Archives For Tech

(Ed. Note: When I first posted this in 2009, I had no idea how popular it would become.  For 2011, I’ve updated the content to reflect updates and new options in the market.) (Ed. Note 2: Thanks to Techradar for naming our Yule Log Visualization for Windows Media Player one of the Top 60 free apps for Windows at #4) (Ed. Note 3: In 2011, I replaced the FM Transmitter with the CZH-05B from This is highly recommended over the C.Crane and is worth every penny.

Virtual Santa Kit via

Seeing as we don’t have a large yard to run a Mannheim Steamroller over our neighbors, I went with something a bit more subtle and easier to set up.  The unexpected side effect is that kids throughout our neighborhood now think that Santa lives at our house!  Here is the result: With a few tweaks, your community can be treated to music and a message from Santa via a low-power FM transmitter.  All the details are below. Project ListTo create the effect yourself, here is what you need:

  • A window.  Just about any window will do.
  • The Complete Virtual Santa Kit or an old Projector and PC.  HD isn’t needed.
  • An old DVD player with ability to set playback to repeat.
  • A good FM Transmitter. I used a C. Crane Digital FM Transmitter but updated in 2011 to this one worth every penny for power)
  • A white sheet to cover the window.  Avoid patterns.
  • Black Scrim used for theaters or a sheet of the black garden weed blocker fabric from local hardware store

Step 1: Set up the Virtual Santa Kit (or Projector) The Virtual Santa Kit includes everything you need for projection.  If you’re going the homegrown route, I’m using an Optoma DS317 SVGA DLP Projector.  It has a great throw ratio and at 2500 lumens should be bright enough for neighborhood outdoor movies during the summer.  Don’t worry about fancy features- a standard-def projector will work with VGA input.  The trick is to get one with 2000 lumens or better.  Also look for ability to adjust keystone and reverse the image. Step 1: Set up the Projector I placed the setup on a small coffee table and made good use of the Windows 7 box to adjust the angle and do a quick alignment with the window: Step 1: Set up the Projector Step 2:  Prep the PC (or DVD Player) As you can see above, I decided to use a PC instead of a DVD player.  In this case, Windows 7 and Windows Media Player make an excellent choice if you’re going to change up your order, add custom music etc.  I set up the projector via the included VGA cable and have extended Windows Media Player to run on the projector as a second display.  You can set this by pressing [Windows Key] + P and choosing, “Extend” as seen below: Step 2:  Prep the PC and FM Tuner Make sure Windows Media Player is set to run in full screen and move the mouse cursor back over to the main Windows display.  This will set the player controls to hide automatically and has the added benefit of making sure any alerts/notifications will not appear on the projector.  The last thing you want to do is ruin the illusion. Step 3: Prep the FM Tuner There are a number of FM tuning options available, however I strongly recommend against using a solution designed for in-car.  They’re just not powerful enough.  Be sure to read the comments on Amazon for the C. Crane Digital FM Transmitter and you should get tips on how to boostfor cars driving up to be able to hear your music.  If you’re eagle eyed, you’ll notice below that I’ve soldered a dipole FM antenna wire to the transmitter to improve the distance. Step 3: Prep the FM Tuner To figure out which station works best in your area, I recommend Belkin’s “My Best FM Stations” service. Just tap in your City/Zip/State and it will give you a number of options.  Be sure to try these out yourself. Step 4: Create a Custom Movie with your custom Virtual Santa Santa’s Symphonies is available as a digital download (MPEG-4) which plays fine with Windows 7 and Windows Media Player.  For Santa in the Window, there’s no music provided, but it’s easy to add your own – just use Handbrake to rip the DVD, add your favorite holiday music tracks with Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie and save. Step 4: Create a WMP Playlist for your Virtual Santa  You”ll also notice that I have shuffle and repeat turned on on WMP.  Be sure to set repeat so the video can play indefinitely.  With Windows 7, the system is so stable I’ve let it run for an entire week without issue.  If you’re going the DVD route, burn a DVD with “loop” turned on via DVD Burner or iDVD. Step 5: Set up the Window “Screen” For the projection screen, I used a two-ply of a white sheet and the black scrim material as seen below.  The scrim adds a great deal of realism to the effect because it blocks out the high intensity “halo” effect many projectors create and increases the black levels in the video.  I just pinned up the scrim and the sheet behind it.  Take this picture to your local fabric store and they’ll be able to set you up (thank to my wife for contributing to the effort <g>). Scrim Material   Step 6: Fire up the projector, Create a Sign for the Yard and and delight the Kids Be sure to level and center the display.  You’ll also want to adjust the distance from the window so the scale of Santa is correct.  I use the WMP toolbar in full screen (seen below) to help center the video, then it automatically hides:IMG_7369 Remember to move the mouse cursor back to the main screen Be sure to put a sign on the yard with the FM Frequency you’re transmitting on and house and you’re ready to go! Looking for more project ideas?  Click the “Project” link at the top of the page. Happy Holidays everyone!

DigitalTrends has a wrapup of the Best Speakers for your PC.  My personal favorites are the Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 – we took these through their paces in Windows Media and they were well received, even among the audiophiles.

I have another addiction beyond digital media – BBQ and Grilling and yes, there’s a difference.  BBQ is generally speaking cooked “slow and low” over smoke with chicken, pork, ribs, and brisket being the most popular types/cuts of meat.  Grilling is done fast and over direct or indirect heat and cook time is generally measured in minutes vs. hours for BBQ.  Both are experiencing a renaissance in interest as well as technology. From BBQs that tweet on Twitter, to decidedly low-tech solutions with big taste results for the casual gas grill owner.


Hello, my name is Sean, and I’m a BBQ addict.  My journey started in college when I learned what good BBQ is about going to school in-between Kansas City and Texas.  Then, in 1998 after finding mass-market BBQ in Seattle, I started buying Lloyds vac-packed, pre-cooked and sauced ribs and bringing them to friends’ parties (cringe).  This was the low point in my addiction. From there in 2000, I started reading up and playing around with an electric smoker.  After seeing my electric bill, I moved on through multiple smokers and grills – propane, natural gas, charcoal, and lump all have seen time in my “pit”.  In the past four years, I’ve really taken delight from feeding our friends throughout BBQ season from Memorial Day to Labor Day here in the states and have helped to organize a local event.  But the reality is I grill and BBQ year round – Prime Rib roasts for Christmas, Turkey for Thanksgiving and everything in-between.

My Outdoor LabA few friends have suggested I compete in local BBQ competitions and I’m flattered.  These weekend-long events often involve cash purses up to $10,000 – not bad for a weekend of camping and cooking in a parking lot.  I’m not really equipped to do this and figure I’m still backyard quality.  Then a few weeks ago, a friend signed up to become a Kansas City Barbecue Society certified Judge and suggested I do the same.  There we met 75 other people like us, all looking for the best BBQ the area has to offer.  As a result, I ended up judging the NW barbecue Championship last weekend, ate some great BBQ, and learned a lot throughout the experience.  I’m still learning, but have set my sights on a new prize – judging in the Kansas City American Royal Invitational with a $30,000 purse which draws over 300 teams and 60,000 people each year.

Grill Tech Essentials

Here’s my list, just in time for Father’s Day and open grilling season.  I’ve also included links to some of my favorite products to aid in discoverability.  Many of these items you can find at local outlets as well.

Outset QS77 Stainless Steel Wood Chip Smoker Box
Aluminum foil will work in a pinch, but the best approach is a dedicated smoker box.  Fill with wood chips (not chunks) that you’ve soaked in water for roughly 30 mins.  Then put this on your grate or directly on the burner of your Gas grill and infuse chicken, ribs, steaks etc. with great taste.
Charcoal Companion Cabernet Wine Soaked Oakwood Chips
Smoke imparts a distinctive taste and can really open up the flavor of any meat.  The challenge is pairing the right wood smoke with the right meat/marinade/rub. One of my favorites and most versatile is oak wood.  It’s not overpowering and you can find wineries and distilleries that run their oak wood casks for aging through a wood chipper.  Wine barrels impart a stronger secondary “flavor profile” than Jack Daniels or others.
Splash-Proof Thermapen Instant Read Thermometer
This one is a must-have and worth every dollar for any cook who takes food safety seriously (and you should).  NSF-certified and calibrated, it instant reads the temperature of just about anything.  I use it for testing doneness of chicken, pork, tri-tip and even boiling water and grate temperatures on the grill.
Pre-Seasoned 15 Inch Cast-Iron Skillet
Cast iron is incredibly easy to use on the grill or campground and get a bad rap for being difficult to clean. I’ve been really happy with the Lodge Logic pre-seasoned skillets and found them to be the opposite – just scrub with water and once dry, throw a little cooking oil on a paper towel to re-season. Awesome for fajitas, veggies, bubbling cheese dips in a smaller skillet and everything in-between.
Hot Handle Holders/Mitts
If you’re getting the skillet, be sure to get these.  I made that mistake only once grabbing a hot handle.  Easy to use, not much more to say about this one.
Weber’s Way to Grill: The Step-by-Step Guide to Expert Grilling
A great how-to guide and cookbook, you don’t need to own a Weber in order to learn from this book and time-tested recipes. 

These are just a few suggestions, and don’t forget the fire extinguisher.

The Next Stage: Improving the Outdoor Kitchen and BBQs on Twitter

This summer I’ll be working on improving my outdoor kitchen, getting more organized and trying new products and recipes. In my next piece I’ll go to the extreme end of the geek BBQ spectrum with the latest rage – a computer-controlled BBQ system that tweets status of your cook on the Web.

Also if you’re in the area, be sure to check out the PNW Eggfest happening next weekend, stop by and say hello.

Ed. Note: This is a departure from my usual sporadic musings.  Please feel free to share topics, questions, or feedback on whether this is of interest as a topic here or a separate blog.