The iPod Touch

As mentioned a short while ago, I have managed to get my hands on an iPod Touch. Wow, it’s nice!

Apple have once again put a lot of work into their interface design and made the touchscreen work quite well. One odd thing though is the home button is a tactile one situated on the front surface at the bottom – I kept expecting to find some sort of ‘Home’ button on the touchscreen interface. You get used to it though.

We don’t have wifi at work at the moment, so I borrowed it for an evening to test it out on my connection at home. To start with I experienced quite a problem with dropped connections. The first time I tried to connect it was successful, but not long after that the connection dropped and the AP was not listed in the list of available networks. My brother, the only wifi user in the house, only occaisionally has problems with the wifi network so I didn’t think it was a problem with the trusty Linksys box but just in case I checked the cables and rebooted the access point. Got it working again in the end.

When I first turned on the iPod, having removed it from it’s elegant packaging, I went through the apps that were included. I had assumed that the latest software update would be installed as standard, but it turns out (unless I just received stale stock) that you have to pay for the latest version with the extra apps regardless of whether you’ve got a recent model or not. I wasnt going to pay the £12 for something that work owns, so I made do with trying out the basic apps – Safari, iTunes and YouTube.

For me, Safari is the most important app on the device. It’s what opens up the mini-tablet-PC to a world of possibilities. By playing with it I managed to get a feel for how pages are rendered, which plugins are supported (Flash isn’t, unfortunately, but QuickTime is) and how people have implemented web apps designed for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Some sites have trouble with javascript in the portable version of Safari which results in the site being slow to respond to clicks. This may be due to intensive processing or a limitation of the browser. There are also occaisionally problems with zoomed rendering of pages that have complex styles such as flexible rounded-corner designs, but it’s nothing serious.
Scrolling is pretty slick, using both drag and ‘flick’ gestures, though zooming can be tricky sometimes as it requires you to use an ‘expansion’ gesture which is a little difficult with one hand (the other hand holding the device).

iTunes is slightly more limited in terms of features than I expected, but it’s still quite a slick app. I think the emphasis will continue to be on using iTunes on a Mac/PC, but for quick purchases the iPod version is perfect.

The YouTube app is a great way to waste time watching random stuff, and it demonstrates how streaming video can be used on the iPod. When using Safari I discovered that you don’t need a native app to stream video – the built-in mini-version of QuickTime does the job.

I really like the iPod Touch, and as soon as I can justify the expense (considering I got my 40GB iPod Video – now called classic – in July last year) I will get one for myself and pay for the extra apps. It will also be used for my remote control project.

Earthquake Update

It would seem that my guesses were more or less correct – the largest earthquake in the UK for 25 years. Apparently most of the country felt it, so I think everyone knows how unnerving it feels! The BBC has an initial story on it here. The BGS site, which is responding a little better than it was at 1 am, also has a technical report on the quake. The BGS also has more general information on UK seismic activity.


At about 00:56 this morning, roughly 20 mins ago, I was awoken by some fairly vigorous shaking – a very unnerving experience. I’ve knowingly experienced one earthquake in the UK before, also at home, where I could hear a low level rumbling followed by noticeable shaking and land movement. This time round I was a whole lot more scared and confused because I was actually woken by it.

I’m sure it will make the news later today. I suspect that the eppicentre may have suffered quite some damage, assuming we weren’t that near to the eppicentre. The only thing I’ve noticed so far is that certain websites, which happen to be the top results in google for “earthquake uk”, are very difficult to get a hold of. If other connectivity issues occur it is possible that a connection may be damaged within the UK. The BBC News site is loading fine. The BBC have just picked up on the story.


Not long ago I bought a pack of games on Steam for quite a big discount, but I’ve only got around to playing two of them so far. I’m currently stuck at the T-Rex part of Tomb Raider: Anniversary, but on Sunday I made my way through almost all of Infernal and have just spent a few minutes completing it.

The storyline has several twists, one from the start being that you’re playing the part of an ‘evil’ force which battles against ‘angels’, though it’s not the deepest plot I’ve encountered in a game. The best part about this game though is the graphics. The levels are stunning, and judging from the detail that has gone into them I would say that a significant part of the development of the game was dedicated to the level graphic design. It’s all accomplished without resorting to DX10 and shaders that require a graphics card from 2009 to run – I managed to run it at the highest settings with the top AA that it supports for the most part, only having to remove the AA for the last mission. They must have pulled some trickery to make the game look so good without causing the problems that plague Crysis (which is still on hold until I can beef my computer up enough).

It took most of the day on Sunday to complete, so there’s probably a good 8-9 hrs gameplay there, and I played it on easy cos I prefer enjoying the scenery and storyline to facing frustratingly difficult challenges.

The other games in the pack are: Just Cause, Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, Project: Snowblind, Rogue Trooper.

The VAMS-0808 matrix switcher and determining its protocol

A significant part of the whole-house audio system is the matrix switch that allows any audio input to be listened to on any audio output. I’ve been looking for a suitable switch for several months now (by suitable I mean cheap enough, but still capable). My requirements are that it has 8 inputs, 4 outputs and RS232 support.

Once again, eBay has proven it’s worth and I’ve found something for a lot cheaper than my previous find. It has 8 inputs, 8 outputs, RS232 support and includes composite video switching too. S-video switching would have been nice, but that feature seems to double the price so I’m happy to go with the compromise of composite video.

Of course there’s always a hitch with these low-cost items made in the far-east, and it’s almost always that the websites are absolutely rubbish – crafted to work only in IE, badly structured, lacking any useful technical information and generally broken. Thankfully, Google has come to the rescue and I’ve managed to find the software that controls the VAMS-0808 (IE is required, and the installer doesn’t even open in Vista – works OK in XP though).

I’ve got a Virtual PC with XP installed, just to connect to work’s VPN which until recently didn’t have a Vista client. One of the handy features in Virtual PC is the ability to map COM ports to physical ports, named pipes or a text file. I set COM2 to redirect to a text file, and voila, I now know how the software talks to the switcher.

Communication protocol for the VAMS-0808 (not tested yet)

This is what I’ve figured out so far:

All commands start with a 0 (zero), and are committed with a Windows new-line (\r\n). Some actions require multiple commands in order, for example channel switching. An output channel selection command must precede an input channel selection command.

  • 0CO1 – 0CO8: Select output channel 1-8
  • 0ALL: Select all output channels
  • 0CI1 – 0CI8: Set input channel 1-8 for currently selected output channel
  • 0OFF: Disconnect currently selected output channel (input channel 0)
  • 0VCS: Subsequent commands switch only video
  • 0ACS: Subsequent commands switch only audio
  • 0AVS: Subsequent commands switch both audio and video
  • 0LOO: Disable hardware lock
  • 0LOI: Enable hardware lock

I have no idea if the switch actually returns any status codes since I haven’t got it yet, but hopefully it’ll be on it’s way to me soon!

Edit: 0OFF actually means disconnect the selected channel, not disconnect all channels. Also: woo! It’s arrived! Very speedy delivery indeed.

Re-running cables


There are two main wiring routes that are part of my ongoing project to wire up our house for A/V and data distribution – one goes from the bottom of my wardrobe directly down to the room below, and the other goes across a short stretch of the landing and down into the pantry.


Until yesterday, the 4 x speaker and 6 x CAT5 cables going to the pantry were laid under the carpet, then pushed down through a hole in a floodboard and the corresponding hole in the pantry ceiling. The reason for this was simply that it was too much work at the time to run the cables properly, i.e. beneath the floorboards. At the time when I was running the cables, we weren’t living in the house so I only had relatively short visits in which to do the work.

I spent most of yesterday improving the situation by pulling up flooadboards, drilling holes in joists and reaching around in the dirt. All but 2 of the cables that were fed under the carpet are now out of sight under the floorboards of the landing. The remaining 2 cables are CAT5 feeds to bedroom 3, which take a slightly different route to the main runs and are already connected at both ends.

Continue reading “Re-running cables”


I felt the urge today, as happens every now and again, to add to my music collection. Up to today my collection has consisted only of CDs, which I’ve ripped to MP3 for playback on my computer and my iPod. While I was looking around for albums to buy, I checked out to see how their prices compare to Amazon for some of the rarer albums.

Most of the albums I were after need to be imported, but earlier this week Play launched their own DRM-free download service. I managed to buy 3 albums by Ugress for £1.95 each! Up till now I’ve avoided download services because for only a few pounds more (or even a few pounds less) I can have a physical CD to serve as a backup and something to look at. The bargain download albums I found were just too good to pass up though, and since they are DRM-free I’m not restricted in any way with how I can play the tracks.

To keep the tracks safe, since there isnt a CD version, I’ve added them to their own folder on my fileserver. This folder will be added to the backup system, so they will be included in the daily tape backups.

Purchasing the albums is no different to the normal process on Play, and I included some CDs with my order that should arrive in a few days (Morcheeba – Dive Deep, Plaid – Spokes, Plaid – Rest Proof Clockwork). After going through the checkout process, the confirmation screen is slightly different and 2 emails are sent – one for the physical goods and one for the downloads. A list of all purchased tracks is available in the ‘My Account’ section of the site, where the tracks can be downloaded individually or in one big zip file including album art.

Downloading of the zip file is streamed, so you don’t get any indication of the size of the file as it is downloading (since the size of the file is not known when the HTTP response headers are sent) but the speed was pretty impressive. I got 1MB/sec+ (not Mbit – I’m on a 20Mbit connection) which would probably have maxed out my connection if I weren’t downloading/uploading other things at the time. As the popularity of this service increases, I suspect that the download rates will drop in a similar way that iTunes-hosted downloads can sometimes slow to a crawl.

One criticism of the ‘download-everything’ zip file is that the tracks are not separated into directories, so I had to manually separate out my 3 albums. This could be for some compatibility reason, or just that the developers didn’t know how to add folders to a zip file. I’ve programmatically created zip files at work using SharpZip, and the process of adding folders is not as straightforward as you might expect.

Overall I think the service is great value for money. It competes well with iTunes, at 9p cheaper per track and with some real bargains for albums if you look around. The Play site could still do with a few extra features to make browsing a little easier, such as deeper categorisation, easy access to albums by artist, the ability to order by price, and the ability to browse categories rather than just getting a summary of what’s popular, new etc.