The Modern Family's Guide to Technology to take on a European Vacation

This summer I took my Seattle-based family of five for a three-week trip to Europe. We had been promising the trip to our kids since they were little, and this year we were finally able to go. We had a wonderful time!

Using our phones at the Eiffel Tower

Here are my tech-related traveling tips.

Disclaimer: I am not being paid to write this, and there are no affiliate links. I’m writing this to help me remember my trip, and in the hope that it will be helpful to other families (and maybe even couples and individuals) planning similar trips.

Hardware Tips

Take your mobile phones

Take one modern mobile phone per person. Android, iPhone, either is fine, but you’ll want something with a SIM slot and nice camera.

Leave your laptops at home

I didn’t take any laptops with me, and I was able to do everything I needed to do using just my mobile phone. It was a relief to not have to lug around a laptop.

A few times I had to request the desktop version of a web site, but for the most part, the mobile phone worked fine for both apps and web browsing.

Obviously I didn’t do any long-form writing on my phone.

I suppose an iPad, Kindle, or Android tablet would be a possible alternative. It might be a compromise between a phone and a laptop. I didn’t take any tablets on my trip.

Leave your cameras at home

We didn’t take any non-phone cameras with us. Our phone cameras were good enough for most pictures. (Note: if we were going on a wildlife safari to Africa, we’d still take “real” cameras, so we could use telephoto lenses. But for the kinds of pictures we wanted to take in Europe, phone-based cameras worked fine.)

Tip: Most museums, and even most churches allowed people to use their phones to take pictures of the art. This is a welcome change from the “No cameras allowed” policy of the past.

The well-protected Mona Lisa

International USB Chargers

Take international-style USB chargers, that have built-in adapters for foreign wall power sockets. Look for chargers that have at least 2 USB ports, and ones that are rated for 2.1 amps, because that sort of charger will charge your phone faster than a lower-power charger. It’s also nice to get a “pass through” charger, that lets you plug another electrical device into the charger. This is handy for hotel rooms with no extra outlets.

I didn’t use this particular model of charger, but it’s the kind of charger I’m talking about.

Tip: Many USB chargers have ludicrously bright power lights. Before you leave home, cover the power lights with black electrical tape. Otherwise they’ll keep you awake at night in the hotel room.

When traveling in the US I take a larger 6-port charger, so that I can charge the whole family’s devices from one hotel power outlet. (And in my car I use a 4-port cigarette lighter charger.) But in Europe, because we were often on trains with per-seat power outlets, it was more convenient to use multiple 2-port USB chargers.

Take extra chargers and USB cables and ear buds

Take extra USB chargers and charging cables and ear buds. They will get lost and break. It’s convenient to have spares. Don’t bring a too many, though. If you run out, USB chargers and cables and ear buds are available for low cost in vending machines and stores across Europe.

Take battery packs

Take a cheap USB Battery Pack with you. This will ensure you always have at least one working phone, no matter how long you stay out, or how much you use maps / web / photos. In fact, consider taking one pack for every two family members.

Phone cases

Put inexpensive rugged phone cases on your phones, to reduce damage from accidental drops. My family is partial to Otterbox and Incipio cases, but shop around to find something you like.

Selfie sticks

You should swallow your pride and take a selfie stick. It makes it so much easier to take good group photos. Be aware of your surroundings, and don’t annoy your fellow tourists.

I confess that I was too proud to take a selfie stick, and as a result I have very few photos that include everyone in my family. I regret that!

Proof you can take a photo of your whole family without using a selfie stick. But posing options are limited:

Holding hands

Use a mesh bag to organize your electronics

As any backpacker knows, small mesh bags are invaluable for keeping track of small items. Buy a mesh bag from a camping store (or a laundry store) and use it to store all your chargers and cables. For my family, something that worked well was for me to carry the whole family’s chargers and cables. I’d hand them out at the beginning of a train or plane trip, and collect them at the end of the trip.

Phone service

You don’t have to have phone service for your trip. You can get pretty far just using WiFi.

However, if possible, I recommend that you get mobile phone service for at least one of your family’s phones. It is tremendously useful and convenient to have for maps, search, and translation.

Free International Roaming

If you have T-Mobile, get their international roaming plan added to your account before you go. It gives unlimited data and texts in many countries. Bonus: The plan only promises 2G speeds, but we found in several places we were getting much higher speeds. My guess is that some countries have turned off 2G network access, and in those countries you’re getting the higher 3G or 4G speed for free. Presumably this extra speed won’t last forever, but it’s a nice benefit for now.

Expensive International Roaming

My impression is that other US carriers have fairly expensive international roaming plans. But since I’m not a customer, I don’t know the details. Check with your carrier – maybe they have a plan that fits your needs and budget.

Buying a local SIM while in Europe

If you don’t have T-Mobile, most European countries have relatively inexpensive short-term SIMs available for purchase at kiosks in airports. You’ll need to have an unlocked phones to do this.

Potential problems with older Verizon and Sprint phones

If you have an old, pre-4G, Verizon or Sprint phone, that doesn’t have a SIM slot, you will have trouble using European phone networks.

Make sure your phone is carrier unlocked

If you bought your phone from a mobile carrier, it’s probably locked to their network. That makes it difficult to use with another network’s SIMs. Before your trip, contact your carrier and ask them to unlock your phone. They will usually be willing to unlock your phone, but it depends upon the carrier and the terms of your contract. You may have to pay an unlocking fee.

If all else fails, consider buying a travel phone

If you can’t unlock your phone, or if your phone doesn’t have a SIM slot, consider buying a phone just for the trip. As of the fall of 2017 you could get a used unlocked iPhone 5s 16GB for $125. That model phone would make a good travel phone. There are similar deals available on older high-end Android phones.

Receiving text messages while on vacation

If you are using a country-specific SIM while you’re traveling, you may run into a problem. Any text message sent to your normal phone number won’t get to your phone while you are using a different SIM in the phone. This could be a problem for you, because many online services want to send you a text message to verify your identity. You won’t receive the text message while you’re using a different SIM.

The simplest way to deal with this problem is to cross your fingers, and hope that you don’t need to receive texts while you’re on vacation.

The second-simplest way is to sign up for T-Mobile international roaming, at least if you’re already a T-Mobile customer.

If you’re a customer of another phone company, you might consider signing up one of your phones for an international roaming plan, that lets you receive and send texts to/from your US phone number while traveling. Even if it’s expensive, it may save you a lot of trouble if you need to receive a text message while you’re on vacation.

If you’re an advanced techie, you could consider signing up for a VoIP service (like Google Voice), which allows you to send and receive text messages over the web. It can also be set up to forward your voice calls from your main number to your travel SIM number. But using a VoIP service is complicated. It’s probably more trouble than it is worth for most people.

WiFi, power, and mobile phone coverage

Here’s what I found in my trip, which covered Spain, Paris, and Frankfurt.

WiFi

Most tourist hotels and apartments have some form of WiFi. Usually it’s free with your room, although some high-end or business oriented hotels will charge you. Hotel WiFi can be slow and flakey.

Many tourist restaurants have free WiFi. Ask your server for the password.

Many museums have free WiFi. A few museums have QR codes on exhibits that you can scan to learn more about the exhibit item.

Some towns have some form of public WiFi, but I was never able to get it to work.

Most airports have free WiFi.

Some high-speed trains have WiFi, either free or paid.

Unfortunately there is currently no transatlantic plane flight WiFi service. I think it’s a technology limitation.

USB / wall power

USB and wall power plugs are available at each seat on most planes and high- speed trains. The wall power plugs are European-standard plugs and voltage.

Just as in the US, many airports have at least a few USB ports and electrical outlets scattered around the waiting area.

In Madrid I even found USB charge ports installed on one of of the transit buses!

Mobile phone coverage

Mobile phone service is very good in major cities. Mobile phone service can be spotty in the countryside.

Lunch with phones on a Spanish high speed train:

Lunch with phones on a Spanish high speed train

Keeping your phones from being stolen

Unfortunately, pickpockets and thieves are common in tourist areas of major European cities. Your phone is an easy target. Thieves like to steal phones because:

  • They’re easy to steal.
  • They’re valuable.
  • Older phones can usually be unlocked, erased and sold.
  • Newer phones, that can’t be unlocked, can still be stripped for parts (battery and screen) that can be sold.
  • SIMs can be taken out of both old and new phones
    • An unlocked SIM can be used to charge money to your phone bill.
    • An unlocked SIM can be used to receive texts sent to the SIM’s phone number, useful for identity theft.

You can take some steps to minimize the potential problems of theft:

Take your older phones

If your family has several generations of phones laying around, consider taking the older phones. That way you won’t feel as bad if they’re broken, lost, or stolen. Of course you have to balance this against the benefits of taking your newest phones, which will have the best cameras.

Wear anti-theft clothing

Consider buying some pickpocket-proof pants. If you cary a purse or small bag, store your phone in a hard-to-get-into zippered internal pocket. Figure out a way of carrying your phone so that it’s in front of you, where you can keep an eye on it. Some backpacks have phone pockets on the shoulder straps.

Don’t ever leave your phone on a table in a public place.

Turn on “Find my Phone”

Both Android and iPhone have an optional feature you can turn on to make it easier to find a lost phone. It’s called Find my Device on Android, and Find my iPhone on iOS.

Tip: Thieves know to power off stolen phones to prevent them from being tracked. But the feature is still handy for finding phones that are lost or misplaced rather than actually stolen.

Put a passcode on your phone lock screen

You should have at least a 4 digit passcode on your phone lock screen. In addition to keeping thieves from being able to erase your phone in order to resell it, this will make it harder for thieves to break into your phone to steal your identity.

SIM Lock your phone SIM

Add a PIN to your SIM card. Having a PIN on your SIM is annoying, because you’ll have to type the PIN to unlock your SIM every time you reboot your phone. But having a SIM lock can save you a lot of trouble and money if thieves steal your phone. Without a SIM lock, the thief can take the SIM card out of your phone, put it into another phone, and then charge hundreds of dollars to your phone account by calling for-pay telephone numbers.

Without a SIM lock, thieves can also put your phone’s SIM into another phone to receive texts sent to your phone number. An ambitious thief could use your phone’s SIM to hijack your online accounts.

Know how to report a lost/stolen SIM to your phone carrier

If your phone is lost or stolen, you should report it to your phone carrier right away. If you’ve put a lock screen passcode on your phone and added a SIM lock, you probably will be OK. But there is always a chance that the thief has figured out a way to bypass those lock codes.

Tip: Print out your phone account information (carrier customer service number, account number, your phone number, and the SIM serial number) and carry it with you on your trip. Keep that paper separate from your phone. (Do the same for your passports!)

Keeping your accounts from being stolen

Be careful when you use public WiFi. Just as in the US, using public WiFi in Europe means it’s possible for bad guys to listen in on the data being sent and received by your phone. Bad guys can even set up fake servers, that pretend to be Facebook, or Gmail, or your bank, and try to trick you into revealing your login name and password.

Just like in the US, there are things you can do to make it less dangerous to use public WiFi in Europe:

  • Avoid using “high value” web sites, like your bank, from public WiFi.
  • Avoid visiting “http” web sites from public WiFi. “https” web sites are more secure.
  • Use an up-to-date version of your phone’s operating system.
  • Use up-to-date versions of your apps.

Tip: Before you leave the US, consider turning on “two factor authentication” for important accounts. Two Factor Authentication will make it harder for identity thieves to impersonate you. However, there is a tradeoff. Most “two factor authentication” systems use text messages. This means you’ll have to be able to receive the text messages while you’re traveling, which means you’ll have to set up international roaming for at least one of your phones.

Essential apps

Tip: I work for Google in my day job, so the following list is a little Google-centric. 😇

Google Docs

Use Google Docs App Store Play Store to share a trip itinerary with your family. (You can also share an edited version with parents and neighbors.) An itinerary is a day-by-day list of what you are doing. Put in dates, cities, flight and train times, hotel contact info, and “must see/do” lists. Using a shared document makes it easier to keep the information up to date.

Tip: Turn on “offline mode”, which stores a copy of your documents locally on the phone, so that you can read and edit them even when you don’t have internet access.

Google Maps

Google Maps App Store Play Store is hugely useful when traveling in Europe, not just for maps and navigation and transit directions, but also for local restaurant and attraction reviews. I felt like a local being able to read the auto-translated reviews of all the bakeries and grocery stores near my hotel.

Tip: Download the area you’re planning on visiting as an offline map. That way you can get around even if you don’t have WiFi or phone service.

Tip: Double-check opening hours, since Google Maps doesn’t always list the correct opening hours, or account for local holidays, or restaurants being closed due to the owner’s vacations.

Tip: Google Maps lets you mark map locations using various icons. For example I found it helpful to mark my hotel on the map, as well as any sites I was interested in seeing in that city. That made it easier to plan my day, and to plan what to do next. I could quickly look at the map and see if there was anything within walking distance.

Vietnamese food was a welcome treat. Tastes just like back home! Restaurant found with Google Maps.

Vietnamese Food

Google Photos

Google Photos App Store Play Store provides free unlimited photo and video storage. It also provides an excellent photo search feature.

The way my family used Google Photos during our trip was that we would take pictures and videos during the day. Then, each evening, when we returned to our hotel, we would bring the Google Photos app to the foreground, and keep it there while it uploaded the day’s pictures and videos.

Some hotels had very slow WiFi, so sometimes we had to wait until we got to a better hotel to do this.

Once the upload had finished, we used the “Free up space” menu item to delete all the locally stored photos, which freed up phone storage for the next day’s photos and videos.

Tip: Whenever you pass a restaurant or store or attraction you’re interested in visiting, take a picture of it. That can be helpful when you’re trying to remember the name of the restaurant the next day.

Google Translate

Google Translate App Store Play Store is able to translate many signs and menus. And while many people in Europe speak English, it is sometimes useful to be able to translate an English phrase into the local language.

Tip: Use Google Translate to translate text on menus and sign. Tap on the camera icon in the app.

Tip: Download a language pack for each country your visit. This enables Google Translate to work even when you don’t have WiFi or phone service.

Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts App Store Play Storeis a free group messaging app.

My family used Google Hangouts group messaging to stay in touch, not only with each other, but also with grandparents back home. We got into the habit of sending a few highlight pictures and a short description of our day’s events to the grandparents each day. It was easy to do, and afterwards we saved the conversation as a nice record of our trip.

Tip: There are many other group messaging apps, use whatever one your family is comfortable with.

Tip: Include grandparents in the group chat, it makes it more fun to have an audience to share your stories with.

Tip: If you’re staying at apartments rather than hotels, you may need to download a country-specific chat application to stay in touch with the apartment landlord. For example, WhatsApp is popular in some European countries.

We watched the Bastille Day fireworks on cable TV in our rental apartment in Paris, while in a group Hangout chat with my mom back in America, (She was watching on a live-stream.) Eiffle Tower Bastille Day Fireworks

Google Keep

Google Keep App Store Play Store is a handy To Do list app. I used it to keep track of snippets of information about places I wanted to visit, as well as tasks to do when returning to the US.

Google Trusted Contacts

Google Trusted Contacts App Store [PlayStore] is a cross-platform app that lets you see where your family’s phones are in real time. Handy for meeting up in a large museum, at least as long as GPS reception is good.

Tip: If your family is 100% iPhone, Apple has a similar, iPhone-only “Find my friends” app.

TripIt

I had a TripIt Pro account through my workplace. It was helpful because it kept me up-to-date on the status of my airplane trips. Things like telling me when the plane had arrived, which gate it was at, and when the flight was delayed.

TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor is a good source of information on attractions and restaurants. Its UI is a little slow, and it tries hard to up- sell travel packages. But if you can get past all the advertising, it’s a good resource for finding out what to see and do in a new city.

Inessential, but fun, apps

Consider using a diary app to keep track of you trip.

The text adventure game 80 Days App Store Play Store is fun to play while traveling.

Similarly, Old Man’s Journey App Store Play Store and Burly Men at Sea App Store Play Store are fun quick travel-themed adventure games.

You can use your standard social and media apps while traveling. Instagram, YouTube, Google Books, Google Play Music, and so on. For media apps be sure to download media ahead of time, to be able to use the app while you don’t have network connectivity.

Buying attraction tickets online

Most of the large museums and attractions in Europe have online ticket sales. The museum web site usually has an English-language page. You pay by credit card, and you receive the ticket as an email containing a PDF file. You are instructed to print out the PDF and bring it with you to the museum.

You don’t need to print out the ticket, though. It is also possible to show the PDF on your phone screen. The ticket PDF usually has a bar code (or QR code), and the ticket-taker’s bar code scanner will usually work with the phone screen just as well as on paper.

Tip: Be sure to zoom in far enough that the individual stripes of the bar code are visible.

Tip: Sometimes it’s helpful to use your phone’s web browser’s “Request Desktop Site” mode, to request the desktop version of the web site. Sometimes the desktop web site has more information and/or features than the mobile version.

Tip: Take cropped screen shots of your family’s tickets’ QR codes, and arrange them all together in your phone’s photo gallery. This makes it easier at the ticket gate, since you can quickly swipe from ticket to ticket, to quickly present all your family’s tickets to the ticket taker.

If you don’t know how to take a screen shot on your phone, ask your kids. 😁

Tip: Contact your credit card company before you travel, and let them know that you will be traveling to Europe. Doing this can help you avoid having your credit card declined due to unusual account activity.

Conclusion

Mobile phones are essential for modern traveling. The last time I went to Europe, over 20 years ago, I had to use paper guide books and pay phones and post cards and a film camera. Revisiting Europe today, with mobile phones, it was so much easier to get around, and I think I saw more things. I certainly took more pictures!

If you read this far, I assume you’re planning your own trip to Europe. I hope that this article gave you some good information to help you have a good trip. I hope you and your traveling companions have a great time!

A family we met in Madrid:

A family we met in Madrid

Family Computers, 2017 Edition

A quick update on my family’s computers, as we start the 2017-2018 school year

My family’s current setup

  • Google WiFi
  • iPhones
  • Macbooks
  • Windows Gaming PC
  • School-provided Windows convertible tablets
  • iPads
  • AppleTV
  • Wii
  • Chromecast Audio
  • Laserprinter All-in-One.
  • High speed document scanner
  • Nest thermostats
  • Google Home

Changes since last year

Home Network

I bought a set of Google WiFi routers. I love them. They have worked flawlessly since the day I plugged them in. Best Google hardware product ever!

Phones

I upgraded my kids to refurbished iPhone 6s+s in Incipio cases. They are happy campers. We kept their old iPhone 5s’s as backup phones for science projects and vacation trips.

No more Beats headphones

I’ve been having problems with my kids’ Beats headphones. I had two sets of headphones, and they both needed to be repaired twice while under warrantee. When they broke again after the warrantee had expired, I just threw them away.

I now buy my kids $15 Panasonic earbuds. They don’t necessarily last much longer than the Beats did, but they are much cheaper to replace.

Return of Windows

After a 10 year absence, Windows-based computers have returned to my home. My kids’ school district provides Windows convertible laptops to every middle school and high school student. The laptops are locked down, but have WiFi Internet access. I think Chromebooks would be better, but given that so many students’ parents work for Microsoft, I’m sure the school district felt they had to go with Windows.

Besides the school laptops, I have a teenage son who is a huge game player. Last year I helped him build a low-end gaming PC. He loves it. It’s also useful for his schoolwork, especially for Computer Science. Interestingly enough, it is not possible to install Eclipse on his locked-down school laptop. As a result, computer science students are required to supply their own home computers.

Other gadgets

I bought two Nest thermostats. They work fine, and look great, but I’m not sure I’m getting much benefit over a traditional thermostat.

Google Home. It was fun for a few weeks, but then we forgot about it. I guess for us it’s more natural to search using our phones or laptops.

No more Apple Time Capsule

I noticed that I wasn’t using my Apple Time Capsule, so I sold it. I’m now using Google Drive and Google Photos for backup.

No more Scooter Computer

I had a fanless mini-PC for experimenting, but I noticed I wasn’t using it. (And unfortunately it was not powerful enough to be useful to my son as a gaming PC.) I gave it away.

Possible future purchases

Depending on how things go, in the next year I’m thinking of getting

  • New high-end iPhone
  • Homepod speaker
  • Nintendo Switch
  • Bluetooth door lock.

And that’s about it. At the moment I’m pretty happy with my family’s tech stack.

Team Blue Iris ICFP 2017 Programming Contest Postmortem

My son and I competed as team “Blue Iris” in the ICFP 2017 programming contest.

The ICFP programming contest is an annual 3-day programming contest sponsored by the International Conference on Functional Programming. Functional programming is an approach to writing programs that stresses writing as much of the program as possible in terms of functions. That’s as opposed to the more commonly used imperative programming.

In the contest, people form teams to compete for three days to solve a problem, using any combination of programming languages. People compete for the joy of problem solving in the language of their choice. It’s common for people to use outlandish or obscure programming languages. It’s sort of like the Wacky Races of programming contests.

[Wacky Racers

I’ve competed in this contest about six times over the past 10 years. This year was the first year my son joined me. My son’s got about a year’s worth of programming experience, mostly in Java. He was eager to compete in the contest with me this year.

This year we happened to be on vacation in Taiwan during the contest. It’s hot and humid in Taiwan, but the internet infrastructure is great, so we expected to not have any problem competing.

The contest started at 8pm Friday night Taiwan time. I prepared by buying a 2 liter bottle of Coke Zero at the local Wellcome market, and we eagerly waited for the contest to begin.

Each year the problem to be solved is revealed as the contest begins. The type of problem varies by year. This year’s problem was to write a program that claimed edges on a graph. The goal was to construct a path from a “mine” node to a set of “customer” nodes. Scoring was based on the number of customers served.

After reading the problem description, we had to decide what programming language to use. We were originally considering Python. But because the problem had strict execution time limits, we decided that it would be better to use a faster running language.

I decided to go with Go, for the following reasons:

  • I knew Go and its libraries well.
  • Go runs well both on MacOS (where we were programming) and on Linux (where the contest organizers would be judging the program.)
  • Go has easy-to-use networking libraries.
  • Go has easy-to-use type-safe JSON marshalling and unmarshalling code.
  • There was the potential to use Go’s goroutines for extra performance.

We got to work, reading the problem specification and starting to write the basic program.

I had hoped to do pair programming, but that didn’t work out. The time scale wasn’t right. I’d say “OK, now I’m going to write the structs we’re going to use to read in the JSON”, and then I wouldn’t say anything else for an hour, while I was doing that. Imagine how boring that was for my son!

I also regret that the time pressure meant that I couldn’t answer my son’s tangential questions – “What’s a graph?”, “What’s functional programming?”, “What’s JSON stand for?”. I should probably have given up on trying to compete, and instead used the time to educate my son. D’Oh!

Friday night we got as far as communicating with the contest’s servers and reading in the problem’s JSON configuration file. My son was helpful in monitoring the contest web site and twitter for announcements. He also helped read the spec and serve as a foil for debugging.

Saturday morning we got up early, had a quick breakfast, and got to work. We made steady progress, although as is typical we lost a few hours to dumb mistakes. The worst one was a stray printf that broke the offline mode of the app.

My son installed an IRC client (his first time using IRC) and he enjoyed monitoring the contest IRC channel. He helped other contestants overcome issues that we had already encountered.

By lunchtime we had our first working program, that simply picked the first unclaimed edge on the map. It did surprisingly well against some opponents on some maps.

Pizza

We ate delicious pizzas from the local Maryjane Pizza restaurant, and then went back to work.

By 6 PM we had our final lightning round, which tried to create paths from mines to consumers. It worked, but not very well. Still, good enough for the lightning round.

We spent a few hours decompressing and researching graph algorithms to use in the main contest, and then went to bed.

On Sunday morning (day 2 of the contest) we decided not to continue with the main contest. Our reason for quitting was a combination of burnout and disinterest, combined with the sense that some teams were doing much better at solving the problem.

What went right

  • We blocked off a whole weekend to compete in the contest.
  • We had the contest VM installed and running before the contest began.
  • The Go programming language worked well.
    • The JSON, networking, and IO libraries were great.
    • Very few platform-specific issues between MacOS and Linux
    • Go made it easy to call an OS API on Linux to fix the lamduct EAGAIN issue that caused much heartburn to teams using languages like Java.
    • Super fast compile time.
    • Makefile-less build. The entire build script was: go build
  • My son was an eager, supportive teammate.
  • Our Internet and computer hardware worked flawlessly.

What went wrong

  • Go is not quite the right language for graph traversal contests.
    • Too difficult to develop abstractions for graphs.
    • Temptation to use slices and maps for everything, which works, and is fast, but is too low level. Going up a level of abstraction introduces a lot of boilerplate.
    • Go’s manual error checking adds a lot of overhead to writing code on “contest time”.
  • The Sublime Go IDE experience has regressed since I’ve used Go seriously. The GoSublime plugin seems to have rotted away in the past few years.
  • Using Go disenfranchised my son, who currently only knows Python and Java.
  • Our small team couldn’t afford to invest time in writing tools (visualizers and contest servers) that would have helped us.
  • My wife, who is a puzzle solving expert, was away during the contest. I’m sure she would have been a huge help in algorithm development.

Also, as my son diplomatically put it, “the problem was not the most interesting”. I think we would have had more fun with a more competitive or physics oriented problem. To be fair, this year’s problem as roughly in the middle of all the problems that have been presented. It’s certainly more interesting than 2010’s or 2013’s abstract math problems.

Conclusion

Despite giving up on the main contest, we had fun during the lightning contest. We look forward to reading the results of the competition and reading the other teams’ postmortems. And we look forward to competing again in 2018!

On-the-cheap Machine Learning computer

I recently put together a cheap-and-cheerful machine-learning-capable PC.

Parts List

Highlights are:

  • Pentium G4560 CPU
  • NVIDIA 1060 6GB GPU
  • 16 GB RAM
  • 512 GB SSD

The main difference from a budget gaming rig is that I chose a relatively overpowered GPU. This is because for machine learning I think the main bottleneck will be GPU RAM size. This particular GPU model has a lot of RAM (6GB) for a relatively low price.

The other extravagance is the 512 GB SSD. It would have been cheaper to use a smaller SSD coupled with a traditional hard drive. I went with a single SSD because I don’t want to deal with the hard drive.

So far my son’s done far more gaming than I’ve done machine learning. He likes the system a lot. It’s >10x the graphics performance of his previous machine, a 2012 Mac Mini running Windows 10 in Bootcamp.

Overheating fanless Scooter Computer

A few months ago, inspired by The Scooter Computer, I bought a fanless Intel Broadwell 5257u computer. I set it up as a Core OS Docker host, but quickly discovered that I didn’t actually have much use for Docker or Core OS. Recently I tried to repurpose it as a low-end Windows 10 game box. That unfortunately ran into heat-related stability issues. Windows 10 worked fine as long as I didn’t try playing 3D games. Playing 3D games like Counterstrike GO would crash after 10 to 15 minutes, with a very hot heat sink. Fiddling with BIOS settings and drivers didn’t make a difference.

I guess the lesson to learn from this is, when buying a fanless computer, not to get the highest powered available CPU. Safer to get the lowest power CPU that meets your performance needs. Or just get a fan. :-P

Family Computers, 2016 edition

As the summer of 2016 draws to an end, it’s time to plan my family’s IT setup for the 2016-2017 school year.

My current setup

Phones for kids

The big change this year was that my youngest kids got their own phones. The process went well. I’m glad I spent the extra money to buy refurbished iPhone 5s’s instead of cheaper phones. The iPhone 5s’s have been reliable and easy to administer. The 16 GB of storage has occasionally been a problem.

I restrict my youngest kids’ phones so that they can’t install apps. It’s tedious to have to unlock and then relock the phones to install apps for them, but I like being able to have a say on which apps they have on their phones.

I bought Otterbox cases, which worked well at protecting the phones. So far all the phones have survived. One phone did get dropped in the water briefly, but it worked OK after it dried out.

The T-Mobile Simple Choice plan has worked well for us. It has a 1 GB/month data cap per line. When you exceed the cap you still get data, but at a low speed.

A nice bonus: T-Mobile gave everyone unlimited high-speed data for 3 months last year. I believe the kids used an average of 2.4 GB per month while that was available. But they seem mostly happy with the 1GB / month limit.

Laptops work great

The Macbooks have been great. They’re used for web access and light content creation.

Declining desktop usage

Our computer usage has shifted to laptops. Our desktop Mac mini computer goes weeks between uses, and I notice that I seem to be the only one logging into it these days.

Modest tablet usage

Our two tablets get relatively little usage. The mini is used for puzzle games, the Pro is used for comic book reading, video watching, and drawing/animation programs.

This is partially a “personal vs. shared” issue. People prefer their personal phone and/or laptop to shared tablet.

It’s also a “tool at hand” issue. I find myself using a laptop or phone rather than a tablet just because the laptop or phone is always closer to hand.

Minimal Apple TV usage

Our Apple TV gets almost no usage. Its controller sucks for games, and family members prefer to watch video on their personal laptop or phone.

Our family TV is used mostly by my wife who still likes watching broadcast TV in the evenings.

What didn’t go according to plan

Apple’s hardware releases modified last year’s plan:

  • I dropped the Android TV in favor of the latest Apple TV. The Apple TV works great, but it turns out that we don’t use it much.
  • I exchanged my iPad Air 2 for an iPad Pro. Love the keyboard and stylus.

Beats headphones are low quality

I spent a lot of time this year dealing with broken headphones. My daughter’s Beats wired headphones failed twice while under warranty. Apple was nice enough to replace them (with refurbished headphones) each time, but it required two trips to the Apple Store for each incident.

Getting rid of old electronics

For what it’s worth, Amazon has a good trade-in service that buys old electronics for a fair price. Not as good a price as you’d get on Swappa or craigslist, but zero hassle. I used it to get rid of a bunch of old consumer electronics gear that I’d accumulated over the years.

Best hardware purchases

  • Phone holders for the cars.
  • Multi-port USB chargers for car.
  • Multi-port USB chargers for bedside.
  • Short (4 inch) USB cables for bedside charging.
  • Long (10 foot) USB cables for car and couch.
  • External battery packs for recharging phones.

Plans for 2016-2017

  • Keep current phones & laptops.
    • I will upgrade to the latest iPhone just because I need it for my work.
  • A Sony Playstation 4 NEO.
    • My son is desperate to play the latest video games.
  • Support school-issued Windows laptops.

Keeping current hardware

I’m happy with my current hardware. The equipment is reliable and easy to administer. There doesn’t seem to be anything significantly better on the market or on the horizon.

My kids report that the iPhone 5s is the current “standard” phone model among their classmates. (6th grade and 8th grade). So at the moment there isn’t any social pressure to upgrade. My son would like a larger screen and a bigger battery. I got him an external battery pack, we’ll see if that helps.

Apple is rumored to be introducing new Mac hardware this year, but based on rumors it doesn’t seem to be significantly better for our budget and use cases than our current hardware.

Consoles vs PC gaming

My son’s grown out of Minecraft, and now wants to play teen games.

In the past few years Macs have stopped being able to run modern games. mostly due to Apple not supporting recent 3D graphics APIs.

High-end gaming PCs work well for games, but they’re expensive to buy and maintain.

A console seems like the best choice for us. Based on performance and exclusives I’m leaning towards the Sony Playstation 4. A new version of the PS4 is rumored to be coming out in October. I’ll probably get that.

Return of Windows devices

The big change to my home network this year will be dealing with school-issued Windows laptops. I want to keep the Windows devices off my home network, but I also want to give them access to the Internet and to a local printer. I think the simplest way to do this is to buy a new Wi-Fi printer, and put the laptops and printer on a guest network.

I could get a fancy router and set up multiple virtual networks, but buying a second printer seems simpler. Perhaps if the second printer supports cloud printing I can use it from all my devices, and then retire my current printer.

I think the whole idea of a local network is becoming obsolete. In many cases it’s simpler to assume that every device is always on the public internet, and just configure the device to survive in that environment. The only devices in my house that really need to be behind a firewall are the printer and the NAS.

Slimming down

If anything, I might simplify my home network by retiring the desktop computer and the NAS.

In the past I used the NAS for storing backups and downloaded videos. But these days I use cloud services for both backups and videos. I rarely use the NAS.

I rarely use my scooter computer. It was educational to set it up, but I don’t really use it.

Two thumbs up for DigiPen ProjectFun

I sent my kids to the DigiPen ProjectFun summer camp this year.

It’s expensive ($1400 for 10 days). It is very well run. My kids loved the experience, and they learned a lot about the topics (animation and game programming) they took.

The classes were structured as 7 days of instruction, 2-and-one-half days of final project, and then a demonstration on the afternoon of the last day.

FWIW I am well versed in both animation and game programming. I’ve tried to teach my kids these subject. They learned more from these courses than when I tried to teach them at home.

The instructors emailed me a detailed “what we did in class today” letter every day. I found it helpful to read the letter and use it to prompt discussion with my kids.

A nice side benefit is that my kids were exposed to relatable role models in the game industry, through the many DigiPen students who are helping run the camp. “Dad, everybody has nose rings.”

Only drawback: my kids now think less of my old games: “Dad, no offense, but your [1980’s vintage 8-bit era] game is kind of lame.”

I think this camp would be best for 5th-thru-10th graders. For a self- motivated older child it might be better to spend the money on computer hardware, software and books.

Scanning old documents

That which is resisted, persists.

I’m going paperless in my home office. Over my 30+ years of adulthood I have accumulated 20+ filing cabinet drawers of paper records. Plus there’s a ton of unsorted bills and junk mail piled up.

My strategy is to tackle the filing cabinets first, then work on the unsorted bills and junk mail. My reasoning is that doing the filing cabinets first will help me set up my taxonomy on Google Docs, making it easier to file the new documents later.

My strategy for scanning my filing cabinets is:

  • Go through each file cabinet drawer and storage box, one at a time.
  • Sort docs into 3 categories: scan & keep, scan & shred, shred.
  • Scan documents to PDF files with a Fuji ScanSnap ix500.
  • Store the scanned documents in folders (with the same name as the original folders) on Google Docs.
  • Put the “keep” documents back into the same folder and cabinet drawer that they came from.
  • Make a backup copy of the scanned documents to a USB stick.

My strategy for deciding what physical items to keep is:

  • Keep official government documents like tax returns forever.
  • Keep items related to tax returns for 15 years.

I’ve scanned one half drawer so far. It takes a while to scan old documents. Lots of staples to remove.

At this rate it’s going to take about six months to scan everything. Yow!

2015 Year in Review

Here’s my take on tech trends in 2015 and predictions for 2016.

Personal trends in 2015.

  • I started using Twitter, following a mix of optimistic tech bloggers, economists and comic-book artists. Always something interesting to read. I don’t tweet much. (Nothing to say :-P)
  • Podcasts. I’m following a bunch of tech, gamer, and comedy podcasts. I especially like The Voicemail, Accidental Tech Podcast, Melton, and Guys we F*cked (NSFW) .
  • I switched to a large-sized iPhone 6s+. The big screen is great.
  • I stopped maintaining my “Terminal Emulator for Android” program, because I lost interest in the idea of an on-device terminal emulator for Android. (And I lost interest in maintaining the project in the face of frequent Android UX and build system churn.)

Open Source

I’ve been doing less open-source software work than in previous years. My OSS work has been driven by emotion and “hack value”. This year I haven’t come up with any ideas that were exciting enough to work on. Partly this is because we’re in the midst of a change from PCs to mobile, and it’s not clear to me what needs to be done in the new mobile-first world. And partly it’s because things are working pretty well. I feel that I have my basic computing needs taken care of by existing apps.

More than once this year, I came up with an idea for a project, only to find a perfectly serviceable implementation already available for free or only a few dollars. Each time I installed the existing app rather than writing my own version.

Video Games

I found myself playing fewer video games. I bought lots of mobile games, but mostly for my family rather than for myself. My wife briefly held the world record high score for the puzzle game Spl-t.

I’m still waiting for The Witness and The Last Guardian to ship. I may buy a PS4 to play TLG. Or I may just watch the inevitable “Let’s Play” walkthroughs. It seems like the kind of game that would be almost as much fun to watch someone else play as to play myself.

Hardware

I bought an Apple TV 4th Gen and an Apple iPad Pro. I’m using both primarily for media consumption, although once I obtain an Apple Pencil I hope to use the iPad Pro for some sketching.

I had hoped to write games for the Apple TV, but the bundled controller is too limited to support interesting games. And the development model is clunky, requiring either two Apple TV units, or a long cable. I think it makes more sense to concentrate on iPhone/iPad apps than Apple TV apps.

Computer Languages

I’m studying Swift, trying to decide if it’s good or not. It’s a positive sign that Apple open sourced it. I like the “Playground” feature.

I wish I could use Go more, but I don’t currently have a project for which Go is suitable.

Similarly, I’m impressed by recent developments in Clojurescript. I wish I had a project idea for which Clojurescript was suitable.

  • Mobile
  • VR
  • Machine Learning

Family IT Information, end-of-year edition

Just an update on my family IT use.

The T-Mobile family plan has worked great for us. T-Mobile’s plans are nice for us because:

  • The third, fourth, and fifth lines are only $10 / month.
  • When the paid-for data is exhausted, the plans automatically switch over to unlimited free low-speed data for the rest of the month.
  • Streaming music doesn’t count against the data caps.
  • Free phone calls, texts, and low-speed data in Canada and Taiwan. (It was great using Google Maps to get around Vancouver. I was using many short cuts that I didn’t know about when I was navigating using paper maps.)
  • For the last 3 months of 2015 T-Mobile had a special where they gave everyone unlimited high-speed data for free.

I ended up getting used iPhone 5s’s for all my kids. I had the kids pick their own otterbox commuter cases.

My son was initially frustrated at having to give up his rooted and customized Android phone for the smaller, less customizable iPhone. He’s grown used to it, and likes it now. Everyone loves the fingerprint unlocking feature of the 5s.

I have the phones set up with restrictions, so that the kids can’t install their own apps. I also confiscate-and-recharge their phones and laptops each night. This is fairly foolproof, and gives the kids 8 hours a day to sleep without electronic distractions.

I bought an Anker 6-port USB charger for my bedside table. I use it to recharge everyone’s phones while keeping an eye on them. I have the phones on “Do Not Disturb” mode, so they don’t bother me over night.

The “Find my Friends” app has proved helpful for keeping track of where everyone is, especially for things like picking kids up at school and at bus stops.

We now have 5 laptops: four 13” Macbook Airs and one 13” Macbook Pro. They work great and last a long time. They are mostly used for web surfing, YouTube and Minecraft.

We have had problems with headphones – the kids are rough on headphone cables. They’ve already gone through one set of headphones each. Currently we’re using Beats headphones due to them being relatively cheap on sale and/or included in Apple Educational bundles. They look stylish and work OK. Apple has a fairly good warranty repair process for their Beats headphones.