Beta Tested: Cooee Busways On Demand Public Transport Service

Updates at the end of the articleBusways has launched the Cooee Busways – The Ponds, Schofields and Kellyville Ridge site with further details.

Residents in the Hills district have much to celebrate, as after many years of promises, the North-West Metro medium-capacity rail system is close to being finally commissioned for service. Areas previously neglected by public transport will now have a high-frequency service into Chatswood, north of the city.

While in many areas, the introduction of this new service would pull in customers who might drive to their nearest metro station and park their car there for the day, this poses problems. For one, parking spaces are limited and the traffic this would generate may crowd local streets, generating pollution as well. Existing route-bus services may not be ideal either – low frequency, inconvenient times, distant stops and circuitous routes are deterrents.

Might there be a solution? If you’re lucky enough to live in the suburbs of Schofields or The Ponds, or the adjacent suburbs, you may have caught a glimpse of the future of public transport.

Cooee Busways

The name of the service is Cooee BuswaysCooee from the Aboriginal call for “come here”, and Busways which is the name of the local bus operator of our region who is also operating the service. A very appropriate name for on-demand public transport buses which are booked via a mobile app. It appears this service was trialled in a number of areas, and is now being introduced to meet needs of customers connecting with the Sydney Metro.

For those who like videos – I filmed a brief overview video for this post. Apologies for the “shakycam” as I wasn’t quite sure whether I was going to make a video or not – it’s my first project in Adobe Premiere as well …

The Buses

At present, the fleet consists of six new Hino Ponchos outfitted in the blue-and-white on-demand livery.

These buses are operated by the local bus operator, Busways, with drivers specially trained for these smaller buses. On Tuesday 16th April, a few of these buses were seen circling the Schofields area doing driver training in preparation for the beta test which began on 17th April.

Each of the buses feature a clear number on the outside to identify which one of the six buses is pulling up. Depending on your pick-up and drop-off points, the app will allocate you to the bus that makes most operationally suitable by this number and registration plate. The livery also serves as a good advertisement for the service itself.

I believe the buses seat 14 passengers in air-conditioned comfort with a space for a wheelchair. The service is administered through a tablet interface which the driver uses, with an NFC reader mounted near the door for payments made on-board.

The seats are very similar to the seats used in regular buses, with the bus having quite a low floor for the majority of the seats with a step upwards for the rear bench seat above the engine. From what I can tell, they appear to be regular diesel engined buses, so no fancy electric bus unfortunately.

The App

To book one of these services requires the Cooee Busways app. The app is available for Android and iOS and uses the Via platform. At this time, since the service is in beta testing, there may be a few changes between now and when the service launches.

When opening the app for the first time, you must sign up for an account to get started. You will need to provide name, e-mail and phone number. Optionally, you can store a payment method to pay for your trips, or select pay with credit card onboard.

Once signed in, you are alerted to the fact the system is currently in the beta testing phase. If you are lucky, after playing around with the app for a few minutes, you’ll receive a few SMSes and potentially become a beta tester:

In order to use the app, it’s as simple as setting the number of passengers, pick-up and drop-off locations using pins on the map. Your GPS location is shown for convenience as well. The service area seen in the screenshot below serves Schofields and The Ponds at this time.

When starting from anywhere in the service area, the drop-off points are currently restricted to Schofields station, Tallawong Metro and Rouse Hill Metro/T-Way to facilitate connections to public transport. When starting a trip from a public transport station, a drop-off anywhere in the service area can be nominated. This avoids the system being used for anywhere-to-anywhere rides, although this could still be accomplished as long as it is taken as two rides – A to “any station” to B. Once the booking is valid you can search for a ride.

During one of my tests, the app froze at this stage and would not continue until it was closed and re-opened. If it works correctly, a list of services will come up with a price. Sometimes there will only be one service, depending on how many buses are on the road, but the waiting times are very short – normally three minutes in the case of light loading.

Pressing on the side arrow allows us to see the fare breakdown – the fare is currently $2.20 according to the app which would correspond to the minimum adult fare band for a bus – but this may change upon service introduction. It’s important to remember that Opal is not current accepted, so Opal benefits (such as day/week caps, travel reward and intermodal transfer discount) do not apply. I’m not clear as to whether concessions will be honoured.

Once happy, you can book the ride and the app will contact the driver. If you have not been chosen as a beta tester or selected to pay by credit card on board, you will get a little warning –

Assuming you were successful in booking, you can watch the progress of the bus coming to pick you up on the app.

You will also receive SMS messages as to the progress of your bus when it comes close – in this case, I experienced being “shifted” from one bus service to another for operational efficiency reasons –

Boarding the bus, the driver has a tablet where a list of passenger names are shown and can be swiped to confirm. When boarding, you tell the driver your name and that will register your trip as being started. Not long afterward, an e-mail receipt is sent for your ride – handy for reimbursements or claims.

The app also has a bit of a cute message when you try to exit …

… but I suggest you do this and ensure it is closed, otherwise it appears to nearly continuously poll for your location which can be a privacy issue and consume battery needlessly.

On the whole, I experienced no trouble aside from a transient freeze on my first booking – but someone else at Schofields station was left with an “endless” loop of 10 minute waits, appearing to be allocated to a bus that was not operating at the time. Unfortunately, the system is rather inflexible – drivers are expected to follow the app instructions directly and cannot pick-up or drop-off aside from the planned route to avoid causing problems with scheduling for others.

That being said, I was sitting smugly in the comfort of the Cooee on my way home from Schofields, having pre-booked while on the train pulling into Schofields and not having to wait for a route bus like the others. Some people did notice the Cooee bus and asked the driver whether it was going their way – but there’s no way for them to get on unless they book it first via the app.

Conclusion

Aside from a few minor glitches, the Cooee Busways app and fleet seems to be doing a good job. With six buses serving the relatively small area, pick-ups are dispatched swiftly with wait times of three minutes being very common, especially with the light loading that is currently experienced as people start to learn about the service. Being free during the beta testing phase is also a bonus. The buses themselves are comfortable, with the new-bus-smell and friendly drivers.

I think the system shows very much promise for being a future direction for our public transport system, alleviating the load on car parking near stations and providing better convenience for users. Real-time booking data allows for better time management, especially when bookings are swiftly attended to. A large number of buses also ensures quality of service remains high. Best of all, having the fares regulated by Transport for NSW means that the cost should remain fairly reasonable (even though, at this stage, it doesn’t seem Opal cards are accepted and thus Opal benefits do not apply). As a result, one can receive UberPool-like service for a public-transport-like price, at least to-and-from public transport stations. Only time will tell in regards to usage figures, coverage area, operating hours and final fare pricing. The present coverage is not very wide and operations on Monday to Friday from 5am to 9pm excluding Public Holidays may not be ideal for when you’d want to go out any other day.

While it is a step towards modernising public transport to better meet the needs of its users, it won’t immediately fix the problem that is vehicular access to the Schofields station interchange – cars waiting to pick-up and drop-off cause massive delays for bus services (including Cooee) due to constant queues and heavy traffic exiting the interchange.

Perhaps if all those drivers were riding a Cooee home, we wouldn’t have such a problem in the first place! For those living in the area, beta testing continues to 3rd May 2019, so get the app and give the Cooee Busways service a try. You might find it quite convenient!

Update: 23rd April 2019

I had another chance to use the Cooee Busways service on Tuesday 23rd April, and met another friendly bus driver who had read this very page. He informed me that Busways now has a specific page for The Ponds, Schofields and Kellyville Ridge with fare band based charges of $2.20 for <3km and $3.66 for >3km. Concession fares are available, $1.10 and $1.83 respectively – with Opal card payment coming soon and potential transfer discount. That’s potentially great news for everyone!

As for whether the zones might increase in the future is still unknown, but with six buses, five operate in peak time with one spare and three in off-peak. Loading is still quite light, no doubt due to the school holiday period, but next week it is expected to pick up.

It was another successful journey using Cooee, this time with my father using the multiple-passenger feature which allows you to book and pay for up to seven passengers in total from a single Cooee login. Upon looking carefully inside the bus, it seems a total of nineteen passengers can be accommodated, assuming no standing allowance and no prams or wheelchairs.

Update: 24th April 2019

I managed to use Cooee Busways again, this time to get to and from Schofields station on my way to and from work. I noticed that the link to their website now redirects to a “coming soon” page, but due to the subpages not being covered up, if you follow this link to the Via subpage, you can at least see parts of the navigation structure to parts of the site which is supposedly coming soon. Unfortunately, I did not archive the segments with the fare band charges and Opal card “coming soon” as mentioned earlier – so you will have to take my word for it at this stage.

Of interest is the terms and conditions and privacy policy. A lot of this stuff is boilerplate, but what caught my attention was the ability for the drivers to rate their passengers. The app does allow the users to rate the drivers – just keep the app open after completing a trip and you will be asked to assign a star rating and flag the ride as being “direct route”, “smooth ride” etc. But I wonder what the drivers are asked? At a guess, I’d probably say “noisy passenger”, “vandal”, “argumentative”, “causes delays/perpetually late”?

Another key observation to make is the possibility of having full fare charged for uninformed cancellations (i.e. not turning up at the appointed place on time) or running too late. As a result, it is best to book when you are in close proximity to the pickup point and incur any wait whatever that may be – say three, six or nine minutes. Frequently booking and cancelling prior to pickup or not turning up can get you red-flagged by the system and that could cause you to lose your rights to use the Cooee Busways system – all sensible rules if you think that other commuters will be relying on you to be there on time. The system works best when everyone cooperates.

It was another smooth day, although I did encounter a bug this morning where I tried to book a trip but it showed no options for buses. Closing the app and re-opening it allowed me to proceed normally, so it was probably a transient glitch. It’s very similar to the first transient glitch I had where it was constantly looking for a ride but never found one after three minutes but worked fine after the app was restarted.

For those who are interested (e.g. train-spotter types), from my rides on the Cooee buses, the registration plates are seems to be as follows:

  • 1 – MO6791 (boarded)
  • 2 – ?
  • 3 – MO6615 (boarded) / MO8049 (sighted driver training)
  • 4 – MO6613 (boarded)
  • 5 – MO6616 (boarded)
  • 6 – MO6616 (implied by SMS message & conflicts with 5, reassigned prior to arrival)

It is also interesting to speak to the different drivers – some of whom are regular faces. The drivers have slightly different names on the app – e.g. the driver Busponds5 C has been extremely informative and helpful, but so have the majority of other drivers. It seems that Busways are not particularly looking to advertise the fact the service is in beta testing, but at the same time, allowing early adopters to get in and give it a go. It makes sense, as sometimes trend-setters and influencers are the ones who get in first, but also technical minded people like myself. In this sense, we are a little more accepting when things go wrong and we often will exercise different features (e.g. booking cancellation, multi-passenger booking, booking to/from different places).

The loading on the service still seems to be fairly light with respect to the maximum capacity – I was the only person onboard both rides today, but apparently the drivers are seeing a good stream of rides come in which keeps them busy roaming about the service area. Passenger numbers were estimated to be within the teens for a shift, although I did hear of the possibility that weekday public holiday operation may occur when the system is fully commissioned.

Speaking of which, it seems nobody knows quite when the North-West Metro is coming online, but it can’t be too far now. Yesterday’s visit to Rouse Hill saw the station seemingly close to completion (I missed out on a community tour date earlier due to no spaces), but there were trains running back and forth at a “reduced” frequency. The indicator board appeared to be functional with destinations and estimated departure times. As a frequency-based service, it makes sense that the Cooee system doesn’t seem to be too concerned with precise pick-up and arrival times (it’s hard to predict traffic, future pick-up diversions, etc) as the Metro trains would come often enough that you just board the next one upon your arrival. This isn’t quite the case with Schofields and the heavy rail, where 15-minute intervals for stations common to T1/T5 and 30-minute intervals for T1/T5 exclusive stations are the norm.

However, once the Metro comes online, Cooee Busways should be ready to roll. In fact, I can see myself getting used to using the system especially if Opal is accepted and transfer benefits maintained. I even find myself saying “I’ll just Cooee to the station” as a verb for catching an on-demand bus. I’m extremely thankful to have been given the privilege of using the service, which has been a big time-saver over waiting for 30-minute interval route buses which (despite their best intentions) often run late due to passengers, traffic jams, roadworks, etc. I actually would prefer it – hands down, even if it was packed with other passengers. Just being free of the rigid route-bus timings prevents the issues of the “well meaning” timetabled connections with trains always being missed due to late running.

Update: 26th April 2019

I didn’t ride the Cooee today, but my Father did and had no issues going out on Bus 4, but when coming back in, the bus driver’s tablet in Bus 6 didn’t register the booking and it seems the radio base did not answer the drivers’ call. Regardless, after a few minutes, he was able to complete his journey successfully.

The updated number plates based on the SMS notifications are as follows:

  • 1 – MO6791 (boarded)
  • 2 – ?
  • 3 – MO6615 (boarded) / MO8049 (sighted driver training)
  • 4 – MO6613 (boarded)
  • 5 – MO6616 (boarded)
  • 6 – MO6615 (boarded)

The registration number of Bus #2 is not known, and as for the duplicate #3, is a bit of a mystery.

Update: 29th April 2019

This weeks marks the final week of beta testing for the Cooee service and it’s been a great privilege to have the chance to use Cooee to make getting to and from public transport easier. Today’s trip to and from work was completed with the help of Cooee, but not without a few minor hiccups:

In the morning on the way out, despite closing and restarting the app three times and even rebooting the device, trying to book a ride showed none of the bus options that normally come up. Since the ‘Book This Ride’ button was not disabled, I clicked it anyway and the booking was dispatched accordingly. This might mislead some other users into thinking there is no bus available – at the time, all five buses were servicing the morning peak demand. Service was, again, swift but because of my expectation the app would work first time, I made it to the station with just 90 seconds to run from the bus to the train. I made it though … so that’s a big tick.

The way home was a little interesting. I had made it to Schofields with Cooee #2 sitting at the rank and booked it immediately. However, the app said that the driver (Driver 2 C) would have to circle around and some back in … very logical.

I boarded the bus anyway, but my name was not on the screen. According to the driver, this is to be expected as the orders take about three minutes to come on. Then, a light-bulb went off in my head – of course – they would have to guard against a short booking and cancellation as the no-penalty cancellation window is about 90 seconds after booking. As a result, the drivers are not going to be bothered about such book-and-cancel events. After the time was up and I had showed up, another person was also showing so we waited a short time for them to show up as well.

Because of this, a slightly longer route was taken … but then things took a slight turn for the worse because for some reason, the driver had acknowledged the first drop off but the system didn’t register and was trying to route the bus back to the first drop-off location. As a result, the system lost guidance to my intended stop and I had to provide the driver with some verbal instructions to the intended stop.

This seems to be a potential teething issue, but I did see the driver make several attempts to acknowledge the drop-off. Perhaps he was moving too quickly and the tablet locks-out any user actions while in motion, but whatever the case may be, if the bus had more drop-offs to handle, this would not have been a good outcome.

No word on when the Metro will open, but we’re all waiting. This driver also let me know that the app controls everything including dwell times at particular locations in case of having other pick-ups. Adjustment to dwell times could help better utilise capacity and is something they’re looking to optimise. The system also gives aural guidance in the form of beeps and spoken guidance similar to navigational GPS systems.

Having ridden bus #2 at long last, the updated number plates are as follows:

  • 1 – MO6791 (boarded)
  • 2 – MO6614 (boarded)
  • 3 – MO6615 (boarded) / MO8049 (sighted driver training)
  • 4 – MO6613 (boarded)
  • 5 – MO6616 (boarded)
  • 6 – MO6615 (boarded)

Perhaps the duplicate #3 is intended for out-of-region service and was “borrowed” from another region where the service is planned to be established. I’m not entirely sure.

I have been asked by some whether such services will appear in their area – the answer is a qualified “maybe not”, but for those who are not already aware, several other on-demand transport systems exist in Sydney and surrounding areas, and some of which are Opal Pay (i.e. without cap, transfer discounts):

  • Keoride Northern Beaches is a two-zone system covering North Narrabeen to Mona Vale and Mona Vale to Palm Beach. Fares are set at $3.10 standard/$1.55 concession one way, operated by Keolis Downer since November 2017.
  • Ride Plus is a service operated by Transdev since November 2017 covering the Manly area. Fares are set at $3.10 with bookings between 1 hour to 1 week prior to the trip.
  • Keoride Macquarie Park is a distance-based on-demand service servicing a 7.5km radius around Macquarie Park station. Fares are set at $2.60 for <3km, $4.30 for 3-8km and $5.60 for >8km.
  • Bridj Inner-West is an on-demand service that runs a number of set routes at $3.10 with concession fares of $1.50. These set routes include Newington to Lidcombe, Cabarita and Mortlake to North Strathfield and Sydney Olympic Park, Rhodes, Concord, Mortlake and Cabarita, and Mortlake, Cabarita, Burwood and Strathfield station. The service, operated by Transit Systems, appears to target areas which are poorly served by existing services.
  • Bridj Eastern Suburbs is an on-demand service similar to the above but covering Dover heights, North Bondi and Bondi Beach.
  • OurBus operated by Hillsbus began in January 2018 covering the North Rocks, Carlingford, Beecroft and Epping areas. Fares are set at $3.10 one way or $1.50 for concession with bookings up to 14 days prior. At the moment, if you download the app, there is a free ride on offer.
  • Interline Connect operated by Interline began in January 2018 with one-way fares of $2.60 and concession fares available. The service covers the Edmondson Park area.
  • Newcastle Transport is currently trialing an introductory on-demand service in the Lake Macquarie area including Didley, Whitebridge, Mount Hutton, Windale, Tingira Heights, Eleebana, Warners Bay, Gateshead and Charlestown that that can be pre-booked up to three months in advance. The trial is expected to run for 12 months, having commenced 14th January 2018 with a $3 introductory fare. At this stage, it appears to still be in service.
  • Moree On-Demand trial run by Reynolds and Fogarty charges $3 for a single trip or $6.90 daily, with $1.50 and $3.40 concession fares.
  • CoastConnect is operated by Community Transport Central Coast, beginning operations Thursday 31st May 2018 with fares of $3.10 for up to 3km and $4.10 above that, with concession fares available.
  • Premier Illawarra On Demand run in Thirroul and Shellharbour charging the same fareas as CoastConnect.
  • Transdev Link is a service for the Sutherland Shire that covers the area surrounding Miranda including Jannali West, Sylvania, Caringbah and Gymea. Fares are set at $2.60 for up to 3km and $4.30 over 3km with concession fares available.
  • Regional Buses is another service, covering areas of Albury, Burrumbuttock, Walla Walla and Jindera in the Riverina area since 11th February 2019 with fares of $4.90 or $7.20 depending on area, and concession fares available.
  • LiveBetter services the Central West area and commenced early March 2019.
  • Busways On Demand Mid North Coast commenced operations 16th January 2019 with standard fares starting at $4.40, concession fares available. Bookings must be made the day before.
  • Macphersons Coaches On Demand services Moore Creek to Tamworth on weekdays with a $4.40 standard one-way fare, and half-price concession. Bookings must be made the day before.
  • B-ConX covers the Northern Rivers area and is operated by Buslines Group, launched 18th March 2019 with distance-based fares ranging from $2.30 up to $7.20.
  • Orana on Demand services the Orana region, operated by Ogden’s Coaches Pty Ltd.
  • Sapphire Coast on Demand services are operated by Sapphire Coast Buslines and Flexibus.
  • Rixon’s On Demand covers the South Coast to Canberra area with fares starting at $35.

It was also interesting to find the following:

  • Wetherill Park – operated by Bridj but ceased operating on Friday 3rd August.

It seems that TfNSW is happy to brand a lot of services as “on demand” even though they vary quite dramatically in service set. Prices for fares differ, but also the means of booking with many of the city areas using apps and having the convenience to book immediately as required, whereas some other areas require one hour prior and more rural areas operate on day-before bookings. Other areas seem to operate more a book-able scheduled route service rather than a truly on-demand service, while some others offer a true anywhere-to-anywhere service. The fragmentation in the on-demand market may make finding the services a little more difficult, but it seems that almost all large bus companies have taken the time to operate (at least, on a trial basis) some on-demand services to see if it is sustainable. Many of these are still marked as trials, thus they may not become a permanent fixture is patronage is not sufficient.

Judging from this, it seems likely that Cooee may well also be Opal Pay which would be a premium for most users of route buses owing to the lack of Opal benefits. The pricing may roughly fall in-line with this, with the other services generally charging higher rates than route buses for each fare band – for reference, the current Adult route bus rates are $2.20 up to 3km, $3.66 for 3km-8km and $4.71 for >8km.

FINAL Update: 3rd May 2019

It’s been a few days since my last update, but as of 9pm today, the Cooee Busways on-demand beta test has concluded. I feel very honoured and fortunate to have been part of this beta test which has given us a glimpse of a potentially bright future for public transport that better meets the needs of commuters. It is my hope that the service is introduced with economical fares, such that people choose to leave their cars at home, reducing issues with congestion, parking and helping out the environment.

But for that to happen, I think it will be important to balance the fares and possible Opal benefits with the quality of service, which won’t necessarily be easy when it reaches full revenue service when the North-West metro comes into service.

Thank you to all the friendly drivers who have given me chauffeur-grade service on the seven days I have used the service – they have set a high bar which will be difficult to maintain and have been very open about talking about the service and how things are going.

That being said, I should still reflect on the last few days of Cooee use, which was mostly trouble-free. It was interesting upon leaving the house and switching networks that there is a rather cheeky error message –

While trouble-free, the rides on Wednesday and Thursday on the return leg really showed just why I am so thankful to have had access to the service, but also, the inaccuracy of estimates.

On Wednesday afternoon, booking a pick-up from the train resulted in an estimated pick-up in eight minutes. At that time, interestingly, the route bus was not far away and claimed to be arriving within four minutes.

In this situation, the general temptation may be to cancel the Cooee booking, especially within the grace period where free cancellations are permitted. However, instead of doing this, I decided to have a race between the two – on the understanding that the free ride on Cooee would probably be more comfortable.

To my unexpected surprise, the Cooee bus arrived prior to the route bus, and left the rank ahead of the route bus which only continued to get even later! That was not expected. Part of the reason was the eight-minute estimate was a bit long, and Tripview’s four minute estimate was a bit short.

Repeating the same scenario on Thursday afternoon, I received a booking that was to be picked up in four minutes. This one was a slight underestimate, I suppose due to the traffic lights and potential traffic load on Schofields Road. However, today, the Cooee won again!

The reason? The scheduled route bus that was 25-minutes late was cancelled, with the following bus without any real-time information, so we didn’t know if it would even run. At this rate, the certainty of the Cooee was a big win. Once the bus pulled up to the rank, I could see the desperate eyes of the stranded route-bus commuters asking if this bus was “going to the Ponds”. But by then, it was too late … most of the time you don’t get beta privileges immediately on installing the app!

As I worked from home on Friday, I didn’t partake in the final day of beta operations, but my father did and had no trouble at all. That proves just how easy it is to use.

In the final days, I also heard that the beta had around 100 users towards the last few days with the drivers doing nearly “continuous” runs without much in the way of dwelling. The opening date for the metro is still not known, even though train maps have already been updated (as above). The drivers were not certain as to what they would be doing in the interim, but knew that Cooee buses would not be on the road. Decisions as to fares, service area, and more are yet to be finalised.

Users of the beta may have received the above e-mail today, soliciting feedback on the beta test program. I implore all users fill in and provide their honest opinions and suggestions as this will likely be a service they will benefit from in the future – making it better for the community as a whole is in our best interests. Giving up ten minutes to fill it in is the least we can do to thank Busways for the free rides.

Now that the beta has concluded, I hope that the finalised Cooee service is priced competitively. If so, you might be seeing me using this service … a lot. Even though the beta test period was relatively short, I’ve already found myself getting used to its convenience and flexibility. I suppose I will miss it while we wait for the Metro to commence service.

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long Rnd(): Birthday Analysis, Spoiling Myself, Fixing Stuff, Thrifty Finds, Parking Tickets & More

It’s been a busy long-weekend, but there’s no better post than a “long random” for a long weekend! This time around, it just so happens to be my birthday as well.

Happy Birthday to Me? Really?

Well, what can I say. It’s been two days already since my birthday and I’m supposedly now 30 years of age. I can’t even believe it myself. On the one hand, it seems time has flown, but on the other, I’ve done so much. I suppose I do feel like I’m 30 in some ways but not so much in others – there is still so much to do that I could never actually do everything. The unfortunate constraint of time is always looming in the background, but at least I’ve been able to keep myself mostly happy. But is there any meaning to any of it? I’m not sure, but alas, I think the answer is better stated as “I don’t mind if it has or hasn’t,” while just getting on with the task at hand.

This past year has been a busy one for me. I managed to win a number of high-profile RoadTests and RoadTester of the Year 2018 at element14, which was a great honour and definitely helps in more ways than one. Perhaps I should update my “About Me” page … which is now very outdated. Being involved in full time work is a blessing of sorts, occupying a lot of my time and effort during weekdays doing things I have an interest in. Being research-related, it is hardly straightforward, but sometimes those kinds of challenges are necessary. On my weekends, I try to keep a dedication to my hobbies – reviewing products, building kits, repairing items and running experiments, although it seems the time to blog about them continues to evaporate. Nonetheless, it seems I’m not getting as much of a “sleep-in” as I used to – it’s all about efficiency now. I even watch all my Korean TV shows at 2.4x to 2.7x to get a bit more out of my time.

Despite all of this, it wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel unfulfilled in at least one way. Nobody “has it all”, and I certainly don’t have it all. In fact, half the time, I don’t even have it all together! In my haste, I find myself multitasking more, engaging less, confusing myself and making some silly mistakes. Beyond a point, there is nothing gained. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to see where to go when it’s not clear what the destination or the path is – something I probably need to think about more in my future. The current economic climate, the cost of living, the state of wages really doesn’t give me much hope either. Additionally, as a bit of an introvert, I don’t socialise much or at all, I don’t exactly have a large friend network nor any dating prospects. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. I do what I do and let the rest take care of itself … after all, I’m not exactly the “average Joe”.

On a usual birthday, I would spend my day at Taronga Zoo, but this year, I was so busy that I forgot about it entirely. The $1 promotion is still running this year – I just forgot to sign up for it. But I didn’t forget about the Facebook analysis, which is somewhat sobering:

As previously predicted, a downward trend persists with the number of “happy birthday” posts falling to a record low of four, two of which were from “family”. I would class the messages as “generic”, which is to be expected, especially when Facebook prompts users to send them, hoping to start a snowball of interaction which would help their metrics – but seeing that people are now ignoring these programmatic suggestions is a good sign. It shows users becoming disengaged, unshackled from the “evil” algorithms. At such small numbers, it’s really hard to draw any firm conclusions. While it seems that Facebook’s Monthly Active count continues to rise nearly linearly, Facebook is increasingly becoming irrelevant as users become disengaged with the platform. I’m even reconsidering whether to keep my Facebook account – it’s not exactly been useful for me.

The scandals that have plagued Facebook in the way they have abused the trust of their users and accidentally stolen their contact lists among other things seems to have affected them somewhat. As a result, they seem to have become increasingly desperate in the recent times creating fake notifications that are totally irrelevant – “suggested friends”, “you’ve been friends for x years, write something to celebrate!”, “someone who didn’t post for a while recently posted”. This kind of desperation has caused me to mute Facebook notifications entirely, but I still end up logging in for maybe a minute every two weeks just to see everything’s still there. It’s now mostly a marketing wasteland – I don’t see many genuine interactions happening anymore and use it mainly to enter competitions which I never win.

So in some ways, almost as predicted, I think we’re seeing Facebook starting to become “uncool” … perhaps soon to be nearly as irrelevant. Even their Messenger product has gained the same level of desperation that makes me want to uninstall it as well.

Looking at the curve fit to the posts, it’s interesting to see that with this latest drop, removing the first datapoint doesn’t make much of a difference to the goodness-of-fit. Perhaps I will get the same number of posts next year – purely because my family might not stop using Facebook … but if I close my account, there will be no more experiment!

Looking at the plot with regards to the percentage of friends – I’ve lost a few friends this year, probably because they closed their accounts or they don’t like me (or both?) but the trend is still downhill. I guess this brings us to the saying “Facebook friends aren’t real friends!” When it comes to real friends, I’d say there are probably … only a handful or so.

As usual, thanks to everyone for participating overtly or inadvertently in my experiment and thanks to those who have posted or sent a message. I wonder what the future holds? Some people proclaim a return to blogging as a primary means by which we communicate with “friends” about our achievements – preferably self-hosted rather than on a micro-blogging platform. I’m not so sure. Others claim that mobile-app instant-messaging selfie-oriented platforms will take over the role. But I’ve been slow to warm to those apps and features … I guess you might need a certain level of vanity to use them. It’s not like I’d be swarming with likes – I’m lucky if my posts even get read in the first place, let alone thoroughly understood.

Treating Myself – Long Overdue Upgrades

The best part about a birthday is … presents! I did get a few from my family including a new backpack, a photography textbook, a tie, a lunch/dinner and (soon) a trip to the movies. But the best presents are always the ones you buy yourself – as a thrifty guy, I tend to put off purchases but I figured my birthday would be a good excuse to splurge, coinciding with some Easter sales. It’s time to treat myself …

Graphics Card

Since I built my upgraded workstation, I’ve been fairly satisfied with it. But with the upgrade to dual 4K IPS monitors, it seems the Palit Jetstream GTX970 was struggling a bit. Even dragging windows around would be a little stuttery at times and gaming at higher quality settings at the native resolution was near impossible. I was willing to put up with it, if it were not for the fact that the fan bearings were on their way out, so whenever the fans kicked in (which happened even idling at the desktop), it would sound like a horse was galloping in the distance. *clip-clop-clip-clop*

I wanted something more capable, but I didn’t want to spend too much on it either. Knowing Nvidia’s RTX cards have not met a great welcome with some people complaining of driver issues, memory issues, black screens, etc, I decided it would not be in my best interests to spend up for one of those. AMD’s solutions were quite lacklustre as well. While Nvidia launched a GTX1660 and Ti version as well, which seemed like a potentially good upgrade, I found the benchmarks to be a little lacking still. Ideally, I’d want something a bit quicker but also cheaper.

In the end, I went on the second hand market and snapped up an MSI GAMING GTX1070Ti that was apparently 1.5 years old for $460 delivered – it wasn’t the cheapest price they’ve been seen but it’s not a bad price when the performance is considered. Buying second hand is risky – there’s a chance some of these cards may have had a hard life as cryptocurrency mining cards – but I was willing to take the chance given the discount.

So far, I’m quite pleased – the card idles much cooler with the fans off and the core downclocks just fine. The full load noise is relatively quiet as well, with a noticeable bump up in performance. While it might be around the same price as a new GTX1660Ti, if UserBenchmark is to be believed, the 1070ti should be about 24% faster, which is not insignificant – the gamble is the lack of warranty, which I was willing to forego. I don’t send things back often – I’m fairly lucky when it comes to tech.

Camera & Lens

One thing I’ve complained of since my return from my holiday was that my Nikon D3300 that I normally use for all my photography has a bad central AF point and the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 lens has a broken autofocus gearing that sounds like a mouse getting tortured. While it was still workable using an alternative AF spot, the unit did have a tendency to front and back focus unpredictably, resulting in many later photos being taken using manual focus and a “guess” at when it was in sharp focus. The camera also had a tendency to be all over the place in terms of white balance.

I had tried to buy a new camera body, twice on eBay from grey importers, but was scammed both times with sellers that did not send the product, waited the full 45 days before returning my money. With such a buying experience, I gave up getting a new body. Nikon’s financial situation got worse in the interim, the introduction of new GST legislation covering low-value imports resulted in the closure of many “semi-reputable” grey importers and the crashing Australian dollar worked against me. While I purchased the D3300 for AU$380 including postage, the latest equivalent (D3500) was about AU$580. That was almost unjustifiable given the feature increases were not that significant.

But I wasn’t going to give up, as the quirks were very much annoying me and a few sales came up. In this case, I spotted a refurbished Nikon D3400 from Ryda which could be bought for AU$376.11 including postage post-discounts. As an older model, it had the benefit it would work with my version of Lightroom, and being of the same family, all of my accessories can be carried over. So yes … I like the box – you are mine now!

The refurbished product is lacking in manuals and CDs, but that’s not important to me. All I cared about was in the box. Opening it up and testing it, it had about 250-or-so shots on the shutter counter and was last used on “lock-up mirror for cleaning”, so it appears to have been professionally cleaned. The firmware was updated along with the lens-distortion data from Nikon’s website – and it’s been working perfectly since!

As a result, the old D3300 has been put into quasi-retirement as a backup camera. It’s not bad, as its shutter count is at about 66,000 and toured with me on my holidays in 2017 (that I still haven’t gotten around to posting about).

As for the lens situation, I decided to buy one of the cheapest regular zoom lenses I could – the AF-P DX Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G. This is basically what you would expect as a kit lens for the above camera – it’s cheap, lightweight, plastic-ey and this version is without vibration reduction (as I prefer less battery-hungry lenses and feel that VR is another potential thing to break). Of course, being a basic lens, there is no lens hood (I have one on order) nor any lens bag as well. Seeing as I got it for about AU$90 shipped, it wasn’t a bad price.

Having used an f/2.8 aftermarket lens, why am I going back to a kit lens? Ironically, I find that as one gets more experienced in technology, they tend to care less about chasing the latest and greatest. Initially, we might be lured into specs, but as we understand more about limitations and technique, we can compensate for some of the shortcomings or realise that they were not a problem in the first place. In that way, we can go back to something more basic – or hold onto something for a little longer – rather than upgrade.

In my case, I thought that having an f/2.8 lens would be nice for sharper images especially when stopped down with less vignetting. The particular Tamron also had relatively good distortion figures and excellent chromatic aberration control. But now that I shoot everything in RAW and process through Lightroom – lens correction is a standard part of the workflow, making a low-distortion/vignetting lens less important, as is the removal of chromatic aberrations in software. As for not having the wider aperture, I found that the limited focusing accuracy of the D3300 really meant I didn’t use the wider apertures much – in fact, I often stopped down to f/5.6 to f/11 to capture maximum resolution and depth – especially for products. That being said, I’m not saying this kit lens is “perfect” – it’s just that for shooting products indoors, especially for the blog, you probably won’t notice the difference! Outdoor flare control may well be a completely different game.

Regardless, we get exactly what we expect – some literature and the lens itself in a plastic bag with nothing else.

Being a DX lens, it’s nothing particularly special with its name badge printed on a label. It is the cheapest of cheap – but surprisingly a few test shots didn’t look too bad. The biggest surprise was the stepping motor focus mechanism on this lens – it makes the Tamron lens look like a snail as it’s silent, fast and accurate. The lighter weight would probably come in handy for travelling too, and low cost would essentially make it “disposable”.

The one big annoyance? The plastic “push on” white rear lens cap. I prefer the old black-plastic rotating cap which is more secure and easier to get on and off without the risk of touching something. At least, I have this as a back-up should the Tamron fail me entirely and I’m actually quite happy that I didn’t have to spend too much to renew my photography gear. The biggest perk? This one isn’t red.

Chair

It’s no secret that I spend a lot of time on my butt in front of the computer – a year ago I purchased a cheap pleather rockable high-back office chair for my workstation for just $80 delivered and I was pretty pleased at the time.

But a year on in, it doesn’t seem anywhere near as great as it was. The foam padding on the seat-pan had collapsed sufficiently that my legs would go numb after a long session, the rocking spring mechanism became loose despite being adjusted to maximum tension, the gas strut would lean slightly when spinning around and the seat creaked at any movement. It didn’t last.

At the time, I purchased it, I was considering a much more premium chair, but I didn’t buy it because it didn’t quite fit my budget and I thought the cheap ones would be close enough. This time around, I was lucky enough to meet Easter sales, so I hastily purchased it.

I decided that it would be a good idea to get something more reputable, but also something that was perhaps more premium and durable. I decided that I’d go for the Noblechairs Epic Real Leather which is a rather pricey chair even with the discount at about $640 delivered – I would perhaps have chosen the Icon instead if I could convince myself to spend a little more …

I’ve heard some good things about Noblechairs, so I had high hopes. Just trying to lug the box across the room, I could feel the (nearly) 30kg weight … a big contrast compared to the other chair I had before which probably weighed half as much.

The chair parts are well packaged …

… time to begin construction! Noblechairs recommends having two people to construct the unit – I’d probably say that’s good advice due to the weight of some of the parts, but I’d also say that it’s possible to do so solo (as I did it by myself) with some minor frustration. The construction guide is printed on a glossy cardboard, but as with most chairs, construction is relatively straightforward and the tools are included.

The completed chair actually looks fairly nice, with a racing car bucket seat-inspired design. It comes with the lumbar and neck-rest cushions. Positioning them correctly makes a big difference to the posture. With the cushions set in their correct position, I can sit more upright with the adjustable back-rest recline and seat pan angle, which actually makes me feel a little more energetic and helps me breathe easier. The old chair without adjustable backrest was on too much of a recline.

Using it for a while, I like the high density foam cushioning as it seems very resilient and I get no numbness at all after long sessions. The open-top casters are also good as it means cables are less likely to get caught – one of those things which is a common annoyance. The casters glide smoothly and the chair is pretty solid with no creaking whatsoever. Even though I’m relatively short, the standard gas strut as supplied can reach low-enough for me. Noblechairs also has alternative gas struts which can be purchased to further reduce height. It’s also nice to see that the chair is capable of rocking, locking at various seat-pan angles and recline levels to lying almost flat which could be good for a nap.

On the downside, I’d have to say that the 4D armest adjustments are too easy to knock out of position and the price may be a bit steep for some. There is a pleather version but from my experience with other pleather products, I’d prefer real leather where available. The recline mechanism on the sides feels slightly flimsy with the plastic covers being slightly sharp – so best not to put your hands in there.

One thing I did notice that was a bit out-of-keeping with the premium nature of the product was the rear where a zipper is used to close the seams – it seems the zipper has been forced to close resulting in a few spots where the zipper isn’t nicely aligned. I hope they don’t eventually pop out.

They aren’t the only premium gaming chair in the market, but they’re one of the few with real-leather. That being said, I suppose other chairs could be as good or even better but I’m pretty happy with my Noblechairs Epic as it is. It makes me think that I probably should have bought it a year ago …

Internet? Actually … No, not yet.

Well, technically, the NBN has “arrived” as of 18th April, but I haven’t signed up yet. As mentioned in an earlier random posting – price, limited static IP options and the inevitable installation delays have led me to postpone joining the NBN for a few months. But I’ve already designated a place for the CPE to be installed, laid my internal CAT5e to the location, set up a VLAN ID for it to be carried up to my router and configured the router to accept the VLAN ID as a WAN when it comes up. But alas, not so soon – I must use up my 4G/LTE cards first.

In the interim, I use Telstra Air (Wi-Fi) as my back-up WAN. It’s a long-range link, very prone to drop-outs and very limited in speed as it is a residential access point serving. But since I am a Telstra customer (not for long though), I can take advantage of it.

In an interesting coincidence, my back-up WAN failed when my primary LTE WAN failed, which led to a bit of a frantic investigation. As it turns out, my Raspberry Pi running my back-up WAN link had failed. After seven years of serving in various modes, it seems the SMSC Ethernet + USB hub chip had failed, possibly from accumulated heat and also taxed by a failing USB power supply. As a result, it would connect over Ethernet for a split second before disconnecting – with no cable connected, the FDX LED would blink. Changing cables, switch ports, power supply and software made no difference – so I disposed of the Raspberry Pi Model B, copied its image over to a microSD and booted it on a Raspberry Pi Model B+ and I was back on the air (pun intended). In fact, this post was being written using the Air link.

It will be inevitable – I will get the NBN (HFC) one day soon which will be a major upgrade. Just not being bound by slow speeds or a quota would be literally life-changing.

But at least for this month, I think I’ve done my spending for a whole year. It’s out of character for me to splurge on myself like this. But even when I do, value for money is still on my mind.

“Fix my Sink!”

On the morning of my 30th birthday, before breakfast, the first thing I did was to attack a plumbing problem. The kitchen sink at the property had a slow drainage problem discovered a week earlier. As the first port of call, I suspected a clogged U-bend trap, which I removed and cleared. The trap had a lot of accretions – fats and vegetable plant matter from twenty years of use, having never been cleaned. I thought the problem was fixed, but it wasn’t, as evidenced by a “gurgling” noise which started after the sink drained clear.

At this point, I suspected maybe some accumulation in the pipes leading to and from the trap, perhaps something minor that a plunger could address. I acquired a large bellows type plunger – this grape coloured one from Bunnings and went to town on the blockage. It seemed like it helped, but the gurgling returned.

As I didn’t have access to the sewer diagram for the property, I had to make a guess as to how the property was connected. There would be a sewer “trunk” line down the side of the property which the kitchen sink would join along with outside drains and the downstairs laundry, toilet and upstairs showers. As slow drainage was not encountered on other drains, I suspected that the kitchen sink joined the main trunk on its own Y junction where the clog may be.

It was that evening after work that my Dad let me know that the outside drain in the garden seems to have been belching drained water from the kitchen. This proved to be a critical clue – as now this suggested the kitchen was plumbed out to the outside drain before joining the main trunk.

At this point, I thought it rather strange that the inside drain would join an untrapped outside drain before joining the main sewer trunk line. But then, I remembered what happened at my Mum’s place where we suffered quite a bit of damage – at least this arrangement meant that the clog would result in water being ejected outside the property instead of flooding from inside.

By then, it was late at night and I wanted to attack the clog, but there were so many cockroaches enjoying the water and nutrients that I had to bid a retreat until the next morning.

By now, it’s the morning of my 30th birthday and my Father is about to leave for an event. Single-handedly, I resolved to address the problem the only way how – by mechanical intervention. I’m not a believer in chemical drain cleaners – caustic soda and the like – primarily because they might not break down the clog effectively nor have enough residence time to actually take effect.

Outside, I removed the garden drain cover and went down with a thin auger to try and pick at the clog. Not feeling anything solid, I couldn’t hook onto anything but I did get some white-material which floated up to the top. It seems our culprit is congealed cooking oils, fats and greases – a well known clog offender!

To pressurise the system, I filled the inside sinks until they were backing up, then installed the stopper plug. I continued to fill the basin until it was about 80% filled. I placed upturned bowls above the plugs – this is critical to deflect any back-flow downward into the mass of water and prevent “water volcanoes” from arising.

It is then, I dealt the boss the final blow with my grape coloured plunger. But to use a plunger effectively requires a bit of technique – namely you need a solid column of water between the plunger and the clog to do any good, as water is incompressible and transmits force directly, whereas air just “squishes”. Secondly, you need to be as close to the clog on as large a pipe as possible to reduce resistance and improve transmittance of force. Thirdly, you must prevent the pressure escaping – that’s where filling the sink helps by providing downforce with water. To plunge, you need to have a good sharp motion, but it helps also to do a few test plunges to see what the “time constant” of the system is like. The system would slosh down and up again. Taking note of the rhythm, like a swing, plunge downwards at the right time to “amplify” the force. There’s no point just plunging at random times.

In this case, I plunged hard at first which ended up popping off the caps on the kitchen sink. This helped provide more water outside to refill the column as it slightly emptied. I plunged again twice, and resoundingly, the column began to disappear rapidly. The clog had been banished.

As a result, the sink was fixed and drained freely. It’s good to fix things on your own – it’s economical and educational, even if it is a little smelly. After the drainage became free, we continued monitoring the outside drain where it became apparent that there was something a bit odd – it looked as if there was a solid mass at the bottom.

As it turns out, it seems that instead of using a T junction, they used a X shaped junction, but capped off the bottom. Perhaps they didn’t have the right part on the day it was constructed. As a result, there’s actually a stub of pipe at the bottom where some detritus can collect, with the increased edges producing turbulence and increasing the likelihood of such accretions.

Gough Practices Some Fan Service

I’m feeling pretty punny, can you tell? Anyway, an old desk fan from 1994 paid a visit due to a very “noisy” motor that hummed and vibrated. Since desk fans are pretty cheap, I normally wouldn’t pay them any attention, but since this one was bought over by a family friend, I decided to take it apart for a look.

The motor laminations are visible, along with the reassuring fact there is a thermal fuse. There are several wires – probably for the three speeds, along with a motor start/run capacitor attached to the side. The chassis is earthed for safety.

From the side, the oscillation mechanism and capacitor are more clearly visible.

Another shot from the rear showing the oscillation gearbox.

From the front, the motor looks rather plain. The problem, as with many of these fans, starts with a lack of lubrication. The front bearings had almost entirely seized and thus caused a loud humming noise and reduced fan speed. Adding a bit of lubrication to this and the oscillation mechanism helped but the fan continued to make some rattling noises.

It was discovered there were only three rubber feet – the non-level base inspired additional vibration. But within the base, an insulating cover around the switch mechanism came loose and was rattling about. I reassembled that, but still, that was not the end of it as there was still occasional creaks.

As the head oscillated, the creaking noise appeared at the extreme ends of travel. Looking closely, the plastic pivot had cracked which allowed additional play in the system. I repaired this by tying a cable tie very tightly around the joint which added stiffness – but there was still some noise. I suspect there may have been a rubber suspension inside this pivot that has since disintegrated, thus the head isn’t being held firmly. It’s quiet enough to use though – better than being in landfill!

SD Card Disaster – Crisis Averted?

It’s always busy around here, but many things that end up on the blog would have spent some time sitting in front of the lens of my DSLR which has been dutifully recording data to a Samsung 32GB SDHC card from 2013. Initially, I bought a pair of these cards, but the first card was eventually retired once the plastic shell gave in. The latter card continued to serve, being used to shuttle RAW shots from each project to my desktop running Adobe Lightroom. This week, I spent many hours running an experiment for work, recording video to the card. Upon completing the recording, I took the card to my desktop to import into Lightroom.

Two clips into the import, Lightroom complains of a disk I/O error and ejects the card, only partially importing the data. I remove the card and re-insert it – it was probably just a transient error right?

But then I was greeted by a mortifying sight – an empty root directory. I was not happy. I didn’t want to re-do hours of work. The first port of call was to image the card. Examining the image in WinHex shows the card to have an empty root directory and even attempting to refine the snapshot resulted in no files added. Signature search was very unsuccessful, recovering corrupted files – e.g. .mov files missing the MOOV atom.

Then I remembered – a few years ago, I had lost all the shots from a shoot that I ended up redoing and it involved the same type of card. At the time, I blamed a potential glitch or firmware bug in the camera never recording the memory buffer in the camera to the card.

This time, I could not afford to lose it all. I decided to chance it on a chkdsk /f on the disk to hopefully recover something – perhaps the backup FAT is still there? As it turns out, that was no use either – a few lost chains were found with the wrong length resulting in no useful data.

Then I remembered – TestDisk! I invoked TestDisk on the image file from the command line, searched for a lost partition and then managed to actually explore it. Using TestDisk, I was able to copy off all of the lost files without corruption. It may not be the friendliest for a beginner, but if you know your tech, it’s a cinch. Definitely a tool worth using if you ever run into the same experience.

I formatted the card with no problems – it even managed to test in H2testW with no faults at all.

However, it seems the card itself is not perfectly healthy as it refuses to work at all with the Nikon D3300, spewing this error despite working in the Nikon D3400 and my card readers. The Nikon D3300 has no problems with my Toshiba Exceria 32GB card nor a Samsung 4GB card, so it seems that something strange maybe afoot.

My hypothesis of what happened is that the card may have had an intermittent contact with the card reader during import. This may have caused the card to lose power mid-write – say for file-system last-accessed time updates during the import – which often causes bad things to happen to flash memory. This probably caused damage to the flash mapping table internal to the controller, which may have “reverted” to a previous known-good version of those sectors involved which hosed the filesystem. The FAT may have been damaged, with the backup FAT being okay. Regardless, it seems that there may have been corruption to the card’s own internal metadata resulting in compatibility problems arising.

Knowing this, I suppose it is actually quite probable very “infrequent” card issues could just be caused by a bad contact …

Thrifty Finds

While I’ve splurged on myself a bit this month, I’ve also continued my habit of raiding thrift shops in search for some interesting stuff. I discovered my first CD+G last time – this time I visited, there were two more which are not too well known from the looks of it.

The first disc is the Australian Idol Karaoke Seventies CDG. Notice that CDG is spelt without the intervening +. The disc contains twelve tracks and is part of a series of three CD+Gs produced by Rajon which is now defunct. This disc is labelled CDRTV0148.

The second is the Australian Idol Karaoke The Hits CDG, marked CDRTV0146. Similarly, this disc contains twelve songs. Despite a concerted effort, I was not able to find the third disc at the shop that day. I wasn’t aware this product even existed, which leveraged the Australian Idol branding to sell karaoke discs as the show was all about finding singing talent.

Rather disappointingly, the disc CD+G data was very plain and ordinary. The text was turquoise, highlighted in yellow, on a purple background. Not much attention to line breaks and formatting was given, so sometimes the screen would be cleared and fully redrawn mid-sentence which is not optimal for singing. There was no artwork or anything non-text, which is disappointing as this would have been a product from very late in the life of CD+G.

I was fortunate enough to come across four ten-packs of 3.5″ high density floppy disks at $2 each. I decided to pick them up even though Magmedia is not a reputable brand – it’s probably useful to have a few around just in case.

I came across this hilariously named screen protector – “Explosion-Proof” with a hammer drill into the glass film? I think they mean shatterproof, but if they were explosion proof, perhaps the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 could have benefited …

Another Parking Ticket Up-Close

It’s funny how everything in this post kind of “connects”. Remember the grape-coloured plunger that saved the day earlier? Well, on my way to Bunnings Rydalmere to buy the plunger, I saw a parking ticket that was blowing along the side of the road and decided to “salvage” it.

Earlier, I took an interest to seeing what the anti-counterfeiting measures on the Liverpool City Council parking tickets looked like, so it was rather fortuitous that this would be a different style of ticket from the City of Sydney. This particular ticket is branded EnviroSecure and is patented as low environmental impact compared to foil-impregnated paper. This particular paper stock has the same copy-pantograph, and that’s no surprise, as it also comes from Colleagues Nagles. The ticket itself is shorter – probably by configuration on the parking meter – it saves paper so that’s a good thing.

Microprinting is visible at the bottom like in the other ticket, but instead of a solid coloured band, this has a patterned and seemingly fluorescent (although only slightly) band.

The warning band at the rear gives us a clue as to the features of the ticket. It is also numbered similarly to the stock used in Liverpool. Grabbing my high-powered 385nm UV-A LED and shining it at the ticket …

… the bottom band clearly fluoresces.

The rear also has a light UV-ink pattern of the City of Sydney “anchor” logo, which is difficult to capture on camera. It’s interesting to see that these protection mechanisms are used – perhaps the paper is actually quite expensive!

I also managed to pick up another CB Insertion ticket from the ground in Liverpool. This one is timed at 2:50AM. I find it strange that something would be happening to the meters at 2:50AM … was this someone trying to break into the meter’s coinbox? Or do the council workers actually service the meter at 2:50AM? Or is this in another time zone? Who knows …

Random Public Transport Observations, etc.

The lift buttons at Schofields are a persistent problem, so the crew from Kone came to fix it. But there’s one problem … do you see it?

This is actually an up-direction button being installed upside down as a “down” arrow. I don’t think braille works like that … but at least the lift works. I think two of the three lifts have this at least on one of the landings.

The parking issue at Schofields station has gotten so bad there is temporary parking. The growth in public transport use is quite severe because of all the new housing developments nearby – but the line is still relatively average when it comes to service intervals and capacity.

Rooty Hill station is having an upgrade – the old bridge used to be a ramp at the far end, but this has been “cut away” leaving stairs for now. Looks a bit strange, but it’s quite similar to Granville, where the ramp was “cut away” and only the stairs and a lift remains. I guess ramps consume a lot of space.

Opal being the system that it is occasionally mischarges for bus rides – I had to submit an enquiry and did so online but got no response after a week. It seems response times online are very variable. I called them to resolve it – but now as Transport for NSW and Opal merge call centre operations, there is no easy way to speak to an operator. Instead, one has to sit through a number of menus and being told to do online, before requesting “more assistance” as if you are perhaps vision impaired to be put through to an operator.

But one thing I noticed was that Opal “case numbers” seem to be assigned sequentially – plotting date/time vs enquiry number of my previous enquiries spanning the past (nearly) five years seems to show a very close to straight line relationship – 15817 or so enquiries a day or about one every 5.46 seconds on average. That’s a lot of enquiries it would seem, but probably not when compared with the number of Opal cards in service.

On my way out, via Quakers Hill, I saw this banner on the station fence – it looks like the case of the infectious “Doo … doo doo doo doo!” has reached Blacktown City. I only knew about this since the Korean TV shows started singing this randomly a while back … I never realised a kids song would be so popular and addictive.

Walking around UNSW one day, I saw this “building office” with a sign-in desk at the front. The desk was made from an ironing board – engineers at their best!

PD-Dual Performance

I wrote about the often forgotten Phase Change Dual rewriteable optical system in the past, but I was contacted in January 2018 by a reader who had a drive and some media and ran some benchmarks. I was given permission to post it to the site, but completely forgot about it until now.

This is the Matsushita LF-1000 reading a regular CD at 4x, it seems.

The drive appears to show as two separate LUNs with one for the CD and the other for PD. Tested using H2testW, the write speed averaged 278kB/s and the read at 753kB/s. This is an effective write speed under 2x and read speed of about 5x. I suggest this may be because the PD drive may be doing verify after write as DVD-RAM formats commonly do.

The read speed graph suggests the drive could have achieved higher results – perhaps the media is not as healthy as it was when it was new, the drive may be having difficulties, or the SCSI controller may be a bottleneck. Regardless, the zoned-density nature of the hard-sectored disc is clearly visible.

Radio: Lucy Helton’s SSTV Ham Radio Project

From 9th April to 23rd April, Lucy Helton is transmitting SSTV from Iceland as part of an art project, and I’ve spent some time receiving the images via various KiwiSDRs online. I’ve posted about this on my Twitter account – but some of the receptions include the following.

Those who might want to attempt reception are advised that TF1VHF Borgarnes, Iceland and Bjartangar Westfjords, Iceland are the best candidates, with 14227kHz USB being the frequency currently preferred. In the interim, I’ve been following Shortwave Radiogram broadcasts as well.

Conclusion

This is probably the longest post since the inception of this website – a good reflection of just how busy I am getting myself nowadays. It’s all about being productive and efficient. This time around, I’ve fixed a few things, splurged on myself, discovered a few things (as usual) and had a bit of fun. There’s always more on the way – including things that have been sitting for years waiting to go up.

Unfortunately, the blog might go a little quiet again after the long-weekend because I’ve been fortunate enough to be awarded a triple-concurrent RoadTest which will probably take up most of my time in the next two months, with a potential concurrent review on the side. It’s not often I get so much on my plate at once – but when it rains, it floods. I do my best to embrace it. Hope you found something of interest in this long random post.

Posted in Audio, Computing, DIY, Radio, Tech Flashback, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Project: DSE K4309 Daytime Running Lights for Cars Kit (SC 8/99)

When it comes to good things, they say moderation is best. Don’t eat all your candy at once, or so they say, but instead I’m diving right in for a Dick Smith Electronics kit overdose. This is kit four of five that I bought at the CCARC Wyong Field Day.

The Kit

This particular kit is the K4309 Daytime Running Lights for Cars based on the Silicon Chip August, 1999 edition. This kit belongs to their automotive series, coloured green and arriving in the same sized box as the other kits constructed so far. I don’t see it written, but I’m pretty sure a car is not included. So I guess what I need is a car. Maybe in kit form. I’ve never seen one on the shelf at DSE though …

The main feature of this kit is the ability to automatically power the headlights at a reduced 80% brightness as soon as the engine starts and turns off with the ignition. It also has a dusk sensing mode which puts the headlights to full brightness when the cabin is dark. It can handle up to 200W load, and comes with components, PCB, hardware and a diecast metal case – a premium touch especially due to the harshness of the environment in automotive electronics and potentially a desire to shield stray emissions from what appears to be a PWM style controller.

Part of the reason I left this kit towards the end to construct was that I felt it was probably going to be a bit difficult in comparison. For one, some metal-working would be involved and for another, I’m sure that inductor needs to be wound. The transistor mounting could get tricky too. Maybe it’s a fear of failure, or a desire not to screw up – in truth, it’s probably somewhere in-between.

As promised, the parts are supplied separated into categories. This must have been an expensive kit – the retail die cast case, the inclusion of an automotive relay in the “auto parts” box, specific ferrite ring for winding a inductor filter and a significant amount of thick gauge insulated copper wire would certainly have added to the cost. Some ICs are used including the venerable NE555 which is used to generate the PWM waveform, an optoisolator (suggesting there would be some floating circuitry) and a logic gate used as a MOSFET driver. Very interesting. Note that no IC sockets were supplied with this kit – the obvious reason is to avoid any unreliability due to vibrations causing the chips to become unseated.

As usual, the paperwork includes the Assembly Manual, Guide to Kit Construction, Quality Control Card and Disclaimer.

The PCB itself is also very modern, with a very special shape including rounded corners and notches. The copper layer bears the Silicon Chip logo with a limited amount of guidance text. It is still very much a basic single-sided PCB without any silkscreening or solder resist. The pad shapes and sizes, however, have been quite optimised for soldering with some thicker traces for higher current connections.

The other side of the PCB doesn’t have anything much to show.

Likewise, the assembly manual is very much in the same laser-printed monochrome stapled format that the other manuals were in.

Once we open the case, we can see why the PCB was designed in this way – it will clear the rails inside the die-cast box and secure to the casted holes in the base of the case. This is the best way to mount it, as it requires less metalwork – otherwise we might be drilling holes into the rear in a strict alignment, assembling a mount out of nuts and spacers.

Construction

As usual, construction on through-hole boards has become rather routine and straightforward, in terms of populating components and soldering them down. This board does have a few traps, including a jumper wire underneath an IC that makes construction order critical, and many closely spaced holes which can make incorrect connections a possibility – I had to desolder one connection that was due to a resistor being populated in an adjacent pair of holes than the one intended. In any case, the below image shows the construction of the PCB at an advanced stage with most components mounted.

Almost everything that needs to be mounted has been mounted, save for one PCB pin and the inductor. The board is fairly densely packed, with the optoisolator impinging on the electrolytic capacitor next to it. It’s interesting to see an audio transformer repurposed as an isolating transformer of sorts.

I used my own fluxy Multicore solder, but to be honest, soldering this board was quite enjoyable as it didn’t have any particularly nasty design issues or oxidation on its surface.

Now that the PCB mounted components are mostly completed (I missed one PCB pin above), we need to wind the inductor. The inductor is made of twelve turns of thick enamelled copper wire, which needs to be made to cover about half of the ring. The wires need to be cut to length and tinned before soldering to the PCB pins, then mounted to the board with some cable ties.

They were somewhat generous with the wire, as they usually are. Winding was not a big issue, although mounting it to the PCB and pins proved slightly difficult as the wire is stiffer than the pins and needed to be bent into good compliance during mounting to minimise residual stress.

In the end, I managed to get the inductor mounted to the board along with the missing pin.

The coils had to be shifted away from the PCB board edge, as a warning is given in the manual that the enamelled wire could come into contact with the die cast casing and rub through the insulation over time. As automotive systems generally use a negative-ground system, this would mean that the output of the circuit would be shorted to ground which would be bad news.

As a result of shifting the coil, it turns I cut the lead slightly short, so I was a little generous with the solder to compensate. Not my finest moment, I’ll admit, as I had an excess on the other leg. But it should still work.

This is what it might look like when mounted to the case, showing that inductor clearance being rather critical. To complete mounting, there are a few critical steps that need to be completed first.

One of them is to mount the ground wire that should be attached to the chassis of the vehicle to the case. An M4 bolt is used with serrated washers and ring crimp terminals to attach a thick black wire to the outside of the case and to the inside where a short tail would connect to the PCB. In my infinite wisdom, I drilled right in the centre of one of the PCB rails … thus the internal ring is basically contacting a reduced area. I figured since the bolt was long enough and this connection did not have to carry much current, I wouldn’t drill another hole and spoil the case. The other thing, of course, is that you need a crimp tool to make proper joints. Luckily I had a ratcheting crimp tool of sorts, but my crimp placement could have done with some improvement.

The next thing to be concerned about was the cable entry/exit grommet. This plastic piece holds the wires tightly to prevent them being pulled out and prevents chafing of the insulation of the wires due to movement and sharp edges of the case. This required a 14mm hole with two ends filed to 16mm. Unfortunately, the largest drill bit I had was only a 10mm and my tapered reamer maxed out at 12mm.

I got somewhat creative, using the reamer off-angle to enlarge it slightly. I got to 13mm and that was about it. So I got out the cordless drill and a 6.5mm drill bit at high speed, using it sort of like a milling machine to try and enlarge the edges of the holes, going around the box. This gave me a little more size, at the cost of losing the circularity of the hole and a lot of noise. Finally, I got close enough that I was able to make it just large enough with a set of small hand files. This part of the project took almost as long as everything else combined.

The LDR used for a light sensor in the cabin to tell between light and dark is attached to the figure eight wire. The heatshrink tubing is provided and goes over the connection. As the two solder joints are not otherwise insulated inside, I cut the LDR leads staggered as well as the cable – so that the two joints cannot be shorted together by crushing.

From there, it was a very tricky task to tin the wires and attach them to the circuit board as the thick wires were stiff and imposed significant stresses on the PCB. The transistor also had to be mounted to the case in an insulated way with a mica washer, plastic grommet and thermal paste. Then the PCB is to be mounted to the case using four self-tapping screws and the grommet used to fix the wiring into place.

At this stage, I am almost ready to close the lid, but one thing needs to be tested – the insulation between the case and the MOSFET tab. Unfortunately, the first time, I had continuity which indicated a short somehow, despite carefully ensuring everything was correctly positioned.

After removing everything, cleaning off the mica and trying again, isolation was achieved. I suspect a small shard of aluminium in the thermal paste from the hole drilling may have spoiled the insulation the first time.

One strange design issue is the brightness/darkness trimpot is inside the case in a position that is hard to adjust due to proximity to connecting wires and orientation. While one could potentially drill a hole through the casing to adjust it – I felt it easier to test and adjust before closing the case.

In order to close the case, some weatherproofing foam beading needs to be inserted into the channel of the lid, then the lid is aligned with the base and four Philips head screws are used to close the case for good. Despite this, the design is not waterproof, and instead the use of silicone sealant is recommended to secure the inductor internally, as well as waterproof all penetrations through the casing. That being said, there was a recommendation to mount the case inside the vehicle to limit exposure to heat and vibration for longevity.

Bonus: Zung Sung AR-502 20/30A Auto Relay Teardown

As the kit included a 20/30A auto relay, I thought we’d take a little look at it. Because this is used to drive the tail-lights at full intensity by having the PWM drive the coil of the relay directly, it’s not something that I felt was worth wiring in for testing, so I kept the relay aside.

The relay comes in a brightly coloured cardboard box, with the Zung Sung branding. It merely says “Auto Parts”, so I suspect the box may have been used to sell light globes and other parts … or it has some deep and dark secret about its identity that it doesn’t want us to know.

Inside is a fairly standard automotive 20/30A relay, which has a 12V coil and a normally closed and normally open contact, single pole. These were frequently used to switch lighting loads especially in older vehicles, mounted by its “tab” to the chassis somewhere.

Unlike some of the better quality relays I’ve encountered, this relay seems to just “snap” into its shell and has no sealant or adhesive along its seams. As a result, it can be broken open for a teardown with a flat-blade screwdriver.

Inside, we can see the coil occupies a majority of the volume, with the return spring visible towards the top of the image. The current appears to be connected to the contacts in the bottom right by the means of a flexible copper braided conductor – this is quite thick to carry the “up to 30A” load.

THe contacts can be clearly seen from the front side.

It appears the frame of the relay is connected to the common terminal, with a rivet near the base. The copper braid appears to be spot welded into place to carry the bulk of the current, especially as the “pivoting contact arm” may not maintain contact with the frame during switching.

The coil windings are soldered down to lugs connected to the external terminals.

Testing

The proof is in the pudding … or testing, I should say. For this, I used a 12V halogen downlight rated at 50W as the test load. The power supply is the trusty Rohde & Schwarz HMP4040.04, using the first two channels in tracked mode. Channel 1 is supplying the “ignition” line to the box, which basically powers the circuitry in the box, while Channel 2 supplies the “lighting fuse” line to the box, namely the supply to the FET which is chopped to run the lights. This way we can monitor the currents independently. The grounds are commoned together by the stacked banana plugs, while my own Agilent/Keysight U1241B handheld digital multimeter is monitoring the voltage across the lamp.

Powering up the unit at 12V, there was no loud noises or smoke. A great start. The circuit is consuming 56.6mA which corresponds to a power of 679.2mW. As promised, the light does not come on until the engine is started. So lets start our engine … or pretend to …

Cranking up the voltage in 0.1V increments in tracked mode, I find that the lights come on as soon as we hit 13.2V. This is basically sensing the voltage rise due to charging by the alternator to determine that the car has started. In this case, I can tell the PWM is working, as the input voltage is 13.2V but the voltage across the lamp is 10.216V. The lamp is drawing 3.725A or a power of about 49.12W. But more than this, I know the PWM is working because I can hear it thanks to the vibrations from the inductor.

Shifting the LCD to be shadowed by the cable results in the whine stopping and “full brightness” applied to the lamp as if driving in night time. The voltage on the lamp rises to 12.94V and the power supply is putting in 4.467A or about 58.96W. The voltage drop is hence about 0.26V for a current of 4.467A or 1.16W dissipated. Considering some of this will be in the wiring, while the remainder will be in the MOSFET, this is a very acceptable performance and the MOSFET will likely remain fairly cool. The calculated resistance is just 58 milli-ohms.

Another promised feature is hysteresis – the lamp will not shut off until the voltage falls much below the initial turn-on point. In this case, it took reduction of the input voltage to 10.9V before the output was switched off. As a result, the circuit appears to work exactly as described which is a great result.

Looking back, I think I should have wound the inductor much tighter if possible, as that should reduce the coil “whine” that usually only is exhibited where magnetostriction causes the coil or cores to vibrate in synchrony with the changing current.

Conclusion

The Daytime Running Lights for Cars kit seems to be a practical add-on for older vehicles, intended to simply automate the process of running lights at reduced brightness at the daytime after the car starts, and at full brightness when it is dark, while also running the tail-lamps at full intensity through an extra automotive relay. To do this, it employs PWM techniques using a traditional NE555 as an oscillator in a rather “old fashioned” design with an N-channel MOSFET performing the switching and a hand-wound toroidal inductor as the filter. It seems to be very well thought out, although it needs a practical person comfortable with modifying automotive wiring to integrate into a car of the vintage. Construction of the kit was not as simple as other kits due to the need for metal working for the grommet holes and mounting holes, with some tricky points including the soldering of heavy gauge wire, winding of the toroidal inductor, soldering of enamelled copper wire and insulated mounting of the MOSFET using thermal paste and a fragile mica washer (where we might just use a silpad instead nowadays).

In the end, construction was completed successfully with a few minor touch-ups, but the usefulness of this kit has diminished as newer cars integrate some of these features as standard. In some sense, I do think it to be a little hazardous to trust something as important as the headlights of your car to a homebuilt circuit which might fail for a variety of reasons (e.g. broken solder joints from vibrations). But I guess that’s a risk the “do-it-yourselfer” would have taken into account before they bought the kit!

I’m glad that this turned out well in the end – I feared it would be a kit I might butcher, but now, I have the feeling of satisfaction and confidence that comes with seeing it working. Maybe now, I’m qualified enough to build the final kit from my haul … the one with the biggest box of the lot. The one that might defeat me in the end. Or will I put it off and chicken out?

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