A New Lease of Life

I changed jobs about 18 months ago, and I’m already getting known as ‘that’ guy when it comes to fiddling with technology!

So, a colleague turned up at work with a laptop which had been given to him by a family member, after they’d bought a newer machine. He said it was running slowly and asked me if I’d have a look.

It seemed reasonably modern, probably about 7 or 8 years old. However it was running Windows 7, which I don’t really know my way around too well having not used Windows myself since the days of Windows 98 and Windows XP.

I was able to find out enough information to establish that the machine was slow because the hard drive was struggling with multiple read errors. My colleague also said it crashed a lot and some files had disappeared. A quick boot into Linux with my trusty USB stick (which is always in my pocket!) confirmed the SMART data on the drive showed it was unserviceable. So I gave him the bad news and suggested it needed a replacement disk.

We discussed use cases to decide on a size, and he ended up ordering a small solid state disk for about £25 including delivery. I showed him which screws to undo to swap the drive out and gave him a USB installer for Ubuntu, explaining that I didn’t have a way to get him a copy of Windows and he’d need to talk to someone else about that.

The new drive duly arrived, and my colleague was able to fit the disk and install Ubuntu from scratch using the USB stick I’d lent him. My colleague would be the first to say he’s not very technical, so I think credit is due to the GNU/Linux community for making Linux so easy to use these days.

Even more exciting (to me!) is that my colleague has absolutely no plans to go back to Windows. He’s found software to do everything he wants, says the machine is faster than it ever was and is happy to have an up to date and modern laptop for an outlay of £25.

I really enjoy helping people to try Linux and realise that when they thought they needed a new computer, they often don’t. Machines are saved from landfill, and resources aren’t wasted on an unnecessary new machine. Everyone wins!

If you’d like to try running Linux on your computer, I’d recommend trying Ubuntu because it is well thought out and works on most things with ease. You can download it for free from this link.

What I Learned at OggCamp 2019

This was my third OggCamp, and I was able to make a full weekend visit to Manchester. Most of my best learning at OggCamps tends to be around what happens outside the scheduled stuff, so it was good to have the time to mingle in the evenings and discuss things over beer.

Although I already know about, use and contribute to Open Streetmap, I hadn’t heard of the missing maps project. I definitely hadn’t heard of the MapSwipe mobile app which allows you to do good for humanity while passing idle time playing a game on your phone. Do it!

Jamie Tanna gave a good insight into the IndieWeb movement and why it matters. The key theme was ownership of your identity and data. Popular open-access platforms (such as Twitter and Facebook) aren’t open. They often own the data. Look at their terms and conditions. They are all about making money and maximising attention. Conversely, your own platform revolves around you, does what you want and need and can even be a kind of political statement. Jamie’s approach is modularity. Publish things on your own site, and then use syndication elsewhere. That way, you have the original copy but users of Facebook, Twitter and such can still see your thoughts and interact with you.

There isn’t enough social housing. Governments should build more. Geodesic domes are cheap, strong, storm resistant with good wind loading and are also very quick to build. Maybe it’s time to ditch traditional bricks and mortar?

MQTT is definitely the best way to get IoT devices talking. Sensors can feed into something like Watson IoT and then with some NodeRed logic the outputs can be passed back to physical displays. An example was using thermal sensors at a coffee bar, and adjusting the colour of a neopixel LED strip so that customers could see whether to get up and go for another coffee or wait until the queue had died down! GlowOrbs make a nice form of ambient display and are easy enough to build.

Beer featured a lot, and the Lass O’Gowrie pub had a good selection and some nice food. While enjoying that I was shown some e-ink badges which were pretty good, and based on the Pimoroni displays, with a 3D-printed case.

What I learned at OggCamp 2018

I last attended OggCamp in Liverpool in 2015 and had a great time. There wasn’t one in 2016, and in 2017 it was in the wrong part of the UK for the gods of time & space to allow.

I did though make it to OggCamp 2018 in Sheffield, so here’s some of the things I took away:

Sheffield is Super

It’s been a long time since I was last in Sheffield, and an even longer time since I arrived by train on the Penistone line. The rolling stock is still the faithful old Pacer, that I’m sure they were going to replace when I was still in my teenage years…

Anyway, some lovely new buildings in amongst the old, and some nice ‘modern’ uses for re-purposed places too. One of which was where I had coffee and breakfast – Tamper Sellers Wheel on Arundel Street. Absolutely amazing food, coffee and service.

OggCamp

I got the feeling there were fewer attendees than at Liverpool, but I couldn’t be sure. The layout in Sheffield wasn’t ideal, with venues being split by five storeys, so it felt a bit disconnected. However, once the Welcome Talk was underway, there were plenty of familiar faces around and it soon felt like OggCamp again.

I went to a talk on The Things Network, as it’s always good to find out what other groups are doing, and if there are any ideas I can use to help with my own TTN projects on the Isle of Man. It seems the main thing we need to work on here in the island is a use case which builds a community around it, as that looks like the most successful way of involving enough people and getting access to some funds.

The next talk was about delivering images over the mobile web. Not something I’d specifically thought about but quite interesting nonetheless.

  1. You can wind up your JPEG compression without really noticing on small screens.  A nice tool called cjpeg-dssim, which looks at structural similarity, can help with this.
  2. File formats matter. SVGs are a kind of XML, and can even go inline with your HTTP code – BUT beware. If you create them in Adobe products, it seems about 98% of the resulting file size is cruft that you can remove! WebP seems to be the best format in terms of quality vs filesize, but is only supported in Chrome and Android browsers for now.
  3. Size matters. Most mobile browsers download loads of pixels, and then throw most of them away before displaying. This wastes mobile data, slows down load times, as well as making the processor in the mobile device work harder than it has to. Ideally create lots of versions of an image which differ by about 25 kB in size, and then use some responsive scripts to load the correct size image for the current viewport size. Speeds things up a lot.
  4. Lazy loading saves data, as most pages don’t get viewed in their entirety. Loading images just as they scroll up towards the viewport means that if the user doesn’t scroll, no data is wasted (and page loads quicker) but if they do scroll, they still see all the pictures.

The final talk before lunch was about hacking the O2 Joggler. This was great, as the presenter was clearly very passionate about re-using old kit that would otherwise have gone to waste. I’d never really considered hacking as a force for environmental good before. It seems that the Joggler is quite versatile with hacked firmware, and they’re available fairly cheaply at the moment.

Beer with Friends

As much as OggCamp is great (really, you should attend), I received a Twitter message from someone I’d never met in real life but who I’ve swapped messages with for years. They’d noted I was in Sheffield and wondered if I wanted to meet up. A very chilled afternoon of drinking in the sunshine and exploring various drinking venues and beers of Sheffield followed, before riding the train again.

Open Data Camp

I went along to the Open Data Camp in Douglas. Here’s some of the things I learned about:

  • The IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative) has guidance about what data governments and organisations should make available, and what format it should be in.
  • The UK government has moved to publishing data using open standards, but it failed to educate people about why it was important.
  • Digital Scotland have a really innovative procurement model, which the Isle of Man Government could learn a thing or two from! Instead of throwing money at things by drawing up a list of specifications and seeing who bids, it seems much more cost effective to solve problems by asking questions instead, and the solutions are often of a higher quality.
  • The Things Network has continued to grow in the UK
  • Russia publishes details of all its government contracts over about £1200. Yes, open data from Russia!

Oh, and beer tastes better when someone else pays!

The RC2014 Computer

While at Liverpool Makefest last June, I bought myself a kit to build an RC2014 Z80-based computer.

The kit was very well made, with high quality circuit boards which accepted solder very easily, along with sufficient documentation to make the whole building process smooth and enjoyable.

I found the process quite educational too, as the design of the kit splits out the various functions of a computer into separate boards which then plug into a backplane with a common bus linking the parts together. It was good to see how the CPU, ROM, RAM, Clock and I/O all work together to make a functional microcomputer.

I was able to talk to the RC2014 from another computer over a serial connection, but I found I got the real ‘retro’ feel when I added the RC2014 ‘video card’ – which is a serial terminal based on a Raspberry Pi Zero. This meant I could plug my creation into a monitor and keyboard without the need for a separate computer, making the whole thing into a self-contained 8-bit microcomputer.

I also added an I/O board of LEDs and switches so I could interact with the computer without the need for a monitor or keyboard.

My RC2014 incrementing binary numbers…

You can purchase a kit yourself or find out more about this little marvel at this website.