Toast Timer

timer showing green

I recently started attending a Toast Masters group, which is an incredible way to boost your public speaking skills. However, our group did not have a consistent reusable timer setup for use with the group. Each member stepping into the role independently had to decide on their own method. This works pretty well, but when it was my turn, I took the opportunity to practice some JavaScript and wrote a quick web app to do the timing for me.

The goal of this tool is to quickly indicate to the speaker how far they are into their allotted time. This is accomplished through a progression of colors like a stoplight, an idea I took directly from Toast Master’s description of the role:

  1. Gray – indicates that the speaker has plenty of time, or that the timer is not running.
  2. Green – the speaker has crossed the first time threshold. No need to hurry, but start moving toward the end.
  3. Yellow – the speaker has crossed the second time threshold and should wrap up soon.
  4. Red – the speaker is now over time and should finish immediately.
  5. Black – way too long, shut it down.

For my implementation, the timing checkpoints are controlled by adjusting two numbers:

  1. The first time checkpoint (switch to green)
  2. The interval between checkpoints.

For example, most table topics are supposed to be between 1 an 2 minutes long with a hard stop at 2min 30sec. This timer accomplishes this by using a first checkpoint time at 1min and an interval of 30 seconds. With those values, the screen will turn green at 1min, yellow at 1min 30sec, red at 2min, and black at 2min 30sec. Longer speeches can use a first time at 3 minutes with 1 minute intervals, resulting in 3/4/5/6 for green, yellow, red, and black, respectively.

The app is primarily keyboard driven, which enables easy start/stop via the keyboard and quick time adjustment on the fly. This, however, proved to be slightly confusing and hard to pick up intuitively. So future iterations will expand to include mobile and mouse interactions, hopefully making it easier to learn and use in a variety of situations.

We’ve used this tool a couple of times, and found that putting it on the projector gives the speaker the best way to quickly reference their time, and the timer doesn’t have to spend their time swiveling their laptop around.

You can see a demo of the tool here, or grab the original code from GitHub. If you make any substantial improvements, I’d love to see them!

Square 101

It’s a new chapter for me. After 14years, 7months at IBM, I’ve decided to give it a go in a new arena. Square has given me a chance to work for them, and I took it.

The newest challenge for this job is learning Ruby. IBM zSeries uses a proprietary language, and so my exposure and experience in other languages is through side projects only. I have zero experience in Ruby or Ruby on Rails.

Some resources that have been useful so far are:

Ruby Koans — learn by editing little Ruby files

Getting Started with Rails — build a blog in Rails in about 20 minutes

So far, I love the fact that Ruby is a very expressive language and allows a lot more flexibility in expression. There are 5 ways to do everything, nothing is typed, and you can pass blocks of code around as Objects. Also, because it’s interpreted, there is no compile step which means you can test changes nearly immediately. Ruby has enterprise usages all over the world. I’m excited to step deeper and deeper into that arena.

Google OAuth2 using Hello.js


My brother, a teacher and renowned idea man, set himself about solving a simple problem they were having at the school. He needed a quick and easy way to poll a spreadsheet while on a Google Form. Specifically, he wanted to do a quick check to see how many times a certain name showed up before hitting Submit. Google Forms does not allow this sort of background lookup while the Form is active, so we had to find another way. The solution we found is to self-host the Google Form HTML, and add a little JavaScript to do the background search through the spreadsheet. This solution has two tricky parts: authenticating to the Google Sheet (since we don’t want to make it public), and then actually doing the query. Turns out neither is difficult. This post will talk about the authentication method we used, and another time I’ll write about polling the spreadsheet.

Hello.js is the solution we used. This JavaScript library takes all of the difficulty out of doing authentication. It required one small tweak, but otherwise was a breeze. If you find yourself needing to do quick authentication using OAuth2.0 through Google or a large number of other social sites, I greatly recommend this library.

The documentation on the site is very good, but left out a few small details required to get it running. Here are the full steps of what I found it required to get authentication to Google SpreadSheets:

  1. Register your application as a web app at
    Note: this will require that you know where you’re going to put your site. Google uses the redirect_uri as an authentication, so make sure you know you keep this consistent with the redirect URI you include on the init call (see step 3). The redirect page also must include the hello.js in order for the authentication to work.
  2. Procure and include hello.js in your main page and on your redirect page. The redirect doesn’t need to do much except include hello.js.
    <script src="js/hello.js"></script>
  3. Initialize Hello.js by calling init and passing some relevant parms:
      {google : GOOGLE_CLIENT_ID },
        scope: 'sheets'}

    Note the “scope: sheets”.. We’ll return to this later

  4. Call hello.login() from within your code. You can attach it to a button, or just call it from within your code.
  5. You can also generate a function to run when authentication returns. I used the example from their site.
  6. Once authenticated, store the token which you can get from the object returned from a call to hello(). Here is the code I used both to log in and capture the token:
    hello( 'google' ).login( function() {
      token = hello( 'google' ).getAuthResponse().access_token;
  7. Now just include that token on your calls to Google!

That’s it! It’s quick and simple and takes a lot of the work out of doing OAuth2 authentication.

Now about the scope: hello.js is designed primarily for accessing profile data, such as name and photo. It doesn’t have a built-in scope for Google Spreadsheets. To allow me access to that, I had to update hello.js with a new scope type: sheets. This change is made inside hello.js during a call to itself. Do a quick search on “scope” and you’ll find the section. At the end, add “sheets: ‘’ “. You can then include “sheets” as a scope parameter on your init() call.

// Authorization scopes
scope : {
  basic : "",
  email : '',
  birthday : '',
  events : '',
  photos : '',
  videos : '',
  friends : ',',
  files : '',
  publish : '',
  publish_files : '',
  create_event : '',
  offline_access : '',
  sheets : ''

And there you have it. Just a quick edit, and a few JavaScript calls and you can easily OAuth your way into your private spreadsheets.


Dijkstra, JavaScript, and d3.js


I recently came across a JavaScript library that helps visualize data by pairing data to the DOM, allowing easy HTML generation based on arrays of data. It is a neat idea, and allows for a lot of easy flexibility, so I wanted to give it a try. (

At the same time, I’ve been wanting to revisit some of the classic computer science algorithms I learned over 10 years ago. In this case, Dijkstra’s. I remember trying to implement Dijkstra’s algorithm in college and never being quite sure that it worked, so I had been wanting to refresh my memory and give it another go.  Dijkstra’s is a fairly visually-oriented algorithm, so it seemed to be a good fit for exploring d3’s capabilities.

I’m fairly satisfied with the results.  The basics layout is a simple grid of vertices joined by edges or random weight. Click any two to set the algorithm in motion.

A few notes of interest about the process:

  • Dijkstra’s has no direction-optimization; it spreads in all directions all at once. This opens up some interesting questions about how to optimize the algorithm by helping it understand where it is headed. It also means that if you cached the distance values, the next time you needed to find a distance from the same start point, you’d be able to skip a lot of the process.
  • OO in JavaScript is easy and powerful.
  • The scope of variables in JavaScript is an easy place to make mistakes.
  • d3.js is fantastic! It allows you to pair your data directly to any part of the DOM, so updates to the data can be mirrored quickly in the HTML. This gives you a lot of control, and at the same time, a lot of options for displaying your data. In this case, I paired my Vertex objects directly to the SVG root element, so it auto-generates all of the vertex and edge SVG elements for me.

Feel free to take a look at my code, and let me know what you think.

iPhone Camera Backups Using BitTorrent Sync


Update: BitTorrent Sync has gone through several iterations and is now Resilio Sync ( ). Much of this information below is still accurate, but some is not. I may post a new entry about the new Resilio version, but I do recommend you check it out if you want to have an easy way to back up your iPhone photos to your own server.

For quite some time, my iPhone Camera backup strategy was “iCloud does that, right?” While true, I eventually installed DropBox and let it start eating away at my space just to have a better backup. As anybody who does knows, space quickly becomes a problem. I’d managed to finagle a few extra GB of storage over time, but it’s just not enough. I wanted to be able to keep a backup of my photos, delete them from my camera, and save space in my Dropbox, all while avoiding iTunes sync. And, if possible, I wanted more control over where the backups were stored. I wanted my own privately hosted Dropbox.

So I did some digging. There are a number of nice programs that do this sort of a thing, and I took a serious look at three of them. I don’t want to get into them too deeply, but here’s the overview:

  1. ownCloud ( – a fantastic self-hosted suite of programs that pretty closely mimic Dropbox. It offers a lot of nice features, relatively easy installation, and apps for most devices. I will probably look into this again in the future, but for this particular project, it was too big a tool. And the app cost $0.99…
  2. aeroFs ( – yet another fantastic implementation, with one distinct difference. There is no “cloud” storage needed. This service syncs between your devices directly, so no middleman, and no server needed. You can obviously put a mirror on your home box, but it’s not requried, so this is a good option for those who don’t have an extra space heater (aka server box) under their desk.
  3. BitTorrent Sync ( – this little guy is relatively new, and is my pick of the pack for this project. It also allows decentralized syncing (no server needed) across any number of folders with minimal setup, and the iPhone app support auto-uploading your photos.

The first step is to get the program on all of the systems you care about. In this case, that meant my linux box and my phone. I’m running an Ubuntu 12.04 LTS under my desk, so I downloaded the linux version. Note: there is no install for the linux version, and no GUI interface, which can cause some confusion if you aren’t prepared. You’ll need to place the binary yourself, and make a quick configuration file. All of this is covered in the documentation, but if you’re in a hurry, here are my recommendations:

  • Put the binary wherever you choose. I shoved it into /usr/bin
  • Issue the command: btsync –dump-sample-config > btsync_conf.conf
  • Jump into that file and change a few strategic things:
    • “storage_path” : “/home/yourid/.sync”  — this can obvious go anywhere, but if you don’t specify, it’ll always use your current directory
    • “pid_file” : “/var/run/btsync/” — same with this one. If you don’t specify, it’ll use the current directory
    • Under “webui”, change “listen” : “” – it defaults to 8888, but I was already using that for something else
    • Also change the “password”, otherwise anybody who knows you’re running it can get in there and change things.
  • Copy btsync_conf.conf into /etc/ for easy access
  • Create the directory /var/run/btsync/ and ensure you have write access
  • Launch btsync via the command: btsync –config /etc/btsync_conf.conf . You’ll see the following output when you do:
    $ btsync --config /etc/btsync-config.conf
    BitTorrent Sync forked to background. pid = 13232

At this point, it will be up and running. The next step is to log into the Web UI via your browser and add a folder. The web address will be localhost:888x, depending on what you set previously. If you’re trying to access that site from another computer, don’t forget to set up your routing tables to allow the traffic if needed. Once you’re in, this is what you’ll see:


From here, you’ll need to get the App running on your phone. You can find it in the iTunes Store under BitTorrent Sync. Nice and easy.

Go into the App and enable Camera Backup:

Neal Bohling’s _IMG_1176

Once enabled, hit that “Send Secret by Email” button. This will generate an email with the large hash key that you’ll need to reference your files. Either email it to yourself, or be prepared to copy the whole thing down by hand. Either way works just as well.

Go back to your browser and select “Add Folder”. Cut-and-paste (or type) the Secret key, and select the directory you want to use.


Once you hit add, you’ll immediately see things start to sync:


Let that run for awhile, and it’ll seamlessly sync all of your photos off of your iPhone and onto your Linux box. If you want multiple copies, you can also install BitTorrent Sync on other machines and connect them to the same “Secret”, and they’ll all work together to ensure everybody is in sync.

There’s only one small wrinkle left: if you delete a photo from your phone, BitTorrent Sync will delete it from the synced locations. If you enable the setting, it’ll store it in a folder called SyncArchive for a time, but eventually it will get deleted. To get around this, I created a second directory and set up a cron job to backup the backup once a day:

crontab -e
@daily  cp -n /from/bittorent/backup/* /to/iPhoneCameraArchive/

You could do the same with rsync or pv or whatever copy command you prefer.

There you have it! It’s not the most elegant solution, but it’s lightweight and accomplishes the task at hand. If you find yourself playing with the BitTorrent Sync, let me know what you think.