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This is not a clock

Monday, November 12th, 2018 at 8:01 pm

Do you see this thing that looks a lot like a bedside clock? While it may be displaying the current time, it is not really a clock…

To explain what I mean I need to go back a few weeks to when I was inspired to finally do something with the various electronic components I have collected over the years (five years since I plugged in a DS1820 sensor) for home automation. After some tinkering and relying heavily on the examples that come with the libraries I had this going:

On this breadboard is a D1 mini microcontroller, a DHT22 temperature and humidity sensor, and a 4-Digit 7-Segment Display from Adafruit. It is fantastic that other people have done the hard work of sorting out the libraries for the board (with wifi), the sensor and the display. Everything I have done with these is based on the examples provided.

What is happening in this photo is that it is alternating between displaying the temperature and the humidity, but over the following few weeks I continued to tinker until I had it publishing the temperature (and humidity) over wifi to an MQTT server in order to get the data into Home Assistant which displayed this:

Yes there are two data sources, because I had five (more on the way!) of these microcontrollers and they are cheap and simple enough to scatter around the house. They are easy to run from a USB charger, so anywhere I have a powerpoint I can have a device. I now have a lot more configured in Home Assistant and I am feeding in data from other sources, but they will be posts of their own, for I need to get back to explaining why this is not a clock.

Apart from adjusting to the time change, my biggest annoyance with daylight saving is the clocks that need to be manually changed. It is a lot easier these days as phones/computers/etc will automatically update, but I still have a few clocks that need to be adjusted.

My bedside clock is one of these and while I know you can buy a clock that adjusts automatically, when I last looked (it has been a while) I didn’t like the look of them and they were too expensive. So this was going to be my first project and at first I was going to make it a clock that would use time protocols to get the correct time, but you still needed to deal with timezones and other things.

So why not make it dumb? I have a linux box that is always on (where I am running services such as Home Assistant) and it has already dealt with the timezone and DST changes. Every minute it could publish what it thought was the current local time, something as simple as cron running a bash script:

#!/bin/sh
DATE=`date +%H:%M`
mosquitto_pub -h localhost -t home/localtime -m $DATE

The requirements for the “not a clock” are pretty simple:

  • Connect to wifi and the MQTT server, subscribe to the home/localtime topic
  • Every 60 seconds publish temperature/humidity to MQTT (for Home Assistant to collect)
  • Whenever a message arrives on the home/localtime topic, output to the LED display

Making enclosures is probably what I will have the hardest time with (do I buy a 3d printer?) and until this evening I had bare electronics hanging from the wall in four locations around my house. With the need to be able to see the LED display I had the idea of using a clock radio as the enclosure. I decided against gutting my working clock radio so over the weekend I stopped by the local Kmart where I found a clock radio for the lofty price of $15:

(I’m showing the silver model as the picture gives a better idea of what it is, the black model is just a black obelisk, it also comes in rose pink if that suits your colour scheme)

It is not designed to be opened up so some force was required, but after removing the internals and the strategic application of tape and hot glue I have what is in the top picture. I have the temperature sensor taped to the side because I think it wouldn’t get the best reading being inside the case, limited airflow and some heat from the electronics could skew the reading.

An unexpected bonus of this specific radio (and it makes sense from an electrical certification point of view) is that it runs from 5 volts and comes with a small power supply. I retained the socket for this and wired it up to the D1 mini instead of using a USB power adapter. I also kept the board for the buttons on the top of the clock, in the future it might be nice to use them to as a trigger for some action…

I have a lot more to say about Home Assistant, including how I am testing out control of my central heating (just in time for summer…) using a D1 mini equiped with a relay. I have also realised that the remaining clock I have to manually adjust for daylight saving is my stereo, the 25 cd stacker double tape desk stereo that I use as my alarm to play the radio… is there a wifi speaker in my future?

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A one day tech conference

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018 at 11:34 pm

I have a thing for tech conferences, so of course last Saturday I was at the Melbourne Town Hall (it was a bit strange being there during the day and not for comedy festival shows) with six hundred others for DDD Melbourne which describes itself as “an inclusive non-profit conference for the software community.”

With a keynote and then four streams I had to make some decisions about which talks I wanted to go to see. Around mid afternoon I realised that there was a common thread running through the most of talks that I had selected.

My hightlights were:

  • The opening keynote from Dayle Stevens (a Divisional CIO at AGL) who told us about a day in the life of a CIO. My main takeaway from this was the sheer amount of context switching involved with interacting with so many people (emails, meetings, etc) throughout the day.
  • As screen design has come up recently at work, I opted to listen to Laura Summers talk about UX for Developers. It has been a while since I have given much thought to UX so it was a good refresher, with the key message (for me) was that everyone has some input to design and that you collaborate with others to end up at the best outcome you can achieve.
  • Mai Nguyen from carsales.com spoke about their first few attempts in building serverless apps. She was fairly open about some of their successes AND failures, with the key being to learn from experience.
  • As microservices are currently a big part of breaking down a problem, I felt it was important to hear what Abhaya Chauhan learned over four years of migrating a monolith to microservices. The most significant thing I took from this talk was you cannot have autonomous teams, they may be building different things but they also need to work together in order to avoid creating new silos.
  • In addition to everyone being a designer (see above), everyone is also a tester as demonstrated by Amanda Dean in Modern Testing for Modern Developers. Everything that can be done can be tested in some way, from code to plans to documentation, there is some form of test (or check) that should be done. Then for things like testing the functionality of a system there are a range of styles and automation.

So what what do I feel was the common thread?

It should come as no surprise that communication was the common thread. Whether it is within your team, between teams, across the organisation, with designers, with testers or with your users, communication is essential.

As I had a full weekend I skipped the afterparty and headed home. I was in a postive invigorated mood until my second (darker) realisation, that the people I work with would not be interested in this type of event, some of them don’t even appear to be interested in keeping up to date…

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Looking into points again

Friday, May 25th, 2018 at 8:47 pm

For a number of months now I have been thinking about travel, probably due to a combination of shortly spending two weeks in Thailand (and Singapore) for the Koh Samui International Podcast Festival 2018, next year I will be heading over to the South Island of New Zealand for LCA2019 and I am considering a weekend up in Sydney for the Australian Skeptics National Convention. Amongst all the planning of where to go, I thought about rewards points and whether I had enough to use for any part of this travel.

My first step was to look up what points I had, which led to some disappointment and learning about expiry policies…

A few years back when I was in Kansas for work I signed up to the Hilton Honors program as it made it easier to access the hotel wifi, but I also earned points. I don’t recall how many, but that is no relevant anymore as they have all expired. I have learned that to keep your account active (and keep any points) you need to stay at a Hilton hotel every twelve months, something that I did not (and am unlikely to) do.

My original musing on the value of points involved Qantas points, so I knew I had some of those as that is what I would originally get when shopping at Woolworths. Note that I just said ‘originally’ as a few years back the Everyday Rewards program that gave Qantas points changed into the Woolworths Rewards program that gives Woolworths points. While I have appreciated the $10 off for every 2000 points, in hindsight I should have opted to keep getting Qantas points instead. Why? Because the 20,000 Qantas points that I did accumulate have expired due to lack of activity.

The final two places that I have points (and know still have them) are flybuys which I mostly get from using my credit card, and Velocity because in recent years my occasional flights have been with Virgin Australia, including the ones to/from Kansas that work paid for…

Over the years I have accumulated a lot of flybuys points, despite redeeming for books of movie tickets a few times there are around 180,000 points which could be redeemed for $900 in “flybuys Dollars” or the same value in gift cards. On the Velocity side I have around 30,000 points, the “cash rate” for these is slightly better: 18,000 points for $100 instead of the 20,000 points for $100 with flybuys.

But what about all that spam I have been getting about linking my flybuys and Velocity account and then transferring points and getting a 20% bonus if done in May? I have looked into that but…

  • login to flybuys and try to link my Velocity account, it errors saying that the Velocity account is already linked to a flybuys household
  • login to Velocity to see what it says on that side, what does it say “Your flybuys and Velocity memberships are linked”
  • try linking from flybuys again, same error
  • track down contact information for flybuys (only phone or mail, no email) and call them, they say I need to call Velocity to get them to unlink from their side
  • locate the support page for Velocity (now just a phone number) and call them, they can’t unlink flybuys from my account and transfer me over to flybuys support, this person can see there is an issue and while they cannot help, they will escalate
  • over a week later no change…

I don’t have high hopes for being able to transfer point, but one question is do I even want to? Transferring 10,000 flybuys points only gives 4,350 Velocity points (I don’t know if that is including the 20% bonus) so that is not good if I was only going to cash them out as gift cards, so I would need to know that I would be using them for flights.

So I started pricing out some flights…

The same Melbourne to Sydney return flights for a weekend in October:

  • $260 booking direct
  • 52,000 flybuys points (cash rate: $260)
  • 23,800 Velocity points (cash rate: $132)
  • 54,000 flybuys points converted to Velocity points (cash rate: $270)

So using the flybuys points is the same as cashing out the points and just buying the tickets, while the Velocity points are better value if you have the points already. Converting from flybuys to Velocity is the worst option of these.

Another aspect to this comparison is opting for business class instead of economy:

  • $998 booking direct
  • 199,600 flybuys points (cash rate: $998)
  • 38,900 Velocity points (cash rate: $216)
  • 89,000 flybuys points converted to Velocity points (cash rate: $445)

Again the flybuys points give the same as cashing out the points, while using Velocity points is again the “best” option. This time converting flybuys points to Velocity points does come out better than gift cards, though I’m not sure if it is worth it for the short Melbourne to Sydney flight.

Looking further ahead to the longer flight from Melbourne to Christchurch:

Economy:

  • $602 booking direct (includes bags and meal, $552 if bags and no meal, $502 if no bags and no meal)
  • 58,600 flybuys points (cash rate: $293) (no included checked bags or meal)
  • 62,000 Velocity points (cash rate: $344) (includes checked bags and meal)
  • 142,500 flybuys points converted to Velocity points (cash rate: $712)

Business:

  • $1292 booking direct
  • 258,600 flybuys points (cash rate: $1293)
  • 98,100 Velocity points (cash rate: $545)
  • 225,500 flybuys points converted to Velocity points (cash rate: $1127)

For these flights there is more variation in the numbers. For economy it first appears best to book through flybuys, but having to buy checked baggage is not good, so using Velocity points is the best if you have them. Topping up Velocity from flybuys might be an ok compromise, but assumes my accounts are ever able to be linked.

For business class it only appears to be worthwhile if you already have the Velocity points, booking through flybuys is the same as just buying the ticket, though topping up some Velocity points from flybuys might be ok. For my current situation, even though I should get some more Velocity points for my Singapore/Thailand trip I will not have enough of both to make business class an option.

An additional complication to the economy numbers is that the direct prices were direct from Virgin Australia. While a search on Google Flights gave me the same $502 no bags/meal option from Virgin Australia, but also $333 with one bag if booking through Expedia.

After all this there is only one thing I am certain of, this is complex and the time spent working out what is the best deal is probably not worth it. I am leaning towards maybe using Velocity points for Sydney, cashing out flybuys points into gift cards, and looking for a deal (such as the Expedia one) for New Zealand…

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All roads lead via … Sunshine West

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018 at 9:43 pm

Over the past couple of years I have been ordering more things online that are being delivered with tracking. This means that instead of just waiting for the item to arrive, I can now spend too much time checking its status.

Something I have noticed is that parcels will go via Sunshine West, even if they are coming from near the destination.

A recent order from Myer is an interesting example with it being shipped from the store in Doncaster and this is in the tracking they display:

Seems pretty straightforward doesn’t it? But the tracking from Australia Post shows a few intermediate destinations:

At face value it seems like a waste to sent the parcel on such an indirect path, but I assume it is actually more efficient (probably people time) to handle all parcels via a central location.

Another aspect I have noticed is that when ordering from a solely online store that the items will be shipped from a warehouse, but for places like Myer where online ordering is a recent addition to their physical stores it appears like the item is shipped from a “nearby” store that has stock. But should they ship from a store near the destination, or from a store near where parcels are handled?

Though no matter what I find intersting about parcel delivery, I am glad I don’t have the issues that Dave Hall has in country Victoria:

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Is the honeymoon over?

Friday, January 19th, 2018 at 8:13 am

It has now been two months since I was happy enough with my NBN connection that I terminated my ADSL service. Things were good, until they weren’t…

Starting around mid-December around once week I would get home from work and my NBN would be down, the modem would show a downstream link, but no upstream link. So there was something there, but not enough for my modem to connect.

I started to notice a pattern, it would drop out in the middle of the afternoon (ready for when I arrived home) and then come back shortly after midnight. This pattern to me indicated that there was faulty equipment that was tripping due to load/heat/something that was then reset at the end of the day. I’m not entirely clear on the technology but was wondering if there was an amplifier somewhere between me and the exchange that was failing.

It has been a frustrating time contacting my ISP support, who then escalate to NBN, who may arrange for a technician, who I need to be at home for. On one visit the connection was working fine and there was no issue the technician could detect, but they replaced the modem in case that was the issue. Nope, but on another visit from a technician it was down and they were able to report back to NBN that there was definitely a network issue.

It is a mess. When it works it is great, but when it doesn’t…

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