Mon, 14 Dec 2009

Following on from the essays (now slightly updated), there's also a projects suggestion page. Go nuts!

Wed, 09 Dec 2009

I have prepared a list of essay topics that I would personally find interesting. If you have comments, find it useful, or (gasp) want me to read an essay on such topics, please do get in touch.

Tue, 10 Nov 2009

About a week ago, I had a friend visiting and we managed to make a fort. And then we made another fort. Pretty good, really.

Thu, 29 Oct 2009

On the back of the recent excellent retail experience at Niche Gift Shop I ended up donating 30 to the York Boxing Club & Young People's Fitness Centre, which has the right combination of focusing on local youth, promoting a positive message and having a way for me to donate money online, through the Charity Choice site. Keep up the good work, everyone!

Mon, 26 Oct 2009

I recently had a burning desire to obtain a sizeable amount of Mega Bloks for a game of Brik Wars. A little shopping around brought me to Niche Gift Shop, who had some good sale offers on some reasonably useful stuff, so I placed my order and the goods arrived very promptly indeed. So far so good...

Of course, that's just good service, what we've come to expect in the competitive world of online retail. But that wouldn't in itself make a remarkable story, that's the kind of thing that you almost always get with online purchases these days (although there was that mysterious case of tne Enterprise 128 that never showed up...). No, what makes this story different is that one of the sets that I received was only half there.

I catalogued the missing pieces and emailed the details back to Niche Gift Shop, thinking maybe I'd get some store credit to cover the incovenience. But no, what I actually got was two options, I could package it all up for replacement or they could send out the missing pieces. I opted to get the missing pieces sent, as that would be most likely to get the stuff here on time for the game.

What was even more unexpected was the email I got a couple of days later, once they'd got hold of the replacement set. They just sent the whole replacement set to me, at no extra cost, and asked that if I was feeling charitable, I'd do something nice with the spare pieces, maybe donate them somewhere. Well, it turns out that the spare pieces are really handy when you're playing some BrikWars and you want some random bits of scenery strewn about, so instead I'm going to donate twice the cost of the set to a local children's charity.

So, if you're looking for a rather good little online retailer from which to get a gift or two this coming wintertime-consumerfest, Niche Gift Shop is probably a reasonable place to start.

Wed, 21 Oct 2009

Had a lovely time this evening at the Leeds Girl Geek Dinner, in which we girl geeks get together for buffet food and inspiring talks of an evening. It's refreshing to discuss technology issues (this evening was Sarah Hartley on evolution of journalism and Christine Morris on video-blogging) in an environment where the gender ratio is way different to the usual techy geeky crowd. Much less chance of being overlooked, assumed out of the conversation or otherwise sidelined, and it feels really inclusive.

Of course, it's cool to talk about the issues of being a woman in a technical field, and there are certainly places to do that, and I remember some remarks in that direction at a previous Girl Geek Dinner, but it's never been the focus and it's doubly refreshing for that. It's so much nicer just to get straight to the geeking. Still, I wonder if the presentations were still a little ungeeky. I mean, the journalism presentation didn't tell me about the technology platform for Guardian Local and the video presentation didn't discuss the merits and drawbacks of Final Cut Pro, for example. That would have been super cool...

Tue, 20 Oct 2009

There's nothing quite like the satisfaction of a floppy-disk label that peels off all in one piece without leaving any crud on the disk. Also, the ache you get on your thumb when you've been scraping away at a label is something I could do with never having. It looks like I have a pile of stubbornly-labelled disks, though. I may look into alternative label-managing strategies...

Sun, 11 Oct 2009

So I installed Ubuntu 9.04 on the old laptop, nice and fresh. One thing that I noticed - and this is probably an X thing - is that installing a font file in ~/.fonts makes it available immediately, no need to log out or reboot or any faffing. Now, if only the applications could watch the list of available fonts for changes and update accordingly, that would be even more spiffy.

Sun, 04 Oct 2009

This is part of the Day Zero challenge. I have to make a piece of art out of household objects all of the same colour. This one is red.

Red Art

There's also an explanation of what I was trying to portray and the materials used. I reckon it worked out OK. I particularly liked the oven gloves, they gave the impression of windows on a building.

Sat, 03 Oct 2009

I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and I've found that it leads to all sorts of trouble. Particularly this last couple of weeks I've noticed that I've gotten into a bit of a corner. The house is messy. I haven't vacuumed. I haven't cleaned, except the bathroom essentials. I haven't been keeping, up with washing up or emptying bins as much as I should. So what's going on?

The main issue at the moment is that I have a big deadline looming. I mean, the chances of failing to meet this deadline are slim - I've done the bulk of the work and I know I can write it up at a decent rate - but still, it weighs on my mind. So in my mind, I feel guilty if I'm spending significant time doing anything other than working towards that deadline.

Meanwhile, I'm still a perfectionist, and I want to devote the right amount of time to things and not do a half-arsed job. So when I think about doing something else, I always think of it as taking a significant amount of time away from the work towards the deadline. I want to give it whatever time it needs.

One way of resolving conflicts of priority is to identify importance and urgency, the classic Covey "First Things First" approach. While this is rather useful as a model, it isn't so obvious when you're worrying about things that are urgent and important because of a fixed deadline and things that are urgent and important because they always need doing. It also doesn't take into account my perfectionism, which will only let me devote time to that one pressing task. What I need is a way to allow myself to give a portion of the time to other important and urgent tasks.

My solution so far is to come up with a quick plan for the hours I want to spend on the large important task. If I keep plugging away at it constantly I'll just feel worse and worse, even though I might finish it a little sooner. Meanwhile, all the other stuff is neglected and seeing the mess around the place makes me feel like progress is really, really slow. So I pick out a set of tasks with the following characteristics:

  • Doable within the next few hours
  • All really important
  • Clear end objective to aim for
  • Relative priorities based on time needed to reach end objective
  • Easily interruptible

The plan only needs to cover 3 or 4 hours, like this example from this evening:

  • Main task: 75% of the time. Work on report. Aim to finish draft of section 5 in this time.
  • Secondary task: Wash up, dry and stack in the kitchen, then sweep and mop.
  • Third task: Put the washing on, and fold the stuff that's now dry.

This was a pretty useful first try, and I ended up getting a lot of this done. The tasks in the kitchen leave it feeling clean and neat and tidy, and they weren't onerous as I was able to spread them out through the evening. The washing task felt really good as none of the individual parts took very long but there was an obvious organising effect. And the report? Section 5 is coming along very well indeed - I've written most of the insightful parts and the rest is tracing items to one another, something that takes a little time but doesn't impact as much on the effectiveness of the end result.

Now, the real trick is to get to the point where I recognise that my perfectionism is getting in the way, and back off for a couple of minutes to really think things through. And do that subconsciously...


Also also, this site is now presented in glorious RSS-o-vision. Or at least, something that vaguely approximates it. Glance furtively at the feed for all the deliciousness.

Update: now with extra content options for those who want to read me in some kind of reader application. You can have:

I did this all with a custom blosxom plugin to extract content from the blog posts and format it as CDATA for the RSS stream. Dead simple in the end.

Fri, 02 Oct 2009

A quick note, perhaps only to myself, to make better use of the excellent Visual LaTeX FAQ, which is a document that contains formatting examples that are also hyperlinks to FAQ entries on the web that tell you all about typesetting that particular thing. It's kind of neat.

Wed, 30 Sep 2009

Follow-on milk for your kids contains key nutrients. Why are we feeding this to our kids? Surely key nutrients are for keys! Are we stealing food from the keys to feed our children? Is this why there are all those skeleton keys about the place?

Sun, 06 Sep 2009

Today, my friend Jez came over and we made fresh pasta. We could have done with adding some more salt and gluten, and maybe trying to get things all the same thickness, but it turned out pretty nice and rustic. Definitely would do this one again.

The students starting University this year are mostly 18-year-olds. This means that they were born in 1991. Yes, 1991, the year in which:

  • Smells Like Teen Spirit came out.
  • Freddie Mercury, Gene Roddenberry and Robert Maxwell all died.
  • Metallica's Black Album was released.
  • Operation Desert Storm set off in Iraq.
  • The films Terminator 2, Hook, Thelma & Louise, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Star Trek 6, Hot Shots! and The Naked Gun 2½ came out.
  • Popular TV shows of the year include Roseanne, Cheers, Home Improvement, Murder She Wrote, Brittas Empire, 2point4 Children, the Jerry Springer Show, Noel's House Party, Ren and Stimpy and Star Trek: the Next Generation. The last episode of Dallas went out.
  • BBC One stopped using the gold spinning computer-generated globe logo.
  • The first Sonic the Hedgehog game was released.
  • The NES was released.
  • Linux was first announced.
  • The World Wide Web project started.
  • The Soviet Union collapsed.
  • V for Vendetta was nominated for the Prometheus Award, but lost out to In the Country of the Blind.

I feel kind of... old.

Sat, 05 Sep 2009

So today, I had a little time to myself in town, and I ended up going for a bra fitting at Marks and Spencer. I had to reserve a slot, and then we went to a fitting room where there's a main curtain and then a second curtain inside. This meant that I shuffled between bras without exposing myself to the lovely assistant. I ended up finding that I've had slightly the wrong size of bra for a couple of years now, so I bought a couple of replacements to keep me going for a bit. Moral of the story: getting the right size bra is really easy! Loads of places do bra fittings nowadays, just pop in when you have a moment. Simple!

Fri, 04 Sep 2009

I visited Stockport today. Visited the Hat Works hat museum, had lunch with a good friend at the Swan with Two Necks, took a long walk taking photos and then stopped off in Manchester for some shopping and browsing at Fan Boy Three and Afflecks before wandering home. A very enjoyable trip all round, although my feet are upset that I didn't have my regular walking boots on (I damaged one, so it's in the shop at the moment getting repaired.)

Thu, 03 Sep 2009

Well, one of the many things I set out to do was to climb a tree. It turns out that I don't have as much upper-body strength as I think I have, so it took me a few attempts, but I finally climbed a tree. What athleticism will I manage next?

I was compelled to go somewhere within the city walls that I'd never previously been. I ended up slipping down Chapter House Street and popping out at Ogleforth. Nothing major, just a neat little street. I might try and visit other places within the walls that I haven't yet been to.

One of my challenges was to make paper; I did this last weekend and wrote it all up this evening. I gave the resulting paper away as a gift to someone I care for; I only wish it had turned out as I'd imagined so that the gift would be slightly less lame. Still, it reflects a pretty large chunk of effort.

Sat, 29 Aug 2009

Just last week I finally got a brace on my teeth. Those who have met me in person will appreciate just how big of a change this could turn into, as I've had this one tooth sticking way out for ages, since I was a kid. A combination of a lack of funds and a family mistrust of dentists (we had some bad dentists back in the day) meant that I didn't get it fixed when I was a teenager. A couple of years ago I noticed someone a little older than myself wearing a brace and it gave me the idea; this year I have the money, so I've gone and sorted it out.

I asked my dentist about it at my last checkup, 6 months ago, and he wrote a referral. The orthodontist saw me for the initial consultation and gave me an idea of what to expect, then I went back for impressions a few weeks later. A couple of weeks ago I had both upper #4 teeth out to make some room, and just last week I had a fixed brace applied, which involved brackets being glued to my teeth and then wires and elastics being attached.

It's going OK so far; the first couple of days were pretty sore stuff but I managed to apply painkillers in sufficient quantities. There's a stop on my back tooth to prevent my overbite from coming together in a way that would stress the brackets out, so I can't really chew at the moment. This means I've had a lot of soup these past few days. Soup and mashed potato and all sorts of similar things.

Despite the minor inconveniences, I'm pretty pleased with it all so far. It's not a huge amount of hassle and any movement is going to be an improvement. The first night I had the brace on, one of the brackets came loose, so I had to go back the next day. While I was waiting in the waiting-room, there was a teenage girl who'd just come in for her last check-up. Her teeth were super-perfect-straight, and that image, that smile, that's what's driving me on now.

Fri, 28 Aug 2009

I recently got hold of a new laptop for work purposes, and for the first time had access to administrative priviledges on my main work computer. It came with Windows XP, which despite being pretty ancient these days still seems to just about be a reasonable choice. I recalled seeing some posts made by DeathBoy ages ago in which he pointed out that despite initial appearances, Windows is customisable and tameable without too much fuss. While I didn't directly consult his LJ for advice, it was the fact that he'd bothered to point this out that led me to try to do something about my work environment on Windows XP.

What I eventually ended up with is the following:

  • I switched to the silver theme in Control Panel → Display → Appearance → Color scheme. It's the least horrid of the themes that came with the system.
  • I switched off the screensaver in Control Panel → Display → Screen Saver. I also adjusted the power-saving features to my liking - much of the time I use the computer in a dock at my desk. The main change here was in Advanced where I made sure that it prompts for a password on resuming, does nothing when I close the lid, and prompts me when the power button is pressed.
  • I set folders to show details, hidden files, file extensions by setting that view in the Desktop folder and then choosing Tools → Folder Options and under View selecting full path, hidden files, and unchecking "Hide extensions for known file types", and then clicking Apply to All Folders. In General I also made sure that it would open each folder in the same window.
  • I turned off desktop icons by right-clicking the desktop, and under Arrange Icons By unchecking Show Desktop Icons.
  • I added the Desktop toolbar to the taskbar by unlocking the taskbar and activating Toolbars → Desktop. I resized it to show just the Desktop header. I also switched off the language bar in Control Panel → Regional and Language Options → Languages → Details → Language Bar by unchecking Show the Language Bar on the Desktop.
  • I installed Vim, and had it add an "Edit with Vim" context menu entry, so that I have a familiar editor available in a pinch.
  • I set the tray to hide inactive icons by right-clicking on the Start button and selecting Taskbar then Hide Inactive Icons and in the Customize settings hiding the unwanted icons.
  • I customised the show/hide settings to show just the icons that I generally use
  • I switched off some services and other auto-run things by installing ccleaner and using its startup management features.
  • I activated X style window focus by installing TweakUI (obtained from annoyances.com) and selecting Mouse→X-Mouse→Activation follows mouse
  • I turned off autoplay in Tweak UI → My Computer → AutoPlay.
  • I turned off the Sophos anti-virus icon with a registry setting, by creating and running a .bat file containing REG ADD HKLM\SOFTWARE\Sophos\AutoUpdate /v HideTrayIcon /d 0x00000001 /t REG_DWORD /f
  • I turned off autodial in IE in Tools → Internet Options → Connections → Never Dial a Connection. This was only annoying because my work VPN connection appears as a dialup connection and when the regular connection was a little slow the system tried to dial up.
  • I installed AMP Font Viewer and used its previewing and copying features to archive away a whole raft of fonts that I doubt I'll ever use. This leaves me with a manageable font-list in applications.
  • I remapped Caps Lock to be another Ctrl key with another registry setting. This time I used a .reg file with:
    [HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Keyboard Layout]
    "Scancode Map"=hex:00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,02,00,00,00,1D,00,3A,00,00,00,00,00

Some things that didn't work out for me:

  • I tried to make it easy to type ë with a couple of applications:
    • AllChars was good and mirrors the way I type characters on Linux, but it got confused as I moved in and out of NX sessions and VirtualBox sessions.
    • CFi Characters was even better with a pretty neat interface, but crashed a couple of times.
    Ultimately the disappointment is that these seem to be limited to CP1252 characters.
  • I tried to remove the tray icon for networking, by removing the HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\CLSID\{7007ACCF-3202-11D1-AAD2-00805FC1270E} but then I couldn't enter credentials for the work wifi network (it's a bit of a jittery network setup, so it does seem that sometimes I have to enter the details again.)

Overall, I think I've managed to get a useful environment without too much fuss. Many thanks to DeathBoy for inadvertently setting me off on this little quest!

Wed, 26 Aug 2009

Thanks to Heather Maclaren for pointing out that the blobs on the front page look like they ought to be clicky blobs. I've enabled clickyness on them. The labels were wandering a bit, so I put them back too.

Tue, 25 Aug 2009

My name is Zoë and is supposed to be spelled with a diaeresis. However, there are several barriers to making this happen on computers. Here's some of the issues and what can be done about them:

  • The common ASCII set doesn't have the right symbol in it. On a typewriter, you could type an e and then backspace over it and overstrike with a " to get roughly the right effect. Some printer drivers and other software dose this both to synthesise missing characters and to create bold text. If the character set simply doesn't have the ë in it, then it's probably OK to just use e instead.
  • There are many extended character sets in use that add symbols used in various parts of the world. The ë symbol is generally considered to belong to the Western European region, and is found in IBM code page 850, Windows code page 1252, ISO 8859-1 and Unicode. Quite which of these is in use at any one time is a matter of complex negotiation between the different computer systems that create, transmit, process and display the text, so a character-set and/or encoding mismatch can arise. This leads to ë being shown as ë, for example (I get mail addressed to Zoë sometimes...)
  • In some systems, it's possible to construct the ë character from e and a combining character. For example, in LaTeX one can write \"e. In Unicode, there is a combining diaeresis character (U+0308) that is used after the e.
  • Once there's a representation for ë and all the character sets and encodings line up, there's the question of how to actually type the character into the computer - the typical English-language keyboard doesn't have a key for ë! Here's the many different ways to get the right character to appear:
    • In languages like HTML that accept SGML character entity references, use the sequence ë.
    • In Microsoft Windows, type Alt+0235.
    • In Microsoft Windows, run charmap by finding it in the Start menu or by selecting Run and typing it in (Run can be accessed directly with Windows+r). Find the ë character and copy it to the clipboard, then paste it where you want it to appear.
    • In Microsoft Office Word, type Ctrl+:, then e.
    • In vim, in insert mode, type Ctrl+k then : and then e.
    • In the X Window System implemented by X.Org, enable compose with a keyboard settings application (typically found in a control panel) or by running a command like setxkbmap -option compose:ralt, then use the right Alt (Alt Gr) followed by " and then e.
    • In OSX, type Option (Alt)+u and then e. For further reading, here's a pretty good explanation of OSX multi-language input.

All in all, it's sometimes not worth the effort to put the character in correctly. Emails and Usenet posts don't allow for such things in the headers without some devious shenanigans that aren't guaranteed to be widely supported; IRC nicks aren't generally allowed these characters either, so in these cases I don't bother. A lot of web forms don't accept any extended characters, and I don't usually kick up a fuss. The rest of the time, I usually give it a go just to see if it works out.

I fixed the configuration issue that was causing the navigation problems. There's a permissions problem in the commenting system still - this is a pretty common occurrence, and there are several ways for me to fix it. I'll look into it this evening, I hope.

Otherwise: yay, blog!

Mon, 24 Aug 2009

So it all looked like it was working here in testing-server-land, but as always there are some issues to iron out for the deployed version that you're looking at now, mainly to do with navigating around the blog. I'll sort it out Real Soon Now.

As part of my recent efforts towards self-improvement, I've created myself a Day Zero list. The list contains 101 things that I aim to achieve in 1001 days. One of those things was to get my website content/look/feel updated, and I've achieved that in spades. Here's to the other 100 things!