February 27, 2006

'Songwriter' @ The Loft

Had a relaxing and enjoyable evening last night at Cambridge's newest live music venue, the Loft. The room upstairs at The Graduate pub on Mitcham's (Staples) Corner is now hosting live music six nights a week (Thursday - Tuesday).

The 'Songwriter' night had four acts with an acoustic-y bent. We arrived a little late and so missed Ocean State, but the three acts we did catch were all excellent.

Dale Campbell had me transfixed with his intricate, and unorthodox, guitar work. His technique involves using both hands to both pluck strings and hold frets and sounds much more complex than you'd think possible from just one man and a guitar.

Ade Payne, who name-checked his fellow musicians (Bag and Clare, IIRC) a few times, forgot to introduce himself but didn't forget any of his songs, which is the important bit.

My favourite for the evening was Kevin Hunt, an Irish singer-songwriter who doesn't seem to have a website. So I can't point you at any of his songs, which is a shame.

Instead, I'll leave you with a link to Beck Goldsmith's page on myspace.com. If we weren't busy tomorrow night, Rebecca and I would definitely be down at the Loft to see her play!

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February 22, 2006

links for 2006-02-22

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February 19, 2006

links for 2006-02-19

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February 17, 2006

links for 2006-02-17

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February 14, 2006

links for 2006-02-14

  • Why do so many creative firms avoid putting prices on their websites? I like this firms approach - offering a set of "design packages" so those of us who assume that getting professional design would be expensive can see that it mightn't be as bad as the
    (tags: logo design)
  • Suggestions on how to choose the names for your CSS IDs and Classes. Basically, choose names that link to the structure of the webpage (like "branding", or "main-navigation") rather than the presentation of the webpage (such as "banner", or "left-hand-me
    (tags: CSS webdev)
  • Online tool to let you test webpages "for quality, accessibility and privacy issues."
  • From this week's Micro-ISV digest, this is an online version of a book about starting your own business by Bruce Judson.
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February 12, 2006

Removing "public" From the URL of Rails Apps

Or... "How to get Ruby on Rails running on 34sp.com."

One of the challenges of running my own business has been keeping on top of the multitude of things I have to get done. David Allen's book Getting Things Done (or GTD) has been a very useful guide in this particular area, and I've been slowly developing my own to-do list web application to help me to put GTD into practice.

It's also given me a chance to try out Ruby on Rails, the web development framework darling of Web 2.0. And I can see why it's been getting so much hype - it's very quick to get something up and running, which you can then start to tweak and extend; the documentation is pretty well laid out, so I've found it much easier to delve into than, say, when I started learning PHP; and the built-in AJAX support, and layout system lend themselves well to rapid development of web apps.

One thing I have had a bit of trouble with is deploying my Rails app on my existing webspace. The standard directory structure for Rails maps the web app root into a directory called "public" and if you aren't going to have your app sit at the root of the website (i.e. http://www.myserver.com/), you seem to end up with an unnecessary "/public" in your URLs. For example, I want my todo-list to live at http://www.mcqn.com/tedium/ but by default it would actually be at http://www.mcqn.com/tedium/public/.

This is how I've worked round it on an Apache 1.3 server using fastcgi. I don't make any claims or guarantees for the information other than it seems to work for me. If there's a better way of doing this, or if there are problems with this approach, I'd love to hear about them, as then I can improve my web app and these instructions.

First off, a quick note about Ruby on Rails support with 34sp.com. They are only just starting to roll out Rails support on their servers, but were very helpful in getting it up and running on my server when I asked. This thread seems to be the place to check first to see what the latest status is for Ruby on Rails support at 34sp.com.

Assuming your web server root directory is called httpdocs (as mine is) and the place you want you've generated the Rails app in a directory called tedium (as I have), your directory structure should look something like this:


Out of the box you should be able to point your browser at http://www.yourserver.com/tedium/public/ and be presented with your Rails app. http://www.yourserver.com/tedium/ would be nicer though.

HowToUseRailsWithRewrittenURLs in Ruby on Rails explains how to have your web server automatically redirect people, so if you went to http://www.yourserver.com/tedium/ it would automatically take you to http://www.yourserver.com/tedium/public/, but I don't think that's good enough. I want my URLs to be as clean as possible.

So what I did was to copy the fastcgi dispatcher scripts (that's dispatch.cgi, dispatch.fcgi, and dispatch.rb) and the .htaccess file from /httpdocs/tedium/public/ into /httpdocs/tedium. Then I had to edit the dispatcher scripts so that they could still find the environment directory. In each file, change the string "/../config/environment" into "/config/environment".

That should get most of your Rails app working at the new location of http://www.yourserver.com/tedium/, but it won't be able to find any images, javascript files or stylesheets as they're still in public. We can fix that with some mod_rewrite instructions in the .htaccess file.

I uncommented the RewriteBase line, and changed it to my directory name - in this case tedium:

#RewriteBase /myrailsapp


RewriteBase /tedium

Then I added a new rewrite rule. This checks to see if the requested file exists in the public directory - if it does then the URL gets rewritten to include public, otherwise we let Ruby on Rails deal with it. So our final step changes:

RewriteRule ^$ index.html [QSA]
RewriteRule ^([^.]+)$ $1.html [QSA]
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ dispatch.fcgi [QSA,L]

in the .htaccess file into:

# See if this is a file in "public", and if it is, just redirect to it
RewriteCond /path/to/your/httpdocs/tedium/public/$1 -f
RewriteRule ^(.+) public/$1 [L]
RewriteRule ^$ index.html [QSA]
RewriteRule ^([^.]+)$ $1.html [QSA]
# Otherwise, if this request isn't just for an existing file, give it to
# the Ruby on Rails dispatcher
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ dispatch.fcgi [QSA,L]

Now you should be up and running with your new Rails app at its clean new URL. Hope that's helped.

Posted by Adrian at 08:52 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

links for 2006-02-12

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February 11, 2006

links for 2006-02-11

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February 08, 2006

All Roads Lead To Doncaster

postwatch is the watchdog for the postal service in the UK, and last night two of their East Anglian team gave a presentation at the CHASE meeting.

It was actually a much more interesting talk than I was expecting. We got to hear a bit about how the Royal Mail operates; about what postwatch does; details of how the postal market is changing; and a look at some of the technology in use elsewhere in the world.

At the start of this year, the government opened up the postal service to competition, so anyone (once they've got a licence) can set up as a postal operator. It seems unlikely that there'll be many people taking on the Royal Mail in the "last mile" of delivering things to people's doors, but there seems to be lots of inefficiency and scope for improvement in the sorting of letters. You can then get the Royal Mail to deliver your sorted items for 11p per letter.

Royal Mail process 80 million items each day, and only 44% of that is sorted by machine! The rest is sorted by hand, most likely by someone in Doncaster, as all post is taken up there in lorries for sorting. So if I send something to my next-door neighbour, it will make a 230 mile round trip...

Other countries seem to be doing better with regard to innovation and technology in their postal services. In Germany, 85-90% of mail is sorted mechanically, and they have a network of (around 130 at present) Packstations (the linked site is in German, of course...) - secure, automated collection boxes put into stations and similar convenient locations where users can register to get parcels delivered. So there's no working out how to get to some Parcel Force depot that's only open when you're at work. There is a service called eBox starting to do something similar in the UK (one of the guys involved with was at the meeting) where they'll have secure lobbies like some banks do. They are (or will soon be) doing a trial in East Anglia.

Talking of East Anglia, or more specifically the Cambridge area, the Royal Mail are proposing some changes to the CB postcode area. Apparently, there isn't enough room in the postcodes for assorted outlying areas given the expected new developments, so there's a proposal to change an assortment of CB1 through CB5 postcodes to CB21 through CB25. Consultation begins on 14th Feb, at which point there'll be a letter sent out to anyone affected. However, there has already been a mailing out to some of the parish councils, and Paul Oldham has transcribed the letter sent to Milton parish council which has a list of the affected postcodes.

Posted by Adrian at 11:16 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 07, 2006

Burger Cake

Final burger cake The burger cake is one of the easiest novelty cakes to make, mainly because it requires the least artistic ability.  Most of the impression of burger-ness is achieved through the choice of constituent cake.  I first made this cake for one of my friends who had a summer job at McDonalds, but it's equally useful for a barbecue theme.


To make this cake you'll need:
  • 2x basic sponge recipe sandwich cakes (or 1 basic sponge cake baked in a normal tin and cut in half).  Sprinkle chopped nuts over the top of one of the cakes before baking it to provide the sesame seeds on the top bun.
  • 1x choclate whisked/fat-less sponge cake, the same diameter as the basic sponge cakes
  • Roll-out icing coloured yellow
  • Red butter-icing
  • (optional apricot jam to hold everything together)


Initial cakesThe initial cakes.  Clockwise from top - the base bun of the burger; the top bun (complete with chopped nut topping); the burger itself.  The burger is made from a whisked sponge rather than the basic sponge recipe because that will rise less than the sponge cakes used for the bun, and so provide a better thickness for the burger.
Initial assemblyThe first step is to put the burger onto the bottom half of the bun.  If you like, you can use some apricot jam to make sure that the burger doesn't move.
Add the cheeseNow roll out a square of the roll-out icing.  The side of the square should be roughly the same size as the diameter of the cake, so that when laid onto the burger the corners droop over the sides of the cake as shown.
Adding ketchupThen you need to add the relish.  For this I used red coloured butter-icing as ketchup, and because I had apricot jam to hand, I added some of that as onion relish.  All that remains is to add the last cake as the top bun to finish the cake.
Posted by Adrian at 02:42 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 05, 2006

Defending Against The Clones

Now I don't know enough about Sheffield to say whether these ideas and claims are realistic, but I think it's a superbly written manifesto and call-to-arms in the defence against the homogonisation of British towns and cities and the rise of "clone town Britain".

"Have the balls to run with a big idea."

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February 03, 2006

Thoughts On The Junction's "Bins and Benches"

Over the last couple of days I've been brainstorming ideas for a new name for PeerBackup. On Monday I decided that it might help to get out of the house for a bit - change of scenery... remove the distraction of the Internet...

As it was a bright sunny day, I thought the square at the Cambridge Leisure retail park would be a suitable location and would let me see what the Bins and Benches public art installation from the Junction is like. Only seven months or so after saying I'd report back with my thoughts on them.

I'd been a bit underwhelmed by the looks of the when I first saw them - there's a definite home-made look to them, but then they have been hand made, and are definitely sturdy enough to survive out on the streets. I was quite surprised to find that, on the bench I sat on for my lunch at least, they haven't been vandalised at all. I'd have thought a wooden bench would have had initials carved into it, or written on in marker pen, but they were surprisingly clean and tidy.

That seems to sum up my feeling overall with this artwork. What should be a playful piece, encouraging interaction with its surroundings and its fellow inhabitants somehow falls so short. All the promise and enthusiasm for the work has seeped away - the area of the Junction website about the art is out of date and the artist's website is unavailable as I write.

The bins and benches themselves are also rather inert. In the hour that I was sat for my lunch, only one bin made any movement; lurching amusingly across the cobbles like an unstable Dalek. As they seem to be solar-powered, maybe a sunny winter day isn't good enough for them. Hopefully they become more animated in the summer months, when there will be more people lingering in the piazza.

What they lacked in movement, they made up in noise. They are very chatty objects, for the first half-hour or so calling to each other in morse; and then the singing started. Either that or my bench was fed up of me sitting on it and wanted to voice its disapproval... I managed to catch some of the performance on my mobile phone, so if you've got Real Player (or something that can cope with .3gp files) you can have a listen here.

Overall, I still like the idea of the "bins and benches", but I think the implementation could benefit from a bit more work. How about sticking a webcam on the Junction somewhere, and providing time-lapse movies of the installation? Encourage people to discuss their experiences of the work on the website, and print the URL onto the benches so people can find one from the other. Let local artists customise the looks, or just give them each a different coat of paint so people notice their movements more easily.

Or better still, include some technology in the benches themselves to let people interact with them. With a bluetooth module they could appear as "RedBench", "BlueBench" if you searched for Bluetooth devices on your phone... and then people could send them messages, or pictures, which could then be relayed to the website. Or fed into some Eliza-like software so they could talk back.

Click here to see a few photos I took of the artwork.

Posted by Adrian at 09:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 01, 2006

Katie Melua @ Cambridge Corn Exchange

Katie Melua played the Cambridge Corn Exchange on Sunday evening, and I went along to it with Rebecca and her sister.

We got there not much more than half-an-hour after the doors opened, but were already too late to catch the support act - Alex McEwan (do you realise how hard it is not to mis-spell his name? :-) which was a bit disappointing. I haven't heard any of his music, but with a surname like that he must be almost good...

The average age of the crowd was a fair bit higher than I'm used to at gigs, and while that shouldn't have surprised me, it did rouse the music snob in me. Something that wasn't helped by the big screen above the stage which was playing videos and adverts which left me wondering how much it was true to the music, and how much was marketing exercise aimed at broadsheet Sunday supplement readers.

I was a little perturbed by these shades of music snobbery; I stopped caring about what people think of my musical tastes back when I was at university (just ask my uni mates about the mix of The Carpenters and The Prodigy that could be heard coming from my room...), and most of the usual suspects are hiding somewhere in my music collection (Keane, Dido...).

I think it was mostly because I hadn't been really eager to attend the gig myself. I'd listened to her first album a few times when it came out and although it was nice enough, I don't think it was good enough to warrant buying it. Her second album, Piece by Piece, is much better and made up the majority of her set on Sunday.

There were a couple of tracks from the first album, and quite a few covers - The Beatles' Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, the Rolling Stones' 19th Nervous Breakdown and an excellent version of Babylon Zoo's only hit Spaceman!

By the time we got to the Babylon Zoo number, she'd won me round with her (and her backing band's) skill and ability, and obvious love of what she's doing.

Jean-Luc Benazet took some photos of the gig, and they're currently on the news page of his website, or if you can't be bothered trying to find them on the news page (no permalinks, grrr) you can see them direct here.

Posted by Adrian at 01:27 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack