Nothing to see here

Lockdown has sort of officially ended but as a country, we’re not really returning to the office yet in massive numbers, as working from home has proved successful for many and let’s face it, encouraging people to return to the office AT THE START OF THE SCHOOL SUMMER HOLIDAYS was never going to be the greatest piece of joined up thinking from our illustrious leaders.

We’ve continued plugging away at work and household life, which has settled into a bit of a monotonous drudge. The monotony has been alleviated by the lack of rushing around, chasing our own tails, with extra curricula lessons and activities for the kids, and the commute to work more or less done away with. I read a great quote from a senior partner at PwC, a firm that is infamous for it’s long hours, where he said presenteeism is dead. Great soundbite but I suspect the reality will be different!

A lot of people seem to have been putting weight on during the pandemic, gym going exercise curtailed and food and beer offering a happy distraction from sitting around at home all day. Happily I’ve managed to keep up the momentum that the Shape Up! course I did, started back in January. I started the year at 21 stone/130KG and by the start of lockdown was down to 17 stone/110KG. A few months further down I’ve now dropped below 90KG, and *just* under 14 stone. I might have been around that when I got married in 2004, I definitely wasn’t by the time we had kids. I feel a lot better for it and have to say it’s not been anywhere as hard as I thought it would; the cravings for beer, chocolate and crisps subsided very quickly and controlling portion size wasn’t much of a struggle.  Most of the exercise I’ve taken has been walking, around 10KM a day on average, with some cycling thrown in back in June. I definitely feel better for it.

In some ways without a pretty disastrous 2019 (I lost my mum after a long and painful illness), which saw me pile on the weight (well, at least 3 stone of it), I might not have reached the tipping point where I had to make a significant change. It’s difficult to not be a bore about it all to be honest; there are precious few other hobbies it’s still possible to undertake during Covid-Times after all.

We had the dreaded “staycation” last week. Dreaded in the sense that we did have 4 weeks away booked for this year, none of which has actually happened. The first two, April and May, were slap bang at the worst part of lockdown and given how stupidly a of people have been behaving since, we didn’t feel safe for the July and August holidays we had booked as they were a camping holiday with communal facilities and to a very popular tourist area respectively. Instead we racked up a few hundred miles doing day trips to places we’ve not been to before.

I tried to film a few 360 degree videos while we were out so that we’ve got a taste of the outdoors when we’re stuck back at home. They work with or without a VR headset and you’re welcome to spend 15 minutes on a coastal salt marsh if you like!

The kids are now all gearing up to a return to what will be a very different school experience for them and this is causing differing levels of anxiety for all of us. Wish us luck!

Scoob! An okay movie that lets down the Scooby-Doo fan in us all

I’ve been thinking on Scoob! and why it was ultimately a pretty but disappointing Scooby-Doo movie.

In case you haven’t realised, there are a massive number of direct to streaming/DVD Scooby-Doo movies out there, 33 at the last count, with another one due out this year (the full list is here) and the thing is, much like the brilliant Mystery Inc TV series, most of them are pretty darn good. Yes, there are a few celeb endorsed outings that only work if you know the celebs (the WWE movies & recent Gourmet Ghost, with it’s America focussed celebrity chefs, spring to mind), and some are definitely better than others BUT they all fit into a continuing Scooby-Doo continuum and cleverly deal with the older series when it wasn’t old man Withers in a mask but an actual ghost pretty well. There was recently a sequel to the 80s 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo series, which included a grown up Flim Flam, thankfully ignored Scrappy-Doo, and dealt with the whole “ghosts are real” thing from the older series really well. 

Scoob! doesn’t really make any attempt to fit into the Scooby-Doo universe, and more problematic is the fact that the movie is, like a lot of recent Warner Bros releases, a blatant attempt to launch an expanded universe, in this instance a Hanna-Barbera universe with Dick Dastardly & Mutley, Captain Caveman and other luminaries making an appearance, at the expense of the movie itself.

In making a play for the bigger picture, WB have lost what makes Scooby-Doo as great as it is, year in and year out. My 11 year old will watch anything from the original 1969 series onward, and loves the references to old shows and episodes that pop up in the newer DTV movies.

Early on Scoob! promises so much with a montage of classic moments from the older TV series near the start as we move from the gang as little kids to the teenagers they’re better known as. If only they’d stuck to the tropes that make Scooby-Doo what it is, even as the newer movies do so while still sending themselves up and playing with those tropes in a respectful but often clever manner. Ultimately though Scoob! suffers, overreaching with franchise/expanded universe ambition and losing the essence that attracts generation after generation of fans.

It’s not that Scoob! is a bad film in isolation; it’s entertaining, some of the set pieces work well and the gang’s dynamic is pretty good but there are other things it does badly. By focussing on the titular Scooby, in a way that the TV show never does, the film loses focus and can’t help but compare badly to the DTV movies.

Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X- which one should I get?

There are tonnes of technical articles on the internet about the relative merits of both the new consoles coming out later this year from Sony and Microsoft. The new Xbox Series X has faster processor and graphics gubbins but the Playstation 5 has a “revolutionary” SSD (storage device). Until they both hit and we can play games on them, it’s going to be marketing spin to a greater or lesser degree.

I wrote a piece on my other blog about the marketing war the other week but if you’re reading this, the chances are it’s either because you’re interested in a new shiny for yourself or one of your kids is already pestering you about getting one and you’re wondering which you should get.

As a gamer of almost 40 years now, the advice I’d give isn’t enormously different to that I’d have given parents in the 1980s when the choice was between a 16K ZX Spectrum or a Commodore 64. Back then I’d have said get what your mates have, you can borrow games from each other, and it’s fun to be playing the same stuff. Nobody was envious of Enzo’s Amstrad CPC in the 80’s because nobody else had one.

Now that gaming is more online than ever, getting what your mates or your kids’ mates have still makes a lot of sense, even if some games do now let you play across different consoles. Yes, you can play Minecraft on your Playstation 4 with people using an Xbox One. And, for that matter, Fortnite, as well as a shed load of others. The big exception is Overwatch, and that’s likely to never be “crossplay”, and neatly highlights the risk of buying a system that none of your mates have.

The other issue with kids is the inevitable status and peer pressure. Woe betide the classmate of mine who had a BBC Micro System back in the 80s because that was educational. There is no doubt that Sony started this generation strongly and dominated but as the PS4 and Xbox One era begins to draw to an end (it’s still got years left, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise though), Microsoft actually has a better offering with the Xbox One X, the final iteration of it’s Xbox One console. It’s cheaper, smaller, and more powerful than the Playstation 4, and with it’s Gamepass subscription system, you get access to hundreds of games for a month subscription, making it much better value than the Playstation. I’ve got both because I’m hopeless and I find myself firing my Xbox much more frequently than my Playstation.

Which brings me on nicely to the final consideration. New consoles are expensive, premium priced and have been known to go wrong in the past. Since I now definitely fall into the category of more sense than money, I always tend to wait for the first price cut before jumping in. This typically comes 6-12 months after launch (depending on how the machine is doing) and has the added benefit that any designs problems have usually been ironed out by that point. The rumoured launch price for both MS and Sony’s new devices are around the £500 mark.

Ouch.

At the moment you can get some properly brilliant deals on the current generation of consoles (the all digital Xbox One S digital has been as low as £90 during the sales, the Xbox One X is regularly £260, and the PS4, well that’s still expensive for what it is but compared to the prices being floated around for the nex gen, it’s positively affordable).

So I’ve probably really confused you now, telling you:

  • to buy what your mates have but consider crossplay
  • that Xbox Series X likely to be more powerful but Sony have a few tricks, so who knows?
  • both are likely to be EXPENSIVE at launch, so maybe pick up any of the current gen machines you don’t have on the cheap, while the games are cheap too?

To be honest, I’ve confused myself too. Microsoft dropped the ball at the start of this current generation and never really recovered, despite having what is now much the better offering. They can’t make the same mistakes again, so should be a safe bet. But then there are over twice (and almost three) times as many PS4s out there compared to Xbox Ones, and sticking with the brand you know is easiest, so Sony have already probably won.

Tricky isn’t it?

Things I’ll remember from Covid-19 lockdown part one

A red kite, seen on an early morning walk during lockdown

I did a Sainsbury’s Click & Collect the other morning at 7am, a couple of days before the high street shops were allowed to reopen and if it wasn’t evident to me already that lockdown is functionally over before I went, it was by the time I got back. Three weeks ago at the last C&C, the member of staff and I had a shouted conversation at a distance, when I got out of my car to load the food, he got into the cab of his truck and shut the door. He didn’t get out until I got back in my car. This morning a different bloke was leaning in to the driver’s side window of the car in front and having a chat with the driver. The driver was passing him the crates when he’d loaded the stuff into his boot. Three weeks ago we were all following the social distancing rules because we wanted to be safe, today I saw people halfheartedly following them because the rules said they had to and they might get told off it they didn’t.

This triggered me to think about putting some of my thoughts down on on what I’ll remember from the lockdown from the first wave of Covid-19 because thoughts are transient and much of what we’ve done has had an air of sureality about it whilst we’ve been doing it, in a year or so it will seem an absurd confection of misremembered nonsense and myth if we’re not careful.

It’s funny how the banal sits right alongside the shocking in terms of how I’ll remember lockdown. Grumbling about making Yorkshire Puddings that turned out like bricks with rice flour because no supermarket in the universe seemed to have plain flour seem to sit alongside the slow horror of friends and work colleagues losing parents, uncles, and aunts, and grandparents to Covid-19.

Stalin is often attributed as saying, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Whether he actually said this is doubtful but as a country we sit with 60,000 deaths from Covid-19, I’m minded of it. As the deaths piled on, accelerating towards 1,000 a day at a seemingly relentless pace, the cold hard ache of background terror seemed to always be there in April. 20,000 deaths would be a good outcome we were told in mid March, a total we hit a little less than a month later.

Somewhere around the end of the first week of lockdown, we stopped watching the television news. It became pointless because the reporting was so poorly done. Sitting a corespondent outside a hospital makes a great spectacle but little more than that. If a few less people died on Wednesday compared to Tuesday, the reporters started asking whether we’d turned a corner. Science was treated with an almost incomprehensible mysticism, as though it was both immutable and unfathomable. I switched to online news sources, like the fantastic Ars Technica comprehensive guide to the Corona Virus. The BBC also seemed to slip into a war time mode, perhaps pushed their by the Prime Ministers rhetoric that treated the virus like “enemy” to be “fought”, and reporting on government press conferences became more an amplification of what they were saying than a critical dissection of what was happening.

The first couple of weeks of lockdown are a blur already, we had Covid-19 during that time, I remember being unable to get warm, shivering under our winter duvet in three jumpers and feeling terrible. Supermarket deliveries were almost impossible to get, all the things you wanted were out of stock and half of what you ordered didn’t show up. It was a scary time. The attitude in the office had swung from everything being a stupid overreaction to full emergency mode in a very short period of time, and that in itself was worrying.  The weather was horrid, cold and wet out, and the heating didn’t seem to take the edge of the chill. Home schooling was a novelty and the Easter holidays were only just around the corner, so it seemed like an achievable goal to get the kids there.

Do you remember those days?

Specifically do you remember when people took the lockdown more seriously because it was new, fresh, and really really scary?

In that first few weeks the only time I went out of the house was into our back garden. I actually wore a path around the edge of it, I walked so many laps there. The next few weeks were fraught with trips to Great Ormond St Hospital for ultrasounds, MRIs and eventually a biopsy for one of the kids. Stressful enough at the best of times but in the middle of a full lockdown pandemic, with only one parent allowed to come, it’s not something I’d like to repeat (and hopefully we won’t have to).

At some point in late April I started taking my daily exercise outside of the front door. I found a good route that whilst horribly dull to look at, allowed for good lines of sight, and the ability to cross either to the middle or the other side of the road if I saw people. It was a little over 6km, and I’ve walked that same route every lunchtime, listening to an audiobook, every day since. I even bought a cheap GPS fitness tracker, and have just hit 300,000 steps/260km in under a month. Unfortunately my poor wife hasn’t been able to join me because I probably broke her ankle in early April by leaving a pair of sandals outside the backdoor. She twisted her ankle really badly and by the time I took her for an x-ray, it was too late to tell whether it had been fractured or not. I’m still feeling guilty over this….

 

How to not go bonkers during lock down

As I alluded to the other day,its tricky during lock down. The children are gradually driving me up the wall. In many ways they remind me of Boris Johnson in so much as they’re all about the getting and are bored when they’ve got the thing they were after. With Boris it was the premiership, with the kids it’s some item, game, point scoring thing over the other two that soon gets forgotten.

Take the paddling pool*, I’ve spent more time inflating that and filing it in the last four days than the kids have spent in it. They spend ages threatening each other to not play nicely in it, brinkmanship of the highest order. And then, eventually two of them get into it and three minutes later they get the hump with each other because someone splashed someone or someone wouldn’t do what the other demanded at that exact moment, oh and have I forgotten to mention that none of them will have a towel to hand and will demand nine showers during the course of their intermittent use of the pool? Do not get me started.

There is only one way to deal with this behaviour and it’s the cowards way out for me. I go out for a long walk during my lunch break, take my time tidying up after dinner, and then watch something entirely child unfriendly with my wife after dinner. We’re currently on to season 3 of the Strain. It’s not great but it’s unsuitable for the kids which makes it much better than it might be otherwise.

I think part of the problem is the kids have never really got the hang of entertaining themselves. Things were a bit different when we were little; three, then four channels of terrestrial TV, one rich kid in the class who’s parents got a Squarial for British Satellite Broadcasting satellite TV, and a home computer that would only be usable in the front room plugged into the telly, all of which had to be packed away in time for Blue Peter and after dinner you had no chance of stopping your parents from watching Wogan.

Our kids can do one of two things: play video games independently or require full on one to one supervision to do something trivial for five minutes. Drawing a picture? Nope, one of us needs to sit next to them and watch them doing it. It is ridiculous and a conditioning we need to break but at the moment we had situations like Sunday where I turned the 8 year old’s internet off at 2pm because he’d played enough games. He then lay in the middle of the sitting room floor, saying it was only a 5 hour wait until he could go to bed and please don’t disturb him thank you very much. The others are no better, following you around wanting to help but only by doing exactly what you’re doing with the things your using and bursting into tears if you suggest maybe they should do something independent for more than 8 seconds.

Still, I’m okay, I’ve remembered that the kids are bored with difficult and old fashioned video games. Despite helping me create a blog on the subject, Kids Do Retro, even the eldest isn’t interested.

On the one hand this is annoying as it’s nice to share a hobby but on the other hand, it means I can legitimately fire up my Raspberry Pi 4 with Retropie on it and the kids will lose interest and bugger off somewhere else for a while. I should count my blessings really shouldn’t I? When I was little I don’t think I ever really got bored. Aside from that small window on Sunday morning when I wasn’t allowed out because the Sunday roast would be ready at some point but the only thing on the telly was the Waltons (and not any of the spooky supernatural episodes either) and I’d already spent three hours reading my book, I was able to keep myself entertained all the time. Whether it was playing on our Spectrum, re-reading (endlessly) my comics or books, spending hours drawing Dennis the Menace or the Bash St Kids, or being out on my bike playing with my mates, I was never bored.

Oh well. I’m off to fire up Dungeon Master for a bit to keep the kids out of my hair. Stay sane in Covid Times people.

 

*please, take it, dear god, why won’t somebody take it?

Review: Huawei Band 3 Pro GPS fitness tracker

If you follow me on Twitter you might know this has been the year of getting fitter. Since the turn of the year I’ve lost over four stone and have dropped my BMI from 35 to 27 (so there is still someway to go but I am getting there). With the lockdown that we’ve lived under for almost two months at the time of writing, team participation activities and swimming have been out of the question so it’s been down to walking and cycling for my exercise.

I’ve been using a mixture of Runkeeper, and Google Fit with/without the GPS tracking enabled but to be honest as I’m what they might call a power user when it comes to smartphone use, it’s not been great as the GPS really hammers the battery on my phone. If I turn the GPS off and just use my phone as a step counter, it’s really inaccurate too- up to 20% off when it comes to total distance, which isn’t acceptable.

I’d spent a while looking online at GPS sports watches, ranging from the bottom end Garmins at around £150, right up to £400+ top end models but you know, I’m 45, overweight and in reality that’s overkill for most people, let alone me! After a lot of searching around, I saw that the previous generation Huawei Band, the Huawei Band 3 Pro to be precise, seemed to have pretty much all the features I wanted for £39.99. That’s about a tenner more than budget step counting bands, and half the price of a Samsung equivalent that doesn’t have GPS. I’ve had a couple of Huawei phones in the past and have been impressed with the build quality, so I decided to give the Band 3 Pro a punt.

Given the current American war on Huawei, it’s necessary to download the Android app directly from the Huawei website as it’s not on the Play Store but that’s not difficult and set up is pretty easy.  You get the choice of three watch faces, and the app allows you to fine tune the display, turn phone notifications on/off and when the screen turns on/off. Since my main goal was to stop the drain on my phone battery, I turned notifications off and set the screen to touch to wake to maximise the battery. Despite the price, the Huawei Band 3 Pro looks pretty nice:

If you’re wondering how I did 11km in 1100 steps, its mostly a bike ride, not a 10m stride!

Using it to track steps is automatic but if you swipe down on the screen, you can choose a specific workout that includes running, walking and cycling. Choosing one of these activates the GPS, which I’ve found takes comfortably under a minute to lock on the satellite signal and you’re good to go. You get vibration notifications when you hit certain distance markers, mine is set to KM, so I get notified every kilometre I hit. I’ve done the same walk about a dozen times now and the tracked distance is within a handful of metres, which is probably accounted for by me scurrying across the road to social distance from people.

Some people have had issues getting the data to sync with Google Fit (and then in my case on to MyFitnessPal), if you have an issue, this sorts it out for you. It wasn’t a problem for me.

Battery life is currently somewhere in the region of 3 days with 2-3 hours of GPS tracking a day when I’m out on my bike or walking, so I can’t complain about that. Obviously it’ll be less if you use the GPS more, or better if you don’t.

The Huawei Band 3 Pro is waterproof to 5ATM, which sort of means 50 metres but in reality means you’re okay to go swimming with it (when you move underwater, you increase the pressure which lowers the depth that something rated to 5ATM can safely operate at). Not that any of us are in the pool just yet of course.

Personally I think the Band 3 Pro at £39.99 is a bit of a no brainer if it fits your usage needs- GPS tracking, reasonable battery life, and a great price. It won’t handle music, so if you like to listen to music while you’re exercising you’ll need to either use your phone or a portable player for that but then something that does offer music playback, like the Garmin Forerunner 245 Music, costs around £300, so it’s not much of a comparison really.

You can buy the Huawei Band 3 Pro from Amazon for £39.99.

Living through Corona Times

As we head towards two months of lockdown (and mercifully the half term break), I thought it would be good to have a look back on how it’s been for our little family. Surprisingly the hardest part hasn’t necessarily been making sure the technology is right for home working and home learning, nor has it been making sure everybody doesn’t kill each other.

The biggest challenge has been teaching the children. Both the primary school and secondary school have been great at setting work and home work but both have fallen short in supporting the learning. Teachers haven’t been available to explain tricky concepts or processes to the kids and that has been left entirely to us, and the majority of the primary school marking has been done by us from answer sheets that cause as many problems as they solve. We’re not alone, I’ve read plenty on twitter that parent assisted SPAG tests have thrown scores of 0/20 or similar but the thing that’s particularly bugged me is the lack of proof reading on both lessons and tests set. More than once I’ve had our 11 year old in tears because she’s done badly on a maths test and when she’s marked it herself can’t understand where she’s gone wrong. When I’ve checked the answers, the answers have been either plain wrong or the answer to an entirely different question.

This is a good example:

34 multiplied by anything over 1 simply has to be more than 34, so both the possible answers are wrong. Of course 3/4 multiplied by 1 1/5 is 9/10, so in this instance the question is wrong and the answers are right but try telling that to an 11 year old doing a timed test.

My rusty old chemistry A Level work needs brushing up but then I did sit chemistry in 1993 and only achieved a D grade for it. Yes, year 8 science is a bit harder than correcting the typos primary teachers are making but it is more rewarding. It’s simply challenging to get either of the boys to concentrate enough to do their work and if either of them are diligent enough to work hard and do it to the best of their ability, it is a rarity.

So schoolwork aside, the other challenges have been rather unique to our rather unique family. The kids have demanded to watch rather too many Adam Sandler movies in the evenings, which has driven me up the wall but since I restricted their access to YouTube they’ve also developed a bizarre obsession with the BBC’s Citizen Khan. Yes, you read that right, a sitcom about a larger than life Pakistani family. The mind boggles.

We initially had some problems with the 13 year old who decided that the new normal was staying up until 3am and getting up around lunch time. He got the hump when there was nobody around to watch movies with at 10pm onwards though so we managed to resolve that after a bit of a fight. Even now I do my best drill instructor impression at about 8 in the morning in an attempt to get him up. His cooking has leveled up inasmuch as he makes himself a really fully toasted wrap or fish finger sandwich for breakfast every morning. He’s now living his official best life and only the prospect of going back to the classroom before the end of the academic year has him worried (he refuses to believe that he won’t be going back, ever the pessimist!)

Personally after an initial wobble caused by the change in routine (I’m definitely a creature of habit), I’ve settled in nicely to working from home. The improvement in the weather has helped an awful lot and now I’m sat in the playroom looking out on the garden, which is a lot lighter than where I was sat initially. The work I do is particularly suited for remote working too, and since we’re using Zoom and MS Teams for communicating, it’s all working well now I’ve adapted to the change.

I’m even enjoying seeing more of my family, which I know for a lot of families isn’t necessarily a given!

 

Tech projects to stop your kids going stir crazy during coronavirus

With schools likely to close shortly for an extended Coronavirus inspired Easter break, and the possibility of offices closing as people are asked to work from home, I thought it might be an idea to pull together some tech related things you can get your kids doing over an extended lock down period. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest most of the below are a decent antidote to the current situation with the news drip feeding through to kids and worrying them. The best way to take your mind of something is to do something else.

You may need to work, they definitely need entertaining but if they’re left to their own devices, the chances are they’ll just watch YouTube or binge Netflix for 18 hours a day, and that’s if they’re not playing Minecraft or Fortnite incessantly. Anything you can do to help develop computer and IT related skills is going to be helpful in the long run, and whilst I’d love my kids to sit there all day long reading books, I’ve got to be realistic about it. The list of activities below is of course something you should consider in addition to screen free time and not entirely at the expense of it.

Younger kids

Not so much a project but useful none the less, if you’ve got a PS4 or Xbox One in the house, something like Just Dance 2020 will ensure that your kids get some physical exercise when/if you’re not allowed to let them out. If you don’t have a console or don’t want to buy the game, YouTube is full of uploaded videos from the game that you can dance along to, it just won’t score you. This is of course as relevant for older kids but with your youngsters, it might just stop them completely destroying the house!

Lots of Year 2 and Year 3 parents will be familiar with Scratch, the visual programming language that uses building blocks to make programmes. It’s available on iPad, Android and home computers, and is worth getting.

In a similar vein is Bloxels. The games that Ned has made at coding club using Bloxels are very entertaining, and he absolutely loves playing them. There are two versions; the educator version, which you can use if your school has set you up, or the app, which you can find on your favourite app store.

Our kids have also enjoyed making their own stop motion videos in the past, something that just requires a minimal investment, and plenty of imagination. The end results can be spectacular, and I know our kids were very proud of their results.

Older kids

If you’ve got slightly older kids, and I’m really talking about year 5 upwards here, get them to make a movie. Seriously, they can script, storyboard, shoot and edit a 5-10 minute film, starring each other. They can even do special effects. The sky is the limit.

Pretty much any mobile phone will do for shooting, and if you have a PC at home, DaVinci Resolve is a FREE professional grade editing suite. The best thing is YouTube is packed full of tutorial videos and what self respecting kid doesn’t love YouTube?

If you don’t have access to a PC that your kids can use, there are plenty of inexpensive editing apps like KineMaster and PowerDirector Video Editor you can have them use instead.

Scratch is good fun for kids but the older kids might want something a little more expansive. Enter Pico-8, a “virtual” games console that lets you programme 8 bit games.

It runs on PC, Mac and Linux (Raspberry Pi!!!), and costs $15. Again, the online help and manuals are VERY extensive, so you shouldn’t find yourself having to get involved too much. Kids can load in existing games and fiddle with them to see how things work.

If you want something a little less basic (pun intended), then Dreams on PS4 is a powerful game creation tool. It’s more expensive than Pico-8 but easier to pick up.

Raspberry Pi 3b+ in a Retroflag Megadrive case running Retropie

If you haven’t set your kids up with a Raspberry Pi, now is the ideal time to do so. Pis are cheap micro computers, starting at under a tenner for the Pi Zero W, rising to £54 for the top end Pi 4. They run an operating system called Raspberian off a microSD card. Although they come without a case, you can build cases from LEGO or buy a cheap case to go with them- it’s all part of the DIY computer ethos they promote. You can hook up a Pi to a TV, monitor, even build one into a case with a touchscreen, or a retro arcade machine. If you don’t want to stretch to a kit like that, retropie is a great free alternative.

You might be thinking, so what? We’ve got a computer that the kids can use. The Pi is a little different though, it’s entirely designed to be tinkered with. Since the whole operating system is on a microSD card, if the kids break the system, you can just format the card and start over. There are also plenty of hardware projects that are inexpensive to try- how about a wildlife camera, or even a weather station?

Personally I’ve used Raspberry Pis to make a twitterbot, and a retro game console. Both of which were great fun to work through- if anyone wants to beat my 497,000 on Bubble Bobble, they’re welcome to try!

Of course kids creativity and willingness to do stuff will only run so long. Both the Playstation Store and the Xbox store have regular sales and subscription based services. Just make sure they don’t spend all day in front of a screen!

A cunning yet nefarious smarthome plan involving Samsung Smartthings

Being woken up at dawn by blood curdling screams isn’t the best way to wake up but when it’s something you’ve planned and it’s worked perhaps better than you had any right to hope for, well it’s a mixed feeling of success and chagrin!

Anybody that know’s me will know I love a gadget or a bit of tech. I’m often mistaken for someone working in IT* as I tend to obsess about that sort of stuff to an unhealthy degree. Consequently when I got a Samsung Smartthings hub last year on an Amazon Lightening Deal, I had more planned for it than the sensible.

The sensible in this instance was to set up a virtual thermostat in our summer house. Our summerhouse is a concrete and wood affair and has an under the counter freezer in it. It’s useful for pizza and ice lolly storage but it’s not a certified outdoor unit, so we have to ensure that the environment is kept within the tolerable operating limits. With my Smartthings hub, a wireless Xiaomi temperature sensor, and a smartplug, an oil filled radiator gets turned on when the ambient temperature inside the shed drops below 6 degrees. It’s only a 15 watt radiator, so it doesn’t get hot quickly or use endless electricity but it’s quite handy.

So that was the boring reason I decided to get a Smartthings hub but there is so much more you can do with them, and there is a lively community who integrate third party apps and sensors into Smartthings.

Being a tinkerer who has more imagination than ability, I set out to do something funny with my Smartthings hub that ended up in screams and me and my wife being woken up at just gone six in the morning. I think I’ve been forgiven but only time will tell.

As well as the temperature sensors, Xiaomi also make motion sensors. Battery operated stick up motion sensors to be precise. And they’re cheap. They’re a little bit fiddly to connect to the hub but once they have been connected, you can use a straight forward menu to trigger an action:

There were a few extra conditions I added. The routine was only live between 5am and 6:30am, the time that the kids would normally creep downstairs and start watching telly, even though they were under firm instructions to stay in their rooms until 7am and read a book if they couldn’t get back to sleep.

And so the morning after I’d set the routine up, the blood curdling screams occurred. You see, Fifi had sneaked down at 5:40am to watch some telly, only to trigger the Smartthings routine, which blared out Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells at her. You may know this better as the theme from The Exorcist .

The kids haven’t seen the Exorcist, I’d like to make that clear, but the music is probably the second most spooky bit of music I know after the main theme from Suspriria by Goblin. It must have taken about half an hour to calm Fifi down afterwards but at least the point was made about not going downstairs to watch TV before dawn!

If you fancy having a play with Smartthings, the hub is £59.99 from Amazon, and the Xiaomi sensors can also be had from Amazon (although if you’re willing to order them from China, they’re a lot cheaper, but will take a lot longer to deliver).

 

*that is until that somebody asks me for something particularly technical, then I tend to come unstuck and dispel the myth rather promptly. Although, like most of the IT professionals I know, Google is my friend.

The kids are now fully fledged thinking machines in their own right

WAR games, in more peaceful times

It’s funny when you realise your kids are completely able to be certifiably clever in their own right without taking the lead from you. It’s unsettling in some respects that they don’t need prompting but also liberating and makes you proud. Both the boys have done things this week that on their own merit a slap on the back but when you take them in the wider context of how they’re both growing up, make you think, gosh, they’re really ploughing their own furrow now.

Firstly the boy, now in year 8 and newly enthused to study and put the effort in after a near disaster in a maths test he didn’t prepare for properly prior the Christmas, did something in a science pop quiz that was quite brilliant. His team won the quiz, which in most situations would have been the achievement. Not this time though, because he named his team “Going to die old and alone”. When his team won, the teacher had to ask, “Who’s going to die old and alone?” to howls of laughter from the whole classroom, teacher included. Pure rank genius, and something I’d have been proud to achieve.

Ned (now a heady 8 years of age) managed to win a laser quest tournament at the local soft play with a score higher than his three nearest competitors added together because he’s the sort of cunning genius that will  probably crash international currency markets in 10 or 15 years time. All the other lads ran off at speed to hide and shoot each other, Ned ambled out slowly, then turned back and spent the ten minutes of that round shooting the targets on the three unused vests repeatedly, building up an unassailable lead whilst not getting shot himself. The bunch of dad’s on kids party duty were universally impressed with his cunning, and I was too.