Integrating my 3D Printer into my Home Automation

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Back when I was involved with our local makerspace, I really wanted to help show off the 3D Printers that the makerspace had purchased. At that time, access to the printers and Pat’s 3D-Printing expertise were among the best reasons to become members of the makerspace. As the guy with the keys to the makerspace’s social media accounts, I really wanted people to share pictures and videos of everyone’s 3D prints so that we could showcase what our members had been up to.

In fact, I was so enamored with the printers’ outputs—I had expressed my intentions of finding a way of capturing pictures of what people printed and automate the sharing of those prints. Unfortunately, the enclosed-style printers that they had at the makerspace (and that I bought to use at home) simply prevented getting a decent picture of the items printed on the printers.

Fast-forward a year or two and I’ve decided to upgrade my old Qidi Technology I — Dual Extruder 3D Printer with something newer. I opted to upgrade to a Prusa I3 MK3 3D Printer. Among its features was an open design that was infinitely more friendly to capturing the time-lapse photography that I had been wanting to do previously.

Enter OctoPrint, Octolapse and OctoPrint-IFTTT

OctoPrint

For those of you unfamiliar, OctoPrint is a fantastic print controller for your 3D printers. OctoPrint runs on a Raspberry Pi and manages your 3D printer; it’s got a fantastic feature set and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who owns a 3D printer. The moment I’d completed my purchase of the Prusa I3 MK3, I started shopping for a Raspberry Pi, and wound up buying a CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 B+ Kit whose job it’d be to manage my new 3D printer.

My first 3D print on the Prusa I3 MK3 was Pat’s Mounting Brackets with Swivel for Logitech C270 and C920 Web Camera which works so nicely with the inexpensive IKEA Tertial work lamp.

After a little bit of work, I had my Logitech C922 Webcam attached to the Tertial work lamp in place of the lamp, and mounted to my 3D printer’s stand and ready to record time-lapses of all my prints.

OctoPrint has some time-lapse photography features built right into it, but it’s pretty basic. The pictures are taken throughout the print job and the print head was frequently in different positions, oftentimes obscuring the printed object. I’d dug around the Internet a bit and learned that people have improved the quality of their own prints’ time-lapse photography by working with their slicing programs to generate the appropriate GCode on every single layer change. What they do is send the code to move the bed and print head to the same position on each layer and get that to coincide with the time-lapse photography.

Octolapse

Thankfully, there are options for people who don’t want to have to monkey with settings to insert custom GCode on every layer, like me. A very handy OctoPrint plug-in exists named Octolapse. As I understand it, Octolapse interprets and analyzes the GCode uploaded and handles inserting the correct GCode to improve your time-lapse videos. Just working through the few set-up steps improved my videos dramatically!

But after viewing a few of my first couple time-lapse videos, I still had a few complaints about what I was seeing:

  1. Too Darn Bright: My beer-stein lamp is right next to the 3D Printer, and while it’s a fantastic source of light to keep my office lit to what my specifications are, it was washing out everything in the videos of my prints.
  2. Lights turning on and off!: Over the duration of my prints, my home automation had been turning the lights in my office on and off. In the time-lapse, every now and then you’d see a chunk of frames with the lights in either position and it annoyed me that the videos’ lighting wasn’t consistent the whole way through.
  3. Not Automated Enough: I was thrilled to be getting the time-lapse of my 3D prints captured, finally. But I was still disappointed that I was having to manually find the files, download them to my PC, and share them on my own.

The first two problems were solved pretty easily by just manually turning the lights off and keeping them off during my prints. But as I was turning lights off and manually uploading time lapse videos to my social media accounts, I wondered what it’d take to do this in a more automated fashion.

OctoPrint-IFTTT

And then, out of nowhere, OctoPrint let me know via a notification that a brand-new plug-in had been published, OctoPrint-IFTTT. I’ve been using IFTTT for a smorgasboard of automated activities for years now and I eagerly installed the new plug-in and got started tinkering with it.

Now about those lights!

For whatever reason, the combination of my Logitech C922, the colors of my various rolls of IC3D ABS filament, and my nearby beer-stein lamp resulted in all of my videos looking really washed out. White filament almost appeared to be glowing and was so bright, it was devoid of features. Bright green filament looked practically pastel, and my red filament wound up looking pretty pink. So the first thing that I did was configure OctoPrint-IFTTT to call IFTTT’s Webhook with OctoPrint’s PrintStarted event and then tied it to the trigger I had set up to automate turning off my beloved beer-stein lamp.

Making it a bit darker in the room when my 3D printer is active improved the filament from looking to be so washed out and I was mostly happy with the results. I think ultimately I probably need to do a bit of research and experimentation to find the best lighting for these time-lapse videos, but I’m pretty excited that I can automate that solution to be triggered by my 3D printer’s activity.

Publish the Time Lapse Videos Automatically

After studying the supported OctoPrint events, I knew what I wanted to take a look at next: the MovieDone event. On the surface, it seemed like it’d be a simple task to trigger IFTTT to post my time-lapse videos to Twitter using IFTTT, but in the initial releases of OctoPrint-IFTTT, that wasn’t possible. The file’s path and name was just being passed as a string on to the IFTTT actions and not the actual file content.

I reached out to the developer, tjjfvi on GitHub, and submitted a feature request. The developer was gracious enough to offer me a few tips and in the process we found that (for what I’d been looking) IFTTT was expecting to be passed a URL where the file was accessible. We came up with a solution that’d allow IFTTT to pull it directly from my OctoPrint server, but that’d involve exposing my OctoPrint server to the Internet and that seemed like not the greatest of ideas.

However, by the end of the day, the developer had put out a beta version using the file.io file-sharing. If asked, the OctoPrint-IFTTT would upload the file to file.io, which returned a URL that could then be sent on to IFTTT for performing whatever action you wanted done. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any actions in IFTTT that’d upload video clips to either my Twitter account or blog’s Facebook Page. Ultimately, I wound up adding IFTTT’s competitor, Zapier, into the mix as well. In the end, what I built seemed convoluted, but it worked!

Brian’s Time-Lapse Sharing Automation

  1. OctoPrint-IFTTT creates a webhook to IFTTT at the completion of creating a time-lapse video and triggers activity that uploads the video to a particular folder in my Google Drive account.
  2. Zapier monitors Google Drive and when a new file is uploaded to the specified folder, it is uploaded to my YouTube channel.
  3. Using IFTTT, I created two new actions to share the YouTube video’s URL to both Twitter and Facebook.

What’d I think?

I was—and still am—pretty excited to have achieved a goal that I’d had in my head for quite a while. But in this particular case, most of the value wound up being found in the travel—not in the actual destination. I knew that automating the sharing of these videos would be formulaic, but I wound up being turned off by what showed up in my social media feed. I also didn’t quite appreciate how convoluted the automation wound up being. I was reliant on far too many different services working independently of each other in the hopes of accomplishing my task.

In the end, a somewhat convoluted process to generate a formulaic result seemed like a bad combination to me. However, I did decide to go ahead and keep the initial step that results in the time-lapse being uploaded to Google Drive. Having the time-lapse videos up on Google Drive would make sharing them to social media quite a bit simpler.

What’s Next?

To be honest, I don’t know! Regardless of the fact that I wasn’t a huge fan of how it turned out, I’m still pretty in shock that one of the more meaningful goals was achieved. I probably would appreciate adding a couple new IFTTT applets to send me a Pushover notificationon my mobile devices when a print finishes or failed. I think maybe it’d be neat just to keep a Google Spreadsheet to log all the different prints I’ve done and how long they took. What sort of functionality would you like to see triggered in IFTTT by your 3D printer?

What Makes a Good PC Monitor?

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To say that there are a lot of options out there when you want a PC monitor is an understatement. However, not every PC monitor comes with the same quality as others on the market. This can make the process of choosing a PC monitor rather overwhelming.

To help you out, in the heart of this article, we have highlighted some features you need to look out for in a great monitor.

What Are You Going to Use It For?

The first question you need to answer is, why are you buying a PC monitor? Are you looking for something to do office spreadsheets on? Are you a video editor that needs the best quality? Are you a casual/hardcore gamer?

The point behind this introspection is to make sure you are getting the features you need. For instance, a monitor intended for gaming is going to need a lot of high-tech features, such as faster refresh rates, faster response times, adaptive sync support, and relatively higher resolutions. If you opt for a monitor with all those features for your office computer, you’ll definitely have a good PC monitor, but odds are you won’t use the features to their full potential.

Of course, a PC monitor equipped with greater resolution, more response time, and more refresh rate will put a dent in your pocket more significantly than the one with less quality. After all, the more features and capabilities a monitor has, the more expensive it is likely to be. When trying to find the balance between quality and budget, it’s important to know what you need so you don’t buy extras you won’t use.

Size

When you are looking at monitors, the first thing that you’ll notice is the size of the monitor. Once again, the size you want depends on what you are looking for. For purposes like gaming, many users find that bigger is better.

On the other hand, if you work in a small office, you might find that a large monitor is too bulky.

The good news is that monitors come in almost any size you might want. You can choose something as small as the size of a tablet or as large as 49 inches.

Though you know your PC monitor needs clearer than we do, we have offered a few suggestions to help you reach an informed buying decision:

  • Larger monitors are ideal if you will be making use of them for graphics-related purposes, such as editing or watching videos, photography, graphics-intensive video games, and the likes.
  • If you do numerous work on the computer, you should opt for larger and multiple displays to make you more productive.
  • If your PC isn’t used for these kinds of intense activities, a large display might not be the best for you.
  • Bear in mind that some PC monitors could simply be too big to use on your desk comfortably. For standard (or normal) PC viewing distances, anything that is more than 34 inches is generally too big.

Armed with these tips, go for a screen size, expressed in diagonal inches, that is well suited to your needs and style.

Curved or Straight?

One of the latest innovations when it comes to monitors is that some of them are being released with curved screens. These are usually larger monitors. The choice of curved or straight really comes down to preference, though. Usually, this is a feature that individuals choose when they want an extremely spacious display.

Type of Screen

There is more than just one type of screen to choose from. These include cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, and light-emitting diode (LED) monitors.

The most modern choice is LED monitors. These are a great choice because they offer higher contrast images and use less energy to do so. This environmentally friendly option does come at a higher price, so lower-priced monitors tend to use LCD displays.

CRT monitors aren’t often used anymore. These are the monitors that were bulky and heavy rather than flat like their modern counterparts.

Resolution

The size of the monitor is measured in inches. However, the resolution tells you the length and width of the monitor measured in pixels. This is the specification you see in measurements such as 1920 x 1080p. There are recommended resolutions for the size and type of monitor that you are using, but generally, users look for the highest resolutions possible.

The resolution of any monitor shows the number of pixels it is able to accommodate. Owing to the fact that higher pixel counts means better image quality, if you are purchasing a monitor for gaming, higher is better concerning the native resolution of a monitor.

The 3 most commonly used monitor resolutions in this day and age include the following:

  • 1080p (commonly referred to as Full HD)
  • 1440p (commonly referred to as QHD)
  • 2160p (commonly referred to as 4K/UHD)

While it is true that a higher resolution brings better detail and clarity, you need to note that the higher the resolution, the more powerful the capabilities of your hardware should be. The majority of gaming enthusiasts seem to agree 1440p displays do strike a balance.

Contrast Ratio

The contrast of a display tells you the difference between the purest white and deepest black. The higher the contrast, the more vivid the images on the display. Unfortunately, unlike measurements such as resolution, there can be differences from manufacturer to manufacturer on how contrast ratios are measured. They are all, however, formatted into a ratio.

Response Time

The response time of a monitor tells you how often your monitor refreshes the information on it per second. It is measured in milliseconds (ms), and the higher the response time (or the smaller the number), the smoother your monitor will show images.

Though a fast response time offers enhanced video quality, for most people (including graphic professionals), it is not an important specification.

But faster response times are critical to PC games’ performance because slower response times can bring about motion blur. Gamers need to demand a quick response time, which lies below 8ms (and the smaller, the better) to make sure their monitor is not having a subtle impact on their performance in games that are fast-paced.

Refresh Rate

Expressed in hertz, the refresh rate of a PC monitor depicts how often it refreshes the image on its screen. 60 hertz, ideal for regular office use, is the standard refresh rate for LCDs, and the majority of users do not need a PC monitor that has more than this value.

For a gaming monitor, though, this number is extremely important to prevent lagging images during gameplay. Hence, gaming-branded displays can have as much as 120Hz, 144Hz, or even 240 hertz.

Connections and Extras

Another aspect that you will want to look at when you are choosing your monitor has nothing to do with the display at all. It’s important to consider what ports you want in your monitor. While it might seem like a given, some monitors don’t include USB ports, HDMI ports, and other ports. There is also the consideration of extras such as integrated speakers. If you want these features, make sure to check that the monitors you are looking into have them. Another extra you might want to consider is if you want a touchscreen monitor. This isn’t a feature limited to tablet-style monitors, either. Full-size monitors also often have a touchscreen option. For instance, this is a feature useful for graphic designers.

In a Nutshell

While monitors will not make your PC faster, the best among them enhance your computing experience, as they make everything look much better and boost your productivity. When looking to buy a quality monitor, you need to consider the purpose you’re getting it for, as this will determine the resolution, screen size, refresh rate, and other features to focus on. By taking note of the suggestions offered in this article, you will be able to purchase a monitor that strikes a balance between quality and cost-effectiveness.

I Put My Face on a USB Drive

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Ever since comissioning my face as the site’s logo, I’ve incorporated my face into many things. Things I’ve designed like the cooling duct for the Silverstone DS380B (Thingiverse), stickers on my recent DIY NAS builds, or anything else I feel emboldened to put my face upon.

When an intrepid promotional company reached out to me and offered customized USB flash drives, I was immediately tempted and gave in to my urges by buying quite a few of them. Hopefully with a little bit of good fortune, I’ll wind up buying these regularly on into the future as more people use my NAS builds as templates for their own.

Introducing Brian’s USB Drive

Without further ado, here’s Brian’s USB drive! It has my face on it, my site’s URL is on it, it is 16GB, it is diminutive, and it can be used as a paper clip!

I think its specifications are ideal for many of the USB-related things that I talk about on my site: you can use it to load FreeNAS on your own DIY NAS, you can use it (or a pair!) to function as the FreeNAS OS drive on your own DIY NAS, you can use it to run Memtest and test the RAM in your new gaming rig, or you can use it for any of the other things you might use a 16GB USB flash drive for.

I plan to sell two variations of this USB drive on my store at Tindie:

  1. Brian’s Face USB Drive (Blank) for $12.00
  2. Brian’s Face USB Drive (w/ FreeNAS) for $15.00

In an effort to keep shipping inexpensive and simple, I’ll be using USPS First Class postage for shipping. I’ll be shipping anywhere in the United States for $2.50 per USB drive. I learned from last year’s FreeNASGiveaway that shipping internationally is expensive and aggravating, so for those of you reading my blog from outside of America—I apologize that this won’t be available to you yet. Please use the blog’s comments if you’d like to see it available outside the United States—maybe you can change my mind!

Brian's Face USB Drive

But…why?

This is an excellent question! Unless stated otherwise, everything I talk about in my DIY NAS builds comes out of my own pocket. Early on, I found that my own blogs talking about hardware which I didn’t even put my hands on seemed artificial and lacked the authenticity of my other blogs I’d written about actually building my own NAS. This led me to the conclusion that if I was going to write a blog about something, that I’d at the very least have my hands on the hardware. Naturally this has made some of my blogs, especially the DIY NAS builds, a more costly topic to write about. Hopefully, the sale of these USB drives helps offset that expense.

In the past, I’ve tinkered with trying to find enough spare cash to stock up on some of the hardware that I recommended and take a stab at reselling it myself on Amazon, instead of linking to others’ products out there on Amazon. This has been tempting, but I simply couldn’t be competitive with the prices that are already out there. Reselling the hardware myself at the quantities that I could afford to buy it would’ve resulted in a huge competitive disadvantage for me.

But with USB drives, I found that wasn’t quite the case, or at least USB drives were inexpensive enough that my own markup only wound up amounting to what seems like a more palatable price premium. I am also gambling that there’d be enough people out there willing to support my blog by buying a slightly more expensive USB drive and that might make this a profitable endeavor—or at least not a tremendously expensive failure.

What about the Quality?

This is a question that gets asked about USB flash drives as the FreeNAS boot device all the time, even before I was buying and reselling my own. The cheaper the memory, the lower the quality. The quality of the memory used in flash drives is less than that of the memory used in RAM or SSDs. It’s a logical conclusion to think that the memory used in inexpensive promotional drives like mine is among the least expensive and therefore lowest quality.

Brian's Face USB Drive on my desk

While I believe this is a valid concern, I don’t think it is a significant one. Personally, I didn’t let that concern stop me from using two on my own NAS! However, for the people concerned about the quality, I’d urge them to make sure they mirror their FreeNAS USB Boot Device, to stick with my favorite SanDisk Cruzer Ultra Fit, or even better yet—do both!

Final Thoughts

What do you think? Was there a better way to try and generate some revenue for my site in my DIY NAS blogs? Do you wish there were other sizes of the Brian’s Face USB drive? Or are there other images other than FreeNAS that you’d like to see as an option to choose from? Let me know what you think. Assuming this experiment goes well, I’d love to work in your good ideas!

Backing up my FreeNAS to Backblaze B2

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For a very long time, my NAS was my backup plan. The primary function of my NAS was to store the backups of all of our PCS in the house. My approach worked pretty well except for two chief concerns: stupidity (a catastrophic destructive change) and some sort of disaster that deprived us of the NAS. While my approach of backing the computers up to my FreeNAS box covered the most likely sources of my problems, it has gnawed on me that there are other scenarios it didn’t account for. For example: fire, theft, tornados, and any number of other physical threats. For a long time, I’ve mitigated those with cloud storage providers like Google Drive and Dropbox.

Further complicating matters is the fact that I’ve switched to using SSDs in most of my computers, and the rate at which I’m generating content has skyrocketed. The photos and videos that I record for my blog take up quite a bit of space, and my recent obsession of flying freestyle FPV quadcopters has generated tons of high-definition videos. Reducing the storage capacity of my computers at the same time as ramping up my content creation has forced me to start using my NAS as the primary storage for much of what’s most important to me.

For quite a while, I’ve been pondering the complexity and price of backing up this critical data to one of the cloud storage providers: Amazon S3, Crashplan, or Backblaze B2 Cloud Storage. While I was pondering, I decided to back up that same critical data on our PCs to the cloud using CrashPlan, but weeks later Code42 abandoned the consumer market and yanked the plug on CrashPlan, leaving consumers like me in a lurch.

Without a real backup plan beyond my helter-skelter use of Dropbox and Google Drive, I wandered around aimlessly a bit, pondering exactly what I’d do.

Backblaze’s Blog to the Rescue

I love, love, love Backblaze’s Blog—the hard drive statistics that they share are an invaluable resource in my DIY NAS builds. I also love the detail that they go into when sharing the details about the Backblaze Storage Pod. Just the other day, I was battling through a normal workday and I saw this crawl through my Twitter feed on my phone:


Seeing this tweet reminded me that I needed to get off my rear and get back to addressing my outstanding concerns. That very weekend, I sat down and read through the Backing UP FreeNAS and TrueNAS to Backblaze B2 blog and knew exactly what I was going to experiment with next.

What is Backblaze’s B2 Cloud Storage Anyways?

Effectively, you pay a monthly flat rate of $0.005 per Gigabyte of B2 Storage. And when you need to pull down any of that storage, you pay $0.01 per gigabyte of download. At the moment, there’s nearly 11 TB of data on my NAS, but I don’t think much of that is critical. When you subtract out the amount of storage that my ancient backups, ZFS snapshots, and other cruft take up, there’s right around 2TB of data that I’d label as critical. Using Backblaze’s B2 pricing calculator, it’d cost me about $10 a month (2000GB x $0.005) to store that critical data. In the event that I lost all 2TB of that data in some sort of catastrophe, restoring that 2TB would have a one-time cost of $20 (2000 GB x $0.01).

At first, I wasn’t a big fan of how downloads carried their own cost, which is similar to how Amazon is pricing their competing S3 storage. But the more I thought it over as I wrote this blog, the more I began to understand and appreciate that Backblaze separates the pricing for downloads apart for their B2 Cloud Storage. It seems much more straightforward—other services are certainly accounting for the costs associated with the downloads and factoring that into the pricing of their product. But, depending on how you wind up using it, you may not do much—if any—downloading of your stored data. Considering how I plan to use Backblaze B2, it seems like a much fairer way to price retrieving your stored data.

How much work did it wind up being?

For the sake of this blog, I thought I’d demonstrate setting up a task that backed up the latest copy of my entire blog up to Backblaze B2. I figured I’d set everything up on Backblaze B2 in such a way that only the latest copy of what’s being stored on my NAS is uploaded and stored in the cloud. While I’m intrigued at the backup options and versioning that Backblaze B2 offers, I also didn’t want to wind up paying for storing multiple copies. I’m fine with only having the latest copies of my files backed up on Backblaze B2. With that in mind, here’s what I wound up doing.

Setting up Backblaze B2

  1. Create a Bucket
  2. Set the Lifecycle Settings to keep only the last version of the file.
  3. Follow the Show Account ID and Application Key link to Add an Application Key
    1. Name the Key
    2. Specify which bucket(s) to grant it access to.
    3. Specify the Type of Access (Read and Write)
    4. Note all the key information somewhere for later.
Creating a bucket Setting bucket's lifecycle settings Generating an application key


And that was it! I’d set up a bucket to retain only the latest copy of uploaded files. Now I just needed to set up my FreeNAS box to start syncing the bucket up with the current contents of my blog.

Configuring FreeNAS

Enter Cloud Credentials

  1. Expand System
  2. Expand Cloud Credentials
  3. Select Add Cloud Credential
    1. Name the Cloud Credential
    2. Choose Backblaze B2
    3. Enter the keyID (from above) as the Account ID
    4. Enter the text created and displayed one time only by Backblaze as the Application Key

Set up Cloud Sync Task

  1. Expand Tasks
  2. Pick Add Cloud Sync
    1. Add a Description
    2. Pick Push for Direction
    3. Pick your Cloud Credential from above for Provider
    4. Pick the bucket the sync is pushing to for Backblaze B2 Buckets
    5. Set the Path to the local Path of what you’re wanting to push to B2
    6. Set the Transfer Mode to Sync
    7. Pick the Task Scheduling Options which match your needs

Adding Cloud Credential for B2 application key Configuring the Cloud Sync tasks Cloud Sync task created. Cloud Sync task in progress Cloud Sync task completes


Overall, this was pretty much as easy as it seemed in the Backing Up FreeNAS and TrueNAS to Backblaze B2 blog made it sound like it’d be. For the most part, it was a pretty painless exercise. As I’ve been working on this blog, I’ve set up additional tasks to back up the critical files we’ve collected since we began using the NAS as primary storage. As I write these words, my NAS is working pretty tirelessly behind me. With each passing moment that my Cloud Sync tasks are running, I’m feeling a bit more at ease with the welfare of my critical data.

Gotchas!

Once it was all said and done, I was pretty pleased with how this worked out. Backing up my NAS to Backblaze B2 was easier than I would’ve anticipated. However, there were a couple wrinkles along the way:

Interestingly enough, it took a try or two to get this running. My first attempt at running my Cloud Sync task claimed it was running, but no files were showing up in Backblaze and there wasn’t any outbound traffic on my NAS. After a while, I went in to look at the details of my Cloud Sync task and it wouldn’t (or couldn’t) pull up my list of buckets and there was a red error message which only read “22.” I did some digging around on Backblaze and found out that I’d hit my daily allotment of free Class C Transactions, which is 2500. After punching in my credit card info (Class C Transactions cost $0.004 per 1,000) and removing the cap, I saw the counts for the Class C transaction calls climbing by the thousands, but never saw any files transferred. I was stumped—I even posted a thread on the FreeNAS forums hoping someone would tell me if I’d made a newbie’s mistake or if there was some tweaking that I needed to do.

Because I’m impatient, I went ahead and upgraded from FreeNAS-11.1-RELEASE to FreeNAS-11.1-U6, and the next time I created and executed a Cloud Sync task, it started right up! I’m not entirely certain what fixed it: the upgrade, the waiting a couple days, or the entering of my credit card information and removal of the cap on Class C Transactions. But one or more of these steps seems to have solved my problem.

One other potential gotcha is that the Cloud Sync tasks are not currently using any client-side encryption. The client (rclone, I believe) being used to accomplish the Cloud Sync tasks to Backblaze B2 is capable of encryption, but the FreeNAS implementation does not currently leverage it. As I understand it, a feature request was submitted for client-side encryption and is going to be part of the upcoming FreeNAS 11.2 release, which is currently in its second beta. Once the client-side encryption feature is available in an official release, I’ll be emptying my buckets and refilling them with encrypted files.

Brian, what if I don’t have a FreeNAS or any NAS at all?

Wanting a solution to back up my PCs is what drove me to build my very first DIY NAS. If Backblaze had been as mature back then, I may have never had a justification to build a NAS in the first place! My advice to many of you would be to go ahead and build your own DIY NAS! After all, you’ve come to the right place to get started. I’ve got a DIY FreeNAS build to get you started thinking about how to build your very own FreeNAS machine.

However, if you don’t want to build your very own NAS, Backblaze has an awesome unlimited backup product which features a user-friendly client application that runs on either on your Macintosh or Windows. You could bypass the NAS entirely and start backing your PCs to Backblaze for five dollars a month per PC!

What about You?

I’m pretty excited with what I’ve been able to accomplish by backing up my FreeNAS machine to Backblaze B2. It ultimately solves a great big concern that I had with my prior strategy of keeping everything on the NAS and hoping that nothing catastrophic happened to my data or to my NAS. When it’s all said and done, I expect the cost of Backblaze B2 to be slightly less expensive for our uses, since we tend to aggregate all of our important data on the NAS and then access it from our various computers. But, given my experience so far, I’d happily switch to the Backblaze Unlimited Backup at $5/mo per PC if it turns out to be the more frugal option.

Are you using a cloud storage service to back up your critical data? What service(s) are you using and how much data are you backing up? What feature (like client-side encryption) would you like to see FreeNAS incorporate in future versions to further leverage services like Backblaze B2?

Brian’s Home Theater PC: The Hardware

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For a long time, I’ve been out of HDMI inputs on my television; the Fire TV, PlayStation 4, Steam Link, Google Chromecast, Blu-ray player, and my cable box were too much for my poor television to handle all at once. Never mind the other random gaming consoles and devices that get dragged out of storage from time to time. For a long time, I had an inexpensive HDMI switchbox which I’d routed all the gaming devices through, but I didn’t really like that I had added yet another device to my home entertainment setup. When things went wrong, and they often did, I was muttering expletives and juggling between 3 and 5 remotes to get what I wanted output to the television.

Out of frustration one time, I exclaimed “I wish I could just consolidate down a couple of these devices!” and unwittingly sowed the seed for a new blog topic and computer build—a Home Theater PC!

Needs

Ultimately, my lack of HDMI inputs and resistance to buying another HDMI switchbox or even a fancier TV is what set me down on this path. My most basic need was pretty plain: find a way to consolidate at least two devices down into the home theater PC (HTPC). At the very least, I wanted to replicate the functionality of at least two of my devices inside the HTPC. Additionally, my family has been keeping in touch with our extended family via Google Hangouts since the birth of my son. I figured as long as I was adding PC hardware to my entertainment center, I may as well make it so that we could do these Hangouts from our own couch instead of cramped around one of our desktop PCs, or worse, our smart phones.

The Objective

Ultimately, I decided that the Steam Link and Blu-ray player were the best two devices to consolidate into my HTPC. Other good candidates for consolidation were the Chromecast and FireTV. Having done a bit of initial investigation, it seemed like Kodi was going to be just what I wanted to accomplish my primary objective. Beyond my primary objective, Kodi’s extensive add-ons library also seemed like it might be able to potentially add the functionality of other devices. Even better, the extensive Kodi Add-ons library promised to add all sorts of functionality to my home theater that I hadn’t even thought of yet.

Hardware

Normally in my blogs like this, I dive headfirst into the hardware in painstaking detail, justifying the choices I made. While I think that the hardware is quite important, I think the focus of an HTPC build is the software behind it. Nevertheless, I still obsessed a bit over the hardware. In picking out my components, I had these few loose requirements in mind:

  • I wanted it to look like it fit into my entertainment center without seeming obtrusive or like it didn’t belong.
  • It needed an HDMI out.
  • The hardware needed to be powerful enough to natively run some games on its own.
  • Whatever games it couldn’t run on its own, it needed to have the option of streaming others from my gaming PC.

Case and Power Supply

Considering my entertainment center’s layout, the case found itself scaling up the importance list. I had a very specifically-sized cubby in the entertainment center and I wound up deciding that I wanted a basic case without any fancy doors to hide my access to an optical drive. It was also important to me that the case had two front-facing USB ports for an infrared receiver and possible Bluetooth adapter.

I wound up deciding that I liked the SilverStone Technology GD09B (specs) primarily because it would fit so nicely in my entertainment center. Its single external 5.25” drive bay could fit an optical drive—assuming I chose to add one—and it had two USB 3.0 ports on the front for any USB devices I’d wind up needing. For a power supply, I chose the Rosewill Arc Series 450 Watt (specs) primarily for its cost. At 450 watts, it was capably sized for the hardware I was planning on running with hopefully enough extra capacity to perhaps survive an upgrade to a couple components over its lifespan.

CPU, Motherboard, and RAM

So far, I’ve been really happy with the AMD Ryzen 1800X that I put into my primary desktop/gaming PC in late July of last year. Part of my objective in my HTPC was to consolidate my Steam Link into the HTPC, but another secondary objective was to improve the performance of playing my Steam Library. The Steam Link is a brilliant device, but some of the latency introduced by the mechanics of how it worked doesn’t work as well with games that required speedy, twitchy responses. At the same rate, I didn’t want to build a new PC more powerful than my old one—so I tempered my lust for bigger and badder by opting for the AMD Ryzen 1500X CPU(specs) for my HTPC build.

My motherboard of choice on this particular build was the ASRock AB350 Pro4 Motherboard (specs). At its price, it seemed like a decent value, and I’ve had some pretty good luck with ASRock motherboards in a few of my DIY NAS builds, including my own. I was somewhat tempted to try the Ryzen’s onboard video, but opted instead to buy a separate GPU. The motherboard’s 8 different USB connectors—2 front, 1 Type-C, and 5 on the back of the motherboard—addressed a remote concern of running out of USB ports.

In comparison to other computers I’ve built recently, I skimped on the RAM in this build. In case you haven’t noticed recently, RAM prices are pretty outrageous right now. While I haven’t investigated to understand the reason prices are sky-high, I’ve seen the effects in shopping for my last two computer builds. I opted to bite the bullet for my HTPC to go light and buy a Crucial Ballistix Tactical 8GB Kit (specs). If I had my way, I would’ve put 16GB of RAM into this machine, but I imagine that 8GB will be quite fine for most of what I want to do.

GPU

Because I wanted to play some games using my HTPC, I opted to pick a GPU. Hopefully something powerful enough to handle most of my Steam Library and hopefully all of the stuff I’d be willing to play on a couch! I settled on the MSI GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GT LP (specs). Hopefully there aren’t many titles that I can’t play straight off of the bat at my TV. Should I come across a game title which the MSI GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GT LP can’t handle on its own, I will look into using Steam’s streaming to run the game on my main PC but play it down on the couch.

Storage

My days of using platter hard drives for anything other than storage are pretty far behind me, which is why I chose the Samsung 850 EVO 250GB. I’ve owned quite a few of the Samsung 850 EVO SSDs and haven’t had nearly as many problems with them as I have with platter drives. However, I also do build one or two NAS builds every year and I’m always looking to upgrade my own NAS. As a result, there’s a shelf in my closet with a number of old platter hard drives that were once in a NAS. One of these drives is bound to wind up in my HTPC, for no other reason than to be there for when I run out of storage on the SSD.

In picking out parts, I put something in this HTPC that I’d sworn years ago I’d never install in another computer ever, a LG Electronics 14x SATA Blu-ray Rewriter (WH14NS40) (specs). At this point, I’ve still got a few DVDs and Blu-rays that have sentimental value that I can’t bring myself to donate or get rid of. I hoped that in building my HTPC that I might be able to create a better experience for watching DVDs or Blu-rays than I currently get on my Playstation 4.

Input

I had the most amount of fun shopping for the input devices than I did the rest of the HTPC build. Don’t get me wrong, I love shopping for PC components, but with as much as I do it for my other blogs, it gets a bit repetitive. Trying to find the right input devices wound up creating a bit of uniqueness in the HTPC build.

Because I’d be sitting clear across the living room on the couch, I wanted a decent wireless keyboard. Something small enough to fit in the storage bins built into our sectional sofa and with an integrated touchpad. After a bit of searching, I wound up finding the 1byone Ultra-Slim Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard (specs): a small, rechargeable Bluetooth keyboard and touchpad mouse combination. If anything, it might be a bit too small. I can’t imagine ever spending much time using the keyboard, but I wanted to have one nearby for when my remote control fails me.

One day, I envision having a single remote that works with all of my devices at my entertainment center. That remote will be intuitive to use, it will be simple to add new devices, it will intelligently figure out which devices need to be running and configure them for specific activities, and it’ll solve world hunger. Given my experience with universal remotes, I don’t think that device will ever exist! But when it does, I want it to be able to talk to my HTPC, so I added a FLIRC USB (2nd Generation) Universal Remote Control Receiver to plug into the front of my HTPC. I’m hoping that it’s within my capability and patience to be able to program my universal remote to control the media being played on my HTPC.

And to go along with that IR receiver, I picked out a Plugable USB Bluetooth 4.0 Low-Energy Micro Adapter (specs). The Bluetooth receiver was required to work with the keyboard and my various Playstation 4 controllers, which I plan to use when gaming. I’m hoping that the Bluetooth comes in handy for other purposes too, perhaps the streaming of media from our various Android or iOS devices. Maybe even a remote control app which runs on our phones?

Component Part Price
Motherboard ASRock AB350 PRO4 ATX Motherboard specs $84.99
CPU AMD Ryzen 5 1500X Processor with Wraith Spire Cooler specs $149.99
RAM Crucial Ballistix Tactical 8GB Kit (4GBx2) DDR4 2666 MT/s (PC4-21300) specs $101.99
Graphics Card MSI GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GT LP specs $209.00
Case SilverStone Technology GD09B specs $79.99
Power Supply Rosewill Arc Series 450 Watt specs $40.99
SSD Samsung 850 EVO 250GB specs $74.95
Hard Disk Drive Some Random 2TB HDD that I had laying around the house N/A N/A
Optical Drive LG Electronics 14x SATA Blu-ray Rewriter (WH14NS40) specs $50.99
IR Receiver FLIRC USB (2nd Generation) Universal Remote Control Receiver specs $22.95
Bluetooth Receiver Plugable USB Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy Micro Adapter specs $12.95
Keyboard / Mouse 1byone Ultra-Slim Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard w/ Built-in Touchpad specs $25.99
TOTAL $738.84

Brian's HTPC Parts

Assembly

The hardest part of putting this particular machine together was talking about it! I’ve watched my assembly video a few times and cringed at my misspeaking, mistakes, and the video quality a countless number of times! Compared to my more compact DIY NAS builds, the assembly went quite well. If you labored through the entire video, I pity you, but you also understand that about the biggest challenge I had was getting the video to display on my ancient monitor.

What’s Next?

Well, first I’m going to brush off four months’ worth of dust and accumulation and then I’m going to get an OS loaded. I haven’t completely decided yet, but I’m leaning towards a Windows installation on this HTPC. From a hardware perspective, I didn’t risk having to wrestle with finding drivers for the Bluetooth and IR dongles. More importantly, gaming’s an important aspect of my HTPC, and Windows has a much bigger gaming footprint. After the OS is loaded and the hardware has been tinkered with, I will start digging into Kodi and its competitors.

Brian's HTPC

In all that tinkering and learning, I suspect there will be ample material for another blog. Hopefully it won’t take another four months to get it fired up, but you never know—there could be a NAS build lurking and waiting to hog my attention!

Quadcopter Garage Sale – July 2018

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When I pick a new hobby, I go “whole hog,” and quadcopters has been no different. In fact, I’ve been more active with quadcopters than I am able to keep up with in writing blogs. I build, break, upgrade, and retire drones at such a rate that it has often exceeded my capacity to write about. As a result, I’ve been accumulating drone-related stuff that may not be all that useful to me anymore, but it’s still quite useful.

Have you been interested in quadcopters, but not knowing the best way to begin? I think that a deeply discounted, somewhat-used quadcopter is a great place to get started!

So here’s the deal…

I’m looking for an easy way to free up my drone storage and maybe buy a few spare parts for my favorite quadcopters with the proceeds. Let me start off by saying “Caveat Emptor!” Everything I’m listing here is going to be sold “as-is” without any kind of warranty or promises. The prices include me paying for shipping within the United States; if you’re outside the US then I’m very sorry but I won’t be able to sell to you. When it comes to people who may live in the same massive metroplex that I do, I’d really prefer if you just let me ship it, but maybe I can be talked into meeting up somewhere to deliver things.

Without further ado, here are the things I’m selling or have sold:

Sold

DJI Spark Fly More ComboSOLD!

Update (7/15 at 4PM): The DJI Spark sold!

With my first quadcopter, I was convinced that I’d be way more interested in aerial photography than flying FPV drones. So much so, that I raced out an preordered the DJI Spark Fly More combo when it was announced. I figured it’d be a good foray into drone photography and let me know if it was a good fit. Sadly, aerial photography just wasn’t all that interesting to me. As a result, my DJI Spark follows me out to the park every time I go flying but never manages to get up in the air. Rather than letting it gather dust any longer, I figured I’d put it up for sale!

Auction Link Opening Bid Buy it Now Final Price Status
DJI Spark Fly More Combo on eBay $150.00 $300.00 $300.00 Sold


KingKong 90GT++ and Spare PartsSOLD!

Update (7/22 at 7PM): The KingKong 90GT++ sold!

I love the KingKong 90GT; I’d never be where I am today without it. It’s the quadcopter that I learned how to fly FPV with. It was a fun little quadcopter that I could fly around easily enough outside, but it was inexpensive enough that I was emboldened to take the risks that allowed me to steadily make improvements until I was every bit as willing to take the same risks with bigger quadcopters.

The 90GT ultimately wound up getting pushed out of my bag by the fact that I simply had too many other quadcopters which I enjoyed. About my only complaint about the 90GT was that it was too powerful for inside the house, but not quite powerful enough to substitute in for my other bigger quadcopters.

In this auction, there’s literally one ready-to-fly quadcopter with a FrSky receiver, an entire assembled replacement, and a whole bevy of replacement parts—including spare flight controllers and video transmitters.

Auction Link Opening Bid Buy it Now Final Price Status
KingKong 90GT and Parts on eBay $35.00 $90.00 $126.50 Sold


Pseudo++SOLD!

Update (7/22 at 7PM): The Pseudo++ sold!

In my opinion, this is by far the best quadcopter I’m selling—but depending on your point of view it may also be the worst. I wanted to build a premium, mini quadcopter capable of keeping up with my bigger quadcopters and recording HD footage. It started out a bit more modest, as Brian’s Pseudo Mini Quadcopter. Since building it, I’ve upgraded the motors to the T-Motor F20 II, I’ve upgraded the frame to the HyperLite Tooth Fairy 3” frame, and I tried to upgrade the flight controller/ESC to a new stack with a built-in VTX in the ARTOWER Mini ARF4-SVTX F4 flight controller.

However, what I found was that I don’t like building tiny quadcopters. There’s too much going on in not enough room, so it wound up being something that I didn’t like doing. This was further complicated by the fact that any time I did a roll, it’d roll out of control until it crashed. I’ve seen similar problems that wound up being a bad ESC, but rather than subject myself to fixing it, I just ordered something prebuilt.

Please note that in the terrible picture of the flight controller, you see the wires of the receiver. The receiver is not part of this auction as I’ll be using it on a different quadcopter. Currently, Pseudo is in a bunch of pieces. But if you’re willing to tinker and put it back together, you can get a premium 3-inch quadcopter for a fraction of the price!

Auction Link Opening Bid Buy it Now Final Price Status
Pseudo++ on eBay $40.00 $100.00 $80.00 Sold


Furibee X215 ProSOLD!

Update (7/22 at 7PM): The Furibee X215 Pro sold!

At one point, I was looking to compliment my quadcopters with a decent “backup” quadcopter for when I wrecked one of my favorites. And then a funny thing happened, I mostly stopped wrecking my favorite quadcopters. And we also got better and more efficient at fixing our quadcopters. I only flew this FuriBee X215 Pro a handful of times. It flew well enough, but I wasn’t super impressed with it and very quickly it wound up gathering dust in a box. It’s been a few months, but it flew just fine the last time I took it up. My X215 includes a FrSky receiver. Check out UAVFutures’ review of the X215 Pro which convinced me to buy it in the first place.

Auction Link Opening Bid Buy it Now Final Price Status
Furibee X215 Pro on eBay $50.00 $125.00 $102.50 Sold


Miscellaneous Odds and Ends

STRIX 4S Parallel Charging BoardSOLD!

Update (7/22 at 7PM): The STRIX 4S Parallel Charging Board sold!

I really, really liked the STRIX 4S Parallel Charging Board, but ultimately I wound up building quadcopters around 6S batteries and it got a bit constraining to be so limited to the kind of batteries that I could charge. I wound up switching over to a different balance charging board, but figured someone out there might appreciate their own STRIX 4S Parallel Charging Board

Auction Link Opening Bid Buy it Now Final Price Status
STRIX 4S Parallel Charging Board on eBay $10.00 $20.00 $18.50 Sold


Lumenier DX800 DVR w/ 5.8GHz 32CH ReceiverSOLD!

Update (7/22 at 7PM): The Lumenier DX800 DVR sold!

Among the things I’ve always wished was that it’d be easier for us to share a display with a random stranger who comes up to us in the park and wants to learn a little bit about our first-person-view quadcopter shenanigans. I had thought that this Lumenier DX800 DVR w/ 5.8GHz 32CH Receiver would make it easy to hand off a working display to that spectator so that they could see what’s going on. However, given that we fly primarily during the day, it wound up being really difficult for folks to see with or without the included sunshade (which I’ve misplaced). Pretty quickly, I figured out that this wasn’t going to be a solution for me, but it might work better for you!

Auction Link Opening Bid Buy it Now Final Price Status
Lumenier DX800 DVR w/ 5.8GHz 32CH Receiver on eBay $25.00 $52.00 N/A Sold


SKYRC IMAX B6AC v2SOLD!

Update (7/22 at 7PM): The SKYRC IMAX B6AC v2 sold!

The SKYRC IMAX B6AC v2 wound up being my very first LiPo battery charger; it had come highly recommended to me by a friend with expertise. And it served me very well for quite a long time. I charged single batteries, I charged batteries in parallel (with the charging board above!), but I wound up coming across a different battery charger that I wound up liking better because I could combine it and a really big battery and do some field charging. My new charger quickly replaced the B6AC for all my charging duties.

Auction Link Opening Bid Buy it Now Final Price Status
SKYRC IMAX B6AC v2 on eBay $13.00 $26.00 $21.29 Sold



Conclusion

At the rate that I’m buying, breaking, and upgrading quadcopters, I think this will turn into a regular thing. I’m hoping that as I do bigger and badder things with my drones, that someone curious can come in and buy what I’ve outgrown to get into the hobby on their own.

Trade Wars 2002: My First Gaming Addiction

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A long, long time ago in a decade we refer to as “the 80s,” I was a fledgling computer geek—a fire sparked and stoked by my parents when they purchased a used Apple IIe. In the midst of my tween years, one of my older cousins came over with a handful of floppy disks and showed me a number of new things. One of the things he introduced me to was the world of dial-up bulletin board systems (BBS), and by the time he left that afternoon, I was hooked!

In short, a BBS was essentially a very crude social-networking platform. You would use your dial-up modem and a terminal program to connect, and once you managed to log-in, you could post messages, share files, and most importantly to my younger self, play games. BBSes came in all shapes and sizes, from small single-line BBSes operated by hobbyists to great big complicated multi-line BBSes hooked into big messaging and file-sharing nodes.

What really became my obsession in the BBS universe were the BBS door games. A BBS door was essentially a way the BBS handed off a user to an external application. The type of BBS doors that got my attention were the door games. The fact that I could play games against other people without them being present was amazing and exciting to me. Games like Solar Realms Elite, Operation Overkill II, Global War, and even Freshwater Fishing Simulator occupied the majority of my time whilst dialed in to the BBS. Regardless of the games’ subject matter, they all operated pretty similarly: each day you received an amount of turns which were used up as you played the game. A particular genre of BBS Door games wound up drawing the majority my attention: space trading and adventuring.


I played the original Trade Wars before moving on to Yankee Trader and then eventually to what I consider the penultimate game of this category: Trade Wars 2002 (TW2002). The game was built upon each player using a spaceship to buy and sell goods to accumulate wealth. That wealth, in turn, was used to buy bigger and badder ships, colonize planets, and eventually to conquer the universe.

At the time, TW2002 was, in my opinion, the pinnacle of online gaming. Keep in mind however, that it reached its peak in popularity at a time when the term “online gaming” didn’t even exist yet. One of my favorite features of TW2002 was its animated ANSI graphics for some of the game play mechanics. Destroying a ship, a planet, or even getting blown up yourself all resulted in some nifty animations which looked pretty awesome to me over my 2400 baud modem in 1980-something. For comparison’s sake, my Frontier FiOS is capable of nearly 9 million characters per second, while that 2400 baud modem’s maximum throughput was right around 236 characters per second. My FiOS is roughly 38,000 times faster than that modem. Considering the limited transmission capabilities of that age’s technology, I am impressed that anything was animated in the game at all.

Little geeky tweenage Brian played TW2002 on a handful of different BBSes. I’d like to be able to gaze back through my rose-tinted glasses and wax poetic about the mastery of the many universes I demonstrated, how I’d built massive empires in different galaxies and ruled them firmly but fairly. But I’m modest enough to admit that I was a very middling player. I was always excited to crack the top 5 or 10 players on any of my BBSes. It’s this admission that really typifies what a great game TW2002 is—it was so entertaining to me that I enjoyed playing it even though I might not have been very good at it.


Sometime around 2000 to 2002, I got nostalgic about BBSing and I wound up spending a few dollars and standing up my own BBS which ran as a telnet server over my Internet connection instead of using a modem and phone line. I named that BBS “Oober BBS,” which I am surprised to see that it still turns up in Google’s search results. I wound up standing up quite a few of my favorite BBS door games, but my entire motivation around that nostalgia was playing some more TW2002. Sadly, back then I didn’t have nearly the digital reach that I have today, and only a few of my friends even had an idea of what a BBS was. As a result, my own BBS experiment didn’t wind up being very successful.

But the other day, I was discussing Trade Wars 2002 over at the Plano-area Makerspace, TheLab.ms, and I was excited to find out that a handful of the other members had also been into the BBS scene and played some of the games like TW2002. I mentioned to them that I had licenses to the game and asked about their interest in joining me in my nostalgic gaming kick. Enough people seemed interested that I decided to try and get a virtual machine spun up in Azure and see if I could start up a game of Trade Wars 2002 which everyone could play.

Without further ado, I’m genuinely excited to announce that I’m resurrecting a sliver of the Oober BBS by bringing its Trade Wars Game Server back online. The Trade Wars Game Server can function independently of any BBS software now and is accessible over the Internet.

How do I connect?

First you’ll need some sort of a telnet client to connect to the Trade Wars Game Server. There are a plethora of free Telnet clients, but my favorite one has almost always been PuTTY. As an alternative, there’s at least one Trade Wars game client that I’ve found so far that I like: SWATH. Unfortunately, it’s not free, and to be honest I think it’s a bit expensive at $26.00. However, there are quite a bit of features and functionality built into SWATH that are extremely handy. In fact, it has a scripting language of some sort that I hope to use and create a bot that can scrape some information about the game and help me automatically tweet a thing or two about what’s going on.

Brian’s TWGS Info
Addresstw2002.briancmoses.com
Port23
Discord Chathttps://discord.gg/57nGRSF

Play!

I have included a very simple javascript telnet client on this webpage. If you’re serious about playing, then I definitely suggest using an actual telnet client like the ones I suggested above, but if you’re just curious and want to check out Trade Wars 2002, then this will do the trick!


Game Info

At the moment, there’s only one game running. That may change in the future, but you can find the initial game’s settings and info as of 3/3/2018 at 9:45 AM below. Everything is currently set to the default values. What sort of tweaks and adjustments would you like to see in future games? Please make sure to leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Registered to    : Brian's Blog
Version          : 3.34b                Host type           : TWGS v2
Age of game      : 141 days             Days since start    : 141 days
Delete if idle   : 30 days

Players in game  : 24    of max 200     Percent good        : 83%
Aliens in game   : 50    of max 0       Percent good        : 36%
Ports in game    : 393   of max 400     Value of ports      : 13052553
Planets in game  : 175   of max 200     Percent w/ Citadels : 26%
Ships in game    : 40    of max 800     Corps in game       : 10
Figs in game     : 563232               Mines in game       : 863

Game type        : Open                 Game time           : 09:52:40 AM
Time per day     : Unlimited            Turns per day       : 250
Planetary Trade %: 60%                  Steal from BUY port : Yes
Initial fighters : 30                   Clear Busts Every   : 7 Days
Initial credits  : 300                  Last Bust Clear     : Yesterday
Initial holds    : 20                   Multiple Photon fire: No
Sectors in game  : 1000                 Display StarDock    : Yes
Start with planet: Yes                  Classic Ferrengi    : Yes
Production Rate  : 5% / Day             Max Regen per Visit : 100%
Tournament Mode  : Off                  Invincible Ferrengal: No


Report Settings
---------------

High Score Mode    : On demand          High Score Type   : Values
Rankings Mode      : On demand          Rankings Type     : Values + Titles
Entry Log Blackout : None               Game Log Blackout : None
Port Report Delay  : No Delay

Delays
------

Ship Attack/Move : Third (1/3 s/t)      Planet Move    : None
Other Attack     : None                 Rob/Steal      : Constant (2 s)
Photon Launch    : None                 Photon Blast   : None
Ship IG          : None                 Planetary IG   : None
Dock/Depart      : None                 Land/Takeoff   : None
Drop/Take Mines  : None                 Drop/Take Figs : None
Planet Transport : None                 Ship Transport : None
EtherProbe Move  : None                 GenTorp Launch : None

IO Emulation
------------

Input Bandwidth  : 1 Mps Broadband
Output Bandwidth : 1 Mps Broadband
Latency          : 150 ms

Sonoff S31: I Cannot Imagine a Better Smart Outlet!

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I’ve been a big fan of the Sonoff lines of products, starting with the Sonoff and Slampher back in 2015 and then again last year with the Sonoff TH and POW products. I’ve liked them primarily for two reasons: they’ve been based on the ESP8266 and because they are comparatively inexpensive. I’ve tried other products, namely the Belkin WeMo, and I’ve found that the Sonoff products compare favorably in nearly every category. I was really excited when the Sonoff S31 became available—it was by far their most appealing product to date.

With the prior Sonoff products, there was a tiny little bit of assembly required. Not too much, mind you. But you did have to hack into the power cords of your devices, or in my case, I’d cut up little power-extension cables and wire them up. I must admit that hacking these power cords up and integrating the Sonoff products actually wound up being a bit of a selling point for me. It was a bit fun to have to do the wiring, but I could see how that might scare off consumers that are not as eager to play with electricity.

Nothing bad ever happened with my Sonoff products, mind you. The worst thing that happened was that I put a couple together poorly and had to deal with some devices losing power after one of the wires worked loose. Electrocuting myself was never an immediate concern, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind from time to time. However, it made me wonder what might happen if my friends at ITEAD were to try and build a product a bit more finished, like the Belkin WeMo. What would that be like? How would it compete against the other devices like the WeMo?

Enter the Sonoff S31

The Sonoff S31 (specs) appears to be ITEAD’s foray into a more consumer-friendly product. Its most exciting feature is obvious to the naked eye: it has been designed into its own enclosure. The enclosure is small enough that you can comfortably fit two Sonoff S31s into a typical outlet here in North America. What I’d had to do with my previous Sonoff TH and Sonoff POW was to screw them into the wall nearby, which wasn’t always the nicest-looking solution. Even though I had enjoyed hacking into electrical cables and wiring up to the prior generations of Sonoff products, it occasionally worried me that things might come loose. Being able to eliminate the potential of my own shoddy work immediately piqued my interest when I learned of the Sonoff S31’s existence, and at around $18.00, I was really excited with how it was more affordable from the comparable units from other manufacturers.

Power Features Built-in!

I borrowed Pat’s Kill a Watt so frequently that it was every bit as likely to be found at my house as it was his! After borrowing the Kill a Watt for the umpteenth time, I went ahead and bought my own. Over the years, I’ve used it in a number of different ways—just about anything I’ve ever expected to use more than its fair share of electricity has found itself plugged into my Kill a Watt. My curiosity about devices’ power consumption was what had me the most excited about reviewing the Sonoff POW last year.

The Sonoff S31 took the advances of the Sonoff POW a step further. Within the app, in addition to displaying the wattage being drawn by the Sonoff S31, the app also displayed the current and the source voltage. Digging into the details of the device in the EWelink app gives you the ability to measure power consumption over time and set up a number of alarms (realtime power minimum/maximum threshold, current threshold, and voltage threshold).

The ability to monitor and report on the power consumed by the device(s) plugged into the Sonoff S31 is a huge selling point to me. I’ve had my Kill a Watt for quite some time, but its price is pretty much exactly what I paid for it a few years ago. The fact that I can get a Sonoff S31 for pretty much the same exact price would make it really easy for me to suggest that people who are interested in measuring the power consumed by their devices check out the Sonoff S31 over the Kill a Watt. Being able to monitor the Sonoff S31 on a mobile phone from anywhere with Internet access makes it a better alternative to the Kill a Watt.

      

Home Automation

The best part of the maturation of ITEAD’s Sonoff products is the integration of services like IFTTT, and products like Amazon Echo and Google Home. The past couple months I’ve been playing with one of the Raspberry Pi-driven Google AIY Kits at home. Apparently, I have been engrossed enough with the Google AIY Kit, that my wife bought me a Google Home as an anniversary present. And just a few weeks prior, Santa had brought an Amazon Echo Spot for my wife this year. The fact that the Sonoff S31 was being advertised as compatible with both the Google Home and Amazon Echo products was a tremendously interesting feature for our whole household.

That being said, I probably wouldn’t define being able to ask Google (or Alexa) to turn my lights on for me as home automation. You’re simply using your voice to replicate what you used your hands to do previously, turn something on and off. In the end, you’re still the one manually turning the lights on or off. If you have a stricter definition of home automation and you’re looking for a much more truly automatic solution, look no further than openHAB, which boasts modules for the Sonoff products. I haven’t had the time yet to dedicate to it, but one of the things I want to run on my homelab machine is an openHAB virtual machine and to create a set of rules to determine whether or not I’m home using a set of conditions like:

  1. If any of our mobile phones can be pinged on the network.
  2. Whether or not our computers’ screensavers are active.
  3. The TV is on.
  4. The time of day.
  5. Etc.

Using those conditions and openHAB will allow for some actual home automation. But all of that’s a topic for another day! I look forward to seeing how my Sonoff S31 and other Sonoff products end up working into those plans!

I used a Sonoff S31 to control my face!

I wanted to experiment with the different ways I could work with the Sonoff S31, both semi-automated and automated. Especially since my darling wife bought me a Google Home for Valentine’s Day. Here’s a couple quick and tasks that I built around using the Sonoff S31’s capabilities.

Using IFTTT

My son, Gunnar, is nearly two years old and is absolutely the current center of our universe. A couple times while commuting home from my day job, I’ve been apprised that Gunnar’s been screaming “Where’s Daddy?!” at my exasperated wife. Back when I was building my keezer, I purchased a silly custom edge-lit LED sign with my face on it. Since buying it, it has dutifully sat on top of a built-in bookcase and perpetually lit up.

I was looking at it just the other day and thought that it’d be neat if I used [IFTTT][ifttt], my mobile phone, a Sonoff S31, and my sign to indicate whether I was close to home or not. Using the GPS on my phone along with its Internet access, I could turn the sign on as I got within a few miles of the house. Or using the EWelink app, maybe my wife could placate Gunnar for an extra few minutes by turning the sign on from her own phone.

Using Google Home

As a Valentine’s Day gift this year, my wife bought me a Google Home smart speaker. I’ve barely had a chance to tinker with it, essentially using it as a fancy kitchen timer for the making of my morning upside-down method AeroPress cofee, playing some music, and telling me whether or not the weather’s going to let me fly my quadcopter this week. Considering the timing of this blog, it only seemed to make sense to try and see how complicated integrating the Sonoff S31 to Google Home’s functionality was.

And you know what I found out? It’s not hard at all! Not only was I able to integrate ITEAD’s latest in the Sonoff S31, but every Sonoff device in my account was pulled in by Google Home and worked right off the bat. Even the protoype of the first Sonoff product that I was given to review nearly three years ago immediately started working with the Google Home. To be completely honest, I was astonished at how easy it was to get my Sonoff devices working with the Google Home.

How does the Sonoff S31 Compare?

I’ve tinkered with quite a few “smart outlets” like the Sonoff, and in the past I’ve preferred the Sonoff’s inexpensive price despite the Sonoff requiring the splicing of electrical cords as part of its installation. A little bit of work on my part was always worth the fact that the Sonoff products were a fraction of the price of similar products. In the Sonoff S31, ITEAD has built something to compete directly with the likes of the WeMo Mini Smart Plug and tp-link Smart WiFi Plug Mini. However, in the case of the Sonoff S31, it is both considerably cheaper than the other products and it includes power-monitoring features that the other two completely lack.

Final Thoughts

I’m pretty excited about the Sonoff S31. It is absolutely everything that I could ask for in a “smart” outlet. It has a small footprint, it has power-monitoring features, it integrates into both the Google Home and Amazon Echo products, it’s bit hackable, and—best of all—it’s inexpensive! In my opinion, the folks at ITEAD have really hit a home run with this product. ITEAD originally offered to send me one free Sonoff S31 to review, but when I saw its cost and features, I went ahead and bought 4 of my own. Now that I’ve had the chance to use the Sonoff S31, I’m pretty eager to buy additional ones and begin automating or monitoring more of the things plugged into my home’s outlets! As a bonus to my blog’s readers, ITEAD has issued a coupon code. Enter S6CUSNS9 for 10% off either a 1 or 2 pack of the S31 when buying them from Amazon (Link:Sonoff S31 on Amazon)!

Meepo Board: An Electric Skateboard Review

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Note from Brian: Ever since my good friend, Alex, taught a dingbat like me how to build a quadcopter, I’ve been telling him that he should start up a blog and share that same knowledge and passion for teaching with the rest of the Internet. My persistence and stubbornness finally paid off when Alex bought a new toy and was finally excited enough to write a blog of his own. To try and encourage him to get started, I told him I’d publish whatever he wrote. Hopefully some day in the future, we’ll see Alex’s content hosting on his own blog. But until then, I’m honored to publish what he wants to share.

The search for my first electric skateboard started about a year ago. The idea to acquire an electric skateboard was born out of my love for snowboarding as a teenager, and the subsequent fact that there is not much snowboarding in or around Dallas, Texas. The experience of carving down (or up) slopes and bike trails that ran through the trees, parks, and underpasses was something that definitely sparked my interest. The utility of an electric skateboard seemed like an afterthought, but was intriguing nonetheless.

The Search Begins

I consider myself a fairly DIY-oriented guy and with the previous endeavors of building computers, 3D printers, racing drones, and the occasional A/V rack, I felt prepared to build my own electric skateboard. Just a short four months ago, a simple Google search for a pre-built electric skateboard would return a few Kickstarter projects and the Boosted Board. At $1,500. the Boosted Board was a bit too rich for my blood, which left me to explore DIY options. Another quick search led me to DIY Electric Skateboards and I began pricing out all of the required parts. This website is a great place to get started in all aspects of the e-skate world, from just trying to familiarize yourself, to building your own complete skateboard through their guides and parts, or sourcing your own.

The Basics

To build an electric skateboard you’ll need the following:

  1. Motor/s ($90 per motor)
  2. A front and back truck ($65 for the pair)
  3. The deck ($40 – $150)
  4. Wheels ($50)
  5. Battery ($120 – $300)
  6. VESC ($100 – $150)
  7. Wireless Remote & RX ($20 – $75)
  8. Charger ($30 – $100)

With a few extra odds and ends, you’ll end up spending $600―$1,100 to build your own electric skateboard. This again was a bit pricey for my budget-minded self. I went back to Google, and some new results had bubbled up to the top.

Kieran, aka the Creator of Meepo

The Meepo board was one of the top results. It seemed to be everywhere, reddit, YouTube, Facebook, and about half a dozen e-skate blogs. The Meepo board had blown up. An interview with Kieran was the first result I explored to find out that Kieran used to be an employee at a budget electric skateboard manufacturing company in China, but had decided to create his own company with a more personal touch. The Meepo Facebook page still posts pictures of YOUR board before being shipped out to you, and replies to any questions or problems within the hour. The best part of the Meepo was the price: $400 shipped. This price came in under the DIY cost, and far below the boosted board and pre-built boards like it. The one downside was shipping time: for me this was 29 days. Some of the reason for this delay was the fact that Kieran himself was building the boards with three of his employees, and had a bit of a backlog of orders to fill. Most of the delay was due to his choice of shipping companies and his relatively new relationship with these services.

The Board

When I ordered my board from the Meepo website, it was the only complete board available, now known as the Meepo v1.0. This board had dual hub motors paired with a dual VESC (the speed controller), a 4.4Ah 10s battery, charger, wall mount, deck, trucks, wheels, taillight, and a 2.4GHz wireless remote. The Meepo board has a top speed of 23 MPH and a range of 11 miles depending on the slope or grade of any hills you may be riding up.

Stepping onto the Meepo for the first time brought back some slight nostalgia from my teenage years of cruising around on a traditional street skateboard. It rolls wonderfully without giving the board any power but right out of the box the trucks seemed just slightly too loose (this means the board will turn too easily). I tightened the trucks with the included tool and looked at my remote. There are three speed settings to use on the remote control: slow, medium, and really, really way too fast. They all behave differently in that the slow and medium settings have a nice smooth, maybe even gentle acceleration, but the fast setting is full torque RIGHT NOW.

I chose the slow mode for starters and wow, that feeling of being pushed forward by the skateboard itself is something that everyone should try at least once. The maximum speed on slow mode is about 6 mph, medium is about 15 mph, and of course fast is top speed capped at 23mph. With slow mode enabled, I pushed the throttle to full and the board eased around the parking lot. Six mph is roughly double a normal walking speed, so it was a nice, gentle introduction to the electric-skateboarding world.

After I got my bearings, I decided to pick up the board with the nicely placed handle and move to some paved bike trails. Slow mode was fun, but I decided that it was time to bump it up a notch to medium speed. The behavior of the board remained the same, but it just kept getting faster and faster until I was riding at the full 15 mph. At first I felt a bit uneasy about the speed I was traveling down the bike path. There were no handles to balance myself as I would on a bike or scooter, and finding my center of gravity, whether I should lean forward or back, was something else I was rather unsure of. I slowly got my bearings and was able to relax and lean into my turns a bit more. It really did start to bring back the feeling of snowboarding down the slopes of Michigan again.

The Good

I’ve had the Meepo board for about two months now. Every part of the board is still in perfect condition even after a few mishaps. The polyurethane wheels and tires on the hub motors has held up perfectly and the battery is still performing as well as it did right out of the box. The board will automatically power on when rolled in any direction, which is handier than you’d think. Not having to pick up the board and press the power button after unloading it onto the sidewalk is a nice touch. The construction of the Meepo is also top-notch. In speaking with Kieran over Facebook chat, he informed me that the control board (known as a VESC) has been sprayed with a water-resistant coating to help with slight splashes from a small puddle or something of that nature. The polyurethane was also upgraded shortly before I had purchased my board, and the wireless remote was improved to add the medium speed settings. Being able to talk to the creator of the company as a normal customer and seeing how he is constantly improving his product through customer interaction just makes the experience of acquiring an electric skateboard so much better.

Extras

On the Meepo board website, all spare parts are available. From batteries, wheels, remotes, decks, and hub motors, Kieran keeps stock of anything that might need to be replaced. The option to purchase your board with a larger battery is also available, albeit at a substantially higher price. These spare parts are shipped from China, so expect the usual two- to three-week total wait time and order ahead if you think you may need a replacement part. There are also videos of Kieran swapping out batteries in about three minutes with the included skate tool if that is of interest to you.

The Bad

I really don’t have much to say here from a functional standpoint. The downsides of the Meepo board really come down to comfort. Traditionally, skateboards have a concave shape to the deck. This allows your heels and toes to rest on the deck at all times and makes steering and cruising a breeze. The Meepo board unfortunately has a convex shape that makes riding the board akin to balancing on a thin bar rather than a nice, wide longboard. I experienced some slight pain in the arches of my feet after about 15 minutes of riding. I believe this is because the convex shape of the board makes it harder to steer. Your really have to lean into your turn and press on the ball or heel of your feet to carve. This should be an easy, almost subconscious action on a standard concave longboard deck. This problem is evidenced by the community of Meepo board riders performing “deck swaps,” where they buy an aftermarket standard longboard deck and move the electric skateboard components to the new deck to regain the nice feeling of riding a true longboard.

Since acquiring the Meepo board and writing this review, Kieran has upgraded the Meepo board to version 1.5. This new board comes with a more concave deck and a stronger battery to address problems stated from the community about the version 1.0 board.

The Verdict

The Meepo board has been a wonderful first electric skateboard. The price is a perfect place to enter the hobby and still have a reliable skateboard to cruise around on whether you are getting groceries from down the street, or just enjoying a nice day cruising around the local park. The customer service and ever-improving product line really shines when dealing with Meepo. This is a budget skateboard, but you get substantially more than what you pay for. I would recommend this board for someone who is just getting into electric skateboarding or for a budget-minded person like myself. I will update this review as time goes on to speak for the longevity of the board, as the community has stated that the hub motors do have a shorter lifespan than your average belt-driven system.

About the Author

Alex Courville is a DIY enthusiast. Originally from northern Michigan, he now lives in Dallas, TX, where he has convinced five grown-ass men to become addicted to building DIY racing quadcopters. Don’t worry, they don’t actually race the drones, unless the finish line of the race is to hit the ground, trees, or any solid object as fast as possible. They do that well. Anyways, Alex enjoys beer, riding electric skateboards, and traveling, as long as it’s outside of Texas.

Mavericks: Elite Grooming Made Simple

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When I started writing my blog, I hoped that eventually companies would find my content interesting enough that they might send me things which they wanted me to review. While this has happened for a few products and items, I’m still primarily purchasing most of the items I wind up reviewing. However, in some cases I’ve been a bit surprised at the kinds of companies that will contact me willing to send me their products for me to review.

As an example, men’s beauty products! I am not what you would call a handsome man. But many moons ago, Pat talked me into trying shaving with Cremo Cream. I wound up being so impressed by Cremo Cream that I just had to write a blog reviewing it. And ever since publishing that blog, I get approached every few months by the maker of some sort of men’s beauty product. Usually, I explain to them exactly how unqualified I am to review that kind of product and that the best I could muster would be to use it and share my experiences with my readers. In many cases, my lack of experience of reviewing these kinds of products wind up scaring off most folks.

But that’s not always the case. My new friends at Mavericks contacted me quite a few weeks ago asking if I’d be willing to review their products Mavericks Shave and Mavericks Face Kit. After trading a few emails with the Mavericks team’s management and reading over their successful Indiegogo campaign, I started looking forward to what I was expecting to see in my mailbox.

I’ve been using the products on a nearly daily basis ever since, and whether I’m qualified to share an opinion on it or not, here goes my review of the two products!

Mavericks Face Kit

The Mavericks Face Kit was sent as a bonus in addition to the Mavericks Shave product, which is covered later in this same blog. The Mavericks Face Kit is a three-stage kit of different products: a protect product to use in the mornings, a wash to use at the end of the day, and a rebuilding concoction which is to be left on overnight.

I’m a creature of habit, and modifying those habits can be a bit of a challenge sometimes, especially my nighttime and morning-time routines. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to remember to use the wash and rebuild products before bedtime and then the protect product in the morning before I head out to work or my weekend adventures. For the most part, I’ve been successful.

Considering that my typical nighttime routine is to brush my teeth and get in bed as quickly as I possibly can, adding the Mavericks Face Kit to my routine had a pretty dramatic effect. Each night that I used it, I went to bed feeling refreshed a bit. Between the wash and rebuild products, I could certainly tell how much cleaner my face felt the nights that I used the Face Kit.

Mavericks Shave

Ultimately, my Cremo Cream review is what drew the attention to my blog from Mavericks. What they really wanted was a review of the Mavericks Shave. Considering that I’ve currently got a beard, I’m not doing nearly as much shaving every day as when I reviewed the Cremo Cream, but I’ve been using Mavericks Shave exclusively for a few months now.

Just like Cremo Cream, it takes very little of the Mavericks Shave to properly protect your face while shaving. Their directions indicate that a peanut-sized dollop is all that’s needed in order to shave your entire face, a claim which stands up in my own use. I still shave my neck and above my beard on a near-daily basis and I rarely use any more of the Maverick Shave than something the size of a regular M&M, the majority of which goes on my neck and then I save a tiny bit for around my two cheekbones.

Mavericks Shave

In comparison to Cremo Cream, Mavericks Shave is minty and it is also a bit more waxy. In my opinion, neither of these characteristics make it better or worse than Cremo Cream, just different enough. In the months that I’ve been using Mavericks Shave, I’ve routinely used it with dull razor blades that should’ve been swapped out a week or two earlier. I’ve also tried using too little or too much of the product to see its impact. When I’ve used too little, it’s been a tiny bit more difficult to finish shaving, but not extraordinarily so. There’s enough of the Mavericks Shave left on your face after one pass that with a little bit of extra water, you’re still able to shave your face without too much discomfort.

Final Thoughts

After using products like Mavericks Shave and Cremo Cream, I know that I’ll never go back to using a traditional shaving cream or gel again. For starters, when used appropriately, one package of Mavericks Shave/Cremo Cream completely outlasts one package of your traditional gel or shaving cream. And while the upfront cost for the Mavericks Shave might be higher than your traditional shaving creams, I think the value is better because of how long it lasts. I’ve been using Cremo Cream now for almost four years and I think I’m only up to buying my 2nd container.

Are you looking to change up your shaving routine a bit? Do you want to use something other than a traditional shaving cream or gel? I think the Mavericks Shave is a definite upgrade over what you’re probably using. The up-front cost might be a bit more than you are used to paying, but in the long run it may even work out to be less expensive due to how little you have to actually use in order to shave your face.

Similarly, if you’re anything like me, the Mavericks Face Kit is an absolute upgrade over how you’ve been taking care your of face. In my case, just about anything would be an upgrade over what I do to take care of my face. But the benefits of the three-stage system of the Mavericks Face Kit have been readily apparent on each of the days that I’ve used them. It’d certainly seem that my face feels better after using both the Mavericks Shave and Face kit products.