Working from home – Is it negotiable?

With COVID-19 having people work from home, I’m reminded of my own history of working from home.

More than 20 years ago, I worked for Critical Path Software (now part of eBay) in Portland. While Portland is a great place to visit, it wasn’t for me. I decided to leave Portland and when I told the owners of the company I was moving back to San Diego, they asked if I wanted to continue working for them. Since I had nothing else lined up (not the brightest idea to move without a job), I said sure. That was the start of me working from home.

Through many contract jobs and a full time job, I continued to work from home. I treated working from home just like working in an office and would rarely leave during the day; my work ethic wouldn’t allow it. As time went on, I realized that being in one place (i.e., my home office), wasn’t always where I did my best thinking. Running, doing errands, and being out of the house sometimes produced my best work which helped me relax the need to be in the “office”. This didn’t mean I was working any less and in fact, I’d argue that my productivity has gone up since I started being less rigid about being in the office.

Several years ago, I was offered a position that met all my requirements for a job, except for one, working from home. I thought about this a lot and decided that commuting to an office would take a lot out of me and turned it down. I know that people commute all the time, but for someone that hasn’t, I just couldn’t make that sacrifice. Luckily I still had my contract work, so I was able to make the choice.

Four years ago I was laid off and looking for work. The first job that I was offered seemed great, but I’d have to go into an office everyday. I figured how bad could it be since the commute was against traffic and just 30 minutes each way. As I didn’t have any other job prospects, I took the job. As soon as I started the job, it started to wear me down. I got up at 6 am to be at work at 7 am and leave at 3:30 pm. Everyday I came home and fell asleep on the couch. Between the commute, having to be around people all day, and being stuck in a cubical was too much for me to handle. I did manage to work from home once a week towards the end of my short stint there and swore I’d never work in an office again.

Now we’re here with many people working from home and some are asking why can’t they always work from home? I think that too many companies are stuck with the mentality that being in an office is required to do work. That clearly isn’t the case for good people. I hope that having people work from home now will get companies to re-think their work from home strategy.

Here’s some advice I’d like to offer companies that haven’t let people work from home in the past and won’t let them work from home regularly once we get back to “normal”:

  • A high performing person will be high performing no whatever where he or she is.
  • “Water cooler” talk can still happen using tools such as Slack. I chat with a former colleague and friend all the time; he helps me solve problems and is a great sounding board. I’ve only been in the same room with him maybe 3 or 4 times since we first started working together years ago.
  • Ad hoc design discussions can be just as effective through email, instant messages, screen sharing and phone.
  • People can be much less stressed by not having to deal with a commute and coming into an office.
  • Companies are missing out on good people by requiring them to come into the office or being in any particular location.
  • Being flexible makes people happier.

I’d like to say that working from home is non-negotiable for any future job or contract I take. Going into an office every once in a while is fine, but I’m not sure I could be happy going into an office everyday and that directly translates into not being fully productive.

Monitoring a SunPower Solar System

After years of waffling on if I should install solar on my house, I finally decided that it would be a good investment. While the federal tax credit went down from 30% to 26%, I would still get a bit of my investment back. The tax credit goes to 22% next year and then goes away, so if I didn’t make the leap now, I’m not sure financially it would make sense for a long time until the panel prices come way down.

Like most major investments, I did a significant amount of research. I got proposals from 9 companies using a variety of panels and inverters. For better or worse, I went with a SunPower system. SunPower wants to make it easy for people to see how much energy they are producing and their monitoring site has a very, very simple dashboard. Apparently their older dashboard (still available via a different URL that uses Flash) showed output on a per panel basis. When I asked SunPower about this, here was their response:

Unfortunately, our monitoring website only shows production data of the system as a whole. Inverter level monitoring was only offered to dealers for troubleshooting and/or repair purposes. This was not offered to homeowners because, after lengthy evaluation, that feature offers more information than is necessary to monitor ongoing system performance, but not enough information to help identify problems (on the rare occasions when they do occur). We also had concerns about the feature’s design, in part due to negative feedback from customers.

After a bit of research, I found that the monitoring device (PVS6) actually has the ability to be queried for local data. An individual with better hacking/detective skills than me figured out the commands to send to the unit and posted information on GitHub describing the setup. That looked pretty straight forward. So I decided to figure out how to integrate it into Home Assistant and into my Grafana graphs.

First step was to configure a Raspberry Pi as basically a bridge where HTTP requests sent to one port would be redirected out the other port. I didn’t need a full fledged router for this, just an HTTP proxy. I decided to use a Raspberry Pi Zero W that I had lying around as a base. I ordered an Ethernet adapter for it and that was it for hardware. My son designed a case for both pieces and I 3D printed it.

Configuring the Raspberry Pi

  1. Download the Raspberry Pi Imager
  2. Select the Raspbian Lite image.
  3. Write the image to an SD card.
  4. Create a file called wpa_supplicant.conf at the root of the image with the following:
    ctrl_interface=DIR=/var/run/wpa_supplicant GROUP=netdev
    update_config=1
    country=US
    
    network={
     ssid="<Name of your WiFi>"
    psk="<Password for your WiFi>"
    }
    
  5. Add a file called ssh at the root of the image. This file should be empty.

  6. Assign a static IP address mapping on your router for the Pi.
  7. Boot the Raspberry Pi. Login using username: pi password: raspberry
  8. Update the OS using

    sudo apt-get update
    
  9. Install ha-proxy
    sudo apt-get install haproxy
    
  10. Modify /etc/dhcpcd.conf by adding the following so that the Ethernet going to the PVS6 doesn’t attempt to setup a gateway. If this happens, the Pi no longer responds over WiFi.
    interface eth0
    nogateway
    
  11. Add the following to /etc/haproxy/haproxy.cfg:
    frontend http-in
        bind *:80
        default_backend backend_servers
    
    backend backend_servers
        server sv1 172.27.153.1:80
    
    listen stats
        bind *:8080
        stats enable
        stats uri /
        stats refresh 10s
        stats admin if LOCALHOST
    
  12. Reboot the Pi.

Now when you issue HTTP calls to the Pi, they’ll goto the PVS6.

Setting up Home Assistant

I use Node-RED for most of my automations, so the following is how I poll the PVS6 from Node-RED.

Node-RED PVS6

Basically what I do is make an HTTP call to the Raspberry Pi over the WiFi interface that redirects to the PVS6. Using the information from the GitHub repo I found, the call is: http://10.0.3.55/cgi-bin/dl_cgi?Command=DeviceList

I then parse out the different devices that are returned (one for each inverter, one for the monitoring unit, one for the consumption meter and one for the production meter). My installer didn’t hook up the consumption meter, but I use an older version of the Rainforest Automation EAGLE-200 to connect to my electric meter and get consumption data.

This Node-RED flow generates multiple sensors that can then be used to display data right in Home Assistant or in Grafana. There is more information in the output than I need such as AC voltage, DC voltage, AC current, DC, current, etc. I use Home Assistant’s HTTP interface to create new sensors and since I have no idea how fast it can respond, I rate limit the updating of the sensors.

You can download my Node-RED flow from here.

Grafana

I’m going to leave it as an exercise for the reader to setup pretty pictures in Grafana. I’ve setup a basic dashboard and some other graphs. The per panel graphs are useful to tell me if a panel isn’t operating properly. While SunPower doesn’t really want you to know this information, it is very helpful. My system was turned on (my installer and SunPower can remotely disable my system which really bothers me) yesterday and I noticed that 1 of the panels wasn’t generating power. This amounts to about 8% of my overall system; most people wouldn’t know this which makes it even more important to be able to get status on a per panel basis.

Energy Dashboard

Energy Usage

Per Panel Monitoring

Conclusion

I’ve written up this guide to help others, but also to refresh my memory in the future to figure out what I did. My home automation system is growing more and more complex by the day and if I don’t document at least parts of it, I’ll never be able to troubleshoot it.

Feel free to ask questions or provide comments.

A year of meditation

A number of years ago, a friend of mine suggested I start meditating to help with stress. He said he used an app called headspace. I gave it a try for awhile and was trying to do it pretty consistently. However, I stopped as soon as my stress went away and I really got bored of the meditations. Also, the narrator’s voice wore on me. Since then, I tried an app called Calm and really enjoyed the Daily Calm meditation as it was different each day and wasn’t repetitive. The next time stress entered my life, I picked up meditation again and like my first try at regular meditation, I stopped when my stress levels decreased.

Last year, I had two flare ups of my ulcerative colitis both requiring me to consult my gastroenterologist. After the second flare up, I decided to consider meditation just like a medication that I had to take daily. I figured it couldn’t hurt because my colitis issues almost always were caused by some type of stress. When I visited my doctor after I started meditation and told him about it, he said “yeah, I’ve been meditating for 40 years and there is definitely a connection between the brain and the gut”. I really didn’t need his confirmation about meditation, but it was good to know that my doctor was on the same page with not quite an alternative treatment (I’m still on a daily medication), but an additional way to help.

Throughout the last year, I’ve meditated for about 10 minutes a day mostly using the Daily Calm. While meditating longer might help, I feel good about doing the ten minutes. There have been times that I didn’t have cell coverage to get the Daily Calm, so I had to use another meditation that I downloaded. While not as enjoyable as the Daily Calm, it had to do.

Now that I’ve passed 365 consecutive days of daily meditation, I think I can say that it is part of my life. I don’t have a particular time that I meditate, but it is usually towards the end of my workday.

Thank you Calm for helping me achieve this and integrate meditation into my life!

Broken Health Care System

While almost everyone knows that our health care system in the United States is broken, I just got the explanation of benefits for our flu shots. We paid $0 out of pocket for the shots. I went to CVS Pharmacy, my wife and son went to a flu clinic at their medical group. Insurance paid $20 for my shot, $90.05 for my wife’s shot and $81.74 for my son’s shot. The insurance plan basically overpaid $130 for flu shots for my family. The insurance plans need to find a way to bring costs down and maybe one of the ways is to tell us EXACTLY where to get certain services or give us some financial incentive to go a cheaper route. I’m not sure CVS does flu shots for kids, but for my wife it would have been cheaper for them.

Monthly Battery Checks

Every month I have a routine where I make sure batteries and devices that I don’t use regularly are charged. Some may think that I’m a “prepper” getting ready for a major disaster, but I’m definitely not that extreme (I don’t have a bunker and am not off the grid!). You never know when some of this will come in handy; a few months ago the power went out at dinner time due to an emergency transformer replacement. I pulled out the LED lanterns I have (the orange pucks in the picture) and we had light. It wasn’t a big deal.

I know that I still have a lot of work to do to be fully prepared for an emergency, but having light, some power, and cooking equipment (my camping stove is in the garage and we have a gas grill outside) goes a long way. The good news is that much of my gear is used for camping so it isn’t just sitting around collecting dust (some emergency meals I have need to be checked as I have no idea how old they are!).

I highly recommend that people regularly charge devices, check flashlights, and have some portable battery packs lying around.

Also, just about all my devices can be charged via USB which makes it easier to charge everything.

In case people are curious, here’s what is in the picture.

Dealing with the influx of scooters

I try to get out and run 3-4 times a week down by Mission Bay as there is a nice path and I don’t have to be afraid of vehicle traffic. I used to run on the sidewalk where there was one and on dirt when there wasn’t; however with traffic whizzing by at 55 mph (speed limit is 45 mph), I got smart and decided that I’d just drive to a nice place and run. Last year on one of my runs, I noticed electric scooters parked in groups along the path. Over the course of the next few months, the scooters started appearing just about everywhere I went in the city.

The scooters are an interesting solution to the last mile problem and appear to be useful for a lot of people. However, the companies that are running the scooters have taken the approach that they’ll just “disrupt” transportation and simply do what they want and deal with the fallout and laws later. This has been a big topic on the news with injuries happening all the time, lawsuits (currently San Diego is facing a lawsuit about disabled access on the sidewalks), and some riders disobeying laws.

The San Diego mayor and city council have been working on ways to handle these scooters so that they can co-exist with everyone in the city. While this may seem like the right thing to do, I’d argue that instead of spending time trying to handle these scooters, how about taking a look at the problems they are causing and what laws already exist to handle them.

In my view, there are a number of issues that I’ve seen:

  1. Scooters are parked on the sidewalk either by the companies (or their contractors) or the riders.
  2. Scooters are being ridden on the sidewalk and the riders are getting into accidents with innocent pedestrians.
  3. Scooter riders are riding in the street in the wrong direction and not stopping at traffic lights and/or stop signs.
  4. Parent and child riding on a scooter.
  5. Kids riding the scooters.

The scooters, themselves, aren’t the problem in my opinion. It is the riders (mostly) that don’t know what they are supposed to do or frankly don’t care.

Let’s take a closer look at my list.

Scooters parked on sidewalks

This is already illegal under California Vehicle Code 21235:

(i) Leave a motorized scooter lying on its side on any sidewalk, or park a motorized scooter on a sidewalk in any other position, so that there is not an adequate path for pedestrian traffic.

While people may argue what is an adequate path, unless the sidewalk is really wide, a scooter on the sidewalk won’t allow 2 people to pass one another comfortably.

Scooters ridden on the sidewalk

This is already illegal under CVC 21235:

(g) Operate a motorized scooter upon a sidewalk, except as may be necessary to enter or leave adjacent property.

If we consider the path around Mission Bay a bike path and not a sidewalk (scooters can be ridden on bike paths), San Diego Municipal Code §63.20.7 states:

Driving Vehicles On Beach Prohibited; Exceptions; Speed Limit On Beach
(a) Except as permitted by the Director and except as specifically permitted on Fiesta Island in Mission Bay, no person may drive or cause to be driven any motor vehicle as defined in the California Vehicle Code on any beach, any sidewalk or turf adjacent thereto; provided, however, that motor vehicles which are being actively used for the launching or beaching of a boat may be operated across a beach area designated as a boat launch zone. Original

A scooter is defined as a motor vehicle under California Vehicle Code and the path around Mission Bay is adjacent to a beach thereby making it illegal to ride a scooter on the path.

CVC 21230 states:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a motorized scooter may be operated on a bicycle path or trail or bikeway, unless the local authority or the governing body of a local agency having jurisdiction over that path, trail, or bikeway prohibits that operation by ordinance.

Meaning that San Diego (as they have done) can regulate scooters on bike paths.

Scooters ridden recklessly

As scooter riders must have a driver’s license (or permit) and scooter are classified as motor vehicles, the riders must follow all the rules of the road including which direction they ride on the street, stopping at stop signs or traffic lights, yielding, etc. This is already covered under California Vehicle Code.

Parent and child riding on a scooter

Again, illegal under CVC 21235:

(e) Operate a motorized scooter with any passengers in addition to the operator.

(c) Operate a motorized scooter without wearing a properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet that meets the standards described in Section 21212, if the operator is under 18 years of age.

Kids riding the scooters

Illegal under CVC 21235:

(d) Operate a motorized scooter without a valid driver’s license or instruction permit.

As I wrote in the beginning, I don’t have a problem with the scooters if they are operated in a safe and respectful manner (just like driving). I do, however, have a major problem with scooters blocking the sidewalk when parked and riders zipping by me when I’m walking on the sidewalk. In addition, driving is already dangerous enough without having to take into account a scooter rider on the road not obeying the law.

Instead of trying to add more regulations for scooters, how about the city enforce the current laws on the books? This would go a long way at solving the problems. The companies that operate the scooters could possibly do more to make their riders understand how to properly operate them. As much as I’d like to blame these companies, it is the riders that are causing the problems. The companies, however, need to stage their scooters in appropriate locations to not block sidewalks and need to pick them up in a reasonable amount of time as they look like trash scattered all over.

I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. This article is based on my interpretation of the laws.

Never enough charging ports

This past summer my family went on a vacation to the Grand Canyon and a few other destinations in Arizona (yes, it was hot!). For the driving trip we packed a lot of devices. Between the 3 of us, we had 3 iPads, 3 iPhones (my son just uses one for its camera), 2 Apple Watches, AirPods, a mobile hotspot, and an Anker PowerCore 26800 Power Bank. After I bought and reviewed the Anker 5-Port USB charger several years ago, I realized that the Anker 6-Port USB Charger was a better device as it didn’t add much bulk to the 5 port and gave me an extra port. Since then I’ve bought a few of the chargers and put one along with cables in a small bag I take when I travel. While I don’t need to charge everything at once, 6 ports just isn’t enough to keep everything charged especially since the power bank uses 2 ports to charge faster. After we got back from the trip, I ordered another charger.

With 2 6-port chargers, I think that I’m all set for awhile. If I plug in everything at once (which I’ll rarely do), all the devices will use 12 ports! That’s kind of sad and amazing at the same time that we travel with some much technology. I just have to remember to bring enough cables to charge what needs to be charged. In my opinion, there is no reason to ever travel with smaller chargers even if they are a little more compact. I travel alone, I’m going to have 6 devices with me. Yes, I’m addicted to my gadgets.

A year of being self employed

Where has time gone? I meant to write this article in December as it marked a year of me being self employed this time around. Anyone that has browsed my past articles will see that I’ve gone back and forth on being happy working for a company. Will this time being self employed be different? Will I be successful and happy?

I believe that in any professional service work, having good clients is the key. For the most part, I’ve always had good clients and worked with good teams. For the last year, I’ve had a great client.

Being self employed may sound glorious to those working for companies, but I always have concerns about being a one man team. I’m sure that others in the same position share the same concerns:

  • I can only accept as much work as I can do personally. While I could subcontract out my work, I’ve never really felt comfortable doing that as I get my contracts based on my own work and not the work of a team.
  • Having one main client means that if the client goes away, I’m left high and dry and have to immediately find another client.
  • Taking time off is somewhat tricky as I don’t have anyone to back me up and I feel guilty about it.
  • Who is going to help me if I get stuck on a problem? I can search the Internet for solutions, but have you looked at the Internet lately? 😀

With the ability to purchase health insurance on the open market now, I’m not concerned with getting health insurance. This used to be a big concern of mine. The cost of health insurance on the open market is quite high but, I’m lucky that I can afford it.

In the last 15 months, my large client has been great. I’m treated as part of the team and the team is made up of really good people. I don’t feel stressed and manage to get the work done when needed. I do feel guilty about taking time off (I’ve taken a few days off), but no one minds which is a huge relief. Being always reachable is both a blessing and a curse; I can’t be completely disconnected from work but my client can feel comfortable knowing that I can be reached. I really can’t ask for anything more from a client.

People think that being self employed offers a lot of freedom. In reality it offers the perception of flexibility. I still have to get up every morning and work as I have commitments to meet and have to meet with my team. This is no different than working for a company. Given that, why don’t I just work for the company? That’s a good question. I feel that I’m in charge of my own destiny. Is that really true? I have no idea.

HAM Radio in today’s world

When I was in middle school, our principal came to talk to the science club about HAM radio (yes, I was in science club). The most interesting part of his talk was when he demonstrated making a phone call via a phone patch. Since it was amateur radio, the phone call could be heard by anyone monitoring the frequency so it wasn’t a replacement for the phone. However, this made an impression on me, but not enough to get licensed.

Eleven years ago I was part of CERT (and still am) and someone offered a course to become licensed as an amateur radio operator. As the FCC had dropped the requirement for morse code for the Technician license and was dropping the requirement for the higher level classes as well, passing the test was less difficult. The question bank for all the classes is published which makes it easy to study. I passed and was issued the call sign KI6FRM. I did nothing with my license until two years ago when I was laid off from work. I had nothing to do so I decided to study for the General Class license. I spent about a month reading and studying the ARRL General Class License Manual. In addition to reading the book, I used an iOS app to take practice test after practice test until I had high confidence that I could pass. I passed and still did nothing with the license. I bought a BaoFeng BF-F8HP radio which is a cheap Chinese radio and figured out how to program it with CHIRP. I listened a bit, but never pushed the transmit button.

Fast forward another year and a half. I’ve been searching for a hobby for awhile and as I approached my 45th birthday, I realized that I’ll be “retiring” in 20 years and will have to find something to do with my time. HAM radio popped into my head and thought that I might as well try to pass the Extra Class test while my brain still worked and I could memorize the answers. I studied the ARRL Extra Class License Manual and used an iOS app by the same author as the other app (the app is functional, but not pretty). I was extremely nervous as there is a lot of material that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. While a lot of the material was familiar (I have an engineering degree and studied electronics), I didn’t know if I would be able to do it. My wife kept telling me that I had nothing to worry about; she was right, I passed on the first try and only missed 5 (you can miss 13 or 50 and pass)!

This time I’m determined to do something with my license. After my license came through the FCC, I decided to get a vanity call sign. The FCC dropped the fee for doing it a few years ago, so what did I have to lose? As an extra class operator, I had a lot more choices for call signs. Many people seem to like keeping their region in their call sign (California is region 6), but I just wanted something that sounded cool. My wife thinks that I’m a dork or a geek and keeps comparing HAM radio to CB by saying “breaker, breaker 1-9”. I’m OK with that, so I applied for and was granted KD0RK. Yup, I’m KD0RK and proud of it.

Now that I’m licensed for all amateur frequencies, I’m trying to put together all the pieces. There is a lot of information out there and a lot of different ways to use amateur radio. I’m particularly interested in emergency communications, so I’m exploring a radio (HT) to purchase and have my eye on the Icom ID-51A Plus2. This radio is a 2m/70cm radio (VHF/UHF) and only requires a technician license. I did purchase a Diamond Original X50A Antenna to help with my radio and am waiting to try it out.

My plan after getting used to local communications (through repeaters and such) is to explore HF. This is what interests me because I’ll be able to communicate without the Internet and talk to people all over the world. I read stories about HAM radio use in Puerto Rico after the hurricane and would potentially like to help out with something like that in the future. However, HF brings another aspect to the hobby that I have to learn including what antenna to get, what radio to buy, what frequencies to use, how does the weather affect propagation (yes, the manual went over this, but until it is used it is just theory), etc.

Back to the title of this article. Does HAM radio have a place in today’s society? I think it definitely has a place in emergency communication when cell phones may not be available or the circuits are simply jammed. In addition, while some think that the Internet has brought people together by always being in touch, I think written communication is less personal than voice communication. People seem to have no problem bullying others in public forums, but would likely never say what they write to someone. Is that true? I have no idea, but I’m willing to give it a try. A lot of aspects of radio communications have been replaced by the Internet, so many people don’t think it has a place. When the Internet comes crumbling down, what are we going to do? 😀

Scott

KD0RK

A year with my Impreza

It’s hard to believe that I bought my Subaru Impreza a year ago! My initial impressions of the car were pretty good. Now that I’ve put about 10,000 miles on it, I am convinced that I made the right choice with the car. We’ve taken it on a few road trips pushing, but mostly I’ve driven it around town.

I’ve never owned a “sports car” and this may be the closest I come to one. This car is truly fun to drive. I’ve been playing a lot with the paddle shifters especially going down mountains. Also, being closer to the ground, I definitely feel the acceleration.

Tech wise, CarPlay is now a requirement for every car I get. The interface is clean and Apple updates it periodically with new features, something car manufacturers are not known to do with the infotainment systems. Up-to-date maps and navigation alerts such as alternate routes and accidents are handy. My only problem with CarPlay is that I have to wait for the infotainment system to fully power up before I plug in my phone, otherwise CarPlay fails to start. However, I’m testing a theory that the Subaru STARLINK app crashes when I connect my phone to the car. The app is useless and I’m not sure why I left it on my phone until this week.

I was concerned about the smaller cargo capacity especially going on trips and camping, but those concerns have so far been unfounded. I’ve managed to cram everything in the car without having to use the roof box I bought. The gas mileage has been pretty good with some trips giving me close to 38 mpg. Unfortunately most of my driving is city driving and a hybrid would have done much better in those circumstances. If Subaru had a hybrid Impreza, I’d definitely be interested in that.

The car has had a few recalls which is expected on a new platform and I hope I get years of continued service out of it.

Overall this car was a very good purchase. It may not be for everyone; it is the right car for me!