Many Pies

Many Pies

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Another Blackberry Playbook app

I've developed another Blackberry Playbook app in my spare time. My first one was a bit rubbish, but it got me a free Playbook. My second (GPS to Grid Ref) only did one thing. This one isn't fantastic, but it is a proper game.

I developed it using the Marmalade SDK which targets iOS, Android and the Playbook. There was a promotion where they gave away developer licenses for six months so you could develop apps and if you submitted one get (another) Playbook. The Marmalade tools are really good, making building, deploying and debugging pretty smooth. The SDK has all sorts of libraries which came out of Ideaworks3D Game studios game development.

The game is based upon one of the samples, where a square on the screen moves towards your finger when you tap or press on the screen. Two of my sons, with the Playbook between them, started trying to get the square to move towards them, and the idea was born. My wife gave it the name - Tap Tug of War - and all three sons playtested it. To stop you just holding your finger down I made it so that if you pressed for two long the square, which became a fuzzy blob for the final game, would move away from you. I put a state machine around the game play for the splash screen, game over and restart screens, created some graphics and the game was done.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What would an IT entrepreneur look like in a mission organisation?

A few years ago I was at the conference for IT people in Wycliffe worldwide. There was someone there who had written a really neat program that enabled you to produce a dictionary. (Stop me if you've heard this, but I can't find it elsewhere on my blog.) Someone else stood up and was conflicted by what he'd seen. Whilst tools that do one thing well are great in themselves, there's also a need for getting a group of people together to develop a series of integrated tools. I'm guessing the guy who stood up was somehow involved in, or had a stake in, the team developing integrated tools. I'm all for the consensus and teamwork approach, even though it's painful and slow. However if it's too painful or slow people just get on and develop their own system, like this entrepreneurial person.

I've just been in a meeting planning an IT event next year, and we touched on IT entrepreneurs. It got me thinking about what would a good IT entrepreneur look like in a Wycliffe context?

I can tell you what we don't want:
  • We don't want people to come in and set up servers or systems and not leave any documentation behind.
  • We don't want people to come in with loads of ideas, and not listen to why we think they won't work, and who give up and go away.
That's not to say that you can't have people who come and do good stuff. I hear good things about the people behind Lightsys.

Here's what an IT entrepreneur might look like:
  • They spot a need across several organisations.
  • They develop a prototype system that meets the need and open it up to the users.
  • The users get on board and nag their management to make this system an official part of the organisations strategy.
  • Crucially, they make sure the system is sustainable and now that people are sold onto it, that it continues to adapt to meet their needs.
Just thinking out loud. 

Update: Tom Lucas has posted a thoughtful reply on Google+.
Update 2: This post got picked up on my company blog: IT entrepreneurs in a mission organisation
Update 3: Tom has written a blog post on the subject himself.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

LASA Charity Digital Summit

("Summit" is a bit grand.) Yesterday I was in London for the LASA Charity Digital Summit (#lasadigsmt on Twitter).

Update: slides and audio are of the digital summit are now available.

The first session was about the Future of Social media, though most of the discussion was about where we are now. One of the predictions was that location would become more important. This ties in with Robert Scoble's latest book idea about "context", i.e. your devices being helpful because they know where you are and other stuff about you. If Robert's interested in something like that he's usually worth following.

My take on location is that apps have to be really smart with it, and give you the warm feeling that you're in control of your data. This isn't new, look at Yahoo Fire Eagle which has been around since 2007, but I've heard no mention of for years.

Then I went to the session Light up Your Digital Campaign. Lucy Buck from Child's i Foundation talked about how she started the charity. Right from the start she was videoing and sharing stuff - she's a TV producer by background. Jude Habib talked about pitching your photos and audio to the media. As they get increasingly short-staffed they are more willing to use your stuff. Peter Gilheany is from an agency and talked about old-fashioned planning of your whole campaign (what are your objectives? who are you trying to reach? what are the best routes to reach them?). It was good down-to-earth stuff. Digital is just one of those routes to reaching people and he made the observation that people use a different persona online to what they might in other circumstances.

After lunch I went to the session on Digital Fundraising lead by Rachel Beer from Beautiful World agency. I have a lot of time for them as their blog is really good at highlighting what you need to know as a charity about online stuff. After some general points she focussed on banner adverts and took us through some good and bad points of some adverts and donation forms from various charities that I won't mention.

It was a good day, and worth the price of a train ticket (as entry was free). I got to meet Paul Webster for the first time, who I've been following on twitter for years, as well as Louise Brown who I've met once before.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


I don't get out of the office much, but in the last couple of days I've been out twice. The first time was on Saturday when I was involved in Pray101112. Many Wycliffe organisations around the world have a day of prayer around 11 November, and this year we chose to invite the UK church to join us.

Fortunately the whole UK church didn't join us, as it would have been a bit crowded. We had three venues, Belfast, Coventry and the one I went to in St Albans. We were hosted by Spicer Street church and it was a good venue for the meeting. There were around 30 people, half Wycliffe and half visitors, which was a good balance.

I was doing sound and projection and fortunately it all went fairly smoothly. You can see the videos and powerpoints used here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Federated identity - using Twitter to log into your intranet at work

Following up on my previous post, here's some stuff to help you get your head around Federated Identity. (The wikipedia article I linked to in that post isn't that good. I wish I head a grasp of the concepts enough to improve it. The one on Identity Management needs even more work.) The video in this blog post Federated Identity 101 is a good start.

Some questions that people might ask have come to mind as I've started thinking about this stuff. Here's the first:

Why can't I use Twitter to log into my intranet at work?

There are a few things preventing this from being possible. Although using existing logins makes life easier for the user the people who provide the systems have justified concerns. (Jargon sidenote: authentication is checking you are who you say you are. Related is authorisation which is checking what you're allowed to do. A service provider is a system you are trying to use.)

So if I'm a service provider running the intranet and the users are asking to use their twitter account, here are my concerns:
  • I know that Fred Bloggs is an employee, but how do I know that @FredBloggs (who seems to be doing quite well making money at home) is the same person?
  • Even if I do verify that, how can I be sure that Fred Bloggs twitter password isn't easy to guess? If Twitter's password policy is weaker than our existing password policy, then it's like putting a big lock on the front door, and leaving a side window open. Judging by the number of people who have their Twitter accounts hacked, their password protection isn't that strong.
  • Even if Twitter's policies are good, then say they remove your account after 6 months of inactivity and someone else signs up with the same username. They the other FredBloggs can log into your intranet even though they aren't an employee.
These issues are all around the issue of identity assurance (apologies if you find italics patronising) and the last one in particular is identity lifecycle.

From time to time I think of this Dilbert cartoon when it comes to the latest Big New Thing, whether it be SOA, Cloud or Federated Identity.

So when your equivalent of the point haired boss comes up to you and says "I think we should build a Federated Identity system", you could ask him what colour he wants it, or ask him about identity assurance.

Edit: Here's the cartoon that Giddie mentioned below:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why analysing a hung SQLServer database helps Bible Translation

Our Executive Director sometimes tweets something like "Today I am helping the task of Bible Translation by writing papers for the board". (I can't find a recent example to embed.)

I just tweeted
Actually, I'm not doing that, but I'll tell you why at the end.

I thought I'd bridge the gap between the two parts of the sentence.

  • The SQLServer database hung while I was adding a new linked database.
  • The linked database connects to our worldwide personnel database.
  • (Although we're an  autonomous UK charity, we work in partnership with many other organisations, many of whom are also called Wycliffe. We send people to many of those other organisations, so we need a common personnel database.)
  • If you're working on Bible Translation then it's good to know who's working for you so you can look after them.
There are other links too:
  • The SQLServer has our Raiser's Edge database on it. That's the system we use to keep track of donations and mailings.
  • We send mailings to our supporters so they can hear about what's going on and pray for us.
  • We need to keep track of who gave us money, so we can thank them and Gift Aid (where appropriate) their donations.
  • We need to keep track of where the money's going to, so that it goes to the right place and so that we can keep to the legal principle that you have to give the money for the purpose with which it was given.
  • Money pays for translators salaries, amongst other things, so the translation can happen.
If the database keeps on hanging then that stuff can't happen, so I need to find out why.

Actually, I'm not finding out why it hung, I'm writing a blog post about it. That's because one of the unstated (until now) reasons I write this blog is so that IT people can see how they can use their skills in Bible Translation!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ada Lovelace day - Aleks Krotoski

As today is Ada Lovelace day I'm responding to the request on the Finding Ada website to "Write about a women in science, technology, engineering or maths whose achievements you admire".

I've chosen Aleks Krotoski. She's just good at so many things:

  • She's an academic. She's got a PhD and when she writes about things it's pretty well researched and not just a blogger's opinion.
  • She's good at broadcasting, including the BBC's Virtual Revolution programme, Radio 4's The Digital Human and the Guardian Tech weekly podcast. As those are group efforts I don't know how much she is involved in the compilation of these programmes, but if the stuff she's written with her...
  • ...journalistic skills in the Untangling the Web column is anything to go by, a lot of it is her work. As the research is done in plain view on her blog it's interesting to see what's gone into making up the final words.
Anyone of these would be admirable, but to have all three in one person is more so.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Federated Identity and Identity Assurance - why you should care

Yesterday I read a blog entry from the UK Government Digital Service about Identity Assurance.
We’re helping develop a secure service that lets people log in to online government services more easily.
They link to this article by the Telegraph which describes it well (apart from the headline).

I've blogged before about the Polder Consortium where we're thinking about such things. Identity Assurance is part of Federated Identity. If you're in IT then I expect you're going to get friends and family asking you if it's OK to use your Facebook login to access government services. (I suspect a Facebook login may not reach the required standard of assurance.) I'm personally encouraged by the fact that they are consulting with people who worry about privacy.

I think, though, that if you're in IT it's worth understanding about federated identity, authentication, authorisation and assurance levels so at least you can have an informed opinion. (I'll point to a document that's soon going to become available when it does.)

In other news, as they say, the Polder Consortium has released some new standards, recommendations and notes, either because they've gone to Proposed state or because we've decided that some drafts are worth making public.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Is looking stuff up on Google doing work?

(I was going to tweet this, but my thoughts started to fill more than 140 characters.)

While working at home one of my children made the observation "you're just looking stuff up on Google, that's not work".

I was actually looking stuff up on, or more precisely, finding out what technique the Google analytics tracking code uses.

I said that I was doing work. It made me think, though, that "looking stuff up on Google" is a useful skill. Not just looking stuff up, because we all do that, but quickly finding solutions to problems that you face.

A while back someone (and here my Google searching skills have failed me) wrote on their blog what they put on a job application form under "preferred programming language":

  1. BBC Basic
  2. Any language + Google
In my job I dip in and out of various languages - Javascript, PHP, ASP.Net - and for using those using Google, stackoverflow and MSDN is essential. I can't remember the arguments for PHP's strcmp function, but I just search for "PHP strcmp" and I'm there. So yes, "any language + Google" covers it.

For software development it's not very controversial to say that web searching skills are necessary. The same is true for other IT related skills, as IT people have often been the first to share their knowledge using IT technology. Fortunately using the internet no longer needs IT skills so many other professions have shared knowledge using the internet.

Is there a job where "looking stuff up on Google" wouldn't be a useful skill?

Edit: This gives me an excuse for a bit of a rant. I don't like it when someone starts off their article on subject "X" with a statement like, "Google has Y million results when you search for X". OK, so you increased your wordcount, but that's research any one of us could do. Lazy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Evolving layouts for web pages

Seven years ago (surely a century in internet time) I posted a blog post which I won't summarise, but repeat here as it's short:
It's a big deal when a magazine or a newspaper has a redesign. Similarly with websites. It's something to do with the fact that it's easy to churn out issue after issue/page after page using the same layouts, fonts etc.
I would have thought that in the dynamic web world you could spend more time with your templates, spending more effort making them work harder for you, so each new page looks like an evolution, or a minor redesign, whereas you haven't put any effort into that page, you just put it in at the beginning. Does that make any sense?
Today, I've just read an article in Contents magazine, Made to Measure, which expands that idea, and is so much better written than I could do. It doesn't say that all the work can be done at the beginning, but with thought I agree with them that some work needs to be done for each article.
So if static templates are too limiting, but per-piece art direction is too costly, how else can we make scalable, sustainable digital publications that are beautiful and accessible? To find a middle path, we can take a cue from the art of the tailor.

Friday, July 06, 2012

What is a website exactly?

I've come across a blog recently called The Pastry Box project - "30 People Shaping The Web. One Thought Every Day. All Year Round. Sugar For The Mind.".

This recent post talks about interviewing candidates, and a standard question for them:
What's your favourite website?

If I were asked that question it might take me a while to answer. My thinking went like this:

Well, I use Gmail a lot, but that's my email, not really a website. Google Reader too. I use Librarything to keep track of the books I've read, but I think of that as my library catalogue, not a website. Flickr's where I store my photos, Facebook is... well Facebook.

I can't think of my favourite website, because the websites I use most are places for doing things. You could ask the same question about books, and I'd be able to give you an answer (apart from the Bible and Lord of the Rings it's probably Wintersmith actually). Books are more all alike than websites.

Is there something else that could give rise to head-scratching if you asked about a favourite, because it is such a diverse thing?

"What's your favourite activity?" maybe.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Playbook - 10 days in

Thoughts after 10 days with my Playbook:

It is slickly executed, but suffers from annoyances. It goes slowly at certain points, such as when you go into app world and click on the search box. It takes a while before the keyboard pops up. When you suspend it you don't know if a swipe will wake it up. There may be some logic to it, but I don't know what it is.

The app store, aka App World doesn't have a lot of what you want. For example, I couldn't find an app that acts as a satnav. The pricing is high too - $5 for angry birds, when it's less than $1 on the Apple app store. The online app store doesn't let you filter by device type, which seems to me to be crazy. When you create an app you specify which one of about 30 types of app it is, but you can't filter by those too.

There's no Adobe Digital Editions, which I was hunting for because I wanted to read ebooks from my library. However I did find the app from the company that manages ebooks for our county - Overdrive, and so that made me very happy - apart from the bugs in the app itself. It runs in the android emulator so it's probably hard to track down the cause of these bugs - the software, or the emulator itself.

I've released my second app, GPS to Grid Ref, which isn't rubbish, unlike my previous one. It is simple though - you click the button and it finds your position and displays it in UK Grid Reference format.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I've got a Blackberry Playbook - plus QNX nostalgia

I've got a free Playbook. I got it by writing an app and submitting it to the Blackberry app world. I did almost the bare minimum needed as I didn't want to spend too much lunchbreaks on it. I downloaded the box2d javascript code - a physics engine which runs on Flash or javascript - and adapted the demo you can see on that page so that the circles moved as you tilted the device. It took me a few attempts to get my app approved. I didn't sign it the first time, there was a bug which didn't show up in the emulator (but did in the simulator - I now know there is a difference) and then I had to make it big enough fill the screen (fair enough). Even though I was doing the bare minimum needed to get an app published (BubblePlay2) it did actually do something, even if it wasn't much of a game.

I was amazed to find that 80 people downloaded it on the first day and 50 on the second. I guess it appeared on a "new apps" page. After that the downloads dropped right off. It got one 2 star review from someone who said it didn't work. The Blackberry simulator enabled me to check that tilting the device would move the circles, but I didn't know just what angle it was working at.

The Playbook runs the QNX neutrino operating system (a real-time OS designed mainly for embedded applications) which I came across in a previous job, so time for a bit of nostalgia.

QNX nostalgia

In the job before my current one I was working for an electronics firm. We developed one of the early webcams. It was a clever bit of kit - a PC104-based PC with a camera board that we developed. It ran the QNX Neutrino operating system. This was back in 1997. The company QNX already had a mature embedded operating system with the same name. Neutrino was their new product which had multi-threading and we were a beta customer. I wrote a point enabler for the card, a cut-down device driver designed to work with one particular device - the ethernet PCMCIA card we were using for networking. I flew to Canada for a week to the QNX offices near Ottawa to pick their brains.


I arrived at the airport on the Saturday evening, so my first experience of driving on the right was to drive a hire car through the dark into an unfamiliar city. Fortunately it was built on the typical North American grid pattern and once I'd worked out what the one way signs looked like I managed to get to my hotel.

Ottawa Ontario Canada  March 2011 — Rideau Canal  87
It was February and the temperatures were well below freezing. People were skating on the Rideau Canal. I fancied having a go, but I didn't want to fall over and injure myself when I was supposed to be working. I drove around the city on the Sunday and also experienced walking around in -20C temperatures.

A colleague of mine flew over early in the week. He was helping QNX debug their TCP/IP stack as we needed to get it working and we kept on finding bugs. We both got our jobs done in a week and I got to see Canada.

Our webcam wasn't successful. At around £2K it was quite expensive and although we had ideas as to what you could do with a PC onboard a webcam, we didn't find a market for it. After I left the company I heard that we had loads of them stockpiled in one of the offices. Which brings me back to the Playbook. My theory is that one reason that RIM are giving away Playbooks, is because as they've written lots of them off on their books, they have an asset value of $0 and so it's worth giving them away to try and increase the number of apps on their platform. Even if some of those apps aren't very good, like mine.

Photo from Douglas Sprott (cc) some rights reserved.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Public key encryption poster

Last Friday I tweeted
My Friday afternoon project is to make a poster about Public Key Encryption. I'm tired of forgetting what all the words mean.

I was wrestling with trying to get an encryption key produced by CoreFTP work with my bank. In the end I used ssh-keygen to produce the keys. However every time I have to do something with public key encryption I get frustrated because I don't really understand what's going on.

I understand the basics: you generate two keys somehow and give people your public key. Then when they want to send you something encrypted they lock it with your public key and only you can read it, by unlocking it with your private key. A better analogy is that the public key is a padlock, which can only be unlocked with the private key. Someone puts a message for you in a box, and locks it with your padlock and then only you can unlock it and send it.

However when it comes to things like "certificates" and "thumbprints" and other words like that I got lost. Also, in researching the answer to that question I got confused by things like "RSA" and "SHA". Were they different versions of the same thing or were they different things?

I looked for a poster but couldn't find anything so I drew up my own. It's probably not very clear, but the reason I'm putting it here is in case someone wanted to tidy it up and check for accuracy and so make something useful for other people.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Visual display of tracking cookies - collusion

Thanks to the Guardian I've come across a Firefox plugin which gives you a visual display of tracking cookies. It's called Collusion. (Update 20 March 2021 It's now Lightbeam. Thanks to someone at for telling me about this broken link.)

I've been vaguely aware that website were passing information to each other, as I noticed that if I visited to look at memory then I'd see more Crucial adverts on other sites. Similarly with Dell. Then one day I found a link on a site next to an advert (unfortunately I didn't note it down) which gave more information on why I was getting these Crucial adverts. It was easy to understand and very upfront about how it used information from other sites to display relevant adverts.

Here's what you get if you visit the following sites:

Each circle represents a site that places cookies in your browser and a line means that the site at one end placed a cookies for the site at the other end of the line.

The most circles appeared when I visited (one of the red squares with a yellow i in the middle). I guess it's a sign of a struggling industry that it has to try so hard to be clever with its advertising.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Getting rid of cookies on our website - Wordpress, YouTube, AddThis, Google maps

The deadline for complying with the EU Cookie law is 26 May, which is just over a month away.

Rather than get permission to use cookies on our website which would either be intrusive or ignored we've decided to not use cookies. Here's what I've found as I work through the various things that use cookies.

Wordpress Comments

The built in wordpress comments feature sets cookies so that it can remember the commenters details for next time. I commented out (no pun intended) these three lines in wp-comments-post.php. (If you upgrade and this file gets changed you'll have to repeat this.)
// setcookie('comment_author_' . COOKIEHASH, $comment->comment_author, time() + $comment_cookie_lifetime, COOKIEPATH, COOKIE_DOMAIN);
// setcookie('comment_author_email_' . COOKIEHASH, $comment->comment_author_email, time() + $comment_cookie_lifetime, COOKIEPATH, COOKIE_DOMAIN);
// setcookie('comment_author_url_' . COOKIEHASH, esc_url($comment->comment_author_url), time() + $comment_cookie_lifetime, COOKIEPATH, COOKIE_DOMAIN);

Wordpress Jetpack Stats

The Wordpress jetpack plugin uses quantcast cookies (HT A. Cemal Eki). The wp-donnottrack plugin will stop this.


When you get the YouTube embed code you can now tick the "low privacy" option. All this does is use the domain, so you could use that on existing iframe embed code. The SmartYoutube Wordpress plugin allows you to set an option so that this happens on all your embedded videos.

For the addthis wordpress plugin go to the Advanced tab and put
{ data_use_cookies: false };
in the addthis_config values field. For an embedded button use this code:

<script type="text/javascript">
var addthis_config = { data_use_cookies: false };

This won't stop individual services, like twitter, using their own cookies, but it will stop the cookies.

Google maps

For google maps use rather than HT barryhunter.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Raspberry Pi in real life and a tiny wireless access point

(Update: some people come to this page because they are searching for a Raspberry Pi which is an access point. There's info on this at the R-Pi blog.)

I went to the Gadget Show Live on Friday. I saw a real Raspberry Pi at the Centre for Computing History Stand. It was a production board, but they were also donated Beta Board #7 by an anonymous donor. More details in the forum. Their stand was near a stand for an radio controlled car company which was popular with my children, so I went over a few times. There was always a small crowd gathered around it.

I saw another neat gadget which a colleague of mine has bought - a tiny wireless access point. It can also operate in "Router, Bridge, Client and Repeater modes". The signal only covers "the average sized room", but for £15 it could easily find a number of uses, like a SAN if you plug in a USB flash drive.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

GoRaise Mobile for Raiser's Edge

I've been given a sneak preview of GoRaise, a new product from Shaun Sullivan, who used to be CTO of Blackbaud. You can see screenshots on the Electric Plum site. (It's only recently been given that name, and at the time of writing that web page hasn't been updated with that name yet.) It gives you access to a subset of RE functions from mobile devices.

It's a HTML5 product, so you only need a browser to access it, no other apps to install. The home page has recently accessed records on it, and then four buttons at the bottom - home, find (i.e. search constituent), query and info. Query lets you search predefined constituent queries. Find lets you search for constituent records. So you only have access to constituents (not funds, campaigns etc.)

You can view what would be on the tabs on a constituent record, as well as a summary page which has a pie chart and first, latest and greatest gifts. You can add actions to constituents as well.

Query results are presented as a list of constituents, each of which you can expand to display a few extra fields, and then the option to go to their record.

The information is presented clearly and simply, with probably just enough of what you need. The downside is that you don't have access to all of RE, but for people out "on the road" it's probably what they need to look up constituents and record the meetings they've had with them.

David Zeidman has another review of it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Scratch for mobile apps

Combining thoughts from two previous posts - apps being a good way to get into programming and the Scratch programming environment. MIT have created an App Inventor which looks like an online version of Scratch, which creates an Android app. Interesting...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New Data Protection Directive and NGOs

The European Commission is proposing a reform to the Data Protection rules. Although they've highlighted a few things in the press release, there is some wording which may be of interest if you work for an NGO that is made up of different organisations in different countries. (It applies to companies too, but as UK charities have to be autonomous, as I understand it, we may have looser links with our partners, yet share data.)

As I Am Not A Layer, I shall just quote rather than make interpretations.

"...legitimate flows of data to third countries will be made easier by reinforcing and simplifying rules on international transfers to countries not covered by an adequacy decision, in particular by streamlining and extending the use of tools such as Binding Corporate Rules, so that they can be used to cover data processors and within groups of companies , thus better reflecting the increasing number of companies involved in data processing activities, especially in cloud computing;" from the communication.
"Member States shall provide that where a controller determines the purposes, conditions and means of the processing of personal data jointly with others, the joint controllers must determine the respective responsibilities for compliance with the provisions adopted pursuant to this Directive, in particular as regards the procedures and mechanisms for exercising the rights of the data subject, by means of an arrangement between them." from the proposal.

I found out today that the US is working on a Privacy Bill of Rights and working together with the EU. Good to see.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Getting a list of postcodes in a parliamentary constituency

Whilst there are a few places where you can look up a single postcode and get which constituency it's in, I didn't find a single place to get a list of postcodes. Here's how I did it:

  • I got a list of postcodes and which ward they were in from here. (Also available from the Ordnance Survey.)
  • I got a list of wards and their codes from the electoral commission website.
  • Fortunately the whole constituency I wanted was in one region, i.e. the letter or two at the beginning. The reason it was fortunate is because the data is in a file per region. So I used Excel to do a vlookup from the postcode list to the ward list and filtered by those which were in the ward list.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Raspberry Pi and the BBC Micro

A sprinkling of snippets:

There is widespread comment about Raspberry Pi and whether it will be the new BBC Micro. This article by Martin Belam "Digital Literacy for all" is fairly sane. He says
Firstly, programming isn’t everything. There will be plenty of kids for whom sending an email and filling in a web form is all they need to know about computers.
The Guardian, his employer, has a campaign about IT in schools.

One thing that annoys me is that some people are saying, like the otherwise brilliant Brendan Dawes, "you have to learn to program to do anything with [it]". The recommended Linux distro (Fedora) allows you to do lots of stuff.

This podcast is an interesting discussion on what IT skills should be taught in school and university.

One of the things they mention is scratch, which one of my kids has come across at school. It's great for learning the fundamentals of programming in a graphical way.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Feel the CPU power

INIT: Entering runlevel: 2 etc.

Whilst it's not too hard to gather stats on the performance of older computing devices, in this blog post you won't find any numbers to do with clock rates, or storage sizes. I'm talking about how performance feels.

Mumble-mumble years ago I worked on minicomputers. They were about the size of a two drawer filing cabinet. To anyone under 40 it must sound strange to call such a beast a "mini" computer. However in those days non-mini computers were as big as chest freezers or bigger. PCs were around, but weren't very powerful. They had just grown out of being hobby computers and appearing in offices. However the computer systems we worked on needed proper powerful computers.

Then one day I came across "Linux" on an internal mailing list. Someone had installed a Unix variation on a PC. For me Unix was the OS on the PDP-11 I used at University. I had no idea what it looked like, and in my mental pictures of it it still used tape for main storage. I used Unix on an NCR computer at my year out job at York Health Authority - it had 16 terminal ports and we didn't stretch it too much, apart from the odd complicated SQL query.

My experience of using a PC for "proper" computing stuff was trying to get it to work as an X-windows terminal. It was incredibly slow and I spent more time that I wanted to really trying to get it to not double refresh windows.

So the idea of running a grown up OS like Unix on a little PC was very strange. Time passed and a few years later Linux came to be the thing you ran on older PC hardware as it had better performance than Windows. In that time too Windows started to get grown-up with Windows NT which ran well on a dual P-90 workstation.

Time continued passing and one of my sons got an Android phone and there, as it started up, at the top of the screen were the familiar messages of a Unix-like OS starting up...

This is the first post I'm tagging nostalgia, though I need to tag at least one or two others.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Secondary attention

Our old TV died the other week, giving us psychedelic colour effects as it did so. Now we've got a new one with a VGA input. So I've been thinking about what sort of secondary attention thing I can do with it.

The other day I found a video on YouTube of a fire. I put it on 20 minutes or so before there was a TV programme we all wanted to watch. After it ran for a few seconds the boys asked me to find something else. I said no, the whole point is that your fire doesn't change, it just keeps burning.

I'm thinking of something that's equally boring, but in time, or over a period of time, does something interesting. So when the TV's not showing a programme it sits there in the corner and is worth glancing at. So not a programme, but a program.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The BBC Micro and me

BBC Micro
A couple of weeks ago Charles Arthur, the technology correspondent for The Guardian asked on twitter
So who is there out there whose experience with the BBC Micro led them to achieve something notable in the computing business?
I responded as we had a BBC Micro at school which I used in the sixth form. I gave him some details, but he was looking for someone who, if it hadn't been for the BBC Micro, wouldn't have got into computers. I wanted to be a programmer from aged 11 and we had a Spectrum at home, so that didn't apply to me and he didn't use my story in the article that he wrote on it. I paid for my driving lessons with the money I made on games I wrote for the Spectrum (and probably the BBC) and sold to magazines.

In our correspondence he asked
And do you think that kids today have enough access to that sort of programming, or do they need a "new Micro" to inspire them?
I replied:
Kids today have access to a wide range of free programming environments via the internet. If I were to start doing games today I'd be using a physics/gaming engine to do the heavy lifting, and aiming to get my stuff on miniclip or in an app store. Angry Birds is probably the thing that inspires them.
So I'm not sure any new type of hardware is needed. Today the BBC ran this story about a new curriculum for ICT.
Computer games entrepreneur Ian Livingstone, an adviser to Mr Gove, envisages a new curriculum that could have 16-year-olds creating their own apps for smartphones and 18-year-olds able to write their own simple programming language.
So I guess they agree with me!

I also recently came across this petition on the UK Government petitions website "Teach our kids to code". I don't like the way it uses the word "coding" which is a bit of jargon which could be better expressed as "programming". It also seems a bit unnecessary now in the light of that BBC story.

Photo from Rain Rabbit.

Friday, January 06, 2012

My public speaking engagements in 2012

I've read a couple of blog posts recently where people have outlined their public speaking engagements this year. Now I get to do it too!

Actually there's only one.

We're having the Wycliffe Conference at our church on 4th February 2012. I'm doing a session entitled "Tech Transforming Translation". What I'm planning to do is try and condense our Check IT Out day (which we're unfortunately not running this year) into 50 minutes.

So it's going to be a bit of a roller coaster ride. At the moment I'm planning to cover the following topics:

  • Using media (videos, CDs, websites, mobile phones, mp3 players) for distributing Bibles
  • Translating sign languages
  • Complex fonts
  • IT support in harsh conditions (dust, heat, humidity, lightning, dodgy electricity supply)
  • How you can use your IT skills to help missions, without leaving this country - MissionAssist (formerly Wycliffe Associates UK)
More details on our Wycliffe Conference page.