Amazon Smart Plugs.

We have had a couple of Echo Dots and an Echo speaker for a couple of years. However, we don't have any "Smart gadgets". Something to turn off the lights would be useful, as other family members think that lights have an "On" switch, but it has no "Off" function. However, all our switches are brass and most of the bulbs are candles, for which there don't seem to be any aesthetically pleasing smart versions.

However, we do have quite a few power strips with things like computer charging bricks and TV's plugged in, which don't need to be powered up overnight. The TECKIN WiFi Smart Plug works both with Alexa and Google Home (not tested as I don't have a Google Home device). You can control the sockets either by using Alexa, or via the app. The app also allows you to turn the sockets on and off and depending on your Internet setup you can do this if you only have a mobile connection. You can also set up schedules and timers for the plug.

So far they have been very reliable and easy to set up. My only concern is that the Smart Life app does require quite a few permissions and wants to know your location.

Amazon link.

Timelapse Photography Using a DSLR, GoPro or Osmo Pocket

I recently bought a DJI Osmo, which has a built in Interval Timer mode, which re-ignited my interest in making time lapse videos. The Osmo makes this very easy: you just set the timer interval, which determines the interval at which the Osmo takes a JPEG and the length of time you want it to continue taking pictures. At the end of the elapsed time (you can interrupt it earlier if you wish) it combines the individual JPEG files into an mp4 video. It also saves the individual JPEG files, so you can process them separately.

Previously I have used a GoPro (built in interval timer), a RaspberryPi (uses cron as an interval timer), or a DSLR with an external Interval Timer to make time lapses. Interval timers are available for a variety of cameras and are relatively cheap (around £13). The Amazon link shows the one I use with my Canon DSLR. Amazon link to interval timer

You will also require some sort of stable mount for the camera. Traditionally this would be a tripod. However, I like making time lapses in the mountains and don't really want to lug 10kg of tripod for several hours up a mountain in addition to all my camping gear. If the terrain is rocky you can usually find a convenient rock or trig point which you can use to perch a mini tripod. If the ground is grassy I have a lash up of various GoPro adaptors attached to a walking pole, which I push into the ground.

Making a time lapse of a sunset or sunrise requires quite a lot of planning and a lot of luck with the weather. First you need to work out what time the sun rises and sets. Most smartphone weather apps will have this information. Secondly you will need to find a location that provides an unobstructed view of the horizon. Bear in mind that the sunrise and sunset will move across the horizon between the two equinoxes according to the date.

Next you need to decide on the time interval at which you want to take a photograph. I have found around 5 seconds to work for me. It doesn't matter if you take too many photographs, but it does if you don't take enough! I would suggest that you start recording at least an hour before sunset. It's also worth continuing to take photos for at least an hour after the official sunset time. Once the sun has gone below the horizon you will often get an alpenglow effect, which can last quite some time.

You should now have an SD card with hundreds of images on it. There are a number of methods of creating an mp4 file from the images. I use a combination of ffmpeg and mencoder. I think these are available for most platforms, they definitely work on Linux and Mac OS. Ffmpeg is the Swiss Army knife of video processing tools. It's under constant development and the developer has been known to change the syntax of the command line options at a whim.

This is a link to "FFMPEG An Intermediate Guide/image sequence":

I use ffmpeg to combine the individual jpegs into an mp4 video. Your jpegs will almost certainly be numbered with a suffix that increases by one for each successive photo, so you can automate the process using a script or batch file.

Once you have created the mp4 you will probably find the mp4 file created from several hundred jpeg images is only a few seconds long. You can use mencoder to create a slow motion version of the mp4 video. Finally, you may want to add some background music to your video. You can use ffmpeg to add an mp3 track which adds the audio, but stops when it runs out of video to process.

For full details about creating mp4 files from individual JPEGs, slowing down the video and adding an audio track see my blog post at:

Concatenating JPEG Files Into an mp4 File.

Tools required:

  • ffmpeg
  • mencoder
  • sox

    If your JPEG file names end in a number, you can use the "-startnumber" command line option:

      ffmpeg -start_number n -i test_%d.jpg -vcodec mpeg4 test.mp4

    Note, this will work as long as the sequence is unbroken once it starts. If there are gaps and you want all of the stills included, then renumbering may be necessary to fill the gaps.

GoPro ffmpeg Command Line.

This is the script I use with my GoPro. It creates a 1080p file from a JPEG. The %d is a placeholder for a number, so files starting from G0017096.JPG will be concatenated to make the video.

   ffmpeg -f image2 -r 1 -start_number 17096 -i G00%d.JPG   -s hd1080 -vcodec libx264 timelapse_1080P.mp4

Using mencoder to Create a "Slow" Version of the Video.

This example slows the video down by 50% at 25 frames per second.

 mencoder -speed 0.5 -ofps 25 -ovc copy Flapse_25fps.mp4 -o slower.mp4

Adding Background Music.

There are several ways to do this. If your video is longer than the background music track, you probably want the music to loop until it reaches the end of the video.

I'd recommend sox and the -shortest option for ffmpeg as a solution.

 sox -i short_audio.mp3 looped_audio.mp3 repeat 1000 # adjust count as necessary
 ffmpeg -i input_video.mp4 -i looped_audio.mp3 -shortest output_video.mp4

The sox command will loop the input, and the ffmpeg command will use it for the audio, but stop when it runs out of video to process.

-i parameter is deprecated in sox. Is is properly to use -e ima-adpcm instead.

There are several sources of free background music on the Internet. For example: background music

Manfrotto Mini Pixi Tripod

I have recently bought a Osmo Pocket and want to make some videos that require the Osmo to be mounted on a tripod. I already have a Velbon full sized tripod, that belonged to my father, which I could use. I want to use the Osmo on some mountain walks and to record some climbing. In the past I have carted the Velbon strapped to the outside of my rucksack, but the extra weight has put me off taking it with me on a regular basis. I have also got a Gorilla Pod clone, which is good on uneven ground, but isn't particularly stable.

There are lots of mini tripods available on Amazon, but I noticed the Manfrotto Pixi was on sale for £12.50. Full sized Manfrotto tripods have a good reputation, so I decided to purchase the Mini Pixi. The legs are non extendable and have a small rubber pod at the ends of the feet that help to stop the tripod sliding on slippy surfaces. When the legs are closed you can use the tripod as a grip.

Like many other mini tripods there is a ball and socket joint that allows you to tilt and pan the camera. To tilt and pan you press the small button and rotate the head to the desired position than simply let the button go to lock the head. This makes it much easier to adjust the position of the head accurately unlike systems which require you to manually tighten a friction joint.

I tried the tripod my Canon DSLR with a standard lens and it was stable, so it should be OK with any compact camera or phone. It costs £19.50 on Amazon at the moment, but I was lucky enough to pick it up in a flash sale for £12.70.

Amazon link

Honor Play

My Lenovo P2 has been an excellent phone for the last couple of years. Decent performance and outstanding battery life. However, I am finding it's 32 GByte of internal storage a bit limiting. It's stuck on Android 7.0 with a November 2017 security update and has been abandoned by Lenovo. I decided to have a look at what was available for less than £300.

After looking at various reviews the Honor 8 with 6.5" screen seemed to fit my requirements. However, it had a micro usb port, not USBC. I now have several devices that have USBC ports and buying a new phone with micro USB connector seemed a bit "Olde school". After a bit more research I discovered the Honor 8 Play. This is basically a souped up version of the Honor 8, supposedly aimed at gamers.

Specs. include:

  • 6.3-inch full view display LCD IPS (1080 x 2340)
  • 16MP+2MP dual AI camera
  • 3750mAH battery supports 1.5 days of heavy usage and includes 9V/2A quick charge
  • Kirin 970 AI Chipset
  • 64 GByte on board storage with micro/usb dual SIM capability.
  • USBC connector

On Amazon it was priced at £240, well within my budget. Now I am not a gamer, but I thought paying a bit extra for a phone that had better performance and USBC was worth it.

Initial setup was a bit unusual. Honor has their own Phone Clone app that did an excellent job of transferring all my apps and data from the P2. The phone has a Notch, that bothered me for all of about 5 minutes before I ignored it. There is a fingerprint scanner on the back and face recognition works really well, even when I am wearing my beanie and reading glasses.

Honor's UI seemed OK, but as a long time Nova user, I just restored my saved settings from the P2. The phone is not officially water proof, but the only time this has been a problem for me was back when I had a Nokia 5800 that was inside the top pocket of my rucksack and the screen died either from moisture or the cold in a snow storm. At full brightness you can see the screen OK in bright sun, but I normally run it at about 20%. The screen aspect ratio makes it easy to reach either edge of the screen, but as I never use the phone one handed that doesn't matter to me.

Speaker is OK, but I only use it for listening to phone calls. It does have the dinosaur 3.5mm jack.

Huawei gives you an awful lot of settings to tinker with, but sometimes this makes it difficult to find a particular setting buried deep in some menu.

The phone came with Anrdoid 8.0, but immediately updated to 9.0 with November 2018 security patches.

As it's meant to be a gaming phone, it came with several pre-installed games, all of which I immediately deleted. There are a couple of other Honor apps that can be deleted if you want to.

Bluetooth connected to all my headphones and speakers without a problem. The bluetooth version is 4.2 with AptX HD.

Main camera is 16 MP, f/2.2 with the front camera being 16 MP, f/2.0. Photos are fine for me.

Battery life - I had no problem getting through a day with more than 50% available at bed time most days.

Poundland Christmas lights Mods.

Plus how to make them run from a usb charger instead of batteries. You need a couple of 10 ohm resistors and a soldering iron. I am definitely going to try this. One of those "I did it because I could" projects.

Free Photos

When we went to see our eldest daughter at Uni last weekend I noticed that she had lots of postcard-sized photos on her noticeboard. Prints are "Free" up to 45 6x4 per month, or a total of 500 per year. Other sizes are available if you pay. There is a delivery charge of £3.99 (ie not totally free), but it seems reasonable for what you get. You can print directly from Google photos, or photos on your phone. Quality looked OK to me, but I am not a pixel peeper.

Brother P Labeller

I have had a Brother P Touch label printer for years. I don't think that they sell my model any longer and I expect you can find a cheaper equivalent to this one. It's very simple to use and has a built-in cutter and gizmo to separate the label from the backing tape.

I use it for labeling all sorts of things, such as files and storage boxes. It's great for labeling wall warts. Most of us have drawers full of rechargeable electronic items, which come with their own wall wart. If you don't label the plug it can be almost impossible to work out which plug you should use to power/recharge a particular bit of electronics.

Amazon link.

Service Charges in Restaurants

Service Charges in Restaurants. If I go to a restaurant, rather than a self service cafe, I can't avoid "Service". It's a non optional part of the experience. As such the price should be built into the price of the meal. If I get crap service, I simply won't go back to the same place again.

I don't think any other part of the economy has such a strange idea of selling you something that includes a service element. If I take my car into the garage I don't expect to pay an extra 10% because the mechanic did their job properly.

Duronic Electric Hub

A recent problem with our Aga means that we are without heating in the kitchen, clothes dryer, hot water and the ability to cook anything except by using the microwave. It will probably be out of action for a week or so while I run some new copper pipe and move the control box.

The Duronic Electric Hob has two different sized rings and seems reliable so far. It's easy to clean and powerful enough to heat things rapidly. I think it's pasta with everything until the Aga is fixed:)

Amazon link

Citibikes Vienna

A few years ago I tried to hire a couple of Boris Bikes in London with my son. Despite help from an Official Assistant, we were unable to unlock two bikes at once. So Boris you owe me £15, which with late payment charges and interest comes to just over £10,000.

Citibikes in Vienna is much better! There are various apps which show you the location of all the docking stations and the number of bikes available at each one. You can do most of the preliminary registration stuff on the website. However, the final step of registering your debit card requires you to use one of the card readers at a bike station. Note for Monzo users, just tell the machine it's a credit card when registering.

Fees are very reasonable. The first hour is free and the second costs 1EU. Vienna is pancake flat with lots of cycle lanes, so even occasional cyclists should be fine cycling around easy and safe.

However, the bikes are really heavy. They would probably survive a direct hit from an anti-tank missile. There is a single front brake, but the main braking is activated by back pedaling. If you are used to aligning your pedals when you mount the bike by sticking your foot under a pedal and back pedalling to get the pedal in the correct position, you can't do this on a Citibike.

There are three gears. However, the weight of the bike means that even on slight inclines you have to push hard in the lowest gear.

If you are a regular cyclist you will find the weight and braking system very annoying. On my 6.5k ride I averaged about 16kph. On a similar route with my normal road bike this would have been about 35kph.

In conclusion good bike for short rides (10-15 minutes) at a very reasonable price.