Archive for February, 2007

My Unicycle

February 23rd, 2007

Okay, the unicycle. Some people were a little confused as to why my brother bought me one for Christmas. Granted it is not the most normal of presents, but it is not a daft as you may think.

Many a year ago I tried to ride a unicycle at a party and after a while managed to go a reasonable distance. We borrowed the unicycle for a week and after a few bruises, a new window in the garage door (it was only small) and a lot of getting up I because quite good at going in a straight line.

My brother obviously remembered this, and decided that perhaps I needed more practic so I can go round corners, so that is why he gave the a unicycle for Christmas. Personally I think it was a great present and next year you are all getting unicycles from me :-).

Free the comments

February 22nd, 2007

I have enabled anonymous comments on my blog so you will no longer need to register with Blogger to make a point. Although I did consider moving away from Blogger to enable more customization it is doing what I need it to do, and doing it well, so I will stick with it for now.

Live travel information – The inside story

February 21st, 2007

This is a quick summary of my BarCampLondon2 presentation that may be interest to you if wanting to code a travel related mashup.


Many people know me for many reasons, but many do not know that I am fascinated by live travel information as much as I am packet switched network optimisation. Normally neither of these is a subject I talk about a parties. :-)

This story starts when I purchased a Psion WaveFinder DAB digital radio but was not overly impressed with the software, so developed my own. This was called DAB Bar and was surprisingly popular. The project is still going and is supported by many users and industry professionals.

So what about the travel?

I started many side projects associated with the DAB services available in the UK and produced a TPEG decoder that decoded the BBC’s experimental service on the national multiplex. TPEG is a protocol that was being developed by an EBU working group when and was designed to deliver travel information to the end user using broadcast technology.

TPEG is a propriety data specification and transport protocol that was designed for broadcast and not access across the Internet, but the object structure of the protocol can be presented nicely as XML, now called tpegML. The one key difference is that TPEG can rely on the data being ordered within an object while this is not so in XML. This is a problem parsing a records with multiple locations.

What information is available for mashing then?

The complete database of travel information is available through the BBC travel news web site. You may be interested to know that the text is the same that is presented to the travel presenters on the radio who somehow convert it to English on the fly.

The data is also available in tpegML and RSS from through BBC Backstage. This is licensed for personal use.

A feed of the raw TPEG data is available over the air on the BBC nation DAB multiplex, and over HTTP thorough the BBC R&D web site. Sadly this feed only contains 27 items and has not been updated since 2004, but is still good for testing. Source code libraries are also available through the R&D web site if you are interested in playing further with TPEG.

I use the tpegXL feeds for my Google Earth Backstage Mashup that pulls down all the required regional feeds, caches them, and overlays the incidents on the amazing Google Earth.

After demonstrating this to a friend working at the Highways Agency National Traffic Control Centre I was given access to the NTCC tpegML feed and the new OTAP feed. OTAP is a protocol designed to move data between various transport related organisations unlike TPEG that is designed to feed consumer devices. I did a Google Earth mashup with these feeds as well.

So what is the inside story then?

Well I can tell you how the BBC data gets put together. Trafficlink compiles the travel information from multiple sources including local councils, the police and public calls and traffic/webcams. This information is used to feed many services including BBC and ILR radio stations, and the BBC web site. Originally this information was made available to Serco who edited it to produce the national travel news. The TPEG stream came from the Serco database and this is the reason why the national feed over DAB has only a small number of records.

Eventually Serco outsourced all the editorial to Trafficlink. Unfortunately not all the systems has been updated and this is why the TPEG feed is stuck in 2004. I believe this is also the cause of the current failure of the motorway and national tpegML feeds.

So where are the trains?

We made mention of Matthew Somerville’s superb live train times map mashup and he joined us later on in the presentation. His system screen scrapes the live departure board with permission of National Rail and predicts the position of current trains. It is not using any of the public transport tpegML feeds that are mostly entered by hand and only show severe delays, but it is very much worth a play with anyway.

What for the future?

I have resisted releasing my TPEG decoder library because of pressure from the industry, but now I am not working for the industry I intend to release a TPEG to tpegML application. This will allow users to transcode the data from the DAB broadcasts and is primarily intended to homebrew navigation systems. This is naturally useless without the full travel database being broadcast on DAB, but I am pleased to say that I have been in discussion with the BBC in relation to it’s bid for a second nation DAB multiplex and it is intended that this will happen. Following a discussion earlier this year it is possible that this information will be licensed in the same way at other Backstage feeds have been.

The BBC web service is well tuned to supply the main BBC content to the masses, but it is not best configured for serving live information. The data is cached for a period of time and no ETAG is used so a full set of data needs retrieving just to check for updates. Also with the national feed down each region needs to be pulled separately with significant data duplication across feeds. My intention it to produce a server that pools and caches the data and implement ETAG implemented. Doing so will reduce bandwidth if used by more than one project and increase the speed.

That’s all folks…

At last, I have finished waffling on. If you have any questions then please ask. You may also be interested to know that I will be posting my thoughts on BarCampLondon2 when I have a moment and my views on how we can improve BarCamps it in the future, not that there is much scope to make it better. Last time my advice was to remember a bottle opener. O, yes, and I did admit in the presentation that I did get a job as a travel presenter in the middle of this so you might as well have a listen. :-)

I am a little hard to contact at the moment…

February 17th, 2007

If you are trying to contact me in a hurry you may have a few problems. My mobile is working but the voice mail is playing up a little as I am not always notified I have one waiting.

Sadly I am also not on email most of the time as the free Wifi we were expecting from British Telecom as part of BarCampLondon2 appears to be a 24 hours pass that will leave me off-line unless I pay. As you have probably guessed I am a little peeved about that.

Sorry about that, but if it is urgent the best send me a text so I can get back to you.

Upgrading my DigiFusion FVRT100

February 13th, 2007

At the end of 2005 my video recorder decided that it really did not want to play back videos and played snowstorms instead. Rather than replace the video I decided to spend a little more and purchase a DigiFusion FVRT100 form a high street store. This was on offer for £120 at the time and was one of my better buys. I strongly recommend the dual tuner.

Personally I love the device that fits my lifestyle very well, but at times I wish it could record a little more. I tried replacing the 40GB Maxtor Fireball 3 with a 120MB IBM Deskstar, and it worked a treat.

One down side was the Deskstar is an amazingly loud drive and this one was rather old, so I wanted to replace it with a brand new quieter one. I purchased a new Seagate Barracuda because they are a nice quiet drive. Unfortunately this kept crashing, very frequently, as did the Samsung SpinPoint and Maxtor DiamondMax that I tried.

After a bit of research I figured out that this was power related. I also figured out that upgrading the 12V power supply alone was not enough as the 5V supply, regulated within the device, was also at fault. In the end I used an old PC power supply to supply both the main unit and the drive directly. I disagree with the advice of upgrading the 12V adapter alone as I found the system to occasionally crash when doing many things at a time (recording twice and playing for example). Below is a list of the power requirements of the drives I tested, just in case you were interested.

  • IBM Deskstar (300ma, 500ma)
  • Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 9 (670ma, 960ma)
  • Maxtor Fireball 3 (559ma, 601ma)*
  • Samsung SpinPoint (700ma, 500ma)
  • Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (720ma, 350ma)

* The original drive

So now I have a fully working system that I can schedule a couple of weeks of recordings. There are a few other mods that can be made, and ways to retrieve a recording from the drive, but alas not transfer back to the unit. The best place to find everything is here.

Finally a reminder that you can totally destroy your hardware by doing things like this so don’t do it unless you don’t mind breaking the system and voiding any warranty. Today you can also get a higher capacity PVR costing about the same as a smaller unit and a new drive. If you are wanting to build a more complete and customisable system then perhaps you should consider MythTV as demonstrated by Revision3. Do let me know if this was of any help and if you have moded your PVR.

February 12th, 2007

Just a personal piece of advice not to use I have just received some email from them with some discount, but I would not touch them with a barge pole.

The reason why is that a while ago I needed a service to do various email spam and virus scanning and forwarding tasks after an ISP we were using ( were having problems. I called up to confirm that the service offered could do the tasks required. The guy on the sales line checked with the technical guy, and I was told that there service would do what I needed, so I went ahead and ordered the service and paid a little extra for support.

When it came to setting up the service I could not figure out how to do it and contacted the support service. I was told (eventually) that the service could not in fact scan an email and froward it on as required. When I complained I was told that the person I asked about the service misunderstood the requirement and had asked the technical guy the wrong question.

As they had admitted they had given me incorrect information before I took out the service, and that they admitted that it was a communication problem between there employees that caused this, I asked for a refund. I was told that refunds are not given but I could contact the owner, that I did, and did not get a response.

Sadly I am not alone in experiencing bad service. More bad reviews can be found on

Update: After this blog entry I eventually for a businesslike response from Paul Hughes, only 13 months late, stating that they welcome comments positive or negative. No refund though. :-)

February 10th, 2007

Despite music licensing issues there are many many Internet radio station available to listed to and I am rarely left with noting to listen to.

Despite this is was intrigued by postings on Media UK and comments on Tech Talk Radio podcast so I decided to check this site out.

It is the result of the Music Genome Project, a project that categorises attributes of music. All you do is select a artist or track you like and the site will go off selecting music that shares similar attributes. You can select the music you like and don’t as it goes to help in the selection. what you end up with is a tremendously well tailored service for what you want to listen to.

So if you like music, no matter what type, then have a look (and listen) to

Lost In Translation

February 8th, 2007

This is a set of instructions that one of my colleagues brought in. They are the instructions for a mobile phone protective screen, and something tells me that is was translated by someone (or some software) that was not top of the class.

Click on the image and read the English translation, and do read it all because there are some corkers in the text.

RAC Screen Scraper

February 8th, 2007

Last year I was sent this screen scraper for the RAC, probably to persuade me to renew my membership. I blogged about this in December.

To my knowledge you can not buy these, but I would recommend it if you could. It fits nicely in the door’s pocket and because it is more flexible than your traditional scraper it cleans the windows of ice and show fare more effectively.

FON for free

February 7th, 2007

Last year I signed up to FON and purchased a La Fonera Wi-Fi router.

The FON project is a simple Wi-Fi sharing project. If you give other FON users access to your internet connection then you have full access to all the other FON hotspots. You can either flash your current Wi-Fi router with the FON firmware, or purchase a discounted router from the FON shop. You have full access to your Internet connection using a WEP/WPA secured connection and other FON users and your guests can access the internet using an open connection and a simple logon screen.

If you are interested in participating then I have some good news. Normally the La Fonera costs around £20. But FON is giving away 2500 free in the UK to celebrate it’s first birthday.

People can also pay to use the FON network, and this pays for the router discounts and freebies. If you don’t want access to the FON network then you can instead receive money from paying customers using your connection.

Before jumping in I do have some points to consider, but do remember I considered them and have jumped. The bandwidth of the public connection can be throttled so other users will not overly impact on your connection, but I can not recommend participating in the project if you pay for the bandwidth used, or have a low limit to you usage. It is also worth noting that not all ISPs allow you to share your connection in this way. Finally I don’t recommend using the Wi-Fi router and hard wired machines unless you know how to secure those machines fro possible hackers.