Thursday, March 5, 2015

Limitless LEDs - Not So Limitless

I recently leapt into the wifi LED trend/fad with the cheapest wifi-controller LED replacement bulbs I could find, from The most important take away is that they are not, in fact, limitless, but at their price they may still be exactly what you're looking for.

The Pros are shorter than the Cons, but not because these are bad lights - pros are just uncomplicated and don't require any workarounds. That said they clearly need work - this seems to be version 2 or 3 for them. They need a v3 or 4 before I'd recommend them without any "buts," and before I'll buy more.

  • You can fade them from ~10% to 100% brightness with either your phone or a remote that comes with the lights. Judging by documentation it sounds like this is 1w-9w of power usage.
  • They can be a short list of colors, though they're dimmer than white mode; those colors are also dimmable.
  • They offer both cool white and warm white models - cool is flat white and warm is incandescent-style white.
  • They're programmable via a Web API.
  • If you really know what you're doing you can manipulate them across the internet, by punching a hole in your router's firewall.
  • The lights don't get very hot.
  • They fit a standard 40-150w US bulb fitting.
  • They're about the same size as normal bulbs so fit isn't an issue.
  • Their support staff (maybe the owner/inventor?) is very responsive via email.
  • They don't break easily - all 4 of the ones shipped to me have worked without issue.
  • The dimming is fairly precise, so you can dim to the exact lighting conditions you need - for example low ambient light while watching a projector.
  • You can turn them off from bed, via your phone, when you realize you forgot to turn the lights off.
  • All of the light is projected forward, in a 180 degree hemisphere pointing out of the top of the bulb.
  • The color options are very limited:
    • The color options are all fully-saturated - you basically can have gaudy red, orange, yellow, etc, and no less-saturated colors like a warm white.
    • Internally there are red, green, blue, and white LEDs, but you can't turn them on at the same time except in the predefined patterns the designer came up with. The whites can't turn on when any of the color LEDs are on.
    • This path around the saturated color wheel is pretty bumpy, with cyan (blue-green) being near-white, and yellow being fairly close as well, while red is quite dim, as is pure blue.
    • Internally there are 3 of each color (R, G, B) and 8 white LEDs. This means White Mode is much, much brighter than most colors. To get a well-lit room you need 2-3x the bulbs in color modes that you would in white mode, which further strands the RGB function as a gimmick.
  • If you want to use these from the wider internet, rather than connected to your wifi router, you need to punch a hole in your firewall and discard security. Anyone with a basic understanding of the product can then manipulate your lights from anywhere on the internet. The FAQ on their site is disingenuous about this: "with 128bit encryption access is very secure." Yes... but that's the encryption on your home wifi signal. Once you punch a hole in your firewall that encryption's irrelevant.
  • You can't control more than 4 bulb "groups" at a time, and the groups are defined by tapping a Group button on the remote within 3 seconds of turning on a bulb via a light switch. If you have more than 4 rooms to light, this puts you in an awkward spot.
    • You can apparently resolve this by buying a second or third Wifi Bridge, although I'm skeptical of the resulting wifi noise levels in such a scenario.
    • Because of the on-then-press pattern, it would be difficult to mix and match groups to make up for the RGB limitations.
  • The Bulb Groups are Per-Controller, so the Remote (a Controller) seems to have one idea of what a group is, and each Wifi Bridge another. To use both the remote and your phone you need to go through the Group assignment process twice.
  • You can't use bulbs individually/outside a Group so the Group Assignment process is mandatory, and probably confusing for new users.
  • The wifi setup process is poorly documented and quite difficult. It's unlikely most customers would be able to figure it out. The manual isn't really for the hardware that arrives, nor is it for the app you'll find online (it appears to be for a much older version), and leaves out a lot of critical details. The app and hardware have some issues that if documented wouldn't be so bad:
    • To access the lights from your phone you setup a Wifi Bridge. The Bridge is very confusing.
    • The app does a terrible job of stepping you through the necessary steps, which are:
      • Connecting to the Bridge as a Router
      • Rebooting it into a different mode where it's only accessible via the app talking through your Router, and no longer offering itself up directly as a router.
      • Accessing it via the app once your phone's wifi is talking to your router, and the Bridge has finished booting, and the app... gets around to noticing this.
    • When the Bridge switches on, it does something really strange. It registers with the DHCP provider on your router ~100 times, consuming all the dynamic IPs on it, before finally settling on one. This can take several minutes, during which it's unavailable. If you're a new user with no documentation trying to figure out what you're even supposed to be doing here, this period of unavailability will lead you to believe it's simply not working.
    • Any mistake with the setup process requires Reset to Hardware Defaults on the Bridge, which is a very hard to access recessed button needing a paperclip - I don't know about you but I don't own paper clips. I had to press this button ~10 times to sort out exactly what ways the Bridge was failing. The button should be a simple button.
  • The API is a bit of a false lure. Things like Disco Modes and color control give the impression the lights hold a lot of potential waiting to be unlocked by usage of the API, but it turns out those limited colors and modes are in the actual bulbs, and can't be modified without the manufacturer coming out with better lights that have solved these problems and thought this through.
All in all I am still glad I bought these. I have wirelessly dimmable lights in my bedroom and living room. That means I can get just the right light level for watching TV or work. I can increasingly dim the lights when it's getting time to pass out, which surprisingly works better at getting me to sleep on time than it seems it should. And I can tap a button on my phone to turn all the lights off when I'm about to fall asleep, or, if I wake up and realize I didn't turn them off, I don't need to get up to resolve that. Finally, my power usage is down from 60w to at most 9w on each bulb - less when dimmed.

I likely won't be buying more Limitless LEDs until the following issues are fixed:
  • Lights whose individual LEDs (both white and color) can be manipulated by the API, instead of fixed patterns.
  • A wireless bridge that can handle infinite, or practically-infinite, lights, individually, Groups should be a layer on top of that handled in outside software, not something I'm locked into when setting up the lights. If I want to group the Living Room and Kitchen for now and later the Kitchen and Garage, I should be able to, even if those rooms each have 4 bulbs.
  • The Bridge setup process should be at least documented and ideally, greatly improved.
Some nice to haves:
  • It would be nice if there were more models. In particular if the bulb can do 9w 800 lumens, why not offer one that can do 27w 2400 lumens? They're dimmable so it's not like that brightness level would be mandatory for buying the bulb.
  • It'd be nice if there were LED strips, omni bulbs (not just the current 180), and spotlights that spoke the same protocol as the rest of the bulbs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The American Mafia

When people think "Mafia" they think men in suits firing machine guns, but the real mafia is about making millions by establishing a pseudo-government which collects taxes in the form of bribes, corruption, over-priced rent and protection payments. Italy's mafia, Afghanistan's Taliban, and Pakistan's ISI all operate this way, and by this definition, the US has a mafia of its own, that occupies a portion of Wall Street.

The good news is some portion of US mafia went to prison. The bad news is they got right back out, seemingly due to mistakes made by the government prosecution, maybe due to bribes. More bad news: The case shows clear evidence of the convicts bribing government officials, including former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson for $100,000, in that case in exchange for $1.5million of New Mexico's money.

There are too many schemes employed by those in the trial to cover here - see the article - but generally, someone would hire them to invest money, and they'd take a large chunk of it for themselves. To keep states hiring them, they'd bribe politicians - and by bribe I mean fund their SuperPACs, which the US defines as legal and not a bribe.

The list of things we need to change to stop this secondary government to operate is pretty long. That politicians require campaign funding (bribes) to operate is a major factor. Another is the way US states continue to award contracts worth more than $1 million to a single vendor, in a confused belief it will allow them to bid it out and get the best deal. Inevitably any large contract from a single provider leads to incredible corruption, because even a .1% kickback on that sort of contract is worth 10s of thousands of dollars, enough to get a lot of iffy people paid off.

Maybe the worst part is that everyone involved in all the schemes uncovered continue to operate banks and other parts of Wall Street - they didn't lose their jobs and once they escape prison they're often promoted or given a bonus. The author of this article is clearly frustrated when he proposes we have them all killed. But we should at least ban them from the Finance industry, politics, and lobbying.

Rolling Stone: The Scam Wall Street Learned from the Mafia

Bloomberg: Bankers Win Reversal of Convictions for Bid Rigging

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Adventures in E-Voting Precede State Experiments

Although voting for Congress remains behind the times, the Academy Awards began experimenting with e-voting in 2013. Unfortunately, it didn't go very well. They set the security on it so high that many members couldn't figure out how to prove who they were and login. Then again, the median age of its 5765 members is 62.

Your average Oscars E-Voter doing the deed

Despite some older members predicting most people would give up and not vote, it actually turned out to be their highest voter turnout on record. The 2014 e-voting process went by without complaint, so they appear to have fixed the below issues.

The e-voting process involved a 6 step process:

1) Pay your dues, which ties your credit card and that verification system to you.

2) Receive a Voter ID number in the mail, which adds your address to the level of verification.

3) User your Voter ID to go online and setup a Voter Password, with numerous annoying requirements like caps, special characters, etc  You also enter your cellphone number.

4) When the voting period opens, login with your Member Password, then your Voter Password.

5) Once you enter the second password, you receive a text with a security code. You then type that in, and finally, can vote. This would be the final step, but it seems most members with trouble forgot their second password.

6) The reset password process was very badly designed. To get a reset you had to wait about 24hrs.

On step 3, it's long been shown complexity requirements tend not to make passwords more secure. Only long-length requirements like 12+ chars with no max length have been shown to significantly improve security of a password; complexity requirements usually encourage more patterned passwords, which make them easier to hack, and more passwords forgotten.

In step 3, they also complained that the password box is a standard password box, with asterisks hiding what you're typing. I have to say I agree. The idea that most people are passwording into things in someplace where someone could be looking over their shoulder, stealing their password is a poor assumption. Hiding passwords should be opt-in, not assumed, and if you want a long, complex password - you've gotta make it easy to see that long, complex gobbledygood you're typing in.

Step 2, where the voter is notified by paper mail of an electronic voting system seems to be an unnecessary inconvenience; if they were texted or emailed a link, they could skip this and potentially the second password, at least if you could reasonably believe/verify the person you were texting/emailing was the right person.

But, by involving their physical address, the Oscars' system provides some insight into what would be involved in e-voting in local and federal elections, since legally all that's required to prove you're you in US elections is your address. A ballot is sent to your home, or you provide your address at a polling place, good enough - we believe you. Given the low legal burden, this e-voting system - with some simplifications - could plausibly be used in US elections. Worth watching to see if they cope with any fraud or hacks.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why Conservatives often see Liberals and Scientists as Heretics

A little food for thought, on why Conservatives often see Liberals and scientists as heretics.

Two years ago, arsenic was not in the news. Today, almost every day there's a new article about dangerous arsenic levels making something poisonous and unsafe:

You can hear conservatives reading this and going, "Really, liberals/scientists? You're saying rice is bad too? Why not just ban everything?" And why now, and why so suddenly - how was rice fine a year ago but TODAY it's dangerous?

So now let's walk back from the bristling irritation of reading a headline, to what happened.

The FDA and USDA have been avoiding action on arsenic for decades because the agricultural industry has been lobbying to delay it.

It's not that arsenic suddenly became poisonous, or suddenly appeared in people's drinking water and food - it's that it's always been in fertilizer, we've been using way too much of it, and arsenic levels have been steadily rising. Worse, the agricultural lobby has been bribing politicians and suing to delay telling the basic truth: That too much arsenic is poisonous, and it's in a lot of agricultural water because of these excessive uses of fertilizer.

OK, but aren't you, liberals and scientists, once again, anti-business? Aren't you accusing businesses of being evil? This sure sounds like some anti-corporation conspiracy theory. We're tired of that, say conservatives. Well - sort of.

Rice is cheap, so it's made cheaply: with way, way too much fertilizer, and in many cases, with waste water which contains even more arsenic from fertilizer or fracking and drilling. You'd never grow food for yourself that way, but these growers know you aren't checking on them when you buy a bag of rice, and they know you will buy that other bag of rice if they don't have the lowest price. So, they can do this to you, or go out of business.

So it's not that these businesses are evil. It's that they're slaves to our poor market forces. The Invisible Hand of Capitalism works best with a consumer that considers EVERY quality of the product before buying. But most consumers are very poorly informed about what they're purchasing, other than price - and a blind consumer hurts the market. Arsenic in drinking water, foods, and rice, is a classic case of blind buyers shaking all the goodly growers out because their prices are too high, and leaving only the ones who over-fertilize behind to dominate the market.

Of course there is SOME evil here you can't avoid: When agriculture lobbies the government to keep them from saying they're poisoning you and your children, it's hard to paint that in a good light. It's just plain evil.

So, from someone who leans left and prefers science over popular politics, if you happen to lean right, consider the case of arsenic next time you hear liberals upset over the latest thing in the news. Sometimes they really are being idiots. Sometimes they're just forcing society to finally be honest.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why Trader Joe's Decision to Cut Part-Time Worker's Healthcare is the Right Thing to Do

Trader Joe's is generally considered one of the best national grocers in terms of how they treat their workers. Historically if you worked just 18 hours a week there, you'd get full benefits. Under Obamacare, covering these workers is not required, and Trader Joe's has cut the health benefits of part-time workers. Normally this would be a political football for the right-wing political sphere, saying Obamacare has caused a reduction in care. But there's more to the story.

Trader Joe's is providing these workers a $500 healthcare stipend instead, and asking workers to go and get care on their own. This means not only do workers get healthcare - even if they only work a few hours, nevermind 18 - they also get it decoupled from Trader Joe's, meaning they can leave for another company, start their own business - whatever they elect to do, all with no interruption in healthcare, and more importantly, all without the scary prospect of losing their care altogether for leaving.

Depending on your income the subsidies built-in to Obamacare may get a TJs part-time worker healthcare for as low as $27/month, certainly within the $500 stipend. Obamacare has unquestionably been pivotal in this new policy.

Trader Joe's has taken an unusually generous benefits plan and made it even more generous - by making it easier for their workers to leave for that next stepping-stone.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

When Poverty Kills Children

“I just shot my daughter and shot all my grandkids. And I’ll be sitting on my steps, and when you get here, I’m going to shoot myself.” -Multiple Shooting Deaths in Gilchrist County

A grandfather calls the police, and they arrive to his killing his daughter, his grandchildren, and himself. All with a gun purchased on the black market, after he and his family tumbled for years at financial rock bottom.

So much of what's wrong in the US at play here.

The Community is Enough
The community says they all saw the suffering but no one could have seen this coming; and yet, upon further reading, they're so predictable any reasonable person would feel disgraced. The Miami Herald documented 500 children dying prematurely in the state of Florida alone in a single year under similar, desperate family circumstances.

Pull Yourself Up
There's a belief today that the poor lack work ethic, and if their life is garbage, that's deserved - it's their motivation to pull themselves up. But there's a difference between motivating people, and desperation. Leaving people to struggle desperately and bitterly turns them against the system, others, and themselves - sometimes, as terrible as it plays itself out here. Other times, as petty crimes, theft, and emergency room visits after it's too late. We do need better motivation in the system, but risk is a motivator; despair is not. We need opportunity. And we need to stop dismissing government assistance out of hand, especially when studies show programs' overall monetary cost is cheaper than proceeding without them.

Tough on Crime
Americans favor exactly one intervention for the poor, and that's prison. Multiple members of this family spent time in prison, and it lead to even more hardship, in part due to a lack of job opportunity. More significant interventions were made available by child services, like therapy and counseling, but all of them were optional. The police were called repeatedly, but cops are meant to intervene in situations of imminent harm - they aren't trained counselors. We send the wrong people to domestic violence situations, and they lack any appropriate remedies at their disposal.

Don't Let the Government Have a List of Gun Owners
There's a subculture in America that believes any gun registration will allow the government to track down every gun owner in some hellish coming act of tyranny; this leads to private, undocumented sales, and laws pushing for legalization of those sales, all wrapped in a seriously misled idea of patriotism. Today, because of this broken belief system, every state in the union has at least one way to legally buy a gun without review or documentation. One of the strangest roots of this belief system is, "Criminals will get guns anyway," a strangely self-fulfilling prophecy. It's used to dismiss the obvious harm of acting on this broken belief. This is a cultural problem first, and a legal problem second.

Sneering is No Way to Build a Stronger America
We need to end this American love for desperation and suffering, justified by a hatred for "entitlements." Hatred of the other is a great campaign slogan but there is no public benefit. We need a system that really motivates and provides people with the opportunity to work and share their talents with the world, and that means first identifying those motivators, and mitigating desperation with a helping hand. And we need to reform our punishment-only prison/rehabilitation system, with real interventions.

Multiple articles and reporters collected different portions of the facts of this story - I've linked several above to their most pertinent reports, and below are 2 more which document a bit more.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Your Couch Is Giving You Cancer - Our Stupid World

In 1953, a company that makes flame-retardant scored a win when the US passed a law requiring it in children's pajamas. That turned out to be a bad idea when that chemical was associated with inhibited brain development and cancer, so in 1978 it was banned from children's pajamas.

Desperate to keep their business going, the company that made it then bribed their way into a California state law to require it in furniture. Unfortunately, most US furniture manufacturers responded by including it in all furniture, to avoid the fussy complication of making special California-only furniture.

A well-meaning chemist, Arlene Blum, began to fight this chemical manufacturer in the 1970s, and has been fighting for FORTY YEARS to get this stupid chemical out of the seat you're sitting on right now. At every turn the company has lobbied and bribed their way into keeping the law on the books, and the chemical has remained.

Finally, in California, a win for Arlene Blum. The chemical is no longer required. Strangely though, it is still not banned, in a partial-win for the lobbyists.

Fire-Retardants in Furniture: Manufacturers Adjust - KPCC

And they're suing to stop the law from going into effect - thankfully so far, losing:

Judge Tosses Challenge to Flame Retardant Rules - Chicago Tribune

Unfortunately that means all your furniture is probably still cancerous, including what you're sitting on right now:

Cancer-Linked Flame Retardants Eased Out of Furniture in 2014 - Scientific American

TDCPP Flame Retardant - Wiki

In the meantime you can look (hard) for furniture that explicitly contains no flame retardants. Buying such a piece of furniture was actually illegal in California until Jan 2014, but is finally legal here as well.

You can see Arlene Blum here fighting paid lobbyist dirtbags:

California Flame Retardant Law Sparks Debate - PBS

We all owe Arlene Blum a tremendous thank you. Instead of posters of athletes on their walls, kids should have posters of Arlene Blum.

Arlene Blum: Current Work - Wiki