Consumer Electronics

Relax, Have a Homebrew! Monday, October 16, 2017

Off-topic alert!

Over the past few months, I've been enjoying brewing beer at home with a Pico Pro. No doubt purists scoff a bit at the automation involved during the mash and boil, but it's a relatively small part of the beer making process...and doing a true, temperature-controlled step mash without investing in an expensive setup (not to mention the space it would take up) is a huge win.

It's been a lot of fun.

The biggest challenges, and the place where a lot of brewers fall down, are in sanitizing and controlling fermentation: keeping things at the right temperature, consistently, so the yeast can work its magic efficiently without producing off flavors.

I can't help with sanitizing (you just have to do a better job!) but I can help with fermentation!

To that end, there's a great device called a TILT Hydrometer. The TILT drops into your fermentation vessel (which, in the case of a Pico Pro, is a small, 1.75L corny keg), and transmits both temperature and specific gravity via Bluetooth 4/BTLE. It's pretty cool, and by using TiltPi, along with a Raspberry Pi Zero-W to receive the bluetooth data and log it to a Google Sheet, it does all this automatically. You just peek at the sheet every so often to see how things are doing.

That all works great, but reviewing the data I realized I was having trouble controlling the temperature precisely using an external thermometer. Given the open source nature of TiltPi, and that fact that it was built with Node-RED, I thought, hey—I could use the temperature being transmitted by the TILT as a current measurement, and then use IFTTT and a few WeMo switches to exactly control both heating and cooling!

So, over a few hours in between doing SuperDuper! stuff, I learned Node-RED, figured out how TiltPi worked, added automatic temperature control, and found/fixed some TiltPi bugs at the same time. It works great!

I've provided the TILT people with my modifications to TiltPi, and hope they'll be integrating it into the official TiltPi release. Until then, here's how you can use it:

  • Set up TiltPi according to TILT's normal instructions.
  • Download and unzip this text file and open it in your favorite editor.
  • Open the TiltPi Node-RED editor. This should be here: http://tiltpi.local:1880.
  • Copy the contents of the text file to the clipboard.
  • Using the "hamburger" menu, select Import > Clipboard. Paste the copied contents into the box, and choose to import into a "New Flow". It'll be called "Main".
  • Switch to the old flow tab and delete it.
  • Click Deploy.

That's all the hard stuff. Next

  • Set up your IFTTT Webhooks service so you get a key.
  • Copy that key to the clipboard.
  • Open TiltPi's normal interface at the URL it sent you when it started up (usually http://tiltpi.local:1880/ui/#/0).
  • Using TiltPi's hamburger menu (so many hamburgers!), select "Logging".
  • Paste your key into the IFTTT key* field.

Then, set up your various color TILTs normally. You'll see a Target Temperature slider - that's configurable on a per-TILT basis and defaults to 70F: reasonably appropriate for ale fermentation.

The next step is to set up the heat and cool steps in IFTTT. (I assume you've already got your WeMo switches configured and WeMo is connected to your IFTTT account.)

  • Create a New Applet in IFTTT.
  • For the "This" clause, add a Webhooks service.
  • For the event name, use TILT-COLOR-temp-low, TILT-COLOR-temp-high, or TILT-COLOR-temp-just-right. depending on what you want to do.
  • For "That", add the appropriate WeMo switch action.

For example, let's say that I want to control a heater for a BLUE tilt. I'd add three Webhook applets:

If BLUE-temp-low then Blue WeMo Heater Switch on
If BLUE-temp-high then Blue WeMo Heater Switch off
If BLUE-temp-just-right then Blue WeMo Heater Switch off

If you want to both heat and cool, you'd add three more events (since you unfortunately can't add extra actions to an existing event):

If BLUE-temp-low then Blue WeMo Cooler Switch off
If BLUE-temp-high then Blue WeMo Cooler Switch on
If BLUE-temp-just-right then Blue WeMo Cooler Switch off

More events can be added for more TILTs, each with its own target temperature and WeMo switch(es).

If you don't have a cooling device, and it's warm where you put your keg, do what I do: put the keg in an insulated cooler bag (I have an old version of this bag) along with an ice pack. That way, when the heater goes off, the ice pack will act as a cooler.

I hope that helps some of you make better beer. Enjoy!

Note: this post was updated on 10/22 with a new version of the flow that works better with multiple TILTs, now that I have more than one.

Boom! Monday, October 20, 2008

I think the last time I wrote about the Squeezebox was in 2005 (yikes!), but it's time to virtually attaboy again: the Slim Devices folks have recently released the Squeezebox Boom, and it's pretty darn great. (I might be a little biased because I wrote their Mac-native support years ago, but really, no sense bragging on something I don't like.)

There's a surprising amount of competition out there in the "networked audio player" market, but Slim Devices (now part of Logitech) has been around a while, and their open source solution is one of the very best. The Boom mates a Squeezebox with a rather nice set of stereo speakers to create a pretty ideal stand-alone player/clock radio: something I've been looking for over the past few years.

This'll work with virtual all unprotected audio files you might have (including AAC, ALC, FLAC, OGG, MP3, MPA, WAV, AIFF), and includes support for Rhapsody, Pandora, Sirius... the list kind of goes on and on.

Minor downsides: awkward external power wall wart (boo!), no battery support for those times you might want to take it out on the porch, some minor control placement issues (all personal taste), and—like all Squeezeboxen—it requires that you have the SqueezeCenter server running on something (which can even be an Infrant NAS -- it ships with the SqueezeCenter built right in)... but those are decidedly minor.

Highly recommended, and a big congratulations to Dean Blackketter and the rest of the Slim Devices team.

For Those Addicted to Clack… Saturday, August 30, 2008

For nearly two years, I've been using the PC version of the Logitech diNovo Edge keyboard, and I've been quite happy with it.

I've always been a huge fan of the feel of the IBM Selectric typewriter keyboard - perfect keyboards, not too noisy, incredible feel with a definitive release. IBM simulated that with bucking spring technology of the original IBM PC and its follow-ons, and I used those keyboards too, and thought they were the best at the time.

These days there are some similar keyboards for the Mac, and I've tried them all, but never really liked any of them. The feel just wasn't right, and while they had a similar sound, they were just too noisy, or too 'fake' feeling. It's hard to describe, but... they just didn't work for me, and I kept going back to the Apple keyboard.

The diNovo Edge isn't anything like those keyboards. It's more like a very high quality laptop keyboard, but with much better "feel". It's got smooth travel -- and not too short, which is a common failing (see the Apple aluminum keyboard, which I've also tried) -- a good 'release' feel when you make contact (but before you bottom out on key travel, and good layout. (It feels similar to the original IBM Thinkpad keyboards, if you've ever used one of those.)

Unfortunately, while it worked, it wasn't really made for the Mac, and you had to play some games to get it to function. But I liked it enough to recommend it back in November of 2006.

Well, this week, I replaced that keyboard with the new Logitech diNovo Edge Rechargeable Bluetooth Keyboard for Mac. (And it has an awesomely catchy name. Not.) They've reworked the key layout, improved operation, and written Mac drivers that work well and activate various application-specific keys. Plus, it has built-in rechargeable batteries that last about 30 days per charge, and comes with a little dock charger thingy.

No, it doesn't clack. It's not a selectric. But it's got a good feel, nice (adjustable) flat profile, excellent build quality and -- to my hands, and in my opinion -- it's the best modern keyboard out there.

iPhone Friday, July 13, 2007

It's not easy to look at the iPhone, let alone touch the thing, and not be enchanted. It's all planes and subtle, refined curves with a radius (and texture) that feels great in the hand. It's not light, but not heavy either: just about right, given the size of it, and the weight helps to stabilize it during use. Someone spent a lot of time with mock-ups holding, twirling, pocketing and came up with something pretty much ideal.

As you'd expect, the color scheme and material choice is minimal and elegant: matte stainless on the back, chrome Apple logo and highlights, matte black buttons and RF area, and on the front, a black "contrast screen" (like a Bang & Olufsen TV) that hides the LCD underneath until it lights up.

And what an LCD it is: bigger than expected given the size of the device much bigger and very high-res and contrasty. It almost doesn't matter what's being displayed on it: everything looks pretty great in its antialiased, Helvetica glory. Unlike every other touchscreen you've ever used, the iPhone's is a capacitance unit with a glass cover that's completely visible outdoors, even in direct sunlight. No more squinting, indoors or out. I can't think of a thing about the screen I'd change.

But there's no point having a beautiful LCD if there's nothing worthwhile to put on it. And in this, Apple didn't disappoint either. The iPhone actually looks and works just like the ads you've seen. It's rare that something works exactly like the demos (which are usually canned, faked, magically perfect) but in this case it's true. Fast animated transitions between sections, quick response and redraws. It's rare that you feel that you're waiting for something, and if the animations are designed to look good and disguise load delays and offscreen redraws, they serve their purpose admirably.

There are a lot of reviews out there that do one of those "feature lists" of the iPhone vs. your typical Nokia, Sony/Ericsson, RIM, Treo, Windows Mobile device or whatever... and, often, the iPhone comes up "short", even when you take into account that software updates are promised down the road. (Of course, I'd expect firmware updates for any smartphone, and all of the above get firmware updates. It's pretty standard practice... what's rare is the addition of features. For example, my Nokia E61i doesn't have "feature pack 1" of S60, which fixes a bunch of important stuff, and it never will, even though FP1 came out before the E61i).)

Of course, part of the "standard practice" for phone design comes the "No" from carriers for some of the more advanced features -- remember that even "unlocked" phones have to be designed with customers in mind, and carriers are the big player in this game. And they often say "no" to WiFi, "no" to bluetooth, "no" to cameras, chat, whatever the carrier has determined its customers want, or it wants to put in to maximize revenue. It can be pretty frustrating as you discover you're in a walled garden, and the landscape architect has absolutely no taste whatsoever.

What's different about the iPhone, though, is the big "Yes" that came from the carrier to Apple to do what they wanted and with no previous history of phones, that's a "yes" to a totally new platform that isn't tied to previous usage patters, menu layouts, "but our customers are used to this", "our phone's identity depends on", etc. A "yes" to a new way of doing things a "yes" to Thinking Different, and a yes to "taste". While there are some "no"s there -- some frustrating ones that'll hopefully be fixed with the aforementioned updates, as has been promised -- they still sweated this experience. It shows.

But, again, that doesn't mean that the iPhone has a huge list of "features". It doesn't, and I'm guessing it won't. Ever, because that's not the point. You're not going to see things -- at least from Apple -- like remote desktop clients, or satellite box control, or buried SyncML clients... or the various nooks and crannies where those things hide. There's no huge list of applications, memory checkers, task managers, file managers, USB mode setters, picture editors.

The iPhone is full to the brim of pretty cool technology, but at the user level the experience is one of understatement. You have but a few "features":

  1. The phone itself
  2. SMS text messaging
  3. A basic camera
  4. A photo viewer
  5. A contact manager
  6. A calendar application
  7. An email application
  8. A web browser
  9. Google Maps
  10. A stock tracker
  11. A weather application
  12. YouTube
  13. A calculator
  14. A note-taking application
  15. Totally new, and pretty great iPod functionality
  16. A way to adjust settings

And that's it. Really - 16 "features": there's nothing else there.

Except there is. Because, with a few notable exceptions, this stuff was designed to be all of a piece: to work well, the way you'd expect. Apple started pretty much with a clean slate: there's no PSION "cruft", no six-versions-of-Windows-mobile, no S60/UIQ divergence, no crackberry usage patterns to retain, and no backend to monetize. A blank piece of paper, with appropriate constraints, and the ability to go nuts, which they did not, much to their credit. And when they were done (after what had to be a lot-lot-lot of revisions) well, sure, there's a User's Guide somewhere up on the web, but it's not something you'll generally need, even if you're not a phone nerd. It just basically works.

For most of the "general public", it does what they want and need.

And part of what it's missing is The Suck. You're not going through the typical Smartphone Wait when you pick something. It appears, it works, it's responsive and, frankly, given the "touch" nature of the UI, it had to be. If you tap something, it has to react and it does. If you're used to other phones, you're going to be amazed by this.

All that is great stuff.

Which isn't to say it's all perfect. It's kind of like Super Mario 64: an amazing game, truly revolutionary, but it's not everything to everyone. And even to most, it's just missing stuff. So, quickly, my biggest issues, apart from bugs, are:

  • Mail should be unified. Lots of people say this, and they're all right, mostly because the experience of going to a different mailbox is so painful you see that there's unread mail on the Home screen, but to get to it you have to tap around so many times by the time you find it you just don't care any more.
  • There's no way to flag mail, so if there's mail you need to deal with when you get back to your desktop, best of luck finding it!
  • Mobile Safari keeps opening new "tabs", even when you're tapping on an email link to the same general site, which eats memory and is quite inconvenient.
  • No A2DP support for wireless Bluetooth headphones.
  • Notes is pointless, sadly, because nothing syncs.
  • No OTA sync of calendars/contacts, which I really miss.
  • When apps quit in the background, they don't always save state.
    This is especially annoying with the iPod app, which loses your playlist, music location, etc.
  • No IMAP Push support is, well, annoying.
  • Javascript support is slow and a bit buggy.

But, all things considered, that's a tiny list. Apple's done an amazing job, and this is without question the finest 1st generation product I've ever seen. Kudos to all!

Update: I originally wrote and sent this on the iPhone with a moblog module. Some wrapping awkwardness ensued, various characters (emdashes, seemingly) were stripped, and some bad formatting/editing got through. I've tried to fix everything I've noticed -- sorry about that.

I Hate The Nokia E61i Wednesday, May 23, 2007

All those within the sound of my voice, let it be known: I hate the Nokia E61i.

Well, hate might be too strong a word. After all, Nokia has done some things right.

To start: I decided to give it a try after it got some raves from the Nokia crowd. Since I hadn't used a Nokia in years, it seemed like a good one to try: the E61i's got a nice keyboard and a really nice screen -- although it's only QVGA it's very visible inside and out. The build quality seems pretty nice. It's a good size as these things go, a bit heavy but nicely finished.

The software bundle is good for a business device: various email connectivity tools, push email for Exchange, Blackberry, IMAP. The "today" screen does a good job of showing what's pertinent right now.

But, that's about it.

Even though the E61i was released very recently, it's not a "Feature Pack 1" device (and, from what I've been told, will never be updated to Feature Pack 1). So, perhaps my experience was suboptimal. But it's no less optimal than that of other E61/E61i users.

And, overall, it's pretty suboptimal. This is a "messaging" focused phone. Its whole reason for being is to send and receive email and react to that. That's exactly what I wanted it for. And in that, at least in my situation, it fails pretty miserably.

My server is a Kerio Mailserver (which I'm quite happy with, and will write about in a future post), which provides both IMAP IDLE support and ActiveSync/Exchange capabilities. The E61i ships with an Exchange plug-in, so I used that. It configured reasonably easily (although the layout of the various screens doesn't take advantage of the landscape display, which truncated many fields in a pretty stupid way), and began to sync. And that all worked pretty much OK.

The problems started dealing with the mail itself. First, you can't move items to folders. You can only copy them, so handling Junk mail "properly" is well-nigh impossible.

Second, there's no way to mark a message as "unread". So, if you have mail you haven't yet dealt with, but read, you'd best remember what mail it was.

Third, deleted messages stay visible in the mail list until the sync occurs.

Fourth, links in the mail highlight nicely, but open in the "Service" browser, which isn't the "good" one: it's the old, WAP-style, crummy browser. "Web", the WebCore-based browser can't be associated with links. Instead, you need to copy the link, open Web, and paste them in to a "Go To Address" dialog. Not good, but I guess it could be worse.

Fifth, while this browser mostly works, it eats memory like crazy (even though the memory status in the main menu always indicates there's lots of memory left -- go figure). This causes it to randomly start failing, crashing, exiting... pretty much at any time. So, if you're using a web-based application (as I need to, based on mail notification), you're going to lose data. Typically after typing a long reply.

And stopping the numbering, because of the low memory, the mail program probably closed, which means you need to re-open it, which means you lose context.

Whatever you do, don't click a link in mail, because it'll instance that other browser, and it's hard to get out of.

But that's not all. I haven't even started talking about the slow and blinky screen refreshes, the fact that contact notes don't sync, that calendar notes sync incorrectly (CRs get eaten), that contact details are very inefficiently presented on the screen requiring a ton of scrolling, that network connections are constantly being announced for no reason, that selecting the messaging plugin on the today screen sometimes goes to the list and sometimes to a message (depending on the number of messages there, but it feels less predictable), the awful indeterminate progress indicator, ugly fonts, poor calendar implementation... I could go on and on.

To try to take care of some of this, I installed the trial copy of RoadSync, an alternate ActiveSync application that's worked well on the M600i (a UIQ3 device, rather than S60 Series 3). But it doesn't directly support browser links either. But it does seem to sync slightly better, supports moving to folders and allows mark-as-unread.

But with a browser that crashes constantly and a battery that -- under typical "me" use -- dropped precipitously after just an hour or two... it's just not a phone I could possibly live with.

It makes me appreciate the UIQ3 and Windows Mobile devices I've tried, though! Compared to this, the M600i and Dash are absolute paragons of reliable usability!

Maybe hate isn't too strong a word. But whatever word is used, there's one thing for sure: for my usage, the E61i sucks.

Clicking away Friday, April 27, 2007

My friend Jonas Salling has started blogging again, and that's always a good thing.

He's got some recent posts up there as he tests the WiFi support for Clicker, and the results may surprise you!

Jonas is one of the hardest working developers out there, and he never settles for less than absolute excellence when releasing new stuff.

The long-in-development Clicker 3.5 is no exception, and it looks like it's getting really close to release. That's good news for all the fans of Clicker, since a great product is getting a lot better. And I'm sure he has many cool things in store moving forward as well.

Welcome back, Jonas -- looking forward to more posts!

Tip for Seagate SATA drive owners Thursday, April 26, 2007

A little tip for those of you who might have installed Seagate SATA drives into your 3GB/s capable G5, MacPro, NAS device, or whatever.

Looks like recent Seagate drives ship with a jumper installed that limits the drive to 1.5GB/s speeds. While the jumper is documented in the User's Guide that ships with retail packs, it's specifically mentioned as something you might need to install if you have trouble with the drive. And OEM drives don't have any documentation at all.

To get 3GB/s, the jumper should not be present on the outer pins of the jumper block. So -- if you've got one of these drives, check it out: you might get that drive humming along twice as fast!

WM/UIQ/WTF Friday, April 13, 2007

I freely admit, right at the start of this post, that I switch cell phones too often. A lot of this is because I try to do a lot with my mobile phone, mostly mail and web based. And I want the thing to work well with my Mac, and to be a phone: I don't really want a two-inch-thick "communication controller" on a belthook.

At the same time, I don't want a tiny screen or a crappy browser, and I need a decent way to input text.

I've had generally good luck with the recent generation Windows Mobile "smartphone" devices (like the T-Mobile Dash, aka the HTC Excalibur), but the version of Internet Explorer in them is pretty limited, and replying to support questions can be frustrating because of those limitations.

Some time ago, I'd purchased a Sony Ericsson M600i, which looked like it was going to be a good'un: good size, design, keyboard and capabilities. Unfortunately, at least 3/4 of a year ago, it seriously sucked. The design is good, but the version of UIQ3 it originally shipped with was buggy beyond words: the email program crashed constantly, disconnected from email, etc. The browser was capable, but it crashed all the time, too. And, to top it off, the thing wouldn't sync with the Mac.

It didn't last long... until I took it back out of the box last week.

After applying Sony Ericsson's recent software update (R9F011 for the curious), UIQ3 has taken a huge step into reliabilityland. All of a sudden, the applications are no longer crashing. Mail, while limited by some boneheaded design choices, works. The web browser has been updated, and it's fast and capable: it even renders some relatively complex stuff on the Shirt Pocket site.

On top of that, Kerio Mailserver has finally implemented support for the M600i's OTA ActiveSync (Exchange) support, so events, mail, contacts, etc are pushed to the device automatically. Combined with a new iSync plugin, the thing works with my Mac pretty well: transparent two-way sync is awfully compelling.

Not phone nirvana, but a nice set of updates combining to deliver a greatly improved experience. It'll be interesting to see how the iPhone measures up. If the "Push" support is only for Yahoo mail (I'm hoping that it properly supports IMAP IDLE), it doesn't do OTA sync, and it doesn't support a vibrant 3rd party community (that gives us Apple Design Award-winning products like Salling Clicker), its cool touchscreen and attractive UI won't really make up for its lack of capability.

Demo vs. reality -- always fun. We'll have to see in June.

Apple TV - codename:tv Friday, March 23, 2007

tv is in the house -- two of them, actually -- and, well, it's good!

I'm not using it for music much -- my library is much too large for this device, and navigation of large collections, as has been said elsewhere, is quite lacking.

That said, for video material -- movies, tv shows, etc -- it works great. Playback starts quickly, even when streamed, and looks quite good. It's lacking in the audio department (it's really too bad that so much of this material, both movies and TV, encoded with Dolby Digital in full 5.1 or 7.1 surround, are reduced to ancient Dolby Surround playback, with no LFE channel, no split surrounds... much less impact), but visually things look quite reasonable.

It works great with netTunes, too, as you'd expect. As I've said many times, I run with a headless server, and it contains all my music and other content. With netTunes, it's trivial to connect to the server using a laptop while seated on the couch, and "pair" the tv with the server, change the synchronization information, purchase TV shows to be viewed -- all remotely.

I'm happy that the approach I took years ago -- truly remote controlling iTunes with its own interface -- continues to work with new versions of iTunes, and continues to prove it was the right way to go, moving forward with iTunes as iTunes itself changes.

Anyway, great stuff.

One expensive but potentially useful tip: you can use a scan converter to convert from Component input to regular Y/C (S-Video) or Composite, should you not have a component/HDMI capable TV. One example is the TV One AVT-3190 ($389). Expensive, but cheaper than replacing your TV...

Infrant Expansion Sunday, March 18, 2007

The other day, I was pushing at the limits of my existing Infrant ReadyNAS NV setup, and needed to increase its size. Normally, this would be a huge project, but with the ReadyNAS it was incredibly easy to do.

You see, the ReadyNAS uses Infrant's proprietary X-RAID. X-RAID basically RAID 6RAID 5 (see comments, below) with the ability to dynamically increase the total size of the RAID as well.

So, not only will the ReadyNAS run with a single drive faiure (and hot-rebuild the drive), it can dynamically increase the size of the RAID set as well. So, all I had to do was:

  1. Buy four drives of the appropriate size. I went from four 250GB drives with a total size of about 700GB, to four 500GB drives with a total size of about 1.6TB.

    The reason you don't get "all" the space on the drives is because redundant information is spread across each drive that allows any drive that goes "down" to be replaced and rebuilt with no data loss.

  2. With the ReadyNAS on, and in use, pull out the first of the four drives.

    Yeah. Scary. But that's what to do!

  3. Unscrew the four screws that attach the SATA drive to the tray from and attach it to the new.

  4. Slide the new drive into place.

    At this point, the ReadyNAS will automatically rebuild the data that was on the original drive on this new drive. All of this has been done with the unit on and operating.

  5. Wait for the rebuild to complete (it'll send you email when it's done).

  6. Repeat with the next drive.

Yeah. That's it. When you're done, you do need to restart the ReadyNAS to get the volume to expand, but that can be postponed until you're ready to do it... and that's the only time the unit is "down".

Pretty cool, eh?

(Yeah, I know I sound like a pitchman for Infrant, but I'm honestly not affiliated with them in any way at all. I just think it's a great product.)

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