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Fri, 30 Aug 2013
Auld Reekie
# 12:56 in ./general

Back from Edinburgh a.k.a. Auld Reekie.

I try and visit friends and family in Edinburgh once a year now, and this time I went a little earlier than usual and managed to catch some good weather for a change. Some sunshine and warmth makes a good difference to an already beautiful city.

Having gone to school and university up here, I know the city quite well but it's changed a lot. I caught the tail end of the festival this time and can't remember it ever being so busy when I lived there.

So, I've done the usual: lots of gallery and museum trips, including a visit to Glasgow Kelvingrove Museum. This means lots of history and art, some of it very awe inspiring. I'll be reporting on it over the new few days and weeks, so watch out.

My return home was also "interesting" when my train was cancelled at Doncaster and I had to figure out how to carry on to London, along with hundreds of other people. In the end, I got home via Sheffield, and a roundabout route!

Sat, 24 Aug 2013
Why Mozilla's Important
# 18:29 in ./general

The ZTE Open Firefox OS phone is great, but will not be a good fit for everyone. It's not for "hardcore" Android or iOS iPhone users. It's definitely not a hero phone but perhaps it will appear on one some day. I expect there will be many more phones to come.

The important thing about this phone is that it's open and the barrier of entry to develop for it is very low. It's basically HTML, CSS and Javascript i.e. the same technologies we use to build the web. And this is what Mozilla is about.

I'm with Peter Rukavina :

Through one lens Firefox OS is a technical triumph: an open mobile operating system conjured up in two years by a not-for-profit organization.

Through another lens running Firefox OS is like running Linux on an IBM PC in 1993: it sort of works; sometimes it crashes, sometimes the wifi mysteriously shuts itself off, and while it does a lot, and is capable of a lot more, right now it does much less than an iPod touch, if only because the ecosystem of open web apps to run on it is only just beginning.

But under the hood and, indeed, infused into almost every pore of its being, it is open. This means so many things and means so much.

There are a lot of docs online and at some point I think I'd like to try a "Hello World" application!

Fri, 23 Aug 2013
Booting the Fox
# 20:40 in ./general

I've had the ZTE Open Firefox OS phone for a few days and can write down some initial impressions. I should note upfront that I'm definitely not a phone (let alone a smartphone) "power" user. I've got very simple needs (as my use of both my HTC and this phone will attest!).

The ZTE specs are basic :

  • 1.0 GHz Cortex-A5, 320 x 480, 256 MB RAM, 512 MB ROM,
    Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, 3.15 MP

Yes, the RAM size slightly shocked me: it's half my HTC Desire (which I consider ridiculously small now). Definitely a budget phone.

Having said that, the phone looks good and works well. The touch screen's fine and the OS feels quick enough and responsive. I can make and receive calls, connect to wifi and 3G, surf the internet, listen to music. It has some rough edges of course but I'm happy with it.

It is a little bit of a shock to the system diving into the non-Android world: there are no Android apps here, no Google Play. This means no Google Maps, VLC media player or Google Authenticator for instance. These all seem to have decent (for me) equivalents though: Here Maps, the built-in Music app and GAuth Authenticator. An app I will miss is Meditation Helper though.

But as for Meditation Helper, after having a little exposure to the Firefox OS "ecosystem", it's tempting to try my hand at App development.

The only slight catch I have had so far was getting my Google Contacts into the phone. I found a page that pointed me at an app that can import these ...

And this is where it got interesting!

The phone can import from the SIM card or Facebook by default only. Neither option being good for me.

And some will now laugh at the process ...

  • Clone the FirefoxOS Contacts Importer GitHub repository
  • Add the Firefox OS simulator Add-On to Firefox web browser
  • Enable Remote Debugging on the phone (Settings / Device Information / Developer)
  • Add the manifest for the Contacts Importer to the simulator (Add Folder)
  • Connect the phone to the computer running Firefox (simulator sees device connected)
  • Click Push to install on the phone
  • On the phone, Allow this operation

I also used two Google Authenticator backup codes - one when I ran the app in the simulator and one when I ran it on the phone.

Presto! ... I could now import my contacts from Google. I admit this doesn't look great from the average user's perspective but I'm sure it'll change and improve.

Let me also point out that there's an easy way too install apps via the Firefox Marketplace online. I didn't check this route and Importer is available!

Right now, the phone's being bought and used by a lot of free software (and Mozilla) fans, but perhaps many other types of user will come to the phone from a standard (non-smart) phone and not be tied to any Google services.

To me, running the simulator and pushing a GitHub cloned app to the phone was eye-opening and one of the reasons the phone is exciting.

Mon, 19 Aug 2013
Firefox OS
# 11:04 in ./general

I've ordered a ZTE Open Firefox OS phone.
For £60, I thought "why not?".

My current phone is a (almost) 4 year old HTC Desire and is showing its age. I've been expecting to keep it active for another 6 months at least and might still (we will see how things go) but the minuscule storage (512MB internal) and degrading voice quality (harder to hear calls) is forcing my hand a little.

I don't actually know the specs for this ZTE, but for £60 I can't expect much (but perhaps more than my old HTC). And I definitely like supporting Mozilla, which is why I use Firefox as my web browser I'll report back once I've got it and had a play. It's on its way ...

Sat, 17 Aug 2013
Land of the Rising Sums
# 07:23 in ./books

I'm just finishing a book called Alex's Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos. A review at The Guardian.

The book's a gentle walk through mathematics from the very basics to the more advanced. It's written for the average person though, so tries not to get too complicated. By coincidence, I noticed a radio program called Land of the Rising Sums presented by the author and caught it online.

Bellos investigates possible reasons that some other cultures (particularly East Asian e.g. Japanese and Chinese) do much better in maths tests when much younger.

He starts by looking at how we all count. In Western European languages, the names of numbers do not make complete sense as we count. We say .. eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve etc. In Japanese, we count eight, nine, ten, ten-one, ten-two etc. Numbers have a more logical naming structure and some people consider this an advantage when learning and using them.

In addition, the Chinese words for the numbers one to nine are all concise, single syllables. As a result, the Chinese can memorise more numbers than the average European. In Japan, the kuku, or multiplication tables, are more like a rhyme. The words used for the numbers are moulded in such a way to make the tables more of a poem. This seems to make the multiplication tables much easier to recall, even late in life.

Bellos concentrates on the Japanese love of the soroban, or abacus. A lot of Japanese school children learn the abacus and there are lots of after school clubs devoted to it. One of the most amazing parts of the show is devoted to the game of Anzan, especially Flash Anzan. Hearing this is quite amazing, even though no rattling abacuses are involved. It's all in their heads on virtual soroban.

Three beeps ...

Then 15 numbers appear, one at a time ... e.g.


About 0.2 seconds between each, everything finished in about three seconds.

How fast can you calculate the sum of the numbers? In the flash anzan (and there are proper competitions), the best can do this in a couple of seconds. Reading about this is one thing but hearing it another. A scientist on the program couldn't seem to believe it. But you can find it on YouTube. Amazing!

Sun, 11 Aug 2013
Clever, Diligent, Stupid, Lazy
# 06:48 in ./general

The following quote came up on Hacker News in the context of a discussion of Adam Curtis' blog post on MI5 and MI6. It comes from General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, German officer from the First and Second World War, an implacable enemy of Hitler.

This is how he classifies his men :

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent -- their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy -- they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent -- he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

Stupid and lazy :

Curtis' post looks at some MI5 and MI6 history and is not impressed. From the post, E.P. Thompson on Chapman Pincher, a journalist :

"A kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking."

Mon, 05 Aug 2013
Bike vs Man
# 09:48 in ./general

Bikes are fun, but they can also cause a great deal of pain, and no need for a crash to experience it.

Three flat tyres this weekend.

First was at the bottom of a hill as a cycled down the road to a supermarket on Saturday morning. This was a really loud BANG! and my front wheel went soft. So I wheeled the bike back home (luckily only about ten minutes) and fixed it with a new inner tube I had spare. Painful as usual getting the tyre back on the wheel.

Folded the bike and put in my hallway. An hour later ... BANG! again. This is with the bike unused, folded.

So, strange - off to the bike shop round the corner (two minutes) and bought a couple of new Schwalbe inner tubes and a new Schwalbe London Marathon tyre. I managed to (just) get the tube and tyre on and pumped it up. Tested in the afternoon and all seemed well. Folded overnight.

Sunday morning, as I got the bike to go out and felt the front tyre, it was flat. I'm about ready to bash my head on the wall now ...

Got the tyre off and checking the tube. Tube seems fine - just flat. Checked with a bowl of water and see no air escaping. Checked again. Tyre seems fine, nothing stuck in it, no tears. So, decide to put the tube and tyre back on the wheel - and had a nightmare getting it in place. Skinned my palm in the process but finally managed it after almost giving up. Once on, I took the wheel round to the bike shop again and let them do a sanity check on it themselves (i.e. leak test, inspection etc.). An hour later I returned and they reported it all looked fine. Not sure what to make of it.

So, we'll see. how things go. I used the bike this afternoon again and it's been okay. At least I got this trouble at the weekend as I hate getting punctures on the way to or from work during the week.

It's been an eventful weekend in other ways as well. Saturday evening dinner preparation involved chopping up some red bird's eye chillies. I've had some bad experience with chilli's in the past so am usually careful about washing my hands afterwards. I did wash my hands but obviously not enough because after rubbing an eye, then (somehow) the other eye, I ended up on my couch unable to open either for about fifteeen minutes as my eyes were closed and burning ...

© Alastair Sherringham 2023
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