Unfortunately, this CharlieCard isn’t valid for usage with in the system

The MBTA has for years now had available a “stored value” type of card for subway, buses, commuter rail, etc. All very neat. You can go to a vending machine at subway stations and refill the card with cash or use a debit or credit card. It’s even possible to refill them on the bus, but I always get flustered trying to do it, and the drivers are often impatient about it. More recently, they’ve added a web-based system for refilling your card, which sounds pretty handy. But I’ve tried many times to enroll my ancient CharlieCard, only to get an error back. I assume it was because it was too old, and pre-dated when the started allowing access via the web.

Yesterday, I was on the bus and ran out of money on the card, so I went to refill it. I was asking the bus driver “What do I do next?” but he wasn’t really answering me. I failed to follow the correct sequence, and ended up with a paper ticket with $5 on it, minus the cost of the bus fare. Argh! When we got to Harvard, I picked up a *new* CharlieCard, so I’d be able to enroll it in their system. When we got home, I did try to enroll the card only to get the same error message back. Sheesh!

I emailed the support email address listed on the site, holding out little hope that I’d actually receive an intelligent answer. But less than 10 minutes later, I did get a response: “Unfortunately you would have to grab another card at the station. This error is due to a glitch in the MBTA’s system, and there’s no way to tell in advance which cards are compatible with the online system and which ones are not. I apologize for the inconvenience. Thank You”

So, kudos to the MTBA (or their partner) for providing an “answer” so quickly! Generally, at best I’d expect a response about a day later, telling me that the company had received my inquiry, and telling me how important I am to them, etc., etc. And then I may or may not hear back in a reasonable timeframe. However, the MBTA (and/or their partner) get a failing grade for the content of the response.

Guess I will be picking up a stack of cards next time…

Winter Hobbies

During the good weather, I enjoy riding my bike a bit with my free time, but in the winter I am often de-motivated. That makes it a good time to focus on one of my other hobbies: electronics. I had a pretty fruitful weekend (so far!) on the electronics front. For Christmas, I had bought Tyler a “Game of Life” kit. This isn’t the board game you are likely thinking of, but rather a one (or zero, depending on how you look at it!) player computer simulation of a colony of organisms. A grid of cells is represented by LEDs, and their death or birth is dependent on the level of crowding in their neighborhood. Tyler did a great job soldering the kit together, I think we counted over 100 connections had to be soldered! Certainly, the most challenging project he’s put together thus far.

Trouble is, although you can connect multiple boards together (very clever!), they do cost $$ and a single board ends up with very fleeting generations. I thought to myself, “Well, since this is a board with a software programmed micro-controller, I ought to be able to change the delay between generations!

That idea ended up causing me a lot of work (and/or expense…). First, I had to build the AVR programmer kit that I’d bought previously, figure out how to install a driver for it (on my Win64 system), install all the AVR dev tools, solder a programming header on the board, figure out just enough to be dangerous, mod the code, and upload the new firmware.

Happily, this all worked pretty well! Except for the final step. It should be obvious, but I can’t figure out where the delay between generations comes from, ultimately. But, in preparation, I did all the rest of the above, along with re-building the current firmware, and just reloading that.

I’ve posted a question or two in the Adafruit forums on where the delay might be coming from, so hopefully someone will help me out there.

Sign Switcher

For our church pageant, we retold the Christmas story in the guise of a Christmas Trivia game show. There was going to be a person responsible for holding up signs like “Applause!” etc. but I thought to myself, “I have some scrolling LED signs. I bet with a little effort, I can build/program a device to let someone select from a list of pre-defined messages.” And it turns out, I was right! Pictured below is a slightly updated version of the device. It now has a (lighted) power switch, to save battery, and the Display on/off switch has been upgraded from a bat handle toggle to a nice rocker. Oh, and I changed the messages to some that could be used in a sermon…

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So intuitive, even a (very bright) dog can use it 🙂