Fanboy

A badly behaving Apple Macintosh Performa 5200, owned between 1995 and about 2000, was the main reason why I never became a fanboy of Apple. I feel more comfortable with computers made by Asus, with Linux operating systems. Photo: Beavis.

A fanboy is a boy or man who is an extreme or overt enthusiast of someone or something. It very specifically excludes half of the population. Yes, those people who frequently become mothers, and who excel at multi-tasking. If there are complaints about the sexist nature of the title, I will graciously allow fanperson, or even fanchild, to be used. However, I wonder if there is a good reason why this description applies to one gender, and not the other?

Some definitions of fanboy use ardently devoted, or even obsessed. While some restrict this obsession to a more general “single hobby or interest”, another specifies categories and includes comic books, science fiction, video games, music or electronic devices and mentions Apple and the iPhone specifically.

While the number of fanboy sites checked is limited, none of them mentioned vehicles either generally (cars, locomotives and other forms of railcar, aircraft, vessels), or road machines more specifically in the form of motorcycles, muscle cars or sports cars. Here, I admit an unnatural attraction to panel vans and multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs), most specifically, the Citroën Berlingo more than any other vehicle, although if Citroën doesn’t soon produce an EV version with a ca. 300 km range, it may be dumped for another E-MPV: a Renault Kangoo or even a Kia Soul.

In terms of clothing, there were a number of products that I purchased because of their fit. These included McGregor Weekend socks and Ecco shoes, especially. Unfortunately, once McGregor started acquiring socks from China, they just didn’t last, so I stopped buying them. Instead, I have relied on Trish to make most of my socks. She also produces all of my shirts and pajamas. Ecco started using narrower lasts, which meant that their shoes no longer fit. Fortunately, my daughter, Shelagh, introduced me to Allbirds, which have now become my preferred shoe brand.

Owning a large number of products produced by the same manufacturer does not make one a fanboy. Take Jula’s Meek range of battery tools. While I own a large number of them, it is primarily because the tools are good enough, and they have battery compatibility. Similarly, the Scheppach woodworking power tools I have were purchased because of their low cost. Some are being replaced with Bosch (and other brand-name) equivalents. I want tools that do the job. I am a hobbyist, not a woodworking professional.

Where I am a fanboy relates to computing equipment, hardware more than software. Yet, because of my education, software is important. In terms of programming languages, I describe myself as a member of the Algol tribe, with Simula the closest to my heart. Unfortunately, it has been 35 years since I last programmed in it. One of the most important clans of the Algol tribe is Pascal. Outside of this tribe there is Smalltalk, which is appreciated more for its origins at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) than its utility. I am also attracted to Forth, Lua, Node-Red, Processing and Prolog, each for specific purposes. Yet, in the real world, if I have to program, I stick to C and C++. More modern languages, such as Python, arrived too late for me to work in, although it is a language I have played with, and recommend younger people to learn.

When it comes to desktop/ laptop operating systems, I will probably stick to Linux Mint with a Cinnamon desktop. This is not because I have mastered it. Rather, it allows me to muddle though. Other operating systems such as LibreELEC, FreeBSD, Robot operating system (ROS) and FreeRTOS = free real-time operating system, will be used to meet specific needs. Yet, I have an emotional attachment to another Linux distribution, Mandrake, the first Linux distribution I used, or at least its descendent, Mageia. The first family computer we owned was an Amiga, with Amiga OS still finding a place in my heart.

Most of the software listed above, is either unavailable (Simula, being the best example) or freely available without cost (most other products). Thus, if there is a specific need, most of the above operating systems can be put on a memory stick, and be running on a computer within a few minutes. Then I can spend an hour or two indulging my (software) desires.

This is not the case with hardware. Most of the time, real money has to be spent buying gear. I have already wasted sufficient money buying computer components that break down far too early. Thus, the primary reason for being a fanboy is to secure reliable products.

In alphabetical order, some products are:.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD): microprocessors, currently Ryzen models

Asus: computers, motherboards

Canon: printers

Logitech: keyboards, mice, headphones

Noctua: fans, cooling systems

Raspberry Pi: single board computers, and peripheral interfaces (HATS)

Wacom: graphic tablets

Some products have almost attained fanboy status. One is Native Instruments for its musical/ sound equipment. A change in status is dependent on support for Linux operating systems, something currently lacking. Similarly, I am awaiting for RISC V reduced instruction set computers (RISC) to arrive at some point in the near future. Hopefully, this open-source microprocessor system will improve security, reliability and durability.

There are a number of products that at one time had fanboy status, but lost it. Western Digital is the best example. Before, almost all hard disk drives (HDD) in use here were made by the company. Now, Toshiba is the most popular brand, although I did purchase a Samsung solid-state drive (SSD) for my latest system. I also buy a number of Kingston products, in the form of memory sticks.

The opposite of a fanboy is a h8er, an adversary of particular products. While others may be h8ers out of prejudice, the term here is restricted to unreliable products. Printers often fall into this category with those provided by HP and Epson particularly notable.

The one other manufacturer that should be commented upon is Apple. Their Macintosh Performa series was a disaster, but countless times they make decisions that negatively impact users. This may be fine for the class of user that can upgrade regularly without thinking of the cost, but Apple products are not for people in the lower echelons of society. I have previously commented on my experiences with Apple products.

Final comment: Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, in a YouTube video, on her Transport Evolved channel, 2020-11-25 at 20:32, used the term fangirl to describe what she wasn’t. This is the first time, I have been exposed to a gendered variant of the term. Admittedly, I lead a sheltered life.

The Charm of Workstations

A Red Pitaya STEMlab attaches to a computer to provide electronic engineers/ technicians/ hobbyists with multiple tools. Compared to separate tools, it is a cost effective approach.

A workstation is a computer that acts as an attachment site for a wide range of tools (software as well as hardware), that a particular operator uses on a regular basis. In this weblog post, the history of computing will be examined, with an emphasis on its gradual expansion into new areas, as new capabilities emerged. This expansion results in the evolution of computers into workstations.

Military purposes came first. Colossus, designed and built starting 1943-02, was delivered to Bletchley Park, 1944[-01-18, and was operational by 1944-02-05. It was the world’s first electronic digital programmable computer It used 1 500 vacuum tubes, had paper-tape input and was capable of being configured to perform a variety of boolean logical operations on data, typically breaking code encrypted by German Enigma machines.

After the second world war, electronic data processing (EDP) became the new buzzword (or more correctly phrase or abbreviation, respectively) between about 1950 and 1970 that referred to automated methods to process data, most often business related. A data processing system consists of four components: hardware, software, procedures and personnel.

Data was prepared by keypunch operators who created punch cards, typically in the IBM card format, introduced in 1928, with rectangular holes, 80 columns, and 12 rows. The card size was ​7 38 by ​3 14 inches (187.325 mm × 82.55 mm). There were about 143 cards to the inch, or 56/ cm. A box provided 2000 cards. These cards were fed into a card reader, that was attached to a mainframe computer. Typical for the era was the IBM System/360 family of computer systems were delivered between 1965 and 1978. The model 195 was the most powerful, and cost between US$ 7 – 12 million.

Mini was another buzzword of the 1960s. It could refer to skirts (and dresses), cars and – for the discussion here – a class of computers, the minimachine. These had their own operating systems and software architectures that distinguished them from mainframes. Minis were designed for control, instrumentation, human interaction, and communication switching as distinct from calculation and record keeping. They also had a two decade long lifetime from 1965 to 1985, although there were almost 100 companies formed, my personal experience was with Digital Equipment Machines VAX-780s, and later with Norsk Data Nord 500 machines.

Workstations were small scientific computers designed to be used interactively by a single person. Perhaps the first workstation was the IBM 1620, launched in 1960. More began to emerge as minimachines became more popular and increasingly available. Most workstations of this early period were minimachines, repurposed for a single user.

With the emergence of microprocessors (in the mid 1970s), and personal computers (in the early 1980s), a more modern version of the workstation began to take shape.

A 3M workstation was an ideal for many computer professionals in the early 1980s. While it was a word play on the 3M = Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing company, it also referred to at least a megabyte of memory, a megapixel display and a million instructions per second (MIPS) processing power. It could be upgraded to a 4M machine if it cost less than a megapenny = US$10 000.

The closest most people could come to a workstation in the mid 1980s, was a Commodore Amiga 2000. It was a bargain machine at less than NOK 20 000. It had a MB of memory, but otherwise failed to meet the 3M criteria. It was more powerful but less expensive than an Apple Macintosh, that had come onto the market in 1984. It was also fitted with two 3.5″ floppy drives, five Zorro II expansion slots, two 16-bit and two 8-bit ISA slots, a CPU upgrade slot, a video slot and a battery-backed real-time clock. It came with an IBM PC Compatible bridgeboard with its own 5.25″ floppy disk drive, which allowed it to run MS-DOS, and compatible programs.

AmigaOS was a single-user operating system. Its firmware was referred to as Kickstart. There was a multitasking kernel, called Exec. Like most modern computers – but unlike many of its contemporaries – this was pre-emptive, allowing interupts to disrupt processing flows. It also provided: a disk operating system, AmigaDOS, a comand-line interface (CLI), AmigaShell; a windowing application program interface (API), Intuition; and a desktop file manager, Workbench.

Starting with AmigaOS 3.1, Workbench referred to what is now called a Desktop. Directories were referred to and depicted as drawers, executable files were tools, data files were projects and GUI widgets were gadgets.

Unfortunately, while there was software for 3D design, it did not extend far enough for that needed for industrial strength computer aided design (CAD) and other engineering tasks. Thus, the machine in some respects failed to live up to its workstation expectations. The Amiga came with a two-button mouse, unlike the Macintosh that had only a single button.

When the Amiga arrived, many people expected it to last into “the next century” by regularly upgrading hardware as well as software. Unfortunately, by the early 1990s, it was out of date, and the promised hardware never arrived.

Today, the computing power of any of the above machines is exceeded by an inexpensive (US$ 5), single board computer, such as a Raspberry Pi Zero W. Even the smallest computer today is a powerful processing machine, compared to those of the past. For example, the slightly more powerful Raspberry Pi 4, can provide 8 GB = 8 000 MB of RAM, and can support two 4k (3840 x 2160 pixels) screens = 16.58 Mpixels, and operate at 8 176 (Dhrystone MIPS).

In terms of operating systems, most versions of Linux are able to match (or exceed) anything and everything offered by an Amiga, or any other operating system from that period. For readers preferring to live in the past, a PiMIGA 1.3 clones the AmigaOS so that works on a Raspberry Pi 4, while AROS (originally Amiga Research Operating System (1995), now AROS Research Operating System) runs on x86 (conventional PC) architectures.

Bill, at the Dronebot Workshop, defines a computer as: “Not a tablet. Not a phone. Not a Chromebook.” This is a good starting point for a definition of a workstation, but in addition there have to be some positive attributes. It is some sort of a container filled with a microprocessor and various forms of memory, it is typically equipped with or attached to input devices, usually a keyboard and mouse, and output devices, such as a display. Other devices may also be plugged into the machine, as required.

Hobby Electronics: An Example

With a massive amount of computing power available in a box 100 x 100 x 50 mm (4″ x 4″ x 2″), there is a decreasing need for electronic hobbyists to buy dedicated hardware. An AMD Ryzen 5/ Intel i5 computer, 16 GB RAM, a 500 GB SSD attached to a Red Pitaya STEMlab = Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics laboratory kit, an open-source hardware project intended to be alternative for many expensive laboratory measurement and control instruments. It can act as oscilloscope, signal generator, spectrum analyzer, Bode analyzer, logic analyzer, LCR meter (a type of electronic test equipment used to measure the inductance (L), capacitance (C) and resistance (R) of electronic components) and a vector network analyzer, used to test component and system specifications, to verify designs and to ensure these components and systems work properly together.

Additional software such as KiCad, a computer aided design (CAD) program for electronic design, Thonny, an integrated development environment (IDE) for Python, as well as editors, file management and communication tools, including office tools, transform the computer from something that is nice to have, to an indispensable tool, a workstation.

Many of the tools mentioned above, could be purchased as separate/ independent tools. However, the total cost would be many times the price, as the tools contain multiple iterations of the same component. One other advantage is that this configuration takes up far less desk and shelf space than the seven (or more) tools it replaces.

Computing: A Summary

The world headquarters of Multicom, in Åmli, in southern Norway. In addition to providing me with about half of my computing equipment, it also provides employment to about 40 local residents. Photo: Multicom.

This series about computing has consisted of 24 parts, published through much of 2020. Its goal was to help people make appropriate choices as they struggle through the maze of computer component/ device/ system acquisition opportunities.

It is my intention in 2021 and beyond to update the posts that constitute this series, at approximately annual intervals, somewhat close to their original date of publication. At the bottom of each updated post, there will be a statement providing a version history, and a summary of content changes. Subscribers will not be notified about these changes.

One person, who I know reasonably well, has never used a computer, and never made the transition to a smartphone, but relies on a clamshell mobile phone, anno 2020. This has serious consequences. For example, it means that common banking services are unavailable, medical appointments have to be made using a living intermediary, and there are no opportunities to buy anything online. One is dependent on a printed newspaper and television/ radio broadcasts for information. Unfortunately, there is very little people can do to help this person enter the digital age.

Today’s weblog post is personal. It looks at the wants, needs and thought processes of a single person. It attempts to show what this person takes into consideration before making an acquisition. Writing this series was an opportunity for me to learn how to make smarter choices when it came to purchasing equipment! It is written through the prism of an older person.

Budgeting: Simple

The world is unfair. In this context it has to do with disposable income and apportioning some of that to buy computing infrastructure related services (web, broadband and cell-phone subscriptions) and products (cell-phones, computers, printers, servers, memory sticks, etc.). Some people can afford a lot, while others will have to consider the relative merits of every proposed expenditure.

At the end of 2020, every adult (and almost every child) needs a smartphone. In Norway these cost between NOK 2 000 and 10 000. They need to be replaced about every three years, although some replace them twice as often. We kept our first smartphones for almost five years. Thus, this expenditure can vary from about NOK 500 a year, to over NOK 5 000. To put it another way, frugality can provide considerable cost savings.

Apart from broadband connections and cell-phone subscriptions, almost all other computer expenditures are voluntary. The most impoverished with a need for a computer should consider buying a five year old laptop, with a price of NOK 1 000, and keep it for another five years. In addition, they may need to install and use an operating system suitable for older equipment, which in most cases means Linux. This machine needs to be augmented with at least one (preferably two) external hard-drives, for backup. Here, I would not compromise, but purchase new equipment. Two of these could cost as little as NOK 1 300, and last five years. Currently, our new external drives are Toshiba Canvio Advance units. Basic level units are cheaper, and have almost the same functionality, except for hardware encryption.

With a minimal solution, there is no need for a printer, or other peripherals. As one ages, there may be increased need for ergonomic peripheral equipment. These will also have to be considered in terms of a budget. Even here, there is a possibility to buy used equipment, and to keep it/ them for many years.

There are people in Norway who have sub-minimal solutions. They have no broadband, and rely on prepaid cards, instead of cell-phone subscriptions. They may only own a clam-shell dumb-phone and nothing more. It is also one reason why I have a low threshold to give away equipment, especially to people who are unemployable or underemployed, or live on minimal disability or old–age pensions.

Budgeting: Complex

Sometimes, it is useful to have a budget that can take the form of an equation. It looks scientific, though it isn’t. However, it might still express a relationship between budget items. I discovered that the following fits gudenuf for the past four years: z = a (x + 1), where z = total budget, a = annual web, internet and telephone subscription costs, and x = the number of people in the household.

At Cliff Cottage broadband costs NOK 619 per month, while our telephone subscriptions cost NOK 118 per month each. The web-related subscriptions cost NOK 1 436 per year. Subscriptions amount to NOK 11 700 per year, in total.

If this budget for subscriptions seems excessive, we have the cheapest broadband rate (50 Mbps) available locally, and the cheapest cell-phone subscriptions (with 5 GB of data) that are available in Norway. Others may have 500 Mbps of broadband, with multiple television channels, and pay almost NOK 1 300 per month. Some pay NOK 1 700 for twice as many channels and 1 000 Mbps = 1 Gbps broadband. Cell phone subscriptions vary up to about NOK 450 for unlimited voice and up to 100 GB of data per month. This would give a monthly cost of NOK 2 600, or NOK 31 200 a year, over twice of what we are paying now.

In this household, x = 2, that is, there are 2 people. Z = the total budget, which amounts to NOK 35 100 per year. Apart from the subscription payments, the other NOK 23 400 goes to pay for computer infrastructure, such as a NAS server components, Ethernet cabling, printers or a house cinema components, not to mention paper and ink/ toner. Then there are personal devices for each resident. Personal devices may consist of laptop/ desktop machines, hand-held devices such as smartphones and tablets, as well as memory sticks, solid-state drives, etc.

The great advantage of having a budget, is that it forces one to think through expenditures and their economic implications. It also shows important people in the household that one actually has a plan, and that plan is being followed. The great disadvantage, is that costs don’t always follow a linear curve.

Replacements

At some point smartphones will have to be replaced. My 3.5mm headphone/ microphone jack has been damaged. I have found a temporary fix, but it will not last forever. So, the frequency of this type of purchase may increase. In addition, I am considering buying a Fairphone 3+, which is almost twice as expensive as my current phone, at about NOK 6 000. This is not a final decision. Fairphones may be easy to repair, but they also seem to need more repairs than many other phones.

Laptops are increasing in price. What used to cost NOK 6 000 in 2016 costs NOK 10 000 in 2020. The most popular laptop in Norway is currently a MacBook Air with an M1 processor, which costs almost NOK 13 000. The most popular non-Apple PC is a Huawei MateBook that costs NOK 20 000. The most popular Asus computer, a Zenbook, costs NOK 23 000. Gaming laptops can cost in excess of NOK 40 000. At some point a five year old Asus Zenbook laptop will have to be replaced. A suitable replacement will cost somewhere between NOK 10 – 12 000.

In the coming year, 2021, I know already that I will have an approximately NOK 4 500 expenditure for the network attached storage (NAS) server, in the form of two Toshiba N300 8 TB drives. This is because the NAS is already 73% full, with its current 4 x 8 TB drives. This figure should never exceed 80%, so something will have to be done. Producing less data, does not seem to be an option. Fortunately, the NAS holds up to 12 drives, so that only half of the drive bays will be occupied with this upgrade. Two additional external 4 TB drives will also be purchased, at a cost of about NOK 2 500. Thus, I expect to spend at least NOK 7 000 on backup, each and every year forward. Once all of the 12 drives on the NAS are filled, the oldest ones will have been in place for 6 years, and probably need replacing. The same is also true of the external drives, that are being stored outside of Cliff Cottage.

Taking these purchases into consideration, an equation that has been useful for several years, may prove to be inadequate in the future.

Operating Systems: An Aside

Computer operating systems are all the same, yet each one is different. A consensus emerges among developers, so that systems start resembling one another. At the same time, developers want to assert their independence.

Since 2016, I have used Linux Mint as my primary operating system (OS), with a Cinnamon desktop environment. This is probably about as close as one can get to an updated version of the Microsoft Windows XP OS. XP was released in 2001, with an end of support life that ended between 2009 and 2019. XP received acclaim for its performance, stability, user interface, hardware support and multimedia capabilities.

At Cliff Cottage, we have used many other OSes. Our first home computer used Amiga OS. Then we had machines with Windows, Macintosh, Linux and even Chrome OS. The other resident at Cliff Cottage used Windows, until 2020-08, when she went over to Linux Mint. She claims that the transition did not involve any significant trauma.

While Linux Mint will probably continue to be the main OS at Cliff Cottage, each machine also allows other OSes to be installed, for experimental or other purposes. This includes Windows 10, if it is needed. Thus, Mageia 8, when it is launched, will be installed on a machine for sentimental reasons.

We have used smartphones since 2011, with iOS as well as Android on them. While I have talked, and written about a de-googlized Android OS from the e foundation, I realize that this will have to await the next purchase of a handheld device.

If I could encourage one change, it is for current Windows 10 users, who are unhappy with their OS, to try a user friendly version of Linux to see if they feel more comfortable with it. One such OS is the latest version of Linux Mint with the Cinnamon desktop. This can be done by making a live version, which means copying a bootable version of it onto a USB flash drive/ memory stick/ thumb drive. By booting up from this drive, Linux will be available. Those who, after this trial, feel uncomfortable using Linux do not have to do anything, except to avoid booting up from the USB drive again. Those that find they prefer Linux can, at some point, install it on their machine, either alone or as part of a dual-boot system with their original OS. The memory stick can then be used to boot Linux on other computers. Linux is particularly well suited for older hardware.

Buying computer equipment

The acquisition of computer equipment faces three major challenges. First, equipment (hardware as well as software) is continuously evolving. Yet, while computing power has increased significantly over the past years, changes are more evolutionary than before. Today, there is a greater emphasis on power per watt, than on raw processing power. This applies to personal machines, as well as servers. While hand-held devices (smartphones and tablets) have become more dominant, there is still a need for personal computers – laptops as well as desktop machines. Servers may be hidden in a cloud, or in an attic/ basement/ closet, but they too are performing more work.

Keyboards and mice are the most important input devices, as they have been since 1984. The screen is the most important output device. It has become thinner, with improved resolution. Broadband, and other forms of communication, increasingly allow large quantities of data to move throughout cyberspace.

Second, people continuously age. This may be seem as something positive in a fifteen year old looking forward to being twenty. It may even be regarded as inevitable by a seventy-five year old contemplating eighty.

Younger people should receive a critical education that allows them to appreciate the value technology brings, but to be wary of its detrimental aspects. Technology is not benign. Gaming is a particularly difficult challenge, because many youth become addicted to it. Thus, it may be necessary to restrict computer access to ensure that people get enough sleep, perhaps by disconnecting WiFi and/ or wired internet access, say from 22:00 or 23:00 to 06:00 or 07:00, respectively.

Older youth could be encouraged to use computers productively for the benefit of themselves and their family. On 2020-11-02, the Raspberry Pi Foundation launched the Raspberry Pi 400 Personal Computer kit, the purchase of such of system at £/ €/ $ 100, and the matching of it to an existing display, would provide an ideal development machine for a young person. Many home automation tasks could be implemented by people in this category.

For those approaching midlife, there is a continual need to adapt, and to learn new technological skills. Society should be concerned when thirty/ forty/ fifty/ sixty-five year olds give up on acquiring/ developing new computing skills, while the world/ computer hardware/ computer software moves onwards. It is important to keep abreast of rising trends, but not to be a slave to them. One particularly damaging trend is for employers to make sideways investments in software. The expectation is that these new programs will add capabilities. However, they often end up doing the same thing, just in a slightly different way, that requires old skills to be relearned. This can be very discouraging.

Adaptability also applies to older people, but in a slightly different way. They have to think about impairments (current and potential). They also have to think long term! They may want to keep equipment longer than younger people, who are more adept at handling change. Older people may prefer to make an evolutionary transition to something a little different, rather than a radical change to something totally new.

Third, prices change erratically, so that what seems inaccessible one day, becomes affordable the next – and vice versa. Price is one of the major determinants of what people buy. This topic will be amplified later in this post, with specific examples.

Eratic pricing

Almost every computer equipment purchaser wants to be portrayed as astute. Everywhere, there are hypothetical bargains that save money! The truth of the matter is that many purchasers are undisciplined, and exceed their budgets. This writer is no exception. At the beginning of 2020 the equipment budget for the reserve/ lab/ electronics/ podcasting computer system was NOK 10 000: computer = 4 000, screen = 2 000, other peripherals = 3 000, miscellaneous = 1 000. In contrast, a RPi 400 would have cost about NOK 1 000, and used an existing screen. However, it would not have been able to use many of the ergonomic peripherals, envisioned.

Yet, a budget challenge arose almost immediately after the pandemic struck. The Benq monitor I had contemplated, an upgraded variant of the model used at the workshop in Straumen, had increased in price from a little over NOK 2 000 to almost NOK 3 000, call it a 40% increase in less than a year. It was time to look for something different. This turned out to be an AOC office display with more than adequate specifications. The AOC display started the year off at NOK 3 000 then gradually increased in price to NOK 3 500. Yet, overnight, it was suddenly NOK 1 200 cheaper, and I purchased it for NOK 2 300, NOK 600 less than the Benq with inferior specifications.

Substitutes are not always available. I had always planned to buy a Logitech MX Vertical mouse, and Logitech ERGO K860 keyboard to experience their ergonomic characteristics. At NOK 1050 and NOK 1200, respectively, neither was cheap. Another peripheral on my purchase list was a headset. Many sites with reviews about headsets for the hearing impaired had suggested assorted version of Audio Technica products, commonly the ATH-M50X at NOK 1 100. However, these are headphones for listening, without a microphone for talking. These could be connected with an Audio Technica ATR3350iS omnidirectional condenser lavalier microphone, that comes with an adapter, allowing it to be used with handheld devices. These cost almost NOK 550, for a total price of almost NOK 1 650. Thus, I started to investigate office and gaming headsets. The Logitech G433 and the Logitech G Pro X also seemed too expensive, at NOK 1 250 and NOK 1 350 respectively. I decided that I could stretch myself to buy a Logitech G Pro at NOK 1 000, as a compromise. However, on the day I decided to buy one, the price of the G Pro X at NOK 900, was lower than either the G Pro or G433. It was purchased.

With the Norwegian Krone (NOK) crashing due to the pandemic, the budget couldn’t hold. The Asus PN50 barebone cost just NOK 4 300, but needed a hard drive (Samsung EVO 970 Plus M.2 500 GB = NOK 1 200) and RAM (G Skill Ripjaws4 16 GB = NOK 800). This puts the price at NOK 6 400, which is more than 50% over budget. Yet, it was purchased because it seemed inexpensive, relative to performance. A month after the purchase, the PN50̈́’s barebone price has increased to NOK 5 900. However, the Samsung SSD is now only NOK 1 000, while the G Skill RAM is the same price, NOK 800, for a total of NOK 7 700, over 90% above the initial budget. Given these prices, a less powerful machine would have been chosen.

Todays prices: The Logitech MX Vertical is NOK 850, the ERGO K860 is NOK 1 370, and the G Pro X headset is NOK 1 300. The ACO screen has also wavered in price. Soon after my purchase it increased to about NOK 3 200, then it fell once again to NOK 2 400.

The used Asus A-i-O Pro 500 from 2015, cost NOK 2 500 plus NOK 150 delivery charges. The new price for a similar machine, but with a more modern and capable processor, is over NOK 10 000.

Local Sources

In general, I try to buy products made and/ or sold by local companies. There are different rings of local. It can mean Inderøy – our municipality, Innherred – our region, Trøndelag – our county, Norway – our country, Norden – Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland officially (and Estonia, for me personally); or Europe – our continent, Beyond this, much of the computer equipment purchased is made by Taiwanese or South-Korean companies. These would be bought from local stores, if they bothered to stock them (which they don’t) which means an increased reliance on online suppliers. The two preferred ones are located in small villages: Multicom, located in Åmli (population 1 836), in the extreme south of Norway, and the municipality’s second largest company; Proshop, actually a Danish company, but located in Bø i Telemark (population 6 101) located about 122 km/ 2 hours drive north-east of Åmli.

The used machines that have been purchased have mainly been sourced locally. That is, in close proximity to where a family member lives, which for the past few years has also included Bergen.

Hobby Budgets

For the past 70+ years, I have tried to perfect an incredulous look. When my name, computers and budget are mashed together in a sentence, this is my cue to display this look. Unfortunately, the person I most often try to impress with it, has become totally unfazed by it.

The term hobby refers to a sluice-gate that allows unknown quantities of cash, and other forms of money, to escape a household. In return, assorted pieces of equipment, usually termed junk by non-believers, miraculously appear.

To see an example of how hobbies can get out-of-hand, one is encouraged to watch one or more episodes of Rust Valley Restorers, on Netflix. Mike Hall, at Tappen, British Columbia, near Shuswap Lake, has 400+ rusting vehicles awaiting restoration.

At some point it is necessary to separate what is part of a household infrastructure, from hobby activity. Superficially, items may look very much the same, and there could be a tendency to disguise a hobby purchase as an infrastructure purchase. People are advised to avoid this and other forms of self-deception.

Thus, some computer related purchases are now being budgeted not under the computing infrastructure budget, but as in the hobby electronics category.

Needs/ Wants

Because I have the opportunity to do so, I prioritize the purchase of computer equipment beyond minimal household needs. While these could be considered (and budgeted) as part of the computing infrastructure, a more honest appropriation is to consider them as hobby electronics expenditures.

There were four areas that I wanted to improve, in 2020.

  • A reserve machine (in case of a breakdown)
  • A dedicated electronics hobby machine
  • An audio/ video editor
  • A soft-synth (computer based synthesizer)

Not all of these were to be used immediately for these purposes, and not all of them required a dedicated machine.

Reserve machine

Normally, a retired computer acts as a reserve, if something should go wrong with an active computer. Towards the end of 2019, the only potential reserve machine had been given away. Thus, throughout most of 2020, I contemplated the purchase of a reserve system, one that could be used by anyone living at or visiting Cliff Cottage.

One thought was to buy a used Asus Zenbook UX305C, identical to one in active use at Cliff Cottage. However, these machines date from 2016, so they are approaching five years old.

If one had waited until after its launch, a RPi 400 (previously mentioned above) would have made an ideal reserve machine. Admittedly, an inferior system to the reserve system that was finally purchased. It also requires a slightly different mind-set to use, since not all programs in daily use (such as Mozilla Firefox) are easily available on the RPi.

Eerie

Happenstance dictated that Eerie, a computer purchased in September/ October, is completely different from the one envisioned earlier in the year. The basic machine is a barebone computer. Wikipedia defines barebone as, “a partially assembled platform or an unassembled kit of computer parts allowing more customization and lower costs than a retail computer system.” It is not an ASRock Beebox (used at the Techno Workshop in Straumen) with an Intel processor, or a Gigabyte Brix with a AMD Richland processor, but an Asus PN50 with a Ryzen 7. The reasons are simple. First, as I approached the age of 72, I decided that I did not want to learn the quirks of a Beebox or a Brix. It is hard enough keeping up with those in the Asus family. Second, the machine has a powerful processor. This makes it useful and durable. Third, the machine is fanless. This makes it silent, useful when recording audio. Fourth, the machine was relatively cheap.

In 2020-09, some of the equipment was ordered, and turned into a functioning system by mid 2020-10. Eerie is not just a reserve machine, it is also being used as a lab Guinea pig, and for podcast recording and editing. In the future, it will also be programmed as a soft-synth. Currently, it is being used to test out ergonomic hardware and software. The name Eerie comes from the Children’s science fiction series in 19 episodes shown in 1992-3.

Eureka

On 2020-12-07, I purchased a used Asus All-in-One Pro computer. It is a computer inside a screen. This will make a better reserve machine than Eerie. It will be used as a tool for practical electronic hobby activities. One specific need is to construct room controllers. These will probably involve Raspberry Pi units, Power over Ethernet, sensors and touch screens.

Eureka is named after the family science fiction series in 77 episodes shown between 2006 and 2012, made in Burnaby, Chilliwack and Ladysmith, British Columbia.

In the future, a control unit for a CNC milling machine in the workshop will be needed. My last day as a construction worker is scheduled for Monday, 2023-10-30. Even though there is still considerable time before a milling machine controller is needed, it is useful to evaluate the Asus All-in-One unit in this role.

YouTube

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a YouTube video can be worth a hundred pictures. The main problem is that some people produce excessively long videos. Fifteen minutes is about all I can take, unless the producer is extremely pedagogical. Here are the top channels that I watch regularly:

In addition to these, younger people may find these of interest:

Final words

Know the characteristics of the equipment you want and – perhaps more importantly – your reasons for wanting it. Then determine an acceptable price you are willing to pay. That way, if a bargain appears at a price below the target price, you can purchase it without hesitation. Regardless of whether the initial price seems high or low, it is the lifespan of the product that is important. An inexpensive device that lasts less than a year, can be a much worse investment than buying something twice as expensive that lasts four years or more.

Nightscout

The Nightscout logo and motto/ hashtag.

Today’s weblog post focuses on Nightscout, a social movement for Type 1 diabetics, and their parents, that enables them to access and work with continuous glucose monitor (CGM) data and open-source tools, so they are better able to manage their condition. They describe themselves as CGM in the Clouds,

In healthy people the pancreas regulates blood sugar. It works continuously without intervention. Diabetics have to take control, and inject insulin using syringes, although in recent years it has become more common to use an insulin pump connected to the body and providing an even base dose. It is difficult for people to adjust insulin levels which have to continuously monitored and adjusted for the rest of the patient’s life.

There are three main types of diabetes mellitus (DM): 1) Type 1 results from the pancreas’s failure to produce enough insulin due to a loss of beta cells; 2) Type 2 begins with insulin resistance, a condition in which cells fail to respond to insulin properly, but may result in a lack of insulin, as the disease progresses; 3) Gestational diabetes occurs when pregnant women, without a previous history of diabetes, develop high blood sugar levels.

According to the IDF Diabetes Atlas, 9th edition, an estimated 463 million people had DM worldwide (8.8% of the adult population), in 2019, with type 2 making up about 90% of the cases.

Legacy medical equipment companies, much like legacy automotive companies, perpetuate their market share by making it intolerably expensive for new companies to become established. In the automotive world, this is in part because of the extreme cost of setting up manufacturing facilities. With medical equipment, it is the cost of gaining approval in assorted jurisdictions. In the USA, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the sale of medical device products. Manufacturers (or their sales agents) must present evidence that the device is reasonably safe and effective for a particular use.

The high cost of market participation, means that legacy manufacturers can avoid/ discourage innovation, which helps improve profit margins, but denies patients access to improved technology. This is what nerds, patients and relatives have now managed to solve with Nightscout, for diabetics. It is a do-it-yourself DM tech community. It first developed data-sharing tools. More recently, an open-source closed loop artificial pancreas system has been developed.

Wikipedia says that Nightscout began in 2013-02 , when the parents of a 4-year-old boy newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes began using a CGM system. When the child was at school there was way to access this data in real time. The boy’s father, John Costik, a software engineer, developed software to access and transfer CGM data to cloud computing infrastructure. Lane Desborough and Ross Naylor added a blood glucose chart display. A community of developers emerged to make the software generally accessible. Because this software amounted to an unlicensed medical device, it was not released immediately as open source code to address legal concerns. After this was done, the combined code was released in 2014 as the Nightscout Project.

In another part of cyberspace, Loop started off as an Apple-only framework and algorithm that runs on an iPhone, worked with older Medtronic insulin pumps and requires a small box, the RileyLink, to communicate between the pump and smartphone. It was created in large part by Pete Schwamb. An unknown number of people use this technology.

OpenAPS

The Open Artificial Pancreas System project (OpenAPS) is an open and transparent effort to make safe and effective basic artificial pancreas system technology widely available. It began in 2013, when Dana M. Lewis and Scott Leibrand became aware of the software created by John Costik. The OpenAPS software can run on a single-board computer, such as a Raspberry Pi.

Lewis, who has a DM Type 1 condition, was dissatisfied with her commercial device, because its hypoglycemic status alarm was too quiet to wake her. To address this, Lewis and Leibrand extended the CGM-in-the-cloud software to create a custom high volume alarm. They then used the same CGM-in-the-cloud software to create Do-It-Yourself Pancreas System (DIYPS) software, which provided a decision assist system for insulin delivery. This become a closed loop system using open-source decoding-carelink software created by Ben West to communicate with Medtronic insulin pumps, enabling data retrieval and issuance of insulin-dosing commands to pumps that support it. With this update, the DIYPS system became OpenAPS.

Its stated aim of OpenAPS is “to more quickly improve and save as many lives as possible and reduce the burden of Type 1 diabetes.” Their website states that “community efforts will be open source and free for use for other people, open source projects, researchers, and non-profits to use, and available on an open and non-discriminatory basis for all commercial manufacturers to use in proprietary products if desired.”

OpenAPS differs from other APS currently in clinical trials in two significant ways: 1, it is designed to use existing approved medical devices, commodity hardware, and open source software, and 2. it is designed primarily for safety, understandability, and interoperability with existing treatment approaches and existing devices. Those concerned about safety issues are encouraged to read this statement of principles.

An aside: In researching this post, one article in particular highlighted the need for professionalism in the production of code. In this case, the anonymous coder was unable to understand contextual issues. Obviously, many of the projects mentioned here have been professionally run. However, it is very common to encounter code written by amateurs, that is unsuitable for real-world use. The advantage of using people with a medical condition is that they have internalized much of the contextual information needed to produce appropriate code, even if they are amateurs.

Closed loop artificial pancreas systems integrate a glucose monitor with an insulin pump, using connecting controller software (such as assorted varieties of Loop). The system’s purpose is to keep blood glucose levels within a specified desired range for as long as possible. This can reduce damage to kidneys, retinas and nerves.

Since Nightscout is Do-It-Yourself (DIY), the onus is on the user to provide and deploy any and all resources needed, such as the MongoDB database, a web host and other software. This can result in many barriers, that prevent potential users from enjoying Nightscout’s benefits.

Recently, on 2020-11-20, Medical Data Systems LLC met with and formally petitioned the FDA for clearance of the service product “T1Pal.com.” T1Pal.com is a hosted Nightscout platform that runs copies of the latest Nightscout software on its servers for the benefit of individual subscribers.T1Pal is a hosted Nightscout platform running the latest version of Nightscout on its servers. It provides subscribers with Nightscout as a Service. This means that Medical Data Systems LLC takes responsibility for maintaining and updating the site. T1Pal was designed by Ben West, a member of the original CGM in the Cloud team and lead core developer for the Nightscout Project. A subscription costs US$ 12/ month and upwards, depending on the services provided.

Tidepool

Originally, this post had intended to focus on Tidepool, a Palo Alto, California based nonprofit company founded by Howard Look in 2013. The company works with medical equipment manufacturers, such as Dexcom and Medtronic, to create interoperable automated insulin pump systems, communicating with iPhone and Android apps.

Tidepool wanted to build a database where people with insulin-dependent diabetes could store and analyse data about their condition. Its iOS and Android apps and web system, allow users to add and view CGM related data to gain better insights into their condition. This data can be shared with health personell.

As stated in the previous weblog post on telemedicine, some equipment and software providers assume they own patient data. These companies have very disturbing privacy policies. Tidepool encouraged equipment manufacturers to develop systems that would work with Tidepool software. They elminated some of the friction, by setting up a (not-for-profit) foundation to administrate collected data.

Tidepool Loop will be its next big step, What I have been unable to discover is wny users would prefer yet another open-source closed loop artificial pancrease system, where the openAPS already seems to feature one, not to mention the RileyLook.

Developing open-source software can be messy. Sometimes, work is duplicated, and at other times, nobody is doing the work at all. The people who have a vested interest in mitigating a health condition, or in the case of Type 1 diabetes, their parents, will develop breakthrough improvements that manufacturers seldom prioritize. Software is cheap to produce, especially if development time is freely given. My expectation is that additional improvements in hardware will also come in the future, as open-hardware, as increasing numbers of people invest in CNC hardware, that can build precise equipment inexpensively.

Some sources:

Off topic: Wyze Watch

This blogger has pre-ordered two Wyze smart watches using a facilitator in the United States, for delivery in 2020-03. This pre-order opportunity is restricted to addresses in USA, and is ending a week after the planned publication of this weblog post, on 2020-12-22. The unit price is about US$ 20, excluding taxes, shipping, non-black watch strap and who knows what else. These two watches will be used initially for experimental purposes.

The Mother of All Demos

The Mother of All Mice. Wooden and with two wheels, first demonstrated publicly 1968-12-08. Image: SRI International.

Fifty-three years ago today, 1968-12-09, is one of several dates that can be regarded as the start of the personal computer age, when a computer demonstration, A research center for augmenting human intellect, retrospectively called The Mother of All Demos, was presented by Douglas Engelbart (1925 – 2013) in the Civic Auditorium, San Francisco. The technical aspects of the presentation were managed by Bill English (1928 – 2020). About one thousand computer professionals attended the event there.

The demo featured a computer system called NLS, oN-Line System. The 90-minute presentation essentially demonstrated almost all the fundamental elements of modern personal computing: collaborative real-time editing, command input, dynamic file linking, graphics, hypertext, a mouse, navigation, revision control, video conferencing, windows and word processing – all in a single system.

The San Francisco terminal was linked to an Eidophor large-format video projection system loaned by the NASA Ames Research Center, so attendees could watch what was happening on the NLS on a 6.7 metres high screen. The terminal was also connected to an SDS 940 computer (designed specifically for time-sharing among multiple users) located at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) headquarters, 48 km away in Menlo Park using a pair of 1 200 baud-modems. There, a second (but smaller) group of attendees could experience the demo as it was live-streamed.

Engelbart was best known for founding the field of human – computer interaction. He also made notes describing a computer mouse. These were made into a functioning prototype by Bill English in 1963. Thus, both of these two people can be said to have jointly invented the computer mouse.

The demonstration was highly influential, most especially the development of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) that flourished in the 1970s.

The original demo is available as a video on YouTube. Note: Modern viewers may be disappointed by its low fidelity. New Atlas has an article that provides additional insights, and photographs.

Dexterity/ Mobility impairment

This weblog post is targeted at older (60+) readers. It examines motor issues, with a focus on dexterity, which Merriam-Webster defines as “skill and ease in using the hands”; and mobility, defined as “ability or capacity to move”. As usual, computers are central to the story presented here.

The two computers, an Asus PN50 (back left) and an Asus VC65 (from 2017, back right) are attached to an Aten Petite CS692 KVM, (from 2013) with dongles for both the Logitech ERGO K860 keyboard and the Logitech MX Vertical mouse. Also attached is a Logitech G Pro X headset. On the left is an unattached AOC Q27P2Q display. The Samsung Syncmaster S27B350 (from 2012) is attached directly to the KVM, and indirectly to the two computers. A button behind the keyboard on its right, is used to transition between the two systems. Equipment without a date indicates an acquisition date in 2020.

Ergonomic Input Devices

Many older people have issues with their hands, making it difficult for them to type or use a mouse. An ergonomic keyboard and mouse may improve the situation. For example, this blogger uses a Logitech MX Vertical mouse and a Logitech ERGO K860 keyboard because of their ergonomic characteristics.

Since ergonomic equipment is expensive, it is appropriate for assorted machines to use the same peripherals. A keyboard-video-mouse (KVM) switch, an Aten Petite CS692 from 2013, reduces desk clutter by allowing two computers to share peripheral equipment: keyboard, display, mouse and headset (or even separate earphones and microphone). Depressing a selector button switches between computers.

Since this particular KVM has resolution issues with a new display, a new KVM is being considered. Instead of cabling directly to the machine, This new system will use Internet Protocol (IP) to connect with machines located anywhere in the world.

Using conventional keyboards with hand-held devices is impractical. Instead, one may use a Bluetooth keyboard. This blogger used a Logitech K380 Bluetooth keyboard for many years, and has found it to be very comfortable and convenient. However, this keyboard lacks a slot to hold handheld devices, which distinguishes it from a Logitech K480 keyboard that does have this capability. Both keyboards allow easy interaction with up to three different devices. It is shown in the photo below.

The Logitech K480 keyboard has a slot to place a hand-held device, such as a smartphone or tablet. The keyboard communicates with the device using Bluetooth. The yellow dial on the upper left allows users to choose between three devices. It can also be used with desktop/ laptop computers, that support Bluetooth. Photo: Logitech

To draw in a program such as Krita, Inkscape or even GIMP, I use a Wacom One (CTF-430) tablet with a stylus. It is a very simple tool, that some claim is available only in Europe and now discontinued. However, it can be still found new in many online stores. It automatically becomes operative whenever the tablet is plugged into a computer running Linux Mint.

Mobility Impairment

Many people have serious mobility issues. The University of Washington operates DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) which is technology and solution oriented. Their video, describes how mobility issues can by addressed by computers, and assistive technology. Most of the people are young. It lasts about 13 minutes.

Some out-takes from the video:

  • Solutions for the mobility impaired are most often unique.
  • It is the user who has to decide if the technology is working or if there is something better.
  • Pay attention to the individual and what (s)he needs, through observation in the operational environment, as well as through consultation.
  • A computer can’t be used if it can’t be accessed, this involves physical access to a building, through it, and at a workstation.
  • Flexibility is needed in terms of keyboards trays, computer screens, desk height
  • Alternatives are built into operating systems, using accessibility control panels. For example, people using a mouth stick or a single finger to type with, would be unable to press two keys simultaneously, unless these were provided for in accessibility options.
  • Auto-correct, can simplify data input. tandard keyboards should be considered
  • Keyguards have holes for each key, and prevents people from typing an unintended key, if their movements are uncontrolled.
  • Mini-keyboards can be useful for people who have a limited range of (hand) motion. There are also one-handed keyboards for both left and right hands, for people with only one hand. There are also keyboards with extra large keys.
  • Virtual keyboards that appear on a computer screen can be activated with a mouse, trackball or alternate pointing system. Some may include alternative layouts, and word-prediction systems.
  • Some input devices are foot activated, others are head controlled with air pressure activated buttons. There are switches that can be activated by different parts of the body. These can involve scanning and/or morse code. Sip and puff switches can be used with morse-code. There are also switches activated by blinking.
  • Speech recognition is another option that allows users to bypass keyboards, but requires a good voice along with breath stamina.
  • Reading systems can translate written text into synthetic speech.

An indulgence

Sometimes humour is the best way to deal with an issue. Two of the people I interact with most, my wife and my son, have a good geographical sense. They seem to know where they are, and can invariably identify the cardinal compass directions. I presume they are truthing when they say this, but I have no real way of knowing, since I have a very limited sense of geographical position. In general, I have to take with me either another person, or a hand-held device with a GPS mapping system, when out in strange places, so that I can return to my point of origin.

In the distant past, in some dis-remembered source, I read that people with a good sense of geography are much more subject to motion sickness than those without it. It is definitely the case, with the three of us. I have never suffered from any form of motion sickness, unlike the other two.

I would not be human if I didn’t try to explain away my inabilities. Fortunately, one is at hand. The streets of New Westminster, where I grew up, run from the south-east to the north-west; avenues from the north-east to the south-west. Yet, they are referred to as running south to north, and east to west, respectively. Unfortunately for my ego, this geographical anomaly has no impact on my geographical inabilities. I would have had similar challenges if I had grown up in Vancouver, where – in most of the residential areas – avenues run east to west.

Thus, I am very thankful that modern hand-held devices, with build-in GPS-receivers, can tell me precisely where I am. In keeping with my open-source policy, I use Open Street Map, more than Google Maps, though both are installed and in use on assorted devices.

Sensory Impairment

This weblog post looks at impairments related to the senses, hearing and seeing, in particular. It is targeted at older (60+) readers. Younger people are more adaptive when it comes to using technology to reduce the consequences of their impairments. They quickly master technological innovations. Many will receive systematic, professional follow-up and assistance throughout their lives. Those with serious hearing impairments learn sign language and to lip-read. Those with serious visual impairments, especially the blind, learn Braille, and attend special classes. Both groups will have professional help to choose technology that will make their impairments less debilitating. Such is not always the case with people who develop impairments later in life.

Technological overload is a very real problem for older people, even those living without an obvious impairment. There may be several different ways in which such a situation can be improved using technology, but older people with an impairment frequently lack the (cognitive) ability and/ or will to use them all. There are too many choices. The key, then, is to select the one or two different technologies that will maximize their return on time invested.

Web accessibility is increasingly important. It involves making the use of the internet, and the World Wide Web in particular, easier. The World Wide Web’s (w3.org) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides not only resources but also web content accessibility guidelines and checklists. Here are links to some of the resources. The resources section is a good place to start. This can be followed up by consulting these resources: Strategies, standards, resources to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities; Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0; Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 quick reference.

Sight

One major aid to sight impairment, is the use of eyeglasses. These are typically made to correct the specific imperfections of each user’s eyeballs. Glasses are made specifically for screen usage. This blogger used such a pair for several years. They do ease eye strain and the unnatural head contortions that result from using progressive lenses. Currently, the use of a large (27″) screen, appropriately positioned, is now allowing this blogger to avoid having to wear glasses at all.

As an aside, people wanting to make their own eyeglasses, from scratch, may want to consult this YouTube video. Those preferring to make just the frames would benefit more from this YouTube video. Otherwise, this topic will not be developed further, except to say that the French-Italian vertically integrated EssilorLuxottica Group, has been allowed to develop a near-monopoly when it comes to eye-care products.

Background lighting is another important consideration, when using a computer. General information about lighting has been presented in another weblog post written in 2018. Similarly, some of the factors that should be taken into consideration, regarding displays/ monitors/ screens/ televisions has been discussed more recently in yet another weblog post in this series, Media Player.

In terms of computers and hand-held devices, all (?) operating systems provide assistive features. For visual impairments these include switches to allow high contrast backgrounds, large text, and a screen reader. Usually, there are individual controls that allow each of these to be tweaked.

Many older users are unaware that their computers are equipped with a mechanism that will read screen content, and even allow voice commands . In Windows the reader is called Narrator, while the voice commands are part of Speach Recognition, which can be set up to use a microphone for system input.

Apple has an even more sophisticated product, VoiceOver, that is more than a screen reader. It is used on both MacOS and iOS products. It also provide status information (such as battery level) as well as information related to a specific app being used. Voice Control (and not Siri) is Apple’s equivalent program for voice control.

On Android systems the screen reader is an open-source app called TalkBack. However, it also appears under other names, including: Screen Reader, Voice Assistant, SoundBack and KickBack. Voice Access is the Android app for controlling a device with spoken commands.

Speakup is a screen reader for Linux. It allows users to interact with applications and the OS with audible feedback from the console using a speech synthesizer and to navigate around the screen. As usual for Linux, there are multiple programs for speach control. Those interested in this topic are directed to this introductory Wikipedia article.

There be other reasons than vision impairment, including dyslexia, that may require a person to use speech synthesis for text-to-speech (TTS) purposes. For example, an e-book/ e-mail/ web-page can be read to a person doing a menial task (or anything else that provides a cognitive surplus) on a handheld-device (hopefully in a pocket). It is left as an exercise for interested readers to find a suitable app for their purposes and equipment. This wikipedia article, may provide some hints.

Hearing

For those people who have a hearing impairment that does not require the use of a hearing aid, or choose not to use one, one way to improve hearing is to use over the ear headphones. Recently, this blogger acquired a Logitech G Pro X headset. It comes with several cables and adaptors that allow it to be used with hand-held devices, such as a smartphone, as well as laptop/ desktop devices with assorted characteristics.

One of the first challenges is to keep and maintain order. This means that the headset as well as the cables and adaptors have to have specific locations where they are stored when not in use.

The relevance of the remainder of this webblog post assumes that the hearing impaired person is equipped with a hearing aid, and that it improves their ability to hear in real-life, physical situations such as conversations involving one to a few other people, or other situations such as a store checkout where there can be background noise.

A hearing aid is equipped with a microphone, an amplifier that increases the sound pressure, and a speaker. When the hearing aid is initially set up, or adjusted, the various frequency areas receive differing degrees of amplification.

In addition, many hearing aids contain a telecoil (t-coil) To use an induction hearing loop or the t-coil function on smart phones, a t-coil must be present and activated on the hearing aid.

A t-coil, is a small copper coil in a hearing aid that acts as a wireless antenna that links to a sound system or PA system, delivering customized sound to the hearing aid wearer. It is an option on most hearing aids and is generally in all cochlear implant processors.

Originally used to hear better on the telephone, the t-coil is necessary to hear within a loop system. Just increasing the volume on a hearing aid or cochlear implant doesn’t necessarily improve the clarity. That is the “wow” factor of a t-coil in a hearing loop system. The clarity and understanding is unequaled when listening in a loop.

With a t-coil installed in the hearing aid, the user simply pushes the button or switch for the “T” setting – no additional headsets or receivers are necessary to hear clearly in the induction loop or on the telephone.

The loop system consists of a microphone to pick up the sound (e.g. spoken words) and an amplifier which processes the signal, which is then sent to a loop cable. A loop cable is a fixed wire that is placed around the perimeter of a specific area. This area can be quite large, e.g. a theatre or a church, or quite small, a person’s living room for example or even down to a chair. A loop can even be fitted around the person’s own head (neck loop). The wire then sends the signal directly to the hearing aids of those who are in the room when their hearing aids are set in T-mode.

The telecoil in a hearing aid (also called t-switch or t-coil) is a tiny coil of wire around a core that will induce an electric current in the coil when it is in the presence of an activated loop system. Normally, a hearing aid picks up sound with a microphone and then amplifies the sound. With a telecoil, the hearing aid “hears” the magnetic signal from the loop system and then amplifies that signal.

Other Embedded Systems

Josef Průša is appreciated for his open-source fused deposition 3D printers, He is shown here at the Prusa Research 3D printfarm, in Prague, Czech Republic. Being open-source means that the designs are available for anyone to use or modify. A 3D printer is a typical example of an embedded system, a product with a microprocessor inside. Photo Josef Průša.

In this weblog post, the focus is on you – as a user and maker of products containing microprocessors and software programs, and ensuring that these products meet your specific needs. While people may not currently have all of the skills they need to make what they want, skills can be learned.

Throughout my teaching career, I have had the fortune to meet many disillusioned pupils, both at a conventional secondary school, as well as in a Norwegian prison. While I find these pupils challenging, they have most often not failed themselves, as they have been failed by an educational system that is determined to compartmentalize/ standardize learning experiences, and create cookie cutter automatons out of living and feeling human beings. Thus, I delighted in taking on their specific circumstances to ensure that they could create for themselves something meaningful out of the limited educational opportunity I could provide them.

In particular, I remember two young women who were totally bored with the academic program imposed on them. They just wanted to get through it, so they could take higher education, become nurses and productive members of society. Instead, they were having to spend hours a week studying Norwegian literature, and other equally boring subjects. They decided to enroll in my technology class.

Since they both worked (part-time) at the municipal nursing home, they were well aware of the needs of live-in patients as well as out-patients. In the end they designed a prototype of an automated pill dispenser, for out-patients living at home. This prototype used an Arduino microcontroller. It is my belief that this experience allowed them to preserve their sanity, that had been seriously challenged by, for them, irrelevant writers of a long past, and forgotten age.

One of the most important elements in a technology workshop is the role of design. The essence of design is to specify how something is to be made, even if one cannot make anything oneself,

Suggestion: Spend today, or even longer, thinking of what you need, that is not being provided, or – if it is – has so many defects, that an improved version would suit you better. When you are ready, tomorrow or next year or ???,

STOP the Press! A pandemic has struck, and much of the content written for this post has become irrelevant!

Pre-pandemic considerations

The focus was to be on you using community based, technological workshops. These have many names, including hacker/ maker spaces. The one I know best is the Teknoverksted ved Spiren, the Technology workshop at Spiren = the Sprout.

They may be located inside a school or library. Alternatively, they may a separate entity, that is publicly or privately funded/ operated. Regardless, they provide facilities for learning and making, that use anything from no tech through old tech to high tech tools. These spaces are typically open to youth and adults. In alphabetical order, equipment may include 3D printers, CNC machines, laser cutters, knitting needles, scissors, sewing machines, soldering irons, table saws and welders.

They provide. a collaborative working environment. People spend their time learning and making. Hopefully, they then go on, teaching and helping others to make. Thus, over time, the skill base of the workshop improves, people with experience make more sophisticated products, when these are appropriate.

One of the first of these workshops was Fab Lab started by Neil Gershenfeld at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is a small-scale workshop offering digital fabrication, or “a technical prototyping platform for innovation and invention, providing stimulus for local entrepreneurship.  It is also a platform for learning and innovation: a place to play, to create, to learn, to mentor, to invent.”One major problem with the Fab Lab concept, is the extensive and costly list of equipment these labs are expected to provide.

Pandemic considerations

During the pandemic, one main concern is mental health. Some people need more help than others to survive through it. Take the weaker sex, men, as an example. Compared with women, men live shorter lives, have worse health, suffer 70% of injuries, commit 75% of suicides, access health services less and delay seeking health services more, spend less time with doctors, focus on physical problems, avoid discussing mental and emotional problems and …. The Men’s Shed movement as a mechanism for resolving some of these issues has been discussed in a previous weblog post.

Single people are especially exposed. It may be hard keeping one’s sanity living with someone, but it is more difficult when one lives alone, and every effort is being made to eliminate social contacts at work and play. Zoom meetings are not a suitable replacement.

During the pandemic, there are also large groups of people who are suffering more than others because of poverty.

Teaching technical skills works best in small groups, ideally individually. Even if workshops are shut down, small groups can meet. The size of the group can vary from two to, say, five. Outdoor, socially distanced events should be possible, augmented with individual on-line meetings. Those who have the technical skills for making embedded systems, are encouraged to seek out those who are most impacted by the pandemic, and help them learn new skills, or provide them with relevant embedded products.

As noted below, the upcoming post, Tidepool (2020-12-15) is devoted to automated insulin dosing, much of it involving embedded systems designed and made by amateurs.

Post-pandemic considerations

As this is written (2020-11-10) an 90% effective C-19 vaccine has been announced by Pfizer. Its main disadvantage is that it has to be stored at extremely cold temperatures. Then (2020-11-16) Moderna announced a 95% effective C-19 vaccine, with significantly reduced storage requirements. This post will be updated with further information when it is , regarding a post-pandemic world.

Upcoming changes:

Originally, the schedule of weblog posts in this series was: 8. Visual impairment (2020-11-24); 9. Hearing impairment (2020-12-01); 10. Dexterity impairment (2020-12-08); 11. Mobility impairment (2020-12-15), and 12. Computing: A Summary (2020-12-22). This has been changed to the following: Sensory impairing 2020-11-24) – which combines hearing and visual impairment; Dexterity/ Mobility impairment (2020-12-01); Telemedicine (2020-12-08) – which looks at telemedicine generally; Tidepool (2020-12-15) – which examines automated insulin dosing.

Update: On 2020-12-13 at 12:30, Tidepool (2020-12-15) has been changed to Nightscout. It still examines automated insulin dosing.

Smart Home Devices

This charming resident of Cliff Cottage, Hardy, could be taking on new responsibilities as a voice activated room controller. In this role, s/he would need to be fitted with a Raspberry Pi microcontroller, a Power-over-Ethernet circuit, microphone, speaker and other hardware,

Note: The content provided here is an updated, abridged and modified version of a weblog post titled, , that dealt mainly with the use of room controllers.

My preferred term for this subject area is not smart home, but domotics. Yet, not everyone appreciates Latin terms, when perfectly good Anglo-Saxon ones exist.

Part of the reason for my dislike of the term, smart home is the ascription of smart to basic electronic devices that are dependent on sensors and logical circuits, to actuate motors, lights and heaters. Another part of the reason is the use of home. For many people, this is an emotionally loaded term for a residence. I suspect some public relations/ advertising agency imagined that substituting home for residence, house or building would result in increased profits. Admittedly, there are other, more obnoxious phrases than smart home, such as the internet of things, a phrase I increasingly avoid.

Various dictionaries show the noun domus refers to house, home, family, household (with dependents), school (of philosophy). The adjective, domestic, is in common use in a variety of contexts. As a noun, it can refer to a hired household servant. Hopefully, in the future it will refer to a robot offering similar services, although dombot could emerge. If it does, expect puns contrasting dombot with dumbot.

MQTT Broker and clients

At the heart of any domotic device is communication. Andy Stanford-Clark and Arlon Nipper authored the first version of the Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) protocol in 1999. The name is a misnomer, as there are no queues with MQTT. Typically, there are numerous clients, and at least one (and potentially more) message brokers. A broker receives all messages published by clients and then routes these messages to subscriber clients. In a household, a client is usually a micro controller, perhaps a Raspberry Pi, while the broker is typically software located on a Network Attached Storage (NAS) server.

In a home automation situation, publisher clients are attached to sensors, and they publish sensor data; subscriber clients are attached to actuators, typically motors, but also heaters, vents lights and much more, that they regulate, at the most basic level – turn on or off.

The two most common open source home automation systems using MQTT are: open Home Automation Bus (openHAB), a project started in 2010, with code written in Java; and, Homa Assistant, started in 2013, with code in Python. While Home Assistant has been praised for its privacy features, it has been criticized for its file-based setup procedure. Recently, it has become more user friendly and accessible, with a simplified, web-based graphical user interface. An iPhone or Android hand-held device, can also be used as controller. This is especially important when one wants to control features remotely.

Brokers and clients manage: lighting, temperature and humidity (indoor climate), audio and video (entertainment), unauthorized access, smoke/ fire detection (security) and related services. Here, it is only considered in terms of a residence, but almost all types of buildings can use these: barns, shops, manufacturing facilties, etc. While it might appear that micro-controllers are in charge, managing these services using algorithms, most systems can have their decisions overridden by humans.

Ethernet

Wireless communication, using Bluetooth or WiFi, should be avoided, if possible, for most domotic/ smart home automation hardware, because there will always be throughput and power issues with these technologies. The one exception to this rule is the use of hand-held devices, including mobile phones and tablets, that use apps to function as remote controls for the system. These apps can be downloaded from the appropriate device app provider.

In the previous millennium, it was not uncommon for people to wire their houses with Ethernet cable. People who did so, and have not removed them, are the real winners. The reason for this is that room controllers need to communicate, and to communicate they need power.

The various Ethernet cables were standardized for different speeds. Cat 3 provided 10 Mbit/s in a standard presented in 1990. Cat 5 increased throughput to 100 Mbit/s in 1995, and then to 1 Gbit/s in 1999. Cat 5e offered 2.5 Gbit/s in 2016, while Cat 6 increased it to 5 Gbit/s, the same year. The Cat6A standard, is actually ten years older, dating from 2006, but provides 10Gbit/s.

The advantage of Power over Ethernet (PoE) is that it eliminates the need to install separate power cables. PoE technology sends the above mentioned 10/100/1000 Mbps of data and 15W, 30W, 60W, and up to 90W of power to devices over Cat5e, Cat6 and Cat6A Ethernet cables for a maximum distance of 100m. Cat3 and Cat5 cable can also be used with restrictions, They supply of 48 V with a maximum current of 400 mA using two of the available four pairs of wires on Cat 3 or Cat 5 cable. While this appears to provide a maximum power of 19.2 W, system losses will normally reduce this to under 13 W.

MQTT Software and supporting hardware

The household’s MQTT broker is typically a software program, housed in a server. Wifi-based handheld devices connect to the broker using Wifi, while Ethernet-based room controllers connect to it through cables, and a switch.

A switch is a box that allows multiple other devices in a local area network to be inter-connected. A typical commercial switch may have up to 48 different ports for cables connected to 48 separate devices. Home oriented switches typically have 8 ports.

Business users commonly sell off their equipment once the warranty period has expired. Servers as well as switches can be purchased by private individuals inexpensively, because businesses won’t buy used (read: out of warranty) equipment, and most people don’t know what the equipment can be used for.

Cables usually run between the switch and other devices through the walls of the house, although there is nothing to prevent more visible wiring, along walls/ ceilings/ floors. If people are considering remodelling their house, adding Ethernet cable is no real issue. Whatever cable is used, it will ultimately pay to use the fastest Ethernet cable type currently available that supports PoE. Cat 6 is more readily available than Cat 6A. Using either means that the cable won’t have to be replaced anytime soon. Hopefully, the cables will last 30 years, or more.

Room Controllers

Control units, like all devices, needs power. Power over Ethernet (PoE) is an ideal way to provide power, since Ethernet connectivity is the preferred approach to wired data communication. PoE eliminates the need to install separate power cables. Each controller is provided with power from the switch itself.

Several different types of microprocessors can be used in controllers, including Arduino, ESP and Raspberry Pi. At Cliff Cotttage, Raspberry Pis are used.

Room controllers, and similar devices, are one of the main categories of devices that need PoE connections. A typical unit could use a Raspberry Pi Model B 3+, sensors connected to general purpose input-output (GPIO) pins. with a PoE hat (hardware on top, which provides extra capabilities) to provide power and cooling, and – in addition – a Pimoroni Automation HAT to provide support for actuators. Some room controllers would have a 7″ touch screen. Others would be fitted for voice communication with microphones and speakers.

A Pimoroni Automation HAR on top of a Raspberry Pi Model B (Photo: Piomoroni)

Controllers need to be placed in the following locations: 1) access control at entrance doors; 2) living room; 3) dining area; 4) kitchen; 5) bedrooms; 6) study, studio and workshop areas. A few people may want to have controllers in 7) bathrooms and/or laundry rooms, while most prefer to avoid this. In addition, there shouldl be 8) PoE access points for WiFi. This allows WiFi connections in parts of the house that are inaccessible for direct signals to and from the server.

Other switches, without PoE, can be used for other devices dependent on higher power levels. These include: 1) a home theatre connections; 2) a printer and/ or scanner; 3) clothes washer and/ or dryer; 4) dishwasher; 5)  refrigerator and/ or freezer; 6) stove top and/ or oven; 7) microwave oven; 8) kettle; 9) hot water tank; 10) heat exchanger; 11) heat pump or solar thermal controller; 12) greenhouse controller. Not everyone has appliances with Ethernet connections, but they are increasingly available.

A front-door access controller will typically have an infra-red camera, proximity sensor and infra-red light connected to it, that will be activated as someone approaches. Video of each event will be sent to an external location, that could be located anywhere in the world. A room controller may have proximity sensors as well as other sensors to register temperature, CO2, humidity levels and more. Data gained from these sensors and others throughout a house, can be used to activate lights, or heating, display time, temperature and other data on a touch screen. It can even listen to verbal instructions with a microphone and answer using a speaker.

Recently, a Compute Module (CM) 4 was released. Unlike more conventional Raspberry Pis, the CM is totally flat, but uses the bottom edge for connection. In the future, I hope to acquire a Compute Module 4 Development Kit to develop suitable applications based on these modules. CM boards are used because they avoid unnecessary components, making products potentially cheaper and smaller.

Update of content in Printers, published 2020-03-24:

Owners of H-P and other ink jet printers, are advised to read what Cory Doctorow has to say in Ink-Stained Wretches: The Battle for the Soul of Digital Freedom Taking Place Inside Your Printer (2020-11-05).

Raspberry Pi 400 Personal Computer Kit

The Raspberry Pi (RPi) 400 Personal Computer kit. The keyboard contains a RPi board running at 1.8 GHz (faster than the 1.5 GHz found in the RPi 4 Model B). There is also a mouse/ rodent, a RPi operating system (OS) on a micro-SD card, a (UK, shown here) USB-C based power adapter, an HDMI cable to connect the video and audio output to a display/ monitor/ screen/ television, and an official RPi Beginner’s Guide. Price, about £/ $/ € 100. Photo: Raspberry Pi Foundation.

The pandemic has increased hunger and homelessness, and prevented some people from attending a physical school. This might be because of a legitimate health reason, but in some cases it might just be political. Affected students need digital equipment to access online schooling. Hopefully, this is being provided by the educational authorities, but where it isn’t an inexpensive solution may be needed.

The Raspberry Pi 400 Personal Computer Kit, may be precisely what the teacher ordered. Of course, the machine can also be used for work and entertainment purposes, in addition to education. At a cost of about £/ €/ $ 100 it contains everything one needs in a basic personal computer (except the display/ monitor/ screen/ television). As long as a proposed display supports a high definition multimedia interface (HDMI) connector, it can be used. Unfortunately, even an inexpensive machine like this will not help if the real problem is a lack of broadband infrastructure.

Specifications:

  • Processor: Quad-core 1.8GHz Cortex-A72 (ARM v8) 64-bit (BCM2711)
  • Random-access memory (RAM): 4GB (LP DDR4-3200)
  • Dual-band (2.4GHz and 5.0GHz) IEEE 802.11b/g/n/ac for wireless local area network (LAN) connectivity,
  • Bluetooth 5.0, BLE
  • Gigabit Ethernet for wired LAN connectivity.
  • 2 × USB 3.0 and 1 × USB 2.0 ports
  • Horizontal 40-pin general-purpose input/ output (GPIO) header
  • 2 × micro HDMI ports (supports up to 4Kp60) for video display
  • Video decoders: H.265 (4Kp60) / H.264 (1080p60 decode, 1080p30 encode)
  • OpenGL ES 3.0
  • microSD card slot for operating system and data storage
  • 78- or 79-key compact keyboard (depending on regional variant)
  • USB-C power connector
  • Dimensions: 286mm × 122mm × 23mm

Currently, the English (UK) keyboard (with UK power supply) is available as is an English (US) keyboard with a North American power supply, and a French keyboard with a European power supply. Soon, these will be augmented with German, Italian and Spanish keyboards, with an EU power supply. Beginner’s guides are provided in the same language as the keyboard type: English, French, German, Italian or Spanish. There is no mention of an official Nordic keyboard.

For the first time a RPi has an on/off power switch, activated by pressing Fn+F10 simultaneously. Pressing these for two seconds will turn on power.

Unusually, the mouse plugs into a USB-port at the back and to the left of the keyboard. This makes it ideal for left-handed people. This appears to be a design issue (read: flaw).

A wireless, Bluetooth mouse will not have any such challenges. These cost about £/ €/ $ 7. If this is needed, then one should probably buy all of the components separately. A universal USB-C power supply costs about £/ €/ $ 9. The keyboard module is about £/ €/ $ 67. The Beginner’s guide can be freely downloaded. This results in a total price of about £/ €/ $ 83.

The RPi 4 series is noted for having temperature issues. The RPi 400 contains a heat spreader to dissipate heat from the entire machine, so no part will be too hot. It is claimed that there is enough thermal capacity to overclock = run faster than the design speed.

The RPi’s GPIO header/ interface/ connector is often used for interacting with electronic components placed on a breadboard = electronics test circuit, such as sensors or actuators (motors, for example). This may be only for educational purposes, or it might even serve real-world needs. It is this capability that makes the RPi a much better machine for learning about computers than a laptop or desktop machine.

The smallest and cheapest RPi model, the Zero, at about £/ €/ $ 5, is being used to provide computing power to ventilators being produced from locally available parts in Columbia, South America. The RPi 400 could also do this, but its capabilities far exceed the computing needs of a ventilator.

The RPi 400 PC kit is following a tradition that emerged in the early 1980s, with Acorn’s BBC Micro (1982), Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum (1982), Commodore’s Amiga 1000 (1985) , and others that integrated the motherboard directly into the keyboard. There was no separate system unit or keyboard cable. Just a computer, a power supply, a cable to a display, and (sometimes) a mouse.

The first RPi was launched 2012-02-29. According to the RPI Foundation, this new RPi 400 model, launched 2020-11-02, is about 40 x more powerful than the original. On launch day, Chris Barnat, on his Explaining Computers YouTube channel, made a video describing the RPi 400 in detail. Other single board computer (SBC) influencers, released similar videos.