Software dev, tech, mind hacks and the occasional personal bit

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Lockdown with Kids – Take 2

It’s coming up to the second month of lockdown in Sydney with my energetic primary school age sons and lovely (and patient) wife. Since this is the second time around, I thought I’d share some ideas which we have been using which have worked for us. Your mileage my vary!

First of all, let us reframe the lockdown as an epic cruise through space-time, towards normal life.

With this framing in mind, think about the entertainments and events and plan for a long voyage on a ship, to stave off boredom and keep the crew happy and productive.

  • Decide and family routine together and publish it on the fridge. Stick to it to give structure to the day. Make sure it includes recess and lunch similar to school – these are also when the family gets together from their separate activities during the work/school day.
  • Have a guessing competition on the number of covid cases for the day (new cases & number in community) and a prize draw at recess (eg, a chocolate for the winner). Everyone records their guess at breakfast.
  • Make use of every room in the house, balconies, porches, gardens etc to give more opportunity for privacy and space.
  • Celebrate the end of the work/school week by ordering delivery food for dinner on Friday. This delineates the week from the weekend, and gives parents a break from cooking and everyone something to look forward to.
  • Have international food nights once a week: choose a few countries for the first few, then when you run out, play pin the tail on the country with a map! Research the food, order appropriate ingredients and cook. Dress up if you feel like it. Make it a highlight of the week.
  • Family kareoke nights if that’s your thing. I think dancing could work too though we haven’t tried it yet.
  • Get kids involved in cooking whenever you can, they love it and learn too.
  • Get lots of outdoor activity gear such as basket ball hoops, soccer balls, pull up bars, bikes, kites, etc to provide variety.
  • Exercise every day to get out the the house (and usual exercise benefits). Choose a mix of quiet activity by yourself to get some space (eg, running) and with kids (eg, bicycling) and go with what you feel like on the day. Calisthenics is good in a park where kids can play while you work out.
  • Make computer game playing time for kids a currency that they earn. For example, our kids earn:
    • 50% of the time they spend on extra study outside of school for game playing.
    • I review their school work at the end of the day and award game time based on amount and quality of work they have done during the day (in range 15 min – 1 hour).
    • Chores like taking out the garbage/compost earn 5 minutes.
    • Repeatedly doing something we’ve asked them not to do (or not doing something they are meant to do) leads to a fine of 1 or 5 minutes of game time.
    • Ask kids to do a written accounting of their time before they use their game time, to check the amount of time and to give them practice presenting tabular data and doing calculations.
  • Remember that work done at home by the kids for home schooling does not need to be perfect and fixed by parents before submission. The teacher can correct kids’ work during the day. Sure, there are times when the boys need help, and that is OK too, but you don’t need to sit with them every minute. Home schooling does give you the possibility of getting more involved yourself, but I like to have the boys work as independently as possible during the day and go over things with them after school “finishes”. This also allows me to get more of my work done during the day.
  • For school work, if possible, ensure each child has their own device with a camera for submitting hand-written work, to avoid having lots of logging in and out to switch accounts, and fights over the device.
  • Make an effort to stay in touch with friends via video calls (at least one call a week).
  • Get good noise cancellation headphones for when you are working. For me this is vital.

I hope you find some of these ideas useful as we cruise on towards freedom.

The Lane Cove River

The Lane Cove River is the closest major waterway to my place. Over several trips, I have run and kayaked from the source to its mouth, where it joins the Parramatta River/Sydney Harbour.

The Lane Cove River has many beautiful spots. It is divided in two by a weir in the Lane Cove National Park. Above the weir is fresh, below is tidal and briny.

Fifty years ago, it was a much healthier river, which had beautiful swimming spots and even an amusement park called Fairyland above the weir.

Water begins to trickle from among the rocks near Thornleigh
By Wahroonga it is the size of a creek
It grows with multiple little creeks joining, until it becomes passable by kayak under the Ryde Rd Bridge
A pretty waterhole
The remains of Fairyland in Lane Cove National Park (an amusement park until the late 1960s)
The weir
Chatswood West
Near Lane Cove River Kayakers Club
From Riverview, you can just see the Harbour Bridge
Nice houses along the river near Woolwich
The mouth of the Lane Cover River where it joins the Parramatta River/harbour

As well as the beautiful spots, there is a lot of pollution, especially above the weir. Anything in the water above the weir like sticks, trunks or rubbish gets coated with a layer of brown algae.

Orange gunk going into the river from a little side creek
Junk floating in the water
Opaque and milky water above the weir
Lots of invasive weeds along the shoreline and rubbish caught in overhanging trees

There is a multi-council initiative to make the Parramatta River swimmable again by 2025. As someone who sails on the Parramatta River, I love this.

Unfortunately, the Lane Cover River does not have as much support, but there are some groups which are working hard to improve it. Ones I have found so far are:

  • Lane Cove Rivercare – kayakers who meet every 2 months to remove garbage from the river. I joined in early August and we removed piles of rubbish, especially towards the weir.
  • Stringybark Creek Streamwatch – volunteers who do sampling on a creek that is a tributary of the river.
  • Sydney Water faults ([email protected]) – if you smell or spot any leaking sewer pipes or hatches, you can report the location (GPS/Google maps) and they will send a crew out to repair it. I’ve reported in one spot that is always smelly on the edge of the river, and you can see traces of overflow near the hatch. A crew went out to investigate it quite quickly and gave me a call to ask for details. They checked for blockages but couldn’t do anything about overflows. When there is too much water going into the sewage system due to rain, it overflows at low points, near the river. This leads to raw sewage going into the river. To fix it would require serious & expensive work to decrease rainwater getting in or handling overflows better. I’m not sure how to lobby further for this to happen, but please comment if you have any ideas.

Solving Calendar Sync problems on Android 7 Nougat

Recently, the phone calendar on my Samsung Galaxy S6 stopped synchronising with Google calendar. When I went to Google Accounts Sync in Settings, Calendar had the spinner next to it, but it was didn’t spin. Meanwhile, the calendar didn’t sync, and the battery was being chewed through more quickly than usual.

How to fix? Well the first thing I tried was deleting Calendar Storage. This worked for a day or two, and then the problem reoccurred. Next, tried deleting all my Google accounts and adding them back. That worked for about a week.

Finally, by a stroke of good luck, I was looking at the sync screen when I’d just plugged in the phone to charge – it synced fine. A lead at last! Likely something related to power settings!

I’d already poked around in the usual Device Maintenance > Battery > App power monitor screen, and all Calendar related apps where in the ‘Unmonitored’ list so wouldn’t be put to sleep. This section wasn’t the cause of the problem. I finally found the solution, in an additional hidden set of power saving options.

So.. To fix, go to Settings > Device maintenance > Battery > Battery Usage button > Vertical … at top right > Optimise battery usage. Choose All Apps from the drop down. Then disable Optimise for Calendar storage and your calendar apps. Voila! Finally calendar will sync reliably again!

UPDATE – Other syncs

I also had a similar issue with Google Sheets, Google Docs and Google Drive Sync. The same change in ‘Optimise battery usage’ settings for each of these fixed their sync as well.

iAwards Win for CommunityRun / ControlShift!

Very pleased to announce that CommunityRun and the ControlShift platform have won the NSW iAwards in the Community Category.

Many thanks to everyone from GetUp, ThoughtWorks and ControlShift labs for all the hard work and perseverance. I’m proud to have been part of the team to build a tool that lets anyone start and run their own campaign to improve things in their community.

Jetstar Review: Booking a holiday package

With some holiday leave coming up, my wife and I decided to go to Queensland for a warm break from the Sydney winter. After a little online research into Virgin and Jetstar packages, and booking directly, it was clear that going with a Jetstar package for the flight and hotel was several hundred dollars cheaper. The hotel on offer also looked quite good and only had availability for our dates when booked through Jetstar.

Tues 7 June
Went to the Jetstar site. The first time I tried entering our dates for the search, I got a message about the site being overloaded and please try again. I did so, and got to the next page, allowing me to customise flight times and choose accommodation options. The hotel we wanted to stay at had the same room type listed 3 times, at different prices. I had called Jetstar about this earlier in the day as I’d seen it, and been confused, when researching prices earlier. They had explained that it was the same room type – just if the cheapest price for the room type was already full, you would have to buy the next one up and so on. Following this advice, I chose the cheapest price for the room type offered.

I then tried to click the ‘Reviews and Information’ link which had worked earlier when I’d been doing the price comparison. This time, I got an exception message:


For the technical minded, you can see that the link from the package configuration page was faulty and did not include a ‘hotelId’ (bug?). Next, the hotel information page did not check the input parameters at all (bug and security risk) and exploded. Lastly, you can see that the Jetstar site has not been configured for production error messages. Instead, a developer error message was displayed which exposes implementation and technology details to the casual observer (security risk and poor user experience).

Somewhat concerned, I continued with the booking process. Choosing flights worked well, except I did wonder why one of the flight choices was listed as 4 hour duration, but left at 7am and arrived at 10am:


We next entered personal details for me and my wife. We had to try several times to submit the form as there must have been validation rules that our data was not meeting, but no error messages were displayed to help us. We fiddled around with the details we’d entered a bit (different formats for phone numbers etc), and then it finally worked.

Transitioning to the next page was very slow, but eventually came up with a chance to choose seats and travel insurance. My wife was sitting with me at the computer and we decided to choose seats. It was certainly not clear that we would have to pay extra for this. So I went ahead and chose some nice seats near the front of the plane (quick exit seats they were called) and then noticed that this would add an extra ~$64 on to the holiday cost! Realising our mistake, we chose regular seats a little further back. This was still an extra $16 on to the cost of the holiday. We tried everything we could think of to try and de-select our seat choices but could not find a way to do so that would actually stick (you could de-select temporarily but this could not be saved). Somewhat annoyed, we continued with the booking.

Next I entered my credit card details. It turned out there was an extra $30 booking and service charge that suddenly appeared at that point. Not happy but keen to finish the booking process, we next hit the pay button. The site took a while to respond and then reloaded the payment page, showing that there was a balance of $-907.40 with a proceed button below it. Quite a mystery. Had my credit card been charged? Had anything been booked? What did the mysterious $-907.40 mean?

I rang the call centre. Unfortunately it was either overloaded or down and I couldn’t even get to the “Press 1 for English…” prompt. I waited 15 minutes and rang again. I left the phone on speaker and went on with other things. I was on hold for 54 minutes before I gave up and went to bed.

Wed 8 June
In the morning, I range the call centre again, and got through in about 20 minutes to the reservations section. I explained the situation to the customer service person and she found my booking. It turned out that flights were booked, the hotel was not booked, and my itinerary was not sent. I explained which hotel was meant to be booked and she went to talk to her supervisor. I was on hold for a further 30 minutes or so with a few other brief questions during this time. She was able to send me the flight itinerary without the hotel which she did. She was unable to help with the hotel booking, but sent an internal request to the holidays section and said they would call me back within 24-48 hours to help with the hotel booking. I asked if I had any assurance that the hotel was booked. She said I didn’t have any assurance. I asked if there was any way to make this faster, as I needed to know if I should book my own accommodation. She sounded annoyed and said that there was nothing she could do, it was a different section of the business and she couldn’t help me further, just wait for the phone call in 24-48 hours. I did receive a copy of the itinerary for flights without hotel within 24 hours as promised. Meanwhile I had tweeted to @JetstarAirways about the experience so far, and they asked for my booking reference via DM to expedite things.

Thurs 9 June
Finally received a phone call from Jetstar holiday section. The guy said that he had looked into the case and sorted out the hotel booking. Great news! I asked if he could do anything about the $16 seat booking charge from earlier, but he said that it was clearly explained on the site, and he couldn’t do anything about it. He promised that the complete itinerary would arrive including the hotel booking within 24 hours and I gave him my email address (not sure why they didn’t have it from earlier, I’d already received the flight itinerary via email).

Fri 10 June
Waiting for itinerary. It did not arrive.

Sat 11 June
Wondering what had happened, I rang the call centre again. This time, I didn’t go on hold at all and got straight through to a helpful lady that confirmed my email address – it had been entered wrongly. That was probably why I hadn’t got an email yet. She fixed the typo in my email address, and I received the complete and correct itinerary within 10 minutes. The booking process was now complete!

Conclusion
A transaction I had expected to take about 20 minutes booking through the site took about 4 days from start to end, including about 2 hours of time on the phone to the call centre. The Jetstar price was still good compared with other options, but the unexpected charges of $16 for choosing seats and $30 for booking fee were a major turn off. The bugs in the site (especially the validation of personal details without showing error messages) must lose many potential customers. The failure of the purchase process which left the customer confused but charged without services being booked was a major issue. The call centre delays were a time waster and the silo-ed nature of the business between flights and holidays made solving problems slower and harder. Jetstar’s twitter account was potentially a help in resolving problems.

Post-Holiday Update
Happy to say that the flights and hotel worked well after all the booking was sorted out. Jetstar also upgraded us to a better room at the hotel which was a nice touch.

TRON and NORT

On the ultra-geeky front, I watched the original TRON last night, kindly leant to me by my buddy Doctor Dray. Having never seen it before, but heard a lot about it, I was keen to watch it at last. The core idea of computer programs personified is pretty cool, and the 80s rendering is interesting to watch (looks like stuff we did in computer graphics class at uni!). The plot does stretch belief a bit too thin at times though. To get an idea how far movie tech has come between the 80s and today, check out the original 80s trailer and the new Tron Legacy trailer.

Also, at high school, I and my fellow geeks spent quite a bit of time writing games in C like the TRON light cycle game, cunningly avoiding copyright violation by calling them NORT. After writing the 2 player version, we moved on to writing simple AIs so that you could play against the computer. Recently going through an old computer’s hard disk, I found the code for these. Thanks to the backward comparability features of Windows they still run, although they were written in Borland C/C++ for DOS! Amazing blast from the past.. here’s a picture of AI NORT in action:

Buying Books Online in Australia – Alternatives to Amazon

In the past, I have been a happy customer of Amazon USA for technical books, and more recently, even for fiction. Australian bookshops seem to have very limited and expensive stock, so buying online is an attractive option.

Recently some of my colleagues recommended two other options:

  • Book Depository UK: good prices, free international shipping, fast delivery, but at first glance less books than Amazon
  • Booko book price comparison: compares multiple sites including Amazon and BookDepository. Presumably make money using affiliate links from search.

I’ll be giving these a go and posting on the experience in future.

Si-Hing (Wing Chun Junior Instructor)

Last Thursday, I finally took my Si-Hing (Junior Instructor) grading, and passed!

Si-hing sash & certificate

Korean Tree On Life Support

Tree on a drip in Busan

The IV drip was for real, on quite a few trees. Some sort of sucrose solution, presumably going into the phloem.

Korea Trip 2009

Soosun and I are just back from a few weeks in South Korea. We had a good time, with many friends and relatives to catch up with, but also some time to travel around.

IMG_7947

At the start of the trip, I went to the DMZ (the “demilitarised zone” at the border with North Korea). It’s not very far from Seoul, and is only open to “foreigners” (not Korean citizens). It was quite an interesting place, and not a little scary, with mine fields, tank traps, North Korea soldiers and stories of massacres (including one with an axe, over tree pruning) and previous gun battles over defectors. The high point of the DMZ tour was going to the tunnels dug by North Koreas for invasion and the JSA (joint security area) where I briefly stepped over into North Korean soil. The South Korean guards are all chosen for their size and height and stand in a modified Taekwondo stance. Most places we weren’t allowed to take pictures, but here is one of the negotiating table which is half in North and half in South Korea, some protective fencing and the North Korean size of the JSA, including a North Korean soldier.

JSA

Fencing

North Korea

I also went to see some Dinosaur footprints at Goeje. Quite a find, with an interesting museum as well.

We spent a few days at the end of the trip in Jeju Island, which is Korea’s most tropical area. There are a lot of beautiful spots, activities and theme parks spread around the island (which is big enough to need a car but small enough you don’t have to drive for too long). There is a tall mountain to climb in the middle (about 20km return, 2km up), and some pleasant beaches as well.

More Korea photos here.

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