no easy way to earn 59p …

Every now and then, the creative juices start to bubble and I find myself toying with some random technology … if not to keep abreast of the latest gadgets out there, in the vain hope that I will one day find that elusive killer app.

I was extremely lucky to be given a Rovio by J this Christmas: the play factor of this latest gizmo is still to be fully tapped, but hacking prospects look healthy, supported by a stable following of geeks (btw, what is the collective noun for nerds?) already soldering lighting and camera modules to the unit, expanding UIRT capabilities via X10 to switch on electrical devices at home, and the ultimate mod, an AD convertor relaying voice commands received via Skype to tell Rovio to move! Anyway, this prompted me to download the JS library and the iPhone SDK with the cunning plan of creating a little app to run my Rovio whilst out and about.

Instead, I got a little side-tracked and made a travel photo diary app called iPlaces – partly because there isn’t anything out there that combines Google’s APIs (Picasa and Maps) with WordPress mobile blogging, partly because I’m fed up of losing bits of scribbled paper containing telephone numbers and links to nice restaurants, wines, cool places etc … but mainly because I’m curious to see how many 59p I can accumulate through this endeavour. Hard work it certainly is – I can’t remember the last time I did any proper coding, and Objective-C (including Apple’s Cocoa implementation) is not for the faint-hearted. Having struggled with the decision to code-up some database routines in SQLite, I’ve decided to opt for Core Data instead – costs a tad more in overheads but life’s too short to be messing around with basic (read boring) classes and methods.

Anyway, below are 2 screenshots of the imminent app. Don’t hold your breath since Apple require $99 from me to join the Developer’s programme before I can place it for sale in the App Store. Not bad eh for 1.5 days work! 😉

adios my little tiger …

I’ve made the executive decision to retire my trusty Mac Mini. It has served me well, but now it is time to move back to the familiar territory of Microsoft. Speaking of which, I am now the proud owner of an EEE PC on to which I’ve shoe horned a nLited version of XP (having removed the gay Xandros OS that came with it) which only takes up 600Mb of the 4Gb SSD. A 7″ touch screen is also on order, and when installed will make it a formidable gadget for any mobile road warrior (see previous post on the 3 Skypephone). Oh happy days!

Other new news … errrr, Pim’s blogged about the new Michelin France 2008 so you can read all about the movers and shakers here. There’s also a PDF to accompany the post which you can download – I’ve posted a copy here for those of you who can’t stand the suspense …

3 skypephone …

I am absolutely loving my Skypephone from 3 – see review here. Ok, it has a few bugs here and there (the most annoying being having to turn it off/on again after losing the dialup connection when using as it a modem) but on the whole, it’s a great gadget and definitely worth the £45 (I bought the discounted twinpack so SWMBO didn’t complain ;)) for the handset on Pay As You Go. A £10 top up every 30 days gives you free skype calling, even abroad in any 3 Like Home countries (e.g. Ireland, Hong Kong etc). You can use the top up to buy the £5 fair use data pack giving you unlimited Internet access at 3G speeds, which you can use with any laptop or PDA equipped with bluetooth. £2 gets you a number of mainstream TV channels (or you can stream live TV from your Orb/Slingbox/Webguide setup) and when you just want to sit back and enjoy some music or a podcast or two, the A2DP profile delivers stereo to your bluetooth headset effortlessly.

Can’t wait to hook this up to my new toy (on order now for over a week) – the ASUS Eee PC … if retailers ever receive any from Taiwan this February, apparently the snow in China is playing havoc with logistics 😦

geocoding cell id into google maps …

Ok, I think I’ve reach that point where I need to stop and catch up on lost sleep …

There seems to be a lot of recent interest in location based technology, and now with the latest MyLocation functionality in Google Maps for Mobile (GMM), it wont be long before businesses start chomping at the bit to get their products/services mapped to make it easy for Joe Public to navigate to a shop or restaurant, using just a humble GSM mobile phone without GPS fitted.

So I thought I’d join this race and get myself up to speed with the latest tools and development ideas – hence the insomnia and radio silence (haha pun not intended!). Anyway, I’ve written a number of PHP scripts to geocode LAC/CID data from the RIL module on my Windows Mobile WM6 PDA into a seachable AJAX google map – in English, this means that my PDA is continuously updating my webserver with the GSM cell tower information which I am currently connected to, and I then turn this into geogaphical references (Latitude & Longitude) which are plottable on Google Map. And just for fun, I nicked someone’s code to reverse geocode the Lat/Long into Street Name, Town, Postcode, Country etc … click here to see my last reported position, click on the pushpin to get details of timestamp. Next step, a J2ME app that will work on most GSM phones to query the RIL for cell data, do some triagulation onsignal strength to determine the hotspot (cell towers don’t provide GPS accuracy) and update a MySQL database with an ‘invisible’ http session. Now that will be an interesting project …

Those of you who want to try this out, I’ve also knocked up a prototype script which you can access from http://fiftyone.no-ip.org/files/geocodecelltower3.php?lac=10&cid=16701 – you just need to put in the LAC (Local Area Code) and CID (CellID) – if you know what these are …

Happy locating!

dublin four flowers …

flowers.JPG

When I was last in Ireland a couple of weeks ago, my sis-in-law asked me to put together a web site (domain name registration, hosting and html coding – the full monty) for her flower design studio serving the Ballsbridge, Donnybrook and Sandymount areas in the prestigious postcode of D4 in Dublin … and thus www.dublinfourflowers.com was born.

Now, isn’t she a talented girl? Get your Christmas orders in now …

beauty is skin deep …

I can still remember feeling squeamish whenever J channel-flicked onto one of those edutainment programmes on Sky that show live surgery. If I had my way, even Nip Tuck would have been committed to the TV naughty corner, had it not been saved by surprisingly creative dialogue and provocative plots … not to mention the tanned bodies and strong jawlines. Call me shallow, but I pledge my full support to the producers of that TV show when it comes to flaunting feminine curves and 6-pack torsos … because beauty (and I herewith make an advance apology to any hirsute lesbians/feminists and Lionel Richie lookalikes who may be offended by my next pronouncement) is skin deep. And whereas the external human form has immense sex appeal, the insides of a human body and its workings are about as interesting as the contents of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag. That is, unless it is your body … and then, it suddenly becomes the most intriguing thing since Kate Moss’s purse and the most bloggable subject in the world!

Last Wednesday, I gave birth to twin gallstones – an achievement that would not have been possible without the skill and professionalism of the very competent team at Bath Clinic, particularly Messrs Hardy (anaesthetist) and Britton (surgeon). While Hardy knocked me out and made sure I stayed under, Mr Britton (whose dry and boyish bed-side manner reminded me of Stan Laurel) stabbed me 4 times in the abdominal area in a procedure known as a laparoscopic cholecystectomy (that’s gall bladder removal for the medically challenged among you) which comes under the curious medical vernacular of ‘key hole’ surgery. Key hole – now that’s a bit of a misnomer! What surgeons fail to explain to patients during pre-op consultations is the size of the lock they will be dealing with, and judging from the length of incisions on my tummy, it would appear that my surgeon was attempting to pick-lock the portcullis of Warwick castle 😉

But it is all good, as they say and I am now bed-bound and signed off work for the next two weeks with little prospect of social interaction to feed my blog, and yes, I will spare you loyal readers any write up on the frequency of bowel movements and other bodily functions. However, I’m giving serious thought about a paper comparing the coefficient of transparency between Egyptian cotton pillow cases and my nylon anti-DVT stockings. Ummmm, maybe I should save that for next week. Suffice it to say, the prescription drugs, in particular Tramadol, are doing wonders for pain management and inducing some very interesting and florid dreams – an added bonus of being an opiate derivative, I guess. Kids at home, say NO to Tramadol ok … unless you’ve been stabbed.

Meanwhile I’ve made a start on a programing project – a piece of extra-curricular work set by my boss to develop an eBay software tool that will allow sellers to do some statistical analysis on historical auction behaviour in order to predict (read: artificially inflate) the best final sale price for an item. I thought I might write it in Java, but being bed-ridden and having no access to any good books, I’ve decided to plumb for Visual Basic 2005 Express. Progress to date includes the GUI mini-browser functionality (which was a doddle), and today’s task is to work on the ‘state machine’ of valid eBay HTML responses, before diving in to the nightmare of parsing HTML code to extract valuable data from the noise. That should keep me out of mischief for a couple of days …

mac phoenix …

My Mac Mini is back in action … the doctors could not revive the dead hard drive so it was back to square one for my WordPress blog – an experience almost as painful as the chronic abdominal cramps of recent nights from my errant gall-stone(s). They say Revenge is a dish best served cold, and before I am through stuffing it with new chores (e.g. Asterisk PBX, CCTV, Media Streamer etc), my Mini will be wishing it had been reborn as sushi.

Navigation to the fixed menu pages is still a known problem, as are categories … but please bear with me. Torture is only pleasurable when there is no prospect of surrender 😉

dead mini …

Sorry fans, but as an emergency measure, I have reverted to this out-of-date blog following the recent demise of my Mac Mini … which until last night, was hosting my most recent blog on WordPress.

It’s off to the doctors today with a suspected disk ailment, so until it is returned (hopefully fixed) sometime in the future, you and I will have the to put up with the pleasure of blogspot.

Update: Ok, I’ve backfilled previous posts from cached copies lurking on other PCs around the house, so we should be up to date now …

new toys …

So it’s been a while since my last post. J and I were looking forward to a period of unadulterated chilling out which we did manage to achieve despite the chaos created by our earlier accident with the water tank. As a bonus, our respite ended on a materialistic high with some new toys for SWMBO and me: J bought a new car, and I’m now the proud father of this little bag of wizardry. The O2 XDA Exec (the Universal from HTC a.k.a. T-Mobile MDA Pro, Vodafone VPA IV, Orange SPV M5000, Qtek 9000, i-Mate JasJar, Dopod 900) is a replacement for my XDA II and Nokia 6630 – I now retain full PDA/MP3 functionality with TomTom 5 satellite navigation plus the added bonus of 3G high-speed data services including 2-way video conferencing with J’s Sharp 902 (Ferrari limited edition) – an early birthday present from yours truly. With the Blackberry Connect client expected imminently, I shall be in a position to get rid of the 7100v too – taking me down to a single device. Oh happy days!

It’s half term next week. The kids are home and I’m planning to take some time off to do some DIY on the house, addressing other parts that are not being worked on by the builders/decorators who will be onsite again repairing the walls and ceilings from our recent accident with the water tank. If they finish before the week is out, we may emabark on our annual pilgrimage to Disneyland Paris for Halloween and if not, well there’s always something here that needs doing. An old house is very much like an old car – when the fixing is done, one is instantly bowled over by the beauty of the finished product, but while it is being worked on, the monotony of repairs is just unbearably tedious

Which is why we needed some retail / gastronomic therapy today. Fresh & Wild (we visited the branch on Queens Road, Clifton) is fast becoming a mecca for the discerning foodie while providing instant gratification to those shopping for natural remedies / alternative skincare products. While J fiddled with rose-perfumed face cleansers, I rooted around the organic veg section (pah! don’t you just hate it when people do that and then add the detestable caveat of No pun intended) for some butternut squash for soup-making later … ummmm, I’m really into soups at the moment, particularly veggie ones. Afterwards, we popped into the new branch of Space.NK – a super-modern apothecary with Habitat-inspired decor, stocking the latest skincare products from Eve Lom plus other pricey items, but if you’re on a tighter budget especially after paying for so many new toys , then I recommend the relatively affordable Kiehl’s Lip balm. Oh, and the Men’s eau de toilette is just divine – Santa, are you taking notes?!

future nav …

Is this the future of web navigation? Feeling the need to tear myself away from bid documentation, I decided to check out Google Earth. Now a really cool interface for me would involve overlaying Big Picture over Google Earth, with an option to communicate directly with your handheld GPS device (which also happens to be a mobile phone, PDA, espresso maker, etc.) Picture this, having trawled the net using this new interface, read the reviews and decided on the latest toy you absolutely cannot live without, you can zoom into the retail outlet nearest you and check out the traffic situation before leaving the house and have the location details sent directly to your GPS system cum coffee maker. Oh, if you are really astute, you will have programmed additional criteria into Big Picture to ensure that the gadget shop is adjacent to purveyors of female fashion goods, thereby earning extra brownie points from the significant half who will be chuffed to bits by this sudden display of generosity. And if she does murder you after discovering how much you have spent on said gadget, you will at least be posthumously awarded the Nobel Prize for Marital Reconciliation. Alternatively, you can sit on your fat arse, break open a six-pack and buy it through eBay. It will save you a new pair of shoes and (if you are really unlucky) a handbag.

Speaking of gadgets – if you haven’t yet discovered Gizmodo, check it out here.

live from the field …

Ok boys and girls, we now have mobile blogging from my Nokia 6630! What a PITA this has been to set up, locating a suitable wp-mail.php script that could understand the weird MIME content chucked out by the Nokia email client. In the end, I resorted to Profimail for the S60 and this works a dream. Anyway, this photo of a very large chandelier was taken under one of the arches in Camden Town market / Chalk Farm at the week-end – an ex-flea market now transformed beyond recognition into a fast food mecca (in quantity only, but not necessarily in quality I hasten to add) with a few interesting new age / fetish clothing outlets, but in the main, still full of the usual assortment of weed tokeing down-and-outs, punk rockers (most of them now in their 40s), purveyors of magic mushrooms and the occasional goth. It was certainly an interesting day for the boys!

Look out for more live reports from the field (literally) next week …

test.JPG

some WordPress pointers …

Ok folks, after wrestling with permalinks and mod_rewrite, I’ve deciphered a number of well-scribbled Post-Its to give you some pointers on how to ‘tune’ your WP blog.

Firstly, your Apache build needs to include mod_rewrite – if it doesn’t, fix this then come back here. mod_rewite is required to enable permalinks and improve the aesthetics of your URI so instead of a messy URI that includes references to hard-coded page entries in MySQL database e.g. …/blog/index.php?p=xxx, you get a nice URI referenced by the title of your post e.g. …/blog/my-post/. Permalinks also create a more constant reference for search engines/RSS feeds, especially if you intend to reindex or change the underlying database of your blog later.

Problem 1: Permalinks do not appear to work.

1. Check your Apache httpd.conf (in /etc/httpd/) and make sure that within the ‘Directory’ tag, Allow Override is set to ‘All’
2. Check for existence of a .htaccess file in your blog directory, if not create one by touch .htaccess
3. Make sure .htaccess has correct permissions, chmod 666 .htaccess should do the trick
4. Go back to WP admin, and under Options/Permalinks, select a template tag for your structure – if you’ve done all the above, WP should edit the .htaccess automatically.

Problem 2: Trailing slash is missing in the header URI.

This is a really irritating problem. In WP 1.5 (upwards), the trailing slash has been removed (ostensibly for consistency!) such that when you click on the header hyperlink to take you back to your blog’s index.php page, you get a 404 error instead. There are a couple of ways to fix this:

1. add the trailing slash yourself in themes/header.php wp-register.php and wp-login.php (not very elegant since this requires constant changes if you use multiple themes)
2. add a ReWriteRule in your .htaccess file as follows:

ReWriteEnginge On
ReWriteBase /your-blog-directory-name/
ReWriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} -f [OR]
ReWriteRule you-blog-directory-name /your-blog-directory-name/index.php [L] *** add this line

What this does is everytime Apache gets a URI request pointing to the directory of your blog with a missing trailing slash (if there’s no /, Apache thinks you’ve requested a file rather than a directory), the rewrite rule appends /index.php to the URI, thus avoiding the 404 error. The [L] then tells the rewrite to stop after executing this rule.

Tomorrow, I shall tackle themes to improve the ‘look’ of my WP blog but for the moment, this blog has been imported into WP from blogger.com

mini in name only …

Success … I think. My Mac Mini is now purring handsomely beside the plasma and is configured as an auxiliary Apache web server, but armed to the teeth naturally with the usual power tools – Postfix mail, php, MySQL and Webalizer (to name but a few). I’ve also added WordPress to the arsenal and got as far as hosting a test blog before turning to post this writeup – in a word, this Tiger is bitchin’ .

But here’s the million dollar question: is OS X simpler to use than Windoze? Well, ummm … maybe. Tiger’s brill when you’re doing noddy everyday stuff – and some of the cool things like widgets, Sherlock and RSS integration into Safari really put Bill’s HCI team at MS to shame – but the advanced stuff is not for the faint hearted and for this reason, it is well hidden from the user. So much so I’ve had to delve deep into the subconscious to dredge up what few nuggets are left from previous UNIX encounters to work around some challenging installation problems. Fortunately, I located this guide before resorting to hari kiri.

The bottom line … I’m a *very* happy bunny and with OSXvnc installed, I’ll be taking this little pussy to bed tonight, albeit remotely on my Windoze laptop. The Mrs, on the other hand, is not so thrilled about the idea … ;o)

toys & boys …

Two cool things will happen next week: my Mac Mini is scheduled to be delivered on Wednesday and we’ve got tickets for the opening of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith on Thursday. Not surprisingly, the boys are hyper with anticipation for the latter, and the Force is unmistakably strong in their rooms: Lego bricks that once lay lifeless in ambush of parental feet (why is it they hurt so much when you stand on them?!) have been restored into impressive battle crafts as the boys re-enact the scenes from Hoth, Besbin and Geonosis with the usual cacophony of whizz, bangs and pops comensurate with the intensity of the conflict. As for me, I intend to chill in front of the telly with the Mac (I’m plugging the Mini into the DVI of the 42″ plasma to achieve the holy nirvana of 1920 x 1200) and do lots of hand-waving (using the wireless air-mouse from Gyration while unravelling the delights of the new Tiger OS. Ummmm, just can’t wait …

more google goodies …

P***ed off with expensive & ineffective 118 services? Google’s come up with an alternative that will only cost you a text message. Google SMS (currently in Beta) lets you get local business listings when you’re on the road and want to find a place to eat, obtain driving directions to get from point A to point B without having to ask for directions, compare online product prices with ones you find on the high street, look up dictionary definitions to expand your vocabulary or prove a point, solve maths problems such as converting to metric units. Just text your query to 64664 (or 6GOOG on most mobile phones) in the following example formats:

  • (business name)or(type).(location)or(postcode) … to get business information e.g. tesco.swindon or plumber.sn2 1bs
  • from (location) to (location) … for driving directions
  • price (product) … for price comparisons
  • define (word) … for definitions
  • g (keywords) … for web snippets (first few lines of matching webpages)
  • or calculator-like queries such as “5 miles in km”

However, if you are deskbound or have an internet-enabled PDA, Google Local UK is a Multimap-like local business locater service, and should provide directory listings in the familiar pin-headed mapping format.

to voip or not to voip …

I don’t think I’ve done a geeky blog on technical stuff to date, so here’s one I prepared earlier …

If like me, you have relatives & friends who live outside the UK and you need a better value service for telephony (i.e. anything from FREE to say 2p a minute to call the USA, Malaysia, etc etc) then read on – today’s blog is about Voice over IP (VoIP) and how someone in the UK can take advatage of something called ‘toll-bypass’. There’s a guy on eBay selling this info for 3.99 GBP – but if anyone wants to do something in return for my tips below, then feel free to go here and see what you can do to help …

OK there are 2 things to consider – the user and the equipment. If your Granny in Hong Kong only has access to a telephone and would be uncomfortable putting on a headset & talking into a computer, then it is unlikely (but not impossible) that you will be able to call her (or for her to call you) for FREE. The simple rule is this: if either end has to use a traditional telephone device (whether fixed or mobile) and is connected to the traditional PSTN or telephone network, then there will be a charge – the size of this charge will depend on the service provider and the options listed below. So, as a UK resident here are the services available to you:

If all you have is a telephone …

18866 – Registration for this service is by credit card. Requires a UK telephone fixed line but thereafter you can include other phone numbers (including mobiles) in your account, allowing you to use the service from these numbers. To use, simply prefix the number you want to call with ‘18866’ and enjoy silly tariffs to UK fixed numbers for ZERO pence per minute (i.e. FREE for as long as you can talk), 2p per minute to destinations such as the USA, Malaysia, New Zealand, etc etc. There is a standard connection charge for all calls of 2p. Billing is monthly and you will receive an invoice by email.

If you have a computer & you are on broadband …

You have a number of options, and these options will depend on the equipment of the people you are calling. If the majority of the people you call have access to a computer, then Skype offers very good quality audio conferencing facilities (plus other neat stuff like presence and chat). Both parties need to download and install the free Skype client/program and calls from one Skype user to another Skype user are absolutely FREE. However, if you need to call somone who only has access to a traditional telephone, you can also buy credits in 10 EURO chunks to ‘SkypeOut’ to say Granny in Hong Kong for 1.6p per minute.

In addition to using Skype (which uses proprietary technology), you can extend your options further by using standards-based VoIP service, based on something called SIP (Session Initiation Protocol). 18866 provides details of the configuration required to connect to their service using an IP Phone. An IP Phone can be a real device or it can be a bit of software (a Softphone) on your computer. Xten offers a FREE softphone called X-Lite and when configured to use with your 18866 account, you can still call UK fixed numbers from your computer for FREE and pay a lesser 1p connection charge. There are other marginal savings on some other destinations. Like Skype, SIP Softphone to another Softphone calls are FREE.

So far we’ve only looked at services where you are the initiator of a VoIP call, but what if you want to be called and for the call to arrive on your computer on a UK number? Sipgate offers a geographical (STD) number to any UK resident and registration is FREE. Once you have configured the X-Lite Softphone with your Sipgate account details (you can have multiple SIP configurations on a Softphone), your friends and family can call you on the personal number given to you by Sipgate, and the calls will be directed to the Softphone on your computer. There is also a Voicemail service for when you are not reachable i.e. when you’re offline – messages are taken and sent to you as an attachment in an email. Sipgate also offers a call plan to dial out to other global destinations, but the tariffs are not as competitive as 18866 or SkypeOut. I see that Skype are now offering a ‘SkypeIn’ service with Voicemail, but unlike Sipgate, this is subscription based and not FREE.

On a final note, there are devices available now to make the VoIP technology totally transparent to the telephone user. ATAs (Analogue Telephone Adapters) such as the B2K Skype adapter from MPlat lets you connect your home phone to Skype (yes, your computer running Skype will need to be on all the time!) and your home phone will ring when someone tries to Skype you. When you want to Skype another user (or SkypeOut to someone on a telephone device), just use your telephone and prefix the call with the ‘*’ button. For standards-based VoIP based on SIP, there is a great box, the Draytek Vigor 2100VG that is a broadband wireless router with a port to plug in your home phone and works in a similar way to the Skype ATA, but doesn’t require your computer to be on permanently. So when enough people have these sort of devices, you can see that FREE global calling would be a reality … even when Granny is still clinging on to her dear old telephone the other side of the world.

BT, watch out … !!!

why are we waiting …

Still no news on the down select decision on the bid I’ve been working on …

In the meantime, I’ve splashed out on a new toy – a Creative Zen Xtra that will hold 40Gb of music. I mean, who in the world has a CD collection that large … and can claim to be totally legit about converting his/her entire music collection into MP3s. Why, me of course 😉 And it’s not even 1/2 full!

a fresh face …

Ok, I’ve moved the front end of my website to blogger.com – not without the appropriate amount of heartache and angst that these things usually provoke, but it is done now. One of the benefits (as if any justification is required to take me back to my first love – that of programming code) is that the new interface should allow me to post more efficiently [read: more frequently], but only time will tell 😉

At work, we are approaching the down select decision on the bid I’ve been working on for the past year and a bit – nail biting stuff, but I guess the decision has already been made in the corridors of power and well … que sera sera.