Category Archives: Facebook

Category into which posts suitable for import onto Facebook can be chucked.

Don’t deal with the XKCD store

Just a quick note to say, don’t ever even think of buying anything from the XKCD store.

My experience:

16 July: placed order on behalf of myself and several friends, and forked over £61 via PayPal. Warned shipping might take 5-7 weeks

16 September: no sign of anything. Chased by e-mail.

18 September: reply apologising and saying my order must be lost in the post by now. No online tracking? No way of chasing it? Seriously? In fairness, they offered me a replacement or a full refund, and I replied saying I’d take the refund.

3 October (after chasing several times!) – refund issued. I lost £2 to the exchange rate and two months’ interest on my money.

XKCD may be a good laugh, but its store seems to be a joke, and not the funny sort at that.

Radio and ‘progress’

My 2005-era travel radio

Bad news. I woke up this morning to a nasty crackling sound instead of Jack FM. And from this we must conclude that my much-loved mini travel radio is dying.

For sure, the casing is held on with blu-tak (or to put it another way, the front fell off) – but it’s soldiered on quite well for at least six years now (I think it was one of the last things the late and much-lamented Gadget Shop sold). It doesn’t owe me much, but I fear I won’t be able to replace it with anything half as good. The only equivalents I can find on the market are, inevitably, DAB compatible. Which means they won’t last a month on a pair of AAA batteries (more like a few hours on four AAs), they’re bigger, and they really want mains power – which makes carrying them down to the kitchen to catch the end of a track problematic.

This one also has some really neat touches – when you put new batteries in, the alarm is off-by-default and set to 7am (not midnight!). You also have to press two buttons in sequence to make the noise stop when it comes on via the alarm – a great feature for avoiding turning it off and going back to sleep, and also excellent for annoying the heck out of your housemates when you forget to turn the alarm off before going on holiday.

I love new technology when it brings real benefits, but I’m not a fan of digital radio. My earliest experience of it was about four years ago, when they were running those “it doesn’t crackle or hiss” adverts. Ironically, our digital radio broke up quite badly during several of them.

Sigh. Anyone out there able to cheer me up by pointing me at a brave/principled manufacturer of radio kit which is still making AM/FM analogue radios?

Health, wealth and happiness

A couple of weeks ago, on Monday 13 August, most of the UK was either at work or on a deck chair out back, looking forward to the Olympic closing ceremony. And me? Well, since you ask, I was crawling up a slope on the M6 at 10mph, cooking slowly in my own sweat and hoping my leaky-radiatored car didn’t conk out on me (fortunately, proving that there are sometimes happy endings in real life, it survived all the way to a garage the next day to have some sealant put in it).

Aside from the painfully slow drive home, I had a very nice holiday. I was a bit dubious about spending four nights on a site for ‘real campers’ (cold running water and portaloos only) – but I must admit, with the good weather that we caught, and my phone switched off, it was a really nice way to get away from everything. We did a 16 mile walk on the first day, and I discovered I wasn’t totally out of shape.

I’d been feeling quite burnt-out prior to my holiday – no time off since Easter, plus all the joys of moving house – but I thought it worth recording the one change I’ve made which has made me feel much healthier and happier, and unlike my holiday, is permanent.

I’m off the current affairs.

For the last three years, I’ve been a serious news junkie, even writing my own RSS aggregator to pull together all the news and blogs I follow. I’d spend most of my lunch hour reading it, and probably check it from my phone morning and evening too. Doing something I last resorted to whilst sitting finals, and turning it off, forced me to get out from behind my screens at lunchtime, and this has combined with not knowing about all the bad things happening in the world to make me feel noticeably healthier and happier. I still catch the headlines on the radio when I wake up, so I’m not totally out of touch, but five minutes a day is long enough. Also, I think trying to absorb all the different tech blogs and other things I followed was definitely causing information overload – there’s only so much a man can take in during one day.


Why is the media obsessed with attacking Oxbridge?

Another June, another article in the Daily Mail about drunken students in Cambridge. Toffs! Idiots! Posh wasters!

I’m not condoning binge drinking or loutish behaviour, but I do wonder why it’s always students in Oxford or Cambridge who seem to feature in these articles. I was in Macclesfield – hardly the site of a great university – last Christmas Eve, and walking down through the town centre at 11pm, found myself dodging round people very much the worse for drink, and struggling to avoid stepping in a trail of what was unmistakably blood on the pavement. Meanwhile, here in Oxford, most of the students will depart in the coming fortnight, and I’ve no doubt that, much like last year (and the one before that), I’ll fail to notice any appreciable difference in the number of drunkards and disorderlies I pass as I walk home across the city centre in the small hours of Saturday morning.

Studying at Oxford was the most demanding and exhausting thing I’ve ever done, and, I must admit, I sometimes found a drink or three helped me to cope. And yet. I never did anything which would qualify me to feature in an article like the one I’ve linked to. Neither did the vast majority of my friends and fellow students. Meanwhile, at less headline-worthy institutions (and in just about every town in the UK), it turns out that the same small minority of idiots binge drink just as badly as those at Oxbridge.

The vast majority of students at Oxford and Cambridge work extremely hard, play equally hard (but not to the detriment of others around them), and deserve better than this kind of lazy smear from the media.


I also can’t resist pointing out the article’s claim that the students present “were mostly educated at expensive public schools before arriving at Cambridge” is a typical piece of lazy, kneejerk “journalism”. According to a bit of elementary Googling, Cambridge admitted 59.3% of its intake from state schools and colleges in 2010. The article may be suggesting that the majority of those at the ball were from the other 40.7%, but speaking from experience, I’d be surprised if that were true. When I was at Oxford, ironically, the generous bursary schemes for those from lower-income backgrounds often meant the state-educated students had a bigger disposable income to spend on things like ball tickets than those whose parents were (at least on paper) better off.

Second footnote

In the interests of full disclosure … I’ll be attending the Magdalen College Oxford Ball this Friday – Oxford’s equivalent of the one in the Daily Mail article above. I’d be willing to bet a few pounds that one of the newspapers will do a similarly shocked expose of how people behave during and after it, and I’d be equally willing to bet that neither myself nor my friends will rate even half a column inch, along with the vast majority of the 1800 guests.

Dear Internet, any ideas for a free(ish) room booking system?

I’ve been tasked with finding a room booking/hiring system for St Columba’s.


  • Booking of different spaces by different users
  • Ability to generate a report of billable hours outstanding for a given user
  • Ability to send invoices and reminders to users and internal staff
  • Integration with Google Calendar, as that’s how we publish hiring timetables on the website at the moment

At the moment, the most promising free option out there seems to be MRBS, but I’d have to add the Google Calendar and invoicing integration myself.

Does anyone have any bright ideas? Let me know if so.


Apologies for the absence of updates here in 2012 to date. It’s been a frustrating series of false starts to the year for me, with a break-in at St Columba’s, followed closely by a cycling accident*, a nasty cold and then a stomach bug, leaving me pretty much out of the game until this week.

Happily I think I’m now back to normal, and I have a few interesting things to write about, including some pretty graphs from the new church heating system, and some ideas for the Raspberry Pi when I finally get my hands on one. Oh, and last weekend, I bought a car, so I’m back on four wheels after an eleven month absence.

Watch this space!

* Don’t drink and cycle, kids. And don’t waste any sympathy on me.

Over-engineering and how it makes people’s lives worse

There’s an acid test that we as engineers should always subject our creations to: do they make life better for the end user? “Better” is perhaps quite difficult to quantify, but you can always approach the problem from the opposite direction and see if you’ve made things worse.

This is something British Gas’s man clearly failed to do when fixing my grandparents’ central heating recently. I don’t know the full details of the problem, but I do know that their thermostat was broken, so he installed a new one.

Fair enough, but it turns out that the iron march of progress has changed a thermostat from a knob with some numbers on it to something ‘smart’:



Central heating thermostat, circa 1990



Wireless super-blingy modern thermostat, circa 2011


And how does the new wireless thermostat make life worse for my nonagenarian grandparents? Let us count the ways:

  • Because it’s wireless, it has batteries in it which need replacing every so often. This is achieved by opening a flimsy plastic door on the bottom of the unit which is fiddly to access once it’s wall mounted, then scrabbling on the carpet as the batteries fall to earth. It also means the thermostat will mysteriously stop working once every n months until someone younger sorts it out for them, since there’s no way they’ll hear a low-battery beep or spot an indicator on the screen.
  • Since it’s superglued to the wall just inches away from the hot water tank it controls, the only advantage of wirelessness is to save the drilling of one hole and the running of a six-inch bit of cabling – and even these could presumably have been avoided by replacing the original thermostat instead of leaving it screwed to the wall but not doing anything.
  • Instead of reading the numbers round a knob, you see them on an LCD display which is not backlit and not very big, thus making it perfect for people with poor eyesight to see in a not-very-well-lit hallway.
  • Pressing the middle of it resets it to a pre-programmed ‘preset temperature’ (“ideal for the poorly sighted”, the manual claims with no sense of irony) – an unnecessary recipe for confusion if you knock the middle by mistake
  • It doesn’t go ‘click’ as it passes the current room temperature like an electromechanical thermostat would, so you have to read the screen instead
  • By default the display shows the current room temperature, meaning you can’t tell without adjusting the knob what temperature the thermostat is currently set at

Somewhat more subjectively, I think it’s more likely to malfunction than an electromechanical device with two moving parts, and presumably it has to fight for spectrum with all surrounding cordless phones, WiFi units and garage door openers – let’s hope the base station does something sensible in the face of losing contact with the unit.

Well done, lads. Another triumph of engineering.

2011 summarized

  • It’s been a very busy year
  • Still working for CFL and enjoying it very much
  • Now living in a much nicer house (not damp! luxury!)
  • Still helping balance the books for St Columba’s

Oh, and let’s check on the outcome of that 2011 geek wishlist

  • That Debian Squeeze will release in Q1 2011

Granted, and all my machines have been upgraded.

  • That I’ll discover a J2EE Servlet Container which isn’t totally horrible

Tomcat 7 is a considerable improvement over its predecessors.

  • That some kind of reconciliation between the JCP and Apache will occur


  • That Java 7 won’t be delayed forever

Partial victory: it’s arrived, but most of the interesting new features will only be in Java 8.

  • That Python 3 will get adopted faster than PHP 5 or Java 1.5 did

Probably still to early to say.

  • That we’ll finally see some major UK ISPs offering IPv6

Not a sausage, as far as I’m aware.

Merry Christmas all.

Repairing a Fitbug which has been through the washing machine

Reader, are you an idiot? Let me quantify that slightly. Are you the sort of person who gets up on a Saturday morning and puts a load of washing on without checking the pockets? And realises that your Fitbug is getting a wash it could have done without? I am.

I’ve done this before, and in the past, got away with replacing the battery. This time, though. pushing a new battery in made all the segments on the screen come on, and brought forth no response to the buttons.

So I took the whole thing apart and found it covered in white crud, presumably washing powder. Spraying the innards with WD40 drove that out, and re-assembling brought it back to life and saved me spending £30 on a new one.

Christmas trains: co-incidence or conspiracy?

Having booked myself the obvious three days off work in December to join up the bank holiday weekends for Christmas and New Year, I thought I might as well book the train tickets back home too.

Logged on to RSH (one of the few operators still willing to post you the tickets for free) and bashed in my dates and times. The cheapest single from Oxford to Macclesfield on 23 December after 1700 (with Railcard)? £39. No sign of an advance single.

Hmm. Maybe RSH being weird. Try East Coast? Nope, same prices, same problem. Same deal with trying the morning of the 24th.

The National Rail Enquiries journey planner’s calendar doesn’t go up to the 23rd of December, and if you enter that date manually, it says you can only book twelve weeks in advance.

So, do we think RSH and East Coast would have told me that? Or taken my money? Being a regular reader of Private Eye’s Signal Failures, the whole thing smells like shameless profiteering to me, but I’m not about to risk £20 finding out. I’ll report back in two weeks.