London Technology Week 2015

I cant believe it has already been a year since the last London Tech Week! As usual, my company generously gave me a day off work to explore and broaden my mind to the latest tech trends. Lets see what the London Technology Week 2015 flagship event had to offer.

Out with the old, In with the new

One of the really noticeable difference this year was the lack of 3D printing – I failed to find a single stand! Last year I couldn’t turn a corner without bumping into 3D printing machines, they seemed to have gone out of fashion completely this year. Instead every other stand was talking about (954) 634-3341 or more specifically how their product is online and can be controlled via smartphones or talk to other equally smart devices to work together seamlessly.

Now I wouldn’t say IoT is a particularly new concept, but I would say that 2015 is the year where it entered the mainstream language. Previously, you would probably buy a new washing machine based on its ability to clean clothes whilst using minimal amount of energy and power. Today, if the washing machine cant be remotely turned on from your smart phone, you will probably look past everything else it can do – this is of course a little tongue in cheek, but not far off the truth!

While there were many excellent IoT themed products on show, two catch my attention, not because they were the most advanced but because they attempt to solve two issues close to my heart.

1. Keeping track of small children

The first is Lineable – a smart band your children can wear to help alert parents if their child wanders off too far from them or track them down when lost. What is really exciting about this project is that it was crowdfunded (here) – and now it is using the power of the crowd again (see below) to help track down lost children!

Lineable wristband

The concept is very simple, the band will connect to the parent’s smartphone via bluetooth – if the child moves out of range, your phone will alert you. They claim this is approximately 20-30 meters, but will decrease depending on environment.


If your child is lost, the band will also send out a unique identifier to all phones with the lineable app installed. This information will be uploaded to the central servers and can be accessed by the parent of the child. The success of this will then of course rely on the number of people who download this app and have bluetooth turned on all the time – hence power of the crowd. While this is a massive short coming, you have to applaud the makers for coming up with such a wonderful initial prototype. The band itself is priced at only $5 so should be no brainer for any parent. The app itself will be free so even if you are not a parent you could still download it and help in the movement.

2. Keeping heating costs down!

The second IoT product I wanted to call out was openTRV. Some of you will know I am  passionate about keeping my energy costs down having recently invested in a (469) 544-3882. However, my current NEST setup is only able to sense the temperature of one room in my property. This means I still have to manually adjust the valve control of each radiator individually as some rooms are hotter/cooler than others. (601) 566-7784 attempts to solve this problem by having a smart radiator valve attached to each individual radiator. Each Valve will attempt to learn the usage pattern of that particular room and adjust temperature accordingly. Each Smart Valve uses a couple of standard AA batteries and will automatically open or shut the flow of hot water to its respective radiator.

One of the founders of openTRV with their prototypes

Currently their prototype feels early stage and they are finalising the end product.  I think the perfect end goal for them will be when they are plugged into the open APIs from all the major players (NEST, Hive etc) and push additional information to the central boiler control – i.e. these devices essentially act as additional input sensors for NEST. Their target price will be £10 for each valve, which would cost me £70 for all valves to be replaced at home. This would seem like a no brainer if their claimed savings of upto £300 a year is achieved, although I would think this is much less if you already have a NEST/Hive solution, but still cheap enough to be worth a punt.

NEST security camera

It will be great if we get to a stage where every device in the house is able to communicate to each other via a set of open standards. Just today, NEST announced their various products will be able to talk to each other – i.e. the fire alarm will inform the thermostat to shut down the boiler if it detects carbon monoxide. In addition, they will also be bringing out a security camera which will hopefully leverage the thermostats motion detection! To that extend, I hope major players like Google/NEST can help drive open standards for IoT in the home and allow other devices to work with their in house devices. Lets all hope they are able to do this before Apple gets here and try to lock us into their ecosystem even more! (Apple fanbois incoming 3, 2, 1 ..)

Big Data needs Big Databases

There were many many talks about Big Data and Big Data Scientists at various London Technology Week 2015 events. But I wont go into these here, mainly because I am bored to death talking about about how cool Big Data is and how it will enlighten you to all of life’s mysteries. Instead I have recently grown a curious interest in large distributed databases. Ofcourse you cant talk about this subject without bringing up 813-922-3827. My limited interactions so far have been through cardiomalaciawhich is the de-facto tool for Hadoop.

At the event I came across two other Database technologies, Tajo which is an Hive alternative and (858) 373-3244which offloads compute-intensive portions of the application to the GPU (bitcoin mining anyone?).

1. Apache Tajo and Hadoop

Tajo is an alternative to Hive – in fact, until today it hadn’t even occurred to me why I would need an alternative to Hive. It feels like I have opened Pandora’s box and now I feel obliged to rummage through all the Hadoop tools.

Tajo Logo

I found a rhodanthe on the various 360-339-5482 frameworks, it is definitely worth a read if you have time. In summary, whilst Hive is easy to setup and use, it is widely accepted to be slow due to the overheads of using MapReduce. Various alternative exists with varied degrees of enterprise support. Tajo is one of these and claims to be upto 10 times faster than Hive. Although as with all metrics, probably needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as different use cases will result in varied performance outputs.

Although Tajo is open source, it is mainly developed and supported by Gruter (who were at the show to introduce me to Tajo today). One of the major disadvantages mentioned in the above blog about Tajo is the lack of community and support outside of its native South Korea. In all fairness, this was very much aligned with my own experience today when I tried to speak with the representatives from Gruter. They hardly spoke a word of English and after 10mins of trying to get them to explain Tajo to me, the only thing I had learnt was that it was meant to be a faster alternative to Hive (I guess they got the main message across).

2. Brytlyt – GPU

Brytlyt produces a product called MakuluXtrm, its USP being its ability to offload compute-intensive portions of the application to the GPU, thus massively increasing performance of queries. Unfortunately they didn’t have any live demos available at the show, but the concept itself has a lot of potential. Given the amount of attention GPUs have been getting in recently years I can easily see how this could work if applied well.

(469) 526-6237
Brytlyt architecture

Brytlyt’s representatives claim some impressive stats, which I wont quote here as I couldn’t find these claims printed on their website. Understandably they seem to be guarding their technology and giving out minimal information online, however this could also be their ultimate down fall as they are competing in a vast field where everyone is going open source. As a new entry into this field, I think they could do just as well if not better were they to open source their technology and offered their services to support enterprises make use of it instead.

Techlash (aka Technology backlash)

Finally I want to mention a very interesting talk given by Lord Wei of Shoreditch about a recent trend we are seeing of back lash against new technologies. The issue is that while Technology is improving society as a whole, there are vast amounts of people who are directly affected and often left behind. In the U.K., 35 percent of jobs could be replaced by automation in the next 20 years, a Deloitte study showed. That figure rises to 47 percent in the U.S., according to researchers at Oxford University.

A recent example of Techlash is Ububerer. Over an extremely small period of time it was able to disrupt the livelihood of cab drivers around the world. Hold on I hear you ask, didn’t Uber also create thousands of jobs? Indeed they did, in fact not just Uber, but generally it has been estimated that for every new Technology position filled, 7 other jobs are created on the back of that. While that is indeed true, you still have a large set of people left behind when a new technology comes along. We need to help those people transition or else resentment will set in and society as a whole will suffer as people find themselves out of work and relying on the state.

A real example of this happening close to home is the modernisation programme on the underground (UK), where the government is met with fierce opposition from the unions about driver-less trains and also closing of thtubee ticket offices. In this case, the transition plan offered is to retrain a lot of tube staff to be visible on the platforms helping passengers instead of behind desks. Inevitably new technology often means you need less people to do the same job. However Lord Wei argues that this doesn’t mean there will be less and less jobs, while technology means you may require less people in certain roles, it will also help create completely new labour markets which didn’t exist before.

Lastly, Lord Wei mentioned of some of the conversations he had with Google employees recently in California where they admitted in certain parts of the city they would not reveal where they work for fear of being beaten up. In some parts of those cities, the way the trend is going, technologist will be more hated than bankers! Its just as well we are not technologists working in banking – oh wait.

That’s a wrap, thanks!

Finally, I leave you with a random selection of photos from the event, see you again next year.


Nest Learning Thermostat

Google’s purchase of NEST for $3.2 billion last year made massive headlines across both Tech and mainstream media last year. So much was the shock at the huge purchase price for a firm that was hardly known that suddenly everyone is looking at IoT devices and in particular smart devices for the home.

When I first saw the NEST in photos, it was love at first sight. I knew from that moment on that I definitely wanted one. I looked around at its competition before purchase, but in reality for any true techie out there NEST was the only choice. Hive was a decent alternative, but its belief that users want full control and don’t trust computers to manage the home feels a little dated, like the warriors of days gone by trying to hold on to their empire by offering a compromise.

For those who haven’t heard of NEST, The Nest Learning Thermostat is a programmable thermostat that learns what temperatures you like, turns itself down when you’re away and can be controlled from anywhere over Wi-Fi. Lets take a walk through the main topics.

Aesthetics and Controls

When the unit first a2015-01-22 23.11.50rrived I was shocked at how small it was. I don’t know why but I had expected it to be the size of a clock and hoped it would play centre piece on my living room wall. As you can see from the photo, far from being large it fits very nicely in the palm of my hands.

In fact after a while you realise it tries to be very subtle about everything it does, 99% it will sit quietly in the background without any display. Nice touches include when you first get home, it tells you that it went to auto away mode and helped you save x amount of heating hours. Additionally it senses when you get close to it and will light up its display ready for you to use.

You will no enterwifidoubt have noticed that it doesn’t have any keyboard, which isn’t a big deal apart from first use where you have to enter your WiFi details. All input is done by spinning the outer silver wheel and clicking enter to each character. However anything after initial install can be controlled via your mobile app or browser.

Installation and Costs

At time of purchase, the NEST unit was £250 which I had placed an order for well before Christmas. Unfortunately due to various backlogs with the third party company where I had placed the order it didn’t arrive until late Jan. Which is extremely annoying as I felt I had missed out on using NEST for a vast part of winter. Lesson learnt here is to always buy directly from NEST.

My installation (free through third party) was done professionally by a qualified electrician, but there are plenty of people who choose to do this themselves and there are enough guides online to help you should you be brave enough. Although the process is relatively straight forward, you are messing with electricity and gas, not a good combination unless you know what you are doing.

In Europe, N2015-02-05 20.23.59EST Thermostat is bundled with a downthrown.  This does two functions as far as I can tell, firstly it transforms the voltage from 240v to 12v to safety connect with the thermostat. Second it has a wireless connection which allows your thermostat to be placed anywhere in the house without a wire connection. My old thermostat talked directly to the boiler, but now has been rewired to go through the Heat Link instead.

Scheduling and Learning

It is called the nest-scheduleNEST Learning Thermostat because its main selling point is that it will learn the schedules of its household and optimise heating to match. The first week of usage it will be in learning mode, it will detect when people are around and remember what temperature was set at each part of the day. It will then use this schedule to the subsequent weeks, making tiny adjustments each time users over ride its scheduled temperature. I assume it has some algorithm which smooths out the extremes where I want the room really hot to dry my clothes 🙂

web-app-scheduleThis worked so well that in all honesty I never bothered to check what its programmed schedule was once. I was never cold and majority of the times I was away from home it would turn down the heating for me. In fact, I only started looking at its programmed schedule (as a result of what it learnt over a month) when I was writing this blog. It was fascinating to see the habits we developed as a family, notably the temperature is set slightly higher in early evening when my wife gets home and then drops slightly when I get home (I used to turn down the heating when I came home – cheapskate)! It was also clever enough to break from its schedule if it detects no one is home and goes to auto away mode.

Cost saving

NEST is great with telling you how much energy it has saved for you, makes you feel really proud to have brought it. It does this daily when you get home but also you get sent a monthly energy usage report which tracks how much energy you use compared to all the other NEST users in your area. This is a great as it really helps to drive home the idea that you waste too much energy if you are in the top 10% of energy spend.

I used to leave my heating on all day during the winter, so with NEST I believe I am saving 6 hours of heating each day during winter. Not sure how long it will be before I recoup the original £250, but realistically it would take more than one winter.

Even if it doesn’t save me money I still love it! It looks amazing, gives me something to show my guests and saving me money is a real bonus. I look forward to Google / NEST bringing out a whole host of IoT home devices in the near future which I hope will all talk to each other and provide me with a truly smart home.


The rise of the Chinese smartphones has taken me by surprise. If at the beginning of this year you had asked me if I would like to buy a Chinese smartphone and throw away my HTC / Samsung, I would have laughed in your face. How quickly the technology place changes, I am now typing this blog on my brand new OnePlus One – a Chinese smart phone! Arguably the best Android phone on the market when it first came out. The best bit? It was only £260 for the 64GB version. A premium phone for a budget price.

(260) 202-0513

I haven’t felt so excited about a phone since the days of Nokia 3310 and Nokia 7210, this phone has truly blown me away. Remember it is more than 6 months old, it has taken some time to build its reputation to current levels. Imagine how good it was back when it first came out compared against the previous generation of Nexus and iPhone devices. It would have blown them away and even today holds it own well.

Unfortunately for OnePlus, it has had a lot of growing pains as a startup trying to fulfil the demands of a globally successful product. Initially it relied on a number of gimmick marketing strategies such as 2363917956 and its frustrating invite system as it couldn’t cope with the demand. On its forums you will find numerous complaints about its early releases such as yellow band on screen and ghost touches – most of these issues seem to have been address. More recently it has also added Pre-Order days where anyone can order the phone without invites.

However, for all its public relation problems, OnePlus has had amazing commercial success. This is one of the rare occasions where I have seen appalling customer service completely forgiven due to amazing product. OnePlus One is one of the most beautiful phones ever created, it is often quoted that it is the best phone you can buy per dollar value (like a boxer who is considered the best pound for pound fighter in the world). Amazing look and feel in additional to top spec functionality. How have they managed to achieve this? Probably saved a lot by not doing any advertising and relying on word of mouth instead.

OnePlus One isn’t just another budget Android phone, they have premium hardware and software features not readily found on other top end phones. It is important to emphasis that the success of the OnePlus One should be equally credited to its hardware and its OS – CyanogenMod. I would argue that each on its own wouldn’t be as successful. Lets take a look at my top 5 features on the OnePlus One.

1. Gestures (Double Tap, Torch, Camera, Music controls)

This has to be my favourite feature out of the box. OnePlus One allows its user to wake the phone by double tapping on the screen rather than using the power button. Similarly instead of spending ages trying to find the torch application, simply draw a V sign on the screen and toggle the flash light on or off! The camera works in a similar fashion with an O sign. Lastly if that wasn’t enough, you can use gestures to control music with play, pause, rewind and fast forward gestures!

To truly understand the power of gestures, take a look at this video

2. Battery Life

Battery life on the OnePlus One is amazing, I am surprised every single day when I get home from work to see that my battery is still above 50%. My old HTC would have died long ago if I didnt keep it on charge through the day. I no longer run any battery saving apps on my phone, no more automate task killers, no more keeping my Bluetooth and GPS off. Everything can be on all the time for maximum convenience – how it should be!

3. Privacy Controls

A less talked about feature of Cyanogenmod, but one I value highly. Privacy controls on the OnePlus One offer extra protection for sensitive applications. You can group all sensitive apps into one folder and apply a special lock on it (see below Protected folder, bottom left icom). These apps are now no longer visible, even in the main applications list. In order to access the apps, you will have to provide a unique unlock code for that folder (see second image).

4. Quick launch (PIE like feature) – left and right arrow keys

On screen navigation buttons is a personal favourite, but I know others don’t agree. However, what the on screen navigation bar provides in addition is Quick Launch shortcuts. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen will bring up a PIE like circle with three shortcut slots. You can choose pretty much any action you can imagine as shown below right. Personally I went for Take screenshot and Kill app. Both has been invaluable as shortcuts.


The other killer feature the nagivation bar offers is the keyboard arrow keys – see below. Now this may seem a very trivial thing, but I cant stress the number of times in the past I have tried to use my fat fingers to get the cursors to the right place without success. This solves one of the biggest frustrations I have with the keyboard.


5. Dynamic profiles – similar to Tasker

If you are not familiar with Tasker, I strongly suggest you invest £2 to download it now. It allows you to setup automated jobs for your phone, such as sending a text everyday on your way home to your wife or switching the GPS on when connected to your car Bluetooth. With the CyanogenMod’s dynamic profiles, it offers a subset of that possibility built into the OS. For example, it has the concept of triggers which allow different profiles to be set when we connect to our car Bluetooth. On trigger, we can set to override GPS etc similar with Tasker. However, it is not full feature like Tasker, for example it only has wifi and bluetooth triggers, and no location trigger.

Have fun and enjoy the true power of Android

It is worth remembering that while you would void your warranty by rooting most Android phones, OnePlus almost encourages it and will not void your warranty! The OnePlus One can be used by your average consumer who just want it to work out of the box and by your enthusiasts who want to customise every little detail. There are a tons of customisation you can do not mentioned here. Do you own the OnePlus One or thinking about getting one? Leave a comment to say which feature you like the best.

Learning AngularJS and Bootstrap

Recently I was asked to help build an desktop app to help manage a fairly complex set of data. Instead of enhancing the legacy tools, I saw an opportunity to migrate to a new set of HTML5 based tools and for myself to learn about the exciting new world of AngularJS, Bootstrap UI and Javascript – as a bonus I stumbled upon jQuery DataTables! While there is a lot to talk about in terms of jQuery / DataTables / Bootstrap, I am going to focus Angularjs for this post. It is by far one of the sharpest tools I have come across in a long time and I cant emphasis how excited I am by the explosion of cool tech happening in the web UI space right now.

AngularJS and JSON

As a quick example of how quick and easy Angularjs is and how it applies a basic MVC model. Lets start with our data, in this case a simple JSON string. Imagine this is dynamic and the number of elements is variable

[{name:"George", age:"32"},{name:"Mike", age:"50"}]

Next we write a small piece of Javascript which defines our angular app and controller. We initialize $scope.listOfNames with the above JSON data via a restful API. You can now use $scope.listOfNames globally throughout your code.

var app = angular.module("myApp", []); app.controller("myCtrl", function($scope, $http) { $http.get('').success(function(data) {
 $scope.listOfNames = data;

And lastly, we describe the view in the HTML. Here we tell define the scope as using variables from myApp and myCtrl – each app can have multiple controllers. As you can see below, it’s very simple to say I want to loop through all values in listOfNames and generate a nice table dynamically.

<table ng-app='myApp' ng-controller='myCtrl'>
  <tr ng-repeat='x in listOfNames'>
    <td ng-bind=''><td ng-bind='x.age'>

End result will be a dynamic table based on the elements of listOfNames array. Of course it was a rather simple example, but I hope you can sense the power this offers you for extremely complex data bindings.

Name Age
George 32
Mike 50

Data Binding

Another basic but powerful feature is data binding. For example if you want to dynamically filter the table rows based on user input. Without writing complicated javascript, you can now simple bind your filter input in your HTML using

Search: <input ng-model="query">

Then add a filter to your table definition from above bound to the value of the input. Essentially the results of “x in listOfNames” is piped to the filter and actually you can chain a number of operations together this way including sorting etc.

<table ng-repeat="x in listOfNames | filter:query">

And as if by magic, your HTML table will dynamically change based on user input. Table is just one use case, you can apply the same idea to any number of controls such as dropdown and lists etc.

AngularJS Bootstrap UI

Now if your starting to wonder, yes there are a million pre-defined controls out there where others have done the work for you. Bootstrap is one such framework and while you can use it directly, I played around with the Angular Bootstrap libraries. You can get all the common controls you need such as model and alerts here: /

The advantage I found of using this rather than Bootstrap directly was that Angular has wrapped out all the boostrap components for you and they work out of the box with angular. So you only need to include the angularjs package. Here is an example of using angular to filter on the results of a type ahead control – where $viewValue holds the user input.

<input type="text" typeahead="city for city in list | filter:$viewValue | limitTo:8">


AngularJS variable scope

While all this is very cool and powerful, it is a bit of a nightmare to debug and get right the first time. One of the issues which took me a while to track down was dealing with variable scope. This topic is worth a whole article in itself so its best to read here: /

It basically means that each nested Angular tag generates its own set of scope variables if the variable is a primitive. The result is odd behaviours where data bindings do not work as expected. The suggested workaround is to always use objects as your variables rather than primitives, i.e.

$ = { value: 'George' };
rather than
$ = 'George';
Debugging Issues

As previously mentioned, debugging is a nightmare, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. It will be familiar for most JavaScript developers, but Chrome is your best friend. It is not just a browser, but also a powerful debugger – allowing you to step through your javascript code line by line as well and even fine tuning your site’s performance. It really is a beast of a tool for developers and once mastered, will save you a ton of time. To get to the screen, simply hit F12 on any Chrome browser.


I realise there are other camps out there that much prefer the likes of Backbone.js and Ember.js. Unfortunately I haven’t got round to trying those out yet, but if you feel strongly, please leave note to say which one you prefer and why. Happy coding!

Virtual Private Networks (VPN) – worth the price?

So are paid for Virtual Private Networks (or VPNs) worth their fees?  I was left wondering this question recently on a trip to China where I could not get access to many sites which I have come to depend on such as Google, Gmail and Facebook. Some of these fall under the outright ban category while others were just so slow they were basically unusable. VPNs should at least help bypass the former, while it may have surprising results for the later too.

Before I dive into my experience, just a quick recap of what benefits a VPN can bring

  1. Most VPN providers will have servers in various countries, which means you can select which VPN server you connect to which will allow you to access contents not available in your current location, but is available elsewhere. The example I gave before would be facebook where I can connect to a VPN server in USA while in China.
  2. Encryption means that the connection between your computer and the rest of the internet is encrypted and no one can spy on what you are looking at or doing. This provides an extra layer of protection against anyone spying on your traffic.
  3. Anonymised IPs are provided by the VPN so that your real IP is not revealed to any websites. This is important if you are visiting file sharing sites which might log visitor IPs.
  4. (Unexpected) Sometimes using a VPN can boost your internet speed. This is counter intuitive as the traffic has to be encrypted and therefore should be slower in theory – see next section.
Can VPNs make my internet faster?

As mentioned, the biggest surprise I got when using a VPN was the speed up of my internet connection. Two possible theories:

  1. Your normal internet traffic is not encrypted and gets throttled by your ISP. Your VPN traffic is encrypted, not recognised by your ISP as traffic they want to throttle, so they don’t.
  2. There is a bottleneck somewhere along the typical routes between you and the sites your are normally visiting. When you go via the VPN you end up going via different routes and bypassing the bottleneck.
Choosing the right VPN provider

After reading many review sites, I opted to try out Private Internet Access – / They are known to offer some of the best service at competitive prices. At time of writing, you can get unlimited access from as little as $5.99 (or about £3.50) a month. That seems very reasonable to me given the amount of infrastructure they provide in order to make this possible. However, there are hundreds of different providers out there and some provide more tailored services aimed at specific tasks, it is worth shopping around before diving in.

(602) 779-2608
Private Internet Access Packages

At this point, you might be wondering if its a good idea to be sharing everything you do with a VPN company. You are right to be cautious, so when choosing a VPN company, make sure they have a long and reputable history. The VPN I chose (PrivateInternetAccess) also claims never to store server logs and also allows you to pay with Bitcoins – thus you can have another layer to protection as they don’t really know who you are either (disclaimer: you are relying on Bitcoin’s anonymous nature which isn’t perfect).

Reality strikes again

This is all very promising so far and I was extremely looking forward to permanently having it enabled for my internet. Unfortunately my experiences wasn’t so smooth.

Some of the issues I faced:

  1. VPN software wasn’t very stable, it would often drop and sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night because of the beeping (warning that VPN is down). There is an option to drop your whole internet connection if VPN is down by default as well.
  2. If you install the VPN on your computer, you will have issues connecting to it using your home wifi from other devices. For example I have Plex server on my PC and Google Chromecast connected to my TV. Because the VPN essentially encrypts everything, you cant connect to your PLEX server.
  3. The VPN software had Windows 8 compatibility issues even though it claimed it is Windows 8 compatible. You have to set the client to run in Compatibility mode for Windows 7.
  4. IPv4 supported but not IPv6 – this along with Windows 8 (IPv6 is on by default) can cause the VPN client to crash as well. To get round this, you have to disable IPv6 browsing on your computer.

Even after working with their support folks on 3 and 4, I could not get their VPN to reliability stay up for 24 hours. At one point, their support actually said VPNs are fragile by nature and very fiddly to get right – I totally believe him, but it means that this market segment is still a little immature and those who put up with it are your more computer savvy types rather than everyday folks.

Legal matters

It is important to mention that just because you are using a VPN, does not mean you are 100% protected. Always remain cautious and don’t start undertaking illegal activities just because you thought you could get away with it.

Recently police in the UK has started to target VPN sites, wound cork who ran various proxy / VPN sites. It seems the authorities are now turning their attention to VPNs / Proxies after their victory over the ISPs in regards to direct access to torrent sites. The UK authorities were not the first ones to do this of course, VPNs have long been targetted by Chinese authorities and each month new sites are taken down.

Are VPNs worth the price?

We go back to the original question posed at the start, are paid for Virtual Private Networks (or VPNs) worth their fees? I think if I were to go on abroad this moment in time again, knowing there would be restrictions in the country I am travelling to, I would gladly pay the small insignificant fees. However, as a everyday tool, it is too fragile and breaks too often – I simply grew tired of fighting it all the time. I am hopeful that this sector will mature over time and a polished product will one day emerge.

Leap Motion Review – Gimmick or next generation computer control device?

Ever wanted to be Tom Cruise on Minority Report? I don’t mean jumping off high buildings or getting the best girls – I am referring to being able to control a computer in thin air using your hands! Well now you can (get closer to that possibility) thanks to Leap Motion.

Leap Motion is a controller that allows you to control your computer, (or more accurately provide another form of input) by waving your hands in the air and it will track not only your hand movement, but individual finger movements as well.

How does Leap Motion work?

Leap Motion senses how you move your hands in three dimensional space using two infra-red cameras and three infra-red LEDs. It allows you to point, reach and grab (picking something up etc) instead of clicks, taps, and drag-and-drops. Its tries to mimic how we interact with objects in real life.

Grab objects on screen as if you would in real life

The internals of the device contains two monochromatic IR cameras and three infra-red LEDs. The LEDs generate a 3D pattern of dots of IR light and the cameras capture almost 300 frames per second of reflected data. The data is sent to the computer where it is analysed by the Leap Motion controller software using proprietary algorithms not disclosed by the company. It works in a similar fashion to the Xbox Kinect which also calculates the 3D position data by comparing the 2D frames generated by the two cameras.

LEDs are positioned outer left, right and in the middle. The two “eyes” are the cameras
Leap Motion Accuracy

The first thing people usually think of when looking at Leap Motion Controller is Minority Report, the second is to draw parallels with Xbox Kinect. Remember the hype that generated when it first came out? Well a similar hype followed Leap Motion, and after the hype subsided a similar set of limitations were found.

The best app to test the device’s accuracy is the user training / Orientation app that comes for free. As you move you hand and fingers, you quickly realise couple of things:

  1. The area in which your hand is “seen” by the device is very limited, so you have to remember not to stray too far
  2. Fingers come and go! The app does a decent job of of capturing your fingers, but you have to really spread your fingers for it to pick them out otherwise it will get confused
  3. There is some lag between you moving and reflecting the movement on screen, its not a lot, but noticeable
My hand as seen by Leap Motion device

The best use for this device (as was the case for Xbox Kinect) is simple movements rather than delicate ones. Repeated and crude actions such as fist open / closed is easy to capture, but don’t expect it to allow you to play an air keyboard any time soon.


Leap Motion does NOT work for everyday applications, it does not work for Windows / iOS out of the box. It comes with its app store in the form of Airspace – its same idea as iTunes store but for Leap Motion apps instead. It is an ecosystem which allows you to hear about the latest and coolest apps designed specifically to work with the device. However, I found that the majority of apps did not have many user reviews, reflecting its small user base and also found downloading from airspace extremely download!

The apps themselves fall into various categories, but I was most interested in Education, Games and Productivity. The Educational apps include exploration themes like Google Earth and also science based apps to dissect a frog or a spider. The 3D aspects of these apps were quite good and enough to hold my attention for 10mins. However to control some of the finer movements requires a lot of patience, so I think this isn’t kids friendly enough.

Productivity apps include creative design apps and also apps to help you control your PC / Mac. In fact, given the amount of gesture controls built into the Mac, it is no surprise that the vast majority of Leap Motion OS control apps are aimed soled at the Mac. In fact, BetterTouchTool which allows users to gesture control their Mac is the top rated app in Airspace. The Windows offerings were slim pickings and in reality very limited by small set of gestures windows recognises.

I tried out two of the best games available, DropChord and Blue Estate Prologue. The latter is a shoot them up style game where you are running round holding your hand in the shape of a gun and aiming at Mafia type figures. There is an action to reload the gun, but otherwise the controls are pretty basic. The game itself is actually great fun and visuals / music amazing. However, after initial 10 seconds I couldn’t help thinking the game would be so much better if I could just use my mouse instead.

(269) 506-4899
Blue Estate Prologue

DropChord on the other hand was a game that truly works best using Leap Motion. It is a fast paced yet simple game which moves along with the beat of the music – reminds me a little of AudioSurf. This game really tests your ability to control your hands and after 10mins feels like you’ve been to the gym.

Leap Motion Causes Arm Fatigue

In the end, the biggest issue I have with Leap Motion device is fatigue. What Tom Cruise didn’t tell us was that it is extremely tiring keeping your arms up in the air all the time! Even with optimal position by resting your elbows, your arms feel like they are having a workout. After 20 years of using keyboard and mouse, I guess my arms are just not accustomed to all that effort required just to scroll the page or shoot a gun or dissect a spider.


Fun while it lasted, but for now just another gimmick – albeit one with a lot of backing and potential. I am going to keep mine for now, if for no other reason than to try out their impressive looking V2 software upgrade (due later this year) which should address all the issues I had with accuracy. However, I highly doubt they can make my hands any less tired.

(724) 396-7135

Google Chromecast is a small, well priced and sexy looking piece of kit. It promises hassle free plug and play streaming functionality to your living room TV from a variety of devices such as PC, Tablet and Mobile – lets see if it can compete in this crowded market.

Chromecast unboxing
Chromecast unboxing
What is Chromecast used for?

As described by Google, “(715) 870-5020 is a thumb-sized media streaming device that plugs into the HDMI port on your TV“. It leverages your smart phone, tablet or PC to send your favourite shows, movies and music to your TV so you can watch online shows on the big screen rather than the tiny mobile screen. At the time of writing, various online channels such as Youtube, Netflix, BBC, BT Sport and Plex are all supported – but Amazon Prime, 4oD, ITV and Now TV are not yet supported.

How does Chromecast work

Why are some channels supported and others not I hear you ask. Well it is all to do with how this clever little device works. One could be forgiven by looking at the Google adverts that its the mobile or tablet device which streams the contents to the TV using wifi. Actually its much more clever than that.

When you select which clip(s) you wish to watch on your mobile phone, it will send the source of the clip to Chromecast. The Chromecast device will then stream the clip directly from the internet to your TV. The mobile / tablet becomes nothing more than a really fancy TV remote at this stage, allowing you to fast forward etc as if you would using the mouse on your computer. However this clever bit requires the individual channels to support the Chromecast APIs which most are now slowing onboarding but some are still holding out.

Clip from youtube streaming on the TV via Chromecast
Clip from youtube streaming on the TV via Chromecast
Chromecast remote control app as shown on my Android Phone - the picture is static on your phone, its just a nice background while your clip plays on the TV
Chromecast remote control app as shown on my Android Phone – the picture is static on your phone, its just a nice background while your clip plays on the TV

The other really feature of Chromecast is its ability to allow you to “cast” any Chrome tabs from your computer directly to the TV. This is a great workaround for certain channels which doesn’t have direct Chromecast support. However, streaming from Chrome browser only works for Chrome on your desktop PC and NOT from your mobile and tablet. There has been some work to improve this but at time of writing this does not yet work well.

My personal favourite use of Chromecast is to pair it with my PLEX server and use it to stream my collection of movies and TV shows which reside on my computer. Its so successful that I am going to have to find another use for my Raspberry Pi which was acting as the Plex client.

Aesthetics and Build Quality

As I mentioned earlier, Chromecast is a sexy little device – at least in the photos. However if like me you dont have a USB connection on your TV, then you end up with wire hanging out to the power socket which makes a mess of the simple look and feel. Although I cant really blame Google for this one, just myself for having an old TV 🙂

However, I do worry about the life span of this device, it runs super hot all the time, even when idle it is still hot to touch. I also wonder how much electricity it is burning up as I plug it direct into the socket it doesnt go off when the TV is on standby.


Google Chromecast is a wonderful little device, I believe its ever growing arsenal of channels and content will make it unbeatable at its £30 price point. Add full support for Chrome Android browser tab casting and it will help Chrome cement its place as the browser of choice too.

Do you have Chromecast? If so, would love to hear what you think in the comments below.


This week I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off work and attend the London Technology Week. This is a brief write up of the talks I attended and photos of some cool exhibits. Lets start with the talks

When smart-phones sense how you feel: The era of intelligent mobile devices

Talk description: “Argus Labs uses deep learning algorithms to sense, understand and predict human behaviour and emotions, based on the sensors in a smart-phone and general usage of a smart-phone. The presentation will demonstrate how smart-phones will start to behave as intelligent entities that know how a user feels and improve our lives.”

  • Argus Labs is working on APIs and SDK which will allow programmers to build emotion aware mobile apps
  • A variety of tools is used to predict mood, based on learning over time – i.e. every Monday morning you feel depressed and you tell the app this is how your feeling and over time it will form that pattern or maybe after everySaturday night after you come out of a club you feel happy. They also make use of the gyroscope to determine how happy / angry you are – for example, you are happy after clubbing and reading a book, but you might be jumping around after clubbing whereas your quietly happy after reading
  • The Presenter mentioned how personality is now really easy to predict – i.e. based on what feeds we subscribe to and what circle of friends we have. However mood is still extremely hard
  • An interesting topic was whether you should act on the user’s current mood or their predicted mood – i.e. if you know someone will be unhappy in an hour’s time, maybe play some happy music now to start counteracting that
  • A good example of this application is if the apps sees the user stuck in traffic and knows the user is typically angry – time to play some gentle music to help calm the user
Will cars be able to detect your mood in the future to make you a better driver?
Will cars be able to detect your mood in the future to make you a better driver?
  • The apps you build will learn about an individual’s mood and behavior over time, but is locked to that person so you cant pass your mobile to another user and expect it to work
  • Future of mobile is not about mobility, its been done – it will be about AI

This was a really interesting talk, made appreciate a lot more about how much companies are able to learn about me from my general online profile and keeping track of the places I visit etc. I start to think that one day my phone will know me better as a person than I do! Also the general idea of data mining and building a reasoning engine behind the massive amounts of data you collect is a theme that runs through many growth areas.

The Database of You – The opportunities and issues that arise from wearable technology everywhere

Talk description: “The last 5 years have seen an explosion in the growth of wearable technology, health and fitness data and mobiles apps and devices. Yet we are still only at the very start of our journey towards the database of me; – a personal cloud containing details of every aspect of our lives. How will the availability of huge quantities of health and performance data on everyone affect how companies do business, how people lead their lives and the general wellness of the population?”

  • Talk was delivered by CIO of Virgin Active Health Clubs and he started by mentioning that attrition rate in health club industry is a massive 60% – i.e. 60% of their members leave every year
  • The way to reduce attrition is to better facilitate users with their goals and allow users to see that they are making progress
  • The presenter mentioned the term “Cambrian explosion”, this is the period when there was a massive explosion of different life forms on earth and before settling on the best design – he sees wearable technology currently going through this period and everything we have not yet seen anything like the final design yet. He compared this to initial stages of the mobile where they came in all different shapes and sizes before everyone making phones that look like an iPhone
Graph showing popularity of a new technology as it comes out and then over time as it matures
Graph showing popularity of a new technology as it comes out and then over time as it matures
  • In terms of collecting data about individuals, he was nervous about how much personal data we are now able collect, but at the same time he felt everyone was starting to feel at ease with their data being in the cloud
  • This is an area which Apple, Samsung and Google are now all heavily investing with different platforms
  • Finally he compared current wearable tech to the early stages of car GPS systems which would plot on the map exactly where you are and the route you took – which was amazing when it first came out – to current GPS systems which also tell you about traffic and weather and best route home. So to make the tech actually useful you need a lot more context and a collective database about the person – The database of you.

Personally I really love the design of the new Samsung Gear – although I do worry slightly about the massive database of myself being held online, does that mean my medical insurance will go up with every McDonalds meal I eat? Maybe it should – but maybe this is just the perfect reason I needed to keep myself healthy as well.

Make sense of your (big) data and analyze in real-time like you have never done before!
Talk description: “With companies like Bloomberg, Facebook, Goldman Sachs and The Guardian using Elasticsearch, discover how the power of search can power your data analysis. We’ll enlighten you with some impressive use-cases for on-the-fly real-time data analysis and share dashboards that will delight you (and your stakeholders) beyond belief.”
Free Elasticsearch USB stick - yup I am easily brought
Free Elasticsearch USB stick – yup I am easily brought
  • Elasticsearch actually mentioned Goldman a few times as one of their star clients
  • Major advantage is its server plug and play capability – by adding new servers, the load will be automatically distributed for you
  • One of the most useful way to use it is not to look for the items with the biggest volumn / ticks / treads, but to look for exceptions in your data – i.e. comparing this week’s and last week’s dataset and seeing which currency is doing more or less relative to last week
  • Everything is open source and available for commercial use for free – Elasticsearch themselves make money by providing training and some APIs and tools
  • Do not use Elasticsearch db as your golden source if the data is important for you, always keep a separate copy and elasticsearch can lose data in certain edge case scenarios
Other cool London Technology Week exhibits

LiteCoin Mining (another BitCoin) with Nvidia GPU

The rise of BitCoin (BTC) has been front page news for the past year or so and unless you just emerged from the Jungle you will have followed its ups and downs. Unfortunately BTC is now too difficult to mine for your average build and require very specialised rigs to even break even. Looking around for the next best thing, I decided to give LiteCoin mining a try – at time of writing the second largest crypto currency by capitalisation.

Quick Summary
  • Mining is extremely addictive, but do it for fun and not for profit as most crypto currencies are now no longer profitable to mine
  • Mining can be done from any hardware / CPU, but it only really makes sense to do it from a GPU (Graphics card) on a desktop or dedicated rig – laptops will burn out and CPUs are too slow
  • Join a pool if you want to mine, is the largest LiteCoin pool
Getting Started – Litecoin basics

Before you do start mining, you should get yourself a Wallet – this is where your coins will be held. There are online options and offline versions which you just hold on your PC. Given the number of virtual hack attacks against Bitcoin site, I decided to hold mine offline. The first time you run the wallet it will need to do a long sync as shown below – go watch a watch.

LiteCoin Wallet
LiteCoin Wallet

There are a variety of different ways to get started with mining if you haven’t done so before, I wont go into details here – you can find step by step guides towards the bottom of this blog in the references section. I just used my personal PC for this little adventure, i.e. no custom brought GPUs etc.

  • CUDA Miner (This is currently the only sensible choice for Nvidia GPUs, everything else is too slow for Nvidia)
  • Joined (The largest LiteCoin mining pool)
  • Used GPU-Z to monitor my GPU temperature
CUDA Miner in action
CUDA Miner in action
Why mine LiteCoin as opposed to Bitcoin?

One reason why people have started to move away from Bitcoin is because it uses the SHA-256 hashing algorithm. This involves calculations that can be greatly accelerated in parallel processing. It is this characteristic that has given rise to the intense race in ASIC technology, and has caused an exponential increase in bitcoin’s difficulty level.

Litecoin, however, uses the scrypt algorithm which incorporates the SHA-256 algorithm, but its calculations are much more serialised than those of SHA-256 in bitcoin. Scrypt favours large amounts of high-speed RAM, rather than raw processing power alone.

The consequences of using scrypt mean that there has not been as much of an ‘arms race’ in litecoin (and other scrypt currencies), because there is (so far) no ASIC technology available for this algorithm. However, this will eventually change and we will be back to ASIC units for LiteCoin mining.

Buying and Selling Litecoins

While buying and selling (and spending!) of bitcoins is now fairly common place, adoption of Litecoins is still light. While USD and EUR to LiteCoin conversion is fairly common, GBP is more difficult. The best site I found was 330-449-9934, its interface is simple and offers a large number of ways to pay.

Spending Litecoins I found challenging as most retail sites only accept Bitcoins, the only places which accept Litecoin as payment currently seems to be Crypto currency related website.

Hardware considerations

For general gaming, I would argue that Nvidia GPUs has always had the slighly edge over AMD/ATI. However for mining, historically AMD/ATI has beaten Nvidia hands down to such a degree that it has not been worthwhile to mine with Nvidia until recently.

While mining is fun, its important to not get too excited and end up overheating your GPU. Remember at the end of the day, unless you have a custom rig, chances are your GPU wont have enough fan power for you to over clock it and use it to mine 24/7. I strongly recommend you always use a GPU monitoring tool whenever you are mining with GPUs. I use GPU-Z as shown below.

TechPowerUp GPU-Z monitoring GPU load
Hire a miner / Rent a rig!

One of the most interesting developments in the mining world is the growth in the rent a rig or hire a miner business. Simply put, this is someone who has a lot more hashing power than you and you pay them to mine for you for a period of time.

You will find contracts for hire everywhere from ebay to special mining brokerages such my personal favourite Betarigs. This is also known as cloud mining, i.e. similar to cloud storage. Now you might wonder why someone would offer their hashing power to make a profit for you, the answer is they arent. You always pay more to rent the rig than what the rig will ultimately mine for you! Sounds silly at first, but then you are also paying for electricity and hardware if you were to do it on your own so maybe not so different after all.

Why Mining is unprofitable for your average enthusiast

I started this blog by saying how addictive mining is but also that it wasn’t profitable for your average enthusiast. I will finish by mentioning some of the hidden costs involved and why if you only want to speculate on the future value of BTC / LTC, you should just buy the currencies rather than mining them yourself.

The biggest obviously cost most people will have to spend to have any chance at mining profitability is to buy the latest and most expensive gear. This could be thousands of pounds equipment and cost of which will take you many months to simply recuperate.

The other big killer is electricity – yes that hidden cost which you may not care about when running your average PC, which when you have a custom mining rig, this is one of your biggest costs. This has become such an important area due to rising electricity prices that Nvidia has recently brought out new cards which aim to half the running voltage and this is expected to be a killer features in its race with AMD/ATI.

Even with the fact that mining isn’t profitable, I still absolutely love it. Also don’t say I didn’t warn you, it is amazingly addictive, what are you waiting for? START TODAY!


Raspberry Pi Media Center

There is currently a wave of new TV streaming solutions fighting it out for our hard earned money such as Chromecast from Google, Fire TV from Amazon, Apple TV, Roku etc. In fact, they are all very good in their own right. For example, if your household is full of Apple products, you wont go wrong with the Apple TV. If cost is a factor, then Google Chromecast is an absolute bargain for what if gives you. Today we explore some open source approaches to this problem, using a Raspberry Pi Media Center.

Raspberry Pi Media Center – What are the options?

Now I am sure there are many more options out there, but these seem to be the most popular and by nature the ones you will get the most support for (all solutions discussed here are essentially a variant of XBMC)

  • Raspbmc (runs full Linux under hood, slow)
  • OpenELEC (bare bones, fast)
  • Rasplex (on top of OpenELEC)
  • XBian (on top of Raspbian)

There is a very good article which goes into the pros and cons of each of these here – / What I will concentrate on is my experience with Raspbmc and Rasplex.

Raspberry Pi Media Center using Raspbmc

My first attempt was to use Raspbmc as it seems to have a very large community which offered a lot in the way of plugins. The installation process was extremely simple, with the Raspbmc installer doing all the work and you just have to supply the SD card. Once the SD is setup on your computer, plug it into your Raspberry Pi and let it boot up the first time (it takes a long time first time round).

Raspbmc starting up first time

I started out using a spare SD card I had from my camera, this was a big mistake as it was only class 4 (i.e. slow). This and the fact that Raspbmc itself is also known to be slow, meant I had a slightly sluggish experience with all the menus and overall experience wasnt great.

In terms of look and feel, it looks exactly like the full XBMC client for Windows. You can use the keyboard or mouse for navigation, with an intuitive menu control system.  The plugins (video channels) were also very easy to install and Raspbmc comes with a very large selection of recommended ones, but there are hundreds if not thousands more out there on the net you can add yourself. Below is the YouTube channel post installation.

Raspbmc youtube plugin screen

Unfortunately where Raspbmc fell short for me was in its ability to stream videos from my home computer. Now you might not have any movies stored locally and watch everything from Netflix, in which case this issue wont affect you. So lets start with a clarification, Raspbmc is able to access my home computer and movie files, but it takes a lot of effort. Firstly you have to setup folder shares on your local computer and then configure Raspbmc with the right access details to see those files. Additionally, I started reading that it might not support all codecs out of the box, this was a big issue for me given I have movies with codecs of every sort and had no desire to recode any of them.

Raspberry Pi Media Center using Resplex

After the disappointment of Raspbmc, I decided to try Rasplex. Its main selling point is that it will do video streaming automatically. Now I wanted to be fair, so I installed it on the same class 4 SD card from earlier (by this point I had purchased a much faster class 10). The speed was now acceptable, no more lags!

The Rasplex menu system was in many ways even more beautiful than Rasbpmc, it cycles its background image to that of various shows related to your current menu selection. However, the menus needs a few more clicks before offering you the same content as Raspbmc.

Rasplex main menu system

The only downside and this is quite a big one for me is the lack of mouse support – yes, Rasplex is keyboard only as far as I could work out. While I don’t mind having to purchase a wireless keyboard, it just doesn’t work very well when you are fast forwarding a movie. You can download various apps for your phone, but they are similarly poor in this regard as fundamentally they do nothing more than map onto keyboard keys. If anyone knows differently and can get the mouse to work, please let me know!!

Now let me come to Rasplex’s (and indeed PLEX’s – the media server on your computer or NAS) strongest selling point. It does video streaming better than anyone else. Install PLEX on your local network computer or NAS and Rasplex will automatically find it and sync all your TV shows and Movies. The only thing you need to do is to restrict your PLEX server to look in specific folders on your computer if you don’t want to share everything – i.e. your family videos. Everything else is done for you including syncing any future new movies or TV shows you add – it took me all of 5mins to get my TV and Movie collection shared to my TV.

Rasplex main menu movies section

If you signup for an account with PLEX, you can even stream your content remotely to any device over the internet. I downloaded the Android client (this costs a small fee) but have yet to test out the performance. PLEX apparently will look at your connection and device screen size before streaming the video in the appropriate quality for your device. You shouldnt even have to worry about codec either – although some will have better performance as PLEX doesn’t have to worry about recoding on the fly.


Lets quickly summarise the main pros and cons I encountered with each Raspbery pi media center solutions

  1. Raspbmc: Great for out of the box support for plugins, but slow
  2. Rasplex: Unbeatable streaming solution, but no mouse support

If you dont care about streaming your own content, I would give Xbian or OpenELEC a try as they should be similar to Raspbmc but faster. If you primarily want to stream stuff from your computer to the TV, go with Rasplex.

Have you tried any other solutions or just want to share your own experiences with Raspbmc or Rasplex? Please leave your comments below.