Learning to use microcontrollers


At work we are allowed one day a month for “hacker time”. This is time where we can work on whatever we like. It doesn’t have to do with work at all (within reason of course!) A few weeks ago I decided to learn a little bit about microcontrollers.

Why did I decide to learn about microcontrollers? I’ve been a software developer for years and in all that time I have not done anything related to hardware and I thought it would be interesting to step out of my comfort zone. I’ve also heard good things about a JavaScript library called Johnny-Five which I wanted to play around with.


Components of the Arduino Starter Kit

I bought myself an Arduino Starter Kit with UNO Board and got stuck in. The kit comes with an Arduino UNO and a really good supplementary book. This book has 15 projects in it that teach you about each of the components and get progressively more complex. It also explains more general things like the colour banding on resisters and Ohms law which I found was useful background.

Smaller than I expected. #arduino

A photo posted by Burhan Ali (@biggianteye) on

Turning on an LED is the “Hello World” of microcontrollers and so that was indeed the first project in the book. I worked through that and then a couple more that covered creating circuits in serial and parallel.


A parallel circuit: The LED is controlled by either button

I got a little distracted by resistors and their coloured bands but I’ll go into more detail about that separately. It might be a bit ranty, so I’ll do it in another post.

Resistors. Banding so small that I can't see it without the help of my phone. #arduino #zoom #badeyesight

A photo posted by Burhan Ali (@biggianteye) on

Given that I only had a day and I had wasted some time with resistors, I decided to stick with the theme of LEDs and create a partial binary clock. At the end of the day I had six LEDs that would show the binary representation of the the number of seconds past the minute for the current time as well as a button to turn the whole thing on and off.

Here’s the result:

It might not look like much, but I really enjoyed doing it and getting to that point. The things that I learned from this day were:

  • A lot about resistors and why they exist. Also that they have tiny coloured stripes on them that are poor for colourblind people to use.
  • How to react to input from the button.
  • How to generate output using the LEDs.
  • How to create serial and parallel circuits.
  • How to use the Johnny-Five library and also a bit of Node.

Given that I have this kit now, I’d like to work through the rest of the projects in it and use all the various other components (temperature sensor, tilt sensor, light sensor, speaker, LCD display, etc). I’d also like to try combining them in new and interesting ways.

If anyone has ever thought about playing around with microcontrollers, I would definitely recommend that you do so. If you have any recommendations for projects or related resources, please let me know.

New flute


I have a new flute! I’m very excited about it.


My new flute, not taken out of the case yet

Way back in the mists of time when I was in secondary school (about 20 years ago – ugh!) I started learning how to play the flute. I was fairly mediocre at it and didn’t get any support for it from home, but I absolutely loved playing it. I got as far as doing (and passing) grade 2 and I’m sure I still have the certificate somewhere. Unfortunately once secondary school ended I lost access to musical instruments and I haven’t even touched one in the intervening years, let alone played one. Though I have thought about it many times over the years.

Why now?

So why suddenly get one now? The catalyst is something actually quite trivial. At work I am on a project which is codenamed “Pied Piper” and in keeping with the theme, the project lead bought a cheap (£3 I think) wooden flute off ebay. It is an awful thing which I think is probably just decorative, but playing around with it sparked the idea in my head. That’s not the only reason of course. That would be silly; I don’t do things on a whim like that. The bigger reason was that my friend Neal bought a guitar last year and I went with him to visit the shop with him. It showed me that someone could pick up an instrument as an adult just because they wanted to and also that just going to the shop and buying one wasn’t a big deal. I’ve been thinking about playing the flute on and off for years but in all that time I never pictured myself actually owning one. Going to that guitar shop with Neal opened me up to the possibility of owning one. Thanks Neal.

So all of those things accumulated in my head until the briefest spark of a thought eventually lead to me actually buying my shiny new toy.


I bought myself a Yamaha YFL-211 from a shop called Jonathan Myal Music in Croydon. Their website was absolutely chock full off useful information not only about the different types and variants of instruments available but also buying guides for different audiences (beginners, upgraders, parents buying for their children, etc). Definitely worth a look around.


A collage of the music shop

I explained some of my background and what I was after and then the guy showed me into a side room and brought out three suitable flutes. He explained the pros and cons and each and then just left me to it. Brilliant. Given I hadn’t played one in so long, I’m glad he went away. I was very rusty but it came back to me quickly. To my amateur hands, eyes and ears they were all good flutes but I felt the Yamaha had the slight edge over the others in terms of sound produced and how easy it was to produce it.


The three flutes I was shown: Trevor James, Yamaha, Pearl

And now?

Well this is a little unclear. I’ve played it quite a bit since I got it less than a week ago, mainly getting myself familiar with it and trying out songs from memory and ear. There is the danger that the novelty will wear off and I won’t touch it again. If that were to happen I would be actually be ok with it because, to quote my friend Kinga:

the possibility that it might bring some extra joy back into your life is higher than you would regret

She is right. Having it there and available at any time to inject some happiness will outweigh any regret I might have.

But wait! Being who I am, I’m not content with that. Just this evening I’ve wondered what I might do to sustain my interest and playing and I thought that I would try and go for my Grade 3 exam. This will be a nice, concrete and attainable goal. I’m going to give myself until the end of the year. That should be plenty of time to get it done. There is also the remote possibility I might get my niece to learn how to play too. I can’t wait to see how things go.

New job

Up until last month, I worked as a Senior Software Developer for a software company called Triometric. I say “worked” because as the title says, I now have a new job. I am currently in my first month as a Senior Software Developer at Graze. I was at Triometric for eleven years and over the last few weeks I have been asked fairly similar questions from people in both the old and new company, so I thought it might be useful to talk about it a little here.

Eleven years?!

Yes, that’s correct. This is quite unusual because we no longer live in the age where people get a job after they leave school and stay there for decades. The industry I am in is also known for more job movement than others, so it’s even more surprising to people that I stayed in one place for so long. I have been asked two questions which are two sides of the same coin: What made me stay in one place for so long, and what made me decide to move on.

Triometric was a relatively small company when I joined and in a small company, you have to wear many hats out of necessity. My official title was Software Developer but I ended up doing a lot more than that. Some of the more notable things were devops, recruitment, mentoring junior developers and generally being part of shaping the technical direction of the company. Some of these may have been stressful at times, but I appreciated having the opportunity to do them. All of these responsibilities meant that I was constantly learning and growing in both a personal and professional capacity and so I stayed. I also made some good friends, which shouldn’t be discounted.

Unfortunately in the last year or so I felt like my professional growth had slowed down a bit and I felt that I needed some new challenges. It is said that you should surround yourself with people that you can learn from. After being part of the company for so long, I had become the “go to” person for a number of things. This is a nice position to be in, but it doesn’t help with learning and I felt that I had the capacity to learn more. Hence the difficult decision to move on from the comfort of what I knew to the unknown.

Why Graze?

I first became aware of Graze in 2012 when I joined their subscription service. I had been impressed by the product as well as their website and customer service ever since that time and so felt very positively towards the company. After I had made the decision to move on from Triometric, I became aware that Graze were based in Richmond which is very close to me, and therefore very convenient! They also combine two things that are very important to me: food and technology. They are also a step up in size from Triometric. All of those things combined meant that I thought I couldn’t miss such an opportunity. They were not advertising any roles that I thought I could go for, but I made a speculative application anyway and the rest is history.

What next?

Well given I am still in my probationary period, I guess I have to battle imposter syndrome and show them that they didn’t make a mistake in hiring me. I’m also going to try to build professional and personal relationships within the company which will be hard, given how difficult I find dealing with people. On a positive note, my previous relationships haven’t been severed as I feared they might, given that I have seen people a number of times in things like games night (at my flat rather than the Triometric office) and other things. I have no doubt this will continue.

So what’s next? Who knows. I just try my best and see what happens.

First review of 2014 goals

The first three months of 2014 are over (how time flies!) so now is a good time to see how I am progressing with the goals that I set for the year.

Walk at least 70,000 steps every week

Thanks to the power of  my Fitbit One and the wonderful weekly summary statistics they send me, I know that sadly I have only been able to achieve this once in the middle of March with a weekly total of 84,628 steps. On all the other weeks I totalled roughly 50-60k so I’m not too far away from my goal. Boo to me, but it’s not the end of the world. I just need to work a little harder to get to where I want. The point is not to tick the box to say I have done it, but to be constantly working towards something. Part of that is the slight change in my activities. I now make sure that I take a half an hour walk every lunchtime during the week (in addition to the less regular evening gym sessions). I also walk an hour each morning on the weekend. Making these part of my routine has been very helpful. As an aside, these walks are the source of most of my instagram pictures. Also, some numbers because I like them:

  • Total steps in 3 months: 619,954 (~56k/week).
  • Total miles walked: 265.04 (~24/week).

Also, badges earned:

Daily steps taken.

5000 daily steps badge10000 daily steps badge15000 daily steps badge

Lifetime distance walked.

50 miles lifetime badge250 miles lifetime badge

Lose some weight

This one has been slowly ticking away too and I’ve been able to see the objective changes thanks to my Fitbit Aria wireless scales. It’s been very slow going because I haven’t done a huge amount in terms of changing my diet. I think what I eat is mostly fine; my problem is portion control! Anyway, I got a badge for losing 3kg which was nice. I hope to continue the (slow) downward trend over the rest of the year.

Donate to a different charity every month

I already have monthly donations set up to a few places (such as Wikipedia) and so I wanted this to be a number of one-off payments to a wide variety of charities. I wasn’t sure what should be on my list and so posed the following question to some friends and colleagues:

“If you found £20 on the floor and decided to give it away to a charity, which would you give it to?”

This gave me a good list of worthwhile charities, some that hadn’t even occurred to me. It also gave me an interesting insight into what some of them found valuable, which was a bonus! So far this year I have donated money to the following three charities:

My list so far isn’t long enough to last the entire year, so am happy to take on more suggestions.

Blog at least once a month

Technically I have done this, but March had one entry right at the start and that was it – a bit rubbish. The purpose behind this was to encourage me to blog more. I have things that I want to write about, but I just procrastinate too much. It’s going in the right direction at least.

Meet some new people

As I mentioned at the time, this one is the hardest to measure. I still thing this but I have been making some progress. I have joined the Twickenham meetup group and been to a couple of meetups. I have also joined been to some other events specifically related to meeting new people. I have an awful time talking to new people. I get extremely nervous about first contact, even though I am mostly fine once I get started. I have also joined a group for shy people as a way to combat this and that has been interesting. Lastly, I have been continuing to go to the PABC as I have done for more than two years but the difference now is that I am making a conscious effort to deliberately talk to new members, even though I have the aforementioned difficulties with talking to new people.


All in all, I think I am doing quite well with the things I have chosen, and I have plans on how to progress them. Hooray! Let’s see how things look in another three months.

After the flood

Last month I posted about the flooding around Egham. The rains have eased off since then and the waters have receded so here are some updated pictures from last week.

Goodbye railing, goodbye crossing, goodbye road markings.

Before: No road visible at all.

After: The road is visible again.

After: The road is visible again.

A better look out at the green.

A better look out at the green.

And now looking in the other direction towards the Runnymede Hotel.

Outside the Runnymede-on-Thames hotel. I think this is meant to be a car park, but I'm not quite sure.

Before: Water everywhere.

After: The greenery is back. I was mistaken when I thought this was a car park.

After: The greenery is back. I was mistaken when I thought this was a car park.

Hopefully that’s it for the flooding “fun” for this year.




Those who have seen me in the last two years will know that I have been growing my hair. This was partially on a whim and wanting a change, but also one of the many things that I did as a reaction to what happened to my sister in 2011.

Those of you who have seen me recently will also know that my hair is now beyond shoulder length, straggly at the ends and on some days make me look and feel like a crazy person. I didn’t do anything to it beyond letting it grow naturally and getting it trimmed a couple of times early on. The fact that it was now becoming unmanageable and making me look like the aforementioned crazy person at times, I was becoming a little tired of it. I was also a little tired of being both subtly and unsubtly pressured by some people to get it cut, so I was very close to getting it all cut off and going back to my original extremely short, extremely easy haircut. But then I had a cunning plan …

One of things I started last year was to deliberately try out new things and experiences after realising I had effectively been coasting for the last few years. So how does this fit in to the whole hair thing? Well I’ve never been one to care much about what I look like. The only thing I aim for is to not look shit. Anything beyond that I’m not particularly interested in. This means that whenever I have got my hair cut it’s always been at a barber and I got in and out as quickly as I could. It was about function and practicality rather than aesthetics. So I thought to myself, why don’t I try getting my hair cut in a salon once to see what that’s like?

My two options were therefore:

  • Go to a salon and try something new.
  • Cut it all off and capitulate to those who have been pressuring me.

New experience trumped giving in to others’ irrational desires, so my decision was made. I also had the safety net that if it all went horribly wrong I could still shave it all off.

I made an appointment at Toni & Guy which was near my flat and battled my way through flood-induced traffic to get there on time after work and I must say it was a great decision. I enjoyed the experience immensely. I was initially nervous about it in my usual anxiety about being in new places and I was amused and pleasantly surprised to see that the only two other clients there were men! I had no need to be nervous though. I sat in a massage chair while I had my hair washed with wonderful smelling stuff. Then I had my hair cut and blow dried and straightened and then had more nice smelling stuff put in. What was extra nice was that the woman explained every step that she took and asked for my input at all the relevant moments. And the result? My hair looked fucking amazing. Fucking. Amazing.

I was utterly surprised by how good it looked. This was a complete revelation to me. For someone who doesn’t give a shit about appearance, I was shocked by how positive it made me feel. It was so soft and shiny and straight. I couldn’t stop touching it or looking at it in the mirror and giggling like a crazy person, even hours later. It seems so dumb to be affected by something so trivial as hair, but there I was. I suspect the main reason to be that I don’t consider myself to be attractive and this gave me glimpse into the fact that a part of me has the potential to be. Who knew such a thing could happen.

So now I’ve reached the decision that I won’t be chopping it all off and in fact will start taking care of it in the hopes of maintaining the awesomeness. This will also be a new experience, so it’s a double win.

Here endeth one chapter of my hair. Let’s see what happens next …


Those in the UK will no doubt be aware that we are currently in the middle of flooding across large parts of the country. I work in Egham in Surrey which is experiencing some of that flooding and has been mentioned in the news.

Stepping back through the mists of time a bit (ie. to January), I had heard of the water that had accumulated in the normally green area between the A30 (Egham Bypass) and the A308 (Windsor Road) (I think it’s called Runnymede Meadows). I had also glimpsed it while driving past. I went down that way in my lunch break (about a 15 minute walk) and took some pictures. I also took this video from the public footpath that cross the area:

The water rose some more and the A308 was actually closed because of the flooding. That lasted a few days and then the water started receding and I thought that it was over. Little did I know that in the last week it would be coming back with a vengeance. The flooding in the area is getting increasingly worse, including groundwater coming up in various places. That path I was standing on it that video is now about waist deep under water. It’s got so bad that the Egham is now one more of the places in the country that the national press has descended on (Channel 4 news were live there on Friday 14th February). The army is also assisting with some things.

Our office is at the very edge of the flood warning zone. I’m pretty sure that things would have to get really really bad for flood water to reach us, but at the start of the week we started flood defense measures such as moving the core servers out of the server room on the ground floor and moved them upstairs. Most of the week has been spent by some of us on and off watching twitter to see the flood water encroaching ever closer. We have also been on a wander around the area to look at the various flooded parts as what Rich amusingly called “flood tourists”. This will sound harsh to those affected by the flood water, but I have been fascinated by the situation.

Anyway, enough about that for now. Here are some of the pictures and videos I took and also some of the things I tweeted. The first batch is from last month before the flooding got insane.

Before the road was flooded, but there was still some flood water. I used that building to gauge how much the flood water rose.

Before the road was flooded, but there was still some flood water. I used that building to gauge how much the flood water rose.

Looking across the expanse of water. At the water's height (so far) the railing in the foreground was under water.

Looking across the expanse of water. At the water’s height (so far) the railing in the foreground was under water.

A building near the Runnymede roundabout that has had its car park flooded for weeks now. Luckily the office is not occupied at the moment.

A building near the Runnymede roundabout that has had its car park flooded for weeks now. Luckily the office is not occupied at the moment.

The first time the road was flooded. Note that the railing and the crossing are still visible, as well as the road markings.

The first time the road was flooded. Note that the railing and the crossing are still visible, as well as the road markings.

The rest are from this month, so far.

Goodbye railing, goodbye crossing, goodbye road markings.

Goodbye railing, goodbye crossing, goodbye road markings.

Another angle.

Another angle.

Outside the Runnymede-on-Thames hotel. I think this is meant to be a car park, but I'm not quite sure.

Outside the Runnymede-on-Thames hotel. I think this is meant to be a car park, but I’m not quite sure.

Here’s hoping things don’t get much worse.