Want in a sea of plenty

I earn a fairly decent salary. Using the http://globalrichlist.com shows that I am in the top 1% richest people in the world by income.  So things should be okay, right?

Well, no. Each year I struggled to makes ends meet. I budgeted rigidly and allocated all my spending into a number of buckets. I had a spreadsheet with lots of columns and measured my electricity down to the kilowatt. I had multiple bank accounts for different categories and put money into each of them after it arrived in my main account. Yet each year I seemed to be worse off.

Where did all the money go?  I don’t smoke, drink heavily, nor gamble. Reducing subscriptions to only two magazines and a programme of reduction in insurance costs helped a little. Getting rid of fixed telephones and using VOIP through my broadband was great. Curtailing long holidays overseas helped but even without taking any holidays away from home for five years it did not stop the slide. If the motto of thrift is ‘to live below your means’ I obviously wasn’t getting it right.

Until I started using the excellent YNAB program I didn’t know how much I spent on different categories – for example I now know that I spend around £40 per month on electronics. That may sound high but it includes single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi and controllable lighting which reduces my electricity. As this is almost my only hobby except for reading I don’t think it is so bad. But until I recorded everything I spent over a year I had no idea it was so much! What YNAB has done is allow me a way to allocate every penny I earn into a budget category and then record each and every purchase against one of those categories throughout the year. It wasn’t even painful as I used my phone app each time I spend money.

Actually, maybe I am a whole lot better off than a lot of people, and should be thankful for what I do have – my salary is better than the average UK salary of around £25,000 and many other people live in more straitened circumstances. While I do support 4 adults off that income, I also get to spend on some things that bring me pleasure, and enjoy watching three other people live life to the fullness of their ability.


Weather calendar: Pyboard

I found it very easy to get the Pervasive Displays e-ink working with the Pyboard once I discovered Peter Hinch’s github library. This not only made the display access easy but also helped with forming the fonts and digits.


The components I used were:

  • LiPo battery, supplies 3.3V and my one is 850maH.
  • small plastic container
  • battery charger from Adafruit
  • Pyboard
  • RTC battery backup in the form of a CR2032 battery.

I also used another of Peter Hinch’s libraries to determine the ‘drift’ of my Real-Time clock on the board I have, and came out with a calibration of -145. Yours may be different, run the tests!

The code was simplicity as once I had set the RTC using the ‘finger’ method of waiting until the seconds changed on my desktop system and sending the command (this is bound to be perhaps 0.5sec wrong, but who cares?) then the battery backup along with the calibration setting should keep it reasonably accurate.

The problems were a couple: the blue light on the battery charger “was very bright” and kept my son awake at night in his room where we tested this clock, and the battery ran out after just a few days. For those who say ‘get a bigger battery’, I actually don’t care what size as the system I want to build should be able to run on a coin battery if needed – I really don’t want to recharge things constantly nor have a large lead-acid car battery sitting under my display.

Code was simplicity itself with just a few lines:

# MicroPython to display digital clock on Embedded Artists e-ink display
# Using epaper library from Peter Hinch
# (c) Doug Hall 2016

import time

import epaper

import pyb

a = epaper.Display('L', use_flash=True)
t = time.localtime()
rtc = pyb.RTC()

with a.font('/fc/nunito64x68'):
 a.locate(50, 50)
 a.puts('{:d}:{:02d} '.format(t[3], t[4]))


All in all a good first attempt at writing Python, using an embedded system, and getting an e-ink display running. Downsides were the Pyboard battery consumption, the Pervasive Display itself was a little small (and I ‘cooked’ one with wrong voltage!), and the large ribbon cable connections seemed unwieldy.

On to the next attempt…

Weather calendar, part deux!

Whilst some of my systems have worked, some have not. First up, I have no problem in getting a display on the e-ink displays which I have (a Pervasive Displays, Waveshare) using their demo programs and using either a USB connection or an Arduino.


Simplest is the Arduino code and communicating to this via a USB connection, using the Arduino GUI on a Linux machine. This works!


Second easiest is talking to the display directly using a UART connection from a PC, such as the CP2102 chip and driving the display via the USB cable:

  • Using a Python library works well.
  • Using the C code supplied by Waveshare themselves as a library – not tried but I assume it would work like the Python code.

Adafruit Feather Huzzah

  • running MicroPython did not work and gave a memory error
  • running the NodeMCU?

Eventually the memory error helped realised that I may have been approaching it like it was a large system, is there a way I can keep the memory requirements much lower and get the display working? The Huzzah is a good system, although it is a little power-hungry for my liking.


Using a WiPy running MicroPython also did not work. I was a little disappointed with this as I think the system is a good one.


I’ve one of the little Particle.io systems and have played with it, but as the programming was not in Python not taken it further. It could be a possibility but I want to push the MicroPython boards to see if one can handle what I want to accomplish.


I have one of the v1.0 Pyboards from the Kickstarter campaign, and got this working driving the Pervasive Displays display. Mostly because someone else wrote the code and gave a great walkthrough for the wiring and soldering needed.


I’ve ordered a ‘raw’ ESP8266 as one Youtube video shows that working okay as an endpoint, with the Python code running on a backend laptop. I can get one of my small SBCs to do the driving. More on this later…


Logic voltages have changed over the years since the Arduino first came out, and modern chips are largely based around the 3.3V compared with the 5V of the early Arduino systems. Of course this varies and some are 1.8V and so on. I wondered if I were driving the display with the wrong voltage. The Waveshare site claims that the display can handle 3.3-5V okay, although I note that they say you feed it 5V when using their demo program to talk to a PC.

I tried to use a level shifting chip – the TXB0108 – which will either up-shift or down-shift the logic levels on the control lines (and not the voltage! – that I had to realise, so you still must supply 5V somehow). Whilst the results were tantalising, they were inconsistent when only supplying 3.3V to the display as often the updates would not come through and the screen looked ‘broken’.  Feeding 5V worked perfectly. Learning about level-shifting was fun, and may come in handy for later projects, but I’ve assumed that I need a 5v feed to the Waveshare display with 3.3V logic levels on the TX/RX and

Weather calendar

I have been thinking and tinkering around creating a home weather calendar. The background is that we have a variety of hand-held devices such as mobile phones, PCs and tablets as well as a reasonable in-house network, both wired and wireless.  I’ve also a number of local sensors such as weather stations and temperature sensors, and some level of automation with programmable lighting. I’d like to create a weather calendar to display the local weather forecast, plus upcoming calendar entries from our joint shared Google calendars.

Some simple requirements:

  1. High contrast display that can run from battery – LCD or e-ink.
  2. Low-powered system that can run a long time from a battery.
  3. Wifi connected so that I can work on it remotely.
  4. Preferably coded in Python as I am happiest working in that language.
  5. Preferably all local to the display.

To do this I am going to assemble some components:

  • e-ink displays
  • Embedded systems
  • Single-board computers

… of which I have a couple of e-ink displays (Pervasive Displays and Waveshare models), a handful of embedded systems (Pyboard, Photon, Feather Huzzah, WiPy) and any number of SBCs (Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone Black, Odroid, Arduino).

I rejected powering this off a SBC like the Raspberry Pi as the power requirements for those are bad as even the Pi Zero will only run for less than a day with AA batteries! The vast differences between those chips that run a full Linux stack versus the embedded world that have negligible power draw on sleep mode. In addition a lot of those embedded systems are wifi-connected, and wifi itself is power hungry and needs careful sleep modes.