Making My Infrared Dumb Devices Smart with Google Home and Broadlink RM3

Author: mirai  //  Category: Life in general, Techie Stuff


Fast Tube by Casper

 

Introduction

A few weeks ago, I started a home automation project using my Google Home Mini.  With it, I was able to control “Smart-enabled” devices such as my Philips Hue and Sengled light bulbs, but I wanted to take it a step further by being able to my TV, DVR, ceiling fan, (non-smart) ceiling lights, and air conditioner -all of which work by controlling them with an old fashion 20th century infrared red remote control.  So I did a search on the internet to see if anyone else had tried this, and behold! I found several people who have converted their aging dumb devices, into 21st century internet aware smart machines -well sort of.  Thus began by mission to be able completely automate my home with Google Home.

Little did I know at the time that this would be no easy endeavor.  Although the components that I needed to accomplish my goals were relatively inexpensive and readily available, it took a lot of brain power,  and jumping through the proverbial hoop to make it happen.

Being a Johnny-come-lately, I soon found out that one very vital component called the Hue Bridge Emulator, which acts as the glue per se, to bring of the components together to talk to each other and work in harmony, had been debunked earlier this year, and was no longer available to use.  I immediately sought an alternative solution, but information was scarce. The majority of those who were able to get this to work, did it with use of the Hue Bridge Emulator within the Home Assistant Home Automation application – a free open sourced system.

After literally days of scouring the internet, watching several YouTube videos, and experimentation, I found one person who was able to do it without using the  Hue Bridge Emulator.  Instead, he used an Android device running app called “RM Bridge”, which acts a communication conduit between Home Assistant, Google Home, and IFTTT.  This sounded like the holy grail solution I was looking for, and even went as far buying a 6 year old Android phone from an internet auction for around $15.

However in the time it took to have it delivered to my door steps, I managed to come up with an even better solution that didn’t require an Android device, nor the Hue Bridge Emulator.  I don’t know if anyone else had managed to figure it out before me, but there was no information (that I could find) that indicated it.  So either this was still unscouted territory, or someone got this working but not sharing the love.  So being a good Samaritan,  I found that it’s my responsibility to educate others on how I did it.

What You’ll Need

You’ll need to the following:

  • Google Home (about USD $50)
  • Broadlink RM3 Blackbean IR blaster (about USD $30)
  • Home Assistant (a free download -latest and greatest version is best) running on Linux or on a Raspberry Pi device. (I have not tried it on Windows, but it probably can be done as well)
  • An IFTTT account (cloud service- also free at IFTTT.com)
  • Some kind of dynamic DNS service (I use no-ip.com, but any will do fine)
  • and of course your IR devices AND their IR remote controllers (if you have lost them or broken them, then sad day for you, as you’ll need them to teach Broadlink how to control your devices)

Now, I am not going to go through the specifics on how to install and setup Home Assistant.  There are PLENTY of videos and tutorials on how to do this.  I will only show how to set up Home Assistant as it pertains to getting Google Home to communicate with the Broadlink RM3 Blackbean.

I am going to go under the assumption that you know how to, or already have done the following:

  • Set up port forwarding on your home internet router
  • Set up dynamic DNS (duckDNS, no-ip are a couple of free dynamic DNS services)
  • You have setup and installed Home Assistant, and have a fair understanding on how it works and how to edit the YAML files.

So if you haven’t done these things, or don’t know how, again, there are PLENTY of videos and tutorials on how to do this, so bookmark this page and come back when you are ready.

 

Let’s Get Started

First thing you want to do is point your Home Assistant Server to the Broadlink (going forward, I will refer to the Broadlink IR blaster as just “Broadlink” as there are many incarnations of it)  I am using the RM3, but RM1/RM2 and Pro version “should” work too.

To point your Home Assistant the Broadlink, you’ll need to open the configuration.yaml file and enter the following lines:

switch:
  - platform: broadlink
    host: IP_ADDRESS
    mac: 'MAC_ADDRESS'

 

Make sure that your syntax and spacing are correct, otherwise you will have problems restarting your Home Assistant server.  For IP_ADDRESS, you’ll need to enter the IP address of your Broadlink.  This IP address should be static, because if it changes, your Home Assistant server will no longer be able to talk to it.  I basically reserved an IP address on my router, so that if I need to reboot it, or if some cluts  trips on the power cable, it will get the same IP address no matter what.  Refer to your router’s user manual on how to do IP reservation if you don’t know how.  You’ll also need to provide the MAC address as well.  On Windows, arp -a at the command line is your friend.  You’ll need to restart your Home Assistant server for the changes to take affect.

Home Assistant Setup

Now, go into Home Assistant and click on the services icon on the bottom left of the page.  It kind of looks like a TV remote control. You’ll then be taken to the ‘services’ page.

Click on the down the down arrow within ‘services’ and you will given a list of all of the services available.  You’ll need to choose ‘broadlink.learn_command_IP_ADDRESS’ (where IP_ADDRESS is the address of your Broadlink.  This tool will allow you to capture the IR signal code from your devices’ remote control.  You’ll need these codes to ‘teach’ Home Assistant how to control your device.

Next, click on the “Call Service” button.  This will put your Broadlink into “learn mode” and a little LED should light up indicating that its ready to learn the IR code. If your Broadlink doesn’t light up, you’ll need to check your IP address or MAC address setting within your Home Assistant’s configuration.yaml file.  If you are sure that the settings are correct, try using the Broadlink app for IOS or Android and make sure that the hardware is working properly.  If everything is working properly, the Broadlink should respond like this (see pic):

Broadlink LED indicator

 

If all is working well and your Broadlink is in standby mode, take the remote control for the device in question, and point it at the Broadlink, and press the button that you want want Home Assistant to learn.   If successful, the LED light will go off. Don’t press the button too long, otherwise you’ll get repetition which could be bad.

Next, you’ll need to go into  Home Assistant, and click on the “Overview” link on the left hand side. You’ll be taken to the Home Assistant default view page, where you should now see “Broadlink Switch” and “Received Packet” in one of the windows on the page.   You should also see a long string of seemingly random letters and numbers that may run off the page.  Something like this (see pic):

Captured IR Code

If your code is long and runs off the page, you’ll have be careful when copying it.  If you copy only part of the code that’s showing, your device will not behave correctly, so make sure you copy the entire code.   The way to do this is to place your mouse pointer BELOW the code, just above the “DISMISS” link, and highlight everything all the way up to “Received packet is:”.  This will ensure that the entire code is copied.   Then, you should paste into notepad first so that you can delete the extra stuff that you copied before pasting it into your yaml file(s).  If successful, the code should be fairly long and end in one or more “=” signs.  Here is an example of a code that changes channels on my TV:

JgDMAG44DQ4NKgwPDSoMDw0pDQ8MKg0PDCoNDg0qDSoNDg0qDA8NKQ0qDSoNKQ0PDA8NDg0qDQ4NDg0ODQ8MKg0qDQ4NDg0PDA8NDg0qDA8NDg0ODQ4NKg0ODQ8MDw0ODSoMDw0ODQACmG43DQ4NKg0ODSoNDg0qDA8NKgwPDSkNDwwqDSoNDg0qDQ4NKgwqDSoNKgwPDQ4NDg0qDQ4NDg0PDA8NKQ0qDQ4NDwwPDQ4NDg0qDQ4NDg0PDA8MKg0PDA8NDg0ODSoNDg0ODQANBQAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA==

As you can see, it can get very long, so make sure you copy everything.

After, you have edited what you copied to notepad (so that you only have the IR code, you’ll need to copy the code into your yaml file.  There are several ways you can do this depending on how you want to activate and control your device, but since the end game for this tutorial is so that you can send a voice command to your device via Google home, I will show you how to create a script to do this.

Teaching Your Home Assistant New Tricks

The next step is to create a button within Home Assistant so that you can control your device with Home Assistant.  This part is very essential, because if  Home Assistant doesn’t know how to control your device, neither will Google Home.

You will need to open your scripts.yaml file.  You can also put this in your configuration.yaml file, but if you have a lot of devices with a lot of buttons, then your configuration.yaml could become very cluttered very quickly, which will make it difficult to troubleshoot and mange if there is a problem.

I guess the best way to explain how to put this into your scripts.yaml file is to show you a sample of what I have.  Below is the IR (infrared) code for the power buttons on my TV and DVR.  Since my DVR acts as the the tuner for my TV, I want them both to power on at the same time, so I put the IR code for both the TV and DVR under the same entity:

tv_dvr_on:
  sequence:
  - data:
      packet:
      - JgD+AW44....
      - JgDMAHI5Dg8....
   alias: TV and DVR Power (on)

Please note that I have truncated the IR codes because they are super long and would take a half a page each.  This is just to give an idea as to what a script for a button may look like. This is what it looks like in my text editor:

script yaml entry

This is what it looks like in my front end interface:

TV Power Button

Once the scripts appear in the front end of your Home Assistant, the next step is to test it.  Click on “Activate” next to your switch to send the command to your device to see if it controls your device.  If it didn’t work, the problem is likely with the IR code.  The best indicator is to see if the the LED blinks on the Broadlink.  If it blinks but your device doesn’t do anything, you’ll need to recapture the code.  It took me a few tries to get this right.  If it doesn’t blink at all, then there may be a syntax error somewhere, or the Broadlink doesn’t recognize the code as a legitimate IR code.  You need give it few tries.

If your button worked then we can move on the fun part -getting Google Home to call the script using your voice command!

However, before you start, there are few prerequisites.  Unless your internet provider gave you a static public IP address, you will need to create a dynamic DNS account.  Basically what this does is assigns a name like yourserver.duckdns.com to you.  This name is then mapped to your public IP address, so instead of having to remember a long series of numbers like 192.100.203.101, you simply have to remember your DNS name.

Now the other catch is that unless you are a business hosting your own on premise website, or are paying a lot of $$$ for premium service, you are most likely provided a dynamic IP address by your internet provider, which means that your public IP will changes periodically.  For IFTTT to work, it will need to know where to find your Home Assistant server at all times.  In order to do this, you’ll need to subscribe to a dynamic DNS server (most are free for their basic package -if you want something more customized and personal, then there’s a charge).  The service will then most likely require your to download and install a small piece of software on your OS to send updates to the DNS services, which will remap your public IP to DNS. And every time your public IP address changes the software will update the DNS service with your new IP address.  This is essential in that if you don’t do this, then eventually IFTTT will not be able to send commands to your Home Assistant server because its public IP has chnaged, and everything will stop working.

Another thing you’ll need to do is to create port mappings on your home router.  Most routers will have this functionality. A few may not, so definitely check!  Port mappings are a way for your home router to direct requests from the internet to specific web-enabled servers, devices, or services on your home network.

In this case, you want to tell your router that any requests coming in on port 8123 or 443 (if you are using https), needs to be sent to homeassistant_ipaddress:8123 or 443.  If you know how to do this, then proceed, otherwise look for some tutorials on how port mapping works and how to apply it to your home router.

If you are not clear on any of this, then stop here and learn more about dynamic DNS services and port mapping or port forwarding and how they work otherwise nothing else will work right.

 

If This Then That

If you ever did any command line scripting or any programming using BASIC, then you’ll feel right at home with using IFTTT.  An IF/THEN statement is a conditional statement that exists in most programming languages, and IFTTT has simplified it so that that even non-programmers can do simple conditional statements.  In other words, IF something happens THEN do something.  In this case the IF is going to be your voice command to Google Home, and the THEN will be the activating of the of the corresponding script that you created earlier, and that you’re going to link with IFTTT.  Example, if I say, “Ok Google, turn on my TV”, IFTTT will send a command to my Home Assistant server to activate the “turn on the TV script” and then the magic happens.  As I said in the beginning of this write up, I scoured the net for a device or service that’ll link Google Home with Broadlink and this is it! Sounds cool right?  Let’s get started then.

Firstly, if you haven’t already, you’ll need to go to ifttt.com and create an account. This takes about 2  minutes and its really easy.  If you have a gmail or facebook account, then its even easier.

Next, you’ll need to enable both Google Home and Home Assistan to communicate with IFTTT. To do this, edit the configuration.yaml file to point your Home Assistant server to the right IFTTT account.  To do this you’ll need to enter the following lines:

ifttt:
  key: xxxxx-x-xxxxxxxxxxxxx

To get the key, you’ll need to do the following:

  • Login into you IFTTT account (if you haven’t already)
  • Do a search for “Webhooks”.  This is basically an applet that makes API calls to specified systems or services.  In this case, your Home Assistant server.
  • Click on the Webhooks applet
  • Click on Settings in the top right corner
  • scroll down a bit and under “account info” you’ll see a URL like this:

 

 

 

The last portion of the URL is your key. Copy it and paste it next to “key:” in your configuration.yaml file. Save/check/restart.

Next, you’ll need to link the email account that is associated with you Google Home account to IFTTT.  You do this by doing the following:

  • Click on the menu on the top right corner and select “settings”.
  • Scroll down a bit and you’ll see an option to link to a gmail account.  Click on it and enter the same gmail account that you used for Google Home.

 

Creating API Calls from Google Home to Home Assistant Using IFTTT

Next is the part that brings it all together.  First thing you are going to do is create the condition or the trigger that makes the magic happen.  You do this by doing the following:

  • Within your IFTTT account, click on “My Applet” at the top of your screen.
  • Next, click on the “New Applet” button on the top right of the page.  You should now see this:
  • Click on “+this
  • Next you’ll need to choose from a choice of services.  In the search field, type “Google” and you see “Google Assistant” as one of the choices of services.  Click on “Google Assistant”.
  • Then, select “Say a simple phrase”

 

This is where you are going to enter your voice command.  If you want Google Home to turn on your TV for example, you’ll enter what you want to say here. For example, you could keep it simple and say “turn on the TV”, or you can mix it up and say something like, “it’s show time!”  You are given three different ways to tell Google Home to turn of the TV.  Theoretically, you could create a lot more phrases by creating multiple applets, but for for the sake simplicity, we’ll keep it down to just three.

Next, you’ll enter a response that you want Google to say back.  Example, you can have it say, “Ok, powering up the flux capacitor”.  Here’s what my applet looks like.  As you can see, I have chosen to keep it simple and boring.

Once you are satisfied with your commands for Google Home, next you’ll need to link it up with an action you want Home Assistant to take.  To do this, do the following:

Click on “Create Trigger” to save the conditional.

  • Form the screen below, choose “+that”
  • From the next screen, do a search for “WebHooks”:
  • Click on the Webhooks applet.
  • Then choose “Make a web request”

Now, this is where things can get a bit complicated for some, but if you’ve already successfully completed all of the steps above, then it should be very easy and straight forward.  In this applet, you are going to tell IFTTT to send commands to your Home Assistant so that it can operate Broadlink to send the proper commands to your device.  Here’s how to do it:

When you open your “webhooks” applet you will need to fill in the fields needed for IFTTT to properly send commands through your router to you Home Assistant server.

In the URL field, you will need to enter the public URL (DNS name) of your Home Assistant server followed by the port number. If you are not using SSL, the default port is 8123, otherwise you would type https: instead of http and no port number at the end, as https generally uses port 443 by default. You’ll type the path were the api hook is, followed by the command, then your api password of your Home Assistant server, if you have one.  (The api password is set in the configuration.yaml file.)  So the URL should look something like this:

Example: http://yourserver.example.com:8123/api/services/script/turn_on?api_password=your_password

Under method, you’ll be using the POST method.

Under “Content Type”, select Application/JSON (the screenshot above is incorrect)

Next, you are going to point the Webhook applet to your script.

Within the “Body” field, you’ll type the following:

{ “entity_id”: “script.your_script_name” }

where your_script_name is the name of the script you created.  If you have forgotten you can easily find this by going into the services page in Home Assistant and finding the script name in the right plane.  You can then simply copy and paste it replacing “script.your_script_name”

 

When you’re finished populating all of the fields with the CORRECT information, click on “Create Action”.

Optionally, you can choose to have IFTTT send notification to your mobile every time the command is used, but it can get grating after a while so I suggest not using the notification feature.

 

And that’s all there is to it!  You should now be able to say, “Ok Google,” give your command, it will magically happen!

One thing about IFTTT is that it’s not exactly screaming quick nor accurate.  Sometimes it can take up to five seconds to process a command.  But my personal experience with it has been good.  On average it takes 1 to 3 seconds to process a command.  Sometimes its pretty instantaneous, while other times it doesn’t work at all, and I would have to say the command again.  I assume that IFFT will get better and faster as time progress and more people sign on to it.

There’s another similar service called “Stringify”, that is more accurate, faster, and MUCH more easier to use.  The only issue is that it currently supports far less services.  I am currently experimenting with their version of Webhooks called “Maker”, but it’s been hit and miss.  I figure that it was due to my lack of knowlege and not the service itself.  Hopefully I can get it to work, because its much easier to configure, but for now, IFTTT is the go to app for me.

Happy Googling!

Found an old friend (wrist watch from the 80’s)

Author: mirai  //  Category: All Posts, Life in general, Rants and Raves, Techie Stuff

In my previous entry, I talked about looking for an old Alba watch that I had when I was in elementary school.  It was an Alba/Seiko Y749-5030A.  After scouring the internet looking for someone who may know where I could find one, I lucked out and came across someone who happened to be selling the Y749-5020A. It isn’t the exact same model that I owned but functionality-wise, they are pretty much identical.  The only real difference aside from the color, is that the 5020A comes in a 50 meter water resistant casing as opposed to the 100 meter water resistant casing that the 5030A’s have, and they come with a metal bracelet instead of the silicon watch band.  I prefer the silicon over the medal bracelets, because bracelets not only feel heavier, they don’t fit as well on me.

I decided to bid on the watch anyway, because I figured that this would probably be the closest thing I will be able to find to the model that I use to have.  It was in excellent shape.  As a matter of fact, like the Person’s watch that I bought a few weeks ago, it was a dead stock, which means that its pretty much brand new and never been worn.   The seller was selling it for about $60 USD which is an excellent price considering that they use sell for nearly twice as much back the days.  i know this, because the watch came with the original Alba price tag still attached.  I didn’t want to spend too much over the $60 asking price, although I had the option of ending the auction early and winning the watch, if I spent $10 more.  But I decided risk it and waited the 2 days for the auction to end.

While waiting for the auction for the Y749-5020A to take its course, I did some research on the Y749 movement, and found that it was used in many different model watches.  I could have spent a lot less and settled on another used Y749-5000 series Seiko watch, but it wouldn’t be quite the same.  After all, what I am really looking for is the Y749-5030A, which seems to be much more rare and elusive than the other Alba models.

I also was able to find out that the movement inside Person’s watches are also made by Seiko and based on the V701 movement which are used in MANY Seiko and non-Seiko brand watches, which was somewhat of a surprise to me, although I think I may have known this and had just forgotten.    This particular movement seems to be so common that they are still being sold today.   Since I gutted an old Person’s watch that I had cannibalized to repair a very old watch that owned since high school, I now have a shell available that I can pretty revive into a working watch.  So I went onto eBay and bought a new V701 movement for about $21 USD (including shipping to Japan).  Once it arrives, I can repair the Person’s watch and I will then have 3 Person’s watches.  I might even paint it a different color so that I would have the same watch in 3 different colors.

After two days of waiting, the auction finally came to an end, and I was the winner.  Being somewhat of a rare find, I was a bit worried that someone might outbid me at the last moment, which would have been heartbreaking, and I contemplated paying the extra $10 so that I could end the auction.  But I decided to take the gamble, and it paid off.  So now, I own an Alba Y749-5020A.  It brings back so much memories from my childhood, even though its not quite the same.  One thing that I immediately noticed is how compact this watch is.  The Casio TS-1200 thermometer watch is also pretty small and compact, but look noticeably larger than the Alba.   I will continue to search for the Y749-5030A  in the hopes that I will be able wear the same exact model watch I had as a kid , but the 5020A is still a great find.  And being able to hear that cricket-like alarm again makes things all the better.

 

 

New Camera!

Author: mirai  //  Category: All Posts, Rants and Raves, Techie Stuff

After nearly two weeks without a camera, the new camera finally arrived.  I was a picky this time, because I am not exaggerating when I say how much I loved my old Canon Ixy 1000.  I didn’t want to replace with just anything, not even another newer Ixy.  The newer models oddly enough have LESS functions than the older ones.  I guess the whole idea is to sell less complicated cameras,so  that the majority of the public can use them easily.  Unfortunately, something that is just point and shoot is not enough for me.  I like some degree of manual control so that I can manipulate the photograph. But nowadays, most of the cameras being sold are pretty dumbed down so anyone can use them.


The Ixy 1000 that we’d been using for the last 3 and half years was nice in that it had fully automatic point and shoot mode, and a manual mode where I can control lighting through ISO settings, etc so that I could take pictures without using the flash (even dark areas).  The newer cameras always try to select the right settings for you automatically  so that you get a good picture, but often times turn out to look like an amateur took the picture.



Through my research, I found that Canon’s Ixy 3000IS is the last model that Canon made that featured a fully manual mode.  Nowadays, if you need a camera where you want to be able to control light settings, you would have to buy a DSLR camera.  I don’t mind DSLR’s but they are a bit big and cumbersome to carry for little trips here and there.  Also, it takes too much care, as you have to disassemble lens and and body, clean them, and store them separately so that they don’t collect dust and scratches, or even break.


I looked all over for the Ixy 3000IS, but they were last sold in 2008, and have somewhat become a rare and premium item in Japan.  Even the used ones are being sold over retail price.  And of course, the electronics shops only carry the latest cameras, so it’s impossible to find the 2 year old model in brand new condition.


My only options at this point were to either settle with what is available on the market today, or scour the world wide web for an Ixy 3000IS in brand new condition.  I chose the latter.  In the UK, the 3000IS goes by Ixus SD990IS and in the US, it goes by PowerShot SD990IS; I guess western countries don’t like the name Ixy…I wonder why.



I noticed that both the US and UK also carry high premiums due to the rarity of this camera. In the States, I have seen them go for as high as $1000.  The retail price is only $399.  In the UK, the price is a bit more reasonable -about 320BP.  I lucked out and found one I the States in brand new condition for $290 (over $100 off the retail price), so I ordered it right away.


So far, I have had for less than a week and its quite nice.  It’s a bit more complicated than the Ixy 1000, but its a lot more reactive and faster.  The below photos were taken with my iphone, not the Canon.


3D Television -do we really need it?

Author: mirai  //  Category: Life in general, Rants and Raves, Techie Stuff

The other day, I visited my local electronics store to buy a new hard disk to replace the broken one in my blog server. Yes, that’s the third hard disk this year, but that’s another rant.  In the process, I got a first had look at the new 3D LCD television sets. In Japan, there has been an enormous amount of hype amongst the media on how wonderful these things are, and how it is the next generation in the home theater experience. Well, here’s my take on it:

First, let me make a comment on 3D “technology” in general.  Not to sound like an old man who’s letting the progress of time leave him behind, but in general I think that this whole 3D thing -whether it’d be movies, television, or artwork, is a bunch of hooey (to put it politely).  I remember back in the days when I was a kid, a local TV station in my hometown in the states would periodically broadcast movies in 3D.  You would have to manipulate the color settings on your TV set and buy these really dumb looking cardboard 3D glasses with red and blue lenses (like that one guy in Biff Tanner’s gang use to to wear in the movie Back to the Future) from the local convenience store for like $2.50.  It never worked too well, and I never got it to work well enough to get the 3D effect.   I mean, what are we? back in the fifties again? Why now? Why again with this 3D movie craze?  Don’t get me wrong;  I’ve watched Captain EO and Honey I Shank the Kids at Disneyland, and it’s all fun and well, but I also think that 3D has it’s place, and a correct way of using it.  The living room is definitely not the place, and it has been way overused in movies today,in my opinion.

3D has become the new CGI (computer generated imagery).  With the exception of some good movies like Terminator 2, which has a pretty good plot, I personally think that all CGI really is, is big band aid for a poorly written script.  And 3D is pretty much the same.  The movie, Avatar is a good case in point. Although it received pretty good ratings and pulled in a lot of money at the box office, if you take away the 3D  and all of CGI special effects, what you have is a really stupid movie with a very cliche plot.  It just goes to show that if you pour hundred of millions of dollars into eye popping special effects, then you can create an instant  box office sensation out of a very mediocre story line.  Here is where I think 3D effects would work well: any Star Trek movie.  The Star Trek franchise has always coupled award winning special effects with a good engaging story line, and I would definitely go to see a Star Trek movie in 3D.

Going back to the original topic that I hopelessly strayed off of, I see 3D televisions as just another gimmicky gadget that no one really should want or need.  While I was in the electronics store, I put on the funky Bret “the Hitman” Hart look-alike glasses (or maybe they look more like the glasses that the aliens from the 1983 television show “V” were wearing) …anyways I put them on and watched a soccer match in 3D. I was hardly impressed.  Instead of seeing eye-popping effects and objects that seemingly leap out of the screen at me, it was more like looking into an aquarium with little people in shorts running around back and forth. Hardly impressive.  Afterward, I felt a bit light headed; it was sort of the same feeling I get trying to look at the 3D image hidden in a stereogram.

So my general impression is that I don’t think its worth shelling out the extra cash for just the new 3D technology in these TV’s.  I wouldn’t mind too much if they became standard equipment on all TVs in the future as long as I can turn the 3D off when I didn’t need it, but there is no way I would want to pay extra for it.  It’s just not worth looking like a retro 80’s reptile alien, or an old washed up professional wrestler just to get the awkward fish tank effect. I could definitely live without it.  And yeah,I get it… I am sure that if I watched the right movie with the proper effects, the experience would be tons better, but I still ain’t buyin’ it!

Full Recovery

Author: mirai  //  Category: All Posts, Life in general, Techie Stuff

There was some serious downtime in the last few days. I spent a lot of time in the last few days upgrading my blog server and trying to recover data that I thought was lost forever. Luckily for me, I was able to bring the dead hard drive from the broken blog server back to life long enough to recover the years worth of missing blogs. I did this by swapping the logic board. And although the hard drive still made some very occasional clicking, it worked well. This was a HUGE relief to me. I was so sad when I thought I had lost one year of of my life because of my carelessness, but all is well now. I have added a MUCH bigger hard drive the the server, and took a back up of the data. I still need figure out a way of automatically backing up the data on some kind of schedule, because doing it manually is some what of a pain.

Excuse Me for Embarassing You, but…

Author: mirai  //  Category: All Posts, Comic relief, Life in general, Rants and Raves, Techie Stuff

Lately,  I’ve noticed that I have become so much like Saito-san.  For those who don’t know who Saito-san, which is probably the majority of you, she is a comic book character in Japan and a sort of a modern day vigilante who has zero tolerance for minor injustices that occur on a daily basis.  For example, if Saito-san were to see somebody throw a cigarette away on the sidewalk (which happens all the freakin’ time in Japan, and totally irks me) she would grab that person and politely ask them to dispose of it properly.   Of course, being a comic book, this usually does not go well, and leads to Saito-san either irritating or angering the perpetrator, which in turn, leads to her getting into a verbal or sometimes physical scuffle.  Hence, as you can see below, which is the cover of one of the many books in comic book series, that Saito-san is wearing a bandage on her face -no doubt a result from a confrontation that turned physical.

This comic book was aired on prime time TV in Japan as a live-action mini series last year, and it starred Arisa Mizuki, who in my opinion was perfect for the role and did and excellent job playing the part.

I’ve always considering myself as a law abiding citizen, and I am totally for following the rules of society.  For example, it really annoys me to see people who smoke in areas where it’s clearly designated a non-smoking area (yes, in Japan it still happens…and quite frequently), or even worse, see  perfectly healthy people parking their cars in handicap parking areas and act as if its totally okay.

Up until recently, I, like the rest of the Japanese society, use to ignore the society’s daily injustices and just simply go about my business.  But lately I’ve changed.  I have become pretty intolerant to the crap that people pull and then claim ignorance when confronted about it. And frankly, I have become very vocal about.  I think it was perhaps the accident I had a few months ago where I was hit by a hit and run motorcycle rider, who was eventually caught.  The whole experience of going to the police station and filing the reports, and the time I had to walk home and fear that I would get hit again, taught me that although the justice system is by no means perfect in any way (especially in Japan), but if you abide by it, it usually will work.

Now before I go further with this, I guess I should explain that  as convenient as they may be, I cannot stand mobile phones!!! And if I had a choice, I would not carry one.  However, in our day in age, and being  in Japan, they have become somewhat of a necessity.  But I rarely use mine.  I only use it for it’s original intended purpose and that is to make contact with another person, when either they or I am in a remote location, and I have no other means to communicate with them.

Mobile phone usage has gotten so out of hand in Japan, and  you’ll probably think I am exaggerating or out right lying when I write this, but I kid you not.  There are actually offline meetings (usually people from social networking sites such as Mixi, Facebook, or MySpace) where a group of people, who share the same interest meet at a cafe or restaurant, sit at the same table, and text message each other.  The don’t speak to each other verbally, they just sit there and text each other.  How STUPID is that?  That is such a big misuse of technology that it’s completely ridiculous!!  And it’s this kind of misuse that leads me to believe that society would be SOOOO much better without the existence of these things.  All that have done, is contributed to a society of people who are afraid to interact verbally, more ruder society, and a very dumbed down society.  Now, those who don’t know me or have never met me are probably thinking that I am one those people who aren’t too tech savvy and anti-technology.  This is quite the contrary.  I am an IT consultant and have been in the IT field for nearly 13 years now.  I LOVE new technology, but like anything else over use or misuse of technology is never good.  And I strongly believe that text messaging someone sitting across the table from you is a gross misuse of technology and those people should not be allowed to have it.  Technology exists to make life convenient for use, not to use it everywhere, anywhere, and anytime  just because WE CAN.

Now, all of this leads up to my point of the day.  In Japan, most train and bus companies have set up a small areas called the courtesy area or courtesy seats on the trains and buses, where you must turn off the power to your cell phones.   On the rest of the train or bus, you are allowed to do everything else (texting, web surfing, play games, etc) other than use them to talk to people verbally.  The purpose for the courtesy seats are to allow the elderly, disabled, or pregnant to have priority to use these seats over others. In 2006, train companies took it a step further, and banned all usage of mobiles in these areas, after a study showed that the radio waves emitted from some mobiles disrupted the rhythm some artificial pacemakers.  And to make this point VERY clear, and dispose of any doubt as to where the courtesy seats are located, train companies have put stickers in these areas clearly stating that mobiles need to be shut off.

As you can see by the sticker above, you can’t claim ignorance.  It’s written in both Japanese AND English, so even the foreigner’s can’t claim that they didn’t know what the sign says, and there’s also a very easy to understand illustration for those who claim that they can’t read.

And for those who will claim that they didn’t see the sign because it’s too small, or that they saw the sign but didn’t know where the courtesy seat were, the train companies went all out and completely marked the whole section in yellow highlights, and made the handles and bars yellow as well.  On TOP OF THAT, there is a periodical verbal announcement saying that the mobiles need to be shut off in these areas. So there is no mistaking and no excuse for it.  So does it still happen?   OH yes…and then some.

As you can see below, an elderly woman has total disregard for the signs that are clearly and boldly posted around her and uses a cell phone for having a conversation which is against policy on any part of the train.

Now, I’d say about 80% of the general public are pretty good about respecting the rules, and they at least put their mobiles away while in this area.  About 15% will ignore or as impossible it may seem, claim not to have seen the signs and will use it for texting, but not for talking.  And if you point out the signs to them (which in my opinion, shouldn’t be necessary), 100% of the time, they will put the phone away.  The other 5% which I rarely hear about but does occur frequently enough to be an issue is comprised of those who will either have full conversations and/or text message or do other activities on the cell phone, AND absolutely refuse to put their mobiles away EVEN when told to do so.  I even heard on the news once about a person (like me) who asked one of these crumbs to shut off their mobiles, not once, but several times.  The perpetrator refused to do it, and it became physical confrontation.  The vigilante guy actually took this guy down.   And although I don’t condone any violent acts, this guy deserves a lot praise for standing up for what’s right.   It’s this type of complete disregard for the rules of society that really make me angry and the guy got what he deserved.

So for the last week or so, I have been sitting in these courtesy seats on purpose, just to see how may people and what kind of people ignore the rules.  I found that during the hour that I spend on the train I see an average of at least three people violate the mobile phone rules per day and about 70% of them are women. When asked to turn them off, 100% of them did.  One guy whom I confronted about this, was so embarassed, I mean face turned 3 shades of red type embarrassed about being confronted about this, that he actually apologized profusely.  But then, apparently he couldn’t bare to be in the same train with me so he, with his face still red, scuffled off to another car.  It was as if I caught him looking at porn sites on his mobile (or maybe he was) with his pants down.  But, I guess it was probably more due to the fact that it took a non-Japanese looking guy like me to point out that he’s being uncourteous near the courteous seats.   Now the thing is, if he knew it was wrong, then why do it in the first place?  He could have sat in a area where mobiles are allowed and do the porn surfing without breaking the rules, and save himself from embarassment.

Anyways, I don’t mean to be a complete hard on about rules, but really none of these rules are hard to follow.  It’s not a huge sacrafice to properly dispose of a cigarette,  or use a mobile in another part of the train, or smoke in a designated smoking area…etc. So why not do it?

Hayashi Racing at Fuji Speedway

Author: mirai  //  Category: All Posts, Cars and Racing, Family and Friends, Life in general, Techie Stuff, Travel Blog

We spent a day at Fuji Speedway yesterday. My cousin and took their course license seminar to get our course license so that we could participate in track events.

We ran 3 cars:

My Integra Type R turbo
My cousin’s Alfa Romeo 155
and the team car, a Rover Mini Cooper

All three cars performed really well.  Since it was my first time running a Fuji, I didn’t get any good lap times, but I was able to muscle my way past some Ferrari’s on the front straight.   I was able to get up to about 230km/h on the straight, but lifted (mainly out of fear of not being able to stop at turn 1, which is tight hairpin-like turn.)  You get it wrong and you end up in the dirt or the tire barriers.

The Integra performed well because the weather was very cold, but unfortunately I came away with no reverse gear. I suspect that one of the motor mounts took a dump, because the shifter didn’t feel right.  Also, the rubber bushing on the transmission mount looked really suspect.  I initially lost fifth gear too, but was able to get it back by fiddling with it during the drive home.

The Alfa also came away with no brakes.  I noticed that he had some really bad grooves on both of his front rotors.  Fuji is definitely not a forgiving track for a car with bad brakes or a missing fifth gear so we both wound up retiring early.  My cousin was battling with it all the way home, using the clutch and side brake to slow the car down in traffic, while I had to get pushed into parking spaces due to a still missing reverse gear.

The Mini came away flawlessly.   We all agreed that the 17 year old British gal would come away from it limping and we might have to have it towed home, but she out did  both the Integra and Alfa.  And surprisingly,  although slow on the straights, the Mini was really nimble and quick on the corners.   The braking was also really good, and was able to slow down from 160km/h to 60km/h in less than 100 meters, where most cars needed 200 meters or more.

So for now the Integra will rest quietly in the garage until I can muster up enough cash for some new motor mounts, and some energy to install them without the help of a professional.  And perhaps a new engine damper in order too, so that I don’t keep breaking mounts.  Overall, I came away from the event quite happy, but very sore and tired.  My cousin has a race event at Tsukuba circuit next weekend, so I might go up to watch.

Mini and 155 in front of Mt. Fuji

Mini and 155 in front of Mt. Fuji

The team stopping for a bite

a conbini run

Front entrance

Ferrari

old school GTR

Elige

Porsche GT3

a Civic Type R

red Elige

Impreza STI

a GTR R35 Pace car

a GTR R35 pace car

the Teg and the 155

The Teg and the 155

Mini

The three racers

The Teg and the H3

155 on the front straight

Mini on the front straight

911 on a trailer

Roadster carnage

Twin Elige’s

A silver Teg

The Teg, Mini and the 155

The Teg and the Mini

The Teg and the Mini

The mini

The team

My Integra

Mini on the front

Alfa vs. Mini

The paddock

The video of my first run:

New Updates

Author: mirai  //  Category: All Posts, Cars and Racing, Comic relief, Family and Friends, Life in general, Rants and Raves, Techie Stuff

WordPress came out with their second update in the last two weeks.  The latest one is point upgrade to 2.7, so it has some new features as well as a new interface.  At first glance, I wasn’t too pleased that WordPress changed everything around again, but when I got a good look at what they’ve done, I was pretty please.  Now I can get around to where I want to be a lot more quickly and with fewer click.

As for me, I took the Mini out for a ride yesterday afternoon.  It was the first time I drove it out of Yokohama since we got it last spring.  This is due to street legality issues we had before, since it is mostly a race car.  But we managed to get it to pass regulation and get it registered, so it’s street legal (barely) now.  I liked the way it perfomed.  For what it is, it drove quite nicely.  I think the decibal level did attract some attention, but it’s definitely not as bad as my cousin’s Alfa, which I can hear coming fro blocks away.

Next is the Integra.  It needs a bigger fuel pump which my mom will be bringing from the States this week.  I also need to swap out the exhaust and the brakes, but that will come later.  Everything else has been quite.  I’m looking forward to next weekend.  Seeing the relatives is always a pleasure.

New iPhone

Author: mirai  //  Category: All Posts, Life in general, Techie Stuff

Last Saturday, I finally got the iPhone that I have contemplating on buying for so long. As a matter of fact, I am using it now to write this blog, using the wordpress app that I downloaded yesterday. It’s quite handy, because I can write on the go without having to be online. I can even use it to update my Mixi blog as well, via the Mixi app. The only thing I don’t like about it so far, other than it being relatively heavier than the other phones on the market, is it’s heavy dependance on iTunes (which I despise). Also not being able to use it as an external hard drive like I was able to do with my other iPod, is a slight impedance as well, but apparently there are third party applications that can fix that. But other than that, I’m pretty happy with it. Hopefully Apple is nice enough to continue to make improvements through there firmware updates.

My iPhone

New Laptop: “Lenovo” THiNKPAD T61

Author: mirai  //  Category: All Posts, Life in general, Rants and Raves, Techie Stuff

It was only a little over a year ago when I purchased my IBM Thinkpad T30. And for the most part I’ve gotten really good use out of it, despite being heavier and a bit more bloated than the other T-series. But unfortunately a design flaw within the T30 series caused my Thinkpad to go belly up a bit prematurely. Apparently, the solder that holds the memory slots onto the motherboard tends to crack and give away to extensive vibration over time, despite having a little rubber boot on the bottom to prevent such things from happening.

About six months ago, I lost one of the memory slots due to this flaw, and had to settle on running on a single 1GB memory waifer. If the other slot was working properly, I could go as high as 2GB, but only settled for 1.25GB, as that was all I really needed. I even installed a 60GB 7200RPM HDD, an Atheros a/b/g wireless card that goes up to about 108 Mb/sec, and a Pentium 4M 2.0ghz processor, to increase the I/O and throughput a bit, so it became a quite a formidable little PC.

However, last month, the other memory slot decided to call it quits as well, which resulted in an unbootable bricked PC. In my haste, I decided to replace it with a brand new Thinkpad. I had been considering doing this for the last 6 months now, because some of the applications that I tend to use quite frequently like Adobe Photoshop CS2, Windows Movie Maker, and to a lesser degree Adobe Premiere, tend to use up a lot of resources. So it was a good excuse to get a new one.

The latest and greatest in the Thinkpad T-Series lineup (no longer IBM, but Lenovo) is the T61. It comes in two basic form factors: a 14.1 inch display, and a 15.4 inch widescreen display. At first, I wasn’t really considering the widescreen, because I really didn’t need one. As a matter of fact, I was even considering going compact, and getting the x61 instead. But after years of traveling with different sized laptops with different levels of ammenities on business trips, I found the smaller laptops to be more of an inconvenience in the long term. Although smaller , more lighter in weight, and excellent for hauling around, I found that I would have to carry around and external DVD/CD-ROM and external mouse with me. That coupled with the fact that everything (like the keyboard, display, and mouse are significantly smaller on the x-series, it becomes more of an inconvenience once I reach my destination. I prefer to have everything in one nice neat smart little package, hence my preference for the T-Series.

I ordered my T61directly from Lenovo, since they were having a 10% discount sale. Had I purchased the same model with the same configuration in Japan, it would have been about $400USD more. With the 10% discount, I got it for about $800 including shipping, so in a sense I was getting more than a 30% off discount, which is very significant.

While my new T-Series was in transit from the States, via my mom in Georgia (since Lenovo won’t ship to Japan -at least not with the discount price) I had the chance to do some investigation on the net to see what I can do with the bricked T30. Its a real nice laptop and so I didn’t just want to throw it out. Luckily, I found a Thinkpad dedicated user’s forum full of T30 users who experienced the same issue that I did. I went through threads upon threads to see if there was anything I could do to revive my dead T30. The general consensus was to either get IBM to fix it under warranty (which I couldn’t do because I bought my T30 used, and it had no warranty to begin with.) or to replace the motherboard. The motherboard idea didn’t seem too bad at first, but there was no guarantee that the problem won’t reoccur by replacing the motherboard, so I wasn’t too hot for that idea.

Digging more deeply into the forums, I found a small group of T30 users who opted to resolder the end points on the memory slots. Most reported a high degree of success, and the fix lasted a fairly long time if not permanantly. So, being somewhat over zelous in my approach, I popped open the hatch to the memory slots to see what kind of work it would take. Needless to say, its a lot more involved than I thought. Each connection was about a millimeter or less in size and there must have been about a hundred connections per slot. Basically, you would need the hands and patience of a nuerosurgeon, and eyes with microscopic superpowers to be able to solder without accidently soldering the individual points together. Although I hadn’t disposed of the idea completely, I tried to see if there was an easier solution.

Others with less surgical skills like me, opted for a less elegant solution. Although not the prettiest of all solutions, and far short of permanant, it seemed easy enough to do without the risk of further damaging the laptop. Basically what the fix entailed was, shoving thin pieces of cardboard into the memory bay, to press the memory waifers closer to the to the motherboard when closing the bay doors, thus closing the gaps in the connections. I did this with both memory slots in the hopes of that I can get both slots back, although I’d more than happy with just one.

After several adjustments here and there and fiddling around with the bay door a bit to get it press the cardboard so that it pressed against the memory waifers a bit more, the operation was a complete success! I got the full 1.25GB of RAM back and was able to use my T30 again. I didn’t expect this temporary fix to last too long, but I needed it to last until at least my T61 arrived.

2 weeks later, my T61 arrived in the mail. The first thing I noticed what the sheer size of the thing. Although it was considerably bigger than my T22 and my T30, it was lighter and thinner than both. I eventually opted to get the 15.4 inch display, because there wasn’t too much of a difference in price, but it did increase the size a lot. It looked to be more like a Z series laptop rather than a T series. So my hopes of getting a smart sized laptop was out the window at this point. The second thing that I noticed was that the all of the IBM badging has been replaced with very subtle Lenovo logos and a very noticeable THiNKPAD logo underneath. Although I was never particulary a fan of the IBM logo on the older Thinkpads, I disliked the Lenovo logo even more. I felt that it cheapened the Thinkpad a bit, and considered it a constant remider that IBM no longer makes them. In addtion to that, it constantly begged the question, is this Lenovo Thinkpad going to be as good as the IBM Thinkpads that I had grown to love over the years. Long time users of the IBM series tend to think they’re not as good, and that Lenovo did cheapen the quality a bit to keep up with relatively less expensive Dells. But at the same time I can also see these people being a bit biased, and nit picky about even the smallest differences.

After a week and a half of being a T61 owner here are my impressions

First of all let me post the specs of my new T61:

  • 15.4 widescreen display
  • T8300 Intel chipset
  • 2.4Ghz Core2 Duo Processor (Penryn)
  • 3GB RAM
  • 7200rpm 100GB HDD
  • Wireless 11a/b/g/n network card
  • bluetooth
  • Intel GMA x3100 GPU

My initial impression is that its quick! But I figured that this is me with a new toy rush, being biased. I gave it a bit more time and played around with a bit more, before making my final conclusion. Running Vista Utlimate, I found it to be as quick as my T30 running XP with SP3 (with both memory ports working), which is pretty quick. The boot time wasn’t significantly quicker, but the time to open certain applications was. I figured that if I ran XP on the T61, it would blow the doors off of the T30. So hardware performance-wise, I’m pretty satisfied.

Quality-wise, I don’t see too much degradation in quality from the IBM days. As a matter of fact, I think that there has been a quite a few quality enhancements. The T61 is lighter, and seems to be a lot more rigid. The display is a lot brighter and more vivid than my T30, and the keys on the keyboard seem to be a but more responsive to a lighter touch. The outer casing is no longer l prone to fingerprints like my T22 and T30. I also like the location of the built in speakers (on top near the keyboard, rather than under the palm rests like the older T Series, which makes more sense. It seems to have improved the volume a bit.

What I don’t like is the eject button positioning on the DVD-ROM door. It now sits flush with the casing so I tend to have to look for it now, rather than feel for it like the IBM T-series.

Also the wireless indicator light on the dashboard acts as a link light, causing it to blink when connected. Although very minor, it is quite annoying. I prefered the constant on like the one on the T30. Also, the overall size of the T61 is huge! Although lighter, the size makes it a bit difficult to throw into my laptop bag, so I probably won’t be doing much traveling with it.

And perhaps it was due to the wider 15.4 inch display, but it seems that the widened bezels on the side of the keyboard contributes to the Thinkpad’s ugliness (which was alway one of the known characteristics of this laptop brand).

Finally, the onscreen display for the speaker volume and brightness indicator, is really buggy. At first, it didn’t work at all no matter how many times I reinstalled the software. Eventually, I figured out that the executable that controls the onscreen wasn’t starting at startup, so I manually made an entry in the registry so that it did start up. I don’t recall if the onscreen display worked at the logon screen on the other models, but i sort of wish it did. Perhaps I can tweak it to make it run as a service rather than at the time of logon.

Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with the overall performance and design. The name “Lenovo” will take me a while to get use to, but perhaps over time I will be able associate with the improved design of the Thinkpads.