Building a living photo frame with a Raspberry Pi and a motion detector

Every hardware hacker has a start, and this one is mine. My girlfriend bought me a Raspberry Pi for my birthday, and so I became determined to build something with it for her birthday two months later.

As you can see above, I built a photo frame that has a few interesting parts. For one, the software which runs the photo frame, which I explore below, keeps the photos fresh from Instagram and Flickr. It then displays a random photo for a configurable six seconds. Secondly, there is a motion detector, built using a PIR sensor, which only turns the monitor on when somebody walks by.

This photo frame is easy to build, but it does take a bit of know-how. Mainly, you should feel comfortable soldering wires and mounting the screen and Raspberry Pi to a board or other object. The hard part for me was figuring out how to turn the monitor on and off through the command line.

Everything else is gravy, from configuring wifi and autoboot/auto-login on the device to attaching and setting up the motion detecting PIR sensor. You can also use the eLinux guide to Raspberry Pi and its handy RPi Hardware Basic Setup wiki.


Raspberry Pi

I chose to use a Raspberry Pi for its simple wifi integration so that photos could be automatically updated. I didn’t want to have to load photos on to an SD card which could then be read by an Arduino.

Connecting the monitor was also trivial on a Raspberry Pi, where an Arduino, Maple, or Beagle Bone would require sourcing a connection between the monitor’s composite input and an output from the device.

Raspberry Pi, $29 on Adafruit.

Make note of the fact that you actually don’t see any of my connections on the top of the board (pictured below). In the below photo, where the Raspberry Pi is flipped vertically to show off the electrical connections, the monitor’s composite cable and the motion detecting PIR sensor’s red wires are soldered underneath.

This way the photo frame looks cleaner. If I had connected the monitor using the yellow composite cable, it would have to be with a male-to-male composite adapter, since both the Raspberry Pi and the monitor have a male RCA connection. This would jut out about 2 inches below the device, resulting in a messy look for the frame.

3.5” LCD Monitor

3.5” LCD Monitor, $45 on Adafruit

Note that if you do not plan to solder the composite cable’s two wires, you will need the ugly male-to-male adapter, sold for $1.50 on Adafruit.

There are a number of different sized LCD monitors:

1.5" LCD, $40
2" LCD, $40
2.5" LCD, $45
4.3" LCD, $50
7" LCD, $75
10" LCD, $150
Continue reading Building a living photo frame with a Raspberry Pi and a motion detector (2832 words)...

Backbonification: migrating a large JavaScript project from DOM spaghetti to Backbone.js

We’ve all done it. Our code base has one huge monolithic file, packed full of JavaScript spaghetti. It’s unwieldy, hard-to-debug, and has little to no separation of concerns. It is a nightmare to bring new engineers up to speed.

This blog post is about decomposing NewsBlur’s single-file 8,500 line JavaScript application into its component parts: 8 models, 12 views, 3 routers, 3 collections. This post explores patterns, techniques, and common pitfalls in migrating from vanilla JavaScript to Backbone.js. It covers moving routers, models, and views, and the process used to migrate a living app.

NewsBlur is a free RSS feed reader and is open-source. The benefit of being open-source is that you can see all of the changes I made in this migration by looking through the commit history.

As a bit of background, I worked on Backbone.js in its infancy, when Jeremy Ashkenas and I worked on DocumentCloud’s many open-source projects.

The Presentation

This post was written concurrently with a presentation. Depending on your style, you can either read on or flip through this deck. Both have the same content, but this post expands on every concept in the presentation.

There’s no need to go through the presentation. Just read on for the whole kaboodle.

Pre-reqs: Libraries

There are only two libraries you need to be intimately familiar with in order to make the most of your Backbone transition: Underscore.js and Backbone.js. That means not only being comfortable with reading the source code of these two libraries, but also knowing all of the methods exposed so you can reach into your grab-bag of tricks and pull out the appropriate function.


Underscore.js is another DocumentCloud library that makes your code more readable and compact by providing useful functions that massage, filter, and jumble data.

One popular use of Underscore is creating short pipelines that take a large collection of models and filters it based on conditions. That much is easy. But there are other uses that are beneficial to know.

You should be comfortable with all enumerable methods. Think about all of your model collections as reduce-able, filterable, and selectable.

Here are two examples of Underscore.js at work:

// Get ids of all active feeds
_.pluck( {
    return feed.get('active');
}), 'id');
// Returns: [42, 36, 72, ...]

// Count fetched/unfetched feeds
var counts = this.feeds.reduce(function(counts, feed) {
    if (feed.get('active')) {
        if (!feed.get('not_yet_fetched') || feed.get('has_exception')) {
            counts['fetched_feeds'] += 1;
        } else {
            counts['unfetched_feeds'] += 1;
    return counts;
}, {
    'unfetched_feeds': 0,
    'fetched_feeds': 0
// Returns: {'unfetched_feeds': 3, 'fetched_feeds': 42}


The star of the show is Backbone.js. The entire backbone.js file is fewer than 1,500 lines long, and that’s with 228/1478 lines of whitespace (15%) and 389/1478 lines of comments (26%).

This is a basic example of the layout of the four main classes: models, views, collections, and routers. A fifth meta-class called Events is mixed in to each of these classes.

How to start

The first step is no easy task. Take your existing design and visually decompose it into its component views. Each view will be represented by either a single model or a combination of models. In fact, you can even have a view not be backed by a model at all.

Take the NewsBlur UI for example. It’s a standard three-pane view, with feeds, stories, and story detail:

Notice that there are multiple views inside other views. Some views are meant to be simple wrappers around other, more functional views.

Continue reading Backbonification: migrating a large JavaScript project from DOM spaghetti to Backbone.js (6072 words)...

For Good Reason, NewsBlur Will Not Compete With the Big Boys

NewsBlur has and, for as far out as I can see, will be a side-project. It’s fun, but I can’t even begin to imagine the headaches I’d face if I had to support a living salary through NewsBlur. My goal is just to meet potential co-founders and to try to make a splash. And I’ve been meeting folks here in NYC who I would not have met otherwise. So it’s working quite well, so far. Fabulously well, in fact.

Raising money for something like this must be difficult and a huge crapshoot. There are a lot of fadish readers out there who have already sucked up most of the goodwill that the press is willing to give to this area, and even then, they have a design element that is extremely hard to compete with. Financial backers would much rather shut a site down than let it live a meager existence. They’re not out to support a site, they want a 10x return. Funding doesn’t make any sense for what I want.

Besides, now I can build fun features like social, the iPhone app, and river of news in peace. Who knows what markets I would have to chase if I had stakeholders. Enterprise! Aggregators! Ick.

I think any other business is a better business to be in, but who knows if my tune will change within the next 12 months, as I roll out bigger features.

Old-style Mac OS X Leopard Exposé in Snow Leopard

Progress is progress, except when it gets in the way of your workflow. Let’s compare these two screenshots:

Old-style Leopard Exposé

New-style Snow Leopard Exposé

Notice how much more pleasant the old-style Exposé is? Introduced in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, and virtually unchanged until OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, it featured proportional windows. By just looking at the size of the window relative to the other windows, you can get a fair idea of what the application is.

The proportional windows went out the window with the new Exposé. Now it features an inexplicable grid, with windows resized to all different dimensions relative to their original size.

Old-style Exposé in Snow Leopard

The great news is that you can get the old-school Exposé back. The beta builds of Snow Leopard included a new that used the old-style exposé. By installing the old, you get the new Dock features of Snow Leopard, while preserving the legendary Exposé.


  1. Download the Snow Leopard beta-build of
  2. Save to your Desktop and unzip.

Run the following commands in

sudo chown -R root ~/Desktop/;
sudo chgrp -R wheel ~/Desktop/;
sudo killall Dock && \
sudo mv /System/Library/CoreServices/ ~/Desktop/ && \
sudo mv ~/Desktop/ /System/Library/CoreServices/

Easy to do and indispensible now that you have it back. Hat-tip to miknos at MacRumors for the original find.

Note that you will have to repeat this process every time you upgrade your Mac OS to a new patch release (10.6.6 -> 10.6.7).

@samuelclay is on Twitter.

Use Google Reader? I built NewsBlur, a new feed reader with intelligence.

What Happened to NewsBlur: A Hacker News Effect Post-Mortem

Last week I submitted my project, NewsBlur, a feed reader with intelligence, to Hacker News. This was a big deal for me. For the entire 16 months that I have been working on the project, I was waiting for it to be Hacker News ready. It’s open-source on GitHub, so I also had the extra incentive to do it right.

And last week, after I had launched premium accounts and had just started polishing the classifiers, I felt it was time to show it off. I want to show you what the Hacker News effect has been on both my server and my project.

Hacker News As the Audience

When I wasn’t writing code on the subway every morning and evening, I would think about what the reaction on Hacker News would be. Would folks find NewsBlur too buggy? Would they be interested at all? Let me tell you, it’s a great motivator to have an audience in mind and to constantly channel them and ask their opinion. Is a big-ticket feature like Google Reader import necessary before it’s Hacker News ready? It would take time, and time was the only currency which I could pay with. In my mind, all I had to do was ask. (“Looks cool, but if there’s no easy way to migrate from Google Reader, this thing is dead in the water.”)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” (From Vonnegut’s Introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box.)

Let’s consider Hacker News as that “one person,” since for all intents, it is a single place. I wasn’t working to please every Google Reader user: the die-hards, the once-in-a-seasons, or the twitter-over-rss’ers. For the initial version, I just wanted to please Hacker News. I know this crowd from seeing how they react to any new startup. What’s the unique spin and what’s the good use of technology, they would ask. What could make it better and is it good enough for now?

If you’re outsourcing tech and just applying shiny visuals to your veneer, the Hacker News crowd sniffs it out faster than a beagle in a meat market. So I thought the best way to appeal to this crowd is to actually make decisions about the UI that would confuse a few people, but enormously please many people. From comments on the Hacker News thread, it looks like I didn’t wait too long.

Continue reading What Happened to NewsBlur: A Hacker News Effect Post-Mortem (1506 words)...