January 14th, 2015

I already mentioned my plans for a media streaming server with my Raspberry Pi, and finally got round to it: a friend donated an external disk enclosure that took a pair of 1TB SATA disks, and presented them as a 1TB RAID 1 volume over USB. A cheap USB hub, a case for the Pi, a £2.49 USB wifi dongle, and a quick download of Volumio (a modified Raspbian image) and all the bits are present, fitting them together was pretty simple, and I have a working media server with great sound quality, that uses little power and is completely hidden from view: all the hardware worked, with the only tweaking being a quick edit of /etc/network/interfaces to set a fixed IP on the wireless network.

Volumio is cool: it’s like IPCop in that it’s an open-source appliance based on Linux with a web interface to configure it and use it, but you can delve “under the hood” with ssh. It uses the mpd server, and presents itself on the network via SCP or a SAMBA (Windows network) share for uploads, and advertises on Airplay or DLNA. You can control it with a wide range of clients for all sorts of devices as well as the web interface, and it just found my DAC with no tinkering, and the sound from a FLAC file is as good as the original CD, even with the Pi’s limited horsepower.

I have a good amount of ripping to do…..

A Frosty Reception

December 31st, 2014

Having fixed my bike on Christmas Eve, I thought I’d take advantage of the daylight and fully functioning gears and go to Chasewater for the first time in months. The canal was frozen, and the towpaths covered in frost, but the only time I had a slip was climbing Ogley Junction bridge, making it neccesary to walk over it. Other than that, the frost hissed away under the tyres harmlessly, though I took it very carefully over the railway aqueduct, with it’s exposed brick path covered in frost.

I’ve biked a bit in the recent cold and since the fix, but only short hops on main roads, and it was nice to get back on the canal: few people were about, the sun was bright, and while it was cold, the sharpness of it felt good.

The local swan family were about, but split by the icy canal between Clayhanger and Anchor bridges the cygnets now pretty much fully grown but still grey in places, and hoping for food from me:

A fully-grown cygnet at Anchor Bridge

A fully-grown cygnet at Anchor Bridge

The neighbourhood cats around Ogley Hay were making use of the ice to cross the canal and extend their territory, but didn’t stay still long enough to get my gloves off and photograph them.

Chasewater itself was almost deserted: a couple of joggers and dog walkers- and the seats were all covered in frost or water, so I didn’t hang about. I didn’t even attempt to ride up Ogley Junction bridge this time, but it was still a bit of a game: evidently my cheap and nasty “whatever it came with” bike tyres, while a conmpromise most of the time, are better than one would expect on ice: perhaps bike and car tyres have some similarities at the budget end of the market.

I ended up home by 9:30- with cold hands and face, but feeling better than when I left out.

Into the Digital Age

December 28th, 2014

Regular readers will know that I’ve got some prejudices about audio: for years I didn’t have an MP3 player, eventually relenting, although I still don’t do actual MP3s, and buy music almost exclusively on CD, though it has to be said, my views on downloadable music 10 years ago are starting to be disproved: MP3 at a highish bitrate (which is more practical with increasing bandwidth and storage) is good enough for most people, on most systems, at most times, and lossless formats are becoming more common, especially since Fruitco introduced their lossless format (though of course, they should have introduced it as an open format…).

One thing* has kept me away from using a computer to play music in the house: the analogue outputs of most consumer PCs (and I’m including Fruitco in this) hardware is a bit ropey- but then again, it was never intended for high-quality audio.

Enter the DACMagic. It’s a proper (though very small) hifi component with TOSLink, S/P DIF and USB inputs, and it’ll do the high sample rates that may not be neccesary, but more importantly, it’s a decent DAC chip with the compromise pushed a bit towards quality, and some initial testing sounds as good as the CD with a FLAC file (and, pleasingly, the device was recognised and working within seconds on Ubuntu).

The plan now is a Raspberry Pi and Volumino: the Pi’s analogue audio output is particularly compromised (hardly surprising given it’s a £35 computer) and the ‘proper’ stereo doesn’t have HDMI. There are cheaper ways to get better Pi audio with a Wolfson DAC, but as a bonus, the DACMagic’s inputs can link to my existing CD player too; a respectable but budget Marantz, and also, it comes in a nice black case that looks decent next to the other gear: initial comparisons sound like the DACMagic has improved sound here too, but that could be the confirmation bias- I’ve just bought it, so it /has/ to give an improvement :-).

*OK, two things. I’m an awful luddite, it would seem.

Off The Rails

December 26th, 2014

I’ve been frustrated by my bike of late: gear changes were getting sluggish, and at times it was plain refusing to shift gear. I replaced the obviously tired chain, and got an improvement for a while, but then things got markedly worse. I misguidedly tried fiddling with the adjusters (some of it in desperation while riding and needing a higher gear), which resulted in me buggering up the thread of the adjuster at the shift lever. The levers are SIS combined brake and gear levers, and come as a pair, so it was off to Halfords website (as the usual suspects like CRC didn’t stock them) for replacements.

Fitting them was mostly fine, though delayed by one pingpuckit (the cable clamp on the front deraileur) making a bid for freedom under the cooker (the kitchen being the only practical place for bike maintenance in December), but adjustment took a while. If you ever have need to adjust bike gears, this is the place to go, but read the rest of this post first.

Deraileur (or derailer) gears are a pretty crude device, just pushing the chain sideways to change gear, and they’re also prone to damage, and in the line of all the mud, grit, and water from the road or canal towpath. I don’t do hundreds and hundreds of miles, but this year has seen me increase my mileage by a lot, and I’ve been out in the mud and had to hose down the bike a fair bit.

Long story short, is that I hadn’t noticed how stiff the control cables had become. As the new levers came with brake and gear cales, all have been replaced, and the smoothness and ease of both braking (my bike has cable-operated discs) and gearchanges is amazing. I suppose I should realise that increased miles on gritty towpaths means increased maintenance, and also learn that generally, adjustments are sometimes better left alone- look at the basics. This also shows why hydraulic brakes, hub gears, and even electronic shifters (yes, bikes now can have CANBus and ECUs) are popular with more serious cyclists- in fact, BrownhillsBob’s quote that (IIRC) “If deraileurs were invented today they’d get laughed at” seems even more sensible for a mountain bike or hybrid. On an outgoing road bike, their efficiency over a hub gear might make more sense.

Merry Christmas

December 24th, 2014

Just a short note to say merry Christmas to all. As is customary, I won’t mention all the people in the online community of Walsall (and nearby), but just point you the way of the YamYam, still aggregating the local blogs. I do, however, have to mention both BrownhillsBob and The Plastic Hippo, both of whom shame me both with quantity and quality, and also to those of you I’ve actually met and imbibed beer with: you know who you are.

There’s a few Christmas errands left, but shopping is done, and the turkey is chillin’, and I even think I fixed my bike…

Pub Closures

December 18th, 2014

I’ve been (again) thinking of pub closures lately; this has mostly been prompted by the reports from Andy that the Pyle Cock is to close next year (as reported here) and picked up by WV11 here. The Pyle Cock has long been one of my favourite pubs, one that I don’t visit enough, because it’s 2 bus rides away.

There’s an interesting post here (and the comments are worth a read too) from The Pub Curmudgeon. My view don’t entirely align with his (or the linked report) (he’s of the view that the smoking ban has had a large effect, and the linked article dismisses PubCo behaviour to some degree), but it does make the point that pub closures are a complex matter: it is not just beer pricing (via taxation), competition (from supermarkets) or the smoking ban: all of these factors have a role to play, as does social change- as the comments point out, increased car commuting (and greater distances to commute), and a change in working patterns also play a part. It’s noticeable in large cities with more people travelling by public transport, pubs continue to thrive, but again, it’s not that simple.

Good pubs thrive, and taking the Pyle Cock as an example, it’s difficult to see why it is closing: it was for sale for a time, and has now been sold to a developer. That suggests a PubCo taking the option to cash in on real estate, but anecdotal reports suggest the pub was not busy in general, though the current landlord has been given notice, rather than quitting himself, it would seem, so perhaps it was making *enough* money: the beer was always good and the atmosphere was fantastic, old traditional pub.

Oddly, just up the road, the ever lovely Vine
is thriving and busy, with a new, young landlord and fantastic beer, and I’m told the nearby Dog and Partridge is fine too. It’s hard to see, though, what is so very different that makes the Pyle Cock unsustainable. It remains a fact that good pubs, even those not serving food can do well, and I’ve recently been in a very traditional backstreet pub with no real ale or food that seemed to be very busy (including with smokers, outside on a cold day), which makes me wonder exactly what the factors are that close pubs?

Updated Android

November 23rd, 2014

I’ve had a Samsung Galaxy S2 for about 2.5 years now, originally bought as a Vodafone contract handset. It’s a great phone; nicely put together and reasoanably durable and powerful, but of late I’d got it in my head that the version of Android was getting on, and the combination of Samsung and Vodafone apps over the top annoyed me and cluttered the OS.

Enter Cyanogenmod, a community-generated derivation from the Android source. As the S2 is a popular device, it’s well supported, and a quick prompt from a nice chap on Twitter pointed me in the right direction, and with a few Android developer tools installed on Ubuntu ( damned site easier than Windows), I was done. With the phone rebooted, I’ve got Android Kitkat, no Vodafone bloat, and a generic Android interface, and seemingly, better performance and battery life :-)

Pier Pressure

October 22nd, 2014

We’ve been off to North Wales- precisely LLandudno, for a few days. This was mostly a weekend away just to get away, but there was an ulterior motive; more piers.

The first, a visit on the way, was Colwyn Bay Victoria. It’s been totally shut since 2008, with a chequered history, and is now , frankly, in an awful state. There’s been the traditional fires in 1922 and 1933, with rebuilding, some highly dubious modifications while owned by THF, and a 1976 threat of demolition that was thwarted with a petition, followed by a further one in 1987. The full history can be found here at the NPS site, and also here at the site victoriapier.com, a site owned by Steve Hunt, with whom the story gets odd, rather than just the normal sad decline and abuse.
Read the rest of this entry »

Speed Kills: Use your head

October 20th, 2014

West Midlands Police’s WMPTraffic cused a bit of a stir last week on twatter and in the blog world, with this piece on helmets, speeding, and cake. Quite a good piece , in many ways, and a bit lacking in others. First of all, I have no argument with the cake bit.

Moving on to the others:

The helmet discussion. Should cyclists wear helmets, and should they be required to wear helmets?

I’ll come right out and say it: If you want to wear one, do so. I don’t. I suppose, should it become law, that I will, because I follow the rules of the road when cycling.

The article predictably, comes from the viewpoint that you should, and it may save your life, but then relies on anecdote to back it up. I won’t go into detail on this, as others have done it better in the comments, but it has been shown driver behaviour near a helmeted cyclist can be worse, and helmet legislation discourages cycling- there’s real data to show this.

I’d suggest anyone who wants to wear a helmet should, having assessed the risks and benefits themselves.

When we got to the speed bit, I commented, and got a good answer. What does concern me is the simplistic approach; it’s almost as iif we’ve given up on hazard perception and avoidance, and just moved to reducing the impact. Speed kills. Take that to it’s logical conclusion we end up back in 1865.

At this point, I need to stop, as I’m repeating myself, but I’d just like to reinforce the idea that we should seek to avoid collisions, not merely reduce the speed they happen at. We should target people on the phone, messing with their satnav, or just plain not paying attention. Target the tailgaters, the lane-hoggers, and the 40mph everywhere brigade.

Digital Audio in a FLAC

October 15th, 2014

Reading The Register earlier this week, this story popped up.

I thought it was interesting that the article talks about various encoding methods, master tape quality, speaker and amplifier quality, and the problems of re-encoding into Apple lossless (full marks, incidentally, to Fruitco for implementing a lossless codec, though why not use FLAC?), but manages to skip over a critical point of digital audio: the DAC.

There is of course, a lot of bollocks spoken and written about audio: this leads to crap like what this article is handily debunking, *edit* LOL */edit* but one thing is for certain: if you’ve picked a god encoding scheme and a decent bitrate, the digital path is less important than the analogue one (digital signals do not degrade gradually, analogue ones do) and the quality of the conversion is critical.

The analogue stages in most phones and computers is simply not designed for high quality, and the article doesn’t mention this: if you’re using a PC or a phone to play music, if you’re fussy, you really need to do the conversion externally to the PC itself- so either amplifier with a digital input and a PC with digital out, or a USB DAC, or maybe good bluetooth headphones, though there’s a caveat on compression and limited bandwidth with bluetooth audio, which may mean you lose what you gain, but having said that, given that bluetooth headphones are likely to be used on the move with a lot of background noise, it’s probably not important.

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