Category: geek

Project X: British Man Builds Secret Toy Spaceship in Garage

Update: This has been picked up on Twitter by the folks at @Raspberry_Pi and Jeff Highsmith (@BabyWrassler). Wow!

Feel free to ask me any questions via @djauncey.


It turns out that there is a woeful lack of local astronaut training facilities, so I built my daughters a toy spaceship for Christmas:

This is the first bit of real woodwork that I’ve attempted since I was about 8 (when my Dad showed me how to hold a hammer) and I’m pleased with how it turned out. It took around 10 weeks of long evenings (and some weekend time), plus another 75 hours of programming time (during my daily commute). The project was partly inspired by Jeff Highsmith’s excellent Kids Room Spacecraft in MAKE magazine, and was initially fuelled by an unexpectedly strong coffee from a Shoreditch Baristas leading to some midnight sketching.

There’s a functional control panel, with sound effects, a countdown timer and various lights (powered by a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino Mega). The ‘Auto Launch’ button triggers a countdown and 2-minute launch to space (with sounds from Apollo 11). My 4-year old’s favourite is the ‘Waste Dump’ switch, which plays a loud toilet flush, just like Jeff’s spacecraft for MAKE. Amongst other things, there is also a ‘Make Tea’ switch (well, this is a British invention..)

The second cockpit currently has a blank control panel for now, so that my daughters can suggest ideas for it. On the list so far are: a navigation computer, docking controls and a button to play twinkle-twinkle-little-star.

The structure is made out of plywood from scratch, painted with a couple of coats of primer then sprayed with satin white to give a slightly glossy finish. The interior is padded with blue panels cut from pet car protection blankets, velcro’d to the wood. The spacecraft consists of the nose, tail, and two ‘crew modules’ which are held together with more velcro – they can be detached to fit precisely at the ends of my daughter’s beds for storage.

Everything had been done in secret, in the garage, so when my daughters opened their last presents on Christmas Day (white cotton overalls, with ironed-on NASA patches, Union Jack flags and velcro-d on name tags) and went upstairs to change into them, my wife and I hastily brought the spaceship into the lounge, set it up and then called them downstairs: there was total confusion for a few seconds – before excitement took over – and then they climbed in to begin their first mission.

I can’t wait to show them how to hold a hammer. :)

GitBlit on the Raspberry Pi

I’ve used GitHub, BitBucket and Unfuddle for hosted Git repositories – and they’re good at what they do – but until recently hadn’t found a good solution for a locally hosted Git repository server. I stumbled across GitBlit, which fits the bill perfectly, and even runs acceptably on a Raspberry Pi. It’s written in Java, so you’ll need to install Oracle JDK 8. For the record, I used the Raspbian OS and installed the Linux Gitblit GO distribution. GitBlit includes basic issue tracking and repository documentation (via Markdown).


Inspired by a really good book I’ve just read and this list of potential currently habitable exoplanets, I spent a little time playing with SpaceEngine last night, visiting as many of them as I could. Pretty, aren’t they?

Until Elite: Dangerous is released, it’s probably the closest you’ll get to having the freedom of the Galaxy.

With Jupiter in Mind

I’d hoped to invite a couple of friends round for some stargazing, but it clouded up shortly after I’d set up the telescope. I managed to get this shot of Jupiter with my smartphone held up to a new eyepiece.

Jupiter is about 11 Earths in diameter.

I’ve been reading up on ‘image stacking’, where you combine tens or hundreds of frames (either still or from video) to improve the detail visible in images – so fingers crossed for some clear nights ahead.

Further XPDisplay improvements

XPDisplay now has a ‘Data’ tab, which (currently) displays charts with approach glideslope and landing gear forces, for post-landing analysis:


Glideslope - showing a late approach and landing!

Landing Gear Forces

Landing Gear Forces

Charts are updated in real time and can be zoomed, printed or exported as PNG images (thanks to the excellent JFreeChart library).

Caveat: these features are not in the current released version of XPDisplay yet.

Panshanger scenery for X-Plane

This is my first attempt at a scenery package for the X-Plane flight simulator, using only Sketchup, GIMP and WED (plus the library objects that come with X-Plane and OpenSceneryX). It covers my local airfield (Panshanger Aerodrome), which is home to the excellent North London Flying School.

The scenery covers most of the main objects on the airfield, although there is always room for improvement (in particular the main hangar needs remodelling from scratch). Bengeo water tower is included, as it is a prominent local feature that pilots sometimes use for navigation.

To download the scenery, or for more information, please click here.

I’ve shared the code on GitHub under a public domain license – improvements welcome.

Edit: I’ve also uploaded this to the official website.

More Aircraft Traces

Here are two more traces, generated from a whole day’s worth of data (29th June 2013). I’ve added some more ground locations as well as the places which the ‘stacks’ are named after (BOVINGDON, LAMBOURNE, BIGGIN and OCKHAM). Happily they coincide nicely with the loops which indicate where aircraft are circling. Colours here are assigned randomly to different aircraft.

The second trace is coloured according to altitude (purple corresponds roughly to 35,000ft – 40,000ft, down through green, yellow, orange and finally red, which corresponds to 5,000ft – 2,000ft).

You can clearly see high altitude routes (purple) as well as the stacks and approach routes into Heathrow. I expect that the routes into and out of Gatwick would also be visible if the range of my receiver was better. I’ve tried building a custom aerial, but haven’t had any luck with it so far.

For completeness, here is a trace coloured according to speed. Purple indicates 500-600kts, down through green, yellow and red at about 100-150kts.

(Related post: June 26th 2013)

Raspberry Pi – AnswerBox

I’ve been playing with a Raspberry Pi, Logitech USB mic, USB-powered speakers and a USB SDR TV tuner stick, combined with Stephen Hickson’s fantastic voicecommand system. (The Pi is the rainbox-striped box at the back, the flat black thing in the middle is a powered USB hub, into which is plugged the black TV tuner stick, which has an aerial (positioned on the small jar). The Rubix Cube is just there for scale.)

First, speech is sent as raw audio to a Google API which returns text. It would be better to do this on the Pi, but my experiments (with Julius) have shown that Google (with their gargantuan computing grid) is much better in terms of both speed and accuracy. (Since the microphone has an on/off button, audio is only sent to Google when I so choose.)

Second, the text is compared with a list of known commands (see the voicecommand website for more details). If a match is found, the corresponding script is run. (This is how the ‘weather forecast’ and ‘have I got mail’ commands work.) If no match is found, the text is sent off to Wolfram Alpha, which returns a text answer.

Finally, the results from Wolfram Alpha, or the appropriate script, are sent off to another Google API to turn them into an audio file, which is then played out over the speakers. I have tried using espeak, but again, Google’s API currently does a better job.

The whole thing is reasonably fast, given everything that is involved. Occasional internet latency spikes delay responses from the script for 10 seconds or so, but in my experience they are rare.

The live aircraft information is received using the Software Defined Radio (SDR) technique, using a RTL2838 TV tuner USB stick with rtl-sdr and dump1090 software, which provides a nice json interface over http. A python script queries this interface on demand and computes the nearest couple of aircraft to my location, then gathers some supplementary information from the internet before reading the response.

The scripts that make all this work are available on github.

Future plans include: adding commands to play music, add items to a shopping list, read news headlines and much more. My four year old daughter’s most recent request was for the AnswerBox to gain wings and fly around the room on request. There’s probably a python library for that. Hmmm….


About 10 years ago, I wrote Alternate Universe MUD, a free text-based online adventure game, with a space-theme and an emphasis on exploration and discovery.

Note: for younger/less geeky readers, a MUD is a Multi User Dungeon, i.e. a game that you could play (with other people, no less!), which often revolved around dungeons, monsters and combat. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft can trace their history back to these kinds of games.

The game features spaceships, several worlds, an astronomical observatory, mudmail and mud-wide-web terminals, a stock market, various robots and even an auditorium where Shakespeare’s plays are performed by bots every few hours.

Over 2000 players discovered Alternate Universe over the first few years (not bad for something that started out just as an experiment). Most players just played, but others contributed code, some helped build the world from the inside and one even ran an in-game monthly newspaper. I ended up meeting some of them in real life too, as a result of all this.

The game server itself was written from scratch in Java and has had many homes, but thanks to Oracle’s release of Java 8 for ARM in December, it now runs on a Raspberry Pi (and it runs happily too, using less than a third of the 512MB of memory – AU was mostly written on a 400MHz HP laptop with half the CPU speed that the Pi has now, so I’m not that surprised).

(the black thing poking out by the yellow S-Video socket is an external temperature sensor – I hope to wire this up to the MUD, so that the external temperature drives some behaviour or description inside the game)

To play Alternate Universe, go to the command-line and type
telnet 1063
If you are playing from another Pi, you may first need to install the ‘telnet’ program:
sudo apt-get install telnet

I hope you have fun playing. Drop me a MUD-mail if you enjoy the game!

Low-cost XPlane Control Panel

This is a little project that I’ve been working on over the last month or so. (I completed it several weeks back, but I’ve been having too much fun with it to write up this blog post) It is a physical control panel for the XPlane flight simulator – i.e. when I move a slider (in the real world), the flaps begin to deploy (in the simulator). I flick another switch, some lights start to flash (in the real world) and in the simulator the landing gear start to rumble their way down into place. What the switches/sliders do is arbitrary – they can be reprogrammed whenever I feel like it.

There are three components: 1) the x-plane simulator 2) the physical box itself, with switches and LEDs wired to inputs/outputs on an Arduino Uno 3) some software running on the PC, which talks to the Arduino (over serial / USB) and to the simulator (sending and receiving UDP packets).

Building the box

The box is made from offcuts of MDF (about 3mm thick), laboriously measured, cut with a saw and drilled with a Dremel. (To cut the slots, I drilled lots of holes in a row and used the Dremel’s circular saw attachment).

The sides of the box were epoxied together (with a little help from some scrap blocks of wood in the corners) so that the back section could be removed, and the gaps filled with ordinary DIY filler. I sanded the whole thing and painted it with a clear primer (to stop the MDF from soaking up the paint and getting a bit soggy) then painted with two coats of a satin black paint (in hindsight, I wish I’d used matt rather than satin as it shows up the imperfections more than I’d like). The labels were printed on my ordinary inkjet printer, white text on a black background & attached with a little spot of glue so that I can rip them off and attach new labels if I reprogram the switches to do something different.


The panel has six switches, two linear potentiometers (I accidentally ordered audio ones, which are logarithmic, and had to work around this in the Arduino sketch code to convert to near-linear values), three 5mm red LEDs and three 5mm green LEDs (plus a resistor for each set of LEDs). Inside the box there is an Arduino Uno, a breadboard and quite a few jumper wires.

The USB port of the Arduino sticks out through a square hold in the side of the box. The Arduino is screwed to some chipboard (with some bubblewrap between the PCB and the wood, just to cushion the circuit a little.

The inside is rather messy. With hindsight I would’ve spent longer finding a way to make this a lot tidier and probably not needed the breadboard. In most cases, I ended up snipping a jumper wire in half, soldering one end to a component and pressing the pointy end into the breadboard.

I didn’t use all the ports on the Arduino Uno – if I made a version 2, I could probably have 6 more lights or switches and 4 more sliders, or possibly include a buzzer to serve as stall / warning indicator.

Arduino sketch code

This is the Arduino sketch that is currently running inside the control panel. In a nutshell, in a loop, it checks the state of each switch and writes a string to the serial port (really it’s serial over USB), which looks something like this:

A^ Bv Cv Dv Ev F^ P1022 Q1019

This indicates that switch A is up, B is down, etc. P and Q are the values of the sliders (from 0 to 1023).

The code also reads from the serial port to receive one of the letters U, D, R, F or N to indicate the current state of the landing gear in the simulator (Up, Down, Rising, Falling or No idea!). If the gear is up, the red LEDs go on, if the gear is down, the green LEDs go on. If it’s rising, the red LEDs are flashed, falling = green LEDs are flashed.

const int led_red_pin = 3;
const int led_green_pin = 2;

const int switch_1_pin = 6;
const int switch_2_pin = 5;
const int switch_3_pin = 4;
const int switch_4_pin = 9;
const int switch_5_pin = 8;
const int switch_6_pin = 7;

const int slider_1_pin = A0;
const int slider_2_pin = A1;

int switch_1_state = 0;
int switch_2_state = 0;
int switch_3_state = 0;
int switch_4_state = 0;
int switch_5_state = 0;
int switch_6_state = 0;

int slider_1_state = 0;
int slider_2_state = 0;

int inByte = 0;

const int GEAR_NO_CONNECTION = 0;  // alternate flashing both sets of LEDs
const int GEAR_DOWN = 1; // solid green 'D'
const int GEAR_UP = 2;  // solid red 'U'
const int GEAR_TRANSITIONING_DOWN = 3;  // flash green 'F'
const int GEAR_TRANSITIONING_UP = 4;  // flash red 'R'

int gearState = GEAR_NO_CONNECTION;

unsigned long time;
unsigned long lastReceivedTime;

void setup() {
    pinMode(switch_1_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_2_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_3_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_4_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_5_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_6_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);

    pinMode(led_red_pin, OUTPUT);
    pinMode(led_green_pin, OUTPUT);    

    // no pinMode required for analog inputs


    time = 0;

void loop() {
    if (Serial.available() > 0) {
        inByte =;

        if( inByte == 'U' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_UP;
        } else
        if( inByte == 'D' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_DOWN;
        } else
        if( inByte == 'R' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_TRANSITIONING_UP;
        } else
        if( inByte == 'F' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_TRANSITIONING_DOWN;
        } else
        if( inByte == 'N' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_NO_CONNECTION;

        lastReceivedTime = millis();

    if( (millis() - lastReceivedTime) > 2000 ) {
        gearState = GEAR_NO_CONNECTION;

    // note: read delays required due to issue with Arduino ADC timing.
    slider_1_state = logToLin(analogRead(slider_1_pin));
    slider_2_state = logToLin(analogRead(slider_2_pin));

    switch_1_state = digitalRead(switch_1_pin);
    switch_2_state = digitalRead(switch_2_pin);
    switch_3_state = digitalRead(switch_3_pin);
    switch_4_state = digitalRead(switch_4_pin);
    switch_5_state = digitalRead(switch_5_pin);
    switch_6_state = digitalRead(switch_6_pin);

    write('A', switch_1_state);
    write('B', switch_2_state);
    write('C', switch_3_state);
    write('D', switch_4_state);
    write('E', switch_5_state);
    write('F', switch_6_state);

    //Serial.println(slider_1_state, DEC);
    Serial.print(slider_1_state, DEC);
    Serial.write(' ');
    Serial.print(slider_2_state, DEC);

    // switch_1 is avionics on/off and so is also an on/off switch for all the LEDs
    if( switch_1_state == LOW ) {
        if( gearState == GEAR_UP ) {
            digitalWrite(led_red_pin, HIGH);
            digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
        } else
        if( gearState == GEAR_DOWN ) {
            digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
            digitalWrite(led_green_pin, HIGH);
        } else
        if( gearState == GEAR_TRANSITIONING_UP ) {
            // time since last change..
            unsigned long since = millis() - time;
            if( since > 1000 ) {
                digitalWrite(led_red_pin, HIGH);
                digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
                time = millis();
            } else
            if( since > 500 ) {
                digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
                digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
        } else
        if( gearState == GEAR_TRANSITIONING_DOWN ) {
            // time since last change..
            unsigned long since = millis() - time;
            if( since > 1000 ) {
                digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
                digitalWrite(led_green_pin, HIGH);
                time = millis();
            } else
            if( since > 500 ) {
                digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
                digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
        } else
        if( gearState == GEAR_NO_CONNECTION ) {
            digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
            digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);

    } else {
        digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
        digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);



void write(char c, int state) {
    if( state == HIGH ) {
    } else
    if( state == LOW ) {
    } else {
    Serial.write(' ');

int logToLin(int a) {
    double x = (double) a / 1024.0;
    double y = pow(20.0, x);
    double z = y - 1.0;
    int b = (int)(z * 54.0);
    return b;

Note the logToLin function which I needed because I’d accidentally ordered logarithmic scale potentiometers rather than linear ones. The magic numbers you see in that function came from experimentation.

I found the Arduino serial monitor very helpful to watch what the box was sending over the serial port.

PC software

The code to send/receive UDP packets to/from XPlane is written in Java and based on XPDisplay but using the RXTX library for serial port communication. If I’m honest it’s a bit of a shambles at the moment and I’m hoping to rewrite it, so samples are available on request. :-)


All in all, this was an easy project to pick up for an hour, do a little bit, then put down again (which is important when you’ve got young kids). Although it’s definitely amateurish, the end result is better than I hoped for at the beginning, and as this was my first arduino project it was very much a case of discovering the right way to do things as I went along.

The total cost of materials & electronics was about £30 (from RS, Farnell, Oomlout):

  • MDF wood – scraps I had lying around, probably worth no more than £3
  • slide potentiometers – £1 each, so £2 – get linear ones, I got logarithmic (audio) ones
  • knobs for slide potentiometers – £1
  • switches – £1 each, so £6
  • LEDs – about 40p in total
  • Arduino Uno – £15
  • Epoxy glue – £2
  • Labels – nothing, printed on my inkjet printer
  • Paint – £3 for the primer & for the paint, probably used 50p’s worth.

RPi CPU load and temperature logging to Cosm

Here is a 15-minute recipe to get your Raspberry Pi logging data to, who provide a RESTful API to query the data and produce customized charts.

I use two scripts that cron runs every 5 minutes, one to log data to a CSV file, and another to upload the data to cosm, then delete the CSV file. That way, if my internet connection goes down for a while, the logged data is not lost. I have a copy of these scripts in a separate directory for each variable (‘datastream’) that I monitor, which makes it easier to manage.

CPU load

First, create an account on (it’s free & quick).

Now set up a new feed (a feed is a collection of datastreams; each datastream is a series of timestamped data points, aka a ‘time series’)

  • “+ Device/Feed”
  • What type of device/feed do you want to add?: Choose ‘Something Else’
  • Step 1 – Data: Choose ‘No, I will push data to Cosm’
  • Step 2 – Title: think of a relevant name for your feed, e.g. “MyDesktopPi”
  • Step 3 – Tags: give it any relevant tags that might help you find it in future (this is only really useful for public feeds)
  • Step 4 – Create. Make a note of the feed ID, we’ll use this later.

Once you’ve created a feed, you can add datastreams to it. A datastream represents a value that your Pi will monitor over time, like temperature or CPU load (or internet connectivity, washing machine activity, presence of your mobile phone on your LAN, etc..)

  • “+ Datastream”
  • ID: This doesn’t need to be numeric – you can enter something like ‘Pi_CPU_Load’. Make a note of this datastream ID too.
  • Tags: e.g. ‘pi cpu load’
  • Units: ‘Capacity’ – this is free text
  • Symbol: leave blank

At this point, your feed is public, i.e. anyone can view the current data. This may be fine, but if you want to change it, scroll down to the ‘Feed Status’ section at the bottom of the page.

Now, at the bottom of the screen click the green ‘Save Changes’ button. (this is an area of the cosm UI that needs work, IMHO, as you expect to find this button near the data that you’re editing..)

You can get back to the edit feed / add datastream page at any time by clicking the little cog icon on the right hand side of the feed name and choosing ‘edit’.

Now that we’ve defined our feed and datastream, we need to give our script permission to upload data to our Cosm datastream. This is done by generating an API key.

  • In the top-right of the cosm web page, click the ‘Keys’ icon.
  • Click the ‘+ Key’ icon, give the key a label (ID), e.g. ‘MyDesktopPi_UploadScriptKey’, and choose feed restrictions:’Use any feed (including my private feeds)’ and access privileges:’all’, then click ‘create’.
  • Make a note of the long alphanumeric API key string, as we’ll use that in a moment.

The last thing to do is to create the scripts on the Pi that will upload data to cosm.

Log in as ‘pi’.

cd ~
mkdir cosm
cd cosm
mkdir load
cd load

Install CURL
sudo apt-get install curl

Using your favourite text editor, create the file ‘’:
# Please customize these values appropriately:
#VALUE=$( uptime | awk -v FS="[, ]" '{print $18}' )
# alternatively:
VALUE=$( cat /proc/loadavg | awk {'print $2'} )
TIME=`/bin/date -u +%FT%XZ`
if [[ "$VALUE" == "" ]]
echo "$TIME,$VALUE" >> $LOCATION/cosm.csv
exit 0

.. and save it. The line cat /proc/loadavg | awk {'print $2'} simply takes the second number from the /proc/loadavg file, which represents the 5-minute-average of the CPU load.

Create a file called ‘’:
# Please customize these values appropriately:
sleep 2 # gives any data logging scheduled at the same time a chance to run
echo $COSM_URL
curl -v --request POST --header "X-ApiKey: $API_KEY" --data-binary @$LOCATION/cosm.csv $COSM_URL
if [ $? -eq 0 ]
rm $LOCATION/cosm.csv
#echo "Would delete file now."
#echo "Done"

.. and save that too. Exit the text editor, and make all the .sh scripts executeable with:
chmod u+x *.sh

(I’ll assume that you’ve changed LOCATION, API_KEY, FEED_ID and DATASTREAM_ID appropriately for your system)

The script will append to a file called cosm.csv every time it is run. You can try it now if you like:

To schedule these scripts to run, we edit ‘crontab’, a file that tells cron which scripts to run, and when. My favourite editor is called ‘joe’, yours might be ‘vi’, ‘emacs’ or another. The first line makes sure that crontab will use your editor to edit the crontab file:

crontab -e

Append these lines to the end of your crontab file (leaving a blank line at the end):

*/5 * * * * /home/pi/cosm/load/
*/5 * * * * /home/pi/cosm/load/

*/5 means ‘run every 5 minutes’. See this reference for more details.

Save the crontab file and exit your editor. Now you can either wait for five minutes, or simply run the upload script with:

With luck, you should now be able to reload your page and see the data uploaded to your datastream as a chart.

CPU temperature

Simply copy the ~/cosm/load directory:
cp -R ~/cosm/load ~/cosm/temperature
cd ~/cosm/temperature

Edit the script, and replace:

# VALUE is in degrees celcius
VALUE=$( cat /sys/class/thermal/thermal_zone0/temp | awk -v FS=" " '{print $1/1000""}' )

This takes the 1st value from /sys/class/thermal/thermal_zone0/temp (in fact there is only one number), and divides it by 1000 to get degrees C (the raw value is in thousandths of a degree).

Edit the script with your temperature datastream ID (update the LOCATION too), and add to crontab:

* * * * * /home/pi/cosm/temperature/
*/5 * * * * /home/pi/cosm/temperature/

(I’ve chosen to record the temperature every minute, but upload the values every 5 minutes)

Note the daily variation, even though this is monitoring CPU temperature! I guess the Pi is in a south-facing room which warms up during the day, but I didn’t expect to see this so clearly. The dropouts/spikes that you see in the data are caused by occasional erroneous values returned by the temperature sensor.

If you find this useful, please post a comment indicating the type of data that you’re monitoring (and maybe the line of script that captures the data?).

Thanks for reading!

Golf Bravo Uniform Indigo Kilo

Yesterday I finally used the Flight Experience voucher that my wife bought me for my birthday. However as it turned out there were a few hurdles to cross first.. after nearly two weeks of sunshine and perfect blue skies, the forecast for Tuesday was for heavy rain. I couldn’t believe my luck. Thankfully the Met office showed the rain coming in the afternoon & my flight was booked for 11am so we might just be ok. I got all technical and checked the METAR (aviation forecast) for Luton which looked something like this:

EGGW 030720Z 29008KT 9999 FEW031 07/05 Q1003

Thankfully there was also a translation:

wind 290 degrees 08 knots, visibility 10km or more, a few clouds at 3100ft, temperature 8'c, dewpoint 5'c and air pressure 1003mb.

.. which basically meant that we were still on for flying. Phew! – first hurdle.

Just after setting off for the airfield (Panshangar, a few miles from Hertford), with plenty of time to spare, we got a call to say our 18 month old daughter had been sick at nursery, please could we come and pick her up? Aaargh. Second hurdle. So we had to drive back – she was sans breakfast but looking a lot brighter. We figured perhaps it was just a one off – nursery couldn’t keep her in case it was contagious, but maybe she’d be able to sit and watch a few planes?

We set off for Panshangar again… .. and then she threw up all over her car seat. Noooo! Clearly this wasn’t going to be the day that we’d planned – I had to drop my wife and daughter off at home but made it Panshangar on the dot of 11. (Third hurdle crossed – finally made it, phew!)

Thankfully the atmosphere at Panshangar was very relaxed & I had ten minutes to sit with a coffee before being introduced to Sergio, my instructor for the flight. Before this point, my expectation was that a real pilot would fly the plane, I would get to look out the window and enjoy the view, take a few photos and perhaps get a chance to have a go at the controls for a bit. Ho ho ho. As Sergio led me out to the aircraft, his words were “you’re the pilot today so you’ll be doing the whole flight, including the takeoff and all of the landing if you like”. Wow, gulp. Hopefully all those hours spent messing around with flight simulators on my computer would help. I knew what most of the instruments did, but this would be the real thing – and I’d been told that flight simulators are only about 10% of the real experience, so I was nervous.

Unfortunately my wife wasn’t there to be able to take any photos, but I did manage to get a few. This is G-BUIK (Golf Bravo Uniform Indigo Kilo) – a Piper Warrior II, just a couple of years younger than me:

(Sergio is doing the necessary pre-flight engine checks, so I got a chance to look under the covers. There was surprisingly little in there!)

After a walk around the aircraft talking about physics and wobbling various wobbly bits, it was time to hop in.

Right then, what does all this do again? Headsets on, turn the key to start the engine and then we’re off taxiing across the airfield, and I’m learning to drive a plane across the bumpy grass by steering with the pedals (or pushing with my toes to brake) and desperately trying not to embarrass myself!

After following another plane to the end of the runway, we waited & checked the engines one last time (it’s worth being sure, right?). Then I taxiied onto the runway, and with the throttle full open bounced along the grass pointed it at the sky and all of a sudden we’re up in the air. Wow. (You know that feeling of heavy-headedness and disorientation you get when your plane first leaves the runway? Yep.) But it was so smooth – the aircraft was wobbling around a bit, but not as much as I was expecting. The feeling was fantastic! We turned a few times and climbed up to 2000ft, where the view was just incredible – you could see the airports at Stansted and Luton, and even make out Canary Wharf in the distance.

(Sorry, no photos from this bit – I was having too much fun)

I had a go at navigating, practising turns using the rudder pedals as well as the yoke, controlling ascent and descent with the throttle, and even a stall (which I thought would mean we’d fall out of the sky rather dramatically, but it turns out that with this type of plane it just beeps at you and the tail flutters around a bit until you sort it out). The half hour seemed to last a long time as we flew around the skies of north Hertfordshire (obviously there were limits on where we could fly due to the nearby airports), but eventually, just a few drops of rain started to streak along the windshield, it was time to head back to Panshangar – but not before we’d passed over my house, where Sergio took the controls for a bit while I got the camera out:

.. and checked up on the progress with our garden. (see the patio and snaking stone path?)

Then came the hardest part – landing. It was fairly easy to steer the aircraft so that it was lined up with the runway, but Sergio had to help with the throttle a bit so that we didn’t come in too fast. Then we were over the trees and with the throttle closed, pulling hard back on the yoke to land – gently! – on the runway.

(approach to Panshangar – this pic from Google Earth – I was a bit busy at the time)

In fact as landings go, I might be biased, but I reckon it was smoother than some of the commercial flights I’ve been on. :-) Then I taxiied off the runway, back round to the parking area and we stopped pretty much bang on the marks. As the engine stopped and the generators whined down, I thanked Sergio for what had been a brilliant flight and tremendous fun. I might just have to do this again sometime.

(My hair was already like this before the flight, just for the record.)

Over and out.

Zephyr #1

Cloning Windows 2000 to a VirtualBox VM

VirtualBox is really quite impressive, especially as you find out more about what it does behind the scenes. It just seems so easy to use compared with VMWare (though I’m sure VMWare does more).

I finally got my ancient Windows 2000 system cloned last night. I didn’t want to have to go through the pain of completely reinstalling it, but felt the need to move to a (slightly) more up to date OS (Windows XP). I was already dual-booting into XP on a separate partition and having played with VirtualBox before, turning the Windows 2000 system into a Virtual Machine (VM) that I could run on Windows XP seemed the right thing to do.

For the record, the steps (after much experimenting) were:

  1. I slimmed down my windows drive by moving all my data files onto another partition
  2. I installed DesktopOK and saved my desktop icon positions
  3. I followed the section on “Hard Disk Support” from the VirtualBox guide (this is vital)
  4. I downloaded VMWare Converter, a free tool that makes a virtual machine out of a hard disk partition.
  5. VMWare Converter made a VMWare virtual machine for VMWare Player 2.5* out of my 20GB C: drive (onto another drive)
  6. I started up VirtualBox, created a new Windows 2000 virtual machine image, and specified the VMWare-created disk image as the hard drive image (which VirtualBox handily understands).
  7. I fired up the new VM.
  8. In the vm, Windows complained loudly about different hardware. I made it install the VGA components but ignored all else.
  9. I rebooted the VM, installed the VirtualBox guest addons, changed the screen resolution, restored DesktopOK’s icon positions and bingo!

I now have all my old applications and services running in the virtual machine, but with all the advantages that a VM gives. Making a backup of my Windows 2000 machine is now just a matter of copying a single 20GB file. I can pause and resume it. I can save its state, switch off my computer entirely, then come back and continue from exactly where I left off.

I’ve installed the basics (browser, email, etc) on my XP installation, but because that’s a minimal usable system (for me) it boots up much more quickly than the Windows 2000 system did, and if I need the Windows 2000 VM, I can restore it in just a few seconds.

The only real issue is that none of the graphics intensive games I had installed will run particularly well from inside a VM, but then most of them are outdated and modern games mostly require XP these days anyway. Besides, Chuckie Egg runs just fine inside the VM and who needs more anyway? ;-)


I’ve recently started using Unison to keep all my photos in sync between my Windows desktop machine, a Windows laptop and my Mac mini server.

It works really well, however the other day I started seeing the following error:

Fatal error: Warning: inconsistent state.
The archive file is missing on some hosts.
For safety, the remaining copies should be deleted.
Archive ar604df3 on host HOLLY is MISSING
Archive ar4fcd50c1d8c24915dbcbc359c32578fe on host Hal.local should be DELETED
Please delete archive files as appropriate and try again.

I couldn’t locate the archive file on Hal (the Mac mini) to delete it, until eventually I found it in:

/Users/my-username/Library/Application Support/Unison

Once deleted, Unison continued happily on its way.