Archive for August, 2008

I have a house

The most important part of any relocation is getting a good house in a nice location and I’m happy to say that I have succeeded in doing just this for my move to Swindon in September. Its a two bedroom house situated on a traditional terrace in the Old Town area of Swindon and has been nicely done out inside. It also retains many of its period features such as fireplaces and bay windows.

The location is also excellent; a short walk from both Old Town and New Town and within easy reach of main roads for travel to work and further afield at weekends. I’m very much looking forward to moving in and exploring the local area.

I’ve uploaded the only picture I have so far (of the kitchen) below. I will add more pictures to my new photo gallery when I have them.

new_house_kitchen.jpg

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In praise of the BBC

Every day in the Guardian newspaper there is an “In praise of….” column. In support of this great idea that brings little known wonders to the public eye, I’m going to write my own for something that is widely known but so often under appreciated. The BBC represents the birth of British radio and later, television, but in bringing such a revolution to our country it now represents so much more.

Over the years business in our country has relied more heavily on marketing and advertising than the word of mouth that used to be used to solicit sales. With this revolution has come the pseudo acceptance that wherever we go and whatever we do, we should be accompanied by the advertising banner, the leaflet and the persuasive word. I say pseudo acceptance because in truth I think many of us wish we could choose not to accept it. To walk a street with out the banner, to read the paper without the persuasion. The thing is, there is in fact one small such haven left in this country and its name is the BBC.

Morning, noon and night the BBC are responsible for some of the most diverse programming in the world. There is news, comedy, drama, plays, music of all shapes and sizes and discussion in its most varied, intelligent and enlightened form. All of this is available on both radio and television, not to mention the BBC website which embodies many of the benefits of the more traditional mediums.

One little known fact about the BBC is that they also provide something called the world service. This allows British citizens, wherever they may be in the world, to listen to BBC radio and catch up on events that might affect them in a manor and language that is familiar to them. What citizens in any other country can boast that? In addition the BBC also provides many foreign language radio stations which serves to further strengthen their position as the ultimate broadcaster.

Its not about world domination though. The BBC is something special because its one of the few aspects of British heritage if you like that is still in full bloom today. If you wanted to enjoy an hour of classical music or catch up on the latest chart toppers you would only have to re-tune your radio and it would be waiting for you. Free of course from the salesman.

It saddens me when I hear comments from people who resent paying the license fee, or groan when it has to rise. Like the efficient and punctual nationalised railways which we lost to privatisation not so many years ago and now lament, the BBC will never return if we allow it to lose its funding and be canibalised by the advertising agencies.

What price should we put on such a service, on such an iconic symbol of our country? If I asked you how many cans of beer you would have to buy before they stopped trying to sell it to you, I think you might see that protecting the BBC is in fact priceless. So what if you have to pay an extra 20 pounds on your yearly license fee? Is it not worth protecting something that truly works in your interest when everything else merely works in your interest as long as it takes to make a sale? As I write this article and think about all the positive things the BBC gives us, I very much hope that your answer is yes.

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Why can’t we fix things?

I was reading an article in G2 a while ago that talked about the issues encountered with consumer durables and getting them mended. Essentially the attitude in the present day and age is tipped severely towards replacement rather than repair.

Customers who find their consumer durables broken outside of a warranty period usually discover one of two things

  1. Parts are not in any way available to repair the item
  2. Parts are available but work out more expensive than the item itself

Personally I find this astounding. We live in a society where concerns about the impact we have on the environment are on the rise, where costs of disposal are increasing and where places where there remains room to landfill are on the decline. Surely if we hope to address these issues in the home then we need to repair and not replace. Of course its never as simple as all that. These days its all about responsibility and who takes it.

My feeling is that there is a tug of war as to who should foot the bill. No ordinary consumer will choose to pay more to repair an existing product than they would to purchase a new one but at the same time, no company will increase the costs of their products to pay for cheaper spares if it means potentially turning new customers away through high prices. Clearly though this state of limbo is not one we can remain in forever.

What is really needed here is some re-engineering of the whole way in which goods are made and sold. At present, a product is envisaged which requires certain components. Contracts are then put out to tender to companies who might be able to deliver the required components at optimal cost. This creates a problem in that once the contract has been fulfilled, the third party companies will stop making their components and accept contracts from companies making different products. This causes the products that leave the production line to have literally no sources of spares. You could argue that this doesn’t happen straight away, but it is certain that it happens reasonably quickly, definitely during the life of the product at any rate.

The first possible route to dealing with this problem is to force big manufacturers to produce their own components if they are specific to the product being made (some outsourcing would be fine – you can’t ever imagine ever needing to stop the production of 10k resistors just because one product that uses them stops being made for example). This would cause the company to take advantage of economies of scale and make far more parts than were needed (not doing so would be to waste the cost of factory setup). The result of this is perhaps slightly more expensive products but with a stock-pile of spares which can then be sold on cheaply (taking advantage of the original economies of scale used to produce them) to customers who suffer breakdowns in the future. Call it a product life insurance policy if you like.

The second possible route to solving the problem (which is arguably simpler but likely more expensive to all concerned) is to pass the costs (both financial and environmental) of end of life disposal onto the consumer. At the moment we can just take items to the dump for practically nothing. If this cost was increased then suddenly the cost of the spare parts would seem more appealing – cheaper than the cost of disposal plus the new product. This would encourage consumers to seek out spares and in so doing encourage traders to step into the market to cater for the demand.

Personally I wouldn’t be too fussed with which option was employed – I see both as having the potential to work – but we simply cannot continue to throw things away only to replace with the same item because repair is seen as a non-option. Our planet has limited resources. If, in the future, we wish to continue to take advantage of these resources for human progress we must take a little more care with how we use them today.

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Site Issues

Just a quick heads-up that over the last 48 hours or so there may have been issues accessing some, if not a great many, pages on this site. I’d just like to apologise for this and say that all of the issues with the server configuration have now been fixed and normal service should have resumed.

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Calendar 1.2 Release Candidate 1

After a slightly longer than expected break since the first beta release of Calendar 1.2 I’ve decided to go straight ahead and release the first (and hopefully only) release candidate of Calendar 1.2.

Since the beta phase I’ve made improvements that not only fix all the bugs that were logged in comments but I’ve fixed a few others that I found along the way, tweaked some of the things that I didn’t feel were quite right and squeezed in some new features – some of which were originally going to have to wait until version 1.3!

The added features since the last release are as follows

  • Mini pop-up calendars in the admin panel to assist with choosing correct dates
  • Full categories system to allow events to be grouped by type (off by default)
  • Categories key is displayed below the calendar when categories are enabled
  • Events can now be links as well as mouse-overs
  • Items listed in todays events/upcoming events now sport links and mouse-overs.
  • Small tweaks to the style and display logic to improve the standard look
  • Issue of times not displaying according to WordPress settings fixed
  • Issue of extra padding/blank titles on the widgets fixed
  • Issue of mouse-overs not working in IE6 fixed

You may well notice other improvements which have escaped my memory.

Users of Calendar 1.2 beta will be pleased to discover that I decided to provide an upgrade path after all and so you should find that all you need to do is replace your current calendar directory with the new one and you should be away. The same of course applies to users of the current main release (1.1.2) but you should follow the upgrade instructions in the readme.txt file carefully in this case.

Please provide all feedback and any bug reports in the comments of this post. Please do not post feature requests. The release available in this post will be the final release if no bugs are found. If bugs are found they will be fixed and then the final version will be released. No new features will be added until the next major version.

Oh yes and how could I forget, you can download Calendar 1.2 Release Candidate 1 here.

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New Photo Gallery

Over the past two years my photo gallery has been populated with countless pictures of all the places and events I have visited. When it first went online it was also seeded with pictures dating back many years, some of the pictures were in fact so old that they had been scanned in from prints which came from the first film camera I’d ever owned.

Times change though and while the gallery (powered by Gallery2) did the job, there were problems. Server load seemed to be a significant issue. Load spikes happened sporadically and plugins which allowed the gallery to work with WordPress compounded the problem. There was also complexities involved in uploading photos. A gallery had to be created, the pictures uploaded to the server, and then the location of these uploads “pointed out” to the gallery script so they could be “imported” to the gallery its self. These initial uploads then had to be deleted to free up space. While uploading pictures direct was possible it was laborious for large galleries such as the kind you create when you return from holiday. Adding titles, captions and comments was also a hassle to the extent where I decided not to do it at all.

I sought a new gallery solution which would primarily address the server load issues but also bring other benefits and found it in the lightweight photo gallery software known as ZenPhoto. The primary attraction was the incredibly small install size of around 1Mb (taking into account that I required few of the plugins and only one theme). This brought with it the performance boosts one would expect from a smaller but well written code base.

The added bonus is the features. There is a file based upload system. You create a gallery in the web interface. This creates a directory on the server. You then upload your original digital camera photos to this directory. ZenPhoto then does the rest; ensuring uploaded pictures are added to the database and that thumbnails and smaller representations of the images are cached. As all this is done on the fly as pictures are viewed rather than all at once, server loads are kept down still further.

Another nice feature is that because the original photos are more easily retained a link can be provided to download the image direct, meaning those with a desire to order prints can do so without contacting me. While retaining the original was an option with Gallery2 it never seemed quite as intuitive and simple to do as it is with ZenPhoto.

Also provided is a built in reader for EXIF data contained within images. While Gallery2 had this feature it came as a plugin (which no doubt incurred performance issues) and needed to be added to your theme. While I’m sure not everyone wants this, I do and indeed consider that it should be standard in all online photo galleries.

The final seriously nice thing is the AJAX supported themes. Simply put this allows you to quickly upload a gallery as described above (in pretty much the same time it takes your connection to upload the images) and then as you step through the images for the first time (I always used to do this anyway to check things were OK) you can add a title and caption to each image by just clicking your cursor on the field, editing the content and clicking submit. The form lets you know when its saved and you can then move onto the next image. It strikes me that this feature alone means that in the time it took me to merely get a large gallery of photos uploaded with Gallery2, I can get them uploaded and also add titles and captions with ZenPhoto.

There is of course the option to customise the URL structure of galleries with ZenPhoto so that when the time comes in the near future to move all my past galleries to the new setup I won’t have to trawl my site updating links which is always nice.

Check out the new gallery here

You will no doubt notice that only one gallery is currently online (the long awaited photos of my graduation) but rest assured the other photos will follow soon so the gallery is back to its former glory. Please play around with the new features and leave some comments on some of the pictures if you fancy doing so.

If you like the new gallery or particularly if you decide try out ZenPhoto (or even to use it on your site) I’d be interested to hear from you in comments.

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