Yet More Dell Docking

Dell’s dock didn’t work. The Belkin USB 3.0 hub did. For a while, at least. After a few months of fairly solid performance driving the 2x LG 34UC97 ultrawide monitors using 2x Plugable USB3.0 DP adapters, problems started to appear. One monitor wouldn’t come on.  Or the other wouldn’t come on. Or they’d flicker wildly when actual work was being done. The bosses declared them “unusable” and worked from a meeting room, rather than stare at the pile of failing technology in front of them. Shame upon my family name!

It looks like the issue is the Belkin dock, rather than the Plugable adapters. While these docks are happily pushing twin 1080p monitors elsewhere in the business, it seems that pushing two lots of 3440×1440 monitors is too much for the chipset. I’ve kept them, and at some point I’ll test them out to see if they’re properly wrecked or whether they can enjoy an easy retirement pushing the same twin 1080p as their comrades.

So it was back to online shopping, trying to find something that would do the job. I have to say, the market for USB 3.x docks is moving at a serious pace now. It seems like none of the options I checked out in January were really available six months ago. In the end I settled for the Kensington SD4600P, a dock that advertises as supporting dual 4K, via one DP port and one HDMI port. They’ve been working for nearly two months now with fairly minimal issues; occasionally the XPS15 forgets which monitors go where, but that is quickly solved.

They seem fairly nice units, however there is one thing I will note. Of two installations on the same Dell XPS 15s, one was significantly easier than the other. The easy one was just checking that the video drivers were up to date, and we were away. The other struggled to drive both monitors at the same time until a firmware update was performed. And something in the firmware update had a terrible effect on the laptop’s onboard graphics. The lower half of the screen flickered and froze constantly after the firmware update (which should only have affected the dock!) and nothing I tried would fix it. Eventually the boss needed to go, so I shut it off. When it was turned on the next morning, it was fine. I have no idea what happened there. I had tried turning it off and on again, but it appears the extended power-down was the answer.

Being a loser

As 2016 came to a close, I had a realisation. That realisation was “damn James, you are really fat”. I mean, I’ve always been soft around the edges, and there have been occasional gags about my size, but something in my brain has always gone “yeah, you could lose a bit of weight, it’s not that bad though, there’s plenty fatter than you!”.

That changed, just before New Year. I saw the way my t-shirt hung over my belly and I was actually repulsed. I had to do something about it. First, I bought a Fitbit Aria. The various readouts said one at a time please that at 15 stone I was either nearly obese (BMI 29.1, obese is 30), or actually obese (27.7% body fat, 25% is considered obese).

That was the trigger for me to actually start making changes to my life. To avoid building unnecessary suspense, the things I’ve done are starting to work.

That graph represents my first month of being healthy. You can applaud a bit now. Not too much, I’ve still got a long way to go. But I think I’ve earned a bit of approval. I now weigh less than 89KG (14 stone for imperial scum).

These are the things I have done that I think have probably helped:

  1. Buying the Aria and weighing in every morning (post-wee, pre-breakfast) and every evening (before bed). This A) reminds me that I am being healthy, and B) shows me my weight trend. The trend is far more interesting than any individual weigh-in. You can see a few big spikes in the graph above (representing New Year, a friend’s birthday, and a weekend at my mum’s), but none of those sudden jumps in weight depressed me, because I still had a downward trend. Honestly, the Fitbit has been pretty much the driving force for me not forgetting about my health entirely.
  2. Cooking healthy. I haven’t been starving myself. The BBC Good Food magazine has many good recipes. A few that aren’t on their website have been the most helpful. Specifically, a red pepper prawn curry and rice meal that neither me or Coralie could finish due to the sheer size of the thing, despite how delicious it is.
  3. Abandoning the breakfast of a lifetime. I’m no longer eating marmite on two slices of buttered white toast each day. It’s now an avocado on a slice of brown toast, with some hot sauce.
  4. Not eating all the cake that is omnipresent in our office. Seriously, it’s like someone robbed the Tesco bakery section and stashed it on desks near me. That’s been a real test of self-control.
  5. Not doing more exercise. I know I should, and I have tried a bit, but frankly it’s cold outside and it’s dark when I get home from work, so that will have to wait. This does mean that the weight I’ve lost has been from eating less, which has to be a good start, right?
  6. Dry January. Apart from one night off (many vodkas, drunken kebab) I’ve not had any booze since New Year. This is something I will need to account for starting in February.

Anyway, that’s enough patting myself on the back. I met my Q1 goal in the first month. That means now I have to go on and do more, because I’m not where I want to be yet. I’m not telling you what that final goal is, because I think not banging on about weight loss has helped me lose weight and keep friends, but when I do get there I’ll let you know.

88.6KG – 24.6% body fat – BMI 27.4

The Geek’s Garden Part 5: Climbing the Walls

Pre-apology: I have taken more than two months to complete this post. Please pretend that you’re reading this in late September so you don’t think about how slack I am with consistent blogging.

Before starting this project, I spent far too much time looking at pictures of vertical gardens, trying to discover how they’ve actually been done. This was frustrating, because some are from companies who want you to pay them to build a vertical garden, and the rest are regurgitated images from sources long since lost, talking in vague generalities about how nice green walls are. So, here’s exactly how I created mine.

The finished product.
The finished product.
  • Wall Hogger vertical planters
  • 3 metre, 30-35mm diameter bamboo from ukbamboo.com
  • Stainless steel S-shaped hooks large enough to hook over the bamboo poles
  • Wall mountable hooks. I used these, which are slightly too large. You should use these if you want to learn from my mistakes.
  • Screws to mount the hooks.

That’s all you need. My approach was as follows:

Step 1: Mount the hooks. The bamboo poles are really sturdy, they’ll only need supporting at either end. The hooks I listed are strong enough to support two of the bamboo poles each, so you only need n+1 of the hooks where n is the number of bamboo poles you need to support in a row.

Step 2: Rest the bamboo poles on the hooks. Tie them in place with twine if you want. I did that later.

Step 3: hang the s-shaped hooks off the bamboo. Again, these are strong enough to carry the weight of a pair of wall hoggers, so I’ve gotten away with n+1 hooks for a row of n wall hoggers.

Step 4: hang the wall hoggers off the hooks. Bear in mind that if you’re not instantly ready to plant in them, you will want to weight them down with some stones or something as they are prone to blowing around and falling off when they’re empty.

Another angle
Another angle

That’s it. Your vertical garden space is now ready for planting. So, let’s quickly run through the pros and cons of my incredibly basic approach.

PRO: This approach is really modular. You can scale it up or down depending on how much space you have. Different shaped wall hoggers are available, so you could fit this design in pretty much anywhere.

CON: The s-shaped hooks are prone to sliding along the pole, meaning the wall hoggers don’t hang flat to the fence. I’m mulling over the best solution to this- outdoor-grade elastic bands, maybe?

PRO: This is really easy to construct. Screw the hooks in and the rest is just hanging things in place.

SORT-OF-CON: This probably isn’t the absolute cheapest way of achieving this result. My total cost was about £235 before I even put any plants in. I have seen pictures of approaches that looked cheaper (e.g. using plastic guttering pipe for planters) but there did always seem to be a tradeoff of cost against ease of assembly. A lot of that cost was bamboo, which is incredibly cheap per metre but incurs a high shipping charge as it’s so awkward to move.

NOTE: Normal fences don’t like water. Do not use this design as-is if you have a normal fence. When Tim from Pro Build specced out my fence, he used specially treated timber which will not absorb water. If your fence is not made from this timber, you need to put some kind of water protection between the wall hoggers and the fence, otherwise your fence will get damp and rot incredibly quickly.

The Geek’s Garden Part 4: Getting a man in

When I first started planning to turn our courtyard into something less horrible, I was young and idealistic and wanted to do everything myself. Then I spent hours watching tradesmen assembling fences and pavements on Youtube and realised that there isn’t room in our garden for me to learn by making mistakes. There’s nowhere to hide any errors, so everything has to be done well, first time. So I got a man in.

The finished product
The finished product

Finding tradesmen is a notoriously awful exercise, but Rated People has made that somewhat less painful, and it turned up Tim from Pro Build, who has been outstanding. The whole job was done within three weeks of him quoting on it. The only other guy who got around to quoting was saying he’d not be able to start until October!

Aerial shot
Aerial shot

Now that what I’d think of as the shell has been nicely finished, we can start putting actual garden stuff in. I’ve got a bunch of hardware arriving which I will run through as I start putting things together in the next blog post!

 

The Geek’s Garden Part 3: In which I don’t get my 15 minutes

I haven’t blogged about the Geek’s Garden project for nearly four months now. You might think this means I’ve been slacking. And you’d be mostly right! In my defence, there were extenuating circumstances, and there is now some progress.

Not long after I last blogged. Monty Don tweeted out a call for gardens and their gardeners to feature in the 2016 series of Big Dreams Small Spaces. Getting advice from Britain’s Favourite Gardener™ is not something to be sniffed at, so I applied. And they responded! I was quizzed heavily over the course of a few phone calls, and photos of the courtyard were exchanged. Then they asked me to postpone any work I was planning, on the basis that if they were going to film us, they’d want to show the transformation, which would be very undramatic if the work was halfway done.

That process started in mid April. In mid May, one of the Big Dreams Small Spaces team came out and recorded an audition tape, featuring me and Coralie standing in the garden, talking about our plans, and a few closeups of the mess that was the current state of affairs. The whole thing was quite surreal. I don’t think I’m made for telly. Apparently, neither did the BDSS team as two or three weeks later we got a call that said we weren’t going to be on the show. C’est la vie! I was mostly annoyed because I’d delayed doing any work in the garden by more than six weeks, so I was raring to get started. Then it rained all through June, which is not conducive weather for dragging soil through your house.

I finally restarted the process of extracting all the soil from the back of the garden, but progress was slow until I bought started buying HippoBags. They aren’t what I’d call cheap, but they take up less space than a skip and they’re way more efficient than driving down the tip over and over again in a small car.

DSC_0838
The state of things

 

That brings us up to the current position: most of the old paving slabs are up, the oven is still there but I’ve gotten rid of the copper piping, the spare tyre and nearly all the soil. I’ve had the first handyman round to quote us on re-paving (or decking, I’m really not sure which yet) and building the new fence to support the vertical garden. A lot of work which should have taken a lot less time. Still, lessons have been learned!

 

Aren't they nice? Look at that happy bumbler.
Aren’t they nice? Look at that happy bumbler.

I’ve finally made a decision on what to do with the western wall. I’ll be adding a two-seat arbour, running some trellis either side, and growing a climbing plant up the whole thing. On a visit to Kelmarsh Hall I saw them growing passiflora passion flowers which are lovely, but might not be suitably hardy. Time will tell whether I can get hold of some and keep them alive.

 

 

A Dell Docking Follow-Up

After the unbelievable faff of installing the Dell WD-15 docks, I thought I’d do a little follow up on the working solution I found for connecting a Dell XPS15 to two LG 34UC97 ultrawide monitors.

Unfortunately, the single connector for everything was a no-goer, but I did get everything down to two connections. The power connector is the first, the second is a USB connection to a Belkin USB 3.0 hub which is our standard laptop dock. Plugged into that USB hub are 2x Plugable USB 3.0 to DisplayPort adapters. These aren’t the cheapest, but they are rated for resolutions up to 4K, which covers the ultrawide’s 3440×1440, and they won’t need replacing if the bosses decide that they want to upgrade to 4K.

The solution isn’t as neat as I would have liked, as it leaves only one free USB port on the Belkin hub. Plus, the USB connection means the monitors are powered by the XPS 15’s integrated CPU graphics rather than the discrete Nvidia card, but the result is fine for office work and the odd video.

Only one driver was required for the Belkin dock, and after two weeks they have been been rock solid. Dell, take note.

Update 02/03/2017: this wasn’t the end of it. More here.

On Dell and their WD-15 Dock

Dell are usually pretty solid, as a brand. A bit pricey maybe, but they’ve survived because they are usually as good, if not better, than their rivals at HP and Lenovo. I had no issues recommending my bosses replace their outgoing MacBook Pros with the 2015 Dell XPS 15, billed by reviewers as the “Windows […] MacBook Pro”. The XPS 15, by itself, absolutely lives up to that moniker. But something terrible must have happened within Dell, because the docking station they built for their latest laptops, the WD-15, is an abject failure.

We needed the docking stations because the bosses wanted dual monitors. On the MacBooks, this was astoundingly simple; purchase two Thunderbolt Displays, plug one into the other and the other into the MacBook and watch as the MacBook receives power and outputs video. The Apple mantra of “it just works” writ large.

The Windows ecosystem is rarely as straightforward, and I accept the need for docks to go between a laptop and multiple monitors. Our users get a Belkin USB 3.0 hub to power twin 1080p displays, and they work really well, requiring only the generic DisplayLink driver. Unfortunately these wouldn’t work for my bosses, as they wanted a one-port devices and charging solution like the MacBook. No problem, the WD-15 is what Dell recommend for this exact scenario.

As a reminder, the Apple way requires you to plug in a cable and you’re good to go. The generic Windows way requires you to install one bit of software and then plug your cables in. The Dell way needs you to install five individual software packages, with a reboot between each installation. Their driver download page doesn’t even highlight that the correct process, which has only been noted in their community support forum, varies from Dell laptop to Dell laptop, and requires you to install those patches in a specific order to expect them to work at all! What the hell, Dell? Who OK’d this out-of-box experience? Upwards of half an hour to install the patches on a brand new system, and if you miss the unmentioned instructions, having to uninstall them all and start again?

The real kicker, then is that even after that arduous process, it still might not work. Ours didn’t output video. Other reported issues include displays turning off at random. I called up Dell Support, and after confirming that I’d run through their hidden process, the rep admitted there had been “some issues” with the model, and suggested I get a refund. The alternative was to wait “a month or so” for a new patch which “may” resolve the issue. At this point I’d wasted so many hours uninstalling and reinstalling Dell drivers that I opted for the refund.

TL;DR? Dell has released a product that’s pretty fundamentally broken to accompany one of their flagship devices. Even if it wasn’t fundamentally broken, it has the worst out-of-the-box install experience of any device I have ever used. This should not fly in 2016, do not buy a Dell WD-15.

The Geek’s Garden Part 2: A Man, A Plan, A Laser Measure

I was alerted to the existence of Monty Don’s Big Dreams Small Spaces (MDBDSS) a few weeks ago, which helped a fair bit with inspiration. Though I would like to discuss with the BBC their definition of “Small Spaces”, given that only two gardens of the twelve featured were on a similar scale to our 18m2. In both these instances, Britain’s Favourite Gardener (a title I presume Monty Don won by beating Alan Titchmarsh to a pulp in a cage before thousands of hooting Gardener’s World fans) pretty much confirmed my first thoughts: a vertical garden is the best option in such an enclosed space.

Bow before my Sketchup skills!
The left side is North.

The fence running along the northern wall is the most logical place to plant upwards, as it gets the most sunlight. Unfortunately the extant fence is, frankly, a shambles and I don’t think it can take the weight, so I’m going to have to replace it with something a lot sturdier.

Great artists steal. From garden centres, if need be.
Great artists steal. From garden centres, if need be.

 

I won’t take up the entire wall with herbs, because there is an upper limit to the amount of seasoning two people can consume. The yard is divided into uneven thirds by bricks that support the north wall, and the largest middle section will be where the herbs live. The western segment will be an assortment of cottagey flowers, and to the eastern side there will be some trellis with a mirror on accompanied by some climbing plants, an idea stolen shamelessly from a local garden centre.

 

This'll really confuse cloud-to-butt users
A water butt! No idea what to accompany it with, though…

I’ve already repainted the southern wall, which is external to our extension, because it was a hideous yellowish colour turned brown with years of grime and mud. It’s now a standard issue plain white. Attached will be some trellis, and a climbing rose suitable for shade will wind around the bathroom windows. That’s the idea, anyway.

There’s not much to the eastern wall as it’s taken up by windows and drains, but a potted tree, possibly a bay tree to fit with the edible theme, will sit in the corner, behind a bench. The western wall is still a blank canvas; I have not been able to make a decision whether to use it for further climbing plants, some raised bedding, or a gurt big water feature. Ideas on the back of a postcard, please!

On top of the grand designs (home improvement pun!) I’ve laid out above, the whole thing needs re-paving, because the current paving doesn’t cover all of the floor and is best described in style as “robbed from a council leftovers pile in the 1950s”.

The 3D models dotting this article were created in Sketchup, which is free and handy for planning out a space properly instead of on the back of an envelope. Another thing that helped was the ELEPHAS laser measuring tool I picked up a few weeks ago, as it made getting the exact measurements of the yard really easy.

The Geek’s Garden Part 1: Inception

It’s a little over two years since me and Coralie took over the smallest cottage in the village. It was a bit run down, but that’s par for the course when your budget looks like ours. Since then we’ve made a lot of improvements, and while there’s still a lot of work to do (I’m led to believe that this is the natural state of all houses ever), we’ve done enough of the “need to do” stuff that we can now work through the “nice to do” stuff. With summer approaching, top of my list is the garden.

The mudpile
The mudpile

Calling it the garden may be overselling it somewhat; it’s a paved courtyard, a little over two and a half metres wide and about seven metres long. When we arrived, the defining feature was a heap of soil over a metre long covering the rear width of the yard. It may once have been a carefully maintained raised bed, but when we arrived it was home to a combination of nettles and daffodils, with a few large pot plants dumped on top.

Bless this mess
Bless this mess

Maybe this was all deliberate and I’ve harshly judged a neatly assembled modernist piece. Indeed, we may have inadvertently enhanced that effect by adding some installation art in the form of a spare tyre, an old oven and a collection of copper and plastic pipes as we renovated the insides of the house. Seeing as there’s no obvious signs of Arts Council members issuing prize money, I have to assume not and return to my original conclusion: our courtyard is a dump. It must be razed to the ground and we must start again.

The brief for the project is pretty lofty; I feel that in a small house every square foot must pull its’ weight. It must be a nice place to relax, with seating enough to entertain guests. I want a herb garden – this is an English cottage and I want our yard to play the part of a much larger English cottage garden. Also I hate paying seventy odd pence a time for fresh herbs at the local Tesco only to have them decompose within a few days. The whole garden must be incredibly low maintenance, because I am absent-minded at the best of times and I struggle to make sure I get enough water, let alone the plants in my care. Lastly, the project must be done on a fairly meagre budget, because I much prefer to spend my money on shiny gadgets and when you get down to it, most gardens are a combination of soil, stones and plants, and it does not feel satisfying to spend lots of money on these naturally occurring and plentiful items.

I’m blogging about this partly because I feel that making a target public will pressure me into meeting it, and partly because it might be useful for other amateur gardeners who can learn from my inevitable mistakes.

Opening .AJP CCTV Video Files

If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself needing to view CCTV in an .AJP file format, (as far as I can tell these are created by older Hangzhou Hikvision DVRs) then the following will hopefully be helpful.

Some Googling suggested an application called JPEG2000 AJP Video Player. Downloading it and installing it (always use a VM! Do not install random applications on a production machine! Eat your greens!), will lead to disappointment. Not just because it’s a hideous old application, but because it doesn’t work on modern Windows – I’ve tested on 32 and 64 bit versions of Windows 7 and no amount of futzing with Compatibility Mode settings will get it to run properly, and often not even install at all.

What you’ll need to do is set up a Windows XP virtual machine (SP3 worked fine for me) and install the JPEG2000 application there. Once installed (it atually calls itself JM Integrated Remote Station) you can view your AJP file with the “Player” section of the application.

The application is pretty user-unfriendly and some features still won’t work reliably (I couldn’t rewind the video without closing the application to start it again!), but there is a silver lining in that you can output the video to a standard AVI file that will play nicely elsewhere. You can only do it one camera at a time, in real time, but having seen other horrible vintage CCTV programs, any standard-ish export option is a good one.