Digital Calendar Fun!

May 3, 2018 6:13pm
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This is a project that I’ve been looking forward to working on for a long time! Thankfully by the time I finally got around to it, most of the messy stuff has been worked out by other people and throwing this together was actually pretty easy… 😉

Ever since I realized that my wife and I could share a calendar via Google, it seemed like a no-brainer to help keep me on the same page because I’m the one who can never keep track of doctor’s appointments and all of the random stuff that we’ve got going on for the family throughout the month. The thing is, Google Calendar is great when I’m on the go and just want to check something on my phone real quick, but when I’m at home, I still like the simplicity of a wall calendar hanging in the kitchen or my office to be able to see at a glance if we’ve got anything going on that week.

The solution is actually pretty simple:

  • one old computer display (I picked this 22″ Dell up at a used monitor sale for $10)
  • one Raspberry Pi (I’m using the zero model because barely any CPU is needed here)
  • one free account on DAKboard.com

What’s cool is when I originally thought about doing this, I figured I’d have to create a custom page and embed the calendar from Google in it, and then host that locally on the Pi along with any photos that I wanted to incorporate into some sort of slideshow, but instead the DAKboard folks have done all of that heavy lifting for me by creating a web service that pulls in calendar info using iCal, as well as weather data, news via RSS feeds, even a to-do list from Todoist, plus background images from sites like Instagram and Flickr!

I literally fought with my Raspberry Pi for two days because I got a bad USB dongle in my order and couldn’t get it to recognize a keyboard/mouse, and then setup the calendar itself using DAKboard’s features in about 20 minutes.

The display is just a full screen Chromium browser pointed at the Private URL that DAKboard gives you.

I added one line of code to the Pi’s config.txt file to rotate the screen to better resemble a wall calendar.

Now pretty much all I have left is to modify the startup script to have it automatically load Chromium and go right to that URL, install a script to make the cursor disappear on inactive, and then figure out how to hang the thing on the wall!

(and luckily, DAKboard has a neat-o blog post that details pretty much all of this stuff!)

It’s kind of surprising how quickly this much came together once I actually started – I do have a wishlist, but it’s admittedly pretty small…

  • Incorporate a motion sensor that will put the screen to sleep once everyone goes to bed (no idea how to do this)
  • Incorporate some sort of controls to allow flipping between months (my wife insists that this is vital to completely replace our paper calendar)
  • Create a separate photo account specifically for calendar photos (because it’s neat to link to Instagram, but I take pictures of dumb stuff sometimes that doesn’t belong on our family calendar!)
  • Support for more than one screen (I think DAKboard right now only supports one and I can see having different layouts for kitchen vs office, etc…)
  • Hide the power cords once this is mounted to the wall (it’s going to be a pain, but I basically just need to install a new outlet wherever the calendar will go)

I suppose I should point out that DAKboard’s business is actually in selling a retail version of this where everything is done for you, though they didn’t pay me to write this post … but I’d be happy to write a review if they want to send me a free unit to try out! 😉

Theirs is still a little pricey – $299 for a 24-inch display, whereas mine will likely still be less than $75 even after I pick up a wall mount for it.

Hopefully the price will come down, though, as displays continue to get cheaper. I see it as an alternative to the digital picture frame craze that we had a few years ago, but thankfully with a much larger display! With everything else so dynamic and connected around us, it seems weird to still be penciling in appointments on a piece of paper hanging on the wall, and at least this is still cheaper than hanging a full-fledged iPad to fulfill that coveted touch capability. 😀

If I was buying a monitor specifically for this, I’d aim for a slightly newer one with built-in USB (to eliminate a power cable for the Pi) and HDMI (to avoid an extra adapter from DVI to HDMI to micro HDMI), but you really don’t need much … I’m pretty sure you can still get displays like that in the neighborhood of $100.

I’ll be sure to post something else if/when I figure out all of that trickier stuff, but for now I’m pretty satisfied!

Bamboo Closure (with Pics!)

November 7, 2015 1:21am
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I wrote about my ongoing battles with bamboo in this week’s humor column, but for a bit of added closure I wanted to share some photos that I took throughout the process. You know what they say, a picture’s worth a thousand stalks of bamboo… 😛

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All in all I think I spent between 6 -8 hours across about 4 days gutting this crap out of my backyard – you can see in the first picture how it was so bad when I started that you literally couldn’t get around the corner unless you were a koala or perhaps one of the tiny lizards that we see scurrying about here in Florida!

Apparently whenever you plant bamboo, you’re supposed to put in some sort of barrier to make sure that it stays within the area that you want it … and even then I guess a lot of the time it just manages to poke right on through anyways. 

If I had a backyard that was bigger than, oh say, a sidewalk, it’s actually a pretty neat plant and would be neat to see grow into a natural privacy wall over the course of a couple of years, but when you can literally stand in between my pool cage and the fence and touch both of them at the same time, it’s just too small for such an invasive, wild plant to grow.

Also, would you believe that months earlier I first actually tried my hand at cutting this stuff down with a regular hand saw?!?!?!

This stuff is crazy, and the next time I see it coming up underneath my side of the fence, I’m poisoning the entire thing. Sorry, neighbor, but know what in the hell you’re getting into before you plant such an insane plant/tree/shrub/grass right next to your neighbor’s fence… 🙁

Home Tech Talk, Part 2

August 30, 2015 9:07pm
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So picking up where I left off last night, I think these are going to be my next points of focus around the house…

Run Cat6 to the Living Room and Bedrooms
Not really looking forward to this because it means I have to go up into the attic and I’m always afraid of falling through the ceiling, but I’m figuring that wiring up these two rooms so that Plex doesn’t have to run over the wifi is right now probably the easiest thing I can do for the occasionally freezing that we see during playback.

Run Cat6 Out to the Garage for FiOS
Right now we have 75 Mbps symmetrical service, which is awesome, but to upgrade to anything faster we actually have to move away from using coax and run ethernet direct from where the fiber comes into the house to our router. Verizon claims that they’ll do this themselves during the upgrade, but who knows what the quality will be, and if I have to be up in the attic for wiring the other rooms anyways, it makes sense to just do this one at the same time.

Improving Backups on My Local Server
Part of this will be easy and part will be a pain. The easy part … right now I have a local install of CrashPlan pushing something from the server into the cloud, but I honestly don’t even remember what … it could just be test files from when I first got it setup, for all I know! So I just need to review and update the backup plan so that it includes more of the things that it should – Plex’s database and local settings, and some other random stuff sitting there that I want to preserve. It’s probably still not appropriate to push 20 TB of media files into the cloud, but I’m cool with sending 100 GB of music files for now.

The less easy part is facilitating backups from my web server that hosts all of my sites from an actual data center. They technically do regular backups within their own network at no charge to me, but just to be on the safe side I wouldn’t mind pulling down another copy of everything to keep archived here just in case. It’s only like 15 GB for everything anyways, so it’s not a ton of files, and I think that WHM even has an option to FTP another copy of the backup set to another location when it’s running. I just need to take an afternoon to figure it all out and get the thing working…

Organizing and Sharing Photos
Now with bringing my wife’s iPhone/iPad photos into the mix, we’re sitting on a collection of something like 40,000 photos over the last 15 years and as unmotivated as I am to print them out and fill photo books, it’s still fun to flip through them online so I think I want to finally figure out a manageable way to put them online for regular browsing. Not sure if it’s going to be Flickr, or a self-hosted WordPress install, or something else … I guess that Plex has options for Photos & Home Videos, too, so this one’s still wide open, but it’s something I’d like to do before we get up to 50,000!!!

Automated Christmas!
And the last one is something that I eluded to yesterday, and tonight I found another cool option, but their beginner set still costs upwards of $500 so it’s going to be a while before I can splurge here and it still might not happen this year. Still, I love the idea of a truly customizable Christmas light display where not only can I make the lights dance to music, but can even choose the color of each bulb as well, so no more fighting for the right combinations of colors at Lowe’s and Walmart and wherever else my lighting takes me…

…although at &^(%% per string, they’d better turn any color you want them to! 😯

Envisioning My Automated Home…

August 30, 2015 1:21am
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So I spent some time reviewing my home server/network setup as it stands so far and it got me thinking about what might be the next steps on down the road.

I’m fairly happy with my media server, and aside from squeezing in maybe one more hard drive to satiate demand, it’s pretty much as far as I can take it until I can drop a couple of grand into expanding to new rack-mount hardware and a separate, high-end NAS for storage.

Backups are good, too, as all of my most important files (writing, pictures, tax and finance stuff) are triple backed up between a local backup and two independent cloud destinations, and just tonight I’m finally looping my wife’s devices into the schema so that the bajillion photos of Christopher that she takes will be safe and secure, too! 😉

So what’s next???

At first I started thinking about trying to automate our Christmas light display outside, though I’m not sure what kind of costs are reasonable on that front. I’ve seen a few setups where people just setup controls to flip the individual strands on and off, though I’m not sure how safe that is for your standard, residential Christmas lights that one buys at Home Depot.

I also briefly researched the idea of going the landscape lighting route because it’s probably more durable for the task, and I found this custom LED system that looks really freaking sweetbut the fixtures alone are about $100 a piece … I’m kind of afraid to ask how much the controller that runs everything is!

Maybe some day… 

Then there’s your more traditional automated home offerings – security system, cameras, thermostat, etc… – and although I really have no idea what I want at this point, maybe it would be something fun to tinker with until I both figure that out and hit the lottery to be able to fund it all!

I figure I’ve got a couple of years to get there, anyways, because I honestly see this house that we’re in right now as more of a test house, at least from this regard. Our goal in the next five years is to be able to built our dream house where we’ll ideally spend the rest of our days, so that’s where we’ll want to splurge on all of these kinds of bells and whistles, but just like our home server has been resurrected and grown so far this year, it’s still fun to experiment and play around with what I can get my hands on in the meantime until we build up to that point of dropping thousands of dollars on network-connected fixtures and wiring the entire house to best fit our modern, connected lifestyles! 😀

In the meantime, I can still see a more immediate need to at least hardwire connectivity to the rooms where Plex gets used, and I’m thinking we might splurge and upgrade the FiOS to that 150 Mbps package they offer before long … because I just learned that apparently they’ve got a promo giving the $200 router we need to upgrade to away for free with the upgrades right now!

We’ll see – maybe come Christmastime I’ll start tinkering with a single network camera or controlling the star on the Christmas tree via computer … gotta start somewhere.

“Just toss it downstairs! Or out in the garage!”

December 10, 2013 11:10pm
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If there’s one thing that I admittedly kind of miss about living in Northern Michigan, it’s storage space.

Pretty much every house around up there has a basement, which is basically like a whole ‘nother house underground! Not to mention my Mom’s house has a ginormous garage with lots of room to stash things, so there was never really an issue of not having enough room to put stuff when I lived up there.

I think I’ve parked in the garage of the house that we now own maybe twice, and it was mainly because we were going out of town and I really worked at it to squeeze my car in so that it didn’t have to sit outside the entire time that we were gone.

Last house I never got to park in the garage because it was laid out stupid and had shelves and a huge workbench on every wall, so my car physically couldn’t fit inside. Not that the garage door opener ever worked at that place anyways…

The house before that, where Sara & I lived for a good 3.5 years – now that was a nice garage and we both got to park inside … probably because we hadn’t been living together too long, so we hadn’t accumulated that overflow of stuff yet, and most of the junk that we did have could cram inside the closet in the spare bedroom.

In this house, said closet is still packed, and the closet in our bedroom, and there’s still a bunch of crap in our family room that has yet to find a home, and … well, see above picture for further examples!!!

I feel like every new place that we move into has less and less storage space, although it’s probably just that the longer we’re together, the more stuff we’re accumulating, be it tools, or pool toys, or pictures for the walls. Granted, right at this moment we also have a bunch of my sister-in-law’s stuff out in our garage because she currently lives with us, and that takes up a little corner of space, too, but I was out there this evening trying to get to the Christmas lights … and I never actually did because I spent all of my time wading through piles and filling up the garbage can with the latest candidates for that big trash heap in the sky!

I’m thinking about finding a few things to maybe stash up in the attic because apparently we have one of those now, even though admittedly I’m not all too keep about going up there … but maybe just some basic stuff that we’ll likely never need, like a bunch of the closet doors that we’ve removed from several rooms to make the closets easier to access – don’t really need those until if/when we ever sell the place again.

I’m sure there’s honestly a ton more that could ultimately just be thrown out altogether – do I really still need my old VCR, or even the CD player that came with my home theater system that technically isn’t even setup right now because I’d just as soon replace it with something newer and more compact that actually has enough inputs for all of my toys these days???

I’ve also got a whole bag full of diving gear out there that even if I do ever find my way back into that hobby again and manage to lose enough weight to reasonably sink to the bottom of the sea, there ain’t no way in hell that I’m ever fitting into the same wet suit that I wore when I was 17, so why am I even keeping that thing?!

There’s also an old CRT monitor out there that I used to use with my home server that hasn’t lived in years, there’s the kiddie pool for Cleo that we bought her for her birthday last year and now have no reasonable place to put it, lots of paint cans in various shapes and sizes and colors of which many are probably empty and can get pitched, a couple of old fish tanks of varying sizes, some replacement fence boards that I guess I forgot to nail up, a very rugged travel case full of microphones and cables from my PA system that’s still up in Michigan and I’m not really sure how just it found its way down here, two SCUBA tanks that might still be good because being overweight doesn’t impact an aluminum tank, although they’re very old and definitely need to be re-tested … the list goes on…

LOL – so maybe I’m looking at this “problem” wrong and instead of finding more space to store crap, maybe I just need to learn to better manage my crap and get rid of scads of stuff that I haven’t fit into or turned on or hung on my walls in half a decade or more!

Bleh.  😕

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So far I’ve only tried Frosted Berry Kiss from Glade, which I really like, along with a purple one from another brand that is also very sweet and berry-like. I honestly think I ended up with about one from every system because I couldn’t remember which fans we actually had at home … which resulted in my returning later to buy the fans that we actually didn’t have in order to be able to use them all! 😉

But regardless of the brand, these are fun, though – just pop in a cartridge and 30 minutes later your living room smells a little less like dog farts and a little more like apple cinnamon cobbler … or at least that’s how it works around my house. 

I used to have these things running around the house quite a bit, but I think I let up because (I thought) the plugins were getting kind of expensive, even though in reality they’re only a few bucks a piece and they should last all month if you don’t crank ’em up on full the second you plug them in.

Somehow this first day’s advent post is coming off surprisingly like a sponsored post, which it totally isn’t … unless the folks from Glade or Febreeze or Air Wick want to send me a sample of these thingsto try, and in that case it totally can be!

‘Tis the season to have your house not smell like dog farts and all… 😆

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