Tag Archives: London

Geekery in 8-bits and more

In which I get misty-eyed and nostalgic, geek out over electronics, and think about mobile and the cloud.

Then

On Saturday I went along to the Horizons 30th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum event, organised by Paul Squires and Leila Johnston and held at the BFI in London. The event ran on both days but I wasn’t able to stay on the Sunday, so I missed at least half of the fun!

Steven Goodwin reads Sinclair User

Although I’m full of nostalgia for the 8-bit era, I have to confess I never actually owned a Speccy or any Sinclair hardware. My friends did, but I was primarily an Acorn enthusiast and our first home computer was an Electron (although the first computer I used at primary school was a Commodore PET).

I fondly remember some of the hacks I did on/with/to the Electron, including soldering a pair of headphones into the motherboard to avoid annoying my parents with the music from various Superior Software titles 🙂

Regardless of “allegiance”, Horizons was a really great day. Highlights for me included a fantastic history of computing by PJ Evans from The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park (if you haven’t been there yet, you should visit!); Spectranet, an Ethernet adapter for the Spectrum which had me wanting one for no good excuse that I can come up with; and the mind-blowing live composition of a chip tune by Matt Westcott which I saw, but I struggled to comprehend. Matt’s ability to reverse engineer a tune in his head was remarkable.

Oh, and if you haven’t downloaded or bought MJ Hibbett‘s Hey Hey 16k yet, or at least streamed it, you really should.

aside: since Horizons was part of SciFi London, I tried to get Micro Men director Saul Metzstein to drop some hints about his upcoming S7 Dr Who episodes. All he would say was that the western episodes were filmed in Spain (knew that), and that the script for the Christmas episode hasn’t been written yet (didn’t know that).

Now

Components

After the event on Saturday evening, I found it a real struggle to avoid crazy, nostalgia-fuelled eBay purchases, but I did manage to resist! Instead, I resolved to finally get around to building the Fignition I’d picked up at the Hack to the Future event a couple of months ago.

For those who are not familiar with it, the Fignition is a credit card sized build-it-yourself 8-bit computer based around the ATMega chip (the same one used in the Arduino and Nanode Open Source hardware boards). It’s really a remarkable little device – I guess it took me about an hour to assemble and solder, although your mileage may vary. The build guide is excellent and very clear. After performing a couple of power on tests with and without the ICs inserted, it was time to connect up to the TV – and it worked first time. It boots into a simplified Forth environment, which was reminiscent of that BBC BASIC> prompt I am so familiar with from my childhood. The only real downside is that the keyboard – built from 8 clicker buttons – is a bit fiddly to get to grips with, but hey – I just assembled a complete 8-bit computer including video out and keyboard! It’s hard not to be excited.

The board I built was a RevD – the new RevE board has onboard audio in/out (get ready for some fun loading stuff from audio cassettes, again!), and is also slightly modified so that in principle, it is possible to add Arduino-footprint shields. That’s kind of cool, as it means that it might be possible to add a PS/2 keyboard or a network interface.

Ready to test!

What’s “the point” of something so simple, by today’s standards? Well, actually – the simplicity. I went from a bag of components, to a fully working computer in the palm of my hand – no surface-mount components – to a programmable device. It’s “primitive” by the standards of today’s machines, but it’s not that hard to understand how an 8-bit “brain” works, in comparison to the 32 or 64-bit mulitcore CPUs and GPUs in modern laptops and mobile phones. In my opinion, the Fignition, Arduino and Nanode fulfil an important role in helping youngsters to understand the basic principles of electronics and computing.

Next

Last night I headed along to the fantastic Mozilla offices in London.

Mozilla Space, London

The main LJC event was Simon Maple from IBM showing off the new WebSphere 8.5 Liberty Profile running on a Raspberry Pi. I’d hooked Simon up with Sukkin Pang recently so that he could get one of the smart enclosures he provides for the Pi. It was pretty cool to see a full Java app server running on such a small computer – actually almost exactly the same size as the Fignition, only considerably more powerful of course.

The whole talk was live streamed on Mozilla Air – but if you missed it, there’s a video available (complete with semi-professional heckling from yours truly!)

Boot 2 Gecko

What stole the evening for me, though, was two other glimpses of what lies ahead. First, Tom Banks from IBM Hursley came on stage after Simon and showed off the Liberty profile running on a mobile phone. Let me clarify – he was running Android 2.3 on a Nexus One (an “old” phone), running Ubuntu Linux as a virtual image inside of that, and WebSphere inside of that. Kind of mind-blowing! A proof-of-concept and arguably not very useful… not sure when I would want to put a full JEE app server in a phone… but extremely cool. Finally, @cyberdees let Tom and I have a play with Boot to Gecko – Mozilla’s new mobile play. B2G was something I’d heard about, but not touched. I have to say that even in an early form, it’s looking very slick, boots extremely fast – much more quickly than any Android or iOS device I’ve seen – and the device integration (GPS, camera, access to hardware settings, etc) was impressive.

With the Open Web as the platform, ubiquitous mobile devices, and increasingly sophisticated cloud-based backends to interact with, the future is looking pretty cool.

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Interview with Uhuru, and more events in the pipeline

As my new role continues, a podcast I recorded with Michael Surkan over at Uhuru Software has just gone online. Uhuru provide hosting based on the Cloud Foundry platform, and add first-class support for .NET applications. They also have some really neat add-ons for MMC and Visual Studio to make deployment easy. We talked a little about the role of a Developer Advocate, the groups I’ve been talking to about adoption of Cloud Foundry, and some of the “gotchas” to consider when taking an application to a Platform-as-a-Service environment.

(if you can hear any background noise on this one, it was because I was at the Scala Days event in London on the day we spoke, and not Michael’s fault at all! I don’t think it sounds too bad)

Coming up this week, there’s the big Cloud Foundry Open Tour London on Tuesday (based on the numbers I’m hearing about, it sounds like that is going to be busy). Many of us from the engineering and developer relations teams will be speaking at that one. The rest of the week, I’ll be at SourceDevCon in London where my head honcho Patrick will be speaking on Thursday afternoon.

To round the week off, there’s Horizons at the BFI on Saturday and Sunday, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum. I was always more of an Acorn guy myself, but there’s no denying these classic machines really kickstarted my interest in this role space – and I can’t wait to hear MJ Hibbett perform “Hey Hey 16k” in person! 🙂

Community, telephony, and prototypes: Make-a-thon

Warning: long post! the first in a series covering some of the events I’ve attended or been involved with lately.

Background

At January’s London Internet of Things meetup, I had the privilege to hear Haiyan Zhang speak with passion about various topics, including how she had collaborated with hackspaces in Japan in the aftermath of last year’s earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster.

It was only the first time I’d come across Haiyan, so I was surprised but delighted that she invited me to the OpenIDEO Make-a-thon this past weekend, after tweeting about events like the London Green Hackathon.

I had only a vague idea what to expect of the Make-a-thon. When I saw some of the project briefs being published ahead of the day, I knew that it would be a little different to hackathons and other tech events I’d been to in the past. The briefs spanned issues such as improving local communities, bike safety, and several supporting campaigns by Amnesty International to use technology to support human rights activities.

My initial impression that it would not be a “run of the mill” tech event was reinforced when I arrived at the IDEO offices in Clerkenwell on Friday afternoon – it was a very different crowd to the ones I typically encounter – full of product designers, makers, human factors specialists, as well as web coders and developers. I rocked up with a bunch of Nanodes and other electronics with a vague thought of doing something hardware-related, but in the event I didn’t get that far!

IDEO’s typical approach to design revolves around prototyping and directed brainstorming, and in the event we divided into 8 teams of around 6 each, with diverse skills but with common interests around the briefs on offer. Friday afternoon was spent first understanding and exploring the brief, and then rapidly prototyping a rough idea before presenting it to the rest of the group. Saturday was spent refining the idea and producing an “experience prototype” which was intended to have been tried out “in the real world” if possible.

Evolution of the “Karma Phone”

Several of the briefs interested me, but I joined the team focused on the concept of Postcode Gangs – how could we build something to develop and improve community facilities within a postcode – essentially an arbitrarily-delineated area – in London? We spent some time brainstorming ideas around what “makes” a community before needing to rapidly decide on something to build for our rough prototype.

IDEO Makeathon

“What if” – there was a ringing phone in the middle of the street – and on the end of that phone, someone who knew something, had something to offer, or who was needed something? “What if” – we could create a new local hub with current and historical information about an area, enabling people to explore and meet their neighbours?

So the first prototype of what came to be called Karma Phone involved a lamppost (named, erm, Dan!) with a phone on it, which would randomly ring as people passed by – people could call it with a need and that others could then try to address. On the other side of the lamppost (also known as, Dan’s back) we imagined a large touch display with information about current events, realtime information, historical maps, and so on.

Karma Phone – The Outcome…

The team changed overnight, as Hayley and James were not able to stay for Saturday, Lydia joined us, and Victoria could only be involved for a short time on Saturday. We weren’t all convinced that a ringing phone would be answered, that the system wouldn’t be abused, that there wasn’t a social barrier around providing home address and asking for help, etc. How could we get an actual phone into the street and ringing, too? So, Saturday morning involved some rapid rethinking of what we wanted to build!

We settled on what turned out to be a subtle evolution of the original idea – a public phone which could act as a hyperlocal information service and skills exchange.

While we were brainstorming how to hack a physical phone, run a long cable into the street, use a mobile chained to a metal box, etc etc I remembered Twilio, which I’d been following for a long time, but never had the chance to hack on in anger. Within about 30 minutes I’d demonstrated the ability to initiate calls between two users from a web page, to the rest of the team.

Karma

Steve and Dan set about implementing the web UI; Tim started working on a physical enclosure; Victoria and Lydia managed to source a real “traditional” phone handset; and I remained hard at work writing PHP to talk to Twilio.

A couple of minor wrinkles along the way:

  • network issues meant that I had to use Tim’s phone to tunnel through to my webserver’s console, since it was apparently impossible via the event wifi. Evidently IDEO had just had a network provider change, so it was just an awkward time, but I lost some time fiddling with hosting in the early part of Saturday.
  • at a certain point on Saturday afternoon, I realised that attempting to call from the Twilio web client on the iPad was never going to work… since it requires Flash. I thought of a number of workarounds, but the one that finally stuck was that we were able to use Skype on the iPad, and use the skype:// URI scheme to launch the app from the web client. It wasn’t seamless as we needed Skype credit, and also had to tap an extra “call” button in order to start the call, but it was good enough for a prototype.
  • I’d wanted to make the web app, a standalone launchable web app on iOS. Weirdly, adding the usual meta tags to the page header to instruct iOS to treat the app as standalone launchable, meant that it was no longer possible to invoke Skype from within the web UI… so I backed off from that idea. The only cosmetic issue that presented was an inability to hide Safari “furniture” like the header, but that wasn’t a big problem for a prototype.

Here’s how the final system hangs together:

KarmaPhone-overview.png

Impressive Outcomes…

I spent so long coding and tweaking on Saturday (the commented and documented code is here – ignore how short it might seem – it was an intense few of hours!) that I missed most of the physical assembly. Tim and Dan did an amazing job of creating an enclosure for the iPad and handset. It might have been made from foam board, a box folder, and vinyl, but the final result was beautiful. And most importantly – it was fully functional!

IMG_5753

We would have loved to get the prototype out on the street for public testing (I suspect none of us more than Steve and Lydia!), but time worked against us. The final experience prototype was presented as a live demo with willing audience volunteers – one example call going to an answering service, and the other redirected to the local expert on Scotch Eggs (Tim!).

I’m happy to say that Karma Phone won Best Digital Prototype at the event, and I was (apparently!) Best Tweeter. Nice accolades 🙂

So – conclusions? I really enjoyed the way we worked together as a team of very unique and different talents; and seeing the Karma Phone prototype realised so brilliantly. However, I also think the experience of the Make-a-thon was humbling… listening to the experiences of people illegally detained abroad, and seeing some truly brilliant ideas from all 7 of the other teams, was wonderful.

A huge thank you to everyone involved in the first IDEO Make-a-thon – a really unique hackday. The IDEO team in particular looked after us brilliantly, with superb facilities, a great welcome, and more-than-adequate quantities of the hacker staples (coffee, sweets, pizza and beer).

Read a full recap including information on all of the project briefs on the OpenIDEO site. There’s a gigantic set of photos from the IDEO team, and a much smaller one from me shot on an iPhone at lower quality.

Tim, Dan, Hayley, Victoria, Steve, James, Lydia – Thank You. It was a pleasure!

All of the other teams – you rocked. You did great things. I salute you!

So… #borisbikes. The future?

On Tuesday night I travelled up from Farnborough to a London Java Community event at Skills Matter, which is a fantastic space for the London / Open Source / tech community. My friends and colleagues Simon Maple and (actually now former colleague!) Zoe Slattery were presenting at the event on Enterprise OSGi and Apache Aries, which are increasingly becoming supported in WebSphere Application Server.

(aside: I actually ended up delivering an unplanned/unscripted 5 min lightning talk on MQTT and will post that on my blog if the video appears online)

I’d got to the venue, near the Barbican, via Tube – not an ideal stop to reach from Waterloo, but it worked. On the way back though, Zoe and Simon suggested we take bikes.

Thus, I climbed onto a bicycle for the first time since my second year at university (which more-or-less put me off cycling for a long time, since I was frequently knocked over navigating the Iffley/Cowley roundabout in Oxford, so the plan to cycle between college and student accommodation lasted barely a week). I reckon that’s something like 16 years.

It was actually a really easy ride, and fortunately one of us knew where we were going, so it was all good… and it was mainly downhill. My efforts to repeat the feat the following day (heading from Waterloo to a webOS event in Shoreditch – also a place that’s less easy to reach by Tube) were defeated by heavy luggage, uphill cycling, a poor sense of direction, and a total lack of fitness. I left the bike near Farringdon and took the Tube!

The rental system itself is remarkably smooth, which I appreciated. You need a credit card, there are terminals at every bike rank, and it’s easy to get around London very cheaply. There are “apps for that”, as well, of course, which help you to find the nearest bikes or places to leave them. I was left with a couple of questions – first, how the London cab drivers are “enjoying” the influx of new, inexperienced day cyclists (like myself); and secondly, how practical it would be to carry a cycle helmet in and out of town every day (the signage on the rental terminals do recommend that you “consider wearing a cycle helmet”, and I was certainly wishing I’d been wearing one as I wobbled uncertainly around town).

Overall though, a nice system, and now that I’ve tried it a couple of times, I certainly won’t completely dismiss the idea of riding from place to place in future.

Some audio from SOMESSO

Couple of things: