Saturday, 29 December 2007

Super Green Hero!

I've been meaning to write this post for a little while now, just wanted to say something about James Alden's heroic tackling of an armed robber at Somerfield on Wednesday Dec 19.

Apparantly the chap had raided a number of locations in Withington and Didsbury and struck again at the Somerfield store in West Didsbury; poking a gun in James' back while grabbing cash from the till.

James waited for the guy to get distracted and then spun round; tackling him - though he quickly escaped and as far as I know hasn't yet been caught. And the gun was a non-functioning replica as far as we know.

I guess the key thing is that the way I look at it, it should be normal practice for people to respond to situations like that, as did the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 and part of the reason we don't is because our secular culture causes us to act as individuals: we see that a small minority of people are putting us in danger and that acting together they would be overcome, but the fact that 'I' am in danger means we don't act.

So why did James respond? My guess is that it's two things: firstly his eco-activism means he's used to doing what others don't have the guts to do - stand up to those in power when what they're doing isn't right. Secondly, his Christian faith gives him a different perspective on life, one where risking your life is sometimes reasonable, and which affects his psychology at a deep level.

As James said when he met us up at the pub a day later: "I almost met my maker yesterday" before casually starting on his pint.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

DemonicVD Camcorder

I've done a Video project using a DVD Camcorder. It was a nightmare. Read on.

I videoed a showcase production for a friend last Saturday using a Sony DVD91E Camcorder.

Aside from the low quality - which was even worse than normal because I had to use LP mode - you have to bear in mind that the disks will act as gyroscopes when you move the camera - they will be extremely sensitive to camera shake and twist.
So, I finished the filming and took the disk home. It was an 8cm disk so it doesn't fit in any slot-loading Mac - I had to use an old iBook. But it thought the disk was blank!

Turns out the DVD needs 'finalising'. so then I asked a teacher friend from Ivy Cottage who's school had a DVD camcorder which I picked up on Wednesday. I finalized the DVD (which meant I ended up holding the cam perfectly steady in my hands for 3mins, because it put up a dialog box saying "Finalizing: Do not subject the camera to ANY vibrations." but only after I selected the option (Grrr!!))
Then the disk was too dirty to read properly on the mac, so it took a bit of cleaning. I finally copied the files from the disk, but of course, I can't import them into iMovie, because it's DVD .VOB files not QT movie, .avi or .dv files. It took lots of faffing about until around 11:30pm until I got FFMpegx to convert the file to .dv format (import to iMac, create disk image, create DVD, fix DVD image and recreate etc, download FFMpegx and libraries...).

Awful. In 7 years I never had any problem like that with a tape-based system. Just plug it in, import video. Off I go.

Monday, 15 October 2007

OLPC Alternative 2

Well, hot on the heels of the eeePC is the DecTop.

The specs are a bit lower (366MHz Geode, 128Mb RAM, 10Gb HD, No Ethernet), but DEC will sell you a pack of 4 for $75 each (including keyboard and mouse). This takes the cost of our theoretical platform to around £45 + £85 = £130! ( or £520 for 4).

However, (and this is a big however), the DecTop isn't new. Actually it's an old AMD concept called the PIC, designed for developing countries, which doesn't seem to have been successful in the marketplace. The prices Data Evolution Corporation are offering are in fact sales prices, which kinda implies they'll stop selling them soon!

Saturday, 13 October 2007

OLPC Alternatives

I'm always on the lookout for OLPC alternatives for Africa. It's actually rather tricky, for the following reasons:
  • You really need a low-powered device, something that can be powered by hand or via solar cells. This is because often in Africa the electricity isn't often reliable. Realistically a person could provide up to 466 Watts, so 15 minutes worth of effort can power a 50 Watt computer/display for up to 2.33 hours.
  • You need a system which can survive extreme conditions. That's another reason why it needs to be low-powered, because low-power means cool.
  • You need a system which uses pretty much off-the-shelf components: standard RAM, pretty much standard HDs.
  • You need a system which is low maintenance. This pretty much rules out sending old second-hand PCs. There's 2 reasons for this: replacement parts are hard to find and computing expertise is hard to find.
  • You need a system which has conventional interfaces: VGA, USB.
  • You need a system which is very cheap. The $100 laptop is currently at roughly $200 which is realistic to donate in 10s of units (£1000).
  • You need a system which is based on open source software, e.g Linux.
Not many computers fulfill these kind of criteria. One of them is the Asus eeePC.
Research machines are currently selling them for £169 each for the 2Gb version. However, they are for educational use only.

Another alternative is the FitPC.
Assuming we have to pay the full whack of $285 (£150) this means we can put together a cheap developing country PC for around £260 (£85 lcd display, £150 machine, £10 keyboard/ mouse, £20 Hand crank PSU).

However we can probably cut this down somewhat. If we sell it through a charity on a non-profit basis we can probably do it for half the price: $143 (£72) and then get the rest of it ex-vat, we get: £72+£98 = £170 for the machines themselves (we'd then have to transport them).

Friday, 12 October 2007

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

People can do nice things, and just because you ask them!

Imperial measurements - what Americans call English measurements - really wind me up. I was born in the UK in the late 1960s and spent my childhood learning metric only to find that decades later most Brits (even ones much younger than me) still use imperial measurements for most normal things and still reuse the same arguments for their continued use.

And it's hard for me to switch over too. I've become used to thinking about liquids in litres (rather than pints or gallons), because petrol is bought in litres and UHT milk cartons / wine / water / fruit juice is too. Temperature is normally metric in the UK (so that's easy). And for a long time I've thought about short distances in metric and it's only in the past decade I've started to metricize the rest of my life.

And I mean, just normal things: I'm 1.7m tall and weigh 68Kg. My church (and my old place of work) is about 2Km away. Nottingham, where my parents live is just over 100km.

The real difficulty has been reading stuff in imperial on the web. Most of the world is metric, but most of the web is US-centric which means a lot of measurements are imperial even when they're technical. I kept finding this on it's really wierd reading articles aimed at an international audience; about the latest space developments and seeing it all measured in pounds and feet, miles, farenheit and gallons. It's like - Nasa has been taken over by Torchwood!

So a few months ago I emailed one of the guys there and he wrote back to say:

“This is something you need to take up with the style of the major U.S.
syndicator of news: The Associated Press. We follow their style to be
consistent, and they dictate using only Fahrenheit.”
Yet just this week I noticed they'd changed to including metric measurements! Dave Mosher says they've updated their style guidelines, but it just goes to show that people can change their minds and be really considerate :-) !

Friday, 5 October 2007

Big Stick Sociology

Yesterday I got threatened by someone with a big stick about the size and shape of a baseball bat. It's OK, I wasn't attacked, I'm just surprised it's possible to get away with that kind of behaviour in public.

I was cycling home from Stockport*
View Larger Map and as I got to the crossroads at Parrswood road / Fog lane a guy in a parked car opened his door right in front of me. So I shouted "Watch it!" and he swore at me to shut up. So I yelled "You don't have the right to tell me to shut up!" and he grabbed something like a baseball bat from his boot* and started to threaten me with stuff like "Come over here and I'll smash your F***ing face in!"

I declined. I was several metres ahead of him; toying with the idea of jumping the lights (which were still red), but I still held my ground and eventually him and his verbal obscenities went into the nearest house (presumably to show off his fine lump of wood).

So that's it really. I reported the incident to a Community Support* police officer. The thing I'm thinking is that hey, there were lots of witnesses, but would they have got out of their cars to help? I think ultimately most of us are too scared to risk ourselves in the face of intimidation and that's why it works. But really it should work the other way round, there's more of us than there is of them!

[* Stockport is in the UK. The Boot of a car is the 'Trunk'. Community support officers are volunteer police]

Thursday, 4 October 2007

OLPC Deal: Give Two Get None

I really love the OLPC.

Well, I love everything about it apart from two things, they use an AMD x86-based CPU when they could have used a lower-powered ARM-based machine (e.g. an Arm11 or Cortex A8). And the OLPC "Give One Get One" deal only applies to the US and Canada.

For the rest of the world, the deal is: "Give Two Get None" since outside the US you can donate to give away XO laptops, but you'll never receive one.

But that's OK, I'll buy into that, sign me up Nick for donating 2 XO laptops - in fact I'll sign up for 4. At $800 it's still a great deal!

I'd like to donate in order to seed the XO in particular places: Zambia (where Dignity online operates) and in Senegal (where a cameroonian friend of mine has an interest).

But it's not the only way of doing things, stay tuned for a future post!

Monday, 1 October 2007

Mac mini madness!

Well, there you go. Today Apple UK are offering a special deal on a refurbished Mac mini: A 1.83GHz Core Duo Superdrive for only £499.

Except that... A brand-new Mac mini 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo with a 50% bigger Hard Drive in a nice box costs the same. Something tells me the 'special deal' isn't going to sell!

Pity, 'cos I'm very much a Mac mini fan. In the UK it's still the best Mac deal you can get: with it you can buy a complete Mac for around £500 (e.g. £399 Mac mini + 17" LCD monitor from Microdirect (£85) + Apple Keyboard (£29) + Trust Optical Mouse (£4.50)) => £517). The next best thing is a Superdrive Mac mini at £617 followed by a Combo Macbook at £699.

Even so, I think Apple should sell a... what I would call a Mac nano - a 11" wide-screen LCD (1024x600) backed onto a slow CPU with 512Mb RAM Mac with only Airport/BT networking and two USB ports. With this machine there's no Combo / Superdrive, no external video and just one RAM slot (occupied by the 512Mb). Then I'd sell it for around £350 (£399 with wireless Kbd/Mouse deal). The point would be some kind of satellite Mac good for internet stuff etc. Or is that what the rumoured Apple PDA is going to be? Or would such a machine be usurped by the (other) rumoured Macbook mini/nano?

OK, so my Mac nano might be madness, but at least it's not as mad as a special deal that's anything but!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Gunning for ARM

I'm a fan of ARM Processors - it's the most successful CPU on the planet today, by a factor of 3 or more. ARM processors go inside pretty much every mobile phone these days (it's possible, though unlikely, that some low-end phones don't have one); hundreds of millions of gadgets have them (from handheld games consoles to Network servers); they're so ubiquitous that it's worth using them for ultra-low-end microcontrollers[1][2] and it's popping an ARM processor in pretty much any device: the Marvell WLAN used inside the OLPC uses one for example.

ARM CPUs are successful, because they are actually a good design: Lean and Clean; they do more with transistors than x86 ever can; spanning a range of CPUs from <100k transistors and up to several hundred MHz with the Arm11.

So, I was really surprised to find OLPC failing to use and surprised further that Intel sold off it's ARM-based XScale CPU range last year. But now it's becoming clear, Intel are now anti-ARM and want to push their inherently inefficient x86 CPUs to ultramobiles and even PDAs.

With Moorestown Intel want to use x86 where ARM would make more sense. But probably the most annoying thing is their justification for it: "Second, if you want to get a great experience surfing the Internet, you need an IA-32 Intel architecture, because the Internet is written around it" This is just complete absolutely untrue FUD - the internet is written around being CPU independent - and that's how it should be.

People are gunning for ARM, we need to be more active when advocating it.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Performa 400 Paradise!

After I started re-using my 14 year-old Macintosh Performa 400, I just can't help raving about it! If you've never heard of one, then it's worth taking a step back in time to 1993 for a recap.

I started using Macs in 1986, 512K monochrome machines, but I couldn't afford to buy one until a year into my first proper job, in 1993. The best Mac I could sensibly get hold of was a Performa 400 - a 16MHz 68LC030 Mac with 4Mb Ram and a 40Mb HD, running System 7.1. It cost me about £1280 with a printer. Although slow even by those days it was fantastically versatile, I produce decently edited brochures; bought Think C and wrote some Mac Programs; I upgraded the memory to 8Mb; the Hard disk to 270Mb and I added a SCSI Zip drive and CD Rom. This was the machine that got me onto the internet in late 1995, early 1996 with Netscape 1.18 and Eudora 2.x for email.

Since then I've gone through a number of Macs: A PowerMac 4400, a PowerBook 5300, a tangerine iBook, a 600MHz iceBook and now my two main Macs are the 12" PowerBook G4 I'm typing this on and an iMac G5.

But I still love the P400, which I reacquired from my sister when they upgraded. It's great! For a start... it still WORKS! And with it's ethernet PDS card I can use an old web browser and also ftp. The neatest thing though is still Think C - it's about 17 years old, but as a programming environment, still much more productive than XCode. It's 1Mb of pure genius; efficient and highly usable for (really) basic stuff! And to think it's all being done on a 16MHz 68030, a cpu roughly 1000times slower than today's computers (over 200x slower than my G4), a cpu so primitive they wouldn't even put it in today's crummiest mobile phone!

It's like a trip to computing paradise - they don't make computers like that anymore :-)

Friday, 14 September 2007

Mysterious Mobile Phone Episode#1

Just a short post this. There's the feeling that the UK is sleepwalking into a Police state. Usually I take all this with a pinch of salt - or rather a hefty bag of the stuff, but now I'm not quite so sure!

A friend of mine was at the recent protests at Heathrow. Lots of fun I hear, no real bust ups between the protesters and police, just everyone playing their part. During the course of this my friend had a number of stop-and-searches, for things like, cycling. The normal thing is to not give name and address unless they have a particular reason. But on one occasion they took the IMEI number from his cheapo Nokia 1112 phone. Pretty wierd that, they had a laptop somehow connected to to the phone network or something when they were doing it. We thought it was probably just to keep track on him.

But this week, his phone has been mysteriously security locked (which they only do if it has been reported stolen, which it hasn't been). So he's now phone-less! Anyone know why the phone has been locked?

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

I’ve finally gotten around to creating a blog, so I need to start it off somehow with a post, hopefully not a completely purile one. Since I obsess a bit about global warming and climate change I’ll start with a thrilling post about the Arctic sea ice extent.

If you didn’t know, the Arctic sea ice extent has alread
y broken the previous record of 5.32M Km2 set in 2005 by 1.08M Km2 - it’s now 4.24M Km2 and could easily fall for another 2 or 3 weeks (although it may stop any day now). It’s not just that it’s smaller than ever, but that it’s breaking records of all kinds:
  • It’s the largest single fall recorded for a single year.
  • Highest temperatures Recorded.
  • It’s the first time the Northwest Passage has opened.
  • It’s melted perennial sea ice the size of California (Ice that’s been around every day of every year since at least 1979).
  • Ocean warming itself is now contributing to ice melt.
The thing for me though is that most people are still predicting the Arctic ice caps will be free of ice in the summer by 2030, but simply looking at their graph makes it look like (at the current rate over 2005-2007) the ice caps will be free of ice by the summer of 2015. The calculation’s simple: 4.24M Km2 / 0.55M Km2/Yr => 8 years.

But how bogus is my guess? Well, I’m not a climate scientist, so probably very! But it’s worth noting that my estimate is based on a current rate of decline when it’s fairly obvious that the rate of decline is accelerating. Secondly, not only is the rate increasing, but it’s becoming more consistent. Year to year increases since 2001 haven’t exceeded 0.45M Km2 (average 0.26M Km2), which prior to 2001 averaged 0.68M Km2. Thirdly, there's a good reason to believe ice melt will increase and be more consistent - namely that the arctic ocean is playing a greater rĂ´le, absorbing more summer heat, because the cap is shrinking. And the ocean will act as a massive heat exchange, preventing the cap from fully recovering in the winter, and by regulating heat release during the yar.

Scary isn’t it?