Categories
Gadgets Geekery Random Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi wi-fi cheat

Or ‘how to stop worrying and love WiFi’ or how to get WiFi if nothing else works – read on:

I’m calling this a Wi-Fi cheat – with the Raspberry Pi – Motorola lapdock combination I’ve been having problems getting the Edimax micro wireless adapter to work. I think it’s a power issue – the adapter gets quite hot when plugged into the USB ports on the lapdock, and I get a lot of errors on bootup – so here’s a solution:

vonets Wi-Fi bridge

It’s a Vonets VAP11G WIFI Bridge – powered off the USB on the lapdock it works fine. It doesn’t support n wireless, just b and g but it is quick enough for iplayer, most normal software installation and web surfing. I’ve had no problems getting online with my BT homehub. It’s bulkier than most of the cheap WiFi dongles available and at about £17 a little bit more expensive, but once set up it provides a portable ethernet connection to more or less anything you plug it into.

It’s handy having something to use around the home – particularly for Linux distributions where setting up WiFi is a bit complicated, or for operating systems that don’t support WiFi yet like Risc OS.  The newest release of Raspian has addressed a lot of these issues though so I’d recommend trying that first and using this as a last resort.

The bridge itself is configured through a windows app available from the Vonets site, so you’ll need a PC on hand to switch access points, and the software isn’t available for Mac or Linux.

Edit: TheSov on Reddit has suggested this: Asus WL-330N 5-in-1 150Mbps Wireless Mobile Router which is much better (supports n and has web based configuration), but twice as expensive.

Update: there is a python app for configuring the wifi bridge available here.

Categories
Geekery Random Science Fiction

To boldy crowdsource, where no-one has crowdsourced before

Here’s an idea: if everyone who watched the last Star Trek film donated a couple of dollars would it be enough to fund a real space ship?

Right now on Kickstarter you can sponsor a cube sat (starting at one dollar) which is a tiny 10cm x 10cm x 10cm satellite (potentially) hitching a ride on a forthcoming falcon rocket launch. For your dollar, you get to sponsor 10 seconds of the mission and can tweet from spaaace! –  for a bit more you get to take a couple of photos using the cube-sat’s camera. Sadly there’s no space laser option.

Edit: Skycube has managed to hit it’s target! raising $116,890 of it’s goal. The team will be publishing updates at www.skycube.org

Here’s an exceptionally nerdy video from the project organisers: no it’s not an episode of the Big Bang Theory

The backers are aiming to raise $82,500 for their project to be successful – small change compared to some recent projects on kickstarter. Space-wise it’s a relatively low key mission – the sat is destined to whirl around the earth a few times, and then deploy a giant balloon to commit tidy suicide in a fiery re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere.

This got me thinking pointlessly about how the cost of sending stuff into space would compare with the revenues from the Star Trek films. There’s a handy blog here with adjusted values.

Once you’ve got over the shock that the highest grossing Star Trek film was the really boring one, here are a few Star Trek films, and what they could have paid for*:

The average takings for a Star Trek film are about 151 million dollars.

43 million dollars will buy you a Russian Angara rocket:

56 million a (probably) more reliable Falcon 9 rocket:

94 million was what Star Trek V took.

105 million dollars will buy you a complete 3 seat Soyuz mission.

160 million dollars a nice ION drive powered SMART1 probe around the moon (or Search for Spock)

700 million dollars will send a car sized probe to Pluto (New Horizons)

820 million dollars buys Some nice Mars rovers. So here’s a really very exciting video about landing a Ford Transit sized rover on a distant planet:

1.7 billion dollars = is what all the Star Treks put together took.

9 billion = the UK trident nuclear missile programme.

12 billion = Skylon reusable shuttle: (ok this is semi-fictional, but the video pitch is narrated by Brian Blessed, which in itself is lovely)

And finally 43 billion buys you a shiny space shuttle programme.

So there you go. Space is terribly expensive. Still, the UK government could probably fund an entire space programme, make a lot of Star Trek films, and still have a lot of change over for nice things if it just cancelled it’s nuclear weapons programme.

Or the UK could even buy about 3 mars rovers for the cost of the Nimrod MR4 spy plane which was cancelled before entering service.

Where was I again? oh yes Kickstarter.

*Please take this with a big huge pinch of salt. I’d be upset if Wrath of Khan had never been made. Not so upset if they hadn’t bothered with The Final Frontier or Nemesis.

 

Categories
Gadgets Random Raspberry Pi

Dad-Tech: Wooden Raspberry Pi prototype board

This year for father’s day I bought my Dad a Raspberry Pi – as I was lucky enough to grow up in a house filled with computers,  it was nice to return the favour!

He’s working on a project to drive a solenoid-activated pipe organ using the GPIO pins on the Pi. To this end he’s started on a wooden Pi case and prototype board – since most breadboards come with a sticky-backed plastic mounting pad it’s nice to have something to mount them on, and keep everything tidy.

Here’s version 1:

Prototype Raspberry Pi development board

(I’m trying to encourage him to keep a blog of his progress!) 

And here’s the board varnished with the breadboard in position (and some very tidy cabling from the GPIO pins)

Raspberry pi development board with breadboard and some LEDs

 Ultimately these should be available to buy on ebay, he also makes excellent clocks.

Categories
Random

EU opt-in cookies

Here’s a recipe for EU opt-in cookies

EU opt-in cookies
EU opt-in cookies. Yummy.

You can control the level of gooey-ness by altering the amount of condensed milk. You might also need to bake for a bit longer than 20 minutes as the blueberries make it a bit soggy (and I got carried away as I love blueberries).

I wasn’t able to find any blue food colouring that wasn’t nastily artificial, and my attempts with yellow and purple ended up looking like weird alien food from a mid seventies episode of Dr Who. Still tasted good though.

Categories
Gadgets Geekery Random Raspberry Pi

Geeking out with a Raspberry Pi lego case

I like Lego, and I like miniature ARM based low cost PCs, so I’ve combined both with a Lego Raspberry Pi case:

Lego Raspberry Pi Case
Version 2 – slightly taller

I wanted to mount the Pi vertically to show off the intricately beautiful circuit board (and possibly to take up less space, but this thing is tiny!) and I’ve used window bricks that line up with the Pi logo. For my first attempts I tried designing a case using the lego designer – but beware, many of the bricks aren’t available from the pick-a-brick store. I’ve had to use 1×1 tiles stacked in groups of 3 to make the corners, and 2×1 tiles for the top.

This case is 4 bricks wide as the GPIO pins stick out slightly too far to fit with 2 bricks wide. Windows and arch bricks form the holes for the various plugs, with the USB and Ethernet cables emerging from the top. I’ve used the mini USB power supply from Amazon Kindle combined with a remote controlled socket for power.

The latest version has the coloured bricks at the bottom, and more clear bricks at the top to refract the light from the various power / activity indicators. It also stands a little bit taller to allow for the USB mini power plug and a grip to hold the Pi motherboard in place.

Total cost is about £30, but I do have plenty of bricks left over for other Lego projects…

I’ve now recreated the Raspberry Lego design in the Lego digital designer:

RaspberryLego case
It’s a raspberry pi case in Lego

 

I’ve coloured the bricks on the model above since they were easier to see than transparent bricks. Inside the case there’s a little c-shaped hook that the Raspberry Pi sits in. I was able to find all the bricks with the colour-scheme as used in the transparent version of the model in the pick-a-brick store.

Download the lego designer files.

If you’re building this, you need a Pi to hand to check the alignment of the ports – I have fully tested this with a Pi, but you need to build the Lego around it or it’ll get a bit fiddly.

Categories
Activism Random

My Dad does some e-campaigning!

See the below from my Dad:

Dear All
I was shocked when I took a small amount of lead tubing  to our local scrapyard last week.
The metal fetched £2.50 / Kg now and I came away with over £60 in cash.
I was shocked that it is so easy to get cash – just a name and address and vehicle registration number.
They didn’t check that the vehicle number I gave was correct, let alone look it up on the national database.
Would you consider signing the ePetition that seeks to force a change in the rules, please?

It is a government website and quite safe:

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/406

Yours sincerely

Stephen Taylor

They’re at about 25,000 signatures – reforming the legislation is a relatively easy thing for ministers to do, and it’s particularly upsetting when things like this are stolen for a few quid (about 0.05% of it’s actual value). Plus it would be nice to see an epetition succeed that’s not a Daily Mail repatriation / anti-europe / king canute type subject.

Categories
Gadgets Random

Very old school photography

Film photography is slow, expensive, limited and prone to mistakes, errors and fogged film. However it’s also a rather joyful experience with random surprises thrown in from time to time. Being able to take only 10 or 11 precious shots at a time and then having to wait ages to get your photos back makes a contrast to the instant gratification of taking thousands of digital pictures.

Although I love the ease of digital photography I miss the magical moment of watching the perfect image appear on a print in the dark-room developer tray, often after many failed attempts.

Recently I picked up an old Kodak brownie camera in a junk shop – it was a “Number 2 Cartridge Hawk-Eye Model b” – proof that the practice of giving your product an impressive complicated sounding technical name is not a new one. It’s a very basic camera, consisting of a leather covered cardboard box with a mechanical shutter and a single element meniscus lens, which is inside the camera (giving it a confusing look of having lost it’s lens). It dates from  between 1926 – 1933 and takes 120 roll film – still available from the Lomography people and ebay.

The tradition of giving budget gadgets impressive sounding names is an old one
The tradition of giving budget gadgets impressive sounding names is an old one

Once I’d worked out how to get it open (you rotate and  pull out the film winder and then release the 2 fastener hooks) I thought I’d have a go at taking some pictures. Since the safe light window on the back of the camera was showing it’s age and was a faded orange I covered it up with a blu-tacked penny. After a bit of experimentation with a roll of paper I was able to work out how much to wind the film on – for reference 4 turns of the winder are enough to load the film, and 2 turns to advance to the next frame. The camera has a shutter speed of 1/30 second. I’ve no idea of the aperture, although the rotating shutter has a fairly small hole. The mechanism is similar to that found in the Lomo Holga.

Next step was to get some pictures developed. I initially opted for develop only from the lomo store, as I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d see anything back. My first film only had a few photographs on it as I hadn’t then worked out the proper winding / picture ratio.

To get the negatives into the computer I built a shoebox slide copier.

Attempt 1:

A tree
A tree

Well it works. I’m not sure of the shoe-box photo method for colour negatives, although the ghost like quality of the images presents an interesting creative opportunity.

Anything closer than 6 feet from the camera is a bit blurry. Landscapes came out better, although colour was quite interesting (the photos already look old) either as an artifact of the lens, or as a result of the film and processing.

I’ve dug out my old 120 black and white film stash and processing spirals to have a go with black and white.

Update: my old school photography got a mention on the BBC!  as part of an article about the sad demise of Kodak.

Categories
Gadgets Geekery Random

Hacking a cheap as chips camera

CHDK – the Canon Hack Development Kit is a very neat bit of software that allows you to add lots of new and exciting features to Canon compact cameras, and is something I’ve been wanting to try out for ages.

I’ve been on the lookout for a cheap as chips digital camera for a while now, with the purpose of using it for things like underwater photography / space program / CHDK hacking. I was able to buy a nice PowerShot A480 for about £30 on ebay (they’re about £100 new on Amazon). It’s small, light, and works off AA batteries – although is a bit fussy about what type of AA battery it takes (prefers NiMh). Imagine a box brownie type camera for the noughties – cheap and super simple to use.

The A480 has a ten megapixel sensor and was launched in 2009 – although newer cameras are now in the 14 megapixel+ range a lot of this is besides the point since lens quality starts to become a limiting factor. It even has a 3.3 zoom, although with a camera like this it’s generally easier to take a few steps forward. It’s still infinitely better than the camera in my mobile phone.

CHDK is a download that sits on the SD card in the camera – the software loads off the SD card when you switch the camera on. It sits fairly neatly alongside the existing camera firmware (you can still access all your normal menus), and if you switch to an SD card without CHDK your camera reverts to it’s default state.

There’s a really easy to follow guide on the CHDK website – the only hitch I encountered was having to use a loader script since I’m using a mac – other than that everything worked smoothly.

The difference it’s made to the camera is incredible – it can shoot in RAW format, and you have complete control over aperture, exposure, ISO and a whole load of more advanced things like colour balance and flash power. There’s a huge array of settings to discover and play around with, but for me the real killer feature is the scripts.

Accessed through  CHDK you load a script from the Scripting parameters -> load script from file menus, and then run the script by hitting the shutter button whilst the <alt> text is displayed. I did a bit of experimenting with the time lapse script and created the animation below.

This is the sort of movie camera functionality that I always dreamed of when I was little – back then the only option was cine film / video, and even with that it wasn’t really in the budget of a 10 year old. It’s a blurry first attempt, but I’m quite into creating doodles.

CHDK alone is a really good reason to invest in a simple Canon compact, and although the site comes with lots of disclaimers, as I’m sure it voids warranties / Canon will come and hunt you down etc etc it’s a fairly easy way to dip your toe into the world of hardware hacking. Long may it continue!

Categories
Comment Random Work stuff

What the government got wrong with the new epetition system, and how they can fix it

Today the UK government launched an online e-petition system. You can sign up, create an online petition and if you get 100,000 signatures your campaign could get a debate in parliament.

How epetitions work (from government site)
How epetitions work (from government site)

There are a few provisos: the petition has to be approved (by the relevant department) and the petition can’t relate to appointments – presumably to avoid things like the ‘sack Gordon Brown’ petition which gained lots of names during the last government’s attempts at digital democracy. There are also a few rules about joke petitions, and the slightly catch all “the issue is not the responsibility of the government”.

As someone who does a lot of online campaigning, and has an interest in hacking together ideas for running online petitions, this is potentially really exciting.

But, there are a couple of issues:

  1. It’s a closed system.This is a massive issue. Charities and other organisations rely on online activism to recruit new members to their lists and encourage them to take a more active role in their campaigns (and yes, to fundraise from – but fundraising is activism too – see how the Obama campaign publicised it’s large number of donations as committed support).

    Take for instance a hypothetical example: a small campaigning organisation launches a campaign for the UK government to do something about a UK company supporting a dictator. The petition captures the public imagination, hundreds of thousands of people sign the petition. It has it’s day in parliament, but then the campaign moves out of the public eye. The small campaigning organisation can’t contact the petition signers to ask for help in moving the campaign forward.

     

    One of the big criticisms of online campaigning is that it’s low value ‘clicktavism‘, but if you have no way of capturing the details of the people who sign your petition, how can you get in touch with them and encourage them to be more involved, have tea with their MP and do some high-effort campaigning? Online petitions are often seen as the first step in engaging people with issues, and getting them more interested in politics.

    This leads me to think that a lot of campaigning organisations will ignore the system, and instead it will be used by the likes of the Sun to run campaigns like ‘Lets have the Red Arrows at the Olympics’.

    Worse still, it seems that newspapers like the Daily Mail are intent on using the petition system to launch campaigns like bringing back the death penalty. Given the current structure of the e-petition system it actually favours tabloid campaigns, since they have high circulations and don’t have to think about engaging in long term campaign work.

  2. It doesn’t tackle the big issue of how MPs respond to online campaigning.There is a massive variance in how MPs respond to being lobbied online. Some ignore email completely, others respond just to individual emails, and a few more respond to identical emails in the same way they would to letters. Recently a number of MPs have been very vocal in their opposition to online email petitions.

    Personally I believe that as our elected representatives, MPs have a duty to respond to their constituents, but at the same time appreciate that trawling through a lot of emails that are all the same might tax the resources of the average constituency office, and cause the kind of annoyance that can alienate MPs from otherwise worthy campaigns.

A proper online petition system would enable campaigners to do the things they need to do to work effectively, and at the same time give the politicians reasonable ways to gauge opinion and thus hopefully respond.

So how could it be done better?

  • Involve civil society: Involving the people who write the software that campaigning organisations use would be a good start. The e-petition system was written by a civil servant department bizarrely named ‘Skunkworks’ for £82,000.
  • Build out the e-petition system as an API – an ‘API’ allows other pieces of software to access a system – twitter uses this very effectively to allow all the tools like tweetdeck and hootsuite to send tweets. Organisations could feature the petitions on their websites and recruit activists to their own email and supporter databases at the same time.
  • Create a set of guidelines / protocols for lobbying MPs, ministers and departments and for people wanting to lobby them:

    It could be as simple as specifying something in the subject line of an email e.g. PETITION_mycampaigntitle for identical emails, and
    PERSONALQUERY_mycampaigntitle for individually-written emails. Or perhaps sending an MP a daily / weekly email informing them the number of constituents who have signed a particular petition, and inviting them to respond  (essentially taking over the task of managing the petition).

    This is a two way process: for it to work politicians would have to agree to respond if the ‘rules of engagement’ are met, and online campaigners would need to respect the rules.

  • Give campaign targets a platform to reply on – if it would encourage reluctant MPs to engage with online campaigning it would be worth offering the opportunity to put their views across.

In today’s modern world we carry out more and more of our daily activities online, banking, paying bills, buying insurance, shopping etc. It seems that providing the option to engage properly with politicians on the web is long overdue.

Thoughts? disagree with me completely? leave comments below!

Categories
Random

Help save lives in Africa

There’s been lots of bad news from the Horn of Africa recently – with the UN officially declaring it a famine (first time since the 1980s).

You can donate via the Disasters Emergency Committee who are co-ordinating the relief effort from the UK.

For the first time they are now accepting donations via SMS text message – TEXT 70000 with the word HELP in your message. DEC receives the full £5.

For longer term solutions ONE have launched a petition to put the pressure on world leaders to defend international aid budgets – to this end I’ve had a go at building an embedable widget to use on blogs:

It’s super simple, but interesting to have the ability to do slightly more with the online action system. Looking forward to having creative ideas about generating additional signatures in the future.