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Five Steps To Build Your Own Random Non-Sequitur Twitter Bot

If you follow my standard Twitter account, @LaurenInSpace, you’re missing out on the good stuff. @LaurenInEbooks is a computer-generated stream of garbled tweets that are often far more on point than what I actually have to say.

A friend of mine, who knows about my love of esoteric Internet phenomena, built @LaurenInEbooks as a gift. It’s inspired by @horse_ebooks, a Twitter account so famous for its poorly computer-generated tweets that it got profiled in the New Yorker, which revealed that it had gone from a weird spam effort to sell ebooks into a mysterious art project.

Horse_ebooks is an old joke by now. But it’s not too late for you to get in on this bizarre genre of word art. A computer-generated account which serves as your own personal Twitter bot Frankenstein is always fresh and funny.

Plus, for beginning coders like me, this project is a great way to dip your toe into Python and Ruby while sharpening your Git skills—and at the end, get a hilarious little bot for your troubles.

See also: GitHub For Beginners: Don’t Get Scared, Get Started

Some of my coworkers wanted in join in on the fun, so I decided toTwitter bots, too. However, I found the starter script I chose to use, Heroku Ebooks, significantly difficult to follow. Building on top of it, I decided to create a tutorial anybody can use.

A caveat: I built this tutorial on a Mac using its Terminal app, software which provides direct access to running software programs. I have not tested this tutorial for Windows machines, but if you need help, start with GitHub’s Windows instructions.

It took me three tries to perfect the process. By the third time, building a bot took me only 20 minutes to complete! Here’s how to easily build your own random Twitter bot—and learn a little code at your friends’ expense.

Set Up A Twitter Account

You’re going to need a place for these tweets to go, so build a new Twitter account with a funny name. If you add “ebooks” to the end, @horse_ebooks fans will instantly get the reference, but you can choose any variation you like. In order to verify the account, you’ll need an email address that isn’t already being used by Twitter, so I’d suggest a secondary email you rarely use. I just generated a new email address I’ll probably never check again over at my hosting service, Bluehost, but you can also sign up for a new one on Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Outlook.com.

This new Twitter account also MUST have a mobile number connected to it. I used Google Vice, since they give you your first number for free. If I needed another I might have used Twilio, which also gives you your first number for free.

If you need to create a lot of accounts, Twilio will cost $1/month, which can add up fast. And I should also note that while Twitter allows you to create parody accounts, “mass account creation” is against the rules. Twitter also has rules on automated accounts which you should follow. So don’t go crazy with your bots.

This is also a good time to make a profile image. For @SelenaEbooks, I inverted the colors on her face to make a bizarro version of her Twitter image. I’m sure she just loves it.

Set Up A Twitter Developer Account

While still logged into your new Twitter account, navigate over to dev.twitter.com. The first thing you want to do is create a new app. For convenience, use the same name as your new account.

Once you’ve named and created your app, you’re going to immediately want to adjust its permissions to “Read and Write.” In order to post to Twitter from a program, it needs to have a mobile number connected to the account—which is why we needed to create one earlier.

Next, go to the API Keys page and click “Generate my Access Token,” and keep the window open while it works. You’ll need those keys and tokens in just a few minutes.

Clone The GitHub Repository

Whenever you are working on a coding project, you are always standing on the shoulders of giants. In this case, we’re borrowing an open source Ruby and Python script that GitHub user Tom Meagher has saved in a repository.

You need a copy of Tom’s repository on your computer. The easiest way to do this is to hit “Clone In Desktop” or “Download Zip.” Either way, you want to take the resulting folder, which will be called heroku_ebooks, and store it in the very top directory of your computer.

Update Your Settings

Give Your iPhone Camera DSLR-Like Superpowers

I’ve got a problem. I love the camera on my iPhone. It’s become an appendage—like an arm, or hand. If it was amputated from my life I’d feel like I’d truly lost a part of me. I use it all the time. Maybe too much (no one wants to be that guy that gets a picture of the moment but misses the actual thing, but hey, I can’t help it and neither can you).

See also: 5 Ways Apple Might Finally Get Mobile Photography Right

The thing is, I wish my iPhone’s camera could do more. It’s not a Apple vs Samsung vs Nokia type of thing. I’m talking about features that you don’t find on phones in general. DSLR-like features. I love the convenience of having a great camera in my pocket at all times, but it’s missing the power and the feel of a full-featured DSLR.

I found a few upgrades that can give an iPhone DSLR-like superpowers. Now plant the phrase, “Whoa, that exists?!” somewhere convenient in your brain, because you’re going to be accessing it a lot in the next few minutes.

Sony QX100 Smart Lens

 

Though it might look like a DSLR lens without a body, in reality the Sony QZ100 Smart Lens ($448) a full-fledged camera that uses your iPhone as a viewport. When combined with an iPhone via an included attachment, it’s possible to use in a traditional camera-like fashion: point and shoot.

See also: Can Sony’s Mad Scientists Fix Digital Photography?

But the real fun happens when the two items are detached. You can mount the solo Smart Lens on a tripod (perfect for lining up those professional selfies) or hold it in one hand with your iPhone in the other (perfect for hard-to-reach angles). The QX communicates with your phone via NFC or Wi-Fi (it actually creates its own hotspot).

Sony’s app will let you adjust white balance and exposure settings and control the zoom, among other things. While an iPhone 5S sports an 8 megapixel sensor, the QX packs a whopping 20 megapixels—more than double the iPhone’s out-of-box capabilities.

Olloclip Telephoto + Circular Polarizing Lens

I don’t know about you, but I’ve passed up many a cool subject because I knew my phone’s built-in zoom wasn’t up to the challenge. (That, or the photo would be so grainy I might as well take a picture of some sand.)

If you wanted to equip your iPhone with a more capable zoom without adding a ton of extra bulk, you’d look for something like the Olloclip Telephoto + Circular Polarizing Lens ($100). It may look small (and it is), but it will give you 2x optical magnification. Sure, it’s not something the paparazzi will use, but it might give you just the extra oomph you are looking for.

iPhone SLR Mount

You sometimes hear experts say that a camera is only as good as its lens. That’s why you can have an older camera body with a great lens on it and still take award-winning photos—and why a newbie with a brand new DSLR and stock lens might not have any good photos.

Going by this rule, the best way to upgrade your iPhone’s camera is to attach a huge beast of a lens—a full-fledged SLR. This is actually possible thanks to the iPhone SLR Mount ($175), which comes in both Canon and Nikon flavors.

ProCam App

Taking a break from the hardware front for a moment, let me tell you about ProCam (99 cents), an app that adds a familiar-looking DSLR-like interface to your iPhone screen when taking photos.

But the app is more than a looker—it actually lets you control things like focus and exposure, white balance, saturation and more. You can also control JPEG compression or opt for saving images in true lossless TIFF format. Another neat feature is the level mode which uses your phone’s gyroscope to auto-straighten the viewfinder in realtime.

iPhone Viewfinder

Those of you old enough to remember (and excluding all you pros)—have you ever found yourself missing the old viewfinder you used to use to line up shots? You know, the eyepiece you actually held up to your face to peer through? There was something professional about it. It made you concentrate.

Though you’ve probably never pictured it before, you actually can buy a physical viewfinder to stick on your iPhone. It’s simply called the iPhone Viewfinder ($30) and it uses a screw-on suction pad to vacuum onto your phone screen. Used in conjunction with the Daylight Viewfinder app, this is a great way to spice up your iPhotography experience.

Want To Speak At SMX Milan? Here’s How

Want To Speak At SMX Milan? Here’s How The agenda is live and we’ve opened up our “speaking pitch” form for SMX Milan, November 13-14, 2014 at the Meliá Milano Hotel. View the agenda here: SMX Milan 2014 Agenda And the speaking pitch instructions and form here: SMX Milan 2014 Agenda Speaking Pitch Form The speaking…

Openness Is Overrated: Honeywell And Vivint’s New Smart Home Platforms

 

Honeywell, the 125-year-old company known for home appliances, and Vivint, the former 90s-era Apex Alarm company, both just unveiled two new devices to launch their smart home platforms. Third-party developers excited to see established companies bring their experience and reputation to the industry will be disappointed, though. Because, unlike some nascent efforts, these two elder statesmen of home management won’t allow just anyone to enter.

In fact, in promoting their new devices—Honeywell’s Lyric smart thermostat and the Vivint Sky touchscreen hub—the pair tout their lack of openness like a feature, equating tighter control with reliability.

It’s not a trendy stance to take these days, but it underscores the biggest underlying battle in the fight to rule our homes: “open and innovative” versus “closed and reliable.”

Honeywell’s Lyric Takes On Nest

Honeywell put a lot of thought into its new Lyric smart thermostat. This is the company’s attempt to take on Nest, the now Google-owned device that jumpstarted the smart thermostat trend. If it has a bug in its craw over Nest, that’s to be expected. Honeywell sued Nest in 2012 over patent infringement.

But Lyric is also important to Honeywell for another reason: It’s the springboard for a whole new Lyric platform. The hub-less, Wi-Fi-based system could go pretty deep, considering Honeywell’s interests across categories—from thermostats and door locking mechanisms to healthcare devices.

Just not too deep.

“We’re using our own APIs across the various categories within Honeywell,” Tony Uttley, general manager of Home Comfort and Energy Systems, told me over coffee recently. I asked about the opportunity for outside developers, and he responded, “We want to make sure that Honeywell is continued to be recognized as high quality. We want to make sure that partners have something at stake in terms of quality and that it’s a consistent experience.”

Uttley explained that Lyric will be “a curated platform,” which is code for “only select partners allowed.”

One of them may be Apple. Last week, the tech giant announced HomeKit, its own stab at unifying the fragmented smart home category. And right there on stage, Honeywell’s logo joined those of other early partners to populate the presentation screen.

Indeed, another Honeywell representative confirmed via email that the company is developing thermostats to work with HomeKit. She explained that the integration will enable users, “to securely pair and control devices throughout the house [via] integration with Siri,” which sounds like a killer feature.

But here’s the rub: Honeywell makes many different thermostats. Some are standalone dumb appliances, some are single-purpose Wi-Fi thermostats—many of which actually work with other smart home platforms. Other Honeywell thermostats come as part of a separate HVAC connected-home platform, the Evohome “smart zoning” system (which is available overseas through an installer network). So there’s no telling which one may jump on the HomeKit bandwagon and the company refuses to specify yet.

The Lyric app includes installation videos, plus photo identification, to help users identify their setups.

The Lyric app includes installation videos, plus photo identification, to help users identify their setups.

But the Lyric thermostat could attract interest in its own right. Like the Nest, it can be installed by users, controlled by smartphones over Wi-Fi and alternatively set via a physical rotating dial. It also happens to feature a pretty, circular design. (Though Honeywell, quick to refute copycat accusations, pointed out that it has been making round thermostats for years.)

On the outside, Lyric offers a touchscreen interface and color-coded lights for different modes, and on the inside, it boasts geofencing that knows when you’re next door (500 feet) or across town (up to 7 miles away).

I also like the differentiation between “smart” and “intelligent.” Any connected device is considered smart, but intelligence requires context, anticipation and actions. If Lyric works the way Honeywell describes, it could fall into the latter category: The device knows when you come and go, and notices your activity patterns. Using that, it offers to make adjustments. And when it connects to weather forecasts, it knows there’s a difference between a hot and dry or humid 85 degrees, and changes the interior climate control accordingly.

Nest offers some of these features, but it’s pretty much a standalone product at this point. (Sales for the Nest Protect smart smoke alarm have been suspended for now.) Honeywell’s Lyric does cost a bit more, at $279, and you can only buy it through professional heating and cooling contractors, at least until August 2014, when it launches in retail stores.

Vivint Sky’s Learning Home Wants to Manage Itself

Honeywell’s latest may be a curated platform, but Vivint’s is iron-clad.

The Utah-based home security and control company caters to about 800,000 customers and, it said, customers tend to stay loyal for as long as nine years. So it’s in no hurry to turn them off with complications, bugs or hard-to-use features. This is why its new Vivint Sky smart home platform won’t opened itself up to outside developers.

To remain seamless, the company controls everything, from software to hardware. Toward that end, it just announced a revamped touchscreen control panel interface to officially debut Vivint Sky into the marketplace.

The wall-mounted command center was released in a “soft launch” earlier this year, shipping roughly 30,000 devices. Now the full roll-out will put the hub, and its splashy new interface, in more homes. The system works with mobile apps, cloud services, cellular networks (courtesy of AT&T and Verizon), as well as Z-wave, a standard smart home wireless network. These allow for control and automation over things like video, thermostat, door locks, lighting, and other devices.

People can watch video feeds of their homes on their computers, remotely shut down lights on their phones or use the touchscreen wall panel to automate appliances or thermostats. They can even talk in natural English (thanks to smartphone microphones) to command their homes.

“[Competitors’] products look like they were developed for engineers for early adopters,” said Jeremy Warren, vice president of innovation. “Ours speak to you in English, it tells you what’s happening, and it tells you what’s really critical.” Because Vivint manages everything, he said, the customer experience is feature-packed, but still streamlined and easy to use.

I haven’t gotten the chance to test this for myself to know if that’s actually true. But something else grabbed my attention: According to Warren, Vivint Sky can actually learn from homeowner behavior and manage itself. The system culls information across the devices in its system, so it can pick up on common habits. In effect, it understands and learns from you, eventually learning enough to actually take over.

Here’s what that would look like: Vivint Sky would notice that you come home around 6pm every night, so it starts to ask you if you’d like the thermostat to warm up the place by that time, or kick on the lights in anticipation of your arrival. “If a person says ‘yes’ several times in a row, it can take a step forward and handle things,” Warren said. And then once the system learns how a person lives, it won’t need to ask anymore. It will simply handle the actions on its own—at first, alerting the homeowner, so he or she has time to decline. But eventually, even that won’t be necessary.

“It will just take the action and notify you that it did it,” he said.

Sounds great—except, if you’ve got a third-party connected appliance, you can’t add that to your smart home. Outside developers aren’t permitted into the Vivint Sky ecosystem right now, though the company doesn’t want to close that door completely. “We don’t yet publish our APIs,” said Warren. “But we’re keeping our minds open for the future, so people can write their own rules. We just have to be careful.”

If he seems cautious, that’s because he is. Reliability is paramount, he said. It also explains why the company didn’t go the DIY or self-installation route. Vivint Sky is only available via contractors and professional installers, and customers pay $54 to $70 per month subscription fee for service (with $99 installation fee).

Honeywell and Vivint’s approaches stand in stark contrast to what startups like Smart Things and Revolv offer. The former actively courts developers, and the latter is gearing up to do the same soon. Companies like Control 4, as well as Staples’ smart home provider, Zonoff, offer similarly closed propositions, but since they operate as the back-end for other brands, they have no name recognition. Neither does Icontrol, though the company’s purchase of Piper smart cameras could pave the way for a consumer line. It’s also appealing to developers through its OpenHome initiative, which just brought 11 devices into the fold. There are myriad options in between.

Now Apple and Google are both in this game. These tech giants may accelerate mainstream adoption of smart homes like never before—which means we might know very soon which approach the public will favor.

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Microsoft and Google don’t have the best history of getting along. Case in point: Microsoft’s ‘Scroogled’ campaign, and Google’s refusal to support Microsoft platforms. The latest of shots fired at Google see Microsoft targeting Google’s thirst for user data, and how that makes some users uncomfortable. Today, Microsoft is sending out emails to alert users of a change in their terms of service. The changes come across as Microsoft trying to position itself as the anti-Google. Here’s a snippet: Privacy As part of our ongoing commitment to respecting your privacy, we won’t use your documents, photos or other personal files […]

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