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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

LinuxMCE Update

Been a while since I last posted about this project — in part due to my analogue week. This weekend would normally have been a great opportunity to crack on with it, but I have overcome my DIY malaise and instead spent the last three days filling, painting, caulking and sorting. I now have a much nicer looking kitchen and a garage that is halfway usable as a result.

In truth it is not just a lack of time that has stalled the project. The early results of my tests proved that the software works, at least in theory, but my subsequent tests have been a real reminder of the non-commercial nature of the product.

As a standalone machine the core/hybrid box I built works fine. I haven’t set up a proper remote yet, but it does everything that my current Windows Media Centre PC does. If I didn’t already have a working media centre PC, then I would probably go ahead and install it.

But the problem is that I do have a working media PC — one that works very well indeed. And without good reason, I’m loathe to replace it with something that has exactly the same functions but that runs on an OS with which I am much less familiar.

What appeals to me about LinuxMCE is all the other stuff — the networked Media Director units, the clever Orbiter remote controls, and for the moment, those aren’t working so well. I can control things with a PocketPC-based Orbiter but performance is slow, the interface looks shonky, and it is somewhat unstable. The Media Director boots successfully and reliably over the network — very cool — but I’m having trouble working out how to share music properly between devices.

The whole thing remains appealing, and I haven’t given up on it by any means. But it is proving a little less simple than — in some places — it has been billed.

Reality has taken some of the edge off my enthusiasm but I’m going to push on. Next step is a different type of Media Director, and one with a slightly different purpose: a digital photo frame. Take one old laptop, add a nice frame…. results to follow when I’ve had the time to put it all together.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Manchester Goes FTTH

Back at the start of February I had one of my occasional rants against municipal WiFi and suggested that Manchester would be much better off if the Digital Development Agency instead pushed for a fibre-optic network, that would deliver much greater bandwidth and would be genuinely different to what is already on the commercial market (unlike its plans for a wireless network).

Well it seems my wishes have been answered. There’s no chance I had anything to do with it — the chances of a strategy getting through a public committee between Feb 1st and now are almost infitessimally small. But I’m glad that someone over there is thinking along the same lines. The latest strategy update proposes a Fibre to the Home (FTTH) network.

A fibre network will make Manchester a genuinely different prospect for media and IT companies. It will not only give them enormous bandwidth to play with for their own purposes, but it will — if executed right — provide them with a test bed for their wares; a captive community of high-bandwidth consumers and businesses who can help them to understand which high-bandwith applications and content have genuine value and might be best launched on to the open market once the rest of the UK catches up.

As a geek I really hope that we get to be guinea pigs for such a test, whether I have to access the services from home or in the office. And as Mancunian — even if it is my adopted home — I would love to see Manchester take such a leap forward.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

DNS Kludging

It’s a wonder that so many amateur users have managed to get websites up and running. Mucking around with the Domain Name Server settings for this blog has reminded me just what a kludge so much of the internet remains. I completely understand why so many small businesses don’t have their own domains and use whatever email addresses and webspace their ISP gives them.

For those that don’t know, Domain Name Servers are what points your domain name (e.g. to the space that hosts your content or mail servers (in this case Google). As of now, does not point here and it may be another 48 hours until it does and I start to get email again to my bookofthefuture address. So much for my nice smooth weekend handover…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

LinuxMCE Test: Phase II Complete(ish)

Success! Okay, close to success. I spent last night working on my LinuxMCE-based home automation/media system project. My main aim was to get the first of the ‘Media Director’ machines up and running and booting over the network. The Media Directors are the devices that access media over the network from the ‘Core’ server and deliver it to the screen and sound system. Instead of having their own operating system stored on a hard disk, they can launch using a system stored on the core server. Very clever.

Much to my surprise, it worked first time. OK second time: for some reason having worked perfectly two days ago the first test machine failed to even switch on and had to be replaced. But as soon as the new machine was turned on and set to boot over the network, everything went like clockwork. Only slightly more advanced.

It took a long time to get going with various configuration options going on in the background, but that was just the first time. Now it boots relatively quickly and I can easily access all of the various media options available on the media director and the core PC. So far so good.

The next step was to get a remote control working. LinuxMCE has a third class of device called an ‘Orbiter’, which — amongst other things — can be a smartphone connecting to the system via Bluetooth. I’m using a PocketPC 2003 device — an old Orange SPV M500, also known as the HTC Magician. I managed to install the appropriate software on the handset and set up its profile on the server, but this is where the successful evening came to an end. I just couldn’t get the handset to talk to the Media Director.

So that will be occupying me this evening and most likely over the weekend. Phase III here I come…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

A Look Inside The Toy Cupboard

If you’re interested, here’s what the Toy Cupboard looks like today. There’s some explanation below the photo.<

Running down the rack from the top, there is:
— a 48-port RJ45 patch panel
— a Netgear 24 port 10/100 Ethernet Switch
— a Netgear DG632 ADSL Modem/Router
— the gap next to the router has variously been filled with a PlayStation 2, wireless audio/video sender, and separate firewall
— Sky + PVR/satellite receiver
— Denon DVD-2910 DVD Player
— Windows XP Media Centre Edition PC/server (Athlon 64, Nvidia nForce 3 250Gb Motherboard, 1Gb RAM, Nvidia FX5200 graphics card, 3 x Samsung SpinPoint 250Gb SATAII hard disks, DVB-T receiver, Trust surround sound card, DVD-ROM, Queenserver 4U rackmount case)
— Denon AVR-2805 receiver

This all outputs to a Panasonic TX-36PD30 36in flatscreen CRT TV and a set of Acoustic Energy Aegis Evo3 surround speakers.

The grey vents conceal 10cm hi-flow fans each with built-in temperature controls. The ones on the right draw cold air in (it is next to an exterior wall and window), the ones on the left vent it out rather warmer.

Tucked away is a Keene Electronics IR distribution system so that I can control it all remotely from the front room. Plus an energy-saving socket that turns everything off automatically when the TV is turned off (except the media server). Oh, and a huge amount of wiring.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Analogue Week

Do you ever feel like you are trying to deal with too much information? Like there is too much going on your head? That you can’t process everything that’s going on?

I felt like that at the start of last week. Business has picked up strongly after a post-honeymoon lull, and I’ve gained some new clients, which means a steep learning curve and some careful juggling of priorities. This all coincided with a bit of financial stress and on top of that my 30th birthday is coming up, and though I haven’t done any real planning yet, it has been at the back of my mind.

So all in all I was a bit stressed. I don’t get stressed very often. I seem to have some pretty decent coping mechanisms, centred around simply giving my brain time to process everything that’s going on. But this requires letting my brain freewheel — something I had stopped doing.

It’s easy to do. There are so many ways to occupy your eyes and ears, particularly in a house full of gadgets. But all the time you are watching, listening, playing, browsing or typing, your brain is trying to absorb information rather than process what is already there. (Not at all scientific I’m afraid but it seems to be true for me).

My wife suggested cutting back on screen time — getting away from TVs, laptops, PCs and smartphones and doing something different. Ditching them altogether wouldn’t have helped my financial stress because I then couldn’t work, but it was an important suggestion and what kicked off the idea of my Analogue Week.

I limited ‘screen time’ to working hours. I cut out the radio — especially anything with too much talking. I stopped playing games on my phone any time I had a few spare seconds. Instead I read a book, listened to CDs (strictly digital but as analogue as you can get in my house), went out for dinner and to the theatre, caught up on some outstanding DIY, and most importantly of all, just did nothing.

For example, while waiting at the train station, I just looked around, enjoyed the brief moments of sunshine and did a bit of people watching (always entertaining). While driving for long periods I just kept the radio off and focused on the surroundings (and the road of course).

The result is that I actually addressed the issues that were stressing me out rather than trying to distract my brain from dealing with them. I feel a lot calmer as a result, and also a lot more productive.

Not everyone is quite as addicted to their screens as I am, but I think it could be valuable to allocate some time each day, week, month or quarter to getting away from technology and the huge volumes of information it brings. To let your brain process everything that’s going on and let it catch up.

We seem to have days and weeks allocated to just about every other issue. Why not an annual Analogue Week?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

LinuxMCE Test: Phase 1 Complete

So following on from yesterday’s post, the first phase of my LinuxMCE experiment is complete. Before I fill you in, let me give you a little more information about LinuxMCE.

LinuxMCE has three main categories of device:
– the ‘core’ is a server at the heart of the system (as the name might suggest). This is what controls all the various other systems around the house, and where media is captured, stored and served up.
– ‘media directors’ are what connect to displays (e.g. your TV) and sound systems around the house and enable you to actually interact with the system. They can be controlled by standard remote controls or via…
– ‘orbiters’, which are smart remotes — these could be smartphones, wireless PDAs, or other PCs connected over the network or via bluetooth.

Phase 1 for me was getting the core up and running. In the documentation for LinuxMCE it suggests that a ‘commercial implementation’ would use a high-end server with a RAID5 storage array. If this all works out I will most likely construct something along these lines, but for now my testbed uses some spare old components. For those that care it is an ASRock motherboard, Prescott-core Pentium 4, a Seagate 80Gb IDE hard disk, 384MB of DDR RAM and an NVidia FX5600 graphics card all wrapped up in an old HP desktop case. You can see it on the right hand side of this photo.

It took me six attempts to get the core system up and running, getting progressively further through the process before hitting a new problem each time. I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list but here are the lessons I learned along the way:

1. In your motherboard’s BIOS, disable the floppy drive and any legacy devices you don’t need before you start the installation process.

2.Install from simple CD-ROM or DVD drive — avoid combo devices.

3. In fact, don’t use the ‘simple’ DVD installation option. Install Kubuntu first from a basic CD-ROM drive — then install LinuxMCE over the top.

4. Copying ISO files to the Home directory for cacheing is more reliable than cacheing the files from the CDs.

5. If the installation ballses up, don’t bother mucking around with it. You need to go back to a clean Kubuntu 0704 install.

6. Use a large enough disk — 8.5Gb just won’t cut it once you have copied across all the CD ISO images.

Now that I have the core up and running, the next step is to see if I can get a ‘media director’ to boot over the network. You can see my test machine on the left of the picture — an old HP eVectra. It’s certainly powerful enough to play videos and music, and has onboard sound and networking capabilities. My only worry is the graphics processing — it is a little underpowered and I seem to remember a few problems getting the graphics to run properly under Linux in the past. Fingers crossed….

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Media Moguls: Get On Or Get Out Of The Way

The last two posts have been about companies aiming to simplify access to digital media. This is a noble aim but one that can only be accomplished if the companies producing and distributing digital media wake up to the realities of life in the 21st Century. I have covered this point before but I wanted to reiterate just how important it is.

What has spurred me to attack this topic again is the continued idiocy of the music and film industries in their efforts to protect revenues from sales of music and video content. Nothing about the way these companies are addressing the problem makes sense. Everything they are doing seems to be completely contradictory to the lessons of the past. ‘Home taping is killing music’ anyone? It was nonsense then, and it is nonsense now.

It has been demonstrated time and again that people would rather do the right thing than the wrong thing, whether or not they are forced too (read Freakonomics for a great example from a bagel seller). What prevents people doing the right thing is not an innate desire to do bad, or to screw the system. They will do the wrong thing when it is easy and doing the right thing is hard.

At the moment it is still easier in many cases to acquire media illegally rather than legally. Illegally acquired media is free of restrictive Digital Rights Management controls that prevent the user from consuming media as they would like to. Legally acquired media is overpriced because it continues to support the extremely inefficient industries that were built to control it in the last century.

Rather than reduce their overheads, respond to consumer demand, or invest in innovative ways to distribute and consume content, the music and video industries spend millions on adverts and lobbying designed to scare people. They have failed: their efforts leave them looking daft and outdated (for example, the current ‘you wouldn’t steal a car…downloading is a crime’ ads).

I’m not saying that there doesn’t need to be a ‘stick’ with which to beat persistent offenders. But surely it is clear by now that offering the right ‘carrot’ is a much more efficient way of changing consumer behaviour on a large scale?

To the music and video industries the message is this: get with it, or get out of the way. Plenty of people believe they can do a better job, and they will if you continue to give them the opportunity.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flexible Working

Last Thursday was spent at BT Centre, filming for a series of six short webisodes on flexible working. They will be available from April on a new website the North West Development Agency has commissioned to promote the use of technology by small businesses in the region. It was my first experience of presenting, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I don’t think it will ever be a major part of my working life (though I wouldn’t mind if it turned out that way), but as a little aside it makes for a very welcome distraction.

What I learned on the day was very interesting. BT is a huge advocate of flexible working, and the cynical side of me assumed that was in large part because of the demand this would create for various telecoms services. But when you hear the figures in terms of increased productivity and reduced costs, you begin to realise just what a smart move it was for the company to embrace what, for a historically conservative organisation, was a major shift in corporate culture.

Though few companies can afford to assign the resource that BT clearly has to make flexible working a success, it is a concept every company ought to examine.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Got a Phone? Got iTunes? Get Twisting.

They have cracked it. A software hub for connecting multiple types of media, online outlets, and devices. Within reason, any digital camera, video recorder, media player, or mobile phone can now be hooked up and synced with other devices, your PC, or Facebook. Not only that, but you can share media with Facebook friends too.

THIS is a killer application for Facebook, way more so than any Vampire…

What am I talking about? Assume like many people that you have a Nokia or SonyEricsson phone that is capable of playing music and taking photos. You rarely use it as a music player because you buy music from iTunes and getting music from there to your phone is a pain in the arse. You do use the rather decent camera on your phone but you never actually get the photos off it — just bounce them around your friend’s mobiles or show each other the screen.

Imagine if you could plug your phone in to your PC and from a single window, drag all the photos you had taken straight to Facebook. In the same application you could copy all the music from your PC on to your phone. Wouldn’t that be cool? No need to care about file formats, copy protection, file sizes or any of the rest of it. The software takes care of all that automatically.

This is the premise (and promise) of doubleTwist, a new application from the famous ‘hacker’ DVD Jon, known for cracking the copy protection on DVDs. It is still very much in beta — it fell over within minutes of me trying it the first time, there are issues with the browsing (thumbnails are too small to choose between) and some other basic functions. But the idea is very strong, and with the company having just closed a funding round, likely to get stronger.

If you have the patience, check out the free beta download.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Innovaticus: Great Idea, Crap Name

I should perhaps be a little more polite since I am seeing one of the co-founders of this company on Thursday night. But as a marketing man I have to say that the name Innovaticus could only have been dreamt up by a group of academics. Fair play to them though, it is a very simple concept that requires some very complex execution.

The idea behind the product is to make gadgets work together more intuitively. If you have an MP3 player and a PC in a room, you should be able to get the tunes from one to the other relatively simply. If this sounds familiar then that’s because you read the last post. But while doubleTwist is all about a PC software solution, Innovaticus is all about putting intelligence in to wireless networks.

Imagine that intelligence in all the gadgets in your home, all communicating wirelessly and sharing their resources with one another — be they files, processing power, or the ability to capture information, display it or print it. Imagine sharing those resources with the people around you. It’s no coincidence that the test bed for this software was university dorms where everyone is constantly looking to borrow music, information, internet access, or printing.

So what would I call it? Well, in all those personality type tests I always come out as the ‘resource investigator’, someone who networks well with others to gather and distribute useful information and skills. Of course ‘resource investigator’ is a bit of a mouthful for a product name, but my colleagues found a suitably short alternative: Del Boy.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Mobile World Congress: Conclusions

I didn’t get to post as much as I had hoped over the course of the week in Barcelona. It was busy, to say the least, and only today have I really caught up on the lost sleep. However, I learned a fair amount and saw some interesting developments.

This year the closest thing there was to a unifying theme for the event was the realities of delivering data services. One company told me that everywhere that operators had turned on High Speed Packet Access services — effectively mobile broadband or 3.5G — they had been left in shock at the amount of data consumed by users. There will be a frantic effort over the next couple of years to ensure the rest of the network can cope with these sexy new services.

The applications that will drive such data usage are just now beginning to appear. The iPhone is the one garnering all the headlines — and its impact is significant — but the reality of what is driving mobile data is a lot more mundane. Take the train in our out of London from any major UK city and you will see a mobile army of workers equipped with Blackberries, laptops, and 3G mobile data cards. I’m willing to bet these people consume vastly more data than the few hundred thousand iPhone owners.

Finally my own little hobby horse — the mobile interface — is widely accepted as being a problem to be addressed. Most of the journalists, analysts and industry players I spoke to concurred that it is a big issue and one that will take time to solve. I’m looking forward to seeing more innovations on this front. I don’t think the trend for context-sensitive mini touch screens is much of a leap forward though.

Overall the event was great and in a time of global financial slowdown, the industry seemed remarkably upbeat (apart from Motorola whose presence was noticeably scaled down from last year — Samsung had taken over much of its ad space from the previous year). If the optimism persists unchecked, we may be heading for another dotcom-style boom in mobile applications.

Tom Cheesewright