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Posts in Category: Technology

Waiting for a train…

Thursday 17th September 2009

So the WordPress iPhone app has suddenly decided to work for me. I have no idea how or why it’s happened, but it’s probably best to just accept these things and move on…

I realise that I’ve somewhat gone off the boil with the htpc thing (thankyou Callan :p). I spent a few days tinkering as I was writing the entries, then had to go to Cardiff for a day and since then I’ve sorta been distracted by other stuff. Ironically, as the project started as a way to reuse an old pc, I’ve essentially ended up building a bespoke system for it. Really I need now to finish doing that, rejig Windows, then actually install it in Cardiff. Anyway, I’ll continue this in another post…

So I start back at uni next week. Well, it’s freshers week and lectures actually start a week on Monday, but you get the idea. It’s been a good year and an especially good summer. I’ve been doing a job which I enjoyed, travelled up and down the country for various reasons, spent time with various friends that I don’t generally get to see much and just generally had a good time. I’m really reluctant to go back to student life. Really i’m dreading having to motivate myself somehow. I keep telling myself to treat it like a job; get up, go to uni, spend the days working or in lectures and then go home and forget about it. If I do that I’ll enjoy it. I’m worried that I’ll do my usual trick of leave it all to the last possible minute, do crap in exams, then not be able to get a good job…

There was some point I was gonna blog about which I’ve now forgotten. Frustrating.

I think I’m gonna miss driving this year. I’m still gonna have my car, but I no longer have reason to do a few hundred miles every week. I used to really enjoy my Monday morning 6am drives to work. Driving through the dark with not much else on the roads and some good music on the stereo, it’s a really good way to relax, gather your thoughts.

I generally find driving therapeutic though. I think it’s because driving is partly automatic; you pay attention but part of what youre doing you basically don’t think about, so you take a step away from thinking about Whatever, but can still churn things over in the back of your mind until suddenly something clicks and things seem clearer.

Also, driving is really fun…

Anyway, I ceased to be waiting for a train about 10 minutes ago, and I’m worried that if I keep writing I won’t notice my stop. Also Ive basically been rambling, and I probably shouldn’t embarrass myself further by continuing…

Posted In: CarsGeekRandomStuffTechnology Tagged: | 4 Comments

HTPC – Receiving Loud and Clear (projectlog Part 3)

Tuesday 8th September 2009

So, my TV card and rather snazzy keyboard arrived. I got the card installed, got Vista Home Premium installed, and had a look to see how it all worked.

I was worried that Vista might be a bit clunky on the machine I’m using, but really it’s not too bad. Just about usable, but I think the extra 1gb of RAM (when it arrives) will be welcome. Once I’d got all the drivers sorted (which included some drama with the graphics driver having a strop when I updated the motherboard drivers. One system restore later, all was well), I opened up Media Center (damn Americans, can’t bloody spell…). I’d never used it before so I didn’t really know how well it’d work.

I have to say, I’m impressed. The interface is pretty much spot on, and works really well with the remote control that came with the tuner. I had to fiddle with the positioning of the aerial to get the best amount of channels, but once I’d done that, it picked everything up cleanly, with no stuttering or weird drops in signal. The little freeview box we’ve been using in Cardiff for the last year is absolutely shit in comparison, even before you get to the extra things that the new box can do…

There’s not much more to say about Media Centre. It does everything you’d want htpc software to do, it’s quick, it’s pretty, and it works brilliantly even with my cheapy TV card. It even saw the dual tuners without any fuss, so I can watch one thing and record another. Result!

Initially I was just testing it on a PC monitor, so I was keen to get a TV hooked up, because that’s what it’s ultimately gonna be outputting to when I hook it all up in Cardiff. There was a spare TV in one of the rooms, so I got it and connected it to the TV out on the graphics card.

Desk

It works pretty damn well. I couldn’t find the remote for that TV to change the input settings, hence why it’s not colour. I did test it on another TV just to confirm that it is outputting in colour, and it is.

So I’m fairly satisfied with Vista, so it’s going to stay. My HTPC now does the important stuff – i.e. the bult of the TV functionality – so next on the hitlist is the little addons I initally specced when I started looking at this project…

Part 4 tomorrow.

Posted In: GeekTechnologyTV Tagged: | 1 Comment

HTPC – Prep (projectlog Part 2)

Monday 7th September 2009

While I was waiting for the TV card and stuff to arrive, I started to consider what software to use. Just to help give the whole picture, here’s the specs of the PC I’m using:

  • Athlon 2500+ (333mhz FSB)
  • Abit NF7 Motherboard (it’s a shame Abit went bust. This is the best motherboard I’ve ever used and I would’ve definitely got another one for my next build, if they were around)
  • 768mb pc2700 DDR RAM (I’ve bought a 1gb stick to add to this, but it’s not arrived yet)
  • Radeon 9800 pro graphics card (overkill much?)
  • 80gb IDE hard disk. This will probably get added to at some point.
  • Some generic DVD-ROM drive.

By no means rubbish, but not the sort of system that you can expect to run everything uber-smoothly. So in picking software, that was my main consideration (as well as how well it’d work, and how easy it is to set up).

There are loads of alternatives out there, using either Linux or Windows. The ones I looked at were Mediaportal running on XP, Freevo, MythTV, or Media Centre built into Vista. Freevo and MythTV both run on linux and both look really good. The only thing with Linux though is that it’s never a simple task to make it do what you want to do. Even if it’s painless to install Freevo or MythTV, I’m sure it’d be hell getting all the drivers working, then getting stuff like emulators and web interfaces and shared folders working is just gonna be a hassle. I know Windows, so that was my preference (although I may look at the Linux alternatives at another point). The other good thing about Windows is that I know that there are a bunch of good emulators out there, and a good bittorrent client (with the web interface) in uTorrent, which saves me time looking for other things which work as well…

I decided to try first with Mediaportal running on XP. I thought I’d install it and have a play before my TV card came, just to see what it’s like. And I’d love to report back on it, but as soon as I’d installed it, the computer started rebooting itself as soon as it started to load the windows desktop. I spent a bit of time trying to fix it, but could never get my head round it. So, I decided to try plan B: Vista Home Premium, and the inbuilt Media Centre software.

Before I installed that though, some new toys arrived…

Tuner and Keyboard

Part 3 coming tomorrow

Posted In: GeekTechnologyTV Tagged: | No Comments

HTPC – Plan of Attack (projectlog Part 1)

Sunday 6th September 2009

We have a lot of spare computers lying around at home. Nothing special, just old computers that we don’t need any more because we’ve upgraded. I’ve always thought that it’s a slight waste for them to just be lying around unused because really there’s nothing wrong with them, as long as you don’t need to run cutting-edge software or stuff that needs a quick pc. For example, when I got a new PC (3 years ago!), carried on using it because it was fine for him at the time. Recently though he needed something newer so he upgraded, so my old pc was just sat around, basically doing nothing. It’s not slow – it runs Half-Life 2 pretty damn well, for instance. So I thought I’d put it to use.

I’ve toyed with the idea of building a htpc for a while. Initially I thought of using something based around a dual-core Atom processor, because that would be quiet (silent iirc) and still more than quick enough for what I need it for. Sadly the parts for that is more than I’d be willing to spend, which is why I came around to using my old pc. I decided that all I need to do on the hardware side is make it quieter, because at the moment it’s got lots of fans and is too loud to use as a htpc. Obviously for something that’s gonna be on pretty much all the time and is going to sit next to the tv, you want it to be as quiet as possible.

So, I started thinking about what I wanted it to do and what I’d need to buy to do it.

Whiteboard

The basic requirements I drafted up were:

  • Ability to record one programme whilst watching another.
  • Easily able to see shares from my desktop pc, so I can play music or videos I’ve got stored on that over the TV.
  • Some sort of online interface, so I can login over the internet and set programmes to record whilst I’m away. Preferably, I’d like this interface to work well on my iPhone as well :)
  • Able to play DivX etc
  • Work well enough on the hardware I wanted to use. It’s no use having it if it takes half an hour to open the TV listings…
  • Pretty frontend
  • Good bittorrent software with a web interface.
  • Would be good if iPlayer etc could be integrated into the interface, so we don’t have to leave the media software to use it.
  • Also want to install some emulators on the pc (MAME etc), and it’d be good if that could be integrated into the media software as well.

I had a look at TV cards and really couldn’t differentiate between the different types, so plumped for the cheapest dual-tuner card I could find. I also got a wireless keyboard, which has a touchpad built in, which I thought was pretty cool and ideal for this sort of system. Also I jumped on eBay and got a quiet CPU cooler for a fiver and 1GB of RAM.

All that remained then was to wait for the parts to arrive, so I could put my new toy very useful system together :)

Posted In: GeekProcrastinationTechnologyTV Tagged: | 8 Comments

1983

Monday 27th April 2009

“Recently there have been quite a few things that I’ve wanted blog about… A few times I’ve actually started to write something down, but every time I’ve started to do that I’ve struggled to actually articulate what I was trying to say.”

It’s things like this. Words simply fail me, because I don’t understand how any right-thinking individual can think this is a good thing. It’s hard to vocalise quite how dismayed, frustrated, annoyed I am by the current state of the British Government. It’s basically all screwed.

I think we fundamentally have the right system of government, with the two houses, the Monarchy, etc. It’s just that for the most part, the wrong people are running that system at the moment. And it’s not gonna get much better any time soon…

Posted In: RantTechnology Tagged: | 3 Comments

I’m Not There

Saturday 21st February 2009

As ever, I’ve been meaning to write something here for a while. But, I started work again a few weeks ago. Which is enough reason on it’s own for the gap, but because of a snafu of some sort with the site I was gonna work on in Cardiff, I’m working at Brize Norton. Staying in a hotel nearby during the week, then driving back home for weekends. So fairly busy, and fairly tiring…

Work’s very good. I’ve mostly been helping the engineer with surveying, which is good. Fairly pleasant too when the weather’s as mild as it has been the last few days. I’ve been trying to work out whether I prefer consultancy or contracting. To start with I was leaning towards consultancy, but I’m enoying work more and more now, so I think I’m starting to lean the other way. Which is good, because apart from anything else it’s much easier for me to stick where I am (providing they offer to sponsor me after my placement year).

So basically, life’s good :)

In other news, I downloaded the Spotify beta last week. Holy crap, it’s good. Apart from not having a few artists (Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zep), it’s very comprehensive. The sound quality is pretty good, and the streaming is really quick. The only niggle I have with it is that it’s easy enough to find something if you know what artist/album/song you want to listen to, but if you just want to browse and see what takes your fancy, there’s no way to do that. Thats not a dealbreaker though, and I’m really considering paying the subscription. I’m gonna see if I keep using it as my main music player first though.

Posted In: EngineeringGeekMusicTechnology Tagged: | 9 Comments

Teh Lulz

Monday 19th January 2009

This made me laugh, hard.

Funny cos it’s true…

Posted In: GeekTechnology Tagged: | 4 Comments

Smooth Operator

Saturday 17th January 2009

I am currently temporarily unemployed (technically), so I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. Lately, I’ve spent some of that time fiddling with both my computers.

Firstly, the Windows 7 beta was released last week, so I decided to install it on my Desktop machine. To be honest, it’s very similar to Vista, so theres very little to write home about. Except to say that it’s the first version of Windows I’ve ever installed that has configured both monitors right from installation. It still doesn’t let you choose different wallpapers for each screen or give each screen its own taskbar, but it’s a start. Speaking of taskbars, I like the new one. It’s fairly minimalistic, but it works really well. It bunches each application’s windows together, and you hover over the icon to see the different windows. And if you use IE, you can hover over the icon to see all the different tabs you have open. It’s kinda hard to explain without screenshots (which I can’t take, cos I’m on the other pc). Also, networking seems to be much improved over Vista, which is good (although I’m having a fairly weird problem at the moment where it sometimes refuses to see my network connection). However, it’s still fairly tempramental; I ran quite a few beta versions of XP (or “Whistler”, as it was called then) and it was always rock solid. That said, I also ran one of the Vista betas for a while (“Longhorn”), and I seem to remember that it was fairly dire (although that may have been before they restarted the development programme, so…).

Talking of Vista, it’s had a hell of a lot of bad press since launch. I’ve been running it for a while now, and I think it’s rather good. It’s always been completely stable and ran really well on my system. The only reason for everyone disliking it was the poor driver support at launch, but Microsoft can hardly force hardware vendors to write new drivers. I was reading a thread on a tech forum about the new Windows beta, and there were loads of people saying that they hated Vista but love Windows 7. Really, there’s very little difference between the two…

Anyhow, that’s the less interesting fiddling that I’ve been doing (and lets completely sidestep the possible innuendo there…). I mentioned a while ago about buying an Acer Aspire One netbook, and said that the only weak point was the software. Well, ages ago I read about a new flavour of Ubuntu which was being tailored especially for netbooks, and thought it looked kinda cool. A version was released not long ago, so I decided to install it.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix - Desktop

That’s the UNR desktop, and it’s really a joy to use. The top-left shows all the currently-running programs (so in this case, just Firefox), the top-right is the system tray (or whatever it’s called in Linux), the middle bit (which says “Home” in the screenshot) shows the titlebar of the software that’s in focus. It’s as good an interface as that supplied with the Eee, but much better looking in my opinion. It all sits on a kernel that’s been specifically optimised for netbooks like my Acer that run on one of Intel’s Atom processors, so everything runs really smoothly (well, it does now I’ve tweaked it for the Acer’s solid-state storage). Out of the box, pretty much everything works; I’ve done a few tweaks to get it working how I want it to work, but other than that it was fine. Certainly it needed less work than the Linpus distribution that the computer came with. The only snag at the moment is that I can’t mount network shares by NetBIOS name, I have to do it by IP address. Which is actually only a snag because I want to run Amarok for my music and it needs my shares mounted to the filesystem; the filemanager goes to smb://mydesktop/myshare with no problems, but Amarok can’t for some reason… I had the same problem with Linpus and I can’t remember how I solved it, which is irritating.

All in all, I’m fairly convinced that this is the best OS out there at the moment for devices like this. It’s astoundingly good. I really appreciate it when developers set out to make a UI which works really well; one which is immediately intuitive but also pretty powerful. The technology we have today is amazingly clever and can be amazingly complicated, but I don’t think that using it necessarily has to be the same.

Posted In: GeekSleepTechnology Tagged: | 8 Comments

Eeeasy Rider

Saturday 6th September 2008

As you may recall, a few months ago I bought myself an Asus Eee. I said at the time that it was great – almost perfect in fact. And I stick by that statement. I bought it just as a toy really, a pure impulse buy; but for a toy it’s been spectacularly useful. Combined with blanket Wi-Fi coverage across the various Uni buildings, a small notebook (“Netbook”, I think the preferred term is) is absolutely ideal for looking something up quickly, or having access to all your lecture slides/past papers/tuition sheets when revising.

I said when I got it that the biggest flaw was the screen. So, when the new wave of netbooks trickled onto the market – almost all of them with larger screens – I was intrigued. The other week, I splurged on an Acer Aspire One. It’s very closely based on the Eee, but with an 8.9″ screen running at 1024×600. It also has a slightly better keyboard, which is useful.

In terms of hardware, this thing is probably better than the Eee. It’s much more usable, which isn’t to say that the Eee was unusable, just that this one is slightly better. The only thing that lets it down is the software. One of the things I really appreciated with my Eee is that everything was really well thought out. For instance, there was a command on one of the menus in the file browser thing to mount network shares from Windows-based machines. That makes it so easy to use the Eee as part of a network, which is probably a vital part of a machine like that.

On the Acer, you get the feeling things were rushed slightly in development. The biggest error that I can see is that an old driver was used for the graphics which meant that dithering didn’t work properly, meaning that fewer colours were displayed. That was really noticeable as banding on gradients, such as on the BBC website I use as my homepage. Or the menu screen that the thing initially boots into… It also doesn’t have an easy way of seeing Windows shares (to use winsock names you have to edit one of the config files. And even then you have to mount the share from the terminal, rather than a nice friendly window). Once I’d mounted my shares – so I could listen to music from my desktop – I discovered that the included media player is the biggest pile of shit ever. So I had to install something else to do the job (incidentally, Amarok is now my new favourite player and I wish I could use it in Windows too). Oh, and while I’m talking about the media player, I should mention that it doesn’t support DivX/Xvid natively. Also, at one point it stopped loading the network manager tool at boot (purely randomly), and I had to run it from terminal if I wanted to connect to a network.

One thing I will say in favour of the software is that the “easy mode” is based on XFCE, which is probably my favourite WM (from my previous brief forays into Linux). I turned easy mode off fairly quickly.

Now, I don’t mind having to do all these hacks to get the system working as I want. Actually I quite enjoy it – I’ve learned much more about Linux by tweaking this than I ever did from using the Eee. But I can just imagine someone non-techy getting one and having all these issues with it, would make Acer look fairly daft I think. Which is a shame, because it really is a good device – the screen is absolutely stunning (now that I’ve updated the graphics driver…). A worthwhile upgrade from the Eee, I think.

I have to say, I really love devices like this. It just makes sense to have a small, light device that boots up quickly (about 20 seconds) and can do simple things like get online, or quickly edit a document. Actually I’d happily work all day on the Acer, the keyboard/screen are that good. I can imagine that for schools, it’s be really great to give kids one each instead of textbooks and whatever, and throw a wireless network across all the school. They’d be able to access all their books at once then, as well as get online to get other info. Of course, it’s completely unrealistic to do that, but even so.

Anyway, it makes me wonder why someone didn’t come up with the idea sooner. It’s just pure brilliance.

/waffle

Posted In: GeekSleepTechnology | 4 Comments

Why Don’t Trains Have Wi-Fi?

Sunday 1st June 2008

Part I

It just seems like such a basic thing, in this always-connected world we live in. That said, there are probably more pressing things to sort out on the rail network…

Anyway, I write this en-route from Cardiff to the joy that is Birmingham New Street, which is probably a good example of something that needs sorting, actually. As is the way the train keeps bouncing from side to side, making it bloody hard to type. I digress.

Last week was spent in Devon, in a lovely little place called Slapton. There are a couple of interesting things about Slapton. Firstly, it has a big freshwater lake (Slapton Ley) which is separated from the sea by a narrow shingle bar, and the whole site is a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), because it’s home to some rare birds or something and because it’s a really good example of that sort of habitat. Secondly, during the 1940s, the whole area was evacuated so that the Americans could practise invading it. Apparently it has a lot of similarities to Utah beach (the western-most beach they landed on during Operation Overlord). However, during the exercise (codenamed Exercise Tiger), a bunch of German ships happened to come across the landing craft just as they were about to land and managed to sink a few. As a result, there were about three times as many casualties during Ex. Tiger than there were on Utah during Op. Overlord.

Well, I thought that was interesting, anyway.

It was a pretty good week, all things considered. True to form the weather was pretty poor (after the weeks of gorgeous sunshine we had during the exam period), but it seemed to stay dry during most of our outdoor stuff, which was good. I quite like the field courses we have, because its a nice to get a chance to spend time with and get to know people that I wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. That said, it also means I had to tolerate some of the people who really irritate me, but gotta take the rough with the smooth and all that.

Actually, one of the nights spent down t’pub was somewhat eye-opening. There were a bunch of us in this tiny (usually quiet) pub, being studenty… I noticed after a while that the only people talking were those who were the loudest. There wasn’t really a conversation going, either; they just seemed to say something, then wait for other people to finish talking, and then say something else. We were there for a good few hours, and no-one really said anything. Now I don’t expect every conversation to be deep and meaningful; considering the meaning of life and other worthy questions. But I do think that conversation should be interesting, not just based around “this one time, I was really drunk…”, or whatever…. Eventually they got round to playing drinking games (loudly), which was just embarrassing. OK, drinking games can be fun, but there’s a time and a place. A quiet pub, where you can piss off all the locals, really isn’t it.

The next night we all went to Torquay (for a fun night out!), and I spent it with a different bunch of people. We ended up in this cramped little pub, where there was a guy with a guitar playing away in the corner. A guy with a guitar who seemed to be able to play any song you requested. Most people went to a club I think, but all present at the pub were in agreement that they missed out. Horses for courses, I guess.

The trip kinda got me thinking about where I’d prefer to live: a small place like Slapton, right next to the sea; or in a city. I really love the sea and being near it, so I think I’d really love to live near it. Cardiff is technically by the sea, but most of the city is a teensy bit inland, so I never really see the sea. So yeh, I’d love to live somewhere in an ickle coastal town, I think, but at the same time I do love cities. I love the atmosphere, and the way there’s always something happening.

I think that when I’m rich and successful in years to come, I’ll just buy a house in a city and a place by the sea, and alternate as the mood takes me. Don’t know which city, and which place by the sea though…

Part II

I had to get off the train, so I had to stop writing. I’m now writing from the sofa at home, a few hours later. Watched the Monaco Grand Prix earlier, which was really very good. I really felt sorry for Sutil (he’s in one of the worst teams, and was in 4th place until the current world champion crashed into him a few laps from the end). Hamilton was bloody lucky – his puncture earlier on in the race gave him a real strategic advantage over Massa and Kubica, and apparently he got a puncture on the slowing down lap after crossing the line. Lucky the race was shortened, then. Speaking of Massa, he’s driving fantastically at the moment. Dare I say it, title hopes? He seems to be doing better than Raikkonen at the moment, it has to be said…

Doctor Who the other day was really bloody good. Most of this series has been pretty poor, to be honest. It’s almost as if the writers have tried to make it comic because they’ve got Catherine Tate, but it’s really not worked. It’s been cheesy, almost slaptstick humour. Thinking back to the first “new” series, with Christopher Ecclestone as the Doctor, that was really rather witty and that’s the way it should be.

Apart from that, it’s been predictable as well. Like “The Doctor’s Daughter”. Who didn’t foresee her getting shot? And then who didn’t see her re-generating (and keeping her form)? Bad. Just bad.

Anyway, the last episode was good. It’s properly dark, and not at all predictable. And I really like the way that it addresses the fact that the Doctor is a time traveller. For those that don’t watch the show, I’ll explain what I mean. One of the characters in the episode knows the Doctor, but first met him at a time later than the meeting we see in the show. So she knows the Doctor and has known him for years, but he has no idea who she is. It’s pretty clever. Can’t wait for Moffat to take over the direction of the show.

The Lost season finale came out the other day as well, and I have to say I thought it was pretty good. It did exactly what I expected – answered a few questions, introduced some new ones, and basically revealed a little bit more of the story. I have to say I really like some of the issues and themes that Lost looks at. Things like Good vs Evil, Science vs Faith, Fate or Destiny vs Free Will, and so on. That, and the entire story is pretty magnificent. If you haven’t watched it before, I urge you to acquire it and to spend a few days watching it all from the start. It’s really worth it.

Posted In: GeekMotorsportRantStuffTechnologyTV | 8 Comments