Studio711

Gadgets

Cord Cutting the Super Bowl

We canceled cable last summer and for the most part, our antenna has filled our needs. We get great reception on FOX, but not great on NBC. CBS and ABC are somewhere in the middle. Since we host a party every year, reception of the game is kind of important.

CBS had been working fine in the days leading up to the game so I wasn’t too concerned, but then it started snowing (for the first time this year) a couple hours before the game. Since we’re kind of on the fringe with our reception, the snow was just enough to start messing with the signal a little more. If it was just me, I wouldn’t have worried about it, but it’s not fun having 20 people watching a glitchy signal.

Thankfully CBS was streaming the game for free and they even supported Chromecast so I used that on the projector. Our experience there was generally good but it probably buffered 10 times and once I had to restart the stream completely. Downstairs I needed it on the Roku so I signed up for a free trial of CBS All Access. (I used a privacy.com temporary credit card number so that I don’t have to worry about forgetting to cancel my subscription!) I didn’t watch that TV but the people downstairs didn’t ever see it buffer and didn’t realize that it wasn’t a “normal” TV feed.

So it was definitely not as easy as traditional cable, but it was pretty good. I think next time I’d use my Xbox to stream the game through a paid service (like CBS All Access) instead of using the free stream from the website and I suspect that would have gotten rid of the few problems that we did have.

Hi Alexa

We’ve had an Amazon Echo in our house for a couple months now. I’ve resisted these types of devices for a long time because of the privacy implications. What changed? Basically I gave up. Privacy feels like a hopeless game because I’m not willing to live the hermit life required to have a chance at privacy. And aside from the “the sky is falling” reasons, maybe I trust these bigger companies a bit because if they’re going to put so much of their business into a product, imagine what would happen if there was a big privacy snafu. That’s probably naive.

My bar for electronics is “If it broke, how much would I want to replace it?” So far the Echo is pretty low on that list. I probably wouldn’t replace it, but I don’t mind having it around. The two main reasons I got it were to be a source of entertainment for Elijah and to play music from our Spotify account.

Elijah does enjoy it quite a bit. There’s an app called Amazon Story Time that reads free ~5 minute stories to him. He loves audio books and he gobbles up these stories. That’s a big hit.

The Spotify integration, on the other hand, is disappointing. While I can easily tell it to play one of the playlists on our account, the fatal flaw is that the Spotify Connect protocol only grabs the first 100 songs from the playlist. We have some very nice (long) playlists that blow past the 100 song limit. 100 song sounds like a lot until you listen to it for a few days. Fail. I blame Spotify more than Amazon for that one, but the end result is the same. The workaround is connecting to the Echo via Bluetooth and playing from my phone but that’s not nearly as convenient and I have other devices that can do that.

Spottily was giving away free Google Home Minis to members with a family plan account so I snagged one of those too. It has been sitting in a box for a few weeks. I haven’t even unpacked it. I’ll probably do that at some point but I figure my results are going to be similar but with a lower quality speaker.

For our use case, the Echo feels more like a party trick than a useful home appliance. I’d rate it a solid “Meh”.

Truck Stats

Last year, Tyla got me an OBDII data logger (Automatic) for my birthday and, of course, I ended up writing an app to download my trip data so I could analyze it. I still get those analysis reports twice per day and they continue to be interesting. For example, I don’t know why, but the last two weeks have had some of the worst traffic on my way home from work in the last year. Now that I have over a year of data, there’s enough to calculate some semi-interesting stats on my drives in our 2016 F150 3.5L Ecoboost:

    • The average trip to work takes me 26.3 minutes.
    • The average trip home takes me 33.9 minutes.
    • It feels like if I leave work a couple minutes early, I’ll avoid the worst of the traffic. Here’s my average commute time based on when I leave. (The x-axis is in 24 hour time so 17 is 5pm.) The y-axis is my average commute home in minutes. It does look like if I leave about 10 minutes before 5 my commute is generally 5-10 minutes faster.
    • My most fuel efficient trip was a 43.7mpg drive along the 3.5 mile route from my house to Home Depot. Not bad for a 5000 pound truck! (A lot of it is downhill and I like to see how little gas I can use on that route…)
      • Best fuel mileage for a trip over 10 miles: Church to Totem Lake AutoZone 28.0mpg
      • Best fuel mileage for a trip over 50 miles: Crystal Mountain to our house 24.7mpg
    • My worst gas mileage is going from Work to the butcher. It’s a short trip and when it’s really cold, my truck spends the whole time idling at stop lights and trying to warm up. I’ve gotten 3.5mpg on that route a couple times!
    • Of the days that I drive the truck, I spend an average of 69.3 minute driving.
    • The most driving in one day was 366 minutes. That was May 25, 2018 when we drove down to Ocean Park for Memorial Day.

I love having all this data! I could do this all night but I should probably cut it off here and go to bed. By the way, all of these charts and stats were created with public preview of Azure Data Explorer. We’ve been using that product internally for a couple years and it makes stuff like the stats above ridiculously fast and easy. If you’re at all involved in data engineering or data analysis, you need to get familiar with Azure Data Explorer!

Standing Desk Monitor

We have nice standing desks at work. They have electric motors with memory settings so it’s quick and easy to switch between standing up or sitting down. I believe that it’s significantly healthier to stand up at least part of the day, but I find myself being lazy and sitting for most of the day. I also know that it’s relatively easy to motivate myself by measuring whatever I’m trying to improve. Time for a project!

To measure whether I’m standing or sitting, I decided to use a distance sensor that either sits on top of the desk and looks at the floor, or sits on the floor and looks up. I’m sure there are cheaper ways to do this, but I ordered a SparkFun BlackBoard, Distance Sensor Breakout, and a Qwiic cable to connect them. There was no soldering required. I plugged it all in and I was good to go. I laser cut a wood box to hold all the components.

I wrote a simple program for the Arduino-compatible BlackBoard that would send a measurement when it received a keystroke and then I wrote a program that runs on the computer to periodically request measurements (via USB) and upload them to a database in the cloud. I put a website on top of the page and voila!

A friend at work heard about the idea and wanted to compete with me so now we are both running these devices. You can track our progress at http://standupweb.azurewebsites.net/

Goodbye Comcast TV

I grew up with an antenna on top of our house. We could get some channels from Chicago in addition to the local channels so we had a pretty good selection. But I still remember going to college and having CABLE TV. I was in awe of ESPN. I’ve had cable ever since then, but since Elijah was born our TV watching has gone way down and most of it is via Netflix or Amazon Prime. So last week I took the plunge and totally canceled my TV service.

It wasn’t quite that simple though because we host football parties at our house so I need some way to watch local broadcast stations. I went to antennaweb.org and picked up one of the antennas that they recommended for my location. I mounted it up in the rafters of my garage pointing the direction recommended on the site. The picture looks beautiful! Unfortunately, some of the channels have small glitches every few minutes. But I’m still going for it.

Our cable TV plus 150Mbps internet was $82/month. When the annual contract ended, it jumped up to $98. I really didn’t want to sign another contract that included TV since I’ve been thinking about canceling for so long, but I don’t mind signing a contract for internet since there aren’t many other options around here. I did drop our speed down to 60Mbps to save even more money. I signed a contract that locks in the price at $45/month including fees, etc for 2 years. So even if we go back to cable TV in four or five months, I’ll still come out ahead with the hardware that I purchased for the antenna solution.

And here’s a breakdown of that hardware…

That tuner purchase was a surprise. I forgot that the InfiniTV card in my Media Center PC doesn’t have an ATSC tuner built in (that’s the over-the-air signal format.) Thankfully I was able to find the older model of the HD Homerun for a pretty cheap price. It hooked up just fine to the Media Center PC. I also played around with the DVR/Live TV features of Plex but I was frustrated that I couldn’t watch a show while it was recording. I’m sure that will come along eventually though. Once it does, then I can ditch the separate PC I have just for running Media Center.

So what happens if we’re having a football party and the signal is too glitchy? Thankfully, there are plenty of online cable providers that I can flip on in just a few minutes. In my area, most of the Seahawks games are on FOX and only DirectTV Now and Comcast Instant TV currently have my local FOX affiliate. So I can sign up with them and be back in the action very easily. The Comcast offering is interesting because it’s only $18/month and includes all the local channels that I’m interested in. The Cloud DVR from the Comcast service was a mess to figure out, but I finally realized that you can only schedule recordings from the Roku app. I think that’s due to a patent war that they lost with Tivo which made them remove any kind of browser or phone DVR scheduling. I get why it is like that, but they are definitely not forthcoming about that limitation.

Yada yada yada, now I’m saving ~$50/month and it feels great!