France visit with astro photography and Canon camera CHDK hack

Like all responsible citizens we have been in social distancing since March and throughout this time both my wife and I have been concerned about our house in France.   

As infection rates seemed to be easing we decided to make a quick visit to the Dordogne to check all was well.   Normally we take a ferry crossing but we really did not want to risk the exposure this would entail.  Instead we opted to take the Channel Tunnel.  For those not familiar with this route, you drive to the terminal, check in and then get loaded in your car onto a rail transport shuttle train.  The journey through the Tunnel takes around 40 minutes and you off load near Calais in France and head south.  This route offered minimal exposure to others as we were effectively in the car from door to door and not allowed to leave the vehicle on the shuttle train.

We live in the mid south of England so there was the discomfort of a 2 hour journey to the Folkestone to board the shuttle.   Normally we have a 1 hour run to Portsmouth for the ferry.  Once in France at Calais there was a 9+ hour run via Paris (not fun) down to the Dordogne.  It was tiring but with the two of us taking shifts it eased the strain.

All was good at the house and we spent two weeks with minimal human contact and survived on the French ‘click and collect’ food supply services.  We had some very high daily temperatures and some nice wine.

We have a very close friend called John living in France and he knows our house well and envies our Dark Sky location.   He has similar interests in Fusion 360, horology, Arduino, mechanical design and relevant to this instance, astro-photography. August is the peak time for the Perseid meteor shower.  We both own Canon Powershot SX50 HS zoom cameras and he made a comment that it was a shame that these did not have a Bulb setting for the shutter or the ability for us to do time lapse to take some shots of the meteor trails.

Investigating on the internet revealed that there is a group of enthusiasts that have hacked the operating system of the Canon range of cameras.   This is known as CHDK (Canon Hack Development Kit).  It allows you to load a firmware update into the camera to expand its capabilities but does not overwrite the default issued code.   The CHDK code is wiped once you switch off and the camera reverts to normal.

CHDK provides facilities for long exposure times and for time lapse routines.  This therefore addressed both the issues we had with the SX50.  It took a while for us to share notes and to get our heads around how CHDK worked and how to set it up.  I managed to get my camera hacked the day before it was time to journey home.   I had one last night of hopefully cloud free viewing to get some images.

Those familiar with all things astro will know that a long exposure time image of the sky will be degraded by the movement of the Earth’s rotation.  The result is ‘trails’ on the stars so they look elongated rather than single dots.  John is developing an Arduino based star tracker but I did not have access to  this but I did have my Celestron telescope.  When the telescope is calibrated and locked it will keep track of the star movement and not leave trails.   

I spent the day devising a mount for the Canon on the telescope and come 10 pm all was ready to run … except the cloud cover was really bad.  I waited and waited and finally I got one run of 4 shots of 3 minutes each looking at the Milky Way.  Given more time these could have been stacked in Registax or similar to enhance the images further.

Milky Way image taken with a Canon HS50 hacked with CHDK to give 3 minute exposures
Milky Way image taken with a Canon HS50 hacked with CHDK to give 3 minute exposures

I accept that the SX50 is far from ideal as an astro imaging camera.  There is too much glass in the light path and the filtering and noise will be poor but this was a first step along the road.  I was pretty pleased with the result.  I now need to compare notes with John on his Arduino based star tracker.  Another project to add to the ever increasing list …..

Next day we made the house secure and departed knowing that we now faced not just a 13 hour journey but also a 14 day quarantine period when we got home.  But of course the upside is 14 days of uninterrupted workshop time.

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Absence Update – French Leave

I’m sorry it has been a bit quiet of late but we had 3 gloriously hot weeks in France which were a nice mix of friends coming to stay, local visits and jobs …. always jobs.

Outstanding in the visits category was the trip to the Gouffre de Padirac which is an extensive cave system where you go by boat from one area to another.  The scenery was stunning.

Job wise a new set of steps for the spa dominated along with re-work of the foss septic tank ventilation system.   Just a bit smelly on this one.

The house is in a village like many other villages in France where there are few young people and young families but rather an aged population.   Houses are plentiful but mostly have their shutters closed apart from a few days or weeks in summer when family visit to cut the grass and the shrubs.   It is a reflection of French inheritance laws that require assets at death to not go to the surviving partner but to the children.   The children then have difficulty deciding what to do with a house and any associated land so it goes on the too difficult pile and the house sits empty and shuttered up.   As a result the heart slowly goes out of the villages which is only mitigated by crazy foreigners buying and renovating.    While we were there this time two more elderly inhabitants passed away and two more houses closed their shutters.   It is all quite sad.  If a head count was made of empty houses in France it would astonish.

That aside it was a good visit and the weather made it perfect.   Back to the workshop now and I am keen to install a diesel heater to give some low cost comfort over winter.   Reports to follow. 

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Remote WiFi and GSM Switches

I have had two IT related issues of late.   Both involve devices on the house networks that have ‘locked up’ and needed a hard bounce – a complete mains power down, wait and switch on again. One of these was in our house in France and one at home.   

The one in France was a lock up of the broadband router.   Clearly once this is down all comms stop and we do have various monitoring systems in place that are important.  Searching online came up with a GSM based mains switched outlet.   This simply plugs into the a wall socket and the device to be controlled plugs into it.   You need to fit a PAYG SIM into the device and then you talk to it with your standard mobile using SMS messages from anywhere there is a mobile phone signal.   As the SMS usage will be very low, a GBP10 SIM will last for ages but it is important to remember that if a PAYG SIM is not used for 3 months it automatically gets cancelled.   Fortunately the device does acknowledge back via SMS each command received so it is possible to maintain SIM activity remotely.  The device has a number of facilities such as temperature measurement and activity scheduling.  This has now sorted the French Connection and I can bounce the router anytime it misbehaves.  Here is the Amazon reference.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00PKGL7YC/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

The home issue was on a device on the home wired network which was important to keep running.   Very occasionally and usually at an inconvenient moment it would lock up and the only way to reset it was a hard bounce.   The device is a pain to get at to do this and if we were away from the house even more so.  Fortunately the WiFi router at home is reliable so all I needed was a WiFi equivalent of the GSM device mentioned above to give the offending device a controlled hard bounce.   Amazon offer one such device which was easy to set up and works a treat.  For those interested it accepts speech commands via Alexa etc

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07KXBQKXX/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o01_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Hopefully now we will have remote control of these two weak links in our communication backbone.

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Droning On and another Toy

Another drift to the dark side I am afraid.

I bought a drone.

Yes I know ….. Lots of reasons why I justified it to myself and I went through the prior post decision making process and got a ‘yes’ as a result.

Seriously I have been considering one for sometime.   In France the house sits looking out over a valley and we often see deer and foxes (but not yet a wild boar) and I have always hankered for being able to get up close to them.  France aside my work on turret clocks often needs a close view of the clock face without the hassle of ladders and scaffolding.   So two good reasons (in my book anyway).

I had been watching the market trying to decide when to jump.  The two big players for the semi professional market are DJI and Parrot.   Both these run out expensive.   Then in January I got a mailshot from Banggood about a new device to be launched by Fimi called the X8 SE.   This seemed to be only available from Banggood and was on back order status.    I missed out on the first delivery but finally my toy arrived last week.   

It is amazing.  And at a fantastic price.

Not ever owning a drone before I cannot compare with anything but it is so easy to drive and has so many automated flying routines.   Battery life is around 30 minutes and range is stated as 4km and it can skim along at 18m/s speed (yes that is 65km/hr ….).    It does 4k video and 12M stills.

So that is my entertainment sorted for summer, should summer finally arrive.

fimi x8 SE drone and controller
Fimi Drone and associated controller.

It is worth watching Dustin Dunhill on YouTube if you want a serious review of the device.  He does tech reviews and there are 3 or 4 Fimi videos on his platform.

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    French Connections, House Numbering, Shed Building, Left and Right Hand Threads

    Sorry it has been a bit quiet but we had three weeks in France albeit with not the best of weather.  As ever a few jobs on the list and some new experiences.

    The village where our house is located has always had very ambiguous addresses such that deliveries were a nightmare unless by Post.    The parish council decided to solve this with a ‘numerifcation’ and tasked a local man to decide on street names.   Given that there are probably less than 200 properties in the whole village and very few of these in our road, we were surprised to be allocated number 436.

    On arrival and taking a wander round the village the numbers appeared totally erratic and certainly not conforming to the norm of odds one side of the road and evens on the other.   It then dawned on me that the numbers were related to the distance from the starting point of each road relative to the village centre.  We were therefore 436 metres along the road from the first house.   A quick cross check on Google Earth confirmed this as the distance to the centre of our gateway.

    Now you could label this as French perversity but I think it is rather elegant.  Deliveries can now find us easily and if someone does a barn conversion mid street a new unique number can easily be created rather than 6A or similar. The council provided us with rather nice enamelled number plates and these match the new street name boards.   We noticed on the drive home that one or two other villages we passed through seemed to have had similar initiatives.  No doubt Macron will claim credit.

    The first test of the new address was when I ordered a garden shed (abri de jardin) from Alice’s Garden and it found us successfully.   The aim was to have a storage shed for our ride on lawn mower.   The shed was a bit on the low cost side but did arrive OK in two flat packs.   When opened up it all seemed a bit flimsy.   Two of our friends had arrived to stay and they got roped into putting it together.  The instructions called for two people and predicted 2 to 3 hours work.    It took four of us a bit longer than this and lots of self tapping screws later we had a shed. 

    alices garden shed
    Garden Shed from Alice’s Garden for ride on mower storage but with door too narrow …. another fine mess

    Given the flimsy nature of the materials it was surprisingly sturdy. The one flaw in the plan was the mower would not go through the door …. I had measured across the wheel width and not across the cutting bed.  We left our friends with the challenge of solving this minor issue …. so far they have managed to widen the door opening and it now needs a new enlarged door.

    We had also ordered an electrically operated sun awning and this was installed while we were there.   This is a seriously heavy piece of kit that the two technicians were struggling to lift between them.   The installation involved mounting three plates on the house wall and then ‘dropping’ the awning housing onto these with retaining fastenings.   Because of the style of block work used in France they tend to use chemical based fixings for anything substantial that needs mounting.   The technicians arrived, measured up, drilled and chemically bonded 12 lengths of M12 studding into the wall.   After the prescribed setting time they attempted to mount the plates only to find their logistics team had supplied them with left hand thread studding and right hand thread nuts.   Much French cursing ensued.   

    Out came the angle grinder and the studs were chopped off.   Rummaging around in their van they found some more right hand thread studding, re-drilled and re-bonded this in place and finally got round to mounting the awning – which was a real struggle to lift even with three of us wobbling on ladders.   They didn’t leave until gone 7pm so not the most cost effective installation quote by the salesman.

    awning in france also called a store
    Awning in place with correct thread studding used

    This excitement apart we had a good stay with a round of golf at Souillac, a village festival and an excellent meal with our neighbours and their extended family.   The house is looking pretty good now and perhaps next time we can just relax with nothing on the ‘To Do’ list – perhaps.

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