Buzzer.mobi: Another Pandemic Project

On the 3rd July I announced my latest side project, https://buzzer.mobi, that would help people play socially distanced games remotely. The Coronavirus lockdown was eased in the UK the day after. I wish I’d started this project a bit earlier, but better late than never!

The tradition of the Monday night virtual pub quiz with my friends had continued throughout the lockdown, and a few weeks after the first quiz I hosted, it was my turn again.

Back by popular demand, I put together a longer Catchphrase round with a little help from the data collected by my previous side project, SayWhatYouSee.uk. It helped me identify the highly rated puzzles so that I could put together an enjoyable round more quickly.

I was going to use BuzzIn.live for the buzzers again, but some updates to the site changed the behaviour around how players can get frozen/unfrozen, so I thought I should just make my own version instead. How hard could it be?

Continue reading “Buzzer.mobi: Another Pandemic Project”

Say What You See: a Pandemic Project

For many, the Coronavirus lockdown was an opportunity for people to get creative, and I was one of them. Since my choir had been cancelled and I could no longer go bouldering, I had a bit more free time in my evenings.

Early on into lockdown, a few of my friends wanted to carry on the local tradition of the Monday night pub quiz. We would take it in turns each week to host a quiz, coming up with our own questions that the other households would try to answer. I wanted to give my quiz a 90’s theme. I don’t know how I came to that decision, but it was probably because most pub quizzes I’ve been to have questions from before my time. Turns out my questions were much too difficult – I don’t think anyone got more than 1 point in the science round – but I managed to redeem myself with a round of puzzles from our favourite gameshow of the 90’s, Catchphrase!

Image shows a fish with caterpillar tracks and a turret. What do you think the catchphrase is?
Players would connect their phones to BuzzIn.live. Whoever buzzed in with the correct answer first won the point.

In order to put the round together, I had to find some good puzzles from old episodes of Catchphrase that I found on YouTube. I had to extract the frames from the puzzle and turn them into a GIF. I started off by downloading a video from YouTube and opening it in some video editing software. Extracting a short clip from the episode was tedious, and while I had the patience to extract 10 clips for my quiz, I wondered how many other great puzzles there were from other episodes, and if there was a way I could extract the puzzles using a computer program instead.

Continue reading “Say What You See: a Pandemic Project”

Get notified of your Raspberry Pi’s IP address

I often find that if I connect my Raspberry Pi to a new network, it can be difficult to connect to it via SSH. When it connects, it should register its name on the network, so you should be able to just run ssh pi@raspberrypi, assuming your username is ‘pi’ and your Pi’s hostname is ‘raspberrypi’. But for me, for whatever reason, that name registration rarely works on my network, so I need to work out the device’s IP address in order to login to it.

Wouldn’t it be great if, as soon as your Pi is connected to the network, it could send you an email with its local IP address, so that you can instead connect by running a command like ssh pi@192.168.1.90? DNS doesn’t need to work, and this technique will send you an email whenever the Pi’s IP address changes.

This method requires knowledge of Amazon Web Services, and assumes you already have the AWS command line interface set up on the Pi. If you’re unfamiliar with AWS, you might still find this post somewhat useful, but you’ll need to substitute the part of my code that sends the notification.

Continue reading “Get notified of your Raspberry Pi’s IP address”

Getting Festive with some Addressable LEDs: the Fireplace

Not content with just one hardware hack this Christmas, I thought I should try to create something simpler, prettier and considerably less nerdy than the TfL Tree.

Back at the parents’ house we have a fireplace that I thought could do with a festive makeover. I found this 5m strip of LEDs on Amazon. It was surprisingly difficult to find LEDs that were well-separated: many of them were very close together, and therefore, very expensive. The set I bought had lights separated by about 3cm each, 150 LEDs in total.

The great thing with the WS2812B standard of LEDs (and similar) is that you can cut a strip to the exact length you want and solder them back together if you want. This particular strip had an adhesive back for more permanent applications, but since this was temporary I didn’t cut the strip, and I used Blu Tack to attach the strip around the fireplace. It worked well enough!

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I hid the strip badly behind a table and didn’t think about it again.

 

Espruino

Since this project didn’t need to talk to the Internet, I wrote a program using an Espruino Pico microcontroller that I bought after a JSOxford hardware hack day in 2015. The advantage of the Espruino over a Raspberry Pi is that it will start up and run the program instantly. It also runs JavaScript, which is probably more familiar to most people than whatever language you use to program an Arduino.

Continue reading “Getting Festive with some Addressable LEDs: the Fireplace”

Getting Festive with some Addressable LEDs: TfL Tree

This is a story of how a simple hardware hack got surprisingly out of hand.

Summer of Hacks 2019

It all started in the summer of 2019 during the Oxford Summer of Hacks. One of the events put on was a hardware hack day, where beginner tinkerers could learn about programming real things with the help of more knowledgeable people in the room. I was somewhere in the middle of the scale: I know how to program so I managed to teach a kid and his dad to write some code for a robot powered by a BBC micro:bit, but I needed help when it came to the most basic of hardware tasks.

I had a vague idea of what I wanted to work on during this hack day: after reading a blog post from the Raspberry Pi Foundation I ordered a small screen thinking I could get it to display the Tube status. However, that didn’t arrive in time, so I had to improvise with some LEDs instead.

Continue reading “Getting Festive with some Addressable LEDs: TfL Tree”

500 Voices at the Barbican

March was a very busy month for me. Aside from the usual Monday night choir rehearsals, I’d managed to book something almost every evening as a way to distract myself from the political shambles that is Brexit, which we all know was due to happen at the end of the month. It seems to have done the trick because it’s now April and nothing seems to have changed

Ha.

Anyway, for me, March consisted of a choir performance with Kensington Singers where I had a solo 😱, going to a couple of recordings of QI (one of which was the Christmas special – I know, this is March), watching some films from the Banff film festival, dinners out, a comedy night, joining the Put It To The People March, working on 6 Music Festival as a video publisher, trying out the Pandemonium Drummers, and somehow I still managed to fit in 8 evenings for a pop-up volunteer choir to perform a piece called the public domain by David Lang.

Wow, that was a long sentence. I said I was busy!

I heard about the opportunity to sing at this special event from my conductor at Kensington Singers, who had posted a link to it on my choir’s Facebook page back in December. The sign-up page looked like this:

Be part of something big this spring, as 500 people from all walks of life come together for a once-in a lifetime performance at the Barbican Centre.

Whether you’re a first-time singer or regular choir member, the London Symphony Orchestra and Choral Director Simon Halsey are inviting you to join over 500 people from across London to perform the UK premiere of David Lang’s the public domain. As a vocalist you’ll sing, whisper and chant together under the guidance of a dedicated vocal leader, telling a story through sound and movement and drawing together shared experiences into an exhilarating and exciting performance.

The three groups will then come together for two final rehearsals, before the piece is performed live in the Barbican foyers on 24 March 2019 as part of a London Symphony Orchestra performance.

I couldn’t quite imagine what it would sound like, but it seemed like an exciting opportunity, so I signed up! There were different rehearsal groups that we could sign up for: I picked the group that rehearsed on Tuesdays and Thursdays because that fitted best with my schedule.

Continue reading “500 Voices at the Barbican”

#Hackference 2018

Another year, my third Hackference. And what a fun weekend that was!

The Conference

Like last year, the conference was based in thestudio in Birmingham, right next to New Street station so it was really convenient to get there from London in the morning. It was an early start and I didn’t exactly have the earliest of nights either.

Unlike last year, I managed to get to Euston station on time for my 6:43 train 🙌

There were plenty of great talks. Hackference is a 2-track conference, meaning there are usually 2 talks happening at the same time. It was a shame that the talks weren’t recorded this year, because there were a couple of occasions where I would have wanted to be in both talks at the same time. If only I had a time-turner…

Speaking of Harry Potter references, in Marta Bondyra’s talk I got to live the dream of being a real wizard in an awesome WebVR + Speech API demo:

Continue reading “#Hackference 2018”

Spot me an EC2 instance

If you’re looking to save money on your AWS bill, consider switching to a Spot instance.

I’ve been running most of my websites on a single Amazon EC2 instance for about 2 years now. It’s been fine: there’s a bit of setup involved but I’ve become more familiar with Linux servers as a result; and if ever I encounter a problem the solution is never more than a single Google away.

The first year on AWS was great: by creating a new account you get some things in your first year for free. A t2.micro instance (1 CPU, 1GB RAM) was part of this free tier, and it comfortably ran 5 of my little Node.js hacks so long as they don’t get too much traffic.

The following year meant that that same server was no longer free. An ‘on-demand’ instance (where pay per hour that it’s in use) costs just over $9 per month, but if you know you’re going to keep it running for a year, you can pay some of the money up front and bring the effective cost down to $6.50 per month. I thought that was a reasonable price, so I paid that for the second year. Continue reading “Spot me an EC2 instance”

Hackference 2017

Well, it has been almost a year since my previous post here, very much living up to the “occasional blogger” title on my Twitter profile.

I didn’t think there was going to be a Hackference 2017, what with it being ‘the last Hackference’ last year, but here we are.

Annoyingly, I made it to Euston station at 6:44am on the Friday. The train I booked was scheduled for 6:43, and annoyingly left on time, so I had to buy another ticket. £58 poorer than I was hoping to be that day, I got on the next train and still made it to The Studio (the venue for the day) on time.

I’m not going to say much about the talks: they were all really good, inspiring everyone to think differently about programming, design, and to try out some of the new Web technologies.

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Here’s Oxford’s very own Ben Foxall demoing a combination of the Web Audio API, WebGL and Nexmo’s voice API. In short, a visualisation of a phone call between Ben and his mum, happening in real time!

The next day was the hackathon. 24 hours of working on whatever you want, with whomever you want, from midday on Saturday to midday on Sunday. There were a few sponsors who ran challenges to help focus the direction of the hacks, including Microsoft. Microsoft were encouraging the use of their Cognitive Services APIs – a collection of machine learning features making it easy for developers to add image recognition, OCR, speech-to-text etc. to their own applications; and they would award a prize to the team with the best use of their APIs.

What follow are the slides from my presentation at the end. Continue reading “Hackference 2017”

Hackference 2016, Part 2 – The Hackathon

<- Part 1: the conference
On Saturday, once everyone had got a good night’s ‘sleep’ (our hotel was just next to a loud club which only got quiet after 3am), we walked over to the Impact Hub.

Before I get started, I’m using the word ‘hack’ in the non-malicious form. Tabloids use the word ‘hacker’ to describe someone with malicious intent who steals data or takes down websites (for example, this article in the Mirror). We use it to describe someone who thinks the best way of learning is by doing. A hackathon is just a group of sleep-deprived developers playing with something new.

The event itself was free – paid for completely by the wonderful sponsors.

Before the hackathon started, not many people knew what they wanted to make (including me). Luckily the sponsors got a chance to inspire us with their products and announce their prizes. There was a variety of companies attending, each with some cracking prizes for the teams making best use of their services.

Continue reading “Hackference 2016, Part 2 – The Hackathon”