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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Summer of 2015

Spain - Embalse Del NegratinWe’re currently spending our summer in Spain, having made some major changes to our lives. I’m no longer the National IT Chairman for the FSB – a role I held for 14 years without opposition. I decided in June that I’d spent enough time with the organisation and it was time to move on.

Maureen[4]Maureen is no longer teaching and we made the somewhat bold decision to clear off to Spain for the summer. Our old home in Wark is on long-term rent and Hollyberry Cottage is fully booked until our return in the winter. In the meantime the ESCO work I was doing for the EU had drawn to a close (at least for now – I’m sure it won’t be long before I see Brussels again).

Hence instead of making excuses for the British summer that never comes, we’ve been here in Andalusia (Andalucia if you’re from mid-Spain) now since July and despite some of the disturbing weather forecasts you might have seen for parts of Spain, we’ve had I think 2 days of rain and maybe 5 or 6 days of gloomy clouds all summer – the rest has been glorious – yesterday for example was 30c and sunny (general photos in this album). The last rainfall did a power of good for the lakes which are a bit on the low side this year, but wonderfully warm for it.

MIT BostonI spent a short amount of time in Boston this summer, invited by a Chinese group to help out at MIT and met some great people there. Mind you, the airlines lost my bags in the process but that’s another matter.

If you want to get into the whole Spanish thing – I maintain the Spanish Bedrock website where I detail our travels in the hope it is of interest to others… and there is also Facebook etc., the social media links are in here somewhere. Meanwhile on the technical front, the additional time this long break has given us has been great, I’ve been able to devote more time to various projects and learning on my tech website, something that just doesn’t work when you are flitting back and forth from one meeting to another.

Accordingly I’ve been learning all about Linux thanks to the Raspberry Pi 2 which has kind of forced me to make the effort – so my new home control project – detailed at http://tech.scargill.net has given me ample opportunity to start broadening my Linux skills – still very much a work in progress.

Spain

I guess most importantly we’re having fun and relaxing, something I’ve not done for a long time. We miss our friends in the UK but then that’s what the technology is all about – Skype, Facebook and other toys have changed the way people communicate, generally for the better though I am looking forward to face to face meetings with our pals on our return in November.

Spanish entertainmentThis morning, we’re off to Huescar for coffee and some bits and pieces then I have a day of wiring up to do, I’ve been re-designing the lighting here outside our cave and am trying to make the wiring as neat as possible. For now most of my updates are on the Bedrock site.

Boston

The “Internet of Things”

As this is now abuzz-phrase you’ll see littering the press, I thought I’d put in my two-pence worth on this “new” subject.

The “Internet of Things” is a phrase used to describe things that can be controlled or monitored (or both) over the Internet.

In 1962  I was too young to be aware of what was happening outside of my own house! but at this time, a fellow called Licklider from MIT was describing what he called a “galactic network” concept in which computers all over the world would talk to each other. By 1969 4 machines were talking to each other in what was called “Arpanet” and the rest is well known… today, billions of machines are connected worldwide… but most folk think of everything from large computers down to mobile phones – what is slightly less well known is the massive spread late last century of “microcontrollers” which are now found in most everyday electronic gadgets (washing machines, industrial controllers etc. and which are often connected together by what is currently called “The Internet of Things”. Checkout Cloudwash if you’re interested in what might be done with domestic appliances. Here is another link to a Samsung phone controlled washing machine, the WW9000.

In 1963 my interest in electronics started with a “Philips E10” kit which started me on the path of building radio receivers, controlling lights and motors.. and I’ve been involved with electronics since then, writing articles, building machines and eventually turning my interest into a business in the 80’s and beyond.

In 1974, the X10 protocol was developed in Scotland (but strangely found much favour in America where, amongst others,  Steve Ciarcia made it popular with hobbyists -Steve Ciarcias Circuit Cellar magazine). This was a means of connecting gadgets around the home/office/factory for the purpose of remote control. In this case the signals were/are in fact sent over the mains electricity supply. Other solutions involve WIFI, Bluetooth, general radio, Infra-red and other mechanisms.

That takes care of the local connectivity while the Internet allows that remote control to extend worldwide.

In 1982, students at Carnegie Mellon University created the first ever “Internet connected soda vending machine”. I remember being fascinated at the possibilities this would bring, thousands, perhaps millions of machines of all shapes and sizes being controlled and monitored via the Internet from anywhere in the world. Of course at that time there was not even the concept of an Internet-connected mobile phone so that limited possibilities at the time – but this was enough to start me off and by May 1994 our company had developed a home control system called Appcon which basically let anyone control lights, alarms, heating and more from a PC – and by implication, by remotely controlling the PC, from anywhere. 

We used wire control and the mobile infrastructure was simply not ready for this. Today it is and we’re already starting to see simple light and heating control via mobile phones appearing on the market. We’re also seeing what I believe is only the tip of the iceberg in dire warnings in the press about security.  While Windows and the Internet in general have had a long time to get used to nasty people trying to break in and destroy – to the extent that virtually all of the public are aware of viruses, trojans and other means of destroying PCs, certainly the home control market has to date not been sufficiently important to attract large scale attempts at disruption – but it will happen – it’s just a matter of time.

Part of the problem is that the sophisticated anti-virus and other techniques used to protect PCs are simply not available to the simplest of controllers you might see in for example a remote light switch. Even HTTPS: which is a simple mechanism to encrypt data over the Intranet is mostly not available to the simplest of controllers.

Gartner reckon that by 2020, 30 BILLION devices will be connected to the Internet and bear in mind that the current IP4 system of Internet addressing allows for only 4.3 billion individual device addresses and that includes PCs and phones etc.!! Newer technologies such as IP6 which allow for a FAR greater number of devices are again not really available to the simplest of devices at this time so there are lots of changes and improvements to be made in the coming years.

In the meanwhile, much fun and entertainment is still to be had in this emerging field – enthusiasts using the likes of the Raspberry Pi, Arduino and other technologies are having a great time coming up with new ideas and new applications. The combination of local networking and remote control via the Internet has chance to dramatically change how we interact with the world in the coming years, offering massive possibilities for saving energy and doing things in completely new ways. Expect to hear a LOT more of this in the coming months.

For my own efforts I’m now controlling my own gadgets in 3 properties including modern lighting technologies and heating and already making savings on heating bills.

La Weekend

Two very successful days in a techie kind of way… and sorry, this one is just for techies…

tmp5699One of my big bug-bears with the Ethernet/radio interface for the home controller has always been the cheap short range radios as you know if you’ve followed my blogs. The NRF24L01 boards are just crap – ok, they work but only short range – and the RF24NETWORK network is great for what it is – but it’s not a true net and there is no chance of making into a true network – you have to have a master and spider-type network with hopping nodes. Their numbers have to be predefined as the hopping sequence is limited. In addition the radios can’t send and receive at the same time so the master really has to keep control at all times of the communication sequence… AND THAT’s FINE – I have it off to an art – but if only there was something better.

ATmega2564RFR2 chipWell there is – the Atmel chip range include a pair with radio built in and they’ve developed a lightweight network – but a true network where any node can step in as a relay. Problems? Getting the things, having the software, defining the interface. Well getting them was the first thing we solved, thanks to my pal buying an oven to solder the chips to the boards (impossible with a soldering iron as the pads are underneath the chip), the software we now have working, due to a sensible approach… and the interface is now cracked.

You can get samples out of Atmel and that’s just what my pal Aidan did – well both of us, allowing him to make a series of test boards up. Until this weekend that’s about as far as it went – but yesterday we managed to get the network demos up and running and there is no doubt about it, the extendable network WORKS – we made the mistake of starting with on-board chip aerials which are pretty useless but we know from the demo boards that Atmel produce that they CAN have a decent range with the right stub aerial.

We have SCOURED the web and it is full of failed projects and promises due to people going down the wrong path either hardware or software wise in producing low cost radio networks. One set of guys in Canada thought they had the solution, a little radio board with USB on it – they needed 20k funding – and only got 6k – the project stopped this time last year and even their website has disappeared. WHY? Heaven knows but I suspect the USB interface – why would you want to fasten these to your PC when you already have WIFI…. surely a simple low cost interface for hardware projects using PIC, ATMEL or other chips is the answer, something compatible with he many cheap radio boards out there but considerably better? Well we solved that one today – the SPI interface – after a several blind alleys – we got it working. Making a stand-alone radio board avoids the hurdles of making the boards work with a particular chip. The final hurdle – antenna – the chip antenna designs are useless – few feet range – so we’re going to make 2 boards, one with on-board antenna and the other with a short stub aerial – either way we expect up to 30metres range. With 2 boards you have 60 metre range etc. etc… a true network.

We tested the network by having two boards talk to each other and moving them further and further apart until they were out of range. Merely introducing a third, arbitrarily numbered board in between the two, re-instated the link – we went up to 4 boards two of which simply sat there on the floor of a large house, battery powered and we managed to triple the working distance of our boards.

Nothing more will happen before June as we need some boards with proper aerials to test and I have holidays but we’ve cracked the back of this one. An excellent way to spend the weekend.

A Birthday, a Spanish Trip and more

It’s Maureen’s birthday today and we’re off to get her a new tablet – the Samsung Note 10.1 2014 edition. Not to be confused with earlier lacklustre attempts from Samsung this thing has resolution vastly exceeding most modern flat-screen TVs at 2540 pixels across, effectively making the dots invisible even on close inspection. Add to that an octal-core processor and it looks like a winner. I will write a review at some point.

Then we’re off to see friends, I’ve been working with my pal on some circuit boards one of which we hope will soon turn into a Kickstarter project and another we’re just doing for the fun of it. Tomorrow we select a new Main Coon kitten having recently lost our cat Pamela (and to be honest it didn’t exactly break my heart as she was a miserable git) which should then make us a 3-ginger-kitty family. That is if we don’t lose one of the existing gingers who, despite having been fitted with a chip seems to have a pathological mis-trust of cat flaps and who hence has trouble getting into the house when we’re not there.

Short trip to Spain coming up wherein I plan to take some kit over to do further work on my home control system which allows me to control stuff via my mobile phone at a distance (lights etc). Weather is warm there still but cool enough to actually get some work done.

Cronus 3-S Digital Stopwatch… a Decent Burial

tmp81E6Much as I love to hang on to stuff, there comes a time during house clean-ups when things have to go… and so it is with this marvellous device that belonged to my dad (Donald Archer Scargill).

A keen hobbyist, he had a tendency to buy the latest and greatest gadgets of the time (like me) and the Cronus 3-S was supposedly the epitome of technology back in 1978. An accurate LED stopwatch, the unit uses 3 AA batteries to provide a bright display using (you may recall) those tiny LED displays with huge magnifying lenses of them, so beloved of Clive Sinclair.

There’s an advert here for the original model, “Cronus 1” which you’ll see in the link is a lot more primitive. “The most accurate, rugged, compact and complete competition stopwatch in the world, period”.  The fact is that even then it really wasn’t that big a deal, a crystal timer and a bunch of simple TTL logic driving a display but hey, making oversize claims worked for Clive Sinclair, why not for these guys.

I did think of simply burying it – but hey – someone might find a use for it.. so..

http://cgi.ebay.co.uk/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=231055690460

Solar lights and the angle of the sun

Peter ScargillHi! You might find this interesting.. it’s not rocket science but plenty of people would argue otherwise.

Have you noticed that NEARLY all garden solar lights have the solar cell FLAT on the top – i.e. not angled to the sun but level. I can only imagine this is for ease of manufacture or style or they’re mainly sold in hot countries where the sun gets high up in the sky.

Either way, not good! You hear people say “ah yes these solar cells work in the shade as well”. The technical term for that is bollocks.

So, here’s the test. I took a typical solar cell (I just happen to have them lying around all over the place) out into the garden this afternoon – just after lunch. Being March in the UK the sun was down near the ankles.

I made sure there were no obstructions and the solar cell was naked – i.e. no glass to add to the confusion. I stuck a meter on the cell and moved it into three positions – firstly JUST out of the sun, secondly in the sun and flat level with the ground and thirdly at 90% to the sun – i.e. pointing at the sun.

solar cell test

Well there it is in plain English… 16ma from the device in the shade, 60ma from the flat device and 100ma from the device when pointing to the sun. The difference is clear and unambiguous.

Put another way… assuming you managed to get the garden light to shine, given the more favourable lighting (3) for, oh, 4 hours at night….. the version with the flat top would only give you 2.4 hours and the one in the shade (only just mind you – I reckon I could have made it give a lot less) would give you 38 minutes at best. Pile more solar cells you get more power – but the ratio remains the same.

I hope that puts that one to rest – there will be minor differences depending on the cell type. Look for garden lights who’s solar cells you can point at typical British sun – set them to the position the sun will be at mid-day – and that’s the best you’re going to get.

The Changing World of the Web

I’ve been doing some research for the FSB and I thought I’d put down some information I’ve picked up – all of this is bang up to date.

Amazing as it seems, up to a third of the world has Internet access. That might not sound a lot but think of the people who will never have access – those parts of the world for example where they’ve gotten themselves into a situation where they are utterly controlled or they don’t even have electricity. If for the sake of discussion we discount those people – it’s fair to say that the majority of people who are going to get access in the near future, already have it.   Even at home in the UK there are those (primarily age-related) who simply don’t see the point and are not interested.

As for who’s using what.. PC sales seem to have levelled off whereas tablet sales are going through the roof right now – no doubt this Christmas will have an affect on that – apparently 47% of American kids want an iPad (I’d imagine a very small percentage will actually GET one). So the big drivers right now are smartphones and tablets and as we know, iPad and Google Nexus are the two big names here right now.

Right now, more broadband is consumed by mobile devices than fixed devices and the theory is that by 2015 (only a couple of year) that’ll be more like 4:1 in favour of mobile!

There are currently 6 bullion mobile phone users, 1 billion of those being users of smartphones but in current SALES, Smartphones are sailing ahead of the older feature phones which are starting to die off. As you’d imagine the whole thing is definitely age-related with the highest users of Smartphone being by younger people with more cash to spend. But of course once hooked as they get older there will be no way they’re going back… China, incidentally has 25% of smartphone sales and that puts them at around twice the size of the US market.

The Internet used to be full of free content – which made it hard to run a business from it but of course that has all changed – iTunes, Netflix (and similar), buying and selling on Ebay all play a major part today in the massive and every-increasing commercialisation of the Internet. Digital advertising has gone from just about zero in 1995 to around 20 billion pounds today.

For American companies at least – and limiting to those in the media and tech areas, around 40% of their income is now digital – i.e. online. For advertising, TV still keeps the lead (42%) – but online advertising is coming closely behind and advertising in print is starting to go very much downhill (9%). Newspaper advertising in particular has dropped through the floor (I don’t know about you but I haven’t bought a newspaper in years).

On the subject of digital photography, we all know that Kodak are stuffed – who would have thought… but today, phone cameras are now giving traditional cameras a run for their money not because they are as good but because they are far more convenient.

As a life-long amateur photographer, I gave up on film as far back as 1997 and only a couple of years ago I gave up on large bulky cameras as being just too much like hard work for hot holidays… the convenience of the phone camera and the ability to send to Facebook etc. straight from the phone was the main driver. Throughout it all however I’ve sorely missed the quality and control that comes with a DSLR. Then out of the blue the traditional cameras are fighting back – I’ve just bought the new Samsung Android camera – a full-blown Android unit with a decent lense – the first of it’s kind. I predict that a variation on this will become the norm (pending people coming out of their comfort zones) and that non-updatable, proprietary camera interfaces will hopefully soon die out. For now I’m ahead of the pack and enjoying every minute – I just wish someone would invent decent batteries!

One wonders what it would be like to to transport 10 years into the future. The changes are likely to be far more dramatic than the changes we’ve seen in the previous 10 years – but making predictions is probably a fool’s game.

Life as Normal

Petes relay control panelI’m looking out of the window and wishing I was in the sun… though to be fair, it’s not that cold today, yet.  In-between bouts of database work for the Fed, I had a trip to the docs as my foot keeps giving me trouble, so now I’ve a load of exercises to do, reckons I’ve damaged something.

I’ve been working on my relay board… this is a board that talks to the Internet and serves up a web page by which I can turn up to 8 mains relays on and off at a distance – like – any distance.  I need these to control stuff in Spain when I’m here and so it has to be very reliable.

As you can see on the right, the interface (web page) is pretty basic but I wanted it that way as I have to control this from the iPhone.

Microprocessor-Controlled Relay BoardProgress so far is good… I built a pre-prototype using an Arduino board and this model here is done using a little Arduino Nano. Most of my time was taken up figuring out why one of the pins didn’t respond as normal – I figured it out – CHINA! And so now, all’s well and it’s one test where it’ll stay for a couple of weeks to make sure it’s crash-proof.

Next stop is to add a couple of temperature sensors (inside/outside).

Quality of BBC Reporting – Led Lighting

Some day the BBC will get it right.  In “LEDs offer a brighter future, says report”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16199552 the BBC report on a field trial of the “new technology” of LED lighting.

In it the report states the millions of Kilowatt hours that can be saved and paints a wonderful picture of LED lighting which it says can last for up to 100,000 hours.

Typical of the kind of surface reports we see, the author has not put the slightest effort into this – as there is a real story underneath which they missed.

LED Lighting in this country is currently a RIP-OFF – the likes of B&Q charge obscene prices for LED lighting – and yet the technology is NOT AT ALL new, high intensity LEDS having been around for several years now – as anyone with a LED keychain will tell you.

tmp681Many of the lights out there are nothing more than a printed circuit board with a load of inexpensive LED lights and a power supply and yet the charges are horrendous. Not only that but the “claimed life” is actually that of the LED itself, used in ideal circumstances and at reasonable temperatures.

The problem is – in order to cram as  much light as possible into a small space, many LED mains lights run warm or hot and this has a considerable effect on reliability.

Tosh? All you have to do is go into any of the larger stores which have LED lighting on demonstration – you’ll see dud lamps all over. Early adopter hotels that used these lights in come cases reverted back, in others have had to replace.

The newer 3-led units which DO work are even more obscenely priced…

http://tinyurl.com/8xej6yo 

tmp2E89Yes, that’s over £20 for a LIGHT BULB. The very same unit can be bought from China for around £3 or so including postage – and indeed in Spain, the outlet stores there sell them for not much more. I have several and they are great.. At £3-£4 they are a definite investment – but at FIVE times that price they are nothing more than a rip-off.

I always like to buy locally or at least British when I can – but seeing prices like that you think “to hell with it” – THERE’S the story the BBC SHOULD have come up with instead of a lame endorsement.

Technical: LEDS don’t like heat – note the new versions have a massive aluminium heat sink – but there are many millions of the older style (shown above) sold as new technology – basically they are crammed onto a board and over-driven to get the light output – they cannot achieve anything REMOTELY like the stated lifespan.  You might also ask why they’re not very bright in garden solar lamps? That’s because they are dramatically UNDER-driven – to save on solar cell and battery costs. Right now it seems to be all down to profit, not quality.

For those of you who think this stuff is new technology – and expensive – go to Ebay and punch in “5mm LED” or “LED strip” – cheap as CHIPS!!

Wet and Ruined Solar Lights

After buying another set of solar lights from B&Q only to throw two of them away today because the rain got into them – I’ve sent a letter off to them to complain – first time I’ve ever done that to B&Q. No doubt I’ll get a response back along the lines of "”very few customers ever complain” – which is probably true – it’s taken me years to get around to complaining about the cheap Chinese rubbish they import..

Anyway, here it is – if you have the same problem – feel free to pinch any information from this letter.

————–

B&Q Customer Services
Torrance House
Erskine
Renfrewshire
PA8 6AT

Dear Sirs

Over many years I’ve purchased solar garden lamps of one sort of another from B&Q and over the years I’ve noticed they are getting LESS reliable, not more.

Just a couple of months ago we had so many part-working sets in our garden we decided to buy a brand new set – you’ve only had them in a while, stainless steel set of 10 solar lamps with remote control (this is the first time I’ve seen a remote control on solar powered lights).

They look like the real thing – stainless steel, good construction, work straight out of the box, SPECIALLY MADE FOR B&Q in China….

The problem is like all the REST of the solar lights you’ve sold over the years, THEY’RE NOT WATERPROOF.

I don’t know what instructions you sent when you have these specially made but could you please add the instruction that it RAIN in Britain.

The set of 10 is already down to a set of 8 and this is typical, I expect half of them will last the winter.

The TWO things that stop these lights from lasting years (this applies to all but a few of your solar lights are:

1. NOT WATERPROOF. The water gets into the circuitry and rusts the boards or the LED leads – and they fail

2. The cover for the photocell is plastic, not glass – and it frosts up in the sun, dramatically reducing the life of the units.

I would willingly pay more for a set of lights that would last 5 years instead of one or two and I’m sure so would others. This is just BAD DESIGN – no other way of putting it. The cost of a little silicon seal and a piece of glass (the latter IS found on some of the solar cells you’ve sold in the past) would make a DRAMATIC difference to these products.

I hope this does not fall on deaf ears, forget refund offers, I don’t have the receipts and I’ve binned the broken units – over the years I must’ve bought at least a dozen different sets – if only they lasted I’d put a lot more in and have them ALL working.

We also bought a couple of the sets with the separate solar cell and a lead – nice glass front on the large solar cell but EXACTLY the same issue – they get soaking wet inside over the winter – and the circuits corrode – there really is no excuse for this.

Regards

Peter Scargill