Aero-worship

March 9th, 2014

aadlerIf you’re a fan of the Aerobie frisbee-like device, or the Aeropress coffee maker, or, like me, both of them, you’ll enjoy Zachary Crockett’s fine article about how they came into existence, and about Alan Adler, their inventor. Nicely done.

Many thanks to Hap for the link.

Spinning the cloud

February 26th, 2014

You might think that, of all the household devices that could be connected to the ‘net, a washing machine would be amongst the least useful, except perhaps for the purposes of energy monitoring or service diagnostics.

So I was particularly impressed with Berg’s Cloudwash demonstrator, which emphasises the user interface aspects of connectivity. It’s always struck me that washing machines tend to have particularly awful user interfaces. Until very recently, for example, we had one where program ’4′ was the one we used all the time. We needed to remember that, and on the rare occasions when we needed a different program, we had to look it up on a card.

Often, by giving a device connectivity, you can also give it a better user interface, even if that’s only used to configure the buttons on the front.

Drive to live?

February 1st, 2014

hddOne of the very valuable things to come out of large data centres is large-scale reliability statistics. I’ve written before about my suspicions that my Seagate drives weren’t as reliable as they might be, but I had insufficient data for this to be anything other than anecdotal.

And then a couple of weeks ago, I pulled a couple of old 2.5″ drives off a shelf — Western Digital ones, I think — intending to reuse them for backups. They both span up, but neither would work beyond that.

So I was very interested by this Backblaze blog post which discusses their experience with a few thousand more drives than I have at my disposal. They use consumer-grade drives, and are very price-sensitive.

A quick summary:

blog-survival-drives-by-month

Some quotes:

Hitachi does really well. There is an initial die-off of Western Digital drives, and then they are nice and stable. The Seagate drives start strong, but die off at a consistently higher rate, with a burst of deaths near the 20-month mark.

Having said that, you’ll notice that even after 3 years, by far most of the drives are still operating.

Yes, but notice, too, that if you have four computers with Seagate drives, you should not expect the data on one of them to be there in three years’ time. And, quite possibly, not there by the Christmas after next.

The drives that just don’t work in our environment are Western Digital Green 3TB drives and Seagate LP (low power) 2TB drives. Both of these drives start accumulating errors as soon as they are put into production. We think this is related to vibration.

and

The good pricing on Seagate drives along with the consistent, but not great, performance is why we have a lot of them.

If the price were right, we would be buying nothing but Hitachi drives. They have been rock solid, and have had a remarkably low failure rate.

and

We are focusing on 4TB drives for new pods. For these, our current favorite is the Seagate Desktop HDD.15 (ST4000DM000). We’ll have to keep an eye on them, though.

Excellent stuff, and worth reading in more detail, especially if longevity is important to you. It’s tempting to fill old drives with data and put them on the shelf as archival backups, but this would suggest that you should only use new drives for that!

Oh, and if you’re wondering about which SSDs to buy, this report suggests that Intel ones are pretty good.

Update: Thanks to Dominic Plunkett for the Backblaze link, and for Rip Sohan for a link in the comments to the TweakTown article that attempts (with some, but not a great deal, of success) to debunk some of this. The previous article I mentioned above links to an older Google study which didn’t distinguish between manufacturers and models, but did say that there was a correlation between them and the failure rates. It also catalogued failure rates not too dissimilar to the Backblaze ones after 3 or so years, so the general implication for home archiving remains!

Toss me a mike…

January 24th, 2014

I think CatchBox is a great idea! A soft, chuckable microphone that you can throw to an audience member who wants to ask a question.

CatchBox

It’s like a conch, but less fragile, which is also good for maintaining civilised discussions…

Thanks to Adrian Higgs for the link.

Take charge of your batteries!

December 22nd, 2013

I get through a lot of batteries.

This is mostly because of my strange habit of wearing a GPS logging device, which means I always use at least three AAAs every day. But even without this idiosyncracy, the increasing number of flashguns, remote controls, bluetooth trackpads, keyboards and mice, bicycle lights, microphones, voice recorders and other gadgets around the house means that I would have been bankrupt long ago if I hadn’t switched over entirely to rechargeables a few years back.

It strikes me that I can’t be the only one in this position. So here are a few ‘workflow’ tips from a seasoned charger, to help you take control of your battery-powered life!

1. Be willing to invest in power!

There’s nothing worse than having to find a fresh battery for your remote control in the back of a drawer, just at the moment at which everyone in the family is waiting to watch a movie. Make sure you have plenty of batteries for your needs, and lots left over. Brace yourself, spend a reasonable amount of money, and your life will become easier. It is Christmas, after all.

2. Set aside space for it.

I have four little storage trays labelled ‘AA flat’, ‘AA charged’, ‘AAA flat’ and ‘AAA charged’, and there are typically about 6-12 batteries in each tray, besides those actually installed in my devices. There are always charged batteries available whenever I need them, and when the ‘flat’ trays start to get too full, I stick a batch of them in the charger before I go to bed.

battery_shelves

There is also a small shelf in our store room which is dedicated to charging. That’s where my iPhone dock, and all the chargers for my various different battery types, live. There’s a multi-way mains adapter so I never have to search for a charger or search for a socket. Makes life much easier.

3. Get yourself good batteries.

And by that, I mean Sanyo Eneloops. These have served me so well that I never buy anything else now. They aren’t the highest-capacity ones available, but they are low self-discharge. This means that you can charge them up, put them in your ‘charged’ tray, and be pretty confident that they will have retained plenty of oomph when you come to take them out again. Traditional NiMH batteries will discharge pretty quickly over a small number of weeks, meaning that there’s likely to be a gap between realising that you need them, and being able to use them again! (It drives a lot of the sales of turbo 20-minute battery chargers, which do work, but will shorten the life of your batteries. And you may still have to wait 20 mins before watching the movie!)

4. Treat yourself to a decent charger.

I have an exceedingly good one by Maha.

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Whoa, I hear you say… you spent how much on a battery charger? Well, trust me, it’s possible to spend a great deal more than this, but I went for Maha after seeing recommendations from professional wedding photographers who go through large numbers of batteries every week, and I’ve been very pleased with it. It has fast and slow charging modes, can take any number of batteries from one to eight, but, most importantly, these are 8 independent charging circuits, which means that they will do the right thing even if you mix up partly- and fully-discharged, AAs and AAAs all at the same time. There are smaller Maha ones, but you don’t need to load and unload your charger nearly so often if you can do eight at a time!

But if that seems like overkill for you, then I recommend the Energizer CHCC-UK, if you can still find it.

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This has four independent circuits, supports 9v batteries too, and doesn’t try to woo you with super-high-speed charging. Fill it up before you go to bed and empty it in the morning. (I’ve found Energizer batteries to be good, too, though not as good as Eneloops).

Beware, though, of more flashy modern imitations like this Energizer CHP42UK:

energizer2

This may have a pretty display, but it only has two charging circuits, so you must insert either two or four batteries at once, and ideally you should always pair up similarly-discharged ones of the same type and age. Too much hassle. It can be hard to find out in advance just what a charger can do; see if you can find the manual online before buying.

5. Old batteries die.

When they do, you should send them to the great recycling centre in the sky. Fortunately, the days of leaking acid destroying the inside of your bicycle lights are mostly behind us, but a dead battery will sap the strength of your good ones if placed in the same device. No point in having taken good care of your troops, if they then have to go into battle dragging an injured colleague with them. (Am I overdoing the analogies?)

When I suspect a battery of being near the end of its life, I make a mark near one end of it with a fine-tipped permanent pen, and then stick it back in the charger. If, at a later date, I again find it rather flatter than I think it should be, it gets another mark. Three strikes and it’s out.

Recently, I’ve taken to labelling new batteries with their date of first use, and a code to help me to keep them together as a batch if wanted. This helps give a clue as to whether a permaturely dead battery is likely just to be discharged, or is in fact very elderly.

eneloop_pack

And so we come to the last point – how do you know when they’re dying?

6. Get a good battery tester.

You want something that can test various different battery types, and test them under load. Simple devices will just measure a battery’s voltage, which is useful, but almost anything more sophisticated will give you a better indication of how it’s likely to perform in the real world.

You need something that will let you quickly check any batteries before you dash out with your flashgun to that important press event. But you should also periodically review the ones in your ‘charged’ tray to make sure they are behaving as they should and won’t take you by surprise in future. Ideally, you want to check your batteries periodically, a few hours after they’ve been charged, to make sure they’re charging properly, and holding their charge. I’m not that disciplined. I tend just to do random spot checks from time to time, but this is much better than nothing.

To do this, I use the ZTS battery testers, which can check a variety of different battery types using a test cycle of just a few seconds, and then give you a simple readout.

zts_chargers

I have a big one for my charging shelf, and a smaller one for the office and when on the road. Once again, you may want to brace yourself before looking at the price, but they’re well-made and I’ve never regretted my purchases. You can get them from Amazon, or, slightly more cheaply in the UK, from here.

zts_charger_2

So there you are: these tips will make you the light of the charge brigade, or something like that. If the above seems terribly complicated, then that’s just because I’ve gone into some detail, but I can summarise it more succinctly:

  • Buy lots of good batteries – more than you need – and a good charger
  • Use a good tester to weed out dead batteries from your stock

And if it seem expensive, that’s because I’m a believer in buying good quality stuff infrequently, rather than rubbish on a regular basis!

Take control of those little packs of power, and they will be your friends, rather than letting you down in times of need. This system has worked well for me now for some time; some of the suggestions must be useful to others!

P.S. In fact, this could be the first draft of the upcoming bestseller, Getting Things Charged. GTD enthusiasts will recognise many of the elements: gathering all your batteries into a limited number of in-trays, processing, sorting, clear labelling, periodic review… it’s bound to be a hit!

Thoughts on home data storage: Drobos and Time Capsules

November 16th, 2013

Drobo Right AngleI am fortunate to be the owner of three Drobos. One I bought, and two I have inherited from past companies etc, and they’ve served me very well. I have had many hard drives die over the years – and another goes every six months or so – but I’ve never lost any data if the drive was in a Drobo. And the flexibility just to plug in a new drive of any size at any time is great. They’re not perfect, but overall, they’ve been a very good place to put my music, photos and video-editing projects, without covering my desk with lots of different individual drives and their related cables and power supplies. The youngest one is more than four years old now, and they’re not particularly fast, but I’ve never had one fail.

Having said that, there is the problem of ‘How do you back up the Drobo’? If the unit should fail, I suspect getting the data off the drives would be very tricky, since they use their own custom filesystem – though, to be fair, that’s true of quite a lot of RAID systems. In some circumstances you can take the drive set out of one Drobo and plug it into another, so that’s probably the best route, unless you have the luxury, as I do, of backing your Drobo up to another Drobo! (A good use for older, slower Drobos). In any case, it’s worth remembering that however reliable the underlying hardware may be, filesystems can get corrupted, malware can attack, fire, burglary, or lightning strikes can take you by surprise, or users can accidentally delete things. Having a system which is resilient to hard drive failures isn’t the whole solution to the data storage problem. But it certainly helps!

None of my units, however, have network interfaces: they’re too old for that. And once you’ve dealt with the hard disk failure problem, most of those other threats are not going to be mitigated simply by backing up onto another Drobo sitting next to it on the shelf. In the past I’ve made Drobos available on the network by plugging them into various other machines: home-built Linux fileservers etc, but the Linux support for the Apple filesystems is not great, so it was never wholly satisfactory, especially for Time Machine backups.

timecapsuleThen, some months ago, I decided I needed a new wifi router which supported dual-band wireless, and so splashed out and got an Apple Time Capsule, which is essentially their Airport Extreme base station with an internal hard disk added, and it gave me both very good wifi and Time Machine backup space for every machine in the house. That’s really how it’s marketed, but you can also just use it as a generic file server, and in my experience, it’s a very good one.

I was nervous that I was being too much of an Apple fanboy in paying a premium price for a router plus disk, but I have never once regretted it. I don’t think I’ve ever used any networked storage which has been so simple and so reliable. I should mention that this is the previous generation of TC, not the latest, that I’m in an almost-all-Apple environment, and that I haven’t required it to do anything particularly unusual in the way of file-serving or router configuration, but for this scenario, it’s been quite superb.

And that’s not all. It has a USB port. So, as well as the internal disk, which I use for the Time Machine backups, I’ve plugged in a Drobo, and now have a few TB of nicely-redundant file storage for all my other backups humming away in a cupboard. Occasionally, I’ve opened the door and everything’s quiet, and after a moment of worry I realise that the Time Capsule is just very good about putting its disks into standby when not in use.

So this is really just a recommendation, both for the Time Capsule, and for Drobos (even elderly ones), and for the combination. If I were starting from scratch and looking for networked storage, I’d have to consider Synology, who also have a very loyal following, and whose devices can arguably do rather more than even the newer, networked Drobos.

But, for now, this arrangement is working well for me.

The invisible bicycle helmet

November 14th, 2013

My friend Hap sent me a link to this video.

A nice idea. But it didn’t really say much, so I presumed it was just a design concept, perhaps with a patent or two just in case.

However, if you go to this site, you can apparently buy one. As someone who detests wearing a helmet and feels guilty for not doing so, this is intriguing…

A partial convert speaks…

November 8th, 2013

Today I took my car in for a service, and, since the dealer is on the far side of town and I couldn’t face the hassle of loading and unloading a bike, I’d booked a courtesy car for the day. But as I walked into the showroom, there was a sign saying “Ask about our electric loan bikes.” So I did. And a little while later I was cruising home on a very nicely-built machine from A2B. Not sure of the exact model, but it was pretty similar to this:

a2bhybrid

Now, I’ve always been pretty skeptical about battery-boosted bicycles, thinking they were really for the elderly or lazy. But having done ten miles or so on one today, I’ve largely changed my mind. Here’s why:

  • It was a substantial bike: big tyres, good suspension, solidly made, with all the accessories. Because of its weight, you wouldn’t want to cycle it very far without the battery assistance. But with the power boost, it was an easy cycle, even up slopes, and gives you the benefits of more robust engineering: really good disk brakes, a solid carrier, a decent kickstand and large tyres which took kerbs, potholes and slippery patches in their stride. There was also plenty of battery power for some good lights, and a trip computer telling you various interesting bits of info as you went along.
  • You have to keep pedalling. Not very hard, I grant you, but this isn’t a motorbike: you do get some exercise – in fact, the battery only pushes you along when you are doing so. It’s not nearly the exercise you’d get from a regular bicycle, but remember, I had chosen to use this instead of a car, not instead of a bike. And a car would have given me no exercise at all. You can, of course, pedal harder if you want to, or turn down the level of assistance that the battery gives, if you feel the need to be more virtuous.
  • It was fast, even in the rain. What do I mean by that? Well, these things are normally limited to 15mph – not record-breaking by any means, but it’s a pretty good cycling speed when pottering around town. And the ease of getting up to that speed, and maintaining it, and resuming it when slowed down, meant that I actually moved from one place to another much faster than I would have done on my normal bike, unless I were really looking for a work-out. I was moving with the traffic, rather than having it whizz past me. And then, on the way back this evening, I was caught in a downpour. I realised that, had I been wearing full waterproofs, trousers and all, on my regular bike, I would have arrived at my destination sweating profusely. On this, I was really quite comfortable.

So, add all of that to that the fact that it was really rather fun, and I find myself looking at electric bikes in a new light. I genuinely believe I would use two wheels, rather than four, in many more situations if I had one of these. I would get less exercise than when I took my normal bike, but I’d get it much more often. And I’d be more willing to carry heavily-loaded panniers, and to cycle in inclement weather, than I am now.

All of which is good… but these things don’t come cheap. The one I used was somewhere in the £1500-2000 range, so I’m unlikely just to rush out and buy one. But I’m a lot more tempted now than I was before I tried it…

Bless you

October 17th, 2013

I was telling Rose about a small photographic accessory that plugged into the hotshoe.

“The what?”

“The hotshoe.”

“That’s what it’s called? I thought you sneezed.”

Fuji Fascination

October 10th, 2013

A few days ago I became the proud owner of a Fujifilm X-Pro1, which is one of the most interesting cameras I’ve owned for a while.

20131010-22165102

It has a pleasingly retro look, is very nicely put together, and follows the old range-finder style, with an optical viewfinder offset from the lens. This design has a whole host of usability challenges to do with parallax and focussing, but it hasn’t stopped, say, Leica, from being rather successful with it – and in the past it was the only option if you didn’t want the bulk of an SLR.

But today we have digital mirrorless cameras for this – you can see through the lens using the digital sensor and a screen – so it is somewhat eccentric still to use a viewfinder in which, quite often, part of the image is actually obscured by the lens itself. But the separate viewfinder also has advantages of clarity and frame rate, and of giving you a field of view larger than the image you’re about to capture, so you can see, for example, whether someone is about to walk into the frame.

The clever thing about the X-Pro1, though, is that it does both. The optical viewfinder has some digital overlays on it showing extra information (framing, focus points and histograms, for example) but can also switch into a fully-digital mode, where you’re seeing exactly what the lens sees. And there’s the screen on the back if you prefer that. Plenty of choice, and exceedingly cunning. It even has some unexpected tricks up its sleeve: if you’re in optical viewfinder mode and focusing manually, you can click a button and it switches to a dramatically zoomed-in digital view, with focus peaking if wanted. Press again and you’re back to optical.

There are much easier cameras out there to use: the autofocus is not particularly sophisticated by modern standards, for example, even when you aren’t trying to do it through a separate viewfinder. Not only is this not just a point-and-shoot, if you pick it up expecting to use it as one, you’re likely to be disappointed. It keeps you thinking all the time, which is partly why I bought it: I thought I could learn a lot from this camera.

But the other reason was the image quality. The Fuji lenses are superb, and the sensor, which is an APS-C size, such as you’d find in most consumer-level DSLRs, is larger than in most cameras of this size and is generally agreed to be superior even to most other APS-C sensors thanks to some Fuji innovations. But the camera has been out for nearly a year and a half, so there are plenty of reviews out there you can read if you want to know more.

I’m still learning and making lots of mistakes, but I’m also loving it. For something that I can sling over my shoulder, and not notice when it’s in my bag, I’ve got a few very pleasing images even in my first couple of days. A few samples below – you can click through to Flickr and find ‘View all sizes’ in the bottom-right menu if you want to get a feel for the clarity.

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The Cambridge University Computer Lab

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Dr Richard Clayton

Bridge planks

Bridge planks

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The Roger Needham Building

Toq of the town

October 2nd, 2013

I was fortunate enough to get to play with one if these today – a Qualcomm Toq – one of the first to be publicly shown.

It’s very nicely put together, slightly bigger than my Pebble, with a colour e-ink touch screen, and wireless charging. But Qualcomm have created this more, they say, to seed the market and demonstrate their technology than because they intend to sell it directly; though the idea of making some available (at around $300) is being discussed.

I hope they do. That’s quite a lot for a watch, but it has a quality feel to it. The key question will be whether they can get good SDKs to developers early on, and whether they can make it play nicely with non-jailbroken iPhones… It’s not very easy to get past the restrictions that Apple (for some good reasons) imposes on developers, but at that price, they would probably be targeting the Apple-buying market.