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I passed!

I've heard UK driving test examiners can be pretty strict so I was actually a bit nervous, even though I've already done this all once in Canada. You see: roads are a lot smaller in the UK, I've hardly driven over the past 6 years, and my sister taught me how to drive manual (oh yeah: and the car never made it back from Alaska, but I swear it wasn't my fault!). At any rate, the chap who did my test in Morden was quite fair, and was actually quite friendly. I had a few minor faults, which he went over afterwards and gave me a couple of good tips. It was actually a pleasant experience all in all.

I also decided to get an instructor, and in retrospect, I'm glad I did - I'm actually sure I would've failed if I hadn't. I ended up going for BSM in the end, and lucked out with a guy named Phil Hinds. If you live in South London and are learning to drive, he's got my recommendation.


Only Forward

I was recently on Jury Service, which basically involves sitting around for hours on end waiting in the slight chance that you may be called up for a case, then going home. They suggest you bring a good book along... I actually recommend you bring several.

It's gotta be said, Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith is one of the best books ever printed. I loved it 10 years ago, and I was happy to find out I still do. Heck, it was so good, one of my friends from high-school named his band after it ;-).

Stop reading this. Go read it.

Fun with solar power

Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to set up my own solar/wind/geothermal energy system to run my house, partly because it would save money, but mostly because I've thought it was a cool idea. My parents had a heat-pump system installed about 15 years ago, so maybe that's what sparked it.

At any rate, I finally got my butt in gear and bought some intro-level solar panels. It helps that Maplins was having a sale on 4.8W panels - £30 instead of £60 (ok so they're amorphous but that's still not a bad deal). I doubt I'll be anywhere near saving money here, but I just wanted to set up a small scale off-grid circuit to try things out.

Of course, you can't just buy solar panels and do anything useful with them... you've gotta splash out and get some other kit. Unless you're planning to power a fan whenever it's sunny or sell the power you generate back to the grid, you'll need some batteries. And if you want to run anything you'd normally run off the mains, you'll need an inverter (fortunately Maplins had a sale on them too!). All in all, here's what I ended up getting:

  • 3x 4.8 Watt solar panels

  • 1x charge controller

  • 2x 12 Volt 12 ampere-hour sealed lead acid batteries

  • 1x 600W power inverter

  • a few meters of wire & some connectors

Setting it all up was fun... The wiring was pretty easy once I managed to dredge the basics of electricity from my memory, but seeing as I live in a rented property I can't just drill holes in the roof willy-nilly (which is a bit of a shame as I like drilling holes, but I'm pretty sure what my landlord would tell me to do if I even asked). So I settled for sticking the panels out on the railing of the terrace, attaching them with garden wire so they don't blow away. That unfortunately means they're not ideally positioned, but life goes on.

Here's how things are set up:

    +------+    +------+    +------+
    | pv   |    | pv   |    | pv   |
    | cell |    | cell |    | cell |
    +------+    +------+    +------+
         |         |          |
             |   charge   |
             | controller |
     +------+      |
     | bats |------+-- 12V appliances
     +------+      |
              | inverter |
            mains appliances

I found this article on wiring batteries really useful.

What I'd really like next is Steca PR1010 Solar Regulator / Charge Controller to tell me how the batteries are doing. Until then, I can see measure the output of the system with one of those special plugs that tell you how much energy whatever's plugged into it is consuming, and I can also use my multimeter to check the voltage of the batteries.

But even with this pretty simple setup I'm already able to charge my phone & run few lights through it! Ok, so that might be trivial compared to running a whole house, but I'm taking it as proof this works and is worth investing more in.
I'm hoping the identity 2.0 people have already thought of this one...

Mark Fowler pointed out to me the other day that web 2.0 is actually all about repeating yourself on as many different social networking sites as possible. I couldn't agree more: while I really like some of ye olde web 2.0 sites and even think that some of them are genuinely useful (like flickr, livejournal, linkedin), I really get annoyed at repeating myself.

This problem has existed since the dot-com boom (and before that even) in providing the same registration details to a billion and one different websites, and managing a billion and one different logins & passwords. Bah!

Of course, now we're seeing the wide-spread adoption of Open ID to solve this problem (to be fair, others have tackled it too, such as Passport - but who really wants to give away all their details to a single company?).

But even if Open ID catches on & spreads like wildfire, I'll still have to define who my family, friends, colleagues, etc are on every social networking site I go to.... again, again, and again.

Really, what the world needs is some sort of social networking protocol, built on top of say, Open ID. Then I could go back to being lazy.

mmmmmmm.... Turducken!

See what I miss out living all the way across this pond?


Sustainability: survival

To give me an idea about his new job at The Natural Step, Canada, my brother sent me a link to a presentation given by Dr Karl-Henrik Robèrt (founder of The Natural Step, Sweden): Sustainability: The Leadership Challenge.

Dr. Robèrt is a good speaker (unfortunately the chap who introduces him isn't... you might want to skip the first 5 minutes of that video if you decide to watch it). He obviously knows his subject, and he's passionate, clever, and entertaining.

The key thing I've taken away from his presentation is that sustainability is not about tree-hugging idealism, it's about survival. Following the general idea of limits to growth, The Natural Step use a funnel to show how the availability of resources will decline over time as we consume them (and population grows). That was already a familiar concept to me; but it's the imagery Robèrt uses that now sticks in my mind - unsustainable organizations will crash into the sides of that funnel. They just won't survive.

JavaScript GPX Parser for Zimki

So, at the last Fotango hack day I finally managed to turn my JavaScript GPX Parser into a Zimki library - you'll find it in my new code repository: http://code.spurkis.org/. Yes, it's free to use & source is available under the LGPL.

It doesn't do much more than turn GPX files into GPX objects (with an option to set the minimum distance between track points so you don't inundate yourself with useless information), and I've only made the server-side JS available for the moment - if you want to see it in use on the client-side, see http://www.spurkis.org/maps. It should handle both GPX 1.0 & GPX 1.1. While it does have unit tests for both versions, I've only used it with the traces made available from my Garmin Venture Cx so far, which annoyingly only lets me get at traces, not waypoints et. al. That's one for another rant, I reckon.

Using it is pretty simple (or so I think ;-). Once you've got a Zimki account, create a new JavaScript instance in your dev realm that does something like:

zimki.library.require('code.staging.spurkis.org', 'gpxutils.js');

function handleGpxUpload(args) {
  if (args.gpxfile) {
    // uploading a new gpx File
    zimki.log.debug( 'uploading ' + args.gpxfile.filename );
    var file = args.gpxfile.save(args.gpxfile.filename);

    // then parse & store it
    var gpxContainer = newGPXContainerForFile(file);
    return '<html><body>uploaded & parsed GPX File: ' + args.gpxfile.filename + '</body></html>';

  return <html><body><form method="POST" enctype="multipart/form-data">
   <p>GPX File: <input type="file" name="gpxfile" size="30"/></p>
   <p><input type="submit" name="submit" value="upload"/></p></form>
   <p><a href="/json.listGPX">json.listGPX</a></p>
   <p><a href="/json.getGPX">json.getGPX</a><em>?name=uploaded-file-name</em></p>

zimki.publishPath('/', handleGpxUpload);
zimki.publishPath('json.getGPX', handleJsonGetGPX);
zimki.publishPath('json.listGPX', handleJsonListGPX);

You can then go to http://your.realm.zimki.com/ to try it out. If all goes well, that'll let you upload/parse your GPX files as-is and list/get them over a JSON API.

As implied above, the client-side hooks that tie the JSON returned by the GPX API together with the online mapping providers (ie: Yahoo!, Google, Multimap, Mapstraction, etc. etc.) are not yet available. They will be as & when I have time.

Note: originally, I contemplated using Notions' GPX File Viewer but I got bogged down by a few things - I had to rename the GPX files before the browser would deal with them, and all the processing was done client side (ie: it wouldn't store my pre-parsed GPX traces for me). Then I considered porting it, but it doesn't use E4X (b/c it's corss-browser compatible), and it's also tied to Google Maps. So I decided to write this. But it's a good library for client-side JS, so if that's all you need then check it out. Really, I just wanted to play with Zimki a bit more... ;-)

Also, Andy Armstrong's Geo::GPX Perl module proved quite handy while implementing this. I've even nicked some of his test data to save me some time. Thanks Andy!

Anyways, if you do try this library out, let me know what you think!

The science of climate change

During a quite moment of our sailing trip last weekend, Nick decided to taunt the table with the question of climate change by saying that he wasn't completely convinced. He was quite open minded about things (though he was accused otherwise), and I must say that's a perfectly reasonable state to be in.

I must admit, my brother does most of my thinking on the ground for this sort of stuff: while I do challenge him, I generally end up accepting his views because they are convincing, and I know he's an expert in the field. The result, of course, is that a lot of the knowledge I have on the subject is tacit, and I can't give people hard facts.

So I thought I'd dig some up.

Being Canadian, I had a look at Environment Canada's website. Sure enough, they've got a real handy bunch of annotated presentations on climate change.

Of course, there's the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its stated role is to:

... assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

The emphasis above is mine.

Given that stated objectivity, here's a pretty convincing presentation on the subject. Taken with this breakdown of contributors to the Natural Greenhouse effect, you can then see why there's such a fuss over increases in levels of CO2.

From what I can tell, most of the scientific community backs the conclusions of the IPCC. For example, in the Wikipedia article "Scientific opinion on climate change", there are a number of surveys listed that supporting IPCC's findings.

However, it would be silly to ignore the fact that there are Scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming, and that there is still a debate going on. Without critical thinking & debate, science would be a pretty useless tool, IMHO. However, from what I can see these scientists are currently in the minority.

What's more, the strongest rebuke of Climate Change I've heard about so far, Channel 4's programme "The Great Global Warming Swindle", has been dismissed as "misinformation" by The New Scientist.

So I'd conclude that Climate Change is a real, and something that we need to consider. Granted, I've not done an in-depth study, and the search engines I've used could be intentionally leading me down a path of darkness. But I'm not much for sensationalist conspiracy theories these days.

I've also gotta say, even if there was only a 50/50 split of scientific opinion on the matter, I'm a cautious kind of guy when it comes to large-scale risks like this. I'm also a little bit selfish too - I like to go hiking. I don't like pollution. I like to cycle to work so I can get some exercise without breathing in too much exhaust... So I'm generally swung in favour of changing our collective behaviour anyways.

While I hop I've linked to enough impartial information for Nick to make up his own mind, for me, the more organizations that jump on the carbon neutral bandwagon the better, IMHO.

(Surprisingly, Apple recently announced that it actually cares about its impact on the environment! Now if they would only sort out their customer support I might not have to grit my teeth every time I buy one of their products ;-).

Sunny California

kitty enjoying the beach So we've spent the past few days puttering about sunny California, and I must say I've enjoyed it! I managed to remember to take my GPS with me too, and I've had a chance to hack on my JavaScript GPX Parser a little, so I've got a few traces I'll make available later.

I've been told by a few people that the coastline south of San Francisco is beautiful, and they were absolutely right. With mountains on one side, and cliffs reaching down to the pacific on the other, smoothing out into sandy beaches... On Friday we1 rented a car and drove south down the coast as far as Pescadero, where we stopped to have lunch (map). The weather was perfect for it too - nice & sunny! On the way down we checked out a nice beach and got our feet (and a bit more!) wet, and drove up into the mountains... felt a bit like we were being swallowed by the forest on the way back. One thing I can't put into writing or pictures properly is the smell of it... words like 'fresh' and 'clean' make it sound like some laundry detergent sales pitch, but that's all that comes to mind right now.

On Sunday we took the 80 bus up to the Golden Gate Bridge, and hopped off to walk across one of America's most well known landmarks - see the map of our walk. It's an interesting bridge, as bridges go, though I'm convinced it's part of a Super Dalek just waiting to pounce... it's all in the bolts!

The walk across the bridge was nice - you get a good view of San Francisco & surrounds - but it's bloody noisy and smelly with all the traffic whizzing by. We got a bit sick of that and headed off-road when we reached the north side of the bridge. And well worth it too! The trail we took was a nice gentle slope up the mountain just north-west of the bridge. When you reach the top, the view is beautiful! We also walked down to a south-facing beach to have lunch and watch the boats pass by, before making our way back home.

One word of warning if you do go: the trails aren't marked very well, so it's easy to stray off the path (which we did). With the amount of signs they've posted near parking lots (for a good reason: to preserve the wildlife), you'd think they spend some effort to mark the trails more clearly... At any rate: don't follow our tracks if you go, get a map.

In the evening we found a nice sushi restaurant on Geary (that could be the one James recommended to us?) called The Sushi Boat. They make great food, served on boats of course ;-).

Today we checked out of the hotel & had a walk around town, and now we're waiting for our plane... I'm glad we decided to stay on a few days after the conference - California's a beautiful place, well worth coming back!

[1] - when I say we, I mean Nika. My bloody license has expired.

Web 2.0 Expo

We've been in San Francisco for the past week for Web 2.0 Expo - Fotango had a Zimki stand there, and a few of us flew over to run it. Things went pretty well, I'd say - the booth was packed almost all the time the expo hall was open. zimki booth with deputy-yak People were asking really good questions and showing a lot of interest in Zimki. Heck, we were so inundated with requests for t-shirts on the first day that someone from the booth next door offered to help us dish them out! The only reason that died down on the second day is because we ran out of t-shirts... At any rate, if you're interested in seeing what it was like, have a look at Colin Devroe's interview with the Zimki crew, recorded at a quiet time before the expo hall was opened.

During the gaps in the booth schedule, I managed to see a few good talks. One of the ones I was most impressed by was a combined keynote presentation on measuring participation in websites by Bill Tancer of Hitwise, and Dave Sifry of Technorati. It's a shame the slides aren't up yet, but I found it cool to see how participation inequality (aka the 1:9:90 rule, which suggests that only 1% of users participate regularly, 9% rarely, and 90% never) was being measured for sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Flickr. The demographics of contributors was also neat to see.

Another talk that grabbed my attention was a panel session with a few well-known Venture Capitalists chaired by Michael Arrington of TechCrunch - Venture Capital 2.0: Bright Future Or Broken Forever?. While Mike's attempt to pit the smaller VC's against the bigger ones didn't quite work, it was entertaining, and I was impressed by the panel's passion & insight into what they do.

Before the conference started, we managed to sneak in a game of Werewolf at Artur Bergman's place... I hadn't played in years! It was a lot of fun to play with a bunch of geeks (for comedy value alone, you can't beat 20 people sitting in your living room with their eyes shut either mooing, or chanting 'brains' ;-). It was also nice to put some faces to names, and meet new people. Thanks Artur!

Now we've got a few more days to recover & enjoy San Francisco & country before the flight back to london...