Destruction and renewal

After years of neglect I’ve spent a bit of time reviewing and updating this site. I first put up a page in around 2001, served from my home directory on a server run by my then-ISP. I added the personal domain in 2004 and moved to Mythic Beasts in 2008 (with whom I have been happily hosting ever since and highly recommend). The last post to appear prior to this was in 2012. The site was initially based on Blosxom but now runs WordPress.

I always liked the idea of blogging, but rarely seemed to be able to find the time to write anything particularly substantive. This was compounded at first by my own lack of confidence and then, later, the demands of family and professional life.

Most longer posts were personal but the bulk tended to be very brief links with a line of two of comment – exactly the space that social media came to occupy. Despite maintaining accounts on most of the larger social networks I’ve never been a particularly enthusiastic user of those, either, but the steady drop in activity here runs alongside the growth in their use and the decline in blogging more widely.

Much of the old content had the unpleasant effect of making me wince so I’ve archived the bulk of it. I’m tidying up a few entries and re-posting them as and when ready. I did worry a bit about link rot but I don’t think this will be a big problem for a low-traffic personal site like this but if you end up here having followed a dead link let me know – there are various ways of reaching me listed on the front page – and I’ll restore the missing page.

BristolCon 2012

A few days have passed since this year’s BristolCon and I thought I’d best get something down. I’m on the con committee, albeit in a fairly minor role, so I spent much of the day dashing about helping keep things ticking over. I like this; I think it’s a good way to see a small, friendly con like ours. So here’s my very personal and unofficial write-up – just some things that have stuck in my befuddled mind.

The Art Room was a fantastic improvement over previous years – the display stands provided by Roundstone Framing made the place feel really open and were far more aesthetically pleasing than the slightly cobbled-together gazebo of previous years.

Anne Sudworth and Gareth L. Powell‘s guest of honour interviews were interesting. Their interviewers, Ian Whates and Kim Lakin-Smith respectively, were very good and both had an excellent rapport with their interviewee. Colin Harvey‘s Ghost of Honour session was poignant, and I tried my best not to screw up the projections.

As for panels, I kept finding myself focussed on practicalities like watching the time, ensuring there was water and clean glasses for the panellists or helping out with the sound (the PA in programme room 1 was generously supplied by Del Lakin-Smith who was very patient with my fumbling attempts to help him set-up first thing) but I particularly remember the Colonising the Solar System and Women in Sensible Armour discussions.

Later on Gareth’s monkey was a high point, Talis Kimberley and her band performed to their usual excellent standard (although I didn’t listen to as much of this as I should have) and the quiz was, well, too hard!

I met plenty of new people, all of whom had complimentary things to say about the con. I got Philip Reeve, due to be a Guest of Honour at BristolCon 2013, to sign a copy of his latest book for my daughters.  I’d hoped to have a quick chat with Marc Gascoigne (even brought my old copy of Titan for him to sign) but missed him after the Colin Harvey memorial – perhaps at a future event. The Colinthology was an excellent buy and contains some really top-class stories, so I can recommend this as not only a good cause but a good read as well.

The rest of the committee and everyone else who helped out did a fantastic job – most of them worked far harder than I did and often in the face of sickness and pain on the day, so well done to all.

On top of it all I didn’t end up with a bad hangover the next day and I even missed the fire and pestilence. A good day all round and I’m already looking forward to next year!

 

Flickrtweeter: automatically tweet your flickr pics

A few weeks ago I decided to roll my own script to automatically twitter an update if I posted a photo onto my flickr pages with a certain tag.  I know that there are third party services out there that can do this for you (e.g. Snaptweet, Twittergram) but I thought it’d be an interesting project to do it myself.  As well as (obviously) requiring flickr and twitter accounts, it also requires a bit.ly account and API key as it uses this service to produce a shortened URL for the photo to include in the tweet.

The script is written in Perl and is fairly straitforward.  It pulls the Atom feed of my flickr account and checks any photos tagged “twitme” against a list of photos it has already seen and tweeted.  It then passes the photo’s URL through bit.ly to get a shortened version and builds a tweet using a standard prefix, the photo’s title from flickr, and the bit.ly’ified URL.  It then attempts to post the tweet.

The script uses LWP::Simple for HTTP GETs to flickr and bit.ly, XML::Simple to parse the responses, Storable to maintain a cache file of seen photos, Net::Twitter to talk to twitter itself and URI::Escape to escape the photo’s URL before passing it to bit.ly.  It also uses the sysopen call from Fcntl to manage a lockfile – I run it as a cron job so this seemed a sensible precaution.

It can be configured by setting variables at the start of the script.  All are commented (I hope) reasonably clearly.  It can be downloaded and used under the terms of the GNU Public License.  I originally called it flickr2twitter but as this appears to be the name of a Firefox Addon I have renamed it flickrtweeter.

Blosxom and application/xhtml+xml

Since this website is written to the XHTML 1.0 Strict Doctype, I thought it would be nice to serve it with the correct MIME type to conforming user-agents. I remembered hearing about a plugin called xhtml that would do this, but after a cursory search came up with nothing I decided that I’d just write my own.

So here’s xhtmlmime. It uses CGI.pm to sniff the Accept: HTTP header from the user-agent and then serves blosxom with the preferred MIME type. There are two variables that need to be set:

  • $flavours needs to be set to a list of flavours upon which to act. This defaults to empty, and the plugin will exit quietly until you set it.
  • $charset should be set to the character encoding used on your weblog. This defaults to utf-8.

You can force the plugin to send the application/xhtml+xml MIME type by specifying a URL parameter of mime=xhtml. Setting mime to anything else will result in the user getting text/html.

Update 2005-07-21

The plugin now exports a variable – $xhtmlmime::meta_http_equiv – for use in your head templates. If you use the http-equiv element, set it as follows:

<meta http-equiv="content-type" content="$xhtmlmime::meta_http_equiv">

And the plugin will ensure that it is set correctly.

Warning

As noted by Bill Lovett, serving as application/xhtml+xml raises a couple of issues. The most important one is that this will lead to very strict interpretation of your pages by the web browser, so unless your pages are well-formed – contain no mistakes in the markup – your visitors will just get error messages! Bad plugin!

So, before using this plugin you need to be confident that this is the case, and that you have some method for ensuring that only well-formed, valid markup ends up on your pages.

Feedback

If you have any feedback, either contact me directly or post a message to the blosxom mailing list.

Stanton Drew

After the rain and wind yesterday we were glad to awake this morning to clear blue skies and sunshine. Just right for another trip into the countryside and – you guessed it – more photos!

We didn’t go quite so far today, just about eight miles or so outside Bristol into the Chew Valley. We took a pleasant walk through the fields around the village of Chew Magna and stopped at an even smaller village called Stanton Drew to take in the standing stones.

[A single stone standing at an angle in front of a large tree];

The place must have been an important site around five thousand years back (give or take a few centuries). There are three circles and a variety of other arrangements in the area and a geophysical survey by English Heritage has shown that the megaliths were only one part of a larger complex including a surrounding henge and over four hundred pits – Stanton Drew was an important place rivaling Avebury in size.

[The north-east circle seen from within the Great Circle];

Now cows graze among the stones. Although we don’t really know what the circles were used for they have the atmosphere of a sacred place, like a great church or a tomb, and they are commonly thought to have been part of the ritual life of the stone-age people of Britain. People bring their own interpretations. I always find myself wondering what will remain of our culture in five millennia and who will wander among the remains, what they’ll make of us.

NO2ID Petition

NO2ID, an umbrella organisation campaigning against the government’s proposed ID card and National Identity Register scheme, are running an online petition which I encourage you to sign. The closing date is the 19th November, so don’t delay!

Even if you are not sure about signing this petition, please at least visit the NO2ID website and read through some of the arguments against the scheme to find out a bit more about the proposals. ID cards are more than just a threat to our civil liberties: there are serious questions as to whether the scheme will bring any benefits at all and the sheer cost in terms of both cash and inconvenience is staggering.

Kidnapped cows and stolen screams

It’s been a bad week for art lovers in Scandinavia. Last week, a gang of “Militant Graffiti Artists” in Sweden stole a fibreglass cow from the international CowParade exhibition and threatened to sacrifice it unless the cows were declared “non-art”. According to Reuters, the organisers of the Stockholm exhibition have until noon today to meet their demands… (also seen at Lycos news).

And over the weekend news broke across the world that one of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch‘s famous Scream paintings was stolen in a daring raid from the Munch Museum in Norway. Experts wonder at the idiocy of the thieves, who will have real problems getting rid of such a recognisable piece of art, as well as expressing concern over the fragile state of the painting and the likely damage caused during the rather amauteurish (albeit highly successful) theft.

Status Syndrome

Is the name of a new book by Professor Michael Marmot. There’s been a bit of coverage in the media generally (online sources include New Scientist News, the BBC, and the Guardian). I haven’t actually read the book yet, but I’m interested as I worked in Professor Marmot’s department at UCL on the Whitehall II Study and am familiar with many of his ideas and the research that lies behind them.

Professor Marmot’s core idea is that a person’s social standing has a significant impact upon their life expectancy. This is a more complex formulation than a simple “The rich live longer than the poor”, which is demonstrated by differences between societies – life expectancy is comparatively lower in some places that might surprise.

Income does have a use as an indicator of status, but more important are factors such as control over ones life or a sense of belonging. He suggests that health can be improved by giving people more power over their lives and building more cohesive communities to live in. I can’t believe that it’s a surprise that alienated and powerless people die earlier.

There’s politics here, of course. The New Scientist report mentions the increased divergence in life expectancy between high and low social groups during the Thatcher years and the subsequent (slight) decrease since New Labour came to power. The Guardian mentions drops in life expectancy following the advent of free-market capitalism in the former USSR. But politics isn’t the driving force behind this research, and shouldn’t get in the way of work that provides insight into the consequences of the ways we organise ourselves.

They Work For You

TheyWorkForYou.com is a new website which aims to provide an easy, user-friendly way for British citizens to keep track of what their elected representatives are up to. It’s been put together by the same people who brought us websites like FaxYourMP.com, which I’ve found useful myself in the past. Here’s what they have to say about the new project:

We are a dozen or so volunteers who think it should be really easy for people to keep tabs on their elected MP, and comment on what goes on in Parliament. We’ve done this sort of thing before, but never on this scale.

For all its faults and foibles, our democracy is a profound gift from previous generations. Yet most people don’t know the name of their MP, nor their constituency, let alone what their MP does or says in their name.

We aim to help bridge this growing democratic disconnect, in the belief that there is little wrong with Parliament that a healthy mixture of transparency and public engagement won’t fix.

Hence this website.

I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the site myself, but you can quickly identify your MP and call up information on things like their voting record, their registered interests, the speeches they’ve made – the list just goes on, and since the site is still in beta, we can no doubt expect refinements and improvements over the coming weeks and months.

This is the sort of tool you would expect from a government with accountability and openness high on its priority list. Funnily enough, this one was produced by a team of volunteers and some funding from a charity called the UK Citizens Online Democracy.

Total respect to these people – what a brilliant idea.

The Coromandel

Having flown back up to Auckland, we spent the last week or so visiting a couple of places in the north that we’d missed at the start of our trip. First we took the bus over to the Coromandel peninsula, a popular holiday destination among the Kiwis.

Our driver was a slightly odd chap and a bit of a jobsworth. Having rigorously enforced the bus company’s rule stating that there is to be no food on board the bus, he proceeded to buy several hot buns and pastries from a bakers which he dumped on an empty seat where we could all see and smell them.

As he hurtled along the narrow windy road that circles the peninsula he regaled us with the usual patter interspersed with repeated warnings about which bus stops not to use and which hostels he didn’t do pick-ups from. He particularly enjoyed pointing out the consequences of drink driving – we passed numerous wrecked cars and vans at the bottoms of valleys, evidence of the popularity of this particular form of foolishness in New Zealand. I had to restrain the urge to point out that driving a full bus like a nutter was also a potentially dangerous. At least he stopped every so often to let us get off, swallow our stomachs and even take the odd photo of the coastline.

[Coromandel Coast with islands]

We stayed in the small town of Whitianga on the eastern side of the peninsula. It’s close to two of the area’s well known attractions, the Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove. Whitianga itself is a pleasant place on the shores of a bay with a long beach and a harbour filled with small boats of all kinds. The beach is covered with countless shells gradually being worn down by the sea.

[A macro shot of shells on Whitianga Beach]

We made the obligatory pilgrimages to the Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove in the company of a fellow guest at Whitianga YHA, Des from Chepstow, who kindly acted as chauffeur. The beach was a bit of a disappointment. Sink your feet into the sand a few inches and the temperature rises fast. An interesting phenomenon, but not one that takes your breath away. Cathedral Cove was a bit more spectacular, but we both felt that we were perhaps suffering somewhat from scenery fatigue by now. Still, it’s amazing what water and wind can do to rock given a bit of time.

[Eroded Rock at Cathedral Cove]

We weren’t anywhere near as underwhelmed as an American tourist we encountered who seemed to regard the entire country as a complete disappointment. He blamed this on an exaggerated marketing campaign by the New Zealand tourist industry which had raised his expectations too high. I thought he was just a bit of a tosser. Who could walk down the beach at sunset and still be so negative?

[Sunset over the sea at Whitianga]

It was the tail end of the summer, so it felt as though we had the town to ourselves – quite a contrast to peak season when the whole area is heaving. Whitianga had the air of a place on the verge of becoming a victim of its own success, there were signs of development everywhere and the network of new roads surrounding the town implied quite an increase in size. This is a common problem faced by all popular holiday destinations across the planet – expansion so often spoils the very things that drew people in the first place. Still, the local people seem well aware of the potential problems and there was evidence of a debate over the best ways to manage the expansion. Good luck to them, it’s a lovely spot, and it’d be a great shame to spoil it.