Internet of Things

A few very cool open sourced hardware projects in the Internet of Things space this week. The Chrome Web Lab exhibition at the London Science Museum concluded yesterday, but Google have released the plans for a couple of the projects: the Universal Orchestra and Sketchbots. The first, Web Lab Orchestra, allows multiple users to control hardware that plays physical instruments, collaboratively and in real time, using a browser-based loop sequencer interface form anywhere in the world.

The second, the Sketchbots system, automatically generates contour line drawings based on an image. The software can control a robot that draws the image, in the case of the Web Lab exhibition, by dragging a stylus around in a bed of sand.

The is also a software only version, and the code for a BergCloud LittlePrinter. If oyu haven’t come across the BergCloud device before, it’s a very endearing internet-connected micro-printer with all sorts of applications, from automating ordering, to keeping your family in touch, and is a very neat way to help information ‘break free’ from behind the screen.


While these projects are, mostly, just a bit of fun, they do show how technology is being used to bridge the online and offline worlds, and Google’s eagerness to accelerate development in this area (likewise, with Google Glass).

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From around the web – Benjamin’s favourites july 12 2013

This is a bit of old-style blogging – an actual web log! – of things I found on the web (mostly via twitter) editted with Storify (which, sadly, made a right pigs ear of this).

  1. My favourite ‘gadget’ of the week (designed in Reading, no less!)The Floating Mug Co. | Refresh your tabletop
    The Floating Mug Co | A design studio that introduced the Floating Mug™ and whose mission is to refresh your table-top. – FLOATINGMUG
    Restless and Unfocused: Is this technology a plug in drug?
  2. by Maria Popova “The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism.” The combinatorial nature of creativity is something I think about a great deal, so this 1903 letter Mark Twain wrote to his friend Helen Keller, found in Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol.
  3. BBC World Service – Global Business, Designs For Life

    ‘Design thinking’ – and why it is becoming fundamental to the way organisations function – BBC
  4. 10 Game Design Principles for the Next 10 Years
  5. Shift No. 11 in which we talk to writer, consultant and originator of the term Wirearchy Jon Husband. We talk about his work with civic groups in Montreal, recognition and job sizing, new models for organisations, and the likelihood for change. You can download the file directly to your hard drive from this link.
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Ants and Dandelions – Co-dependance and missing links

I’m not really big on gardening. I’m very happy to look at a pretty garden, but not so happy to spend hours tending to one! That said, each time I do venture out, I learn something: Today it was something about ants and dandelions.

Herbicides are off limits in our garden – appart from their impact, keeping chickens means they really aren’t a smart idea. So, removing weeks is a very manual task, which means I get a fairly intimate look at how weeds grow and spread. In my adventures with the recurring hoards of dandelions that crop up in the lawns, I kept noticing that where there were Dandelions there were ants. Being the curious type, I wanted to know why the two had such a peculiarly intimate relationship.

It turns out that there are two likely reasons. The first is that happen under similar conditions: dry compacted soil, so dethatching and aerating the lawn will help. The second reason is a little more curious. You probably already know that ants farm aphids (they feed off of the sugary secretions from the aphids). Indonesian ants take the aphid farming to a whole new level:

Anyway, back to the dandelions. It sounds like the same thing happens in the US:

When I pulled those dandelions, the long tap roots–some over a foot long–came up easily due to the loose soil of the ant nests. And those roots were covered with white specks–aphids, growing underground on the dandelion roots, up to 5 or 6 inches below the soil surface. With ants tending them.

Dandelion roots are a favourite living place for Trama troglodytes or “root aphids” – but trama troglodytes sounds so much grander!

Colonies of Trama troglodytes are situated just below ground level and are always diligently attended by ants. So, ants running around the base of a composite plant suggest aphids are present.

The aphids become very active when disturbed and wave their long hind legs. If the roots are pulled up, they drop from the plant. – The Natural History Museum

The ants (at least some species) also feed off of the nectar from the dandelion flowers, so there is a potential double bonus for them to hang around the dandelions. That said, the relationship between ants and dandelions isn’t as direct as it first appears when you pull up a dandelion and find a big ants’ nest underneath. Aphids are the hidden link that brings the two things together, without the aphids, the two wouldn’t be as tightly coupled.

I wonder how ofter we look at two things that occur together and assume that they are directly connected, completely missing the hidden enabler that ties them together.

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Couch to 5k – Getting Fit!

Thanks to a bit of inspiration and nudging, I’m grappling a long-outstanding goal that has been in my personal Milestone Planner (*cough* nominated by Lifehacker as one of the top 5 goal tracking services) plan for a while: Get Fit. It’s far too vague a goal, which is probably why I haven’t made any progress towards it in the last couple of years, so I’ve made it specific: Couch to 5k by the end of August.
London Photocillin Walk  1136

The plan involves three runs per week, with a day of rest in between, with a different schedule for each of the nine weeks.

A number of friends have put themselves through the C25k program recently (you know who you are!). There are a bunch of Couch to 5k resources on this NHS page and the original program page is here. The NHS page includes a series of podcasts that you can download to your favourite mp3 player. The basic program consists of a 5 minute walk as a warm up and warm down, with patterns of alternating running for x minutes and walking for y minutes. The ratio/duration of walking versus running changes as the weeks go by, until eventually you run the full 5k. I like the design thinking behind the program, developed by Josh Clark, who describes the design goals of the program, which actually come from software design:

  • Eliminate pain.
    If it hurts to do it, people will give up.
  • Welcome newcomers.
    Friendly language and reasonable expectations are crucial in early experiences with a program.
  • Deliver early victories.
    If you feel like you’re kicking ass from the start, you’ll be eager to continue. Otherwise, you’ll decide that you suck, the program sucks, or both. See #1 above.
  • Make it easy and rewarding.
    We are creatures of inertia; we need carrots to get moving.
  • Not everyone wants to be a power user.
    Some people will be content to master the basics and stop there; others will want to continue to develop and explore. The program should accommodate both paths.

Based on a Twitter recommendation from Martin Walker, I’ve put Benjohn Barnes’ Get Running app onto my iPod touch – there had to be some technology involved! The app is guiding me through the program with the very soothing voice of a Northern lass letting me know how much longer I’ve got left to run, while my favourite tunes play in the background. Once I’ve got up to the full 5k, I’ll switch back to my usual diet of podcasts.

Today, I finally completed my first run, now I just need to keep it, so feel free to nag me!

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Rescuing the Reader

This post is a little overdue. I’ll blame my laptop mishap with a concrete floor last week, but that’s a story for another post, this one is about Google Reader, or rather the lack of it. Google have announced that they are powering down Google Reader. If you don’t know what Google Reader is, bear with me – you should do, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. The official line is this:

…usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.

That’s about four lots of sad. I’d just started using Google Reader a lot more, in an attempt to get my head back into more long-form content. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter, but sometimes it’s good to go deeper.

Google Reader screenshot

If you’ve not used it before, Google Reader is an RSS reader. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it’s the magic glue that sticks the ‘news’ and ‘blogging’ bits of the Internet together, in an open and (usually) free way. It’s got a little bit buried in the new world of Twitter and Facebook updates, but it still does it’s job, and very well. But RSS isn’t a human friendly format – it’s needs a reader. That’s where Google Reader comes in, fetching updates from your chosen blogs and news sites around the web. At least it was where it came in, but from the 1st of July it’s going out,  joining an increasingly large dead-pool of former Google products. The ex-Googler behind the product had this to say:

Google Reader was doomed to fail from the very beginning: the company never really believed in it and it took big effort on part of a small team to make it work.

Not all is twinkling lights and fairy dust at the Google palace (a former head of engineering puts it thus), but time and technology marches on. Have no fear, there are a number of alternatives.

Most folks are pointing to Feedly which is a super friendly alternative, and is available for iThingies and Google what’s-its-name tablets, as well as in your desktop browser. If you want to cast your net further afield, Gizmodo has these 8 alternatives, and this is a full spreadsheet of others. Of course, if you are a true geek, you could always build your own, as Internet darling Digg  is. There’s a petition to keep Google Reader going too. Yup, good luck with that.

Regardless, the loss of Google Reader is a sad one. It will punch a whole in the remains of the blogging eco system (oops… I nearly said Echo system there – it certainly isn’t that anymore). Google provided a sharing and discovery mechanism for blogs, as well as readership figures. Taking that away tips the balance slightly back from peer-to-peer content to big publisher’s content, and the more chatty worlds of Google+ and Facebook. The tool also had some unusual applications for those subverting government news censorship too.

Here’s the rub for me: Take the time every so often to get away from sound bite social media, as well as big media. Read some things that were written by people like you (or even people unlike you!), encourage some new writers, by commenting on a blog or two.

Blogs remain a mainstay of the bigger Internet. They glue things together, inform the search engines about quality content, through their links, and connect people with people. Install an RSS reader today, and start reading some of your friends’ blogs. Maybe even start blogging yourself. By doing so, you’ll be doing your bit to build the Internet, and keep it in the hands of people, not just the businesses that employ them.


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Loving Live Music – Jazz Morley

So many things to blog about recently, but I’m writing about this one particularly – I’ll come back to the rest soon!

I’m pretty sure it was Steve Lawson who first introduced us to the idea of house concerts. Either way, it was definitely Steve who first came to play in our home, and there’s been no looking back since. In one of those “it’s a small world” moments, I was chatting with Iain Martin, who was involved in Steve’s early career,  at our house on Friday. We were talking about how the music industry has (and is evolving) and the challenges for those who love  live music.

Creating a Space for Music

In a setting where everyone is there especially to listen, live music is wonderful to behold. I’m clearly not talking about the band tucked away in the corner of the pub, drowned out by the noise of people yelling to their mates, taking phone calls and shouting at the TV at the far end of the bar, but music in a setting where it can be heard, and the talent of the performer appreciated.

The joy of house concerts is that they create an intimate setting where the performance can really be appreciated, and an extra space for people to appreciate live music.  There are, of course, some great music venues around, but  it’s an experience that’s far too rare in the UK, at least in our corner of it. It does require confidence and talent to be able to perform that way, which brings me back to Iain, and the reason that he was in our home: his ability to bring great talent and venues together. Continue reading

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