Google launches “My Location” – bring on the blue dot

As many blogs have been reporting today, Google has launched a new feature for their Google Maps for Mobile service called “My Location”.

My Location is simple; it shows a little blue dot on the map to represent your current location. However, the really clever part is that GPS is not required for this to work.

Google are able to calculate your approximate location by reading which cell tower (that’s mobile phone mast to UK readers!) you are connected to, and then looking up the co-ordinates of this tower in a central database.

I tested it out at home and it plotted me on the map to within 1700 metres of my actual position. If you do have GPS then it works even better. Enabling GPS on my N95 improved the accuracy of the blue dot to within 60 metres.

Geo-locating Cell Towers

The process of geo-locating the phone masts / cell towers is fairly simple. Each mast will have a unique identifier (such as a MAC address), so all you need is a GPS/GSM enabled device that records the signal strength and co-ordinates as it passes each mast. With a few samples you can then triangulate the approximate position of the mast.

Here are a few of the projects I found that are attempting to geo-tag wireless networks:

  • Intel have been running a research project for a while called placelab, whose aim was to build a database of locations for WiFi access points and cell phone towers.
  • A community based project called WiGLE is concentrating purely on 802.11b networks and has currently over 12 million access points in its database!
  • GSMLoc is an open source project that aims to locate GSM towers all over the world.

At this point it’s not clear where Google got their database, but it seems to be fairly comprehensive!

Virgin Media 20 Meg Speed Test

I have to say that I’m pretty happy with my Virgin Media broadband connection. It’s been very stable since it was installed about 5 months ago, and the download speed is fantastic for large files (see below).

There is however one problem, and that is latency.

64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=130 ttl=53 time=19.8 ms
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=131 ttl=53 time=32.1 ms
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=132 ttl=53 time=17.9 ms
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=133 ttl=53 time=18.3 ms
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=134 ttl=53 time=34.3 ms
64 bytes from ( icmp_seq=135 ttl=53 time=24.9 ms

--- ping statistics ---
135 packets transmitted, 134 received, 0% packet loss, time 134014ms
rtt min/avg/max/mdev = 16.495/24.077/51.969/6.580 ms

Ping times fluctuate wildy from 16ms up to about 50ms. When I had their 10MBps service, I definitely remember getting sub 10 millisecond pings, but with the 20Mbps service they are taking twice as long. I guess the central pipes are just a lot more congested nowadays.

Converting RealPlayer .rm files to MPEG (mp4) .avi with Ubuntu

You will need mplayer and mencoder, as well as the win32 codecs in order to convert .rm files to their mpeg equivalent. So if you haven’t already got them installed you can get them with:

sudo apt-get install mplayer mencoder
tar jxfv essential-20071007.tar.bz2
sudo mkdir -p /usr/lib/win32
sudo mv -i essential-20071007/* /usr/lib/win32/

Next you need to download the realplayer feed you want to convert. First of all download the realvideo file you want and then view it to see the realtime streaming protocol (RTSP) url inside:

cat politicsshow_16x9_bb.ram
// displays something like rtsp://

Now you can use mplayer to dump the stream to your local disk:

mplayer -dumpstream rtsp://

This will take as long as it would take to view the stream normally. Once it’s finished you can then use mencoder to convert the stream to your required file format. To have H264 (mpeg 4) video, and mp3 audio you would use:

mencoder stream.dump -o bbc-politics.avi -ovc x264 -oac mp3lame

You can get a list of all supported formats with mencoder -ovc help.

Multi-process CLI scripts with PHP

I’ve been wanting to write a multi-process command line script in PHP for a while now, and tonight I finally got round to it. Proc_open() is really useful if you want to run a batch of commands simultaneously, such as querying the A records for multiple domain names, or running a bunch of whois commands.

Anyway, in the following example I’ll show you how to lookup the A records of a number of Google’s domain names in parallel:

You’ll notice there are two foreach loops. In the first we simply “launch” our commands, without waiting for any response from them. In the second, we iterate though and grab the output of each command in sequence until an end of file character is received.

Upgrading WordPress with Subversion

Besides being a useful tool for software developers to keep track of their source code versions, Subversion also provides a quick and easy way for users to install/upgrade software such as blogs, wiki’s and forums that are constantly being updated with new features and security patches.

However if, like me, you initially installed WordPress manually by downloading the zip file and extracting the files, you will first need to do a little bit of work to link your software in to the subversion repository.

Assuming your wordpress installation is in a folder called blog, you can get it working with the following steps:

# backup the original blog folder
cp -Rp blog blogBACKUP
# create a new folder
mkdir blogNEW
# checkout the latest version of wordpress from their subversion repository
svn co blogNEW/
# copy in any custom changes in wp-content and also the wp-config.php file
cp -Rp blog/wp-con* blogNEW/
# copy in the .htaccess file if you have one
cp -Rp blog/.htaccess blogNEW/
# delete the original blog
rm -rf blog
# move the new blog to your blog locatio
mv blogNEW/ blog
# finally run the http://yourdomain/blog/wp-admin/upgrade.php script in your web browser

Once you’re linked into a Subversion repository, future updates can be applied by simply running:

svn switch

Where the url given is the subversion repository location of the new version you wish to upgrade to.

NB: After every update, you should go to http://yourdomain/blog/wp-admin/upgrade.php in your web browser as their may be some database tables that need upgrading.

123-reg nameserver problems

There has been a problem with 123 reg’s nameservers for most of today such that they aren’t responding to DNS queries.

This is pretty severe as it means anyone trying to access a site pointed at those nameservers will not be able to resolve the domain name to an IP address, and will be given a Server not found error. It will also affect any e-mails to those domains.

On their status page, they say:

17/11/2007, 09:15 – We are currently aware of a problem regarding 123-reg nameservers which in turn is affecting the visibility of websites and services such as email. At present, we have engineers looking into this as a matter of urgency. Please be assured we are working to rectify this issue as a priority and hope to resume normal service as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience in the mean time. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

If you are looking for a new registrar, you could try our Livetodot domain registration service.

T Mobile lock in = no iPhone for me….. yet

I’m pretty jealous… Brendan picked up his new iPhone yesterday and has been flashing around the office all day.


I have been telling myself since the iPhone launched that I would wait until the 3G version (hopefully) comes out next year, but after seeing Brendan effortlessly read his e-mails, speedily tap out text messages, listen to his iTunes library and read his visual voicemails on a beautifully huge touch-sensitive screen…. I just couldn’t wait.

So I phoned T-Mobile:

“I want to cancel my account to get an iPhone with O2… how long is left on my contract?”

“You’ve still got 8 months I’m afraid sir….”

“Really, that long? How much to buy myself out of the contract?”

“It will be 322 pounds sir.”

“Oh, can I downgrade to a lower tarrif?”

“Not until month 11 sir”.

So T-mobile have decided for me. If I could have bought out my contract for say, £100 then I might have done it but £300 (plus £269 for the phone itself) is just too much. Looks like I’ll be waiting for the 3G iPhone 2 after all.

Google’s mobile strategy (Android) is spot on

It’s not often that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) launch a new software development kit with a $10 million prize for developers and a video explanation / press release from one of it’s founders. Yet that is exactly what has happened today with Android’s offical SDK release.

Before you read on, you should probably watch Sergey Brin’s YouTube video.

There has been a lot of fanfare with this latest announcement, but it’s easy to see why; the stakes are huge. By 2010, just over 1 billion people will have access to a computer, but around 4 billion will have access to a mobile phone, with over 1 million new subscribers every day! Google know that the potential for advertising to this vast market is enormous. They already lead the way with their contextual and search based adverts, but with mobile they will be able to target them to location as well.

Now I must admit that I’ve not been particularly enthusiastic about Internet on mobile phones until this year. Previously devices were clumsy to use, access speeds were slow, data transfer was expensive, and sites optimised for the small screen were few and far between.

However fast forward to now and we have flat rate data packages, phones that can cope with complex websites as easily as your desktop browser can and pioneering new interfaces such as the Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) multi-touch technology. The prospects for the Mobile Internet are looking up.

And this is great news for Linux. I think Android will do for Linux on mobile phones what Ubuntu has done for Linux on the desktop. If Google’s powerful brand can help get handset makers to write drivers for their hardware then the community as a whole will benefit.

The scope for software developers is enormous. By the end of next year, most handsets will have built in GPS and Android developers will therefore be able to craft a wide range of innovative location based applications. Think free sat-nav and local business enquiries via Google maps!

So, have Google missed out by not launching a single “gPhone”, and focusing on a software platform instead? In my mind, not at all. Linux’s growth is due to its open source nature and the fact that it can run on an enormous range of hardware, and I think Android will benefit from the same.

If Android will run on a mobile phone, then why not run it on a PC as well? Say hello to Google OS.

Army fly UAV Spy Plane with Xbox 360 Controller

I was just watching an Army Jobs advert on Channel 4, and it showed them piloting an unmanned aerial vehicle with an Xbox 360 controller.

Army UAV Xbox Controller

I wondered whether this was just for TV, but it seems that US marines have also been spotted controlling an SUGVs (small unmanned ground vehicle) with an XBox controller.

It would make a lot of sense as the XBox 360 controller:

  • Uses a common USB interface
  • Has drivers available for Windows, OS X and Linux
  • Has been extensively tested by millions of gamers
  • Is perhaps one of the greatest game controllers ever built

So why reinvent the wheel? You can see the full advert below…

Update 29th April 2008

I wrote to Army under the Freedom of Information act to find out if it really was an XBOX controller, and here is their reply.

Army Recruiting and Training Division
Trenchard Lines
Wiltshire SN9 6BE
Telephone:    01980 615065
Facsimile:      01980 615078

D/ARTD/1/3/12/1 75017 

29 April 2008

Mr P Manders 

Dear Mr Manders,

Thank you for your email of 8 April to the Ministry of Defence regarding an Army 
Recruitment Video.  I have been asked to reply.

The highly sophisticated mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) shown in the advert 
is the Desert Hawk 3 which is currently deployed on operations in Iraq.  Desert 
Hawk 3 is a portable UAV surveillance system which provides aerial video 
reconnaissance.  The equipment can be used for a variety of tasks, such as force 
protection for convoys and patrols, route clearance, base security, reconnaissance 
or target tracking.

The system used to control the planes has been adapted by Lockheed Martin and 
although the controller used by the soldiers to fly the plane is very similar to a 
Microsoft Xbox 360 controller, it is not the same.  You will see that there is no 
Microsoft wording on the controller nor a wired headset port. 

The advert demonstrates that the skills and abilities that an individual develops in 
their life prior to joining the Army may have a critical application within the British 
Army on operations today. 

I hope this is helpful.

Yours Sincerely 

Jodie C Spreadbury

iPhone UK TV ads begin

I’ve just seen my first UK iPhone ad on Channel 5, but I expect to see a lot more as we count down the days to the November 9th launch.

iPhone UK advert

The ad was demonstrating how you can access full size web sites natively on the iPhone and it certainly did whet my appetite for one. However, I think I’m going to wait until next year for the iPhone 2 (which should have 3G connectivity).