One month with the Apple Watch

While I am an Apple fan, and got a lot of their hardware devices, I was never really enamoured by the Apple Watch when they announced it, and never really planned to get one.

However, about 6 weeks ago, I got a special promotional offer from one of my credit cards companies for an Apple Watch Sport edition which was essentially free, because of the points activity on my business card.

So I decided to take them up on it and place an order.  It arrived within a week and I have been using it every day since then.  Bear in mind that I haven't worn any sort of watch for nearly 20 years now, it took some getting used to, having this metal weight on my wrist again.

Here are my observations on the device.

The Good

I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised at how comfortable, and how quickly I became used to wearing a watch again.  This is the smaller Sport watch edition, and I think the size and understated band suits my skinny wrist better.

I like the fact that I can customise the watch face, and I love that pairing it up with my iPhone 6 automatically loaded up all the Watch compatible apps on the device immediately.

Things I have especially loved is using Siri on the watch - far easier that the phone, especially when I have been cooking and I can just raise my wrist to my mouth as ask Siri to set timers etc.  Same as when I have been working in the garden, although in that situation, there have been a couple of cases where the reminder settings (to move the sprinklers) didn't take because the actual phone was in a distant room inside the house.  

The need to pair the watch to the phone to do simple tasks is one thing that needs to be revisited I believe.  A little more independence for quick tasks would be handy.

I have also started using the Gyroscope app in the past few months, and I like that the watch will integrate with Apple HealthKit, which then integrated with Gyroscope.  Love that my heartbeat stats and steps taken are recorded and consolidated in one place.

However, there have been a few issues because I think I have interconnected too many apps!  I linked RunKeeper with Gyroscope before I got the watch, and now I think the combination of RunKeeper and HealthKit trying to update my steps concurrently is causing some issues with inaccurate data.  I will have to try and unlink some of the apps to simplify.

The Bad

The biggest issue I have with the watch is the battery life.  I have to charge it up at least once a day, and it takes around 90 minutes to charge up fully on the magnetic charger that Apple provided.  The watch always seems to go flat at inopportune times for me, so I end up doing things where I needed the watch (e.g. exercising) without it.

I also wanted to get the watch to replace my old FitBit and Misfit fitness tracking devices - mainly for sleep tracking.  Both the MisFit and FitBit could automatically track whenever I was asleep and generate stats for my movement and rest periods, but the Apple Watch required an app for that.

I ended up purchasing "Sleep Pulse" and I bitterly regret doing so.  I find it quite useless for tracking sleep as you have to manually activate and deactivate it when going to bed.  The interface is also really clunky and there are LONG delays between tapping on the screen and getting feedback.  It never works properly and I am missing reports and stats almost every second day.

Another thing that I could not believe wasn't a built in feature on the watch, is the ability to select podcasts on the device.  When I am walking in the morning, I always listen to a selection of podcasts, and I would dearly love to be able to select from my list of subscribed casts.  Sure I can start/stop and wind back/forwards once one is playing, but I cannot get a list of my subscriptions on the watch.

I do love the way I can just raise the watch and say "Hey Siri, next podcast" to skip through them, but so far have had no luck trying to specify them by name, e.g. "Hey Siri, play me the podcast by Tim Ferris".


Overall, I am quite happy with the watch, although I still wouldn't actually pay money for one at this stage.  

I remember when I got the iPhone and iPad, I was excited about developing apps for the device and seeing how I could push the boundaries of my coding skills.  The Apple Watch unfortunately hasn't given me that feeling.  I feel no compulsion to try and write any apps for it to see how I can improve my life.

It will be interesting to see how Apple develop this device in the future, or whether they will simply abandon it, but in either case, it has been a fun experiment to try it out, and I will likely keep wearing the one I have until it finally breaks.


Building a Status page for $5 per month

When we first built HR Partner, I wanted to have some sort of status page like most web apps do, to let our customers know about uptime availability and any scheduled maintenance that we had planned.

Our HR Partner status page at:

Our HR Partner status page at:

Looking at most of the commercially available offerings, I found that while excellent, they were quite expensive, when compared to the project management, accounting and bug tracking tools that we already subscribed to.  Being a relatively small, boot strapped startup, I didn't want to add to our already high monthly subscription burden too much at this stage.

Eventually, my search led me to Cachet, which is an open sourced version of a status page app, that seemed to have most of the features that the 'big boys' did.  End of the day, we managed to host Cachet on a virtual server for around $5 a month, and given that the cheapest commercial variant we found was $29 per month, I am happy that we got something working for a budget price that is hard to beat.

Given the buyout of one of the main commercial vendors by Atlassian today, a lot of people have seen me post about my efforts and have emailed or PMd me to ask how we went about this, so this post will hopefully let you know the steps we took.


Our main HR Partner web app is hosted by Amazon AWS, in their us-east-1 region.  Because we wanted some sort of redundancy in case of a major Amazon outage or regional catastrophe, we decided to host our status page on a Digital Ocean Droplet over on the West coast.  Different providers, different infrastructure, different areas.

So the first thing we did was to set up a VPS in Digital Ocean.  I picked the cheapest droplet they had, which was a $5 per month server running Ubuntu 14.04 (64 bit) with 512MB of RAM and 20GB of storage.  Cachet doesn't take much in the way of resources at all, so this was plenty for us.

The Stack

Once the Droplet was up and running, we just opened up a console to the server from within our DO control panel, and installed MySQL on it.  Digital Ocean have a great article on how to do this right here.  We simply followed the instructions step by step.

Next step was to follow the equally great instructions from the Cachet documentation right here to install Cachet on that VPS.

I believe the only tricky thing that we had to do was tweak the permissions within the Cachet folder.  I believe we had to chown the folder and all subfolders to the www-data user and group.

Configuring Cachet

Once we had Cachet installed as per above, we adjusted the .env file to use our preinstalled MySQL instance for the database, and also to use our normal Amazon SES service for the sending of emails.  I believe we had to also change the default queue driver for sending emails.  Here is what our config file looked like:

APP_KEY=***secret key here***



MAIL_NAME="HR Partner Status"

That was really about it!  (Oh, don't forget to let Amazon SES know about the email address that Cachet will be using to send emails as - in our case  Otherwise it won't pass the SES spam filtering).

Last thing was to tweak our Amazon Route 53 service to point to our Digital Ocean VPS IP address.  Done!

Now it was all a matter of setting up Cachet with our components and needed to be reported on, and we were away.  All in all, I think the install and configuration took less than an hour to do.

BONUS: Auto update

Because HR Partner is a fairly complex app, with multiple sub apps for the API, reporting engine etc., deployment can take a while to do, and can result in slow performance for up to 15 minutes at a time while the virtual instances are updated and synchronised.

We use Amazon's Elastic Beanstalk command line tools to deploy changes, and at first our procedures meant that before we ran a deployment, we manually logged into our Cachet server to flag the services that would be down, then deployed, waited, and went back to Cachet to flag them 'green' again.

This was quite tedious, and I wondered if there was an automated way.  It turns out there is.  Cachet has a great JSON API, so what we did in our projects was to create a couple of files under the .ebextensions folder in our project folder.  These files contain the scripts that we wanted Elastic Beanstalk to run before and after deployment.  First, we created a file called 01_file.yml for the before script:

mode: "000755"
owner: root
group: root
content: |
#!/usr/bin/env bash
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":2}'
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":2}'
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":2}'
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":2}'
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":2}'

Then we created a 02_file.yml for the after script:

mode: "000755"
owner: root
group: root
content: |
#!/usr/bin/env bash
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":1}'
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":1}'
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":1}'
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":1}'
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X PUT -d '{"status":1}'
curl -H "Content-Type: application/json;" -H "X-Cachet-Token: [secret token]" -X POST -d '{"value":1}'

(Replace the [secret token] above with your unique Cachet API token.)

Now whenever we do an eb deploy command, the relevant status page components are marked 'yellow' for the duration of the deployment, then brought back up to 'green' again when completed.

Cheap As Chips

The only running cost for our status page is the $5 per month for the Digital Ocean hosting.  That is all.  We've been running this configuration for some months now with good results.  When revenue and usage gets to the point where we need to update this, then we may look at some of the commercial offerings, but for now, this setup works well for us.

I hope we have managed to inspire others to try the same.  As always, if you have feedback or suggestion on how we can do this better, I would love to hear from you.





Revisiting keyboards and synth

I have posted many articles on here of my recordings with acoustic and electric guitar, but this month I wanted to go back to my earliest musical experience, which was playing the piano.

Like most kids my age growing up in Malaysia, I was forced into taking piano lessons from a very early age.  I had many teachers over the years, and some were really nice, but there were a couple of awful ones, especially one rather evil lady who used to rap me over the knuckles whenever I played a wrong note.  That experience, more than anything else, made me shun formal music studies and move away from the piano and on to the electronic organ and then eventually guitar.

This month though, I had the urge to dig out my old MIDI keyboard and make an effort at recording a keyboard rich track.  I have always been a fan of David Bowie, but I had never really done anything significant to commemorate his passing recently.  I went through a catalogue of his songs in my mind, but all of a sudden I remembered a song that I really loved that was not written by him, but was the soundtrack of a movie he was in.  The track is "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" by the movie of the same name, starring Mr. Bowie.  It was written by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

I scoured the net and found some piano scores.  These were... challenging... to say the least.  I forgot about the depth of complexity to the piece.  Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth and dived in.  To disguise my poor playing, I decided to interpret the track as a 'techno' version of the original.

To warm up my fingers, I spent an hour or so recording this simple, yet charming piece by Erik Satie.

Then I spent the whole weekend putting together the main piece.  It was all recorded in Logic X on my iMac, using SampleTank for most of the sampled piano and instrument sounds.  I also used a bit of the Zebra synth from U-He.  Enjoy.

Recording acoustic guitar with a ribbon mic

My new recording setup

My new recording setup

Ok, I am finally getting back into recording my guitar playing, and this weekend past, I made a recording of my acoustic guitar with a ribbon microphone.

This was a replica of a Blumlien stereo ribbon microphone, and it is made by Nude Microphones.  I bought this particular mic late last year, but hadn't had the chance to use it until now.  One of the things holding me back was the fact that because this is a stereo ribbon mic, it takes up two channels on my audio interface.  I normally record with a mic and blend it with the signal from the internal guitar pickup, but that would mean I needed 3 inputs into my audio interface, and until I could upgrade my current 2 channel system to a 4 channel or greater, I kept putting it off.

Nevertheless, after attending a great music production workshop this week held by local artist Broadwing, where he espoused the benefits and technique of pure mic recording for an acoustic guitar, I decided to try the recording just with the ribbon mic.


The basic setup is as the picture above and to the right.  I placed the ribbon mic upright on a short floor stand, and positioned it at the point where the guitar neck meets the body.  I found that I had to position the mic closer to the guitar than my usual condenser mics - probably around 10 to 15 cm in order to get the best signal.

Because the stereo imaging was pointing approximately 45 degrees towards the sound hole and the 9th fret from that location, I noticed that the right channel was significantly louder than the left.  Makes sense of course, as the right channel was pointing towards the soundboard where all the actual tone is generated, and the left channel was merely pointing towards my left hand on the neck.  I actually wanted to keep it that way so that the left channel picked up the fret noises and string squeaks as I moved around, while the right channel would pick up my right hand picking noises.  I simply boosted the input signal on my audio interface for the left channel until they matched.

The audio interface I was using was a Yamaha/Steinberg UR-22 that I 'borrowed' from my son.  Not my usual Apogee Duet because I now have a new iMac without Firewire.  I am on the lookout for a 4+ channel Thunderbolt audio interface.

As per usual, I recorded the track in Logic X, which has become my DAW of choice.  I simply set up two tracks - one for each side of the mic, and hit record.

This was also the first time I used Logic's multi take feature.  Normally I will do a single take and then manually 'punch in' any corrections over any mistakes I may (and usually do) make.  However, this time I did 3 consecutive ordinary takes, and used the 'sweep' method to pick the best bits of each take and comp them together into one decent take.

The way this works is that you will see the three takes all under each other, and as you are playing back, you can simply use the mouse cursor to 'sweep' an area on track 1, 2 or 3 in order to make that the 'active' block that is merged into the final track.  I could not believe how quick and easy this process was.  My old method was so tedious and resulted in many pops and clicks where I meshed the takes together badly, however this technique does a smooth fade in/fade out of the takes to eliminate all that.

Of course, you have to be absolutely spot on with the timing, and record everything to a metronome and stay on the beat for this to work.  At least it gave me a lot of practice in playing in perfect time!

Once I put together the three takes into one, I noted that the audio levels were still really low, though they had a nice character, so in post processing, I decided to use ONLY the Slate Digital plugins to tweak the EQ and add compression.  I used the Slate Virtual Mix Rack plugin on each track to EQ out some boomy bass and add some high end sparkle.  Then I used their Virtual Buss Compressor plugin to boost the volumes and even out the levels.  Finally, I used their Virtual Tape Machine plugin to add some good old tape warmth to the track.

The song here is "Growing Up" by Masaaki Kishibe.  I have really come to enjoy the pure melodic qualities of Kishibe's compositions, and intend to learn quite a few more of his songs in the future.

Here is the final result.  Hope you like it.


I must say I enjoyed recording on my new iMac - I had this one spec'd out with the 4GHz Core i7 processor and 3GB of RAM as well as an SSD drive.  It didn't miss a beat unlike my poor 8 year old ancient MacBook Pro.

For this recording, I used my beautiful Taylor BTO guitar, with a brand new set of Elixir Nanoweb strings on it.  The song is played with a capo on the second fret, and with the slightly shorter scale of this guitar, I think it gives it a nice bright sound.