Monthly Archives: November 2012

  • A useful browser tip

    If you browse the web like I do, this means you’ll frequently have several tabs open in your web browser. Having said that, it’s really easy to close the ‘wrong’ tab – one you haven’t quite finished with – by mistake.

    Now courtesy of the ITDonut’s tip of the week, comes a really useful little bit of knowledge: how to reopen a browser tab you’ve just closed.

    If you’re using Firefox. Chrome or Chromium, just use the following keystroke combination: CTRL + SHIFT + T*.

    This works on both Linux and Windows machines; and on the latter the same keystroke combination also works with IE.

    * = On a Mac the equivalent combination is COMMAND + SHIFT + T

  • It’s durian season

    Durian is perhaps the strangest thing I’ve eaten in nearly six decades on planet Earth. Many refer to it as the “king of fruits” as its taste and texture are wonderful, resembling an aromatic banana custard, but at the same time it has a distinctly off-putting smell somewhat akin to a mixture of rotting flesh and faeces. Indeed, durian is so smelly that it’s not allowed on public transport in Singapore and hotels, hospitals and other public buildings in other countries. In addition, as you can see from the image below, it looks like a weapon or munition designed by a botanist.

    Image of durian fruit
    Durian – image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

    My friend Mr Wong has let me know that it’s now the height of the durian season in his native Borneo and according to a Borneo Post report, “There are so many durians coming in daily that Sibu Central Market is being flooded with the king of the fruits”.

    This glut on durians means aficionados in Borneo can indulge their passion for as little as the equivalent of 10p per fruit, as opposed to the prices charged by oriental supermarkets in the UK, which often run to double figures in pounds sterling.

  • Introducing Vinux

    Yesterday evening I was down Bristol’s City Hall attending an event to launch Accessible Bristol (read my account of the event for Bristol Wireless).

    Vinux logo

    While there I was talking to the City Council’s Stephen Hilton and happened to mention Vinux – Linux for the Visually Impaired – which Stephen had never heard of, despite being visually impaired himself.

    Vinux is a remastered version of the Ubuntu Linux distribution optimised for visually impaired users. It provides a screen-reader, full-screen magnification and support for Braille displays out of the box! It can be run from a Live CD on an existing machine without making any changes to your hard drive. It can also be installed to a USB pen drive or to a hard drive; as a hard drive installation this can be done either alongside Windows (dual boot) or as a complete replacement for the Hell of Gates. 🙂

    The system requirements for the main (as opposed to the command line interface) version of Linux are:

    • 1 GHz x86 processor;
    • 1 GB of system memory (RAM);
    • 15 GB of hard-drive space (although this can be split onto 2 drives, a 5Gb / and a 10Gb /home partition fairly easily);
    • Graphics card and monitor capable of 1024 X 768 resolution;
    • Either a CD/DVD drive or a USB socket (or both);
    • Internet access is helpful though not vital.

    Vinux 3.2.1 is the current experimental release and disk images of various vintages can be downloaded from the Vinux project’s downloads page.

  • Stop the Snooper’s Charter local training sessions

    ORG logoThe Open Rights Group is organising a series of workshops around the UK so supporters can help to tell people across the UK about the dangers of mass government surveillance, profiling and data mining for supposed criminal suspects, as envisaged by the draft Communications Data Bill (aka the Snooper’s Charter. Ed.). If the Bill ever reaches the statute book, everyone – whether suspected criminal or innocent citizen – will have their communications data stored by order of the British state.

    It is presently a critical moment for the Bill, as Parliament reports and the Government will soon decide whether to go ahead with the draft.

    ORG’s training will comprise:

    • A briefing on the draft Bill;
    • Providing participants with draft campaign materials, free leaflets and campaign tools;
    • Putting participants in touch with people in your local area who can assist in defeating the Bill;
    • Participants’ own ideas.

    Three events have already been held in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively; however, those still to take place are listed below, with a link to take you to the relevant (free) registration page.

    The Bristol event will be held at the Watershed (map) from 7.00 pm to 9 pm.

    Full details of the events are available on the ORG site.

  • Bristol Festival of Economics

    It’s nigh on four decades since I was taught basic economics by Lew Davies at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in the first year of my degree. Lew, who always described himself as a ‘labour economist’ (by which I’ve always understood to be related to toil rather than anything partisan), didn’t have an easy job, trying to instil an understanding of economics into a diverse bunch of freshers who’d never encountered it before; and let’s face it, economics can be terribly dry and dusty.

    However, Lew did a splendid job. For instance, he taught us all about the law of diminishing returns with an anecdote about a favourite nephew and his love of strawberry ice cream! I still have a collection of his more outrageous sayings from his lectures; even nowadays these raise a wry smile.

    Since those undergraduate days economics has not featured largely in my life. Until now.

    Tonight the Bristol Festival of Economics starts and I’ve been kindly offered a season ticket by organiser Andrew Kelly (thanks Andrew!). The first session starts at 6 pm tonight with a panel session entitled ‘The Future of Capitalism’.

    I shall be covering the festival live on Twitter, using the festival hashtag #economicsfest.

  • Little Brother alive and well in North Somerset

    North Somerset strikes me as a somewhat ambivalent area of the country. On the one hand, it has town councils eager to indulge in Luddism and hold back the tide of technology (posts passim). On the other, the unitary authority – North Somerset Council – seems eager to do its bit for Orwell‘s dystopian vision of the future in its own Little Brother-ish way.

    North Somerset Council is apparently compiling a database of email addresses of people who choose that means of contacting it, according to a report in today’s Bristol Post.

    According to the council, this database is for use to contact people in an emergency and will not be passed on to third parties.

    However, the council has only just released details of the existence of this email address database once it had already collected 20,000 entries.

    According to a council spokesman: “The central database complies with data protection and email addresses will not be shared or sold to third parties (now where have we heard that before? Ed.).

    “This is just another way of the council being able to communicate with its residents should an emergency situation arise.

    “The addresses will not be used for any other reason. People who do not want to be contacted in this way can ask to have their details removed from the database.”

    Isn’t that reassuring? People can have their details removed from the database if they don’t want to be contacted by this means. This means North Somerset residents will have to take action themselves to be removed from a list that they probably didn’t want – or consent – to be added to in the first place.

    There’s far too much of this kind of data scraping going on. It would have been better if North Somerset Council had sought the informed consent of its email correspondents before adding them automatically to its database, but then again that would involve treating people like intelligent human beings. However, this is a highly unlikely prospect given that North Somerset Council has an even greater propensity than its big neighbour Bristol to refer disingenuously to its residents as ‘customers’. 🙁

  • Portugal adopts ODF as standard

    ODF file iconIn a list of open standard for use by public authorities, the Portuguese government is prescribing Open Document Format (ODF) as the sole format for editable documents, according to Germany’s Heise IT news site, commenting on a report from ESOP, the Portuguese Open Source Business Association. The list is part of a body of rules to ensure interoperability.

    In addition, the Open Standards Law (Law 36/2011 – unofficial translation here) passed in summer last year obliges the Portuguese authorities to use open standards wherever possible.

    ODF was initially the XML-based document format for the productivity suite and subsequently was adopted as an international standard, first with OASIS and later with the ISO.

    Further permitted open standards are PDF, XML, XMPP, IMAP, SMTP, CALDAV and LDAP. The initiative to establish open standards in the public sector is part of a programme which should save the administration €500 mn. per year.

    ESOP now hopes that the implementation of open standards in Portugal contributes to a better functioning IT market with more competition, lower prices and new opportunities for local SMEs.

  • Trains of thought

    As I never learnt to drive, I’m reliant for getting around on my own motive power or the use of public transport, particularly trains.

    To the best of my knowledge I’ve been using the railway for some five decades now, starting from my earliest recollections of junior school trips in the early 1960s to Whipsnade Zoo and London Heathrow Airport hauled by steam locomotive.

    Train travel has changed immensely since my early days. Trains themselves no longer carry mail or parcels and there’s no such thing as the guard’s van either, where the mail and parcels were stowed along with wicker baskets of racing pigeons.

    Train announcements have likewise mutated. Nowadays, they are bland and sound like they’ve been cobbled together in a studio, rather than delivered live by a live human being. My all-time favourite was that of a now long-gone male announcer at Bristol Temple Meads. When on duty, he announced the impending departure of any service with the words: “The X train on platform Y is now ready to depart. Close the doors and stand clear, please!” Announcements of this kind have now been rendered redundant by the introduction of centralised carriage door locking, which is activated some 30 seconds or more before departure.

    The language of the railways has changed over the decades too. The guard – a member of the proletariat – has been superseded by the modern ‘train manager’; presumably letting British management, a well known industrial disease, have charge of trains is a continuing reason for their failing to run to timetable. 🙂

    If you go looking for refreshment, the good old buffet car has gone, replaced by the bland, utilitarian ‘shop’. Who’s there to serve you? Not the steward: he or she has been replaced by a lumpen, jargon-ridden creature called the customer service host. How appetising. Talking of food, when was the last time passengers (sorry, ‘customers’ in the shiny newspeak of the train operating companies) saw a restaurant car?

    When on the train one can always spot the ‘train managers’ who started their working lives as guards or ticket collectors by their announcements over the speaker system: these are the ones whose trains “arrive at” the station, rather than the grammatically incorrect “arrive into”(on this side of the Atlantic at least; US aircraft frequently do this at their destinations).

    Bon voyage!

  • Forbidden food

    Throughout human history there has always been forbidden food – the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Old Testament, the various dietary restrictions imposed upon devotees by religion (e.g. kosher, halal, etc.) and the like.

    In addition to these there are other prohibitions imposed by other considerations, such as the cost of getting something to market. Other factors include whether something is (or is regarded as) a local speciality and is hence doesn’t travel – or not very far anyway. One such English local speciality is not available as far south as Bristol*, although it does travel north into Lancashire (it’s available in Sainsbury’s in Darwen by Blackburn. Ed.); and that’s the North Staffordshire oatcake.

    Staffordshire oatcake before filling
    North Staffordshire Oatcake awaiting filling

    According to Wikipedia, a North Staffordshire oatcake is a type of pancake made from oatmeal, flour and yeast. It’s cooked on a griddle or ‘baxton’. The oatcake is a local speciality in the North Staffordshire area of England. They are normally referred to as Staffordshire oatcakes or possibly Potteries oatcakes by non-locals, because they were made in this area. In and around Staffordshire and Cheshire they are often simply known as oatcakes.

    North Staffordshire exiles are fortunate that they can now order this local delicacy online from such companies as Newcastle’s North Staffs Oatcakes Ltd and Biddulph’s Povey’s Oatcakes, to name but two.

    As regards the location of oatcake shops in the Potteries and surrounding area, My Tunstall has helpfully provided an oatcake shops map. Earlier this year, a legendary oatcake shop, the Hole in the Wall closed due to a council compulsory purchase order. It was so called because the oatcakes were served to customers in the street via the front window and Stoke City Council should hang its head in shame at its destruction of the area’s heritage. Vic, my late stepfather, used to buy his oatcakes at the Hole in the Wall.

    The furthest recorded oatcake shop from the banks of the Trent can be found in Auckland, New Zealand, where an expatriate Leek resident has set up business.

    My oatcakes were bought from TJ Oatcakes & Sandwich Bar of 589 Leek Road, Hanley, ST1 3HD (map), just a short walk down the hill from my mother’s place. At TJ’s the oatcakes come in half dozen packs and are packaged in unbranded, anonymous clear plastic bags.

    Turning to the oatcake’s history, the oatcake is believed to date back to at least the 17th century when the oatcake was the staple diet of North Staffordshire people. It is thought that due to long hard winters, farmers grew oats instead wheat; the farmers’ wives would then bake the milled flour mixture on a bakestone for family members and farm workers. At that time oatcakes were quite likely to be eaten with lard, fat or cheese. During the 19th Century a cottage industry sprang up, with oatcake makers often making more than was needed and taking them in baskets to sell in the markets and streets. In the 20th century the more successful bakers built brickrooms in their yards in which to bake oatcakes from. Their front rooms would then serve as the the shop front, selling oatcakes through the sash windows, as in the Hole in the Wall above.

    Oatcakes are traditionally served with fillings such as cheese, tomato, onion, bacon, sausage and egg, plus brown or tomato sauce. They can also be eaten with sweet fillings such as golden syrup, jam or banana, but this is less common and is frowned upon by traditionalists. Mine were consumed in traditional manner, but with mushrooms added to the sausage/bacon filling. 🙂

    * = If anyone does find anywhere in Bristol selling North Staffordshire oatcakes, please let me know. Thanks!

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