Back again II

This blog has now moved host and is hopefully with a more attentive provider who knows more about how WordPress works.

In doing so, we identified a 300 MB error log that the previous host hadn’t mentioned I should look at. Unfortunately a log of that size is simply very difficult to open, so the only thing we’ve done with it is delete it. If it starts to get large again we’ll have a look to see whether it’s anything important.

I’ve been very impressed at how easy it was to transfer hosts, once I’d divulged my cPanel login details to my new host. There was a “copy everything” tool that works on two website backends running cPanel, and one cPanel can switch everything automatically behind the scenes from one host to the next with just a single script running in the background. Then DNS needed restarting, and voila, the site is moved.

Since we’re now relocated, I have turned everything back on, so the automatic reposting of things I write for libdemvoice.org (should there be anything; at the moment I am allocating my time to uploading other people’s posts and struggling a little to write about politics) and my daily tweet post should keep things ticking over when I’m I’m too busy and disorganised to post.

It is controversial and I know not everyone likes it. However, I have had comments – mostly in person – from people who are not on twitter and like keeping up with my twitter witterings. It does strike me that those that like it least are the ones that have an opportunity to read them already because they are twitter members.

I’ve been looking for a plugin that allows readers to select which version of the site they like – sans, or avec tweets. I have found plugins that automatically exclude entire categories based on the host’s settings, but nothing that allows the readers to make their own choice, or set up a feed for one or the other.

Unless you know different, as they say?

Martin Tod and the QR Code of Doom

When Martin Tod got excited about QR codes a couple of years ago, I got excited too. It looks like an interesting technology that has got to have some fun application that I can do something with ((Newspaper Club is in this category too, but so far, nada))

Martin was initially sceptical that QR codes would ever take off but commenters on his blog attempted to argue him round.

Later, in the general election, Tod produced some posters with a Twitter reference and a QR code in the corner. If I recall rightly, this was more of an in-joke for cognoscenti rather than a large scale production process, and I doubt more than a dozen or so were actually made or displayed. I’m pretty sure far more people will have seen photographs of the posters on the internet than actually saw the posters.

Yet this sorry joke somehow made a Top 10 list of advertisers using QR Codes.

Reading through the list of ten, remembering these are the top ten, all of them seem portrayed as monumental disappointments and missed opportunities for the advertisers who used them. Appearing on ads below ground. Appearing too briefly on TV slots for anyone to scan them. Misunderstanding that any barcode app can read them, not just the Debenhams iPhone tie-in.

Doesn’t that disappointment just vindicate Martin’s original contention that QR codes are never actually going to take off?

It is still a shame, and I’d love to be able to do something funky with them… how about giant posters for Lib Dem Voice at Lib Dem conference…?

My new phone

So, a few months ago, I wittered endlessly on about needing to replace my phone, laptop and e-reader. I eventually did all those things and am now revelling in a nest of technology. Some of the things I wrote about, but I haven’t said anything about my phone.

After a bit of agonising over whether my first non-Nokia phone in over a decade would be an iPhone or an Android model, I plumped for an HTC Desire, and I am thoroughly enjoying the phone.

Indeed as someone who (eventually) woke up on New Year’s Day, I now totes consider myself vindicated.

Although, having said that, the alarm is one of the many things that have taken some getting used to. The HTC doesn’t appear to turn itself on to ring the alarm, so my old bed time routine of setting the alarm, turning the phone off and plugging it in, for it wake and sound the alarm in the morning has taken some changing.

Now I leave the phone on overnight, albeit plugged in, and I use Locale to realise that it’s night time and turn the sound off, only to turn it back on again just before the alarm is due to sound. This approach is not perfect, as it means I miss late night calls and texts (mostly from Helen Duffett). I could do with an app that lets me tell the phone to silent from now and for the next X hours. Or indeed, I could return to a phone that turns itself on to sound the alarm.

Starting to use the phone was initially a bit of a pain, but got better. In fact, having now used an iPod Touch and an Android phone, I’d characterise the key difference as follows: if you like it to just work, get an iPhone. If you don’t mind – or positively enjoy – tinkering with it a bit to get it just right, then get something Android based. I eventually got the phone’s 7 screens set up something vaguely useful with all the various apps I use. From far left to extreme right they are:

  • RTM to do list app (not ideal – could do with filling the screen)
  • Full calendar in month view
  • Agenda (the next few calendar entries in list form)
  • (main home) Clock, small agenda, and 4 key icons: camera, gmail, Opera Mini, Foursquare
  • SMS app
  • Battery bar, settings button and Mail button for my Council email app
  • Few more random icons for a few things I use more often

Getting stuff into the phone in the first place had been a bit of a worry. I always used to use Goosync to keep a cloud-based offsite backup of my Nokia as part of my disaster-recovery plan. This meant that behind the scenes, and almost unused by me, Google had my calendar and contacts backed up. As soon as I told the phone the details of my Google Account it started fetching my stuff out of Google and adding it to my phone without me having to do much about it. So thousands of contacts and hundreds of calendar entries are now sitting somewhere in the phone’s memory and bubble up to the surface as and when required.

As I’m with Orange (and have been since 1999 – which is now just about paying dividends in line rental percentage discounts) the phone was pre-loaded with awful Orange apps that are all about making Orange money. It tries to send you to Orange’s own app store and festering pot of expensive ringtones, but eventually I discovered the actual Android Market and installed some apps of my own choosing.

A shout for some of my favourites:

  • Angry Birds. Fun game that everyone is playing.
  • Fix My Street – report broken stuff to your local council
  • Locale – make the phone do stuff automatically based on where it is, like turn silent at work
  • Our Groceries – lovely, free shopping list app than can be shared by more than one smartphone user to have joint shopping lists.

Suspensions and Twitter Tools

My website has been unreliable for the last year or so.

I host using Dataflame on a shared server. Since this is a small website, as websites go, I share a server with a few other sites. If the software running this site gets out of control, my host steps in and shuts it down, so that the overactive services on my site don’t make the other websites slow down.

Dataflame’s rather unhelpful suggestions have been to update my software (I try and keep my plugins and wordpress installation uptodate anyway) and to optimise my database tables. Logging into the database tool shows there is a tiny potential for optimisation, but I’m sure that can’t have been the cause of the suspension.

So something else seems to be amiss with my website set up. I think the culprit is the Twitter Tools plugin which makes a daily post based on what I tweeted that day. However, sometimes it goes wild and repeatedly posts the same post. Just look back and the New Year’s Day post is there five times.

Twitter Tools do have an online support system, so I have asked them if they have any ideas why I get multiple posts and whether it’s Twitter Tools that’s being a system resource hog.

Meanwhile, if anyone has any suggestions – or if there’s an alternative plugin to do a daily twitter round-up – do let me know.

In the meantime, I think I will set the plugin to run weekly not daily and see if that makes a difference.

A visit to traffic control centre (TCC)

(This follows on a bit from this post about a traffic junction)

One of the fun things about being a councillor, is that it’s entirely legitimate to ask people to explain things to you. It’s very helpful to develop a specialism and to work on your knowledge in that area.

By and large, officers of the Council are very happy to meet with councillors and explain how things work. There are, of course, limits: people need to do their job, and can’t respond to every whim. And it would be completely inappropriate, for example,  to job-shadow a social worker into a family in difficult.

In the seven years or so I’ve been elected, I’ve concentrated on transport, the environment and planning sorts of issues, and so I serve on committees that focus on that, and I’ve tried to learn about how these things work on a practical level as well as a policy level.

Part of that, a few years ago was to ask for a SCOOT briefing. SCOOT (Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique) is a computer program that runs traffic lights, and having read a bit about it on the internet, I wanted to know how it works in practice in Nottingham. I emailed the relevant council employee and in response I got an invitation to the Traffic Control Centre to see it in action. This was, in fact, the first time I had even heard there was a TCC!

(NB what follows is my understanding, and my recollection of a briefing I had two years ago – please let me know if I have something wrong.)

My visit was ever so slightly disappointing. The staff were great, the visit was really interesting, and my knowledge of how hard the Council works to keep traffic moving in our city was really deepened.

But in my mind, I’d built up SCOOT as some sort of semi-sentient, all-seeing computer system that controlled every traffic light in the city. It’s not actually like that. SCOOT is used sparingly on just a few junctions. Most traffic lights are pure and simple timers – 20 seconds on one phase, 20 seconds on the next, green man phase if someone pushes the button. Some of them just do that all day, some of them have programs that take account of variations throughout the day – eg peak flow of traffic into the city and out of it again; giving priority to major routes over minor ones. Even this is pretty unsophisticated – it’s just time based. From 8-10 it runs Program A, 10-4, Program B etc.

The phasing is planned so that are deliberate sweet spots – if you time it right you should get repeated green lights – and so that they don’t encourage people to speed to get through the phases. But this is less and less possible these days because of sheer pressure of traffic. There is so much traffic on the roads that systems that were installed decades ago and haven’t changed all that much since can’t really cope.

A second type of lights is used in more remote places, usually where there is a main road and a lightly-trafficked road. Detectors in the road spot traffic and only change phase when there is demand. These are called MOVA – micro-processor optimised vehicle actuation.

And SCOOT is reserved for relatively few places where there are a series of complicated junctions with lots of different sets of lights and multiple entrances and exits and cars using the junctions in lots of different ways. These are referred to as “SCOOT regions”.

You can often tell the difference between SCOOT and other road junctions by the shape of the car detectors buried in the road. SCOOT ones are usually square, the other sort are chevron shaped across the carriageway.

In Nottingham, SCOOT is in use on the Queen’s Road near the Clifton Flyover; in Sherwood right the way through the main shopping district from Haydn Road to Edwards Lane; and in various places on the ring road, including the junctions around St Leo’s church.

In all these places, fundamentally what the computer system is doing is counting the cars in each lane, working out where they are planning to go, and changing the lights to let them do it. It counts them into the region and counts them out again. It knows how much road space there is so changes the lights wherever it can to stop too many vehicles queuing. It can plan ahead, make predictions, make changes automatically to take account of changing conditions, and let the operators know if something unusual is going on. It also takes constant readings of the numbers of cars, which means there is a huge dataset to analyse for future improvements.

The system is computer controlled, with a computer at the roadside, and a phoneline link to the main computer in TCC. If the line goes down, the system continues in failsafe mode but is less aware.

One final SCOOT fact: The Queens Road region has different priorities weekdays / weekends. In the week, it’s all about getting traffic into and out of the city.  At the weekend, it switches priority to helping traffic get in and out of the Riverside Retail park.

Some other TCC facts

  • TCC has a fab website with realtime information about road transport in the city. Check it before leaving for work: www.itsnottingham.info
  • TCC is mostly an operator and a huge bank of CCTV screens. Most of the feeds are also available on the website above.
  • If necessary, TCC staff can take direct control of most of the traffic lights and get important vehicles through quickly. This is useful for getting blue light response vehicles through the city, and when I visited, they were proud of how quickly they’d got the Prime Minister from one side of town to the railway station.
  • When an incident occurs, TCC turn off the live feed of the CCTV cameras to stop gawkers

One final point: it’s sometimes tempting to think, as a councillor, that after having a brief you fully understand something. It’s rarely the case.  The officers are dumbing it down to a level where you can understand it.  But they’re the trained people, often with decades of experience and training. If you think you’ve got a good understanding of SCOOT, pop over to this website and see how far through it you get before you lose the plot.

The new Kindle is with me

I’ve had it for a couple of weeks now, and used it for a variety of things.

The main one was a semi-duvet day I had last Sunday almost entirely unrelated to the stag-do in the pub the night before. Feeling slightly under the weather and unable to face up to some of the more physical demands facing me, I spent the day on the sofa in my dressing-gown with an e-book.

The e-ink the Kindle uses is very weird. The resolution and the black and white display reminds me of our family Atari’s hi-res black and white monitor from the mid-90s. The thing is very very light, pretty simple to use, very easy to read.

On Sunday, I read pretty much all of Monstrous Regiment. And I coped. It felt a bit weird. Terry Pratchett’s lovely use of footnotes didn’t work very well – they were displayed as end notes and required you to click on them to read them, which destroyed the flow a bit in a way you don’t have when it’s just a case of flicking your eye to the bottom of the page.

I also got to play a little with some of the other options, including subscribing to Informed Traveller Magazine (and then rapidly unsubscribing because the content was pretty lousy) and also buying an e-copy of The Independent as a one off just to see what it was like. It was quite good for comment, but had almost no use at all.

I think it’s going to be an excellent solution to the problem of taking enough books on holiday. Will they let me use it on a plane?

It won’t entirely replace actual books as half of the titles I’ve bought are things I know other members of my family will want to read that I’ve bought on paper.

I was half-wondering to what extent it would be possible to use it for committees or for paperless working at conferences. I don’t think this is going to fly terribly well, having had a brief try this afternoon at an informal meeting. Lots of people were intrigued by the device and wanted a bit of a play. But it wasn’t great for working with. You can’t juggle two documents at once (eg an agenda and the paper you are working with.) It completely reworks pagination, which means finding the same reference as someone else is tricky. And it seemed not to work at all well with MS Word tables, which feature rather a lot in committee papers.

But it’s absolutely fine for leisure reading.

Techi nerdgasm II: portholes

My colleagues believe that the most animated I’ve been all week was when explaining to them what the portholes in the walls are for.

Portholes

Basically, when theatres and arenas used to be built, they tried to bury enough cabling in the walls to satisfy all the end users. In older theatres this is much more of a problem since the technical parts of stagecraft have changed so much in the last years. In more recent buildings like this – and in particular versatile multi-use buildings which take on a lot of touring shows using their own equipment, it simply isn’t possible to predict what sort of cabling might be necessary and bury it all in the walls at construction for a building that will hopefully have a life of 30-50 years.

So instead they make it as easy as possible for incoming technical teams to recable the building the best they can, by making sure there are these portholes running through the building. There are also suitable cable supports between the portholes to hold the weight of a ton of multicore after it’s brought in.

Techie nerdgasm in the Liverpool Arena

So, I’m here in Liverpool in a largely behind-the-scenes role. I am benefitting from a Party Staff pass, which lets me get into all sorts of interesting places.

The LDV office is directly behind the stage, so one of the main routes in is right behind the giant screen. Which looks like this:

Backstage at #Ldconf

Today we held a fringe in a large room in the Arena, and so I got there early to to a bit of setup. They had a giant screen, so I could wangle my way into the tech room at the back so we could choose what we showed – a live screen of our website, in the end.

Is this the biggest screen @libdemvoice has ever been shown on? #ldconf.

And oh my, the room is techie heaven. Part of me is still thrilled by my teenage years spent working both as an actor at school and a stage techie at sixth form college, and I am really stage struck when it comes to the technicalities of theatre. (NB it’s one of many really good reasons to see the Nottingham Playhouse panto every year – they cram the panto with some really interesting coups de théâtre.)

So, the most exciting thing about the room by far is the fact that the entire set of 500 fixed seats are on a giant turntable. The same is true of Hall 1C.

Giant turntable in liverpool arena

So depending on how they want it set up you can either have one large hall with two smaller halls nearby, or you can rotate the two giant drums and add 1,000 seats to the large hall.

This explains why there are emergency exits apparently 4m high in the air. When the drum is rotated, the gap lines up with the stairs.

Not an emergency exit. No kidding. It's 4m off the ground! #Ldconf

Presumably it also makes the site an ideal location for recording “This is your life!”

Up in the tech room, there was lots to look at. The sound boards in professional theatre seem to changed so much since I last set up a sound board, I didn’t even recognise it as a sound board. So much for my geek points 😦

The full array of technical stuff was probably more than I can cope with, so I was very happy to leave it in the capable hands of the tech team who come with the venue.

We tried for a few minutes to work out whether it was possible to get a live feed out of the sound board into my Zoom H2 – but in the short while available before the event kicked off, it proved not possible, so we resorted to the usual of balancing the recorder on seat towards the rear of the room and then amplifying afterwards. (This has the unfortunate side effect of making the applause painful to listen to)

Imagine my surprise and delight when at the end of the fringe, one of the tech guys came down the steps and said, “we made a CD for you of the sound.” That is really helpful.

Unfortunately, none of the LDVers has both a laptop with a CD player, and something to rip the audio to MP3, so it will have to wait until I get home before I can do anything with it. But hopefully we’ll be able to replace the rough and ready version we made at conference with a more professional sound in the fullness of time.

The podcast of the fringe meeting is here.

Daily tweet posts should be back

I have finally figured out what was stopping me upgrading the twitter plugin in on my blog. What follows will be incomprehensible unless you vaguely know about computers like me.

Twitter changed their authentication system to OAuth. Twitter Tools plugin upgraded, but needed PHP5 to work. Dataflame used PHP4 on my blog.

I asked Dataflame to upgrade me. They did.

Twitter tools plugin still didn’t work.

Check cPanel – definitely says that I now have a version of PHP > 5.

Plugin still not working.

Today I re-read the help email I got from Twitter Tools “your file is still being executed under PHP4”.

Logged in with cPanel. Played with PHP configuration tool. Found an option to say “which version of PHP should files be executed under.” Choices are PHP4, PHP5, Server Default. Change to PHP5.

All is now hunky dory. Apparently the plugin can now run.

Now this place should be fairly automatically be updated every day, even when I don’t blog. Thanks for your patience.

Why, yes, I am prevaricating. Thanks for asking!

How wrong I was

A random spammy comment comes in on an old post, driving me back to look at a pair of posts I wrote two years ago: Oh my God, they killed Twitter! and My first morning in the New World.

They were both written at around the time Twitter turned off the part of their service that I had used a huge amount at the time, the SMS messages.

Now it’s hard to imagine Twitter working that way. At the time they turned it off, it had just started to tip a balance for me personally that the number of messages I was getting was a little OTT. I follow far more people now than I ever did when I still got the messages by text.

And Twitter appears to be going from strength to strength, despite my Cassandra predictions 24 months ago. 3G mobile internet has become more a part of my life than I ever imagined it would.