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Some of you may have noticed that it’s been a while since my last article. That’s because I’ve become a dad in the meantime, and I’ve had to take a momentary break from my projects to deal with some parental tasks that can’t (yet) be automated.

Or, can they? While we’re probably still a few years away from a robot that can completely take charge of the task of changing your son’s diapers (assuming that enough crazy parents agree to test such a device on their own toddlers), there are some less risky parental duties out there that offer some margin for automation. …


I’ve always been a supporter of well-curated newsletters. They give me an opportunity to get a good overview of what happened in the fields I follow within a span of a day, a week or a month. However, not all the newsletters fit this category. Some don’t think three times before selling email addresses to 3rd-parties — and within the blink of an eye your mailbox can easily get flooded with messages that you didn’t request. Others may sign up your address for other services or newsletters as well, and often they don’t often much granularity to configure which communications you want to receive. Even in the best-case scenario, the most privacy-savvy user may still think twice before signing up for a newsletter — you’re giving your personal email address to someone else you don’t necessarily trust, implying “yes, this is my address and I’m interested in this subject”. Additionally, most of the newsletters spice up their URLs with tracking parameters, so they can easily measure user engagement — something you may not necessarily be happy with. Moreover, the customization junkie may also have a valid use case for a more finely tuned selection of content in his newsletter — you may want to group some sources together into the same daily/weekly email, or you may be interested only in some particular subset of the subjects covered by a newsletter, filtering out those that aren’t relevant, or customize the style of the digest that gets delivered. …


How the Platypush web extension makes it easy to customize your browser and connect things together

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Using the Platypush browser extension to deploy custom scripts and actions in your browser.

Once upon a time, there was a worldwide web where web extensions were still new toys to play with and the major browsers that supported them (namely Firefox and Chrome) didn’t mind providing them with very wide access to their internals and APIs to do (more or less) whatever they pleased. The idea was that these browser add-ons/apps/extensions (the lines between these were still quite blurry at the time) could become a powerful way to run within a browser (even locally and without connecting to another website) any piece of software the user wanted to run.

It was an age when powerful extensions spawned that could also deeply change many things in the browser (like the now-defunct Vimperator that could completely redesign the UI of the browser to make it look and behave like vim), and user scripts were a powerful way users could leverage to run anything they liked wherever they liked. I used to use Vimperator custom scripts a lot to map whichever sequence of keys I wanted to whichever custom action I wanted — just modeled as plain JavaScript. And I used to use user scripts a lot, as well — those still exist, but with many more limitations than before. …


Keeping track of the derived metrics that matter on your own RaspberryPi

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We’re living in relatively unprecedented times, as none of those alive today (except the few that were around in 1918) have gone through a pandemic in any point of their lives. It means that, more than in any other scenario, there is a compelling reason for collecting as much data as possible in order to make more informed decisions. Part of that goes through closely monitoring the number of new cases, deceased and recoveries, as many important metrics (rate of diffusion of the virus, growth rate, mortality rate, estimate number of days before hitting full ICU capacity etc.) …


An overview of current solutions and integrations

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Photo by siva kamesh on Unsplash

A while ago I wrote an article that describes how to make your own Google-based voice assistant using just a RaspberryPi, platypush, a speaker and a microphone.

It also showed how to make your own custom hotword model that triggers the assistant if you don’t want to say “Ok Google,” or if you want distinct hotwords to trigger different assistants in different languages. It also showed how to hook your own custom logic and scripts when certain phrases are recognized, without writing any code.

Since I wrote that article, a few things have changed:

  • When I wrote the article, platypush only supported the Google Assistant as a voice back end. In the meantime, I’ve worked on supporting Alexa as well. Feel free to use the assistant.echo integration in platypush if you’re an Alexa fan, but bear in mind that it’s more limited than the existing Google Assistant based options — there are limitations in the AVS (Amazon Voice Service). For example, it won’t provide the transcript of the detected text, which means it’s not possible to insert custom hooks or the transcript of the rendered response because the AVS mostly works with audio files as input and provides audio as output. It could also experience some minor audio glitches, at least on RasbperryPi. …


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Home automation comes with plenty of potential to make our lives easier. But in order to succeed in its task, it often requires you to fill your house with bridges that can connect your smart devices to your Wi-Fi network. Unless you buy a smart device that communicates directly over Wi-Fi (like a TP-Link or Belkin smart plug), odds are that many of your favourite smart devices use either Bluetooth, Zigbee or Z-Wave to communicate. These protocols solve some of the issues of Wi-Fi when it comes to smart devices — like latency, centralised topology and relatively high power requirements — but they do require some physical hardware in between to do the smart protocol <-> Wi-Fi translation and make the devices actually controllable from a Wi-Fi-connected client. The bad thing is that you’ll probably need a different bridge or hub for each class of devices you want to use. Philips Hue lights come with their own bridge, same for Lutron, same for HomeKit, same for Belkin, same for Switchbot, and the list goes on. What’s ironic is that most of these devices actually speak the same protocol (either Zigbee or Z-Wave) but, in most of the cases, they can only control their own devices. Try to imagine an alternative reality where all the ethernet cards can send and receive TCP/IP packets, but you’ll need an adapter just for HTTP traffic, one for FTP, one for SMTP, and so on: that’s more or less the reality today when it comes to smart bridges and hubs. In order to solve the problem, many companies are throwing on the market even more hubs and bridges (from Samsung SmartThings, to the plethora of Amazon Echo, Google and Apple devices etc.), …


The power of Raspberry Pi and Telegram

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You’ve got your smart home fully set up. You regularly like to show off with your friends how cool it is to turn on light bulbs, play videos and movies with a hint to your voice assistant, make coffee, and adjust the thermostat with a tap on an app. Congratulations!

But if you’re an automation enthusiast who rarely settles, you’ve probably grown frustrated with the number of apps you’ll have to download and the number of interfaces you’ll have to master to control your gadgets.

You’ll probably have an app for the lights, one for your media center, one for your smart shades, one for your thermostat, and a Google Home app that zealously (and hopelessly) tries to put all of them in the same place. …


If there’s a lesson worth learning from history, it’s that the course history has been mainly shaped by the struggle between competition and cooperation among human beings. And while competition is a feature common to most of other primitive species too, cooperation is only found in more cognitive advanced species — and it could explain why our species succeeded more than others.

A corollary of this lesson is that the sole purpose of any politician, political movement or ideology built around an ideological framework that stresses identity is to maximise consent and egoistically improve its own conditions by flirting with our primitive instincts towards competition, without bringing any good to the rest of the world. There’s not a single exception worth a mention in history. The trick has been known for at least two millennia (Roman’s used to call this strategy divide et impera, “split and rule”), and if there’s anything worth learning from history is that you shouldn’t trust anyone who stresses identity as a core feature of his/her rhetorics. …


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The New York Times is one of the few news outlets that has so far experimented alternative ways of content distribution outside of paper, browser and native app.

I’ve received some criticism on my recent article on how to automatically deliver news headlines in a readable format on a Kindle. According to some of the critics by instructing people on how to extract news and read them anywhere they like I’d be encouraging “online news piracy”, and it’d be “technically immoral” to publish my article.

While encouraging piracy that harms somebody’s real (and valuable) job has never been my intention, I’ll try to make clear what I consider immoral.

I consider highly immoral an industry that can’t keep the pace with technology (and doesn’t even try to do so), and forces instead everybody to swallow its outdated business model, its high fragmentation, its hefty subscription costs and its complete unwillingness to reinvest that money to innovate itself. I pay for around 15 subscriptions to online news outlets. I don’t know any other private citizen who pays so much for consuming online content. I feel lucky because I can afford it, but how about those out there who can’t or don’t want to? Most of those outlets will allow you to read 3–5 articles per month before putting a paywall in front of your eyes. Some will put a paywall straight on the first article. How can we expect people to really get more informed through the web if we ask them to buy a monthly or yearly subscription just for reading one extra article? If most of the high-quality sources make their best to ensure that only paying subscribers can access their content, those who can’t afford a subscription will simply consume news from low-quality outlets or websites. Then we shouldn’t be surprised by the widespread contagion of fake news and conspiracy theories: people want to stay informed, and if all the professionally curated content is behind a paywall then someone else will pick up the duty of informing the public, leaving everyone worse off. …


Make the web come to you

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Nothing is better than morning coffee and your headlines automatically delivered to your e-ink display

RSS feeds are a largely underestimated feature of the web nowadays — at least outside the circles of geeks.

They’re much more omnipresent than many think (every single respectable news website provides at least one feed). And they empower users with the possibility of creating their own news feeds and boards through aggregators, without relying on the mercy of a cloud-run algorithm. …

About

Fabio Manganiello

Automation, IoT, programming, machine learning, science, math, economics and more. Powered by Fabio “BlackLight” Manganiello and Sneha Divakar.

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