Search This Blog

Saturday, 31 December 2011

My Neanderthal Past

Interesting news from 23andMe, the organisation that sequences your DNA and reports on your genetic health risks. As a side benefit they can find out information about your ancestors, and this time they've really surpassed themselves. It turns out that 2.9% of my DNA is Neanderthal, a species that Homo Sapiens parted company with tens of thousands of years ago. Seems that some of my ancestors kept in touch though.

That was all a long time ago, so I'm happy to put aside the shame and let bygones be bygones. In any case, the average value for 23andMe customers is 2.5%, and Homo Neanderthalensis are no longer believed to have been the slow-witted brutes we once thought. In related news, I do not appear to have any Native American ancestors, and they reckon I'm ten times more likely to have ancestors from Ireland and Poland than from Britain.

Even though I've got a reasonable understanding of how scientists come by this information, I'm still staggered that it's possible at all. The lives of people who've been dead for hundreds of years are now being illuminated again. As their descendants discover their common ancestors, we can deduce where and when these people might have lived, even how many children they might have had. And this science is still in its infancy.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Why is it so hard to buy extra RAM?

As I mentioned in a recent post, I managed to buy a PC with only half the RAM I'd intended, following some carelessness by PC World and a lack of checking by myself. I decided to buy the missing 2GB of memory using the £80 refund PC World gave me.

First, I opened up my PC to look at the memory slots. There were two, one of them empty. I carefully took out the RAM board to look for a product code or something that would let me order a new one. As has happened every time I've tried this in the past, all I could find were several very long numbers, which might mean something to the manufacturer, but certainly don't mean anything to me. I carefully made a note of what the RAM looked like, put it back in, and booted up my PC. (With a quick check in case it now thought it had 0GB.)

Why the manufacturers make it so hard to order more of their product is beyond me. Maybe not enough PC owners get round to installing extra RAM, or maybe they are actually providing all the information I need, but I'm just too ignorant to work out what they're telling me.


Onto Lenovo's web site; surely they would be able to tell me what RAM to order. No, they mentioned the H420, but I couldn't find a spec for it. A colleague mentioned Crucial, who list loads of PCs and the memory they need. They had several Lenovos, but not mine. That's what comes of buying a new model, I guess. Then I read about a free program you could download that tells you all the intimate details of your machine. I won't give you its name, because their web site managed to trick me into downloading and installing a completely different program, which also changed my default search engine in all three browsers I've got installed, as well as insinuating itself via unwanted toolbars and start up settings. It goes by the name of iLivid, and I've been seeing tempting download ads for it all over the place recently. That might just be ad servers spotting I've got a cookie from it though. uLivid would be a better name for it. I thought I'd managed to get rid of it last week, but I found today that it had got back into IE9. The icing on the cake was that the program I was looking for claimed it was getting incorrect values from Lenovo, and couldn't really be sure what RAM I needed. I uninstalled that too.

While reading up furiously about the different types of RAM available (including the bizarre discovery that 10600 and 10700 mean the same thing, because it's actually 10666 but vendors round it up or down in case the '666' puts people off), I came across a company called Orca based in Surrey. They also had a memory checker facility, which couldn't tell me about my model (although I see it now can), but which did offer me the chance to e-mail for help. I told them my model number and hoped for the best.

It was a Saturday, so I was more than a little surprised to get a reply at 16.45 telling me exactly what I needed to know, and even pointing me into their on-line catalogue where I could order the new RAM. It turned up earlier this week, and is now sitting comfortably inside its slot, working just fine.

Now that's service!

And just for the record, the Lenovo H420 takes 240-Pin DDR3 DIMM PC3-10600 (1333MHz).

Yes at the Apollo

Down to Hammersmith Apollo last night to see Yes in concert. The last time I saw them it was on their 90125 tour, so quite a while ago now. Three of the band must be in their sixties, and their lead singer has been replaced by a more youthful version, but the magic was definitely still there.

Going to see a band that came to fame in the early 1970's is an odd experience: the fans are largely the same people who went to their concerts forty years ago. I'm in my fifties, but I was far from the oldest there. And what a white, aging, middle-class audience we made. As I was in Circle, row S, for the first time ever I decided to take my long distance glasses with me. I needed them too.

The Apollo is enormous, but Yes seemed to have sold it out. There was an empty seat in front of me (and I would like to thank whatever virus or mechanical defect made that possible), but otherwise the place looked chock full. I hadn't been there since a Hawkwind concert in the mid-eighties, when it still the Hammersmith Odeon, though I've seen it on telly since, of course.

The music was excellent, with the performances seeming to get better and better as the show progressed. A third to a half of it was off their latest album, 'Fly from Here'. I'm a dedicated Yes fan, but even I have to admit that much of their studio output over the last 25 years or so has been very disappointing. 'Fly from Here' is a real gem though, and all the better for being so unexpected.

When I first got to know Yes, in 1976, I started to hunt down their albums in record shops. I had no idea what they'd produced, and for a couple of years I could still come across albums I hadn't heard of. Nowadays when I discover a group or artist I like, I google them and immediately learn their entire discography. Chances are they're on Spotify, so I can straight away start listening to them too.

It is so easy to consume music now, but some part of the thrill of discovery is gone forever.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

We welcome our 4000th visitor

Sometime today this blog clocked up its 4000th page view. (Not that I've been checking every day for the last week.) Given that I started The Wrong Side of 50 in June 2009, I'm obviously not setting the internet on fire yet, and over a third of my hits came from the death threat story. Still, I feel I can give myself a gentle pat on the back for sticking at it this long.

And thanks also to everyone who's visited here. From the page stats Google gives me, a lot of you are just trying to find technical fixes, but that's okay, as one of my main reasons for starting this blog was to post knowledge I wished I could find somewhere else.

Speaking of the stats, can anyone explain what happened on October 28? The day before I got 6 visits, the day after a more typical 2. But on the 28th itself there were suddenly 104 visits. And Russia shows up as the most popular source of visitors. (I have a picture of some poor Russian Nexus S owner trying to connect their phone to Windows XP, returning over and over again to my site, trying to make sense of my notes.)

I've averaged a post every couple of weeks, though I have been a bit better in the last couple of months. I shall try to keep up the pace, or even increase it, and maybe I can get to 8000 visits before I hit my 55th birthday.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Farewell to Windows XP

After nearly a decade of using Windows XP, I've finally moved to a more up to date operating system. I am now the proudish owner of a Lenovo H420 running Windows 7 Home.

The excitement of a new computer is always soon tempered by the realisation of how many programs need installing on it, as well as the long slog of getting all your settings correct, and the other long slog of rooting out all the unwanted rubbish that the manufacturer thought you might like. I bought it on a Saturday, but wasn't happy with it until Sunday the following week. (Not that I spent eight solid days on it, mind.)

Mostly it went very smoothly. In the case of Google Chrome, it was almost effortless: as soon as I enabled Chrome Sync, it transferred all my previous settings, and even installed my chosen set of plug-ins. Python was a less happy experience, when I discovered that the last of my essential libraries wasn't available in 64 bit form, and so had to uninstall all the others and start again with the 32 bit versions. I had similar incompatibilities with 64 bit Eclipse and Java. That, though, wasn't my fault, as the Java download page doesn't offer you a choice, and merrily installs the 32 bit version.

By last Sunday most of my treasured functionality was available again; I just had to add a folder to my $PATH variable. I brought up the System section in the control panel, and got two shocks. Incredibly, the editor for environment variables is still the cramped, rubbishy little box it was in the nineties:

How hard would it be to give us a proper dialog for entering these values? Instead you have to type in a list of semicolon-separated folder names, nearly all of which start with 'C:\Program Files' so you quickly get lost if you try scrolling through it. Unbelievable. Contrast that with the improvements made to the 'Extract All' option for zip files: Windows XP brings up a three pane wizard, while Windows 7 sensibly combines these three into a single screen. I cannot believe nobody at Microsoft finds this editor annoying. Maybe it's legacy code that Steve Ballmer wrote, and everyone's too scared to change it.

That was my first shock. The other came when I happened to glance at the installed memory figure. 2.00GB? The PC I ordered had 4GB. And what's this? A Celeron processor, where I thought I had bought an i3 core. Yes, I had managed to come away from PC World with the wrong computer. I'd reserved a £350 Lenovo H420 on their web site, then gone to collect it. They'd given me the £270 version instead. The receipt was okay though!

The details were there to see on the box, but I'd been too busy opening it. And the Intel Inside sticker on the front of the PC did say 'Celeron'. But I put 'desktop' PCs on the floor, so the sticker ended up conveniently situated at carpet level.

PC World offered to wipe the PC I had and give me the correct model. However, as they'd proved incapable of getting the correct box out of their back room I decided against handing over a computer full of my personal details in the hope that they might remember to clean the disc before they sold it on. Also, after all the work I'd put in getting the PC up and running, I was in no mood to go back to square one. In the end I settled for a refund of the difference in price. The main reason for buying the computer in the first place was to get some more speed, and this machine seems fast enough.

Here's some advice for PC World at Clifton Moor, York: when someone comes to pick up reserved goods, wipe the goods through your barcode scanner, not the reservation paperwork. As to Lenovo, given that a naming system that brings forth such memorable gems as 'H420' allows for 26000 possibilities, maybe you could try not giving two different computers the same model number. As for me, I've learned the importance of reading the label before opening the box.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

How to Stop AutoHotkey from sticking the Shift Key

AutoHotkey is an excellent little program I've mentioned before that lets you define keyboard shortcuts and automatic corrections to your typing. I set it up so that typing Ctrl + Shift + F12 would insert the current date as a text string. Then, when I open my day book (formerly a Word document, now in the Google cloud), I can quickly insert the heading for today. That worked fine. Then I decided to improve it, so that it would start by moving to the end of the document, and also add a newline at the end. Now, not so good. Sure, it moved to the end, and it inserted the correct text. However, afterwards my PC acted as thought the control and shift keys were being held stuck down.

I could clear the problem by actually pressing the keys myself, but this was hardly an elegant solution. After a bit of research I believe that this is an AutoHotkey bug. I present this workaround:

SendMode Input

; - Insert Date Time stamp
   KeyWait, Shift
   KeyWait, Ctrl
   FormatTime, xx,, dddd d MMMM yyyy
   Send ^{End}%xx%{Enter}

That fixed it for me. Now I just need it to put the date into bold italic.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Getting Comfortable with Eclipse

I started using Eclipse recently. I'd tried and given up twice before, because the learning curve is quite steep and my heart wasn't really in it. This time I persevered, and now definitely see its advantages.

I'm been a Visual Studio user for over a decade, and most of my problems with Eclipse were to do with the dissimilarities between the two. It was quite tempting to change all the key settings to make Eclipse look like Visual Studio, but decided to forbear and take the hit of learning a new set of commands. With a bit of searching around under Windows > Preferences > General > Keys I managed to find equivalents for most of the functionality I was used to in VS2010. One command escaped me though: typing Ctrl + C to copy the current line onto the clipboard. There is no native Eclipse equivalent for this; the best you can do is move to the start of the line, highlight the line, then copy. However, someone else had also found this a problem, but unlike me, they came up with a solution.

You need to visit this page and follow the instructions. (On Windows, the 'dropins' folder is in the 'eclipse' folder; presumably something similar for Mac and Linux.) Restart Eclipse and Ctrl + C will work as it used to.

My thanks to the author of this drop-in. I have to point out that, for my setup at least, it's not working for HTML and CSS files. Python and JavaScript are perfect though.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Listening at the Double

The excellent Lifehacker sent me to the somewhat bizarre Buddha Machine Wall. This web site lets you blend short loops of "Buddhist temple music" together, making an ambient soundscape to cut out surrounding distractions. Although you'd think it would get repetitive and annoying, I've managed to play it for hours: it does shut out the surroundings, and in addition I don't even notice it after a few minutes. This is a lot better than my usual technique of listening to music, which does affect my concentration (though not as much as some of the noise going on in my office).

However, it does feel like a waste. When I listen to Spotify, getting to know new albums, I feel as if I'm doing something productive. Ironic, as all I'm doing is consuming, but there you are. Just listening to a wall of sound doesn't cut it.

It would have once, but I think my problem now is a continual feeling that I'm not processing information as fast as I should.

To help with this, I've started listening to podcasts and audio books at higher speeds. Both BeyondPod, my podcast app, and Audible both let you play at a variety of faster (or lower) speeds. I tend to stick between 1.25 and 1.5 times normal speed. Any faster than that and it's too easy to lose the thread. It doesn't work for music, unsurprisingly, and it's not very good for comedy,where timing is all important, but otherwise it works really well. Now the challenge is to train myself up to be able to listen at x2.

How We Know that Precognition Doesn't Exist

Although in my youth I was quite sympathetic towards the possibility of ESP, the continued lack of consistent evidence turned me away from it. That, plus the realisation that, if phenomena such as telepathy were possible, they would confer a huge survival advantage on any creature possessing, so natural selection would ensure that they were as widespread as, say, the sense of smell.

In the case of precognition, the ability to see the future, there is an even better argument against its existence. Many countries around the world hold lotteries, in which the participants have to guess which numbers are going to turn up in a draw. If precognition was a real power, even one that was only held by a small percentage of humanity, and then not even very reliably, still the effect would be visible in lottery results.

The lottery organisations would be the first to notice that more people were winning than chance would allow. Rollovers would be almost unheard of, and jackpots would routinely be shared between many winners. In the UK, guessing just three numbers out of six gets you a £10 prize.Even someone whose precognitive powers were only right half the time should be able to scoop up prizes week after week.

None of this happens. Unless it goes hand in hand with a profound aversion to gambling, I think it's reasonable to conclude that precognition does not exist.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Sometimes You Already Know the Answer

Funny how I sometimes manage to install really useful stuff on my PC and then forget all about it.

Months ago I downloaded Dropbox onto my PCs at home and work, and on my Nexus S. I got them going, but couldn't think of anything much I needed to transfer or share just then, and time did the rest. Dropbox became just an icon on my desktop.

A few months ago I was reflecting on how annoying it was that I had to remember to take my portable disc drive home every Friday so that I could run SuperMemo at home over the weekend. A penny faintly dropped in the background: what if I put the SuperMemo files into Dropbox? Then I wouldn't need the portable drive at all. Five minutes later I was set up; the hardest bit was remembering the Dropbox password.

Another example. I have AutoHotkey running on my PC. A really useful program, though a complete b*gg*r to configure, thanks to its highly cryptic scripting language. I used it to set up keyboard shortcuts in Firefox, Explorer, et al. so that, for instance, typing Ctrl + Alt + F in Explorer will convert it to Folders view. It can also correct typing errors on the fly (in any program), which is useful if you make consistent mistakes. For instance, I very often type my first name as 'CHarles'. AutoHotkey corrects that. (In fact it did it just now; I had to edit the 'h' manually.) I was very enthusiastic about AutoHotkey for a few weeks, but once I'd put in all the obvious shortcuts, it went out of my mind.

Last month it stopped working, after I'd rearranged some folders. (I noticed when I signed an e-mail wrongly.) Easy enough to get it going again, but having been drawn to my attention again, I thought of some more useful shortcuts I could add to it. So now, instead of entering my full e-mail address, I can just type 'c@' and AutoHotkey fills in the rest (as indeed it just did). Other user names I frequently use are also now shortcutted, and when I'm writing JavaScript programs, I can type 'jq' instead of 'jQuery', which saves more time than you might think.

I did these new shortcuts at work, then realised it would be nice to have them at home as well. If only there was some way of sharing the two AutoHotKey config files. Oh, wait...

Thursday, 20 October 2011

50% Increase in My foursquare Friends

Okay, so there are now three of them.

I have a fairly tentative approach to social applications. I'm not on Facebook, and my Twitter account remains untweeted. But I thought I'd give foursquare a go, and I've been on it for a few weeks now, dutifully checking in whenever I remember, so that my two friends (who incidentally live miles from York) will know where I am (usually a long way away). Not very useful yet, though I can see how it could be if I could just reach that critical mass of friends. It's not helped that so few of my non-virtual friends have smartphones.

However, the price of smartphones will continue to drop, and in no great time they will presumably be the norm. Meanwhile I look forward to the time when I can't count all my foursquare friends on the fingers of one hand. Maybe when that happens foursquare will give me a badge?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Do it Yourself Internet Radio

I rarely listen to the radio unless I'm in the car, or cooking. In the kitchen we have a DAB radio, which I usually tune to Jazz FM or, on the suspiciously large number of times when Jazz FM isn't actually playing jazz, Planet Rock. A few days ago I happened to notice that the DAB radio had a USB port on the side. I still don't know why it needs this, but it got me thinking again about getting an Internet radio. Trouble is, they start at around the £100 mark, which seems a bit steep, particularly as, a recent All About Android podcast informed me, I could listen to internet radio for free on my mobile phone with the TuneIn Radio app.

A lightbulb came on inside my head (and not one of the longlife ones, which take a few minutes to warm up) What if I plugged my mobile's earphone socket into something with a speaker? I'd have my own internet radio.

(Or I could listen to my mobile through earphones. However, for some reason listening to music in a world of my own without disturbing anyone else is deemed more anti-social than playing it out loud for everyone to hear.)

My first attempt was the Sound Traveller universal USB speaker. Not very expensive, but unfortunately not very loud either, and the sound was a bit tinny. I had much more success with E-volve MP3 Vibe-Dock Home portable speaker system. This runs off the mains, and has an excellent sound for £25. It has a USB outlet, so it can charge my phone up even as the phone streams music at it. I've tried this once, and the speaker system started to give off a faint smell of overheating electronics, so I'll probably use that feature sparingly. Bizarrely, the system also has an earphone socket, though why I should ever need that I can't begin to imagine.

So now I can listen to radio stations from around the world in the kitchen, and the question comes down to choosing which station to listen to. Or whether to listen at all. I have Spotify on my mobile, which lets me listen to millions of songs. I could build the playlist of my choice and listen to that instead. (Or not, because it seems that the Spotify app now bombs out a few seconds after logging in. Tried reinstalling it, but no luck. Haven't used it for months, so no idea when this behaviour started, and may have to wait until it just as mysteriously stops. Anyway, I reckon my argument still stands.)

Radio listening has the advantage of serendipity, plus I always find that music I know sounds much better when someone else chooses to play it. However, the amount of access we now have to music creates a new variation of the old question, "What do you give to someone who has everything?"

Thursday, 13 October 2011

What a Difference a Gym Makes

I got into gyms comparatively late in life, in my mid-forties. At school gym was about the last place I wanted to find myself. No, on second thoughts it was totally the last place I wanted to find myself. I said goodbye to PE at age 18 and never regretted it. Then I read Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman. 'Forever' sounded a bit optimistic, but I was enthused enough to alter my lifestyle in several ways, including putting a bit more exercise into it. I joined the gym near my place of work.

Last month my employer moved location, and the formerly local gym is now remote. Swallowing my tears as I discovered its mandatory three month cancellation period (bast**ds!), I said goodbye and joined the gym nearest our new site.

It's smaller, and several pieces of equipment I'd grown used to are no longer available, and there's a wall with a notice telling me not to use it as a support "for my own safety" (and to prevent me dislodging any more of its loose plaster), but I can ignore all that. Even the fact that they have communal showers (shades of school again).

No, what's bugging me is the average age of my fellow gymnasts (is that the right word?). At the last one, many of the clients were well into their retirement. I could comfortingly reflect on how I was still the Right Side of 60. In the new place I seem to be one of the oldest people there. It's early days, and maybe I'm just having a wrong first impression, but it seems that, rather than being surrounded by people trying to get fit, I now find myself among the already perfectly fit, annoyingly attempting to get even fitter.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Dell Laxative Utility

A few weeks ago I was moving my Dell PC around, which involved unplugging all the cables from the back. When I'd finished, everything worked except the Forward and Back buttons on my Dell mouse. That was a nuisance because I use them instinctively to navigate my way through Google Chrome. I checked in the Device Manager, and the mouse was showing up as a vanilla device. Attempts to fix the problem in the Control Panel were ineffective. Unplugging and replugging the mouse failed to bring up any 'New Hardware Found' dialog that might have let me attack the problem.

So I let it rest.

Until today, when I decided enough was enough. It occurred to me that Dell might have the solution. When the PC was brand new there were several Dell applications lying around, which I quickly bundled off the desktop and forgot about. Maybe one of them could help. What was this I found? The 'Driver Reset Tool'. That could be just what I was looking for. I launched it.

There was a pause, and then a small dialog popped up telling me that my ethernet port was disabled. It offered me three choices: Yes, No, Cancel. Well, I had indeed disabled the port when I went wireless, so I clicked Yes. Another pause, another dialog: Nokia phone disabled. I clicked Yes again. Again the pause, then a dialog that just said, "EN?" (I should add that the last two dialogs had also started with "EN". I presume it meant 'ENglish'.) There was only a Yes button this time, so I dismissed the dialog. A final pause, and then the PC shut itself down.

Years of working with computers has left me with a certain amount of intuition about what's going to happen next. I was not feeling good about this.

The shutdown finished, and the reboot started. It got as far as 'Press F2 for Setup and F12 for System Menu'. I did, repeatedly. Could I possibly have reset the drivers so much that the keyboard wasn't working? No, surely we hadn't got that far yet. In any case, that wouldn't stop the auto-boot from finishing. I decided to power it off, count to ten, and try again: same result.

At this point I had to answer a sudden call of nature.

When I got back the reboot was under way. Much slower than normal, but everything eventually came back, and here I am typing it all up. The only thing I've had to fix so far is the annoying 'network unplugged' icon which had reappeared in the system tray.

Chastened by my near death experience, I decided to ask Google if anyone else had had this problem. Hysterical laughter: it seems it's a recent bug in Google Chrome. Sure enough, the mouse is working perfectly well in Internet Explorer.

I guess there's a lesson here, but I'm still too close to appreciate it.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Cheating in Audio

I started listening to audiobooks a couple of years ago, through the admirable Audible company. I mostly listen to the books while cycling home, which makes it difficult to skip back a few seconds when my concentration slips and I miss a bit. I soon realised that this mode of reading is more suitable for fiction than non-fiction. The mind-blowing 'Decoding Reality' really deserves a re-listen in less distracting circumstances, while '50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need to Know' I gave up around number 15, after a near miss turning onto Haxby Road while using rather less of my brain than I really ought to have.

For stories though, it's ideal, and I'm using it to catch up on authors I might otherwise never have found the time for, or getting through the complete works of Stieg Larsson (sadly only three).

I had one worry though: is listening to a novel rather than reading it cheating?

Recently I was sat down with a real book, 'Use of Weapons' by Iain M. Banks. It's one of his Culture novels (masterpieces of SF, if you've never tried them), and I stopped to count the ones I'd already read. I knew there were three, and that one of them was an audiobook. The interesting thing was that I couldn't remember which of the three was the one I'd listened to. As far as my memory was concerned, I had the internal 'soundtracks' of three novels, and I couldn't tell the difference in quality between the one I'd heard through my earphones and the ones I'd made up myself as I read the written words.

So as far as I'm concerned, the answer is 'No: audiobooks are not cheating'. At least, it isn't for me. The end result in my memory seems to be exactly the same, except that I can now combine some of the more tedious parts of my life with probably my favourite hobby.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

4' 33"

Listened to John Cage's famous piece, 4' 33", today on Spotify.

When I first heard about this piece, I thought it had a certain mathematical interest, for if you think of compositions as being ordered sets of notes, then this would be an empty set. The visual equivalent might be a TV program that showed a blank screen for its whole duration. That was when I assumed that 4' 33" would be four minutes 33 seconds of total silence. Far from it.

In fact, the subtlety of 4' 33" is that it has to be performed by a real life performer. Frank Zappa once covered it, for instance. Thus if you listen carefully, you can hear the creaks of the performer's chair, and maybe the odd clearing of the performer's throat. Presumably on live recordings there is audience noise to add to the interest.

I said I listened to it, but actually I gave up at 0' 28", faced with the prospect of wasting another 4' 05" of my life. I've just seen the piece referred to as 4' 33" - 3 parts: 30" / 2' 23" / 1' 40", so perhaps I should have soldiered on into part 2. However, I think I got the rough gist.

E F Schumacher's book "A Guide for the Perplexed" introduced me to the idea of "adequatio", meaning that sometimes you're simply not adequate to the task of appreciating something. It's a good concept to take to heart, and I can think of many examples of art that I initially couldn't see the point of, but now really enjoy; Jazz and Opera spring to mind. They didn't change: instead I became adequate to the job of listening to them.

In the case of 4' 33" though, I'm not sure if I will ever find myself adequate. Like the artists who works consist of piles of rubbish or unmade beds, I kind of feel that the only talent Cage needed to produce 4' 33" was the ability to keep a straight face.

Oddly, Spotify claimed the running time was 4' 39".

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Getting a Nexus S to connect to a PC running Windows XP

In an effort to prevent anyone else going through the misery and frustration I've just experienced, I will now document the steps I had to go through to get my Nexus S to talk to my PC.

Obviously I'm not talking about seeing the phone's file system as an external drive; I mean having the phone show up in the Device Manager so that you can try your hand at developing on it. Sparing you all the false starts and dead ends that I went through, and assuming you've already installed the Android SDK and have a USB cable that fits into the phone, proceed as follows:
  1. Start up the Android SDK Manager.
  2. See if 'Google USB Driver Package' is listed under Installed Packages.
  3. If it isn't, it should be under Available Packages. Select it and click the Install Selected button
  4. Enable debugging on the phone in Settings/Applications/Development.
  5. Disconnect the phone's USB cable, then reconnect it.
  6. The PC should report having found a new device, and bring up a wizard to ask you whether you want to install a driver. Cancel out of this wizard.
  7. Go into Device Manager (right click My Computer and select Manage), and find the phone under 'Unknown devices'. Right click on it and select Properties/Details. Note the two four-digit numbers after VID_ and PID_.
  8. Open the file C:\Program Files\Android\android-sdk\extras\google\usb_driver\android_winusb.inf for editing.
  9. Add in an entry for the Nexus S, using the VID and PID revealed from the device manager. It should look like this:
    ; Google Nexus S
    %SingleAdbInterface% = USB_Install, USB\VID_XXXX&PID_YYYY
    %CompositeAdbInterface% = USB_Install, USB\VID_XXXX&PID_YYYY&MI_01
The values of XXXX and YYYY you should have noted down above in step 7.

Now use the Device Manager to Update Driver for the phone, telling the wizard to search in the C:\Program Files\Android\android-sdk\extras\google\usb_driver folder.

In the Device Manager, the Nexus S should now move from 'Unknown devices' to 'Android Phone'.

Of course, for you any one of these steps might go wrong. However, even then I hope this blogpost might give you the clues you need to get to your goal.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

A Sign of the Times

No posts for weeks, and then three come along! This one's been on my mind for a while though.

We moved our wireless router recently. No longer sat on my desk, it's now attached to the wall at the bottom of the stairs. I'm moving room soon, which was the principle reason for moving it, but in any case it was becoming inconvenient to keep it there. Without noticing it happen, we now have no less than nine devices that connect to the internet by wi-fi: three computers, two mobile phones, two game consoles, a TV and even a printer.

When the router first arrived in our house, the Wi-Fi was almost an optional extra. The main PC plugged straight into it, and only my wife's laptop needed wireless. Slowly the creep began, driven more by manufacturers pushing wireless into their devices than by us seeking it out. Every time we upgrade a machine now, it seems that it comes with internet access.

All this is probably just the beginning, if the Internet of Things is to be believed. For now I'm just amused that our household routine has acquired a slight alteration after all these years: the last thing to do before bedtime is no longer checking the front door, it's making sure the router's turned off.

Searching by Image

Google Images now lets you search by image instead of keywords. You can give it an image and it returns images that look similar, at least to its algorithms. I immediately put it to the test by giving it my mugshot from Stack Overflow. Hmm. Mostly women, with a few babies thrown in. It seems to be having more luck noticing that I'm wearing a black shirt than that I'm male.

Maybe it's because the photo I gave it has the top of my head cropped off? I try the mugshot from this blog. This time it successfully finds web articles containing that same photo, and also comes up with a few faces that do look vaguely like me. Not sure what Angelina Jolie's doing in there though.

Okay, clearly these are early days for this technology, but I applaud what they're trying to do. I look forward to the day when it's so reliable that it can spot family resemblances. That would make a useful complement to the Relative Finder in 23andMe. Another search engine I would like to see is one that let's you hum a few notes of a song and then tells you what it is. Targeted ads could include places to buy the song, or Singing Lessons if it thinks you're off tune.

Jazz FM Reaches Yorkshire

Spinning the stations dial on our DAB radio last night, I was delighted to find, lurking among the pop channels and the dubious attractions of the numerous Christian stations (who listens to all these?), a newcomer to the Yorkshire area: Jazz FM. Seems they went national in March, but this was the first I've heard of it.

I bought the radio back in early 2008 in order to listen to "theJazz", which dutifully went t*tsup a couple of months later. Since then I've mostly listened to Planet Rock, where music from my youth is played by DJs even older than me. And though I really enjoy Rock, I honestly wouldn't miss Heavy Metal, so Jazz FM will make a nice alternative refuge for me when I'm not in the mood for pounding, endless guitar solos.

It may also save me a bit of money, as I'd been wondering for a while if I could justify buying an Internet Radio in order to get access to Jazz again. The main thing that had held me back was not the price, but the enormous choice I would have been presented with. A simple decision like Planet Rock or Jazz FM I can cope with, but when the choice is pretty well every radio station on the planet, my listening pleasure might be ruined by the continual worry that there was something better on the next channel.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Speeding up Firefox and Firebug

Last Thursday Firefox stopped working for me. Not on the web, but in a web-based user interface that I help to develop as part of my job. Every time I tried to login, the program would hang.

At first I assumed it was my fault, but by a process of slow elimination I tracked the problem down to the Firebug add-in. This is Firefox's debugger, and pretty well indispensable, so I had to get it working again. I won't bore readers any more with descriptions of all the dead ends I went down, but here for posterity is the fix.

I had to create a new Firefox profile (by default you have called 'default'). From the command line, type:
firefox -profilemanager
This brings up a simple dialog that lets you create a new profile. Of course, Firefox now looks like you've just installed it for the first time, so you have to restore any settings you want, and reinstall your add-ins. However, it fixed my problem, and Firefox/Firebug now appear blisteringly fast (I believe the program had been silting up for quite a while). It also got rid of the many incomprehensible warning messages that Firebug had been sticking into the console log since I upgraded to Firefox 4.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

On Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey Again

I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on DVD last night. The disc was in one of those 3 for £20 deals a few years ago, but I'd never got round to playing it as I'd seen it several times before. Which begs the question of why I bought it, but it was reduced, so it seemed like I was saving money. Anyway, it was quite a few years since I'd last seen the film, so I put it on.

2001 is now ten years in the past, but when it was made it was thirty-three years in the future. Humanity was due to land on the moon the following year, and the film's writers, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, saw no reason why we wouldn't continue pushing on into space. So as far as the space technology goes, the film could easily be retitled 2101: A Space Odyssey, as the space station and spaceships in the film are decades ahead of anything we've got in 2011. They also had Artificial General Intelligence in the form of the HAL9000 series computer. This had a supposedly fault-free record, but went on to murder four people (the QA department having rather dropped the ball there, I feel). AGI is still far off in the real world, though some experts think it will come in the first half of this century.

Other aspects of the futuristic technology in the film have lost their power to surprise. The videophone call from the space station, for instance. Granted, they seemed to have more bandwidth than I've seen Skype use, but in principle we could do that now. And the computer controls were very little advanced from what was around in 1968 when the film was made: lots of flashing lights and large, square illuminated buttons. Not a touch screen in sight.

All that apart, the film still conveyed that sense of wonder that blew my mind when I first saw it age 12. And the beauty, grace and remoteness of space, that was still there too.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

My Genes and Me

A few weeks ago Matt Ridley, the Rational (but possibly a bit over-) Optimist, wrote a blog entry condemning moves in the US to block people getting their genomes decoded. Apparently doctors over there feel that this should only be possible by going through them. There are actually strong arguments for this, as the field of Personal Genomics is still very immature, we don't understand a lot of what our DNA can tell us, and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, particularly when placed in the hands of the health-conscious types who would go to the bother of having their genome sequenced. Nevertheless, I agreed with the thrust of his argument that it's our DNA, and we should be allowed to get it sequenced if we want to.

He was going to make a stand by getting his own DNA sequence through an American company called 23andMe, a name I've bumped into on several occasions in the last few months, in podcasts, blogs and articles. I had understood that the cost was still in the tens of thousands but, intrigued, I made my own way over to the site. Turns out that for just $199 + $60 postage I could get my genome sequenced. I couldn't resist, and ordered the testing kit. (And now I see they've reduced it to $99. Oh well, that's actually to my long term benefit, if it encourages more people to get it done.)

It arrived almost immediately, and I dutifully filled up a test tube with spit, put it into the courier pouch and sent it back. "Six to eight weeks", they said, but it was nearer three. I got the e-mail telling me the results were ready, and nervously logged into their website.

I should add at this point that they don't really sequence the whole 3 billion base pairs of your DNA: just stretches where there is useful knowledge to be gained. And even in these areas they're not looking at all possible deviations, just what are called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), where a single base is altered. Despite this they have dozens of comparisons they can make, all rated according to the confidence you can have in the research behind them.

I looked at the Health Results first. These could have contained seriously bad news, but in fact there are only three conditions for which I have a substantially increased risk (other than ones where the base risk is really low to start with), and for all three there's nothing much you can do to avoid them that I wasn't already doing. The worst offender was prostrate cancer, for which a diet rich in tomatoes may be effective. Or may not. Either way, my food is going to look considerably redder from now on. I will also make sure that the doctor doesn't skip the prostrate check again when I have my annual health check up. (It may not be much fun for them, but then it's no picnic for me either.) On the plus side, they think I have a significantly reduced chance of developing Alzheimer's, which could be very useful if the retirement age keeps going up.

In the section about heritable conditions, it seems I am not a carrier for anything they can test. Good news for my son. In the section about traits they successfully managed to give me only a typical chance of having the two that I know for certain I do have. They said the same about the one medical condition I have, which does make me wonder a bit about how accurate the diagnoses are. However, part of the payment is a $5 a month subscription, so I can keep up to date with new medical advances.

Finally, I went to what turned out to be the most interesting section of all: my ancestry. They anonymously match you up with any close relatives who've also been tested, and you can make contact with any that want to be contacted. The nearest they found for me are (probable) fourth cousins, which means we share a common great-great-great-grandparent. That's quite a way back; however, as more and more people join 23andMe (no doubt tempted by the new low price), the chances of bumping into a closer relative increase accordingly.

Even more fascinating was the tracking of my paternal and maternal lines. On my father's side I seem to be descended from someone in Britain, Ireland or the Basque country. Sounds plausible enough. However, on my mother's side I can trace my line to a group made up principally of Ashkenazi Jews, Kurds and Druze. For geographical reasons I am inclined to rule out the Kurds and the Druze, so that means I am probably, and I have to admit unexpectedly, partly Jewish.

Strictly speaking, what it really means is that my mitochondria are Jewish, as they're what carry the DNA that is passed down from mother to daughter, and the mother to daughter line is only one of thousands of possible ways you can follow your family tree backwards, so the total Jewish part of my DNA might be very small. However, I find myself considerably amused by this: I was adopted as a baby, and because my birth mother was a Catholic I was entrusted to a (nominally) Catholic family. My adopted mother had converted to Catholicism when she married my father, but had been brought up a Lutheran. Her father though was partly Jewish. So all things come around.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Next time, remember the shift key

Just bought an internet-enabled TV. We had to also buy a £75 (!!) wi-fi dongle to connect it to our router, and it didn't work. Very annoying, as a laptop, my smartphone, and a Nintendo 3DS had all connected effortlessly in recent weeks. The error report from the TV was quite basic: 'Failed'. It did at least confirm that it could see the dongle, and our router, but no indication of why it couldn't connect.

I went on to the web and googled "Sony Bravia wireless connection problem". Loads of people in the same boat, but no solutions, other than a couple of people for whom it had just started working eventually. One guy wanted me to go into my router and start setting DNS settings. I think not.

After half an hour of trying to set the TV's IP address manually, changing the wi-fi channel, and moving the router into the living room, I gave up for the night.

Today my 11 year old son has a go. He converts the letters in our SSID to uppercase, and suddenly the TV is on the net. I am more than a little bit miffed, and not because I've been outsmarted by someone four decades younger than me (I've grown used to that). Those letters in the SSID are hex digits, so it shouldn't matter if they're uppercase, lowercase or in bold italics. And if it does make a difference, why did the TV let us enter in lowercase in the first place? Am I missing something?

Anyway, that's behind us now. Tonight we will spend the evening watching YouTube videos from the comfort of our living room. Truly this is the Golden Age for nerds.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

BT decides it's not so good to talk after all

One of my other hats is Secretary to an Out of School Club. To save funds we decided to get rid of our BT land line and just use a cheap mobile phone on Pay as You Go. Our manager rang BT up to cancel our line, failed, and asked me if I'd have a go. "No problem", I confidently, and wrongly, answered.

First I rang the 0800 number on our bill. The automated answer system didn't have cancellations among its numerous options, so I aimed for the nearest one (getting new facilities on your line), and got straight through to an operator. He was not happy to speak to me about cancelling. We don't handle that here; you need to ring 0800 800 871. I did, and a polite voice thanked me for ringing BT but informed me that the number was no longer in use. I should ring 0800 800 152 instead.

Apart from the annoyance of being given a wrong number by someone whose job is to help BT customers (even outgoing ones?), would it have killed BT to automatically redirect me? I mean, they should have access to this advanced technology, what with them being a phone company.

By now realising why I had ended up with this job, I rang the new number. I had to negotiate with a voice recognition program, but we established that I wanted to cancel my line and I was put into a queue. Turned out they were 'exceptionally busy', but if I held on long enough, hell would eventually freeze over and someone would talk to me. I gave up after ten minutes.

The next day I tried again, this time having taken the precaution of emptying my bladder first in anticipation of a long wait. I was not to be disappointed. Twenty minutes this time, before the phone against my ear got so hot I gave up from the sheer discomfort. I really find it hard to imagine that there were so many people queuing that long in front of me; nobody at the other end sounded much more likely. I decided to ring again, but this time to request changing my direct debit details (from having one to not having one). The cursed automated system got the better of me: it wanted me to key in the new direct debit amount without reference to a human operator.

Back to the original sales number: two rings and I was through to a human being. Without giving him time to start his spiel, I told him my story of woe and begged for assistance. Now for the happy ending: although BT as a company seems to have little respect for its customers, its staff are made of better stuff. In a few minutes the cancellation was in progress, and I even had a ten digit reference number to take home.

Of course, it could all still go pair-shaped, sending me back to square one, and the overall experience has left a bad taste in my mouth. BT don't provide an address you can write to, their web site doesn't mention cancellations, and the phone number they provide for this doesn't seem to be staffed. You could almost imagine ...

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Biggles Flies Again

My son has just started reading a Biggles book. I used to collect the works of Capt W E Johns when I was roughly his age, but 'Biggles Defies the Swastika' is one of the few of those books that I can even vaguely remember. Biggles is in Norway in 1940 planning what aid Britain could provide in the event of a German invasion, when the Germans actually do invade, and he has to get out of the country posing as a Norwegian nazi. Quite how he hid his clipped British accent I forget.

I was surprised to see that the book was published in 1941, when it would have been extremely topical. In fact, given the lead times for publication, I wonder if Johns's narrative was as overtaken by events as was his hero. I would have read it nearer to 1970, when WW2 already seemed like distant history to me. And yet it was in fact no further in the past than the Falklands War is to me now, an event I can still remember in some detail. On the other hand, to my son the invasion of Norway is as far away as the Boer War was to me as a child.

His previous book was a Star Wars novel. Here we have a shared outlook, although he will never know the sense of wonder audiences experienced in 1977 when we first saw an SF film with decent special effects (pace 2001).

Stumbling Across My Mother

Last year I uploaded two photos of my maternal grandfather to this blog. I did it because, although he was slightly famous in his field, Google Image Search can't find a single photo of him.

It took a few weeks, but Google did eventually index the photos--but only for a few days. Since then a search for 'Georg Pniower' will bring up numerous images, including just about every other image on this blog of mine, even screen shots, but not those. I really have no idea of what algorithm Google uses that could exclude photos labelled 'Georg Pniower', while including one of me on the grounds that it lives in the same blog as a post mentioning Pniower.

I tried the search again last week. Still no photos of my grandfather, but imagine my surprise to see my mother, Renate, staring out at me, aged 12: a photo I'd never seen before.

Georg Pniower was half-Jewish, and when the Nazis came to power he and his family came under increasing threat of persecution. For safety he sent his daughter to a boarding school in Surrey set up for the children of refugees from Nazism. Stoatley Rough was a name I remember my mother mentioning often, though I don't think she ever visited it again, even though we only lived in Kent. Someone has created a web site about the school, with photos of the pupils, and so Google have included it in the results for 'Georg Pniower'.

Despite my grandfather's efforts to protect my mother, war broke out during the summer holidays in 1939 when she was back in Germany. Pniower thought twice about bringing her home, but the British Foreign Office reassured him that it would be safe. As we saw in Libya this week, competence is still something the FO aims for.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

08080 600832

This number has been ringing my mobile phone all week: twice a day sometimes. Twice I picked up the call, but both times I just heard office noises for a few seconds before being cut off. A Google search reveals fellow sufferers enjoying a similar experience, with a few getting to speak to a tele-salesperson.

Presumably whoever's responsible is auto-dialling several numbers at once so that they always have someone to speak to on the other end. However, when you're dialling mobile phones (or even a lot of non-mobiles), the recipient phone displays the incoming call's number. As it happens, I've added the number to my contacts under the name 'Spam' and I now refuse the calls. However, if I was prepared to answer the phone again and again until I finally spoke to a human being, I would by then be so hacked off by their cavalier approach that their chance of selling me anything would be zero.

And yet they keep doing this, so it must produce a return. I can only assume that there are people who will always answer the phone, no matter how obvious it should be that it's a waste of time. And maybe these are the same people who don't instinctively type the number into a search engine to see what comes up. Also this week, I got forwarded a hoax virus warning e-mail. The friend who forwarded it to me (and also to all the rest of their friends and acquaintances) suggested it might be a fake, but 'better safe than sorry'. It would have taken them ten seconds in Google to find out that it was a hoax dating back at least two years. Instead they propagated it to dozens more people, who all now have my e-mail address in their mail clients, as the BCC facility is also grossly under-utilised.

My son starts at secondary school in September, and I was pleased to note that the ICT course starts by teaching the children how to be safe on the internet. I sincerely hope that this includes a few common sense practices that will make the job of hoaxers and spammers a whole lot harder.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

A Farewell to Thunderbird

I have finally taken the plunge and abandoned using Thunderbird as my mail client. Running four different e-mail accounts, Thunderbird made it easy to download all my mail to one place, as well as allowing me to easily move messages between accounts, while the Lightning add-in did a fair job of handling my calendar. Unfortunately, Thunderbird had taken to hanging for several seconds at a time while I was typing, and this seemed to be becoming more frequent. Also, synchronising the calendar with my mobile was far from satisfactory.

When I recently changed my mobile for an Android model, the fact that three of my accounts were on GMail made it suddenly much more sensible to go straight to to see my messages, rather than downloading them to my PC's hard drive via Thunderbird. The only drawback was GMail's limited ability to create folders to put old messages in. Then a colleague explained how there was a Labs feature to allow child folders, and suddenly my last objection vanished.

(Incidentally, the feature is called 'Nested Labels'. Why is this still experimental? It's virtually a 'Make Program Usable' option, and it's standard in any mail client I've ever used.)

The fourth e-mail account is the one I have with my ISP. Nobody knows the e-mail address except them, which means all I get is the monthly 'your bill is ready' message, and the odd bit of marketing. I'll still use Thunderbird to check on those occasionally. The most recent mail from them was to tell me that they liked me so much as a customer that they'd spontaneously upped my download speed to between 8 and 24 Mbits. I checked straight away: still 6 to 7. But it's nice they're thinking of me.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Have you seen my hair?

Exciting news from the BBC. Apparently scientists have found the cause of male pattern baldness: instead of being bald, I just have invisible hair.

I guess this is Life's way of laughing at middle-aged men. As we get older we risk our hair going invisible. Similarly, I've noticed that hours of working out at the gym have resulted in me developing invisible muscles. And as my three endowment policies finally come to maturity after 25 years, I can look forward to enjoying invisible payouts.

Actually, that last part's not strictly accurate. For 'invisible', just substitute 'nowhere near what those w*nkers at Abbey National suggested to me back in 1987.'