US (CA) vs SA driving licences

Planning to be in the US for a while still, I figured I might as well try get a US driver’s licence. It makes life a lot easier, and means I get to leave my passport at home more often. Each state has its own testing procedures, and for California (CA), as a foreign driver, you are required to go through the whole process. That means write a theory based learner’s permit, and then do a practical driving test. If you’re from another state in the US and want a CA driver’s license, you are required to only do a theory test.

Overall I’ve found the admin side of things to be far better in the US, and the actual testing to be easier. Firstly I booked online for both my learner’s and driver’s tests. For the learners you can go in person any day and write the licence immediately, but will wait in queues. For the driver’s test I waited a week for the earliest booking. For the learner’s I probably sat about 40min waiting for my number to be called, 10min answering  multiple choice questions on a computer, and that was it. This website (not official) says there are 46 questions, and you can get 8 wrong. I don’t remember answering that many questions, but anyway, I passed.

Also the eye-test you do is amazing. None of this fancy machinery, no, they have a board hanging behind the counter, they ask you to read a few letters, close one eye, repeat, close other eye, repeat. That’s it. None of this struggling to make out vague squares, pressing your forehead up to try get closer.

Example of eye test board – source

When studying for the learners, at first I was a bit intimidated. The material is a 100+ page PDF referred to as the California Driver Handbook. I read it through once, then did some test questions. After getting a feel for the questions, I scanned through it again, memorised some values, and went and wrote the test. I got one question wrong.Unlike the SA learners test, the CA questions are much more straightforward, have more logical answers and were less less ambiguous. The material itself can also be read like a book, and not hard learned like the SA ‘pass your driver’s first time’ style books. And is set out for learning as opposed to the official eNATIS documentation, which is literally extracts from the National Road Traffic Act. The CA driver handbook explains the laws, why they exist, and goes on to give best-practices and consequences of not following the law (not getting a fine, but the direct result).It’s hard to say which is better. SA test makes sure you know the laws better, and sets a higher barrier to pass, but the material for the CA test was better, although the test was much easier. If you are under 18 years old, before you can get your licence you are subject to completing a driver’s ed course at school, and also a certain amount of hours driving (think 50 hours).

The driver’s test for CA is also easier. There is no pre-inspection like the SA one, you merely need to show that you know all the controls within the car: lights, hooter etc.

There is no yard test. That means no parallel parking, no alley-docking, no hill start, and no 3-point turn. At some stage during your behind-the-wheel test, you will be asked to pull up next to the curb and reverse three car lengths in a straight line. That’s as hard as it gets.

The on the road section is very similar to back home, with a list of actions you need to perform throughout the test, and a minimum amount of points you’re allowed to lose, with a list of instant fails. The test is slightly more relaxed, they are not as strict about order of things done. Handbrake never has to be used throughout the test. Push-pull steering method is lenient. You don’t need to check every mirror every time you do anything, but must check behind you when braking, check blind spots when turning, and constantly scan road.

You are only allowed to lose 15 points (compared to 120+ in SA), but the rules aren’t as strict. Personally I feel like it is an adequate test to ensure that someone can drive, and negates a lot of fluff in the SA test (although I understand the reasoning).

What I found funny out of the whole experience is that, besides the points I lost during the test, the only recommendation the tester had for me is that I drive too slowly. And that she hopes I will speed up in the future :)

Overall a relatively straightforward and painless experience, especially having already had a driver’s licence for almost 10 years.

Octane Ratings (in America)

Besides Americans calling petrol gas (and gas propane, diesel is still diesel (when you can find it)), their octane ratings are different to what I was used to. Back home (in South Africa), the standard octane rating at the coast was 95, and 93 at higher altitudes. If I recall correctly my Audi’s manual told me to always use the highest octane possible, but at least 91.

So I was quite surprised when going through our Tucson’s manual and came across the statement:

Fuel Grade: Pump Octane Rating of 87 or higher

This seemed oddly low to me. When we went to go fill up at the gas station in the US, we were greeted by a choice of Regular, Mid or Premium fuel. Referring to fuel with an octane level of 87, 89 or 91 respectively. Another surprise, as by the coast in SA, all you get is 95. No choice.

At the end of the day, it’s actually rather boring. Basically there are different ways to to calculate a fuel’s octane rating, and different countries use different methods. It can be summarised like this:

US shows the average of the Research Octane Number (RON) and Motor Octane Number (MON) rating, which is the Anti-Knock Index (AKI) while Europe just shows the RON rating which gives a higher number than the MON rating – source

If you want to know more about octane, spend two and a half minute’s of your life watching this guy’s video. If you want to know more about measurement methods, RON and MON, check out Wikipedia.

But what it boils down to is an 89 Octane in the US, is actually equivalent to around a 94 octane back home. You also have price discrepancies between fuel grades:

Fuel prices at our local garage

We are also fortunate enough to live in California, who have the second highest gas price in America, after Hawaii. At an average price of $2.80 per gallon (ZAR10.17 per litre), it is $0.70 more per gallon than South Carolina.

Gas prices also fluctuate tremendously within a city. In South Africa, petrol prices are basically fixed, meaning you pick a garage by convenience. In LA, I can pay anywhere from $2.60, to almost $4.00 per gallon! That makes petrol almost as expensive as in SA!

Particle Internet Button with Photon – Web status notifier

After a fun weekend at the Hackaday Super Conference I came out with a few toys. On Sunday I took part in the Particle IoT workshop, where they were kind enough to provide us all with a Particle Internet Button and ran us through setting these up and getting them to do things.

The board is essentially an add-on for the Photon board that can be purchased stand alone. The Photon is what you’re actually programming and includes a Wi-Fi module and runs an ARM Cortex M3 microcontroller. The Internet Button adds an accelerometer, four buttons, a buzzer and 11 RGB LEDs to the mix.Particle Internet Button

It’s powered by USB, and can be setup with just their cellphone app, although I had problems due to the terrible way my internet is setup at home (I have no control over it, yay rental). I ended up using the CLI via USB. This was necessary to give the Photon the Wi-Fi details to connect to the internet.

Once it’s connected to the internet, all the programming takes place wirelessly via Particle’s online IDE. There’re a host of examples and libraries to pull from, so it’s amazingly quick to get a simple program running, pulling data from the accelerometer and making everything flash multiple colours. Particle also has some built-in integration for internet notifications and interactions, being able to control aspects from Particle’s console and elsewhere.

Left: All Green - good Right: white is checking site, red means a site failed - bad

Left: All Green – good
Right: white is checking site, red means a site failed – bad

I didn’t really know what to do with mine, so after playing around with all the examples, I set out to make a notification device to tell me whether my websites are all running or not. I have four websites I’m interested in, they’re all on the same shared hosting package, but separate domains.

This project is nothing amazing, but was fun to do, and I was able to get it working in one afternoon. Most of the time wasted was just due to being out of practice with programming.


  • Polls four separate websites to see if they are running.
  • Shows a green or red light to indicate if the website responded correctly or not. Shows a white/orange light while it is checking it.
  • If a website fails a check, the buzzer tones.
  • Checks all websites every 10min.
  • Can trigger earlier check by pushing button 3
  • If one or more websites have failed a check, you can shake the controller to get it to recheck just the failed websites.

At the moment I don’t get very good information from the website. I basically hosted a plain html page on a subfolder of my websites which contains a string. I then compare the string the Photon loads to what it should be. I want to look into the package a bit more to see what info I can get and differentiate between server not found and other errors.

Online log: left it running overnight. a couple failures. I blurred website address as they're projects I'm still working on. Failure is due to cheap hosting I believe, not the Particle.

Online log: left it running overnight and saw a couple failures. I blurred website address as they’re projects I’m still working on. Failure is due to cheap hosting I believe, not the Particle.

The code isn’t very pretty, I’ve got silly little delays all over the place ’cause it’s working and I’m lazy and a lot of the stuff was imported and copied in. I may update it someday, but you can view it here. I made use of the Internet Button library as well as the HttpClient library (self confessed requiring work, but I can’t complain).

Ballona Creek Bike Path

While some may say calling it the Ballona Creek Bike Path gives it a far more romanticised name than a concrete river deserves, as you get to the sea some natural vegetation and wildlife does appear. And regardless, the beauty I see in the bike path is not in the visuals, but the ability for me to escape the hustle and bustle of the LA roads and ride without being impeded by traffic lights.

After a successful ride along the Marvin Braude Bike Path, next on my list was Ballona Creek. Starting in the heart of Culver City, the bike path takes you 6 miles all the way to the sea, just south of Marina Del Rey where it meets up with the Marvin Braude.

I continued my cycle north to Santa Monica, before cutting back through traffic to University Park.

Once again I strapped on my GoPro and went for a ride, you can see the compilation below:

More info on the route can be found here.