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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Your Horoscope with our resident Astrologer, Madame Teakay: Aquarius (January 21 - February 19)

Aquarius - January 21 - February 19

You are surrounded by people who love you and admire you, and generally think you're the best thing since sliced bread. Among these are a small contingent who think that sliced bread has nothing on you, and that it was just something we made do with until you came along. All this feeling comes from the fact that that you are you. So why are you giving them all up for someone who wants you to be who they want you to be? It's decision time, and you need to wake up and smell the cornflakes before you make the wrong one. On a lighter note, next Thursday sees an opportunity budding and you'd be wise to top up the compost and give it a good watering. Three weeks on Tuesday, religious-types will call and try to indoctrinate you- turn the living room lights off and have your dinner in the kitchen tonight to avoid this intrusion.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Help me test something...

Hi folks,

I have in idea for a post I'm going to make in the nearish future, but before I try it, I need to learn some new skillz.

The poll below is, on the face of it, pointless. But by filling it in, you'll be helping me to test something I'm trying to do which could, if successful lead to a larger, more pointful project. So please take part in the short poll below- you'll be doing your bit to further the ICT education of one young man!

Here is the form:




And here should be the results so far (you might have to refresh to see the effect of your vote...):








And a bit more info for anyone who's interested:


The 'project' alluded to is probably not very important to anyone at all, but may well be of interest to a certain set of popular music fans. The idea has come from a conversation with a friend of mine who is afflicted with similar musical tastes to myself.
The poll and chart above are part of how I hope to complete this mini-project. They are linked to a google documents spreadsheet so that I can have the raw data at hand whilst displaying up to date results graphically in my blog with no extra effort. Many thanks go to the author of this blog post for providing me with the know-how!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fare's fair

I really don't understand the mathematics behind taxi fare calculation.

As a fully paid-up geek I am bound to attempt to analyse every situation I find myself in, especially if it involves some numbers. Most of the time this constant analysis goes unnoticed by most people, but sometimes it forces itself to the surface. On occasion, I have the opportunity to do a bit of socialising, and when I'm socialising with certain people, we tend to end up in the same places. Now, I'm partial to the odd ale, and as a responsible member of society this means I can't drive.

So I often take a taxi. Every time I do, I have noticed that the fare is different. And not just by a matter of pence, or even a pound or two- a rough calculation of the range from memory is about £10, which I feel is quite large for a relatively short journey (3-4) miles. The geek in me is desperate to know why, and it has been contemplating the variables:

  • Distance - This varies very little with each journey. The vast majority are from only one or two locations within a quarter of a mile or so of each other, and the end location is always the same: my local Sainsbury's.
  • Journey time - Again, this varies very little, although the very fact that I require a taxi means that certain of my facilities are somewhat diminished during each trial. It seems sensible to me that the largest time-changers in play would be traffic lights (there are two or three sets) as junctions and roundabouts play only a tiny role in this factor due to the time of day that we're talking about.
  • Time of day - I think most taxi companies charge more after midnight, but that shouldn't make a difference because the majority of the journeys are after midnight anyway, and usually at a similar time: somewhere between 1 and 3am (much before that and I probably haven't been drinking, so will have my car with me; much after that and I may as well find a sofa to kip on).
  • Taxi firm - Most of the time it's with Kettering's most prolific firm, KLM.
Is it possible that the minute differences between each of these variables from journey to journey can conspire to produce a price difference of as much as £10 over a less than four mile journey? Or is it more likely that the drivers have special buttons that allow them to fleece people who they think are too drunk to notice?

A friend of mine suggested that "there are some things that maths cannot explain," but I cannot think of any such things that don't qualify as fiction: religion and homeopathy, for example, can't be explained by mathematics, but that's because they're made up. Does this mean that taxi fares are fictional? In which case, do I still have to pay them if I don't believe in them?


    Sunday, January 17, 2010

    How to update twitter for free on your mobile phone - an update

    This is an update to this post, made at some point last year. It gave a little bit of advice on updating Twitter on your mobile phone.

    In summary, I pointed out that if you had a 3 mobile account (either PAYG or a contract) then you could use 3's special MSN Messenger software and send unlimited instant messages to your contacts for free (i.e. above and beyond any data or message allowances already on your contract). I then suggested that you could sign up (for free, of course) to ping.fm and use that as a go-between to send messages from your mobile to your Twitter account for absolutely no extra cost whatsoever (it doesn't even eat into your data allowance).

    Now, having used that particular method for around five months, I have some comments to make:

    The first thing I have to say is that I'm not that impressed with ping.fm's MSN Messenger bot: It's almost never online when I want to tweet, which makes it next to useless. So you may think that my original post has been rendered similarly useless?

    Not so. You see, if you're a 3 mobile customer you can also use the Skype instant messaging (and internet telephony) software to send and receive unlimited free text messages (and internet phone calls). The good news is that there's also a ping.fm bot for Skype and, in my experience, it actually works. Since getting my new phone*, I've been using Skype to post tweets via the ping.fm bot and so far I haven't had any problems.


    So how do I Tweet using Skype on my 3 mobile phone?
    Yes, yes, yes, this has been mostly cut-and-pasted from this post, but the process is almost exactly the same so what do you want me to do?
    1. Go here to find out how to get Skype on your phone.
    2. Create an account at Ping.fm. Follow the instructions to add your twitter account to your social networks list.
    3. Go to 'your dashboard' at ping.fm, scroll down and find Skype under 'Services / Tools'. Click it, and follow the instructions.
    4. Log in to your Skype account (you can do this on your phone or on your computer; makes no difference) and add 'ping.fm' as a contact. This is a 'bot'.
    5. When you set up Skype at your ping.fm account (step 3), it will have given you a verification code. Send this to the bot you have just added to your Skype list. The bot will appear to be offline, but send it anyway. You should get a rather polite message to say that your code has been accepted.
    You're done! Whenever you want to update twitter while you're away from a computer, just open up Skype on your phone and send a message to the bot. It'll send a confirmation message back, and update twitter for you!


    Why is this better than using my mobile's browser or a Twitter app, or posting via text message?
    When you load a website on your mobile phone's browser, or when an app connects to the internet via a 3G connection, this counts against your monthly data download limit**. When you send a text message to Twitter this (at best) takes a message from your monthly allowance or (at worst) costs a premium amount to send. Using Skype (or MSN Messenger) on your 3 mobile phone has none of these effects.


    But I don't have a 3 mobile!
    One possible solution is to just go for a 3 SIM card, which you can pop into your existing phone***. You can order one for free here. If you order through that link you'll get all the benefits of being a 3 customer plus:

    • Free calls to other 3 customers, free texts and free internet for 90 days every time you top up.
    • £2 extra credit the first time you top up at least £10
    Plus I get a little extra incentive for sending you there****!






    * A Nokia E63
    ** Even if you have an 'unlimited' data plan, you don't actually have unlimited data usage. 'Unlimited' data plans have a 'fair usage policy' which means you're still limited with regards to the amount you can send and receive. My 'unlimited' plan is capped at 1GB; yours may be higher, but it will still have a cap.
    *** You'll need to check that it's not locked to your current network first.
    **** No, that's not the entire reason for this post (check out the original one- not a referral link in sight)- it's just a happy coincidence.

    Saturday, January 16, 2010

    O.k folks; snow's over (a bit of a rant about schools, ice and snow)


    So the Great Snow of 2010 seems to have passed on - and, in Northamptonshire, largely passed us by. Not one snow day for me, compared with the five I was lucky enough to be blessed with last February*.

    The rest of the country wasn't so unlucky, though, and by all accounts the majority of the UK's schools have seen a few days closure, which has been accompanied by the usual media coverage which includes a large number of people complaining about schools and teachers**.

    What gets me most about this is not the fact that Stephen W. Public leapt on that most accessible of bandwagons and complained about teachers yet again; we have come to expect that by now. Whenever there's the slightest sniff of something untoward happening in today's world it appears to be a natural human response to Blame The Teachers.

    No; what gets me most is the focus of a disturbing majority of the complaints: Mr & Mrs Public were quite happy to whinge about the schools being closed because, just like last year, it meant that they had to take a day or two off work in order to look after their offspring, and in some cases this meant not being paid for that time off.

    "What's the problem with that?" I hear you ask! The problem is the focus. Very, pitifully, few of them have, for example, complained that a few days off could adversely affect their children's education; an argument that I would have no choice but to sympathise with. Instead, these parents are complaining about having to deal with, at worst, the loss of a day or two's pay; at best, the opportunity to spend an extra few hours with their kids.

    So my problem with the media-moaning frenzy that accompanies any such event is this: It reinforces the view that a large fraction of the general public appear to hold, which is that teachers are state-funded babysitters whose primary function is to look after the nation's kids while their parents can go off and do some proper work. The idea of teachers as educators, with the job function of trying to supply children and young adults with essential life skills and academic tools, seems to be a view held by very few people outside of the education profession.

    The decision to close a school in the face of adverse weather is not one that is ever made lightly, and it makes my blood boil to hear superficial jibes being thrown at teachers by the public and the media when such a closure is deemed necessary. Compare it to the flipside of the coin, when schools soldier on despite possibly dangerous conditions and students are injured*** or even killed. This leaves teachers and schools open to accusations of incompetence, negligence and other such allegations including questions about why the school hadn't been closed in the first place! During last February's snow, I was made aware of a school that had closed only to be threatened (with legal action) by a body of parents and (with pay-docking) the Local Authority, and another just down the road from the first which had opened and was also threatened with legal action because a parent slipped on ice and injured themselves! How, exactly, are schools supposed to win in situations like this?

    Having said all of that, this year's coverage of heavy snowfall seems to me to have involved significantly less teacher-bashing than last February's. Is that accurate, or is it simply that I have been exposed to less of it due to having been at school rather than at home for the duration? I hope that it's an indication of the movement of general opinion towards thinking about the real issues behind, and solutions for, school closures caused by unsavoury weather.

    On a lighter note, take a look at this groovy picture of the UK covered in snow towards the beginning of January.





    * No, I'm not overly upset by the thought of having a day off work bestowed upon me out of the blue. That doesn't mean that I don't make every reasonable effort to get there, and on the majority of occasions that my school has been closed due to adverse weather conditions, I have either already arrived at school, or been on the way in before the decision has been made.
    ** Any opportunity, eh?
    *** I know, personally, at least two children and one member of staff who slipped on ice on or near my school grounds and damaged themselves to a point that required some form of medical attention: one of the children and the member of staff both received not inconsiderable blows to the head as a result of their fall.

    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    Awards and some blog suggestions

    My astronomy blog, Blogstronomy, was lucky enough to be mentioned in Literarygeek's response to an award meme that's doing the rounds. Now, I'm not really one for joining in with memes, but I thought I could write a post about some of the blogs that I read and enjoy.

    So, in no particular order, here are a few of the blogs that I subscribe to and look forward to reading, with a little description about each of them. These first few are relatively unestablished bloggers who are worthy of a read and your support. Please have a look at each of their blogs, especially if you have similar interests, and subscribe and comment if you like what you see.

    Feel free to comment with a link to and brief description of your own blog and who knows, you might get a few more follows out of it!


    1. No Love Sincerer... - This is Literarygeek's food blog, and the one in which she posted Blogstronomy's award. No, it's not included here just because she linked to me! It's a blog of random recipes, seasonal suggestions, restaurant reviews, and other assorted food-based things that I can't think of alliterations for. It's well written, entertaining and informative, and regularly includes mouth-watering photos. Not one for anyone on a diet...
    2. Peter Claridge's Blog - Peter's a guy I went to school with who now lives and works in India. His blog posts are a nicely eclectic mix of thoughts, opinions and comments on new technology, consumer advice, personal experiences, being an expat and being a grumpy young man (something I can identify with wholeheartedly).
    3. The Foxes of Nevis - Rob's a distinctly unadventurous, singularly untravelled mate of mine who's suspicious of anything that hasn't been a daily part of his twenty-six years so far, which makes the fact that he's decided to put together an expedition of Leicester City Football Club fans to climb Ben Nevis and rake in some cash for the charity LOROS while they're at it all the more interesting and entertaining. I hope he succeeds in his quest!
    4. Challenge That! - Emma's my girlfriend, but that's not what has earned her a place on this list. Like me, Emma's a teacher. Unlike me, she's enthusiastic about it to the extent that she puts in far too much lots of work outside school, and this where she posts her thoughts, experiences and ideas regarding working with Gifted and Talented (G&T) primary school students, which is one of her particular career interests.

    And here are a few of my favourite more well established blogs:

    1. Bad Astronomy - Written by American astronomer, lecturer and author Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy centres around issues in astronomy but also discusses subjects and events relevant to skepticism and anti-science (including the anti-vaccination movement, homeopathy and climate change denial) as well as other things from time to time. Well written and considered, Bad Astronomy is one of my favourite followed blogs.
    2. Blogtor Who - For the Doctor Who fanatic in your life... This blog covers all Who-related issues including forthcoming DVD releases, reviews and production news and photos. Don't worry; there aren't many spoilers, and the few that there are are warned about well in advance so you can avoid them if you want to!
    3. Edgalaxy - Edgalaxy has two taglines: "Where education and technology meet," and "a cool site for nerdy teachers," which just about sums it up. It's a website and blog for the teacher who's not afraid to get stuck in when it comes to new technology and use it in the classroom, with ideas, news and links to online tools and tech that is relevant to the school environment.
    4. New Scientist: Feedback - The blog for New Scientist's Feedback column includes a humorous and often irreverent commentary on anecdotes from readers and dubious science claims from around the internet and in the press.
    5. NewsArse - A spoof news website satirising UK news stories. It's usually funny in a dry, sarcastic kind of way, and sometimes includes language that some readers may find objectional.

    A bonus for anyone who's read this far: A 'reader' is a website or piece of software that keeps all of your blog subscriptions in one place. It automatically finds and stores updates from each blog that you subscribe to, allowing you to go through updates in much the same way as you might go through your emails. This removes the need to keep track of potentially hundreds of websites, and trawling through them all checking for updates. I use google reader to keep up to date with my blog subscriptions. It's free, web-based (so requires no downloads) and easy to use.

    #Updated to add that Emma's just this minute created a new blog, Em's Craft Corner. She's into her card making and other crafty stuff, so if you're into that kind of thing as well, give this a perusal, follow and comment!#

    Friday, January 8, 2010

    Birthday triple: Presley, Bowie and Hawking!

    It's January 8th, which is the birthday of at least three icons that I can think of. Arguably the most famous of the three is a person who seems to be on first name terms with the entire world: Elvis. Born Elvis Aaron Presley in 1935, Elvis played a major part in the transformation of popular music. He was a leading star in the musical style that was emerging at the time and came to be known as rock 'n roll. Elvis allegedly lived a rollercoaster lifestyle which mixed up military service and the death of his mother at a young age with being a musical figurehead and sex symbol to millions of adoring fans. In the early seventies Elvis's health began to deteriorate, partly due to prescription drug abuse. Elvis died on August 16th 1977 at the age of 42.



    David Bowie, another iconic musican, was born David Robert Jones in 1947. Bowie is a multi-instrumentalist, but is arguably most well known for his distinctive voice. He has been cited as a major influence by many musicans, and is widely regarded as an innovative musician with great intellectual depth to much of his work.



    Stephen William Hawking was born in 1942, and is a British theoretical physicist with a career spanning more than forty years. In 1963, whilst enrolled at Cambridge University, he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, most likely a variant known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Survival of more than ten years after diagnosis of ALS is rare, and doctors at the time predicted Hawking to live for no more than three years. Sixteen years later, he took up the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, which he held for thirty years, giving up the post in 2009. He is most well known for his contributions to the field of cosmology and his popular sciences successes, most notably his book A Brief History of Time.



    Just a brief plug, kind of related to the last icon: If you're at all interested in space science, astronomy, cosmology and related fields, please head on over to Blogstronomy and have a look round, comment, and ask those questions you've always wanted to know the answer to!

    Thursday, January 7, 2010

    I'm playing with technology...

    O.k., this should have a title and a couple of tags at the bottom.

    I'm experimenting with publishing blog posts from my new mobile*. I'm using my phone's email software to compose the post, which I'll then send to my special ping.fm posting address. This will, hopefully, result in a fully- formed, if short blog post. I think I can also attach a photo, but I'm not sure how that will be dealt with- excitement enough for another day, I'm sure you'll agree!

    Things to remember for on the move email posting via ping.fm:
    - Must start email with '@bl'
    - End post with '@t' followed by tags

    Things to find out:
    - Is there a better way? one with more formatting freedom, for example.
    - What happens to attached photos?
    - Is there a way to have twittering updated with a link to each post automatically after it is published?

    That's all for now. Hopefully future on-the-move posts will be more entertaining**.


    * Nokia E63, if anyone's both reading and interested @t mobile, test
    ** ... And more on-the-move: I'm currently sat sitting in my armchair in the living room with my laptop balanced next to me. Well, it's a test, isn't it? Gotta check it's worked before I try it out 'in the field'!

    Sunday, January 3, 2010

    Your Horoscope with our resident Astrologer, Madame Teakay: Capricorn (December 23 - January 20)

    Capricorn - December 23 - January 20

    It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life, and you're feeling good, so it's time to grab the goat by the horns and take what's yours. No, I'm not talking about the January sales because if you're any kind of Capricorn you've been tightening your belt whether it needs it or not, and have already missed out on the few half-decent sale items in Matalan. I'm talking about letting your hair down and walking into the wind: show it, and every other force you come across (natural or otherwise) who's boss.
    You reside in the middle of nowhere (either physically or figuratively), and most of the time this suits you down to the ground. Sometimes, though, you feel like everything is getting on top of you, but worry ye not for you will soon realise that 'everything' in this case is simply a pack of deranged but well-meaning standard poodles who are just pleased to see you.


    Saturday, January 2, 2010

    Photography - Winter in pictures, plus testing a new acquisition

    Just a few pictures taken throughout December, in more or less chronological order...



    These are The Candle Thieves, otherwise known as Scott McEwan and 'The Glock'. I became aware of The Candle Thieves by the roundabout route of first being introduced to Mesh 29 way, way back in 2007 when I crazily stepped into the shoes* of the main-stage announcer at the first AMEF Music Festival, held at Fermynwoods Country Park. Angela, one of the organisers of the festival, fell madly in love with Mesh 29 and they have since played an infeasible** number of times in the village hall, back gardens and living rooms of Covington. Since 2007, Mesh 29 has spawned a number of other musical ventures, one of which is The Candle Thieves, to whom Angela has taken an almost equal liking to (it must be Anthony), and so they have also been drawn into what is quickly becoming the musical centre of everything; Covington.

    This introduction to The Candle Thieves has gone on a bit, so I'll break it up with one of their videos:

    Wasn't that good?

    Without wanting to waffle on too long (I have more pictures to show!), they're a great band: truly talented but with none of the prima-donna-ishness exhibited by far too many of the bands I've seen. They put on a performance rather than simply turning up and playing music and then going again, and they take part in the events that they've come to play at. They're just that little bit different to other bands that could be considered musically similar; I don't want to spoil anything by going into specifics, but if you have another look at the photo above, you might pick up a few clues. All in all they're well worth having a listen to (check out their myspace page, and while you're at it they're fairly entertaining on twitter), but the real treat is to see them performing live.

























    Some of you who weren't living under rocks at the time may remember that it snowed fairly heavily in the UK just before Christmas. This had the rather pleasing effect of closing various schools including mine on the last day of term. It also caused some rather pleasing effects to occur in the back garden. These photos depict, in case you haven't guessed yet, spider's webs. I didn't get the permission of the spiders concerned, but if they mind then I hope they get in touch to let me know. The web on the left was spun beneath the bird bath, and the one on the right was on the shed. I thought they were gorgeous examples of the forces of nature conspiring together. I hope I've done them justice with my camera skillz.



    And now to Christmas day, during which Henry the dog sneaked onto my chair for a nap. I took a handful of snaps before telling him off...



    Dinner time. Dad, as usual, managed to be totally unprepared for pretty much every photograph. Our house looks quite nice when we've had a bit of a tidy-up. We should have parties more often.



    There's one in every family: someone who likes sprouts. In this one, it's my dad.





    No, Emma's nan's not really a wino.




    I quite like this photo. Spot the Triffid!




    Emma managing to look both festive and foxy. Not sure how she does it.



    Emma got me a tripod for Christmas (no, not one of these, one of these). I had a play with it today, including messing around with shutter speeds. I asked Emma to pose in various positions in the kitchen, and this was the result. This one was taken with a shutter speed of about 30 seconds, a tiny aperture and the lowest ISO number that my camera is capable of...



    ... as was this one, but this time I was the model, which is why it's not so good. I focussed the camera on the books, pressed the shutter button, then went and stood just in front of them and moved slowly towards the camera as it exposed itself.



    I had to stop playing with my camera because it was time to pick Julia up from the station. Julia lives in Foreign at the moment, but comes back to the UK now and then, which makes a good excuse to get the old Mathssive back together for a gathering. In this photo, Julia is killing zombies.



    These are, from left to right, Julia, Bethany, Neil, Robin and Jo. Neil and Jo are mummy and daddy (irrespectively) to Bethany. Bethany is the reason why Mathssive shindigs don't go on late into the night any more, but she does bring lots of cool toys to make up for it. She forgot the Cowbra this time, but I'll forgive her because the bricks came along, and the Weebalot Castle was very, very cool.

    O.k, o.k, I'll stop.









    * Which had been abandoned at the last minute, causing the organisers to narrowly avoid a nasty pant-filling moment.
    ** The use of this word becomes clear when you see precisely where Covington isn't: anywhere in particular. In fact, it could well be considered nowhere at all being as it is in the dead centre of nothing whatsoever. Some people maintain to this day that Covington doesn't really exist, and only mad people can find it.

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    Happy New Year, and some resolutions


    I haven't posted for a while, but I'd like to take this opportunity to wish both of my readers a very happy new year! AND a very happy new decade! But how are we going to refer to this year? The choices seem to be:

    • Two thousand and ten - mathematically correct with regards to reading numbers based on decimal place value systems, but a bit of a mouthful especially when you've had a few;
    • Two thousand ten - Not strictly speaking wrong, but a hideous travesty against the English language all the same;
    • Twenty ten - lazy but effective, which is a state of being that I aspire to*. This is therefore my chosen method of vocalisation.
    What's your preference?



    The start of a new year is traditionally a time for making resolutions, so I've come up with a few of my own: I'd love to hear yours! Better still, are there any that you think I should make, but have left off? Be nice...


    1. Lose the weight I've inevitably gained over the Christmas hols.
    I have no idea how much this is, but I expect I'll have to bite the bullet and let Wii Fit tell me sometime soon. I'm thinking some time next week, just as I start back to school, when it can have maximum impact on my personal happiness.
    2. Lose some more weight after that, to the tune of around two stones.
    That should put me fairly comfortably in the 'ideal' weight range as far as Wii Fit is concerned. I lost almost two stones since buying the Wii Fit in March and starting to celebrate the festive season in December, so two more by the end of this year shouldn't be too much of a chore using the methods I've employed so far. I might post about it, and if I do it'll probably end up under the weight loss tag.
    3. Get back into playing the guitar as part of a band.
    To varying degrees throughout 2009 I was in three bands- No Verdict, Chimes at Midnight, and an unnamed, one-off staff band. The staff band was, as stated, a one-off, but a few people want to re-light that particular candle. It must be done. The other two bands folded up and died for various reasons. I want to play some classic rock; my real passion with regards to playing the guitar. I also want to dabble in some kind of acoustic project. I'm not really sure how I want to go about achieving these, however.
    4. Meet some new people and develop some kind of social life.
    If anyone's doubtful as to whether this is really necessary, consider this: I'm sitting here in the early hours of new year's day writing a blog post that very few people will read; it's entirely possible that nobody at all will read this far. I'm not doing it after having got in from a wild party. Far from it: I've been here all evening, moving away from Facebook only to prod the fire and eat a Chinese takeaway. I need a life.
    5. Take less to heart; care less what people think of me.
    This is an ongoing resolution, rolling over from the past ten years or so. I have made considerable advances in this field, but there's still a little way to go. On the whole I'm fairly good at brushing off deliberate nastiness, but I still have some schooling to undergo in the ways of not seeing slights that probably aren't even there.








    * I have so far managed to achieve 50% of this aspiration.