Monthly Archives: January, 2007

In which we (don’t quite) serve…

Some people have been asking how my jury service (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) was going.

The answer is that it didn’t!

I duly turned up at Cambridge Crown Court for the first two days, sat in the jurors’ waiting room for a few hours each day and then was allowed to go home at lunchtime. On the second day, they told my group we wouldn’t be needed until the following Monday and we had the rest of the week off for good behaviour.

On Monday, I returned, to spend another morning waiting, before the clerk said that they just didn’t have as many trials as expected, and were there any volunteers who would like to be excused further service at this point? My hand was up before she’d finished speaking, and so it was that I spent three long mornings inside the Crown Court without ever actually seeing a courtroom.

Some people might have been annoyed at this unnecessary disruption to their life, but I wasn’t, for three reasons:

  • First, I rather liked most of my fellow jurors-in-waiting and the court staff, and there was a generally cheery atmosphere.
  • Second, having my laptop and a 3G connection meant that I could do quite a lot of real work, and I had podcasts to listen to and watch, as well as a good book. I carry my office in my backpack and can work almost anywhere now.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, I remembered John telling me what Gerard, a mutual friend, had said when John complained about the inefficiencies in his jury service experience. I probably won’t do Gerard’s argument justice (pun intended!) but it was along the lines of the following: There are inefficiencies in the justice system. It’s a nuisance. But it’s a price we need to pay. The most efficient way to deal with criminals is to round them up and shoot them. But if we want a better system than that, we have to be prepared for some inconvenience.

AppleTV – the Mini Mini?

A quick thought on the AppleTV box…

Not only does it look like half a Mac Mini – that’s probably rather close to what it actually is. It has about half the hard disk space, for example, and is about half the price.

AppleTV connectors
It has a better set of A/V connectors on the back, but the main thing it’s missing, from my point of view, is a DVD drive.

“Aha!”, you may say. “That’s because it’s not meant to be a PC – it’s meant to stream video from your PC, and your PC will have a DVD slot.” Yes, but DVD video is not very highly compressed, and streaming it over a wireless network, though it should in theory be possible, might be a bit challenging. So you’d have to rip the DVD to some other format on your PC before viewing it on your AppleTV, which can take all night.

Apple, of course, would like some aspects of this – it means it’s much easier simply to buy your movies through iTunes. And it is true that buying or renting movies on DVD is going to be ever-less-important over the coming years.

But I’ve had a Mac Mini under my TV for some time now, and it’s been great. It will do almost everything the AppleTV will do and a lot more, so I’m going to stick with that for a while.


SVG – scalable vector graphics – is an XML-based standard for storing images based on lines, curves and shapes (as opposed to photo-type pictures, which are arrays of pixels).

It’s been around for some time – I think I first experimented with it in around 1999 – but there were a very limited number of programs able to create or view SVG files. That’s changing, however, and SVG is gaining ground for a variety of reasons:

  • An SVG file can include Javascript, which can modify the graphical components to create an animation
  • It turns out to be quite a good format for delivery some types of graphics to devices like mobile phones
  • Firefox supports it – which means that a very large number of people are now able to see SVG images without installing any extra software

Martin sent me a link to this simple but very pleasing SVG animation by Tavmjong Bah, which you should be able to see if you’re using Firefox or similar browsers.

It assumes you’re on a large display, though, and if not, you might like this version, which I simply scaled down using the free Inkscape application. Note that the animation still runs, that it shows your timezone, and that if you were to scale it back up you’d get the full quality of the original.

Apple toys

Well, Steve Jobs’ MacWorld keynote seems to have lived up to a lot of the hype, with two key announcements:

  • the AppleTV box – which lets you stream content from your Mac over the network to your TV but also has a built-in hard disk which will sync with iTunes automatically. To make the streaming work better, it supports 802.11n, and there’s a new
    Airport Base Station to help take advantage of it. Only the very latest Macs can manage 802.11n, though – my MacBook Pro is an early one, for example, and doesn’t – those based on the Core 2 processors can. But since I’m usually plugged into ethernet at home I’m not worried.
  • The iPhone. Yes, it’s here, and it looks like a glorious device. Well, almost here. You need to be patient, because it won’t be out until June in the US and closer to the end of the year in Europe.

    It has wifi, it has a camera, it has almost no buttons and a very sexy touchscreen interface. It runs a version of Mac OS X. Wish it had 3G, but it has everything else, and might just have to be my Christmas present for next year…


The key to cleanliness

Michael Dales has found a new way to make your grubby old keyboard all clean and shiny. As long as you’re not in a hurry.

GRUB CD image and Error 15

This is a post for anyone who, like me, has been doing web searches to find out what might be the problem if your Linux machine displays GRUB Error 15 on booting. Or who has general GRUB issues to debug.

My problem was Error 15, which indicates that GRUB cannot find one of the files it needs. If you get it while setting up GRUB, it’s often fairly easy to find out what’s wrong. But if GRUB thinks it’s installed OK, and you then reboot, you can still get this message but without any further information to help you debug it.

To cut a long story short, the issue for me was that the BIOS (and GRUB while booting), saw my two hard disks in a different order from the way the kernel saw them after booting. So my assumptions that /dev/sda was the same as (hd0) was invalid.

Finding this out took a very long time, though, because, for reasons too complex to go into here, I was booting this server not from a regular CD but from an emulated CD the other side of the Atlantic.

Things became a lot faster when I found this section in the GRUB documentation which explained how to make a bootable CD ISO image with GRUB on it. To save you the trouble, here’s one:

I could mount this and use the GRUB console command line to find out what was wrong. It’s worth exploring the GRUB console, if you haven’t already. It can do things like filename completion when you press TAB, and can even display the contents of text files using, for example,

cat (hd0,0)/boot/grub/menu.lst

In my case I found that the BIOS of the machine allowed me to choose the boot order of the hard disks, and swapping them there was the easiest solution.

Hope this is useful to somebody!

Expanding your window and broadening your mind?

The YouTube player that appears in a web page has a button in the bottom right hand corner that I hadn’t previously tried:


It switches the little in-window player into something approaching full-screen mode. Now, most videos on YouTube are short enough and of low-enough quality that there’s not much point in doing this. But those who have a ‘director’ account can upload videos of greater length; things for which you may prefer to retire to a comfy chair and watch from a distance.

And so it was that I spent an hour and three quarters this morning watching YouTube because somebody has uploaded the talk that Richard Dawkins gave at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia in October.

There are two parts to the video. The first is Dawkins reading extracts from The God Delusion. The second, longer clip is the Q&A from the audience afterwards, which is, as he predicts, generally more interesting. What adds a certain frisson to some of the discussions is the fact that the other academic institution in Lynchburg is the contraversial Baptist college, Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell.

If you’re interested in the subject from either side of the fence, or are sitting on it, this is worth watching.

Follow-up: Dave Hill points out that you can get the whole thing as a Quicktime download here. Similar quality, but you can right-click on the link and save the file to your machine if you want to keep a copy.

Sky dance

My friend Martin pointed me at a rather unusual and rather delightful web page.
Take a look…

Optical illusions

Davina Bristow has a few nice optical illusions in this Telegraph article.

Here’s one.

optical illusion

The faces of this cube are, in fact, the same colour. Davina suggests a way to confirm this by cutting holes in a bit of paper which hides the surroundings – on my Mac I used the Digital Color Meter utility which shows the top actually to be slightly lighter in this rendition. It’s the edges of the faces, and the appearance of a shadow, which causes us to deduce that the top is grey and the bottom white.

Thanks to Claes-Frederik for the link.

By any other name…

It’s uncanny. Just last night over dinner I was commenting to Rose that the flowers on the table were still beautiful even though they were wilting.

And I then went upstairs, looked at John’s blog and saw his lovely photo of the ageing roses on his windowsill.

So here’s my contribution to the genre…



Kristoffer Strom’s whiteboard



If you, or a friend, are a new Mac user, you’ll appreciate Adam Pash’s Guide for switching to the Mac, which introduces you to things like the most important keyboard shortcuts. Nicely done.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser