Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Volumio

Wednesday, 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…..

Into the Digital Age

Sunday, 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.

Updated Android

Sunday, 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 :-)

Digital Audio in a FLAC

Wednesday, 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.

Surface Treatment

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

A few days ago, we got a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 at work. It’s not a bad machine: it’s a Laplet: a hybrid laptop/tablet, and it works well, if we excuse it for Windows 8- the hardware is nice, thin, light, and i7 versions are quick, so it’s a good fit for the very mobile staff that
will be using it.

I remain convinced that Win 8 is a bastardisation of touch-screen tablet OS and a desktop OS that feels like an unholy marriage, though I’m hating it less as I get used to it.

What really creates a whinge is this little stroke of genius, which caused a support call and much fannying around testing chargers this week.

You can see the product launch meeting now:

Dilbert

Yes, Microsoft launched a device, launched a dock for it at the same time (we got the dock a day or two after the device itself), and managed to make the two not work together at launch. Cue a large loss of faith in what should be a good product.

*facepalm*.

You see this a lot with technology, and come to that, with poorly managed processes outside of tech:

1. Decide on arbitary launch date and fix everything to that.
2. Skimp on the preparation/testing, or ignore the problems.
3. Wonder why it’s all gone wrong.

The result is pretty much as you’d expect; you look inept…

Dirty Boy

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

I’ve gone on here before about how web filtering is wrong and doesn’t work properly, and how the bigger the scale, the harder it is.

We’ve also seen that, according to an Ofcom report (PDF, 1.1MB) customers have greeted the filters with rejection.

That’s quite gratifying, I think. People are being actively prompted to allow censorship, and are rejecting it. Of course, that the tech required is now in place will make it easier to do more packet inspection should law (or other means) request it…

Here’s the Open Rights Group‘s take on it, the approach is humourous, but the message is serious.

If you think this won’t happen, try the Scunthorpe Problem for size.

I’m personally of the opinion that an ISP should do one thing: provide the infrastructure to route packets to the internet, and maybe a few basic services (like DNS, SMTP etc). You might note that the sponsors of that video refuse to offer a filtered connection, something they’re to be congratulated on.

If, like me, you want to defend an open, uncensored Internet with reasonably privacy, then consider joining the Open Rights Group or the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Note that ORG is a UK organisation, EFF is US-based.

Loosely Comnnected

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

This is quite a wierd one: some time ago at a company I work for sometimes, a colleague tried to replace some old 15″ LCD monitors with shiny new 19″ ones, to be confronted by extereme flickering. I had a look, tried the monitors with my laptop, and got a flicker-free picture. I made sure the leads weren’t too close to mains cable, but no change.

We assumed some incompatibility with the (elderly) PCs, and another colleague changed the PCs recently. In the course of doing so, he discovered the real cause. A power lead- just a normal BS1363-IEC C13 (colloquially known as a kettle lead), but, tellingly, with a rewireable BS1363 plug, not a moulded one. Remove the lead, problem stops. This lead was connecting one of the PCs that was working perfectly well, and flicker-free with the 15″ monitor.

I looked at the lead the next day:

The culprit: a badly fitted plug.

The culprit: a badly fitted plug.

and it seemed kind of OK at a glance, though that neutral lead should have been cut shorter.

What did turn out to be wrong was every terminal was loose: loose enough to turn by hand, so I presume that the intermittent connection caused enough noise to upset the new monitor, but not the old one. Disturbingly, this lead had passed a current PAT test, when potentially it’s a fire hazard: loose connections can overheat.

I don’t know if the connections had worked loose (which is one reason why connections in screw terminals should not be tinned with solder) or just sloppily fitted in the first case. The plug did rattle when shaken, but it would do that even with tight terminals, as the pins have a bit of play in the housing. Full marks to my colleague for spotting an obscure fault.

giffgaff

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Last September, I’d finally had enough of Vodafone; a phone network that, at one time, I was very happy with: I think that their coverage has acutally degraded- if not in objective terms, then at least in relation to my expectations and the marketing of a supposedly leading network, and I was surprised by how poorly Voda’s coverage met my needs. I went to the lengths of testing: coverage maps, I find, are at best a guide, and at worst misleading.

Long story short, I decided on giffgaff, on the basis that there’s no contract (effectively it’s pay-as-you-go, but the auto top-up and goodybag arrangement means you can get the benefits of not having to piss about the top-ups and having a fixed cost) and that the coverage seemed good enough everywhere I regularly went.

A revelation: I have a smartphone that now works as intended- in contact with the Internet most of the time, and that can, you know, make or receive calls. It no longer drops out of coverage randomly, which at times had made me think the phone performed below-par, simply because I thought the network couldn’t be that poor, surely?

On the whole the testing showed EE to be a bit better, performance-wise, but a good bit more costly. The nice thing is that now I have no commitment: should giffgaff be troublesome I can drop them instantly, but the first month of use is encouraging.

Talking Law

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

As the Internet acronym goes, IANAL, and don’t claim to be, or indeed to know that much about legal process, but Tim Turner does: he trains people “on Data Protection, FOI, EIR, PECR and Information Rights“.

He’s written a very good blog post here on what actually is legal when it comes to direct marketing (what I would call spam…), and indeed, what isn’t, which would seem to make a pretty clear statement about this, for a start, and also, I was pleased to see, mentioned that lovely firm Amber Windows getting a kicking.

Please read the blog, and then start to think about the unsolicited calls, texts, and email you receive.

Openretch

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Can anyone tell me how BT’s line providing division, Openretch Openreach survive?

The company I work for provides network services to varying people and organisations, and this means dealing with telecoms providers, and that almost certainly means the loose collective of fuckwits we know and love.

So far this week, I’ve had:

1) In response to a circuit order in a building that is partially let out (and where the BT duct enters via the let out area, and is a retail shop) “can we come tomorrow”.

2) In response to an order made 3 months ago, in a central Birmingham hotel, with the clear stipulation “you must make an advance appointment, the circuit is required by 17/4/14″, an “engineer” arrives today, has to wait a few minutes and is told “no, sorry, the room is in use, come back tomorrow”, and says “no”.

Said engineer was told “sorry, you have to. This is required by 1pm tomorrow, and was ordered 3 months ago. It cost a metric shitload of cash, and you haven’t called in advance, like we told you to, and you do this *every time* we request this. The room is available afer 5:30, or anytime tomorrow”

*shaking of head*

This barely describes the quantity of fucks the engineer didn’t give. “Resourcing”, he said. “not gonna happen”. “we’re only supposed to wait 15 minutes, and I’ve been 20″. The guy was, to be fair, a master of fuck not giving.

and not a single fuck was given.

Behold!

He departed. I called my colleague, among whom’s many talents are shouting at BT (and personally, I think it would be worth his salary just for that). He did so. Our circuit should be active tomorrow AM. We have a reference and everything. I will not hold my breath.

Honestly, if they weren’t still a virtual monopoly, they’d be fucked. I’m very thankful to the abilities of my colleagues, and still wondering what shape BT would be in had they not inherited a state-owned monopoly, but thanking my lucky stars I don’t have do deal with Cable and Hopeless Wireless any more, because they had sufficent sense to disappear.

[edit]

The engineer (the same one) came back the next day, and it worked….


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