Castle Museum York

I recently went to the Castle Museum in York. This is one of my favourite museums and there is a lot to see here. Originally built as a prison in the early 18th century, the building now contains numerous displays including period rooms from the 17th century onwards to the present day. It is somewhat disconcerting to move forwards through time only to find your own life preserved in a museum.

The Castle Museum's star attraction is this perfectly preserved relic of the Cold War
In one case you will find a selection of technology from the 1980s. That's a 'yes' to Big Trak and a 'yes' to the Acorn Electron. The Acorn Electron was a microcomputer built for the home games market in the UK and was essentially a stripped down version of the brilliant BBC Microcomputer. I wasted many hours of my childhood playing games on my friend's father's Acorn Electron from Elite to Danger UXB, and Abyss to Cosmic Combat.

Grab a friend and take control of a spacecraft in this battle game - Cosmic Combat by Alexander Selby for the Acorn Electron. In this game, the aim is to shoot a stream of bullets into your opponent's fuselage without crashing into any of the obstacles whilst skillfully piloting your 8-bit sprite under the action of Newtonian physics. They don't make games like this anymore.

Round the corner is this vision of 90's Britain. This pretty much looks identical to my mother's kitchen when I was just a little geek long ago in the mists of time. All that is missing from this picture is Big Trak roaming around on the linoleum.
Well, that's me for now. I'm off to fire up the BBC Micro emulator and get some of those Acorn games running. Thanks must go to the Castle Museum in York staff for a brilliant visit. If you get a chance to go to the heart of God's own country, then do please pay a visit to this museum.

Before I go, one Geek Experience Point is awarded to Alexander Selby for Cosmic Combat.

If you liked this post then you might like to tell me all about it on the public noticeboard, or maybe you want to stick around for something different.

Near the Castle Museum is Clifford's Tower in York, built by William the Conqueror (who was a big Acorn fan, unlike Clifford who preferred the Spectrum 48K).


Apps for Flat-Earthers

Some facts:

  • the Earth is an oblate spheroid;
  • the Earth and Moon orbit the Sun, which is a star approximately 150 million km away;
  • gravity holds water, people and animals as well as politicians and accountants to the surface of the planet. It is this force that is also responsible for the orbits of the planets.
If the Earth was flat, then cats would have pushed everything off the edge by now.


Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth in the third century BCE. Later mathematicians then calculated the circumference of Eratosthenes' forehead with remarkable accuracy.

The Earth has been known to be a globe ever since the ancient Greeks noticed that the shadow of the Earth was circular in shape during a lunar eclipse (the only object that can cast consistent circular shadows is a sphere). Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth with surprising accuracy by comparing the lengths of shadows at different places on the Earth. Space agencies from around the globe have been to space and taken photographs of Earth - and, spoiler alert - the globe is spherical.

There are experiments that you can perform yourself. Go to the beach and watch ships sail over your horizon. You will notice that the ships disappear from the bottom up as they sail over the curve (and no, a pair of binoculars will not bring the ship back into view). Watch a sunset from a low vantage point, such as your vacation beach hut, then quickly run up a convenient hill and you will notice that you get another sunset as your higher vantage point allows you to see further around the curve of your horizon. If you ever travel to a country in the opposite hemisphere, apart from the fact that your flight plan will have been calculated to be very close to a great circle on the ball Earth, but there will be some phenomena that cannot be explained on a flat earth, for example, you will see a different hemisphere of stars to your view back home. The sun and moon will appear to traverse the sky in the opposite direction (actually, they still move East to West, but their position in the North or South of the sky will make it look as though they are moving counter to your expectation). This was the first thing that I noticed when I travelled to New Zealand, arriving at night I saw the moon travelling from the East into the Northern sky and then I noticed the large and small Magellanic Clouds which are impossible to see from the Northern Hemisphere.

There are two models for understanding the solar system. One of these models, the helio-centric, globe earth model manages to explain all phenomena that we observe and can be used to make accurate predictions about both celestial events and the motion of objects on or near the surface of the planet.

The other model - the so-called Flat Earth - is not really a model at all as it makes for a poor representation of reality, explains very little of observable phenomena and can make almost no predictions. In fact, Flat Earth proponents cannot even agree on what the model should be although the common themes are a flat (sometimes infinite) plane, with the moon and sun as smaller than scientists think rotating several thousand miles above the surface of the plane. The stars are unknown points of light stuck to a glass dome, and there is an 'ice wall' preventing the oceans from falling off. Even the best Flat Earth explorers have failed to successfully photograph the ice wall or the dome. Flat Earth astronomers do not seem to care that their models do not successfully represent the reality of the southern celestial hemisphere.

Followers of the Flat Earth need to reject almost all of Newton's Laws of motion in order for their model to make even a partial sliver of sense. Neil deGrasse Tyson has blamed the conspiracy theory’s rise on “free speech” and a “failed educational system” which does not promote critical thinking. Gravitational effects are explained as simply 'density' and 'buoyancy', although, in fact, buoyancy is an epiphenomenon of gravity, Flat Earth scientists ignore this whilst simultaneously sticking fingers in their ears and saying 'La La La' very loudly. The existence of satellites and even outer space itself is rejected completely by Flat Earth proponents. The daily motion of the sun and sky is explained away as simply a trick of 'perspective'.

I could go on.

I haven't even mentioned the observation by all Flat Earth astronomers that the surface of a body of water looks flat, or that they cannot feel the dizzying 15 degrees per hour rotation of the Earth at the equator (you would not expect to feel such a slow rotation).

But I decided to do some research that I do not believe anyone else has done before. I shall simply find all the apps in the app store that rely on an helio-centric, round earth model, and then compare them with apps that have been written using a Flat Earth model. Whichever model gets the most high-quality, accurate and useful apps wins!

Apps for Round Earthers

First up is Google Earth.


Based on countless satellite images of a spherical Earth, Google Earth provides a virtual 3D model of the Earth. I am not sure how this would be achieved if satellites did not exist. You can add your own data to the model, such as flight plans, and if the Google were lying to us about the shape of the planet, then it would have have been discovered by countless aeronautics enthusiasts by now.


This is Google Maps, although there are other map applications out there. I am not sure how Flat Earthers think their satellite navigation system works without the existence of satellites, presumably some sort of ground-based perspective magic, however later this week I shall trust this application to navigate me on a 600-mile round journey. I shall expect to arrive at the same place I set off from.


One of many apps that add real-time information to maps. This one lets you track thunderstorm.This one is called Blitzortung Lightning Monitor.


One of my favourite apps is Sunrise Sunset. The 3D view shown here allows you to track the position of the sun at your location as it conforms to reality. You can go outside and check that the sun is where it should be. Notice the simplicity of the Heliocentric model, yet it perfectly explains all observations from anywhere on Earth. I can't wait to see the Flat Earth version of this application.


One of the achievements of a working scientific model is that it can be used to make accurate predictions even if we do not actually understand the underlying physics. The motion of planets and asteroids can all be predicted far into the future and you can also go outside and check whether the model matches your reality. The screenshot above is from Asteroid Alert.


Your smartphone is essentially a mobile planetarium. There are countless awesome planetarium apps available across multiple platforms. The one shown here is Sky Walk 2 for Android. Again, you can check that the model matches the reality around you. Note for the confused - the picture of the bear is just an aid for your imagination. I am not sure how an accurate astronomy app for Flat Earthers would work (that is dealt with at the bottom of this page), although I imagine it would have to be drawn with crayons.



One of several apps for viewing live feeds from the International Space Station. The one shown is ISS Live. I don't need much more proof than my ground-based observations suggesting a globe Earth being corroborated by a space-based camera. The ISS orbits at a relatively low orbit, but it is high enough for you to see the curvature of the Earth. You would not expect to see any curvature from an aeroplane. My challenge for the Flat Earth movement: start in Australia, get a good telescope and a hot-air balloon. Go up. Take a picture of the Eifel Tower in France. This should work for your 'model'. The interesting thing about ISS and other satellite tracking software is that you can wait for the object to pass over your head as indicated in the app, then go outside and watch it happen yourself. This happens because the software uses an accurate model of reality.


Here some software is written for the BBC Microcomputer, which even though it is thirty years old is still accurately predicting lunar eclipses. It does this because it is based on an accurate model of the solar system.



Here is some BBC Micro software for tracking the position of the day/night terminator on the Earth for any day of the year. Although there are many modern versions of this software, including www.timeanddate.com, I still use my trusty 8-bit version. This works for a globe planet. It does not work for the southern 'hemisphere' of a flat earth. The reason for this is because the flat earth model is nonsense.

I shall conclude this section be simply saying that there are countless apps for various platforms that rely on an accurate model of reality, or technology such as satellites that also rely on an accurate model of reality.

Let's now look at apps that use the flat earth model. I really can't wait to see what the world's best flat earth astronomers and flat earth software engineers have come up with.

Apps for the Flat Earth

um...


Gosh!


Oh!


Oh dear!

Aw!

Well, I'll leave it there and let you make your own mind up. If you liked this post, then you might like to read some other posts about the solar system, or maybe the BBC Microcomputer.

If you really hated this post then you probably think that gravity is a lie told to you by globe manufacturers to promote sales or something. Either way, you can post comments on my noticeboard.

Poke the World

My latest favourite toy for LaMetric time is Poke the World.

LaMetric app used to control the LaMetric device (as seen on my Android phone).

LaMetric Time is an awesome internet clock / radio / notification center. They look really cool on your desk and can be programmed to do all sorts of smart things, such as display your phone notifications and messages. There is a steadily growing app store for you to download new functionality, and integration with IFTTT really sets this device apart. LaMetric is a useful device for any small business, office, home or submarine.

Part of the charm of LaMetric is the 8-bit-style colour display.
I have been using LaMetric for about a year now, mostly for the internet radio and a notification centre for the rest of my digital life. As well as telling the time, it displays the news, weather and number of people who have stopped following me on Twitter (@supdecadegames). Pretty much all of the notifications generated by my Android phone can be displayed on the LaMetric, in glorious 8-bit graphics and accompanied by a custom sound effect. If someone emails me from work, it displays the subject line with a suitably depressing 'wa wah wah wah waaaaahhhh!' on the trombone. If I leave my house, the LaMetric radio automatically switches off. When I return home, LaMetric is waiting for me with my favourite radio station.

I can't recommend LaMetric highly enough.



So what is Poke the World?

This is the latest app that I have discovered for LaMetric. Advertised as an 'experiment', it (rather pointlessly) allows LaMetric uses to send a poke to other LaMetric Poke the World users. And that makes you feel more connected - OK!

Plus One Geek Experience Point awarded to Sash, for Poke the World.

I really don't know what you are waiting for. Buy yours now: LaMetric Time Wi-Fi Clock for Smart Home

Well, that's all for today. No doubt I will be back soon with some other technology thingy that has perked my excitement levels.

If you are a fan of pointless apps, then you might also like this article about Yo, or maybe you just want to watch a load of balls?


LaMetric Time Wi-Fi Clock for Smart Home #lametric @getLametric

Can you use RISC OS as your main computer?

The short answer is yes, sort of, but mostly yes.

The RISC OS desktop on Raspberry Pi showing the 'pinboard' and 'iconbar'

In my post on using the BBC Micro as your main computer, we decided that for a computer to be of any use, it must be able to do the following well:

  • Connect to the Internet and have a fast, secure browser.
  • Provide applications for workflow.
  • Provide applications for playing media files.

We'll look at these in turn, but first some information about this Operating System.

RISC OS was originally developed for the Acorn range of 32bit RISC computers in the late 1980s. That makes it older than 'Red Nose Day', GCSE examinations and the movie 'Die hard'. It was a time when plaid shirts were fashionable for men. If you turned on the radio you would suffer songs by Bros and Enya. Whereas you need not suffer Bros and plaid shirts anymore, RISC OS has continued to be developed to this day and is available for RISC architecture machines including the Raspberry Pi. In this post, I will be referring to RISC OS running on my Raspberry Pi 2.

This operating system is an advanced GUI-based operating system although many of its features will appear strange or unexpected to a modern user who has, perhaps, become habitually used to Windows or Linux. Nevertheless, despite its quirks, RISC OS is a joy to use. But can it be your main computer?

The Internet

The Raspberry Pi does indeed connect to The Internet, however, RISC OS will only support wired ethernet connections. The onboard wireless adapter will not work here.

Many of the applications for RISC OS are available through the online Pling store or the package manager. Some of these applications use network connections with little difficulty as you might expect from a modern OS. Sadly there are no applications for linking to your DropBox, OneDrive, Google or other cloud services. I use a second Raspberry Pi as a home file and web server and this serves files to the RISC Pi with ease.

The default web browser is NetSurf which is a little underdeveloped. Most modern web pages fail to render properly. JavaScript does not run and you can forget about Flash, other plugins and all your favourite browser extensions. It is possible to install a version of Firefox, however, it requires several dependencies that I am repeated failing to install properly. After a few hours of trying I have finally given in, but I may return to that at a later date.

My Blog as shown in NetSurf


Workflow

What your RISC machine can do here really depends on your workflow, however RISC OS is more capable than the BBC Micro so I shall cover some of the capabilities you might need.

For word processing, spreadsheets, text files and database work, RISC OS has a number of applications that are free (as in free pizza) to download from the Pling Store (or indeed, might even be bundled with your software distribution). Most notable applications are Fireworkz, PipeDream and StrongEd. It is worth noting that I don't do much word processing on the RISC machine, and none of these applications beat the Microsoft Office 365 suite on my Windows machine. Nevertheless, all of these applications are capable enough of being your workhorse. Fireworkz can open Rich Text Format files, so if you need to open your world domination plan from MS-Word, you may need to do some editing or conversion first.

Unless you are migrating thousands of files from Office 365 to RISC OS, you will find that your Raspberry Pi will be totally capable of most jobs here so I'm going to call it a 'pass'.

It is worth mentioning that I use my RISC machine to take and keep various notes. This can easily be achieved as an OS task. Simply hit CTRL+F12 to bring up a task window and type:

*build <filename>

Press ESC to finish.

A demo of Fireworkz as a spreadsheet program

If your workflow includes image editing or audio editing, then there are a number of applications available for you here, although nothing to beat your professional applications on your modern PC. Also, don't expect your favourite open source applications (GIMP, Audacity etc) to be available under RISC OS. That said, your RISC machine will perform this kind of workflow well, so it's another 'pass'.

It is highly likely that you will want to read a PDF document on your RISC machine. This is possible under the public domain PDF file viewer for RISC OS, however, I have noticed that it has failed to render some files that work perfectly well under Adobe and Edge on my Windows PC. Having said that, most documents have opened without problem on my Raspberry Pi, so we shall call this a 'pass'.

RISC OS PDF viewer showing a couple of PDF files displaying beautifully on my Raspberry Pi 2.

Media

I will skip to the end. It is a surprising 'pass'. In fact, I use RISC OS primarily as a media machine. The NetRadio application is perfectly capable of handling your internet radio needs, as well as being able to play MP3 format files. I think I once wrote a post about how I threw my DAB digital radio over the side of my ship after installing RISC OS.

Net Radio, perfectly capable of catching the BBC 4 puzzle for the day over your cornflakes as it is playing your pirate metal songs in the evening.
As for video files. I have managed to get MPG format files to work perfectly. Other formats with some difficulty or not at all.

My Pi


There are plenty of other applications available for RISC OS with many in active development. I generally have WeatherUK open at all times for my three-day forecast.

WeatherUK for your UK weather needs. Yes, it is snowing today, in March.

One of many useful apps for RISC OS
BASIC

One of the best features of RISC OS is that the BBC BASIC language is built right into the operating system. Whether you want the system to learn to program, so you want to write applications to get the computer to do what you want it to do, then BASIC is a good option. Simply press F12 and type:

BASIC

To exit the BASIC terminal and return to your desktop, type:

*DESKTOP

I have already covered BBC BASIC in RISC OS in another post, so I won't go into details here. You can also install a version of RISC OS (Pico) which boots directly into the BASIC prompt without any of the graphical 'fluff' discussed so far in this post.

Well, there it is. RISC OS will quite happily serve as a main computer based on the criteria we specified at the top of the page. If you haven't already explored it on your Raspberry Pi, then I thoroughly recommend it. You might find that you have other needs that I have not covered in this post, and you might also be equally surprised to discover that RISC OS has your back here as well.

If you enjoyed this post, and even if you haven't, then you might like (or hate) to read some more RISC articles on this blog. Maybe you just want to write a sticky note and pin it to a virtual board on the internet? Maybe you just want to kill some orcs?

Reacting to @ReactOS

I decided to have a play with ReactOS.

ReactOS is a free open-source operating system built from the ground up.  It is an attempt to be a legal, community-driven Windows replacement. The current version (0.4.7) is in Alpha, so don't expect everything to work as expected.

ReactOS desktop in Virtual Box looking very Windows NT-like

Getting started

First, you will need to download the ReactOS ISO file which you can get from the ReactOS website.

Secondly, you will want to run your copy of ReactOS in a virtual machine. I choose to use Virtual Box.

Please note that I could not get my version of ReactOS to connect to my home internet under Virtual Box, however, I downloaded one of the Nightly versions (0.4.9-dev) and this fixed the problem. Maybe it will for you too, but I recommend that you try one of the stable releases first.

First impressions

Yay! ReactOS looks and feels like an early version of Windows, somewhere around Windows-ME era but with modern OS features. One of the first things you will want to do is to install a browser. New applications can be installed from the built-in 'Applications Manager'.

Although I managed to get (an older version of) Firefox working, it often hangs the machine or crashes making it almost unworkable. I might try an alternative solution to this in the near future, but for now, it may influence whether I continue to with this experiment.

One of many problems I am having with Firefox under ReactOS. Incidentally, this is one of my favourite error messages. It is up there with 'silly' on the BBC micro (try AUTO 10,0 for that one) and the Amiga's Guru Meditation.

Another thing that I am having difficulty with is in creating new user accounts. The system wants me to log into the 'Administrator' account, and although it lets me create other user accounts, it does not give me the option of logging into them when the machine first starts. I guess that this feature has not yet been built yet.

Stuff that works

There are plenty of open-source apps available from the application manager that will allow your version of ReactOS to behave like a useful machine. I have tried the following with some success:

Python 3.4
Yup. Python works, look!


Notepad ++
Probably the best light-weight open-source text editor for general purpose computing.

Media
I've managed to get Audacity, VLC player and WinAmp running but not without problems with audio devices on the virtual machine. So that's the most important part of the software not working then...

Open Office
It is no surprise that there is an open-source office suite for ReactOS. I have tried most of this and found it to be working well.


Some old favourites
There are a few applications that come bundled with ReactOS, with most of them being no surprise: Calculator, Notepad, Wordpad and Paint being the most notable. Oh yes, and there's minesweeper and solitaire for the full retro experience.

I think that it is a shame that there is no 'card file', but then again, I don't think that was ever in the Windows NT OS, so my complaint is rather moot.

Final Remarks
Well, it has certainly been a fun experiment. Enough of this Alpha version of ReactOS works well enough to be useful and I will look forward to future developments.

If you have found this post interesting, then you might like to watch this video from 'explaining computers dot com'. It goes into much more detail about how to get started as well as some other trouble-shooting hints and a successful attempt to install an old version of Photoshop. +1 Geek Experience point awarded to Explaining Computers.




If you are staying with us, then you might like to read about installing Ubuntu on a virtual machine, or perhaps you are more interested in another Operating System instead.

Brute force Travelling Salesman Problem in Python

I did not make it into work today. A blanket of snow - dubbed the Pest from the West - hit the North of England causing gridlock in many areas. Instead, I got to stay at home and write a Travelling Salesman simulation in Python.

The Travelling Salesman Problem (TSP) is a problem in Computer Science used to demonstrate intractability and optimisation. In short, imagine a salesman who wishes to visit every one of N cities exactly once each. The salesman does not care which order he visits the cities as he is equally proficient in applying is selling skills in them all regardless. All that matters is that he takes the shortest route between them all before returning back to the start, where, presumably Alan Sugar is waiting in the boardroom to fire him if he has failed in this task.

The Python 3 code below will run a TSP simulation by attempting to solve the problem by brute force. This is, of course, the worst method for solving the problem, being factorial of N time complexity, but it is presented here in the hope that it is of some use to students.

A solution for 10 cities

The simulation in mid-animation

A solution for 9 cities

Here is a photo of me failing to complete the TSP for 2 cities. 
The Python code can be copied from below, or you can download it from my OneDrive. Enjoy!




# Travelling Salesman by Brute force
# superdecade games
# version 2.1
# 2018-03-08

import itertools
import turtle
import time
import math
import random

class Salesman(object):
	"""Travelling Salesman by Brute force"""
	# in this program a route is represented by a list of coordinates
	# where each coordinate is a tuple containing an x,y coordinate
	# in the range 0-1000,0-1000
	def __init__(self):
		self.__city = [] #list for holding city coords
		self.__num = 0 # number of cities in simulation
		self.__animate = False # True if should show animations
		self.__speed = 100 # Speed of animations 100 is fastest
		self.__wn = turtle.Screen() # turtle window
		turtle.setworldcoordinates(0, 0, 1000, 1000)
		self.__wn.title("TRAVELLING SALESMAN")
		self.__cityPen = turtle.Turtle() # pen for drawing cities
		self.__cityPen.shape("circle")
		self.__cityPen.hideturtle()
		self.__routePen = turtle.Turtle() # pen for drawing routes
		self.__routePen.pensize(5) 
		self.__route = [] # list of possible routes
		self.__bestRoute = None # current best route
		self.__bestLength = 1000000 # a big number	
	
	def main(self):
		"""Main test program"""
		self.__title()
		self.__setup()
		self.__generate()
		self.__showCities()
		try:
			self.__getRoutes()
			t0 = time.clock() # start tinmer
			for i in self.__route:
				thisLength = self.__calculateLength(i)
				if thisLength <= self.__bestLength:
					self.__bestLength = thisLength
					self.__bestRoute = i # store the best route so far
				if self.__animate:
					self.__showRoute(i)
					time.sleep(0.01)
					self.__routePen.clear()
			#show the best route
			print("\nDone. Showing best route")
			print(time.clock() - t0, "seconds")
			self.__showRoute(self.__bestRoute, "green")
			input()
			self.__cityPen.clear()
			self.__routePen.clear()
			self.__routePen.hideturtle()
			self.__cityPen.hideturtle()

		except Exception as e:
			print("Ooops, that was an error. Too many cities?")
				
	def __setup(self):
		"""Gets users choices for the simulation"""
		ok = False
		while not(ok):
			try:
				num = int(input("Enter number of cities: "))
				if num>1 and num < 11:
					self.__num = num
					ok = True
				else:
					print("Invalid!")
			except Exception as e:
				pass
		choice = input("Show animation for all? (Y/N): ")
		if choice.lower() in "yes":
			self.__animate = True
			ok = False
			while not(ok):
				try:
					speed = int(input("Select speed (1-10): "))
					if speed >= 0 and speed <= 10:
						self.__speed = speed ** 2
						ok = True
					else:
						print("Try again")
				except Exception as e:
					pass

	def __generate(self):
		"""Creates random cities"""
		for i in range(self.__num):
			x = random.randint(0,1000)
			y = random.randint(0,1000)
			self.__city.append((x,y))
	
	def __showCities(self):
		"""Display cities on the canvas"""
		self.__cityPen.speed(0)
		self.__cityPen.penup()
		for i in range(self.__num):
			self.__cityPen.goto(self.__city[i][0],self.__city[i][1])
			self.__cityPen.stamp()
	
	def __getRoutes(self):
		"""Find all combinations of routes"""
		trylist = list(itertools.permutations(self.__city))
		#remove duplicates
		for i in trylist:
			if i[0] == trylist[0][0]:
				self.__route.append(i)
	
	def __showRoute(self, this, color="red"):
		"""Show a route passed as paramter on the canvas"""
		self.__routePen.color(color)
		self.__routePen.speed(self.__speed)
		self.__routePen.penup()
		for i in this:
			self.__routePen.goto(i[0],i[1])
			self.__routePen.pendown()
		self.__routePen.goto(this[0][0],this[0][1])
			
	def __calculateLength(self, this):
		"""Returns the length of route 'this'"""
		d = 0
		for i in range(1,len(this)):
			d += math.sqrt( (this[i][0]-this[i-1][0])**2 + (this[i][1]-this[i-1][1])**2)
		return d			
	
	def __title(self):
		"""Displays the title"""
		print("Travelling Salesman Problem")
		print("      (by brute force)")
		


while True:
	app = Salesman()
	app.main()

Cortana is now on IFTTT

In a move that has frankly been a long time overdue, Cortana is now available on IFTTT.

If you did not already know, IFTTT(IF This Then That) is a service for connecting various other services together. Literally, if this happens on one, then that happens on the other. Cortana, as I am sure you will know, is the personal digital assistant available for your Windows 10 PC, phone or Android. As a follower of both Microsoft and IFTTT, I have been waiting for this development since the beginning of Windows 10.

With Cortana on IFTTT you can connect your Internet of Things devices together and control them from Cortana. Philips Hue, Manything, Harmony TV, WeMo and Samsung Robot vacuum are some of the many services that now have Cortana integration.

Some of the many new Cortana applets on IFTTT
I have been playing with this new feature by making a few applets of my own.

The first one I tried was an applet that rather pointlessly fires a notification to my Android whenever I utter the phrase "Hey Cortana, what's happening?".


Tadaaa!


Ok, so that one was rather pointless, but as proof of concept goes I am pleased with the result. I suppose it has a use if you were feeling really lonely.

The next thing I tried was a slightly different trigger for Cortana, that is to use a specific phrase with a text part that is then specifically used for some purpose. I thought that it would be useful to have an applet that creates a new page in OneNote, with a title you specify, whenever Cortana hears "Hey Cortana, create a OneNote page X", where X is the name of the new page.


Notice the $ indicates the text phrase that you want your new page to be called. I used 'test' here, but you could say 'my world domination plans', or 'reasons I hate Apple' or 'help I think I am sinking' or whatever.

OneNote page created by Cortana with some dummy text just to see what would happen, look!

And that's about all I have managed to play with so far, although I have also been looking at creating some Cortana applets to work with LaMetric time as well. I think it would be really handy to be able to start and stop LaMetric internet radio from Cortana. Currently, this takes several clicks of the LaMetric Android app.

If you have managed to get all the way down to the bottom of the page without your face melting from boredom, then you might like to read my other Cortana posts, or maybe you want some more technology news. Either way, you might like to post a comment on this noticeboard?

Compact cassettes comeback

Yesterday I enthusiastically wrote about all the fun you can have with the seemingly obsolete media format compact cassette. Today a bunch of compact cassette videos.




Cassettes - better than you don't remember by Techmoan. Techmoan is a great channel if you are interested in all things retro, tech or audio. I often enjoy watching his videos for his enthusiastic approach and exemplary subject knowledge. In this video, you can hear the difference between the different types of compact cassette and noise reduction technology.



The last audio cassette factory although a little out-dated this is a great video and worth watching for the great story.



A short film about cassettes - you need to hear this - indeed, you really do. Watch it. Watch it now!



Kids react to walkmans (portable cassette players) aw, as they say, from the mouth of babes, or if kids don't think it is cool, then it is probably cool, or something.



Playing 50 YEAR OLD tapes, busting the myth that cassettes have a limited lifespan.



That's all for now, although I reserve the right to add more if and when I find any of interest. If you enjoyed this post then you might like to tell me about it on this noticeboard, or maybe just read something else retro related.

Cassettes are back

I walked into HMV the other day. HMV is a British entertainment and record retailers. I haven't been to a physical record store in many years and was suddenly surrounded by aisle upon aisle of DVDs and CDs. There were loads that I like the look of, and I had some cash burning a hole in my pocket. It was then that I realised that I no longer own a single device that can play a CD or a DVD.

I felt like a historical reenactor of the Tony Blair years.

The only CD/DVD player that I still own is connected to my main laptop computer and it is seriously damaged. Some time ago I started to get my media either streamed or downloaded and I never noticed that the lack of a disc player was an issue. In fact, it is not. I listen to music on streaming services such as Spotify or on one of the thousands of internet radio stations on my LaMetric time device. I watch YouTube and download movies from the Windows store. It was really a long time ago that I bought CDs or DVDs.

Interestingly, the only format in the record store that I could actually play was in the vinyl section.

Vinyl is making a comeback, if you didn't already know, with year-upon-year growth in the format as people begin to crave the feel of the needle in the groove and the tangible album art in their hands or something.

But this post isn't about vinyl it is about the other ancient analogue format that is making a comeback: compact cassettes.

Of all the formats it is compact cassettes that I miss the most. So, as you can imagine, I am delighted to announce that I have recently purchased a near mint condition, racily-titled Sony TC-WE 825S.

Photo from eBay
This device was originally manufactured in 1988, rather late in the lifetime of the compact cassette. It features most of the designs you would expect of a high-end product: Twin tape decks, simultaneous recording, pitch control, fade in/out, highspeed dubbing, auto this and that and the other, There were a few features that came as a surprise: RMS, or Random Music Sensor not only allows you to fast forward to the next track on the tape but also allows you to enter up to 28 tracks into a programmable memory to be played in any order you like from either side of the tape, just like on CD. My original tape-player was a dirty model from the early 1970s and had no microelectronics although it did have a very funky stainless steel finish, which made it look great, despite it sounding awful.

The most exciting feature is the Dolby-S noise reduction which is a significant improvement on the Dobly-A noise reduction. This feature removes a significant proportion of the tape hiss that is inherent in recording on magnetic cassette tapes. Dobly-S was a leap forward in compact cassette technology that bypassed most people at the time as they had already moved to digital formats. Back in the 1980s, I did not have the luxury or Dolby noise reduction and I think I just put up with the hissing noise.

Of course, there is absolutely no need for me to own this product beyond the sheer joy of recording in analogue. I have currently spent the afternoon making recordings of my vinyl collection just like it was the 1980s again.

There are a number of outlets that still sell new blank cassettes and if you are thinking of following suit then I recommend the Tape Line Ltd. The Tape Line Ltd provided me with a pack of 5 Type-I compact cassettes (these are the cheap ones that most people used back in the early days). I also bought a single TDK Type IV metal alloy compact cassette which has much better recording quality than their Type-I counterparts although at ten times the cost! I recorded some digital files from my RISCOS computer onto metal tape with Dolby-S and the sound quality is unbelievable. In fact, it is very hard to believe that it is an analogue format at all as the quality of the recording is so, so good.

If you want to know more, and actually hear the difference in quality, then I can highly recommend this video from TechMoan in which he demonstrates the quality of Type-IV cassettes with Dolby-S.



If you have enjoyed this post then you might like to read about some other retro products, or maybe you just want to write something down. Either way, I'll be back soon with more geeky tech stuff, or maybe I'll just talk about the weather, I don't mind, it's my blog.

Prick!

Today was cactus repotting day. I have three succulent plants that needed some attention before the start of spring.

Prick, by Gynelle Leon, link and description below

Here I am repotting a cactus called Tephrocactus Articulatus - a hardy little plant which seems quite resistant to the cold. It has an interesting way of propagating which is to let several of its stem segments break away to begin a new life as an independent plant.

First I got a roomy ceramic pot and filled it with a layer of cat litter a couple of centimetres deep. This is an attempt to preserve moisture. I am not sure whether this will work, but that's the whole point of experimenting.
I used multipurpose potting compost. Although you can get compost specifically for succulents. I used a newspaper lasso to remove the plant from its original pot as those spines are very prickly.
Next, I added a layer of horticultural grit on the surface. This should help keep the moisture in the soil as well as look attractive.
The next succulent is one that I took as a very tiny cutting a couple of years ago and was surprised by how well it has thrived.

You might notice some small white spots on the leaves. I think this is a fungus but it came off easily with a damp cloth and hopefully has not damaged the plant.

Well, this is a technology blog, so here comes the tech stuff.

I have used one of my microbit moisture sensors to monitor the moisture level in this succulent. Getting the right balance of water is essential to succulent survival. It is a good idea to let the pots completely dry out before gently rewatering again. The microbit water sensor is ideal for this job.

My micro:bit water sensor showing animated "don't water me".

Succulents and cacti like dry and warm conditions and, believe me, plant fungi like to grow in damp conditions. If like me you find that you have a problem with this then you may find a portable dehumidifier is a not-too-expensive solution. The link below shows the dehumidifier that I use.


I can thoroughly recommend this book - Prick, by Gynelle Leon. It covers everything you need to know about the care of your cacti friends. Within these pages Gynelle covers the history, origins and background of succulent cultivation; a gallery of popular plants including care instructions as well as in-depth guidance on watering, repotting and style guides.

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