New Life and Not Life.

A weathered grave stone and a small drift of snowdrops.On my morning walk with the dog I was struck by the juxtaposition of this weathered old grave stone and the snowdrops at its base. I’ve just signed up for BlipFoto and it made for a good photo of the day for that too.

The head stone is in the church yard of St. Mary’s in Linton, Cambridgeshire. When standing in front of the stone you can just make out that there is text carved into the stone, but it is so weathered it is difficult to make out. Maybe I will try one morning to read what it says.

The church yard in Linton is very much the classic country church yard that you might imagine when reading or listening to Gray’s Eulogy Written in a Country Churchyard. Most of the head stones date from the late 1800s or the early 1900s. They come in a range of shapes and sizes and states of repair. This one caught my eye partly because of the rich lichen colouring around the upper section and partly because it lies just to one side of the path I always use through the church yard.


Serendipity – A Morning Journey Musically Enhanced By An Off Hand Remark.

This morning I was dropping off my daughter at the child minder’s. A couple of the older boys were misbehaving, and the child minder called them ‘the naughty boys’.

I told her this was a tautology, and then had to explain what a tautology is.

Fortunately, when I got back in the car my mind took a different turn, leading me to the related term ‘oxymoron‘.

Many moons ago I was sent on a business letter writing course, and the trainer spent some time probing how much the various trainees knew of the language. What a split infinitive might be, a tautology, oxymoron etc. In each case he asked if anyone knew what they were, and if anyone proferred that they might he asked them to explain the terms to the group. I ended up explaining most of them, but oxymoron was always my favourite. The sentence or term which is internally contradictory, and which I was asked to provide an example of. At the time a Chumbawamba album called ‘Swinging With Raymond’ had just come out, with a track called Oxymoron on it. The example given being ‘Good cop’.

And by the wonder of my iPod I got to listen to the album all the way the work. Not a bad start to my morning…

My iMac Approaches Perfection Asymptotically.

I have written several times about the learning curve of turning my 27″ iMac into the computer that I am happy to use all day every day. Much of this process has revolved around me moving away from using the Mac OS X operating system as much as possible. I run Linux, and, as I’ve noted in other entries I have a very tweaked system.

But there was one thing about the Mac that was a problem from the start, and which I hadn’t been able to sort out. I like to listen to music when I work, but as I share an office, I have to be concious of the impact of the impact of music on others around me.

After installing Linux I found that plugging in headphones cut off the sound from the speakers, just as you would expect, but the sound would resolutely refuse to flow from the headphones.

I have finally found a fix, of sorts. The forum post which explains the solution is here.

Essentially a short Python script is created which resets the headphones configuration and allows sound through the headphones. Apparently it needs re-running every time you re-start the computer, but I can live with this. I already run a couple of scripts when I log into the computer in the morning (to turn on my preferred keyboard layout, launch Dropbox, X Screensaver, Synergy and other useful functions).

So now I can listen to music when I’m at my desk and not disturb others with my choice.


How Not To Write A Website.

One of the research groups where I work has asked me to update their website for them.

It seemed like a simple request at first, and then I looked at the code. It is awful. The code has styles defined in the tags themselves rather than in a single style sheet for the site. This means that if you find a style that needs tweaking then you need to modify it in each file in turn! Yuk!

Each sub-folder has its own style sheets too, which means that even if you find the killer edit which will fix the majority of their layout woes then the edit needs to be applied correctly 10 or more times!

Nothing is commented. Anywhere.

Oh, and it appears to use some fancy Javascript which breaks if you move the files to a different server.

I won’t mention which ‘design’ package might have been used to create this website, but many of these crimes seem pretty universal these sorts of programs.

It is so bad I would be tempted, had I the time, to rebuild the site from scratch by hand, with better coding standards. The whole thing would be so light, and easy to maintain. Maybe I’ll keep it as a project to help bring myself up to speed on HTML 5 some day.

Now, back to fixing things…

2013 Book Report 22: Superstition in Pigeons – B.H. Skinner.

I work in a Department of Psychology, but I’m no psychologist. However, I had read something that put me on to the idea of reading about a bit more around the subject.

There is a Wikipedia article on B.F. Skinner. It outlines both his life and his theories.

Like many giants of their field, the things that Skinner did and said now seem pretty much obvious, but were clearly radical in their day. Skinner’s research was largely targeted towards the nature of free will and responses to punishments and reward.

This short book (available for the Kindle here) is a summary of the investigations of responses given by pigeons to various stimuli. The behaviour seems to indicate that the pigeons become, in some way superstitious about their behaviour, and start to carry out series of rituals which they somehow associate with being provided with rewards.

Anyone who has tried to train any animal will know that it is vital to give a clear, consistent command and then reward the correct behaviour. If the command is inconsistent then the animal would associate the wrong thing with the behaviour. It seems pretty self explanatory.  But then, as one of the presenters of Myth Busters once said ‘The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down” –@donttrythis #MythBusters‘. This stuff didn’t become science until Skinner tested the various hypotheses and wrote them down.

Given the combination of quite a technical subject and a stilted, academic and older English idiom, this book is surprisingly readable, and a starting point to learning much more about psychology.


2013 Book Report 21: When It Was Dark – Guy Thorne.

I read this book on my Kindle, available here.

I can’t remember why I went out of my way to get this book. I have a feeling that it was mentioned somewhere else, and I made a mental note to get hold of it. I’m glad I did, though I have a feeling that Guy Thorne wouldn’t have approved of my feelings on reading the book.

The book was written in 1902, and it reflects the time when it was written. Summarising the story as bullet points:

  • A respected and well known biblical scholar has a weakness for the high life beyond his modest academic salary to support. He also has an ongoing affair with a lady of the stage.
  • Because of his proclivities the scholar finds himself in serious debt, having already been rescued from ignominy several times by a rich patron who is a member of parliament.
  • The patron offers a way out of debt for the scholar, offering to clear all his debts and to set him up with a regular payment in the future for a simple service. The academic is to travel to ‘The Holy Land’ and set up a tomb with indications that show the tomb to have been the one in which a crucified Jesus is laid. Evidence is then to be added to show that Jesus did not rise, but that his body was removed by Joseph of Arimathea.
  • The protagonist in the story is a young priest working in an industrial town in the north of England. He keeps the faith in the face of the doubts sweeping the world’s Christians. And it is he who eventually finds a way to expose the falsehoods.

Reflecting The Early Twentieth Century Norms.

There are many aspects of the book which look odd or quaint from the early years of the 21st Century. There is clearly an anti-Jewish bias in the book demonstrated by the fact that the rich patron is a Jew. This was quite normal for Christians of the time (a fact which is glossed over by Christians desperate to blame atheism for Hitler and the Nazis). The idea that the loss of faith immediately leads to a break down in law and order is the sort of thing that the more fanciful evangelicals cling to as well.

As an atheist myself, I found this an enjoyable vignette which demonstrated the thought processes of a simpler time. It is undoubtedly a product of its time, something that could never have been written later, at least in Western Europe. As far as I can tell, the Americas could still produce material like this and expect it to sell by the bucket load!

Synergy – Control For More Than One Computer At A Time.

I am not, by habit or practice, a tidy person. This is strongly reflected in my work desk which is awash with stacks of papers, forms and diaries. Unfortunately, I am also someone who has two computers on my desk (see many previous comments on the subject).

The computer I use most is a 27″ screen iMac. The screen is lovely, with excellent image quality.

However, I don’t particularly like Apple keyboards, so I don’t use an Apple keyboard. Instead I have a wireless Logitech keyboard (a  K230 for the record). The previous keyboard that I had didn’t have a number pad on it, so I added a separate wireless number pad (also Logitech, a N305). I’m also not that keen on Apple mice because I need at least two buttons and the direction of scrolling is all wrong, so I have a trackball, which I like because it doesn’t need lots of desk space (M570).

The brilliant thing about the Logitech kit is that they all link using Logitech’s ‘Unity’ wireless system, and, importantly, each Unity USB connector can support up to 6 devices. That means I can have the keyboard, number pad and trackball all connecting to a single USB connection, and I don’t lose a heap of precious USB ports.

I am very happy with this setup and can type quickly, mouse around accurately and enter data in spreadsheets efficiently.

Then there is my other computer. The keyboard is stiff and not particularly pleasant to use, and the mouse is an old Apple mouse (pre touch surface, even pre-rollable nipple thing) where the whole case of the mouse is the button. Its horrible.

So how do I manage this setup, and the challenges of limited desk space, preferred hardware etc. Enter Synergy, a simple system to manage multiple computers from a single keyboard and mouse.

Setting up Synergy appears to be easiest when you are sharing multiple Windows computers as Windows is provided with a nice handy app where you can name computers and define where their monitors lie in relation to one another. Users of other systems need to create and edit a text file to define these relationships. So I chose to make the iMac the server machine and the Windows machine a client. Following instructions was simple enough, and after having a few connection issues caused by misnamings of the two systems I was suddenly up and running.

I have a similar issue in starting the Synergy server on my Linux box that I have setting the keyboard, activating the screensaver etc, so initially I was tempted to append the instructions to activate the server onto the script that sets these things up. However, the only time I’m going to use the Synergy system is at work, so it doesn’t make sense to add this overhead to all my Linux systems. Instead I created a script which launches the Synergy server. I run this after my initial login (and after the keyboard setting script).

Using Synergy is simply a matter of mousing over to the screen edge which is defined as the point at which the two computers meet. For reasons of understandability this should be the edge of the screens where the monitors abut. Pause for a moment and the mouse will flip over to the other screen, and you are in control of the other computer.

One unforeseen advantage of this has been the way that the keyboard layout on the server computer, that is the iMac is the keyboard layout used on the other computer. As I have written elsewhere, I use a non-Qwerty keyboard layout. In Linux I can choose a Dvorak keyboard layout, but with UK punctuation (a £ sign, the @ sign being on the middle row, just by the return key etc). I also have the Caps Lock key and the left hand Ctrl key swapped so that I have a Ctrl key on the home row of the keyboard. Replicating the finer points of this in Windows is difficult as the normal Dvorak options are US English, Dvorak left handed and Dvorak right handed. Customisation is possible, but it requires installation of extra programs and understanding an arcane piece of software.

However, using Synergy with Linux as the server fixes this as the Linux keyboard layout is carried over to the Windows computer as I flip over. Bonus!