning anyone can tinker with the underlying code. And there are versions of these programs already out there in the wild, so to speak, tweaked to specifically crank out these types of illicit images. Let’s face it, my friends, that’s what human beings are like. As soon as human beings developed things like writing, painting and drawing, they started using it to make porn.

There are already people out there demanding that something need to be done. Right now. By someone. Somewhere. Congress needs to act now! Act how, though? Ban the software? Sorry, that horse is already out of the barn. Thousands of people are already using it and hundreds are tinkering with the code to make it work even better.

What it all boils down to is that we have a lot of questions, a lot of ethical concerns, a lot of legal issues, and no real answers.

Please feel free to leave comments about this. I’m curious about what other people think of all of this and if anyone has proposed solutions to the problems.

Deja Vu All Over Again

(C) 2021 Randall Krippner

A couple of months back I went through the ordeal of watching administration spox patting themselves on the back over having “fixed” the rail strike threat and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And it was all a lie because there was no actual agreement. What they had was a proposal thrown together by negotiators, and nothing else. All of the unions, all 12 of them, still had to vote to approve or disapprove the proposal.

It was basically a house of cards that would fall apart almost before they got done announcing their “big win”. If any one of the twelve unions voted against the proposal, the whole deal would fall apart because if one of the unions went on strike, all of them would. If anyone had bothered to talk to the actual union members they would have found out immediately that they were not happy with the proposal. And almost immediately that’s exactly what happened, the proposal was rejected by one of the unions. And as of this week, four unions have now rejected the proposal and we could be looking at a railroad strike by Dec. 5.

So what happened? Why did the deal fall apart? Because the proposal did almost nothing to fix the problems that were causing the employees to consider going on strike in the first place. The problem wasn’t so much salaries, it was was the the railroads arcane and even, according to some, outright sadistic scheduling system and lack of sick leave that caused the problems, and that system was going virtually unchanged under the new proposal. (If you want to see what the employee scheduling system is like, you can read all about it here at Inlander. )

So here we are, nearing the end of November, and there could be a rail strike that could shut down the entire system by Dec. 5. And it’s highly likely that everyone will blame not the railroads which caused the problem in the first place, but the employees. I’ve already seen headlines and news stories laying the blame directly on the employees, and completely ignoring the real cause of the employees’ anger. I just read one headline at CNN that read something like “Unions Reject Lucrative Offer” implying that the union members are just being greedy, and nothing in the following story mentioned what the real grievances were.

So what’s going to happen now? I have no idea. Under a nearly 100 year old law Congress has the authority to force a contract on both parties, and the new contract would almost certainly leave the existing scheduling system in place. The result of that would be a hell of a lot of very angry employees. And, well, let’s put it this way – I know six people who worked for a railroad. Every one of them has quit in the past year because of the scheduling system. If Congress imposes a contract that doesn’t deal with the scheduling system it could result in the railroads losing so many employees it would be almost as bad as a strike.


Copyright 2022 all rights reserved and all that legal stuff.

Dreams are weird things. I’m not sure if anyone has figured out exactly why we dream although it seems to have something to do with the brain sifting through things for some reason and if you aren’t permitted to dream, it can result in some serious problems. But I don’t want to talk about why we dream. I want to talk about what we dream.

I don’t run around asking people what they dream while they’re sleeping because that would be, frankly, odd and a bit creepy. But occasionally people have offered up brief descriptions of their dreams and they are almost universally far, far different from mine.

People seem to often share similar situations in dreams. Finding yourself back in high school, walking down the hallway, and you suddenly realize you aren’t wearing pants seems to be a theme that is fairly popular. Some people have genuine nightmares. They’re being chased by monsters of various interesting types. One fellow told me he dreamt he was being eaten, from the feet up, by a zombie unicorn. I thought that was a bit odd, but I let it go because he’s a rather odd fellow to begin with.

Some people have erotic dreams, sometimes rather intense and realistic ones, involving prominent celebrities and things like chocolate syrup and a very rude banana.

What about me? Certainly I dream as well but… But to be perfectly frank I think there’s something broken. Let me give you some illustrations.

The other night I dreamed I had to go to my wife’s sister’s place to feed her dog, Dash. I didn’t mind because Dash and I are great buddies and he likes nothing better than to sit on my lap and slobber over me. So I got in the car, drove out to her farm, took Dash out to go potty, gave him food and fresh water, and drove home. And…

And that was it. That was the whole dream.

Or there was the time I had a particularly vivid dream of painting the garage. I was out there on a nice Saturday afternoon, dipping the brush in the paint can, applying the paint, repeat and… And that was it. That was the whole dream. Painting the garage. It was so utterly boring that I think I bored myself awake somewhere in the middle of it just as I ran out of paint.

Then there was the dream where I went shopping. (Ooo0, the excitement!) I went down to Walmart, picked up a few things, pushed the cart down through the grocery aisles. They were out of my favorite brand of mustard but that was okay because they had another that I like so I got that instead.

Those are just a few examples of how utterly dull my dreams are. Other people get man eating unicorns, monsters, sex dreams with B list celebrities, etc. Me? I paint the garage.

I’ve stopped telling MrsGF about them because her eyes sort of glaze over and midway through she sort of wanders away. Don’t blame her.

One fellow I know tells me that what’s happening to me is not dreaming at all. He claims that we live in a multiverse, an endlessly repeating series of universes, each one just slightly different from the other. According to his theory, what’s happening is that while I’m sleeping I am really mentally connecting with other versions of me, living in other universes, and that in all possible universes I am just as boring as I am in this one. But since he also picks wild mushrooms that he finds growing near the nuke plant north of Two Rivers I tend to just nod and mumble and then point and cry out “Look! A duck!” and then run away while he’s distracted when he gets like that.

Now I am trying desperately to come up with some pithy, witty conclusion to this rambling nonsense and I’m having problems doing so, so let’s try this…

Look! A Duck!


The Vado after 1000 Miles

It’s the second week of November as I write this. The weather is starting to get colder and it looks like the bicycling season here is pretty much over so this is a good time to look at how my new Vado bike has been doing. I’ve been using this bike just about every day since July and I’ve put about 1,000 miles on it. So I thought this would be a good time to take a look at how well it holds up under long term, real world use.

The Vado has exceeded my expectations in every way. It is heavy, yes, it scales at a bit over 60 lbs. That might be a problem for someone who has to lug a bike in and out of an apartment building or up stairs, but it isn’t a problem for me. When actually riding the bike I never even notice the weight, even when riding it with the motor turned off. The Vado works just fine as a standard bicycle without motor assistance, by the way, thanks to it’s 10 speed derailleur shifter. Having that 10 speed shifting capability, IMO, makes the Vado much, much easier to ride out in the real world when compared to e-bikes that are single speed.

I won’t go into a lot of details here and just hit the high points, looking at it from a rider’s point of view.

The lights, both front and rear, are excellent. The headlight is very bright, more than bright enough to be genuinely useful at night. The taillight wraps around the cargo carrier and is also highly visible even in daylight.

The cargo carrier, a sort of flat pallet rack kind of thing, comes installed on the bike, and a sort of “A” frame extends down bolting directly to the rear axle. Vado claims you can lug 50 pounds of junk on this bike if you need to and I have no reason to doubt that claim. I have a hard sided bag strapped to mine with a tool kit and other stuff tucked in there. I’m thinking of throwing together a complete amateur radio system that will fit in there, with ny Yaesu FT-818, a battery and antenna, etc but that’s I’ll talk about that later if it ever happens.

The squeaky duck with the propeller hat is an extra cost option.

From the front the bike looks, well, busy, to be honest, with cables for the shifter, the electronics, etc, plus the hoses for the hydraulic brakes looking like, frankly, a tangled mess. But when I’m riding I’m not looking at the front of the bike so I don’t care.

Speaking of hydraulic brakes, this is the first bike I’ve had which has hydraulic disc brakes and I am very, very pleased with them. They are so much better than the old caliper style brakes that clamp on the rim, or even the cable actuated disc brakes that I’ve had on other bikes, that I don’t think I’d ever want to go back to the old style brakes. I didn’t really think they would make that much of a difference but they really do.

The computer display is excellent as well. It’s full color, small but easily readable even in bright sunlight. It shows all sorts of interesting statistics that I’m sure will be of interest to somebody. But not to me. I’ve had that Garmin thingie up there on the left side of the handlebars for more than a year. It has built in GPS, mapping functions and other goodies, talks to my cellphone, and does everything I want, so I just transferred that over to the Vado. The Vado’s computer does what it needs to do, and there is an app for it that I have on my phone that does all sorts of nice things. Never used that, either. I’m a bit perplexed by the emphasis some bike makers and reviewers put on these computers because ultimately they do little or nothing to make a bike any better as a bike. There’s one bike out there that includes a video game on the computer for heaven’s sake. The computer needs to have a few basic function, speedometer, odometer, battery health and state of charge indicators, and, if possible, ways to adjust things like the levels of motor assistance. That’s really all this class of bike really needs because people who are interested in a bike in this price range are almost certainly already going to have something like the Garmin or an Apple watch or similar fitness tracker device independent of the equipment it’s used with.

Let’s talk about battery life. Vado’s documentation indicates the bike has about 40 miles of range on a charge, which is considerably underestimating the results I’ve been getting in the real world. I did a 22 mile ride the other day and when I got home the battery indicator said I had 74% battery capacity left. 74%. Now I’m not an aggressive rider. I keep the assistance level in “Eco” mode, the lowest, and I don’t have a lot of lengthy, steep hills to climb around here, so I’m probably easier on battery life than a lot of other people, but even so that’s pretty damned good. Considering what my riding style is like I suspect I could get 80 – 90 miles useable range out of this bike. And I should also remind you that unlike some e-bikes, the Vado works perfectly well as a standard, unpowered bicycle.

I suppose I should talk about speed, too. This is a Class 3 bike which means it can hit 28 MPH (that is limited by law apparently?) And it will. In 10th gear and pedalling my little legs off I can hit 28. I generally cruise at around 13 – 15 mph though. That’s a nice, comfortable pace for me in “eco” mode, the lowest boost level for the motor. And I should add that doing 28 mph on a bicycle is, frankly, a bit scary. If you hit a stone or a hole or just about anything at that speed on a bicycle chances are good you’re going to end up with a nasty crash.

If the bike has one potential problem, it’s that derailleur and shifter. It has a more or less standard 10 speed derailleur. First of all it is, oh, fiddly, let’s say. It will occasionally not shift properly when moving the shift lever and I have to fiddle with it to get it to engage the proper gear. Trying to get it into 10th gear doesn’t work at all unless I jam the lever all the way over and then pedal backwards for a turn or two. But this has been such a minor problem for me that I’ve never bothered to take it back to the dealer to get it adjusted, which I suspect would take care of the problem. The shifting problems have also gotten much better with time.

Another problem that went away by itself after a couple of weeks was that when in a high gear, let’s say 8th or higher, and in Turbo mode, the highest boost mode, getting up on the pedals and really pushing hard would occasionally cause the chain to jump on the sprocket. Considering the amount of force being exerted on that chain by my effort plus the torque of the motor, this is actually understandable. There is a hell of a lot of stress on that chain so it jumping on a gear isn’t all that surprising. And as noted, that problem went away after the first couple of weeks. As noted, I have 1,000 miles on it and if I was going to have serious issues with the derailleur I’d think they would have shown up by now.

There is one significant issue with this bike and that’s the price. If you want this model bike yourself it’s going to set you back about $4,000. That’s a hell of a lot of money. Is it worth it? That’s going to depend on what you’re going to use the bike for and how often you’re going to use it. To me, it is. When the weather is decent enough to ride, this is the vehicle I use. From everything to just toodling around the neighborhood, to running up to the local store to get snacks, to riding over to Brillion or Forest Junction for lunch, or packing up my camera and drone and running around the countryside taking photos, this is what I drive. It’s handled everything from gravel trails to broken up country roads to city streets without a problem. It’s been 100% reliable transportation for me. And meanwhile my Buick has been sitting in the garage most of the summer gathering dust. I’ve only had to buy gas for the Buick once since July when I got this bike. That’s how much I’ve used it. So for me, the Vado has been well worth the price.

The Metaverse: What The Hell Is It?

I’m going to go wandering off on a tangent so if you were expecting more photos or info about drones or amateur radio or farming you’re going to want to skip this one. I want to talk about the so-called metaverse. And I should warn you up front that there may be satire. Maybe even sarcasm.

Here we see Zuck plucking a pretty VR flower in his little metaverse. He is not, as some wags have indicated, fondling the testicles of a goat.

And I can’t really talk about the metaverse without also talking about Facebook, The Great Satan, We’ll Sell Your Children If We Can Get Away With It… Oh, hell, what’s the name of that company now? Oh, I remember now. Meta. That’s it. Meta and it’s chief overlord, Palpatine… Oh, dear, that’s not right either. Zuckerberg? Is that it? Yeah, that’s it. But I’ll come to that later.

One of Meta’s problems with the whole metaverse thing is that they aren’t really very good at explaining just what it is. Zuck’s “vision” of the future, the metaverse, is a bit complicated. Let me see if I can explain. Please bear with me because this gets a bit complicated.

In his metaverse we will all be wearing something like those silly goggles he has on in that photo up there. In case you haven’t seen those before, that is a VR (virtual reality) headset that you strap over your face that contains cameras, microphones, and two high resolution video screens just an inch or so away from your eyeballs. The idea is that the headset tries to trick your brain into thinking you are actually inside of a different environment, the one being displayed on the video screens.

Now these have been around for a while. Some gamers use them, some drone pilots use them, sometimes they are used for training. You can think of them as, oh, sort of a video screen that completely surrounds you. The headset tracks the movement of your head and eyes so the scene you see on the video shifts perspective as you turn your head. They’ve been around commercially for, oh, must be ten years or so now. They’ve never been all that popular because they have a variety of problems. People who wear glasses can’t use them at all unless they have special lenses made to correct their vision when wearing them. A significant number of people, as many as 25% or even more, suffer from serious motion sickness when using them for any length of time. (I’m one of those people. Just a few minutes wearing these things makes me so ill I can’t function.)

The new models, especially the new “flagship” model Meta’s company Oculus came out with recently, include sensors that can track your movements so those movements can be mimicked inside of the game or world being displayed. Not just your hand and arm movements, but even track your facial expression. Eventually they hope to make the systems sophisticated enough so they can do away things like hand held controllers so that your movements in a game or whatever environment you’re in can be controlled by your gestures.

Now this can actually be kind of fun, if you can tolerate wearing them. Imagine playing Call of Duty or some other video game, only instead of sitting there staring at a flat screen, it looks like you are actually inside of the game itself. When you turn your head, your view of the world changes just as if you were physically there. Flying a drone that’s tethered to one of these headsets is absolutely breathtaking. You’re seeing the world through the drone’s “eyes” so to speak as if you were actually flying yourself. DJI actually makes a drone specifically designed for this purpose, complete with all the hardware and software to make it work and it is absolutely amazing.

Virtual Reality

But so far this just concerns things like gaming. We want to move into something called VR, Virtual Reality. VR doesn’t actually really need the goggles. Technically whenever we’re playing a game we are engaging in a kind of virtual reality. Even something like watching a movie or a video is, in a way, a kind of VR. We are engaging with an environment that doesn’t actually exist. We sort of, oh, lose ourselves in the drama we’re watching, projecting ourselves into the world we’re seeing on the screen.

In a way people have been engaging with virtual realities, well, forever, really. The difference today is that we now have the technology to make it seem as if you, personally, are actually in that world yourself and that you can actively engage in that world, moving through it however you like – walk, run, fly, crawl, whatever. You can manipulate objects that appear in that world. It’s like you can reach into that movie or video and move objects on the screen, engage with characters in the movie, as if you were there yourself.

In these virtual realities you can have a physical presence in the form of an avatar. An avatar is a physical representation of yourself and the other persons also inside of the virtual world you are in. These avatars can range from very realistic representations of human beings, even ones modeled on your real physical appearance, to simplistic cartoonish forms. You can be human or animal or fantasy creatures. You can change how you appear to others with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks. Feel silly? You can be a cartoon cat. Want to look respectable? You can appear as a human in a three piece business suit.

What do you do in these virtual realities? Why would you even want to bother with any of this? I’ll come to that in a moment. But I want to touch on something called AR first.

Augmented Reality

AR stands for Augmented Reality, and this is one of the directions Meta seems to be moving towards. With AR what you see through the goggles is the actual real world around you. Cameras in the headset project an actual image of your real environment. But you are still seeing a computer generated image, so that means it can be, oh, tampered with. AR lets you project objects that don’t actually exist into your real world.

Let’s say you need to have a video meeting with someone. Instead of seeing them on the screen of your computer or phone, you see the person (or their avatar) sitting in your living room on your sofa. Or the system can project information about objects you focus on, with text appearing to float in mid air near the object. Or if you’re walking through town and wondering where the hell you are, you can see the route you need to take projected onto the sidewalk in front of you as you walk.

Now this all sounds actually pretty neat, even fun. And it definitely can be. But it’s nothing new. None of it. Specifically created virtual realities, virtual worlds that can be “inhabited” by people, have been around for a very, very long time. Perhaps the first real attempt to create a VR experience could considered to be Microsoft V-Chat which dates back to 1995. V-Chat was pretty much utterly horrible in every single way but considering what the technology was like back then I suppose it’s surprising that it worked at all.

But I suppose the granddaddy of VR environments is probably Second Life from Linden Labs. Yes, Second Life is still around and doing quite well, actually. Despite all of the bad press it got for a time (some of it justified, some of it not), and articles that indicate that SL has “failed” somehow, it is still out there and doing rather well. The last data I saw showed SL has about 900,000 unique users per month. And then there is the in-world economy to consider.

In-World Economy? WTF?

Oh, I suppose I should explain what an in-world economy is, shouldn’t I?

People being people, you can be sure that no matter what kind of environment they might be in, they will eventually end up doing two things: First, try to figure out a way to make money off it, and second, sex. Yeah, sex. I’m not even going to go down that road, though, so let’s stick with money.

Second Life is an environment that is entirely created by its own users. Every single thing you see in SL was made by the people who “live” in the world. The vehicles, the trees, the flowers, the grass, the buildings, the clothes the avatars wear, the avatars themselves, the little props decorating scenes like pottery, cups, eye glasses, trains, all of it was made by someone. Now you can build your own stuff in SL if you have the time, the patience and skills to do so, but if you want to decorate your own personal space in SL, what you’ll probably do is just buy the stuff you want from the creator.

Now someone will come along and say, well, that’s silly. Why would you pay actual money for something that doesn’t actually exist except as a graphic in a video game? Well think about it for a minute, we do stuff like that all the time as it is. When you pay to rent or buy the latest blockbuster superhero movie from Marvel you aren’t really buying a tangible product either, are you? You’re simply buying the right to view someone else’s intellectual property. It’s the same with systems like SL, you’re buying the right to use someone else’s intellectual property, their artwork if you want to call it that, in your own environment.

And creating and selling virtual objects is big business. Seriously big business. Second Life’s in-world economy generates about $50,000,000 (US dollars) worth of transactions. Per month. That is not a typo. Fifty. Million. Dollars. Per month.

SL has its own currency, the Linden (usually shortened to “$L”, as in $L100 for one hundred Linden. And the value of the Linden is pegged to the US dollar. The current exchange rate is about $L 240 per dollar.

SL mimics the real world in other ways, not just the economy. You can buy or rent virtual land and put up your own buildings or whatever you like on it. Why? Because we’ve found over the years that people like to mimic the real world, even though there is no requirement to do so. We feel more comfortable in an environment that is more or less similar to what we experience in real life.

But to get back to the in-world economy for a moment. With it’s paltry 900,000 users per month, SL’s in-world economy generates about a half billion dollars of transactions a year. Facebook has literally billions of users. If Zuck and Meta can get significant number of Facebook users to buy into this system, the amount of money they could make off of just taking a cut of in-world transactions would be staggering.

What the Heck Do You Do in VR?

In the case of Second life you do pretty much whatever the hell you want to as long as you don’t violate Linden Lab’s terms of service. Linden Labs provides the environment and the tools, and the users define what they want to do with it. A lot of people love modeling things. You can find, for example, a virtually full sized, working, aircraft carrier (used in a Vietnam war simulation). You can find entire cities, both modeled after real world cities or created entirely out of the creator’s imagination. Want to have your own starship? I have one that’s about 250 meters long, has five decks, fully equipped with weapons, shuttles, and can handle a crew of a dozen or more people. You can fly ultra-realistic aircraft. You can go bowling. Want to be a dragon and breathe fire on people? Go for it. Second life has its own railroad, SLRR, and its own highway system if you want to play with trains or wheeled vehicles.

Mostly though, virtual realities like SL are social spaces. People go there to interact with others in some way. I belong to one group which put together a rather elaborate theater environment and we get together once a week or so and stream bad movies in-world while making snide comments and bad jokes.

Here’s a quick little video of one environment in SL, a place called Le Village de Roqueblanche.

Or you can go totally silly if you like:

Or get even more silly.

I’d show you my place but I just completely tore it down and I’m rebuilding it with a new theme so there’s scaffolding all over the place, cement mixers, construction crews, porta potties and debris all over the place.

What, GF, you ask, does Facebook/Meta’s virtually reality look like? It must be really, really cool considering the resources Meta has at its disposal, right?

Well, let’s take a look…

Wait, seriously? That’s it? With all of the billions of dollars Meta has thrown at this thing this is what they think a virtual world should look like? Yeah, seriously. Horizon World hasn’t been doing too good, and that video up there should tell you why.

So, Back To The Metaverse Again

These virtual realities, these metaverses that already exist and have managed to survive like Second Life are games and social spaces, and that’s about it. There are people who make a tidy bit of money creating and selling in-world content, but the majority of people who use these places do so for recreation.

What Zuck and Meta want to do is push you into a world where you will be “in world” a large part of your time. They want you to not just engage with these worlds as a game, but as an extension of your real life. In their vision of the new world order you will have some version of those stupid goggles strapped to your face pretty much all the time. You will work in some kind of version of this virtual or augmented reality.

Your interactions with your colleagues will take place in VR, not in the real world. Your business meetings? You’ll be talking with their avatars in some kind of augmented reality. You’ll work in there, too. Your documents will appear to be floating in space in front of you instead of reading them from a monitor. You’ll write your code or work on your spreadsheets or write your reports all inside of this world. Even when you aren’t actually working you’ll still be connected to this world in a way through augmented reality systems that will project information overlaid onto the real world like the HUD in your car does.

There are serious problems with all of this, though, that Zuckerberg and his people don’t seem to be able to grasp. The first is that we’ve tried a lot of this stuff before and gave up on it because it didn’t work. Second Life is still littered with the remains of companies, charities, news organizations, universities, etc. that tried to do this before. The few properties in SL that weren’t dismantled are now little more than little visited tourist attractions. The virtual world and the real world simply do not play well together.

We are still people, still human beings, and firmly grounded in the real world where we have to live, and Zuck and Meta are ignoring that. We have to accomplish real world tasks in order to keep our lives going. Most of us would much rather socialize with real people down at the local pub or interact with actual real people at work than someone’s cartoonish avatar. These virtual worlds are fine for games or the occasional diversion, but as human beings we crave, no we need, reality, not some bizarre, cartoonish version of it, no matter how realistic that cartoon version might eventually become.

And the majority of us not only live in the real world, we work in it, too. We aren’t stuck in an office somewhere sweating over reports or code or spreadsheets. We’re out here being carpenters, plumbers, electricians, construction workers, road builders, mechanics, caregivers, nurses, farmers, cooks… This metaverse has little or no relevance at all for people like us. Except when I was a writer and a programmer for a time, I’ve never had a job that I could do in some kind of virtual world. Milking cows, planting corn, repairing HVAC systems, repairing plumbing, laying floors, repairing roofs, installing water heaters, repairing laser scanners… None of it could have been done in Zukerberg’s metaverse. And I suspect the same is true for the vast majority of people who are reading this.

In my opinion, the image that Zuckerberg and Meta have for this metaverse of theirs is fundamentally flawed. They’ve put together a bunch of interesting ideas, almost all of which have been tried before and failed, put it all together and have come up with this “vision” of theirs that they claim is going to solve a lot of problems that, frankly, we don’t actually have.

I think that part of the problem is that Zuckerberg and people like him already are living in a virtual world that is disconnected from reality. He lives in a walled garden that is completely isolated from the reality. His power and money give him the ability to already alter his environment to suit his whims. If he doesn’t like something, he has the money to change it. He is surrounded by sycophants who will agree with any kind of stupid idea he comes up with, telling him how wonderful he is, because of, well, money, really. He already lives in a virtual world, but one created by his wealth.

But let’s talk about the real problem with this metaverse, and that is Meta itself, the company, and the people who run it.

Consider, for a moment, what Facebook does. What it does to you, the user. It “harvests” every single bit of data that it can scrounge up about you. It examines every post you make, every photo you put up, every message you send. It tracks every single thing you read or view. It knows how much time you spend looking at a particular type of post. It knows what you like, what you don’t like. It even tracks your physical movements via apps on your cellphone if you haven’t figured out how to turn tracking off. (Even if you have turned tracking off according to some reports I’ve seen.) And what it does with all of that information it has gathered about you is package it up and sell it to anyone who can cough up the money to buy it. Facebook has been called the most sophisticated piece of spyware ever created, and it pretty much is exactly that. That’s how the company works. That’s how it makes money. It sells you.

And now this same company owns this metaverse in its entirety. From the Oculus headset you need to wear, to the software that runs the systems, to the servers that run the code, Meta owns all of it. So everything you do in this metaverse is also going to be owned by Meta. Every document you write, everything you read, every meeting you have, every spreadsheet you work on, even your calls to your grandmother. Meta is going to have all of it. And you can be damn sure that what Meta is going to do with that data is the same thing Facebook does with the data it gathers on its users. It will collect it, slice it and dice it and index it and sell it to whoever can come up with the money to buy it.

You think you you don’t have any privacy now? Just wait.


The weather here in NE Wisconsin was absolutely beautiful for a few days and I took advantage of that and got out on the bike for a while. But that’s changing fast. They’re now talking about a possibility of snow for us by next week. Sigh…

Jalapeno peppers still growing outside in mid October? Yep. Actually they’re doing better now than they did all summer. I didn’t get more than a dozen or so peppers of both plants during the summer but now the dopey things are covered with flowers and baby fruits. Go figure…

But that being said we have no right to complain. The fall weather has been pretty darned nice. We still haven’t had a hard freeze. We’ve had a few mornings when there was frost on the ground but not enough to really cause any damage. We still have flowers growing around the house and I have two jalapeno pepper plants that are still in flower for heaven’s sake.

Some of the flowers that have survived this fall so far are a bit surprising, like the alyssum. This little cluster of flowers popped up in the spring all by themselves, which surprised me a great deal. But I was very pleased to see them because I love those tiny little flowers, not just because they’re beautiful but because some types of alyssum are amazingly fragrant.

Getting out on the backroads and trails on the bike this fall has been great fun. I’m really going to miss being out there every day once winter hits. It’s been especially interesting out there because I’ve been seeing a lot of reptiles and amphibians out there, far more than usual. I’ve seen dozens of snakes, usually grass snakes and the like. We have two of those little beauties living in the backyard. Unfortunately they’re fast little buggers and my attempts to get them on camera haven’t been very successful. I’ve seen quite a few of them out in the wild as well. Unfortunately I’ve also seen quite a few of them flattened on the roads as well because some of them have a habit of sunning themselves on the roadway.

I’ve seen quite a few turtles out there too, including Fred, who is a regular sight down near the stone bridge that goes over the river.

Almost any sunny day I’d find Fred sunning himself on his favorite spot. He’s a cute little guy, maybe about six inches across with beautiful markings. I’ve managed to get about six or seven fairly decent photos of him.

Most of the migrating birds are gone now. I’ve seen a few cranes still hanging around but those will be gone soon. Ducks and geese are mostly gone. I’ve seen very few birds coming to the feeder in the yard as well. I haven’t had to refill in it some time now. But this time of year the seed eating birds are finding more than enough to eat out there in the wild.

Let’s see, what else? MrsGF and I are sketching out plans for major changes to the gardens now that those big trees are down. Now that the area back there is getting full sun it opens up a lot of options. We want to move two of the raised vegetable beds over to that area because they’re now getting shaded out by a fast growing maple where they are now. The area where the beds are now may become occupied by a garden shed because we need the storage space. We want to put a large decorative raised bed where the stump from the ash tree is located, one that matches the existing bed we have now that surrounds the little maple.

That’s not going to be a cheap project, though. If we do everything we’ve been thinking of it’s probably going to end up costing us in the neighborhood of $5K when it’s all said and done.

We’re still waiting for the garage door company to get the new doors in so they can replace the 30+ year old garage doors and openers. They’re in pretty rough shape and I don’t think they’ll last the winter.

Let’s wrap this up with a siamese cat because why not?

Meg, we’re not sure how old she is but she’s at least 16, maybe 17, and an absolute sweetheart. This foot rubbing thing is fairly new with her but I’m told it isn’t uncommon with kitties. She’s turned into quite the lap cat. If there is a lap anywhere in the house, she will find it and sit on it. She has this thing now where when she’s on my lap she likes to climb up on my chest and rub her face in my beard which is cute but that cat’s claws are like little razors and when she gets relaxed she starts doing this kneading thing it gets a bit interesting.

Oh, almost forgot, the new vacuum thingie. It’s a Shark self emptying robotic vacuum. Normally I wouldn’t have bought one of these but I got the dopey thing on some kind of sale on Amazon for less than half the normal retail price. It was marked down to $200 or so from $500, and I admit that it was sort of an impulse buy.

Now we had a robot vacuum before, one of the early Roomba machines, and it was utterly horrible in every single way. It was incredibly noisy. It couldn’t deal with even 1/4″ tall thresholds between rooms, couldn’t deal with, well, it couldn’t deal with anything, really. It fell down the basement stairs twice. It would just stop dead in its tracks for no apparent reason. And even worse it was damn near worthless at actually cleaning anything.

This one is actually surprisingly good. It maps the rooms as it cleans so it can develop a more efficient pattern of movement. It doesn’t just scurry around at random. It’s been able to negotiate even the rather steep threshold between the dining room and living room. It wanders back to its dock and recharges itself when it needs to and when the battery is topped off it picks up where it left off. And best of all it empties itself! The bin on the dock has to be dumped every couple of weeks or so but that’s no big deal. It hasn’t fallen down the basement stairs yet. And best of all it does a pretty darned nice job cleaning the floors.

I’m not quite sure what in the world it’s doing under the sofa, though. It seems to spend an inordinate amount of time under there when it’s cleaning. Since it has wifi I suspect it’s looking at porn while it’s under there.

Anyway we’ve had this thing for a couple of weeks now and we’ll see how it goes. So far we like it. Even the cat doesn’t mind it.

Farm Catch Up: Rail Strike Again, Fake Meat Fizzles, Barges Grounded, Bird Flu

I haven’t done a Farm Catch Up in ages. I used to do these on a regular basis but I’ve been so busy with other stuff that I haven’t had time, so let’s see what’s been going on in the ag industry.

Rail Strike Still Possible

After union leaders, the railroads and the White House announced an agreement that would prevent a rail strike, I warned people that it was too early to do a victory lap. Union leaders may have accepted the deal, but it still had to be voted on by the union membership. Almost immediately one of the 12 unions involved in the talks rejected the deal, although a small one, and reports coming from out in the real world indicated that the rank and file of some of the other unions were not happy with the deal either. While the deal did give substantial pay raises and improved some benefits, it did little or nothing to fix the real grievances that the unions had, the biggest of which was the RR’s scheduling system which some employees called draconian and even downright sadistic. (I’ve read how the scheduling system works and if half of what I’ve heard is true, I would have quit the moment that system went into place. I won’t go into details, you can find that out yourself if do some searching for the railroad employee scheduling system.)

Now the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division Union (BMWED) the third largest of the unions involved, has rejected the deal, and we could be looking at a strike by mid-November unless the situation is solved.

The railroads have been having serious problems for decades, but you don’t hear about them because the media is too busy chasing after the latest celebrity gossip or bizarre conspiracy theory. Unless a catastrophe occurs, like a major derailment, you hear almost nothing about how the whole rail system has basically been falling apart.

What does this have to do with farming? A lot. A rail strike would cripple the agricultural sector of the economy. Ag businesses and farmers depend on the rail system to move bulk cargo like grain, beans, cattle feed, fertilizer, propane, fuel and many other products. Then add in everything else that is shipped… A rail strike would be a nightmare for all of us.

Fake Meat Markets Fizzle

Before I start this I should point out that I am not anti vegetarian or anything like that. My personal opinion is that we eat way, way too much meat to be healthy for us and we’d all be a heck of a lot better off if we could get people to eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat. But these fake meats are not the way to do it.

JBS, one of the three or four companies in the country that have a virtual monopoly on meat processing and distributing, announced it was shutting down its Plantera Foods division which was producing the “Ozo” brand plant based fake meat products, just two years after launching the company, because of disappointing sales. JBS says it will stay in the alt-meat business (that sounds better than ‘fake meat’ so I’ll go with that term) but not in the United States.

It isn’t just JBS that’s been having problems selling this stuff either. Sales of alt-meat products haven’t been doing so good. Beyond Meat’s stock value has plummeted. As of Sept.28 it’s stock value had fallen 75% this year. Sales of alt-meat products have falling by 10% in just this year along according to some data I’ve seen.

So why isn’t the stuff selling as well as they predicted? Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat’s products are supposed to be “healthy” and good for the environment and all of that and they’re supposed to be just as good as actual meat, so why aren’t people lining up to buy the stuff?

First is cost. Last time I looked the grocery store where we shop the Impossible Burger was selling for more than twice the cost of real hamburger. I haven’t bothered to look recently because frankly I don’t care, so I don’t know if prices have moderated a bit or not. What matters is that at most of the stores where I’ve found the stuff sell it for a lot more than regular hamburger 🍔 (Oooo, I just discovered that this goofy Macbook’s little status bar above the keyboard suggests emojis for me. Isn’t that just so – so useless?)

Second, the food industry as a whole has a long, long history of outright scamming the consumer and selling us garbage laced with salt, fat, sugar and artificial ingredients and labeling it not only as “food” but also claiming it is healthy. So people are justifiably skeptical of just about everything the food industry tries to tell us these days. If you read the list of ingredients on the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat products, you will find almost nothing in that list that actually looks like real food. What you’ll find is a long list of chemical names, added vitamins, modified starches and other products that come out of the back end of a factory. There basically is nothing in that list of ingredients that I want to put in my mouth and I suspect a lot of people feel the same way after reading that list.

Third, these products just aren’t that good. I tried eating one of these things once, an Impossible Burger that I found in the freezer at the local grocery store. I made it according to the instructions and… Well, I’m sorry, I don’t see how anyone could ever mistake this stuff for actual meat. The texture and mouth feel was just -wrong. The aroma was extremely odd and the taste was, frankly, unpleasant. I couldn’t finish the thing. Slather it was ketchup and mustard and onions and I might have been able to choke it down, but eating it plain? No way. I’d rather eat a Bocca Burger. Still frozen.

Shipping Problems

As if disruptions with railroads and trucking weren’t bad enough, now the Mississippi River is giving us problems. A huge amount of product of all types is shipped on barges on the Mississippi River. Farmers and agricultural businesses in the midwest depend on river shipping to not only get grain and beans for export down to the Gulf of Mexico, they also depend on it to ship fertilizer, cattle feed and other products back up the river to co-ops, fertilizer distribution facilities and other businesses that sell bulk products to farmers. And thanks to scarce rainfall the Mississippi water levels are extremely low and barges are running aground. Reports are that water levels in the river system are at “historically low levels”. There are backups of barges at choke points on the river system. Barge loads have had to be reduced by up to 30% or more and towboats which usually push many barges at one time have had to cut the number of barges they can push. As of Oct. 4th the cost of shipping on the Mississippi had jumped up over 200%.

If you’re interested in actually watching shipping along the river, both barge and rail, there is an excellent live camera operated by Virtual Rail Fan in Ft. Madison Iowa that shows both the massive amount of rail traffic going across the Mississippi and a historic swing bridge across the river that has to open to allow river traffic to pass. The camera is on 24/7 and generally has a camera operator running it. In the spirit of full disclosure I should point out I am a VRF member and sponsor and you’ll occasionally see my name (No, not grouchyfarmer, my real name) listed on some VRF camera sites as a sponsor.

Why Are Egg Prices So High? Blame The Flu

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but around here eggs are pushing up towards $5 a dozen. I was in a local grocery store three days ago and the price there was $4.79/doz. Why? Bird flu is at least part of the problem. Since February we’ve lost 47 million birds, mostly chickens and turkeys, to avian influenza in 42 states in the US. So between losses of birds to flu to increased costs for fuel, grain, labor shortages, etc, yeah, prices have shot up.

It’s affected chicken and turkey prices as well. Unless grocery stores use turkey as a loss leader you’re going to find a lot of families looking for a substitute for the traditional thanksgiving day turkey.

And that’s about it for now. I’m getting bored and I’m sure you are too. As always, comments are welcome. (Note: All comments are moderated and yours won’t appear until it has been checked.)

Explaining New Vacuum Cleaner to the Cat

Cat: ARRGGHHH!!! What the hell is that — that thing???

Me: Oh for… Stop being so melodramatic. What’s your problem now?

Cat: What is that – that big black thing?

Me: Oh for heaven’s sake, you were sitting there watching me unpack it yesterday and now you’re scared of it?

Cat: It’s new. I hate new.

Me: I told you yesterday. It’s our new vacuum cleaner.

Cat: EVIL! Spawn of Satan! Hiss! Hiss!

Me: You can stop that right now.

Cat: Is not vacuum cleaner. Vacuum cleaner is that tall thing that you torture every week.

Me: Uh? What do you mean, torture?

Cat: You plug its tail into the wall and then drag it around on the floor tormenting it while it screams in agony. Now I don’t mind that kind of thing. I am a predator and we enjoy tormenting and torturing our prey before we eat it. But even I think what you do to that vacuum cleaner is a bit excessive. Have you ever considered therapy…

Me: Oh, stop it. The only thing the mighty predator actually tried to catch around here was a ladybug that you stalked for half an hour and when it wiggled its wings you ran and hid under the sofa.

Cat: It looked at me funny.

Me: Look, I told you before, this is the new vacuum cleaner. We wouldn’t need a new vacuum cleaner if you didn’t shed your own weight in fur every week. How the hell do you even do that? I ran some numbers once and calculated the amount of energy it would take to grow that much fur and then examined the amount of calories you take in with your food and you’d have to eat about four times as much as you do in order to even grow that much fur…

Cat: Wait, you actually calculated how much food it would take to grow my fur?

Me: Well, I got to wondering…

Cat: ….

Me: Don’t you look at me like that.

Cat: You need a hobby. Never mind. This is not a vacuum cleaner.

Me: I would have hobbies if I didn’t have to spend all my time cleaning up after you. And that’s one of the reasons I got this thing.

Cat: It’s evil.

Me: No, it is not evil! Y0u’ll like it!

Cat: I hate it. What’s that blinking blue light?

Me: That one? That means that it has a wifi connection.

Cat: ….

Me: Why are you staring at me like that?

Cat: You bought a vacuum cleaner with wifi.

Me: Uh, well, yeah…

Cat: ……

Me: What?

Cat: You have a vacuum cleaner with wifi. So like if, oh, you’re in Ohio or somewhere you get an urge to clean something at two in the morning while you’re in a hotel you can start the vacuum cleaner back home. It will get tangled in the curtains, overheat, start the house on fire, and when you get home our house will be a charred ruin and I’ll be hiding in the neighbor’s bushes traumatized for life.

Me: ….

Cat: Your dishwasher has wifi, doesn’t it?

Me: Uh, well, yeah…

Cat: Did you ever figure out why it has wifi?

Me: Uh, well, no.

Cat: And yet you humans think cats are weird.

Let’s Talk About Drones: DJI Mini 3 Pro

This is pretty much what I look like when I try to make myself sit down and figure out how to use my video editors.
Photo by Pixabay on

I’ve been messing around with drones for many years now. I don’t talk about them a lot here because there’s not much point to it when my internet speeds are so slow it takes an hour or more to upload a 1 minute video. Well, that and the fact that I’ve been too lazy to actually figure out how to use my video editing software. But that may change in the future. In any case I wanted to talk about this new one.

I’ve been flying drones all along, though. Sort of. They’ve ranged in size and capabilities from massive camera drones with high res cameras to tiny little indoor toys that aren’t good for much more than annoying the cat (and MrsGF). And drones have gotten very interesting in the last year or two as the manufacturers have been shrinking them in size while at the same time making the cameras and software much, much better.

Which brings me to the DJI Mini Pro 3 which I just got a few weeks ago. It’s fairly new and it is, well, wow. It’s replacing a DJI Mavic Mini (which I absolutely hated for reasons I won’t get into. I wished I’d never bought the thing. Despite rave reviews about the M2 it was utterly horrible in almost every way.)

Before I talk about the Pro 3, let me talk about drones in general for a moment if you’ll put up with stuff you may already know.

As soon as drones hit the market, it seems every jackass, jerk, and (insert unflattering term of your choice here) in the world bought one and started using them in ways specifically calculated to endanger people, aircraft and just generally piss people off. This is why the rest of us can’t have nice things.

The result of all of this was, of course, a whole host of rules and regulations coming down from the FAA and other government agencies, and even requiring a type of pilot’s license in order to operate some types of drones. I’m not going to go into the specifics about all of the rules and regulations. You can find all that out for yourselves in about ten seconds with a simple Google search. But what I do want to talk about is the 250 gram rule.

The FAA, in its infinite wisdom, came up with the 250 gram rule which basically says that any drone weighing 250 grams or more has to be registered with the FAA and must be prominently labeled with a registration number. So the drone makers have been trying to squeeze more and more sophisticated stuff into drones in the under 250g category figuring that people aren’t going to want to go through the hassle of registering the drones.

Sidenote: I should point out that registering a drone with the FAA is not difficult. You go the FAA website, plug in some information, pay the nice people five bucks, and you get a registration number you have to stick on the drone. It’s easy, fairly fast, and I’ve done it myself.

This has resulted in some absolutely amazing equipment turning up in the last few years in this category, with the Mini Pro 3 being at the top of that list.

This thing is really, really nice. Almost too good to be true, really. Every time I fly it I find it hard to believe they’ve crammed so much capability into a drone this small. And when I say small, I mean small.

The whole drone, when folded up, fits in the palm of my hand. And the whole package, including batteries and controller, can easily fit into a small backpack.

I’m not going to get into the actual operation of the drone. Like most modern drones in this price range it’s simple to fly. You can find dozens of videos on YouTube demonstrating it in actual use so there’s no point in me duplicating that information here. It even has some autonomous operation functionality. It can, for example, automatically follow a moving target around when that target is selected with the controller. I’ve highlighted myself, and then walked all around the backyard and around the house and the drone maintains a specific distance and height, following me wherever I go, keeping me centered in the field of view of the camera.

It has some really useful features as well, like object avoidance. Take a look at this thing in the photo on the right. Those “bug eyes” above the camera and the black spots on the bottom of the drone are sensors for the object avoidance system. It’s damn near impossible to run this thing into a tree or pole or anything else for that matter. Once it gets within a couple of meters of an object it might possibly hit alarms go off on the controller along with a visual indication of where a potential obstacle might be located. And it will simply refuse to get any closer to an object when it gets too close. I’ve tried. I had it hovering about 5 feet off the ground and tried to walk into it. It backed itself up away from me when I got within a couple of feet of it. I tried flying it into a tree (slowly, ready to stop if it didn’t work). It got within about 3 feet of the tree and simply stopped with the warning signals going off.

It has excellent battery life too. On a full charge I can fly it easily for 20 minutes before it starts yelling at me that the battery is getting low. There is an extended range battery that’ll give me up to 40 minutes of flight time, but that battery will nudge the weight of the drone over 250g.

But since I’m a photographer my real interest in these things is as flying cameras, and the camera on the 3 is excellent. Let’s look at a video first, if I can get this thing to put in a Youtube link

That’s one of the first videos I shot with the 3 when I first got it and I think the quality is pretty darned good. Especially considering it was windy with gusts up to about 20mph and the poor little drone was bouncing up and down all over the place. Despite that the video is surprisingly smooth and steady.

Still images taken with the camera are just as impressive.

You should be able to click on a photo to see a larger version. That’s Hilbert from about 350 feet up.

Overall I really like the Mini 3 Pro and you’ll probably be seeing images and maybe short videos from it in the future.

Does it have any issues? Sure it does. Nothing is perfect.

It feels cheap and flimsy, to be honest. But that’s probably because they’ve had to shave off weight wherever they could to keep it under 250g. So the plastics are as thin as they can possibly make them. I haven’t actually measured temperatures, but the drone and batteries seem to get very warm to the touch. The drone will get hot to the touch just sitting there while turned on. I’m not sure if that’s going to be an issue in the future or not yet.

Getting the battery out of the drone is often difficult and I’m not sure why. It’s like it is getting wedged into the compartment somehow. I think that what’s happening is that as the drone and battery heat up during use the plastic expands making it more difficult to get the thing out.

Getting at some of the options on the controller is unnecessarily awkward. To get at one set of options, for example, I have to swipe down twice on the screen. Swiping down the first time seems to do absolutely nothing, but if you look close a bar will appear on the top of the screen. Put your finger on that bar and swipe down again opens the options screen. Why do I have to do it twice? No idea.

DJI will sell you the “Fly More” kit which gives you a couple of extra batteries, a nifty charger to plug the batteries into, and some extra props. Oh, an a case for everything. Don’t bother. It isn’t worth it. The drop in battery charger and batteries and props can be bought individually. The case is utterly worthless. It’s a generic soft sided camera case you could pick up for $5 at a thrift shop. Personally I’d spend the extra money for the extended range batteries anyway, even though they push the drone over the 250g limit. And as for a case, get something like this:

They’re not that expensive, especially when you consider you’re lugging around a drone system that’s more than $1,000. The one up there in the photo is about $50 and is waterproof (it will actually float), hard sided to protect the equipment, and has room for everything including batteries, props, etc. I can either strap it to the luggage rack on the bicycle or carry it with a shoulder strap.

The most frustrating thing has been trying to find time to take it out and actually fly it, but now that fall is here and gardening related stuff isn’t occupying so much of my time I’m hoping I’ll have a chance to get out with it more.

Another issue I’m going to have to deal with is the amount of data this thing generates. One day’s worth of messing around with the drone resulted in about 50 gigabytes of video and still photos. Sheesh… Most of that will eventually just get erased but I’m going to need extra storage space for the Macbook if I’m going to be editing videos with it. I have a 4TB external SSD on order for the Macbook so I’ll have some space to play with. I could use my gaming system down in the basement. That has more than enough storage space but that’s a windows box and it’s also used to drive the laser engrave, 3D printer, my amateur radio equipment and for stuff like this I’m more comfortable using the Mac. We’ll see.