Category Archives: Technology

Monki Gras 2015

Monki Gras happened again! Though, in its Monki Gras 2015 incarnation, it acquired a heavy metal umlaut and a ‘slashed zero’ in its typeface; an allusion to its Nordic nature: Mönki Gras 2Ø15

What is Monki Gras?

Well…

And Ricardo makes a good point, explaining why I, and others, just keep going back:

There’s a single track of talks so you are saved the effort of making decisions about what to see and you can just focus on listening. The speakers entertain as well as inform, which, I really like.

While it is a tech conference, there’s little code because it’s about making technology happen rather than the details of the technology itself. So there are talks on developer culture, design, and data, as well as slightly more off-the-wall things to keep our brains oiled.

In James’ very own distinctive words:

Why go all Nordic this year?

All the speakers this year were Scandinavian in some way. It was probably the most rigorously applied conference theme I’ve ever seen (mostly, conferences come up with a ‘theme’ for marketing purposes which usually gets mostly forgotten about by the time of the conference itself).

James talks a bit more about this on the Monkigras blog. A surprising amount of tech we know and love comes out of the relatively sparsely populated Scandinavian countries. For example:

And, apparently, Finland leads the EU in enterprise cloud computing:

Are the Nordics really that different from anywhere else?

Well, this graph seems to say they are, if only for their taste in music:

Which suggests there is at least something different about Nordic cultures from the rest of Europe, let alone the world.

So several of the speakers delved into why they thought this led to success in technology innovation and development. For example, there’s the attitude to recognising when you’re failing and giving up so that you can be successful by doing it another way:

A Swedish concept, lagom, which means ‘just the right amount’ was credited with the popularity of the cloud in the Nordics. And, indeed, with pretty much anything we could think of throughout the rest of the event.

Similarly, you could argue that lagom is why Docker is popular among developers:

One fascinating talk, by a Swedish speaker based in Silicon Valley, was about the difference between startups in the Nordics and Silicon Valley. For example, the inescapable differences between their welfare systems were credited as being responsible for different priorities regarding making money. (Hopefully, videos of the talks will be put online and I’ll add a link to it.)

Obviously, all this talk about culture can, and did, drift into stereotyping. I did get slightly weary of the repeated comparisons between cultures, though interesting and, often, humorous.

Developer culture

One of the things I’m most interested in is hearing what other companies have learnt about developer culture and community. For example:

There’s more about this talk on Techworld. And Spotify have blogged some funky videos about the developer culture they aspire to (part 1 and part 2), which are well worth watching if you work in software development.

Something that I’m working on at IBM is increasing the openness of our development teams so, again, I’m always interested in new ways to do this. This is something that Sweden (yes, the country!) has adopted to a surprising extent:

Innovation and inefficiencies

One important message that came across at Monki Gras 2015 was that you have to allow time for innovation to happen. It’s when things seem inefficient and time is not allocated to a specific activity that innovation often occurs.

A nice example of this is the BrewPi project. At Monki Gras 2013, Elco Jacobs talked about his open source project of brewing beer and using a Raspberry Pi to monitor it:

I bumped into him this year and what had been a project now occupies him full-time as a small business selling the technology to brewers around the world. A pause in his education when he had nothing better to do had enabled him to get on with his BrewPi project and, after graduation, turn it into a business.

Data journalism

There’s a lot talked about open data and how we should be able to access tax-funded data about things that affect our lives. The Guardian is taking a lead with data journalism and Helena Bengtsson gave a talk about how knowing how to navigate large data sets to find meaning was vital to finding stories in the Wikileaks data.

She started out in data journalism in Sweden where, in one case, she acquired and mapped large data sets that revealed water pollution problems around the country, which triggered a several stories.

It’s not just having the data that matters but the interpretation of the data. That’s what data journalism gives us over just ‘big data’:

Also, I found out a fascinating fact:

Anyway, that’s about as much as I can cram in. We also found out random things about Scandinavian knitwear and the fact that Sweden has its own official typeface, Sweden Sans. And we ate lots of Nordic foods, drank Nordic beer and (some of us) drank Akvavit. And, most importantly, we talked to each other lots.

The thing I really value about Monki Gras (on top of the great talks, food, drink, and fun atmosphere) is the small size of the event and all the interesting people to talk to. That’s why I keep going back.

P.S. A good write-up of the talks

Aurasma and the Universal 100 app

I bought a copy of Mamma Mia! The Movie on Blu-ray. To celebrate Universal’s 100th anniversary, it’s releasing some of its films with ‘augmented reality’ (AR).

Which sounds cool.

As you can see in this photo, the front cover of the cardboard sleeve (why is a cardboard sleeve necessary?!) contains a sticker claiming “I COME ALIVE THROUGH YOUR SMARTPHONE”:

 

bluray-cover

Which sounds exciting.

Imagine my joy when, whilst watching the movie, I could point my phone at the TV and get contextual information about the film (commentary, background information about the beautiful locations, song lyrics, etc).

Ah, no. That’s what happened in my head.

In reality, I followed the instructions on the back of the box. I downloaded the Universal 100 app, pointed my phone at the front cover of the DVD, and got this:

aurasma-in-action

 

Basically a sort-of movie trailer for Mamma Mia! in response to recognising the image on the front of the box. The video is displayed inside an AR-style, 3D surround.

Kinda fun but disappointing and not really what I was expecting from the hype on the box that claimed the Universal 100 app would “reveal the magical 3D movie experience”.

The best use case I can think of for it is that people can point their phone at the box in a real-world shop to watch the ‘aura’ (the video) before buying it. Not that anyone buys DVDs/Blu-rays in shops any more.

Anyway, so I Googled “aurasma”, the technology inside the app and found a TED talk that explains what Aurasma is. I’m a bit more impressed now.

It’s probably actually what one of the Sony apps on my Xperia phone is based on. That app does cool things like recognise the label on a wine bottle, gives you information about the wine, and tells you the nearest place to buy it. Oh, and adds dinosaurs or fish when you point your phone at your friends.

Setting up Logitech Harmony on Ubuntu

On a recent UUPC podcast, we talked about setting up my (borrowed) Logitech Harmony remote control on Ubuntu.

 

DSC_0078

The Logitech Harmony is a family of universal remote controls. Logitech maintains a database of all the devices (well, nearly all) on its server in The Cloud. You connect your Harmony to your laptop via USB and set it up using a piece of desktop software or a browser plugin. As far as I can tell, the browser plugin works only on Windows. The desktop software is available for Windows and possibly Mac.

Happily, the Ubuntu Software Centre contains a piece of software called Congruity. It has stunning reviews claiming it Just Works. And it has a graphical interface; not some obscure set of commands. So I installed it and it did Just Work. Here’s how you can too…

(Apologies for some of the patchy instructions; I had to do parts of this from memory. I’ll update as and when I do some of the updates again.)

Getting going with the Logitech Harmony on Ubuntu

  1. Install the Congruity software from the Software Centre.
  2. Go to http://members.harmonyremote.com/ in your web browser. (This isn’t easy to find if you browse from their website as they keep funnelling you towards the Windows setup instructions and installing Silverlight.)
  3. Register with the site. You can’t avoid this because a large part of the setup is through connecting to their database in the clouds.

Registration

Before you start, life is easier if you know the model numbers of your devices (eg TV etc). I have an old-ish TV, an old-ish Blu-ray player, and a new Virgin Media TiVo (PVR).

  1. In your browser, go to http://members.harmonyremote.com/ and log in.
  2. It’ll probably tell you that your software is out of date, but that’s fine. Just click Next.

firstscreen
3. You will probably be on the Home screen now (I can’t get back there now my remote has been set up!).
4. From here, you basically follow the instructions to set up your devices. It’ll ask for your device models and guide you through setting them up.

Basic setup

There are two concepts to remember:

  • Devices
    The things you want to point your remote control at, such as the TV, the DVD player, etc. You can control pretty much anything as long as it’s controlled by an infrared remote control. You can’t control something that uses radiowaves (eg home automation systems).
  • Activities
    The things that you want to do. Basically, Logitech help you care about what you want to do, not how you want to do it. So when the Harmony is set up, you can just tell it you want to watch TV (as you can see in the photo above). You don’t have to tell it to switch on the TV and the digital box, and switch to input AV5, etc. To this end, even the setup process predicts as much as it can for you.

If you choose the automatic option for setting up the activities, it’ll look at the devices you’ve added and work out all the most likely activities you’ll want to do using them. You can then choose whether you want to configure those activities.

Don’t get too clever first time through. Just let the wizard get the basics set up for you so that you can test it out. You can go back later to fine-tune the buttons.

  1. When you’ve set up your devices and some activities in the webpage wizard, you need to update your Harmony with its new settings.
  2. First of all you’ll get prompted to save/open a file called Connectivity.EZHex. In the instructions on the web page, they’ll tell you to run the file. Don’t do that; that’s for Windows users. Instead, save the file (to your Desktop is fine).
    Screenshot from 2014-08-19 21:04:12
  3. When it’s downloaded, double-click the file and it launches Congruity:
    Screenshot from 2014-08-19 21:04:36
  4. Check that your Harmony is connected to your laptop via USB (the Harmony will display a USB CONNECTED message on its screen).
  5. Click through the short wizard. This just identifies the Harmony to the website/database.
  6. Next you’ll need to actually update the Harmony. Follow the instructions on the webpage and you’ll be prompted with another file to download, called Update.EZHex. Again, just save it to your desktop.
  7. Double-click the file and it launches Congruity again.
  8. It’ll check again that it can connect to the Harmony. If it struggles to find your Harmony (mine sometimes does on the second time round), unplug and re-plug the USB cable.
  9. Follow the wizard through. This time it’ll actually do the update to the Harmony:
    Harmony remote update
  10. And you’re done.

It’ll tell you to test it and help you diagnose problems if it doesn’t work as expected. To use the Harmony, just press the Activities button then select the activity you want (eg Watch TV).

A nice, if slightly spooky, extra touch is that when you choose an activity or when you switch off the activity (press the power button on the Harmony), the Harmony displays a message to check with you that it’s working. If, say, the TV switched on but the TiVo box didn’t, you can then press the Help button. The Harmony then tries a couple of things and checks each time to see if that solved it. As I say, a bit spooky but clever.

Tweaking settings

If buttons aren’t doing what you’d expect them to do, you can go back into the website and adjust the settings then go through the same update process of downloading and running the Connectivity.EZHex and Update.EZHex files.

If the Logitech database doesn’t know the command you’re trying to program the Harmony with, you can customise the buttons for the individual devices or for the activities you’ve set up (or both).

When you start the Watch TV activity (for example), the Harmony’s buttons send commands to the TV or to the TiVo box according to what makes sense (eg volume buttons send commands to the TV; the record button sends the command to the TiVo). If you want to control a specific device for some reason, you can press the Devices button on the Harmony to switch to control a specific device (eg the TV). All the buttons then send only to the TV. (Press Activities to get back to controlling all the devices in the activity.)

If you tend to work in the ‘activities’ mode rather than controlling each specific device separately (afterall, that’s why you’re using the Harmony!), make sure you customise the activity (on the Home page, click the Customize link next to the activity) not the device.

You can even train the Harmony to learn commands from your device’s native remote control. If you go through troubleshooting a button’s function, the wizard will eventually suggest doing this. It prompts you to download another file, LearnIr.EZTut. When you double-click this file, it launches Congruity to run a tutorial. You basically point the remotes at each other when prompted. And it works!!