Bring back "Ramshackle Rock"

The Groove music player on Windows 10 is getting better with each release. It now has a feature that creates playlists for you based on your record collection. It used to have a fantastic list for me called "Ramshackle Rock" which had picked a few riotous sounds from my collection. 

But now it has vanished. And I wish I could remember the tracks that were on it. Sad face. 

However, there are some new playlists popping up all the time and some of them are good too (at least from my point of view). What I really want (are you listening Groove folks?) is a quick way of taking one of your neato playlists and persisting it. It turns out that I can select all the tracks from "Now Playing" and then save them into a list, but you have to know that you need to do this. 

Oh, and all of the albums in the image above are awesome. If you've not heard them, your're seriously missing out. 

A touch of trouble

So the Windows 10 upgrade on my Sony Ultrabook worked fine. Rather too well. Some time back I had to disable the touch screen on this device because the hardware has failed somewhere and detects two finger presses all the time. Which made controlling the machine rather tricky. 

Anyhoo, of course the Windows 10 upgrade turned the touch screen back on. Thanks for that. 

However, I've discovered that if I press down lots of points on the screen it kind of overloads and stops recognising things, so I can use the keyboard and mouse. But it did make some interesting gymnastics as I kept as many fingers as I could on the screen while opening Device Manager and disabling the touch screen driver. 

It works fine now. Kudos to Microsoft for a very smooth upgrade on both the ultrabook and my twisty tablet. 

Make the most of the Windows 10 Upgrade

The Windows 10 free upgrade stops being free on Friday 29th July. Which means that, what with my flair for forward planning, I've been digging out old machines and upgrading them this week because it would be daft not to. One of the machines that I found was my Packard Bell twisty tablet of a few years ago; Still works fine, but I'd forgotten the password to log in. The machine was keyed to my Microsoft account and I've changed my password several times since I last used it. And I can't for the life of me remember the old ones.

Idiot me (although actually a knack for forgetting old passwords is a useful thing to acquire as it stops you using the old one by mistake). Anyhoo, I found a YouTube video that showed a nifty way to break back into a Windows 8 system. The video was a good start, but I had a few issues. For a start, when you run the command prompt via your USB booted copy of Windows 8 the system drive you have to tamper with might not be drive C: (in my case it was drive e:).

Another problem is that the hack doesn't seem to let you fix the passwords of accounts linked to Microsoft. But you can create new local accounts, including ones with administrator privileges, which gets you going. The wise amongst you are probably saying "Why didn't you just attach the machine to a network and let the passwords catch up?". Well, two answers. Firstly I think the mechanism has changed since my machine last ran. And secondly the clock was placing the machine somewhere in 2013, which meant that all the secure sockets stuff was broken. And of course to put the clock right I had to log in.....

The machine is presently at 92% of the upgrade process. If you've got machines that you want to keep useful I'd advise having a quick check around the house to see if you can get them going and update them. I'm probably going to pass my machines on once upgraded, but they'll be a lot more useful if they are running Windows 10. 

Robt Wars is Back. Yay!

What with all the sub-woofer excitement yesterday I totally forgot to mention that Robot Wars is now back on the telly. Big, and brash and bolder than ever. The competition never really went away, it just stopped being on the telly for some reason. 

Which means that all the robots that we know and love of old, plus a few new ones, are now back with a whack. We watched the first episode yesterday and it was as wonderful as I remember. Well worth seeking out on iPlayer.

Make your sub-woofer sound better

A sub-woofer is a great way to give your sound system a bit more "oomph". I'm a great believer in having a sound like the house is falling down if the movie shows a house falling down. Ditto cars, rockets etc etc. 

Today I discovered something about sub-woofers which I thought I'd pass on. On the back of the sub-woofer you frequently find a tiny little switch labelled "phase". This is changes whether the speaker moves in or out when the sub-woofer makes a noise. It's important. If the sub-woofer is moving in when all the other speakers in the room are moving out the noise it makes will tend to subtract from the sound rather than add to it. 

So, you might think that you just leave the phase switch in the standard setting and never touch it. However, there's a bit more to it than just speaker cones pulling and pushing. Different positions of the sub-woofer will introduce different phase distortions as the various sounds all bounce around the room. So it might be that flicking the switch will make the bass sound better. It did when I flicked the switch on mine, and it's certainly worth a try. 

Birthday Moth Hunt

Saturday, and it's my birthday. And I'm up town with an unfamiliar lens. It happens. 

Anhyoo, the weather is rather nice and I decide to seek out a few moths. The "Moth for Amy" art initiative celebrates Hull lass Amy Johnson who flew a Gypsy Moth plane all the way to Australia, the first female to do this.

There are lots of moths scattered around the Hull area, including a "Stealth Moth" almost directly underneath my office window at the university campus. I've no idea which moth this is to be honest, but it looks lovely. And it was a nice test for my lens. 

Here's another one.  What with the photography, the cake and the presents I had a rather awesome day. Which was very nice. 

Light Musings

So, I'm having lunch in the library cafe at the university (a most excellent place) and I happen to glance at the ceiling. And it confuses me. I looked at the arrangement of the lights and it seems that the person laying the black trunking to the light fittings has done things in a sub-optimal way. It seems to me that if the "cross piece" was one section further to the right, the wiring could have been a bit shorter and there would have been no need for the connections running across to the near and the far lights. 

If you see what I mean. 

Anyhoo, I pondered this for a while and came up with two possible explanations:

  • the fittings were originally put in the wrong place and then fixed.
  • Somebody decided that it was artistically more valid if there was a "fork" of cables. 

Personally, I really hope its the "artistically valid" explanation. 

Go See Ghostbusters

I remember Ghostbusters first time around. Most enjoyable (although the sequel was a bit rubbish). Now we have a new one. And it's awesome. I don't think I'm giving too much away by noting that the ghostbusting crew are a bit different this time around, but the film is much the better for that. Otherwise it would just be a retread. The dialog is whip smart and everyone plays their part really, really well. 

Go see. And I hope they make a sequel. And if they do I think it will be good this time.

Windows 10 Mobile Mostly Rocks

True confession. This last year or so I've been packing an iPhone 6 and Apple Watch. As a Windows Phone lover I'm not particularly proud of this, but I reckon that needs must. I like the iPhone because everything just works, and you can do everything. 

But, when we went to Chicago on holiday I took along my Lovely Lumia of old. I wanted to use it as a mobile hotspot. T-Mobile do this tourist plan which gives you lots of data over 30 days for only 30 dollars. For some reason they fail to mention in the snazzy adverts that you also have to pay 20 dollars for a sim to load the plan on to, but hey, 50 dollars for 30 days of mobile internet abroad, I'll pay that. So I bought the sim after a bit of muttering in the store, popped it in the Lumia 1520 and off we went. Before I'd left I'd put the latest build on Windows 10 on the phone and it makes a really good mobile hotspot, worked a treat. 

And then I found myself using the Lumia in preference to my iPhone for most of my daily stuff. It is just easier, nicer and quicker to use. Reading mail is a lot, lot, easier. I prefer the screen and everything just works. Navigation was a snap, the maps app is easily the equal of the Apple one. Even the Guardian app was easier to use to read the (depressing) news each day. Remember that this is a phone I bought in December 2013. And it was as snappy and usable as state of the art devices. Battery life was fine and I remembered how much I loved Windows Phone. 

And then I rediscovered the stopper. One of the main reasons that I don't use Windows Phone any more. The Amazon Kindle app doesn't work. And by doesn't work, I mean it doesn't let you read books properly. It misses out chunks of text. You find yourself switching between horizontal and vertical orientation, or flipping back and forth between pages, just to get a line or so of the book to appear. At first I thought that I was actually going mad but no, it turns out that Amazon Kindle on Windows Phone is incapable of remembering where it got to in the book from one page to the next. Astonishing and awful. I read a lot of books on my phone, this is a deal breaker. Game over for Windows Phone. 

I hope this can be sorted out. You would think that, what with Amazon and Microsoft being neighbours in Seattle, Satya Nadella could pop round to borrow a cup of sugar from Jeff Bezos and, during the conversation on the doorstep casually mention that the Amazon Windows Phone app could do with some love, and then casually point at the truck load of money he happens to have brought with him. 

Stuff of dreams perhaps, but if Kindle worked the Windows Phone would be a very compelling platform for me. The iPhone is great if you want to experience state of the art smartphone user interface design. As long as the state of the art is 2007. But the Windows Phone interface just feels like the future. It's properly thought out, well solid and just easier to use. But I can't read books. And that's sad. 

Bags of Wires

One of the inarguable facts of life is that if you throw away a particular cable you will, within minutes, have a need for exactly that type of connection. We're doing some industrial strength tidying up at the moment, and I've been sorting wires into bags. A number of categories, mains cables, power supplies, network cables, video cables and USB cables. It's actually been quite therapeutic. It's nice to have imposed some order on what was a whole bunch of tangled chaos. 

Amazon Echo

So, thanks to the wonderful food at Fabulous Freddies in Chicago we find ourselves at the airport with slightly more cash left than we expected.  

During our trip we formed a habit of getting  takeout from Freddies rather than going out for a meal. (If you ever get a chance, try the grilled chicken sandwich. Awesome.) 

Anyhoo, Turns out that I've got just enough dollars left in my pocket to buy an Amazon Echo from Sharper Image at the airport. So I do. But before I part with any notes I check on the interwebs, in particular the very useful Amazon Echo in the UK site, to see if it would work. The answer is, pretty much mostly, and so the purchase was made. 

Turns out it works really well. No pressing of buttons, just say what you want and the Amazon Cloud will try to get it for you. You can ask it questions and it will answer by referring to Wikipaedia among other places. You can even ask it to tell you a joke, but the results are even worse than mine, and that's saying something... 

In the 'states you can make it play music from your Amazon Prime account, but that doesn't work in the UK just yet. However, it is said you can upload some of your music collection and have those played on demand (although I've not tried it yet). Pandora and Spotify are also integrated into the device.

You can use a trigger word to get the attention of the echo or press a button. The default trigger is "Alexa.". When you speak the trigger the top ring lights up and points at the direction the sound came from. It reminds me a bit of the eye in the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. However it's much more friendly than that. The voice recognition is spot on for me, I don't even have to put on a fake american accent to make it work. 

If you want to listen to the radio you can just say "Alexa. Play BBC Radio Four" and the device (hard not to refer to it as she) will connect to TuneIn radio and do the business. The same goes for Bluetooth music playback from your phone, which just works.

There are also a bunch of services that the Echo can drive. They are packaged as "skills" and you can add them to your echo via a web interface or via speech. There is a connection to If This Then That (or IFTT) which means you can use the Echo as a gateway for voice control of devices around the house. Quite a few other home devices are also integrated as skills. 

Amazon are even running a competition at the moment, asking you to use their libraries and the Raspberry Pi to make novel embedded, Echo controlled applications. Find out more here.

Getting the Echo to work in the UK was a doddle. You can manage the device from an iPhone or Android phone app but these are only available in the US. However, there is also a web based interface that worked fine for configuring the device WiFi and getting it working. You have to have an Amazon.com username, or have a US username linked to your UK one. It just worked for me. 

It's only a matter of time before the Echo goes on sale in the UK I reckon. It is a real glimpse into the future. The sound quality is well up to that of Bluetooth speakers of an equivalent price and the voice activated services are genuinely useful. They will get even better after a UK launch when we can set our timezones and locations to this part of the world. Worth a look if you like your gadgets talkative.

Martyn Talks Azure at C4DI

I like going to the C4DI developer meetups. If you are a programmer and you are based in Hull, you should go along too. You can sign up for developer and also the hardware meetups here

Anyhoo, this month we had Martyn Coupland talking about Azure. Martyn works for Inframon as a "Senior Cloud Architect". As he said his job title I had this vision of a meeting full of serious faced engineers saying things like "And this is our new Cumulonimbus 5000, with extra fluffy light bits...". But that would be silly.

What Martyn actually does is map business process onto platforms based in the "cloud". The cloud is basically a bunch of computers on the end of a high performance network connection. It is how you turn computing into a service, rather like water or power, which you can buy based on your needs.

If you have a thing you want to do, for example host a web site, provide the back-end for an application or even run a business, the first thing you do isn't buy a big rack of computers. What you do is talk to someone like Martyn who will design you a system that lives in the cloud.

If your idea takes off big time you don't have a problem, you just crack open the champagne and turn on more cloud based processing power. If your idea sinks without trace you put the champagne back in the fridge, chalk it up to experience and work on the next project, reflecting that at least you haven't got a room full of expensive hardware to get rid of.

Martyn gave a very good rundown of how Microsoft Azure works and how good it is. I knew a bit of this from the Rather Useful Seminar by Caitlin and Peter but it was very interesting to hear how it has progressed even in this short time. Most amazing fact for me was that the majority of Azure installations don't run Windows software. I forget the figure (forgot to write it down) but there are a huge number of open source solutions sitting out there on Microsoft infrastructure. It turns out that you can build an image using your favourite operating system, whatever that is, and then deploy it into the cloud very easily. 

At the end of the talk I was chatting with Martyn about Hull Pixel Bot and mentioned that I plan to make the robots all clients of an Azure based location and communication service. He reckoned that it was eminently doable, which was good to know.  He'll be coming back to Hull to do some more, implementation focused, sessions later in the year. He's also an MVP, which is nice.

Graduation Fun and Games

I've been helping with graduation ceremonies for a while as a Graduands Marshall. Each year I try to take a picture of the audience. This is the effort for 2016. I've used a very wide angle lens to get everyone in. The results are a bit dark (sorry, there is not a lot of light in the hall), but you should be able to find yourself. You can click through the image above to find a larger one on Flickr and go exploring.

This was my final graduation ceremony as a member of staff of the university, and I'm very pleased to have been given the chance to do it. It's a matter of great personal pride to me that for a long time  I've been the first person to present to prospective students on the Open Day and the last person to present to them at their graduation ceremony. 

...and we're back

Well, that was fun.

We've just come back from a couple of weeks in Chicago. Lovely city. Pictures and discourse will follow over the next few weeks I'm sure. If you really want to see my holiday snaps (and why would you not?) they can be found here. More will be added over time.

It was most interesting to be abroad after the Brexit result. The universal reaction to our admission that we were English was "Oh. I'm sorry about that.".

By the end of the holiday we were telling people we were from Sweden.

What to make over summer

David was kind enough to invite me into South Hunsley School today to give a talk to some computer science students seeking a bit of direction for the summer. I wrote a few notes, and I though I'd put them in a blog post too. I

What to make?

If you have a long summer stretching ahead of you and you are wondering how best to spend it Computer Science wise, here are a few tips. 

What language?

I don’t care about the language. Anything you use to practice programming is fine by me. Sometimes it helps to use something you know, but then again you will be expected to know many languages when you go out into the big wide world. Don’t get sucked into “my language is better than your language” debates. The best language is either the one you enjoy using the most, or the one you get paid the most to work with. End of.

I like C#, Python and C, along with a bit of assembler. But things like Ruby, Haskell and Prolog are great if you want to stretch your brains a bit. Take a look at codeacademy.com for online training.

What application?

Build what you like. Think of something you might find useful and have a go at that. Keep it simple and don’t add things. Every idea you have will make the job bigger. Write your ideas down, but don’t feel obliged to act on them. Take a look at hardware. I love the Arduino, I love robots, and I think you should have a go at this as well. You get the bonus of learning a bit of electronics too.

What for?

To find out if it is possible. To find out things by accident. For fun. It’s important to regard programming as an experimental exercise. Sometimes people write programs just to see if they work, or what they will do. Don’t be afraid to do this.

What with?

My strongest advice is to get yourself some Arduino kit and have a go at embedded development. Pick up a Sintron kit from ebay (search eBay for Arduino Sintron) and play with that. Buy one extra stepper motor and then you can think about making moving robots. Take a look here for help getting started and some things to do. 

What else?

Make sure you write about what you have done. Make a blog, get a domain, put your code on GitHub. It might be that only 10 people read about what you built, but if one of them offers you a job on the strength of it, it is worth doing. Employers prize the ability to write well and quickly, regular blogging will make you into a much better writer. And give you a destination on the web.

In praise of big PCs

I must admit I'm quite liking having a big PC again. I've been using Surface devices as my main machine for a while and they are great, but there's nothing like a big lump of hardware to get things done. One surprising thing is how quiet the PC is. It contains big, slow-moving fans rather than small, whizzy ones. I don't hear it "rev up" when I start doing something difficult. I'm using Onedrive to synchronise with the other machines, which is working quite well so far.