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Archive for May, 2012

Sun is out and your solar lights are shot

It’s that time of the year, the sun is coming out, it’s time to get out and sort the garden – you’re thinking those B&Q solar lights you bought will at long last, once again be springing to life.. and…. no, I GUARANTEE if you’re reading this and you have solar lights, at least one of them will be stone, cold, dead.

Crappy B&Q Solar LightsThe reason? It has nothing to do with the technology, it’s old-fashioned RUST. You see it doesn’t ever rain in China OR anywhere near a B&Q store and so the idea of water-proofing solar lights has never entered the heads of those involved. Simple, really.

Now, we’re not talking about rubbishy black plastic lights here but the later generation of stainless-steel and as we all know, stainless steel doesn’t rust. So you can add to the mix of no rain, my imagination…

BECAUSE IT SURE AS HELL LOOKS LIKE RUST TO ME.

What you’re looking at on the right is the scene UNDER the blue photovoltaic panel (solar panel) on a typical B&Q late-model solar garden light – I think we bought these in October or thereabouts. The light was dead. I took the battery out and charged it for a while and sure enough the light came on… but would NOT turn off in daylight – the reason is obvious…

The lights work by a tiny circuit who’s job is to take the voltage from the single battery up to something that will power a LED. It’s other job is to turn off the lights when the solar panel sees daylight (by which it charges the battery). With no solar panel connection, there is no charging –and no turn-off so the battery just flattens.

tmp8A92How could a new unit get into this state-  simple – eventually they ALL do because for some reason, either B&Q don’t specify or the Chinese simply don’t understand the concept of waterproofing. Either that or just as likely this is deliberate – sell them cheap, get people to replace them every year.

Were it not for this, the circuits would last a lifetime or more, the LEDS would last many years, the battery would likely be good for 5 years and the solar light would last between 2-3 years to 20 years depending on the plastic they use – some of the really cheap solar cells frost over after 2 years of even British sunshine, the glass-topped ones don’t do this.

But none of that matters if it all rusts to hell.

tmpEE54Worth resurrecting? Technically no, of course not…  as they only cost a couple of quid each – but if it’s a Sunny Sunday and you happen to have a soldering iron, silicon sealant and WD14 handy… why not! This particular model is now happily collecting light back in it’s natural habitat – which it is NOW capable of handling. A spot of WD40 on the board after soldering the wire back on – and a spot of silicon seal under the solar panel so the water can no longer get under there…

Worth taking the whole thing back to B&Q and making someone’s day – CERTAINLY but like me, by now you’ve probably lost the receipt and thrown the box in the bin. If only enough of us could muster up the energy to keep taking these things back and complaining – ultimately they’d get it and produce proper solar lights – no doubt about it – correctly made these things DO work and work well. Sadly, I think it’s simply down to most being made to a price. There’s a reason they have a circuit to ramp the voltage up – it’s cheaper than using 3 batteries!

Froot Loops

Some years ago, Maureen and I stayed at the Conrad Hilton in Chicago. This was at the height of my business travel using the Hiltons (which I rarely do now as I don’t think the general ones are up to much) – and accordingly I had a Hilton Gold “HHonors” card.. which doesn’t mean a whole lot in the UK.

LifeSaversFruity LoopsArriving at the Conrad Hilton on holiday on the basic room rate, I presented the hhonors card and we were immediately upgraded to a large room with his and hers separate bathrooms etc. – very nice. Instead of eating with the rest, the Conrad has (or had a few years ago) a separate room for hhonors guests with a great view of the waterfront. Breakfast was great – I’d never come across Kellogg’s Froot Loops before and really liked them. I never thought twice other than to make a mental note to get some when I got back to the UK.

Typically – no Froot Loops in the UK  – just boring chocolate -  that was the end of that….

Yesterday we happened to be at the THREE (3) store at the Gateshead Metro Centre where we got into conversation with a very pleasant female assistant who started talking about how much she liked American sweets  – Maureen offered  her some American gum she just happened to have and she was over the moon. In an almost empty 3 store she told us we were the first sale of the day and how quiet the Metro Centre had been.  In conversation she mentioned the new American sweet store just opened – and just around the corner. We figured we’d investigate.

Fruity LoopsAbsolutely amazing – there was a QUEUE formed outside the store  and they were only letting people in two at a time – we met Americans who were desperate for a taste of back home – and others who were British but clearly knew their American sweets. We joined the queue.

BOY is the stuff expensive – but worth it. They have a ton of American sweets, drinks and cereals – including the one I was after – Froot Loops – just had them for breakfast – brings back memories! Not something you’d want to eat every day mind you -  but just for a change – kits would LOVE the colours – sadly, by the time they get here, there might just be none left!

Apparently there are those who’ve thought of opening such a store and figured there would be no demand. WRONG. Might be something to think about in other parts of the UK and if you do open a store – would you grab a variety of Crystal Light and let me know as that’s the one thing they didn’t have (Interesting spelling for an American product don’t you think).

I did, in searching the web happen to find this if anyone’s taste buds are working….

Anyone for Pie? The Raspberry is on it’s way

I’m not normally prone to stopping up until 4am and I am about to give up for the night – but the Raspberry Pi has been 3 months in arriving thanks to various delays – and I received notice today that it’s on it’s way – which I’m assuming means it’ll turn up in the next few days, maybe even tomorrow. I can’t wait! Meanwhile for more information.. http://www.raspberrypi.org/. More when it arrives.

tmp70EF

Ice-Cream Anyone? The new white HTC ONE X

Against my better judgement (but then it’s usually that way) my wife, desperate for a new phone and frustrated by continued delays with the forthcoming Samsung S3, decided today was going to be the day she got her new phone and so off we went to the Metro Centre in Gateshead.

She headed to the Orange store where she got her original HTC Desire from – and I managed to persuade her to pop firstly into the 3 store – where I got my iPhone 4. Having been an Orange customer for many years, some time ago I’d simply had it with their utterly useless technical support and wavering definition of “unlimited data”.. I went to get my iPhone 4 and they informed me that I could have unlimited data – but that I would have to pay an extra £10 a month to share that data with my iPad. Well, you can imagine how I felt about that and to cut a long story short, I simply got out of the contract and went elsewhere.

3 offered truly unlimited, unrestricted data- and sure enough having bought my iPhone 4 with 3, I could share it with my iPad – and have done ever since, not to mention playing endless Internet radio when in the car. Marvellous. I have no complaints – batter life could be better but then that applies to virtually all top-end phones.

tmpD4FDFor the above reasons alone I did my best to convince my wife to change suppliers. She was not convinced until today, we went first to the 3 store and they were offering the new HTC One X for £29 a month with unlimited data. Back we went to the Orange store wherein we asked the assistant if they had the new Samsung – no. Ok, did they have the HTC X1 – yes – at £41 for unlimited data. This apparently is the best they can do – when asked if they still matched other people’s rates the assistant INSISTED EMPHATICALLY that they’d never done that. Sadly for him we both have long memories of having had Orange do just that on several occasions… by this point we were so disgusted with Orange I didn’t have to do any convincing – straight across the road to the 3 store and shortly thereafter out came my wife with a brand, spanking new HTC One X.

I’m not that keen on HTC having had many years of dealing with their phones supplied to staff.. and having watched buttons drop off etc.… but I have to say, they do seem to be improving. Whether this model will compare to Samsung S3 or the forthcoming iPhone 5 is another matter but the setup (Ice-Cream Sandwich) was devastatingly easy, the large screen is stunning and the phone is very light and thin. With a 1.5Ghz quad-core processor the screen is lightning fast and transferring information from the old to the new phone, I did in the store while she was filling in forms.. a trained monkey could have done the job. 

Key things to note, the HTC desire, though capable of handling a large external memory was screwed by having only 256 meg internally – and no matter what you do – you have to use a small but of that memory for every application you install – even if that application itself is stored in external memory.

The ONE X is very different – out of the box it has 1 GB of internal memory but ALSO has 32GB of permanently built-in “external” memory.  Installing the Sat-Nav software we use along with Spanish and UK maps hardly made a dent in the available storage and I’m confident the phone will handle more Apps than are likely to get installed by a long way. The S3 incidentally will have a higher monthly cost so that needs to be taken into consideration when comparing the two.

As time and experience progress I’ll update this blog. Up to now the white model is looking very nice. Would I swap for my iPhone? No, they still have a long way to go – but Ice Cream Sandwich is a very welcome improvement on the previous operating system version…  First thing to get tested once the battery is fully charged will be the 1080p HD video recording capability…  I mean – in a PHONE for heaven’s sake!!

EU Cookie Directive

The EU cookie directive basically says that you should allow people the option NOT to accept cookies from you. This is the most ridiculous trash that our European Politicians and UK gold-platers have come up with to date. Firstly they decimate our smallest electronics companies with the CE regulations, then they hinder everyone except real spammers with the UK spam laws and how this.

Most people would not know a cookie from a hole in the ground (and why should they) and the interfering regulators want us to bring these mostly harmless critters to everyone’s attention.

I’ve gathered a fair bit of information on this subject…

Firstly a reasonable explanation of WHAT a cookie is and how it relates to the regulations in force from 25th of May 2012.

The government was all set to start fining people then presumably realised that most of their own sites would not be ready in time – and so backed off – now they say they will NOT fine anyone – at least for a year. Well, that’s what they say, anyway.

Here is an open source solution called cookie consent that allows web designers to enable people to opt in for cookies.

Another called cookie control – this looks nice.

Of course a better way is to stop the government from progressing this – by protesting and explaining how harmful this could be to companies. You can do this by joining the conversation at the FSB website – at their FSB forums.

Cookies – the New Legislation

The UK goverment is once again dropping us in it with the cookie directive though for now we have a reprieve. Join the conversation.

Another year as National IT Chairman

tmp4EE2I now start another year as the National IT Chairman of the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses). We had our elections recently and though I was not opposed there is always the option to vote “none of the above” and I’m pleased to say that only a tiny percentage chose that option in my case.  Great to know I have such good support and thanks to all concerned.

I’m expecting lots of questions this week from around the FSB as the new “cookie directive” comes into play – indeed I’ve just written a blog on the subject at BDAILY. Definitely worth a read if you have a website – once again regulation getting in the way of, as against enhancing business.

After a WEEK of meetings including the elections at our “National Council” I managed at the weekend to get a few hours developing new gadgets. I spent time at my pal’s place checking our the latest 3D printer and we had some great conversations leading to another idea for my Ethernet Thermostat… movement detection to take the stat to a whole new place – being able to automatically shut down to a lower temperature band in the absence of people – and vice-versa. This will only add to my already useful remote Ethernet Thermostat which has now been on test without issue for 3 weeks or more. I’ve ordered both infra-red and ultrasonic sensors so I can do a side-by-side comparison. Right now I’m learning all about re-using old computers with Ubuntu.

Pete Scargill

Science 1 : Malaria 0 ?

Is this it? Do we now have a solution for Malaria and possibly more?  Judge for yourself – this short and very interesting video is well worth watching.

To Ubuntu or not to Ubuntu

Why Ubuntu?
One of the less pleasant aspects of my "part time but in reality fully time career" in the not-for-profit sector is to make decisions about things like how long to keep computer equipment. Realistically in an organisation with many computers, you have to have a policy. There was a time when we kept our PCs forever or until they basically packed in – but that time is thankfully long gone. The potential downtime, in an age where people rely utterly on their laptops, makes it essential to have an end-of-life policy.

And so it was that some time ago my IT Committee and I decided that we did not want to be involved in repairs and being saddled with staff or volunteer downtime and set the life of a laptop at 3 years. All laptops were to be purchased with a 3-year on-site warranty and that would be the end of that.

Although in a recession we’re being a little more flexible right now, the fact still remains that we get a constant trickles of laptops coming back in past their end of life – and this is on-going of course.  Ideally they’d all be old and worn away and so no-one would feel guilty about having them smashed up…and data securely wiped in the way a fly’s memory is wiped by your car windscreen. but in practice, some laptops get more use than others… and it has plagued me for years that we simply have a blanket policy to send them all off to be broken up – something agreed upon years ago in a somewhat different financial climate of course. The problem, or one of them – is Windows itself, the other problem is data.

Licensing Models
To explain, our licencing model for the software does not allow giving the computers back to their previous "owners" or indeed anyone else and up to now, though the hobbyist might just put an OEM Windows disk onto machines to resurrect them (usually involving some setup time), that really doesn’t work in a larger organisation or with a large number of machines – there are licencing issues and the slight matter of TIME – and so we’ve been at a loss for a solution as to how to make some use of the better defunct machines, ANYTHING rather than the wasteful process of sending them off for destruction. As well as the operating system there is the issue of confidential information in user files.

If you’ve ever tried erasing this stuff you’ll find it’s often not as simple as it looks and it is time-consuming. What is needed is a complete wipe – which of course makes the computer pretty useless.

And so it was that after some discussion I managed to get other directors to agree that it was not ESSENTIAL to destroy them IF we could find a better solution – and that perhaps, in some cases, people could request to KEEP their old machines. This of course does not get around any business issues of using out of warranty laptops – but I simply felt that it was a crime to smash all of these up when at least some would provide pleasure for their previous owners or find some other non-critical use in the organisation itself… perhaps to drive DASHBOARDS or other scenarios where failure would not bring the house down.

That’s fine – but that didn’t get around the problem of protecting corporate information OR solving the licencing issue – not that is – until now.

Emerging Alternative?
Every now and then I take a look at Linux to see how it’s coming along and I usually end up giving up and promising myself I’ll have another look in a year. Either the installation is simply too time consuming (and that is incredibly important in this case because "someone" has to do the resurrecting and we’re not here for the fun of it) or the end product simply isn’t worth it in a "Windows" world.

Installing Ubuntu
With that background, I recently went off to the Ubuntu website to get their latest creation (Ubuntu 12 is an open source operating system along the lines of Windows but free and not entirely compatible – but in recent years a lot of the Apps available for that operating system have been improving to the point where they can co-exist in a primarily Windows world). I downloaded an ISO file and made myself a DVD.  This was weeks ago and as it happens we had a returned machine come in to play with. I put the laptop into setup and told it to boot from CD, inserted the disk and after maybe 15 minutes I found myself with a working Ubuntu setup complete with Open Office.

I have to say… it really did work well and I promised myself I’d spend some more time on this… and so it was one evening that I found myself in the office with a Dell Latitude XT machine ready to try another install… and that’s where it all went wrong…  the laptop didn’t have a CD/DVD.

At that time I was faced with an unusual situation of being in a 3-day meeting-fest yet being alone at the hotel for the night – I wasn’t particularly hungry and decided that rather than go out eating alone, I’d spend the entire evening getting to grips with this issue of updating old laptops. The session was a complete success and so I’m documenting what I did for anyone who cares to follow.

The Solution
Clearly then a good solution would be to have everything one needs on a USB memory stick to simply plug into an old laptop, press a couple of buttons and hey presto – a sparkly "new" machine free of the original software and so after some research I came up with a solution.

Why a memory stick? Well, they are robust and fast and cheap. a 2Gbyte bottom end stick is fine. I ended up at this site and downloaded the Universal USB Installer. After hunting around for a couple of 2GB USB Memory sticks, I ran the above software on my laptop and I was asked which version of Linux I wanted to install. The first option was a desktop version of Ubuntu I was not even aware was out – version 12.04 – turns out this is new and VERY much improved (though not perfect but read on). A tick-box offered to download the ISO image for me and so I accepted that. A mater of minutes later I was asked which drive my USB memory stick was attached to – and that was it – within a minute I had a working USB Ubuntu installer stick.  I made a few copies.

Speedy Installation
The Dell Inspiron XT in it’s time was quite a machine – with swivel touch-screen – a precursor to the tablets of today this machine was not to be sneezed at – but how would it fare with Ubuntu – I didn’t for a moment imagine the touch-screen would still work – not to mention Bluetooth, WIFI and all the other features the machine provides. Surely this would at the very least take some manual intervention and a time-consuming search for drivers  – which would knock this project on the hear immediately because the whole thing has to be done by predominantly non-technical staff in no time at all, for cost reasons.

The reality was very different to what I was expecting… here, step by step is what happened…

  • Time 00:00 – Rebooted the laptop, pressed F" for setup and selected BOOT FROM USB.
  • Time 00:01 – Plugged in the USB stick, rebooted.
  • Time 00:02 – I was asked (in a graphical interface) if I was in the UK and would I like to download FLASH – I said yes.
  • Time 00:03 – the laptop amazingly knew all about the WIFI and asked me for the password for our network.
  • Time 00:05 – Did I want to install Ubuntu alongside Windows or overwrite – I chose the latter and the software indicated it would wipe the existing partitions,start from scratch, format the disk and install Ubuntu – I would lose all data… I said yes.
  • Time 00:07 – I was shown a map with London preselected – I confirmed UK keyboard
  • Time 00:08 – Would I supply a user name, PC name and password and did I want to auto boot. I supplied the details and confirmed.

Office Software
At that point the laptop amazingly went off and got all the software it needed from the web. I went off to answer some emails and by the time I’d done that, I had a complete, working laptop – including the touch-screen, WIFI, Bluetooth – in face everything just WORKED. The installation included replacements for Microsoft WORK and POWERPOINT and more called Libre Office.  But what about media?

I plugged in one of my USB PC pocket drive containing my movies, music and pictures – Ubuntu read this no problem but when I tried to run a movie I was warned about missing codecs… was this going to be the first problem?

Multimedia
At home, rather than Microsoft Media Centre, I use a popular and free media centre called XBMC – a really powerful spin-off from what was originally "X-BOX Media Centre" available for Windows, Apple TV and… as it turns out, Linux.  The software installation pack on Ubuntu is REALLY easy to use so off I went to install (from a menu) XBMS and VLC (another favourite media player which I recommend to everyone to use).

5 minutes later I had a complete working XBMC that ran all of my media flawlessly. The new ribbon interface on Ubuntu 12.04 works a treat and after a little exploration I realised I had a complete working computer even including an Internet Radio program (RythmBox Music Player) capable of satisfying the need for a basic work machine AND home media system.

Fluke Installation?
Wary that this might have been just a fluke I then took an even older Dell computer, a really clapped-out old rattler and repeated the same procedure. Although this took longer, the installation went just as well and again, everything just “worked” – this was a completely different model and by this time I’d gotten it down to just a couple of minutes of my actual time involved. This really does look like a nice solution for re-use of old machines without breaching copyright or letting confidential materials loose. Of course one could argue that a good engineer might resurrect the original information, just as they do on CSI – the reality – highly unlikely as much of it as much of it will have been over-written by the new software and the operating systems are just not compatible at that level. Unless the information is of such a nature as to be highly sensitive, worth investigating a lot of time and effort to recover, I don’t believe this method of re-using old kit represents a corporate threat.

Corporate Email
One of my big gripes about Linux has always been it’s main email reader, Thunderbird. It’s inability to handle email systems such as Microsoft Exchange has always been a deal-breaker for me. All change… a little background program (free) called DAVMAIL allows Thunderbird to handle corporate email, calendars and contacts. I’m not yet convinced it works as well as Outlook – but like Firefox there are many plug-ins and I’m just waiting for a weekend to try out things like scheduled email and even mail-merge email.

Other Goodies
Up to now, most of the utilities I’ve installed via the “Apple App Store” type installation have been winners, there’s a simple video editor (sadly with no sound editing), Gimp (superb image editor), Blogilo (blog writer) and of course VLC, DropBox and other essentials I use every day in Windows – all of these are available in Ubuntu.

Overall impression
I’m impressed. Make no mistake this is NOT Windows 7 with Microsoft Office-  but as an alternative to binning half-decent laptops because they are out of date this seems to me to be a wonderful solution requiring (once you have the USB sticks) no technical expertise and very little time – just WIFI and a bench to leave the laptop to update itself. I could see a line of these quietly sitting being resurrected – at virtually no cost.

Next stop
A tin of compressed air to blow out the fan (old laptops tend to get clogged with dust helping them heat up and lowering reliability) and to clean up the keyboard. One laptop better off… for now. If someone gets a year or two good use out of this I’ll be more than happy.

Caveats
I tested several machines and in no case would external monitors work properly – either the resolution was wrong or some issue – so some work is needed there but by now someone will be onto this.

Summary
This blog provides the link to get the free software to resurrect old computers. There’s no guarantee that any of this works (and I’m not an advice service). Armed with nothing more than a USB memory stick, old laptop and Internet connection, if you’re lucky within half an hour you could have a sparkly new installation of Ubuntu on what might otherwise have been a fairly useless old machine. No guarantees – from here you’re on your own. I certainly intend to develop this further to make best use of older tech rather than simply consign it all to the bin. Though some old laptops are simply not worth it and will rightly be scrapped, every now and then someone’s machine that has been looked after is worthy and by the look of it capable of giving the world another few years of service thanks to open-source (and generally but not always free) software.