Colin's Journal

Colin's Journal: A place for thoughts about politics, software, and daily life.

October 7th, 2007


Good holidays always feel like they are over barely after they begin. Our tour of Europe (well France, Luxembourg, Germany and Belgium) certainly falls into this category. We set off from London on a Saturday, got to Dover with plenty of spare time for lunch, and took the ferry over to Boulogne. It was my first time driving on the right hand side of the road, and I have a say it was easier than I had expected it to be.

We stayed in a small B&B outside Amiens on the first night, enjoying a good evening of eating, drinking and chatting with the hosts and other guests. The next day we worked our way to Louviers where we spent a couple of nights. We stayed in small village rather than a town or city, a good change of pace from London.

Vianden CastleAfter a quick visit to Monet’s gardens (which get better the further in you go) we soebt a night in a chateau in Courcelles (in the Champagne region) – a fabulous evening of good food, great service and spectacular surroundings.

A further night just outside Epernay allowed for a some champagne tasting (7 in total), the most enjoyable being at the Espace Degustation where we did a sampling of the 5 champagne’s of the week.

Next up was Luxembourg for a night, with a day trip around the Vianden and the spectacular castle (see photo). We ended up crossing the border into Germany on a tiny little single track road, but thankfully one with almost no traffic. Our first night in Germany was spent in Heidelberg, for which the most impressive sight came by walking the steep path up to the castle gardens / park.

Friedrichroda had been mainly selected for it’s half-way point on route to Leipzig, but it also presented an opportunity to do a little walking through the forest which was a good change of pace.

Leipzig itself was much more alive than my memories of it from (roughly) six years ago. There are still a lot of empty,boarded up, properties around, but plans are in place to have them mostly demolished and the surroundings regenerated. The city centre itself is full of good shopping, eating and construction.

Our return trip was faster than our out-bound. We stopped in Paderborn (home to a nifty river and lots of references to Charlemagne), Aachen (good gingerbread, and even more references to Charlemagne) and finally Gent. Gent was a surprise hit – a fabulous series of canals, old buildings and lively atmosphere.

August 5th, 2007


The blue skies finally came back this weekend, and for the first time all summer it’s been to hot. Saturday was spent at a barbeque – eating, drinking and burning wood in honour of Alice’s birthday.

London CityToday’s been a mixture of spending time playing Travian and working on Splash of Wine. The site is coming along nicely, with a lot of small refinements going live today and one significant feature: lists. You can have as many lists as you need, whether to-try lists or wish lists (my wish list is more a good wines list at the moment), or anything else.

The next major feature for me to work on is displaying average prices of wines. All the purchases that are recorded on the site are averaged on a per-country basis. Showing this alongside the wine details is easy enough, however I need to implement a quick and easy way to switch countries before it’s particularly useful.

Please let me know how you get on with the site and the new features, and please pass the site details on to friends and family.

July 29th, 2007

It’s alive!

I’ve switched on my new website! It was touch and go as to whether I’d make the end of the month, but I think it’s good enough now to enter an alpha trial. Splash of Wine is a site for gathering information on wines.

KittenThe idea behind it came from my poor knowledge of wine. I occasionally stumble across wines that I really like, and mentally make a note that it was a good one. When next faced with the question of “what wine would you recommend?” I find myself with no answer, I’ve forgotten which wines I like.

Splash of Wine lets you write reviews and rate wines. The reviews can be for your own use, or optionally published so that other users of the site can read them. Over time I hope to build up a log of the wines that I’ve tried, where I’ve bought them, and whether I should buy them again in future.

Although there’s a bunch of additional features that I’d like to implement, the main task for the next few weeks will be to refine the interface and presentation of the existing capabilities. Hopefully I’ll get some feedback from people reading this on what works, and what doesn’t. Please take the time to register and have a look around!

Picture: Five week old kitten – not related to wine at all, but it might act as a bribe to get some feedback on the site!

July 10th, 2007

The cunning plan

Columns in EdinburghSince the end of May I’ve been working on a new website. It’s not ready yet, but it’s slowly approaching the point of being “ready enough” to reveal to the world. While it’s good to be working on a personal project after such a long time of focusing on paid-for-work, it has meant that free time has once again been sorely lacking for other things.

The plan is to have the site live by the end of the month, or shortly there after. This leaves me with two weeks in which to:

  • Improve the design, particularly around the search results
  • Make it work with Safari, Opera and IE
  • Write some tests (probably using Selenium) to make sure that all the bits that used to work, still do
  • Figure out how to deploy it onto my slice
  • Get some sort of backup arrangement in place

There are dozens of extra features that I’d like to add, however I think I’ve hit the point where getting some feedback on what works and what doesn’t is more important than ploughing on regardless.

In case you’re curious, the site is for reviewing wines. If you are feeling generous and want to contribute, please drink some wine and write up your thoughts on it. Hopefully not too hard a task 🙂

May 12th, 2007

Games and Jabber

WindmillRayman Raving Rabbids has one of the most addictive game elements I’ve yet seen on the Wii: rhythmic rabbits. It’s very simple, just moving the remote and nunchuck in time to the musical beat. In practise however it’s fairly challenging to get the timing just right, especially as the beat varies during the song.

The Godfather: Blackhand Edition is proving to be a fairly difficult game. It’s not hard to do the missions – these seem to be of a consistently do-able standard. The hard piece is the more free-form part of the game, where ending up dead is all too easy. When I’m not getting “Iced”, I find my extortion efforts hampered by the tendency for shop keepers to die on me during the persuasion exercise. My favourite part so far is the driving, the way the cars you take vary in performance, and how much chaos you can cause is very amusing.

I wish that my hosting service (HostingZoom) offered Jabber support. It’s a pain to have my Jabber ID tied to another domain (currently Googlemail) rather than being part of Especially irritating is that vcard updates on google talk don’t seem to work – leaving me no way to including my website in my personal information.

February 11th, 2007


We are now Wii enabled. Our number is 6789 0126 7404 7756.

Spiral stairs in London City HallFirst impressions are good, but there are a few rough edges I hadn’t heard about previously. The setup is easy and getting the Wifi connection working was simple. Wii Sports Tennis is a lot of fun as is, surprisingly, the golf. Zelda is very good, although I hate being in wolf form: The fighting is harder and the jump functionality is simply strange (no real challenge from a game play perspective – why have it in the first place?).

Now for the rough edges. First up – the colour. The SCART adaptor shipped with the Wii results in washed out pale colours, to such a degree that I had to adjust the TV settings just for playing on the Wii. From what I can tell this should be fixed by an RGB Scart Cable, but why is this not included as standard rather than charging £20+ for it? An aside: There’s plenty to be spent on the Wii before you even get more games: Missing SCART cable (£20), a second controller (with Wii Play – £33) and a classic controller (£15) comes to nearly £70 before you even buy a Wii Console game or Wii disc.

Another slight annoyance is the range of the Wii controller when using the sensor bar. The recommendation is to use the controller 1 to 3 meters from the TV. 3 meters isn’t much, and (it turns out), slightly short of our comfy chairs position from the goggle-box.

Overall though, I’m happy with it. I’m sure I’ll be investing in a few Wii console games as well as a second controller. First up is the RGB SCART cable, hopefully I can get a third party one at less cost.

Picture: Spiral stair case inside London City Hall.

December 29th, 2006


Street in ParisI finished reading Air by Geoff Ryman on Boxing Day; these notes contain spoilers. It’s a good book, despite the science fiction elements being barely explored or thought out. The main strength of the book is the way in which the layers of a small village life are slowly revealed, bringing home the complexity of life in a subtle manner.

At first the poor village is described in superficial terms, the characters are introduced with little background. As the story goes on, the dialogue, primarily the inner dialogue of the main character, Mae, brings out the history and second-guessing of motivations that forms so much of people’s relationships. The creation of the characters in this way works very well, especially as the author has been able to avoid Mae becoming all knowing. Events and characters still happen outside of Mae’s control and knowledge, striking a good balance between fleshing out the world around Mae and drowning the story in unnecessary detail.

The impact of the interactive TV/Internet on the rural village is also well explored. The success of the main protagonist, although explained away through her interface with Air, does strike me as lucky, but does not distract during reading. The role of the government and outsiders in the village’s life rings true, although it plays strongly to stereotypes.

The only part of the story that doesn’t work for me is Mae’s pregnancy. This plays a useful role in the plot, but stretches believability that is already under strain from the barely explained sci-fi elements.

Image: Paris Street.

December 11th, 2006

A collection of thoughts

Spam ceased to be a problem for me for a long time. Evolution’s integration with SpamAssassin has meant very little junk landing in my inbox for many years now. The downside to this happy state of affairs has recently made itself known – many emails that should be landing in my inbox, aren’t. Having to glance through all my spam to fish out those emails that need rescuing has sharply reminded me of just how big a problem spam really is.

Acorns on graveDjango looks like a really nice web framework. The way in which each layer of the stack can be customised with the minimal of fuss should make it very easy to use. Compared to Zope and other monolithic environments it’s a welcoming combination. I need to find a project that requires me to build a web app so I can try it in anger.

Wii intrigues me. I like the idea of something that really does change the state of the art of human/computer interfaces. The years of hot air about 3D GUIs and alternative approaches to using a computer have given way, thanks to a games console, to a genuine change in approach. Not just that, but according to those that know such things, it’s meant to be fun too boot!

However several things are holding me back from getting one:

  • I don’t like 3D games. This mainly because the standard first person perspective technique used for most games makes me ill. I don’t know whether this would be a problem for Zelda, hopefully not.
  • If we do move to the states next year then it wouldn’t work anymore.
  • I’ve not played games seriously for years. We have in the past played Gameboy Advanced games, but I found the poor screen on the original model eventually put me off.
  • It looks like a serious amount of effort would have to be expended to actually find one.

Still I’m tempted and it is nearly Christmas.

October 29th, 2006


Fedora always comes with at least one significant problem. Looking back I’d say that FC5 was probably the smoothest install – only tracking down the right version of the wireless firmware proved difficult. My favourite user-unfriendly Fedora moment was having to manually type in kernel boot parameters, just in order to enable the media integrity check during installation. FC6 gives this not-been-tested-prior-to-release bug a run for it’s money.

Three sheepHaving learnt from previous experiences I went with a full installation of Fedora Core 6 rather than an upgrade. Problems encountered:

  • During installation several packages couldn’t be read from the CD. Selecting re-try a few times solved the problem, but for a moment I thought I’d be stuck without a usable machine.
  • When I logged in I found that the CPU was pinned at full speed.
  • Searching for files in Nautilus doesn’t work.

The cpuspeed problem turned out to be caused by Fedora installing a 586 rather than 686 kernel. I had to uninstall the 586 version (plus dependencies), and then install the 686 version. This left the GRUB bootloader configuration broken. It took several attempts at manual configuration using the rescue disk to get this fixed.

The lack of search in Nautilus is caused by beagle not working. Removing beagle (and re-starting Nautilus) has solved that particular problem.

Overall Fedora remains a distribution only usable by the Linux savvy. I’ve yet to see a Linux installation that’s flawless, but the nature of the problems (and ease with which they are worked around) indicates to me that the biggest barriers remain quality of testing rather than any fundamental technical problem.

Image: Three sheep from the Lake District village of Cartmel.

August 13th, 2006

Visiting the coast

South Downs at Beachy HeadIt was a good day out despite the weather. Setting off in late morning I started the drive to the coast in drizzle and grey skies. As I got hungry I kept an eye out for somewhere to eat, plumping for a nice looking pub in Tunbridge Wells. The Weavers has both a restaurant and bar menu, with interesting sounding food hosted on both. I went with a jacket potato, topped with sausage and chili jam and accompanied by a salad. It’s an unusual combination, but it worked well, in part thanks to the balance provided by the salad, particularly the olives.

After lunch I pushed on to Eastbourne where the weather broke and became a mixture of sunshine and showers for the rest of the day. The pebble beach was fairly quiet, with most people sticking to the promenade. Although the pier dominates the water front I was more interested in getting to the views of the south downs that lie further west.

The next stop before returning home was Beachy Head, which provides great views of Eastbourne and a sharp contrast to the seaside town. The South Downs at this point are extremely windswept with the few trees around bent over in the prevailing wind.

We are now planning our summer trip. The basic aim is to drive north, spending some time in the Lake District before getting into Scotland. We’ll only have a week, so need to plan carefully to avoid spending too many days doing solid driving. There’s two B&B / Restaurants in the Lake District that we are interested in, so we should be able to get to at least one of them. My only particular target in Scotland is to find some good scenery to photograph and visit Edinburgh.

Copyright 2015 Colin Stewart

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