Alex Muir

Hobo builder. Powered by Obtvse

Bitcoin steps forward

We're now able to accept Bitcoin at How a Car Works. Thanks to Stripe's simple integration it just took one line of code. I just tested it and the process works beautifully for both customers and vendors. It's quicker, neater and cheaper than card payment. Making a Bitcoin payment doesn't feel so natural just yet, but that's because of habit rather than any fundamentals. There's nothing natural about typing a non-changing 16 digit number and a date into a form.

There's also a fundamental difference. If I give my credit card details to someone I am allowing them to take whatever sum of money they choose. I'm not actually making a payment, I'm allowing them to take a payment. They can tell me they'll take $10, and actually charge me $1,000 - I won't know until I check a statement. With Bitcoin I choose the amount that I 'send'.

The price of Bitcoin has been falling steadily for eight months, but in that time there have been some big steps forward for adoption. I'm excited.

The World of Electronics

I've been continuing my arcade-in-a-coffee-table project over the past week or so. I've also been thinking about a simple motion tracker that can transmit movement information to a phone over Bluetooth. Essentially the idea being that it can be attached to anything, and the phone can then interpret the raw motion data into usable information. It might be attached to a tennis racket, for instance, and used to track swings, impacts and forces. Or it could be fixed to a barbell to track the motion of a lift. Or to a punchbag to count and measure impacts. The underlying principle is the same for all these items.

I'm astonished at how accessible electronics has become. On every level. The components are financially affordable. There are tutorials, write-ups and source code that can be combined into the bases of almost any project. Suppliers are open not only to the public, but to beginners.

There's so much choice and opportunity that it's hard to even know where to get started. I spoke with some robot builders last week and one of them talked about it being a golden dawn for robotics. I agree entirely and I can't wait to see what comes after drones.

React

I've been exploring React over the past few days. It's always hard to determine which projects are just fads and which are here for the long term. That said, I'm going to predict that React will be in the league of jQuery and Twitter Bootstrap within another year or so.

It has a good balance of simplicity, power and flexibility. I have Rails projects that don't need a heavy JS framework like Angular or Ember, but which definitely need some client-side jazziness. I've a feeling that React will fill that need neatly.

Piracy & Me: 1996 The Playstation

We'd never had consoles in my family. They didn't make much sense when we had a computer - which could do applications (and I suppose also run pirated games, which was almost unheard of for consoles).

Then the playstation came along. Not only was it vastly more powerful than any computer I could hope to own, within a relatively short space of time it could be chipped. I remember early on there was some complex process involving the inner ink-filled part of a plastic Biro, which had to be braced to trick the box into thinking the CD drive was closed. The PS would be booted off a genuine disc and then hot-swapped for a pirate. I can't remember the exact process because reliable chips came along that just bypassed the entire process perfectly and reliably.

I feel like this is the point where piracy became mainstream, and modding became commercially viable. Chipping Playstations wasn't illegal (and still isn't), so people were advertising completely openly. You'd drop your PS off to a guy, he'd chip it and you'd collect it. To this day I don't know what was involved but I'd guess it was soldering a few wires onto the appropriate points on the motherboard. There was always a fear that a PS could be destroyed in the process but it was a gamble that all my poorer friends were willing to make. An investment of £50 in chipping brought the cost of games down from £40 to £5, or even lower in bulk.

At the same time, pirates were seeing the cost of blank CDs drop to 10p each, CD burners plummeted in price (but not enough for consumer use, and even then copying a PS game wasn't completely simple), and finally there was a mass-market product that could be reliably copied and which had serious value. Before this the most profitable things to be pirated were VHS videos, which were about £14 and the copies were renowned for being shit. Or music CDs, which were about £12 for an album - but no-one wanted to pay £5 for a CD when you could tape someone else's or off the radio. But Playstation games were about £30-45 in the shops if I recall correctly. I think towards about 1999 we were buying 4 games for £10.

The creation of a market in Playstation games also made it easier to find PC CDs. More people had computers, and it wasn't any more effort to stuff a few Blobbies into a holdall full of games.

We had about 30 or 40 Playstation games, including Tomb Raider and GTA which I've bought (and hardly played) on almost every platform I've owned since I've had money. Games may have been heavily pirated at the time. but a fan is a fan, and people like me now have sufficient income to buy sequels and remakes that pay off that original gold GTA disk many times over.

This was when piracy became a criminal enterprise, rather than something enthusiasts were doing for a bit of cash. Initially CDs were openly sold and displayed at all markets and car boot sales around Manchester. Eventually the police and trading standards rounded up a few people and the council-run markets banned any sort of pirated (or 'backup') CDs. The odd rogue would have a bag full of CDs for regulars in the back of his car, but the bulk of the trade moved to privately-owned markets, and the streets around bigger markets and car boot sales.

On the streets, teams would set up pasting-tables and display their wares, restocking from a hold-all bag. The more organised employed a look-out with a walky-talky at the top of the road. One car boot sale had a perfect location on an industrial estate with only one point of entry that was easily observed. Occasionally there would be a scramble and everyone would be legging it in every direction - I only saw this twice. Some weekends it'd be a ghost-town because everyone had been rounded up (or thought a rounding up was imminent).

Meanwhile, one market in Manchester deserves special mention for just not giving a fuck. Grey Mare Lane Market which was still running until a couple of years ago, was a shanty town of hand-built stalls, made from rotten plywood and various tarpaulins, seemingly held upright by rusty barbed wire and the occasional nail. The ground was largely mud, interspersed with some concrete slabs. I loved it then, and I love it now. Every Saturday, and on two or three days in the week, it'd be open for second-hand electricals, fresh fruit and veg, knock-off clothing, fake perfume and aftershave, various bits of furniture, and Manchester's widest range of pirate CDs. The closest building to the market was Grey Mare Lane Police Station, one of the biggest police stations in the city. I think the reason pirate CDs seemed to survive was that there was so much other illegal stuff going on to buffer them.

By the time the police had arrested all the guys selling smuggled cigarettes out of bags, the vans were full and everyone else had disappeared over the back wall.

Things I don't understand: Fruit Machines

I've never understood the sort of fruit machine that sits in the corner of a bar, waiting for some man to pump £10 in coins into it. I used to work as a security guard and sometimes we'd go for beer after work and one of my colleagues would put £20 into the fruity. In my experience the sort of person who plays the fruit machine is the same one who's asking to borrow twenty quid at the start of the night.

But I've never been able to play. Occasionally I think "Ah, I must be old enough to understand these things now." and put in a few pounds. I just seem to lose my money - either instantly, or within a couple of minutes. And there is zero satisfaction for me. I have no idea what I should hold, or nudge or whatever. It makes almost no sense to me - and then there's some sort of board with lights. I understand all the underlying tech - the payout ratio (min. 70% in the UK, lowest in places like takeaways,highest in casinos), the bank of payout money that needs to have something in it for a payout to even happen.

It just seems like a game of chance where there's an illusion of skill. Maybe there is skill involved, but if there is then I obviously don't have it.

Adventures with a Raspberry Pi 2

Yesterday I went a couple of miles into the suburbs where I bought some goodies to experiment with. My plan is to build a retro coffee table arcade machine, complete with joysticks and big buttons to mash. I bought:

  • Raspberry Pi 2. £36
  • Plastic case. £6
  • 8GB SD card. £8
  • Micro USB charger. £9 (!)
  • Micro USB cable. £1
  • Wifi USB dongle £10
  • USB keyboard and mouse £6

Setting it up was a breeze, and I'm blown away by how functional this thing is. My last experience with electronics was an Arduino, which could be flashed with C code. This thing is a full PC, complete with a GUI and the ability to play 3D games. I could do 95% of my work on it. It is mindblowing that you can buy a powerful computer for about the same as a medium-sized Lego set.

Sales of the Raspberry Pi are now past four million, up from the 10,000 that were initially predicted. I hope that translates into more interest in programming and electronics among kids.

Piracy & Me - 1994 The PC

It was either 1994 or 1995 when I successfully badgered my mum to buy us a PC. A 486 SX 50 which I think had 8mb of RAM and a 250mb hard drive.

I remember going with a family friend to a computer night at a hotel. The room stank of smoke, it was virtually all men with the odd wife here and there. People brought their desktop computers and cabled them together - I think with serial cables. This was piracy in the pre-CD age. I think we got Doom this way, but more exciting... we could plug two computers into each other and play Doom against someone else. It was the first multiplayer game I ever saw (and, with hindsight, the first glimpse of networking which would eventually become the internet.) I think we used floppy discs back here to copy files - I have a memory of disks labelled 1/5. It was a year or two before people had CD ROMS, and another two years until CD-Writers were mainstream. We must have spent a long time swapping disks. I'm sure Windows 3.1 came on like ten discs.

Once CD drives were widespread, there was 650mb of space to fill and this was enough for a LOT of games or applications. Compilations came out - I remember Voodoo, Playdoh, Jurassic and Blobby off the top of my head. Even at about 12 I preferred the applications, but I didn't have any use for them, nor any manuals. Without the internet, one really just had to click around and hope that the help files hadn't been deleted to save space.

We'd go to computer fairs, and standing around on the street would be men with holdalls of and printed lists of CDs. Each CD contained a list of previous compilations and their contents so you'd probably have an idea of what you wanted. I think a CD was £10.

A listing

Since no-one had a CD burner, a gold CD was obviously a pirate CD - there was no other use for them. They'd just be handwritten in marker pen "Voodoo 5". These CDs were the most fun - you'd get 30 games and 15 applications. A complete jumble sale. Things I remember getting on these CDs were Afterdark screensavers with flying toasters, 3D Studio and Visual Basic 6. I'm not sure I remember much in the way of games.

We'd share the CDs with friends, but a lot of the time you would need the CD in the drive to play a game. With only 250mb of hard drive you couldn't have too much installed at once.

At this point, selling pirate CDs was still the preserve of geeks. It felt nice and illegal as a kid though. I remember even worrying about being caught walking from a friend's house with a couple of Blobby's in my rucksack.

Breathing

I am the fittest I've ever been. And I'm just back from my first exercise class in six years. I tackled 'Hot Iron' which is basically Body Pump, or sort of cardio weights. But I had to leave the class halfway through (it was full) because I felt like I might faint.

It's not a new feeling for me - I've had it often enough to know that it's caused by poor breathing leading to a lack of oxygen in my body. The feeling is not one of exhaustion but of sleepiness and a need to yawn.

Part of getting good at an exercise is learning when to breath. When boxing I force out a bit of breath with every punch: pff, pff, pff, rocky-style. Lifting weights I grunt and growl a lot and breathe out on the lift. Today i wasn't sure what I was doing. It didn't help that we started with squats and lunges which are my weakest area. I rejoined the class and finished once I'd recovered. I'll go back because I need knocking out of my comfort zone to get an all round fitness. But tomorrow I won't be able to walk!

Non-state Warfare

I was just pondering Jordan's response to ISIS and thinking that the world is going to see a lot more non-state warfare in the future. In the same way that people back causes on Kickstarter and get behind things like SOPA. There are reportedly Dutch motorcycle gang members fighting against ISIS and certainly organized groups of Russian citizens fighting in the Ukraine. European citizens are going to the middle east to fight on both sides.

I googled 'non-state warfare' to see if it's an established term but previous uses seem to refer to private military coups in the style o Simon Mann's attempt in Equatorial Guinea. Perhaps 'grassroots war' or 'citizen warfare' are more apt. I don't know what it will be called, but we're going to see a lot more of it and technology is going to play a large role for sure.

Branching out

I've got a small project in mind for a sort of interactive reading list (I guess a cross between Amazon's Lists and RSS). It's not particularly UI heavy so I'm going to build out an API first and then I'll pick a JS framework to serve the front end. Contenders at the moment are React and Angular.

The first job is to create a backend for the API which I'll do with rails-api. Once this is done I can play around with front-end frameworks and see what seems to fit best.

It's exciting learning new stuff. Last month was Swift, and I'm hoping to add a JS framework in February.