Total of 288 posts

Herein you’ll find articles on a very wide variety of topics about technology in the consumer space (mostly) and items of personal interest to me.

If you’d like to read my professional engineering articles and whitepapers, they can be found at Control System Space

I have also participated in and created several podcsts most notably Pragmatic and Causality and all of my podcasts can be found at The Engineered Network.

John Tackles Blogvember 2019

Flicking through my RSS on the plane to the States and I came across Shawn Blanc’s post about blogging everyday during November. Since I don’t have the time or commitment to finish anything longer than a short story (hence NaNoWriMo never worked for me) then this seems to work. What the heck?

I started by back-publishing two articles that were 70% done and then yesterday wrote about the differences in travelling overseas in the current age vs when I was young.

This qualifies as a meta-post, which I ordinarily detest writing, but alas here we are anyway. The truth is that TechDistortion hasn’t been a regular blog for nearly five years as I’ve spent my time podcasting instead. Sometimes I cross the streams, mostly I don’t. There was a time a while ago where some people were encouraging novel-length podcast episode show notes but thankfully that didn’t last long and it’s not really the same thing. (People don’t read podcasts, they listen to them. Who knew?)

Whether my attempt to tackle “Blogvember,” which is it’s apparent moniker, yields anything of interest to the world at large may be judged by the masses upon its completion.

Travelling Overseas 18 Years Later

I left Canada in March of 2001 in the wake of the Nortel collapse and returned home to Australia. About a year later I met my future wife and now we’re happily married with four beautiful children. With children comes responsibility, expenses and consequently less travel: particularly overseas.

Today I’m flying back to the United States, returning to Houston, which I last visited in mid-2000 on a day trip from Dallas to visit the Johnson Space Center. This time I’m going to the Process Industry Conference PIC 2019 which is run by the International Society for Automation; which as an Electrical and Controls Systems Engineer, is just up my alley.

I did the sums and figured out it had been 18 years since I’d last travelled overseas, not withstanding a brief outing a few kilometres off shore into the Pacific a few years ago. What dawned on me today was how much had changed.

When I travelled as an early 20-something I relied of paper maps, the trustworthy “Lonely Planet” guide books, talking to locals, talking to fellow travellers and researching the hell out of every place I would visit and that meant lots of reading.

There were no Google Maps, no Satellite navigators, GPSs existed but they were rudimentary and flattened batteries within hours and had no road maps to speak of in them. EFTPOS was growing in popularity but you needed cash, and if you had a very early blackberry, 2G mobile coverage was terrible and there was practically no WiFi anywhere.

Today I don’t have to worry about forgetting my wallet since I have my Apple Watch and iPhone for payments. WiFi is everywhere, Smartphones are cheap and everyone has one (pretty much), and every smartphone has a free maps and navigation app built in to it. No paper maps, no cash and oh my god researching anything to go and see and do is a snap!

I realise I’m dating myself but I look back at the younger me, quite literally half my age, and shake my head at how I dealt with it all. It’s been quite a change in the world around us and one for the better I think.

CROPW Link Shortening

I’ve been chipping away slowly at various side projects, including pursing an interest in vocal acting but also updating some business cards for myself and the network. I’ve had cards in the past as part of a promotional thing from Moo and Klout that were a bit odd, and were more about advertising Klout and Moo than what I had intended.

Given that business cards remain the stock and trade at the increasing number of conferences and meet ups I’ve going to (and am planning to go to this week in Houston) I thought it was time to get some new ones. Whilst I remain somewhat ambivalent about 2D barcodes (QR codes) on the whole they remain popular with a lot of people and for those that don’t, I wanted some really short URLs on a system that I controlled. This way a very short URL would mean a very small and potentially unobtrusive 2D bar code OR at least a very short URL.

YourLS (Your Link-shortner) is an open source project that’s been around for many years and it’s a well trodden path to try. It presents a relatively low overhead on a VPS and I aleady had a few VPS’s lying around so threw it up on one. The installation and set up took an hour or so, and I actually spent far more time picking a domain name than I did actually setting up YourLS.

So far as the domain went, the goal of choosing had to fit two criteria: 1) must be less than $10AUD for 2 years, and 2) must be no longer than a public alternative like bit.ly (5 characters excluding the dot). This proved to be a somewhat problematic set of criteria to simultaneously achieve but after considerable digging I found the affordable ‘cro.pw’ which is short (in my head at least) for “Crop(ed) W(ebsite)” which to be honest is unlikely to make sense to anyone other than me but oh well. It works.

To pick the domain I tried several websites but landed using TLD List and NameMesh in conjunction with some Scrabble word list sites to help with ideas. There are a lot of domain-search sites to pick from but the usefulness of the ones I used after much trial and error was in the bulk search and refineable search criteria they afforded.

The domain cost me $8.88AUD total for 2 years and my time to set it up. Of course hosting your own thing always comes with all the same caveats:

  • Once you start using or linking to that domain or system, you’re on the hook to maintain it or it will die a digital death
  • You will need to update the OS, the Application and ALL of the frameworks from time to time as necessary or risk it falling over
  • You’re in control! Yes, but now YOU’RE ON THE HOOK

Irrespective the Yourls system can link to third party apps to create links like ShortFox for iOS, or you can just log in to the web interface and create your own. It’s also supported in Tweetbot, using the “Custom” Link Shortener using these instructions. There’s WordPress plugins and a bunch of other frameworks for Python and PHP and more too.

Once you have those links you can track them to see when they were opened with the extremely rudimentary traffic analytics, though admittedly that wasn’t what I was doing this exercise for. That said, I’d rather shorten URLs using my own shortener than let Twitter scrape more data from me than they already do if possible.

As with so many of these Open Source software tools they’re fun to play with, and serve a purpose for some of us. Not saying for one second that it will serve a purpose for you, also not saying I’m the first to use it (clearly not), but it might be of interest someday for you (who can say?)

Apple in Automation

Living in Australia and not being a journalist or renowned Apple blogger, I have never expected to attend an Apple presentation let alone be invited to one, let alone be invited to one that was specifically tailored to my line of work. A few months ago I attended a day-conference-like event hosted by Schneider Electric.

Apple opened with the requisite back-story of Apples goal, to create the best possible user experience through cohesive hardware and software development, and gave a comparison of their mobile devices, showing the largest to smallest from the iPad Pro 12.9” down to the iPod Touch: their focus being on how mobility solutions could be of great benefit in the automation space.

The often mentioned supportability over time was quelled somewhat with a list of the past five iOS versions and the age of hardware that each supported, with the value increasing from 4 years to 5 years for the past four releases.

A company that manufactured moving parts (being careful not to breach an NDA here) was provided as an example of an integrated manufacturing line application for an iOS app that leveraged the latest iOS APIs for barcode scanning, inventory control and full integration with SAP for inventory tracking at all stages of assembly.

In addition they mentioned Machine Learning using CoreML, which I knew plenty about because I’ve played with it (briefly) and have been follow Apple elsewhere for many years, but there were plenty of Automation engineers in the room that hadn’t. A few more examples of companies that had written apps that did on-device ML/pattern recognition of physical components to drive home that no other devices from competitors could do that, on-device.

Finally there was discussion about an Enterprise three-day Cupertino workshop that Apple would hold with your company to brainstorm ways in which applications could be developed to best suit your specific business needs.

In the Q&A segment there was a question about Intrinsically Safe requirements preventing Apple devices from being used in Oil & Gas plants, chemical plants and explosive facilities to name a few. The presenter suggested that there were several IS-rated protective/isolating cases for iPads and iPhones that are in use by many companies in those situations. Lacking details on the day I enquired afterwards and was provided Xciel as a suggestion from Apple.

They make an iPad Mini Zone 1 case at an ‘affordable’ $2,890 USD with an extra $100 USD for a correct iPad Mini 5 fitting. Ever so slightly cheaper for their iPhone Xr case at $2,500 USD. For those in the industry an IS-rated smart device is upwards of that price as an integrated unit so if you care about Intrinsically Safe equipment, you probably won’t mind spending upwards of three grand to protect yourself and your people from those risks.

My overall impression of the event was pretty positive, with both local and US Apple representatives at the event. It was well structured, well presented and overall was a nice reminder that Apple haven’t forgotten about the Automation Systems space - which is really great to hear. My thanks to Schneider Electric and Apple for inviting me to the event.