What I Did For Xmas 2011

Having done my present shopping early, avoided shops, turned the TV off and made plans to not travel anywhere, I found myself spending the Christmas weekend largely on my own in my cavernous flat.

It's amazing what a difference the 'No TV, Travelling or Shops' thing makes to the whole experience of Christmas. I actually had a splendidly refreshing long weekend completely free of any kind of pressure to do anything. It was almost like having a week's holiday.

Joolz and Mr Ian popped by on Christmas Eve, and it was lovely as always to catch up with them and set the world to rights about life, the universe and everything. After they tootled off I went back to my study, and woke my PC up to do a bit of gaming.

A while back I had downloaded Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and had got quite a way into it. After a good solid play through, I finally finished it at 1.30am on Christmas eve. And so to bed, a bit bleary, and still playing the game in my head. Boy I had some funny dreams that night...

Christmas morning I managed to get my guitar hooked up to my music software, Orion v8, meaning that I can now record live guitar playing through a variety of effects on to my tracks. I've yet to try it with vocals, but seeing as I cannot sing (and so tend to leave vocals to the Dogsolitude_uk Singing Robots) it's a bit of a moot point.

I cleaned the kitchen and tidied up a bit, and did some weeding in the front garden.

I also went for a bit of a bike ride up past one of the country-ish areas near where I live. This is where I learned that a Barbour Moorland Jacket may be wonderful for dog-walking or generally traipsing around in the drizzle and wind, but it's bloody dreadful on a bike. After a couple of miles I noticed a bit of a chill, and noticed that the jacket had started coming undone from the bottom as my legs pedalled, thanks to the two-way zip. I also accidentally reset the numbers on my bike computer.

Most of my relatives, when I called them, seemed to want to know if I was having Christmas dinner, and if so what I was having. I ate plenty (a quiche, honey-roasted parsnips and potatoes, a hot apple-and-blackberry pie were the more sensible things I consumed) but there seemed to be something a bit Samuel Beckett about making a Christmas Dinner for one, so I waited for ms rhapsody9 to come back before doing any stuffing etc.

Later in the evening, being a bit too full and rather too physically fatigued to do anything strenuous, I watched Blackadder's Christmas Carol, the Father Ted Xmas Special, and a few episodes of Family guy. Later on, I booted up Steam and bought a sort of expansion for Deus Ex called 'The Missing Link'. A bit of shooting and sneaking later, I tootled off to bed.

From what I can work out, a lot of people find Christmas to be a terrible time to be alone, and it truly must be dreadful if you want to be with your family or other half. However for me it was a much needed respite from the demands of the rest of the world, and a wonderfully refreshing opportunity to rest and recuperate that generally left me feeling cheerful and well-disposed towards my fellow wo/man.

Which is sort of the whole point, IIRC.

How I dealt with Xmas 2011

I finally, after many years, discovered that Christmas is actually quite easy to deal with, and need not be the turgid cauldron of stress that it's often made out to be in the MSM. It only takes a few small adjustments to one's behaviour over the period, and suddenly everything will be swimmingly easy.

1 - Avoid shops

Shops and shopping centres around Xmas are a Dantean circle of hell, full of the sharp-elbowed middle classes, wailing children, the elderly (who for understandable reasons move at restricted speed), people with buggies (FFS) and the generally lost and bewildered who dawdle and stop, gawping, at window displays at random moments.

The solution here is to order stuff online and give our postal service a much-needed boost. If you're prone to getting the Red Card of Absence due to being at work, catch your postman and come to an amicable informal arrangement about dumping stuff in the recycling bin or something. Alternatively, have it delivered to you workplace, or the home of an understanding stay-at-home friend. Or just get on your bike and cycle to the depot. Or drive if you have a car.

If you really must go shopping, minimise your exposure to the commercial arena by planning purchases beforehand, working out which shops to go to, and doing a quick hit-and-run job during your lunch hour. This approach has the added benefit that it's easier to think about someone and what to get them from the comfort of your sofa with a notepad in hand, than amidst the throngs of consumers.

2 - Avoid Xmas Music

Another reason to avoid shops at Xmas is the wretched music. The crowds are bad enough, however in an inspired attempt to make everyone happy, every single retailer in the land is playing the same selection of roughly twenty 'Xmas' songs. From November onwards, you can hear sleighbells, churchbells, children's choirs and various other noises and lyrics commanding you to be happy (and, by extension, buy more tawdry crap for your loved ones).

Well, most Xmas songs seem to be musical instructions to make merry, apart from the John Lennon song "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" which somehow makes me feel like opening a vein with it's sickeningly mawkish attempt to make you feel guilty for not having had your house bombed and your family shot ("Hey guys, it's Christmas, and I hope you don't, like, nuke each other, glass each other, stab each other, plant landmines on each other's territories, bulldoze each other's homes, commit racially aggravated assaults on each other, torture each other, carpet-bomb cities or generally be nasty 'cos, like, life's really tough and that, for old people and kids too, so stop being scared and I really, really hope you can overcome any negativity for just this one day a year, oh and I've got some kids singing to really make you feel shit about being a monstrous warlike creature who through slothful inactivity is directly contributing to the growth and influence of the military-industrial complex, you dig?").

3 - Turn the TV off

Again, this measure gets rid of the 'forced merriment' thing. If you avoid shopping malls and turn the TV off you need never hear bloody Slade for the entire duration of the season (I've heard 'Merry Christmas Everybody' precisely once this year, and that was because someone in the office thought it would be great to use it as their mobile ringtone. Mercifully the resulting ridicule forced the poor chap to change it).

Killing the TV also means you don't have to put up with the seasonal adverts that stations put on, the seasonal trailers for seasonal programming, endless graphics of snowflakes, santas and reindeer, and earnest Celebrities urging you to have a 'very merry Christmas' every fifteen minutes.

Instead of the TV burbling away in the background, I've had the radio on, and Radio 3 have been broadcasting various classic and devotional works throughout Christmas Eve. I may be one of those odd agnostic types when it comes to God and whatnot, but give me the Westminster Choir belting out 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' over 'Mistletoe' by Justin Bieber any day (or worse still, Little Mix singing about oral sex - for crying out loud you don't have to do it if you don't like it, and FYI Polos are available from most streetcorner shops).

Please, don't get me wrong: I'm not a 'grinch' or a 'Scrooge' or any of those other thought-terminating cliches. I'd hate the thought of banning Christmas, I just think it gone too far. Rather like Football around the time of the World Cup, it invades everything from the end of October onwards in a desperate attempt to claw as much money and attention from us as possible.

I'd far rather people were given the option to switch off and opt out of the apparently socially-mandatory, media-prescribed festivities. This may seem rather difficult to do, until one recognises that the source of much of this festive stress and ballyhoo really just comes from two sources: shops and TV.

One reason why I like the BBC

This may well sound like an advert for something that does not need advertising, but since upgrading my phone to the HTC Desire S a couple of weeks ago I've discovered a number of wonderful things.

Quite apart from Shredder Chess, O2's free Cloud wifi service, the ability to create/upload web pages to a remote server and wirelessly move files from PC to phone, I've found having a smartphone to be a surprisingly culturally enriching experience.

This is mainly due to two things that the BBC seem to be doing rather well: their podcasts and their iPlayer app.

With the podcasts, one can download as many 30-odd minute audio programmes as one has storage space for. Once you have them on your device, you have them for good. They're just .mp3 files, they can be moved from PC to phone to laptop, they won't expire, and you can listen to them on a long coach journey, or plug your device into a little speaker and listen to them at night before you go to bed.

Of course, you can do this with an MP3 player as well, but I found that using my MP3 player was mildly spoiled by the faff of turning on PC, starting the Creative Labs Media Centre (or whatever it's called), downloading files to one's PC and syncing via USB. The wirelessness of my phone means that I just have to let the podcast software update itself whilst it's in range of my router, and it will happily update and download any podcasts I've subscribed to. It'll also (optionally) delete old podcasts to save space as well. I'm currently using Doggcatcher on my phone, though I've been working on a podcast streaming application for Windows on and off in my spare time.

Digging through the archives

There's a lot out there. The BBC have archived their Composer of the Week programmes, for example, and so one could potentially download the whole lot and learn about obscure composers from A-Z (the other day I listened to the programme about Scarlatti on the way home from Sainsbury's). They also have documentaries, science programmes, nature programmes and so on. I found an interesting podcast from a few days ago from Radio 4, 'In Our Time', which I'd never otherwise have stumbled upon (let's face it: few of us read the radio schedules on the off-chance of finding something interesting, and the Beeb doesn't exactly advertise the presence of such programmes). In a recent episode Melvyn Bragg was discussing lunar exploration, and in yet another podcast from the same programme they discussed the divergence of European philosophical thought between the Frege-influenced, formal-logic philosophers and the wilder, more romantic ramblings of the likes of Nietzsche. Great stuff.

With these podcasts, taken together with iPlayer (which allowed me to listen to a Radio 3 performance of Wagner's 'Flying Dutchman' at a time that suited me) one effectively has an extensive pick'n'choose, portable and on-demand version of the BBC.

And so here's something I've been wondering: does the BBC compile usage stats for iPlayer and podcast downloads? The reason for asking is that viewing figures for TV will also include passive viewing. People often just turn on the TV for background noise, or will watch something specific and then just leave it on. With podcasts and on-demand, the user has made a more conscious decision to access the content. If so, do these figures go towards informing future programme content?


Skyrim, the latest role-playing adventure game from Bethesda, just arrived on my doorstep today. For those who neither know nor care about computer games, this is an event sort of on a par with the release of a new Star Wars movie, and has been greeted by the gaming community in a similarly mixed way.

Most folks are unanimous in praising the game itself, it's depth, graphics and sheer size. However one thing's been bugging a hell of a lot of PC gamers: the interface.

This is the thing that allows you to sort through your loot, fiddle around with your character, buy and sell items from other characters and so on, and it seems it's been ported straight across from the console version to the PC.

Bethesda appear to have forgotten that PC games are played with a mouse and a keyboard, rather than a little controller thing.

I'm not letting this put me off, it's currently installing on my ancient PC, and so I'm going to have some dinner and read the (rather thin) manual whilst waiting.

A cat, yesterday.

Food of the Gods

I have just finished off last night's curry, and am undecided as to whether or not that constitutes having had dinner.
  • Current Mood
    confused confused


In general, I prefer to travel via coach than by train.

Lately I have found train carriages to be increasingly noisy places, with people yapping into mobile phones, kids running around, football fans having loud conversations about The Match and so on. It's often difficult to find a 'table seat' too, and the Carrolian logic behind ticket pricing, where a return fare can mysteriously cost more than a single has bemused me on many an occasion.

It was quite by accident that I found myself getting reacquainted with coaches, and was cheered to find them quieter, more comfortable and vastly cheaper than trains. The only downside was that they take longer to get to wherever it is you want to go, and may get caught up in traffic, but I consider that a fair transfer of risk given the advatantages of large comfortable leatherette seats and relative peace and quiet.

Better still, I actually enjoyed the unhurried pace of the coach. One has plenty of time to listen to an audio book or a number of podcasts and generally relax. Add a bottle of mineral water and a blanket, and it can be very pleasant indeed, especially if one is travelling through the countryside an hour before sunset during the summer.

Earlier today I travelled back from Heathrow to my home city, and all the advantages of the coach I've noted above were in evidence. However, a salient disadvantage did arise: if you don't want to be in the vicnity of the other occupants of the coach you cannot simply move to a different carriage as you can in a train.

Ms rhapsody9 and I took to our seats on our coach earlier today, and a few minutes into the journey we noticed a rather horrid smell. Ms rhapsody wondered if it was perhaps a dead squirrel that had got trapped in the wheel arches, or perhaps something terrible had happened in the little toilet at the back. It was arguably worse: the young tracksuited chap behind us had started munching on a tube of Sour Cream and Chive Pringles, which, in the confines of the coach, smelt like salted baby-sick.

We moved to another seat at the first stop to get away from it, only to find ourselves sitting in front of an old chap who clearly had some terrible disease. Every 20 seconds he'd ejaculate a terrible shotgun of a cough, followed by a plegmy gurgle and what sounded like an attempt to dislodge his adenoids by sniffing very, very hard indeed.

After one other stop, we moved seats again, only to find history repeating itself. The chap behind us this time had a milder form of the lurgi, but the woman across the aisle was also afflicted, and so we were being accosted on two fronts.

I was very tempted to telephone the local health authorities and warn them that a plague bus was on its way to the city, but the reception was a bit patchy, so I didn't. In any case, I was glad to get off that bus and into the fresh air.

  • Current Mood
    drained drained

Astronomy Course

The Astronomy Course materials for the Open University's S194 course have arrived. Flipping through the book it looks like one of those courses where you have to remember lots of facts, and also have to do practical things too.

The course starts on the 12th, so I'll be spending time getting the resources lined up and in readable forms. If I can get them all into one convenient OneNote file that I can access from Laptop, PC and elsewhere then I can study in a 'portable' manner.

I'll find a nice little cloud to put them all on, or dump it all in SkyDrive.

Stacking Images

In other news, I'm currently working out how to stack astronomical images to improve piture quality and resolution. Apparently sticking a web-cam on to my telescope, taking a large sequence of images and sticking them in Registax is the way forward for this.

Web development on the Android Desire S

Well bugger me, it never, ever occurred to me that I may be able to do this on a phone! I've accidentally discovered I can make web pages on my phone and FTP them to a remote server.

This basic little demo page was coded as a result of the following experimental process. I used the following three apps:I had already downloaded the excellent ES File Explorer, which allows me to move files around on my phone, rename them and so on. This got me wondering about coding my own apps and things, and also wondering if there was a way to create a local ('permanently-on-phone') web app ('thingy that gets info off the web'), or perhaps scripting for the phone (automating a few functions).

920 Text Editor

I started looking for a text editor in which to bash out some HTML. I found 920 Text Editor and installed it. I set it to highlight HTML tags (Menu-> Highlight -> HTML), though it will also highlight PHP, ASP and so on.

Tapping in code is made easier by the row of icons at the top of the screen which contain shortcuts for curly brackets, angle brackets, the ubiquitous semicolon and so forth.

A quick and dirty HTML page later, and I wanted to find a way to check it on my phone.

I saved it to my SD card in the 'My Documents' folder

Opera Mobile

Selecting the little 'page with globe' icon on the tool bar gave me the option of opening the file in different browsers. I like Opera the best on mobile devices so I chose that.

You can of course set the browser to file://localhost/mnt/sdcard/My%20Documents/test.htm, to use my example. I've bookmarked file://localhost/mnt/sdcard in my browser for convenience.

Wow, it worked. Now how do I get it onto my server?

FTPing to Website

This was the bit that made me happy. Hell, it's all made me happy so far, but this was the best bit.

ES File Explorer has FTP functionality. It can move files from the phone to a website on the internet. Go to Menu -> Show Tabs and touch the FTP tab. You'll find an empty screen with the helpful message 'Add FTP by Menu->New->FTP'. Do so, and enter the details of your FTP location and details and you're away.

It's a very minimal setup, and building a large website on it would be very fiddly, but it could be useful for correcting typos and so on on the fly.

A couple of caveats though:

File size limitations

Firstly, I'm not sure what the largest file I can use on my phone in 920 is. I have an 8GB SD card which I may backup and replace with a 32GB at some point. I'm concerned that I may unwitingly end up with a atruncated file!

Use WiFi

There's always a possibility I may end up crapping all over my data-limit if I use my mobile provider's network instead of WiFI by accident. Note to self: ensure WiFi is on, and Mobile data is off.

Anyway, pretty pleased with this so far.
  • Current Mood
    happy happy
  • Tags

Chessbase stuff on Android

Chessbase is the company behind Fritz, one of the chess programs I use. As well as making chess engines that Kasparov uses for training, they also compile whacking great databases of played games that can be analysed by pro chess players, huge great tutorial DVDs with databases of annotated games and video tuition, and they run an online server thing so you can play against people around the world.

I use Fritz and make use of the odd tutorial DVD, but not so much the huge databases or the 'play against real people online' thing. Their database system has however become the de facto standard for most chess players, and so there are a large number of Chessbase-format databases with tutorials and annotated games floating about. Everymanchess, for example, has released a whole raft of Chessbase-format eBooks on different topics.

Sadly Chessbase haven't yet ported their stuff to Android or iOS, and so if you want to rake through a stack of historical chess games and commentary on your mobile device you'll probably have to stick with the archaic .pgn text format. So, what to do if you only have Chessbase format?

These directions show you how to use Fritz to convert a Chessbase database to a .pgn file, and load it into a free bit of software called Scid On The Go.
  1. Open Fritz
  2. Open the database managing screen (F12)
  3. Open your chosen database
  4. Select All games in the database (ctrl-A)
  5. Menu -> Selection to text file
  6. In the popup window, select 'pgn' in the radio buttons
  7. Click 'OK' and find somewhere suitable to save it
Right, assuming you have Scid on the Go installed on your Android device, you'll need to get your .pgn file into the /scid/ directory. I just connected my phone to the USB of my laptop and dragged it across.

Once done:
  1. Open Scid on the Go
  2. Menu -> More -> Import .pgn file
  3. Select your .pgn file from the list (it will list whatever's in /scid/)
  4. Wunderbar, it automagically turns it into a Scid database that you can browse at your leisure...
This is great because it means I now have 'Starting out: 1.e4' on my mobile phone!

New Phone


Farewell then, LG Prada. Hello to the HTC Desire S.

I tried and tried and tried to fix/recharge the old Prada phone, but with great regret I ended up making the difficult decision to upgrade. That Prada phone had been my constant companion for a good few years now, and I had resisted upgrading simply because I liked it so much. It was scratched, it was battered, the Prada logo had flaked off and it had become a shadow of its previous minimalistic elegance, but it would text and call with no problems, and take the odd photo.

To be clear, I'm not an early adopter. I'm a very late one who tends to see consumer tech developments as marketing gimmicks designed to fleece the unwary. I generally refuse to update my tech unless there's a clear advantage to doing so.

Having had some experience of the Android operating system with that generic 7" tablet my mother had given me (see here), I liked the way I could easily shunt things between my PC and the device using just a USB cable, and figured that a smaller-still Android advice with which I could also text people and phone would be a cool plan.

Some Googling and calculations on the basis of my current mobile phone usage later, I wandered into O2 on the way home from work. Getting the new phone cost a small amount, and I bolted on some data-transfer to my tariff as well, so I now have an easy to use phone/Android device to fiddle with and play chess on.

What's in the Box

There was the phone, some earphones, a quickstart guide, and a charger thingy. No manual, case, strap, software disk to help syncing with PC or fine-weave polishing cloth (I was clearly spoilt by the Prada package). I found the manual in a pdf file in the folder /sdcard/User Manual/, once I'd installed a file browser.

I mean, FFS, who sells a device without a bl00dy file browser? They put a mirror app on it, so I can see my face in the phone, and a torch app, but no file browser!

Android Market

It came with the Android Market on it, and Google know who I am now thanks to my Blogger account (which runs parallel to my Livejournal one), so downloading apps is a bit easier that downloading .apk files and moving them across.

I downloaded the following:
  • A file browser. Actually, two: Astro (which has adverts on it) and ES File Explorer
  • Chess.com, but I'll go for Shredder later
  • Google Sky
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Opera browser
I stuck to free apps because the Android Market doesn't let you use PayPal, you have to give Google your credit card details. I do not trust them with my credit card details, and so paid-for apps will remain unbought for the time being. Hopefully the still-forthcoming Amazon Appstore will make life a bit easier.

Siranui recommended a few useful-sounding things: an app-killer for freeing up memory, and a 'turn off and on again' thing for quickly disabling wifi etc to save battery.

Will see how it goes. I have discovered that it should be possible to develop HTML/Javascript/CSS apps for it easily enough, so it's looking like an interesting thing.