25 Jun 2020, 14:44

Digital to Analog Conversion

One fun and also frustrating aspect of robotics and automation is the transition from the cleanly-abstracted digital realm to the analog domain, which is messy, noisy, unreliable, and altogether more real.

You hear the same thing out of engineers looking at a technical drawing: do you really think this 10mm bolt you drew will fit through a 10mm hole? That hole should be 10.25mm plus or minus your manufacturing tolerance. Why? Because the drill bit is going to wiggle, or the casting is going to shrink a little, or the bolts from that supplier tend to run big, or having to take a mallet to a tight fit will break the part.

Digitally, you look at a 3-D print and say, “well, I’m a layer height above the print and need to move to the right to print another part, how could I possibly have an issue?” But then the nozzle moves right and knocks the part off the built plate. Why? Because there’s a little plastic gunk on the tip of the nozzle, or the lead screw is a little bent right there, or the moon is in the wrong phase. So you tell the printer to raise up a little when making an open-range travel.

It’s best not to think about computers as analog devices given the extent to which we depend on them. That software update you’re downloading is traveling along a wire that’s also picking up Mix 96.5 at some college-physics-class level of amplitude. Your spinning platter hard drive is hurtling at speeds that would rip your car apart, quietly adjusting magnetic fields by just enough to flip from a zero to a one. Of course, the whole setup is chock full of little checks and double-do’s and decades worth of real-life practice in much more challenging environments than your desk, but it’s also a good bit of magic in there. And somebody’s promotion relied on making everything run just a little faster than last year.

The digital abstraction is beneficial in that you shouldn’t need to think about these things in daily life. I plug a corded drill into an outlet next to my phone charger and don’t really need to believe that they’re actually on the same circuit, interacting with each other a bit. All those stupid FCC disclaimers on everything say that devices must accept interference from other devices, so you design for these oddities: a filtering capacitor here, a protection diode there, a little safety factor on your wire gauge.

It’s only when the abstraction bends and breaks that we realize it’s all just a bunch of analog stacked on top of itself.

13 Aug 2016, 07:59

Things Are Moving Along

I have created a novel way to create blog posts in my new system by sending e-mail to a special address on my server. I’m not completely done, but it’s far enough along that I can actually use it.

It’s always cool to be able to create things that are actually immediately useful.

05 Apr 2016, 17:36

iPhone Follow-Up: A Couple of Months In

I was just thinking back to what my original blockers were from considering the iOS ecosystem, since at this point any reservations feel so far away to me.

iTunes was a big one, at least some time ago. I didn’t want to have to sync with iTunes. Well, my 6S has never synced with iTunes and never will. Not necessary. What changed? I merge-uploaded all my MP3s into Google Play Music All Access and manage everything using its own pinned downloads. I use iCloud backups with no concern.

I didn’t want much to do with iCloud (aside from the backups). What changed? I turned off most iCloud stuff and use Dropbox to sync photos, completely avoiding the photo stream and all that other stuff.

I didn’t want to give up my Android apps. Not so much purchases, as my paid app collection was negligible enough to re-buy without much compunction. Mostly just concern that I would have to disturb cross-platform workflows. What changed? All my Android apps, including Chrome in its bastardized but effective form, are available in iOS. I also think that the liberalization of iOS to various third-party stuff (including Chrome) was operative in keeping any related frustration at bay.

I didn’t want to give up control. This is a place where I have had to compromise, but so much less than in the past. I used to run a pretty customized Android setup. I was even running CyanogenMod for some time on the old Galaxy S. What happened here was a convergence between iOS, stock Android, and my own preferences. I started running my Android phone in a much simpler way, which then aligned better with the iOS mandates. I did give up my Google Keep screen on my Android home screen, which I would say has had a noticeable impact on my awareness of my long-term to-do list (skimming past my Keep tiles was a key way to avoid forgetting home improvement tasks over the weekend, for example). This is manageable, and honestly using Keep how I’m using it is suboptimal anyway. I just haven’t found the best next option yet.

What did I get in return?

  • Touch ID: Massive increase in confidence using the phone to its full potential. Some apps are now using it to authenticate with online services.
  • Apple Pay: I kept waiting for Wallet or Android Pay to happen, but Apple Pay is here and works darn near every time. I’ve run into a few POS terminals (looking at you, local HEB) that say they have it and don’t, but otherwise (Panera, the Coke machine in my office, others) it just works.
  • Force Touch: Just kidding, I have virtually no use for this at this point.
  • iMessage: It’s nice. Just about the same, and I don’t love read receipts, but it’s nice. Will be nice whenever I’m out of the country for some reason.
  • FaceTime: Didn’t consider this up front, but it’s fantastic. Again, great for travel, too.
  • First class app citizenship: Even though Android is almost caught up, it will always be catching up until something structural changes that. You get the best options faster on iOS.

These have all been incredible adds for me.

In terms of surprises on the negative side, it’s been all about the alarm clock (still just a persistent minor pain in my neck for my odd use case) and diminished baby monitor functionality (although we’re still using a Nexus 7 as the primary, so no direct impact there).

Size-wise, I would probably align around a 6S-minus if I could. The 5 class is a little too small for my preferences, although a chamfer version (or with a neoprene-type case) would be the best hand feel in the whole mobile world. I can’t quite get my thumb up to the top-left of the 6S with a natural hold, and Reachability takes just enough thought to make it harder than just rearranging the phone in my hand. All in all I can’t complain, since my next Android phone was likely to be within a few tenths of an inch of the 6S anyway.

25 Feb 2016, 15:07

Always Room for Improvement

I finally executed on a little idea I had been kicking around for a while. My work headset has one of those discrete USB headphone-and-microphone adapters, so the headset is just a pair of stereo plugs that plugs into that USB adapter, which then plugs into the computer. I like to listen to music and occasionally podcasts at work, and this has previously required me switching back and forth between headset and earbuds.

What I did here (pictured below) was install a 6’ USB extension cable that allowed me to snake an extended USB cord across the back of my desk starting from my docking station, hiding the little USB fob for the headset behind the desk as well. Then, since the headset ends in just analog plugs and is not hard-wired to the USB, I plugged in a 6-inch audio patch into the headphone side of the plug (the headset mic plug remains direct-plugged into the fob). This 6” jumper then plugs into the “A” port of the A/B switch you see garishly labeled “FLIP2” toward the rear of the picture. The “B” is connected to the retractable stereo cable you see there next to the switch, which then plugs into my phone. The “C” (common in or out) of the switch is then connected to the headset’s headphone plug. This allows me to bypass the USB fob’s audio out from my laptop and override it with phone audio by simply flipping the A/B over to “B”, leaving my headset on the whole time.

I also figured out I can hang the headset off of the thumbtack on that horrifying flowchart, which does wonders for my cable management.

It works well. The only little snag to it is the chance that I join a call and leave the switch on “B”. In this case they would hear me but I wouldn’t hear them. Since we use Microsoft Lync, that’s such a common occurrence it wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.

13 Jan 2016, 21:55


I just can’t get over how much I miss the Android alarm clock. I say that, but I may also go ahead and get a 6S this Friday. So it’s not holding me up a whole bunch.

My core problem is that I prefer to run my alarm setup in a silly but effective manner for my personal degree and style of sloth. I have a 6:00 AM alarm and a 6:30 AM alarm running all the time, repeating every Monday through Thursday. These ideally have a 10 minute snooze available, but the exact interval value isn’t important.

Within maybe 4-5 hours of going off, Android K and beyond starts showing a notification for “Upcoming Alarm”, which contains an action button to advance-dismiss the alarm directly from the notification block. So if I’m having trouble sleeping or absolutely know I don’t need to get in early and I’m within the window, I generally can just go ahead and “dismiss” the 6 AM alarm overnight and rely solely on the 6:30 AM alarm.

Doing this absolutely does not stop the 6 AM alarm from being “on” in terms of its Monday through Thursday repetition schedule. I never turn these alarms off unless I’m on vacation or something to that effect. I will not accept the risk of turning alarms off day-by-day, because I will forget to turn them back on.

I mainly have the two alarms in case I mistakenly dismiss the 6 AM alarm. This is both the weak point of my argument and the key personal rub. I don’t want to accept the risk of a single morning alarm; I am simply not awake enough at first beep to trust that I will do the right thing.

If I get out of bed at 6 AM, or even after a single or double snooze, I can then “dismiss” the 6:30 AM backup alarm. Here’s the rub of the rub: if I am not able to dismiss the 6:30 AM alarm in this case, it will generally go off while I am in the shower, which is unacceptable.

Basically iOS has an odd but effective dismiss/snooze system, but the clever dismiss optionality I had in Android is simply not available. You can feel the Jobs answer is “have one alarm and don’t dismiss it by mistake”, but I have trouble taking that risk. I also can’t abide maintaining my dual system but shutting them off and on as needed.

I’ve been lazy enough since going to the iPhone that I’ve relied on my 6:30 AM alarm every morning so far (which is not altogether abnormal for me). But this is the best-case for iOS running the tandem setup: I dismiss 6 AM at 6 AM, then get up for the 6:30 AM. The first time I get up at 6 AM I will lack the ability to dismiss 6:30 AM and will end up having the alarm go off while I’m in the shower.

Other people clearly want this.

The current solution I’m testing:

Add a third dadgum alarm, no repetition, normally off. 6:45 AM. Label: “Reset Alarms”. No alarm sound or vibration on the alarm. Snoozable. Rule: if you dismiss an alarm early, enable this alarm, which will then remind you after both alarms have “expired” for the day that they need to be enabled again. This occurs via popup without vibration or sound, so no disturbance if in the shower.


05 Jan 2016, 15:58

iOS: Adapting

I’ve been using Kristin’s old iPhone 5 for a number of days now and have been very impressed with my ability to adapt quickly.

Since a lot of my opinions and preconceptions about iOS were probably firmed up around the iPhone 3GS/4 era, it’s clear that a lot of helpful adjustments have been made that make switching into the ecosystem, especially for an Android head like myself, not really a big deal.

The ability to run Chrome (even though it’s just a skinned Mobile Safari) has been invaluable to keep the bookmarks synced. I gleefully disabled the vast majority of iCloud (I only see Notes, Wallet, Keychain, Find My iPhone, and the bare minimum of iCloud Drive enabled), especially the Photos stuff. After spending a few hours agonizing over iCloud Photos for Kristin’s 6S+ setup, I’d be happy to never see iCloud Photos again.

The “Back”/“Home” concept clearly still differs from Android in a pretty much not-good way for me, but clearly recent-ish improvements to iOS have sprinkled breadcrumbs throughout the navigation at tough spots. The double-press on the Home button also has gotten me out of jams without having to go through the home screen and hope it remembers my place in the other app.

I’m not using iTunes to sync music; rather, I’ve just installed Google Play Music and have relegated the built-in music functionality to my “Extras” folder on the last page of the home screen. All my MP3s are synced into Google Play Music, so I can download anything to the device whenever I want.

I’ve yet to sync with iTunes on the laptop. I imagine the first and only time I will do this is to make a local backup of the phone when I (probably) purchase my 6S. Especially since I’m not syncing media with iTunes, there’s really no reason to plug the phone into a computer unless I’m about to wipe it.

My apps are all solid, maybe a little better than the Android versions but not by much. I thought I might switch podcast clients but didn’t end up wanting to after trying out the competition.

Funnily enough, I will deeply miss Android’s alarm management features, which were deceivingly advanced and clever in terms of snoozing, deferring, temporarily suppressing, etc. I am too chicken to use a third-party alarm app, so I’ll just have to be more mindful of the alarm setup at bedtime.

I already appreciate the quality of the camera vs. my Motorola. iMessage is handy.

I miss my Android webcam monitor program, but as long as we retain that on the Android baby monitor tablet we’re fine. Amazing there isn’t a top-notch option in the App Store.

I somewhat miss the Intents setup in Android, where you can set the default app for nearly everything. It’s annoying that the “Siri Screen” railroads you into Apple Maps and Safari and Apple News without allowing changes to the defaults.

I am shocked how much faster this aging, 2.5 year old phone is compared to my relatively new Motorola. Much faster than my flagship X of about the same age as the iPhone.

It’s a little disappointing that the Wallet features are so spartan in terms of adding loyalty accounts. Looks like I’ll need to use Android to add loyalty cards, then go to a Google webpage from my phone and import them into Wallet. Since Android is also in the process of screwing up its loyalty card management, this could all just be a futile effort in a few months’ time.

Now I’m scratching my head about when to make the jump to the 6S, if at all. I want the old phone as a work e-mail drone (SIM-free), so it’s not like it will go to waste. But with TouchID and Apple Pay being the only major draws besides the bigger screen, it’s actually hard to go drop the cash to make the upgrade. I’m going to make sure the Clock app doesn’t drive me nuts with the alarms and then maybe make the jump in the next weeks or months.

06 Oct 2015, 14:03

My Pocket Is In Play

I plugged in my Moto G last night for a bump charge prior to leaving to the grocery store. It was honking at me at 12%, which is nothing to be alarmed about, and I wanted to make sure the Our Groceries list and podcasts could both survive the HEB trip. I walked back to the phone about an hour later and it said “1% Remaining, Charging”, which - as an experienced, seasoned Android user - prompted me to get very mad, blame the charge cable, but then suspect the OS instead. I rebooted the phone to discover I actually had over 70% of charge. I don’t know if the phone would have gone into crisis shutdown had I not discovered it at that point, or what.

My network connections, since the belated Stagefright update from Moto, constantly report error state (overlaid exclamation mark and no report of TX/RX status). Forums confirm the issue with no resolution at last check.

I’m due to get Marshmallow at some point (probably comfortably into next year, now that we’re General T’so Moto post-divestment). I expect solutions and new problems to come from this. And probably hampered performance.

Google Wallet is sorta-changing into Google Pay, and my loyalty accounts (the only reason I really ever even try to use Wallet) are going to Pay, but I apparently can’t use Pay unless I set up a device PIN, which is an awful thought for me. I haven’t confirmed this (maybe loyalty works sans PIN?), and the auto-update rollout I’ve been expecting hasn’t happened. Don’t know if I want it to happen.

I agree and admit that I own a marginal phone in the Android universe, which basically means I don’t have a Samsung flagship or a good Nexus. Moto is losing my confidence at this point as they shank new Moto X users on updates, and I find the much-anticipated Nexus 5 updates this year to be uninspiring. I appreciate a lot of what Samsung is doing but feel far away from ever taking the plunge into TouchWiz, despite its meteoric rise from ick over the past few flagships.

Then those damn iPhone 6S commercials come on, and I’m just thinking: Touch ID, Apple Pay, 3D Touch, things working, volume buttons on headsets working, real customer support for software updates, first-tier app support, a non-potato camera, all that stuff. Plus finally being able to pay cash or payments on an iPhone without a carrier lock. And the ability to hand my phone over to Claire without counting 3, 2, 1, and then helping her dismiss yet another random means she discovered of replacing her activity with the Google Now display, or pulling down the shade, or deleting my photos.

My table stakes for a phone platform swap are Google Play Music All Access (check), Pocket (check), Our Groceries (check), and Pocket Casts (check). I would like bookmark syncing with Chrome (pretty much check), a decent IP cam viewer (check-ish, not as good as my Android app), Google Play Newsstand (check), and a couple of other things that probably have better support in iOS (Sonos, for example).

In the end I think I’d be out about $10 to replace my investment in the Play Store ecosystem, and this cash would go to the developers of my favorite, essential apps (Pocket Casts, Our Groceries), apps I would buy multiple times over to reflect the value I derive from them.

It’s a thought. My purchase of the G was to get me a non-broken phone and figure things out later. I wonder if I’m at that point now.

06 Aug 2015, 13:50

Totes FOMO Brah

After a wild and crazy IT night with this little firecracker, I can assure you it is not worth the revised price on Newegg.

cruddy computer

13 May 2015, 12:33

Wrong Retro

This is so true. Hadn’t thought about it before.

retro graphics

09 Mar 2015, 18:24

Specific Tools

I found out about basin wrenches a few weeks ago on Ask This Old House, which I’m sure was a contributing impetus to replacing my kitchen faucet yesterday. It was worth $20 (plus the cost of the new faucet!) just to see a specific tool do a specific job exceedingly well. Then I found out my new faucet had actually improved upon the normal tighten-up-a-nut-impossibly-far-up-underneath-your-sink design with a clever little screw-against-washer number that rendered the wrench unnecessary for the new install. It was still quite handy for the removal of the mild atrocity of design that previously occupied the space.

The “minor annoyance, expensively fixed” is quite the money trap as a homeowner, but sometimes it feels good to scratch the itch.

I remember the time when it felt so unpalatable to carry around general-purpose devices like smart phones. It’s fallen back a lot with time, but for a time one of my highest-PageRank blog entries was this little ditty, which admittedly has not aged well (and - I’d interject - carries a bit more of the mid-naughts blog acerbity than my current preferred blend). But it remains logically sound that you just couldn’t see the 4”-6” screen thing coming, with QWERTY options that avoid making you look like a drug dealer, and that purpose-built workhorses were the only thing approaching a usability threshold under those limitations.

There’s still a quaintness to the Sansa Clip, which has avoided whiz-bang/gee-whiz features like heart rate monitoring, mood ring coloration, pedometer functionality, and the like, despite it being generally fastened onto or close to your person. It’s nice to use something that can get caught on a tree branch and go swinging without eliciting existential terror. Battery life is fair, and every hour burned on it is an hour unburned on the phone.

I remember a time when an iPod Touch actually looked pretty good to me, kind of at the end of the high water mark era of the iPod. Now an iPod Touch is basically your previous cell phone without a SIM card. I would expect to use my Moto X as such a device at times, but in truth it will probably stay in the drawer as a backup phone most of the time.

And with all the charm of dedicated solutions, seeing something like this Radio Shack ad makes it clear that all-purpose has generally won, even to the point that the commercial momentum of tablets seems to have stalled in light of improving screens on phones. Pretty incredible how quickly it shifted.