nathandemick.com

2021 Retrospective

Well, 2022 is nigh. Been seeing a lot of “end of the year” posts, so figured I’d write my own. Unfortunately, my memory is completely shot, and I also don’t write in a diary or journal, so this entry’ll probably be a bit on the short side.

First thing that comes to mind is that we collectively suffered thorugh an entire year of COVID. I have been permanently working from home since March of 2020, so my own daily routine hasn’t changed much. I roll out of bed and downstairs to my “office” for a commute. Vigilance in my own social circle relaxed somewhat with the arrival of vaccines, although for indoor gatherings (church and stuff) we all still wear masks. I got my own set of shots (Pfizer) in April, which was a bit of a relief. All three kids got theirs as well, when they were able. My immediate family has stayed COVID free this year, which I chalk down to both precaution and luck. I don’t really foresee the pandemic getting any better in the new year, as cases are rising, and folks around here are basically pretending it doesn’t exist.

While I continue to work from home, the kids have actually started going to in-person school this year. We kept the twins out of preschool last year, so this is their first public school experience. Fortunately, there’s not as much contention about making the kids wear masks in our district — meaning that they all are wearing them. I don’t think I’d feel safe, otherwise. Even with the masks, we’ve gotten quite a few notices of COVID transmission in our oldest’s classroom, and the kids still bring home more conventional sicknesses. One silver lining from 2020 was that we all stayed healthy throughout the winter, which has not been the case this year.

In spite of health concerns, we did take a few family vacations this year: one to the Florida panhandle in early January, and then to the west coast of Michigan in July. The Florida trip was based on the desire to go someplace slightly warmer and less snowy. Rentals are cheap in the off season, and we reasoned that there would be fewer people as well. Well, there were definitely fewer people — only northern crazies like us would be walking the beaches in 40-50 degree weather. That being said, it was actually pretty nice. A lot warmer than Ohio was, plus nice scenery in the form of the beach and ocean. We also went to as many parks as we could in the area.

We went on the Michigan trip was with my wife’s family. It was basically a chance to go to some beaches in slightly warmer weather. Similar to Florida, our goal was to hit the beach every day — with varying degrees of success. One surprising highlight was a “dune tour” sand buggy ride. The driver went a lot faster than one thought would be safe, so the kids were initially pretty nervous, but eventually got over their initial fear and started to enjoy it. They have actually been asking to go back, so I think it was a success. My favorite location was Tunnel Park.

One bit of sadness we experienced this year was the death of the (almost 13-year old) family dog, Belle. In October she randomly fell over and started seizing up. After slowly recovering, the seizures started happening with more frequency, and finally were too much — she stopped breathing one night while at home. I was sitting next to her while she passed, so hope that my presence was somewhat comforting. As I told folks afterwards, dying at home with someone you love next to you is about as good as any of us could ask for. After a brief mourning period, we ended up adopting a rescue puppy that we named Stella. She’s quite the mutt, but has a good chunk of German Shepherd in her. It’s been a challenge for both her and us to adapt to the new living situation.

In personal news, I turned 40 this year, which felt like a symbolic milestone. I’ve been dealing with bouts of ennui, and some of the things I’ve focused on this year have been because I want to push back on the feeling of being “old.” After running two marathons last year, and not performing as well as I wanted, I tried hiring a coach for a few months in the spring. I think I was hoping that I would get some sort of mystical insight into correct running form, or dramatically improve, or something like that. What I ended up getting was interval workouts every other week, and a weekly running plan that was similar to what I was already doing. After 4 months, I decided not to continue with the coaching, mainly because I hate running on a track. I ended up following the same marathon training plan that I did last year, and had more success at the staffed Columbus marathon (read my race recap here).

I also changed jobs this year, after almost 5 years in my second stint at CoverMyMeds. I think the impetus was feeling bored/trapped/whatever due to my age, as well as stagnating in career growth at the company. McKesson, the corporate overlord, also decided to merge CoverMyMeds more closely into its existing structure, actually renaming their technology arm “CoverMyMeds.” So now that name refers to quite a few more people/offices than it previously did. The “legacy” employees didn’t really like some of the changes that were imposed, including changing (worse) benefits, and management basically said “our way or the highway.” So lots of senior/long-tenured people left. I ended up leaving after my manager left, and I was passed over for both a promotion and raise. I went to a company called Upstart, a fintech company that had opened a Columbus office a while ago. It was my first time getting RSUs as part of the sign on process, which was kinda cool. Unfortunately, my team’s onboarding process is not great, and over two months in I still feel like I don’t know what’s going on, and am hardly contributing. Hopefully things change in the new year, or else I might start grinding leetcode again in preparation for another round of interviews.

Tangential to work (at least in my mind) was paying off our mortgage this year. Work -> money, right? Now this achievement isn’t quite as monumental as it seems, just because the mortgage (and by extension, house) was pretty small to begin with. However, it does free up a good chunk of change to start investing elsewhere. Maybe I can stop being a wage slave a few years earlier than I would otherwise. Nothing like working your pain-free years away and retiring when your capacity to enjoy life has lessened.

I didn’t keep a list of consumed media this year. All I know is that I didn’t read as many books as I should have, and played more video games than I should have. In fact, one of my goals for 2022 is to keep better written records of my life. That way I might have the ability to look back with more accuracy at what I accomplished, rather than guess at the end of the year. I’d also like to get back into casually studying Japanese next year. I have no illusions that I’ll ever be fluent, but I do have a decent base in the language, and would like to continue to expand neural pathways. I’m going to continue to run next year, with a focus on aerobic base and low heart rate training. I’d like to get a sub 3:00 marathon, but am limited in terms of the time available for training. If I was able to train for one hour every day, at my current speeds my weekly distance would be in the 56 mile range. Throwing in a long run day could boost that into 60+ territory, which might be enough. We’ll see what happens. I’d also like to find something enjoyable to do for work, whether that’s grow into my current position or get a new one. I’m pretty fortunate in that I can choose from a sizable pool of different companies to work at, but my problem is that I have a hard time caring about the specific industry that a company is in. And technology for technology’s sake is usually pretty boring as well. Maybe I need to get out of web programming.

Thanks for reading this far. All in all, 2021 wasn’t too bad of a year, considering. Happy New Year, and hopefully I’ll see you all in another 12 months.

· 0 comments

Review: Boxy Pixel Game Boy Macro Shell

Another day, another random video game-related project. This time some products from Michigan-based Boxy Pixel caught my eye — specifically, a machined aluminum faceplate for a “Game Boy Macro.” What is a Game Boy Macro, you may ask? In effect, a decapitated Nintendo DS Lite. Since the DS can play Game Boy Advance games, and the hinges for the upper screen are so fragile, some enterprising gamers have taken to completely removing the top screen on broken DS units, and repurposing them as dedicated GBA consoles. Now, normally these hacked machines would look a bit rough, but Boxy Pixel has designed a replacement faceplate that looks very professional. It takes some design cues from the Game Boy Advance SP, and has a modern design sensibility since it’s made of aluminum (truly, the metal of our time).

Aluminum Game Boy Macro top shell
What you get from Boxy Pixel — the empty top shell.
The completed Game Boy Macro
The completed product. Note that the GBA cart sticks out a bit from the bottom.
Game Boy Macro with screen turned on
With power. The screen looks great!

Now, there’s no reason that I needed to make a Macro. I have an original GBA that I modded with a Game Boy SP backlit LCD, which could arguably be considered the “best” GBA. But it seemed like a cool project, that wouldn’t be a huge time investment. So I poked around on eBay until I found someone selling a DS Lite for parts. True to the seller’s word, the device did not power on, and the charging port was disfigured to boot – I had to cut out a bent piece of metal before I could even plug the thing in. Fortunately, the first result after searching “ds lite no power” proved to be my solution. All I needed were a replacement fuse and charging port from Ali Express, obtained for about $2.

Once the DS powered on again, I was able to follow the assembly guide to complete the build. I had to reference a disassembly guide on iFixit once or twice, but otherwise the instructions were pretty straightforward. The build requires some minor soldering, but it was easily done, even with my limited skills.

So, after completing the project, what are my thoughts? Well, I knew that this would be completely unnecessary for my video game collection, but was just something I had wanted to do for a while. It’s definitely something for folks with more money than sense, as the saying goes. However, I do like the size and weight of the device. It’s the same general form factor as the original GBA, but quite a bit thinner and lighter, making it easier to play. It also uses the built-in rechargable DS Lite battery, which is kinda nice — you don’t have to swap AA batteries. The screen is also incredbily bright and vibrant.

Side-by-side comparison of original GBA and the Macro
Side-by-side comparison between the Macro and an original GBA.
Side-by-side comparison of original GBA and the Macro
The Macro is quite a bit thinner and lighter.

Any downsides? Well, one thing I had forgotten about was that the DS Lite didn’t have enough room to completely insert a GBA cartridge, so the games stick out about half an inch from the bottom of the system. Not a dealbreaker, but something to keep in mind. Another minor annoyance is that the glass screen protector that Boxy Pixel sells alongside the top shell is just a little too small, showing air gaps between the glass and the aluminum. I’m hoping that it doesn’t accumulate lint and dust too badly over time. The last thing I noticed was that there is just a hole in the top of the shell to allow the charging/power LEDs to shine through — I would have expected the option for a bit of diffusing plastic, so that the PCB wasn’t directly visible beneath. Perhaps if I get motivated to open the machine back up again, I’ll squirt some hot glue in there.

These are all minor nitpicks. On the whole, I like the device, and the aluminum top shell really makes it look like a mass-produced device. With people these days fawning over devices like the Analogue Pocket, it’s kind of fun to be a bit of a contrarian.

· 0 comments

2021 Columbus Marathon Recap

So I ran the Columbus Marathon this year. It was the first time I’d run it since 2007, so only a gap of 14 years! I strained my right Achilles tendon pretty badly after doing a half marathon right after the marathon in 2007, and didn’t have the knowledge of how to rehabilitate it successfully, so stopped running for quite some time. In 2017 I got inspired by watching a documentary about the Barkely Marathons, and started running again, only to be stymied by runner’s knee. The knee pain was really quite chronic, but after probably about two years of various physical therapy exercises, I was able to (mostly) banish it.

In 2019 I signed up for the half marathon, and was able to finish in 1:35 — not bad for a casual runner being out of training for quite a while. I had been planning to run the full marathon the next year, but COVID quashed that idea. I ended up deciding to train as normal, then run 26 miles on the day the marathon would have been, just for fun. I did that, and then also signed up for a timed “race” that used staggered starting times to avoid potential COVID exposure. I “bonked” during both those runs; the first was due to dehydration, and the second was also due to dehydration. Dispite that, I was able to improve my PR by a few minutes each time (3:40 for the first attempt, 3:31 for the second).

This year I had an advantage in that I ran a staffed race, so hydration stations were available throughout the course, without me having to carry my own water bottle. I made a point of slowing down to drink at each station, and always chose Gatorade in order to get extra calories/electrolytes. While the strategy wasn’t foolproof (I ran 0:30 slower than my target pace for the last 3 miles of the race), I was able to finish without walking, and got a new PR (3:18).

After the race, I wanted to write down my thoughts of how it went; hopefully in order to do better next time. Here, in no particular order, are some random observations about this year’s race:

· 0 comments

Build a minimal Docker image for Rails

FROM ruby:3-alpine

RUN apk update
RUN apk add --no-cache \
    build-base \
    nodejs \
    yarn \
    sqlite-dev

WORKDIR /app
COPY Gemfile Gemfile.lock /app/

RUN bundle install

EXPOSE 3000

CMD ["rails", "server", "--binding=0.0.0.0"]

· 0 comments

Converting an Apple Newton keyboard from DIN-8 to USB

For some reason, recently I got it into my head that I wanted an Apple Newton keyboard. Who knows how these ideas get planted in ones mind? I have a general interest in retro Apple equipment, but have never actually owned, or even used, a Newton before. But the Newton keyboard accessory is just so small and cute, it has an appeal all of its own. A keyboard is still the primary interface method between a human and computer, too, so I figured I could justify getting one. The keyboards I currently own are fairly esoteric, so a Newton keyboard would be a fine addition to the collection.

The problem with actually using said keyboard is that the connector isn’t really compatible with anything. It uses a DIN-8 connector, which is the same physical size as Apple’s old ADB connector, but is not actually compatible with ADB. Before buying, I searched around on the ‘net and found a blog post by one Jim Lombardo, which showed how he used a 5V microcontroller to translate the output of the Newton keyboard to something that a modern computer can use. I had no experience with using a programmable microcontroller before, but the instructions/source code were all there, so figured I could suss it out.

The Newton keyboard alongside my Model M
The Newton keyboard alongside my Model M. Notice the mess of wires where the DIY adapter is.

Fortuntely, everything worked without a hitch. A little solder and programming the controller got the keyboard working on my modern Macintosh. The one annoying part was the ugly mess of wires surrounding the DIN-8 -> USB transition. I wanted to enclose everything inside the keyboard, and then just have a USB cable visible, but as you might expect there was not enough room. I also didn’t really want to cut/destroy the old cable, even though I couldn’t see myself ever using it. Opening up the keyboard showed that the DIN-8 cable connects to the keyboard PCB via a 6 pin JST connector. Why couldn’t I disconnect the keyboard’s DIN-8 cable, then solder the JST connector directly to the microcontroller? As it turns out, I could do exactly that. I bought some cheapo connectors on Amazon, and they worked a treat. Now the thin microcontroller is stashed inside the keyboard, with only the USB cable visible. Success!

The JST connector connected directly to the microcontroller
The JST connector soldered directly to the microcontroller inside the keyboard.

So, was all that work worth it? Mmmmmaybe. A Newton keyboard definitely a unique conversation piece. I’m sure I’ll get a few comments about it if/when I bring it back into my office. It’s very compact, as you might expect — even smaller than my 60% Happy Hacking Keyboard. So it frees up a lot of space on your desk. It even has an Apple/command key, which is perfect if you use a Macintosh. The keyboard does have a few downsides, of course: no function keys, and no escape key(!). Pretty funny to use this with my (work-provided) Macbook Pro, which also doesn’t have an escape key. It is only annoying sometimes — I map caps lock -> control, and use control+c with vim, etc. The other thing about the Newton keyboard is that it’s actually not that great of a keyboard. It uses rubber domes and in general is similar to other cheap keyboards you would get in the mid-90s. The keys are a bit stiff, and it takes a while to get used to. I probably wouldn’t use it as my main keyboard, but as a novelty it’s pretty fun.

To sum up: converting a Newton Keyboard to USB is relatively easy, and if you have any interest in this sort of DIY nonsense, I’d say give it a shot! I still have 9 JST connectors that I will never use for anything else, so if you start this project and want one, get in touch via the comments and I’ll mail you one for free.

· 0 comments