Monthly Archives: December 2006

wokfi for beginners

In the best drunk monkey stumble around the net tradition, I found something near and dear to my heart today – people reframing technology for their own purposes – in particular, reinventing low tech for high tech purposes.

It all started when I was loading some books into boxes – I should do an inventory – as if I can be bothered with writing down the details of several box loads of books. I figure someone must’ve solved this before, and remembered someone had come up with some Mac software that you could load your book titles in and it’d search for the bibliographic details. I tried to find the software to see if it was available for xp yet. (Note: still looking for the software.) [No boxes packed]

In my searching found LibraryThing was able to read from CueCats, and they had some for sale. But do I actually want to order one from the USA and then they don’t work and on and on and on…

So I did a search for USB hand bar scanners at Dick Smith’s – they might have that kind of do-dah.

No such luck – well apparently not cheaply, but what I did find, is a bunch of lo-tec/high-tec hackers bent of turning innocent (‘THERE ARE NO BYSTANDERS!’) chinese cookware into wifi hardware. Very cool. From the web site:

Make 2.4GHz parabolic mesh dishes from cheap but sturdy Chinese cookware scoops & a USB WiFi adaptor ! The largest (300mm diam) shows 12-15dB gain (enough for a LOS range extension to 3-5km), costs ~US$5 & comes with a user friendly bamboo handle that suits WLAN fieldwork- if you can handle the curious stares! (Neater boutique versions may better appeal).

I still haven’t solved the bar code scanner issue, but I’m about to stop writing and start packing. I just need to read a couple more pages from the wokfi team… I may be some time…

I did eventually find a freeware eLibrary program stashed away in tucows, Songstech, the program developer’s site has later versions (now eLibPro), but I’m unsure if they’re still freeware. eLibrary is apparently also able to accept input from CueCats. I might be closer to getting a bar code scanner than I thought.

Have a great new year folks, see you in 2007.

how to cook poached eggs

Yesterday, at the Can’t Boil Water Café, I finally managed to cook and present reasonable poached eggs. It’s a dish probably 40 years in the making – I’ve never been very successful at cooking poached eggs. I’ve written here before about making soft boiled eggs, and here about making hard boiled eggs. I think egg dishes are the hardest to make – they cook quickly – about as long as it takes to make a cocktail – and they’re either right on the button – or sadly, second best – try again. I’m so excited about this I’ve decided to publish and be damned, rather than prove my technique to myself a couple of dozen times before leaping into writing about it.

I used a small frying pan – the pan I usually use for omelettes and filled it 3/4 full of water. I brought the water to a rolling boil and added about a teaspoon of salt. While the salt was dissolving I broke four room temperature eggs into a cereal bowl. I turned the heat off, and when the water had settled down, I eased the eggs into the water. I then turn the heat on again, to a low simmer – trying to minimise the water movement, but keeping the water temperature as hot as possible. My theory was if the water is moving too fast the egg white is swirled around, resulting in egg white soup. What you are trying to achieve is the egg white to stay clinging around the yolk.

When the yolks looked as solid as I wanted, scooped the eggs out using a slotted spoon (who needs watery toast?) and place them on their serving bed. In this case, the serving bed was wholemeal toast, some slices of ham off the bone, and a layer of freshly steamed asparagus. After the eggs I added a generous slurp or two of hot hollandaise, and a vigorous grind of black pepper.

Luxury, calm, and delight.

I’ve tried using vinegar in the water, and lemon juice, and lots of salt, and no salt. None seemed to have any real consistently productive effects. It’s particularly annoying if the egg sticks in the pan, and then breaks as you remove it – I’m sure that’s about sustaining the water temperature. I’ve tried poached eggs in the little pans – while this works in terms of neatness, the eggs have always seemed to be more leathery to me. Besides, that’s steamed, almost coddled eggs, and that’s simply not the same as poached. I rarely order poached eggs in restaurants because although it is a favourite of mine, clearly, the technique has eluded must cooking staff as well. What drives me nuts about this is my mother can cook superb poached eggs – I suppose experience makes the difference. After all the years of having not mastered this simple dish it’s been a big breakthrough for me. Now I’ve got a technique going on I’ll attempt to recreate the success.

blood sweat and tea – for free

Blood, Sweat and Tea: Real Life Adventures in an Inner-city AmbulanceTom Reynolds’s book, Blood, Sweat and Tea is available as a free download. It’s also available in paperback from Amazon (click the image on the left). It’s a captivating read. I’m a huge fan of short stories, and, while I’m generally not a huge fan of ‘medical’ stories, Tom’s writing is some of the best. I guess the big difference was seeing the flickr images of Tom exploring his own damaged knee – clearly (thankfully), this isn’t Shortland Street, rather these are real-life stories – reflective practice – from the London Ambulance Service. It’s sticky, icky, violent, funny, and heartbreaking – overworked people dealing with the damaged, dead, deranged, doped, and desperate.

This excerpt from Tom’s blog entitled Oh…Bollocks:

There is a fear that every Health-care worker has. Tonight that fear jumped up and slapped me in the face.

Second job of the shift, we were called to “50 year old male – collapsed in street”. Normally this is someone who is drunk – but we rushed to the scene anyway, just in case it isn’t (we rush to everything it’s the only way to be sure you aren’t caught out). We reach the scene and see the male laying on the floor talking gibberish. He is bleeding from a cut on his face and possible from his jaw. Bystanders tell us that he “just dropped”. He then starts to vomit, and because it’s dark we get him on our trolley and into the back of the ambulance.

Our basic assessment finds that he has no muscular tone on his right side, although all his obs are within normal limits. Decided against hanging around – we start transport to hospital. Halfway to hospital he starts to vomit and cough – part of this vomitus/blood flies unerringly across the width of the ambulance…

…right into my open mouth.

Pretty disgusting – but what can you do? The patient then starts to come around – now able to move all limbs and to talk. This is good – it means I’m able to get some history from him. So I get his name, date of birth, address. Then I ask this 50 year old if he is normally fit and well.

“No”, he says, “I have AIDS”.

I think the message that comes through loudest from the book – is that despite all, Tom is inspired by his job, he finds it satisfying, even enjoyable. From the book:

Across London we deal with more than 3 500 calls per day, and with a fleet of 400 ambulances of which perhaps only three-quarters are manned, we seldom get a rest. Where I work we average one job an hour, and are supposed to transport every one of those patients to hospital.

The longest shift we officially do is 12 hours, in which we can expect 10–13 jobs, which doesn’t sound like a lot but is enough to keep us busy . . . We spend 97% of our time away from station (compared with 3% for the fire service).

However, it is a fun job.

For me, that’s the part that grabbed me the most – as Tom wanders through what appears to be some of the more random inner circles of hell, his spirit, humour, and generosity shine through – bizarrely (from my perspective) he seems to love what he does. It’s good to know that this is kind of Churchillian grit survived the blitz. If you haven’t had a movie offer yet, Tom, there has to be one on the way soon. Congratulations on a great book.

there’s gotta be a better way

Just recently I’ve had a similar conversation with three different people – people planning on setting up some kind of online business. The interesting thing about online vs offline business is that with an online business, success can be more of a problem than failure. If you fail, you simply slip away, unnoticed. If you succeed, you bring the server down (and smile while you’re doing it).

One of the problems with online is scaling doesn’t work particularly well. It’s hard to find stuff – good stuff, that is. We have more search engines than we know what to do with, but as the web expands away they increasingly become of diminishing value. Google, once the darling of the geek world, has drifted into the shoals, sandbars, and shallows; overloaded with bloat.

What went wrong? Nothing exceptional – Technorati has gone the same way – nowadays they let anyone use the web. Anyone with any kind of access can set up any kind of blog and/or web site and go for it. And very often people feel sufficiently fired up about something that they burst into print for – ooh sometimes at least two postings. They link up to a couple of other blogs. Add a little frisson with a site meter and adsense, and before you know it, the web is a slurry of shallowness. And then add some splogs (blogs set up purely for spam purposes) and before you know it the search engine spiders are running around in ever dimishing circles.

It is extremely hard to find (online) good writing on any subject. This is for two reasons. First, good writing is hard to find. It’s a rare gift. Second, there is so much slurry, the odd good writing is buried deep within the ooze of the rest.

The challenge then is to develop smarter search engines – and if I knew how to do that I’d be away making billions rather than writing here. But in the same way that I don’t know much about art (but I do know what I like), I figure this has been addressed before. The issue isn’t one of storage, the issue is of retrieval. As an example, if the issue was simply storing books, libraries would simply become giant freezers – we’d wheel in the books, dry them carefully, freeze them as low as possible; and as long as they stayed frozen they’d last a long time. Of course this would make finding and using them difficult. The web mimics this – storage has become ever cheaper, but finding quality information has become ever harder.

The problem is that automated processes have not yet achieved the artificial intelligence to be able to interpret value.

Google has attempted to emulate value based on the more links a site has to it the higher value it must be, and therefore it should be higher up in the listings. On the face of it that seems a good idea, but it would be possible to take a ‘beowulf’ approach – create a master site, and then create several thousand (million?) notional sites all with links to the master site. Which is what the splogs are all about. Of course, Google doesn’t like that kind of behaviour and endeavours to suppress such things.

In 2005, I realised that people were using my aquaculture blog as a focused search engine. I act as an editor – I find good content online – often material that is hidden simply because of its limited interest circle, and then take the link, review it, and put it into a searchable database. Over time the resource has increased in value, primarily because of the rules I apply to the inclusion of material in the resource – i.e. no commercial sites, no shallow content, sound research based material, and freely available; coupled with filing by categories and the search ability being limited to within the database – not the entire web. Each month the number of visits to the site increases, but, interestingly (pleasingly) the number of links to the site does not. I expect that people interested in aquaculture twice might bookmark the site. The reason why twice is that if it was just a casual research or a kid using the site for a school project they wouldn’t visit again. And for someone interested in the specific topic they might be better to link directly to the site or page I’ve pointed out to them. I have mentioned on the site that if people have a research paper published they can contact me for a review and inclusion.

A focused search engine is a repository formed from the old catalogue or directory static web page approach to building value, with the more accessible and useful tools we have today – rss, database driven searches, update from anywhere, time and date stamped, and the ability to add meta search terms – categories or tags.

The weaknesses in this system is I get distracted by my job, life, or most anything. I only search and write in english. I might (hopefully not) have an agenda and only put forward some filtered material – that’s the spin doctors’ job of course. I could be not overly discerning about the content I include. The solution to all of this is to have more than one person adding to the repository.

I’ve spent some time this year (2006) building swicki – search wikis – see the side bar for links. I believe these are a great supplement to the idea of a focussed search engine. What a swicki allows is for a search focus to be built, and then seeded with key words. Users either use the existing word swarm, or search using their own key words. When the administrator (me, in this instance) notes a new word I think is useful I can add it to the key word swarm. In my case, if a word is used more than a couple of times then I’m inclined to add it to the swarm. This approach keeps the search engine current, but never entirely loses the less frequently used words – a kind of longest tail of search terms. It also diminishes the issue of the limits of my knowledge – I work on the premise that all of us are smarter than one of us – and if we work together then the swicki – the tool – becomes increasingly valuable. The swicki system is not without its bugs and weaknesses, but this is more about the implementation than the idea in itself.

The idea does appear to be catching on with some of the bigger fish. Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, is in the process of wrapping wikipedia technology around search engines, according to Information Week.

The search engine, code-named Wikiasari, would combine open source technology and human intervention to deliver more relevant results than the algorithm-based systems used today, Wales said Tuesday. “Human intelligence is still the best thing we have, so let’s let humans do what they do best, and computers do what they do best.” Wikiasari combines the Hawaiian word for quick, “wiki”, with the Japanese word “asari”, which means “rummaging search”.

Yo! Jimmy!! Over here! I’ve been thinking and quietly working on this for years. There’s a zillion to one chance Jimmy will ever see this writing, of course, because the search engines are so encrusted… oh wait, that’s where this writing started. All I’m trying to find is a couple of gardening blogs, well written, frequently updated, nicely photographed etc. I tried to get some sense out of Google, tried some blogrolls – but in the end, while I’m more than prepared to fight for your right to have another kitten blog, it’s not what I want right now, and I just haven’t found one that delivers the goods yet. I think ultimately I’ll just write my own…

spring cleaning

It has been our tradition that we spend the time between xmas and new year working on our web sites and this year has been no exception. If the reading here is a little changeable I do apologise. I’m taking the marginalia template from the 2006 lapsang souchong colours into the colours for 2007. This year the colours will be silver, blue, charcoal, and rust – I’ll come back with the final palette once I’ve done all the final checking. One of the things I love about web work is being able to fine tune the colours until I get them how I want them. The colours for this year have been inspired some of the retired marine equipment to be found on the Wellington waterfront.

Inarticulate Speech of the Heart

View Inarticulate Speech of the Heart product details at AmazonLast night Marica and I were making food for today, and finding some time just to enjoy each other’s company over a little antipasto. I’d slipped on Van Morrison’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart cd – I think it represents some of his very best work. Track four is Celtic Swing – I suddenly remembered the video from years ago, and how my friend Terence also loved it. I was struck by the timing of what we were doing and the song – Terence pulled a late night, if not an all nighter, a few years ago. Christmas morning – the sun would’ve been coming up as his BMW purred across the last few kilometres of straights, home to Pauline and the kids.

A little later that morning I called my Mum. My sister was late coming home because there’d been a bad accident and the traffic had been diverted. I was chilled, and said, ‘Someone’s Christmas just got a whole lot worse.’ And although I didn’t know at the time who, I did have a premonition that I would know who it was.

I can’t imagine what went wrong in those last few moments – I just know that Terence was taken too soon.

reasons to be grateful, 2006

Another year of full employment has meant we have had food on the table, gas in the tank, electricity and gas in the lines, books on the shelves, and music in the air. We’ve had laughs and tears, sure; but not many fears – life probably doesn’t get much better than this. We’ve been able to take advantage of some fantastic opportunities, renewed friendships with long-time friends, and made some fantastic new friends – some scattered across the planet. We’ve been able to skype and chat and carry on as though the planet was more like a backyard than some huge distance – genuinely just like magic.

The year that was:

Most petulant frenzy – when I couldn’t get black earphones for a black iPod.
Most proud moment – when Marica and I both graduated together with an MComms with distinction, with our respective parents in the audience.
Most geriatric moment – watching Mick and some other geezers rock the stadium.
Most work, most fun – Blog Hui goes unconditional.
Most arty-farty moment – the World of Wearable Art awards.
Most unexpected event – meeting Trevor and Amiel Romain and discovering perhaps the nicest people on the planet.
Most perhaps-I-should’ve-paid-more-attention-class moment – dinner with Mark Bernstein – but because Mark’s just the best dinner company I’d love to do it again and again – hopefully before long (hint, hint).
Most gutting experience of the year – Art Compass closed.
Mostly fiction based on published research – Peter’s story.
Mostly fiction based on continued bad weather – the Myco diary
Finally, to my loyal readers and commenters – Kate, Bryan, Indie, and others; and to the blog friends whose work I read at least once a day (please feel free to write more) – thank you – you’ve helped make 2006 another wonderful year, another year to be grateful for.

as if it wasn’t clear

According to Computerworld, Allan Freeth, CEO of TelstraClear has advised ‘a forecast pre-tax profit of close to $15 million is set to become a $7 million loss as the company is “slowly and gradually losing customers“.’

Now, I’m old enough to remember when Clear opened up a salvo on the arch-villan, Telecom. We had to dial a gateway number to get out of the Telecom network, and then later, to get back into the network. I can recall using a Clear calling card to open a line from Guangzhou, PRC, back home to Mum in Wanganui. I can remember how Clear was a civilised and civil alternative and it felt good to be giving the finger to Smellycom.

Ah. The good old days.

Like, not this week, when after three days of unexplained inability to connect to the net, using our TelstraClear ‘you have to hire it cable modem’ – with not so much as an email – nothing – I rang the company and asked what the intention was about compensation for the absence of service.

The call centre lass assured me they do their best to give a good service. I explained that was undoubted – that’s what businesses do. She said it wasn’t their fault a truck drove into the cable and took out the connection. Again, no doubt. None of this is a concern, I explained, I just wondered if a credit would be passed for the time we couldn’t access the net. We do our best to provide a good service… etc. Yes, I get that, but we pay by the month, and we haven’t had a month’s worth of connection. We do our best to provide a good service … oh good grief – here’s the nub of the issue.

TelstraClear – you don’t empower your staff to make meaningful decisions. You have become what we hated in Telecom. Your call centre person had to ask a supervisor if there was any options – and then – only after I put on my best solicitor voice and explained to her that the company was delinquent under the Fair Trading and the Consumer Guarantees Acts.

Allan, let me be a $2k/day consultant to your ailing company. Your service has become shite. The arrogance and ignorance that were once the hallmark of Telecom have become the prevailing stench associated with any transaction with your company. And – of wow – you’re losing customers. I wonder where they’re going… – as an aside – according to a colleague of mine, if xtra fails to deliver service for any significant time they are emailed and credits passed immediately – along the lines of a day lost is equal to a week’s credit. Seems uncomplicated and rather tempting, I must say. Allan, get it on – you’re right – your customer service is “indifferent at best, rubbish at worst”. It’s not as though your service is provided at anything like bargain basement prices. How did you get, how do you keep, your job?

the end of days

The last day of work is this strange fusion of ‘thank god it’s friday’ meets ‘thank god it’s the holidays’ meets ‘oh, horrors, the year has ended, and what exactly have I managed to achieve this year. Well, at least my dancing classes have started to pay off.

I find the last days before xmas rather draining – as though the year is rushing away – it’s all a bit sand through the hourglass of life stuff. My mood is rarely helped by watching well-meaning (hopefully) parents, locking into their own pre-xmas frenzy, torturing their children. I cringe at the looks on the kid’s tired, frustrated, and disappointed faces. It’s supposed to be fun, but from the looks of grim determination (with an undertone of fear) on the parents’ faces, knowing what it’s going to be like when the credit card bill comes in, ‘fun’ seems to be the last thing on peoples’ minds. I just look at the people and feel sad. Let it go, people, let it go. Don’t try to impress your way to success.

Folks, please, just stop with this insanity. Don’t buy more xmas crap. No one needs any part of that – perhaps a few retailers. There’s nothing wrong with retail, of course, but there’s no need to go broke yourself, or pay off for the next six months. How is that helpful for you or your children’s physical, spiritual, and economic health? I remember an early influence in my adult life, Neil Frank, explaining he uses ‘xmas’ to deal with the commercial side of christmas; prefering to keep Christ for Christmas. I found and still find, this strikes an accord with me. I can’t believe how many pc xmas cards there are around. It’s Christmas. Christ-mas. Stop with this watery seasonal bumpf – or, move to a more appropriate seasonal event such as Matariki.

Stop. Take a breath. Take a walk. Look at the sun rise, the sun set, the stars, the waves – any view of nature. Stop the ego war, it’s not as though it’s in any way important in the grand scheme, or even in any of the minor schemes. Just reach out to family and friends, and really connect.