Monthly Archives: March 2007

Sheffield, with US support

I spent the last couple of days working in the Sheffield area. Well – when I punched the town name into the IBM travel reservation system, the nearest hotels I could find were in Sheffield, so I plumped for a Holiday Inn up there.

I’m not familiar with Sheffield, I’ve only ever passed through before, and I had a lot of work to do on Wednesday night so I can’t say that I saw much of the city. I didn’t know my way, but that wasn’t an issue because I had the TomTom with me.

Except… well… I picked Navigate to Point Of Interest, and chose the relevant Holiday Inn from the list. Once I was within 3 minutes of the place, I started to keep an eye out. I sailed past the sharp left that led up a ramp to the Royal Victoria Holiday Inn, following the satnav directions, and turned left further along the road onto a busy road which led me away from the premises. Then I tried putting the postcode and address of the hotel in, and that confused things further. The problem is that the hotel itself is about 40 feet above the main road, and to reach it you need to drive up a ramp that crosses another road via a bridge… basically the satnav was not set up to deal with this at all, and it took me 20 minutes to navigate back around to the entrance.

Things didn’t go any better at check-in, where I wasn’t greeted particularly warmly. The receptionist pointed me to the lift and said I was on the second floor. Up I went. Stepping out of the lift, I looked for directions to my room (260). There was a sign pointing one way[1] for rooms 221-258, and another pointing another direction for rooms 261-270. Spot the omission.

Wandered around and eventually found my room. Quite nice. Very modern, nice bathroom. I switched on the light by the desk… nothing happened. Then I found that the bulb was missing. I swapped a bulb from the light by the bed… nothing happened. Fine. I turned on the floor lamp by the desk… nothing happened. Ah, that had been unplugged. I could see why: two sockets by the desk, one of which was taken by the power for the broadband hub. I left the the lamp unplugged, and powered my laptop instead.

Next, I connected the laptop to the network cable on the desk… no connection. Hmm. I rebooted, and still wasn’t given an IP address. Disabled my firewall, rebooted the router, tried various things. Nothing. I called reception, and they put me through to the support department, in the US.

– welcome to Guesttek support, can I first please take the telephone number of the hotel where you are staying?
– errr… yes… just let me find it…
– it should be printed on the phone, sir
– you’d think so, wouldn’t you? it isn’t!
(pause whilst I scrabbled through the papers by the phone, which was positioned by the bed – found it)
– OK, the number is +44… hello? hello?
(they had cut me off)


At this point I decided to use my 3G card instead.

Room service arrived. The lady asked if everything was alright with my stay.
I explained that I didn’t have a network connection, and I hadn’t been able to find the room.

5 minutes later, whilst I was eating, the telephone rang – “Mr Piper, would you like me to put you through to the helpline?”. Well, were they going to cut me off again? I also pointed out that the phone was by the bed, on the other side of the room from the desk. The receptionist expressed surprise – wasn’t there a phone on the desk? No, definitely not. Look, I said, I’ve got work to do and dinner to eat – leave it.

I then had a frustrating evening fighting with an iffy 3G/GPRS connection. Not great.

In the morning, there was a telephone charge on my bill. I can only assume that they were trying to charge me for calling their support line. I don’t make a habit of filling out hotel comment forms, but in this case, I left a short essay detailing the inadequate lighting, network and directions to my room… haven’t heard from the hotel yet.

I had just as frustrating a time trying to get out of Sheffield with computer-aided support as I had trying to find my way in, but at least I made it to the office on time.

[1] I don’t actually remember the precise numbers – but there was a gap where 260 should have been.

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Scrapbooks, now Scrapblogs

A few weeks ago I had a play with Tumblr. My “scrapbook” is still there, and getting automatically generated by my adding links to or finding new Plazes… but I haven’t done a great deal more with it.

Today I was reading Tara Hunt’s excellent HorsePigCow marketing uncommon blog and learned about Scrapblog, a new startup with yet more interactive web candy for us to play with. Except… this time, it’s really about building scrapbooks. It’s a very rich Flash-based application (possibly soon to run on Apollo) which allows you to build galleries and screenshows in a scrapbook style. You can upload photos directly or pull them from Flickr, Yahoo, Photobucket or Webshots; you can add “stickers” (logos and patterns), change backgrounds, add frames and text. Once you’ve done all that, you can publish your Flash-based Scrapblog on their site, or share the static images on Flickr, where you could create a photoset and run a slideshow in a similar way.


I liked it – very easy to use, with an “iLife” feel to it, and of course it just runs out of the browser. I don’t generally build these kind of slideshows, but this was fun to play with. You can take a look at the results.

Once you’ve uploaded the scrapblog, the site offers tagging, profiles, comments, and feeds – everything that we’d expect these days.

I’m not keen on the name, simply because I’m wary of all of the attempts to brand things as blogs when they are not. Other than that, a very cool site to play around with.

Scrapblog hasn’t formally launched yet, but if you read to the end of Tara’s post, you’ll discover a way in to try out the preview version.

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Random Thinkpad shutdowns

Since getting a Thinkpad T60p and a port replicator, I’ve been cursed with a particular problem whereby the machine would sometimes power itself off when I attached it to the dock. A problem, since my normal mode of working is to suspend between office and home, and then plug back in… IBM’s internal VPN software ensures that the change in connection between home and office networks is transparent to all of my applications. I’d heard that it was to do with static, and therefore got into the habit of earthing myself by touching metal before docking the machine.

Lenovo have now announced a fix for this issue (which affects a few of the more recent Thinkpad models, unfortuately), in the shape of “two conductive rubber caps”. Need to get me some of those.

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Life in miniature

On a whim, yesterday we decided to visit one of the BBC website’s 20 hidden tourist attractions, namely Bekonscot Model Village in Beaconsfield. It turned out to be only about a 40 minute drive away, parking was free, and the entry price was pretty reasonable.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and thought it might be more of a kids’ attraction. It certainly is a great place to take kids, from the whoops of delight that we were hearing from the youngsters, but it also has an amazing amount for adults to enjoy.

Southpool fishing village

White House Studio

Bekonscot was the world’s first model village, and it dates from the late 1920s. It actually comprises 6 separate towns / villages, each with its own character. The place is frozen in the 1930s, so there are no modern touches here. Locomotives and steam trains run around a miniature railway that links the 6 villages; there are huge lakes, boats, working cable cars; a burning cottage that smokes and has fireman squirt water on it periodically; a coal village which has a moving conveyor belt… all kinds of marvellous tiny details. The shops and businesses are particularly fun, since most of them have names which are puns on the business in question: the woodcutter is called Ivan Acks, the solicitors are Argue and Twist, and the tutor at the golf club is I. Hackett 🙂


Although I don’t have a macro lens, I was able to get some splendid shots using Canon EOS 50mm f/1.8 and 28mm f/2.8 lenses. I managed to fill a 1Gb memory card, only to find that I didn’t have another one with me! I’ll be uploading a selection of the ~120 shots slowly over the next few days as time allows.

Crossing the railway Nunnery

Check out the Flickr set for more, and make sure that you view the images at full (original) size to get an appreciation of the detail that has gone into creating the place.

Incidentally, for real close-up views of the residents of Bekonscot, there’s a fantastic little book of photographs by Liam Bailey called Forever England, that gets right down to ground level.

To learn more, look at the official website, or see what these other bloggers had to say about it:

… and I’d also encourage you to visit 🙂

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Linux box progress

Back in November, I made a hopelessly failed attempt to upgrade my main Linux workstation from Fedora Core 4 to Fedora Core 6. This is a machine that I built myself – 2GHz AMD64 CPU, dual 160Gb SATA drives with software RAID 1 (mainly to protect my photos), NVIDIA graphics. The problem was that the upgrade process rendered the box unbootable – unable to find a kernel, and once I’d hacked at grub it was unable to load the relevant modules… I had to give up on it through lack of time.

This week I finally had some time to play. I was surprised to find that I hadn’t really missed the machine in 5 months, apart from the lack of access to my address book and quite a large number of photos. I knew that the data was at least safe, I just couldn’t get to it.

On Thursday I managed to get the system booting again. There had been two fundamental issues with the upgrade. The first was that the bootloader was broken. I had to boot into rescue mode, reinstall grub on both SATA drives, and hack the menu.lst file like this:

title RAID partition 1 Fedora Core (2.6.18-1.2798.fc6)
kernel (hd0,0)/vmlinuz-2.6.18-1.2798.fc6 ro root=/dev/md3 rhgb quiet
initrd (hd0,0)/initrd-2.6.18-1.2798.fc6.img

Now, this has the disadvantage that it is targetting a particular RAID drive – I need to look at making it disk-independent as it was before, but at least this is letting me load the kernel.

The second problem was that once it found the kernel image, it failed to load various modules (like via_sata, for example, which was fairly critical to the whole boot process). To fix this, I had to rebuild the initial RAM disk using mkinitrd… in the process discovering that I had obsolete options in modprobe.conf, like stuff telling scsi_mod to scan max_scsi_luns of 127, so I removed those.

Once I got the thing to boot, I had to clean up the networking, and then install months of Fedora updates.

The most important thing (!) about the whole process was that I wanted to get Beryl running for full GL-enhanced desktop goodness. I managed to do that this morning, although I had to reinstall the NVIDIA driver in order to prevent it from complaining about the GLcore module not being found, and then install the glx-utils package to get hold of all the glx programs like glxinfo and glxgears.

The final problem I’m faced with is overheating. It turns out that if the CPU runs at 1.6GHz or 2GHz it immediately heats up to ~75C and the system shuts itself down. This is despite having a fan+heatsink on the processor itself, and several fans in the machine… clearly not good enough. I’m currently running at 800MHz, which at least works. I need to find a better method of getting the machine cooled.

Posted whilst at White Leaf House [

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