Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Sun, 25 Oct 2009

Stuff I'm playing with

I'll admit to being a fan of Google. I use several of their on-line tools including Gmail, Calendar, Reader and GTalk (mainly as a Jabber client). I keep an eye on their Labs for their latest developments. I heard about Wave when it was announced back in May. It sounded like a combination of email, IM and wiki. It wasn't open to the public at first. I registered an interest and eventually got an invitation a couple of weeks back. I thought at first it had come from a friend, but it looks like I was one of the lucky 100,000 who got added. That allowed me to nominate eight others for invitations. Those mostly went to on-line contacts who I thought could use them.

So far I've only played a little with Wave. A 'wave' is a bit like a persistent IM conversation that you can add people to or even make public. Anyone can edit any previous post/'blip'. I see this as useful for brainstorming sessions where a group of people want to produce an outline specification for a product. You can paste in various content such as images, videos (from Youtube) and maps as well as some special gadgets. Bots can be written to automate certain aspects. Simon introduced me to his bot that translates all updates into 'Swedish', but they could be useful to add links and standardise format.

Wave could be a useful tool in general if enough people use it. Email has been around for decades and there are hundreds of applications to use it. That's a lot of inertia to overcome. Personally I need to use it more in real situations to see how useful it can be.

I Installed Mozilla's Ubiquity ages ago, but hadn't made a habit of using it. At its simplest if gives you a command line in your browser that lets you perform operations like search and starting an email based on the page you are viewing or text within it without having to open more windows/tabs or copy/pasting information. A more intriguing use is to perform all sorts of changes on a web page such as translation or changing elements. There are various videos that show what it can do. I was inspired to try it again by this blog post. I had some problems with the latest version locking up my whole desktop, but the latest beta is working better. Like Wave it requires a change in mindset, but could make lots of jobs easier and quicker. This talk includes Ubiquity, along with some other cool stuff Mozilla is working on.

Like many people I am a bit lax about making backups. I've got loads of pictures, documents and other data on the PC that is not stored anywhere else. I've been lucky not to lose much in the past, but a hard drive can crash at any time or a PC be stolen. I've got some of it on CDs, but have not been rigorous in backing up the latest data. I have used rdiff-backup to back up to the web server I use, but that has some issues when the server and client software are on different versions.

Ubuntu introduced Ubuntu One on-line storage service recently. You can have 2GB for free or pay a monthly subscription for 50GB. The free account is enough to store my documents so I've been trying to get that working. I've installed the client and it worked at first, but has been getting confused when I added multiple folders. You have to copy data to a specific folder and cannot just use symbolic links. Currently I can't get it to stay connected to the server or synchronise any files. Perhaps I need to somehow reset the client and start again. Ubuntu are selling it more as a service for sharing files, but it has potential as an automatic back-up too. The next version of Ubuntu due out next week has it included as standard, so may work better.

[14:43] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Mon, 12 Oct 2009

Keeping chickens

For a while we have been thinking of making use of some of our spare garden space by keeping some chickens. We don't eat meat, so it would just be for the eggs. From what I've read four chickens could give us two dozen eggs per week, which is far more than we need, but could supply friends and family.

We finally made up our minds after a visit to Thorne's Poultry Centre, which is only a couple of miles from us. They have lots of breeds, but we don't want anything fancy. We may even go for former battery hens.

The plan is to fence off some rough ground. It seems 6 foot is the normal height. I think we need some strong mesh buried in the ground to stop anything digging its way in. There's a large apple tree there, so I'm deciding whether is should be in the run or not. I need to weigh up the risks of predators using it to get over the fence. For a hen house I'm going to convert an old playhouse that the kids don't use any more. That seems to be plenty big enough and can be fitted out with a perch and next box.

As usual, I am worrying about all the things that can go wrong, but there is plenty of advice to be found on-line. I'm going to have to join one of the forums, such as Backyard Chickens or The Poultry Pages.

I'm open to any hints and tips or suggestions of books etc. I saw that my friend Wulf has chickens and he suggested that we wait until the spring, but the family want them sooner, even if it means a lower egg yield for a while. We need to work out who will look after then when we are away as we don't intend giving up on holidays and going totally over to The Good Life (a classic of my youth). Actually there used to be a large, if dilapidated, hen house here until we knocked it down to make room for our new house. My other half's grandfather grew a lot of his own food here some time ago.

We hope to start preparing the chicken accommodation soon, so you can look forward to some more chicken-related updates here.

[21:39] | [Garden] | Comments | G

Thu, 08 Oct 2009

Steve Lawson and Michael Manring at Round Midnight 07/10/02009

I'm pretty familiar with Steve's work, having seen him live a couple of times and having a few of his albums, but I knew less about Mr Manring (no, we wasn't in Dad's Army). I had heard that he was an iconic figure in the bass community (yes, there is such a thing). This blog post indicated he was something special, so when I heard they were playing together in London I reserved a ticket at Round Midnight.

The venue is a conveniently short walk from Kings Cross. I was surprised at how small it is and, unusually for a music venue, it is not in a basement and has windows to the street on two sides with late shoppers looking in. I settled with a beer and a burger on a cast-iron bar stool and waited for the music to start.

Steve was up first playing some of his tunes that I know and a Bruce Cockburn cover I didn't. It's amazing the textures that a single player can build up with skilful use of effects and loops. Then Michael joined him and they jammed for a while. It's mesmerising to see two top musicians playing like that. There didn't seem to be much eye contact, they just do it by ear.

After a break Michael returned to play his own music and it was amazing. There are some musicians who just seem to have complete mastery of their instrument to make it do whatever they like and he is one of them. The use of harmonics and his Hyperbass's levers to change tuning made for a unique sound. I know he played Selene and Helios. The latter was one of the most amazing performances I have witnessed.

The show ended with another duet and ended with the audience wanting more. Steve promised they would be back next year, but I think they might need a bigger venue.

Someone was videoing the show, and using some arty angles, so that may appear on-line at some point. Meanwhile, Benjamin Ellis has uploaded some great pictures and Steve posted some recordings of a previous gig that may give you a flavour of it.

I was thinking back to how I caught on to the whole solo bass scene. It started when someone lent me a crappy bass to see how I got on with it. I decided I want to stick with guitar, but whilst trying to learn some tunes I found various sites, such as TalkBass.com, and then found some podcasts by solo bass player Jeff Schmidt. I think it was via one of those that I found Steve Lawson and got to know him a bit through discussions on Twitter. He really like to engage with his audience and it obviously worked with me. I'm sure I'll be going to more of his shows.

[21:05] | [Music] | Comments | G

Tue, 22 Sep 2009

Programming languages I have known

During my long drive to work I was pondering on how many different programming language I have used. There have been many over the last thirty years.

My first experience of using a computer was at upper school. Our maths teacher, Mrs Jaworski started a lunchtime BASIC programming course before we started computing as a subject. She showed us flowcharts and how they related to the various commands. To actually try anything we had to take turns on a Teletype connected to the local college via an acoustic coupler. I immediately took to it. After some time there were just two of us using the terminal most lunchtimes playing around with trying to write simple text games and generating long strips of paper output. When we started on O Levels we would go to the college once a week so we could get a terminal each. They even had VDUs, i.e. screens instead of paper!

A couple of years after that first encounter I saved up enough to at least contribute to my first computer, a BBC Micro. The BASIC on that was pretty powerful with the ability to declare procedures and embed assembly language. I wrote lots of programs on that, many to generate graphics, including my first Mandelbrot set. That would become my standard test program to write with a new language. I played a little with the 6502 assembly too.

At Coventry Poly I did electrical engineering, but we had some programming lectures, first on BASIC and later on Pascal. We used their Harris mini computers for that, but I did my project on a Beeb when I built an interface to turn it into a simple oscilloscope. I think we also did a course of writing machine code with the hex pad on a 6809 board. I also had a look at Forth on the mini after reading books about it.

During my first few jobs I wrote applications in dBase, Turbo Pascal (including OOPS), Turbo Basic and C++. I'm not sure I ever wrote anything significant in C.

A later job was for a company, Intuitive Systems, that produced their own programming language called I/S2. I was doing IT support there, but got to play with and test the language. I think it was similar to Visual Basic, which I haven't actually used.

My second home computer came a long time after the Beeb when I bought a second-hand Amiga 500. I didn't do much programming on that, but did play a little with ARexx and E (not sure if it's that one).

Another job used Microsoft's Quick BASIC for a car rental system, which was later converted to Magic, a table-based programming system that is good for building applications with lots of screens accessing databases. The skills I learnt on that led to my current employer who were major Magic users. The huge application they produced for the TV industry has now been converted to C#/.net. Both versions run on Oracle, so I do lots of PL/SQL programming too, along with a little Java.

Despite programming for a living I haven't done much for fun since the Beeb. I've looked several times at Python as it seems an elegant and powerful language. I've written a few small programs with it, the most useful of which generates playlist files for my music collection. My choice of PyBlosxom as a blog platform was influenced by the possibility of coding for it, but I've not done more than play with that. Recently I have started looking at Python again after finding libraries that could form the basis of a couple of applications I wanted to implement, a Jabber/XMMP bot and a FOAF parser. The latter is by Luke Maurits who I have started corresponding with. He's a bit younger than me and so had many more options when he started programming. The tools have come a long way since I was entering BASIC line by line into a Teletype and hoping it would run. I need to do some serious reading to get into what something like Python can offer me. There are several on-line courses I will be looking at.

[21:01] | [Computer] | Comments | G

Fri, 18 Sep 2009

New comments system

I've been using the standard Pyblosxom comment plug-in for a while. It works, but has limited options. The other day I saw that my friend Wulf has started using the Disqus comments service. This allows visitors to either sign in with various types of identity or to leave anonymous comments. You can track you comments on any site using the service.

A quick Google revealed that someone had already implemented a Pyblosxom plug-in for Disqus. This was very easy to install and seems to work. I want to get a few things tidied up such as showing the number of comments on each entry. I also want to tidy the general layout of the site. The long archive list is untidy. Any suggestions? I'm not much of a web designer.

[20:50] | [Site News] | Comments | G

Thu, 17 Sep 2009

Return of the micro-car

My job requires me to drive around 40 miles into London several times each week. I travel alone in a medium-sized car and the roads are full of other single occupant vehicles. My car, Vauxhall Zafira diesel, is reasonably efficient for its class at 46mpg, but it's still a relatively inefficient way of getting around. A few years back I was doing the journey by motorbike. That did a slightly better 60mpg, but there are cars that could do similar. The bike saved me a bit of time in general, but came with the disadvantages of increased risk and getting cold and wet in winter. I can get the train to work, but it costs more than using the car and takes a lot longer.

We're a two car family, but that's almost essential with us both working whilst living in a large village with limited public transport. If we got rid of one car and I always took the train would not save us much, if any money. Much as I want to be green we have to live within our means. I could try and find a job that required less travel, but it's not the best time to be doing that.

What I'd like is a much more efficient vehicle that still offers the comfort and safety of a car.For a couple of years I've been following the progress of the Loremo car, a lightweight diesel car that promised up to 180mpg. It's still not out and currently scheduled for a 2011 launch. It has some unusual features like lifting the front of the car to get in and having a pair of rear-facing seats in the boot.

This week I saw that Volkswagen were showing off their own mini diesel hybrid. This is even more minimal with only two seats, but that's perfectly adequate as a commuting vehicle. So what's stopping them putting it into production? I'd buy one if the price was reasonable.

That VW reminded me a lot of the old Messerschmitt bubble cars. Perhaps the time has come again for a more human-sized car. Not that they would be any use to this chap.

[21:09] | [Motoring] | Comments | G

Sat, 12 Sep 2009

Going acoustic

It looks like my band may be on hold for a while as some people either have work commitments or want a break. That's a shame as I was looking forward to playing some gigs. I need to meet up with the others some time to discuss the options.

Meanwhile, I've been working on my little acoustic project by learning some more Pink Floyd songs. This has been done on my Dean Performer electro-acoustic. I've been looking up tab for the songs I want to play. The web is a great resource for this, even if the music companies are not so keen on it.

Other members of my family are also getting into guitar. My son is getting on well and my dad has just upgraded from a budget (Lidl) guitar to a better quality Yamaha classical. I'll have to check that one out. I wouldn't mind another classical as it would better suit that type of music. I've been digging out my old music books to play some of that.

I'm keeping an eye out for any possible musical collaborations. I just can't get into travelling too far to play given my limited spare time. So if anyone around Arlesey, Stotfold, Henlow or nearby wants to play some guitar for fun then I could be interested.

[22:38] | [Music] | Comments | G

Thu, 10 Sep 2009

Still waiting for an open semantic social site

Long-term readers (anyone?) would know what I've been interested in the possibilities of the Semantic Web as a way to make some of the data on the web more useful by giving it some context. I've written before about possible semantic social systems utilising the FOAF data model. This is a file format that can store details of a person and their relations to other people. It can link to FOAF files belonging to those other people to allow their net of connections to be explored. One advantage of this over sites like Facebook is that it allows each person to control their own set of data without relying on a third party and another is that the data can be processed by various software or web sites.

What I would like to see is a piece of software, either running on a PC (or other device) or web site that reads my FOAF file and then allows me to do things like viewing the latest updates that my friends have made to whatever sites they use, based on data in their FOAF files. This could be blog posts, music they have listened to, photos they have uploaded or anything else that can have an RSS/ATOM feed. I can do something like that with friendfeed, but that relies on people joining that particular site or me creating profiles for my friends.

FOAF has been around for a while now, but has not really become mainstream. I know that a number of sites can generate FOAF files based on the data they hold, e.g. the identi.ca microblogging service (my data).

I think one reason for the lack of adoption is that it requires a bit of technical experience to get started. There are various sites that can generate a file based on data entered into web forms, but then you have to upload the file to a web server you have some control over. My own file started with one generated by FOAF-a-matic and has since grown as I learnt about more possibilities. I tend to just use a text editor, but the RDF format is very strict about the data structure and mistakes make the file unreadable by software. I think there must be some tools out there by now that make it easier to update a file. What it needs is a button you can click on in your browser that extracts appropriate data from a site belonging to someone you know and inserts that data into your FOAF file.

Another issue with this sort of data sharing is that it does not provide a way for you to limit exposure of certain data to selected people. I don't include things like my date of birth, address and phone number in my file as they could be misused by some of the less desirable abusers of the internet. I have thought that I could have something on my server that allows friends to access certain data using their email address as a key. Email addresses can be stored in the file in hashed form to make it easy to check for a match without giving too much away. I realise that it may be fairly simple to guess an email address if you know a person's name and web site, but I don't know if the bad guys are doing that. In any case you could email a security key back to the given address to permit access. I don't have enough experience of web programming to know exactly how this would work.

Obviously many people do not have their own web server where they can upload arbitrary data, although many may have some web space provided by their ISP. Ideally we would all have our own domains to prevent issues with details changing when you move to a different provider.

I just felt the need to get this stuff down after thinking about it today. I know there are some projects out there that are working on stuff like this, but I'm not aware of any that past the alpha stage. I'll be happy to be told otherwise. I still harbour a desire to do some programming in this area myself, but have not found the time. Foaflib looks like the Python library I wanted when I looked into this a while back. I'll try to have a look at it. It may allow me to achieve my aim of generating the root page of this site from my FOAF file.

I like to think that Facebook is not the future of the web. Is there hope or has Tim Berners-Lee's vision been forgotten in the gold-rush?

[22:16] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Wed, 02 Sep 2009

Guitar craft

One of the things I love about the internet is how you can engage with people all over the world, including artists you admire. Some, such as bassist Steve Lawson, spend a lot of time talking to their fans on-line in order to build a more intimate relationship and mutual respect. It may not sell as many records as an expensive marketing campaign, but leads to a more loyal following and enhances the enjoyment of the music.

This week a post appeared on the Six String Bliss guitar forum linking to the latest creation by Jeffrey Jones. I commented that these instruments, whilst beautiful, seem beyond the reach of most musicians and that my own tastes are more for utilitarian musical tools. Today Jeffrey himself has responded to my comments with a lengthy post. I've responded to let him know that I appreciate his work even if it's not what I would necessarily buy myself even if I had the money. It's great to hear his side.

I aspire to having a guitar built to my own specification one day, once I figure out what that might be. You can pay an awful lot for an off the shelf guitar, e.g. the Gibson replica of Billy Gibbons' Les Paul. That seems destined for a collector's wall. For a fraction of that price there are plenty of luthiers who will build you a custom guitar. Gordon Smith, who built my main guitar, offer limited customisation options, but others can build almost anything you can imagine. Maybe in a few years I'll be a good enough player to justify splashing out.

I've not got together with the rest of The Barking Spiders since our open rehearsal performance due to holidays and other events. People have other commitments at the moment, so I don't know when we will next play together. Meanwhile I'm doing a fair bit of playing. I'm alternating between the band songs and some acoustic pieces for my own enjoyment. I've been working on a few of the classical pieces I played in my teens. I fancy the idea of collaborating with someone on some acoustic guitar work. This could incorporate any combination of classical, jazz, folk and perhaps some ideas I have for acoustic versions of classic prog tracks such as songs by King Crimson. This depends on finding someone and the time to work on it, but it's a possible path. Since joining the band I feel that more options are open to me. I intend to find a local teacher who can help me build the skills to develop those options.

[21:32] | [Music] | Comments | G

Tue, 01 Sep 2009

Summer holidays

Our summer holiday this year was a couple of weeks at Camping Village L'Atlantique in southern Brittany. We had a ready-erected tent from Vacansoleil. As well as not having to take all our camping gear this also meant that we got proper beds and a fridge. It's a great site for families with a set of pools with slides and the beach a few minutes walk away. The weather was good enough for us to be in the water almost every day. We were in the sea a lot, which was very clear and made for some fun snorkeling.

Once we were there we didn't use the car much as you can explore a lot of the area via cycle tracks. I do quite enough driving anyway. I don't speak much French, but had enough to get by in restaurants.

A couple of bonuses on this trip were an afternoon at Portsmouth before we caught the ferry exploring the old ships and then there was a little festival near the campsite where we saw some local musicians as well as a great English/Irish/French folk band I'd never heard of called Churchfitters. We liked them so much we bought their album.

From Gigs
[20:59] | [Travel] | Comments | G

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