More wireless music

A new toy arrived in the mail the other day, the very recently released chromecast audio from Google. Long-time readers of this site may remember when I bought and set up my Raspberry Pi, but my tastes changed (or the software stopped working well) in the past year and my $35 computer is unfortunately just collecting dust.IMG_8125We listen to a lot of internet radio here in The Horseshoe, most of it through the 3.5mm jack of our phones plugged in to the back of the stereo. For the most part we have been getting along fine, however it does mean that one person has to leave their phone in the other room. This also means that phone burns battery and whenever a new message comes through the music is interrupted. And if we happen to be relaxing in the lounge, then whoever has their phone plugged in has to deal with the audio cable sticking out of it. Therefore, when Google announced the chromecast audio, I thought we would be the perfect customers.

IMG_8146To give you an idea of size, the upgrade has gone small. Here is the little puck next to a quarter. [This is actually 5 Icelandic Króna, but I couldn’t find a US quarter, and this feels like the same size.] The device itself is pretty small, and has two ports built in. One is for power, for which Google supplies a standard micro USB adapter and cable, and the other is for audio. The audio port looks like a digital 3.5mm audio port found in some laptops and old portables. I originally plugged in a normal 3.5mm cable and it worked fine, but upgraded to a mini-to-standard Toslink optical cable, which I find to have even better audio fidelity. Pictured below is my set up, I have it resting on top of my receiver, but could easily hide it behind.

IMG_8157So what is it like to use? In short, solid. I plugged it in, downloaded the chromecast app to my phone, and within a couple of clicks had it set up and running on my home wifi.

How does it work? Basically it connects to your wireless network, and then you can “cast” what you want to listen to to the device. Below is an example with Google Play Music. Once I find the song I want, I just have to click the box with a wifi symbol (in the panther nose) and select my device.

Screenshot_2015-10-13-12-46-27This works great for me because almost all of my music sources are compatible with my chromecast. I mostly use Google Play Music for my own library, but also Soundcloud and Podcast Addict for my weekly DJ sets and podcasts. Spotify is supposed to work, but since I am not a premium member I cannot use this feature.

One main drawback is limited YouTube capabilities. The built in cast feature in the app is only available if I go to my phone/tablet drop down menu and enable “cast screen”. This allows the audio to be sent to my chromcast audio, but at 1/10th of the volume if it were through the native apps above. The same is true if I use the chromecast extension in the chrome browser on my laptop. Maybe this will be fixes, but maybe not, as I bet the YouTube support is in the video version, chromecast 2.

The best feature and biggest benefit for me is that the device uses the web to find the content. This means that you initialize the stream through your phone, then the chromecast does the rest and pulls the stream itself, freeing up your phone (and your phone’s battery) again. I can set an album to play, cast it to my device, and then go back to using my phone however I want. This includes messaging, browsing the web, watching videos, you get the idea. Then should I want to skip songs or pause, I can go back to my app and it does so with very little lag time. I have yet to test this with iOS users, and guests who aren’t linked to my home network, but this will happen with time. In conclusion, this is a nice little gadget to add to my collection, and one that I think I will use a lot.

Ponta da Piedade in Lagos, Portugal

You get a bonus post this Friday, one with a technology I have never used before.  One of the hidden gems in my phone is a feature called “Photosphere” which takes the panorama feature on most phones to the next level.  It allows me to stand in one place and digitally stitch images together all around me, creating a 360 degree panorama.  I would guess that it normally takes about 25 pictures to fill up a photosphere, which makes the process difficult if you have landscape around you that changes and don’t want to look like an idiot standing there taking 25 pictures.  Another drawback of the feature is that I thought I was only able to view the composite image on my phone – it turns out I was wrong.

I encourage you to click on the full screen option on the image below (top right), and scroll around just like you would with Google Street View.

After hopping a wall (you can see it on the stairs) I scaled a windy-but-safe path up to the top of an isolated point that offered a spectacular view.  I started taking panorama shots with my DSLR but then realized this might be the perfect opportunity to use my photosphere tool.  Last night I discovered that I can upload my image to Google Views, a tool connected to Google Maps.  Using the GPS on my phone, the coordinates upload automatically to the world map, I just have to annotate it with what I want.  The result is what you see above, probably my favorite stretch of coast that we visited in Portugal.

Foto Friday CV


A couple of weeks ago I read an article about a historical wind tunnel in the UK that was open to the public for the first time as part of an art exhibition.  Luckily for me this building is located at the RAF base in Farnborough, which is about 80 minutes away by train.  Regular readers will know that I have an interest in large structures, especially those that are abandoned or derilect, so naturally I was keen to check this out.  Mafalda also spotted the opportunity for photography – that is her pictured above to give you an idea of scale (she is 5’5″ or 165cm).  We had a great time, and I’ll try to do a quick write up with some other favorite pictures soon.

1/8s f/3.5 18.0mm ISO 400. Black and white filter.  Au revoir until next week.

Foto Friday LXIII



I probably could have used this picture or one like it in several categories on this site, but you get it as a FF because I’m too lazy to process any of my other pictures this week.  You are looking into my new shoes, and yes there are about 100 holes in the bottom.  After years of talking about it I finally bought a pair of GEOX shoes – the shoes that breathe.  There are holes in the bottom of the sole too, but it is supposed to make them comfortable, not make them soak up water.  I have only had them a few weeks so far, so we’ll see how they handle the wet English weather and hopefully the warm weather back home.

1/80s f/4.0 60mm ISO 1000.  No adjustments.  Au revior until next week.

A $35 piece of pie


Despite the name and tasty looking logo, I’m not talking about food but rather about the tiny computer called Raspberry Pi.  I had read about this computer on my favorite tech blogs a while back, but never really gave it any thought until a few weeks ago.  One of my co-workers casually mentioned to me that he has this cool little computer at home and that I might want to check it out.  I did some reading and after talking with him about it I figured that I’d drop the 30 pounds and see what this thing was all about.  I ordered model B, and the specs are listed below.
pi_modelBNot bad for £30.  Here is what it looks like with cables plugged in to most of the ports.  I have an SD card, USB stick, ethernet cable, HDMI cable, 3.5mm audio cable, and a power cable plugged in.  The nice thing is that this little computer is powered using a standard micro USB cable, of which I already have plenty.  It usually ships as just a circuit board, but I paid the extra four pounds for a plastic case – I thought it would be safer.  It might look strange with cable sticking out all over, but it really is quite small.

1-IMG_0171-001To give you a better idea of scale, I have placed my oyster card on top, which is the same size as a standard credit card.  You can see that this really is a credit card sized computer.


The Raspberry Pi team invented this device as a low cost solution to computing, but also with the hope that they will be able to teach children to program.  Luckily for me, the Linux community has embraced it, and there are many flavors of operating system available.  The cool thing is the operating system is installed on the SD card (or you can boot from the card and run the OS from a USB stick or NFS) which makes it very easy to swap purposes should you want another linux distribution on it.  So what did I buy it for?  A media center.


I have installed a version of the Xbox media center (XBMC) that was ported to work on the Pi called Raspbmc.  Again I benefit from the enthusiasm and expertise of the community, this software was very easy to install and get up and running.  Above you can see the default user interface, which looks clear and sharp, even projected at 100 inches.  In fact, the video processor is supposed to handle 1080p streams, but I have yet to test it out.  It does handle h.264 and mp4 files, which are the formats I prefer for downloaded TV shows and movies.  XBMC also has a number of plugins availaible, for example Youtube, iTunes podcasts and Digitally Imported radio, so once I add my library of movies and music it will really have everything I need.  So how do I control it?


 Yes, my phone.  I can plug in a traditional mouse and keyboard, or buy a wireless mouse/keyboard combination but the Yatse app for Android is all I need.  It works great so far with Raspbmc.  Above you can see one of the control screens, but I can also view my entire library or all plugins on another screen.  I can control the music from anywhere my wifi extends to, which is fun if we are sitting in the other room and I want to change songs.

I look forward to finally getting my library of media loaded and all the tweaks and settings just right.  The processor is already overclocked to 900mhz and it seem stable, and I’m excited to see what else it can do.  All things said, a fun little toy performing the function of something more than double the cost.


10,000 pictures later



This is a landmark picture for me.  It marks the point where my camera started recording images to a new folder because I had surpassed the four digit file system.  Yes this is the 10,000 picture taken on my trusty DSLR.  If that seems like a large number – it is.  My problem with taking pictures is that I will take very many and then sort through them later.  Or sometimes I forget to sort through them.  My mantra is that it doesn’t cost anything to store an image on a memory card, so why not fire away.  As an example, this is a picture that my housemate asked me to try and take, and I probably tried 20 different settings, none of which I liked.

This milestone has forced me to reflect on the holidays and photography sessions I have been through to get to that number.  Do I take better pictures than when I first started?  Yes, definitely.  Most of that is understanding how my camera works, which is a continuous process for me.  I was also helped by a new lens, and some tips from friends.

I enjoy my hobby, and look forward to really learning how to compose shots better and see the world in a different way.

LED light spheres

In this post, I will try and explain how I made the picture from the most recent Foto Friday, but first I’ll take you through the process and thought evolution.

About a year ago I saw a post on one of my favorite tech blogs about a guy that does light painting and not only made these cool light spheres but also placed them perfectly in some natural setting.  I was inspired right away to try and do the same some time down the line.  Fast forward to my birthday when I bought a tripod and decided to start experimenting with really long exposure photography, and you get my first attempt at making light spheres.

I thought the technique should be easy enough, so I tied a bike light to the end of a piece of string, and the idea was to swing it around in a circle for a long time.

1-IMG_9011Not a bad first go, but not what I wanted.  The lines appear disconnected and it didn’t really form a nice sphere.  The shutter time on this picture was only a minute, but even then I found it both difficult and tiring to try and swing the light around.

My next idea was to try a smaller tighter circle, hoping that I could keep the lines of light together and not wear out my shoulder in the process.

1-IMG_9010Maybe even worse.  The circles were more uniform, but the major problem was that because I was holding the string with my right hand at my side, as I turned around it didn’t really create a perfect sphere.  You can see at least two major foci where the light reaches the top and bottom of the circle.  I tried a few more times, and got my housemates and sister to try too, but we never really got it to work.  I was determined to figure it out, but I needed to think about it a little while longer.

My solution was to create some sort of device to help spin the light around more uniformly.  In the picture above you can see an old fence post resting against the picnic table bench.  My first prototype device was built with this post, plus a mop handle screwed in to spin like a propeller.  I attached an old bike light to the end of the handle and gave it a shot.

1-IMG_9469This result was much more encouraging, but still not perfect.  My main problem was the black hole right in the center.  The way I attached the light to the mop handle made it so it only pointed in one direction, so I had to change which way the light was emitting every few turns.  Obviously there was a better solution somewhere.  Additionally, because I was moving the light every few revolutions, this was my first exposure over 1 min, this comes in at just over 5 minutes.  Luckily I have helpful housemates that were willing to hold the shutter open that long, but I was sure that there would be a better solution to this problem too.

You know first thing in the morning, when you are lying in bed drifting in and out of sleep?  Well, it was at that moment a few days later that I dreamed up what my light sphere device would really look like.  I headed down to Wickes in search of supplies, and found exactly what I needed.  Here is the final product:


Three PVC pipes, a black bucket of concrete, a threaded rod, plus some bolts and two LEDs later I knew I had the right design.  And all for about 15 pounds.  Plus I really enjoy building things, so this was quite fun for me to assemble.

1-IMG_9658The pipe on the right hand side of the image above is meant to spin around like a propeller.  While the other pipe it is connected to via threaded rod is also meant to rotate around inside the slightly larger pipe, thus creating a sphere.  If you picture me standing on the left, spinning the propeller and then walking around the bucket in a circle you might be able to visualize what I mean.

1-IMG_9663I also found a solution to the aforementioned black hole problem in the earlier spheres.  The problem was that although I often rotated the bike light around in 4 directions, I never pointed it right at the camera in the Z-axis.  My solution was to attach little LEDs right at the end of the pipe so the light was visible from all directions.  Plus I bought a 4 pack of these finger LEDs for a pound.

In the week that passed while I was building my device, I also purchased another useful tool, an IR remote for the shutter release.  This means that I could troubleshoot the camera settings on my own and not require someone to stand there holding the shutter open for 5 minutes every time.  I definitely recommend a remote. Anyway, it was time to test my new contraption.


Excellent.  This was just what I was hoping for.  You can see that I need to be a little more patient rotating around in a circle in order to get straighter lines, but overall this was an amazing result.  And, as a bonus this was taken with the blue LED, but produced a cool red/violet effect that I don’t know enough physics about to be able to explain.  All I needed now was a better backdrop than my back garden.


Conveniently, there is a cemetery at the end of my road, so I picked up my gear and headed that direction. (n.b. I would use less concrete in the bucket next time!)  It was very difficult to find a spot without bright city lights in the background, but I think I managed to put this together ok.  The only thing I would change is to put the sphere in front of the large black bush on the right next time.  I was happy with this picture and almost used it as a Foto Friday, but then the snow came and I wanted to try out my new toy with the possibility of reflection from the ground creating a hover effect.

1-IMG_9626Here is the raw, unedited photo, and I have to say this was the one and only shot I took that day, it was too cold and time for dinner.  This is nearly a 6 minute exposure, and because the snow made everything so bright you can clearly see the bucket at the base of my device, and my legs as I circle the bucket.  A quick photoshop trick later and no more bucket, plus some cropping for an enhanced effect produced my final product.  The shadow from my legs just adds to the hover effect if you ask me.



So there you have it, my first real go at light spheres.  I’m excited about what I want to do with it next.  I think I’ll try to make the height of the sphere adjustable, and also experiment with different LED combinations.  I look forward to taking this thing all over Oxford once the weather is a little warmer, and also look forward to sharing the results.








A good use of QR codes

You may be familiar with Quick Response codes, the two-dimensional matrix barcode that are popping up all over the place these days.

Originally used in big industry to track the manufacture of vehicles, these codes are becoming very popular due to their ability to store more information than a UPC code, and the speed and ease which they are read by devices like smartphones.  I mostly see these codes on advertisements but apparenlty they are used on everything from train tickets to currency.   I have a code scanner app for my phone, but I never really use it because I have yet to find a QR code being used well.

That changed this weekend.  I was wandering around one of the local neighborhoods in Oxford and saw a sign for a flat for rent and right below it was a QR code.  I pulled out my phone, scanned the code, and it took me to a website from the letting agency with a complete description of the property.  That just saved me a lot of time.  Usually if I see a place for rent in an area I like I’ll have to make a note of the agency and then try and find it later on when I’m home by going through their website.  Not this time, a quick click and 10seconds later I could find out that some poor sap will pay £1300 per month for this run down flat in the “bohemian” neighborhood of Jericho.

Have you seen the QR code implemented well?  Do you ever use them?

+1, Google

Every type an email and say that you are going to attach something and then send the email without attaching anything?  I do it all the time.  Usually by the time I get to the end of the email I forget what I was talking about going to attach.  I guess that means I should write less.  Anyway, the crafty engineers at Google have a solution:

Well done, thanks.