I’m, like, totally serial!

I hooked up an old Matrix Orbital LK205-24-USB LCD display with my Arduino today. This 80-character backlit display can be plugged into a computer using the handy dandy USB cable (hence the -USB part of the name) but it turns out it has a 5V TTL serial jumper on the back which can provide power the display, as well as an alternative means to control it.

Arduino + Matrix Orbital LCD display

It was incredibly quick and easy to get it connected up to my new favourite toy, the Arduino. The one thing that took me a few moments to realise (as in, “why isn’t this working? Oh…”) is that the Receive and Transmit pins are relative rather than absolute. It sounds stupid to say it now, but the Rx pin on the Arduino has to be connected to the Tx pin on the LCD display, and vice versa.

Arduino + Matrix Orbital LCD display

It was also a chance to learn how to use the excellent Arduino SoftwareSerial library, which lets you use digital pins as virtual serial connections. Especially handy if you want to have multiple serial connections at one (for example, if you want to continue to use the built in serial port for sending and receiving data from the computer). It even seems to work at 19200 baud required for this display, which I wasn’t expecting. The same thing will work nicely for the Current Cost device (which spits out 3.3V TTL serial at 2400 or 9600 baud depending on the model) too.

Here’s a little Arduino sketch I cobbled together, based on the Software Serial example and this Serial LCD tutorial.

#include <SoftwareSerial.h>
#define rxPin 6 // software Rx pin (connect to Tx on LCD)
#define txPin 7 // software Tx pin (connect to Rx on LCD)

// set up a new serial port
SoftwareSerial swSerial =  SoftwareSerial(rxPin, txPin);

void setup()  {
  pinMode(rxPin, INPUT);
  pinMode(txPin, OUTPUT);
  // set the data rate for the SoftwareSerial port
  // and set the date rate for the real serial port
  delay(100); // (can't use port immediately?)
  swSerial.print("Hello, world!");

void loop() {
   // retransmit bytes read from the computer to LCD
   if (Serial.available() > 0) {
      byte inchar = Serial.read();

// Clear the LCD (works with my Matrix Orbital LK204-24-USB)
// See http://www.arduino.cc/playground/Learning/SerialLCD
// (and compare with your LCD display docs)
// for many more LCD display helper functions.
void clearLCD(){
  swSerial.print(254, BYTE);
  swSerial.print(88, BYTE);

I’m thinking about turning it into an in-house Twitter display, or possibly something which lets me check the artist and title of the current iTunes track being played on our Mac-Mini-acting-as-a-living-room-media-center without having to turn on the television. That’s something I find myself doing at least, ooh, a couple of times per month, so of course a massively overengineered solution technical would be perfect. I have a feeling that as soon as I start using it, I’ll want to use it for more things.

ETS Rocket Day 2.0

I joined the IBM Hursley ETS (Emerging Technology Services) team just a few weeks after their first Rocket Day in 2005. Today was version 2.0, and it was the most fun team-building day out you can imagine; a field full of geeks and their (water, air and coke-and-mentos powered) rockets, cameras, access to good food and great beer. Good times.

I took some photos and videos, and there’s also a Flickr group containing photos from the day.

Best of all, Rob made a video which includes some footage captured using a tiny camera fixed to the nose of one of the rockets. There’s a long version on YouTube. Here’s the short ‘trailer’ version (music by yours truly).

What’s in my bag

I’ve been meaning to do one of these for ages.

See it complete with notes on Flickr.

What’s the Matter?

I had a nice surprise waiting for me at home after a weekend away: a ‘Matter’ box, the latest project from Artomatic.

Matter Box Matter Box - contents unwrapped Matter Box - Stoi pin Matter Box - packaging

The Matter blog describes the contents better than I can. It also describes the philosophy behind it:

The idea behind Matter is to create a new kind of communications channel around the idea of giving people stuff. … In a world that seems to be increasingly dominated by digital communications, and where the net effect of those media is to render our experiences as being somewhat remote, the idea is to balance that by providing a way for advertisers and companies to start talking to people by giving them things.

It was Andy Piper, via del.icio.us, who put me onto it in the first place (thanks Andy), and I notice that he’s already got a review including a nice little unboxing video up on this blog. Dale Lane wrote up his (two) to. Bobbie Johnson has a great, thoughtful post too.

While rummaging around Flickr today I was interested to see that Adam Crowe has spotted a ‘rabbit hole’ (e.g. a hidden clue, the beginning of something else, in this case a party invite) in the Stoli leaflet.

Considering it’s free, there are some impressively cute and useful things in there. The thing that impressed me most though was the large percentage of recyclable paper and cardboard used in the packaging. The Nissan crayon soaps are packaged in a plastic box and there are small amounts of cellophane used by the Evo trumps and the Sony-Ericsson Music Monster. Everything else is packaged in card and paper, which a a very good thing indeed.

50 years of LEGO

Boxes (stacked) with notes

The custom Google header image tells me that LEGO turns 50 today.

I’m a huge LEGO geek (that’s my collection on the left), and to celebrate the milestone I thought I’d share a custom LEGO creation of mine from 2005, ‘Luke Learning the Force’.
Luke learning the force - a vignette

Every tribe has its talismans – on buying a MacBook Pro

Every tribe has its talismans. Here and now, mine seem to be:

  • Moleskine notebooks (if you’ve never owned one, I dare you to pick one up and not fall in love)
  • digital cameras (I’m rather excited about the new Canon EOS 450D / Rebel XSi)
  • Macs. PowerBook, MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, … pretty much everyone I know carries one. Outside of IBM, at least; with few exceptions, most IBMers have use of a Lenovo ThinkPad for work.

Although I’ve actually owned a Mac (Mini) for years, but never really felt like a Mac owner until now. Even having bought a MacBook Pro (I went for the 2.2 GHz, 15.4″ version) of my own I have not exactly switched so much as finally bought a laptop which actually belongs to me. I’ll continue to use my ThinkPad T42p for some worky things (and it’s nice to have both), but I’d expect to use the Mac more and more.


Photo: iLove by Julian

Some observations after a few days use.


Like the Moleskine (which I’m convinced is what a Mac would feel like if it were made of paper) the MacBook Pro is a machine which asks to be touched. Everything about it looks and feels good. It’s full of surprises too. The LED next to the camera wasn’t a surprise (I’d wondered if it had one) but it was nicely hidden. The way the screen dims and the keyboard illuminates automatically, based on the ambient light in the room, continues to surprise and delight me. In fact, putting my hands over both speakers is still my favourite party trick.


Of course, the machine is a small part of the story, and like so many small parts, It’s what you do with it that counts.

Before I even bought it, I ordered the Mac Heist bundle, which includes

  • VectorDesigner (which I really like)
  • Snapz Pro X (which I really like)
  • Pixelmator (which I am not sure about yet)
  • CSSEdit (which I have not used yet, but looks promising)
  • iStopMotion (which I really like)
  • TaskPaper (which I really like, but can’t help wishing I would sync with Todoist. I’m unlikely to use both)
  • … and lots of other things which are interesting but not the reason I bought the bundle.

I bought iWork with it, and also installed Quicksilver (on the sage advice of a friend who follows the 43 Folders blog more closely than I), Firefox (I still prefer it to Safari) EVE Online and Second Life. I’m thinking I probably need/want TextMate, Aperture, … what else am I missing?


There are some things I’m still trying to get used to. I’m not going to point out the power of right-click, because Ctrl + click is fine. Honestly. But even the keyboard still baffles me somewhat, mainly because I’ve spent many years perfecting my keyboard navigation skills in Windows . If I used the mouse more, it wouldn’t matter, but in my head, Ctrl + left means jump left one word. Combine it with Shift and you select the previous word. I’m struggling with doing this with different modifier keys, and it’ll take a while before it feels natural. I’m not saying the way it’s done in Windows is right, just different.

A bigger issue is Tab. I try to use only the keyboard as much as possible, especially when typing. Tabbing between fields in a form is much faster than pointing and clicking. Firefox continually surprises me by not treating non-text fields (such as checkboxes) as something I can click by Tab, then Space to toggle the checkbox. Am I missing something? Tab jumps over the checkbox altogether (often taking focus back to the address bar) and I’m forced to take my hand off the keyboard, point, and click. [Update: found it. Ctrl + F7, or System Preferences | Keyboard Shortcuts | Full keyboard access: if windows and dialogs, press Tab to move the keyboard focus between: Text boxes and lists only / All controls]

When a dialogue box pops up, does Enter mean OK? It seems to, but what if I want to click the 2nd button. Normally I’d hit left, or Shift + Tab or something, then Space. By I don’t get any on-screen hints as to which is the active button, or what keyboard shortcuts I can use.

Veteran OS X users are probably laughing at me for all of this, so please do share your mouse-free power user tips.

Why not an Air?

I’ll be the first to agree that the Air looks great, and would be even nicer to carry around than the Pro. For me, the power/price/weight ratio was wrong. What I wanted was a 12″ MacBook Pro. The Air isn’t that. It’s small, yes, but not powerful enough for a primary machine. Add the CPU upgrade and it costs more than the cheapest 15″ Pro, which outperforms it in every way except size and weight. No contest (for me), and at least the Pro is still no heavier than my ThinkPad T42p. I’ll still drool when I do pick up an Air, of course.


ffffound.com (closed beta. Sorry, no invites left) is really very lovely.


This: del.icio.us crossed with Clipmarks crossed with Flickr. It’s social bookmarking for images.


It’s also a lot simpler than del.icio.us. As nice as that simplicity is, there’s a big part of me that really wants it to support tagging.

I’ll try to share inspirational typographic/arty/design stuff there. I’ve added the feed and a link to my page to the feeds list in the sidebar.

Moshi Monsters – Get Your Rox Off

Moshi Monsters - Zommer mopod

Mind Candy (the company behind Perplex City) have a new project. Moshi Monsters is their latest thing, and I really like it.

It’s actually two things in one: a flashy-spinny-phone-charm-thing and a web-pet-tamagotchi-puzzle thing.

The ‘MoPod‘ mobile phone charms are conveniently available from Michael Smith’s other company, Firebox. Let’s start there, since it’s currently (at least, while it’s in beta) the only way to get into the more fun part of the project, owning a pet monster.

For a fiver you can have a MoPod for your mobile phone (MoPods are big in Japan, apparently). Here’s a short video of my phone ringing (well, vibrating, but you know what I mean) and my MoPod (a ‘Zommer’ monster) spinning and flashing like a mad thing.

Inside the packaging is a secret code allowing you to adopt a monster, which involves picking, personalising and naming it. Meet my first monster, Fred.Moshi Monsters - Fred the FuriMoshi Monsters - Fred's house, pre bling Moshi Monsters - Fred's house, post bling

In order to decorate Fred’s room, I first had to earn some ‘rox’, the in-game currency. To do that, solved some puzzles. And here, at the heart of Moshi Monsters, and the thing that will keep me coming back to this day after day, is the daily puzzle challenge. Even more engaging than the cute graphics and animations (though these are lovely) and much fun than decorating my room, is the daily one minute dose of quick-fire puzzles. These are great, and appeal to me in the same way that Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training does.

Moshi Monsters - Puzzles[click for bigger]

Moshi Monsters is still in beta, and there are a few as-yet unimplemented features, hinted at in the interface. A ‘Friends Tree’, a pinboard and some sort of news computer are all marked as “coming soon”. The friends tree in particular could be exciting. I already want my monster to be able to hang out (somehow) with Michael‘s, Jo‘s, Melissa‘s and Ian‘s, and so I’m looking forward to seeing how Moshi Monsters handles social interactions. I wonder if it will be anything like Animal Crossing, which – despite being aimed at kids – allows users to connect to each others spaces and visit each other.

I’d also quite like to see detailed stats of my history with the puzzles. I firmly expect that my monster will get annoyed (and ill?) if I neglect him, but I’d also like to be able to see how my score on the daily puzzle challenge changes over time. Maybe this isn’t part of the plan, but I’d like it to be.

Moshi Monsters is looking great. It’s still a beta, and it seems things are still being developed. Even in these early stages, I’m already hooked and I look forward to seeing what happens as things like the friends tree, news computer and additional shops get added.

Update: closing comments on this post because I regularly have to delete silly amount of spam and nonsense. If you have something interesting to say about Moshi Monsters, feel free to email me. Thanks.

Live while I’m alive: sweets on my desk

Sweets on my Desk

The IET were kind enough to give me a silver dish (which also has a very attractive lid, not pictured here) as a thank you for giving this year’s Mountbatten lecture. It has my name on it and everything.

Rather than let it gather dust in a cupboard, I’ve decided to fill it with sweets and put it on my desk at work.

This week’s sweets: Phantom Fizz (half-price unsold halloween sweets from my local corner shop). Terrifyingly sour, apparently. Yummy.


I love everything about Moleskines. Here’s my square-ruled one.

Frog on Moleskine

I’ve actually been an admirer for a long time, but I think it was Sacha Chua writing about networking with Moleskines last year which tipped me over the edge. I don’t (yet) use her page number hyperlink system, but I do agree with her about the power and convenience of paper.

Rachel sketches at West WitteringRachel uses a plain notebook for taking notes and sketching when she’s out researching. She also has an 18 month weekly diary which I really like the look of. Amazon has a good range of Moleskines. There’s a nice list of hacks at 43 Folders once you get the right one for you. One thing I’d I’d really like to try is the idea of using one as a laptop drive enclosure.

Time to go shopping again soon.

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