What are you doing during lockdown?

For the last 48 hours I’ve been printing Prusa face visor frames on my three 3D printers. This has been a mixed success, but I am pleased to say that I’ve now a box full that will be sent off with courier DPD this week, to be fitted with clear plastic visor material and used by front-line health care workers!

Sealed frames ready for shipping to the factory

A couple of things are certain: there will be problems with some of the items printed and supplied this way by over 5,000 volunteers around the UK. Secondly, there will be a portion of the press that focus and comment snidely that it was “less than successful”.

Why do we seek to find the worst possible aspect of everything, rather than acknowledging that nothing is perfect and doing our best? I prefer the motto:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Sadly I hear personal stories from friends who have experienced verbal abuse during this time. It seems that everyone interprets rules differently and will gladly express what they think other people should be doing. As an example, the government allows people to travel to work if they cannot work remotely. But others think this is wrong and write up signs to say “stay home, don’t drive”. Another said they had been sworn at in a supermarket when they got too close to someone.

Rather than curse the government, those who need to travel to work, those who are trying their best to help where they can, or rule breakers (and there are always some). Instead we should celebrate those who are doing what they can and seek to help those less able. Get busy with doing good rather than sit in fear and getting angry.

Looking forward …

Just as the speed of the spread of SARS-Cov-2 has surprised the general population, so too the measures introduced to halt its spread seem to have taken governments by surprise. Here in the UK as little as 2 weeks ago my organisation was discussing guidelines as to how we could safely conduct events (hand-washing, sanitiser at door, no handshakes, asking everybody who came in how they felt, …) whereas now we are at the point of shutting doors and turning everyone away.

Just 2 weeks ago there were plans for mass events such as 450 schoolchildren in a combined concert, civic events requiring bands and full day rehearsals. Building works that would take out whole rooms and working parties of 10-15 people hammering and fixing around the building. All that has stopped with a bang. What will happen in the next weeks, months, and year?

How will life look as we emerge from this?

After the SARS and MERS incidents – when I was still travelling extensively – I brought packs of gloves, disposable masks, and anti-viral drugs. These sat in a drawer until recently but when I took them out I saw that they were inadequate! Gloves have to be gauntlet type to the elbow, aprons have to have long sleeves, and masks need to be disposable, filtering, and include full visor. None of these I had thought of and as a result what I have offers little protection. But at least I thought ahead and waited until the panic had died down before ordering them. Will the world react similarly and prepare for the next pandemic, or will we go back to our short-termism and fail to prepare for the next disease?

Futurists have a terrible prediction rate. Forget sci-fi as a means of prediction – most of the ‘inventions’ are either plain wrong or extrapolate current technologies in ways they just won’t work. Take a read of older sci-fi to see just that: canons to the moon, flywheels powering cable cars across cities, flying cars. A good sci-fi book tells you more about the age in which it was written than as a reliable prediction of the future. While others have written more soberly of this, let’s join the game and take a punt where this will lead us. So here are my predictions, I’ll revisit in a year and see how many came true!

  1. Very large increase in the number of people using technology to connect and conduct work.
    • so transport links will experience lower numbers
    • … and decreased road pollution
  2. CO2 will decrease world-wide, as will nitrogen dioxide and other measures of pollution.
    • while not enough to halt or reverse global warming, it will be a short reprieve
    • the rate of adoption of electric cars will increase
  3. Hyper-local delivery.
    • Micro collection services and ‘last mile’ delivery within the hour will mean less need to physically view objects, and smaller quantities will become the norm.
  4. More distance learning.
    • … but frankly not enough. Why have physical schools when most knowledge is online?
    • I suspect this will be dependent on how long the lock-down lasts – over a year and it becomes ingrained habit, finished by September and everything flops back to normal.
  5. Bricks-and-mortar shops will largely disappear.
    • They were decreasing already, this just speeds it up.
  6. Leisure time activity will increase.
    • 4 day weeks, part-time employments, zero-hours contracts, portfolio incomes and so on
    • Some people may never in their lifetime have a classical ‘job’ as we understood it at the close of the twentieth century.
  7. Massive underemployment and new class of non-workers.
    • University trained graduates who avoid company employment.
    • This is harder to predict but I suspect that either a basic income, payment rations, or new classes of social security.
  8. The organisational structure called a ‘company’ will devolve.
    • Work sites such as Fiver, Upwork and other gig platforms will increase.
    • New organisational structures such as Colony will evolve and broaden their appeal.
    • New payment mechanisms or crypto tokens will grow.
    • Piecework and small seller platforms such as Etsy will increasingly become the main remuneration route for some.

If that last point sounds as utopian as the community rules in the movie The Beach then it probably is. But remember that the structure of the world 100 years ago was very different from the structure we have now, and the next 30 years are likely to see massive changes.

Streaming the family

As the restrictions for Covid-19 take hold, one thing that became apparent was the lack of webcams! I didn’t expect that: teachers trying to give homework cause review bombing of smartphone apps, PE lessons from Joe Wicks each morning (my family love it!), reporters giving questions via video links, and even funerals conducted remotely. All of this supposes a reasonably technically literate audience who have something more than a smart phone and can connect it to a streaming platform.

My local computer store has run out of the cheap ones and I’m searching online for more Logitech models. One excellent comparison site I found listed the different models and their capabilities. These are high-end webcams, more suited to live streaming and business conferencing than TikTok videos or two friends chatting.

Video game players have long streamed gameplay, and as most spend a reasonable amount of time in front of their computers they are ahead of the wave with this one. Platforms such as Twitch and Discord have long served the gaming audience and they tend to look in dismay at older social content sharing sites such as Facebook and Instagram. Even the more traditional business conferencing ones such as Webex and Skype gave way to a proliferation of options such as Zoom, Hangouts, and GotoMeeting. It was even suggested that my wife install the teenagers favourite HouseParty to hold a committee meeting! Strange times indeed.

Digital grandparents will struggle somewhat as many grew up when telephones still had party lines (pick up the phone, listen to see if anyone is using it, wait until they’ve stopped and then crank the handle to connect to the operator) Now days most grandparents will have smart phones and perhaps use Facebook – already old! – or something like Whatsapp, or grandchildren with tablets and tech savvy to help them get setup.

One final project here is getting the large screen kitchen TV set up with a webcam and being able to display another so that we can interconnect with our sister-in-law, who is sheltering in place so to avoid catching coronavirus. Having a natural video link with her would be excellent and easy to use. Apps such as Tellybean make it simple but include a camera on a smart phone. I think I’ll go the Raspberry Pi route and run a true USB webcam with output on the HDMI interface.

Replacing Galaxy S6 battery

My daughter’s mobile phone was going flat quickly. On looking through forum postings it seemed a common problem after a few years of use.

On to repair! or so I thought.

Samsung and other manufacturers have made a good job of bricking their phones together with glue. Instead of lots of tiny screws they now use glue strips to hold the components in place – perhaps making manufacture easier, but certainly making repair harder.

There is an excellent guide on how to do the replacement by yourself over on iFixit, as well as a package of the battery and replacement glue strips to reassemble the phone. However, be aware that the whole thing isn’t for the faint of heart!

As a side note, the procedure using the iOpener did not work for me – I had to use a commercial heat gun and really blast the bottom cover to make the glue strip soften. Perhaps a hair dryer could also be used to do this.

The result is a phone that works, a happy daughter, and a proud dad!

Corona-virus and webcams

If there is one thing that the current pandemic of COVID-19 shows us, it is that the world is more connected than we feared.

We think that the modern world is isolated by social networks and technology, but the surprising rapidity of international contagion seems to say just the opposite: that a storm somewhere else in the world can rapidly affect multiple and many countries. It seems that we are still very close to each other.

One strange side-effect has come home to me today. I went searching for webcams for my personal use and potentially to use at work. I work as a building caretaker for a large church with multiple buildings and a 500-seat auditorium. Waypoint Church – check them out, they are awesome! As travel restrictions come into play the core team are thinking of recording videos and sending links via email to church members. I think we should look at doing live streaming and webcasting. However, even Amazon was short of supply on webcams!

As we discuss this it brought into play the digital generations. We commented that some church members don’t have email addresses, some don’t use specific social media platforms, and some don’t even have computers! While most will have mobile phones even this cannot be assumed for the very oldest and vulnerable. Part of the crisis means that schools are looking at using webcams to delivery lessons to their pupils and of course this has created a run on the supply of cheap, sensible webcams such as the Logitech C270 or C920.

While I’m replete with webcams of all types (having used them previously for monitoring 3D printers and the like) the shortage does show the results of unintended consequences. The government announces school closures, and sales of webcams, or cheese, or blankets goes through the roof. Strange times, strange times indeed!

Accessing a Vigor 130 modem

As intimated earlier, my Vigor 130 modem is not accessible as it sits behind a router. The 130’s address range is 192.168.2.1/24, while my LAN sits on a 192.168.1.1/24 range.

Try 1

Although Draytek have an article about using tagged & untagged VLANs to access these modems behind routers, the setup didn’t work for me (I suspect their use of the ‘0’ VLAN tag as shorthand for an untagged VLAN didn’t work for the particular router I have).

Try 2

Instead, I want to set up a route policy and any requests for the address range of the modem should be passed back through the WAN2 interface to be resolved there. At least I think that is how it is done. Using Routing / Load-Balancing Route Policy I setup a policy so that any requests on the 192.168.2.1/24 range go via WAN2, and should go to the modem. However it doesn’t work.

Try 3

I think I have the wrong concept about the route policy and have to instead use a virtual WLAN such as WLAN5? An excellent article explained it better, however it was for another type of modem. Dantheperson’s explanation was that by adding a secondary static route and pointing that at the WAN interface, “Now when your PC routes the request for 192.168.0.1 to the router, the router knows it can access that address via the WAN interface, instead of forwarding it to the default “internet” interface.” This is what I want to do, however I think that the Vigor router uses the permanent virtual circuit (PVC) idea to do the same thing. So my current setup is Route Policy –> virtual WAN5 which sets up a VLAN on the WAN2 interface. It still doesn’t work.

Argggggh!

Strange latency spikes

I’ve purchased a new Vigor 2862Vac to be the main wireless and router at my house. I used to use a Fritz!Box 7390 and loved the ease of use combined with the technical power of the combined modem, router, firewall, VoIP and DECT base station. But things are getting older and with new VDSL/2 capabilities I have swapped from a cable connection to a fibre-to-the-cabinet through another provider, Andrews and Arnold. They are stupendously great, and techies all the way. Don’t expect any hand-holding.

But I’m starting to see some external wierdness after installing this new router. I have enabled ICMP from the WAN (ie. , being able to be pinged from the Internet) as I run an external monitor to test my broadband access from outside the home. This works using a Firebrick device that can sustain many thousands of ping requests per second and attempts to access my public internet address once per minute, then graphs the results.

The graph is showing some strange latency spikes:

Probes from outside

Although I haven’t noticed any particular instances of slowdowns locally, this is a little worrying as my graph was nice and clean before, and those yellow spikes are a little regular to me … in fact, too regular at 30 minute intervals every couple of hours.

So a little digging – I run a Vigor 130 modem on the front-end that does the VDSL dialling and syncing. This is great, as I can then take the signal via Ethernet connection into whatever I like: a switch, my own router, pfSense running on a PC, or a commercial AP/firewall such as the Vigor 2862Vac. What does cause an issue is that the Vigor 130 runs on its own IP address range, and once it passes the connection to the router it is no longer accessible. I need to access it to see if the spikes are coming from it or the router.

VR

I been using my VR (Virtual Reality) setup more. Having brought it several years ago when Bitcoin was at a peak I could cash some in and purchase an expensive item without authorisation from my wife. Having used it with around 30 or so purchased games, and more I’ve come to realise what works best in Virtual Reality.

Toys.

Toys, or more specifically miniature models in a VR environment, work well because they are unreal. In those games you act like a sort of ‘giant’ that manoeuvres an environment to progress the game, perhaps by removing obstacles for your mini protagonist or remotely causing them to battle or manipulate something around them. It gives the experience of a space where your expectations are that you’ve never been there before, so you are not prepared to compare what you are seeing with what you are feeling. Nothing clashes.

Compare that with games that mimic an environment. Having played a fair share of standard PC games ported to the environment there are quite a few that fall flat. Take the space exploration genre, for example – this is replete with with efforts where you physically move through nicely depicted environments and float along by grasping handholds, or using jet packs. While that’s nice, it can be nausea inducing and actually the contrast between your actual body experiencing gravity and the visual simulation of your eyes makes it less than enjoyable. ‘You’ clash with you, as seen through your eyes.

I’ve just prepurchased the game Alyx from Valve to try on my setup when it releases. I did this for a couple of reasons – I like Valve games such as Half Life and enjoy the immersion of it all, and also I am reassembling my VR set up into a better room. Take a look at Skyrim in VR – it is also outstanding! Others that I like that use the idea of ‘toys’ are ones like Moss and A Fisherman’s Tale where the environment is unreal or fantasy. For some reason my immersion is better in those environments than when they try to mimic real life.

Perhaps we should be happy and say VR ≠ real life.

Of sealing wax, and cabbages

I’ve a new phone, and that means a new phone charging stand.

Although the EU standardised on a common external power supply for small electronic consumer devices in 2009, followed by many international and national standards bodies, my new phone uses the USB-C plug. This isn’t a problem as I use a USB charger that has five slots from which I can run either micro-USB or USB-C cables, depending on the need.

What is far more interesting is the charging stand.

For every new phone that I purchased either for work or leisure, I had to replace the charging cable and get a new one for my work backpack, buy a new phone cover, get a new desk charging stand plus a new car holder while driving. This added considerably to the cost of a new unit but was often overlooked. Since retirement I’ve done away with a lot of these distractions and instead:

  1. Use a universal car holder without active power. The reason I can do this is that new phones:
    • hold their charges for much longer, up to 3-5 days for some Huawei phones, and
    • I don’t drive as much, and journeys are shorter.
  2. I still get a new, custom fit phone cover.
  3. Buy a generic desk stand which I adapt using Sugru. These stands are much cheaper than the branded ones and with some plastic magic easily adaptable to the shape of the new phone.

This is how it is done.

First you need the phone to be in its cover, as the dimensions will fit exactly to the outside of the holder. Place the Sugru into appropriate areas of the holder – for me it was the rear kickstand which supports the phone at a correct angle to engage with the USB connector, and the bed of the USB connector. Depending on what generic stand you get this may be different.

Using cling flim, Saran wrap or whatever it is called in your country then cover the back of the phone and press it into the bed of the stand, engaging the USB connector and allowing it to rest gently on the back of the stand. I then leave them for a short time, perhaps several minutes, and gently remove the phone and cover allowing the cling film to stay for some while longer.

Once the Sugru has gone ‘green’ (easily able to be cut but not so hard that it is difficult to work with) then I trim off unneeded parts and neaten. The photos show a couple of examples of a micro-USB and USB-C stand for specific phones. The overall fit is tailored and exact which reduces the strain on the power connector and prolongs the life of the phone.

Egg robot Number 1

The first egg robot was hatched when Bruce Shapiro in 1990 dreamed up the Eggbot™. Bruce published it as an open-source design for both software and hardware however the name is trademarked. While it is available for purchase as a whole machine, I wanted to see if I could 3D print one myself since the initial cost was large.

I found another design by Probot that seemed to do a reasonable job, and although many of the other ones such as the SphereBot are larger this one seemed to produce reasonable quality and I had most of the parts:

  • 308zz bearings
  • 3D printer to print parts
  • Arduino
  • silicon egg cups moulds
  • stepper motors
  • stepper motor controllers

… and that was about it. Most of those I had, the rest I could order easily (for example, I had Nema-17 steppers and this only required 28byj-48 ones, either 5V or 12V). So, in a fit of decision I launched into building it and surprised myself with how quickly it came together.

The base and cover are easy to print with the sides of the cover bending into a living hinge. The ends are bolted shut and there is a sliding swing arm and end stanchion. The living hinge is an interesting design choice which leads me to believe that the designers were very familiar with 3D printing as it avoids overhangs in the upright sections of the print. It does make a very neat and attractive package when finished.

The challenge comes because of the interaction between different things which were not designed together: hardware and software. The original hardware has an actual PCB created to control the movement, whereas the design I am using replaces that with an Arduino running software called EggDuino. That software has to emulated the responses and obey the commands expected from the original PCB so that it can print things. All this is controlled by an extension to the open-source software called InkScape that sends commands to the egg-robot! Lots of moving parts in this design and 3 different things created by different people does give lots of room for error. So the process goes like this:

Inkscape → Eggbot extension → Arduino running EggDuino → egg

The ‘tail stock’ – if this were a lathe – is based on a printed part with a 308zz bearing inside. The 308zz are a very common type of bearing, sometimes called ‘skateboard bearings’ as they are ubiquitously used for skateboard wheels.

Once completed the whole machine is connected to a computer by USB cord and you use Inkscape to create and print the eggs.