Tag Archives: london

And the NodeBots from London assembled

I attended today’s NodeBots London event. The theme (?) was “NodeBots of London… Assemble!” and so we did. Compared to the last event I went to in July, which was way more informal, this was considerably bigger (within the venue allowances, of course) with more people and more things to look at and talk about!

First Oli made an introduction to NodeBots (essentially a place where people program hardware using JavaScript, but everything is allowed if you want to), what Johnny Five is and its relationship to node-serial, same for Firmata, and then some interesting tips for software people turned amateur hardware people I hadn’t heard of before, such as:

the case of the generous motor, in which you can fry Arduinos connected to motors without diodes, when the motor keeps spinning even after you stop applying input voltage, and so it becomes a dynamo which feeds current back into the circuit and so… bye bye Arduino which didn’t have any protection
the flappy servo, when you sequence value changes too fast and that results in just some feeble erratic movements instead of the dramatic ones you expected

Then Alex made an introduction to electricity, in general, which was a good refresher for people like me who studied some electrical engineering at uni/school but haven’t used it for reals since then. He explained the basics (V = IxR) and also insisted again on the importance of putting the right resistors in the right place to prevent things getting fried. He used this online circuit.js utility to depict circuits and the flow of current, the voltages at each point of the circuit (in the subcircuits perhaps?)–super useful and I so wish I had had this when I was taking these subjects. Makes things way more intuitive!

And with that—we hacked a bit! Jerome Loï (who had travelled all the way from Paris!) tried to resuscitate my pseudo fried Duemilanove with a shield and a thingy to mount the ATMega168 only, but turns out that it’s such an old board/chip combination that the bootloader firmware is not distributed anymore! So I left it aside and focused on my next task for the day: find out what the components in the kits I have are! With Jerome’s and Alex’s help, and some image searching, all the components were identified in a matter of minutes. Yay!

Then I was not sure of what I wanted to do—I didn’t really want to start a new project although I have a practical idea, and I was also hungry and Oli’s marvelous cooking skills didn’t help to stop making my stomach rumble. Whenever I tried to focus on hardware or research for my idea, a new wave of delicious slow-cooked stew would reach my nose. Ahhh!

Fortunately Charles made a lightning talk describing how he goes from thought to execution using a sketchbook and Autocad instead of thinking by executing as it’s advised in many environments (something like “you don’t want to waste time and effort on build something expensive that might not work, it’s better to think on a sketchbook first”).

Also someone (whose name totally escaped me, ahh, sorry) gave a little intro about a somewhat related event about which I heard about aeons ago but which seemed to have faded out, Dorkbot. It’s been revived, but I’m sad it is held in a) a quite remote location b) at a time I can’t go, because it sounds like the kind of thing I’d like to attend. SAD FACE.

And then it was finally time for lunch. As expected by the opening flavour, it was so yummy! It gave the day a sort of lovely family reunion for Sunday lunch, except we didn’t argue about silly things, but just used the time to catch up on what we had been up to since the last time I visited their maker space, or talk about what we were building today.

After lunch, I spoke to various people such as Andrew Nesbitt of manythings-fame, and learnt new cool things. Such as:

  • Platform.io which is an IDE for “things”, built on Electron… which can work with Arduino and also has code completion! so if you don’t like the Arduino IDE you can use this instead
  • The Arduino board clones such as the Funduino are interesting not only because they might be cheaper than the originals, but also because sometimes they offer cool features such as additional pins for +5 or +GND, which sometimes can make it easier to build something by connecting the wires directly to the board instead of using a breadboard to ‘multiply’ the pins. Or has a toggle to switch between 3.3 and 5V, etc. This very interesting tip came from Jerome, who also told me about this French shop called HackSpark which not only have a lot of those Arduino compatible boards on stock, but also might seem convenient for folks in the UK. And also have a physical shop in Paris! Wow!
  • The Espruino is small. Like… really small! It also transpiles JavaScript to Lua (if I understood this correctly). You write JavaScript instead of Arduino C flavour, and you can get really quick feedback. Sounds like a cool idea for prototyping without having to tether as with Johnny Five—most useful for wearables!

But my super favourite thing I learnt about today is that pencil lead is a conductor! Jerome built a quick and fun pencil based resistor which controlled the speed of a 555 timer connected to a speaker. So effectively he was changing the frequency of an oscillator, and changed the pitch of the sound as he moved the pencil tip closer or further away from the banana connector clipped to the paper. The other end of the pencil had a drawing pin inserted on it and a wire too, effectively closing the circuit! You can see all this in action in this little vine:

We also talked about how I should use an accelerometer and not tilt sensors for my idea (to avoid false positives), and ways to use Web Audio with hardware stuff, and ways to make things that made noise, even how to make a leslie / hammond! So many things that we can make! So exciting!

And there were many other things I learnt but I can’t recall now (hopefully my brain will retain them). Do join one of these NodeBots groups if you can—great things to learn and a very welcoming environment!

It was also cool to devirtualize people I apparently had met already but totally didn’t remember (hi Jerome… sorry), and meet new people! Hopefully next time I will remember 😀

Oh and Jerome, who was one of the main instigators of the NodeBots cat mesmerizer workshop at LXJS 2014, happened to still have a workshop kit in his travelling suitcase and gave it to me… which means I have a laser in my possession!

PEW PEW PEW LASERSSSSS!!!!!!

A peek at Peer to Peer

It’s incredible how time flies and how changing the weather can be! Today’s a sweet bright slightly chill Monday in London, whereas last week it was VERY COLD and horrible.

I also happened to spend most of Monday in a studio in Islington recording my Peer to Peer session on… guess what… Web Audio!

The host was Drew Neil, from Vimcasts fame. He set a challenge for me that consisted in writing a system that could perform an interpretation of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music“.

It’s a simple concept, but it also involves a lot of different techniques and APIs so it was quite a lot of fun!

Sadly you’ll have to wait at least a couple of months until the editing and subtitling is done. Until then… maybe you want to check out the existing videos!

UPDATE, about 15 minutes later: it’s grey and raining now. 👌🏼😂

And about 500 km later…

The Prudential ride was held last week-end in London. Two years ago I walked past Green Park when the ride was happening, navigating the hordes of people in their bikes in the “Fun Zone” and wondering if I’d ever ride a bike with their ease too.

Fast forward to last Sunday, when I biked for 18 km, just for fun! Not in the race (although it could have been funny to see a Brompton-powered cyclist), but just around London. How different things are now–for the better!

Although I got the bike in late November 2014, I just started to track my rides at the end of March, out of curiosity (how fast am I? how long is my daily ride?). Since then I’ve cycled 445 km, in 66 rides that have taken me about 32 hours total.

I’m quite distrustful of all other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, and the only time I almost got hit by a van was because I trusted them too much–then they “cut a corner” and almost crunched me against the pavement; luckily I was quick to yell at them and jump aside but I still got a very minor bruise on my arm. Still I think it’s a good rate of accidents per kilometer, and I intend to keep it that way.

I am now super fast at unfolding/folding the bike, and also lifting it upstairs. I replaced the front light that the shop sold me initially with a rechargeable USB light which has also WAY more lumens. I’ve also learnt to pump the tires myself and to grease the chain–it’s very relaxing and satisfying! I also got a camera on my helmet–a bit for documental reasons but mostly acting as a deterrent (the red LED on front when recording seems to have put an end to the territorial behaviour of some drivers, it seems). I wish I hadn’t had to get the camera. Ah, if only the police were doing their job… If only the multiple traffic cameras in London were put to a good use… If only…

But other than that, my worst issue right now is that sometimes I’m in too much of a good shape and my muscles are too much for my bike, and so even with the longer speed I am still too fast for these wheels. I keep having to remind myself that this is not a road bike and there’s no need to bike SO FAST. I also wish that my issues are always like this.

In parallel to getting a bike I also kept up with my running, using one of those couch to 10K apps. I started tracking it as well–I’ve run about 240 km since then! And now I do not dread running for buses or planes as I used to. It helped me catch a plane on time on a very tight connection last month. It was worth the effort!

In contrast, the first time I intentionally went running, a little less than two years ago, I barely ran for 100 metres before I got totally out of breath. My lungs hurt. My throat hurt. It was a horrible feeling and I was ashamed to hear the answer to what have I done to my body in the last 20 years?! But now I can run 3 km non stop in a good day, and still walk after that.

I do not want to brag with this post–all the contrary. I want to share my joy and amazement at the fact that even the couchest of potatoes can turn into a somehow fit human.

The trick is to practice and to be persistent.

And not comparing yourself against others, but against yourself. Every improvement is a win, even if small! Last year I’d run 2.4 km on a good day. Nowadays that is less than my fun runs.

Many times I wake up and don’t feel like going anywhere but then I remind myself of that nice exhilarating feeling when I’m running up a hill that I used to have to stop mid-way because it was too steep, and now I run in about three minutes non-stop, and then I put on the sporty clothes and just do it. And if I don’t run, walk or bike on a given day I feel like I’m missing the activity!

Something else that is cool: I don’t mind if it’s rainy or sunny anymore. There’s again something really exhilarating about both aspects. If it’s raining I just love that I don’t care that it’s raining–I just put my hood on and do my thing. Yes, drops get in my face, but I just brush them aside. If it’s sunny, it tends to get pretty warm so I can wear tank tops and that means I get tons of vitamin D! So many people are complimenting my tan this year but… it’s just the English sun! 😉

It also helps if you have an encouraging circle of acquaintances and friends. There’s a ton of people in the office that are into sports and they would always talk about going to the gym or to the climbing centre, or cycling, or… Jen was also a great inspiration when she shared, nonchalantly, that she couldn’t run for more than a few metres before, and now she was running kilometers! And Belén started running as well and shared her progress and tips. Apparently at some point I figured that if they could do it, so could I!

And if I could do it, so can you! 😀

Possible futures, and nodebotting

You might remember that I was sorting out my music collection. This involves having to use iTunes for adding cover art and editing metadata and blah blah because I’m using a Mac and it seems that everyone has given up on making anything (anything!) better than iTunes.

So iTunes is this big huge mass of software that attempts to do everything at the same time and does nothing particularly well, and we’re all using it because there’s not much more else available. Talk about user choice, wooops.

Yesterday I was realising this horrible situation and started a parade of tweets:

  • I never know whether to cry at the immense UI failure that iTunes is or just laugh at it so ironically being the flagship product at Apple
  • When using iTunes I’m afraid to click on buttons because I do not know what havoc will that unravel. Things move around without explanation
  • There are buttons that turn into something else, something elses that act like buttons, data losses, weirdnesses, ugh
  • The worst is: there doesn’t seem to be anything better in Mac? (!?) 😭PLEASE PROVE ME WRONG, I BEG YOU 😭

Someone suggested Vox, which I haven’t tried yet. But seriously–only one suggestion! is that all that there is? I ended up thinking again about writing my own “player”. Except it would not be a player, or at least, not just a player, but I was thinking more about a sort of jukebox with sync. Of course I have other things to do right now so that’s probably not going to happen unless I win the lottery I don’t play.

I was in a good mood this morning so I decided to pretend I was funny and laugh at this whole mess with another tweet parade:

  • the year is 2030.
    you can do grocery shopping, pay council tax, vote for your fav eurovision artist and resolve git conflicts with iTunes
  • in 2045 iTunes finally gains sentience and writes the code for you. all commit messages mention titles of U2 songs
  • 2525 it is revealed that iTunes has acquired Skynet (to the tune of Visage’s In the Year 2525 but poignantly sung by Bono)
  • 3001: Frank Poole begs to be killed again by HAL 9000 when he sees iSkynet in action

And instead of sitting back and maliciously grin at the idea of this actually happening and how 2030 is in fact quite close in time and I could be saying “I told you so” in only 15 years, I grabbed my bike to go to Tableflip, the home of Nodebots in London, for a lighterweight NodeBots day.

Good things: it was a gorgeous day (specially compared to yesterday’s where it poured with rain for about 90% of the time), and I got lost in Dulwich which is a beautiful, albeit very adhoc and non-grid at all area, so it’s even a pleasure to get lost and wander around those streets.

Bad things: there was nothing bad about getting lost because there was absolutely no rush at any point during the day.

Oli was a fantastic host and he made us bacon sarnies and coffee. Their space is a-ma-zing. It’s full of tools old and new, and equipment and things and dust from sawing and weird mechanical and chemical smells, and flying things in various sizes and shapes, and there’s some other business where someone is building bikes. BIKES!!! It’s all super cool and I came back very excited about making stuff, even if I just managed to sort of use Johnny Five to control a servo:

Meanwhile, Tom was hacking on his Maschina and making it emit various sounds with JavaScript, Alex was transferring PCB positives onto another surface using an electric iron and two other guys were doing fantastic hacky stuff as well. I also got to hear about Fritzing and it looks really good.

I’m glad I got to use part of the equipment in the Spark core kit I got at JSConf.US 2014 which I still hadn’t had time to use. I’m sad I didn’t get to use the Spark core itself because the nodeschool nodebots workshop is designed for Arduinos and I wanted to see something happen physically and not just emulated, but I am certain I’ll be able to research this before iTunes can also talk to Spark devices via iPay or whatever.

Playing with hardware is fun. I am an almost total newbie in this field. I keep forgetting which pin is the N pin for LEDs (it’s the short one, I just looked it up today). I keep forgetting how to read resistors and how to connect things together. It’s all fine: it’s on the internets, somewhere, or alternatively it comes back to me once I get started. I have absolutely no expectations for what I’ll do and so I can’t let myself down if I forget everything from the last time I played with hardware. It’s OK. It’s a game. It’s fine to forget the rules, you can always re-read them.

And if you haven’t had enough future scenarios, here’s also this very funny article: A horror story that starts with Twitter.

Reading list, 5

13-19th April 2015

  • tableflip dot club by (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻: “We’ve watched mediocre men whiz by us on a glass escalator […] we’re denied opportunities because we aren’t “ready” for them […] It’s time we take our potential elsewhere […] We’re sharing our long memories of all the creeps who’ve hit on us and the cowards who’ve failed to promote us”. Oh wow. This resonates so much with some of my experiences, wow. Yes. More tableflips are in order!
  • Of undocumented Chrome features and unreadable W3C specs by ppk: “this sad state of affairs prevents me from writing tests and reporting their outcome on all these new, exciting technologies”, or why new undocumented APIs without examples are a tragic failure
  • The newly created Web Audio London meetup has published videos with the talks from the first meetup! they are in its YouTube channel
  • There is also a Music Hackspace in London! I haven’t been so I can’t tell how good is it.
  • More music: my pal Andy Lemon made a series of Commodore 64-based covers of 80s tunes
  • Gifsicle – command line animated GIFs. We can always add new tools for our Animated GIF battles. Its website is pretty terse but the GitHub page is more detailed: “it can merge several GIFs into a GIF animation; explode an animation into its component frames; change individual frames in an animation; turn interlacing on and off; add transparency; add delays, disposals, and looping to animations; add and remove comments; flip and rotate; optimize animations for space; change images’ colormaps; and other things”… *swooooooooning*
  • More control over text-decoration by Chris Coyier at CSS-Tricks — where the text-decoration CSS property can be further controlled with three new sub-properties: text-decoration-color, text-decoration-line and text-decoration-style. This is fantastic! I’m going to start using text-decoration-style: wavy everywhere! 😉
  • More CSS! Gradients are sometimes hard to visualise, so Patrick Brosset wrote a tool which would do exactly that. This week, he moved it from codepen to a GitHub repository. Look at it–can you make it better?
  • Despoblados en Huesca – a website that collects all the abandoned towns and smaller settlements in Huesca, an Spanish province. I’m fascinated both by this and by the idea that some people do take over some of these settlements and make them inhabitable again. This notion of self-sufficiency has always intrigued me.
  • DiscoGS – I acquired a Sinology home NAS last week and I have been carefully rearranging and sorting my music collection. This website is a fantastic resource when you really start getting perfectionist and detailed about PROPERLY TAGGING the files.