What Now, Greece?

06/07/2015

Flag_of_Greece.svgThe Greek population have voted to reject austerity. Not that it really makes any difference to the outcome.

Imagine a scenario that as an individual, you didn’t make enough money to cover your cost of living. Somehow, you persuade a bank to lend you loads of money so that you can eat and do a little more. They keep lending you more money until eventually it’s time to make a payment, but of course you can’t. The bank proposes a change of your lifestyle (which you cannot sustain), but you refuse to comply, and still can’t make repayments.

That’s where Greece are now. Irrespective of if they accepted the ECB’s terms or not, they still owe money and can’t sustain their country, which has really been the case for years. Corrupt tax collectors have simply stopped revenues being collected by successive governments and now life has caught up with the country. No surprise to anyone who has ever visited Greece, I imagine.

The country is bankrupt.

The banks have been closed for a week and are due to open tomorrow. What will happen? The population will attempt to retrieve their savings and cash. Trouble is, there is allegedly only €500M left in the Greek banking system, then the money has run out.

Public service workers need to be paid. Things need to be purchased from other countries, like medicines, food and fuel. Will countries extend more credit to Greece? Probably not.

So, the next step is likely to be a humanitarian crisis. Possibly civil unrest, maybe even war. Chances are if that happens, then European countries may have to intervene militarily as the Greek social system collapses to prevent the population fighting for food.

I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek blog about Europe a couple of years ago, but elements of it are sadly playing true.

Whatever happens, this is not going to end well for the Greek people.


Democracy, Or Just Plain Nasty?

29/03/2015

cansAs Parliament is dissolved and we move towards and election, the unpleasantness has begun. Topics like the style of someone’s kitchen, how they eat a bacon sandwich or what their social background are concentrated on, not the real matters in hand.

Insults fly from one side to another, something that’s unfortunately replicated in my local borough.

I have opposed local developments that I felt inappropriate (and won), but will support them when I feel they are appropriate, but along with others, are attacked by these ‘liberal’ and supposedly non-political organisations. If more people were involved with the local community, or simply gave their opinion, things would be better, but apathy prevails in the majority, and others are scared off for exposing their opinions.

An organisation that professes to support free speech simply throws personal insults at those who don’t follow their opinions. Being involved with the local community, if not with them is portrayed as if it is bad. Self appointed representatives of the community and anonymous organisations are OK, but they should surely allow others their own voice too.

Name calling and insults are the order of the day. Just unpleasant, vindictive and divisive. Not constructive at all.


Aviation Security

29/03/2015

With the recent apparent suicide by a German pilot, there is a lot of discussion about how to stop it happening again.

Simply making a requirement for two crew members to be present doesn’t really protect the passengers or public. His doctor clearly would have known about his mental state, so is there not a case for having “Notifiable Occupations”?

Someone in a position of responsibility such as a pilot, ship’s captain, even bus driver would legally be required to waive their right to patient confidentiality, and their GP or doctor would be legally obliged to notify their employer of any condition that would affect their work, so stopping the chances of the patient hiding any condition as Andreas Lubitz appears to have done.


An Amazing Ukulele Weekend

08/03/2015

Ukulele Events, a spin-off from Omega Music, the online retailer who I buy most of my ukuleles from, organised a weekend – a ‘mini festival’ if you like – at the Gilsland Spa Hotel in Cumbria. Over two nights and one whole day, there were a huge range of delights to satisfy any ukulele enthusiast.

Being some 339 miles away, I set off at 08:37 and arrived just after 14:00, quite a long haul, but I was there bright and early. Omega has set up a shop in one of the rooms, and prior to this weekend, I had arranged with Matt Warnes of Omega to look at a Ohana Electro Tenor, or a Kala Archtop Electro Tenor. I had decided I would have one, probably the Ohana, the cheaper of the two, but probably the more sensible choice.

The Lanakai LK-TEU

The Lanakai LK-TEU

However, on looking around, I spotted the Lanikai LK-TEU (at more than the price of both those other ukes combined, I might add), but with a Fishman pickup system and beautiful mother of pearl inlays in the fretboard. Everything covered on looks and sound. So, a couple of hours in, and I’d made my purchase!

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Feckless & Fuddle with yours truly

First event of the weekend was a concert, hosted by Feckless & Fuddle, the mop-haired buffoons (look them up). Why Matt and his colleague, Andy Webster book these two fools is beyond me! First up was Zoë Bestel, a singer-songwriter with the most incredible voice. For me, although all the acts were excellent, she was the standout act of the weekend. She must be an undiscovered talent, she has so much of what you want in a musician in the one package. She has stage presence, an endearing, humble personality with no air of superiority at all. But, her vocals are perfect, dynamic with the most control I have ever heard. She writes deep and tuneful songs, sings covers with her own unique spin. I can compare her with the voice of Bjork (but without the oddness), the attitude of Pink and Lily Allen, and the raw talent of Ed Sheeran (but a different style clearly) – but all in one! How she remains undiscovered, I don’t know. She clearly outshines anyone on “The Voice” for example.

Then, we had Mike Hind, who is at pains to point out he has a British Passport, hailing from Bermuda. Mike is a true entertainer. A fantastic and wide ranging voice, he has a comic talent. His version of “Wonderful Tonight” is sarcastic, ironic, rude, but very, very funny. He’s on a UK tour at the moment, coming to our very own UnplugTheWood 5th birthday party in a week’s time.

Then we had Dead Man’s Uke, Tim and Jake are well known in the UK ukulele scene, with Jake on his five stringed double bass (surely that makes it a double and a half), and Tim mostly with a resonator uke. Lots of humour again, swing and jazz style going on.

Then, an open mic session, with 160 people at the event, I wasn’t going to go up first, and I was going to do something I was confident in delivering well. So, being fourth, I did Mike Krabbers’ “Songs Of Praise”. As a tribute to Zoë, who I was so impressed with and had explained that one of the most popular names for her new uke that had been suggested was the rather odd (for a ukulele) “Frank”, I explained that I would name my new Lanikai “Frank” in her honour. Anyhow, it all went pretty well, I got some laughs and a loud, maybe polite, cheer at the end.

Late to bed, about 2am…

Saturday morning and a hearty breakfast at the hotel, picked up a copy of Omega’s new ukulele magazine and the first workshop of the day was at 10:30am. Phil Doleman explained how to make chords and rhythms sound different, allowing for some stylish arrangements. For me, practical help that will help with multi-tracking audio and songs.

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Ben Rouse

A short break, then Ben “Uke” Rouse, who by coincidence, I had exchanged emails with back in 2013 after an event I photographed on HMS Warrior in Portsmouth. He explained how to warm up, and getting control of fingers. Essential for moving around the fretboard, lots of exercises. I might get a fretboard to bolt onto my car’s steering wheel to get practice in… His signature wave (which could be misunderstood) became the meme for the weekend!

The Mersey Belles followed with a vocal workshop, teaching everyone how to warm up vocally and harmonise successfully. One particular song that had been troubling me was fixed with a short discussion with Pearl, one of the Belles, who explained that for me a change of key would be a simple fix, when I thought it was a breathing problem, A run through with her, and problem solved!

I had cheekily asked Zoë earlier if she would duet with me on the open mic later (I was nervous that she would not lower herself to perform with a duffer like me, but she’s too nice to say no!), this change of key would come in handy.

Then a mass sing and strum with Andy Websters’ group “Ukes Akimbo”. A song book had been sent around beforehand, and Andy led everything extremely well. He’s a natural showman (and slightly mad, which helps).

A couple of hours gap, before a very hearty gala dinner, with huge slabs of roast beef provided on each table, for everyone to carve. It does seem to me that the further North you travel, the better the beef gets and the three and a half degrees I had travelled north made many degrees of difference. Fabulous!

Tonight’s concert started with Ben Rouse, one of the most energetic ukulele players you will see. His interpretations of Led Zeppelin classics and others have to be heard (and seen) to be believed.

Phil Doleman followed, his take on 20s and 30s music (up to 1939, when he said “music finished”), being an insight into some great rhythm and lyrics that we don’t get to hear so much now.

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The Mersey Belles

The Mersey Belles followed Phil, taking us back again with their lovely harmonies and vintage sound, adding a spin to old songs and some modern classics from Beyonce and the like too.

Another open mic, and the real highlight of my week, I got to perform my open mic with Zoë supporting me on vocals. Zoë Bestell was my backing singer. Did I just say that? A real memory!

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Click to view video – All About The Bass

 

One of my favourites, Meghan Trainor’s “All About The Bass” is also one of Zoë’s, so it worked really well. She outshone me of course, and it would have been better if I’d left the stage, but everyone in the ukulele world are so generous, encouraging and just plain nice, that I know she was happy to humour me. I gave a nod to the Mersey Belles for my key change help, and they were very obviously pleased to have made a difference. I’m so grateful and honoured.

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Mike Hind, Clarice Wokes, Michael Adcock, Nancy from the Mersey Belles & Phil Doleman

Which brings me to the major point. Music is a great leveller. No one strives to prove themselves over someone else. Everyone appreciates the effort people put in, and the fact that everyone has “been there”, learning, sometimes struggling, and enjoying the journey. It takes some longer than others, but even the best and most proficient are, in my experience, happy to explain, and genuinely pleased when they see the fruits of their explanation.

Omega Music are no exception, they may be a commercial organisation, but they clearly enjoy what they do. For me, two big things have got me this far. Mike & Caroline at UnplugTheWood, who encourage me and help me along, not least with their weekly music jams. Omega Music, whose help has admittedly fuelled my ukulele purchases, but they have provided a platform via social media for advice and encouragement. Matt’s also advised me, even telling me to buy a cheaper, better uke than one I had in mind.

Everyone in the ukulele world is so encouraging. Above all, we all just have fun.


BT Smart Comes Of Age

15/02/2015

For those wanting to develop peripherals with BT Smart (previously known as Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE), the options so far have been limited. Either, work directly with chip manufacturers like TI or use a module such as the excellent BLE112 (based on the TI chipset) from Bluegiga. Chipsets give the benefits of low component cost, but require high volumes to be used to make the development and approval costs worthwhile. Modules however, are normally pre-approved, but come with a higher price tag. Typical component costs for a solution in volume would be in the order of $4 or $15 respectively.

BT Smart of course, is the new ‘version’ of Bluetooth that actually has nothing in common with traditional Bluetooth, but allows for devices to run at very low power, able to run off of coin cells for years. They also require less overhead in an operating system, typically within iOS for example, being able to connect directly from an app, rather than having to go ‘techie’ to connect a remote device. More than one device can be connected at a time, too.

Bluegiga's BLE development Board

Bluegiga’s BLE development Board

Bluegiga’s great feature is the fact that an application can reside on the BT Smart device, allowing it to run autonomously, too. Basically access is given to the processor on the device, and Bluegiga have developed a neat scripting language to enable these apps to be implemented on their devices.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Bluegiga sold their business to SiLabs, we have yet to see what will happen as SiLabs absorb the Bluegiga business and IP, how much of Bluegiga’s innovation will continue, too.

But, almost at the same time, a new pretender to the throne has arrived. Anaren, with a Broadcom based module. Pre-certified too, this comes in at a much lower price tag. Developers working with the BLE112 will find it difficult to justify staying with that solution with Anaren’s similarly featured A20737 device coming in at around a THIRD of the price of the Bluegiga module.

Anaren's BT Smart development board

Anaren’s BT Smart development board

Demonstration apps are simple to develop, with their online ‘Atmosphere’ development environment meaning that it is platform independent, no development tools have to be installed. Bluegiga on the other hand only support the PC for their script compiler, a slight disadvantage now given that most silicon vendors support Mac and often Linux too, with their tools. It’s fast too, I got my first app running and communicating from iOS to BT Smart device in about thirty minutes flat. That’s impressive.

Anaren provide a visual development environment, allowing a developer to quickly prototype an application and demonstrate it, with connectivity to iOS and Android supported. What is unclear, and remains to be seen, is how simple this is to move to production. The programs that go onto the BT SMART module and the phone are not clearly delineated. GATT profiles are not clearly published from Atmosphere, with some rather vague explanation in their support Wiki pages (I’m sure this will be improved with time). Certainly, all of the communication between host and target goes through in one large GATT characteristic (called “Atmosphere Transport Protocol”, not really the best implementation or optimised for low-power applications.

So, Atmosphere does seem like a bit of a blind alley. Great for concept proving, but not really much use to move onto production. But, help is at hand. The module, being based on Broadcom’s BCM20737 device is supported by their ‘Wiced’ (pronounced ‘wicked’) development tools. An Eclipse IDE and the compilers are all free to download for PC or Mac, and allow development in ‘C’. Example frameworks are supplied, I haven’t developed anything just yet, but they look fairly straightforward to use, and you can see the commonality carried over into Atmosphere, so if you use that first, it should be easier to move onto the Broadcom tools. Time will tell how simple it is, but it’s certainly worth investing a little time, given the difference in price with the modules. It’s really not worth moving to a BT Smart chipset unless you are using really high volumes, probably in excess of 200K units or more, I would think.

It does look like Anaren have hit the mark with this device, and likely that Bluegiga have sold their business at just the right time!

I’ll post more as I learn more, I have an active BT Smart project right now that is running on Bluegiga already and is being ported to Anaren before production.

Prices of the development kits? Bluegiga’s is around $200, Anaren weigh in at about $50, software tools for both are free.


The Pebble Watch

29/12/2014
Pebble watches in different  colours

Pebble watches in different colours

I’d been looking at the Pebble Watch for a while after buying one as a gift for a friend. It had been available in the retail channel in the UK for a couple of months. After receiving mine for Christmas, I set about writing an App for it to function as a Rugby timer and scorekeeper.

I’m pretty impressed with the watch overall. If you have a program like this that is useful to you, it’s going to be worth having for that alone. Other watches might be prettier and offer more functions, but (I’m pretty sure) that most are limited to working with one watch OS alone. Android watches need an Android phone, and so far, I think the Pebble is the only watch to work with iOS. It’s not sold in the Apple store of course, it’s a competitor to the forthcoming Apple Watch, but they will continue to hit different markets as the Apple Watch is likely to be at least twice the price of the Pebble.

The watch is unpretentious. It doesn’t claim to be the most powerful or best smart watch out there. It has a mono screen, not colour like most of the others, so it’s not flashy at all. What that gives the watch though, is an advantage in terms of battery life. They claim 5-7 days in normal use. You charge it using a magnetic cable that takes power from a USB port, so you can charge from your computer or a wall adapter, and it only takes a couple of hours for a full charge.

It’s an “e-ink” display, this is the sort that doesn’t really take any power if it doesn’t change. So, if your watch face changes every second as opposed to every minute, then it will drain the battery a bit faster.

Watch face with weather display

Watch face with weather display

My favourite watch face is a simple watch with the day and date as well as an outside temperature reading. This of course, comes from a data service that comes via the internet. Like all smart watches, access to the internet is via your phone – connected via Bluetooth – so, if your phone isn’t available these sources of data (there’s also some selectable watch faces with news and so on,) are not available either.

This watch face also shows your current location, there are others that even show a little map on the display.

Hardware wise, the watch has an accelerometer and compass, so can function as a basic fitness tracker, there are apps for that too. An impressive compass display is another. It has standard Bluetooth and Bluetooth SMART, so this probably helps the battery life somewhat. I’m not sure what data is transmitted via Bluetooth SMART, but it would make sense for things like the temperature data to go via Bluetooth SMART. It’s fully water-resistant too – that’ll be handy for those rainy Saturday afternoons on the touchline!

Built in is a music controller (AVRCP) so you can play/pause forward/reverse music on your phone.

Rugby timer & scorekeeper app

Rugby timer & scorekeeper app

Watch faces and apps are downloadable from the ‘Pebble Store’. At the moment, all of the apps are free, so you can download what you like, but a few developers use what are called ‘companion apps’ which the watch app will require to operate. They then charge for these apps via Google Play or Apple’s App Store, so they get paid that way. That said, most are free. Up to eight apps and faces can be stored in the watch, a ‘locker’ in your phone is used as an overflow for others, so they are quickly available to you. Watch faces range from digital displays with big numbers, words and analogue displays.

I got the basic watch, there are two models, the Pebble Watch (£99) and the Steel (£179). The Pebble Watch is a clunky looking, plastic affair available in different colours – most will opt for black like me, I would imagine. The Steel is a more robust looking and probably more conventional looking watch. The standard watch comes with a rubber strap, which I quickly replaced with a leather watch strap from my local jeweller. I got a decent quality Hirsch strap, but any 22mm strap or bracelet will work. The steel has a non-standard fitting, so you’ll need to buy a strap or bracelet designed for that watch.

For developers, the development tools are very straightforward. You don’t even need to install anything on your computer, you can develop and compile using ‘C’ via CloudPebble – an online development portal. Publishing a finished app is simple too, your app goes straight into the store. By comparison, iOS development is much more complex and the approval process to get into the store is much more long-winded. But then, Pebble is a simpler concept from the start. You can install a compiler onto your computer if you want to be able to develop off-line, OS X, Linux and Windows are all supported.

Pros and cons? Well, price, battery life, simplicity and iOS compatibility are things this watch have going for it. Lack of a colour display and possibly the clunky looks might be things that will put you off.

When the Apple Watch arrives, this might change things, but we will see. Apple have done some really clever things with the watch bracelets and straps, making them easily interchangeable without tools. In all the years the jewellery industry have been making watches, they haven’t done anything as clever as Apple have with their straps! Apple Watch might be a game changer, but I’ll still be using my Pebble as a rugby timer on Saturdays at least, I’m sure.


Pebble Development – a first App

26/12/2014

So, for Christmas I received a Pebble Watch. I looked at the SDK for this and there’s a quite comprehensive development system with event driven functions as well as all the normal ‘C’ type functions.

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Pebble display when the App starts.

Shooting rugby most weekends, and writing reports, I often struggle to keep track of the score, elapsed time and cards, so an obvious app for me is one to do that for me. So, I set to developing just such an App for the Pebble watch.

When the App starts, it’s ready to go for kick-off. The clock is set at 40 minutes. The three buttons Up, Select and Down have different functions during the program use, indicated by the selected part of the display. Press the Select button to select the three different areas of the display (the very top always shows the current time of day).

The first section is the match time, with the display showing the elapsed time and the remaining time in the match half. Press the Up button for time off and on, indicated by X and o in the right-hand part of the display. The watch vibrates when the clock runs out. A long press on the Up button restarts the timer from 40 minutes – use this when the second half starts.

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Match underway, with one card in progress.

Press Select and you move to the Cards section. Press the Up button to add a card timer. Up to six cards can be added, with the watch vibrating each time a card expires. Hopefully six cards will be enough!

Press Select again, and you get to the scoring section. Press Up to increment the Home score, and Down to increment the Away score. Press and hold the relevant Up or Down button to decrement the scores in case a score was added by mistake.

Finally, press Select once more to return to the timer control mode.

My first attempt at a Pebble watch App. I guess it could look a but prettier, but it’s functional! You can see it here.

Update :

I’ve updated the program a little with some ‘hints’ on screen, and various other improvements.

December 2014, Simon Taylor


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