Binary thinking

I had to explain this to a friend recently.

Computers work on binary, which means the only states they really understand are ‘on’ and ‘off’.

And that, my friends, is why so many computer problems can be solved with ‘Try turning it off and on again’.

Brexit Broadcasting Corporation? Really?

It’s long been the last refuge of the politically incompetent to blame the BBC. In all my long years, it’s hard to remember any UK party or persuasion that hasn’t claimed a bias against them, and, of course, both sides of the Brexit debate are doing so now. It’s par for the course.

But there was a particularly nice example spreading on Twitter last night which shows that you can alway pick your conspiracy theory and find a headline to match.

A site calling itself ‘The New European’ ran the headline ‘BBC bans European flags at Eurovision event – offers Union flags instead’. The story was that the Beeb had confiscated EU flags from those attending their “Eurovision – You Decide” event, and had said that people could only wave Union flags. Pretty shocking, eh?

Since I am in the anti-Brexit camp, and many of my friends on Twitter are to the more extreme fringes of that persuasion, I get to see a stream of posts from people saying how outrageous this was, and they would stop paying their licence fees, etc.

Now, if you investigate even a little bit, you discover that this headline is pure click-bait.

What actually happened was the normal security process at large events: people were required to leave backpacks, flags (of any and all varieties), and other large items at the door. If you turned up with a Union flag they took that from you too.

The idea of taking flags to an audience event seems a bit unsociable anyway, but Auntie kindly catered to those with an irresistible urge to wave something and, inside, they made some flags available (presumably sensibly-sized ones). However, they didn’t provide a complete range of flags for everyone wanting to make a protest or political point, perhaps assuming that those attending an event about the British entry competing with the rest of Europe might actually want to wave one of the British flags.

So yes, technically, there were some people who took an EU flag and were not allowed to use it but were offered a Union Jack instead. There were also some people who took big flags and were offered a small flag instead. I presume that anyone who wanted to wave an Israeli flag would have been out of luck too, which smacks of antisemitism to me…

But that’s nothing compared to the prejudice against backpack-owners, who were not offered anything at all! Come on, BBC, we backpack owners don’t pay our licence fee for this kind of discrimination!

An early webcam TV appearance

In October 1999, I was interviewed by Leo Laporte on ZDTV’s ‘Call for Help’ programme. Yes, this is just another interview about the Trojan Room Coffee Pot, but it’s interesting to me for several reasons.

Firstly because, even though it’s nearly 20 years ago, I’ve only just seen it! They kindly sent me a VHS tape of the episode at the time, but (no doubt with good intentions) they encoded it with a rather unusual 50Hz variety of NTSC, and I’ve never been able to play it. It was only last week that, before throwing it out, I went to the trouble of tracking down somebody who was able to tell me that, yes, indeed, there was actually something on the tape…

Secondly, it was quite a challenge to do the recording. They sent me a camera in advance, and I had a slightly older PC which didn’t have the brand new USB ports that were just starting to appear, so I had to dismantle it, install an ISA card, and then repartition my hard disk and install Windows 95, because neither the Linux nor the Windows NT operating systems I had on there were supported by 3Com’s software.

But chiefly, it’s a nice nostalgic snapshot of tech life not too long ago. The rest of the episode provides helpful hints like: you’re probably used to installing hardware in your machine before inserting the CDROM or floppy with the drivers, but with USB it’s a good idea to install the drivers first. Files you download over your modem may be compressed and you’ll need a thing called WinZip to see what’s inside them. And Chris Breen (later an editor at MacWorld), comes on to explain that if you’re trying to play DVDs on your computer and they keep skipping, it may be because you’re connected to a network that does something called DHCP. The PC can’t do that and play back smoothly at the same time, so it may be worth disabling DHCP before you start watching. Oh, and there’s also a section about how, if you have a laptop, you may find it a pain to be tethered to your modem, but there are some wireless networking options becoming available, and the one that looks most promising for the future is this thing called 802.11…

The clip I’ve uploaded shows the interview from the studio in California, with me in Cambridge, and we’re joined by Don Lekei from Canada a bit later. It’s hard now to remember just how rare it was at the time to see people on TV live from remote locations. That normally needed satellite linkups, or very costly kit attached to extremely expensive international ISDN calls. For Don and I to talk casually from the comfort of our own homes on opposite sides of the world was enough to get the hosts of a tech show pretty excited. You’ll note that we both use telephones as well, though, because there wasn’t any suitable audio channel…

Anyway, Leo is now the head of the substantial TWiT netcasting network, so I guess networked video worked out well for him too 🙂

Printing a booklet on a Mac

I had a 47-page PDF document that I wanted to turn into a compact A5 booklet – you know, one of those things where you get out the big stapler and make something like this:

Unfortunately, you need to print page 39 on the same page as page 10, and then pages 40 and 9 on the other side, etc, and when you get to anything more than about 4 pages it’s hard and tedious to do this by hand and get it right. My HP printer driver had a ‘booklet’ facility, and it worked OK for 8 pages, but let me down when given any more.

Now, there are utilities you can buy which can do exactly this, but why would I spend a tenner or two when I could instead use a few otherwise lucrative working hours and build one myself?

So here’s my solution, which could be a lot tidier, but does the only tricky bit of the job: getting the pages in the right order. It’s an Automator script which you can run as a service: once installed, you can right-click on a PDF and select Services, and you should find a ‘Make Booklet PDF’ option. It produces a new PDF on your Desktop with appropriately shuffled pages. You can then just print that using Preview as follows:

  • Go into the Layout section of the Print dialog.
  • Select Two-Sided Printing
  • Set Pages per Sheet to ‘2’
  • Set the ‘Two-Sided’ option to ‘Short-Edge Binding’

Now, please note: You should understand how this works before trying it! It’s not complex, and I could have made it much prettier and self-explanatory, but I was using Automator, which is so far from a real programming language as to be frustrating. It does, however, have a few useful ways of manipulating PDFs without having to install anything else, and my script will at least prompt you with some of the following information when you run it.

OK,

  • First, the number of pages in your starting PDF must be a multiple of 4. Fortunately, you can easily append blank pages in Preview if needed. Select the last page and choose ‘Edit > Insert > Blank Page’ as often as needed and then save. The script will warn you if your page count isn’t right.

  • Then when you run the script, it will create a folder called ‘booklet-pages’ on your desktop. In here, it will create one PDF for each page of your document.

  • Finally, it will work out what order these pages should be in, and create a new ‘booklet.pdf’ on your desktop with the pages reassembled in that order.

  • You can then delete the ‘booklet-pages’ folder.

So, here’s a zip file containing the Automator script. You should be able to double-click it and open it in Automator if you want to see what’s inside, but I think if you put it into your ~/Library/Services folder within your home directory, it will probably just appear as a service if you right-click on a PDF file in the Finder.

Make Booklet PDF on desktop.zip

Hope it’s useful to someone! Sorry I can’t provide any support if you try it, but recommendations and improvements are welcome from anybody with more Automator stamina than me! All I can say is that it works nicely on my Mac running High Sierra (10.13.6).

The Hors-d’Oeuvre Test

Step aside Myers-Briggs! Here’s my latest psychoanalytical tool, for distinguishing between two fundamentally different types of personality.

When your subject is offered a food item that they don’t recognise, do they say:

  • Ooh – that looks interesting – thanks!

or

  • Mmm… Err… What is it?

Ponder that for a moment. I think we can agree — ignoring for a moment the statistical noise introduced by actual allergies — that this simple test reveals a great deal about how someone approaches life in general.

It’s certainly, I would suggest, something you should check with a potential fiancé before dropping the big question, for example.

And when recruiting key personnel for your next startup, I suspect this simple test may be more effective and revealing than many more formal recruitment methods.

But even if not, you’ve got to admit it’s a lot more pleasurable…

Eyes in the back of my head

Just before Christmas, Tilly (my spaniel) and I went to the Dordogne and back in our campervan. I made a video about it, which, while it may be of interest only to travel vlog and ‘van life’ enthusiasts, does have a bit of novelty value, because I filmed it on a spherical (360-degree) camera.

This means that after you’ve watched it, you can go back and watch it again from a completely different angle and see what was happening behind you!

I’ll put the link here, rather than embedding it, because this is something you want to watch on the YouTube site. Or, better still, in the YouTube app on your tablet, or phone, or VR headset…

You can find the video here.

If I had had more time, I would have made it shorter 🙂

This was really just an experiment for me, and I learned a great deal about the challenges and opportunities of filming and editing this particular medium, which I may write about in due course.

Maccents

Having recently come back from France, I’ve been typing a lot more characters with accents on them than I usually do! For common European accents, this is really easy to do on the Mac, but I confess that, for many years, I didn’t know the trick until a friend showed me.

So in case you’re of the anglophone persuasion and you’ve missed it too, let me enlighten you: all you have to do is hold down the appropriate key on the keyboard, and a little menu pops up; you can select the variant you want by clicking on it, or by typing the associated number.

What a difference a day makes…

The sky over my campsite yesterday morning; I hadn’t seen any blue up there for quite some time!

Camping Lune-sur-le-Lac

And the sky over the same campsite as I returned to it in the evening:

Camping Lune-sur-le-Lac

My pitch was just under the darkest bit at the bottom right.

It soon settled down to the standard grey rainclouds again afterwards, though!

Ode to a blustery winter campsite in the Dordogne

It’s good to know,
As the north winds blow,
That there’s plenty of eau,
And the eau is chaud.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser