11 December 2012

Cache & crash

I recently went Geocaching again for the first time this year. Now that junior is growing up he seems to be quite enjoying it. On our last trip out he wanted to keep going but alas the batteries weren't up to it. Of course I have a geocaching checklist which lists spare batteries but on this occasion it was all a bit rushed as I was struggling to get the caches onto the old Nuvi 250 satnav that we let junior carry around (for future reference - do a soft reset then rename the gpx file to current.gpx and drop it into the right folder on the nuvi then reboot). The checklist itself didn't even get checked which is a mistake I won't repeat (as was giving the other half complete control over what went into the picnic).

Anyway this got me to thinking about what we will do about power on our forthcoming camping trips. The difference between camping & glamping in my oppinion is an electric hook-up. If you're going to take an electric fridge, tv, games console etc. etc. then why not just stay at home? Still there's holidays and then there's holocausts and I associate a lack of personal tech with the latter. So what are the implications of a no hook-up policy?

Well there's a certain amount of tech required to make a holiday run smoothly as ervyone knows. A new DVD for the kid(s) to watch while the tent is going up is almost essential. Not a problem as the in-car dvd can be run from the car battery or from AA batteries. Unfortunately my metal detector requires 8 of these and the dvd player requires 6. Then there's the GPS(es) if we decide to go geocaching while away. They require 2 apart from juniors old nuvi which can only be charged from USB or mains. The in-car satnav to get us there is the same. I now realise that a cigarette lighter power splitter would be another useful addition for us. Something like this maybe (cue blatant commision earner - although I don't expect much when the item in question is sub £3) TRIXES Black Micro 2 Port USB Car Charger Adapter for iPod iPhone iPad Mobile SatNav

Now that's all very well if we're prepared to leave things in the car whilst charging but what if we park up somewhere, wander off and then can't find our way back due to flat batteries. The more astute may realise at this point that I'm leading up to a solar charger. I've already done my research and decided to nip out to Maplins (really?) and picked it up. Yes while researching I discovered the freeloader pro has a 2650mA battery and some terrible reviews while charging 4 times more than the 'Flyer' which I just got for sub £15. The Flyer has a 2600mA battery so the difference seems very slight. I don't think I'll be able to plug in the supercharger panel which speeds up charging for the freeloader but I'm not sure. The Flyer seems to transfer it's charge via mini-usb and has a simple switch for in/out/torch. It might just be possible to use/adapt the supercharger.

The flyer is a stylish apparently well manufactured little unit. It has a red led to indicate it is being charged by the solar cell, another led to indicate the charge is coming via USB and four blue led's which give an indicator as to how much power is currently stored. Pressing the battery button lights this up for about 2 seconds. The instructions are even in pretty good English. The only concerns are that the instructions suggest you keep it away from water (which is nice but not always possible in Britain), and the length of the attachment cable is a bit short (approx 5 inches).

So out came the Oregon 550 batteries and I linked up the Flyer to juice it. After a few moments while the Garmin realises it's not being accessed as a USB drive and it's back into its map mode. 45 minutes later it's still going but at this point I picked the whole thing up and the adapter from the flyer to mini-usb practically fell apart. From a maintenance point of view this is good but not the time or place. I would advise wrapping some black tape around these as the fault seems to lie in their cheapness as the little plastic tabs holding them together just fell off.

Almost one hour later and the Oregon is still going well and then it hits me. We are all going to end up looking like Stormtroopers someday aren't we? The applications for this sort of thing are endless. We could have heated clothing, communcations and processing all powered by an energy store strapped to our backs (our backs obviously to provide some protection from rebel blasters as those in the know will tell you). Anyway back to here and now. So far the flyer has powered this Oregon 550 for 1 hour and it still reports it has somewhere between 75%-99% of its charge remaining. I'm suitably impressed and smug at the prospect of a little bit more free energy.

Sadly there was no sign of the solar battery charger I got from Maplins some time ago. I would have liked another of those as they were about £10-15 and charged up either 4xAAA, 4xAA, 4xC or 4xD batteries. Still I'm sure I'll be able to find them elsewhere online.

Oregon 550: Removed batteries and after 3 hours usage, Flyer indicated it still had 50% charge left (I am impressed at this point)

A Puppy (linux) is not just for Christmas

At last work is beginning to settle down again, although this is likely to be the calm before the storm (that is our next technical review). I've finally found the time to catch up with recent releases from a few linux distributions, just to see how far they've come since last time I looked. I have to say the results have been impressive.

I've been wondering for a while what I will do when Windows XP finally loses support from Microsoft. It's been pretty good once you figured out how to turn off all the designer-appeal smooth scrolling crud. In fact underneath you have an operating system which is quite industrial in look and feel. You plug a device in, it shows up (maybe after some driver installation) but the whole experience has become a sort of defacto standard of how operating systems should behave (if they want mass appeal that is).

None of MS's more recent offerings have really appealed to me though. I look at Windows 7 and at various points I can say "oh yeah - that's the XP interface". That shouldn't really happen for a total re-write. Likewise with Windows 7, I don't like the way MS change things just for the sake of it. Why rename important features and then hide them in new menus? This reason alone has stopped me from upgrading my home PC. Just because MS want me to buy their new O/S doesn't mean I will, especially if I can't see any improvements.

This leads me nicely on to Debian. I have been quite impressed with their latest release and what's more I have discovered that some of my home software actually runs on it thanks to something called "Play on Linux". The possibility of still using my favourite bits of Windows software (ok some games) on Debian is a real selling point (or would be, but Debian is free anyway). Add in the fact that anything you learn about using Debian can also be useful for learning to use a Raspberry Pi and the future becomes more interesting - after all the Pi hardware is actually cheaper than a copy of Windows 8.

As a result I have become aware of a few other changes in the linux world too. Although the Raspberry foundation seem to be promoting Java and Python, I came across a post mentioning a basic-like programming language called BaCon (which is actually a basic-to-C convertor). This lead me back to good old Puppy linux which is still my absolute favourite linux version. I was also suitably impressed to discover Squeezed-Arm-Puppy which actually runs on the Pi. So there in a nutshell is my new preferential upgrade path. Debian for home (with a puppy live disk as backup); Raspbian and Sap-Puppy for my Pi and an old netbook which will continue to run XP. I will enjoy finding out how BaCon compares with Visual Basic when I get around to rewriting some of my work utilities with it.

The really strange bit is that now things have calmed down at work, the games machine has seen a lot less use in the same time-frame. I even went out and bought a Google Nexus as part of an energy-efficiency drive. I've found this to be a lot quicker than waiting for XP to boot-up so it stops me from using the big-old-desktop just to check email. I was most impressed last week when I was able to drag & drop a few files onto a browser and then access the documents on my Nexus while in a meeting. That's one of those features that you know you're going to use again and again until you're taking it for granted.

In another post I mention a solar charger I picked up from Maplins earlier this year (for £20) which I've discovered is capable of powering the Pi (sadly not the monitor too). Results are out on whether or not I'll make any savings with this lot after our energy tracker showed a 16% usage increase last month. I have however put this down to our greater reliance on the tumble dryer at this time of year and possibly bad usage monitoring on my part last year (at least I ruled out the big-old-desktop by hardly using it for a month). I have an idea that maybe Solar-Pi will become juniors new favourite media player (running XBMC which is also fantastic) which will help reduce our usage even further next year.

Social commentators may start to see a theme here: our requirements are changing from slow bloated code on big desktops to compact code that does the job and runs from cheaper power sources. Maybe the next generation of computing devices will come with solar panels as standard?