Category Archives: DIY

All Do-It-Yourself style stuff

Quantified Self & Withings Pulse

Withings Pulse

Withings Pulse

Pictured: Withings Pulse device, smaller than a third of a matchbox. – I have had my doubts about the “Quantified Self” movement (or just a vogue), but there are also some promising aspects in the concept of increasing information and awareness about your health and fitness. The obvious downsides include the potential for increased self-focus, obsession, stress, and data deluge. The (gamification-style) counter-argument is that when you get clear and immediate feedback on the relevant aspects of your life, it becomes more motivational, and it becomes easier to cajole yourself into doing stuff that you’d really want to do, in the first place.

Withings Pulse is the device that I am testing at the moment. Small, 8 gram marvel of miniaturization, it has sensors to measure movement, elevation, acceleration and many similar things — it even has a heart rate monitor that can be used to capture heart beat values every now and then — and connects via bluetooth to the smartphone app few times a day so that you can get nice, illustrative graphs and stats from the free Withings app. Withings is one part of the mushrooming new health data industry, with scales, blood pressure monitors, baby monitors as well as activity trackers in its connected-devices ecosystem. For a user, the crucial question is how well the supposed use style of these smart things actually fits with one’s lifestyle. Simply carrying the passive measuring device in your pocket is not too much a burden, but in order to fully benefit from this technology, one really should regularly start and stop the sleep recorder, step to the smart scale for body monitoring, then remember to set the relevant apps and sensors in the correct configuration, depending on whether one is following a particular training program, or just tries to see how many steps one takes during a regular working day.

It is perhaps too early to say how mainstream these technologies will become, in the end. But I see signs of a science-fictional future emerging: one where we are constantly getting readouts about the (previously pretty opaque) internal doings of our bodies, and personal health assistants alarming us in good time before any life threatening issues have time to develop. It is important also to keep track on how the individual freedom, protection of privacy and the voluntary character of such, highly sensitive data collection will work out in the future “culture of transparency”.

Link, Withings Pulse web page: http://www.withings.com/pulse

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XBMC in Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi

My Raspberry Pi had arrived while I was at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, and I got finally some hours to test drive it. As far as contemporary PC hardware goes, RPi is of course seriously underpowered little plaything. On the other hand, when you compare it with to some other devices (like smartphones, embedded systems), it does not look so bad. The principal reason for its development should also be taken into account (promoting computer literacy, encouraging tinkering with hardware and software tools, helping kids learn to code). I have been looking for some time for an affordable and functional HTPC system for serving media in our living room, and thus my first test drive involved setting up RPi as a media center PC. The Raspian “wheezy” distro that they recommend on the Raspberry Pi Foundation website was too slow and unresponsive for my taste to do anything. I tried also Raspbmc version of XBMC media center, but I could not get it to install any addons at all. So finally I did find a place that instructed how to install OpenElec, an embedded operating system that has been built to run XBMC – from a Windows PC (http://www.squirrelhosting.co.uk/hosting-blog/hosting-blog-info.php?id=9). Now XBMC was getting online, updating itself and installing addons nicely. It also booted up decently in c. 20-40 seconds.

It turned out that the major issue for me finally was a network infrastructure related one: we did not have a LAN socket in the corner where our TV set is situated. I tried to learn about WiFi USB dongles that could run out of the box, plug-and-play style with the OpenElec/XBMC, but it would had been necessary to know the exact version of chipset and firmware to make sure whether the USB dongle in question would work, so I decided to stay with the wired Internet/Ethernet connection instead, and added another layer to the (rather instesting) network topology of our home by setting up a Powerline Ethernet bridge (using two Zyxel PLA4215 units). While I was at it, I also got a powered USB 2.0 hub (a basic Belkin thing) and wireless keyboard-touchpad combo for comfortable sofa-based media surfing. The latter was a Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard K400, which is a rattling, plastic thing, but has two important benefits for me: (a) it is cheap, (b) it has an inconspicuous power switch hidden on the side. Anyone with one or two (or, indeed, three) hyperactive toddlers in the house can witness why these are good things. I have already e.g. a broken Logitech diNovo Edge lying around somewhere. Surprisingly, everything seemed to work after a couple of system reboots.

As to the actual use of the OpenElec/XBMC/Raspberry Pi system, I have not yet much experience to share. I can say that the software is still buggy and occasionally rather slow. It is difficult to say what the system is doing when the playback or a menu does not open immediately, whether it is buffering data or whatever is going on. Attempting to stop the playback of a HD video file can suddenly jam the whole system to a complete halt. But yes, I can play music, videos and watch photos in a full HD screen from multiple sources, from both local network and from various online services in a more or less satisfactory manner. There seems to be much potential and room to explore further in this surprising little system. One can only hope that the energy of the community does not die out, but the development of software continues far beyond this early stage. It is, after all, really early in the evolution of Raspberry Pi ecosystem, as some developers have not yet even received the unit they are waiting for. Much of the OS distributions and applications are thus more at ‘alpha’ rather than even ‘beta’ stage at this point. But taken that, this is really entertaining little playground to experiment with, and to fool around.

OpenElec XBMC running on Raspberry Pi HTPC

OpenElec XBMC running on Raspberry Pi HTPC

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Upgrade blues

I bought my previous workstation/gaming pc in spring 2007, which would be five years next May — an eternity in terms of how pc and gaming hardware in particular evolves. As I do not have much of a budget for this (a family man has surprisingly plenty of money outlets), I’d be happy to just get the utility software and OS to run more speedily; the current situation is so laggy it is just unacceptable. The most efficient way to achieve this would be to install an SDD. Checking my old hardware, I realized I should upgrade also the motherboard in order to get SATA III bus, which is necessary if upgrade to SSD would make any sense. In a modern motherboard there would be a new CPU socket, thus: a CPU upgrade. My old DIMM memory modules would no longer be a match to the new CPU; thus: a memory upgrade. At that point, it also becomes apparent that the old GeForce 8800 GTS would be the bottleneck of the new system — thus: also a graphics card upgrade.

Something like ten years ago I would still had loved the challenge, and been eager to build spreadsheets to run various comparisons to gain the ultimate value for money and a future-proof solution. Today, the workload to do such an operation properly just depresses. There will always be some incompatibility or driver issues when you set up a PC system from separate components. Yet, getting a pre-installed box from HP, Apple, or some other major manufacturer does not make much sense either. Recycling the best components (like the Blu-ray optical drive, case, possibly the power source) from the old machine would mean that the “half-new” setup would be c. half the price of comparable manufacturer-made PC. Paying the premium on the other hand would pay towards some kind of peace of mind — perhaps, depending on the quality of system and its guarantee. Having two, three grand extra, I would go for a readymade, high-end setup, no questions asked. Trying to be thrifty while still being able to game and edit videos means that one should be able to invest plenty of time into tweaking — another scarce resource  these days. Sigh…

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Magic Trackpad on Vaio

I have chronic wrist pains, like too many other active computer users, and I have been testing various mouse replacements in order to alter the movements that cause repetitive strain. Laptops and touchscreen devices are nice since they allow for more flexibility in manipulation, and also since you need not reach far looking for the mouse. Touch interface gestures are also powerful and after you have got used to them, a regular mouse starts to feel awkward and a bit antiquated.

The Apple hardware is often of high quality, but I do not like the restrictions of the Mac OS. Today I have been experimenting with connecting the Apple Magic Touchpad with my Sony Vaio Z series computer. Extracting and installing the required drivers to Windows is a bit tricky, but not too complicated (see the instructions here), and after that, the bluetooth trackpad appears to be working just fine. The sensitivity and feel of Magic Touchpad is great; however, you do not get the full set of multitouch gestures you could use on Mac OS X. But even with the limited single, and two-finger gestures this is a very nice peripheral, and great for example in home theatre use – I would not want to use a regular mouse while browsing and clicking through content while lying on a couch.

Magic Trackpad with Sony Vaio

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Garden working

Garden working by FransBadger
Garden working, a photo by FransBadger on Flickr.

Sure sign of summer: our garden work has begun again. I have e.g. operated our overgrown apple trees with a chain saw, washed away old paint and repainted (a bit hastily) all our wooden garden furniture, plus the terrace, then delivered sand, gravel and flagstones required by various paths and other constructions that look like becoming the main garden project of this summer. Here the foundation for a swing.

Garden working

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LinkStation, TwonkyMedia, and PS3 video streaming

After getting LinkStation Duo 2TB NAS as the backup disk for our home network, I realised that it also had a built-in, DLNA  compliant media server. Since we had hundreds of video clips and thousands of photos, this sounded like a great opportunity to get all those family memories to the Sony Bravia TV screen. But: nothing is so simple, in these days of IT and media “standards”. Far too large part of this weekend has been spent trying to get different parts of this new media equation to communicate with each other. A firmware update to the LinkStation produced almost usable Twonkymedia server setup (the shipped version of Twonkymedia was apparently uncompatible with the NAS firmware, making it useless). I say “almost”, since it seems that some media player clients are able to access something from this media server, some nothing. E.g. Windows Media Player in Win7 seems to show parts of the disk media contents, and you can navigate the folders. In the Sony Bravia built-in media browser you can see a few videos, but not navigate the folder structure. The best results come from using PlayStation3, where the folder navigation seems to work fine, and quite a few video files play ok. Unsurprisingly, it was those older videos we had shot with a Sony video camera that play fine in PS3, but when the videos turned into those recorded with Canon cameras, they became “unknown data”. I explored various conversion options, if I’d take the leap and produce a converted version of all those HD video files, but the video and audio codecs and file formats are a real jungle. I hoped in vain there would a single-button solution that would make the suitable conversion possible, without all that “muxing” and “demuxing” that the real digital video people seem to be doing all the time. Late at night, I finally found some kind of solution that seems to work: if you install the latest version of Windows Live Movie Maker (I also installed Expression Encoder 4, just to be sure), you can save imported Canon MOV files into various types of WMV files – and finally the “Save Movie … for Burn into DVD” option produced a file that successfully streamed from LinkStation’s TwonkyMedia server to the PS3, displaying both video and audio. The result is not comparable to the HD original, but it is the best conversion method that I could find that is almost at “single-button” level of simplicity. Hopefully someone can find something even more simple — and better quality? For a regular consumer, the entire DLNA “standardization” appears almost like a joke — I have installed and tested numerous media servers, and tried to access them from a variety of clients and players, and none had actually worked like they should. The era of interoperability is not yet here.

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SSD upgrade


OSZ Vertex 2

Originally uploaded by FransBadger

I have now OSZ Vertex 2, a 240 GB SSD drive, installed into my main workhorse, the Sony Vaio Z31WN, and I have to say I am impressed. The laptop feels totally different, much faster, more responsive — a system shutdown that could take minutes (or never complete totally) happens now in a few seconds. Much of the stability, speed and better user experience is related to the OS change: along with the new hard drive, also the old Vista was replaced with Windows 7, 64 bit ultimate/enterprise edition. But the step into solid state disk is nevertheless a major one. There is new life in the old machine. I have not yet tested the new setup completely, and there were areas like getting the 3G Gobi drivers to work with my Finnish operator’s network that were rather difficult (I ended up using the “WebToGo OneClick Internet” utility). And getting the old hard drive replaced with the new one is very difficult without professional help due to the complex Vaio Z series internals, so I cannot recommend this is as a DIY project. But having an SSD as the main memory device is clearly the way of the future for mobile computing.

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