A New Year

The last New Year's resolution I made (and the only one I remember keeping) was to never make another New Year's resolution again. Instead, I have tried to do better at setting achievable goals throughout the year and to not beat myself up too harshly if I have failed to achieve them. This year should be no different.

In an attempt to keep myself on track, I thought it would be a positive act if I publicly listed here some of my immediate and longer term goals for the next few months, as well as some general changes I will be making (or trying to make).

1. Write more

I quite enjoy writing and made it a goal late last year to blog once a week, every Monday. I was reasonably successful but somehow slipped since the New Year1. However, just as with my recent slip back into smoking and the ongoing climb back out, I will have to learn from it and forge on.

Clearly, writing more often is not as important as resisting the nicotine siren song, but it is important to me, so I intend to get back on track, posting a blog once a week (perhaps twice, if I can find enough interesting things on which to blog). I would also like to get back into creative writing with some short stories, songs and more.

2. Record more

Two years ago I had grand plans of recording an album. I still have those plans although after initial success with Holding On, I let it slide as a priority. I would like to get back on this and see if I can make Nothing Left To Take before the year is out. This is a big challenge for me as I find the process of recording both exhausting and stressful. Realising that the whole album feels like a lofty goal to me right now, I will settle for at least getting a couple of songs done.

3. Experience more

My wife, Chrissy, and I made a vow last year to prioritise experiences over things. A big part of that has been to travel more. This year I intend to visit my family and friends in England. It has been two years since I was last there and even longer since I saw some of my friends.

Besides England, I would like to see more of the US (some upcoming weddings should help a little with that) and perhaps travel further afield (anyone looking for guests?). I will also be looking to experience new things and challenge my anxieties.

4. Exercise more

My weight and I have a long, arduous relationship. From visiting a dietitian with my mum when I was just 11 or 12, to running in 5Ks, and a lot of good and bad places in between, I have battled the scales. I have recently been losing that battle, especially with the revived hand-to-mouth habit thanks to a brief return to the smokes. With that in mind, I am serious about making exercise a part of my routine and tapping my willpower when pizza comes calling.

5. Read more

Last year I managed to use reading to get myself back into the gym. I discovered that with the help of a decent book, I could zone out and tolerate an hour of exercise. I will continue that trend and look for other opportunities to read. To that end, I have bought myself a Kindle (it arrives today) and will be returning to my childhood ways, losing hours and hours to an entertaining read. Not only will this help me in my creative writing, but I think it will also help in finding new experiences, new conversations, and new friends.

6. Listen more

I talk a lot. It is one of two things that have been said to me more than any other thing that I can recall in my entire life. I am tall and I talk a lot2. Telling me about either changes neither, but I understand why people continue to feel the need to share their observations on these characteristics.

Contrary to what others may perceive, I do try very hard to curb my talking (curbing my height is much more difficult so I don't try), but there is always more to be done. The biggest issue with talking a lot (a side effect of having a mind that never wants to stop) is that I often don't give others the opportunity to talk and share, which means I listen less and learn less. I have made huge strides in this over the years and I will continue to do what I can to get better at this.

7. Appreciate more

Two years ago I started my own gratitude project, posting daily the things for which I was grateful. It started on Twitter and Facebook, migrated to my blog, and then sort of ended as I failed to find the right place to express it. Showing gratitude is important and I want to continue to do so. However, I found that arbitrarily finding things for which to be grateful turned into a burden, especially on days when "coffee" was one of the items.

More recently, I decided that if I was to express gratitude it would be for specific people and their actions, rather than objects and events. Last year as part of this shift in focus, I intended to start a different take on the gratitude project, but I did not follow through with the execution. This year, I will.

8. Contribute more

The flip-side to gratitude (at least for me) is contribution; doing things for others. Whether this is through my efforts at work, in the developer community, or among my family and friends, I want to do more to give to others and contribute to the well-being of others.

And in conlusion…

I am sure I could come up with more things but this feels like a lot to me. I have no idea if I will be able to live up to the ambition, but at least I have a point of focus, a rough outline to guide me as I make mistakes and share success.

Thank you all for taking the time to read my blog. I realise it is not always relevant to you, but I hope that it continues to be interesting. Please share your thoughts in the comments and perhaps share what 2015 has in store for you.

 


  1. I'm writing this on Tuesday, for example 

  2. a third in recent years is that I have an accent – something that I share with everyone else who talks 

CodeMash 2.0.1.5

Happy New Year, everyone! I missed my opportunity to post last week since I was on vacation at the beginning of the year and then at CodeMash immediately afterwards. This year, CareEvolution sponsored two days of NodeBot hacking during the CodeMash precompilers. I did not do a comprehensive survey, but it seemed that everyone had a fun time while learning a little something about building robots programmed using Johnny Five and NodeJS.

Besides walking around and helping people out when facing various problems with their bots, I was master of ceremonies (more commonly known as 'emcee') for the battles at the end of each day. On Thursday afternoon I presented our sponsor session on the culture we have in the CareEvolution workplace. Finally, we also had an open house on Thursday night where attendees could see some of the cool bots that had been created, ask questions, and witness a few exhibition matches.

#Nodebots Day Two! #codemash

A video posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

We have started the line following time trials. #Codemash #nodebots

A video posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

#Codemash #Nodebots is a lively precompiler on day one. /cc @nodebots_cm @Codemash

A video posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

All in all it was a busy and very successful CodeMash for everyone who helped put on all the NodeBots events. If you took part, we would love to hear what you liked or disliked about any of the NodeBots-related sessions at CodeMash this year.

Hackery: Line following bots at CodeMash

NodeBots @ CodeMash

CodeMash 2.0.1.5, the latest installment of the popular community-organised conference is fast approaching. This time, I will be attending with several of my colleagues from CareEvolution, which is sponsoring the NodeBot precompiler sessions. One such colleague and good friend, Brian Genisio (also a co-organiser of the Southeast Michigan JavaScript group more commonly known as SEMjs) has been working night and day for months to prepare for each of the two epic software and hardware hacking events that will be the NodeBot precompilers. Though myself and a few other friends (many of which you can meet in person at CodeMash) have assisted Brian over the last few weeks, the success of this event really is down to his vision and commitment. From creating documentation to submitting Johnny Five pull requests1, ordering components to building kits, Brian's efforts have been considerable; if you join us to hack NodeBots (and you really should), be sure to take a moment and show him your gratitude.

My biggest contribution to the NodeBots preparation was to organize and take part in a hack day at work where Brian, a few colleagues (Brandon Charnesky, Greg Weaver, and Kyle Neumeier), John Chapman (another co-organizer of SEMjs and the NodeBots precompilers), and I could test and finalize kits and components, review and update documentation, and give some of the challenges and components a dry run in the process. Participants at CodeMash will be able to take part in one of two competitions with their NodeBots; a sumo-inspired Battle Bots competition where bots can compete for supremacy in the ring, or a line racing time trial where bots must follow a track in the fastest time2. My main efforts during the hack day were to create a sample line-following bot and provide some example code as a starting point for our precompiler hackers. The examples for both the basic line follower and basic sumo bot, as well as some other examples for specific components, can be found on GitHub in the CodeMash NodeBots Docs repository. Instructions on getting started are available on the official CodeMash NodeBots website.

Healthcare and NodeBots?

CareEvolution logo

Some of you may have been wondering: "why would a healthcare IT company like CareEvolution chose to sponsor an event hacking robots?" If you would like to know more, please come to our vendor session at CodeMash (2 p.m. on Thursday, January 8) where I will be presenting "We're Not All Robots: Hacking NodeBots, Healthcare, and the Workplace".

The Line-Following Hardware

Before hacking the code, I needed to work out how the hardware worked and build my bot. I started out with the IR (infrared) reflectance array component; an array of six IR emitters and corresponding receivers that will be the eye to see the line.

IR array and cable
IR array and cable

In the image above, you can see the front of the array as well as the cable to attach the array to the controller (we are using Arduino Uno clones for the precompilers). Using the pins already attached3, I connected the array to the board.

Rear of array showing attached pins
Rear of array showing attached pins
Wiring diagram of reflectance array connected to the controller
Wiring diagram of reflectance array connected to the controller

In the wiring diagram above, you can see each of the six analog pins on the Arduino going to one of the output pins (labelled 1-6) on the reflectance array4. Pin 13 of the Arduino has been connected to the LED ON pin of the reflectance array, which is used to activate the infrared LED's.

With everything connected, I used the usage code from the Johnny Five documentation to create a quick tester and verify that I was able to receive output from my reflectance array.

After verifying the reflectance array was wired and working, I followed the reference kit build instructions to create a robot chassis on which I could mount the reflectance array.

Reference bot
Reference bot

I then mounted the array at the front, near the wheels, using some padded double-sided tape (the array must be within a quarter of an inch of the line, so a little padding was required). To avoid confusion, the array was oriented so that its left (pin 1, according to the documentation) was also the bot's left (assuming the wheels are the front of the bot).

Reflectance array mounted at the front of the bot. Pin 1 is on the right in this picture (the bot's left).
Reflectance array mounted at the front of the bot. Pin 1 is on the right in this picture (the bot's left).

The Line-Following Software

With the bot constructed, I needed to tell it what to do. My aim was not to create the best line-following bot ever (that is a task that possibly awaits you at CodeMash), I merely wanted to make something that demonstrates the basic concepts.

The first thing that the bot needs to do is to "see". Although we had a little code to check the array worked, we had not actually calibrated the array. Calibration allows us to show the array the extremes that it is to understand, i.e. the materials that represent the existence and non-existence of a line. Thankfully, the Johnny Five driver for the reflectance array makes calibration easy with the calibrateUntil function.

In my updated code, I also added keyboard input capture so that the calibration mode could be exited via the space bar. Running this with my bot, I was able to drag a piece of paper with a thick black electrical tape line under the array and calibrate it. After calibration, I could see from the console output that my bot recognised the line and in which direction it had last seen it5.

Next, I needed to be able to move the bot based on the line position. For this, I added some simple wheel commands and thresholds. The code is shown below.

The first thing I added was a wheels object to encapsulate the motor controls. Movement is provided by two continuous servos attached to pins 9 and 10. After defining left and right servos, I created the following methods:

  • forward
    Both servos turning such that they rotate toward the front of the bot
  • pivotLeft
    The left servo rotates in reverse while the right servo rotates forward
  • pivotRight
    The right servo rotates in reverse while the left servo rotates forward
  • stop
    Both servos stop moving

Next, I made sure that stop()  was called on startup to ensure the bot was not wandering around aimlessly. I then updated the space bar handling to act as a toggle that on first use stopped calibration and started the bot on its line following quest, but on subsequent uses merely stopped or started the line following. Finally, I added some thresholds to the line  event handler to determine when the bot should drive forward and when it should pivot in either direction based on the value sent from the array.

And with that, my simple line-following robot was complete. It does a fair job at following a course, but it is in need of fine tuning if it is to win any races. Perhaps you will be up to the task when you take part in the CareEvolution-sponsored NodeBots precompilers at CodeMash 2.0.1.5. If you wish to take part in our hacking extravaganza, you will need to register, so be sure to reserve your spot.


  1. which earned Brian the privilege of becoming a core committer 

  2. of course, you don't have to compete in either; you can just hack 

  3. thanks to the efforts of John Chapman, no one will need to solder pins to the reflectance arrays 

  4. pins 7 and 8 are unused as the reflectance sensors for those pins have been separated from the component 

  5. the line event from the array uses 0 to mean the line was last seen to the left and 5001 to mean it was last seen to the right; any value between 1 and 5000 means the line is under the array with the value indicating its position 

Kicking the Habit

This is a long story. I have never written it down before or told it in its entirety because I never really saw it as worthwhile to do so. However, recently I have learned some new lessons and have come to realise that sharing this might be useful to me and perhaps others. So, take a comfortable seat and I shall begin.

In the beginning…

When I was very young, I remember taking a puff on my Uncle Jeff's pipe. The sweet smell of pipe tobacco, both before and after it was alight, and the mischievous nature of my uncle were enough to lure me in. One attempt at smoking it was enough to put a stop to that nonsense and I vowed I would never smoke again.

What the hell did I know? I was just a kid.

When I was around nine or ten and with my memories of early pipe experimentation faded, a friend and I discovered a pack of cigarettes on the stairs of my house. It had been left there by a contractor who was doing some building work for my parents. My friend and I had often pretended to smoke by lighting dried bracken stalks (we never inhaled – goodness knows what carcinogens are in that smoke), but now we had the opportunity to try the real thing. It only took a brief tête-à-tête to convince each other we should take one.

Later that afternoon and with a pack of matches from by the fireplace, we went for a walk down the fields. Once we felt we were secluded from prying eyes, we lit the cigarette. I do not recall who went first, but I do recall that whomever it was, their coughing and watering eyes did not deter the other. As we played it cool, denouncing tobacco as "no big deal", the cigarette was stomped out and we walked home again.

And that was that. For years, that was that. Even though my grandmother and her cousin had smoked around me for many years. Even though my uncle smoked his pipe. Even though a number of my cousins smoked, and people my parents knew smoked, and I often encountered smokers when out and about, that was that. Smoking was not for me.

Social Smoker

And then I started working at my local pub. Some of the friends I had smoked and so, when we were out drinking, I would occasionally have one. I was a social smoker. No big deal. I just had one every now and then. I was not addicted, it was just fun. One, maybe two cigarettes a month. No big deal.

That continued through my early years at university until 2000, my graduation year. In 1999, I had moved in with a drug dealer. This was not my plan, I should note, it just was. My landlord from the previous year had offered me a spare room in this house and it was already occupied by two friendly girls and a drug dealer. The girls moved out within two days of my moving in. They knocked on my door the day before they left to let me know that it was not my fault and that they really liked me, but that drug dealer guy, yeah, he was something else. They had to leave. And so they did. Shortly thereafter, one of the drug dealer's friends moved in. A few months later, everyone but me moved out.

There are many stories from that final year, including some that I am unlikely to share. As I think back, 2000 turned out to be quite eventful for me. I graduated university, got my first mobile phone, lost my virginity (I was always a "late bloomer", as some say)1, lived with a drug dealer, and started smoking.

Before the drug dealer and his friend moved out, there were many nights of watching movies and smoking in the lounge of our house. When you live with someone, you overlook some things in order to have a peaceful existence, and so I overlooked some things. At some point, during this, I started smoking. I guess I felt it was better to actively smoke my own rather than passively smoke theirs. Whatever it was, by the time May rolled around, I was alone in the lounge, in the whole house, smoking.

I tried to quit. I figured I had only started in February so surely I can just quit. I was only smoking five or ten cigarettes a day. Quitting would be easy. Little did I know that after four months of smoking, it would take me years to quit. I was an addict, regardless of whether I acknowledged that or not.

Addicted

Many times I tried to quit. Before I started my first job out of university, I quit. I even advertised "non-smoker" on my CV as if that would somehow make me stand out. Only a week or two into the job, I was smoking again.

I quit using nicotine patches, then started smoking while wearing the patches.

I quit cold turkey, then slipped up having a beer one night and let guilt side with my addiction in the morning.

I quit and quit and quit. Each time, the addiction seemed to come back stronger than before. Like a friend, it was always there when things were difficult, stressful, or uncomfortable.  It could be relied upon. Each time I fell back into its embrace I would be disgusted with myself to the point that I would squeeze harder, searching for some comfort. What a terrible thing, addiction.

In early 2005, an opportunity arose to try a job in the US and so I did. Eighteen months later, after talking about it with some good friends, reading the autobiography of a quadriplegic alcoholic, and reviewing all the ways I had failed to quit before, I decided to quit again. This time I signed up to a smoking cessation website, listened to a self-hypnosis MP3, and started using nicotine gum.

I had my last cigarette on August 31st, 2006. I know because, after finishing the autobiography, reciting the serenity prayer to myself, and having one last cigarette on the balcony of my apartment, I wrote the date down. This was a lesson I had learned from trying to quit before.

1. Remember when you stopped smoking and why

Before, after about three months, complacency had set in. I had beaten this addiction. I could control it. So, one cigarette won't hurt. But it will, every time. By writing down the date, committing it to memory, I was always able to remember when it was and recall all the effort, as well as calculate how much money I had saved. By writing down why I quit, I could remind myself of what the effort was for and why it mattered.

For those first few weeks I was a grumpy, short tempered arse. I could not help it. I warned friends and coworkers what to expect. They were incredibly supportive. This was another lesson.

2. Tell people you stopped smoking

It was important that people knew so that they could be supportive. They could give me some slack when I got a bit ratty and they could keep me honest when I came close to having a smoke.

The nicotine gum really helped with this too. By using gum, I was able to keep my smoke break routine, get a hit of nicotine, and avoid smoking. Another rule.

3. Keep the challenge small

In the past, I had tried to change too much. For example, to avoid gaining weight (a common occurrence when giving up smoking), I would commit to working out more and dieting while trying to quit. However, bundling things like this is a terrible strategy because failure of one tends to cause failure of the others. All paths would lead back to smoking.

Of course, that didn't mean I had to do everything else the same. There were triggers to smoking. Times when smoking would come to mind more strongly than others. All my failed attempts at quitting had highlighted some of my triggers. It turned out that all those failed attempts were actual lessons on how to quit.

4. Learn your triggers

By analysing my previous attempts to tackle my addiction, I was able to identify my triggers, such as,

  • Going out drinking
  • Coffee breaks
  • Leaving the gym
  • Driving
  • Boredom

And so, with nicotine gum, supportive friends, and effort, I stopped smoking. Until I had another cigarette while visiting the UK. I was drinking at my local pub (a trigger) and a neighbour had a smoke. I asked him for one. He refused, saying I had quit. I pressed him and he gave in. It was not his responsibility to stop me smoking, it was mine and I failed. I enjoyed that cigarette as I walked home. However, unlike other times, when I awoke in the morning I remained smoke free.

5. Accept that mistakes do not mean failure

A terrible aspect of nicotine addiction (and I suspect addictions in general) is that addicts punish themselves over any slip or fall, which causes them to run into the arms of the only friend they can rely on, their addiction. It's vicious and if you are not looking out for it, inevitable.

You have to allow yourself to be fallible and accept that you will screw up. Whether it is relationships, your addiction, or some other aspect of life, you will screw up. Changing my mindset to accept that I might slip up but not allowing it to derail my effort was one of the most difficult things to do, but ultimately, it is possibly the biggest aspect of coping with addiction.

By the end of August 2013, I had been almost entirely smoke free for six years. It was great.

An old familiar friend

By now, you might think you know where this is headed and in part, you could be right. The end of 2013 was pretty rough. We had a terrible winter and I was suffering from depression. This ultimately led to me doing something I should have done years before. I sought help and entered therapy. As 2014 drew on, I delved deeper into what made me tick, why I did the things I did and felt the way I felt. It was liberating and emotional and terrifying.

Without really noticing, I turned to an old familiar friend. It started much the same way as before. I tried a cigarette while out with friends (a trigger) and hated it, but I knew I used to like it, so I did it anyway. Then it was just a social thing. Just one every now and then. Suddenly, a month or two ago, I was buying a pack and sneaking around to have a smoke. I convinced myself I was in control. I could stop any time. I could quit. After all, I'd done it before, hadn't I?

No. Clearly, not.

I knew it had to stop and told myself, "Today is the day I stop."

The next day, with five cigarettes left in the pack, I had one more. One wouldn't hurt right? Then I would stop.

I finished the pack and then, I stopped. My wife spoke to me about it soon after my last cigarette (you can't hide that smell, no matter how hard you try) and also, quite rightly, demanded I stop. I even spoke to my therapist about it to see if I could work out why it happened and what I needed to learn to get my addiction under control again.

So, here I am, one week in, with nicotine gum in my cheek, learning how to control my addiction. Because that is all I can hope to do, control. I will always be a nicotine addict, I just hope that I can retain control such that I can live without nicotine. Armed with all the lessons from my missteps along the way, I just might.

I hope that by sharing some of the details from my struggle with addiction in general and nicotine addiction in specific, it will be helpful to others. Perhaps some of you might like to share your own experiences with addiction in the comments. For now, this will serve as a reminder to my future self when that old familiar friend comes calling. I am Jeff, I am an addict, and I have been smoke free since December 10th, 2014.


  1. though I have always felt uncomfortable with the flower analogy 

Five things to love about modern.IE

You might be surprised to learn that the browser testing resources website, modern.IE (provided by Microsoft) is not just about Internet Explorer. Although some of the features are geared solely toward IE testing, some are browser-agnostic and can be very useful when developing websites. Here are a few of the things modern.IE can do for you.

Virtual Machines

Download virtual machines

Working on websites often means debugging using different browser variants. Unless you are exceedingly lucky, that will include older versions of Internet Explorer. While services like BrowserStack are invaluable for testing, they cost money and are not always responsive enough for productive debugging. Instead, I have found virtual machines (VM) to be much more useful.

Microsoft has been making VM's available for Internet Explorer testing via the website modern.IE for quite some time now. You can download VM's for whatever development platform you have, whether it is OS/X, Windows, or Linux.

Available versions of Internet Explorer
Available versions of Internet Explorer
Select virtual machine platform
Select virtual machine platform

Azure RemoteApp

If you want to test your work against the latest Internet Explorer in Windows 10 and you do not want to download a virtual machine, or are working from an unsupported device, Azure RemoteApp is for you.

Azure RemoteApp

All you need is a Microsoft Live ID and you can login and test with the latest IE for free.

Browser Screenshots

Browser Screenshots

Just want to check what your site looks like across various browsers and devices? The Browser Screenshots feature of modern.IE will give you screenshots across nine common browsers and devices. Somewhat surprisingly (at least to me), this includes more than just Internet Explorer; at the time of writing, you get:

  • Internet Explorer 11.0 Desktop on Windows 8.1
  • Opera 12.16 on Windows 8.1
  • Android Browser on Samsung Galaxy S3
  • Android Browser on Nexus 7
  • Mobile Safari on iPhone 6
  • Safari 7.0 on OS X Mavericks
  • Chrome 36.0 on Windows 8.1
  • Firefox 30.0 on Windows 8.1
  • Mobile Safari on iPad Air

Not only will it give you the screenshots, but you can share them with others, generate a PDF, and more.

Site Scan

This scan checks for common coding practices that may cause user experience problems. It will also suggest fixes when it can. Not only that, but the source is available on GitHub so that you can run scans independently of modern.IE and the Cloud.

Site Scan

I ran this against my blog and it took just over seven seconds to return the results.

Compatibility Report

Compatibility Scan

This feature will scan a given site for patterns of interactions that are known to cause issues in web browsers.  The first time I tried to run this, it did not work. However, a second attempt gave me results.