elliot's blog

John Cage - super cool

Some fantastic footage of John Cage, that most endearingly controversial of avant garde composers, performing one of his pieces (Water Walk) on the American game show "I've Got a Secret" in 1960.

Here's some crazy mashups for my sis. Now them's what I call mashups. You might also enjoy these one minute or less remixes of various songs. My favourite is this version of Stagger Lee by Nick Cave. I also enjoyed Take One (a version of Dave Brubeck's Take Five). Or how about the whole of OK Computer in 45 seconds (wait for the hilarious ending).

Martin Denny performing Quiet Village. Class.

In fact, just go and read this fantastic radio station blog I stumbled across where these and many other nuggets came from.

Birmingham Poets Online

Yes, I know it looks like I've dropped off the earth, and I don't appear to be doing any technical writing or research (don't appear...aha, just you wait), but I have been spending a lot of my spare time writing poetry. Before you laugh, can I just remind you that it is a noble art form, intellectually challenging, and one which I find very engaging (I lose hours troubling over a rhyme or the right words to keep my iambic pentameter intact). OK, maybe not for everyone, but I am really into it at the moment (reading poetry as well as writing it).

Anyway, to my point: I've now got my own space on Birmingham Poets Online. I don't think it takes much to get on there, to be honest, but it's nice to be part of an (albeit small) literary community. Those of you who've been missing my poetry on here (not you, obviously, sis) can catch up with my latest works there.

Gardeners' Question Time

Update: If you can't be bothered to find it yourself, here's a RealPlayer feed of Sunday's programme. My question is about 29 minutes in.

Yesterday evening I went to a recording of Gardeners' Question Time at Birmingham Botanical Gardens (Nicola got me a couple of tickets, so I took along my friend Adrian). I have to confess I've never listened to a full episode myself, as I thought it would be pretty dry and uninteresting. But seeing it recorded live was very entertaining. I was impressed by the professionalism of the presenters (John Cushnie, Bob Flowerdew, Bunny Guiness, and hosted by one of the BBC weathermen whose name I can't remember). They seemed genuinely pleased to be there and treated all the questioners with great courtesy; and they recorded tight to schedule, with little need for retakes. They were also funny, particularly John Cushnie, who has a dry, quite dark sense of humour, and was comically blunt when faced with some of the questions (though still polite).

For a jape, I decided to pen a question and drop it into the "question pot". I didn't expect to get picked, but amazingly did. Adrian did a "facial groan" when they got us to go up to the front, but I think he enjoyed getting close to the action by the end of it. So (unless they cut it) my question will be on the end of this Sunday's (2pm, June 10th) programme. I won't give away what it was: you'll have to listen.

Drupal in the West Midlands

At OpenAdvantage we are starting to see more and more enquiries about support for Drupal. Often this will be from companies who've started using Drupal but need some work done on customisation; or a company that's seen Drupal in action elsewhere but lacks the technical skill for implementation. They are often looking for a local company to support their work, and ask for suggestions. I end up scouring the Drupal services page for UK companies, but it's not very often I see any West Midlands companies.

If you are a Drupal company based in the West Midlands region and are looking for consultancy work, please let me know in the comments so I can pass your details on. I've had enquiries from three different organisations in the past month, to give you an idea of the levels of interest. For the record, here's a list of compiled; note that these are not recommendations, just companies I know of who work with Drupal in the UK:

Check my new widget

Last.fm has released a new recent tracks widget (see the left-hand side of my about page). It is a definite improvement over my plain HTML Drupal module: this one will preview bits of the tracks I've been listening to. You lucky people.

Panorama programme on Scientology

A while ago, I wrote a blog entry about Scientology. This week, Panorama (a serious UK news programme) did an in-depth analysis of Scientology, including interviews with prominent Scientologists. The programme is available online. Quite frightening how they seemingly hounded and intimidated the presenter. The BBC bloke ended up completely losing his rag with the Scientologist by the end of the week.

I was interested to hear that Scientology is not classed as a religion in the UK, due to the fact that paying for their courses does not constitute worship. Also that the Scientologists interviewed denied parts of what I'd assumed were core beliefs of their faith (the stuff about aliens, thetans, and nuclear bombs).

Open Source Showcase at OpenAdvantage - line up

I've been putting together an event bringing together companies and enthusiasts in the West Midlands, where they will be doing short talks about how they're using open source. The full flyer is available at:


The event's at the NTi in Birmingham on the 20th June: please sign up through the link above. It's FREE.

I've now got a preliminary speaker list for this event, too (each talk will be a zippy 10 minutes):

  1. Richard Johnson, PixelPlanet Ltd.: Plone for corporate websites
  2. Ian Moore, Friends of the Earth (Birmingham): Edubuntu and thin clients
  3. Jake Stride, Senokian: Enterprise Groupware System
  4. Claire Wozencroft, C2B2: iPoint portal
  5. William Giddings: open source applications with Tcl/Tk
  6. Richard Zybert, Zybert Computing: Z1 Gem Server
  7. Dave Jones, XDM Software: Moodle

If you're interested in speaking, there are still a couple of spaces available. Drop me an email at my name (elliot) at my organisation (openadvantage.org) if you'd like to participate as a presenter. The aim is to hear about how companies and organisations are using open source, rather than sales pitches, but it puts your company in front of a crowd of interested listeners.

It's been great for me already, hearing about projects I wasn't aware of. It will be a good event. Unlike events like LUGRadio Live (which is great, by the way), this one will be focusing on West Midlands open source people and will include quite a few SMEs who make money using and producing open source.

Downloading lots of stuff at once with Firefox

I use eMusic to satisfy my insatiable desire for music. It's great. However, you have to download each track individually: there's no way to get a whole album at once (at the moment). In Firefox, I found I could only download two tracks at a time; this meant it took quite a long time to download 10 tracks, say, as I could only have two downloads going at once.

I always thought this was down to eMusic, but it occurred to me today that it's probably a Firefox setting. Lo and behold, it is a Firefox setting. If you want to fix your browser to allow more than two simultaneous downloads over HTTP, do the following:

  • Open up the URL about:config by typing it in the address bar and clicking the green arrow. This shows you all your Firefox settings.
  • In the Filter text box, type connections to just show options relating to connections.
  • I've got four settings, so I set all four to 12. Might seem excessive, but better to be safe than sorry. (To modify a value, right-click on it, select Modify and enter your new value). Here are the properties I changed:
    • network.http.max-connections
    • network.http.max-connections-per-server
    • network.http.max-persistent-connections-per-proxy
    • network.http.max-persistent-connections-per-server

I can now have 10 or so downloads running concurrently (the first typically finishes before I've got round to starting number 11!). Much better. This might even speed up standard web browsing, as you can download far more files from a single server at the same time. (Though I don't know whether setting it too high might make it look like you're trying to launch a denial-of-service attack or something.)

To further improve your download experience, I recommend the Download Statusbar for Firefox. Peachy.

Insulting British colloquialisms

I've got an American acquaintance who is interested in hearing more of our colourful British colloquialisms (particularly those for putting someone down). Here's the list I've compiled so far (some from this wikipedia article). If you've got more, please leave in comments.

WARNING: some of these have adult definitions or themes.

  • big jessie (someone who's a bit of a softie)
  • daft (eccentric, crazy)
  • div (idiot)
  • dosser (someone who is lazy)
  • gormless (lacking in intelligence, with vacant expression: "Don't just stand there looking gormless")
  • minger (pronounced like "singer") (an unattractive person)
  • munter (c.f. "minger")
  • muppet (silly person)
  • nutter (eccentric person)
  • pillock (silly person)
  • pleb (person of lower class, but typically used to mean someone without taste or refinement)
  • plonker (silly person)
  • prat (incompetent person)
  • shite (jocular form of "shit")
  • tosser (idiot)
  • toss-pot (idiot)
  • twonk (someone who's been a bit foolish; also "dozy twonk")
  • wazzock (fool)

Some that aren't insults:

  • bumf (a pile of paper you get given when you go to conferences etc.; derived from "bum fodder")
  • chuffed (pleased)
  • faff (to dither, as in "I spent the day faffing around")
  • guff (fart, to fart)
  • hammered (very drunk)
  • higgledy-piggledy (in disarray)
  • jammy (lucky, e.g. "jammy git")
  • kecks (trousers aka "pants" in the US, or underpants)
  • knackered (tired out)
  • knackers (testicles)
  • knickers (panties)
  • naff off (go away)
  • minge (pronounced to rhyme with "whinge") (female genitals/pubic hair)
  • pissing down (raining heavily, "It's pissing it down out there!")
  • punnet (basket for fruit, typically for strawberries)
  • rat-arsed (extremely drunk)
  • ropey (of poor quality)
  • shandy (lager or beer mixed with lemonade)
  • shattered (tired)
  • skew-whiff (not straight, skewed, "That shelf is a bit skew-whiff")
  • skive (to avoid or not attend, "He skived off school")
  • slash (go to the toilet for a wee, as in "I need a slash")
  • snog (to kiss amorously)
  • strop (bad mood)
  • take the piss (take advantage of someone, "They're taking the piss"; to make fun of someone, "I took the piss out of him")
  • throw a wobbler (have a tantrum)
  • wankered (extremely drunk)
  • whinge (complain, often used to describe how children go on about things using a silly whiny voice)
  • wonky (not straight, crooked, "That shelf is wonky", "That shelf is on the wonk")

Rails configuration: I'd rather do XML situps than hunt through dozens of files

Update: Shahid (see comments) mentioned that this functionality, or something very much like it, has been introduced in edge Rails. Not sure how I missed that, as I do read Ryan's blog. So it could be that my rant was misplaced.

This is something that's been bothering me for a while. In the early days of Rails, much was made of the simplicity of configuration: no big XML files like you have for Java Enterprise applications; just a database.yml file and a handful of simple environment options. But it's occurred to me that this is no longer true.

Take a look at the new video for the MOle, a plugin for monitoring your Rails application in real time; I'm not talking about the plugin itself, rather the configuration files which are shown in the video. They are full of chunks of Ruby code for setting constants for use in the application, plus some other bits for working out whether localization is available.

Or have a look at the caboose sample Rails application, a neat integration of several plugins plus some Rails best practices into a template application. It's a nice application, with lots of great ideas, but that's not my point. Have a look at the environment.rb file and you notice things like this:

ASSET_IMAGE_PROCESSOR = :image_science || :rmagick || :none
ExceptionNotifier.exception_recipients = %w( your_email@test.com )

i.e. Ruby code to configure the various plugins and Rails components.

Or have a look at the environment.rb file for Typo. Again, a great piece of software; but the configuration file contains a multitude of options, extra load paths, checks for capabilities, setting up of constants and environment variables, etc..

My point is: there isn't "one true way" to configure Rails applications. Yes, Rails has dispensed with XML configuration files; but as the complexity of available plugins, libraries and capabilities has increased, the infrastructure for managing them hasn't kept up. We are reduced to configuring a ton of options in environment.rb and other places (e.g. app/controllers/application.rb for the session key, plugin-specific YAML files in config), none of which is particularly well documented. If you want to set up constants for your application, there is no right way to do it: you just do it how you like. This is all well and good, but makes it very hard for beginners to get their head round, and puts you back into a position not that far from configuring a PHP application in the raw.

My suggestion: some central mechanism for storing constants without having to resort to coding them in Ruby (maybe a constants.yml file); some mechanism for declaring a list of libraries you want to load without resorting to conditional require statements (e.g. a libraries.yml file which lists dependencies and provides a neat Ruby-ish syntax for reacting to error conditions); better documentation for the configuration options you can set for the various Rails libraries and a single YAML file for setting them (e.g. rails_config.yml); a standard mechanism for configuring plugins via YAML files (e.g. <plugin>_config.yml). Maybe there's a plugin already out there I don't know about that can do this...

I know this would take us away from simplicity into J2EE land: but one thing you can say about Java web applications is that there is far more consistency in how they are packaged, making them easier to deploy and their configuration more transparent. Now that Rails is becoming a complex beast, it might be time to put some structure back in.

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