Smart Meter Time

 Suitably redacted....

Suitably redacted....

I've probably missed a trick here. I got a message a while back offering a smart meter for my electricity and I said yes. I didn't know that the energy companies were still installing the "old new technology" smart meters. According to what I'd read a while back, by this time everyone would be getting the new type, but for some reason (perhaps because it makes it harder to change energy suppliers without losing meter "smartness") the old-new meters are still being rolled out. And I've ended up with one.

It seems typical of the way that things are presently working in this country that an initiative that is supposed to bring us to the forefront of energy management has been sabotaged right from the start by short sighted decision making driven by commercial interests. Not that I'm particularly worried. The way I see it, if I'm in the 9 million who've got the old meters there's a lot of incentive for companies to make us happy in the future.

I reckon it's quite possible that the potential of the second generation of meters will never be realised because nobody will bother implementing the back end services to make them work. They'll just claim that there aren't enough of them out there to make it worthwhile. Yes, that is very cynical. And probably right. And anyway, the firmware in my meter is upgradeable......

Anyhoo, the meter is now in place and beaming my electricity usage to a remarkably cheap looking device that lets me see what happens when I use the kettle. It is supposed to motivate me to save power, but the first thing I wanted to find out was how far into the red I could send the readout by turning things on.....

Apple Homepod Review

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One of the nice things about being a writer is that every now and then you get a note saying that a bunch of people have bought copies of your book and, as a result, you've got some money to spend. It doesn't happen to me as much as I would like, but it did happen last week. 

And so, of course, I used some of it to buy myself an Apple HomePod. What with there being one for sale second hand in a local shop, and me having come into a bit of cash, it seemed like fate was actually willing me to get one. 

I'm glad I did. I've got a couple of Amazon Echo devices and I thought that their sound quality was OK. But the HomePod blows them, and just about anything else I've got, away in terms of sound quality. It's far, far, better than the speaker and sub-woofer setup I have in my working room and has therefore completely replaced it. There is a lot more bass present than there has any right to be. It's actually quite startling.

Some reviewers have talked about the impressively wide sound stage that the speaker manages to create using its assortment of drivers and cunning calibration. I've not noticed this much to be honest. The output sounds like it is coming out of a speaker. But what output....

The setup was a breeze. I just held my phone close to the HomePod the first time I powered it on, tapped Yes to confirm access and away we went. It did such a good job of finding the best tracks in my music collection that I let it do that for around eight hours before I actually asked it to play anything specific. 

Voice control is not as great as it could be. It doesn't understand the artist name "Boz Scaggs" at all. I had to ask for the album by name from my library in the end. And saying "Hey Siri" is not how I like to start any kind of conversation. And when I do every single Apple device in the room pricks up its ears. The computer generated voice of the device is not a refined as Alexa from Amazon. I've gone for the Australian female voice as this sounds the least strange to me. Or perhaps I can't actually tell whether its strange or not. 

I've not used the HomePod for much more than playing music. I will tell me the weather and If I get some remotely controlled kit it should be able to control it. I've got an Apple Music subscription, which makes it a proper free-standing device. Otherwise I'd have to use my phone to get the audio source and play it over Airplay. I've not tried the HomePod as a speakerphone yet. It works in this role, but not in a way that you'll find particularly useful. 

From a software point of view it is a bit limited at the moment. There is a serious shortage of third party skill and, unlike the Amazon Echo, I can't use it to listen to the radio, which is a shame. 

However, it is what I thought it would be when I bought it. It is a super, super, speaker with some indifferent network features and a whole ton of room for improvement. I just hope enough people engage with the product to make Apple fulfil its true potential. Until then I'll be very happy listening to the amazing sounds it makes. 

A Dashboard Camera for 10 quid. What could go wrong?

One of my New Years resolutions should have been "I must stop buying cheap and useless gadgets".  But since I haven't made that resolution, and I found myself in the local grocers looking at the bits and bobs on offer, I ended up buying a little dashboard camera for a tenner. 

It comes with a mounting for your windscreen, a power connector and even a little lithium battery so it can be used away from the car (I want to attach it to a Hull Pixelbot). 

It works really well. The camera is reasonable quality, the controls a bit clanky, there's some HF whistle (which I can't hear) when it's switched on. But overall a win. 

Except for one tiny flaw that I've yet to resolve. You need to add an SD card which is used to store the video. When I take the card out of the camera and try to use it in my computer the files on it are not recognised. I hope it isn't using "write only memory" technology. 

The Ring Doorbell and WiFi problems

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Some time back I got a Ring doorbell. It's an internet connected door chime that contains a camera and motion sensor. When someone rings your doorbell (or stands on your doorstep if you've turned on the motion sensor) your phone (or your Apple watch) goes ping to alert you. 

The doorbell also contains a speaker and a microphone, so you can have a conversation with the person at your door. And for a small sum you can have videos of all your visitors stored in the cloud for later review. 

It works really well. I knew I was onto a winner when number one wife used it to accept delivery of a rug while we were away in Leeds.

Then today, right in the middle of a conference call, I heard someone hammering on the door. I shot downstairs, retrieved the package and started to wonder why my lovely doorbell hadn't told me there was someone on the doorstep. Both it and the sounder in the house had fallen off the network. 

This illustrates a problem with these lovely, connected appliances. They're as good as their connectivity. Wah. So I started digging. And the solution is a bit disturbing. 

My WiFi router has been set to automatically select the quietest WiFi channel. When I reset it on Monday the router had gone and picked channel 13. 

This was a rather stupid choice as far as the Ring doorbell is concerned, as it only supports channels up to number 11. The result was that the doorbell fell off the network. Unfortunately, because nobody had pressed my doorbell (or, at least nobody I'd heard had pressed my doorbell) I had no way of knowing things were broken.

The doorbell "phones home" once a day, and I guess after a while I'd get a message that something was broken, but until then I'd be missing callers.

The rather important moral to this story is that if you have a connected appliance like this, check, your router settings to make sure that it is using a fixed channel in the range 1-11. If you allow the router to pick a channel in the range 1-13 there is a chance that a bunch of your networked devices might suddenly stop working.

Of course once I'd picked a likely channel I then had to boil a jug of water in the microwave oven to make sure that it didn't interfere with WiFi reception in the kitchen. For me it turns out that channel 4 fails when I'm heating things up, but channel 11 works fine. 

Properly Broken Device

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Last week I wrote about "The Broken Device Dilemma", when something you hardly use breaks. Do you try and fix it, or do you throw it away? Of course, if you're me you try and fix it. It's all about the journey. Right?

Anyhoo, my lovely little Sony audio player failed. The battery refused to accept any charge.  It was as if the cable was broken. Of course, being Sony, it's a special cable, not a standard usb one. The good news is that replacements are very cheap, so I got one. 

It didn't work. 

However, playing with the device left me thinking that the battery was broken. This happens with Lithium Ion batteries. So, it was onto eBay to source a battery. I managed to find one, ordered it and it arrived today. Fitting it was great fun. Number one son found the service manual and I had a happy half hour this evening undoing sticky fixers and soldering the replacement battery in. 

It worked. Yay!

The player woke up and played some music at me. Great stuff. But it did seem to get very warm. And then the WiFi stopped working. And then the battery failed. And now it behaves just like it did at the start of this story. Oh well. It looks like something in the player has failed and is taking so much power that that the charging circuit can't keep up. So I think it is properly broken. 

Oh well. Now I have to ask myself the question "If a device you hardly use breaks, to you replace it?....."

Remote Harmony

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Today I spent a little while sorting out the remote control for the telly. I bought this fancy Harmony Remote a while ago in a second hand shop and I think it has turned out to be quite a bargain. I've used Harmony remote controls for a very long time and I've round that they work very well, within the limitations of a totally open loop control system, where the remote just pumps out an infra-red message and has no way of knowing if it has been received or not.

Anyhoo, configuring the remotes is something I don't do often enough to be able to remember all the steps involved. But I do know that I'll have to download a program and then plug the remote control into the computer. I'm using a version of Windows that is several on from the one for which the program was created. I'm installing a USB driver that was written ages ago. I'm using TVs and devices that are comparatively recent. And yet it all worked. The Logitech servers even remembered the settings from last time (because I'd put my Logitech username and password into Password Padlock). Now I can turn on the TV with a single touch.Very impressive.

iPhone X - it will be interesting

 The Kinect's Eye view of a sofa....

The Kinect's Eye view of a sofa....

A few years ago I spent a lot of time playing with the Microsoft KInect. I even wrote a book about it. The Kinect contains a special “depth camera” where pixels don’t give you light intensity, they give you distance. The depth camera works by viewing an array of dots which are projected onto the scene in front of the sensor. Software works out the distance between the dots that the camera sees. The further apart that the dots appear, the further away that part of the scene is. 

As far as I know Apple have put a Kinect sensor on top of the iPhone X which works in the same way. The depth information returned by the camera is a big chunk of how the phone recognises its owner.  

I really hope it works.  

The Kinect worked great for middle  distance readings, but if you got too close all the little dots smudged together into one big dot and the camera stopped working. It would struggle a bit in very bright conditions and I never tried to use it to recognise my face when I was wearing glasses.  

I’m always tempted to get the very latest in technology. I think it stems from my much younger days, when I used to enjoy owning my own copy of the current number one music single, but I think I’ll sit this one out until I’ve seen it work. With glasses.  

Waking up Digby

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We've been trying to wake up Digby my Aibo from ages back. The Sony Aibo was a very ambitious project by Sony to make a robotic pet. I got one a while back just as the product was winding down. I've not played with Digby (as we call him) for a while, but once we'd given them a good charge, one of the Lithium Ion batteries got him going. 

Unfortunately there's something amiss with his head. When he moves to certain positions it seems to think that the joint is stuck and he falls down. Next step is a bit of micro surgery looking for noisy potentiometers and broken flexible circuit boards. 

But we'll get him sorted. 

The Pimoroni Mood Light Rocks

 I just love a busy desk. 

I just love a busy desk. 

A while back I ordered a Mood Light kit from Pimoroni. It never came (sad face). I told them about this and they dispatched a replacement. The same day. With no quibble or question (happy face). It arrived a couple of days ago and today I found enough time to assemble it.

With it being based on the Raspberry Pi I had to find a video display and a keyboard for it to get things going. I ended up using my video projector of Logo Blaster fame and a little remote keyboard that didn't work until I connected it via a usb hub.

The good news is that the Raspberry Pi experience has come on a lot since my early days with my Pi B. The great news is that the kit itself is awesome. Lovely attention to detail, even down to little rubber feet for the stand. It all fits together in a very impressive way and worked first time. If you're thinking of building one, you'll need to solder the connectors onto the Pi and the display device. If you've not soldered before it might not be the best thing to learn on, but if you've soldered a bit you'll have no problems. You'll need a power supply and a micro-SD card but nothing else, the kit has everything and comes beautifully packed in a nice plastic box. 

Once I'd got the Pi going and set up remote access I was able to do everything via my PC, so I could put my keyboard and monitor away. You control the lights (there are 32 neopixel leds on the lamp) from Python, so there is no limit to what you can make the light do. 

I'm very impressed with the kit and the Raspberry Pi Zero that it is based on. The fact that you can get the thing for thirty quid (or even less if they are having a discount offer running) makes this thing astonishing value. You should get one. So much power and potential for less than a full price video game. I'm going to get the Scroll Bot next.

Amazon Echo in Hull

Our Amazon Echo works really well. Except sometimes. The radio service, on TuneIn, frequently stops or breaks up.

If we ask again for the station it plays again for a while and then stops. It used to do this a lot a while back, but it seemed to have settled down.

I'm not sure if it is the WiFi in the house or the networking in Hull. Anyone else in Hull with an Echo had a problem with radio playback?

Return of the Kaossilator

The Korg Kaossilator is a nifty device for making weird sound effects. I got one quite a while back and it has provided the sounds for quite a few projects. Today I was working on Begin To Code Python and I needed a suitably awakening tone for an alarm program that I'm writing. So I dug out Mr. Kaoss.

I remember years ago that one of the marketing pitches behind Duracell batteries was that they didn't leak.

That is not the case now. Ugh. But after a thorough clean up we are back in business and making amazing sounds again. If you're interested, the sound I ended up with is here:

Apple Airpods

Number one son told me not to buy them because I couldn't afford them. 

So I bought them. Go me.

I've got a book on the go, I'm working quite hard (for someone supposed to be retired), and there's a prospect of another book after this. And besides this was close to Fathers Day. Enough said. 

I wasn't expecting to be able to buy them in Hull, but KRCS in Hull had just received some stock and they did look very nice.  

I don't regret the purchase. The Apple Airpods are quite pricey (after all, they are Apple) but their integration with the iPhone and the Apple watch is very impressive. You don't "pair" them in any kind of Bluetooth sense. You just open the dental floss like box they come in and your iPhone asks if you want to use them. And then they just work. With all your other Apple stuff as well. You can also press a button on the case to activate pairing with other Bluetooth devices, but I've not done that yet. 

The earpieces look like slightly longer ordinary earphones, minus the wires. And that is very important. You don't realise how annoying headphone wires are until you get a wireless pair. There's no sudden jolts when the cable catches, or walking away from the desk and watching your phone being dragged off the desk onto the floor. 

They fit perfectly in my ears and I've never really worried about them falling out. Even when wearing them to mow the lawn. Your experience might be different, I'd advise you to try a pair if you're thinking about getting some. 

The headphones work well with the Apple Watch, although I have a bit of a fight making them work with the watch if the phone is nearby. 

The sound quality is good enough. More expensive headphones sound better, as do some cheaper ones. The earpieces don't block out all external sounds, but that's probably a good thing bearing in mind you're going to wear them out and about, and you probably want to hear warning shouts about oncoming busses. Apple happen to own a headphone company and so they're not going to make their headphones sound better then ones they want to sell you for twice the price.

The sound has an emphasis to mid and high frequencies, the bass is there but you won't hear it unless you're somewhere quiet. 

The earphones are powered by tiny rechargeable batteries which are charged from a slightly larger battery that lives in the little case they come with. The case has a lighting connector that you can use to charge it. The earphones will go for around three hours and the case can charge then a few times before you have to get a wire out and plug things in.

The earphones detect when you take them out of your ears, so the music stops when you stop listening. If you only take one earpiece out of the box you can listen in mono. Double tapping the earphone (which probably looks quite silly) triggers Siri. Each earpiece has a microphone in it and uses some fancy audio beam forming shenanigans to pick up quality sound. I used the setup in a conference call and everybody seemed to understand me. 

Of course they are expensive. But they do what they say on the tin. I've used them a lot because they just make using headphones easier. 

Great Gardening Gloves

 These are the exclusive "Goldfinger" edition

These are the exclusive "Goldfinger" edition

I never thought I'd be blogging on matters relating to gardening. Perhaps I'm growing up.

Shudder.

However, if you are in the market for some proper tough gardening gloves, ones that actually protect your fingers from all kinds of pointy nasties that you find when taking out a holly bush, then I strongly recommend these, which I got from the local PoundLand. And they cost only a pound.

They're made of leather off-cuts, with the pleasing result that no two are exactly the same. 

Solar Cell Silver Lining

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I think another reason I was grumpy yesterday was that, while mowing the lawns, I managed to take out some of our solar powered lights. I'm not always a huge fan of lights in the garden to be honest. Last year we got some blue lights that must have previously been used on an aircraft carrier to guide planes down to land. To say they lit up the neighbourhood was something of an understatement.

But the ones we got this year are much nicer, giving out a very pleasant glow. At least they did until I wrapped their cable around the strimmer and tore it out of the power box. Oh well. Only ten quid to replace. And I now have a battery box and solar cell to play with. And enough space in there for an esp8266 and a power inverter. And fifty leds in a chain to make a "pimped up" Pixelbot.

Dell XPS 18 and Windows 10 Creators Edition

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Just pull out a few wires and all will be well......

Last night I broke my Dell XPS 18 tablet. Rather sad. I've had the machine for a while, and I really like it. I'd never be able to get another one, I don't think anyone will be daft enough to try and make this kind of machine again. It's an 18 inch Tablet PC and up until around 8:35 pm it was running Windows 10 a treat. 

Then suddenly it wasn't. 

What it was doing, was flashing the power light red for half a second and then white for seven flashes, which were repeated until I got bored and held the power switch down. Just before I went to bed I searched for some BIOS error codes and found that seven might mean that the graphics hardware is toast. 

Just the thing you want to do before trying to have a restful night.

This morning I had better luck. A proper search revealed that there is an issue with the power supply management on Windows 10 which means that my trusty tablet had put itself into "zombie sleep" mode during the installation of some updates. The way to fix the problem is to remove the back, unplug the battery and CMOS battery for a few minutes and then restart the machine. Full story here

Now you're talking.

The fix worked fine, and I've now got Windows 10 Creators Edition running handily on my "Big Ole Tablet". There is still something dodgy about things though. Entering Sleep mode makes the computer really hard to wake up (in fact it usually results in a crash). I've no idea why this is, or how to fix it, or if it can be fixed, so I've solved the problem by doing the following, which I call my "None Shall Sleep" plan:

  1. Open the power settings and tell the computer never to Sleep.
  2. Change the Power Button action from "Sleep" to "Nothing". This is a good thing to do on the Dell anyway because the power button is stupidly hard to catch by mistake and very irritating when it takes the machine away from you. 
  3. Remove the Sleep option from the power menu. 
  4. Turn off the "Fast Resume from Sleep". I'm not sure what this does, but I've got an SSD in the Dell now, and it boots pretty darned fast without any fancy shenanigans. 

If you've got an elderly Dell machine that has been broken by a Windows 10 upgrade you might want to look into this issue. The effect of the failure really does leave you thinking the hardware is dead, and I was very pleased when mine sprang back into life again. 

Amazon Echo now in the UK

I've mentioned the Amazon Echo before. It is rather nice. Up until now the only way to get one was to import it yourself, which is what we do. Works a treat, as long as you are OK with only knowing the weather in Seattle. 

Anyhoo, after my positive review Amazon have decided to release it in the UK. Which means all kinds of useful UK services including trains, news and weather. I'm not completely sure how much of the american version will work once there is a "proper" version of the device in the UK, but even with it's slightly truncated feature set we've found it pretty useful. 

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.

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.