Hackaday and VCF East and Handhelds, Oh my!

Looks like Hackaday has an article about VCF East and I got chatted up a bit on it. Thanks Tom Nardi!

VCF East was a blast, and I had a great time. Most of my chitter chatter and pics are on my Twitter feed. Thanks to everyone who showed up and made the event work. I had some great conversations, picked up some new gear, and got a good solid soar throat from talking for two days straight.

I’m hoping to bring the handhelds page up to date with all the latest acquisitions soon. A recent visit to Near-Fest definitely helped things along on that front!

My Portable Media Carry-Sack

I have a little Case Logic zippered pouch that I carry in my backpack everywhere I go. It’s where I put USB thumb drives, SD cards, Micro SD cards, adapters – pretty much anything I may need while on the road. It’s gotten me out of so many jams where I’m like “I need a quick Micro SD card… where the heck were they again??”

In particular, when I’m out doing photography, having a couple spare cards at hand is a total win.

Today, I fished out a 32gig card so I could re-image my Octoprint server that drives my Creality CR10 3d printer. I’ve been running the “Python 2” version for ages, it’s time to upgrade.

The Royal Kludge RK61 Keyboard is Growing On Me

I’m in the middle of A Large Project (stay tuned!), and as part of it, I laid out the money on my first actual mechanical keyboard. If you bring up ‘mechanical keyboards’ in any nerd setting, you’ll get some absolutely rabid folks going on about cherry switches, stroke type, PCB design, blah blah blah.

Me, I just wanted a mechanical keyboard that had a nice feel.

The RK61 fits the model of what I’m building, and it was a good ‘entry point’ into this concept.

The Deets

The Royal Kludge Rk61 is a 60% mechanical keyboard that has both USBC and Bluetooth connectivity. It has a full stroke set of ‘blue switch’ keys that have a good tactile feedback. It includes a decent sized battery, so when on full bluetooth mode, it’ll run for several weeks before needing to be plugged in.

Here’s the breakdown.

  • 60% – This is a ‘60%’ keyboard. This is a loose definition that generally means there’s around 60 keys on it, as opposed to the standard 104 keyboard that most people know. The keys are normal sized, so don’t let the percentage throw you off
  • USBC connectivity – used for either HID connection or charging the keyboard’s battery.
  • Bluetooth connectivity – this is nice, in that the keyboard supports 3 bluetooth profiles, and switching between them is just a matter of Function-Q, W, or E. THat’s handy since I’ve been using this for both my gaming PC and my project.
  • Blue Switch keys. If you talk to any keyboard nerd, this will immediately classify this keyboard for them. The blue switch designation refers to the mechanical switch type used in the keys. In this case, the keys have a very distinctive ‘CLICK’ sound, and a good tactile feedback. This isn’t the best for gaming, but for rapid typing and good feedback, it works well.
  • Battery – the battery is good. While I don’t type on it full time, I’ve only had to recharge it about every 2-3 weeks, which is just a matter of plugging in the USBC cable.
  • Lighting – Yes, it has animated lighting. There’s all sorts of pretty patterns you can set the keys to. In my case, since I have a white keyboard, the backlighting is soft blue, and I have it simply set to light the key then fade out after I release the key. You can get as fancy as you like.

Some drawbacks

There are a few drawbacks. Probably the most noteable is with only 60 keys, some keys no longer have unique functions. There’s not a Function key row – those keys are shared with the numerics and puncuation. There’s no separate arrow keys, so those are shared with the right hand modifiers, but most irritatingly, also the ‘/’ and ‘?’ key. I found having the RK61 manual at hand (even in digital form) can be helpful, since there’s very little feedback from the keyboard itself when changing modes.

It’s loud. I mean, it’s a mechanical keyboard, so no duh. But if you’re looking for stealth computing on your project machine, this is probably not the right tool. There’s ways to ‘quiet’ these keyboards using rubber o-rings and the like, but I feel if you’re at that point, you probably have bought the wrong keyboard.

Conclusion

The RK61 is a solid, well built, and aside from some oddities in the keyboard layout, useable keyboard. In general, I’m enjoying it. It’s not cheap, running about $59 on Amazon but if you’re looking for a keyboard that doesn’t take up a lot of space, has a good feel, and you like full stroke mechanicals, it’s not a bad option.

Baking Adventure: 2021 NYE

At the beginning of 2021, when the Pandemic was in full swing, I took up baking. Nothing particularly fancy, just learning how to bake breads and cakes and similar stuff. It’s fun, people really enjoy it, and, heck, lets be honest, it’s SCIENCE!

As the summer rolled around, I took a bit of a hiatus, and didn’t bake for a while. It’s hard getting motivated to work in a hot kitchen when it’s a bzillion degrees out. So the mixer and bread pans went idle.

This fall, I’ve picked it back up, and made bagels for the family for Christmas (like ya do), so for New Years, I decided to do something again.

Mosaic has a yankee swap every New Years. The pandemic has made this challenging of course, and even though we were optimistic, this year we did it virtually again (believe it or not, it went really well). The 13yo suggested that I bake a cake for our gift item, since ‘no one has ever done that before!’ (honestly I suspect he wanted some himself). So M and I dithered around a while and decided on a standard yellow cake but tried something new for the icing. The icing ended up being a Italian style maple meringue that was AMAZEBALLS. Once we realized we didn’t have a double-boilers (so we put a pot in a big skillet of boiling water, and also realized we REALLY needed a hand mixer to make this work – and was saved by a neighbor who brought one over in mid-stir), the meringue eventually cooked and turned glossy and thick.



Then we burned the cake.



So I ended up cutting out the middle of one, and took one of the bundt mini cakes we had used the extra batter for, and made this , which we able to ‘wrap’ as a gift without making a mess. The little dark bits are cruzilles, which are AMAZINGLY tasty, and bits of caramel on the top.



Presentation, I give it a 3. Taste, an 8.

Recipe links:

  • https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/7559/seafoam-icing/
  • https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/42148/scottleys-basic-yellow-cake/

The Sad, Avoidable Downfall of the E-Book Reader Aldiko

I’ve been a staunch user of the Aldiko ebook reader on Android for many many years. It was stable, easy to use, featureful enough to be a comfortable reading experience, and handled local libraries pretty well.

Then in 2014, Aldiko was purchased by Feedbooks. Not that big a deal, the press releases were all glowy about how much they loved Aldiko, things should continue, we all expected some new features.

Aldiko is now owned by DeMarque

In 2019 Feedbooks was aquired by DeMarque. Apparently Feedbooks was in serious trouble, and this acquisition was purely financial as part of a deal to settle up accounts with DeMarque:

What the press release doesn’t dwell on is that Feedbooks had been in receivership since June 2018 and the merger is the result of a Commercial Court settlement whereby De Marque paid 230,000 euros to acquire the assets of Feedbooks and its subsidiary Aldiko as part of a disposal plan.

Aug 29, 2019 – newpublishingstandard.com
Aldiko Next – the lobotomized version of Aldiko

Somewhere in 2021, DeMarque decided the Aldiko app needed a rewrite. Understandable. Old apps need refreshing and updates, sometimes an entire rewrite is in order.

So they published Aldiko Next – an extremely feature light, barely functional book reader (I won’t call it a ‘version of Aldiko’. It isn’t. It’s a rewrite). That’s fine, new versions are published all the time, and then the users are given time to try the new app, and iron out the bugs.

But DeMarque decided “Nope. We’re going to force the literal 20 million installs of Aldiko to the new version. Without notification. Without an Opt-out.”

Aldiko Next is absolute hot garbage. Don’t believe me? Look at the reviews on the play store. They’re universally panning the app.

DeMarque’s answer to bad reviews?

“Hello, In addition to several new features, Aldiko 4 will offer all the ones that were already available, only improved. We’ve decided to deploy them incrementally. So it is normal that some features from previous versions are not yet available. They will be available as future versions are released. Please note that 4.3.6 has just been released.”

November 9, 2021 Play review response

Note, the ‘will offer’. These features are NOT AVAILABLE. Yet they forced ALL the users to upgrade to the new version. When challenged on why this is a bad idea, Hadrian Gardeur, the founder of Feedbooks, doubled down with a basic “Ignore the reviews. We know what we’re doing”

I stopped responding after that message. There didn’t seem to be any point.

So what’s the alternative?

Moon+ Reader on Android

I encourage anyone who is frustrated with DeMarque / Feedbooks destroying a beloved app to simply… take your business elsewhere. I have switched completely to Moon+ Reader, which is an outstanding app, extremely featureful, offers a ‘free, with ads’ and a ‘pro’ version. I’ve simply moved all my books over to that, and things are running beautifully. Everything works as expected, and basic features that should always have been there… are still there, unlike Aldiko.

I understand the need for companies to make a profit, and do business. It takes money to develop, market, and support applications. But there’s also a responsibility to the userbase to not destroy the experience for them. This seems like a no brainer, but apparently, some people just don’t get it.

If you’re going to upgrade an app, then do so. Engage your users, make the migration an accepting and functional experience. Do not slam everyone into an incomplete codebase and then dismiss their complaints.

That is a textbook recipe for how to drive your users to your competitors platforms.

Well done DeMarque. Well done.

Jeep JKU Overlanding Build – My Covid-19 Project

The last year has been a doozie. When the pandemic got rolling and didn’t look like it was going to be over quickly, I, like many folks, looked for ways to ‘get away’. Some of these plans were born from fear and doom, some from a basic need to just Be Away, and for others, it was a way to do SOMETHING during the pandemic that felt like you were building for the future. An uncertain future to be sure, but a something you could point at and go “I did this. Now I can enjoy it.”

I’ve had a Jeep, off and on, for the last 8 years. Starting with a JKU (which I sold quickly, unfortunately), and then settling into my 2000 Jeep TJ (affectionally referred to as Ol Yeller), I enjoyed having a ‘toy’ that I could go romp in the woods, or just drive with the top off. It was freeing.

I sold Ol Yeller right at the beginning of the pandemic, because I had gotten fascinated with the concept of Overlanding, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized my 20 year old, small (but still fun!) Jeep TJ just wasn’t going to cut it. And, to be fair, the TJ was not exactly a luxury vehicle. It was time to upgrade to a vehicle I could build out into my overlanding vision.

How it started

I began hunting for a JKU (the 4 door version of the JK) in May, 2020. My criteria was:

  • A relatively low set of miles. 50k-75k was okay.
  • Manual transmission – Manual cars are slowly going away. This was the last chance for me to have a manual vehicle, I was going to take advantage of it. And besides, it’s fun.
  • Hard top. I could have gotten a soft top and upgraded it, but either way, I wanted a hard top in the end. In the winter, it’s really the only way to stay warm.
  • No rust. Jeeps rust. The JK’s are better about it than previous versions, but they still will rust.
The first version of Ghost

I found a JKU that fit the bill, aside from the hard top at a dealership not far away. Took it for a test drive, reviewed it, and it seemed like it would fit the bill. I paid cash for it, and drove it home. While driving it back from the dealer, something felt… off with it. It wasn’t tracking right, and had a bit of a shimmy in it. I had brought up the shimmy with the dealer, and they said they had fixed it, but it still didn’t feel right.

I made an appointment with my local shop (folks I trust a lot), to have them go over it. They did… and… there were problems. It turns out this jeep had obviously been in at least one accident, if not several. The chassis had been shifted forward by an inch on the frame and the body mount bolts were all twisted. The frame had been cut and re-welded (poorly) which threw off all it’s alignment. My shop was definitely of the opinion “This vehicle is unsafe. You need to return it.”

I was, naturally, hurt and felt lied to. I contacted the dealer, relayed all my issues, and they, surprisingly, agreed to take it back and refund ALL the money spent. No restocking, no tax issues, nothing. Just a check back to me. So that’s what I did. I felt a little taken advantage of because I didn’t do a thorough check, but I did have a conversation with one of the sales reps there who said they had another buyer, cautioning him “this vehicle is unsafe. Please take that into consideration when you decide to sell it again.” – I doubt it had any affect, but I had to try.

Second Verse, Same as the First, but better!

So, back onto the market I go. Strangely, I find another JKU, also white, this time with a black hardtop, less than 10 miles from the original dealer. So off I go, give it a test drive, and things look and feel… good! No shakes, it’s smooth and strong, AC works great – I’m cautiously optimistic. THIS time I make an appointment with my shop and make arrangements with the dealer to take the car to the shop for the day for a full evaluation. They agree, and a few hours later, I have a 100% clean bill of health. Nothing wrong with it!

So I became an owner of a white 2013 Jeep JKU Sahara, which was promptly named Ghost.

Ghost was basically stock. Stock Sahara wheels, bumpers, roof, interior. The only ‘enhancements’ were a bit of ‘armor’ on the sides of hte hood, and running boards. It did have the Alpine amp and subwoofer, which was a nice bonus. The head unit was the basic CD player and radio, but everything else was there including steering wheel controls and everything else. Oddly, it didn’t have an FM antenna (??), not sure what that was about. But it was the right price, the right configuration, and felt great. I was ready to get started.

The Build

Over the next 10 months, using whatever tools and basic skills I have, I upgraded Ghost. Through Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, ebay, Crutchfield, and trips to Lowes, I built. There was a LOT of learning. I’ve always been okay doing stereo installs and upgrades, and doing wiring, but this build would require mechanical work. Moving equipment around the engine bay, mounting hardware, figuring out what options to do where. The physical build took months, and wasn’t cheap.

Here’s a simplified version of all the work I did. (If you’d like a fully detailed nitty gritty “show me the rust and bolts” review, checkout my build thread on WranglerForum.com).

  • Found a GobiRack on Facebook Marketplace – I’ve always wanted a safari rack on the jeep, because I love the look and the flexibility it provides. The fellow who had it was happy to hold onto it for a few weeks until we could get down there. It came with a full on lightbar, and was a very reasonable price. I also learned that these racks were INCREDIBLY hard to come by. The manufacturer was way behind on filling orders, and the prices were through the roof (so to speak). I got this for a good price, and was happy to put it in the garage until I was ready to install it.
  • A set of XRC Bumpers (front and rear) to replace the stock ones. I was originally thinking these would be needed (on the rear) to mount the rack, but it turns out the rack mounts to the underside of the body, not the bumper. Regardless, I wanted a front bumper to mount a winch, and a rear bumper that was rugged and able to handle towing and getting banged around. This was another Facebook Marketplace purchase. Met the fellow at a rest stop down in CT. Super nice!
  • A Harbor Freight winch. Yea yeah, harbor freight, blah blah. But if I’m going to be anywhere off road where I might get stuck, a winch is absolutely necessary. I got this during a sale somewhere in November, but didn’t get around to installing it until April this year. It sat on my porch the entire time. My wife is very patient.
  • A new power control panel and relay box – this is a system that gives you switches on the interior to control exterior lights and accessories, using a separate set of relays. Very handy for high current thing (like trail lights)
  • A set of grips / handles from Wild Boar. The Jeep is TALL, and climbing in and out of it is a lot easier if you have something to grab onto.
  • A Vector equipment mounting bar – this goes on the dash and lets you mount equipment to it, like phone mounts, radios, etc.
  • A Boss BE10ACP-C Android Auto screen to replace the head unit – this took a lot of research to arrive at, but I’m reasonably happy with the result. I find floating screen displays really useful (I know others disagree), and having my gmaps on that screen, plus Spotify, an audio interface, backup camera, etc – a huge upgrade.
  • A set of new rims (via Craigslist) to replace the stock rims
  • BF Goodrich T/A K02 Tires.
  • Replaced the headlights from the stock ‘sealed beam’ whatever those garbage things were with a set of LED lights. The improvement is staggering.

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So far so good, but we’re not done yet!

Now everything up until now has been pretty basic ‘kit out your jeep’ type stuff. Folks do this sort of build out all the time, and honestly, the result is pretty awesome. It looks great, it drives great, it’s fun, and it’s comfortable.

But the real goal of this project wasn’t to make another kitted jeep, it was to make something I could go camping and backwoods exploring in, and basically live out of for at least a small stretch of time. To do that, we needed to keep building.

Overlanding Buildout

The next things are parts that any camper would get. I needed a place to sleep, I needed water, food, storage, power, a way to cook, and it all had to fit in or on the jeep in a way that wasn’t horrible.

The first step there is a rooftop tent. This is a type of tent that folds up like a big taco when you’re driving, but unfolds into a big comfortable space when parked. The one I settled on is a Smittybilt Overlander XL tent. It’s quite large, fits me and all my gear and company if needed without a problem, and fits fine on top of the Jeep. This was one of the big reasons I got the JKU – this tent would not have fit on the TJ (of maybe it would have, but would have added more weight in a place that vehicle did not need it. High off the ground.

Once the tent was all set up and useful, I needed to start adding things to make camping out comfortable and sustainable. Anyone who is exploring overland builds will be familiar with this list, it’s the sort of accessory pile that anyone doing camping will understand.

  • Basic camping stuff like a sleeping bag and the like. I already had all this, so that was easy. The tent has a very nice foam floor on it so its quite comfortable.
  • A Mr. Heater portable propane heater. This heater is designed to run inside enclosed spaces, so it can warm up the tent REALLY fast and make it quite comfortable. I tend not to run it all night, but for going to bed at night and waking up on a cold morning, one button and you have a very nice toasty room to get dressed or undressed in.
  • A Gooloo 500w Lithium Ion battery bank that charges from the Jeep when it’s running, and when I’m camped, I can use it to power lights, equipment, recharge various bits, and also power my…
  • A Foho Portable fridge / freezer! Yes, I have a fridge in my jeep. For food from spoiling without the hassle of ice or ice packs, it’s amazingly useful. When I’m driving, the Jeep powers the battery, which powers the fridge. When I’m parked, the fridge runs off the battery. I can run a day or two in that mode without needing to start things up to recharge.
  • A full cooking kit that includes pans, utensils, a cooking stove, etc. The stove runs on propane, and I”m thinking of upgrading to a more peppy stove.
  • A folding table
  • A 5 gallon water jug
  • A medical kit
  • A variety of other gear to keep the Jeep and myself safe, such as recovery gear, spare rope, a shovel, hatchet, spare knife, etc etc.
  • A bike rack! Having my bike with me means I can leave the Jeep parked and go off and explore, then come back for meals and sleeping.

Given all this, I feel like I have a setup that… i can take just about anywhere. It’s comfortable, it’s complete, and it’s mine. My escape vehicle. Say hello to Ghost.

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Conclusions

This has been a year of challenges for everyone. For me, this project has helped channel my needs into a project to build a vehicle I’m enormously proud of (and lets be frank, I love showing off). So far I’ve been camping in it 4 times, and will be going again next weekend. I’m constantly tweaking and adding to the build.

What’s next? Honestly, I’m not sure. I suspect I’ll be fiddling my cooking and heating arrangements a bunch (my current stove isn’t powerful enough). I’m considering a better propane management, something that lets me use a 5lb propane tank with multiple connections. Solar panels have been a thought, but I’m not sure if they’d be helpful (since I tend to camp in the woods). I’m definitely going to be upgrading my radio communications (I have no CB or Ham radio yet), and I want to have a permanent mount for a GPS locator / rescue device.

I hope to go on a couple long trips soon, but we’ll see how the weather, work, and my budget come together. Stay tuned!

My Herman Miller Aeron Chair is probably Beyond Repair

So I’ve had an Aeron C for, oh, 15+ years. It’s been awesome, and I’ve done a a variety of repairs on it, including replacing the seat pan and the above linked repairs on the recline mechanism.

A month or two ago, I noticed the chair would not stay fully upright. A little weight backwards would cause it to go ‘clunk’ and move back to about 10 degrees recline. I knew this was probably a broken or damaged cam, so I ordered a replacement, and last week, took the chair apart to replace it.

This doesn’t look good.

Unfortunately, it looks like the post the cam is on is bent. I’m not that surprised, I’m a big person, and leaning back in the chair puts an enormous amount of pressure on that post.

I tried hammering the post back into vertical, and was able to straighten it most of the way, but couldn’t quite get it right, and in the process, probably weakened the frame and post (they are one unit, not something that can be taken apart, as far as I can tell).

I put things back together as best I could, and it was slightly improved, but still ‘shifting’ when i leaned back, and wouldn’t hold in place. Turns out that post is weakened and out of place, and won’t hold. Taking it apart again shows the post has shifted again, so I have to assume the mount is weak to the point of not being able to hold its shape. Not only that, but it looks like the entire frame is bent and twisted out of true.

This makes me super-sad, because the chair is so repairable otherwise, but as far as I can tell, this is basically the main frame that’s damaged, and while I could probably get a new frame, that’s really a ton of work to basically replace the body of the chair.

It breaks much of my “buy it for life” models, but I will probably part this chair out and replace it. I may get another Aeron, but I’m also looking at the Autonomous chair (i’m very tall, choices are limited).

Edit: it’s now a month after I originally wrote about this issue, and I’ve replaced my Aeron with one of the Ergo 2 chairs. So far I’m quite happy with it, and it fits my 6’6″ frame just fine. I’m hoping to modify the Aeron to disable the recline mechanism completely so it’ll be useful at my workbench, but as my primary office chair, it has been put into retirement.

Milestones in Home Automation – Tablet Wall Mount

My home automation projects has been churning along for over a year now. I’ve been able to set up motion detectors for stairway lights, LED strips for colorful lighting, and voice control integration through the whole house. Even my wife admits that having voice control in every room is convenient as heck.

We’ve gotten very used to the ability to turn on or off all the lights in an area, like saying “Downstairs lights off” which shuts off the 3 lamps in the living room as well as the kitchen and dining room lights.

But one thing that has been a steady thorn in my side is the difficulty setting up a wall mounted tablet to show the status of the lights, heating, and motion detectors, and allow you to turn things on and off via this panel.

Nowadays most folks use tablets – anything from an iPad down to the cheapest Android tablet you can find. They work fine, but for me the problem has always been power. The tablet needs to be turned on full time, and to do that, you need power. Running power to a spot in the middle of the wall is problematic and cumbersome. This is doubly irritating in that most tablets only require a simple USB cable to keep running.

The solution!

This lack of easy access to power has stalled my ‘tablet’ rollout for quite a while, until I found this combination USB port / lightswitch from Bryant Electric (model USBB102W). Using this plus a short jump cable, it seemed possible to mount the tablet just over the light switch. And lo, it was!

The lightswitch was a basic “interruptor” – it was wired with 2 black wires, plus a ground. The black wire is the “hot” feed to the ceiling fixture, so opening or closing the switch would open or close the circuit. Fortunately, the people who wired the house also had a neutral wire in there. It wasn’t wired to teh switch, but had a 6 way insertion connector, so it would be easy to wire it up.

Once I had the fitting apart, the wiring on the new USB enabled switch was a little confusing. Fortunately, I found a very nice post (on Amazon’s feedback page interestingly enough) that described how to wire it up:

I was able to replace the press-in connector on the neutral lines with a wirenut, and used proper gauge for the jumper. Reset the breakers, and yay! Everything works!

Once I reassembled the switch and put a new plate on it, I was ready to mount the tablet. I’ve been using ActionTiles to control Smartthings connected devices, so putting that on the tablet was the goal. I ordered a couple short USB cables (making sure the orientation would work for the tablet), and then 3d printed some wall brackets for the tablet. A little VHB tape later, my tablet was mounted and working!

I enabled developer mode on the tablet, and set it to ‘never turn off while plugged in’, and my setup was complete!

So now what?

So where to next? Well, doing the Alexa integration with Smartthings is cumbersome (I’ll write this up at some point). I’ll need to solve this at some point – Alexa is just too useful to have, but the lack of a programmatic API for integrating display devices (like this one) with it is a problem (You can use a ‘kindle fire’ tablet for this, but the interface is not good, and ONLY controls Alexa devices :-/. Same problem, just in reverse.

I also want to add more items to the display board – like indicators about the status of my motion detectors, and possible a camera feed to the front porch. We’ll see!

The Toyota Prius Prime Dashboard – A Study in Bad UX

The Toyota Prius Prime. In so many ways, a remarkable piece of engineering. Efficient, comfortable, and not so bad in the cargo territory. In it’s plugin form, it can run 20-25 miles on pure EV power, and after that, it still chugs along at 40mpg. For people wanting to dip their toes into the electric vehicle world, it’s not a bad place to start, assuming you’re okay with the styling.

With all that, what the HELL went wrong when they ‘designed’ the dashboard and the information systems?

I’m rarely speechless when it comes to engineering projects, particularly ones backed by such a well respected and successful company as Toyota. But jumpin jehosephat. Who the heck designed the dashboard? It’s… it’s… nnnnng…. well… let me show you.

The Dashboard – An Introduction


First, lets take a look at the interior. This is the 2019 Prius Prime dashboard, directly from Toyota’s brochure…

Now before I go straight to the jugular, lets note a few positive aspects here.

  • A large, centrally located touchscreen. I like that. It’s easy to reach, everyone in the car can see it, it’s bright and visible.
  • The steering wheel has easy to reach controls, right under the thumbs. Nice.
  • The upper display (directly in front of the window) has 3 smaller screens that can show a variety of information panels. The most obvious one is a speedometer, but the other options are battery usage, mileage, map directions, etc. As compared to the Tesla, which puts everything on one display in the middle of the car, these secondary displays that ALWAYS display certain information is a nice touch.

Well, that’s nice, but what’s your beef?

Sounds all peachy so far, right? I mean, it looks all shiny and clean, so what’s wrong?

Turns out, plenty.

Lets start at the meta level. That big central display? It only controls a small subset of the car systems. It’s a bad design to have to go hunting for an external button or switch or toggle or display to get a basic function that the display should have on it.

Another problem with the central display are the buttons on the glass on either side. Those are flush contacts. You have to look at them to determine if you’re pushing them, and there’s no feedback when you do. Talk about distracted driver problems. No feedback contact buttons should be used VERY CAREFULLY in motor vehicles. Why some of these buttons are glass and others in the car are standard switches, I have no idea.

Okay, but lets hear the real fails.

Okay, you asked for it, lets start running down some absolutely batshit decisions made on this car.

  1. Lets start simple. Seat heaters. Everyone loves ’em, right? Took us literally googling and watching youtube videos to figure out how to turn them on. The controls for the seat heaters are tucked under the dash, on either side of the central console. Once I scrunched down in the seat, bent my head to one side, I was able to see them. My wife, who is a foot and a half shorter than I am, never saw them either. Who thought this was the appropriate placement for these switches?
  2. Remember those little screens under the front windshield? Nice, aren’t they? Well, they are configurable. You can change what each one shows. At some point, my wife brought up “Hey, that middle display used to show how much battery time I had left, now it doesn’t. How do you change that?” – I, a systems engineer, could absolutely not figure out how to change those displays. The answer? Tap the right arrow on the steering wheel right control pad. No other feedback that this is how to do this – no menus, no prompts, no information – I had to google this one too. There’s nothing on that nice big central display that lets you configure these smaller displays. They are completely separate.
  3. At one point we were driving around at night, and I was wondering why the central screen was so bright. Most cars switch into ‘night mode’ when it gets dark, but this screen was blazing white. Going through all the menus, I found a screen setting for ‘DAY MODE’ ON/OFF – what exactly that means is sort of a mystery. There was no NIGHT MODE ON/OFF. Just that one toggle. Turns out, you need to use the OTHER screen control. The one on the left side of the steering column around knee height. There’s a dial there that on older cars would set the brightness of the dashboard instruments. Some bright engineer at Toyota decided that if that little knob was spun to a certain point, the central console would always be in day mode. the DAY MODE apparently can override this setting? Who knows – but having to go off-screen to some random control when the option should have been RIGHT THERE on the screen is definitely a fail.
  4. Backup beeper. Did you know the Prius has a backup beeper? Going by Wikipedia :

    A back-up beeper, also known as back-up alarm or vehicle motion alarm, is a device intended to warn passers-by of a vehicle moving in reverse. They typically produce 1000 Hz pure tone beeps at 97-112 decibels.[1] Matsusaburo Yamaguchi of Yamaguchi Electric Company, Japan, invented the back-up beeper. It was first manufactured as model BA1 in 1963.[2] ISO 6165 describes “audible travel alarms”, and ISO 9533 describes how to measure the performance of the alarms

    Great idea, right? Except the Prius backup beeper SOUNDS INSIDE THE CAR. Not externally. You can’t hear it outside. Who exactly is this supposed to be warning?
  5. The mapping software sucks. I mean, you just can’t get around it. It’s cumbersome, it’s painful to use, the search functions are absolute shit, and it’s just a nightmare to try and use productively. Took us another zillion years to figure out how to turn off the turn by turn navigation (you can’t except via a buried setting – makes listening to music really terrifying – why can’t you just say ‘turn off turn by turn for now, I’m listening to something cool, I don’t need the interruptions telling me that I’ll be on this interstate until the heat death of the universe.’
  6. Most functions are disabled while in motion. This seems to carry over from day 0 of cars getting anything more complicated than an FM stereo head unit. Someone somewhere said “We should disable any function that may be a distraction to the driver, with no option to get around it”, and so it was. But, what if you’re traveling in a modern vehicle that thoughtfully placed the navigation system between the driver and passenger seat, where the passenger has the same access as the driver, wouldn’t it make sense to allow the passe… NOPE! Locked out! You can’t modify your route or destination or settings while in motion. DENIED.

Denoument

I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list as more things come up. What’s bothersome about all this is so much of this can be fixed in software. But as far as I can tell, Toyota is following the auto manufacturer trend of assuming once a model year of a car is complete, so is the software, and it doesn’t need to change. They may do minor tweaks and fixes, but they do not actually revise the systems with major improvements (unlike Tesla, who put out major software updates pretty much constantly, frequently adding new features or overhauling others).

It may sound like I’m bashing Toyota and ignoring flaws in other manufacturers. That’s not the case at all. I’ve written in the past about my issues with the Tesla Model 3, and while I didn’t have a lot of complaints about my Chevy Volt, there were some frustrations with GM. (In fact, I had some UX problems with the Volt as well, but the Volt didnt’ have the big touchscreen that SHOULD have made those problems easy to fix.)

Modern car manufacturers absolutely need to get on board, and stop thinking of the dashboard with a touchscreen as just a ‘shiny’ version of the old knobs and dials dashboards. It’s a fully functioning digital information and control system, and should be treated as such, with regular updates, and some put into UX design. Tesla is the only company that is doing this right. What the heck is everyone else thinking?

Creality CR-10 – How I Fixed Stuttering / Levelling Problems

About 6 months ago I bought a Creality CR-10 3d Printer. All the cool kids were using 3d printers for just abouyt everything, I was starting to feel left out. Our makerspace has some great printers, but with the pandemic (and also that the space was 45 minutes away), I wanted something nearby that I could tinker with on my own time.

Secondarily, there’s something attractive about being your own fabricator. Having a printer means I can manufacture my own items. That’s pretty cool. I needed to learn how to do that.

For the most part, the printer works great. 3d printing with PLA is not a fast process. Most prints take hours to complete. The CR-10 worked like a champ though. Prints were clean, the end results were useable, and the machine was dependable and easy to manage. I learned to use Ultimaker Cura to set up the jobs and all was well.

I didn’t print anything for a month or so, then went back to print some cable runners to try and organize my desk wiring a bit. When home-ing the print bed, I heard a sort of chattering / stuttering noise during Y axis motion:

I didn’t think much about it, but the print failed with layers shifting in a weird way. Obviously something was wrong.

I spent some time trying to find problems with wiring, stuff blocking the motion of the stepper – nothing was obvious. It was weird though, because the chattering would only happen in one direction, and even odder, it happened when the printer was completely powered off. Moving the bed by hand would cause this sound even when nothing was powered up.

Hmmmmm.

Yesterday I decided enough was enough. Posting on reddit asking for help got no good feedback. I submitted a bug report to Creality, unsurprisingly, I never even got an acknowledgement to the message. I chatted with friends who suggested stepper motor failure, bed misalignment, power supply problems – a whole host of things. None of these were it.

Turns out, like so many things, it was something stupid.

On the front of the Y axis travel arm, there’s a bracket that holds the pully for the belt. This bracket ‘sticks out’ from the frame of the printer, and apparently, somewhere along the line, I had bumped into this bracket, pushing it down about a cm. That was enough to have the belt rub against the end of the track. Travel in one direciton was smooth, but in the other, the teeth on the belt would catch on the end of the track.

Correct position of front assembly
Incorrect / bent position of front assembly

The answer of course was to just move the assembly up into the right position, and BEHOLD! No chattering, no stuttering, no problems. Thus ended a month of having the printer mocking me in its uselessness.

I did, however, run into one other problem. Bed levelling is the nemesis of any 3d printer owner. It can be tedious and time consuming, but is absolutely critical to getting good, solid, well formed prints.

On the CR-10, levelling is accomplished via a set of wheels under the bed that compress set of strong springs to get the bed where you want it. In this case, the springs were 100% compressed, and I couldn’t get enough clearance between the glass and the print head. In the past I was able to wrangle enough slack to make it happen, but today, maybe due to humidity or whatever, I just couldnt’ get it to clear.

Fully compressed spring on the CR-10 levelling knobs.

I solved the problem by essentially raising the 0 position on the Z axis stepper. Because there’s no built-in function to do this on the printer, but being the ever adaptive type, I made do with 4 strips of electrical tape, added to the Z gantry just above the homing switch. This effectively told the printer to stop the the print head about a mm higher than it had before, thus giving me some working room to adjust the bed

MAGIC TAPE

Conclusions

I really do like the CR-10. When it’s running, it’s rock solid, and prints like a dream. I’m hoping to do some mods to it once the office situation settles down a few notches, but right now I’m just happy to have a working, non-chattery, dependable machine again.

Zeos Pocket PC

When PCs were hitting their stride, handheld versions were starting to make their appearances. The early versions were pretty limited in their performance, but they were functional, mobile, and not too bad.

A fellow on one of the retro forums reached out to me recently and asked if I’d be interested in a Zeos Pocket PC. At first I thought it was another Windows CE machine, and I was really avoiding those. But this turns out to be a very basic DOS based handheld, so I said “Sure, I’ll take it!”

The Zeos Pocket PC was made in 1992, around the time the HP 95LX and similar ‘clamshell’ computers were being manufactured.

Specifications

  • Released: 1992
  • Original price: $595 ($1,108 in 2020 dollars)
  • CPU: NEC V30 (80C86) @ 4.77MHz / 7.15MHz
  • Memory: 640k RAM
  • Display: 80×25 LCD text, 640×200 graphics
  • Batteries: Two AA
  • MS-DOS 5.5
  • 1.3lbs

Interesting Bits

The Zeos PC has a couple features on it that make it pretty interesting. The first is it has a parallel and a serial port on it. Unfortunately, they use a custom cable connector (which I happen to have), so connecting up to them can be a little challenging.

However, they also have dual PCMCIA slots, which means it’s easy to dock new cards into it (conveniently located under the case). The Zeos supports SRAM cards… these cards are Type 1 PCMCIA devices, which are pretty hard to find, and require a battery in the card to retain their storage. I have 1-2 that I use on my Newtons, so I’m looking forward to tinkering with them.

Another neat feature is it has a quite large and comfortable keyboard. That can be a win or lose – easy to type on, but it makes the entire unit quite bulky. Not something that would fit comfortably in a jacket pocket

The screen is not particularly easy to work with. It has no backlighting, so visibility requires just the right light setup (a direct light, but not one that reflects badly).

It is, however, extremely light and portable for a fully functional PC-DOS machine from 1991.

Conclusions

The Zeos Pocket PC is a cute representation of the state of DOS based computers in the early 90’s. Extremely limited funtionally in it’s basic state, but I’m going to see if I can get some simple applications on it. It comes with Works (an extremely simple software suite for notes and stuff), but it might be fun to get some more complex applications on it and get some connectivity going.

Chasing Things That Bring Me Joy

I really don’t like making New Years Resolutions. It always strikes me as something people do because.. “it’s a thing you do”.

This year though, I inadvertently made one, and it’s turning out to be a good thing.

Over the winter vacation, I had a great conversation with my wife that ranged all over, and was one of those conversations that can be a turning point. The topic was “What is it that’s important to you? What makes you happy?”

Turns out, something that made me happy was definitely not taking a bigger role. I wasn’t making time for it, so it was falling behind.

Music.

Fifteen or so years ago I was in a blues band, playing bass, and having a great time. We were gigging out, we were playing the most god awful bars you could find, but it was fun, and while there were times it was challenging, there were also times of great joy… those moments when things just come together and we rocked the place.

Because of my work schedule, I had to leave the band (lots of travel makes it hard to stay on the performance schedule), and music sort of fell on the wayside. I still had my guitars, I still played… a little, but I definitely stopped growing and learning. Things slowed down.

My kid is getting pretty serious about their music, and has been steadily pushing me to play more. I’ve been resisting under the normal arguments “I suck, I don’t know enough, I’m embarrassed). We’ve played a few times, and it made me sad, because what I knew was too limited, too constrained. And my fingers hurt.

Over the winter break, after that conversation with my wife, I decided it was time to change that. Music is something I truly love, I just never made the choice to dedicate time and energy into learning in all the things I didn’t know, and… of course, I needed to PRACTICE.

So, since somewhere around New Years, I’ve thrown myself into finally learning guitar properly. YouTube is a wonderful source of lessons, demonstrations, and backing tracks. That, coupled with help from Zach, and lots of practice, I’m starting to fill in the gaps in my guitar knowledge that was sorely lacking.

But, most importantly of all, I’ve been sticking with a regular practice schedule with a very simple rule. Play every day. Even if it’s only 10 minutes… pick up an instrument, and run scales, run fingering exercises, play some part of a song. Keep your fingers active, keep the knowledge alive, and keep building.

Since January, I’ve held to this schedule. I play every day. Sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes an hour or two. What’s happened is my fingers are building up calluses, and I’m learning pick and finger control – things I never had before. I’m learning to solo, something that’s always been a mystery to me. Music theory is filling in, though very slowly, and with the possible pitfall a lot of guitarists fall into. A lot of theory on guitar matches to patterns and arrangements on the neck. The theory is subsumed by learning patterns and relationships between positions, rather than the theory itself and how the neck represents it. I’m okay with this for now, but I recognize I’ll need to fill things in later.

I’ve also invested in a new (to me) guitar. It’s an Ovation Balladeer, made in 1972. I’ve always had a weak spot for Ovations, and even though they’re not the magic they were once considered, I still love the feel, styling, and sound of them. I found one on Craigslist that, unfortunately, had a broken headstock. It’s currently at the luthier being repaired, hopefully done soon. For acoustic practice, I’m using a Takamine 6 string I inherited from friends over a decade ago. It has horrible action, an uncomfortable neck, but it sure is strengthening my fingers and building up my calluses. 🙂

My goal is to keep this up through the year. To get to the point where given a key, I can solo and play along with it comfortably. There’s a long road to this, but now, after 2 months, I’m starting to see progress. I spend an hour playing over a backing track on my SX electric guitar (a yard sale find about a year ago), and it feels… good. Still not the expressiveness I want, but it sounds like music, and feels a bit like music. Progress.

At some point, I’m sure I’ll be able to share some things I’m playing – not yet though. But I’m cautiously hopeful that sometime I’ll be able to stand up in front of folks with some friends, we’ll play a song, and at some point we’ll start a go-around for soloing, someone will nod to me, I’ll kick my pedal, and I’ll solo… in a way that will make me smile, and make others smile, and… hopefully… give me joy.

Epson HX-20 – Worlds First Laptop

Boy am I happy about this one.

I first saw the Epson HX-20 back when I was working a computer store in New Jersey in the 80’s. I believe I read some articles about it in Infoworld or something similar, and thought it was awesome. At some point I got to look at one / type a few characters on it, but never got to own one.

Until now!

Epson HX-20

This came to me as part of a large equipment sale not far away. It is in EXCELLENT shape, complete with carrying case, power supply, and a couple microscassettes. The printer works fine, everything is in perfect working order.

Released to mass market in 1982, this is widely recognized as the very first laptop computer. It is A4 sized, has decent battery life, a full stroke, full sized keyboard, and many expansion ports.

Specifications:

  • Released: 1982
  • Original price: $795 ($2040 in 2020 dollars)
  • CPU: Dual Hitach 6301 CPU at 614khz
  • Memory: 16k RAM (expandable to 32k)
  • Display: 4lines at 20 characters
  • Graphics: 120×32
  • Batteried: NiCad
  • Weight: 3.5lbs

The unit works perfectly, and is a true delight to type on and tinker around with. I will be a great addition to my collection. I’m looking forward to learning more about it!

PDP-11/70 Retrocomputing Build

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I attended a very technical college to start getting my degree in Computer Science. Note, this wasn’t ‘programming’ ‘systems design’ ‘databases’ ‘AI’ or any of that, no, the industry was young enough that just HAVING a computer science degree was notable.

While the college experience didn’t work out well for me, I have a very strong memory of my first semester (back then the college called them trimesters I believe) walking into the computer science building and seeing a glassed in room with a bunch of racked equipment in it. On the front of one of the racks was a brightly colored panel, with a lot of purple and red switches, and many blinking lights. In the corner, it said PDP-11/70, and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

Turns out this machine was used in the undergraduate program to teach students Unix. We had a classroom full of DEC GiGI terminals and students would plunk away at shell scripts, learning ‘vi’ and generally making a lot of beeping noises. There were about 16 terminals, which meant that machine, which was approximately 1/5000’th the speed of a modern Core i7 process (MWIPS 0.535 for the 11/70 vs 3124 for the i7) was supporting 16 concurrent users programming away on remote terminals.

Well, life moved on, and while I did build my own DEC minicomputers, I never actually owned an 11/70. They were temperamental, that were designed to be powered up and left running for years. Not exactly a hobbyist machine.

In the last year or two, some folks have been taking advantage of the SIMH project (a hardware simulation environment) to emulate these old machines, and run the original operating systems on them. When I saw that Oscar had put out a kit for the PiDP-11/70, a fully functional PDP-11/70 front panel that mirrors precisely the original machine, I had to have one.

The kit is powered by a Raspberry Pi-4 loaded with the SIMH package anda . bunch of disk images. The system happily runs any number of old DEC operating systems, as well as Unix 2.11BSD, and various other Unix versions. On bootup, you simply select which disk image you want to run, and after a few moments, you’re looking at an operational console happily booting RSX-11MPlus, RSTS, RT-11, BSD Unix, whatever you’d like.

Total build time was somewhere around 7-8 hours. Imaging and setting up the Pi took about 2 hours (mostly downloading packages), and the actual physical build of the front panel took another 6+ hours.

The experience of using the machine is somewhat surreal. In the past, I spent a lot of time learning Unix and then VMS. I also worked on DEC Pro/350’s for a while, which run a modified RSX-11MPlus, so it feel great to be back in that environment again, but I have so much to re-learn.

Having the delightful blinking lights nearby showing activities in realtime is a delightful way to have a visual representation of the inner workings of computers, something we don’t see a lot of in modern systems.

Here’s some pics of the build in progress. It’s a great addition to the home office collection!

Trends That Will Define the Future of Online Gaming

From the humble Atari game system to the high-powered consoles we have today, advancements in technology have truly transformed the way we play games. We are no longer limited to a single-player experience, as gaming has made users more connected than ever before. This has opened up a world of possibilities for the industry that keeps coming out with novel innovations.

Read on for the four trends that we think will change the future of online gaming as we know it.

Mobile Gaming

One of the most prominent trends nowadays is the rise of mobile gaming. This isn’t surprising at all considering how the average American’s screen time adds up to 49 days annually. Expect a more pronounced shift to mobile gaming in the coming years as companies capitalize on the mobile gaming market. In fact, CNN reports that Riot Games has already announced that it’s bringing its wildly popular League of Legends to mobile – a significant move considering the company hasn’t released a new game in 10 years.

Blockchain Gaming

Since the cryptocurrency boom, blockchain technology has gained mainstream recognition. It has been applied to a variety of things – from ticketing to inventory control. This technology solves many of the current security woes brought about by decentralizing data, storing it in different blocks distributed across a network of computers. This way, it removes the risk of a single point of failure and makes the manipulation of data near impossible. As the technology is improved and adapted, virtual items continue to carry more real-world value. It makes sense that gaming companies have started integrating blockchain technology, with some games built around this specific concept. For instance, the New York Times reports that a CryptoKitties players, a game that deals solely in the collection of virtual kittens, managed to sell one of their CryptoKitties for a whopping $140,000. Future applications could include using this technology to facilitate secure in-game payments and purchases.

Social Gaming

Social interactions within online games have always been one of their key features. It is no small feat to connect thousands of players in one gaming world via chat, and the future has more in store for how social interactions work within these virtual worlds. One genre that has benefitted the most from this aspect is online gambling games. An article on Hacker Noon points out how online gambling platforms are adding more features that focus on social interaction, such as friends lists and chat rooms. Specifically, poker platforms are starting to focus more on the social aspect of gaming to attract more players. Case in point, PPPoker’s LinkedIn profile highlights how their platform emphasizes this social aspect by allowing players to customize their own tournaments, invite friends, and even create their own clubs. This customization combined with the social aspect of the genre make the games even more enjoyable to play. That being said, players can expect better ways to communicate in-game, across all genres, in the near future.

Augmented Reality

Lastly, augmented reality (AR) has seen an uptick in the last couple of years mainly due to the success of Pokémon Go. While it was initially seen as a fad, it quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. Pokémon Go has been downloaded over 800 million times resulting in around $2 billion in revenue. Because of the game’s success, a slew of AR features followed on games such as Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and Minecraft Earth. With the 5G-technology rollout, AR gaming is set to get even bigger thanks to the increased bandwidth and speed gamers will have access to.