A couple of books and a lot of time

Gibbs reviews a couple of books that have impressed him and then gets all geeked out over the eZ430-Chronos Wireless Watch system.

We start this week with a couple of books for your holiday pleasure. First up, virtualization. If you've been exploring virtualization or making your way down the path to bringing virtualization into your organization and are looking at the open source Xen virtualization system, I have a book you should read: "The Book of Xen" (pub. No Starch) by Chris Takemura and Luke Crawford.

The reason I like this book is it lives up to its subtitle: "A Practical Guide for System Administration". Starting from the basics (not uber-basic but rather the stuff the administrators would find useful background), the book goes from installation, through configuration, benchmarking and enhancing, to compiling Xen from source code and troubleshooting.

I also appreciated the authors' dry asides. Unlike other books where the authors veer towards being smart-alecky, these guys add just enough pithy comments to avoid being dry. All-in-all, a very useful book and, for such a deep tech topic, one that is actually readable. Highly recommended.

My second book choice is for all of you chaps wrestling with the design of corporate dashboards: "Creating Visual Experiences with Flex 3.0" (pub. Addison Wesley) by Juan Sanchez and Andy McIntosh (full disclosure, Juan is a friend of mine).

Now there are acres of books on Flex and Flash (contrary to many people's understanding, Flex is actually built on Flash), but most of these are written for developers. This book takes a different approach and is oriented towards user interface and user experience designers.

The book starts with a brief discussion of the context and architecture of Rich Internet Applications (RIA), along with the Flex Framework and Adobe's Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR). It then takes you through the Flex 3 Framework from a designer's perspective, and on to advanced topics such as Flash integration and customizing AIR applications.

What I really like about this book is it concludes with a section titled "Exercises" that walks you through the practical application of the features of Flex 3 the book discusses, a feature that many books neglect to deliver.

Indeed, not showing useful examples is one of my pet peeves that many books and many vendors fail to provide. How often have you started to delve into a complex product only to find that configuration or use case examples are either missing completely or overly simplistic? Not so with this book. These are useful and educational.

Anyway, concisely written and loaded with well-organized detail, my only criticism of this book lies with the publisher: This book really, really needs to be in color! But if you're developing dashboards in Flex you need this book. Highly recommended.

Enough of books. This week my main focus is time. Specifically time in the form of the Texas Instruments eZ430-Chronos Wireless Watch system. This is actually a complete development system embodied in a highly-integrated wireless sports watch.

Based on the TI CC430F6137 ultra low-power system-on-a-chip (SOC), the eZ430-Chronos includes a TI MSP430 microprocessor, a clock subsystem, wireless communications subsystem (available in three sub-1GHz frequency versions, 433MHz, 868 MHz, and 915MHz), a three axis accelerometer, a thermometer, a pressure sensor (from which altitude can be determined), a battery voltage measurement feature, a 96-Segment LCD display, and "Spy-Bi-Wire" (two-wire) or JTAG interface for debugging. 

The choice of sub-1GHz RF was driven by low power consumption and greater range (at the lowest frequency distances of up to 1Km with an unobstructed transmission path can be achieved), but a consequent tradeoff is data throughput -- up to 500Kbps has been measured, which, for many purposes, is none too shabby.

The eZ430-Chronos kit comes with a USB RF access point that you plug into your PC, a screwdriver for disassembling the watch, a couple of spare screws (very smart, these always get lost), a programming and debugging module (this converts the JTAG interface into a USB interface), and a choice of code development systems (TI offers two choices: IAR Kickstart and Code Composer Studio).

There are a number of types of devices that could be wirelessly linked to the eZ430-Chronos but so far the only one I can find is the BM Innovations heart rate monitor. There is, however, talk about a bicycle sensor system planned for release in early 2010 (which I'm really excited about).

While an obvious use of the eZ430-Chronos is for enhanced watch systems, all sorts of other exotic applications spring to mind; a display for personal area networks or short range in-house alerting systems, a wireless accessible remote data collector, a fall sensor for the elderly, a shipping container environment recorder … the number of possible applications is enormous.

There is also a PC application available, the Chronos Control Center PC software, to explore the features of the eZ430-Chronos in its shipped configuration. With the software installed, you plug in the RF access point and then set the eZ430-Chronos into various modes: Accelerometer mode shows you the values as well as graphing the accelerometer data; synchronization mode allows you to read and set the eZ430-Chronos's clock; a simulation mode fakes a heart rate sensor and sends it to the eZ430-Chronos (the watch displays the heart rate and speed data … the speed data would normally be generated by the accelerometers); or PowerPoint mode.

Yes, as shipped the eZ430-Chronos can be used to drive a PowerPoint presentation by sending data on which watch buttons were pressed to the PC. This data is translated by the Control Center software into whatever keystrokes you like (by default, these are PowerPoint next slide, last slide, and start presentation keys). Other "useful" key mappings may be to lock Windows or control the Windows Media Player or iTunes.

I got my hands on one of these kits and the eZ430-Chronos really does all I've discussed. Incredibly easy to setup and simple to use. The only negative is the watch casing is really ugly (my 16-year old son was appalled I would wear something like this and eventually just shook his head and walked away). I'm now considering designing a decent case for it – I'm thinking that something along steampunk lines would be really cool.

When I get time I have several applications I want to develop that would be really cool, including a multiple alarm system that I can set from my PC and an alerting system tied to weather forecasts and network services, such as my syslog server.

So, bottom line, the eZ430-Chronos development system offers a lot of cool stuff in one tiny, watch-sized package for only … wait for it, wait for it … $49! Amazing. I give the eZ430-Chronos a 5 out of 5 rating. Let me know if you get your hands on one and what you plan to do with it.

Gibbs is, once again, amazed in Ventura, Calif. Stun him with your thoughts at gearhead@gibbs.com.

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