Monday 1 December 2014

NBN Information Day

On Tuesday 11th November NBN Co held an information session for local residents in the Bindoon Hall. I managed to squeeze in a 10 minute visit and spoke with the representatives who explained where things are at with getting the NBN to Bindoon. For those who may not be aware, the NBN is the National Broadband Network. Primarily this is meant to provide broadband to all Australians around the country, including those in regional areas. NBN Co is the company that is rolling out the network. In order to reach all potential customers, they are using a variety of technologies. The fastest and preferred medium is fibre optic cabling. This is being rolled out to high density areas, mainly in metropolitan suburbs and new estates. For other areas there is a mixture of technologies, including the use of existing copper wiring, fixed wireless and satellite services. For Bindoon, NBN Co are rolling out fixed wireless. This is the same technology that is used for mobile broadband, except there will be a fixed antenna on premise to ensure a solid connection to the network. The NBN will bring 4G to the area, which is significantly faster than the current 3G mobile broadband speeds. NBN Co will be achieving this by installing a tower in Bindoon that will link up with Gingin and Lower Chittering. NBN equipment is still to be rolled out to these towers which will be co-located on the existing Telstra or Optus towers. A new tower is required in Bindoon as the existing Telstra and Optus towers do not meet the line-of-sight requirements for the connection between these areas. The currently proposed site for the Bindoon tower is the Bell Hill reserve on the corner of Ridgetop Ramble and Forrest Hills Parade. In my opinion this is an ideal site as it is on Shire leased land and will ensure good coverage around the area. The next stage before work can commence is for the site to be approved by Council and if all goes smoothly, NBN could be available in Bindoon in the first half of next year. Understandably, NBN Co is not prepared to give a firm date as there may be delays if Council does not approve the site and if Gingin and Lower Chittering are not provisioned in time.

One thing to remember is that NBN Co are the wholesalers of the network and retail plans are sold through existing ISPs. NBN Co advised me that competitive plans will be available and can provide cheaper and faster mobile broadband than is currently available in the area. So this is good news for local residents. I urge you to keep an eye on the approval required through the Council and ensure that NBN comes to town sooner rather than later. For more information regarding available plans and details of the rollout, go to the NBN website at

Friday 28 November 2014

Portable Apps

If you are going travelling or use computers away from home then you may want to consider using portable apps. Portable apps are programs that you can run off of removable storage device such as USB flash (thumb) drives.  They allow you to use your programs on any computer without having to reinstall the software and as a result allow you to take your preferences and settings with you. There are a number of portable apps but the most common are web browsers such as firefox and chrome portable. The benefits of using a portable web browser are that you can take your extensions and customisations with you and you can maintain your privacy by keeping your browser history on the thumb drive and not on the computer. As an example, I have chrome portable setup with Lastpass, a password manager extension. This means I can plug my usb flash drive into any computer, fire up chrome portable and have access to all my passwords so I can login to my websites automatically.  I have also setup a portable version of Dropbox. Dropbox allows for files to be synchronised to the cloud so it is available on multiple devices. To use Dropbox, you would usually install it on the computer but with the portable version you can plug your flash drive into any computer and sync your files without an installation. The portable version is called DropboxPortableAHK. It can be tricky to setup but once it is operational you can benefit by having important files on your flash drive synchronised to the cloud as a backup in case your drive fails or gets lost. This is significantly better than just storing your files on your drive directly. You will always have the latest version of your files on your flash drive no matter which computer you are working on, and you don't need to install dropbox on the computer as it will run as a portable app on the flash drive.
There are some limitations to be aware of though. Firstly if you plan on storing a lot of files with DropboxPortableAHK you will need a flash drive with enough storage, you can customise the installation so you only synchronise a subset of your dropbox folders if you want to minimise the storage required. Secondly the speed of the flash drive is a limitation and can impact on the performance of the portable apps. It would be advisable to pay a bit extra to get the faster speed drives (take a look at some recommendations here Lastly, because flash drives are portable and small they are prone to being lost or left in a computer. As a result you run the risk of someone gaining access to your files and so you should bear that in mind when you consider the confidentiality of the documents you are storing on the drive. A way to mitigate this is to encrypt the drive, which essentially means that a password is required to unlock the data on the drive (see for more info). This may impact performance again so it I should be weighed up against the risk of someone gaining access to your files.

If you can overcome these limitations then you can benefit from using portable apps which will allow you to access your files and settings from any computer. For more details about portable apps and DropboxPortablAHK follow these links:

Sunday 2 November 2014

Software for practicing music

I have been looking for suitable software to help with practising on musical instruments. My intention was to connect up my electronic drum-kit and electronic piano to the studio computer and use software on the PC for this. I found it difficult to identify any suitable programs but did manage to find Synthesia for the piano and Drum Tutor, from Roland, for the drums. Both programs allow for a game based interface whereby notes are played visually (as they drop down the screen, similar to Rock Band on gaming consoles) or by using sheet music. The songs are based on MIDI files, a format which is used to communicate with electronic instruments. The MIDI files contain all the relevant notes and timing details required for the software to play the songs and keep track of your performance. Your performance is rated by how accurately you play the notes and keep in time. You can also extend the built in songs by downloading midi files from sources on the internet. There are a lot of free files available, especially for classical music on the piano.

To get the system working you will need a PC that can run the software, any current Windows version will do, Macs are also supported but you may find limited choices for software. You will also need an electronic instrument that supports MIDI (it will need MIDI in and out ports) and a MIDI to USB cable. The cable will connect the instrument to the PC. Finally, you will need software that can interpret the MIDI files and play them on your PC. I found Synthesia to meet my requirements for the piano. It cost just over $35 but is well worth it. It has various play modes to suit your level of development and the ability to add music through downloaded MIDI files is very useful. For the electronic drums there are probably fewer choices for software, generally the vendor will make something for practising with. Roland have the DT-1 V-Drums Tutor and Yamaha have DTX software. Although I have not tried it, it may be possible to hook up the instruments to console games like Rock Band.

All that aside there is no replacement for an experienced music teacher. These programs will help with day to day practice but to learn basic techniques one should always start with an experienced teacher so no bad habits creep in. For more information check the following links:

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Mind Maps

Are you a visualiser or a verbaliser? While you don't have to be strictly one or the other (you will learn through both methods), people will tend to have a preference for learning either visually (better memory for movies, diagrams etc) or verbally (prefer written word and listening). If you're not sure which learning style you have, you can test yourself by answering a questionnaire from the North Carolina State University website ( For an understanding of the learning style categories, take a look at Felder and Soloman's Index of Learning Styles (  

So what does this have to do with technology you might ask? Well if you are a visualiser then you will benefit from using mind mapping software. This allows you to "draw up" your ideas in a visual format. This is useful when brainstorming, writing essays, coming up with creative concepts, or any problem you might want to explain or map out. I tend be slightly more verbal but have been using mind maps for writing my essays. This allows me to structure my essay and ensure I have a consistent flow.

There are various mind mapping products available for Windows, Mac or Linux (see the Lifehacker review: If you are looking for integration with Word and more complex drawing functions, you will need to pay for a product, but for basic functionality I have been using a web based app called Coggle ( This is free and only requires a Google account in order to to sign up. I also find it convenient as I can access it from any web accessible device (tablet, desktop etc). Another recommendation is Mind Meister ( The free version allows 3 mind maps and then you need to pay for additional features after that. Educational institutions receive discounts, so you may be able to get a cheap or free account through your school or other learning institution. Mind Meister has more sophisticated mapping tools and layouts and generally more functionality than Coggle. Like Coggle it is web based, so it can be accessed just about anywhere.

So whether you are a visualiser or verbaliser, you may get some benefit out of mind mapping, give it a go and see what works for you. You might be inspired by some of the more creative mind maps here.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Using Google Apps for email

For most people, an email account with bigpond, Yahoo, hotmail or gmail is sufficient for their needs. These email providers will allow large enough mailboxes for most uses. Yet if your needs are more complex, in particular if you want to use your own domain name (such as then you will need to look at paying for this feature. There are many email providers that offer this and other features. I have recently setup a business with Google's service, called Google Apps. As the name implies, it is not just email but a set of cloud services for business collaboration. This includes document sharing, shared calendars and drive space to mention only a few. This is suited to small businesses that don't want to setup their own servers and infrastructure. It is also useful if the business has people spread across many different locations, as the services are located in the cloud (ie. on the internet).

Google charge for their services on a per user basis, which is equivalent to a person. You can have multiple domains or business names per mailbox but only 1 mailbox per person. So you may have and going to the same mailbox, but if you wanted email to go to another person such as then that will require a second user license. Google has flexible options for licensing, either a monthly charge of $5/user/month or you can pay $50/user/annum. The monthly option is useful if you want to have short term employees use an email account for a limited time.

Windows 8 Start Menu

I have written in my previous articles about the limitations of Windows 8, namely, the change in the interface and user experience. This was a deliberate move by Microsoft to meet the rising demand of tablet computing which has resulted in declining sales of traditional PCs. I think Microsoft has miscalculated the trend though as there are still a large number of PC users which prefer the traditional Windows interface. I know that some computer stores won't even offer Windows 8 on their new PCs, preferring to install Windows 7, and for good reason. Windows 8 is so different that most everyday computer users get very confused with the new layout. The key area of difficulty is the start menu. This has been removed in Windows 8 and is now called the start screen. Microsoft brought back the start button in Windows 8.1, but this was just cosmetic as it took you to the start screen anyway.  As a side note, Windows 8.1 is a free update to  to all Windows 8 owners, and in fact is required update in order for future patches to be accessible.

There are ways to reclaim the traditional start menu experience. You can set preferences in Windows 8.1 so that the desktop is the default view when starting up and this can simplify navigation. You can also install 3rd party start buttons. I have used the free app called Classic Shell ( In essence this brings back the start menu with easy access to all programs and settings (including easy access to the shutdown menu). Classic Shell also comes with customisations to windows explorer and internet explorer that make it familiar to older style Windows users. Installation is straight forward, just download the installer from the classic shell website and run through the installation wizard. Once this is complete you can choose the start menu style you prefer and customise other user experience options in the settings.

Microsoft will be releasing Windows 9 over the next year and I hope they heed the discontent that Windows users have experienced and bring back the ease of use that traditional desktop users are used to. If they don't, they might find themselves losing even greater market share to free alternatives such as the many Linux variants available (see my previous article on Linux options in the April edition). 

Volunteer Computing

So you wish you had time to contribute to a worthy cause, but you just can't find the time to do it? Don't worry, you can get your computer to do the volunteering for you. Your computer probably spends most of its time idle with nothing better to do anyhow, so now you can get it to contribute towards finding a cure for disease, or modeling the effects of climate change or even finding intelligent life beyond the stars.

Volunteer computing is when you donate your spare computing time to projects that gather a lot of data that requires processing. An example of this is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI project. Their goal is to detect intelligent life outside of Earth and they do this by analysing data from radio telescopes, searching for radio patterns that would be indicative of intelligent life. There is a huge amount of data to search through and this is where the distributed computing power of volunteer computing becomes very useful. Traditionally scientist would use extremely powerful supercomputers to crunch the data, but these are expensive and getting time on these systems can be difficult. Distributed computing breaks the data into small chunks and then sends that out to thousands of volunteer computers to do the work required.

There are around 50 projects that use this distributed computing model. Volunteers computers need to have internet access and sufficient resources to run the BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) software.  You will need an account to log your volunteer hours to as well. This is also a great way to see how much you have contributed to the project. Once BOINC is installed you can configure it for the best time to use your computer (e.g. overnight or during weekdays etc) and then you can choose which project to contribute to. If you want to run multiple projects or setup a team, you can use an account manager (GridRepublic or BAM!) that will manage this for you.

I have found that I don't even notice the impact on my computer when BOINC is running (I'm running the climateprediction@home project) and any recent model computer will have plenty of spare resources to cope with the workload. If you do find BOINC slowing your computer down then change the settings so it uses less processor power or runs when you are not using the PC. For more information check the links below. Happy volunteering!