Older blog entries for danstowell (starting at number 63)

Review: Waka Waka Solar Charger

Last week we went out to Dartmoor, camping with no electricity or running water. Just beforehand, my friend Jan posted that he'd just received his "Waka Waka" solar charger / light in the post. I think he funded their Kickstarter project - apparently the company started with a solar-powered LED light intended for developing countries, one of those business models where they use the profits from selling their neat little device in wealthy countries to support making it available in poorer countries.

Anyway, so Waka Waka make this neat-looking little solar charger that can provide reading light or can charge your phone via USB. Possibly ideal for camping trips, so I got one too. I don't have much experience with other solar cells but here's my review of this one. Looks neat doesn't it?

waka waka photowaka waka photo

The short review: Really pleasant and functional design which can sit/stand/hang anywhere or fold away. In southern England in August, it needs a proper sunny day to charge my smartphone all the way up (i.e. it can't do a full charge every day) but it's great for topping up a phone so you can keep using it. The LED light is surprisingly bright and pleasantly-coloured.

Some extra notes:

I should mention that my main aim was to keep the smartphone charged up so I could use it for GPS and important phone calls. For that reason, we didn't use the LED light feature much (so that we didn't run it down), so I guess I can't really evaluate the LEDs beyond saying they're lovely and bright and neutrally-coloured, and apparently can last for dozens of hours from a single charge. So, having said that:

  • It has nicely-thought-out status lights so you know what's going on. A subtly flashing "bip-bip" indicates how fast it's charging, and a blue light lets you know when it's charging up your USB device.

  • In southern England (latitude about 50 degrees) in August, it needs a good sunny day to charge all the way from zero to full. With varied sunshine, it charges up pretty far, but only enough to get my smartphone up to about two-thirds. That's not a bad deal at all, and if you live in sunnier climes or if you use your smartphone moderately rather than running it dry each day, I guess you'll have no trouble at all. (Though in less-sunny climes, or if it's not summer....) Also, I didn't "optimise" the position of the solar panel too heavily, just left it on the roof of the tent, pointed it at the sun, and went out walking for the day.

  • Once charged, it doesn't hold its charge for ever. It seems that overnight it can fall back from its 4-bars full status down to 2-bars. So it's not exactly like you can treat it as a "spare battery" once charged, I'd guess it makes sense to use the charge within a day if you're going to.

  • Waterproofness: I must admit I'm a bit baffled by the instructions. Apparently it's rainproof on one side (the solar panel side) but not on the other side. So does this mean it's OK to leave it out in the rain, or not? Well, who knows - but I left it out all day, on at least a couple of days and nights when it rained pretty heavily, and it seems fine.

  • It looks like an iphone in a holder! Now you might think that's just irrelevant. Actually, we live in London so it means I can't leave it outside to charge, and can't really leave it prominently showing anywhere, in case it gets swiped. Luckily, on holiday we were in the middle of a field with no-one around.

As I said, the design of the thing is v pleasant - nice simple block design that has a robust feel to it, including the little stand bit that folds out. Also the stand has a hole that can be used for standing the thing on a bottle, or hanging it from the ceiling, or strapping it to your back-pack. Neat.

Syndicated 2013-08-21 15:01:03 (Updated 2013-08-21 15:01:39) from Dan Stowell

20 Aug 2013 (updated 20 Aug 2013 at 09:10 UTC) »

Zine review: Caught by the River, Field Recording Special

Just before we went on holiday to Dartmoor I got something nice in the post: a zine, the "Caught by the River" Field Recording Special edited by Cheryl Tipp, a lover of field recordings who also happens to be Natural Sounds Curator at the British Library.

Cover art

First reaction: beautiful cover art! A fab drawing of a menagerie of animals surrounds a jolly portrait of the stereotypical field-recordist: a middle-aged man wearing headphones and carrying both a boom mic and a parabolic shotgun mic. Cute.

Inside, there's some great contemplative writing on field recording. It's got a nice amateur feel to a lot of the writing, personal and not too polished. There is the occasional bit of self-indulgence or pretentiousness but not enough to sap its appeal. And this is balanced by some more accomplished and well-written wordism from the likes of Andrew Weatherall and Jonny Trunk. Great names to have in such an issue, plus of course Chris Watson's name appears more times than anyone else's, mentioned (in passing or as subject) by almost everyone.

To give a bit of flavour, some articles I liked:

  • an account of a field recording trip (led by Chris Watson) in North India, and the sort-of-successful attempt to record a Bengal tiger;
  • a lively tribute to Basil Kirchin, someone I hadn't heard of but evidently a pioneer of tape ops;
  • a fever-induced meditation on what the world might be like if sound was a finite resource, about to run out.

The zine really reminds you to listen. I work with sound every single day but in a scientific mode rather than a contemplative mode, so it was good to take this zine out into the Dartmoor countryside.

Halfway through reading the zine I went outside into the dusk to listen. Many birds around, tweeting or whooping only occasionally, and all really spatialised sounds, locatable to one tree or another. In contrast, the slowly modulating steady grey noise of a distant car carving its way up the valley, and the lighter noise of the stream behind and to my left.

Then something unexpected: from across the valley, the sound of someone practising drumming on a djembe or similar hand-drum. At first I wasn't sure if it was a drum or something industrial echoing across the valley, but eventually the shifting rhythm patterns made it clear. A lovely quirk of this soundscape, distinctive but heavily cloaked in the big reverb of the valley.

There's certainly a question to be asked about whether the field-recordist attitude leads to actually engaging with an environment, or instead to distancing oneself from it in an objectifying "audience" mode. After all, it's a bit weird to be present in a sound environment but trying not to be present.... Either way, the practised skill of staying still and quiet and listening opens up some enchanting experiences. I'm not definite that all this sound needs to be on tape - but it does need to be heard.

Zine makes you think.

Syndicated 2013-08-20 03:13:12 (Updated 2013-08-20 04:45:43) from Dan Stowell

Ale in Dartmoor and Devon

While walking around Dartmoor we had some great local-ish ales. Breweries around here seem to be doing a good selection of British ales, not quite as US-influenced as some of the other UK breweries I've sampled recently? Or maybe I'm imagining that.

Here's my list, in roughly descending order of excellence - though they're all good:

  • Bays Summer Ale - light and summery, the tiniest hint of fruit. Very refreshing.
  • Dartmoor's Dartmoor IPA - I liked this one a lot. Lovely clear IPA, golden light colour, hont of pepper, slightly creamy finish. Yum, and Ph says so too.
  • Teignworthy's Moor Beer - very nice session beer. Apparently this is the "Rugglestone" Moor Beer brewed by Teignworthy and served in the Rugglestone Inn (the best pub we found in Dartmoor!). There are a few "Moor Beer"s around.
  • Exmoor Ale - definite quality, full-flavoured but I can't pin it down with any adjectives. I've had their beers at All Tomorrow's Parties before, good stuff.
  • St Austell's Proper Job - a good hoppy IPA, not crazy pokey but a lovely tang.
  • Sharp's Cornish Coaster - refreshingly watery but with a honeyish body, good after a long walk.
  • Devon Ale - good, amber, medium hoppy with some caramel. However, I didn't write down which brewery this is from and now it's not obvious which beer this is actually likely to be...
  • Dartmoor's Legend - decent light and touch of caramelly.
  • Dartmoor's Jail Ale - a worthwhile session ale.
  • St Austell's Tribute - this is decent but too deep in the melon/peach axis for me - not my kind of thing.

Plus a couple which are definitely not from the Devon/Cornwall area, including Lakeland - rich and dark, had it before, like it.

Syndicated 2013-08-19 10:08:34 (Updated 2013-08-19 10:10:29) from Dan Stowell

A great question about birdsong

There are many mysteries about birdsong, some obvious and some not. This one hadn't occurred to me, but it's a great question:

"Why does a sedge wren with 300-400 different songs take days to reveal them, as if he didn't care whether anybody knew how many songs he was capable of singing?"

(From Nature's Music: The Science of Birdsong, chapter 4.)

Syndicated 2013-08-07 05:52:32 (Updated 2013-08-07 05:52:58) from Dan Stowell

Open access: green does NOT mean CC-BY-NC

There's been a fair amount of confusion around the new UK guidelines that mean we have to publish our research articles as open access. One of the urban myths that has sprung up is rather curious, and it's the idea that if you choose to publish under the green route, you're supposed to publish under a Creative Commons NonCommercial licence. This is not true. (It's just one of the many licences that would work.) But I have heard it from heads of research groups, I've heard it from library staff. We need to be clear!

(BACKGROUND: "Green" and "gold" are terms often used to describe two different sorts of open access, and they're also the two terms used by Research Councils UK [RCUK] to tell us what to do. "Gold" means that the publisher has to provide the article freely to everyone, rather than charging people for access; in lieu of that, most publishers will charge us researchers in order to publish under gold. "Green" means the publisher doesn't have to do anything, except to agree that the author can put a copy of the paper on their website or in an online repository. So, both enable free access to research, but in different ways, and with different costs and benefits.)

Now, in RCUK official guidance we have the option of green or gold publication. If we go the gold route, RCUK requires a specific licence: Creative Commons Attribution, aka CC-BY. If we go the green route, the RCUK policy doesn't exactly specify the licence, but it does say that it has to be published "without restriction on non‐commercial re‐use". Pause for a second to unpick the triple-negative in that turn of phrase...

The reason for that wording is that RCUK didn't want the publishers to "lock down" green OA by saying things like "you can self-archive the paper, but only under these strict terms and conditions which don't actually let people get the benefits of OA". For whatever reasons, they decided that it was OK for publishers to forbid commercial reuse (perhaps to prevent other publishers profiting from simply re-publishing?), but they would draw the line and say they weren't allowed to forbid non-commercial reuse. However, the policy doesn't require any particular licence.

But we might be tempted to ask, well, fine, but what is an example of a licence that would satisfy these RCUK rules? Well, Mark Thorley of RCUK gave an example of this: the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial or CC-BY-NC would be fine. It's an appropriate example because it forbids commercial reuse but allows non-commercial reuse. OK so far?

Unfortunately, when you look at Mark Thorley's slides on the RCUK website, that's not exactly what is conveyed. If you go to slide 10 it says:

"Green (at least post print) with a maximum embargo period of 6(12) months, and CC-BY-NC"

OK that's pretty clear isn't it? It doesn't say that CC-BY-NC is just an example, it basically says CC-BY-NC is required. This is not what Thorley meant. I raised this issue on a mailing list, and he clarified the position:

"The policy does not define a specific licence for green deposit, provided non-commercial re-use such as text and data mining is supported. In presentations I say that this 'equates to CC-BY-NC', however, we do not specifically require CC-BY-NC. This is because some publishers, such as Nature, offer specific deposit licences which meet the requirements of the policy. However [...] this is the minimum requirement. So if authors are able and willing to use more open licences, such as CC-BY, we would encourage this. The more open the licence, the less ambiguities and barriers there are to re-use of repository content."

This clarification is welcome. But unfortunately it was provided in a reply on a mailing list discussion, and the RCUK website itself doesn't provide this clarification, so the misunderstanding is bound to run and run. This week I heard it repeated in an Open Access forum, and I hope that if you've read this far you'll help stop this misconception getting out of hand!

Syndicated 2013-07-17 10:43:33 (Updated 2013-07-17 11:02:52) from Dan Stowell

Birds of Manhattan

It doesn't surprose me that the trees still grow in Manhattan. After all they're captives. They still grow, because life always tries to grow.

What amazes me is the birds cheeping away. You can fly! You must have visited quieter, calmer places? Here in the city no-one can hear you sing. The machinations of the city drown everything out beyond a couple of metres - the cars, the subway, the helicopters. Not a place for easy singing.

Do you like it here? Do you have a good territory? All this human noise, is it a curse or an irrelevance? Or maybe, is it all worth it for the central park?

Syndicated 2013-06-01 11:43:05 from Dan Stowell

An app for a conference - with a surprising set of features

I'm going to a conference next week, and the conference invites me to "Download the app!" Well, OK, you think, maybe a bit of overkill, but it would be useful to have an app with schedules etc. Here is the app listed on google play.

Oh and here's a list (abbreviated) of permissions that the app requires:

"""This application has access to the following:

  • Your precise location (GPS and network-based)
  • Full network access
  • Connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi - Allows the app to connect to and disconnect from Wi-Fi access points and to make changes to device configuration for Wi-Fi networks.
  • Read calendar events plus confidential information
  • Add or modify calendar events and send email to guests without owners' knowledge
  • Read phone status and identity
  • Camera - take pictures and videos. This permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.
  • Modify your contacts - Allows the app to modify the data about your contacts stored on your device, including the frequency with which you've called, emailed, or communicated in other ways with specific contacts. This permission allows apps to delete contact data.
  • Read your contacts - Allows the app to read data about your contacts stored on your device, including the frequency with which you've called, emailed, or communicated in other ways with specific individuals. This permission allows apps to save your contact data, and malicious apps may share contact data without your knowledge.
  • Read call log - Allows the app to read your device's call log, including data about incoming and outgoing calls. This permission allows apps to save your call log data, and malicious apps may share call log data without your knowledge.
  • Write call log - Allows the app to modify your device's call log, including data about incoming and outgoing calls. Malicious apps may use this to erase or modify your call log.
  • Run at start-up.


Now tell me, what fraction of those permissions should a conference-information app legitimately use? (I've edited out some of the mundane ones.) Should ANYONE install this on their phone/tablet?

Syndicated 2013-05-20 00:06:07 (Updated 2013-05-20 00:06:25) from Dan Stowell

20 May 2013 (updated 4 Jun 2013 at 15:23 UTC) »

Boulder Colorado IPAs

Not only is Boulder Colorado the Hebden Bridge of the USA (I'm told it's "where all the hippies went"), but it also has a really impressive amount of craft beer. Following a tip-off (thanks Bob), tonight I went to sample a few IPAs in the Mountain Sun pub. For the education of no-one except myself, here are my tasting notes - first in visual form:

then in words:

  • Illusion Dweller IPA: described as "biscuity" and "english-style" but still with a hoppy sour tang at the back of the mouth, very clear and nice. Tastes like a modern American IPA to me, doesn't remind me of England - but a great balance of tang and biscuit, super drinkable.
  • Vagabond IPA: almost a pure grapefruit hit, reminds me of that Metal Man which I loved in Ireland.
  • FYIPA: "piney" is the main impression. However it's not got the sharp piney poke of Becherovka which I really like. Maybe it's unfair to compare a beer against a spirit, but Becherovka integrates its alcohol flavour in with the pine, whereas FYIPA has a kinda noticeable alcohol taste separate from the pine, which is a bit of a shame IMHO.
  • Hop Vivant: yes it's a hoppy IPA, but more balanced, multivalent, colourful than the others I'm tasting tonight. Not a session beer, a bit too rich for that.
  • Cat Burglar: black IPAs are really confusing. Erm. I like it less than the Thornbridge Raven, but I don't know why.

Not to look a gift-horse in the mouth, these are all lovely beers, very well served, but when they're sitting next to each other I have to compare them. Hence the ups and downs in the notes. The winner for me is definitely the Illusion Dweller. The ratings over at ratebeer tell almost the opposite story for some reason, with Illusion Dweller the only one not scoring ninety-something. Who knows what to make of that.

Updates - more beer I've tried from Mountain Sun:

  • Java Porter - a lovely perky porter, coffee flavours as the name suggests but not too exaggerated.

More beer from other breweries:

  • 90 Shilling by Odell - I was not into this at all. Too caramely I think?
  • Old Elk Brown Ale by Walnut Brewery - really really straightforward brown ale. Not too sweet which is good.
  • 1123 IPA by Walnut Brewery - really very nice IPA, perky and floral, assertive yet balanced.
  • Hoppy Knight by Twisted Pine - this black IPA is much nicer than the Cat Burglar, IMHO. It does remind me of Thornbridge Raven, both of them having a kind of clarity to the taste that other dark things like Guinness have (though they don't taste like Guinness! much hoppier etc etc etc). This has a very refreshing taste up-front, with a clearly-separated coffee flavour at the end - neat! And not weird either.

My faves, I think, are 1123, Hoppy Knight, Illusion Dweller.

Syndicated 2013-05-19 23:13:49 (Updated 2013-06-04 11:04:46) from Dan Stowell

Haggis and orange salad

Haggis and orange - why of course! This salad serves 2. The red wine vinegar really helps the flavours marry, and the beansprouts add a nice bit of crunch - if you're being posh you could also/instead add some pomegranate seeds.

  • 1 portion of cooked haggis
  • 1 medium orange
  • 1 generous handful rocket
  • 1 very small handful beansprouts (probably no more than 10 sprouts)
  • 3 tsp olive oil, approx
  • 2.5 tsp red wine vinegar

In a large bowl, break the haggis into small pieces with a spoon. The haggis we had was a little dry so I also added a dab of oil at this point.

Now prepare the orange. First, with a zester, scrape off about 1/4 of the orange's zest, into the haggis. Then, with a knife slice the top and bottom off the orange, then stand the orange on a chopping board and slice off the rest of the peel. Then cut the orange into segments, and cut each segment in two, so you have little bite-sized bits. Pick out any pips. Add the orange pieces to the haggis, and also tip in the small amount of juice from the chopping board.

Add the rocket and the beansprouts, and mix. Add the olive oil and red wine vinegar and mix it to dress evenly. You won't need to season much, since the haggis brings a lot of seasoning.

Serve with toast.

Syndicated 2013-05-12 14:29:31 (Updated 2013-05-12 14:33:42) from Dan Stowell

python: combining interpolation with heatmaps

I saw Brandon Mechtley's splmap which is for plotting sound-pressure measurements on a map. He mentioned a problem: the default "heatmap" rendering you get in google maps is really a density estimate which combines the density of the points with their values. "I need to find a way to average rather than add" he says.

Just playing with this, here's my take on the situation. You don't average the values, you create some kind of interpolated overall map, but separately you also use the density of datapoints to decide how confident you are in your estimate at various points on the map. Python code is here and here's an example plot:

Dataviz folks might already have a name for this...

Syndicated 2013-04-16 10:33:02 (Updated 2013-04-16 10:42:43) from Dan Stowell

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