Random Musings

VW Run the Ring 2 logoOn 24th September 2017 I took part in a charity event called VW Run the Ring 2. This involved driving my VW Camper Van for an entire lap (clockwise) of the M25 motorway that encircles London.

As the name suggests, this was the second time the event has been run. It will take place again on 23rd September 2018, and more details can be found on the event website

It was all done for a great cause, which was Scotty’s Little Soldiers. This is a charity that helps to support bereaved British Forces children.

A convoy of around 600 VW cars, vans and camper vans started from one of four service stations dotted around the motorway. As the convoy approached a service station, all VW’s waiting in the car park would join the motorway.

A total of £25,758.39 was raised for the charity, which is an incredibly achievement.  And despite what you may thing, driving all the way around the M25 on a Sunday morning with 600 other VW’s isn’t as dull as you may imagine. I think the sunny weather helped.

Below is a video I shot of the entire lap, starting and finishing at South Mimms Service Station. Don’t worry – it’s not in real time, so you can experience the entire lap in just over 15 minutes.

Video of the lap

Current Cost after Google PowerMeter shut-down

Using Meniscus for Current Cost after Google PowerMeter was shut-down

Since Google shut down it’s  PowerMeter service I was on the look out for a replacement.

Initially I tried Enio but it wasn’t very stable, didn’t have many features and in truth as a bit Mickey Mouse, and then I found Meniscus

Meniscus runs as a service under Windows and there is a Python application for Linux. Once hooked up to the Current Cost, you can access the Meniscus Dashboard from any web browser running Microsoft Silverlight

There are various graphs available in Meniscus, such as:

  • Daily cost
  • Daily savings – when you have set a target energy use
  • Carbon equivalent
  • Seasonal Average use
  • Real-Time

Meniscus screenshot

Meniscus also captures the room temperature that is displayed on the Current Cost so you can monitor how the temperature in your house fluctuates over time.

It also has the ability to download historical data that is stored in the Current Cost unit, which is useful if you have had it running for a while before connecting it to Meniscus, or if your computer crashes and you have gaps in your graphs.

There’s a video showing some of the Meniscus dashboard functionality on YouTube

It’s definitely a suitable replacement for the Google Service. In fact I would say it’s actually better that what Google had.

CurrentCost revisited

Those nice people at CurrentCost have teamed up with Google to enable the automatic upload of CurrentCost data to Google PowerMeter, so I’ve switched from the monitoring software I was using to Google’s system. And I must say, it’s pretty funky.

Google PowerMeter

I’m still using my el-cheapo tiny little low-power Viglen MPC-L running Windows XP and have the CurrentCost connected to it. It runs a little application from CurrentCost that enables the upload to Google PowerMeter every 10 minutes.

PowerMeter itself shows a pretty graph of the power usage in 10 minute intervals, and shows historical daily usage. You can set a daily usage budget and it shows you how likely you are to meet or exceed this budget, which is useful for trying to reduce your energy consumption.

You can also share your PowerMeter page with other Yahoo users, but cannot as yet share it publicly. It’s a very slick and well done system that is highly recommended if you have a CurrentCost.

The ultimate dBpoweramp CD ripping guide

How to Rip your CD collection to FLAC and MP3 using dBpoweramp

First, test, test, test before embarking on a big rip.

Don’t bother trying to create MP3s at the same time as creating the FLACs, it just complicates matters and it is easy to do after ripping using either dbPowerAmp itself or a perl script.

dbPoweramp really is the best tool for the job if you care about quality rips and ease of use (though it does require just as much setup as Exact Audio Copy). And FLAC is the best target file format (except for people who live purely in Apple land).

To set up dBpoweramp, install and fire up the applicaiton, then follow the below steps:

Click SET, next to Naming at the bottom, and use this:

[IFCOMP][IFVALUE]album artist,[album artist],Various Artists[]\[album]\[track] [artist][][IF!COMP][IFVALUE]album artist,[album artist],[artist][]\[album]\[artist] – [track][] – [title]

So test your file naming with a selection of CDs, including range of complications and multi disc sets to make sure you are getting the folder/files you want.

Make sure you enable ReplayGain. It is done as a DSP action, make sure you check “Calculate Album Gain” as well.

In the meta options you almost certainly want “Force date to year” checked.

Before doing any real ripping, you need to get AccurateRip setup. This involves feeding dBpoweramp a “key disc” or two. Pick some popular CDs, pop them in and it will tell you whether or not it is a key disc and announce when it is happy with AccurateRip being setup.

When that is done, rip one of the key discs. It should rip with “AccurateRip confidence (x)” next to each track, where the x is the number of other people who got the exact same rip as you.

In the options you want to make sure you turn on Secure ripping. I also turn on Ultra Secure.

FUA settings right. These are in the Secure Ripping section of the settings. Click on the “Test FUA Support”.

You also want to get your C2 and – needs a badly scratched disc (scratch an unwanted one if need be), pop it in and click on the “Detect C2 Support”.

Also check “Mark track as error if insecure”.

With all that lot setup, the ripping will go like this:

– if a disc is in the AccurateRip database it will rip each track once, if all the tracks match the database then it is done
– if a track didn’t match or if the CD wasn’t in the database then it moves onto Ultra Secure ripping
– it rips each track three times and if all three rips get the same CRC it is done
– if it detects errors goes back and retries a lot

– if one or more tracks can’t be ripped securely it flags an error

With that all working, on my Dell desktop it rips most discs in under 3 minutes.

For each disc I am doing the following:

– insert disc, wait for metadata to load
– hit alt-M to bring up metadata edit
– clean up metadata, if required remove trailing “disc x” stuff from multi disc albums
– close metadata, check it looks ok
– check album art is showing, if not download an image or make a mental note to put it in the “needs album art pile”
– hit alt-R
– when the CD ejects, look to see if any errors were reported, if so put it on the “re-rip later” pile

If a CD is taking a long time to rip I cancel it and put it on the “re-rip later” pile as well. I have less than a dozen discs on the pile after 280+ rips.

Reripping insecure tracks
If I get a disc where there are just a couple of dodgy tracks, I’ll re-rip straight away. I drop the rip speed down to the slowest it will go and re-rip the insecure tracks (right click on the track list to re-rip just the dodgy ones).

Often the slower speed is enough to get a good rip.

On the little drop down next to the Options button, make sure that you have After Ripping->Display Error Log checked. Also, make sure in the Ultra Secure Ripping that you have “Mark Track as Error if insecure”.
That way you’ll see a list of bad tracks, I also have mine set to eject at end of rip.

With thanks to Mardibloke and AndyNormanCX

Running SqueezeCenter on a Viglen MPC-L

After I had removed Xubuntu from my tiny Viglen MPC-L and installed Windows XP onto it I started to think about what I could use it for.

It’s already running the CurrentCost software to monitor electricity usage in my house and my next plan was to install SqueezeCenter and AlienBBC on it to see how it coped with feeding my Squeezebox Boom.

I wasn’t expecting it to work very well, as the MPC-L isn’t all that powerful, but to my surprise it is running perfectly well and is playing regional BBC radio stations via AlienBBC with no issues.

Accessing the SqueezeCenter web interface directly on the MPC-L is painfully and in reality unusable slow. However accessing it on a more powerful machine (my Samsung NC10 netbook in this case) over my WLAN is much better and perfectly usable.

I’ve only got two MP3’s installed on the MPC-L at the moment but they both play fine. I’m not sure how it will cope with my large music collection – especially if I run it from an external USB hard drive. That’s my next test…

UPDATE: Ok so I copied my entire music collection (about 40Gb worth of mp3’s) to the Viglen and got SqueezeCenter to do a rescan. And it’s still working great. So good in fact that I have uninstalled SqueezeCenter from my main PC and am just using the Viglen now to run my Squeezebox Boom.

Installing Windows XP on a Viglen MPC-L

I bought a teeny tiny Viglen MPC-L PC after a friend told me about them. I’m going to use it for the same reason he does – to connect my CurrentCost to so I can collect electricity usage data (I’m currently using an old Dell laptop which isn’t ideal).

Teeny tiny Viglen PC

Teeny tiny Viglen PC

The little Viglens are normally £99, but can be currently bought for £77 including VAT and Delivery – details are available by listening to the Ubuntu UK Podcast. Mine was delivered today as promised by Viglen but sadly didn’t come in a box that is far too big for it like most people’s have. Also in the box was a Microsoft mouse, a really cheap and nasty Viglen-branded keyboard, and something of a nice unexpected surprise – a 2Gb memory stick! There are plenty of other blogs detailing the size of the box and also the specs of these things, but basically they are a silent fanless very low-power (10W) PC with a 400MHz AMD Geode CPU, an 80Gb hard drive and 512Mb of memory.

They come with some sort of Ubuntu installed on them by default, but I wanted to run Windows XP on mine as I’m not quite nerdy enough to use Linux.

Installing Windows XP on one of these poses some interesting challenges, as the device obviously has no optical drive to stick a CD into. They can be booted from a USB stick though (providing you use one of the two USB1.0 ports on the rear rather than one of the four USB2.0 ports on the front)

After some very brief googling, I found this excellent guide to installing XP from a USB stick. I used a 256Mb memory stick to create the boot drive, and copied the i386 folder from the XP installation CD to a USB hard drive I had laying around.

The installation was much easier than I was expecting. The steps I performed are as follows:

  1. Follow these instructions for creating a BartPE bootable memory stick using a separate PC
  2. Connect an external USB hard drive to the other PC and copy the i386 folder from the XP installation CD onto it
  3. Plug the keyboard and bootable memory stick into the USB1.0 ports on the rear of the Viglen
  4. Power up the Viglen and press F1 to enter the BIOS
  5. Change the boot order so that the USB memory stick is first in the list
  6. Power the Viglen down, plug the external USB hard drive into one of the USB2.0 ports on the front of the unit and power it all back up again
  7. The Viglen should boot into BartPE from the memory stick
  8. Follow the rest of the instructions to kick off the XP installation

And that’s it. Pretty simple.

Performance-wise, this thing isn’t going to win any awards when running XP, but it’s more than usable. I’ve got it connected to my 37″ LCD telly running at a resolution of 1600×1200 quite happily

Next steps are to get the CurrentCost connected to it and see how it performs with that…

Watch catch-up TV on your MediaCenter

A friend pointed me in the direction of TunerFree MCE which is a great Vista MediaCenter plug-in that allows you to watch streaming watch-again TV shows from all the BBC iPlayer channels as well as all the ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 watch again stations. It also shows live streaming of BBC and ITV channels if you don’t have a TV card in your MediaPC.

TunerFree MCE

It only works if you are running a Vista (there is no XP version sadly), and you need to have Microsoft Net Framework 3.5 installed. Oh, and it only works if you are in the UK

It’s fairly seamlessly integrates with MediaCenter and the menu appears next to the other TV viewing options.

I had a bit of trouble getting the BBC and Channel 4 channels working so asked the developer and he replied straight away saying I probably didn’t have the latest version of Flash installed under Internet Explorer. This turned out to be the case – I normally use Firefox where iPlayer was working fine, but when I tried to use it in IE it advised me to upgrade Flash. Once done, the application worked great.

The quality of the images on my 37″ LCD telly are pretty good for streamed content, although it’s obviously not as sharp as broadcast telly.

Monitoring Electricity usage with a CurrentCost monitor

A couple of friends of mine have recently been playing with CurrentCost monitor, which is a nifty little home energy usage device. It has an induction loop that you clip onto one of the wires coming out of your electricity meter and that wirelessly transmits electricity usage to the display, which looks like this:

The display shows you how much electricity your house is currently using, how much that is costing you (you can change the electricity cost depending on what your supplier charges you), and cleverly if you turn something on or off it will tell you how much your consumption has gone up or down, so you can see exactly how much power that device was using.

I got mine from the eco gadget shop although they are available direct from CurrentCost’s own ebay shop for more money. The eco gadget shop seems to be part of Scottish and Southern Energy so I guess they are subsidising the cost of these things a bit. One thing to be aware of though is delivery can take some time. They took my credit card payment when I ordered, but the device took almost 3 weeks to arrive as they were out of stock, and was sent standard 2nd class post!

But the best bit about these devices is that they have a port on them that allows them to be connected to a PC via a cable that can be purchased from the CurrentCost ebay shop,  and collect the data it spits out every few seconds. There have been various IBM people writing little applications to plot this data onto graphs, and also one of the friends who originally pointed me in the direction of the CurrentCost device has been creating a great little bit of software:

Techtoniq Current Cost Agent

Techtoniq Ltd's Current Cost Agent in action

As you can see it plots both electicity usage (green bars) and temperature (pink line).

In order to connect the device to a USB port on my PC I had to download a USB to Serial port driver. The Windows XP one can be downloaded from the Prolific website and I found a Vista version from here, although having read a bit more I think Vista might have found a driver for it automatically when I plugged the device in. Unfortunately either this driver or the CurrentCost software I’m trying doesn’t like Vista, which keeps BSODing so I’ve temporarily enlisted the use of an old Dell laptop that has got Windows XP on it

I can see this energy usage worry gauge coming in very handy when trying to reduce the amount of electricity we use. And it’s also perfectly geeky for me to play with.

This is the current LIVE power usage and temperature in my house:



Running Windows 7 Beta under Vista’s Virtual PC

I was interested to see what Windows 7 was like, so downloaded a copy of the beta, but didn’t have a spare PC to install it on.

However, I have a MediaCentre PC under my telly that is running Vista Home Premium and wondered if I could install Windows 7 using the built-in Virtual PC application.

So I fired the application up and created a new Virtual PC of type Other with 1024Mb of memory, catpured the ISO image of Windows 7 Beta that I had saved to my Desktop and started the installation.

And it worked perfectly. I now have Windows 7 working happily in a Virtual PC window on my Vista machine. And I must say Windows 7 looks pretty funky, and it seems to be fairly quick even running in this configuration.

Tilt-shift your photos online

I discovered a nifty little tool that creates tilt-shift-looking photos quickly and easily online. Not everyone is a fan of this look (it’s the new HDR), which makes (some) photos look like they are of models rather than of the real thing but I really like it.

In the great Blue Peter tradition, here’s one I made earlier of some Sumo wrestlers taken in Tokyo:

Sumo Tilt-shift

Sumo Tilt-shift

The original un-tiltshifted photo can be found here

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