Getting Your Message Over…

As part of my job I’m on a mailing list for computer officers from all over the University. By and large this isn’t a hugely busy mailing list. I would guess the biggest use is for people pimping hardware that they no longer need (its incredible how quickly a range of old servers gets snapped up!).

But sometimes (two or three times a year) a subject flares up and the list gets very busy. And today one of those subjects arrived.

One member of the list sent a teaser advert about an announcement which will be made in a months time. The teaser was in the form of a picture file attached to an otherwise blank email.

And the fact that the teaser was an image file attached to an email is what caused all the traffic.

It started off with one user complaining that, because they are using a venerable old email client (Mutt), and the original author neglected to add any ‘alt’ text to their image the user was forced to open the image file in a suitable image viewer, only to discover that the image was almost entirely information free.

The user then received several emails telling him that he could have used another email client and that it would have been fine. However, one of the things that I really enjoy about the University is that it is entirely agnostic about such things, and people are free to use whatever mail client they choose. This is the case even when the choice is both difficult to maintain and causes the user to be unable to upgrade their operating system (yes, I’m looking at you Eudora!). The Computing Service maintains Pine/Alpine available running on the mail servers and accessed via SSH.

I feel a lot of sympathy for the original poster (I’ll call him Mutt). When I first started using email ‘in anger’ I used Pine. It had a steep learning curve, but once you were used to it things got ridiculously easy, muscle memory took over the process of reading, writing and filing emails. But attachments were a problem, and you ended up saving them to some file space and then opening them as required from the file space. Because of this, I sometimes use the Pine system that is available, for that little sting of nostalgia.

I once wrote a similar email to Mutt’s to a mailing list that I was on.  Back then my net connection was ‘dial up’ and I had a bee in my bonnet about the use of html in emails. It was, I contended, a simple matter of signal to noise. Every email is intended to carry an aliquot of information, and ideally the amount of data that had to be uploaded, transmitted and downloaded is proportional to the volume of information in the email. My beef with html email was that most users wrote html emails without even noticing, so never took ‘advantage’ of the available text effects. However, irrespective of whether effects were used or not, the email would then be sent, more often than not as the ‘html’-ised version of the text, followed by the plain version immediately afterwards. The signal to noise ratio in this case was at least half of what it could have been (assuming that there were no html tags used) with the ratio falling further, given the bloat that the html more than likely contained.

So Mutt was making a valid point (the point was even more valid in his case, the data downloaded wasn’t justified by the information to be conveyed, and he needed to go through a couple of hoops to discover that fact). However, the irony in the aftermath is that there then followed a short flurry of emails where many opinions were expressed regarding the use of different email clients and value of data, and so the issue, such as it was, was compounded furiously by the responses received.

My favourite response by far though was the fellow computer officer who, understanding the need to convey the little information involved, but wanting to do so in a text friendly manner generated an ASCII art version of the original teaser poster and sent that to the list. Well played sir!


Linux vs. Windows – Another Linux Success Story.

When I was purchasing my home laptop, I chose a Dell. One of the reasons that I liked the Dell store was the way that I could choose a system and then tweak the requirements as needs be.

As I was running through the options, things like processor, memory and disc size, I remember deliberately choosing not to have a webcam at all.

The reasoning was simple. I was planning to use Linux at least part time on this new computer, and add-ons like webcams were, I thought, difficult to use, or poorly supported. If I didn’t bother having them then I wouldn’t need to fiddle to get them working.

Now, spool forward three or four years. My daughter got a book for Christmas which boasts ‘Augmented Reality’, requiring a simple program install and a webcam. So I borrowed a webcam from work (we have it for those occasions when interviewers want to Skype) and took it home.

Obviously the ‘AR’ software only runs on Windows or Mac, so we booted the laptop into Windows, plugged in the webcam and waited while Windows did its thing.

It is worth noting that Windows 7 does an excellent job of detecting the device and installing the drivers, but it took an inordinately long time to do so (more than 5 minutes, less than 10). But once it was done, it worked very well.

When I got to work this morning I decided to try an experiment by plugging the webcam into my desktop machine running Linux (its a Mac, but it dual boots into Linux because, well, I like it like that!).

I plugged it in, then started up ‘Cheese’, the webcam program where you can add weird and wonderful effects to you images. I then selected ‘Preferences’ and was able to switch between the computers built-in webcam and the USB webcam straight away (with no apparent drivers required).

Now I have a horrible feeling I will need to buy a webcam for home…

Fone Phailure!

Like many people, I have a smart phone. In my case it is a Samsung Galaxy SII which I have had for about 21 months.

It isn’t perfect. If it was up to me the changes I would make are:

  1. Give it a decent battery life, even at the expense of making it thicker and heavier.

Yep, that is about the only change I would make. Everything else about it has been fine.

Until the weekend. Then my phone died, and it is resolutely refusing to come back again.

Being of a tinkering persuasion I chose to investigate a little. I managed to find a colleague who had the same phone so I could borrow the battery. Putting the battery from his phone in mine made no difference, so the battery wasn’t the source of the problem.

I then asked another colleague who works in the electronics workshop where I work to prod a few things with a multimeter to see what he could see. He came back pretty quickly to say that when he plugged the phone in he could see a voltage, but that the voltage disappeared when he pressed the on button. He suspected a short somewhere in the body of the battery.

So there was nothing for it but to go and see the nearest Carphone Warehouse shop, which is, luckily only 5 minutes walk away.

The best news is that my phone, being a Samsung, has a two year warranty, and it was still within the warranty period. So its wending its way, who knows where. Unfortunately the store didn’t have any loan phones available, so I left the store feeling very ‘old skool’ without a phone of any kind.

I tried my old HTC phone (HTC Desire) when I got home, and, as both phones are ‘on’ Orange the old phone works with the sim card.

It did leave me with a couple of observations:

  1. The screen, which once felt perfectly acceptable, now feels tiny!
  2. When you are used to new tech, then old tech feels glacially slow.
  3. Both phones are Android, which means that all the contacts etc are available on the old phone. But many of the apps which I would like to install (Chrome, please, the stock browser is horrible) claim to be installed already.

I have a feeling I will get these teething troubles sorted out, just about the time that my proper phone returns to my grateful hands.

2013 Book Report 20: Hello World! Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners – Warren Sande

I read this book in a combination of the paperback and the Kindle version as purchase of one brings with it the option of downloading the other.

Introduction to Programming.

I purchased this book, at least in part, as I am interested in making sure that as time goes on my daughter begins to learn more about computers than just the fact that it is possible to watch YouTube videos on them.  While this is a project that I feel strongly about, I am being careful to not push any agenda.

The fact that such a book is available is an indication of the times that we live in. I grew up in the ZX Spectrum era, learning BASIC in lessons at school. But a ZX Spectrum was a simple machine, with limited capabilities.  Even the cheapest, simplest modern PC eclipses the original home computers in what they can do. But I think it is important to maintain a perspective on the functionality of modern computers. Programs now are huge projects, often written by an army of coders. Computers are still machines that are controlled by the programs that people write for them. Therefore having even simple skills to know how to program computers opens up a plethora of possibilities, which will help modify thought processes, teach critical thinking skills and prepare children for a technologically complex future.  In this much this book has similar aims to the Raspberry Pi. It aims to allow users of computers to see that they don’t have to be passive, they can interact, and they can make the computer do what they want it to.

These then are the aims of this book, and in order to guide the process this book is actually the product of a father and son team, where the father is an experienced programmer and the son is a beginner intent on wrestling control of the machine. This central conceit of the book works to make the book a good source of information, but it does sometimes lead to cutesy writing which is less than ideal.

To provide a suitable springboard the book looks at programming using the Python language. This is a popular programming language for those looking to learn, and it is easy to see why. Programs written in Python tend to be easy to understand, reading like a stilted English language description of what you are trying to achieve.

The only point I would raise about the wisdom of choosing Python is that the language is in something of a state of flux. Most of the code currently ‘out there’ is Python v. 2, but Python v. 3 is growing in popularity, and there are some quite major changes in the two versions, apparently intended to force reappraisal of some of the code base.  The book does address these issues and even highlights where they may cause problems, but it seems an awkward thing for the beginner to have to deal with.

And does it work? Well I haven’t tried it with my daughter yet. She is only 7 years old, and I think it is probably a little early to expect programming to fire her imagination. And when she is ready to make her first foray into coding I’ll start with Scratch, before the rather more abstract Python. But this book will be one I reach for when we are ready to make that transition.

BBC Interviews – What’s That Noise?

I was listening to George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer being interviewed on the radio yesterday morning, and, not for the first time I thought the BBC’s microphones must have been on the fritz.  There always seems to be a roared stream of obscenities drowning out the self serving platitudes spewing from his mouth.

Then I realised. Whenever I heard that malodorous, pompous, rich slime ball talking about austerity I can’t help it. I find myself shouting like some sort of nutter.

I can’t believe that we have to listen to this privileged millionaire  who has always happily protected his rich buddies while insisting that welfare and social support gets gutted.

Horrid, evil, slimy git.

Always Fiddling… Fortunately Rome Isn’t Burning.

I’ve written a couple of times about the fact that when I use Linux my window manager of choice (currently) is Xmonad. It has been for a while, but that doesn’t mean it has to continue being the choice, if something comes along.

I have also talked about my one bugbear with Xmonad. It is less convenient when I use my laptop as the function keys need an extra button to be pressed. It ends up being a two handed job changing screens. I was looking to find a way of changing the function keys to avoid this problem, and ended up reading about i3, another tiling window manager.

Installing it on my Linux machine was, as ever just a matter of using ‘aptitude’, and it only took a minute. Then simply log out, and set the session type.

As with most of the tiling managers, when you log in the screen is blank, apart from a simple status bar at the bottom of the page. I managed to run a script which I have to set the keyboard layout, screensaver etc.  But then I couldn’t work out how to do anything else!

I found the following page, so I’m going to give it another go. The cheat sheet can be found here.

The Thirty Year Rule – A Shock.

Travelling to work this morning the big story on the radio was about this years documents released under the ’30 year’ rule. In the UK sensitive government documents are kept secret for thirty years, and then, normally released unless they are considered still too sensitive.

Today’s stories concerned the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher and whether there had been a plan to close many coal pits before the miner’s strike.

But the really shocking thing about these stories is that they were thirty years ago. I remember these events. They can’t possibly have been so long ago can they?

And then, the next scary thought. That was the year that I took my ‘O-levels’!