Saturday, August 23, 2014

In which I get started with a quadcopter drone

It started with this:

and then this:
and my attention was grabbed.

It was @stammy's seminal write-up on the subject of drone photography, though, which pushed me fully over the edge—and I had to get one. And here's what our new Boulder hood looks like from a drone:

Boulder from a drone
and in motion:

To do this stuff, here's what you'll need:

  • a drone
  • a gimbal (think of this as a stabilizing camera mount)
  • a camera
You can build this all yourself, of course, and many do, but I took the easy way out and bought finished items: as well as a 64Gb microSDXC card for the camera and propeller guards for the drone (you'll want these).

What you have now is an amazing flying machine with a camera. Here's what you need to know:

  • is it hard to fly?
    Surprisingly not. This thing has a built in GPS, compass, gyroscope, inertial sensors, and a sophisticated flight computer which measures these inputs (along with the inputs from the control transmitter) and can quite capably keep itself hovering in place in a 20mph wind.
  • what's the range?
    Radio range is around 3,000 feet radially. You probably want to check your local FAA regulations if you want to fly more than 400 feet above ground level, though.
  • can I see what the drone's seeing?
    Not with this equipment. To do that you'd need to upgrade with parts for "FPV"; it's covered in @stammy's post.
  • how long does the battery last?
    About 25 minutes' flying time. You can buy extra batteries for about $130 each.
  • can I control the camera while flying?
    The gimbal will keep the camera perfectly level with respect to the horizon. Remotely you'll be able to control whether it faces directly forward or straight down, or any point in between.
  • so how can I trigger photos?
    With this equipment you can't; you'll set the GoPro to record before the drone takes off, and it'll do its thing. I use a mode where it takes 1080p video continuously and grabs a high-res photo every five seconds. When the thing lands you can review what it's captured.

Some things which have surprised me:

  • the ease of flying; seriously, the flight computer does most of the work
  • the effectiveness of the gimbal; it's just unreal how smooth the video is, even flying choppily
  • the noise; i can see why people get annoyed by these things flying nearby or overhead. Be considerate!

Number one top tip: don't descend too fast. Vortex ring state, where your drone becomes engulfed in its own downwash, is real—and you will plummet out of the sky like a stone. The worst crashes I've had have been a result of this.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Moving to Boulder, epilogue

On the fifth day of our trip we drove 42 miles in a perfectly straight line.

It made me wonder about the longest perfectly straight section of road in the US; where it would be and how long. I asked on Twitter, and so far nobody's come up with anything longer than this:

If you know of anything longer, holler.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Moving to Boulder, day 9

15 July 2014: early start in Glenwood Springs; Wendy and I had decided that the best strategy to conclude our journey to Boulder was to carry sleeping kids to the car at the crack of dawn and get going—maybe breakfast in Vail as we traveled down from the mountains.

And so it was, at maybe 6.30am in the hotel parking lot, sleepy and not concentrating, on the very last day of our trip, I lifted the U-Haul trailer to hitch it to the car… and completely fucked my back up.

Onward, though. I cranked the heated car seat to maximum, sweet relief!, and all other parts of the plan went great: calm kids, no traffic, easy trip down to Boulder. We arrived about lunchtime, and here's the overgrown garden:

The garden which greeted us
Here's Wendy outside the new place:
Arrival at the new house
Here's Lux, still in her PJs, enjoying the garden:
Arrival at the new house
Here's Cecilia, also in pajamas, clutching a find from the playhouse:
Arrival at the new house
and here's everyone munching raspberries from the bush in the back yard
Arrival at the new house

We had lunch, and I went to work at @TwitterBoulder—for the first time as a Colorado resident.

A month on my back is still a mess, but it's great here.

Arrival at the new house

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Moving to Boulder, day 8

14 July 2014: we woke up in Glenwood Springs, CO, voted in 2011 the "Most Fun Town in America" by Rand McNally and USA Today. It's perfectly nice but in my limited experience I'd say that designation probably goes too far. Our hotel was also overrated; "Feel The Wonder" says its homepage, whereas all we really felt was cramped in a tiny room and frustrated with elevators which didn't work properly.

Onwards nonetheless. We headed out for breakfast and to buy hats and sunglasses for the kids. Lux's choice:

Buying sunglasses
and Cecilia's:
Buying sunglasses
I got sunglasses too; I lived in San Francisco nine years without feeling the need, but within a day of arriving in Colorado knew I couldn't last without any.

We took the cable car up the mountain; Lux was unsure at first

Unsure about the cable car
but quickly got into the spirit. The view from the top was pretty lovely
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
and the 15° drop in temperature was very welcome.

That night we went out for our final road trip dinner. After a week on the road the kids were clearly on their last legs.

Tired kids

Tomorrow we'd arrive in Boulder.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Moving to Boulder, day 7

13 July 2014: we woke up in Moab and it was hot. And not just "gosh isn't it warm outside" hot, but "oh look parts of the car are shutting down" hot:

Well played Moab
We figured we'd splash in the pool for the morning, grab some lunch and then get out (here's Lux at lunch having arranged the sugar packets just perfectly):
Perfect arrangement

Our next stop was Glenwood Springs, but we had a brief pause for dessert in Grand Junction. Wendy with the ice cream sandwich:

Dessert break in Grand Junction
Lux with a popsicle:
Dessert break in Grand Junction
and Cecilia too:
Dessert break in Grand Junction

It's a spectacular drive into Colorado, and my phone doesn't do it justice… but it's all I have:

Coming in to Glenwood Springs

We arrive in Glenwood Springs and checked into our hotel. Cecilia found God in the top drawer

Cecilia discovers The Word
and we all went swimming.

Tomorrow would be the last full day of our road trip.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Moving to Boulder, day 6

12 July 2014: we woke up in an Airbnb in Mapleton, UT. This seemingly unassuming place, under $150 for the night, turned out to be our most lavish accommodation of the entire journey. You read "basement apartment" and you don't necessarily think of a lush 3,000sqft palace underneath a 10,000sqft house, with a 70" plasma TV and a fitness room. And yet here we were.

It was also filled with kids stuff, and had a trampoline on the ample grounds, so we figured we'd stick around for a while in the morning. Let's make a pot of coff… oh, wait.


Nothing in the cupboards, and even driving around the area we couldn't find anywhere which sold coffee. Wendy and I looked at each other, held hands, and tried not to panic. We left around lunchtime.

By late afternoon we were in Moab, UT. Our hotel had a pool, so we did some more splashing when we arrived; it's seriously *amazing* what endless joy and fascination the kids find in water. In the evening we went to a cliff-top place to watch the sunset. It did not disappoint.

Sunset in Moab

Tomorrow we'd cross the border into Colorado.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Moving to Boulder, day 5

11 July 2014: we wake up in Elko, NV, with a target of Mapleton, UT. That's 280 miles, with 42 of them in a perfectly straight line. The kids both love swimming right now, and the hotel in Elko has a pool, so the first thing we do after a hotel breakfast is splash about for an hour or so.

After that it's on the road, and more of the same:

Nevada plains
and then
Utah salt flats
and then
Utah desert

After miles and miles of this we decide to stop at a park in Salt Lake City on our way through—to let the kids run around and let off some steam. Liberty Park turned out to be perfect for this, and we ended up staying a couple of hours enjoying the late sunshine:

Arrived in Salt Lake City
At Wendy's request we then drove just a few blocks to the Old Spaghetti Factory, a staple of family road trips from her own childhood.

With our dawdling—and a critical closed road on the way to Mapleton—we ended up not arriving at our Airbnb until 11pm. We also didn't yet fully appreciate what being in suburban Utah meant.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Moving to Boulder, day 4

10 July 2014: Thursday morning we wake up in Tahoe City, CA, with our next night's lodging in Elko, NV. That's a 350 mile journey: in England terms Southampton to Newcastle; basically most of the length of the country. I've been in the States over ten years now so UK comparisons are mostly moot, but for me growing up this was an inconceivable distance for a day's drive—you'd get the train if anything, probably.

While we're on these comparisons, though, it's worth noting that Elko—a town of fewer than 50,000 people—is the largest town for 130 miles in any direction. There isn't a single town like that in England. It's on drives like this when the vast scale of the US (again, relative to where I grew up) becomes most apparent.

Roads like this:

On the road in Nevada
and this:
Your Ad Here, in the middle of nowhere
and this:
go on and on and on (the video covers ~16 miles).

In the UK or the US or probably anywhere else in the world, 350 miles is a long drive relative to the patience of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. The kids were pretty fed up by the time we got to Elko, but enjoyed reading Frederick on the iPad at bedtime:

and sharing a bed in the hotel
Sharing a hotel bed
(in fact so much that we ended up having to separate them).

Tomorrow, onwards from Nevada into Utah.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Moving to Boulder, day 3

9 July 2014: it's nice to wake up in Tahoe. We went for breakfast in Tahoe City, with a lovely view of the lake

Lovely day in Tahoe City
Lake Tahoe

After breakfast we grabbed towels from the house and went to the beach for a while.

(Not) skipping rocks
Cecilia at the lake

Wendy stayed mostly dry but Lux, Cecilia and I all went swimming. "Bracing" is directionally correct but really doesn't even come close to describing the temperature of the water. We dried off in the sunshine on a wooden jetty.

We had a quiet dinner that evening, in the back yard of our place. Hungry Cecilia:

Hungry Cecilia
Happy Lux:
Hungry Lux

Tomorrow we'll be leaving California.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Moving to Boulder, day 2

8 July 2014: Wendy and Cecilia wake up in Colorado. Lux and I wake up in California for her last day at pre-school. Here she is waiting to be picked up to be taken there by a friend

Last day of school

The conversation in the car on the way to pre-school, from what I'm told:

Tessa (Lux's best friend): this is our last day together we should hold hands the whole way, I love you
Lux: I love you too Tessa
It breaks your heart.

Later, picking Lux up from school, there were fond goodbyes with favorite teachers:

Goodbye Mary

By 5pm the truck's filling up

Now it's real
By 7pm we're headed out of town:
Goodbye San Francisco
Goodbye San Francisco

We grab dinner in Emeryville and arrive in Tahoe City a little before midnight. The Airbnb we're staying at has a dog barking machine; it scares the crap out of me.


Monday, August 04, 2014

Moving to Boulder, day 1

7 July 2014: Before we know it: first thing, early, Wendy's flying to Colorado with Cecilia and Chaucer. Lux and I took them to the airport, Chaucer crying in his carrier the whole way.

Back from SFO I take Lux to school and await the movers:

This one dude arrives and starts putting things in boxes kind of desultorily. Helpers are arriving soon, I'm told, and I make myself scarce.

By the end of the day we've got a smattering of boxes

And so it begins with the boxes
and a relaxed Lux
Lux is chill
but wow there's a lot still to go.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Moving to Boulder

Things moved quickly after that date night at the top of Bernal:

And so the move began.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Date Night

Wendy and I moved from Denver to San Francisco in 2005. Unmarried, childless, we found a little place for rent in the Mission, rented it and moved in.

In 2006 I started working for Google. In 2007 Wendy and I got married. In 2008 we took our honeymoon. In 2009 we got pregnant. In 2010 I started working for Twitter and we welcomed Lux. In 2011 we bought our first home, and in 2012 we had another kid.

We instituted weekly date night in 2012 too.

Each week we'd usually meet at Blondie's after work, and after a drink or two go either to a movie or to dinner. 2 April 2014 was different, though: after the bar we grabbed a slice of pizza across the street, some dodgy liquor from a corner store, and headed up to the top of Bernal hill:

On a beautiful evening, overlooking our beautiful city, I said to Wendy: "you know what we should do? We should move to Boulder".