Airbus anti-collision lights part 2

Back in December I wrote about making a portable anti-collision light systems for, say, cyclists using the Airbus scheme.

That first version used a generic full-size Arduino unit. I’ve been miniaturizing it and changing hardware platforms over the last month or so as parts arrive from China. Here’s version 2 below. It adds the tail light, switches to a LiPo battery and uses a trinket instead of an Arduino:

Version 3 moves to an ATTiny85 programmer board:

Version 4 uses just the the ATTiny84 IC and switches to rechargeable AAA batteries. By rearranging components I removed 8 wires and added an on/off switch:

The next step is to put the thing on some strip board and/or design a PCB and case for it. There are a bunch of mixed considerations as the case and PCB layout interact with each other, and I’d like it to be waterproof for helmet mounting for cyclists. The battery type introduces a lot of complexity – a rechargeable lithium cell is probably best but that means integrating the charging cicuitry and having a USB socket on the thing. I have more parts ordered from China to test all of this.

Explore OpenStreetMap Statistics

OSM Stats for Namibia

Ever wanted to explore OSM statistics over time and in depth? OSM Stats is for you. Notice the site asks for your location – this is just to show you your country automagically by default.

The site lets you explore by country, over time, major types of OSM data. The left-hand graph shows you the aggregate count over time, the right-hand graph shows the difference (delta) over the same time period. You can click different data types on the left, change country at the top, and change the time range just above the graphs.

You can find some interesting things. Here’s the default view for the United Kingdom:

What it shows is data growing over time. We like graphs that go up-and-to-the-right. The right-hand graph shows, as expected, the amount of data being added declining over time. This is because there’s less and less to map in the UK as I started the project there.

Compare that to Haiti:

Can you guess what the spikes in data addition are?

Now look at residential roads only in the United States:

Things are declining over time! Where are all those residential roads going? Well a small part of the answer (notice the vertical axis is 2 orders of magnitude less than above) is the growth of living streets in the US:

That’s a small taste of the things you can learn – have fun exploring the site and email me any comments.

The Disappearing Operating System

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace

Over time, intellectual property gets commoditized and competed away to become part of the background noise. It becomes the air we breathe and we forget all about it.

We’re reaching this right now with operating systems and the whole OS platform paradigm is going away. This is very weird for someone who grew up with Windows in the 90’s, Linux in the oo’s and MacOS in the 10’s. The OS used to be important. Defining. It was how you worked and what you did. It defined the box you lived in and how you thought about things.

I’m not talking about “everything is just a website now instead of an app”. I’m talking about how when you use an iPad that the computer itself “goes away”. There are no knobs and levers (keyboard & mouse) on an iPad. The distance between you and your work or content just falls away. The medium is the message.

I now have Windows 10, Mac and Linux machines I use all the time. Using them all for various productive things, there’s almost no difference between them. They all run the same software (everything from Bash to Dropbox to Spotify). They all have minor annoyances. And they’re all free. All three are even converging to look the same.

Now they’re all basically the same, and free, we can stop talking about them. It’s just no longer particularly important.

We don’t particularly talk about how much better my Honda is than your Toyota. Though both companies would have us believe they’re completely different vehicles that are key to our lives, they’re really wheeled metal boxes with essentially identical user interfaces.

And so it is, now, with operating systems. It’s all gone, all that investment and paradigmatic dogma. The OS is completely irrelevant to most people.

This wasn’t true only 12 or 18 months ago, but the gently declining quality of macOS and the ascent of Win10 along with its Linux subsystem has erased essentially all the differences. A Mac has the window buttons on the left, Windows has them on the right. That’s it. That’s the difference.

Picking an OS is no longer a meaningful thing to think about for most of us. If the OS is irrelevant and everything will work, give or take, then the hardware takes the place of software as the decision point. We’re now buying a blue computer or a red computer much as we buy a Honda or Toyota. A Dell and a Mac now have essentially identical hardware, it really comes down to which logo you prefer on the front. Or maybe you prefer the Dell carbon fiber box to the Apple aluminum box.

This is interesting since the choice will become (even more) about marketing than anything else. Your friends have a Mac so you buy one, or the shiny Dell is cheaper and you used a Dell last year. That’s the level of logic going forward.

The fly in the ointment

There is no MS Office for Linux. If there were, the picture would be complete. It’s the one thing missing that would remove the barrier to using Linux.

There is no doubt that Microsoft Office remains far better than its competitors, and is the way the majority of the world works. Individual pieces have some competition, for example Keynote is competitive with PowerPoint and in many ways better. But the suite together, and Excel in particular, remains head and shoulders above anything else available.

This is important since if the OS is irrelevant and we don’t care much about a Dell or an Apple logo on the box, MS Office is the only thing that keeps people away from, say, Ubuntu. I predict Office will come to Linux eventually.

Remember, when you buy a drill you’re really buying holes. Corporate America wants to buy “office machines” or “outlook machines”. The logo on the box isn’t very important. No more important than if your drill is built by DeWalt or Ryobi.


Desktop operating systems themselves aren’t super important in the context of phones. People spend more time on their phone and they change them faster. But the OS differences remain fairly stark and the switching costs high.

Despite Apple making iOS as confusing as they can with every release, it still remains roughly half as confusing as Android. This isn’t the case between Ubuntu, Windows 10 and macOS. Those three are about equally confusing.

If Android can get less bizarre and/or iOS continues to lose focus the meaningful difference will vanish like it has on the desktop. It took desktops roughly 20 years to erase all their meaningful differences. Phones are there in roughly a decade (iPhone shipped 10 years ago). Maybe watches or whatever comes next will take 5.

In Sum

Don’t think about operating systems ever again. It’s like travel agents – they didn’t just go away, we entirely change how we travelled and thought about travel.

The desk/laptop computer is changing and it isn’t just because of websites or the cloud. It’s a deeper shift toward computers becoming appliances and the battle moving on to new frontiers. It’s not about what fridge you buy but what you put in it.

The OS has been competed away. The next battle to compete away is for any existing key platforms on top. Things like office and search. Of course the real battle is for conversational interfaces like Alexa and other interesting new things. But here, I’m talking about existing key things on top of the OS. The OS is like your window on to the things you’re really doing, those are the things that are up for the chopping block.

Imagine the OS being an iceberg that’s almost melted and there are a bunch of penguins that are on top. The penguins have to start swimming soon.

What are the next monopolies that will get competed away? To repeat, it’s going to be office, search and the other key things like that  which we use every day.

For some reason I don’t understand, office remains without good competition. Open/LibreOffice is a real mess. Apple’s suite is okay for home users. Google Docs is useful for toddlers. I predict this will change and people will start to become serious about making an office suite that doesn’t suck. Because that’s what people are going to be buying a computer for. There are large material differences between these productivity suites, and as for Outlook, you have to squint very hard to find anything close.

As for search, it’s completely different. The delta between google and bing is about 95% marketing. But then we can say the same thing about Coca-Cola and Pepsi. The fragility is very different, Google is super dependent on a single revenue stream and that is less true of Microsoft every new day.

Pithy Predictions

  1. Windows will become “OfficeOS” in spirit if not name.
  2. Office365 will bundle Windows 10 Pro as part of your subscription.
  3. Office will come to Linux (without the Win10 pro stuff) like it came to Mac (basically 99% works but broken edges unless you use the ‘REAL’ office on windows).
  4. Google will be forced to build a real office suite.
  5. Search market share will remain roughly the same indefinitely.
  6. Apple will give up on macOS in spirit if not name since they have no real unique advantage over windows or ubuntu (this is what you’re seeing today).
  7. iOS will continue to get more confusing and Android will get less confusing, maybe crossing in 2019 or 2020 kind of timeframe.
  8. To defend the realm, and because they’ll be out of options, Apple will buy Android and/or Google from Alphabet – there won’t be a lot of options for them by that point. They may frame it as a strategic alliance, or something else that’s a merger in everything but name. As part of this process, the DoJ will force Apple to spin something out after complaints from Amazon and Microsoft.

Amazon’s Phone Failure

Ben Thompson wrote an interesting piece on Amazon here explaining the awesomeness of Alexa. I quote:


Amazon made the same mistake as Facebook: convinced it needed its own operating system and the direct access to users that entailed, the company made one of the worst phones in history.

There are two issues here:

  1. The post-hoc narrative about how amazing Amazon is to do Alexa but terrible to do the Fire Phone is just post-hoc narrative. In reality both were just experiments, both worth trying.
  2. It wasn’t a failure.

Amazon isn’t driven by the same kinds of narratives of success and failure that other companies generally are. It’s all about experimentation and while the v1 phone lost a boat load of money, they’ll just be back with another one. Amazon right now is selling discounted phones bundled with the amazon ecosystem of apps on them. This is just a very quick and cheap way of testing to see if the market exists.

Amazon already had the operating system for a phone from the Fire tablets. Making a high end phone with experimental features was worth a try.

The only real mistake here is Amazon taking so long to come back with another phone, because there’s a market for it. The time lag is probably from blowing up whatever group(s) made the phone within Amazon and waiting for new ideas to coalesce.

Apple is doing strange and confusing things at the top of the market with their various hardware decisions. Software-wise, iOS continues to get more complicated. The benefit is that if I buy an iOS device then I know it will mostly work.

This security doesn’t exist with Android for Joe Consumer. Without effort, we have no idea what Android device to buy or whether it will work. Who knows which Samsung or Moto device I need and whatever version of Android they’re shipping this week, with what modifications?

Enter Amazon.

If they want, Amazon can ship a cheap, reliable phone with the brand security of Amazon. You’ll know it will work, because it’s Amazon. It’ll just work, like your kindle JustWorks(TM). Amazon can reduce the complexity of the device by using FireOS, because all that work is already done for the tablets.

They can price it at $99 pretty soon due to the various hardware costs dropping and they’d sell millions of them.

The argument against all this would be another Amazon principle – customer obsession. It may make a lot more sense to put resource on new projects where you can define everything (like Alexa) as opposed to making yet another phone where they have no customers today anyway. Reading the tea leaves, this points to those discount Moto devices being a great way to get data to make a decision with fewer nice anecdotes.

For a very similar set of reasons, Microsoft has opportunity at the top of the market to ship what I speculatively call the Office Phone. People have been calling it the Surface Phone but what Enterprise wants to do is basically run Office cheaply. An office/surface phone that runs real windows, probably with the ARM x86 emulation, that connects to a keyboard and display, will allow enterprise to give staff one device instead of 2 or 3 and the security of MS Office.

Continental Drift Part 2

Phone superglued to foundation

(see part 1)

The phone’s been running for nearly a week collecting data despite rebooting servers and wifi failing so I superglued it to the foundation of the house, which is concrete and in the ground. The data collected so far has all been deleted since it was just a test, but from here on out it’s real. In a week or two I’ll write some scripts to analyze the data and figure out what the error bars are.

2016 Books on diet

All are recommended, though you really do need to read all of them to get a complete picture.

The summary:

  • Don’t eat anything with a nutrition label, or that comes in a box, or has a logo on it
  • If it’s meat, make sure it’s grass fed
  • If it’s fish, make sure it comes from the middle of the ocean
  • Really, really, don’t eat sugar
  • Go as long as possible between meals, for example by eating once a day or fasting for a few days regularly


Measuring Continental Drift with a Phone

Worldwide Continental Drift Velocities

Worldwide Continental Drift Velocities

Here in Colorado if you believe the above map (more detail), we’re moving a few centimeters a year west or south-west. Queue music, and a weekend project.

How is continental drift measured? It turns out there’s not a lot to it, you just superglue a GPS to a rock and take location measurements for a year or two. If you average out the noise of the GPS you should see it move over time.

I have an old Lumia phone that is worth about $5 on eBay yet will run Windows 10 so I grabbed Visual Studio 2015 and wrote a little app to grab the GPS location every second. The app also keeps the screen alive, displays the location and then sends the data off to a server. The “server” here is a Mac running a tiny little ruby daemon which listens for the GPS data and logs it to some files. There’s also a little plist file you put in your launchd directory to keep it running as a background service. A great excuse to learn how Windows 10 apps and ruby sockets work.

Now the “real” geologists, probably their GPS is bright orange, has solar power, a big drive to log data and special clamps to mount the whole thing to the bedrock that’s being measured. It probably has a wonderful view of the sky, and cost $20k or something. The concrete foundation of the house and superglue will have to suffice for mounting. We have interference from the (wooden) roof of the garage. The server might go down. The wifi will too, occasionally, and there is no buffering on the phone at this point so we’ll lose data here and there. The code is all available here.

I’m currently running the setup for a few days and will then superglue the phone to the foundation and forget about it for a few months while it collects data. Though there is one piece left to write for logging, we need to compress the files after they’ve been stagnant a while.

Analysis will come much later, and we’ll need a decent numerical library to make sure the averages are computed correctly. There are various other thing that can break like thermal expansion or some other effect may throw the whole thing off. Stay tuned!

Arduino Airbus Anti-Collision Lights

Airbus aircraft, like the model A380 above have a specific anti-collision lighting setup that I like. The white LEDs on the wing tips blink twice, then the red light on the top and bottom blink. I’m ignoring the tail light since I’m not sure I care about it for what I want to do.

Here’s the timing diagram:

The middle row shows the wingtip lights blinking for 50 milliseconds, wait for 350 milliseconds then blink the red (top row) for 100 milliseconds. The bottom is the tail I’m ignoring for now.

I implemented this on an Arduino:

Here’s the code (and yes, I know the loop is unrolled):

So the question of course is, why?

I think it would make a neat set of lights for a bicycle helmet or something lighter (e.g. a headband) for runners. If it’s good enough to protect a half-billion dollar aircraft then why not try it on the mean streets?

I need to miniaturize and package it, and make it work in the rain as next steps.

Here’s the Arduino clone kit I used, and the ultra-bright LEDs. The kit came with some fogged white LEDs which are OK, but not great. Overall it was a fun first project, and if you already know how to write software and some electronics you can get going extremely quickly. My problem was I never had a real reason to use an Arduino until now…

Steve’s Golden Rules of Feedback

You know business books which spend 300 pages explaining something that is easily laid out in a few sentences? I’m looking at you, Millionaire Next Door (to be a millionaire, buy a used Toyota and cheap vodka – there, I summarized it for you).

Well, here are my golden rules of feedback:

  1. About 1-in-10 people ask for feedback on things
  2. About 1-in-10 of those will try to action the feedback

Some multiplication will tell you that only about 1% of people are able to both ask for and use feedback. If you think about it, that about explains the 1% of people who’re successful at whatever they’re trying to do.

Feedback sucks.

For whatever reason, we don’t like being wrong. It feels bad.

Most people want to feel good, and someone pointing out their mistakes doesn’t tend to induce that special unicorns-and-puppies feeling.

Here’s how most people approach feedback:

  1. Don’t ask for feedback at all

Things are much safer that way, in the same way that a ship is safe in a harbor. But they’re meant to be sailed.

Today, I got an email from a company asking for feedback. This is a great start.

Underneath the summary text, the huge logo and then two paragraphs of text I was invited to click a link to give feedback. Clicking the link lead to this:

feedback1Now – this is how you don’t ask for feedback.

But lets back up. Why should we want feedback?

You need feedback because you have no idea if what you’re doing is correct. You have made some guesses, perhaps even educated guesses. But you need the humility to figure out if you’re wrong. Should the widget you made be blue or red? The quicker and cheaper you can find out, the better.

It’s very easy for us to think we’re right, but we usually aren’t. The cost of being wrong if we’re talking about who’ll win Superbowl 100 isn’t super high. But where money, life and business are concerned it can be very painful.

So although most people, maybe 80%, don’t ask for feedback at all there is another 10%-20% who ask but are just really bad at it. It usually goes like this:

  1. Grudgingly ask for feedback
  2. Figure out how to disagree with it and do whatever I want anyway

I see this all the time. Like in that example above, let’s see it again:


What’s wrong with this is varied, but it comes down to wasting my time. I had to:

  1. Open the email
  2. Read it
  3. Click the link
  4. Wait for it to load
  5. Answer some number of questions, starting with the most dumb question of all. Dumb, because you’re asking me if I’m a customer when I obviously am.

Each of those steps throws out potential responses. The number of people sent the email might start at a 1,000 or so, but then that gets cut down to perhaps 5 or 10 responses if we’re lucky. This is because every step will lose people. Fewer steps are better.

Here’s all you need to ask –

What one thing would you change with [Product/Service/Thing]?

That’s all you need to ask. And you can do that in the email without sending people to a website.

Most people are more than happy to tell you the one thing. Then you collate all the responses together and crucially you actually try the thing.

If the customers say it should be red but you like blue, all you need to do is try it. Maybe they’re wrong. But if so, the costs are trying some red for a while. If they’re right then the upside can be huge because you’ve learnt something and applied it.

That’s what we call an asymmetric payoff, and it’s what I help people figure out all the time. If you want some help, give me a call.

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