Monday, January 01, 2018


Here, in the first hours of 2018, and I cannot sleep. Outside the open windows of this Avalon beach house the waves pound furiously at the sand and rocks, as if trying their best to erase them from this Earth. Celebratory searchlights still dance in threes across the clouded sky, competing with the flashes of yellow lightning from an offshore storm, as the roar of the waves obscures the thunder.

The sea breeze gradually cools this hot upstairs room in which three people attempt to sleep on two pushed together single beds, but the open windows also allow in the tempest outside.

Now the pop pop pop of illegal fireworks released in the park by the beach wakes them briefly.

I should be tired like the others, worn out as they are from fighting the waves on the beach and each other with glow sticks turned magic weapons. But the world outside is trying to tell a story, its unfamiliarity calling out in the dark to we of the further inland.

"Come out, let us embrace you, chill you, sweep you away," demands the sea.

Gradually, unwilling to gaze too long into the grey world outside, the constantly dancing song lulls, and I feel myself ready to dream its magic and the new year, in hope of one less tumultuous than the reality outside.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Into the labyrinth of remembered music

Some music never leaves you. In the late 70's or very early 80's there was a television advertisement featuring an offshore oil drilling platform. I think it was for BHP or Esso. I don't remember much about it but that the music went something like this (mp3). It stayed with me and I wrote something that used those elements, which is what you hear in the clip.

The music is played in the Dorian mode. That mode was used again in a television show I watched on ABC Television in the eighties and again it stuck with me. I found it in my head last night and finally decided to try to find it.

I seemed to recall that it was written by a Carl, maybe Carl Davis or Carl Vine, but that search returned fruitless. So I dredged up what I could remember and tried:
"1980s English tv series children underground magic kingdom"
Success! It was a series called Into the Labyrinth about three children who travel through time searching for a magical object called "The Nidus" and the music was composed by Sidney Sagar.

Several episodes are available on YouTube.

Now, what I remembered of the music (mp3) is a little different to the actual segment from Sidney Sagar's score (mp3), though it is better developed towards the end of this clip:

I found a few other television shows from my childhood on YouTube. Children of the Dog Star was another whose music has stayed with me.

Such cheesy Amiga graphics from New Zealand! Also from the same New Zealand team was Under the Mountain with the scary Wilberforces.

Finally, Chocky, whose music I had forgotten.

Some of my childhood series, like The Goodies and Monkey Magic, I've managed to share with my son. And some shows from my childhood continue to this day, such as Doctor Who and, on the big screen, Star Wars (the Last Jedi will be released this week). Their music has made a huge impact on my life - witness all the concerts I've attended! But listening back to some of these other shows it's interesting how epic the music is remembered in your mind, but how cheesy it often sounds when listened to in the actual show. Into the Labyrinth was filmed in Cheddar!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bare Conductive Arduino MP3 Player

I found the Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit while searching for activities to do with my almost nine year old son over the school holidays. It contains a custom Arduino board with a built in microSD card reader and audio output along with twelve electrode that can be used for touch or proximity sensor input. There is also a jar and tube of black conductive paint, a brush for painting them on alligator clip wires and adhesives, stencils and cardboard cutouts for designing the sensors. A 128 MB microSD card, USB card reader and portable speaker round out the collection.

The idea is that you either paint on the sensors or clip the wires to metallic objects so that when touched it triggers the playing an MP3 track.

It turned out to be a bit too complicated for a 9 year old, but my son likes to fall asleep and wake up to music and I had the idea that I would use the kit to make an interesting MP3 player on Alex's bedhead.

The first thing was to program the Arduino board, something I was now familiar with after the ticket gate project. The code examples provided were only for the triggering of single tracks, whereas I wanted proper player navigation. This included the ability to:

  • Stop, play, pause and skip tracks
  • Shuffle tracks
  • Change the volume
  • Play collections
By default the library used by the code only plays files named in the format TRACKxxx.mp3, where each x is a number 0 to 9. I did see some code for alternative names, but couldn't get it to work so I stuck with that format.

When the shuffle mode is selected random tracks are picked. Each played track is added to a list which is scanned to ensure that it is not repeated. Skipping a track forwards or backwards only moves to the next number and doesn't use random selection.

For playing collections I made a subdirectory, in my case called sleep and placed the relevant tracks in there. I also swapped the 128 MB microSD card for an 2 GB card I'd got with an old phone. This is the largest size supported by the FAT16 library. 

The code, listed at the bottom of the post, is memory intensive and occasionally locks, but it mostly seems to work.

The need to manually copy and rename tracks made the player impractical for use by my son, who also likes current pop. Instead a I got him a portable bluetooth speaker and an old mobile phone with Google Play Music installed.

Still, after all that effort I decided to get my player working anyway and painted up a pre-primed MDF board with the stencil, affixing the Arduino board and speaker at the bottom. Each silhouette corresponds to a control. It's not intuitive, but it is artistic and I might add to the design later. I like the look of the bare white, gold and black Arduino as well, a nice reminder of what is usually hidden inside the designs.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Raspberry Pi 5 inch and 3.5 inch touch screens

After making the Arduino ticket gate I've been inspired to play with some of the other "maker" offerings available. I recently purchased a Raspberry Pi 3 and Raspberry Pi Zero W to experiment with. That actually takes the Raspberry Pi in the house to three as I previously bought my son a Kano Computer, which also uses a Pi board.

The Raspberry Pi can be hooked up to a standard HDMI monitor, but I wanted to try something a bit smaller so I obtained an Adafruit 3.5" PiTFT Plus and a 5.0" HDMI touchscreen. The former came with a badly soldered header and I've yet to get it working. Its instructions are also woefully out of date and unsuitable for the current Raspbian Stretch version of the Linux OS. 

For both screens what you need is the LCD-Show code. However, if, like me, you installed Raspbian via NOOBS then you are likely to get a kernel panic after installing. Don't panic!

I found these instructions to be helpful, but in my case I needed to slightly modify the boot partition statement.

  1. You need to edit /boot/cmdline.txt on the SD card, either before your Pi reboots or using a second Linux machine (fortunately I had the other Raspberry Pi Zero and a MicroSD card reader to do this on).
  2. Replace root=/dev/mmcblk0p2 with root=/dev/mmcblk0p7
If editing on a second computer put the MicroSD back in the Pi's slot and reboot.

Everything should now work and you've now got a small Linux device. Not as small as my old Zaurus handheld PC's but a lot more hackable.

Size comparison between the Raspberry Pi with 5" screen and a standard mouse

Friday, October 06, 2017

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Concert

I wonder if they intend performing concerts for all the Harry Potter movies. In April we attended the Philosopher's Stone, tonight it was The Chamber of Secrets. Next April, Prisoner of Azkaban, assuming that I can get tickets.

What do all three have in common? Well, apart from being Harry Potter movies, of course.

These were the three movies where the legendary John Williams composed the score.

Williams was rather busy during the production so his music was ably adapted and conducted by William Ross.

For this performance at the Sydney Opera House the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the effervescent American Jeffrey Schindler. As with the previous concert he exhorted the audience to cheer at their favourite moments and actors, which they duly did.

The performance was great, though it was sometimes hard to concentrate on the music at times due to the distraction of the movie. Williams' action score really shines through during the live performances and this was no exception, though there was one point I wasn't sure if it was Quiddich or chasing Jango Fett on screen. Williams was busy at the time...

The Chamber of Secrets is Alex's favourite Harry Potter movie out of the first three (all he's seen) and he was rapt the entire time, despite the late hour.

Earlier he and I had caught the expensive lift up Sydney Tower. Though the views were good I've seen them a lot lately out the windows of planes and the large groups of tourists reminded me how much I hate being surrounded by tourists, even when I'm one myself.

I'm looking forward now to John Williams' best Harry Potter score in the Prisoner of Azkaban. Hope I can get good tickets!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Arduino ticket gate - part 1

Alex is obsessed with automatic ticket gates and desperately wants one to play with in the house. Don't ask me why.

The mechanisms in automatic paper ticket gates are extraordinarily complicated and not something I could hope or want to recreate at home. However, modern gates tend to use RFID stored value cards to trigger them.

Using parts from an Arduino education kit along with an RFID module I bought at Jaycar I was able to build a simple system that triggers a servo motor when an RFID card is tapped on the sensor. It also changes the red LED to the green and plays a sound. I put a delay in to "hold the gate open".

The cheap RFID module seems a bit dodgy and the system often requires a few reboots to work. This is the first time I've soldered and used a circuit board in years. I haven't used the Arduino much either, just following a few of the examples given in the book. Still, I'm pretty pleased with the result!

Using the Arduino is so much easier than the electronics I did at uni and as a kid.

The next step is to put it in some housing and attach a "gate" to the servo. Going to get Alex's help to do that.


 * Ticket gate model
 * Detect RFID chip and trigger a servo


#define SS_PIN 10
#define RST_PIN 9
#define GREEN_PIN 6
#define RED_PIN 7
#define PIEZO_PIN 8
#define SERVO_PIN 5

Servo gateServo;
int openTime = 5000;

MFRC522 mfrc522(SS_PIN, RST_PIN);  // Create MFRC522 instance.

void setup() {
  Serial.begin(9600); // Initialize serial communications with the PC
  pinMode(RED_PIN, OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(GREEN_PIN, LOW);
  digitalWrite(RED_PIN, HIGH);
  SPI.begin();      // Init SPI bus
  mfrc522.PCD_Init(); // Init MFRC522 card

void loop() {
  // Look for new cards
  if ( ! mfrc522.PICC_IsNewCardPresent()) {

  // Select one of the cards
  if ( ! mfrc522.PICC_ReadCardSerial()) {

  digitalWrite(GREEN_PIN, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(RED_PIN, LOW);
  tone(PIEZO_PIN, 261, 100);
  tone(PIEZO_PIN, 392, 200);
  digitalWrite(GREEN_PIN, LOW);
  digitalWrite(RED_PIN, HIGH);

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Sun sets, but Oracle didn't predict it

Sun microsystems
Oracle has quietly shut down the remnants of Sun's Sparc processor and Solaris operating system lines. Both Sun and Oracle have made a huge impact on my life.

Back in 1992 I had my first encounter with Unix in a numerical mathematics course at the ANU. A number of our lessons were held in the university's computer labs housing Sun Sparc terminals. I marvelled at the huge high resolution greyscale CRT screens, opening terminals and text editors to edit and run Matlab scripts on the Solaris server. They looked so much nicer than the PCs and Macs we used elsewhere. Long before they were readily available for PCs these terminals used laser mice, though they required a special mouse mat to operate.

A year later, when I bought my first modem, I would connect into a Solaris Unix server via the terminal and access my email and play IRC. I met my wife over Solaris.

As a result of my Internet obsession I drifted into the role of web developer, eventually gaining employment at CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility managing their website. The site ran on a Solaris 2.6 server and for a time I even had a Sparc terminal to access it.

It was here that Oracle came into the picture. I built some web applications utilising the Oracle database, the only one available to me.

By this stage I was not a fan of either Solaris or Oracle (or 'Orrible as called by some). Much of the open internet ran on open source solutions like Linux and MySQL and, as expensive commercial products, the Oracle database and Solaris operating system often required custom compilations of libraries and custom rewrites of code. Our version of Solaris only supported 256 colours, meaning that images supplied by our users were often of too poor quality to use on the web.

A lot of time that could have been spent developing practical applications was instead wasted just wrangling the systems to work in the first place.

Eventually that job finished and I ended up writing PHP scripts on a Windows IIS box, which was a whole new set of pain.

Today I am still writing PHP, but running it on a Ubuntu Linux server, which is an extremely popular and well supported combination meaning that it's easy to find answers to problems online. But I haven't escaped Oracle, which acquired Sun in 2009, entirely. We use the very popular MySQL as our database and that was purchased by Oracle as well.

By all accounts the marriage between Sun and Oracle was not a happy one (it certainly wasn't on our servers) and I'm sad to see the disappearance of the former. Farewell!

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