Wizardry 1 : Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

In 1982, I was a freshman at Rochester Institute of Technology. I had already been geeking out with Apple and TRS-80 computers through high school, and had enjoyed my share of games, but RIT was a whole new social crew, new computers, and new connections.

I wandered into one of the labs and met up with a group of gamers that would end up being my Crew for my time at RIT. One of the games they were most passionate about was Wizardry, from Sir-Tech Software, a Sword and Sorcery game that in many ways is the root of the “squad based” RPG games that became so popular. Instead of playing just one character, you controlled a group of 6 at a time, each with different skills and equipment.

The game was fantastic, and I became a huge fan, even writing a lame knock-off of my own called Explorer. (Interestingly, I got mail from a fellow named Rich Katz who apparently did some artwork on Explorer – I vaguely remember him from 1987. He has a great page up about it and the work he did. Thanks Rich!)

Anyway, a few weeks ago I was at the Vintage Computer Festival East down in Wall New Jersey. I have lots of good stories from it, but one particular exchange stands out.

The VCF has mounds of software, still in boxes, they were trying to sell / get out of the warehouse. They set up an awesome ‘computer store’ with boxed copies of old software right there on the shelves. It was pretty awesome going through all the old still-boxed software. I noticed a set of boxes on a high shelf, and… yes! They were original copies of Wizardry! But it was for a later version. I wanted the first one, the one I played the most in high school. I spoke with one of the organizers for a while, and he said he’d check in the warehouse to see if there were any of the original boxes. I said I’d be happy to pay for them the next day.

Sunday rolled around, and I stopped over at the store. Sure enough, they had found a boxed copy of Wizardry 1, Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, and had put it aside for me. I was a proud owner of an original, still in box, copy of a game I played over 35 years ago.

No, I’m not going to try and use this disk, there are plenty of copies / versions on the internet. But having this box, with all the original documentation, and of course the master disk, and the cover artwork – it’s a great addition to my retro computing museum.

If you’re interested in playing Wizardry 1, there’s a working version on Archive.org.

Router Upgrade – Netgear Nighthawk AC2300 (R7000P)

It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been having some serious problems with bandwidth from home. Since I work remotely, this has gotten to be a serious issue. Regular daily checks against Speedtest would result in abysmal numbers (we’re talking between 8 and 15 Mbps.) I knew my cable modem could do better, and after a bunch of debugging, I realized it was most likely the Archer C7 TP-Link router I was using. This was originally supposed to be a decent performer, but in the end, it’s turned out to be absolute crap. So I went shopping.

The fix turned out to be replacing the router with a Nighthawk AC2300 Dual Band Router The installation was super-duper easy, and setting it up with my reserved IP addresses, guest network, customized DHCP range, etc was a breeze. The initial config was done via an app on my phone, which was pretty helpful, as it allowed configuration while hopping around on the new Wifi network I was creating.

So how fast is it? Well, here’s what Speedtest is showing me now. To say this is an improvement would be a gross understatement. This is epic.

Thanks Netgear for providing an excellent product with excellent performance results. I’m a fan.

Home Automation – From Dream to Reality

The whole Home Automation craze has been around for years. From the first X10 devices in the 70s and 80s, all the way through wifi enabled refrigerators, the technology to link devices and services in the home has marched onward. I certainly am not immune to the draw of a ‘smart home’, where all my devices are interconnected and can communicate with each other (and I can communicate with them!), but up until recently, the tech for this has been clunky and unimaginative. Sure you could have a big multibutton wired box on your coffee table that could turn on the kitchen lights, but that’s not particularly convenient.

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No, the big revolution came when always-on, integrated voice controlled devices like Amazon’s Echo Dot and the Google Home successfully bridged the human / computer interface with easy to use voice commands that didn’t require you to speak like Robbie the Robot. With natural language interfaces available 24/7, without requiring physical button pushing or training, home automation could start to move into the “this makes things easier” territory.

I’ve naturally been attracted to this sort of integration. Having a whole-house ‘personality’ that I could talk to anytime, anywhere, without it being intrusive or burdensome was a big attraction.

How I Did It

The first step to this process was getting Amazon Echo devices in all the rooms. This turned out to be less of a challenge than I expected. Echo Dots are going for $40 and are a decent starting point. I was setting up for the 4 rooms in my house, so this was easy (with a full Echo in the living room for good ambient music and general use.

Even before I started setting up the next stage of automation, we found having a House Bot to be incredibly convenient. Having an Echo in every room, you get very comfortable having basically any answer to any question available just by asking. “Alexa, What’s the capital of Wisconsin?”, etc etc.

But more than that, we use the always-available service for a lot of other things:

  • Shopping lists – being in the kitchen and realizing we’re almost out of sugar “Alexa, add Sugar to the shopping list” (“I’ve added sugar to your shopping list.”) – when one of us is at the supermarket, we can look at the current list on our phone and see what’s needed, marking things off as we get them.
  • Timers – This one was a little surprising. “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes.” “I’ve set a timer for 10 minute, starting now.” – this is a great reminder service for anything from something in the oven to remembering to go leave to go pick up your kid.
  • Intercom – because we have Echos in every room, including the kids room, it’s nice to be able to use it as an intercom. “Alexa, Drop in on the kids room” (bdoink) “Hey, what do you want for dinner?”
  • Music – I have our accounts linked to Spotify, which means I basically have access to all the music in the world, as well as many curated playlists. A lot of times I’ll come down in the morning for coffee, and put on some music with “Alexa, play quiet classical music” – and a nice mix of quiet music will start playing.
  • Background sounds – We have an active house and neighborhood. Sometimes a nap is needed, and perhaps the general churn of kids playing and doors closing can make that difficult. Asking Alexa to play quiet sounds helps make napping easier. “Alexa, play ocean sounds” is a great way to set some soothing sounds to take a nap to.

Okay, all this is great, but what about the other automation stuff? The lights! What about the lights?

Home automation is frequently associated with ‘turning the lights on and off’. I wanted to be able to do this via Alexa, as well as have some automatic things happen (for instance, the stair lights turn on when you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night). To do this, you need lightswitches and sensors that can be linked together and controlled

There’s a lot of technologies to do this. With LED lightbulbs replacing CF bulbs (for good reason), zillions of companies started making WiFi enabled lightbulbs. I’ll be honest, these things seem sketchy AF. This is a fully enabled wifi computer in a lightbulb socket in your house, on your local network. Most people don’t know what those devices are doing, and what external services they’re communicating with. There’s a school of thought that says “Who cares? It’s just a lightbulb!” – but that’s not the point. That’s not a lightbulb, it’s a computer. It’s on your local wireless network in your house. Which means it has localized access to all the devices on your network at home. That nice firewall / router you have? It’s just been bypassed.

Now, many could argue that this is already happening, with the smart devices like the Echos and other things in the house, which are in regular communication with servers on the internet. And they’d be right – there’s communication happening there that I’m not in 100% control of. But, with a hefty dose of salt, I honestly trust Amazon and Google a lot more than a Chinese company making a $19 Wifi enabled lightbulb that asks me to install an Android app to control the light. Do I blindly trust Amazon and Google? Heck no! But I know a lot of very smart people are analyzing what the Echos and the Google devices are doing. There’s far more transparency there than these fly by night “Smart Device” manufacturers on the net.

Building out the Hub and Devices

Right. Enough of that. Let’s get down to how I built out my network.

First of all, if you’re not going to use wifi, you need to pick another wireless protocol. There’s several to choose from, I ended up choosing Zwave. This is a very common protocol, and has many devices and hubs supporting it. When I started this project 2+ years ago, Zwave devices tended to be on the pricy side, but the costs have been steadily dropping.

Once you’ve selected a protocol, you’ll need a hub. A hub does all the communication with the devices, and presents that communication to whatever interface you’d like to use. In my case, I wanted a dozen or two devices, and I wanted to talk to them via Alexa as well as web and mobile apps. This is a pretty normal ask, nothing too fancy. I ended up buying a Vera Plus hub. It was relatively inexpensive (at the time, compared to others), had a decent developer community, and I had several friends at MakeIt Labs who were using them, so I had a place to ask questions.

For my initial setup, I also bought 2 GoControl LB60Z-1 LED Bulbs. At the time they were about $35 each.

The initial setup was pretty easy. I was able to get the bulbs synced with the hub, and I was able to get the hub communicating with Alexa (though this turned out to be something of a challenge, since the integration was still in beta. I hear that the Alexa integration is much smoother now).

At this point, I had a system that would allow me to control the lights in our living room just by speaking out loud “Alexa, living room lights on please” or, if it was a movie night and we wanted subdued lighting, “Alexa, living room lights to ten percent please”.

    A side note here. “Dave, why are you saying ‘please’ to a computer?” – it’s a good question. It turns out, when you’re speaking out loud in an aggressive short tone, even to a computer, it makes the entire environment around you… less comfortable. Teaching a 10 year old that it’s okay to yell “ALEXA, LIVING ROOM LIGHTS ON” puts everyone no edge. But if you’re polite, and treat all communication with respect, it changes the tone of communication.  It helps that you can even thank the bot after doing something. “Alexa, bedroom lights off.” “Okay!” (lights dim) “Thanks!” “You bet!”

Now that the control hub was in place, it was time to expand the network. I added several Z-Wave motion sensors, a Fibaro RGB Led Controller, and a couple more bulbs. In the end, my network consisted of:

  • 8 Zwave LED lightbulbs
  • 3 motion detectors
  • 1 LED controller and LED strip
  • 1 hub
  • 4 Alexa devices

This all… surprisingly… worked really well! Having the lights in each room voice controllable was a huge win. I don’t like centralized lighting in a room. I’d rather have 4 lamps around the edges of a space than have one big light. Tying all the lights together in one ‘scene’ where they can all be turned on, off, or dimmed with one command was awesome. This setup ran for almost 2 years.

After it was well established and the family had gotten very comfortable with having a true ‘home automation’ setup, I started to have some problems.

The Vera Plus hub controller is, well, slow. It could take 5-10 seconds for a device to respond to commands, and occasionally the hub would disconnect from Alexa. The UI on the device was PAINFULLY outdated. It had the look and feel of something written by an intern 10 years ago, and they’ve been just maintaining / adding screens / updating forms on it since then, with no one willing to tackle replacing the UI with something more modern and less clunky. It all “worked”, but it was no fun to fiddle with. I also was interested in doing more integration. I wanted to have a ‘smart lightswitch’ setup where I could see the status of all the lights, and all the motion sensors, on a tablet on the wall. This wasn’t that idle a need – our houses are very tightly insulated. When someone comes in the front door, you can feel the pressure change in the air int he house, but it’s subtle. I wanted to be able to look up and see if someone had just come in the door downstairs, particularly if I was in the attic.

It was time to look at upgrades.

In the 2+ years I had been building this network, the technology had advanced, and there were many new offerings. The Google and Alex integrations had improved, and new devices were on the market. I started taking a good long look at the Samsung Smartthings Hub. I had heard about SmartThings, but had also heard the tools were not mature yet, and there were some serious concerns about privacy and stability. The third generation hub however was looking very nice, and many of the ‘mysteries’ about how these devices were communicating were being cleared up. I started watching the SmartThings subreddit and it looked like people were doing some good work, so I took the plunge and bought the hub.

I won’t bore you with all the details of setting up the new hub and migrating the devices. The short version is “it happened”. There were naturally bumps (like, in order to migrate any Zwave device that’s already been set up to a new hub, you have to basically tell the device and the hub to deregister the old connection before you add the new one. This is accomplished via something called Z-Wave Device Exclusion, which seems counterintuitive, but it let me attach the devices to the new hub once I figured that out.

The real pleasant surprise was that Samsung provides an “IDE” for working with Smartthings. It’s a very well designed UI that lets you go in and update, modify, browse, and configure every device attached to the system. This includes adding new functionality through community-written drivers and debugging connectivity issues. This IDE was a breath of fresh air compared to what I was working with on the Vera. I felt that Samsung understood that people doing Home Automation really want full control over the devices and the tools, without going nuts with hacky approaches to the system.

Once the Smartthings hub was up and running smoothly, I wanted to go to my next project, which is having a ‘smart display’ showing the light and motion detector status.

A while back, I picked up a handful of Amazon Fire HD 7″ tablets and modified them to be able to run the google Play store. I pulled out one of the tablets, charged it, got the software on it all the way up to date, and installed ActionTiles on it. ActionTiles is sort of the ‘standard’ tablet display application for people using SmartThings devices. While not particularly elegant or fancy, it provides a clean, simpl touch interface to all the devices on your network. Setting it up and configuring it was pretty easy, and after tinkering with the layout a bit, I mounted the tablet in one of of the clamp brackets and set it over my desk. I at last had a live display of my device network that would notify me if the door sensors tripped while I was safely ensconced in my office. Victory!

This has been running now for a day or two, and I’m super-happy with the results. I’m sure I’ll find things that need tuning and updating, but so far, the entire project has been a win. I have several ideas about the next steps, but that’ll have to wait for anther day.

I Fixed a Thing

Is it weird that I feel relaxed and accomplished after repairing a desklamp at the end of a day of super geeking?

Never done this before. The pullchain socket had disintegrated. So a quick stop in Lowe’s, and $4 later (with some soldering and fiddling) I have a repaired desk lamp.

A Busy House Day

I guess it’s getting closer to spring. We spent most of today moving furniture, cleaning, rearranging stuff, etc. The house has been really crowded since M moved in and between her stuff and my old furniture we were just tripping over everything.

So today was “get the stuff out we don’t use”. It was a carefully choreographed process of…

  • Friday get the storage unit ready to receive furniture.
  • Saturday morning move everything from the attic and second floor that’s leaving out to the front porch.
  • Go get the truck from Uhaul.
  • Get awesome neighbors to load up the truck, follow us to the storage place and Tetris the furniture into place.
  • Return the truck, tidy up, and fall into a death like sleep for 2 hours
  • Get up and go to a cohousing meeting
  • For evening entertainment, assemble the new kitchen table and chairs (smaller and better suited to the space).

Now we’re finally collapsing into bed after a damned busy day. But? It felt good. We worked hard, and made the house better without going crazy doing it.

Win.

Next? Tuesday we get a washer dryer. We’ve never had one in the house and while I lived by myself, it was ok taking things to the common house. But now that there’s three of us, we really need local equipment. Yay upgrades!

The Olympus PEN-F – Biggest Flaws After 8 Months of Use


I’ve been using my Olympus PEN-F Micro Four Thirds for about 8 months now, and on the whole, I’ve been super-happy with a number of aspects of it. It’s small, it’s light, the picture quality is excellent, the glass available is very good, and after a relatively busy learning curve, the menus and controls are easy to work with.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have problems. There are several, lets run them down.

No external displays

I understand this is probably a factor of the small size / mirrorless nature of the beast. But not having any external indicators showing the camera is on, or how many shots are left, or battery level is a real problem. A very small LCD screen (even on the back) would have helped. Having to power up the camera, wait for the EVF to power up, and glancing through it to see if you have a decent battery is a pain. (BTW, there’s a noticeable delay on the battery reader. It can easily say GREEN, FULL, particularly right after putting hte battery in, but 10seconds later it’s showing almost empty. Beware!

Slow Focus Speed

This has been noted elsewhere, but the focus time on the unit is quite slow. If you’re working a shot that has multiple depths of field, the camera can ‘hunt’ around trying to set AF. I tend to run my camera in AF/MF mode, which means it’ll autofocus, but then you can use the focus ring to adjust it to where you want. This is a win, but if the camera is ‘hunting’ for an AF spot, you can’t stop it until it gives up and locks onto something. THEN you can use the manual focus ring. I’d like to see the camera automatically try to stop focusing if I touch / move the focus ring.

The controls can be confusing

There’s 8 turnable dials and 5 pushbuttons on a device half the size of a paperback book. Many of these are unlabelled, because they have a ‘variable’ purpose – they can be reprogrammed to do different things, and this doesn’t include the interface controls on the back (another 10 buttons), but at least these are labelled and make sense. I like the big ‘index finger’ wheel on top which is used to twiddle whatever variable setting you’re currently tuned to (For instance, I tend to shoot in A mode, which means exposure is automatically set, but my aperture is set by the finger wheel. This allows me to change DOF on the fly to get the ‘feel’ I want. I can’t imagine if I’m running in full manual mode trying to keep track of what dial does what.

Battery Life

This is relatively minor, but I wish the camera had either better battery life, or an external power connector. The 2000mAh battery will last about half a day of heavy usage, so I carry 3 of them with me. If I want to do any long exposure work or time lapses, I’m pretty much SOL.

Poor “No Card” handling

Okay, this is the big one, and the reason I decided to write this post. Now, to set the stage, I’m running the latest firmware available (v3.0), so this problem has not been fixed (though it can be with a simple software change). Here it is.

It is TRIVIALLY easy to go out for a shoot and not have a card in the camera, and not notice it.

The camera will operate normally, triggering the shutter, showing all the information in the EVF, but obviously won’t record anything. The ONLY indication there is no card is if you’re looking through the EVF and do not have your finger on the shutter release in ‘half press’ mode. Which, honestly, you never do. If I pick up my camera to take a shot, my finger is already on the shutter setting focus for the shot. I don’t just stare through the EVF unless i’m trying to get a focus point and setting in place.

I’ve caught this problem several times, and it was just annoying. This past weekend, I went out for a long walk in the city, and didn’t realize I had left the card out. I took 20-30 shots and when I got home that night… saw my working card in the laptop.

“But wait, Dave, isn’t there an indicator in the EVF?” – yes, but it’s very easy to miss particularly in bright light, AND only if you’re not touching the shutter release. The left image is a view through the EVF touching no controls, with no card in it. The right image is with my finger on the shutter release, still with no card in the camera. If I trigger the shutter, it’ll act like it took a shot – blanks the EVF, makes a click-kerchunk sound, and goes back to that display if I leave my finger in place (which I do) :

In this case, I was shooting clouds and rainbows… it was that sort of day – fortunately I took some shots with my cell phone, which could do panoramic shots).

Summary

So, after 8 months carrying the PEN-F full time, what are my thoughts?  Would I recommend it?

Positives:

On the average, yes, I would recommend it, but with some caveats, not just the ones mentioned above.  But lets start with some of the positives.

It’s a beautiful camera.  Really, you can’t avoid that.  The styling and setup are wonderful, and adhere to the Olympus PEN styling that goes back 50 years.  I’m proud to carry it and use it.

It’s very comfortable feeling.  The controls, though there’s a lot of them, are easily accessible, comfortable in my hand, and easy to work with.  I added the leather carrying case in the picture, which lets me sling it comfortably under my arm when not using it, and it doesn’t get in the way.

The four-thirds lens platform is quite well supported, and glass is available for reasonable prices.  I have 4 lenses now and being able to get things like a 300mm equivalent zoom lens for $99 makes it a great deal.

Negatives:

No need to recap the technical issues above.  None of them comes close to a deal breaker – at the most they’re irritations.  Olympus has patched firmware on the camera in the past to fix issues, I hope they’ll fix the No Card issue soon.

It’s expensive.  The PEN-F body-only is $999.  That’s not cheap, and in an increasingly saturated compact mirrorless market, while the camera is good, this is on the expensive side.

Conclusion

I would recommend the platform and camera for people who really are into the styling and are looking for a very good compact camera that is professional and competent enough to do serious photography on.  Is it the same as carrying around a full size DSLR like a 7D?  No, I’d say mostly because of it’s speed, battery life, and EVF.  But do you really need that much weight and bulk for most of your photography?  If you want a professional camera you can carry with you full time with exchangeable lenses and excellent features, and the price doesn’t scare you off, the PEN-F is a great camera.

I saw the Paris Protests today and I’m fine

So, I’m sure folks have heard the news about protests in Paris today. That did happen, and in fact I was right in the middle of it for a good part of the day. How could I miss the opportunity to take my camera into a real live protest? 2018-12-0145.jpg

The very short version is, yes, I was at the protests. Yes, there was tear gas and water cannons and lots of people moving around. There were really only a handful of instigators that were egging the crowds on to do damage, but that was enough.

I primarily stayed outside of the major crowds, but I had my camera with me the whole time. Pictures are here:

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And yeah, now I know what tear gas feels like. I don’t recommend it.

Back in the States for Thanksgiving

I’m back in the US for a week to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. It’s already been a bit of a culture shock but I’m enjoying recharging my New England American needs, starting with my wife, upon seeing me at the airport, handing me an XL Dunkin Donuts French Vanilla coffee. Ahhh.

Lunch is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (th French don’t do peanut butter. I missed it.)

Hopefully I can take this time to catch up on a few things before I head back to spend most of December in Paris.

Solved: Problems with WyzeCam Android Client

I’ve become a huge fan of the WyzeCam IP cameras. They’re small, very high quality, and have a very good mobile client to connect to them. But sometimes, the mobile client will refuse to start. It comes up with the startup screen, and never proceeds.

Searching around the Reddit and WyzeCam forums, many people have seen this happen, but there’s not a clear reason why.

I’ve had this happen on occasion on my Samsung S9+, and I’ve finally found a pattern – it’s quite simple actually.

On the loading screen, the client is making it’s initial connections to WyzeCam’s cloud services. But it’s quite common for providers, corporate networks, and sometimes even hotels or wifi hotspots to block connections to certain services. If the phone cannot connect to the cloud service, it will sit stuck at that startup screen forever, without ever doing anything.

I discovered this when my phone had connected to a mobile hotspot in the office which required authentication to start operating. The phone was connected, but could not reach the internet. The WyzeCam app was sticking at the opening screen. Once I completed the registration, and reloaded the Cam app, it came up super-fast.

I was able to duplicate this experience at a hotel stay recently as well. The local wifi was extremely crowded and performing extremely badly. The WyzeCam app was hanging at the startup screen again. As soon as I switched my phone from the WiFi to my carrier data, the screen loaded correctly!

I think Wyze could fix this very easily by giving some feedback on the loading screen, showing it’s trying to connect, and giving a timeout message if it fails after X amount of time. But for now, this frustrating behaviour is easy to understand and deal with.

Paris, end of Week 1

So it’s Friday, I have made it through my first week in Paris. All in all, things are going fine. My new apartment is comfortable and easy to deal with.  I’m quite close to the Metro station I use to get to the office (half a block), and the ride is about 20 minutes.  

I’ve mostly shifted sleep schedules (though for some incomprehensible reason, i couldn’t sleep well last night.  Not sure what was up with that).

I’m trying very hard to get as much French and city culture into me as possible, but I fall back on comfort food and headphones when it gets overwhelming.  There’s a lot of simple restaurants around the apartment that have been great for “tonight I’ll just have X” for food.  Supermarkets are no problem, though sometimes it’s hard to decipher food labels.

For example, milk. “Lait entier” is whole milk, “demi-écrémé” is the equivalent of 2% (it’s closer to 1.5, but whatever), and “écrémé” is skim.  Almost always sold in 1 liter bottles (I have yet to see the depth-charge sized GALLON milk jugs so prominent in the US.

There’s whole volumes of stuff I’m learning about paris, france, the people and the country.  So far I’m enjoying it, though I do miss home.  My coworkers are helping me enormously with my French, and if I can get more of that working, it’ll make the whole experience more rewarding.  I can feel myself learning the idioms and I feel like i’m on the edge of assembling comfortable dialog, but I’m still in the “groping for the right word” phase.  I’ll get there!

For map searchers, I’m living in the 15th arrondissment, which is on the western side of the city, about 8 blocks from the eiffel tower (which I can see outside my window every day).  I take the metro about 1/3 of the way across the city to go to work.  I haven’t missed having a bike or a car yet, though the electric scooters that so many people ride around may be a great way to get around.  For now, I’m sticking with the Metro (I have a full 5 zone pass that gets me anywhere in Paris and the surrounding areas, as many times as I like.  That’s a huge win).

Now that I’m relatively settled in, I’m going to start looking around for ‘things to do’.  Volleyball, pingpong, biking, music, art, longer walks – dunno, I need something to keep me active, otherwise I just work all day (this week has been pretty much steady 10-12 hour days).

I have another 4 weeks until I have family folk coming to stay with me.  I think it’ll be okay, if I can keep my brain occupied and not spinning off into lonely spaces.

Suitcase Life

So I’m packed. Three months abroad. Now it’s not like I’m heading to the mountains of the Moon or anything. It’s friggin Paris. They do have restaurants, department stores, and pharmacies there. Not to mention, Ya no, shelter from the elements.

So the pack up is 90% clothing, and 10% geek support hardware. Cables, adapters, all that stuff. The new apartment is supposed to be complete, but I’m taking no chances. I even enabled my amazon.fr account. Gonna be roughing it I tell ya.

Honestly I’m sort of surprised I got everything into these bags. There was some judicious editing by Mrs Geek to be sure. But it’s ready to go.

I’m off to the airport in 3 hours. As an experiment I’m going to be blogging directly to planet-geek from my phone. If you want to stay updated, make sure you add my RSS feed to your reader. Y’all are using an RSS reader, right? Right?

Relocating to France

So I guess it’s official now.

In mid-September, I’ll be relocating to Paris.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic. I’m not moving permanently, just for a couple months.

Earlier this year, my employer asked if I’d be interested in relocating to Paris for a while. After talking it over with my family, I enthusiastically accepted, and the wheels were set in motion. Since my last trip went so well, I was looking forward to returning. It took a month or two of wrangling with Visa application documents, US records offices, and other red tape, but last week I received my travel documents. It’s on!

So, stay tuned for more missives from the City of Lights!

Bye Bye Volt

Alas, all good things, etc etc.

Tonight I returned the Chevy Volt I leased three years ago. In the intervening time I drove 54,000 miles, at an average of 98mpg, using 550 gallons of gas. Had I continued with the Passat wagon I had before that, which got about 28mpg, I would have burned 1928 gallons. That 1400 gallons saved 28,000lb (14 tons) of CO2 from being emitted. That’s about a years worth of emissions for a fairly efficient house.

Nowadays I work full time from home, so my daily mileage has gone from 70-75 miles a day down to about 6. In a sort of weird reversal of history, where in the above article I lamented trading in my Jeep for the Volt, I now have a 2000 Jeep TJ as my only personal vehicle. Of course Mrs. Geek has a Subaru wagon, which we use for most errands, trips, etc, but the Jeep is mine, and I adore it.

I did have a reservation in to buy a Tesla Model 3 when they were available (which is now), but given the low miles I’m driving, and that I’m spending more and more time out of the country, it doesn’t make sense to have an expensive electric vehicle just sitting at home.

So here I am in mid-life with “nothing but an 18 year old manual truck in the garage”.

I’m okay with that.

Up in the Air – Returning to building and flying racing drones

Over the last year or two I’ve taken time off building and flying quadcopters. Life and other things has been taking up my brain, so some hobbies took a back seat.

Up at the lab, an event was coming up that would bring in some other pilots from New Hampshire and do a race day. I decided it was time to build a new quad, and get some race time in.

The last big event I went to was NAFPV 2017. It was great fun, and I ended up winning a 220mm carbon fiber frame. With that in hand, I began building up a new quad.

The technology has changed dramatically since my first builds. All in one components, ‘stacks’, and other tech has made the builds both more complicated (lots of tiny wire soldering), and easier (most boards are the same size, and can be stacked on top of one another). Turns out pretty much none of the components I had on hand would work on the new quad, so I had to purchase all new pieces. Here’s what I ended up with:

  • Wolfwhoop TX1912 5.8 video transmitter – I chose this board for the MMCX small antenna connection, and the ability to select bands and channels easily via a button and an LED display on the top. Super handy.
  • CaddX FPV Camera
  • CrazyPony 4in1 ESC This is probably the biggest change for me. Originally I built quads using separate discrete ESC’s. This board puts all 4 ESC’s on a single board. It definitely makes the wiring cleaner, but a little denser on the stack.
  • Crazypony 2206 2700kv motors
  • Betaflight F4 flight controller Betaflight is certainly the star as far as flight controllers and software goes right now. Their configuration tool is excellent, and the board is very good. I was slightly concerened about working with a board that had no header pins, but decided to roll up my sleeves and get experience in very tight soldering setups.
  • FS-X6B Flysky receiver – Yeah, I’m still rocking the FlySky setup. It’s still working well for me. I like this receiver because it can mount on the component stack (even though it’s a half-board).

Quadzilla
The build went off without too much trouble. I found all the missing tiny bits I needed, did lots of very small soldering, and over the space of 3 weeks, got everything assembled and tested. It worked! All the components were talking to each other properly, and I even have a fully function OSD (on screen display) showing stats from the batteries, flight controller, and receiver. Even got the LED strip showing the arming state and a set of ‘tail lights’. Hurray!

I did a very quick flight test to check stability, then went up to the lab to put the final touches on things. This is where I made my first mistake.

Kids, don’t do this.
I decided to take Quadzilla outside for a quick LOS test fly. My FPV gear wasn’t ready for flight testing, but I wanted to see the LED’s and play around. I put the quad on the ground, armed it (which spin the props slowly), stepped back, and gave it a little throttle. The quad lifted, started to move backwards, and basically… fell into my hands… still throttled and running. Those props HURT. I scraped up my hands a bit before I was able to disarm.

So what did I do wrong? Pretty easy actually.

  • I flew Line of Sight at night. LOS requires visibility on the yaw, pitch, and roll of your craft. I coudln’t see it, it was too dark.
  • The rear LEDs were pointing at me, which made it even harder to see.
  • I was in Air mode, not Angle mode, which means there was no flight stabilization. Quad did what I told it to, which in this case was to fly right at me.

Embarrassing, slightly painful, but no major harm done. Bleeding stopped within 10 minutes.

Chagrined, I took the quad home, cleaned up, and started prepping for the race, which would be in 3 days. The quad was pretty much ready to fly, I needed to set the mode selector properly, and tweak the LEDs. I also decided to move the battery from underneath the frame to on top of the top deck. Plenty of room there, and the quad would sit on the ground when taking off or landing, not on the battery. Win!

Turns out my batteries needed some love. The 1300mah 90C batteries i got last summer had been sitting idle for a year. Of the 8 batteries I had, one melted while charging, another was puffy so I decided not to use it. That left 6, which charged okay, but my parallel charger has seen better days. A new gang charging situation is needed, more on this in another post.

I charged all my other gear, including a nifty little all in one 9″ monitor with build in 5.8 receiver I carry with me. Great for checking video and watching other pilots fly. I packed up everything into the Jeep and on Sunday, headed up to the lab for race day.

The folks from the 603 Southern New Hampshire Drone Pilots group showed up, bringing our total pilots to about 10. We ran a couple heats with 4-5 craft in the air at once, on a short ‘H’ shaped course that had several gates and a ‘turnaround’ cube in the middle. The course was off the end of the back parking lot, so there was plenty of room to drive up, park, set up your tables, and get flying without fear of getting hit or getting in anyone’s way.

I flew 3 batteries. First flight was a very basic FPV test (as really this was my first FPV time on the new quad this year, and things went fine. Video was strong and clear, and the quad was very responsive. I flew completely in Angle mode, which is a VERY simple flight mode. I wasn’t comfortable enough yet to go into anything that would let me go more crazy. This was a first time out, I didn’t want to shatter anything.

Second battery apparently was in bad shape. No strong thrust, just running limp. I figured out later the 4S pack had a dead cell, and was functioning as a 3S. That explains that.

Last battery was in good shape, and I was feeling the power of that 4S setup. Unfrotunately, because I was in angle mode, I couldn’t pitch forward enough to get decent speed out of it (I’d just climb), so I was taking it pretty easy. I flew a gate or two, then went through the last one on the course – I caught a motor on that, which spun me out into the trees. The damage to Quadzilla is pretty minor, but I did rip out my VTX antenna, so that ended me for the day. I’m not complaining, I flew, I had a great time with the other pilots, and you’ll be damned sure to see me flying again soon.

HP-75C Handheld Computer

While up at MakeIt a few weeks ago, a fellow maker came up to me and handed me a Samsonite briefcase. With a wink and a smile, he said “Take this. You’ll like it.”

Ohhhkay, I’ll bite. Lets check this out.

HP-75C Handheld Computer

Opening up the case revealed… an HP 75C handheld computer, made by Hewlett Packard in the early 80s. This machine has some pretty nifty functionality. A built in BASIC, expandability, magnetic card reader for loading / saving programs, a full QWERTY keyboard, and rechargeable batteries.

Writing code on it is remarkably easy, with a clear easy to read screen and nice tactile feel to the keyboard.

Specs:

  • Manufacture date: Around 1983
  • HP 8-Bit Capricorn
  • 24K, 16K user RAM
  • 32 character LCD
  • 1.4K magnetic cards for storage
  • BASIC OS

It’s a great addition to the collection!