Riding The Synthwave

Aside from robotics and computers, my other interest is synthesizers, mainly the ones from the 80’s and, of course, hand-in-hand with this: the Synthwave genre of synth music. Synthwave has been described as

a genre of electronic music influenced by 1980s film soundtracks and video games

I prefer to think of it as all the music we wanted to create in the 80’s but weren’t able to. Many of the people I know who are into Synthwave are, like me, technically and musically orientated but, back in the 80’s, didn’t have the finances or the right circumstances to be able to produce the music we wanted to. I certainly didn’t, although I did beg my parents to buy me a PowerTran Trancendent 2000 self-build synth from Electronics Today, to no avail. Still, I was able to still make music using my ZX Spectrum although it was harder work than playing a synth. I sated my thirst for synth playing by spending my time in Andertons Music in Guildford most Saturday afternoons, playing a range of synths such as the Roland Alpha Juno, Prophet 5, Yamaha DX7, MiniMoog, PolyMoog, Jupiter 8 and so on.

My parents eventually bought me a wonderful piece of kit called the Eminent 310U, a dual keyboard organ with Solina String synth attached. Even though it wasn’t a Prophet 5 or a DX7 I loved playing it, especially as I managed to sound (and play) a bit like Jean-Michel Jarre (the reason being that he uses an Eminent liberally on both Oxygene and Equinox and several other albums). Unfortunately, my parents had to get rid of it when we moved as it was too big to fit into the new place. To say I was unhappy was an understatement.

Since those days I haven’t been in a position to write music or afford the hardware to do so (that’s another story I may get into one day), until now.

Thanks to a good friend of mine, I’m now the proud owner of a Sequential Circuits Prophet 2000 and a Roland Alpha Juno 1 plus various DAW’s (Digital Audio Workshops) and a heap of VST synth emulators (mostly 80’s synths and one specifically for JMJ type sounds). I also have a Soundcloud account performing under the nom-de-plume of TransSonix. I also have an album being released on various online platforms called “No Ordinary Life

Most of my music fits into the Synthwave genre and I am now creating a project called The Trans Synthwave Orchestra, a music collaboration site designed to enable musicians from anywhere to share music, stems, advice and, hopefully, to perform together online and create wonderful music, synthwave or otherwise. It’s going to take some work but I’ve already got a good start and hopefully I’ll be able to launch the website soon.

 

Christine x

Ripley v2.0: Let Her RIP

What’s In A Name?

During this re-design phase, I’ve been thinking about what Ripley actually is. She’s not really a robot as she doesn’t perform any specific tasks, she’s not a drone as a) she isn’t remotely controlled and b) she has no specific purpose and nor is she an android as she doesn’t look remotely human.

Eventually I did discover a way to describe her: she’s a RIP: Roving Intelligent Platform:

  • Roving: She moves around under her own power and can be given planned routes or decide her own, depending on the environment.
  • Intelligent: She can make decisions based on what her senses tell her about her immediate environment and resolve conflicts should they arise.
  • Platform: She has no current purpose except that of an experiment, but can be tailored to whatever function is required.

I hadn’t named her with the RIP acronym in mind but, fortunately, it fits quite nicely.

 

Intelligent Design?

As a basis for the redesign, I have managed to cobble together the following diagram, mainly to organise my thoughts into some form of coherent pattern and also to give me a bit of a starting point. I’ll eventually expand on each of the topics (the bits with the thick blue lines) to a point where there is actual code but, for now, this will serve as the basic description.

RIPleyIdeas_IV_ALPHA_v1a

RIPley: Initial Design Layout

As you can see, the left-hand part of the diagram is the hardware/software interface, featuring the RC2014 & the Pi. The right-hand portion shows my thoughts on the management software and the intelligence functions (decision making, conflict resolution etc). This is wholly Pi-based, written in C/C++ and running under Linux (Ubuntu).

 

Hardware Management:

In the Hardware Management pane you can see the Operations topics of Forward, Rear & Tilt sensors and the camera. These are the functions that will control the hardware and are detailed in the Software Control pane on the left. These function names are leftovers from the original software build used to test Ripley’s hardware, prior to this re-design.

Further Operations functions are:

  • GPS (location services) which will be provided by the Adafruit HAT GPS module,
  • GSM/GPRS (mobile data) provided by a DROK SIM800 GSM module &
  • WiFi services provided by the Pi’s builtin Broadcom wireless NIC.

 

All of these Operations functions are controlled by the Management functions:

  • Forward, Rear & Tilt sensors are managed by Spatial Management (SM), giving Ripley a sense of her external environment (what’s in front, what’s behind and the direction of any incline she’s on, as well as a feed from the GPS so she knows how far from her OP (origin point) she is).
  • Camera Management (CM) controls the camera, including pan/tilt/zoom and whether nor not image recognition is required or just a feed to the ‘net.
  • Location Management (LM) monitors the GPS feed and provides GPS data to other functions as required.
  • Remote Control Management (RCM) switches between WiFi and GSM/GPRS (depending on whether recognised WiFi is in range or not) to maintain the network connection and also manages remote control instructions when requested.

 

Logic/Intelligence:

These functions provide Ripley’s ‘brain’, such that it is:

  • Image Recognition (IR) utilises basic object recognition to allow Ripley to distinguish between static objects (such as rocks, fences, walls etc) and mobile objects (cats, dogs, humans etc). This gives her the ability to decide whether or not to go round an object (as in a rock or a fence) or to wait for the object to move of its own accord (as in human or canine obstacles) or even to run away. IR works alongside the forward and rear ultrasonic sensors.
  • Collision Avoidance (CA) works alongside IR, Spatial & Location management to avoid roads (LM), mobile obstacles (IR) and static obstacles (SM).
  • Decision Making is fairly self-explanatory and works hand-in-hand with all of the other functions including :
  • Conflict Management. This function is for resolving conflicts in decisions, being the final arbiter. Not much is known about this function at the moment.

 

Epilogue:

This has been a fairly short intro to the current layout. I’m sure that it will change with time but any changes will be documented here in the blog. As each topic is developed, I will post an individual explanation of each. I’m sure there is someone out there who will find this vaguely interesting.

As always, if so inclined then leave comments but keep them clean. Ta.

Christine x

 

Tesla Girl Notes: Punishing Luxury*

Many things have happened since I restarted this blog and wrote the “Hidden Triggers” entry back in November 2017. The biggest of which is finally getting a job back in IT. It’s a contracting job but a job nontheless.

 

Taking Out Contracts:

It started out as a really low-level contract: upgrading monitor stands & docking stations for a large law firm. Hard work, boring but, hey, it brought in the much-needed finance. It also meant a bit of travel: Basingstoke, Reading, Oxford, London, Guildford, which gave me an insight into the vagaries of public transport, not having a car at that time (getting to & from the office in Oxford was a particular joy, especially as I had to be onsite at 9am, which necessitated leaving home at about 5am and usually not getting home till about 8pm).

Once that job was over I then went on to some cable-monkey work, installing switches, cabinets and mid-level cabling for a dental ceramics company near Sunbury then some floor-level networking for a artiste management company in London, giving credence to a comment I once made that:

“I seem to spend most of my time under other peoples desks”

Moving on, I then stepped up the ladder a little by being moved to a large accountancy firm near Tower Bridge, ostensibly to diagnose and repair Lenovo laptops, with a slight increase in pay that allowed me to finally buy a car. I chose a nice little 1999 VW Golf 1.9 GT TDI, which I named “Halo“, after one of my all-time favourite characters in 2000AD.

Fortunately, the organisation I was then working for were based just outside the Congestion Charge Zone and my route to and from work took me along the edge of the Neutral Zone (as I call it). Unfortuantely, due to Halo’s age and engine, I would have had to pay not only the congestion charge but also the T-charge, an extra payment for diesel vehicles that don’t have a registered emissions rating (introduced in 2000).

I eventually left the accountancy firm, (strangely, they were reluctant to let me go and wanted me full time) and moved onto my current contract in Mayfair which is a long-term contract providing IT support to 250+ users. The site I’m now working at is the HQ of one of the top 5 ad & media management companies in the world (to give you an idea of their size their total revenue last year (2017) was £15.2 billion).

 

Travelogue:

The working hours are good and the remuneration means I can live in a style I’ve not been accustomed to in many years but the travel can be harsh. I tend to miss out on standing and being squashed aboard a train for an hour from Aldershot to Waterloo by driving to Clapham Junction where I can park Halo in a secure underground car park and then get the train to Waterloo. This is where the ‘fun’ starts. Fortunately, I have several options and many trains to choose from but they all have one thing in common: severe overcrowding. Under good conditions I can arrive at Clapham at 0800 and be at my desk by 0840 but, there have been mornings where I’ve had to miss as many as five trains because I’m unable to get on them due to the sheer numbers of people trying to cram on them. It can often take me longer to get from Clapham to the office than from home to Clapham. Once at Waterloo (or Victoria, depending on the route), its time to negotiate the ‘crowd control’ measures in place most mornings: Ususally a single escalator down to the Underground ticket hall, closure of the link-door to the hall and forcing everyone outside and then back in via the outside door of the ticket hall. This can add nearly a half-hour to what is normally a ten to fifteen minute journey. (A good example is last Thursday: Left home at 0700, arrived Clapham at 0800, on platform at 0805, arrived at desk 0935!).

Going home can be even worse, especially when there are faults on the line, signalling problems or just plain bad management.

 

Epilogue:

So, contracting is great and having the money to live in a bit of luxury is wonderful but getting there and back can be punishing.

*My thanks to Andy & Paul (OMD) for inspiring the name of this blog and the many entries that may, or may not, be in it.

Ripley v2.0: Z80 & The Art of Pi.

Please note: This blog also contains my thoughts and immediate ideas so things may seem to go off at a tangent but I want to keep a complete record. If I seem to be rambling don’t worry, I’ll get back on track eventually.

The original Ripley design utilised a Raspberry Pi and several chunks of control electronics built onto the chassis of an old radio controlled car that I had lying around. Since I started the project things have changed and so has Ripley.

After a conversation with a friend of mine recently, I have redesigned Ripley with a view to splitting up the hardware control and AI functions to increase response times. I had a worry that, despite using a fast processor and running everything on Linux, there would still be too much of a lag between AI decisions and hardware actuations.

This has resulted in the hardware being controlled by an RC2014 , (a Z80-based machine designed by Semachthemonkey) with the control functions written in Z80 assembler (my native language) and the Pi 3B, running the AI and image recognition software, written in C/C++, (my second language), under a Linux OS, which will also handle the networking and GPRS comms.

The following is a diagram showing an idea of how this will look on the hardware side. As I build it, I’ll document it fully, but this will serve to demonstrate the proposition (and if you can tell me where the line in italics comes from then you win my absolute admiration for geekiness).

RipleyIdeas_II

Mindmap of Ripley, utilising the RC2014 & Raspberry Pi 3B

 

The original design called for the Pi to play both the part of hardware controller, comms manager and AI. Even with the quad core ARM processor and running Linux for the OS, this would probably be a difficult task, especially as a camera and image recognition is involved.

It may be that the camera streaming and comms can be handled by the RC2014, taking more of the load off the Pi, leaving more resources for AI and database processing.

Hardware:

Much of the hardware is readily available. Most of it I ordered online via Amazon but, some of it is kit that I had lying around, eg: the chassis with servos and drive motor, power supply (7.2v 7200 mAh battery), camera. The connectors, ultrasonic sensors & stepper motor are part of an electronics kit designed for use with the Pi. The power distribution, H-Bridge motor control & servo control are all purchased seperately along with, of course, the Pi and RC2014 themselves. I will provide a complete list of hardware later.

 

Software:

The RC2014 uses Z80 assembler as its native language so it’s fast with very little lag in processing, despite the 7.3MHz clock speed. The digital I/O board can be adapted to interface with the digital connections of the control hardware.

The Pi, in this case, uses a cut down version of Ubuntu 14.04 with the control and AI software written in C/C++ via MS Visual Studio, (connected to the Pi via SSH), for source control (GIT). The Pi will still need to have the wiringPi interface software installed for the GPRS and image recognition but, otherwise, it will use either the RC2014’s 115kbaud serial interface or, (if I can create the interface), the address/data buses to communicate.

For reference, Ripley_v1_Main_v3_A (pdf) is the last original design for Ripley.

So, that’s a quick overview of how things stand. I can’t guarantee regular updates, my job is unpredictable but I will keep updating as best I can. Of course, commments are welcome, just keep them clean.

Christine x

Hidden Triggers

I’ve decided to scrub this blog a bit and start again. All the original posts are still there, just hidden. Mainly because they really had no relevance to what this blog was about, apart from the ones about Ripley. Those I will put back up on their own page at some point but, for now, they’ll remain hidden until I have some updates on Ripley (which shouldn’t be too long).

I originally started this blog when I was working at TechStart but, as of the 17th September 2016, TechStart closed and is no more, unfortunately. Since then, I’ve been trying to keep busy starting my own company,  studying IT security & malware, trying to work on Ripley and now, I’ve joined an LGBT charity called Outline, based in Woking, as a trustee primarily responsible for IT and as SysAdmin.

I’ve also been writing music under the name ‘TransSonix‘. Thanks to my friend Ruth, I am now the proud owner of a 1985 vintage Sequential Circuits Prophet 2000 synth, an awesome sampling synth which, thanks to it’s MIDI interface, also doubles as a DAW controller enabling me to play a vast array of other synths. I’m loving it.

So, things aren’t too bad at the mo. Going slow but at least there’s room for improvement.

 

Hey, I Can Actually Hear The Radio….

To say that things have been quiet at work would be the understatement of the year. For some reason Friday and Saturday have been extremely quiet. I suspect it has to do with the confluence of end of the month and Halloween combined with school half-term. Still, it meant that we managed to get some work done. One of our biggest  attractions is our repair service. Unfortunately, our success at getting people back into work has also meant that we are short-staffed, meaning the repairs have been backlogging. The volunteers we do have are wonderful and they are helping  to get the repairs done. This is also on top of running the shop floor and helping users of the IT Suite. So this quiet time has been, in a way, fortuitious.

One of the biggest types of repair that we contend with is viral and malware infection. Unfortunately malware is prevalent out there on the ‘net, just waiting for the unwary surfer. I am still in the process of developing a set of basic security lessons I will be teaching at TechStart, and a list of safe-surfing tips which we will be handing out with every machine we sell. The following is part of an article I posted in Passing the Speed of Light but I thought it would be useful to post it here as well.

I’ve tried to create a simple list of precautions and it is quite long but, hopefully, easily understood and may help reduce the amount of times I have to run through the above process.

EMAIL:

  •  – If an email looks too good to be true, it nearly always is.
  •   – Your email address is precious. Before you give it out, think about who you are giving it to.
  •   – Don’t open attachments sent with unsolicited emails. Even if you know who the email is from, exercise a modicum of caution and save and scan the attachment with AV software before opening it.
  •  –  If an attachment has a .pdf.exe or .zip.exe extension then it is almost certainly malware.
  •  – Do not follow links in unsolicited emails, especially if they appear to be from your bank.
  •  – If you get an email purporting to be from your bank, don’t follow embedded links, use your normal method of accessing your account. This way you won’t accidentally give away your details.
  •  – Never, ever respond to Spam emails. This confirms to the spammer that the email account is active, and so you will suddenly be inundated with spam and potentially malware and/or adware.
  •  – Turn off preview in your email client. Many emails contain viral code that can be executed simply by viewing the email in a preview. It can also be used to send a confirmation back to the spammer that the account is active.
  •  – Be careful where you use your email online. Web-bots can be used to ‘harvest’ email addresses from public info and forums.
  •  – Keep a second email account. This can be used to register at sites from which you don’t want to receive further info or spam. It can also be used to recover password/username information in the event that your primary email account is compromised.

WEB BROWSING:

  • – When going to a website from an email, type the website address into the browser rather than clicking the link, (unless the email is from a known, trusted source), as links can be falsified. (What you see is not what you get).
  • – Ensure that privacy settings on your browser are on. This helps prevent too much info being passed to the website.
  • – Ensure your pop-up blocker is on. Some websites drop malware onto your machine using a “background pop-up”.
  • – Empty your webcache on a regular basis. Applications such as CCleaner are handy for this.
  • – When browsing a site that claims to be secure, check that the web address starts with “HTTPS://”. There should also be a padlock symbol on the browser’s toolbar at the bottom or to the left of the address bar (if using Firefox or Chrome). If there isn’t then there is a good chance that it is a ‘phishing’ site, designed to harvest your details.
  • – Try to avoid “Download Managers”. These frequently include malware in the downloads and some don’t even download the file you want, giving excuses such as “payment required”, “file unavailable”, “not enough disk space”, all the while downloading malware to your machine.
  • – Avoid using banking or other private websites over public access wifi. Its too easy for an attacker to acquire your information, (known as a “Man-In-The-Middle” attack), as there is rarely any encryption or other security.
  • – If using public machines do not allow the browser to store your passwords.
 I hope these precautions are helpful. As usual, I welcome any comments.

 

Sometimes It Just Has To Be Done

Ahhh, Sunday. The day of rest. Usually spent lounging around, reading Twitter & Facebook, listening to music and basically doing nothing. A blissful, albeit sometimes boring, time for me.

Today, however, I’ve decided to go into work. The reason? We have a stack of repairs that have come in and, having been short-staffed in the past week, we haven’t been able to complete many of them. So I thought a couple of hours getting some of them out of the way would be a good idea. Its just nice to be able to spend some of Tuesday phoning customers to tell them that their machines are ready ahead of schedule. Plus I get to listen to loud music while I’m doing it. Which is always a bonus.

I might even fire up the new cluster and run a speed test on it. I’ve been meaning to do that for ages.

They Came, They Saw, They Did A Little Shopping….

Yeah, I know. Christine’s at it again. Shamelessly ripping off taglines from old films for her titles. Kudos to anyone who remembers where this tagline comes from.

Today was one of those slightly manic days where it felt, at times, a lot busier than it was. I think it was due to having few volunteers. We had four to start off with but one had to leave at lunchtime and one other only works in the workshop, leaving myself and two others to run repairs, sales and the IT suite. Unfortunately Mark was out and about on other business to do with Techstart. Also unfortunately, one of the volunteers only started in the past week and isn’t till-trained and the other, now having a full-time job, had only worked in the workshop previously and also isn’t till-trained. This meant that whenever a customer wanted to buy a machine, or book in a repair, they had to call on me. Fortunately we had long periods of quiet, enabling us to start catching up on repairs. It meant that the day went fairly quick and we were able to get lots done.

Something we try to instil in our volunteers is a sense of customer service. This includes ensuring the customer has everything they asked for, that they haven’t had to wait too long, (unless its unavoidable, then apologise when they are served), talking to the customer – letting the conversation flow in which ever direction the customer wants. There are two things I always say you should never do while serving a customer:

One is show anger or, even worse, get angry at the customer, no matter how angry they get at you. It belittles you and and can make a bad situation worse. The other is to try to sell the customer something they do not want. To me, this is just plain wrong, (and probably is another reason why I’m still not driving that Audi R8). It can also mean the difference between a customer returning or not.

So, customer service can be summarised in the following:

  1. Serve the customer promptly, making sure they have everything they need.
  2. Apologise if there have been any problems (waiting times, problems with equipment etc)
  3. Talk to the customer, letting them set the pace of any conversation.
  4. Never, ever get angry with, or in front of a customer.
  5. Do not sell a customer something they do not need.

There may be others but these are the most important.

If You Think This Belongs Elsewhere, then I Don’t Want To Know You…

There’s something to be said for talking to people who share certain traits. I am a trans woman. I make no bones about it and don’t hide it. Not do I go around shouting about it. I inform the people who need to know and then leave others to form their own opinions. Maybe its wrong, maybe its different but, either way, its just the way I am. This is the only time I am going to shout about it. TechStart is a trans friendly space. Its the only way I can put it.

If you are a trans woman in the Aldershot/Farnborough/Farnham area, (or any other area for that matter and can travel), and need a safe space to volunteer for your RLE or any other reason, then come to TechStart and ask for Christine.

If you’re unsure then email me and we can talk. christine.anderson@techstart.org.uk

We really are here to help.

By Way of an Explanation….

I think its a good idea for me to quickly explain the title of my previous entry before anyone thinks I am a pretentious idiot who thinks she’s clever. It’s a Latin translation of “I do not have time to bleed” which, in turn, is a posh version of Jessie Ventura’s line in Predator:

Poncho: You’re bleeding, man. You’re hit.
Blain: I ain’t got time to bleed.
Poncho: [Confused] Oh… Okay…
Poncho: [Poncho shoots a bunch of grenades up to the top of the cliff] You got time to duck?

Its geek humour and a comment on how busy we get.