Christmas 2013

We stayed home for Christmas this year and didn't have anyone coming to visit either.  This is the first year for us when we didn't either visit someone or have someone visit so it felt a little off.  For me at least, it's always tough to feel like it's Christmas in California since the weather is usually warm (mid 60's, low 70's this year).  On Christmas Eve this year I heard the ice-cream truck driving around the neighborhood; it just doesn't work for me.

At least going to visit or having visitors creates some excitement, but without even that it just never really felt like the proper season.  I mentioned to Jess on at least one occasion that I needed to figure out something to do that would make it feel like Christmas.  I never really did, unfortunately.

We watched "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and several other Christmas specials, but up until the week of I was still going to work every day, the sun was shining, and many of the trees still have leaves on them.  Due to poor air quality it's been illegal to burn wood for most of the month (including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) so that didn't help either.  I'll have to figure something out for next year.  We've kicked around the idea of every other year having Christmas at a "cabin" in the mountains so we'd get some snow and cold weather.  We'll see if we still like that idea next year.

Anyways, enough lamenting about that.

On Monday Heather and I did some painting.  This was my creation (I'm planning on keeping my day job):

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On Christmas Eve we went over to the house of some friends who had invited over a few families who also didn't have any family to visit with for Christmas.  We drank Dickerson Family Wassail and ate Dickerson Family Little Weenies so that helped make it feel like Christmas.  Of course, we also ate Triscuits and Wheat Thins with cheese.  After a couple of hours of hanging out we all headed home.

Christmas morning was calm and sunshiny.  Santa had arrived.

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I think Heather knew something different was happeningshe was pretty amped up (but then, she's often all amped up in the morning anyway...).  We, of course, took obligatory pre-presents pictures:

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Heather was just as adorable as could possibly be.  So here are a bunch of pictures of her looking adorable:

The trolley and affiliated characters are from Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, a modern, animated spin-off of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.  Netflix has the first 20 episodes and Heather loves it.

Jess and I were also around, but we know everyone would rather look at pictures of Heather than us.  But just for proof, here's Jess with her Eye-Fi card:

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The Eye-Fi card will magically transfer her pictures from her camera to the computer so she can just sit down at the computer to work on them without taking the memory card out of the camera.

Since the desktop computer is only on when we're using it (saving a bunch of electricity) I set it up to transfer to the Raspberry Pi and then wrote some scripts for Jess so she can just click a link on the desktop and it will transfer all her pictures to the computer, organize them by year/month/day and then automatically convert any videos to mp4 files (which take up much less space with no noticeable loss in quality).  Being married to a geek has its perks.

And yes, I was also present.  Here I am showcasing this year's "Most Unexpected Gift," a "Zombie Shelter" sign my parents found in New Orleans:

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Just For Fun

These are two of my favorite non-traditional Christmas songs.

"A Baby Changes Everything" by Faith Hill:

and "It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)" by Mindy Smith:

(I don't really care for either of those videos, but the songs are great.)

And as a bonus, here's Heather's favorite, "For Unto Us" by Point of Grace (a.k.a. "Child is Born Song"):

(Yes, she sings along. "...booooooooooooorn...King of Kings...boooooooorn...").

Reducing Tracking

As a software developer and particularly a web developer it is my responsibility to set a good example and try to be a force for good.

As of today, none of my sites use Google Analytics anymore.  The tipping point, aside from improving general web privacy, was that the NSA is supposedly hijacking the Google tracking data for their own purposes.

While I don't really need any analytics, I do get curious as to what kind of traffic my websites are getting.  So I instead stood up my own instance of Piwik.  This is a self-hosted analytics solution.  Now my websites simply report to another one of my systems when they're accessed (instead of Google).  And I know that my Piwik installation respects the "Do Not Track" setting you can use in your browser (I've tested it myself).  Also, my Piwik analytics won't track you all over the Internet.

I realize this may seem a little silly coming from a blog hosted on Google's servers via Blogger, but I'm also working on that.  I'm looking into using Habari and migrating this blog to be self-hosted as well.  Given that Blogger seems to be a dead product in Google's eyes (little to no updates or changes in many, many months), it's probably better to get off it anyway as it may get shut down at some point.  However, I'll probably wait a few months until the more stabilized Habari 1.0 release is finished.  Such a move will probably coincide with standing up a family cloud using ArkOS and OwnCloud.

It's not that I'm particularly paranoid, but the various pieces of software are reaching a point where for someone like me, it's not particularly difficult or burdensome to self-host things.  So I might as well do it and encourage an Internet model closer to its original design: interacting, decentralized systems.  A model which is harder for any one organization (government or otherwise) to infiltrate, break, or commandeer.

Testing LED Christmas Lights

The icicle lights we have are LEDs which is nice because they use incredibly little power and should last a long time, but has the drawback that they're slightly harder to diagnose when they misbehave.

Once I was recovered from my various maladies I pulled out the 10 strands we have to get them up on the house (starting last weekend).  One of the strands wouldn't light so I got to play the fun game of tracking down the problem.

So I started with the obvious of checking to make sure no "bulbs" (I'll say "bulb" because it conveys my meaning even though there are no actual bulbs) were missing.  And I tested the other end of the strand and was getting a solid 120V connection, so I knew the wiring was still good.

[Edit: Individual bulbs can fail like normal and have a shunt which will allow the rest of the strand to stay lit.  These bulbs are easy to find and replace (they're the only bulb unlit).  The problem I explore in this post is a bulb where the leads are broken so the power didn't make it to the shunt in the first place.]

But once you have to go beyond those steps some of the common troubleshooting techniques won't work on LED strands.  I started with my multimeter that contains an inductive AC voltage detector ("no-touch").  Since the bad bulb breaks the circuit, traditionally you can use a voltage detector to find where the circuit breaks.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, my multimeter was detecting voltage everywhere along the strand and along each "icicle."  So that did me no good, I'm not entirely sure why.  So then you can take the obvious approach of just switching out bulbs with replacements, but the trouble is, you might have more than one bad bulb.  In which case, you won't know if you're replacing a good bulb or a bad bulb.

Instead you need to be able to test each bulb individually to know whether it is good or not.  The usual approach is a simple continuity tester (check whether a circuit exists from one lead on the bulb to the other).  But, a continuity test won't work because there is no simple circuit to test.  Unless you actually cause the LED to activate (with enough voltage) you won't have a circuit.  A continuity test only uses a very low voltage and so it will report an open circuit (bad bulb).  So, despite having a multimeter and knowing how to use it, it did me no good in finding the bad bulb.

Instead you need an LED tester.  You can make a simple LED tester using the following:  a 9-volt battery, a resistor, and a rubber band.

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Without the resistor the only thing you'll learn is that the LED used to work because you'll blow out the LED from too high of voltage (which I did twice before finally digging one out).  The resistor I used happened to be 10,000 ohms, but 1,000 ohms should be fine too.

Just use the rubber band to hold the resistor to the negative terminal on the battery (the negative terminal is easier to wrap the rubber band around, otherwise it really doesn't matter).  Then bend the end of the resistor around next to the positive terminal of the battery so you can easily touch the leads of a bulb to the resistor and the positive terminal.

IMGP1452aIf you touch the LED leads backwards nothing will happen (LEDs are one way only).  It won't damage the LED, but it won't light up either.  Because of this your bulb should be keyed to only fit in its socket one way.  Pay attention to that keying so that you can reliably test the correct orientation and save some time.

IMGP1453aSo with my makeshift tester I started popping out bulbs and testing them (the edge of a dinner knife worked great for popping the bulbs out of their base).  I was actually getting pretty quick at it and it was the 21st bulb I pulled that was bad.  Popped in a replacement and everything was working.

Okay, not a particularly fascinating story, but when I was searching the Internet for how to track down a bad LED in a strand of Christmas lights I wasn't finding much useful information (just lots of information about incandescent lights sometimes with a disclaimer that it wouldn't work for LED strands).

(And in case anyone cares, these are 70-LED icicle strands in "warm white" made by Vickerman.)

Advent Chain/Tree Thingummy

I  had a brilliant idea yesterday! At least, I think so. I've been trying to think of something countdown-y to do with Heather to get ready for Christmas. But she's just not old enough yet for a lot of the stuff I found. I liked the idea of a chain to count down to Christmas, but it needed something more. Here's what I came up with:

I took 4 sheets of scrapbooking paper and drew a Christmas tree on them (freehand, y'all!):

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Then I cut the papers into 24 strips...

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...and made a chain.

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We have nowhere cool to hang said chain, so it's currently on the end of a curtain rod:

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Then I got a piece of posterboard and put it on the wall. Each evening, we'll take one link off the chain and glue it to the posterboard. As we count down the days to Christmas, we'll be re-building our Christmas tree.

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When it's done, I think we'll let Heather color it. You know she loves to color.