Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

Zooming in the rain

On Wednesdays, there’s an interesting group of catering vans that collect at the far end of the West Cambridge campus, and I like to go there for lunch.

But it’s a bit of a distance, and the weather today was bad, so it was important to find the most appropriate method of transportation…

Adding custom ringtones to your iPhone using iTunes

In case you’re Googling for it, or in case I forget how to do it…

If you search online, you can can find various articles about how to take an MP3 or AAC audio file and make a .M4R-format file which an iOS device can then use as a ringtone. I’ve had a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan as mine for years, and have probably infuriated and/or amused those around me in equal measure when my phone starts announcing that I am the Captain of the Pinafore…

I lost this, though, in a recent wipe and re-install of my phone, after which I discovered that iTunes no longer makes it at all obvious how to put these custom ringtones onto your device. It’s easy if you buy them on the iTunes store, of course, but otherwise no amount of dragging and dropping would get my old favourites into iTunes or onto my phone.

But it turns out that there is still a way, and it’s documented some way down on this Apple page. As a quick summary:

  • Connect your phone to your computer, so it appears in the sidebar of your iTunes
  • Go and find your ringtone(s) in the Finder or Windows Explorer and COPY them.
  • Select the ‘Tones’ section of your device in iTunes and PASTE.

This works fine for me in iTunes 12.7 – no dragging and dropping needed. You should then see your ringtones, and be able to choose them in Settings > Sounds on the iPhone.

A possible solution to slow or unresponsive Hue lights

They used to say that there are two ‘internet of things’ systems that ‘just work’ out of the box: the Sonos sound system, and Philips Hue lighting. I’m fortunate enough to own both of them, and I would add the Honeywell Evohome heating system (though one of my friends has had a few complications with an unusually large installation).

When we moved house recently, though, my previously-faultless Hue system seemed to become a bit less reliable. Admittedly, we have rather more bulbs now (33 and counting), but that’s nowhere close to the limit it can handle. Our bulbs are always powered, so the cunning mesh networking should make sure that nothing is out of signal range. Yet sometimes lights weren’t obeying their commands promptly, switch presses needed to be repeated, and things generally seemed, well, a bit sluggish. I was beginning to think it might be time to wipe the configuration off my bridge and start again from scratch. It probably does have a lot of accumulated junk on there…

And then I did a little research and realised something that I should have thought about earlier.

Zigbee (the wireless networking used by Hue and a variety of other systems) runs at approx 2.4Ghz: the same frequency range as Wifi. Like Wifi, it has a number of channels, and if your wifi router and your Zigbee hub have overlapping channels, they can interfere with each other. I found this useful diagram online (apologies for not knowing its creator):

‘802.11b/g’, in case you don’t know it, is part of the technical standard popularly known as Wifi, so the green labels show Wifi channels, and the blue bars show Zigbee.

The number and availability of channels vary depending on your country, but they will be similar to the above. Although Wifi has about a dozen channels, the nearby ones overlap substantially, so most installations only use 1, 6 or 11: if both you and your neighbour are using Wifi channel 1, you won’t make much difference by switching to 2 or 3; you need to go at least as far as 6. Go much further than 6, and you’ll start interfering with your other neighbour on channel 11. Usually, these days, wifi routers are pretty good at picking their channel by finding the least congested space, though you may need to reboot them from time to time to encourage them to do so.

Anyway, one thing that had changed in my new house was the Wifi. And when I looked, sure enough, my Wifi router was on channel 11 and my Hue hub was on a Zigbee channel that was rather too close for comfort. By going into the Hue app and looking at the settings for my Bridge, I was able to change the Zigbee channel to number 15, and things are going a lot more swimmingly now!

Hope that might help someone else…

Retro Space Invaders

I think this is wonderful. Today I got to play with Gareth Bailey’s Space Invaders game – a quick hack, he claims, which he put together yesterday.

This uses an oscilloscope as an X-Y plotter to draw the graphics, harking back to the earliest days of computer displays. But historically, displays like this would usually have been driven by a mainframe, where as Gareth’s is driven by a Raspberry Pi.

And where do you get a couple of nice analog outputs from a Raspberry Pi? Why, from the left and right channels of the audio, of course….

Apologies for the quality of the video, but I thought this was worth capturing despite the challenging environment!

Computerphile

Sean Riley creates the Computerphile YouTube channel, which has clocked up nearly a million subscribers, and produces some great stuff, especially for the geeks among us.

I had fun talking to him about the early days of the Trojan Room Coffee Pot.

An unusual four-wheeled electric vehicle

What better way to carry a bicycle than in another bicycle?

A few months ago, I enthused about the electric cargo bike that I had tried out at a local shop. Being without a car for a little while, I started looking at them with more interest, and I discovered that the awfully nice people at Outspoken could actually rent me one for a few days. But they’re on the far side of Cambridge, so I cycled out there on my Brompton and came back with it in the front. It all worked beautifully, but I couldn’t help thinking about The Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things

Someone who wasn’t quite so sure about the whole idea was my spaniel Tilly, but once she settled down, it was a great way to transport her to one of her favourite walking spots, about 3 or 4 miles away, against a strong headwind, and bring her back afterwards.

(The rattling noise is the little bench seat for children, which I’d folded back for this trip.)

Slowly getting the hang of this…

Since I last wrote about electric unicycles, I’ve commuted in to work a couple more times, and have used it to zoom around the West Cambridge campus in search of decent coffee.

I still only get to play on it for about 15 mins per week, but it’s good fun!

A mute point…

The Amazon Echo devices have a microphone-muting button on top of them.

I’ve just realised the true value of this.

It’s so you can stop them getting confused when you’re watching YouTube videos of other people demonstrating their Amazon Echo devices…

Money-changing

I was delighted to see, this morning, that my local supermarket, Waitrose, has effectively abolished the transaction limit on Apple Pay & Android Pay. It’s now £10,000, and even with my fondness for some of their products, it’s hard to imagine hitting that limit even on Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream. So today, I paid for our weekly shop with my Apple Watch.

In fact, I pay for most things with my watch, now, when I’m out and about. (I could also use my phone, but that would be like the old-fashioned systems where you had to take something out of your pocket to make a payment.) Since I only really buy clothes about once a year, and I buy almost everything else on Amazon, there are remarkably few occasions when I need to use a physical card any more. (Cash, of course, is long gone: coins are mostly something I keep in the car as a kind of parking-meter token.) I even have an electric car, so I don’t need to buy petrol.

The only places, therefore, where I still regularly used a card + PIN instead of the more modern electronic payment systems (which have hitherto been limited to £30) were when eating out, and when grocery shopping. The latter went away this morning.

If the pubs and restaurants of Great Britain get their act together soon, my wallet will soon be completely redundant, and I will be delighted.

Cargo cult

Just because we don’t have children, that shouldn’t stop us playing with toys, right? In fact, one of the benefits of our decision not to have children is that we arguably get to play with more toys. Yesterday, anyway, I tried one of these:

It’s an electrically-assisted cargo bike, which you could use for transporting the kids to and from school, if that’s your thing. But we were more interested in transporting groceries or spaniels around, while still avoiding parking & congestion issues, and making use of cycle paths and pedestrian bridges. The electric motor allows you to do so with no more effort than cycling a normal bike, regardless of hills, wind or weather.

It’s a splendid vehicle. Tilly was nervous at first, but seemed to enjoy sitting in it once we were zooming along a straight road at 15mph, with our ears flapping in the breeze, and we got lots of cheery comments from those we passed. Will have to come up with a good excuse to get one…

If you’re curious, it’s a Bakfiets Classic Short with Shimano Steps Electric Assist, model NN7STEPS, and it’s available, for example, from here. Not cheap in bicycle terms, but not bad when compared to a car, especially when you think of all the maintenance and tax savings…

Crossing things off the bucket list

At last! Today, I finally managed to leave the ranks of those who have never commuted to work on an electric unicycle.

Not sure I’ll make a habit of this mode of transport, especially since, as John points out, it is technically illegal here, but it’s a thing one should have done at some point in one’s life, I’m sure you’ll agree.

My other electric vehicle is a BMW…

In my research group in the computer lab at Cambridge University, we have a few fun toys. This is one of them: an electric unicycle; there are a few different makes of these now, this one is a Ninebot One.

I’m not very good at it yet, but it’s great fun to learn – this is after I’ve been having quick goes on it occasionally for the last year or so.

It’s more fun outside. They’ll go to nearly 20 miles per hour. Haven’t been that brave yet…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser