A Short Trip to Utah

December 30, 2021 10:41 am

After talking to Mom on Sat. Dec. 18 I floated the idea to Jess about us packing up the van and driving to Utah to visit with Erin and Dad for a few days while Erin's kids were with their father for the first part of winter break. Our friend Sarah agreed to take care of the kitties and we engaged a crash program for packing up. The girls had already gone to bed so we got up when they did at 6am the next morning and told them of our sudden plans. They were very excited, until they realized they would miss an art class and a gymnastics class, then they were upset, but we got through it.

So we ate breakfast, got dressed, and finished piling our stuff and ourselves into the van and pulled out of the driveway at about 8:00. We got around the corner and down the street when the tire-pressure monitoring alert came on. So I stopped and measured the tire pressure and found all four tires were about 8 PSI low. So, back to the house to run the air compressor and fill them up. THEN we were pulling out of the driveway again at about 8:30.

We drove and we drove and we drove. The girls watched Christmas specials on DVD in the back. Jess and I listened to podcasts in the front. And we drove some more. I-80 across the Sierra-Nevadas was clear as it hadn't had a storm in a couple of weeks, but one was coming and we knew we'd need to take the Las Vegas route to get home later in the week.

We drove through a McDonald's in Sparks, NV to grab some lunch and eat on the go. We stopped for a fresh tank of gas in Winnemucca, NV and, ugh, more McDonald's for dinner in Wendover (in which your choices are McDonald's or Burger King). Then we drove some more and arrived at Erin's house at ~8:30pm after 11 hours of traveling.


We hadn't told anyone we were coming, so we really wanted to arrive before it got late.

So we arrived Sunday night and stayed for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

The girls got to play in some leftover snow:

And we enjoyed a sunset:

We cooked some food, played some games, and helped out with tasks around the house.

We also made a trip down to Mapleton to visit with Christopher-and-Jenny's family for a few hours:

And on Thursday we loaded back up into the van and headed home. Donner Pass on I-80 was expected to get something like 30 inches of snow that day and night so we headed south through Las Vegas. A lunch at Culver's in St. George, a whole lot of rain, dinner from Panda Express and Wetzel's Pretzels in Barstow, a lot more rain, some patches of really dense fog, and about 16 hours later we were home. Exhausted, but home. It was after midnight so already Christmas Eve.

We had learned during lunch that Dad had fallen chasing Erin's dog (which had taken off with the bag of rolls I made) and cut his head open and so they were in urgent care waiting for stitches. Which was really just the cherry on top of the super crappy several weeks of life at Erin's house.

After getting some sleep we began the whirlwind process of getting ready for Christmas with grocery shopping, house cleaning, baking, cutting a lot of things from the "to do" list, and then a whole lot of wrapping.

New Camera!

December 18, 2021 1:59 pm

I've been saving up for a few years and waiting for Pentax to release a new flagship APS-C DSLR. I wanted to see what they came out with and decide whether to upgrade to it or decide to leave the Pentax brand for something else. This year they released the K-3 mark iii, which got reviews like "The last great DSLR?" (tom's guide) and "A Great Camera Nobody Will Want" [because it's a DSLR] (fstoppers).

I like the DSLR experience and much of the reviews discussed how enjoyable the K-3 iii is to use. So after months of waffling and thinking and waiting for a discount, I bought one in order to have it before Christmas. And it's an excellent camera. A major upgrade from my K-7 and a joy to use. The auto focus is fast and accurate, the low-light capability is magical, and the shutter click sound is very satisfying.

I'm very pleased to discover that the K-3 iii can operate my 35mm lens perfectly (Pentax DA 35mm f/2.4 SMC AL). It always had focusing issues on the K-7 and I wondered if the lens was defective. I attached it to the K-3 iii, though, and it's fantastic. I'm really glad I'll get to use this lens now. With a f/2.4 aperture and short focal length it's very good for in-the-house shooting with less-than-ideal lighting. This was a big reason I bought the lens, but its performance on the K-7 was very disappointing. It had very inconsistent focus issues and calibration didn't resolve it.

But enough chatter, let's see some images.

Here's a wide-open shot using the 35mm focused right on the door handle as desired:

And a comparison shot of Phoenix using the same lens on the K-7 (top) and K-3 iii (bottom):

K-7, 35mm f/2.4, 6400 ISO. Back-focused and noisy
K-3 iii, 35mm f/2.4, 8000 ISO. Perfectly focused and no noise.

Phoenix will not stay out of the tree, despite our best efforts:

The girls' school had a "Light up the Night" event on Friday which I used as an opportunity to test out the camera in real-life conditions:

I am quite pleased with its performance. Those shots were outside at night with very little lighting, but still crisp and usable.

COVID-19: Part 65

1:34 pm
  • Rancho Las Positas Elementary School known cases on site: 16
  • Livermore cases: 6,861; overall vaccination rate: 73.5%
  • Alameda County cases: 119,277; deaths: 1,475; overall vaccination rate: 78.3%
  • U.S. cases: 50,479,000+; deaths: 800,000+; overall vaccination rate: 61.3%

*Note that the vaccination rate data has changed from "eligible" to "overall". Alameda County was no longer giving me a top-level "eligible vaccination rate" percentage (they data is broken down by age group instead), so I couldn't easily pull the same data.


Omicron is the new thing. The new variant spreading across the globe. SARS-CoV-2|Ο was first detected in South Africa on Nov 24 and became a variant of concern due to the large number of mutations affecting the spike protein (which is what the current vaccines target). It also appeared to be significantly more contagious than prior strains and was rapidly detected throughout the world.

What any of that means, epidemiologically, is still to be determined. It's only been detected for 3 weeks and is spreading widely, but we know that earlier strains had multi-week lag times from infection, to hospitalization, to death. So the world is still waiting for clear data on overall severity compared to other strains. The faster spread, however, is well established and it appears to be handily out-competing the delta strain.

According to the current Wikipedia article on the variant, data suggests the reproduction number is 2.4 times greater than delta, placing it somewhere from 10-18 which puts it on par with measles.

Jess got a booster shot on Thursday 12/2 and that afternoon the girls both got their second doses. Which was a much more difficult experience than the first one--they both went into full on feral freak-out mode. Like animals caught in a trap: eyes darting around wildly, muscles tensed, adrenaline pumping. I eventually managed to get Heather focused on math (which helps tremendously to keep her grounded). After repeated unsuccessful attempts to engage Corinne's prefrontal cortex we had to just pin her down and get it done. It was less than fun for everyone.

Jess had side effects which knocked her out for a couple of days. The girls felt lousy and had fevers on Friday and Saturday, but were fine by Sunday.

Alameda County has continued to require masks in all indoor public spaces. And California instated a statewide mask requirement for all indoor public settings until Jan 15. Of course, there will probably be no enforcement, so I don't expect it will change anything.

My work status hasn't changed. Still only required to be on site one day a week, but not uncommon to be there more frequently to complete necessary tasks. I'm off through the end of the year now via vacation and holiday time.

My favorite news quote for past few months is this blurb from NPR which reads like the intro to a medical/sci-fi thriller:

South African officials raised the alarm about the heavily mutated variant, B.1.1.529, on Nov. 24. Two days later, the WHO classified it as a variant of concern and dubbed it omicron.


My Christmas Tree Tells me when it's Thirsty

December 4, 2021 10:46 pm

This year I cobbled together a water-level sensor for the Christmas-tree stand. For several years I've looked for such a sensor, but never found anything that could do the job. I've found water sensors, but they're designed to "trigger" when wet and often times emit an alarm. Other water sensors might have given me an acceptable wet/dry signal, but were built as a single unit which can't be submerged in the stand.

So I used a standard Zigbee door sensor to accomplish the task. I used this one by Third Reality. It uses 2 AAA batteries, which I preferred over a button battery model since I'll only use it for about a month each year and I can use rechargeable batteries.

The premise is to use a float which will fall into range of the sensor when the water level drops and rise up out of range when water is added. So when the sensor signals that it is "closed" that means the tree needs water.

This sensor is connected to my Home Assistant smart-home manager which I have running on a Raspberry Pi 3. It uses the Zigbee Home Automation integration which I'm using with a ConBee II dongle. I've been really happy with this set up so far, I've had zero issues pairing devices or keeping their connections active.

The sensor, as shown, is made up of two pieces. The actual electronics are in the left part and the piece on the right is just plastic housing around a magnet. I removed the magnet and hot-glued it to a Ping-Pong ball which acts as a float. I also cut a piece of a plastic straw and glued that to the Ping-Pong ball which will be the guide for the float. Using the rest of the straw I slit it length-wise which caused it to curl into itself just a little allowing the float-guide to slip over it and slide smoothly up and down.

I attached one more piece of straw to the float to prevent it from spinning (which would pull the magnet away from the sensor). Then I hot-glued the long piece of straw into the tree stand along one of the support posts, which are hollow.

I paired the sensor to my Home Assistant set up and then used some Velcro stickers to stick the sensor to the inside of the support post and then adjusted the height through trial and error to get the "dry" alert when I wanted it. I didn't want it to be actually dry because I wanted there to be a grace period from when it says, "I need water" before it actually goes dry.

I don't have a picture of this part because I got it set up and didn't take a picture and now the tree's in the stand and there's no way to see the bottom. Which also means there's no way to change the batteries while the tree is up. The manufacturer claims "up to 2 years" battery life, so getting a month shouldn't be a problem. The sensor also reports battery level, and it hasn't dropped a single percentage since I installed it.

Next I reconfigured the "device" in Home Assistant and told it to treat it as a "moisture sensor" instead of an "open/closed sensor." So now instead of saying "open/closed" in the user interface it says "wet/dry." I used the "Configuration -> Customizations" GUI to set this up:

The generated YAML (in customize.yaml):

device_class: moisture

And, finally, I added an "automation" which triggers when the sensor detects the magnet (indicating "dry") and uses the "call service" action to send an alert to my tablet and/or phone which says "I'm Thirsty." I used the "Configuration -> Automations" GUI to set this up:

The generated YAML:

alias: Notify when tree needs water
description: ''
- type: not_moist
platform: device
device_id: 5bca35081c2232eaXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
entity_id: binary_sensor.third_reality_inc_3rds17bz_XXXXXXXX_ias_zone
domain: binary_sensor
hours: 0
minutes: 1
seconds: 0
milliseconds: 0
condition: []
- service: notify.mobile_app_kyle_s_tablet
message: '"I''m Thirsty" --Tree'
mode: single

All of this is running entirely local to my own home. No Internet required, no external servers in the mix and I don't have to wonder whether some company will decide to shut down their systems and break all my stuff.

I am greatly amused by this set up, especially because it actually just worked with almost no fussing around. And now I'll be going about my day and get a notification on my tablet from my tree asking for water. I live in the future.