Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hack Your Alarm Clock

Kids, teens and adults are more inspired to tinker after they learn the basic framework of what they are tinkering with. Electronics and circuit sets are great, but it really helps to jump-start learning with demos or projects that are heavily documented in the box. After you get your bearings on what works and what breaks, you are more free to experiment and add your own ideas.

To that effort I'm working on a hackable alarm clock based on the Raspberry Pi platform along with several Adafruit/Sparkfun components. The idea is that we can build a customized, tricked-out bedroom alarm clock with some general off-the-shelf components to see how hardware and software work in concert to create something useful. After the project is done, I'm hoping its creators will feel inspired to rip it apart or build new features using the pieces.

I've already run these lessons with a few kids between the ages of 5 and 11, and it was pretty interesting to see what they found interesting. They all wanted to start playing music, but they celebrated being able to have whatever number they wished show up on the LED display. To simply type "77," hit "Save" and refresh the display was enough to send them clapping. They also spent a ton of time building their own enclosures out of Lego, designing the perfect case for their clock.

Right now we have made it to Lesson 6 (the AM/PM indicator), however I have only published up to Lesson 4. More are to come, and I have already found some refinements that need to be made in the previous lessons. The lessons are available at, the hardware project is documented on HackADay at, and the Python source code for the clock driver is posted on GitHub via I will keep these sites updated as the project grows.

Let me know if you try out the project yourself. We are already making some fun hacks, such as using the LED display to show the answers to math problems. I'd love to hear what other people devise!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Out of Gas

I took a Nissan Leaf for an extended test drive today - I borrowed it last night and will return it tomorrow morning. It was definitely good to take an all-day test drive... there were a few things I didn't expect to encounter but are helpful to know.

First off: the range. I drive approximately 53 miles a day just to work and back, and I'm driving in a midwest winter. The temp wasn't terribly cold - it was above freezing - but I needed to run the defogger for most of my trek. I drove in "Eco" mode the entire time as well, and made sure to take advantage of the regenerative braking. While Nissan quotes the driving range between 75 and 84 miles, a single 26.5 mile trek ate 40% of my battery. This places my winter driving range closer to 66.25 miles, assuming a linear discharge of the battery. That ain't good, and is a full 12% less than the advertised range.

I am pretty fortunate to have EV charging stations at work, otherwise I'd be sunk within a year. Right now the plan is to use the regular 240V charger at work, and trickle-charge the battery at 120V at home. This means I need to charge for 4 hours once I arrive at work, and charge for 10.5 hours at home. Not terribly convenient, but doable. If I wasn't able to recharge at work I would definitely be sweating it on the trip back.

For a while I weighed the difference between the S and SL models (the low and high end), but I didn't find a compelling reason to move to the SL. True, the SV/SL models offer CARWINGS, however it uses an old AT&T 2G network that is scheduled to go dark by the end of 2016. There is also the navigation console and full Bluetooth support which is nice... but... meh. Overall I didn't find a compelling reason to upgrade from the base S model, other than adding the quick charge package.

The Leaf is tempting. I will definitely need to change my driving habits and will have to always be mindful of the nearest charging station; already I've petitioned work for additional EV spots. However, if I am willing to bend over backwards I believe I could make a switch to all-electric.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Are Electric Vehicles Really Better than Combustion for Commuters?

I have a pretty regular commute of about 50 miles a day. The wheels are about to fall off my ten year old auto, which still manages around 30 MPG given my highway driving. I'd like to swap out cars prior to abandoning it on the side of the road, so I started to wonder if now was the time to go with an all-electric car.

I've never liked the idea of hybrids. I'd rather mess with a combustion engine or an electric motor, not both. Electrical systems are crazy enough as-is without a gas-powered mobile generator strapped to it. Luckily electric vehicle prices have also come down significantly, with a base-level Nissan's Leaf going for under $22k. With that kind of price tag, I started to wonder how much better an all-electric car might be compared to a hybrid or an efficient combustion engine.

I started to measure my gas consumption and prices at the pump, and keep a running total in a Google Doc Sheet which I'm happy to share. After a month of driving, I started to calculate what the cost and the CO2 savings might be. I took current fuel costs and compared them to what an efficient combustion or hybrid car might be, then found some analogous kilowatt-hour data to draw comparisons to an electric vehicle. Here's what I found for a four-week period:

Current Car Efficient Car Electric Vehicle
Total Fuel Cost $119.52 $95.43 $40.81
Avg. Miles per Gallon 29.52 37
CO2 Created 802.59 lbs 640.65 lbs 511.62 lbs
Monthly Savings $26.25 $85.74

So an EV would reduce your fuel costs by 66%, however it would only reduce your carbon footprint by 36%. By comparison the "efficient car" reduces both fuel costs and carbon footprint by 20%. One would think that an electric vehicle would trounce a moderately efficient car in carbon dioxide production, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

Now, this is all based on an assumption that my data is sound... and maybe it should be reviewed by some more objective eyes. I'm effectively ignoring fuel transport and refinement costs (including battery production) - that's a rabbit hole I don't want to go down. I determined the CO2 output of gasoline engines using stats from U.S. Energy Information Administration and carbon output per kilowatt hour from the Environmental Protection Agency. Based on that info, I was able to determine the impact of either EV or combustion cars. This makes a few assumptions and generalizations for the different types of fuels being burned, such as ethanol mix and coal/natural gas combustion of power plants. Nissan's own "Feel Electric" Android app makes slightly different calculations than my own, using an "EPA formula" that equates one gallon of gasoline to 33.7 kilowatts per hour. It also does not add CO2 emissions from power plants into its equation. Using Nissan's formula, the savings for a week's worth of driving was slightly different than mine:

If we assume my cost calculations are correct and we add the additional engine fuel costs to a 36 month lease, how would monthly car costs compare? Let's take a look assuming $2,399 due at signing, adjusting if more is due by prorating the amount across the term of the lease:

Ford Focus Ford Focus Electric Nissan Leaf S Tesla Model S Chevy Spark Mitsubishi i-MiEV Kia Soul EV
3yr Lease $256.74 $202.00 $199.00 $890.28 No Lease Listed $216.47 ?

Note this makes a combustion car about $50 more a month than a comparable electric vehicle. The Kia is an interesting EV, unfortunately no Kia dealerships in my entire state carry one. From here we can narrow down affordable leasing options to the Focus, the Leaf S and the i-MiEV. Let's compare these three across the features I consider mandatory:

Ford Focus Nissan Leaf S Mitsubishi i-MiEV Kia Soul EV
Price $202.00 $199.00 $216.47 ?
AC Power (kW) 107 80 49 81.4
Horsepower 143.38 107.2 65.66 109.076
Battery Capacity (kWh) 23 24 16 27
Average Range (mi) 76 84 62 93
ABS Yes Yes Yes Yes
Traction Control Yes Yes Yes Yes
Bluetooth Yes Yes No Yes
Quick Charge Optional Optional Standard Standard

The i-MiEV seems a little underpowered and overpriced by comparison, however it did have several other amenities that the others lacked including more charging options. The Focus did offer considerably more power than the Leaf at a comparable price point, at the cost of average driving range. Another big difference is that the Focus has a water-cooled battery enclosure, while the Leaf's batteries are currently air cooled. This may extend the overall life of the Focus batteries, however this may not be a big issue for a 36 month lease.

The Kia Soul appears to be the stand-out performer, however it is off the list due scarce availability. I attempted to give the Focus a test drive, but after searching I found that I would need to travel 8 hours and cross three states to find one. That means the Leaf is the only one I can test drive, even though it ranked a close third by comparison.

The take away message is that the cost savings may be enough to trump a comparable combustion car by significantly lowering fuel and maintenance expenses for commuters with a predictable travel schedule. The environmental impact isn't as huge as I expected... however I'm just measuring greenhouse gasses and not contributors to smog, runoff or noise pollution. We may not have to weigh that impact however - the economics now seem to carry the day for EV's.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

DNS - The Internet's Phone Book

My earlier post about filtering Internet content for kids bringing home their school iPads may have created more questions than answers for some parents. The big confusion seems to step from what a Domain Name System (DNS) server is, and how it helps filter out objectionable content.

Let's go waaaaay back in time, back to the birth of the initial global network called ARPANET. Back in the day - and even now - you could reach a remote computer by using its numeric address. To connect to a remote computer, your machine may connect to "" and send along some pretty data. Those numeric addresses could be a pain to remember however - so shortcuts were created that mapped a human-recognizable name (like "BubbaComp") to the numeric address (like ""). Solutions were eventually engineered that let people share these lists... that way everyone could have this helpful list of shortcuts. This convention kept evolving as users continued to join the global network, up to today. Now when you type in "" your computer is smart enough to look up this shortcut name and find out the numeric address is Your computer always talks to, however you talk to your browser using

This operates just like a phone book. No one remembers people's phone numbers anymore... or at least I don't. Instead you look up a person's name in your personal address book or the big dead-tree phone book on your front stoop, then communicate using the phone number in the book. Connecting to sites over the Internet works in the very same way.

What if you didn't want your kids visiting certain sites? You could employ the same trick as you might to stop them from calling certain people over the phone - edit the phone book. If your kids can't look up a person's name and find their phone number, they can't call the person. If you edit the Internet's phone book and remove objectionable sites, your kids can't visit the objectionable site on their device of choice. That's exactly what OpenDNS allows you to do - use a phone book that only has acceptable web sites within it.

What if a kid memorizes a phone number tho? Your plan falls apart a bit in that case. DNS filtering has the same limitation - if your kids memorize the IP address of a site (or share an underground DNS server), then they can go directly to the site and bypass your sanctioned "phone book."

If your kids go to a site that has a wide variety of content (like YouTube), you can't filter out specific types of content within the site. Just like calling a party line on the phone... if you allow access to the party line, you can't control anything past the initial dial.

Hopefully that helps explain why OpenDNS is only your first line of filtering. Lemme know in the comments if I can clarify further!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Web Filtering at Home

[Updated to include an OpenDNS how-to]

Now that iPads are standard issue for a lot of schools, a few parents have asked me how they can block inappropriate material at home. While the schools themselves filter at the network level, as soon as the student comes home the network is wide open.

In all honesty, you can't filter out 100% of all objectionable content. It's hard to have software determine if a YouTube stream is showing questionable video. However, you can audit, track and block some obviously adult sites. The traditional options to perform web filtering include:
  • Software applications or parental controls on the device itself
  • Filtering devices on the router or wireless access point
  • External Internet services that block DNS requests

Software applications give you the most control on a per-device level and can block errant applications as well (like anti-virus software), however you have to install them on each and every device. They also have the benefit of blocking things no matter what network they are attached to. They usually require a medium-level effort to circumvent, and it is sometimes hard to get a report on what the actual activity has been or if any sites had to be blocked.

Filtering devices provide filtering for the entire network and do not rely on software to be installed on the device, which is nice. This solution is the hardest to circumvent, so long as you properly lock down your wireless access point. This solution cares less about applications however, and can’t really tell how appropriate actual content on a site is. It also only controls those devices on your network, and often doesn’t have fine-grained controls.

External Internet services filter your entire network, just like a filtering device would, however it is hosted out on the Internet rather than being something installed or managed inside your house. This option often doesn’t give you much (if any) per-device controls, however they often do a great job of letting you pick what and how many sites to filter out. These solutions often provide reporting as well, letting you see what was viewed by devices on the network. This solution also can’t tell you about the actual content on the site, but just the URL that was visited. This solution is the easiest to circumvent, although this can be mitigated by locking users out of the administrative settings of a device (e.g. not letting users change network settings on an iPad).

What I chose for the house was an external Internet service via OpenDNS. This was easy to set up since I just had to create an account and make a few minor tweaks to our wireless access point, and it gives me some nice reporting on what was blocked. For example, lately I saw a lot of adult sites being blocked and found an iOS application was loading them in the background.

OpenDNS has a Getting Started Guide on their site, but here's an abbreviated version of the steps for setting up OpenDNS on your home network:
  1. First, load up the settings console for your wireless router. Check your user guide for how to do this - usually it involves loading up a web page at and entering a username and password.
  2. Next, find the "Internet" or "WAN" settings page within your wireless router. This is in your router's user guide as well. It may look something like:
  3. Change the DNS Servers from the automatic settings to the values "" and ""
  4. Click on "Apply" or "Save" or whatever floats your router's boat.
  5. Create a new account at
  6. Part of your account creation process will be linking your local network to your OpenDNS account. Once your local network joins OpenDNS, it will begin monitoring what sites are requested.
  7. After you create your account, you will be taken to the OpenDNS dashboard. At that point you can decide how much filtering you want to apply to your network - from sites that are obviously adult-only to sites that are adult in theme (fashion magazines, for example).

I'll post a subsequent entry on what OpenDNS actually does in hopes of helping explain why this kind of filtering is useful and its limitations. While this might seem like rocket surgery at first, hopefully this helps you learn how to be a steward of your Internet connection... just like you have to monitor & maintain your sump pump before the basement floods.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Drift Into Failure

I'm still working towards catching up on my Christmas ready. I already wrote my missives on Thinking in Systems and A Pattern Language; next up is the DevOps favorite Drift into Failure.

The basic premise of Drift is that failures, even massive ones, don't (usually) happen because of a vast conspiracy or from the deeds of evil people. Massive failures occur from behavior that is considered completely normal, even accepted, as part of a daily routine. These routines give our perspectives tunnel vision and often don't allow us to see the underlying issue. Production goals, scarce resources and pressure on performance causes drift in these routines that slowly erode safe practices.

Fatal aircraft crashes and space shuttle disasters are often quoted in the book, however every operations or software engineer in IT has seen this play out a gazillion times before. The site goes down on a regular basis... and no one knows quite why. After digging and pushing new code and re-pushing bug fixes for many sleepless nights, one often finds out that the outage was due to a routine maintenance task gone awry. Maybe a query optimization cache was manually flushed within the production RDBMS, causing the entire cluster to freak out and create a bad query plan. It seemed perfectly sane at the time and even if every single person knew this was going to happen the day before, it likely wouldn't have been caught.

Drift points out how remediation and "root cause" reporting is often fruitless. The concept of high-reliability organizations was pushed in the 1980's as an entire school of thought, focused on errors and incidents as the basic units of failure. Dekker demonstrates that "the past is no good basis for sustaining a belief in future safety," and such a focus on root-cause analysis often does not prevent future incidents. The traditional "Swiss Cheese Model" for determining cause has attempted to see where all of the holes within established safety procedures line up, so as to create a long gap through which problems can drive themselves through. This type of reductionist thinking where atomic failures create linear consequences has turned out not to be predictive after all - instead we need to look at things through the lens of probability.

One of the best practices that anyone, including those supporting enterprise software, can encourage to avoid failure is to be skeptical during the quiet times and always invite in a wide range of viewpoints and opinions. Overconfidence can be your downfall, and dissent is always a healthy way to get new perspective. Dekker quotes Managing the Unexpected to point out that "success... breeds overconfidence in the adequacy of current practices and reduces the acceptance of opposing points of view." Those that were not technically qualified to make decisions often were the ones that made them, or outside pressures (event subtle ones) caused trade-offs in accepted practices. Redundancies that were supposed to make things highly available often make systems more complicated and, in turn, actually make them more likely to fail.

The best way to avoid a drift into failure is to invite outside opinion, even bring in disparate practice groups. Take minority opinions seriously. Don't distill everything to a slideshow. Be wary of adding redundancies and failsafes - often the most simple solution will be the most reliable. The recent re-invigoration in microservices is a great example of this - by simplifying the pieces of a complex system, we can allow each component to work in isolation and ignore the remainder of the system. This allows the system to grow, adapt and evolve without support systems usually provided for monolithic software stacks.

Drifting into failure occurs when an organization can't adapt to an increasingly complex environment. Never settle, always embrace diversity and keep exploring new ways to evolve. A great quote from Dekker is "if you stop exploring, however, and just keep exploiting [by only taking advantage of what you already know], you might miss out on something much better, and your system may become brittle, or less adaptive."

Sunday, March 23, 2014

An Expensive Failure of Judgement

So remember when I precariously perched a moderately encased rangefinder above my sump pump well? It was kinda wedged in between the cover and the well wall, and I thought there wasn't enough play in the line leading to the rangefinder as to let it drop in. Well... all my hackery finally caught up to me and a very expensive sensor ended up taking a swim. Current remained running through it the entire time so for several hours it swam in well water, slowly accreting minerals. No amount of drying out would save it.

I wasn't going to replace it with another expensive sensor... so I went the completely opposite direction and built an unbelievably primitive water detector. Here two plates of aluminum foil were hot-glued to construction paper and the bare end of my infamous telephone wire, then isolated in electrical tape. If water bridged the two aluminum plates, a connection would be made - at least enough of a connection to be considered a "high" signal.

The other end of the two wires were sent to the NPN transistor that was originally intended to work as a UART logic inverter. Now it was a simple logic gate; once the water closed the circuit the NPN shut off the current headed to a GPIO pin. If the pin was live, no water was detected. If the pin was dead, you had a problem.

The web front-end that I created for this whole rigamarole was updated to reflect this hack, and now just reports the binary status of the water detector. I'm not thrilled with the setup, but I also wasn't too keen on the idea of plopping any more money down on a solution.

So... lesson learned. Don't dangle water sensitive components over a well of water.

I do have a need for another security camera, so this whole setup may just be ditched in favor of another Motion rig. I really dig the I2C temperature and humidity breakout board however, and I'd like to keep using it. Maybe I'll save up my allowance and get a CC3000 WiFi board and pair it up with the temp/humidity board... that would be a pretty nifty & tiny package.