LG OLED Look Gorgeous But webOS Is Horrid

Thanks to Black Friday discounts, I acquired an OLED TV which I had coveted for many years. I decided on a LG OLED55B2AUA purchased through Costco (Item #9755022). LG’s “B” line sits between the more affordable “A” and the more expensive “C” lines and it was a tradeoff I liked. (There are a few additional lines higher than “C” priced above my budget.) The TV replaced a TCL 55S405 and while they are both 55″ TVs, there is a dramatic difference in image quality. There are reviews out there for full information, my blog post here concentrates on the items that mattered to me personally.

The Good

  • The main motivation is image quality. OLED panel advantage comes from their self-illuminating pixels leading to great contrast and vibrant colors. The “C” line uses panels with a higher peak brightness, but I haven’t found brightness lacking. When the filmmaker intentionally includes something bright (flashlight in a dark room, etc.) this “B” panel is bright enough to make me squint.
  • HDMI 2.1 with variable refresh rate capability and a higher maximum frame rate (120FPS) so I can see all the extra frames my new Xbox Series X can render. On this year’s “B” units, HDMI 2.1 is supported on two of four HDMI ports, which is enough for me. HDMI 2.1 is supported on all four ports of “C” line, and none of “A” line because they are missing high framerate features entirely.
  • The LG “magic remote” has an accelerometer to let us move an on-screen cursor by tilting the remote. This is far better than the standard up/down/left/right keypads of a TV remote and, combined with responsive UI, makes navigation less of a chore. This is the only good thing about LG’s user interface.

The Bad

For reasons I failed to diagnose, the TOSLINK output audio port could not send sound to my admittedly old Sony STR-DN1000 receiver. Annoyingly, LG designed this TV without analog audio output. Neither a headphone jack (as is on my TCL) nor classic white and red RCA audio jacks. In order to use my existing speakers, I ended up buying a receiver with HDMI eARC support. This is money I would have rather not spent.

The Ugly

The internal operating system is LG’s build of webOS, which they have turned into a software platform for relentless, shameless, and persistent monetization efforts. My TCL Roku TV also served ads, but not nearly as intrusively as this LG webOS TV. That powerful processor which gave us snappy and responsive user interface isn’t going to just sit idle while we watch a movie. Oh no, LG wants to put it to work making money for LG.

Based on the legal terms & conditions they wanted me to agree to, the powerful processor of this TV wants to watch the same things I watch. It wants to listen to the audio to listen for keywords that “help find advertisements that are relevant to you”. That’s creepy enough, but there’s more: it wants to watch the video as well! The agreement implies there are image recognition algorithms at work looking for objects onscreen for the same advertising purpose. That’s a lot of processing power deployed in a way that provides no benefit to me. I denied them permission to spy on me, but who knows if they respected my decision.

Ad-centric design continues to the webOS home screen. The top half is a huge banner area for advertisement. I found an option to turn off that ad but doing so did not free up space for my use. It just meant a big fixed “webOS” banner taking up space. Next row down, the leftmost item represents the most recently used input port, which in my case is the aforementioned Xbox Series X. The rest of that row are filled with more advertising, which I haven’t found a way to turn off. The third and smallest row includes all the apps I care about and even more that I did not. Overall, only about 1/8 of the home screen surface area are under my control, the rest paid LG to be on my home screen.

I’m frankly impressed at how brazenly LG turned a TV into an ad-serving spyware device. I understand the financial support role advertisements play, but I’m drawing a line for my own home: as long as the ads stay in the menus and keep quiet while I’m actively watching TV, I will tolerate their presence. But if an LG ad of any type interrupts my chosen programming, or if an LG ad proved they’re spying on me despite lacking permission, I am unplugging that Ethernet cable.

UPDATE (two days later): Well, that did not take long. I was in the middle of watching Andor on Disney+ (Andor is very good) when I was interrupted by a pop-up notification on the bottom of the screen advertising free trial to a service I will not name. (Because I refuse to give them free advertising.) I will not tolerate ads that pop up in the middle of a show. Struggling to find an upside I can say this: that advertised service appeared to have no relation to Disney+ or anything said or shown in Andor, so the ad was probably not spying on me.

I was willing to let LG earn a bit of advertising revenue from me, as Roku did for my earlier TV, but LG’s methods were far too aggressive. Now LG will earn no ad revenue from me at all because this TV’s Ethernet cable has been unplugged.

Heroku Free Rides are Over

The Ruby on Rails Tutorial taught me about Heroku, a service for hosting web applications. Your app is running on Amazon Web Services, but Heroku handles all the management and administration of those machines. We just have to focus on our code. It was recommended by the Ruby on Rails Tutorial because it made hosting Rails apps on live internet servers super easy, so we could focus on learning Ruby on Rails and not on AWS administration. And it didn’t cost us anything at the time, as we were able to run on Heroku’s lowest performance free tier.

But that free tier disappears on November 28th, 2022. This is disappointing but not a surprise after Heroku was acquired by Salesforce. Many startups have generous free trials to build up a customer base and prove demand for the product exists. With this proven demand, those startups are acquired by new owners who demand they get serious about making profits. This happened to Cloud 9 IDE, which I played with back when it was free, but that free tier disappeared after it was acquired Amazon. It happened to Ruby on Rails tutorial, which was free but its parent organization Learn Enough Society has since been acquired and everything is now behind a paywall. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I’ve stopped working on micro Sawppy. I had been building my open source Sawppy rover in Onshape because there was a free tier, but they’ve been making it harder and harder to find. After Onshape was acquired, I suspect it will only a matter of time before the free tier disappears entirely. I’m looking for another accessible CAD solution for future Sawppy, but that’s a topic for another day. [UPDATE: I’ve written up my Sawppy CAD wishlist.]

Today I’m sad at the fact Heroku free tier is going away. I had been studiously learning about HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and just finished a course for Node.js web apps with Express. I’ll definitely start with projects that are deployed only to my home network, but I had grandiose dreams of deploying internet-facing apps via Heroku. I might still do so, but I wouldn’t be able to do it for free. After Heroku announced that free tiers were disappearing, they offered a new tier more affordable than what they had otherwise offered but still not free. Based on the pricing estimator, it looks like a hosted web app equivalent to the previous free tier performance will cost at least $5/month. And if we want a database behind that app, it’ll be another $5/month. Not exactly an extortion, but a significant friction for hobbyists like myself. Maybe they’ll make further adjustments to their pricing structure in the future, I could only hope. In the meantime, I should return to my study.

Today I Learned About Flippa

I received a very polite message from Jordan representing Flippa who asked if I’d be interested in selling this site https://newscrewdriver.com. Thank you for the low-pressure message, Jordan, but I’m keeping it for the foreseeable future.

When I received the message, I didn’t know what Flippa was so I went and took a cursory look. At the surface it seems fairly straightforward: a marketplace to buy and sell online properties. Anything from just a domain to e-commerce sites with established operational history. The latter made sense to me because a valuation can be calculated from an established revenue stream. The rest I’m less confident about. Such as domain names, whose valuation are a speculation on how it might be monetized.

But there’s a wide spectrum between those two endpoints of “established business” and “wild speculation”. I saw several sites for sale set up by people that started with an idea, set up a site to maximize search engine traffic over a few months, then sell the site based on that traffic alone. Prices range wildly. At time of my browsing, auction for one such site is about to close at $25. But they seem to range up to several thousand dollars, so I guess it’s possible to make a living doing this if your ideas (and SEO skills) are good.

Mine are not! But money was not the intent when I set up this site anyway. It is a project diary of stuff I find interesting to learn about and work on. I made it public because there’s no particular need for privacy and some of this information may be useful to others. (Most of it are not useful to anybody, but that’s fine too.) So it’s all here in written text format for easy searching. Both by web search engines, and with browser “find text” once they arrive.

I haven’t even tried to put ads on this page. (Side note: I’m thankful modern page ads have evolved past the “Punch the Monkey” phase.) I also understand if my intent is to generate advertising revenue, I should be doing this work in video format on YouTube. But video files are hard to search and skim through. Defeating the purpose of making this project diary easily available for others to reference. I had set up a New Screwdriver YouTube channel and made a few videos, but even my low effort videos took more far more work than typing some words. For all these reasons I decided to primarily stay with the written word and reserve video for specific topics best shown in video format.

The only thing I’ve done to try monetizing this site is joining the Amazon Associates program, where my links to stuff I’ve bought on Amazon can earn me a tiny bit of commission. The affiliate links don’t add to the cost to buy those things. And even though I’ve had to add a line of disclosure text, that’s still less jarring of an interruption than page ads. So far Amazon commissions have been just about enough to cover the direct costs of running this site (annual domain registration fee and site hosting fee) and I’m content to leave it at that.

But hey, that is still revenue associated with this site! Browsing Flippa for similar sites based on age, traffic, and revenue, my impression is that market rate is around $100. (Low confidence with huge error margins.) Every person has their price, but that’s several orders of magnitude too low to motivate me to abandon my project diary.

Shrug. New Screwdriver sails on.

Overlooked Gem: The Princess and the Frog

Ten years ago today, The Princess and the Frog opened to general theatrical release. At first glance, people saw hand-drawn animation in a computer-animated world, retelling an old fairy tale in the 21st century. As a result, people did (and still do) dismiss the film as out of date without taking a second glance. Which is a shame, because it is a wonderful film that can stand tall among all its modern contemporaries.

For photorealistic detail, state of the art computer animation in 2009 had long surpassed what hand drawn animation could deliver. This has happened before: painters used to focus on realism, but once color photography could handle all the realism we would want, good painters switched focus on applying their art in ways a camera could not. Similarly, good hand drawn animation projects would focus on their strengths. My favorite example in this movie were the dramatic changes in tone and style employed during the Almost There and Friends on the Other Side sequences. There are times when hand-drawn animation is the best tool for the storytelling job.

It also helps that beautiful art is backed by fantastic music. Of course, a film set in a fictional historical New Orleans couldn’t go without music, and this film delivered one of the best soundtracks of any film. Animated or otherwise.

This film was lovingly made by people who appreciated the art of hand drawn animation. From the high level executives who approved the project, to the Disney alum directors who returned to tell great stories, to the individual animators drawing the subtle curves found within every frame. The team had high hopes that Princess and the Frog would herald a new age of Disney animation.

Alas, it was not to be. Audiences remembered the lackluster low-budget animation projects that had come before, too much inertia for a single film to overcome. Still others dismissed it as a plot they’ve already seen, missing out on the unique twists offered by this particular version. And worst of all, getting the word out for this film proved to be impossible: promotional efforts were drowned out by advertising for James Cameron’s mega project Avatar, which would open a week later to herald a new age of 3D cinema. (It didn’t do that, either, but that’s a different topic.)

Disney released one more hand drawn animated feature film two years later with Winnie the Pooh. Both of these films were far more successful than Home on the Range that proceeded them, but still farther short of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin who were credited with building the previous peak of Disney animation. With blockbuster success of the computer-animated Frozen, Disney hand-drawn animation retreated from the big screen except for small appearances like “Mini-Maui” in Moana.

But as long as there are bored creative kids and blank corners in paper notebooks, there will be hand drawn animation. And Disney has no monopoly on the art form: smaller projects alive and well, delivered via new channels like YouTube. I’d like to believe hand-drawn animation is only waiting for the right combination of story, artistry, and audience to make its next great return to the big screen.

In the meantime, The Princess and the Frog is available for digital purchase at all the usual outlets (here’s my Amazon affiliate link) and is available for streaming on Disney+.

The Continued Rising Cost Of SF Bay Area May Squeeze Out Maker Faire

The San Francisco Bay Area, home of technology companies galore and the legendary Silicon Valley, was put on the history map from the gold rush. And in a way, the gold rush has never stopped. The concentration of opportunities has continued to draw people there for decades. Growing number of people competing for… well… everything has driven the cost of living ever higher.

When I graduated from college with a computer science degree, most of my classmates went to the Bay Area to build their career. I decided to go to the Seattle area instead, because I felt the Bay Area was too expensive and it was only a matter of time before that bubble collapsed. And while that bubble has deflated a few times, I have been proven wrong time and time again as things kept growing.

Basic economics say when the price exceeds what the market will bear, the market will adjust. While there hasn’t been enough adjustments to offset everything else, I do see things getting priced out of existence.

What’s the latest potential casualty of ever increasing cost of the Bay Area? San Francisco Chronicle published a doom-and-gloom article outlining difficulties faced by the flagship Maker Faire Bay Area. While the maker movement has continued to grow, attendance and sponsorship at this event has not kept pace with growth in cost. The increasing numbers of licensed Maker Faires outside of San Francisco and New York (like the Downtown Los Angeles Mini Maker Faire) is also a dual-edged sword: It spreads the Maker Faire love, but it gives people less reason to spend the money necessary to congregate at the flagship event.

I will be sad if this is the last Maker Faire Bay Area, but if so I’ll try to take some comfort from getting to see it before it goes.

Hello Google AIY Voice Kit

As someone who have played with electronics modules purchased online for a wide variety of projects, I was fascinated by Google’s AIY projects a.k.a do it yourself artificial intelligence line of products. Here in the United States, Google is not doing it alone. The products themselves are not enough if it isn’t in front of people’s faces, so there was also a partnership with the retail giant Target to have these kits on the shelves of Target stores. I didn’t think there is large enough of a market for these products willing to pay the prices it would take to justify a retail presence, but I admire the willingness to put up the money for an experiment to find out.

There were two kits: the AIY Voice kit and the AIY Vision kit. The vision kit costs roughly double that of the voice kit ($90 vs. $50) but it was far more interesting with an onboard Pi camera and a TensorFlow processor designed to accelerate machine vision tasks. When the vision kit became available at my local Target, I immediately purchased one so I could play around with its default demo software. Sadly my TensorFlow knowledge is still too weak for me to make the vision kit do my own bidding.

As for the voice kit, I knew it was also built around a Raspberry Pi Zero with a hardware accessory board, but that board was focused on audio capture and playback not significantly different from a sound card. I was not aware of any audio processing capability on board, so I expected the audio to be recorded and uploaded to Google for processing. This capability was not interesting enough for me to buy one at $50.

It’s been over a year since the retail experiment began, and my local Target has marked the AIY Voice kit for clearance sale at $15 each. (I later found out Micro Center was even more aggressively clearing them out at $5 each.) I guess this means we have an answer to that experiment. I’m a little sad to learn of this, because I would have loved to be proven wrong. If there was indeed a market for a successful product in this area that would have meant more interesting products for me to purchase locally. Alas, it looks like I’ll continue to buy esoteric little electronics gadgets online.

Still, right now I could pick up an AIY Voice kit for $15. The Raspberry Pi Zero at the heart of the device has a retail value of roughly $10 all by itself. Add in the microSD card and we’re pretty close to $15 before considering the rest of the kit. I passed on the AIY Voice kit at $50, but I’m willing to buy them at $15. Worst case scenario, I will have a Raspberry Pi Zero W and matching microSD card.

Here’s what I saw when I opened the box:

Google AIY Voice Kit

There were no surprises. Aside from the expected Raspberry Pi Zero W and microSD card, we have the hardware accessory called a “Voice Bonnet”.

Google AIY Voice Bonnet

The remaining hardware components are a single speaker and a big button (that turned out to have LEDs in it) and they plug into this bonnet.

Let’s see what this kit has to offer.

Samsung Is Getting Into Physical Stores

Wandering around town yesterday, I stumbled across a store under construction with a name that’s familiar to me, but not in association with a physical store: Samsung.

Samsung Store 1600

I’ve noticed Samsung’s retail ambitions growing beyond just another item on a shelf, beyond buying an end-isle display in a store. There is a Samsung mini-stores inside my local Best Buy, staff by people wearing Samsung logo shirts instead of Best Buy logo shirts. I never asked if they were Best Buy employees with a different uniform or Samsung employees, but I don’t suppose that matters. Obviously when I step foot within the Samsung zone I was getting pitched the Samsung life.

But that was only about a hundred square feet, this looks significantly larger and obviously entirely focused on Samsung products. According to Engadget, this is one of three Samsung retail stores opening in conjunction with the “10 years of Galaxy” event where Samsung is expected to introduce the Galaxy S10. One in New York, on in Texas, and this one on the west coast in California.

The location speaks to Samsung’s ambition. Americana at Brand is an upscale shopping center. Featuring brands like Tesla, Diane von Furstenberg, and Sephora. It is across the street from Glendale Galleria, a sizable mall all by itself. Glendale Galleria has retail presence from Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple. (Americana also has an Apple store, only a few hundred feet from Glendale Galleria’s Apple store, for some reason.) Beyond the borders of these two giant malls, the neighborhood also includes other ameneties such as the Alex theater for performing arts, surrounded by restaurants catering to that audience.

In short, this storefront is a major investment by Samsung to stake a claim in prime real estate. I’ll be curious to see what kind of foot traffic I see in the Samsung store on my next visit to Americana.

UltraViolet Shutdown Does Not Inspire Confidence

I consider myself a technology enthusiast, but it’s not a blank check. Reliability and dependability is a big deal, and I view with skepticism technologies which fail on those fronts. This is the reason I have not started talking to Google Assistant on my Android phone – voice recognition is too unreliable. It’s also why I would spent extra money for CAT6 Ethernet in a house – wireless is always less reliable than wired. And finally, it’s why I have a DVD (now Blu-ray) collection, even though almost anything is available online.

To ease skeptics like myself into the digital world, many of my recent movie purchases on physical media also included a code to grant me a digital license of the film. I was willing to participate in this experiment, because if the digital arm folds I still have my physical media. This proved wise when the digital film was provided by a service created by a studio for their own films, as they closed down one by one. I also have digital licenses for movies on platforms like Windows Media, but even though the platform lives the studio-specific license servers have been taken down making my content unplayable.

UltraViolet was an effort to build a more permanent platform, with support of multiple studios for the content and multiple services for playback. Movies Anywhere started as a Disney-only effort (which drew my skepticism) but it has since grew into a multi-studio offering. Playback quality is uneven across various streaming services, but having a centralized license store made it very consumer friendly – I could sample the quality of different feeds and play the best one. I’ve been quite satisfied with recent releases on Vudu and Fandango Now, both of which offer high bandwidth 4K HDR streams with quality high enough I have a hard time distinguishing from Blu-ray media playback on my Roku-equipped TCL television.

I started feeling more comfortable with the idea of making digital-only movie purchases, easing into the digital library concept. Hey, maybe this is going to work after all and my money won’t vaporize overnight.

Then UltraViolet announced they are shutting down.


Just like the little startup services that never matured, Variety reports the studios involved have collectively agreed to call it quits. This shutdown notice seems to imply that my digital licenses will still survive in linked retailers, but then I’m beholden to individual retailers honoring this agreement and also staying in business.

I always knew these licenses are subject to variables outside my control, but I was gradually easing into the idea perhaps those variables aren’t as volatile as they were. This is a reminder otherwise.

Looks like I will continue to buy physical media.

Inventiveness of Drug Smugglers

I started this blog as a way to document my adventures exploring interesting technologies that I couldn’t find the time to do when engrossed in my previous job.  The general idea is that I could establish a track record of tackling technical challenges. Show that I could set a goal, quickly learn what I need to accomplish it, document the process, and move on to the next thing. One way for this journey to come to a satisfactory end would be if it lead to a new career tackling similar challenges to solve problems.

What would that career look like? That is still fuzzy. I am confident there will be a space in this economy for innovation and creative problem solving. Skills that span across intelligent software, electronics hardware, and mechanical fabrication. Los Angeles is home to enough industries, businesses (startups and established alike) that I expect to find something in due course.

One approach is to find people with similar skills and interests and see how they apply them to earn a living. And unfortunately, this is not commonly broadcast. I can understand the need to keep trade secrets and patents, but it is frustrating.

And then there are those who don’t broadcast their work because it is on the wrong side of the law. Drug smugglers employ much the same problem-solving mentality but apply them to the drug grade. I am not interested in joining that workforce, but I still admire what goes into these endeavors (as compiled by Business Insider). It would be better if there were legal and lucrative ways to apply such creativity, but money of the drug trade is a powerful draw. Smuggling is a constant game of cat-and-mouse as old as there’s been profit in moving contraband from seller to buyer, and there’s no reason to believe it will end anytime soon.

Here’s one of the more impressive efforts: a submarine built for drug smuggling that was only caught because of an onboard fire. Given that these aren’t exactly OSHA certified workplaces, it’s sobering to think about sister ships that might have succumbed to an unforgiving ocean.

coast guard narcotics submarine firefighting

Not everything is so sophisticated. Some of the examples are pretty crude, others are ancient. I was especially amused by the catapult (I think it’s actually a trebuchet) used to fling drugs over a wall. It is a solution that dates back to medieval ages as a countermeasure to equally medieval era concept of a border wall.

Onshape is Free For Makers, But They’re Less Eager To Say So Now

onshape_logo_mediumWhen I first discovered Onshape over two years ago, it was a novelty to see a capable CAD system run completely within my web browser. The technologies that made Onshape possible were still evolving at the time: on the client-side, web browsers had immature WebGL implementation that sometimes didn’t work, or worked unacceptably slowly. And on the server side, Onshape is an active participant in evolving AWS to work for them.

Now WebGL is a mature part of every popular web browser, including those at the heart of inexpensive Chromebooks. I’m old enough that the phrase “CAD Workstation” conjured up computer systems that cost as much as a car. With Onshape, a Chromebook can be a CAD workstation! Not a great one to be sure, but more than enough for curious learners to get started. (This page has more details on Onshape performance.)

This is why, when I started Sawppy the Rover, I switched from Fusion 360 to Onshape. Because I wanted Sawppy to be accessible to everyone, not just those who have a computer capable of Fusion 360. And I have continued to do so, not realizing another aspect of Onshape evolution had occurred.

This came up on my radar because of my super simple wire straightener project. I’ve shared simple tools before, but this one caught more attention than most thanks to a referral from Twitter (and another). I was surprised to see feedback in the theme of “I don’t have an Onshape account” and was surprised people felt it was a barrier.

When I first started using Onshape, their sign-on screen would direct people to a page where people could sign up for an account. On this screen, a free plan for makers and hobbyists was prominently displayed.

That has been removed, hence the confusion.

The free plan still exists, but it’s no longer on their “CAD Pricing” table and not mentioned in their “How to Compare Onshape Plans” guide. From the FAQ I inferred that it’s not even possible to sign up for a free plan directly, one would have to start a trial for the Professional plan, decline to pay, and be downgraded to the free plan. (I can’t test this hypothesis myself since I already have an established account on the free plan.)

I personally find this disappointing, but I’m not surprised. Onshape is a business and businesses have to be profitable or they’ll disappear. I’m a little afraid this might mean they’re working to phase out the free plan, but even in that case I hope they offer a subscription tier that’s priced reasonably for hobbyists on tight budgets.

My Volt Was A Good Car, But I Do Not Miss It

This week General Motors put out a press release full of corporate euphemisms that boiled down to this: several car models that aren’t selling well enough are getting axed. The press release was careful not to use the word “layoff” but it’s hard to imagine that workers will continue to be paid if there are no cars to be made. Obviously this got a lot of people upset, especially in light of the 2008 government bailout and more recent corporate big tax breaks. But here I’m going to focus on one specific car: the Chevrolet Volt.

The Volt was still in development when financial markets melted down in 2008. It expressed a potential high-tech future for General Motors. I saw it as one of the most convincing arguments against the “let GM die” school of thought. It was a much more interesting piece of engineering than what was found in a Toyota Prius and a sensible stepping stone on the transition to an electrified future for cars. And putting my money where my mouth was, I signed for a 2012 Chevrolet Volt on a three year lease. I took this picture when I took delivery, a day after Christmas 2011.

Roger Leases 2012 Chevrolet Volt

For three years it served as an efficient commuter vehicle taking me to and from work and everyday errands. The gasoline-fueled electric generator meant I could take it out on a few road trips and not worry about being stranded by lack of charging. 75% of its 30,000 leased miles were powered by electricity, a hearty endorsement of the “Voltec” architecture that maximized advantages of an electric power train using a minimally sized battery pack.

When my lease expired in December 2014, a Volt was at the top of the list if I needed another commuter car. But circumstances never motivated me to get another, and now it is likely I never will.

But I think that’s perfectly OK. Why?

First: the Volt was always designed to be a transition from gasoline to electric propulsion. It more than met its objectives, exceeding my expectation in many ways. But time moves on and that electric future is here. If I were to get a commuter car in the final days of Volt production, it would be evaluated against all-electric vehicles. Including the Chevrolet Bolt, which incorporated many of the lessons GM learned from making the Volt.

Second: the Volt was a sensible efficient commuter vehicle, not one to stir emotion or attachment. It handled far better than any Toyota Prius I’ve rented, but nowhere near the fun of my Mazda RX-8. When I returned the car at the end of my lease, I set down the keys, signed the paperwork, and walked away without looking back.

It was a good car that made sense for its time. It did its job reliably and efficiently, and I couldn’t ask for more from a commute appliance. But its niche is shrinking. So despite how bad the decision might look to history, GM made their business decision to look forward.

Time-of-Use (TOU) Electric Bill: Good Concept, Poor Execution.

Household electric power is a great convenience of modern living and a triumph of engineering. Most people living in first-world countries are so used to having power whenever we want it, we only think about the work behind the scenes when there’s a power failure. Most of the electricity generated is immediately consumed. So when consumption changes throughout the day, generation has to be kept in sync. This balance act is ongoing at all hours of the day, every day, and most of us don’t have to think about it.

One detail of this balancing act is the increasing cost of power as demand rises. Obviously the power company would like to keep their cost as low as possible, so the power plants that are the cheapest to run (base load power stations) run constantly. As demand outstrips the ability of the base load stations, they begin generating power via increasingly more expensive means. These peaking power plants are usually cheaper to build but more expensive to run so they are only used to handle peaks in demand.

Residential electric bills are typically insulated from this change. The standard home electric meters simply record the running tally so the homeowner is billed on the total amount of electricity consumed. With the introduction of more sophisticated meters, it becomes feasible to track energy usage in more detail which makes it possible to bill based on time of use. (TOU)

TOU rates correlate cost of consumption to cost of generation. This gives the consumer a financial incentive to be more energy-efficient. If enough energy usage is shifted around, the consumer can save money. Over a year ago, the local electric utility sent out an invitation to join a TOU pilot study. It would be an interesting experience to see that theory put into practice so the invitation was accepted.

The TOU rates were listed on the bill, where the peak hour rates are indeed appropriately expensive, roughly triple the non-TOU rate. But the off-peak rates were tremendously disappointing: only a 20% discount off the non-TOU rate. A 300% penalty for on-peak vs. 20% discount off-peak means it’ll be difficult to actually save overall money under this plan.

But the study was on and it’s time to put in the best effort. The most significant changes came from running the laundry machines and the dishwasher during off-peak hours as much as possible. On some days this was a severe inconvenience. The effort continued but the consumer was not always happy about it.

At the end of the one-year study, they mailed out a TOU cost summary. They took the year’s electric use and computed it two ways: Once through the TOU pilot study rate, and again on the non-TOU rate.

The reward for ecological awareness? The windfall for severe inconvenience?

SCE TOU Unimpressed

$1.93 over the entire year.

From the perspective of encouraging people to save, this was a complete failure. The utility needs to discount the off-peak rate much more significantly than they did during this study before people would see enough savings to be worth the inconvenience. The kind of time and effort expended during this year was not remotely worth saving $1.93.

Haas Automation is Surprisingly DIY-Friendly.

HaasLogoI hadn’t paid much attention to Haas Automation until recently. When I took my machining classes, there were no Haas machines in the school shop. My awareness of the company did not extend very far beyond the fact a Haas machine is on the cover of my textbook.

That changed recently because Tux-Lab is a fan of Haas Automation. The machine tools (which I aspire to operate) are all Haas machines. I started learning about them and the more I learned, the more I liked what I saw.

First, they are the Home Team. Based in Oxnard, CA, roughly two hours drive away from where I currently live. It is challenging to operate a manufacturing business in the USA, never mind Southern California, and I’m happy to see they’ve found some measure of success in the face of overseas competition.

Second, they have transparent pricing of their equipment listed on a web configuration tool. No “contact your sales representative for a quote” runaround. I’m sure large customers can (and do) negotiate a discount, but at least there’s a price up there on the screen to let people know what they should expect.

The third and most important thing that impressed me: they are friendly to customers who wish to work on their own machines. Sure, they have the standard disclaimer “[work] should be done by authorized trained personnel” but they publish a lot of useful reference information for those who wish to forge ahead anyway. Most other machine tool companies do not publish this information. These non-DIY-friendly companies tell their customers to “contact your authorized service representative.”

And lastly – Haas open their doors to customers (and potential customers) during HaasTec, their own open-house event. See the factory in action, see Haas machines building more Haas machines. That sounds like a Disneyland trip for machining geeks, sign me up!

Motivation to Review My Machining Textbook

Many years ago I developed an interest in machining so I could tackle projects that demand capability beyond pliers and a Dremel tool. I found evening classes offered by Lake Washington Institute of Technology (formerly Lake Washington Technical College). The campus is only a short drive from where I lived at the time. I enrolled in the Machining Technology program on the theory I could learn by attending classes on my way home after work.

In reality I only managed two quarters of classes before my full-time job demands picked up so much I could no longer keep up the night classes. Since I’m unlikely to stock my own home workshop with industrial-level machine tools, I wrote the whole thing off as a self-enrichment learning exercise with no practical application. Or I almost did, because I kept my textbooks on the chance I would need them again.

That was a good thing, because another opportunity has now presented itself. There are a few machine tools at Tux Lab which gives me motivation. If I can get myself up to speed again and prove I’m not likely to break the machines, I might be able to return to those ideas that needed more than a Dremel tool. (And in the years since, I would add “… or a 3D printer.”)

So I dusted off my many-years-old textbook and started reviewing the fundamentals because I believed the fundamentals of machining has not changed. Computer software has evolved tremendously in this time but metal is metal. Still, I was curious about the current status of the book so I looked it up on Amazon.com. My textbook is Machining and CNC Technology (First Edition) by Michael Fitzpatrick (*). As an old textbook, it is going for far less than what I had paid.

According to Amazon, a second edition and third edition has come and gone and we’re now on the fourth edition (*). And because it is the latest and specified by college instructors, the price is over $200. Ouch!

Even in the age of Amazon, the college textbook market is still very distorted.

(*) Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Giggle Fiber: Silly Name, Speedy Service.

Two years ago I said goodbye to AT&T internet (formerly branded U-Verse) because it was slower yet cost more than the faster Charter Spectrum cable internet‘s introductory rate. As a longtime customer of Comcast Xfinity in the Pacific Northwest, I knew the game of calling in every year to renew that “introductory” rate. So after my first year with Charter, I called and got on a different promotional rate that was a little higher but still enough of a discount from the full rate to make me stay.

Since then, Charter has completed its acquisition of Time Warner and stories started surfacing about how they are aggressively raising their average revenue per customer. The prices went up and promotional discounts disappeared. This month I found out for myself. My promotional rate was expiring and the base cost is going up. I called in and talked to the normal customer service representative as well as the customer retention department. I was disappointed that no price discount was available even when I said I wanted to stop service. Well, they are indeed serious, and because I live in an area with some competition, I was not bluffing about leaving. So long, Charter!

Since I’ve been away from AT&T for two years, the fine print implied I should qualify for their introductory rate again. But before I move from one mega-corporation to another, I had another option: Giggle Fiber. The name is silly and it was easy to wonder whether they might be trying to riff off press on Google Fiber.  But as far as I can tell they are a legitimate internet service provider with a small local service area. Unlike most high-speed service providers, they don’t even have their own Wikipedia page. They were only mentioned in passing as an entity that acquired the internet service assets of a different company. Their business model seems to be fairly straightforward: to compete with the big guys, offer more speed for less money.

My home straddles a city line so I’m at the edge of their service area and it took some asking around to determine I was indeed eligible. Most of my research only found fluffy marketing pieces in local newspapers, which made me pause, but eventually I decided to support the small local business. The installation ran into a few issues and took longer than the scheduled time slot, but the installation staff were friendly and courteous and got their infrastructure problems resolved.

At the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie. Giggle Fiber is fast. Now I just have to see if the service is reliable as well.

Giggle Fiber is Live - Edited

Minor Derailment Due To Infrastructure

One of the reasons I put Node.js education on hold and started with Ruby on Rails is because of my existing account at Dreamhost. Their least expensive shared hosting plan does not support Node.js applications. It does support Ruby on Rails, PHP, and a few others, so I started learning about Ruby on Rails instead.

The officially supported version of Ruby (and associated Ruby on Rails) is very old, but their customer support wiki assured me it could be updated via RVM. However, it wasn’t until I paid money and got into the control panel did I learn RVM is not supported on their shared hosting plan.

RVM Requires VPS

At this point I feel like the victim of a bait-and-switch…

So if I want to work with a non-ancient version of Ruby on Rails (and I do) I must upgrade to a different plan. Their dedicated server option is out of the question due to expense, so it’s a choice between their managed Virtual Private Server option or a raw virtual machine via DreamCompute.

In either case, I didn’t need to pause my study of Node.js because it’d work on these more expensive plans. Still, Ruby is a much more pleasant language than JavaScript. And Rails is a much better integrated stack than the free-wheeling Node.js. So it wasn’t all loss.

Before I plunk down more money, though, I think I should look into PHP. It was one of the alternatives to Ruby when I learned NodeJS wasn’t supported on Dreamhost shared hosting. It is the server-side technology available to Dreamhost shared hosting, fully managed and kept up to date. Or at least I think it is! Maybe I’ll learn differently as I get into it… again.

Dreamhost offers a 97-day satisfaction guarantee. I can probably use that to get off of shared hosting and move on to VPS. It’s also a chance find out if their customer service department is any good.

UPDATE 1: Dreamhost allowed me to cancel my hosting plan and refunded my money, zero fuss. Two clicks on the web control panel (plus two more to confirm) and the refund was done. This is pretty fantastic.

UPDATE 2: I found Heroku, a PaaS service that caters to developers working in Rails and other related web technologies. (It started with Ruby on Rails then expanded from there.) For trial and experimentation purposes, there is a free tier of Heroku I can use, and I shall.

Upsetting the NPM apple cart

Decades-old words of wisdom from a computer science pioneer, proven true once again.

A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn’t even know existed can render your own computer unusable.

Leslie Lamport

In a coincidence of perfect timing, my education of NPM yesterday came just in time for me to understand the left-pad incident. The short version is simple enough to understand: unhappy programmer took his ball and went home, causing a lot of other people grief in the process. The bigger picture, though, needed a bit more knowledge to understand.

While going through the NodeSchool.io NPM workshop I had noticed a few things. The workshop used a dummy placeholder registry but there was really no technical or policy reason why every Jane and Jack can’t run the same lesson against the global registry. Up to and including the fact that they can clean up (un-publish) their NPM package when the workshop is over.

I found that fact curious. Such open accessibility felt fragile and I was wondering about the mechanisms to make sure the mechanism is fortified against accidents or abuse. It wouldn’t be something covered in a workshop, so I thought I’d see more details of this protection elsewhere.

Nope, I was wrong.

The left-pad story proved that there wasn’t any mechanism in place at all. A hilariously trivial package was yanked, causing many houses of cards to fall down.

For all the wonders of NPM, there are downsides that had its share of critics. This incident kicked the criticism into high gear. The NPM registry owner received a lot of fire from all sides and have pledged to update their procedure to avoid a repeat in the future. But I’m not sure that’s enough for the famously anti-authoritarian OSS purists. For every “conflict resolution policy” there will be some who see “ruling with an iron fist.”


Unexpected find: ThingLink and its business

A Science News article online experimented with interactivity not possible in their print edition. It was fairly simple at first glance: when a cursor hovers over certain places in the image, additional information pops up. Seen all over the web, like the little pieces of trivia behind bing.com background picture of the day.

What caught my attention is the link in the corner: “Made with ThingLink, Learn More” What I had thought was a simple piece of HTML is actually a business built around the concept.

A brief exploration found that ThingLink hosts the image (and associated server storage and bandwidth) plus the interactive scripting. The package of content is then available to be served alongside content hosted elsewhere, such as WordPress.com. I can embed a ThingLink right here in this post, if I had something interesting to show.

There’s a basic level of the service for free. To make money, they sell higher tiers with features like customization, branding, and analytic information. I’m ignorant on how this information might be valuable, but ThingLink has an idea: they believe the full set of features is worth over $200/month to some people.

So definitely not just a trivial piece of HTML. It is the tip of the iceberg of a corner of web commerce I didn’t even know existed before today.