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Birmingham Pride 2012

Last year saw my first Birmingham Pride, after having spent seven years living in Manchester and having Manchester Pride on my doorstep. I enjoyed it, but only to a point, as last year I was living out in the sticks of Sutton Coldfield and was not properly able to immerse myself in the event to the degree to which I had become accustomed during my years in Manchester. At the end of it I vowed to myself that I was enjoy Birmingham Pride 2012 much better, having set myself the goal for moving into the city centre in the year that followed.

I achieved that goal five months later, and so this year I was able to deliver on the promise I made myself and I had a Pride much more along the lines of what I am used to, being able to dip in and out of it and be able to quickly and easily return to my home base as needed and use it as a rendezvous point for with my friends. Indeed, I am fortunate enough to actually live on one of the streets that the parade passes down. Although I could have viewed it from my sixth floor balcony I chose not to and instead view it from the roadside with everyone else of course. I was grateful for the handy access to a toilet once it had finished, however.

Enormous Glide banner outside iHost (formerly DV8)

This year I got much more involved. The company I work for, Glide, sponsored the iHost bar. We paid for the events banner on the outside of the building and also branded up the inside of the bar, where some well known DJs from Birmingham and Manchester played classic house all weekend. The bar was constantly busy from morning right through to when the main club opened and beyond. It’s impossible to measure any direct impact on sales or web traffic, and that was never our intention, the whole point of the exercise was brand proliferation and given how much it cost Glide definitely got bang for buck and we received a lot of respect from our industry peers for having got involved.

Outside the “Glide Pride Bar” Pride itself was much like it was last year except for one major difference and that was that this year was the first year that an entrance fee was levied for the “entertainment arenas”. Up until and including last year Birmingham Pride was the largest free music festival in the United Kingdom, but at a tremendous cost to the local businesses who paid for the main stage, the cabaret tent, the dance tent and other entertainment features. The rest of the event was largely funded by various grants, including generous support from Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Police. This was not sustainable, however. Many believed that the venues who put on the entertainment were able to pay for it out of drinks takings, but these takings did not cover the cost, and so it was decided this year that although the Pride event itself would remain free (unlike for example Manchester Pride, where you need a ticket merely to enter the village cordon), there would be a £10 charge for the entertainment to cover the cost of running it.

James makes Jon his honorary boyfriend for the weekend

There was outcry over this from some factions, typically skint students who expect everything for free anyway, so that came as little surprise. I had no problem paying £10 for the weekend (although admittedly Glide paid it for me, I wouldn’t have otherwise hesitated) and I noted that it had the added benefit of dissuading less desirable Pride “guests” who had been known to spoil previous events from coming. As one drag act Baga Chipz put it succinctly, “it keeps the fuckin’ riff-raff out”. I spent most of the weekend in the Village Cabaret Tent as this was the most entertaining and social of the venues. I didn’t care much for the main stage acts. On Saturday I went to Poptastic, a well-established club night run by a friend of mine in Manchester who was running it for the first time ever at Birmingham Pride.

I had proper Pride blues the day after. I always do after Pride, I used to get them when I lived in Manchester and went to Manchester Pride too. It’s always a sign that I’ve had a good weekend. I don’t know if I’ll go to Manchester Pride this year or not. I didn’t go last year and I can’t honestly say I really missed it. If I do go it’ll all be very last minute.

More photos on Facebook.

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Python SimpleHTTPServer

I don’t use Python on a daily basis, barely at all in fact (knowingly), but I stumbled across a handy purpose for it today which I see myself using. Type this command in a Linux shell or a Mac OS terminal and it will start a local web server on port 8000 using the current working directory as the document root and sending access requests to STDOUT:

python -m SimpleHTTPServer 8000

Potential uses include:

  1. Developing local web applications on the local filesystem which use no server-side processing but do use Javascript and AJAX calls that a web browser would not normally allow without starting it with special flags (anyone who’s seen “XMLHttpRequest cannot load $RESOURCE. Origin null is not allowed by Access-Control-Allow-Origin” in their error console will know what I’m talking about).
  2. Quickly sharing a directory with a colleague on the same network rather than uploading files to a shared resource such as a file server or e-mail system. Obviously you’d need to ensure that whatever port you choose is allowed in your local incoming firewall if you have one.

There’s even better news for PHP users. PHP 5.4, released this week, includes a built-in web server which can be started with an equivalent command. The advantages of this of course is that it’ll also process PHP scripts instead of being limited to static files.

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Cadburys Olympic Podium Clock

I worked on a couple of extra-curricular projects over Christmas, one being a a project for Cadburys, who are touring the country over the next six months before the Olympic Games with three podium-style stands on which punters can attempt to win one of ten pairs of tickets to the opening ceremony by estimating how long exactly 20.12 seconds is. These will appear in various shopping centres and exhibitions over the months.

Punters press the big red comedy button to start and press it again to stop, and no, they don’t have view of the screen while they’re playing. If they win there’s a winning sequence of sounds and words on the display and the operator also activates four flashing purple police lights. It’s pretty much impossible to estimate correctly, however, even if you do have sight of the screen.

My job was to create the software for this including all the graphics, which I did using my normal skill-set of HTML, CSS and Javascript/jQuery (no server-side stuff required, runs on a laptop without an Internet connection). I’m also able to push out software updates to each of the three stands over the next six months should they for some reason become necessary.

The screens in the photo below will be installed within the podium-style stands themselves and only the clock digits themselves will be visible through the aperture in the front (simulated by the crude paper surround on the screen on the right). The purple bar at the top of the screens is only visible on the operator’s laptop and contains some basic options and settings which aren’t publicly visible. The red button is custom built and contains a USB numeric keypad with a mechanism that presses the “5” key. This then simply plugs into the laptop as a USB keyboard.

It was a nice bit of fun. It’s not a million miles away from the sort of things I used to do when I worked for 2Heads back in 2000/2001, so almost a little nostalgic. No plugins or flash either, all HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery, as it should be.

Testing the displays and the comedy red button

In action in the Birmingham Bullring during March 2012

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2011 Review

I’ve not done one of these for some time, mainly because I’ve had nothing that I would particularly want to write home about over the past few years, but not only has 2011 been a little different but I’ve also written “blog more” on my list of New Year’s resolutions, the rest of which I won’t reveal for fear of jinxing them. So here goes:

My year

For me it’s been a relatively good year, which is a welcome change. Every year since 2006 when my business failed up to and including 2010 was unpleasant and negatively stressful in some way. I say “negatively stressful” because there is such thing as “positive stress”, which is what I have been thriving on this year. Those previous years brought nothing but stressful losses, whether financial, of personal relationships, of employment and even my home. I can’t say that I’ve regained all of those things because that would be far from the truth, but I do believe to be on my way in a sustainable and realistic manner.

I started 2011 unsure about my current job and I was tempted by a very extraordinary opportunity that came across my path. I wasn’t offered the position in the end, I fell at the last hurdle during the recruitment process. I’m glad that happened now because my position at Glide developed and improved dramatically throughout the rest of the year and I am very settled there now. I see myself staying with the company and being involved in its development and future diversification for some time. Although I have been in higher paying positions in the past I can quite honestly say that it is the most rewarding job I have ever had and I really wouldn’t swap either it or the people I work with for anything less than something that I’d simply be an idiot to pass up.

With greater happiness in my job came greater acceptance and belief that my move from Manchester to Birmingham was a positive step, because for a while I quite honestly wasn’t sure, and this lead me to be able to move in to a place of my own in the middle of the city in November, which has made me immensely happy. Living on my own, on my own terms, in the middle of another fantastic city and with everything in walking distance again is a dream come true and I cherish it every day, whereas when I was living in Manchester I took it for granted. I’d like to thank all those who were so instrumental in helping make it happen for me.

2012

As I mentioned before I’ve a list of New Year’s resolutions and I’m so determined to stick to them that I have designed a spreadsheet that measures my success with each on a month by month basis. By that you can obviously infer that “be less anally retentive” isn’t one of them. However, also as mentioned before I’m not sharing them.

I’ve high hopes for my job and my team as the company I work for grows. We’re moving offices at the start of March to the Alpha Tower from our current base in the Jewellery Quarter, which should make things a little easier although I’ll actually have a smaller desk and my team will lose the separate room that we greatly enjoy at the moment. My team will expand (probably two-fold) and the company’s diversification plans are thoroughly exciting. A pay rise would be nice but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I want to continue to improve and expand my skill set and experience as you might expect. As mentioned before I’ve learnt more in my current position than in any other position so I don’t expect that curve will get any shallower any time soon, nor would I want it to. I want to get into mobile applications if possible as it would be nice to have something that just earns money for me while I sleep, but as with most software development you typically (but not always) need a problem before you can come up with a solution.

There are some demons still haunting me from the collapse of my business that I want to put to rest this year, finally, I think if I carry those over to 2013 I really will be doing something wrong.

The rest is all personal, really. Yes, I’d quite like to meet another fella, before you ask, but this isn’t high on my list of priorities, mainly because I’m old and ugly enough to realise that such things will happen to you when you least expect and whether you like it or not, so to seek them out would be a futile waste of precious time. That said, I’ve not been as “eligible” as I am now for some time now, so who knows.

I wish everyone who’s bothered to read this far a fabulous 2012. Let’s hope it doesn’t all end horribly on 12th December, eh?

Notable despatches

This section is a footnote really in the absence of a full review of news events this year. I would note that I actually read and/or watch the news every day with a keen interest and during my early days of blogging I would blog almost every day with my comment on whatever was going on, however, more recently Facebook and subsequently Twitter have provided more effective means of comment, meaning that rare is now the occasion where I will create a full blog about current affairs.

Banned shopping

Col. Gadaffi, the Libyan despot who ruled for 42 years since taking power in a military coup. An unpleasant relic from the 20th Century, no doubt, but I think many people will secretly miss the entertainment that he used to provide to the rest of the world. Modern world leaders may well be safe, responsible (Gordon Brown notwithstanding) and largely democratically elected but I can’t think of a single one who I would describe as “a character”, nor will any of them be remembered much beyond their tenures, not that I’m suggesting infamy to be something to aspire to. The circumstances surrounding Gadaffi’s death, however, raises worrying questions about Libya’s brave new future.

Invented nuclear fusion

Kim Jong-Il, the “Dear Leader” of the bizarre world that is the North Korea, itself also a haunting relic of the 20th Century that the world could well do without. Kim’s death was not unexpected, and although he was an abysmal failure as a leader, despite what North Korea state media insist, his passing on is not necessarily a good thing. The pampered idiot he’s left in charge is just that and nobody in the rest of the world wants a nasty coup in a rogue, pariah state armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and the world’s fifth largest army. Orwellian societies were never designed to leave the printed page.

Bins taken out on Bank Holiday


Osama Bin Laden, the criminal mastermind behind the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, who was tracked down to a compound in the middle of an affluent area of Pakistan near to a military academy, which embarrassed the Pakistani authorities immensely and has since strained relations between the two countries. This news was not entirely surprising what with the tenth anniversary of September 11th and Obama’s pledge to remove US troops from Iraq looming large. His elimination was a necessary pre-requisite of being able to say the job was done. May America’s wounds now heal properly.

Also mad

Steve Jobs, the visionary creator of Apple, now the world’s most successful company. I’ve been an Apple user for coming up to 6 years now and I have never looked back. Jobs initially tempted me away with the iPod and Intel-based Macs, and has continued to deliver ever since. The world needs more people like Steve Jobs. He has no clear heirs-apparent in the computer industry. There are contenders, without a doubt, but only time will tell if they end up making the sort of difference that he did.

The BBC have a slideshow on more notable deaths in 2011.

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Birmingham City Boy

Yes, I am aware that it's another flat above a shop

I’ve moved to Birmingham city centre, ending my 18 month tenure in the nice-but-dull former royal town of Sutton Coldfield. This may seem sudden to everyone but it’s actually something I’ve been wanting to do since moving to the West Midlands and that I have actually been quietly planning for six months or so, which is how long it has taken me to bring it all together for various reasons.

My new one bedroom flat is in Temple House, a popular development on the corner of Temple Street and New Street (the main outdoor shopping street in Birmingham, analogous to Manchester’s Market Street). It’s a 15-20 minute walk to work, which will be reduced by five minutes or so once the company for whom I work has itself moved in the New Year. No longer do I have a total of two and a half hours commuting time each day, which is great, because I get to spend longer at work and at home so everyone wins.

This year even drearier

It’s fabulous being back in the city centre. I always missed it, but now I’m back I realise just how much I missed it. This flat is arguably even more central than the Manchester flat was and there’s always a buzz going on outside, which I can observe from the balcony off the living room, something that only a few apartments in the building have.

Recipients of my Dreary Seasonal Newsletter accompanying my Christmas cards this year will note that I am also using it as a method of informing everyone of my change of address, in case you were wondering why you had not already received such a notification from me. Second class stamps cost 36 pence each these days, you know.

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New life for old Mac mini

Mac Mini (original case)

18 months ago I replaced my aged 2006 Mac Mini with an up to date model, which is still my main desktop computer today. The old Mac Mini was relegated to being a quasi-media centre, but of course because it was actually a desktop computer it really wasn’t a very good media centre, but due to its age nor was it a very good desktop computer, hence why I replaced it.

I never used it as a media centre beyond the odd occasion and it’s spent the last 18 months mostly consuming enough power to sleep and collecting dust. Until this evening, that is. I’m moving again soon (which I’ll cover in full in a different post) and I’m trying to take as little as possible with me. I was using an old Dell PC as a local Linux development server, which isn’t anything special but did the job nicely. There were three problems with it, however, specifically that it’s as ugly as hell, chews through electricity because it was manufactured at a time when computer manufacturers thought it grew on trees, and it belongs to my housemate.

I don’t really want to take it with me when I move because of all of those reasons, although I’m sure the last one could be eliminated with £30 or so. Then I remembered that I had this entirely idle old Mac Mini tucked away on a corner of my network doing nothing. I wondered if it would accept an installation of Ubuntu Server, given that it’s an Intel-based Mac (the original Intel Core Solo model, no less). Sure enough, it turns out that it can, and it works a treet.

My old Mac Mini has a 60Gb hard disk and 1.25Gb of RAM. It’s not going to break any records with its single-core 1.5Ghz processor, but for running a local Apache2 server it’s nothing less than what I need. The only caveat is that it won’t boot on its own into Linux straight from the hard disk, I have to keep an CD with rEFIt on it in the CD drive for it to do that; it’s certainly not the end of the world.

From a cold-boot to getting a login prompt with all services started it uses just 85Mb of RAM and with all the software I need on it and my Git repositories in place it’s using just 2.5Gb of it’s hard disk. All this on a 65 watt power supply. In addition to this, and despite the fact that it’s very different internally to my new Mac Mini, the two look identical from the outside and so look pretty good stacked on top of each other.

So don’t throw out your old Mac Mini, give it a proper job to see out its old age! The only thing I can’t do with this which I was thinking about doing with the Dell PC was putting an x100P card in it. I’ll live.

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Flattening LaTeX source files for use with conversion software

I’ve been working with LaTeX quite a bit recently and I came across a very silly shortcoming that some of the programs that convert LaTeX to other formats suffer from. It’s moronic, but certain of them (pandoc, I’m looking at you), don’t follow includes (i.e. \input commands).

I have a PHP script which compiles all my LaTeX source files into various destination formats, including PDF, HTML, MediaWiki markup and text, and so in order to compensate for this ridiculous incapability I added this function which creates a “flattened” version of any LaTeX file by inserting the contents of any included files at the point they are included. It’s recursive, so if those included files also include files, they too are processed.

It’s simple but effective. Pass the path to the file to flatten. A string is returned with the entire flattened file. You may need to pay attention to relative paths in your \input commands if you includes are in sub-directories.

function FlattenLatexSourceFile($path) {
	
	// read in file
	$src = file($path);
	$flattened = "";

	// process each line
	foreach ($src as $line) {
		
		if (preg_match("/^\\\input/",$line)) {

			// include (input) line, extract filename and recurse
			
			$input = trim($line);
			$input = preg_replace("/^\\\input\{/","",$input);
			$input = preg_replace("/\}/","",$input);
			
			if (substr($input,-4,4) != ".tex") $input = "{$input}.tex";
			
			$flattened .= "% {$line}\n";
			$flattened .= FlattenLatexSourceFile($input);
			$flattened .= "\n% (end of included file {$input})\n";
			
		} else {
			
			// normal line
			$flattened .= $line;
			
		}
		
	}
	
	// return flattened file
	return $flattened;
	
}

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Mountain biking renaissance

Trek Antelope 830

The only way you can tell it's 19 years old is its lack of technology.

When I was sixteen my parents bought me a new mountain bike as a congratulations present for passing my GCSEs. It’s a Trek Antelope 830, an American design which was, so I’m told by the grease monkeys in Halfords, something of a classic model from the early 1990s. It’s seen little use since I learnt to drive and languished in the car park of the apartment building in Manchester for a full seven years before I moved to Sutton Coldfield, disused and neglected.

I’d been meaning to get it fixed up for some time ever since moving because almost on my doorstep I have the largest urban park in Europe, Sutton Park, and the place is perfect for spending an afternoon biking around. It has roads and bridleways and once you’re bored of those it has hundreds of square miles of terrain to explore. So after having earned a bit of overtime during a busy period at work recently I finally got around to taking it to the local branch of Halfords to get it fixed up. For £160 I secured the following:

  1. New gear shifters.
  2. New saddle and saddle column. The last one “went missing” years ago from the W3 car park.
  3. New rear inner tube. Surprised that it didn’t need both tubes replacing, actually.
  4. Full service, plus another free service in 12 months time.
  5. New cycle helmet.
  6. Front and rear LED lights.
  7. Bicycle pump. They look completely different these days to what they used to.

The original gear shifters were broken and the parts were no longer available. The staff at Halfords remarked on these because they remember when that particular model of shifter first came out as they were apparently one of the first 7×3 shifters. They have been replaced with modern equivalents. This is a shame because it means that the bike is no longer completely original, but they are of course a necessity if I want to actually use it.

So yesterday I took it for its first proper outing to Sutton Park and I had a fabulous time. The bike’s great to ride, despite having a distinct and noticeable lack of modern technology that seems to be ubiquitous on modern bikes, most notably suspension and shock absorbers. As a result it’s a bit of a bone shaker when compared to a modern bike. It also has the old fashioned rim brakes, whereby the brakes are rubber blocks applied to the rim of the wheel, as opposed to the more modern disc brakes, which look like and act on the same principle as car brakes. This means that the bike can be a little tricky to stop quickly in an emergency. However,  I never intend to have it in a situation so extreme that I cannot easily plan my way out of it. I know the bike has limitations compared to a modern equivalent and it’s just a case of taking them into account.

The bike rides fine, just like it used to, except the chain seems to slip quite frequently and it’s difficult to get it onto the third (largest) cog on the front sprocket. Indeed, at one point it failed so miserably to do this that the chain came off and became wrapped around the pedal shaft, which required half an hour with the bike up on end and some very oily hands to work out and sort out. I’m not sure what might be the solution to this. They didn’t replace the chain at Halfords so it may well be the case that it’s just a bit old and needs replacing. I am consulting friends who are more into mountain biking for advice on the matter.

Lessons I have immediately learned from this first expedition are as follows:

  1. Take more than a litre of water for an afternoon. You get thirsty really quickly.
  2. Take a pair or two of those medical rubber gloves. When the chain came off my hands got absolutely covered in oil fixing it and I had no way of getting it off until I reached the bistro where I had my late lunch.
  3. There is barely any mobile signal in Sutton Park and so it’s difficult to use Google Maps. Sutton Park is extremely large and will take some time to learn properly.
  4. Skiing sunglasses make perfectly good cycling glasses and don’t look absurd with a cycling helmet.
  5. Cycling helmets don’t look even a fraction as ridiculous as they used to in the early 1990s.
  6. If I ever become reasonably serious about mountain biking I do think that I might have to consider a new bike at some point as I have a very sore arse today and this would probably have been avoided had the bike had some form of shock absorption technology.

Today my legs are absolutely killing me, as is my arse, but I fully intend to do exactly the same trip next Saturday, weather permitting. Ahead of that, however, I want to by a trip meter of some sort and some sort of attachment to hold my phone onto the handlebars would also be beneficial. Some people have also recommended padded shorts to reduce the arse soreness problem, but I won’t be seen dead in cycling shorts, it would have to be something I can wear underneath normal cargo shorts. I’d also probably do well to get a pair of gloves as I remember mashing my hands up quite significantly when I came off the bike as a teenager.

Cows in Sutton Park

Sutton Park is a nature reserve and boasts much wildlife, including these cows which are free and have the run of the park. They are apparently quite used to being around humans.

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