Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

Connecting external microphones to your Mac

If you have a USB microphone, it’s easy to plug it into your computer. But if you have an analog one, intended to be used with anything other than a computer — say, a camera, sound system or voice recorder — the chances are that it may not work, unless your computer has a dedicated microphone socket.

My Macs have a headset socket, into which you can plug combined earbud/microphone combinations such as you might get with your phone. But it tends to think that anything else you plug in there is just a pair of headphones, and that you probably want to keep using the built-in mic on the machine.

I did some experiments to work out how to persuade it to use an external microphone. It’s not one of my slickest videos, but it should serve its purpose!

Update, a few days later:

Even though the above solution works, it’s almost certainly easier, if you don’t have a microphone socket on your computer, to use a USB audio adapter, like this one.

I was hesitant about this, because I wasn’t sure of the likely quality of the analog-to-digital converters in a cheap USB peripheral, but it turns out to work very well for normal use. That would be my recommendation now, if you have a spare USB socket!

Equipment for recording lectures

One of the big challenges facing lecturers in the University here is that, for at least the next term and probably the whole academic year, all of the lectures need to be recorded. Most of the small-group teaching, practical sessions, and so forth will be going ahead — with extensive Covid-prevention measures in place — but there’s no way we can pack big lecture halls full of people in the way we’ve become accustomed to over the last few centuries, so lectures will all be delivered online this year.

One aspect of my University job recently has been to find and evaluate some of the kit people might want to use for recording, either at home, or in the meeting rooms in the department that we’re equipping for this purpose. (At home, the sitting room has been converted into a recording studio for the 21 lectures Rose needs to get on disk!)

I’ve been making videos of some of my tests and experiments, mostly for internal use, but some of them might be helpful to others. If you should be considering purchasing a USB desk-standing microphone, for example, you might be interested in one of my recordings from yesterday:

I’ve been gathering some of these into a YouTube playlist as well:

Recording Equipment for Lockdown Lectures

I’ll add more there in due course, so do subscribe to my channel if it might be of interest.

Experimenting with a Sony ZV-1 while walking around Barrington

I’ve been experimenting with a Sony ZV-1. This is a compact yet very capable camera, and if I wanted to purchase something explicitly for vlogging, this might well be it. Assuming I wanted to spend 700 quid in the process, of course.

Yesterday, I took it with me while walking the dog, and was really quite impressed. In the process, I produced a video which talks too much about a particular bit of Cambridgeshire for those who are interested in cameras, and too much about cameras for those primarily interested in walks in Cambridgeshire.

I fear the overlapping set in this Venn diagram may be rather small, but it was for my own interest more than anyone else’s; I’ll just put it here just in case there should turn out to be anyone else in that small and exclusive club of South Cambs Vlogging Dog Walkers…

(Most of the audio is recorded using an Instamic)

First experiments with an Instamic

New toy! I bought an Instamic: a tiny voice recorder that I wanted to use in situations where conventional microphones might be difficult or a nuisance, especially when I’m recording with my GoPro Max, which has no facility to take an external mic input.

Here’s my quick first test on yesterday’s dog-walk, in case it’s of interest!

Look through the window!

Today’s very quick tip for improving your video calls.

This one’s pretty obvious, of course. You won’t need to be told this. But perhaps you’ll have a friend who does?

Sign of the times?

This project at UCLA is such an intriguing idea. And using today’s hardware and software, not too hard to implement.

Go download, Moses

I received a rather nice gift from my in-laws today:

One man and his vlog

Yesterday I realised I was looking particularly suave and debonair, so decided it would be the right time to point a camera at myself. Mmm…

If you want to try using a decent digital camera for videoconferencing, you normally either need:

  • something which will capture an HDMI output signal from your camera and feed it into your computer over USB, like the Elgato Cam Link,

  • or you need some software which can capture the live preview output and make it available to your operating system as if it were a locally-connected camera. On the Mac, I do this with a combination of Camera Live – which makes it avaliable as a ‘Syphon’ server – and CamTwist, which can take a variety of inputs, including Syphon, and blend them into a ‘virtual camera’ output. There are various tutorials online on how to do this. OBS is a similar popular app, but doesn’t yet support virtual camera output on the Mac.

  • Finally, for some versions of some Mac apps, you may need to remove the app’s signature (which identifies it with a certain set of permissions), to enable it to see virtual cameras as well as physical ones. At the time of writing, Zoom needs:

$ codesign --remove-signature /Applications/zoom.us.app/

P.S. Sadly, various other people have used the phrase ‘One man and his vlog’, so I can’t pinch it on any kind of long-term basis 🙂

Watching the map

A screenshot from the appI’ve long been a fan of the ViewRanger app for handling maps on my phone. I know I’ve been using it for at least 8 years, because I have tracks recorded from early 2012.

With it, you can use free maps, and buy commercial ones from a range of sources, in many countries, and pay for them in a variety of ways: subscriptions, individual purchases, or — the method I use because I started before the days of in-app purchases — buying a block of credits up front and using them as needed to purchase the map tiles you’re interested in. ViewRanger isn’t perfect: I find bits of its user interface very counter-intuitive, but in general it’s served me very well.

Another worthy contender for UK users, by the way, is the app UK Map, written by a good friend of mine, and which I’ve been using even longer than ViewRanger. UK Map has always provided a great combination for users here: a standard basic UK road atlas, always available offline; the ability to download the free Ordnance Survey maps (since almost the moment they became available), and the overlaying of paths from OpenStreetMap, which are often the most up to date indications of where you can actually walk. More recently, it too gained the option to buy premium maps, but by then I was somewhat invested in the ViewRanger ecosystem. Nonetheless, I do recommend UK Map – it’s helped me out on more than one occasion when I found myself completely out of phone coverage and just needed a good old-fashioned street atlas, for example. Don’t be fooled by its lack of flashy graphics and fewer immediately-obvious features. Phil, the author, is a very smart guy and knows what he’s doing. It’s worth having on your phone.

Maps have always held a fascination for me, and their combination with technology especially so. I remember I was in Seattle on the day the iPad was released, and so was able to get one that day, about 6 weeks before most of my European contemporaries. (I’m still a bit smug about that!) It only took me a few hours, though, to realise it was the best map-viewer I had ever seen. A zoomable, infinitely-scrollable, tactile display that was also big enough to show a reasonable area? Amazing. (The main thing I miss, by the way, about no longer also having an iPad Mini is that it combined most of that with the ability to fit in a coat pocket.)

Anyway, this is all old hat now. We almost all wander the footpaths and byways gazing at our phones, rather than unfolding bits of paper from our map pockets. They do, after all, have that undeniably useful extra feature – the little blinking dot or crosshairs showing where you actually are. And zooming and scrolling mean that the place you’re heading for is no longer on the other side of the fold! I do find, though, that zoomability means I’ve lost the intuition I used to have about how long it would take me to walk a certain number of inches…

There’s another problem, too, with phone-based navigation, that I’ve found in the soggier parts of the UK: touchscreens, and indeed fingerprint readers, really don’t work very well in the rain. The process of extracting the phone from a damp pocket, trying to find something less damp to wipe it on, failing to unlock it with my fingerprint and having to type a PIN before trying to manipulate a semi-responsive touchscreen has just occasionally left me thinking that even damp paper would be preferable to electronics.

Until today.

Because today I discovered something I should have noticed some time ago. ViewRanger has an interface for the Apple Watch. If it’s running on my phone, I can simply raise my wrist to see where I am.

I could have used this in the past, had I discovered it, but it’s also vastly improved by my recent purchase of a Series 4 watch to replace my Series 0, which means that when I raise my arm to look at my watch, things actually appear before my arm gets too tired and has to be lowered again. In fact, while testing it on this afternoon’s dog walk, it was effectively instantaneous. Where does this footpath to the right go? Let me just glance at my wrist – ah, OK. You can scroll around, zoom in and out etc, but most of the time, all I needed was a quick glance: no unlocking, no soggy touchscreen. (It also looks amazing, but I think that’s mostly because of another recent purchase: a new and expensive pair of spectacles!)

All of which makes me wonder whether, despite being at the opposite extreme in terms of screen size, I may after a decade have found an even better map viewer, at least in certain circumstances, than the iPad!

How I Flitted away my Friday afternoon!

Today, I got to ride the Flit Electric Bike! It was great fun!

Actually, it was much better than that; I was invited to visit their office in Cambridge and got to spend quite a bit of time meeting the team and distracting them from what they ought to have been doing. But they were great people, and very patient as I quizzed them endlessly to find out more about what I think is a really nicely-designed product.

A bit of personal background: I own an elderly (non-electric) Brompton folding bike which I got from my parents, and there’s a story behind why I’m particularly fond of that brand. My father had bad arthritis in his ankles meaning that, from an earlier age than one might expect, walking any distance was difficult, but he could cycle just fine. Some of us got together and gave him a Brompton, little knowing that it really would prove to be quite a life-changer. He could take it with him almost everywhere he went, and it allowed him to join in on family walks, get exercise, and see new places in a way he never could have done without it. For him it genuinely was a mobility vehicle, and I think it kept him out of a wheelchair for probably 10 years longer than might otherwise have been the case. My mother also got one soon afterwards, and until fairly recently, their car always had two bikes in the boot. So yes, I have a soft spot for this brilliant bit of British engineering, designed by a Cambridge engineer and finally brought to market after a long hard struggle.

To be fair, almost everybody loves Bromptons, though for most people the value is that you can cycle at all on something that folds away so ridiculously small; it’s not really the bike you’d probably choose to ride just for the joy of riding. There are compromises in rigidity, in cycling position, etc., which are apparent when you compare it to any regular bike (though I gather newer models may be a bit better than my ancient and well-travelled example!). And when Brompton came to build their battery-assisted version, they didn’t want to change too much of the basic design which had been so successful for so long. They did an ingenious and careful job of electrifying it, but it was always a retrofitting exercise to an existing layout.

The Flit bike, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up as an electric bike, yet it folds almost as small as a Brompton, and weighs a bit less than their electric model. At present, it’s also cheaper, because Flit are selling direct; you can’t yet walk into a dealer and buy one. And in fact, even buying direct, you’ll need to be patient; they expect the first batch to ship in July. So the one I was trying was a pre-production model, but they’ve managed to sell quite a number through their crowdfunding campaigns, initially on Kickstarter and now on Indiegogo, which is impressive given that very few of those people, presumably, will have had the opportunity to go and try it out just a few miles from home, as I did!

But I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. I found it great fun and comfortable to ride, a good weight to carry, and easier to roll along the floor than any other folding bike I’ve tried. I can definitely see that if you lived a few miles from your nearest train or bus station, this would be a great way to get there. Or, say, to carry in your motorhome or yacht for trips to the nearest pub or grocery shop. OK, so it doesn’t fold quite as small as a Brompton. And it doesn’t have the load-carrying capacity of, say, the much larger and heavier Tern Vectron. Both of those are fine machines, but the Flit is noticeably cheaper than both of them at the moment and (in my opinion) nicer to ride than either.

I shall watch with interest as they ramp up production, and follow their blog, and I hope they have the success they deserve!

]9 Alex Murray

My thanks to Alex Murray, the Managing Director, for the invitation. (I first heard of Flit, by the way, on this excellent podcast, which I recommend for anyone interested either in bikes or startups or both!)

Regenerative amplification

When I take my foot off the accelerator in my electric car, the ‘regenerative braking’ process charges up the battery. Similarly if I’m going downhill. This is reasonably well-known now.

Well, I was talking to a friend today about his planned purchase of some high-tech hearing aids. They sound splendid, though they should do for the price. It would be cheaper to put two MacBook Pros in your ears… though perhaps a bit less comfortable.

Anyway, I was asking him about their battery life, and, pondering this topic later, I was thinking that you ought to be able to do something similarly clever there: if they use power to amplify things which are too quiet, could they also recharge their batteries by deadening things that are too loud? If you were out for a long day and they started to run down, you could simply head for a loud rock concert, or perhaps seek out a high-crime area and stand near some police sirens. Even if the recharging didn’t work very well, you wouldn’t be able to hear anything afterwards anyway, so you wouldn’t care.

Brilliant, eh? I’m off to the patent office…

Accessoreyes

Today, for the first time ever, I’ve been wearing contact lenses. As a new user, I have to say, they’re a jolly impressive technology!

These are multifocal ones, which I hope may save me from the routine of putting on my reading glasses, taking them off, dropping them, picking them up, losing them, finding them, cleaning them etc, which I currently do several times an hour. We’ll see how well they work overall, but you know what was the very first benefit I noticed in the optician’s office? I could read my Apple Watch!

Such a cruel mistress is Fate, that the very moment that I was able to purchase this miracle of technology and strap it to my wrist was the same moment my eyesight deteriorated to the point where only things further away than the end of my arm could be viewed unaided. Since then, yes, I’ve been able to read big digits and press pause buttons, but most of the more detailed displays on the watch have had me reaching for my glasses, which does somewhat tarnish the high-tech coolness of it all. Sigh. Old computer-graphics geeks don’t die, they just lose their resolution.

Another problem I’d like to solve is that of seeing both my SatNav and the road. I don’t need glasses for driving. I do need them to read the dashboard. When I put them on, I can’t see the road. Ça, c’est un problême.

So is needing a spare hand for specs when I’m taking photos. I can use my camera’s viewfinder, which has a diopter correction, or the rear screen, which doesn’t. I often want to switch between these to get the best shot, but by the time I’m ready, the eagle has flown.

In a way, it would be easier if I needed to wear glasses all the time, rather then half the time. But my distance vision isn’t at all bad, and I tried varifocal glasses and they didn’t agree with me. So I hope these prove to be a success. My total contact-lens-wearing experience currently runs to about 6 hours, so it’s too early to say.

But they have at least allowed me to write this post without difficulty, and, perhaps more importantly, they have solved that problem whose critical importance for humans was first identified by Arthur Dent on a spaceship in the late seventies, and encountered by me in central Cambridge in 2015: “How am I going to operate my digital watch now?”

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser