At long last some SENSE about HDMI cables

As someone with a technical background, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve squirmed over the years listening to people spout nonsense about everything from vinyl records, through valve amplifiers… and now to HDMI cables.

As you know, HDMI is the current standard for video cables, replacing those older ugly and large SCART connectors and others, with a slim digital cable. The problem is that like everything else technical, there are no shortage of sharks when it comes to sales – and the gold-plated variations came out. Faced with the possibility of no longer being able to bullshit everyone with silly takes of how analog is better, the next best thing was to charge through the nose for special HDMI cables – even though the signal is digital!! I normally pay a fiver at most for such cables but that hasn’t stopped people paying over £100 for the same thing – because the guy at the retail store convinced them they needed a quality cable for best results.

Bollocks – you need a cable that’s not faulty and is well put together – END OF.

And here, at long last is some decent, well constructed proof to back that up. Well done guys.

Remember when valves were supposedly better than transistors – people still sell valve amplifiers on the myth of better sound – though I think nowadays people buy them for the glowing light. This all started when transistor amplifiers FIRST hit the scene. Valves distort music quite badly but in a way that’s not annoying to the ear (even harmonics). Early and badly designed transistor amplifiers created a lot of “odd harmonic” distortion that sounds grainy and horrible. This only lasted a short time but it didn’t stop a myth that persists to this day. By the time MOSFET transistors came about (they operate in a similar way to valves i.e. voltage rather than current driven) the problem was history – but not the myth  and in any case, cheap far-eastern speakers do far more damage to the fidelity of the music than amplifiers.

Remember vinyl versus CD? The rubbish peddled there was to do with the fact that “in theory” there was no limit to upper frequency quality in records (being mechanical) as against a CD which has  distinct, fixed upper frequency due to the sample rate.  The reality is that the higher the frequency, the worse the replication errors in a vinyl record and worse – the more damage a single item of dust does as the need trawls through the groove. I recall most of my vinyl records sounded pretty good when first played but after a while took on a gritty noise – you may think you’ve a clean room until you see a ray of sunshine blasting through the windows – then you’d see just a tiny fraction of the crap that’s floating around and getting between the soft plastic record and the very hard and nasty needle racing through the groove. Thankfully today the stored quality of much music exceeds that of CD even. All of which is irrelevant when played back through cheap and rubbishy PC speakers from the far-east.

These are not isolated examples, it happens throughout IT constantly – most people are clueless about due to our educational system not keeping up with the world (hopefully that might change a little with Google supporting Arduino and Raspberry Pi teaching in schools – though personally I doubt it and even then that only covers the basics of computing which is in itself just a tiny part of modern IT) and so there are and always will be charlatans who make the best of it.

Hopefully more articles like the link above will save people money while enlightening the few at the same time.

AT LAST–the Raspberry Pi in person

Raspberry PiI arrived home this evening from a couple of days meetings to find this small package. I’ve put my hand there to give you a sense of scale.

Raspberry PiWithin the package was a little box and a load of regulatory compliance timewasting stuff from Farnell (about which I could give 2 hoots frankly).

Inside of the box was a metalized package – and inside of the metalized package… the LONG-AWAITED Raspberry Pi!

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. The unit plugs into a USB connector – and perhaps a TV and network cable – and that, presumably is where the real magic is supposed to start.

Raspberry Pi

That’s the easy bit over, the rest has not been quite so satisfying up to now.  Anyone used to the likes of the Arduino knows you simply plug the chip into your PC, run up the IDE, select an example program and hey presto, the rest is up to your imagination – just the thing for getting kids interested – instant gratification followed by a learning curve as simple or complex as you want to make it. Was the Raspberry Pi going to be the same?

Erm, no. You can’t run this board off the Micro-USB cable – it needs too much power- so plug it into a suitable adaptor, plug it into your TV or monitor, plug in a keyboard and mouse and…

Now it starts to get more amateurish. Assuming like MOST people you have a PC, you have to go off and get the free program WINDISKIMAGER and the DEBIAN img file (lost already?). You need an SD card to hold the image file. On my second attempt I managed to get an image file onto the SD card. Plug that into the underside of the Raspberry Pi, plug in the power and…

Whew. Lots and lots of horrible Linux-fanatic text including gripes that it could not find a real-time clock… and a retry. After 3 or 3 retries the (text) prompt came up (oh, and my second USB keyboard and mouse – the board seems a little choosy which ones it likes). I put in user name “pi” and password “raspberry (no, none of this comes with the board, you have to go looking)… and up came an old “dos prompt”. I types in the relevant command and HEY PRESTO, graphical interface. Turns out the RTC was not necessary as it gets the time from the Internet – so WHY land the beginner with all that crap?

Still – impressive stuff, a graphical interface – for under £30…


Well, yes, but – there is only one web browser in the Debian installation – and it does not support Flash (this is a FAR, FAR cry from Ubuntu, no, really – a different PLANET to Ubuntu 12)… no big deal  – so I powered up the browser.. this took some patience-  and then punched in the FSB website.

Raspberry Pi

The site has been extensively tested with the major browsers, various Internet Explorers, Firefox, Chrome, Safari on PCs, Macs and iPads – even on the iPhone and Android phones… conclusion – the browser that comes with Debian is CRAP… not only that it took nearly 2 minutes to display the page.

I’m going to give this the benefit of the doubt – and assume I’m using a very, very slow SD card and pass no more comment until I have another to test. If this is the best the unit can do, heaven help the kids who’ll be stuck trying to do something with it – especially a generation used to fast PCs.

The information out there looks… patchy to say the least, perhaps after all it’s as well I didn’t get this in February..

More as I find out more.

Raspberry Pi for You, Sir?

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee. AT LAST… I was beginning to doubt this would ever happen. I an almost smell the excitement I felt when my first Sinclair Mk14 was on it’s way (mind you most of that smell was components overheating).

As predicted, most people by now will have forgotten what the hell a Raspberry Pi is – after all the initial excitement back in February… so a reminder…. a sub-£30 computer board complete with Internet, TV interface, open source software and development tools. This has a chance to allow schools to do something for IT other than simply teach spreadsheets, to give the next generation a fighting chance to compete with the Chinese (though don’t hold your breath). More’s the point, if it ends up running XBMC properly (X-Box Media Centre) -  I get to reclaim a LAPTOP currently doing the job!

Just in time for the holidays as well. Dunno how I’m going fit my oscilloscope in the travel bag, though Smile

IF this remains sub-£30 and IF it really does allow for development of complex Internet-connected gadgets, there is just SO much future for this little toy.  Keep eyes peeled, as soon as it turns up I’ll get something in here. Expect an update maybe Saturday morning.


To be or not to be

To fly the British flag…


or not, that is the question.


In this case, NOT, I think! Major difference – British version has yellow jumper and costs over 3 times as much.

You can see this on Ebay over and over again – it would not be so bad if you felt you were buying a quality British product – but they’re the SAME THING.

The Cookie Jar – or how not to create legislation

If you’re into websites you may know that the “Cookie Directive” comes into play on the 25th of this month, in which websites much ask users to “opt-in” before accepting cookies.

Now, the first problem of course is that most people in the western world neither KNOW what a cookie is NOR do they give a DAMN – and why should they – it’s just another “techie thing”. Well, the reason, if you’re a company to give a damn, is quite simply money – and lost business.

Let me explain – I’ll do my best to avoid techie talk – if I fail, do let me know.

There are a couple of basic kinds of cookie… essentially, if we go back to the wild west when the world wide web was created (i.e. last century) initially the plan was to serve up web pages with links – one page would link to another – and you could get to any information you wanted – that’s it. nothing more, nothing less.

At the time, words like Amazon, EBay didn’t exist (well, other than the jungle in the first instance) and for most people, “log in” meant shoving a block of wood on the fire. Today we live in an irreversibly different world.  We log into websites, we expect them to remember when we were last in, our preferences, keep track of our shopping cart… viewing preferences etc and website owners expect to get all sorts of fancy graphs about usage, how many people have been to the site, what kind of gear are they using, what pages did they visit etc.

The whole caboodle relies on COOKIES.  The simplest cookie (I’m not even going to name them to keep it simple) stores a number on your computer – and that number is used to link pages together and keep track of everything. Another kind of cookie stores text (might be encrypted, might not) as a harmless file on your computer.

That’s it. Sadly some companies use this to track stuff that really isn’t essential – most of those companies come from overseas – i.e. somewhere the Information Commissioner has absolutely NO control over, but there you are.

Do you remember the SPAM laws coming in – they were going to STAMP OUT spam – and there was I sitting in my office thinking “but HANG ON…. most of it comes from the States… or China… or Russia and we have absolutely no control AT ALL over this). So at the time, off I went with John Harris (who was at the time the National IT Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses) to the the then relevant person’s office – a Mr Stephen Timms – to ask about what we were doing about the fact that most of the spam came from overseas.. he OPENLY agreed there was not much they could do – having saddled UK businesses with this burden. Well, it’s happening again with COOKIES.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been holding conversations with everyone from laymen to legal eagles on the subject – without much luck – then out of the blue my colleague and member of my IT committee came up with this..

There would appear to be a window of opportunity here – clearly the ICO have realised they’re onto a loser – this need PRESSURE – there is a window of a year, by the look of it…. we cannot afford to waste time… this needs KNOCKING ON THE HEAD!!!

Linux–Progress At Last

Over the weekend I spent some time playing with a old laptop which for licencing reasons had to have Windows removed (terms and conditions of use changed) and as I’ve detailed in another blog, I’ve been experimenting with installing Ubuntu Linux (version 12.04) – I decided to spend the time to learn more about this latest version of Ubuntu and what it can do…

Here’s where I’m up to – pretty darned amazing considering it’s not Microsoft…

For some background, last week I managed to get 5 used Dell computers working from a batch due to be sent off for dismantling… I put the latest Linux onto them and three of them are already being shipped off for use as simple online-joining machines to be used at Exhibitions and a further two 2 are on test for spares. I used the USB install of the latest Ubuntu.

Armed with the knowledge of savings made and savings to be made, I spent part of the weekend seeing how far it is possible to go in making an Ubuntu Linux machine into a general workhorse. Not many people get the opportunity to experiment like this – especially with more than one type of laptop.

The bad

  • Out of 3 different types of Dell laptop, none of them completely work with external monitors- one model don’t acknowledge the external monitor, two others get the resolution wrong. Clearly that part of the new Ubuntu still has a little way to go.
  • Right now email is having an issue with drafts, something that just should not be giving me problems – but then I am trying to load a LOT of emails onto this clean new installation. More on that later.

The good:

Ubuntu just works generally and the installation comes complete with a variation of “Open Office” that looks like a fine substitute for Microsoft Office as long as you’re only using the basics. The operating system also comes along with Firefox and Thunderbird (mail). Amazingly – if you only want to “give it a go” on an existing system, Ubuntu runs off the memory stick WITHOUT affecting your laptop! I went for the full install.

I discovered that Thunderbird as installed is out of date and updated it using the installation manager. I installed VLC, Skype and XBMC (X-Box Media Centre).

  • XBMC works as well or better than on the PC and is a great media centre for all types of media – video/audio/imagery – apparently it works with the standard Microsoft remote – I’ve ordered a cheap one one ($4.50 inc IR USB adaptor) to test. The remote monitor issue is a show-stopper for now however as you need to be able to plug the laptop into a TV to make great use of XBMC..
  • VLC works perfectly and plays videos smoothly.
  • Firefox works perfectly and the FLASH add-in can be installed as part of the base installation. But note – you cannot run NetFlix on Linux as it does not support the necessary Microsoft Silverlight.
  • Skype works so well, I plugged a Logitech camera into the laptop and Skype picked it up without any drivers! I doubt Skype will handle multi-user video however.
  • Dropbox works perfectly, making my centrally-stored files from Windows available in Ubuntu and vice-versa.
  • Thunderbird… here’s the potential game-changer… I installed the calendar add-in – all work with Google – none work with Exchange – or rather, not out of the box. I discovered something called DavMail Gateway – and after some fiddling it now sits patiently in the background – and enables Thunderbird to handle – wait for it – fsb email, calendar and contacts – not yet tried notes and I suspect that might be slightly harder to crack. I’ve not yet messed with shared calendars but it does handle normal calendar and appointments perfectly. Like Firefox, Thunderbird handles add-ins.

    I now have an iPad-style unified inbox (which is more than Outlook can manage) and once it’s finished importing the many thousands of emails in my Business and private Google accounts I’ll confirm if this is a waste of space or not – but up to now, it looks like competition for Outlook AT LAST – one reason being – the search WORKS. In addition, thanks to the plug-ins, I have properly threaded inbox options, HTML signatures, mail-merging, delayed emails and more. Thanks to a package called SHUTTER I can grab parts of the screen and simply paste into emails – just as I can in Windows.

I said that Linux would not handle Silverlight… well, as an old hand at VMWare Workstation, I didn’t hold out much hope when I read that the free Linux version of Oracle VirtualBox can run Windows 7 in a box for such emergencies… well, it can – and it does it quite well, good enough to run video on Windows 7 or other variations of Windows – in a window – or full screen right in Linux.

Thunderbird is not without issues and as yet I feel more “comfortable” with Outlook – but that could be simply habit – so  I’ll follow this up in a future blog…

Finally the program installation package – Ubuntu has a side ribbon and installing programs results in their icon appearing in the collapsible sidebar… with a download progress bar inside – exactly as you would find on an iPhone or iPad.

Amazing how things come on.

But what if you just HAVE to have Microsoft office 2010 and other Windows programs? Well this is not free but a package called CrossOver promises specifically that – running of Office 2010 and other Windows programs DIRECTLY in Ubuntu without an emulator or other “tricks” – how well THAT works remains to be seen.  For a free operating system I thought the cost of around $55 was a tad high for my CURRENT use.

More bugs?:  As well as the external screen issue (and this may well be limited to DELLs) I found that putting the machine into standby leaves the hard disk running – which kind of defeats the object as it will flatten the battery in a relatively short period.  That needs addressing.

The SAD Light lives

After more hours than I care to think about – the SAD light nears conclusion – just need a decent socket arrangement for the back and a few last minute tweaks.

The little box you see has no less than 2 micros in it (as you can’t get 10-bit PWM from one – so a second controls a chip designed for the job and talks to the first over i2c) – the 4 rolls of LED strip take in total more than 50 watts if all on at once and look deceptively dim because the 4 metres of strip in each case is wrapped up in a roll (and the white is almost off).

Just got some last minute software tidy up to do, this small unit has a display showing time, date, alarm time and other info and is controlled by an infra-red remote. In it’s day job it controls 3-colours of LED to produce soft or intense light in any of a wide range of colours – but it’s early morning job, over a period of 20 minutes, is to take the room – or more specifically the top of the bed, from darkness through soft early morning light – to bright, white powerful light – hence the SAD light!

One project finished 2 more on the go – the Ethernet thermostat has had 3 weeks without a single failure (Ethernet based control unit with serial data to LCD head unit soon to acquire ultrasonic presence detection)… and the 8-relay Ethernet controlled board (with short-range radio controlled 2-relay extension) has equally been trialling without issue for 2 weeks – not quite sorted a case for that yet.

SAD light

Chinese Power Supplies

I’m a great one from buying gadgets from China – especially as their government appears to pay the post (many small items from China have free post – and the ones which don’t are a con anyway as they make the product cheap for duty purposes!

Cheap Chinese chargerAnd that’s fine – except when it comes to safety.  A friend of mine recently bought some MAC-like power supplies from China – wonderful little things about an inch square – with a usb connector on them – suitable for charging phones and powering little gadgets. He very kindly gave me a couple to play with and I put my phone on charge.

About 10 minutes later I heard a “puff” sound and the phone stopped charging.  I threw out the charger and went off on business – but today I figured I’d take the unit out of the bin – and have a look see why it blew up.

Take a look at the image on the right… the two red wires are the mains wires inside the unit.. take a look at the gaps between the tracks for those wires and the rest of the circuit! That would be sub-1mm… WELL sub-1mm. For 240v this should be AT LEAST 2mm and personally I’d make it 3mm. We’re talking 250v LIVE here.

Think about that next time you find a bargain power supply…

Annoying Police Lights

Sunday morning, not in the mood for anything complex but I’d just purchased a pair of ATTINY85 chips and I was looking for a quick test project. To explain, the ATTINY85 is an 8-pin mini-processor, a kind of toy Arduino chip. Easily programmed from the free Arduino IDE with a handy Arduino (no need for a special programmer) the chips are ideal for simply flashing lights and possible more complex projects but due to lack of memory and interrupts don’t think you’re going to be able to make something really complex with these.  On the upside however they need NO external components to operate – i.e. no crystal, no reset, nothing.  They can quite happily operate at around 8Mhz from an internal oscillator.

Of course you’re going to want to see for yourself – hence the policy flashing light project. Now if someone were evil enough once could have a whale of a time catching speeding motorists out with this but I would not recommend it as it’s probably illegal and you’re likely to get punched… but it’s a nice thought. This little project from a distance will look all the world like it’s mounted on a policy car.

Rather than rant on here I’ve put the whole lot into a short video. You’ll need a PC with Arduino IDE1.0 or better, an Arduino of some sort and the bits to make the project up i.e. 2 or 4 LEDS, a battery and an ATTINY85 chip. All the details are in the video as is the code near the end.

You could go up to a maximum of 3 BLUE and 3 RED LEDS – OR of course if you REALLY want to go to town, just use 2 of the outputs, stick a couple of BC337 transistors on the outputs (via 470r base resistors) and feed 2 LED STRIPS – one RED, ONE BLUE…from 12v.   Hey… you could make a REAL police car (well, not quite)..


ATTINY85 driving LEDs in a format like Police Car strobes.