Monthly Archives: June 2007

heads up

image from the thinking bl0gger - embarrassingly large number of days ago I awoke to an email from one of my Melbourne writing pals, Snail, who writes the Snail’s Eye View. What is it about Melbourne? It seems to have more writers per capita than any other Australian city. Sorry, I digress… Snail was writing to advise me that I’d received a THINKING BL0GGER award. It’s a web meme called ‘5 BL0GS That Make Me Think‘ and I was one of the writers Snail tagged. Curses! I mean she’d be one I’d tag, and now I’d have to think for myself. It’s taken me a while – there are so many strong contenders (contenters?) and this particular award is about content. And then, there were a couple while I was cogitating who received their awards. Eeek! (Why am I concerned – there’s always room for another writer who provokes thought.)

Without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s the first of my list of thinking writers:

Zimbabwe Situation
If you haven’t been keeping up with the Zimbabwe situation this blog is a great place to start. If you loved the movie ‘Brazil’ and wondered what it’d be like in reality, this site is a great place to start. If you want to read a blog where one day you fall off your chair laughing with disbelief, and the next swing back on your seat with tears running down your cheeks, this blog is a great place to start. Here’s a quick update. It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong, by the time I finish writing it will be happening.

Once upon a time there was a country that was rich by every measure – its people were employed, well educated, and well fed. The land itself is fertile, with mineral wealth, and ample water for all. Unfortunately the people suffered from not being free to determine their own destinies, and so a well educated young man lead his people to overthrow the ruling foreign regime. The man became a hero to his people and when the negotiations were over the people wanted the man to become their leader. He thought about and said, “Ok, sure.”

Time went by and the man who was well educated, and a good leader in time of war, turned out to be very corruptible. He became wealthy. His friends became wealthy. He took threw the farmers off their farms and let anybody who was a friend in, whether they knew how to farm or not. The man soon had more friends than farms so the farms were split into smaller and less economic units. The man held free elections every so often, and his army and youth army did a good job of explaining who the people should vote for. The man’s friends would buy stuff cheap and sell it back to the government at inflated prices and cream millions, if not billions of dollars on the side.

Gradually the economy became bad, then worse, then munted, then just a joke, then fucked, then seriously fucked, and then finally, reached a place on the other side of all that when you realise things are beyond your simple understanding. In fact, beyond your wildest nightmares. Imagine living in a place where the inflation rate runs at 2,000%. Per month. That’s right, 24,000% per annum. What does that mean? From an article published yesterday (June 25), a standard loaf of bread now costs $44,000 and super white bread now costs $59,000. A loaf of bread cost $8,000 in May but has been going up virtually every week this month. A bottle of beer costs $75,000 [US$0.18]. People have given up on wallets, money is carried in suitcases.

The Zimbabwe dollar, which officially trades at $15,000 to the greenback, is reported to have slumped to around $400,000 to the dollar for large transactions on the black market. There are some reports that inflation this year might go to a million percent. Perhaps beyond. This isn’t surreal, it’s the Zimbabwe Situation. Thanks to the editors, Karen and Barbara, it’s part of my daily read. And, if you want to drop a thank you note to the man who’s made it all possible: Robert Mugabe, Number 7 Chancellor Avenue, Harare, Zimbabwe. Thanks Bob, my card is on the way.

drawing conclusions

I finally managed to get my drawings sorted and online over at the Turnbull Group. I’m amazed at how different the drawings are once they’re photographed – sometimes the photo flatters the drawing, and sometimes the image brings out horror not immediately apparent from the drawing. I guess it’s like those old school photos – if only I could look at the photos without cringing. Maybe it’s the same with the drawings – I know from previous experience that looking back on the drawings that are – say – a year old, I’d think ‘Hey, that’s not as bad as I thought’, and others it was more like ‘Oh good grief, what were you thinking?’. I don’t imagine Leonardo or Albrecht ever thought that though. Probably never gave it a second thought. Tradesmen, turning out consistent works, time after time. *Sigh*.

postmodern hand lens

pomo-lensI read somewhere that 80% of all scientific research can be done with the naked eye, and of the remaining, 80% of that can be done with a hand lens. This is not a hand lens, nor is it an image of a hand lens, you sneeky Magritte fan you. It’s a picture of my memory stick. You can buy a 1gb memory stick like this for around $NZ30 – yes, I know, you can get them bigger and cheaper – but for the price of a couple of coffees and bit of a snack you can have a portable research tool that a few years ago was unimaginable.

Here’s how to make your pomo hand lens:

First catch a nice fresh memory stick. A 1gb is sufficient, you can get by with smaller, even down to the 250mb size – but why scrimp?

Next, surf off to, and grab the PortableApps Suite. Or, do as I did, get the PortableApps Lite – I’m try to keep my weight down, so less is more. Follow the install instructions and install PortableApps on your memory stick. If there’s a chance you’ll be using your memory stick on some antique (pre-xp) computer, remember to grab the patch. Without the patch the PortableApps won’t work, but the subapplications – Firefox portable is the application I was interested in – work fine.

Make sure you download and install Firefox portable. Check everything is working, don’t be loading the fox off your hard drive and thinking everything is good.

Next go off to and download the latest copy of a tiddlywiki. Make sure you save it to your memory stick.

Next, go to TiddlySnip and install the plugin/extension for Firefox. Do the configuration thing, linking the TiddlySnip to your on-memory stick tiddlywiki.

*Bing!* Job done. TiddlySnip allows you to surf to a web site, select a portion of text, right mouse button and scrapbook that snippet (with the url and references AND tags you select) to your now ever-expanding and ever increasing in value on-memory stick wiki. You go to the library? Do your thing. You go to work? Do your thing. You go anywhere? Do your thing. My memory stick has become more valuable to me now than a diary or a notebook ever was. If I was studying now I’d never spend time trying to find those lost references – in fact, I think I’d be building my thesis pretty much from the get go. Great tools. And all for half a dozen cups of coffee.

using tiddlywiki for study

Back when I was putting my Masters away I lusted after a small hand-held scanner so I could grab research material quickly and review it later. There were some cool scanners around, however me and the money and the scanner never even got close to each other. In real terms, however, I wonder about the real value, because I would still have had to OCR it and redo it and blah blah blah.

I’m always learning new stuff (should I ever get serious about undertaking my PhD?) I’ve started by firing up a tiddlywiki repository. It’s incredibly easy to set up, and almost frightening in its potency. Here’s how to do it:
1. Fire up Firefox. You don’t use Firefox? Well, there you go then. Fell at the first hurdle…
2. Cruise over to TiddlyWiki and download the latest version. Save it somewhere meaningful. Hint for students – this could mean your memory stick.
3. That done, point Firefox back to TiddlySnip and install the Firefox extension. Follow the simple (but thorough) online installation instructions and in five minutes or less you’ll have a tiddlywiki enabled, web-based, browser powered scrapbooking device with tags. Did I mention free?

You could also use the TiddlySpot online wiki (again, did I mention free?). You’d be building a resource there that’s visible to all, so perhaps if you were a generous soul and you wanted to build something to share with your peers – or perhaps a group project. Hmmm, I’m tempted to consider returning to teaching.

TiddlySnip grabs a highlighted selection of text, wraps your tags around it, and writes it into the TiddlyWiki, complete with a clickable url back to the original page. Effortless, fast, and fantastic for doing basic literature reviews, gathering notes, and building a knowledge base. Team that up with some speed reading and high speed net access it’d be awesome how quickly you’d build a potent resource. The only thing the TiddlySnip people haven’t done for you is format the citation into APA, but I expect you can do that through Noodlebib or something similar. For luddites like me, I just did it by hand.

how to sketch a portrait

You can have fun drawing online at BenettonPlay. This is a 37 frame animated gif. The whole process is managed through a Flash 9.0 application. I suspect given how long it took to save and render that if you’ve got dialup and an old computer try the 5 frame animations. My prototype was 100 frames. Um, everything died. It is fun, and the results are easily achieved, albeit slowly. I particularly liked the ‘onion-skin’ approach as this allows for quite accurate animation and tweening, if that is your wish. I didn’t need it for this anim, but it’s good never-the-less. In many respects (ignoring the time just w-a-i-t-i-n-g for flash to do it’s thing) more fun than aquarelles on paper because you can undo and/or white (or other colour) out.

Update: 24 hours later three people liked :) my little drawing. Wow! Thanks folks, I’m delighted.

thank you

I haven’t been writing here much lately, I’ve been working backstage on books and some other projects, plus there’s a fine range of other writing scenes. I’ve owned a computer since the mid 80s and I still can’t program, although I’m no slouch at html. I realised over the weekend how much of my life now swings around people giving a great deal of thought and work to the various web 2.0 applications I use – wordpress, blogger, flickr, moodle, and others; and my new delight, TiddlyWiki. I’ve finally managed to build something using TiddlyWiki that I’ve wanted for a very long time – an interactive journal that’s private, portable, and simply does all the things a book journal would do, plus with the added bonus of being searchable and customisable. I’m very grateful to Jeremy Ruston (and the merry band of followers, including Morris Gray’s TWHelp) for putting together TiddlyWiki, and then making it available for free. Thank you, each and everyone of you coders, designers, you mad midnight workers – I know the feeling, and I am very grateful for your efforts.

I am Joe’s Goals…

If you haven’t cleaned out the garage for some time, in the back corner, underneath the yogurt maker, the budgie cage, the fondue set, and those lovely dayglo orange lampshades (no, wait, there’s a fortune to be made in retro decor) there’s a pile of slightly musty Reader’s Digest magazines. The third one down (no, the OTHER third one) contains an article entitled “I am Joe’s Heart”, or “I am Joe’s Lung”, or “I am Joe’s Gonad”. I should mention that I believe DeWitt and Lila Wallace are perhaps the first bloggers – they took content from other sources and repurposed it for their own publication, and they incorporated feedback – jokes and comment from readers. I always used to try to nail the ‘Word Power’ section. Usually got near to it. But I digress.

It should come as no surprise that some enterprising person should repurpose ‘I am Joe’s bits’ into Joe’s Goals. I’m liking the simple and effective interface, and the generally useful journal. Compact, speedy, versatile – it just works. And as seeing as I’m more likely to have net access with a spare moment than a pen and a diary, that’s a good thing. I also like the positive reinforcement of the chart. Here’s what other people are using Joe’s Goals for – the most popular goals from the last 7 days:

Get Inspired with Joe’s Goals
Thousands of people use Joe’s Goals every day to track their consistency in accomplishing their every day goals. This page is meant to inspire you to get started tracking and meeting your goals. See what others are doing and get ideas to help you live your life more effectively.

When you click on the links you can see how well the rest of the vitamin takers/nail nibbler/flossers are doing. Kind of compelling in an almost too much information kind of way, but you keep clicking anyway – I mean, who knew?

heaven’s above

A few years back Zofia and I took ourselves off the Carter Observatory – the National Observatory of New Zealand and attended their courses in astronomy. They were great courses although at the front end I seriously misjudged the seriousness of the study involved. You could attend the lectures, and if you wanted, take the assessment at the end. We were study/learning things then and we figured, ‘Sure, bring it on.’

I asked when I registered for us if we needed to take notes. ‘Some people do, others just sit back and go with it.’ We’re both note takers so away we went. I have to say after a full day at work, sitting through a powerpoint in the half dark immediately following a fast dinner isn’t conducive to me staying awake and taking lots of good notes. We were both studying then as well. It’s hard taking notes in the dark anyway. But we soldiered on. And then there was the assessment. Oh dear. Suddenly it became very, very apparent that having taken extremely comprehensive notes would’ve been useful. We shared notes and worked our way through the questions together. I was in a job that permitted extensive web access and I spent several days diverting google’s attention from the usual porn and pipe bombs into the phases of the moon and the inner workings of our solar system. The questions were damn tricky. Things like a drawing of the moon – what is the time? Northern or southern hemisphere? Waxing moon or waning moon? Try and google that. Zofia came out with a B+ (I think) and I got a B.

A B! Pathetic. It was full on after that. We took notes on notes on drawings on notes. We took notes in the dark, in the planetarium, anywhere, everywhere. Next assessment we were prepared. I think I got an A, Zofia an A-. And then things got competitive… The next course we took notes that NASA still references, and we turned down Nobel prizes for note taking in the dark. We would’ve accepted, but we were so busy taking notes we begrudged the time. It got even crazier as the year rolled through Autumn, Winter, and into Spring…

In the end we finished out with a selection of course certificates and we were invited to the grand prize giving to receive our completion certificate. The courses had been well attended, and there were lots of note takers; but very interesting – I was surprised to find there were very few of our peers there, and even fewer stepped forward to receive their diploma. I think there was one other guy, Zofia and myself. I still proudly list my diploma in astronomy on my cv. I was completing my Masters at the time and the work and thinking required for the diploma was significantly more demanding.

One of the things I never really got sorted was the whole where are you/what is your star map thing. It always seemed so averaged out – so best guess, and not only is there no need for that, it’s not how it should be. Today, things have become very accurate and easy. Using two free software packages available online you can get an extremely high degree of accuracy about your position in the universe. First, using flashearth (which uses GoogleMaps) you can find where you are, using the precise latitude and longtitude coordinates. In my case I can zoom in to where I would actually stand to view the stars from. Yep, this is accurate to perhaps 1 -2 metres. Once you’ve found your viewing location, you can then go to Heavens Above, and key in your exact location. You can also just plonk in a general location from their detailed database, but where’s the obsession in that?

Once you’ve located yourself, you can the print out a star map for tonight, and you’re ready boldly go. The other night there was this very bright star – I thought it was an aircraft coming in given that it was on one of the flight paths, and I could hear a plane coming in. I decided it wasn’t moving and perhaps it was simply Venus, or maybe Jupiter – I must find a star map and check. The great thing about the Heavens Above star maps is I could set the location, the date, and the time, and ping, confirm it was Venus, although Saturn is kicking around in that corner of the sky at the moment too. Saturn would appear smaller – it’s much further away. The other option could have been (had it been there then) the International Space Station – Heavens Above does a bang up job on locating where the various bits and bobs of humanity are as well.

If you are interested in doing some study with Carter they offer some distance programmes, and also courses that relate to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) – New Zealand’s national secondary school qualification. The material from Carter will be sound, and I would expect that if Richard Hall has had a hand in the student resources they will be visually wonderful as well.

internet ‘service’+customer ‘service’= Ø

We have a cable modem ‘net access, supposedly giving us high speed internet. It’s a bit like the girl with a curl – when it’s good it’s ok, when it’s bad it’s non-existent. This morning it went down just after 12. I know this because I was just trying to get the last everything sent/posted etc before hitting the sack. This evening I spend 90 minutes waiting for the technical support, who, of course are under-staffed, over-worked, and people who spend their time with angry idiots who’ve waited 90 minutes listening to KennyG or some other shite.

Here’s some advice to TelstraClearParadise cable modem users:

  • Write crucial stuff – i.e. everything – off line, and then you can save it and post or send it later – nothing gets lost.
  • Before you ring the help desk, turn the modem off at the wall, turn your wireless router (if you have one) off at the wall, and turn off the computer.
  • Go make yourself a nice hot cup of coffee, or a particularly delicious cup of tea. Relax a little.
  • Take a sip of your drink, and turn the modem on. Wait until the four green lights are all nice and stable.
  • Do a little tai chi, write a post card, have another sip.
  • Turn the wireless router on if you have one, otherwise, balance your chequebook, using roman numerals.
  • When the lights look stable and the router seems to be talking to the modem (flishy-flashy lights and the orange light is on), turn on your computer.
  • At this point you will either have ‘net access back, or you’ll have a nice drink and be calm, ready to spend the next valuable part of your life waiting for the help desk to answer. You’ll be able to say to the desk that you’ve done the restart thing, and allowed a full time for the modem/router to cycle down.

    Advice to TelstraClearParadise: how about giving the above advice in the phone message that drones on telling me I have at least 60 minutes to wait? I know it’s a long message, but I’ve got 60 minutes to hear it. If I had heard it I wouldn’t have need it to wait 90 minutes to have the techdude talk down to me. I had restarted the modem twice last night and twice again when I got home from work. It’s possible/probable I didn’t leave it long enough between the power down and restart. The phone message did say to cycle the modem – I did – four times, but obviously not enough – I missed the crucial make a cup of tea step.

    TelstraClearParadise – you’re supposed to be a communications company. Can I suggest that if you gave a better message people would be able to get the modem going again themselves. It’s not that hard, it’s not that expensive to record a decent message. You wouldn’t have to put up with people hanging around for 90 minutes, and your help desk people wouldn’t have to put up with angry callers and you wouldn’t have to hire more help desk people and you wouldn’t get people like me writing about how crap your service is. And, it’s not as though this is the first time

    how to make a kite for matariki

    image from www.sopwithproductions.comThe ultimate in one-upmanship is to cruise down the park with the kids and have a kite that flies. Or, let me put it another way – Charles Shultz absolutely knew how to show Charlie Brown’s ARGH! moments with a kite that refused to fly. You can buy kites – I’ve even done that myself, however, real oomph comes from making your own. But how do you make a kite that flies, and flies well? Sorry, Charlie, those lozenge shaped kites suck. So how, what kite is better? Ask no more, here is how to make the flying-est kite going – a sled kite. I have made dozens of these, all sizes, and they all have had one fantastic thing in common: they fly, man they FLY!!!

    sled-kiteFrom my drawing here you can make them any size, so long as the ratios remain a pretty much constant 4 wide by 3 deep. I’ve made kites out of plastic rubbish bags, black garden polythene, even chip/crisp packets. You’re looking for a fairly strong plastic – cling film is probably too delicate unless the kite is small. Size matters – a large plastic rubbish bag is likely to be too big and scary for a little kid – dangerous in a strong wind with burnt or cut fingers from the string and possibly pulled and dragged along the ground. A sheet of plastic about the size of an A3 sheet of paper is a good starter size.

    Cut the plastic in the hexagon shape as drawn, and cut the triangle shape out of the middle – see – that maths stuff does pay off. You need three sticks to act as spreaders – to hold the kite open. They’re not structural as in the traditional rhombus shaped kite. I’ve used bamboo garden stakes, dowelling, willow branches, rolled up sheets of newspaper, kebab sticks (for small kites), and toi-toi sticks; but my favorites have been the long straight stalks from bracken fern. It seemed to have the right amount of springiness. The sticks need to be slightly longer than the height of the kite, so that if/when the kite screams into the earth the sticks hit before the body of the kite does. More about that later.

    Once you’ve cut out the kite, tape the sticks to the kite. I’ve usually used a strong waterproof 50mm (2″) wide tape used for taping polythene ‘glasshouses’, but you could use duck/duct tape, sticking plasters, or if you’re desperate, sellotape. It’s not the best though. It doesn’t make that much difference, it’s merely there to stop the sticks falling off. If the sticks are uneven length, put the tallest stick in the middle for balance. Put a couple of layers of tape on the two outside points where the bridles are to be attached, to reinforce the corners.

    The length of the bridles needs to be about three times the width of the kite – i.e. a 1 metre wide kite needs bridles 3 metres long. Again, a kite this size is much too big for a little kid, and an adult needs to handle them with care until you get used to them. Attach a bridle to each point, and then (warning: the one trick in the whole exercise) knot the two ends together, making sure both bridles are the same length – the kite must be balanced to fly superbly (it’ll still fly no matter what, but if the bridles are uneven it’ll fly to one side…)

    Attach the kite bridles to the cord for flying. Personally I prefer to attach the kite using a heavy duty fishing swivel/safety pin connector so the cord doesn’t get all twisty on me, but you don’t have to. Badda-bing, you’re done. These kites won’t fly inside, but if your kite is small enough and you’re careful to avoid any nasty overhead wires, you can probably fly it in your backyard. I’ve test flown kites out the window (too lazy to go outside) and really had fun flying them from the garage roof. I can remember flying a little kite made from a metallic looking chip bag from the garage roof – it went up so high I eventually lost sight of it – truly, it was speaking to the heavens. I knew it was ok, because I could feel it tugging, fish like, on the end of my line.

    Ok – time to fly. Take your kite, cord, a roll of repair tape, and some scissors down to the park. It’s ok – no, it’s cool to arrive with your kite rolled up. Attach your kite to the cord, and let some cord out. Holding the cord in one hand, juggle around and hold your kite open to the wind. If there’s so much as a gentle breeze the kite will lift away like a parachute and fly. Let more cord out. Look cool. How hard can it be? Never run with your kite unless… you’re doing if for exercise purposes.

    Ok depending on factors like wind speed and kite size some things can happen and you might need to teach your kite how fly. If your kite takes off like a crazy puppy and then spirals around and around before crashing it’s probably too light for the strength of the wind. Add some weight in the form of a tail hanging from the bottom of the middle stick. I’ve used lengths of plastic, packaging tape, my jandal, my t-shirt, and branches before today. My kites sometimes looked like flying recycling (but mostly to people who didn’t have kites that flew… ;)). Use the scissors and tape to add a tail (or tails – because you can add tails from the side sticks as well), ensuring that the heaviest tail is the middle tail for balance.

    I found that if I ran with the kite I could force it into mad spirals and that was fun too – the moment I stopped the kite would right itself and ‘swim’ like a carp upwards. I can remember arriving at the park with my rolled up litter and seeing a guy with a kid and the high tech tetrahedron mylar work a nasa engineer would be stunned by. I unrolled my kite, and kicked it into the air. My kite rose effortlessly. I tied it off against the fence and looked over to the guy. His kid looked at me and my kid. He smiled. The father curled back his lip with a sneer… ‘trailer trash’. Could it have been my mullet? By now I was bored and untied my kite – time to play. I walked out into the field, and then turn and ran as fast as I could, looking over my shoulder. The kite, sensing the game immediately started into the hard spirals, the cord singing under the pressure. Five spirals, and the kite crashed into the ground. I heard the guy choke back a laugh. He didn’t get the game. The kid looked surprised and disappointed. I went back and kicked my kite into the air again, let some cord out, and ran again. Six spirals later, crash! This time the guy didn’t laugh, but the kid did. Walked out even further, let out more cord, ran harder than ever. The kite roared with delight. Seven full spirals, and CRASH – with a kind of snap sound that can only mean one thing. The kid looked at me horrified and the guy laughed out loud. The kite lay on the ground, moving sadly in the breeze. I could see the kid’s sympathy, and feel the guy’s delight at my broken kite. After all, even though his kite hadn’t got off the ground, mine was just a rubbish bag, some sticks and well – litter.

    I gave my kite a little tug. A corner lifted… another little tug… a little more lifted… and then slowly my black dragon lifted off the ground shaking a little, but swimming ever upwards. I heard the kid laugh, and the guy say in an amazed tone, ‘It’s just a pile of junk!’ In reply, my kite dropped the broken stick, and having got rid of that little surplus weight, soared on higher. When I turned around there was just my kite and me in the park.