grader snow plough
Yes, they use graders as snowploughs here. Then they have a JCB that follows behind to clear out driveways. You still have to clear out the wall o’ snow that’s left before it freezes, something I learnt the hard way last year.

Burns Night tonight

It sure beats Blunt Trauma Night, anyway.

Raise a glass of your favourite industrial solvent to the immortal memory of Scotland’s sodden-drunk poster-boy for good career planning — don’t farm rocky, marginal land if you’re more apt to compose poetry about whatever the plough turns over, don’t consider being a slave overseer in Jamaica, and — whatever you do — don’t be an exciseman if you have a failing for the hard stuff.

Both my parents’ families come from the same part of Ayrshire and the Stewartry that Burns knocked around. We’ve got a family story that an ancestor was once his schoolteacher. We’ve been able to prove that about as much as our theory that we’re descended from Scipio Kennedy, a West African slave belonging to the Cassilis family.

Oh, and you don’t want to know what’s in haggis. It’s truly offal.

Requiem for a coffee mug

My Centre for Alternative Technology / Canolfan y Dechnoleg Amgen mug broke today. It had been my work coffee mug for over ten years, four jobs and two continents.

It shall not grow cold, as those that are left grow cold.

WindShare has been grid-connected for a year!

Today last year, the WindShare wind turbine was grid-connected, and exported its first kWh. We broke the 1,000,000 kWh barrier late last year, with hopes of many millions to come!

Dip dip dip, my little ship

I just got the latest TUGboat, the communications of the TeX Users Group, and I’m a bit worried about how things are going in the world of TeX. TeX is a very powerful free typesetting system. I used it for my thesis back in 1992, and unlike any other wordprocessors from back then, my source files are still readable. I’ve been a TeXie ever since, landing a couple of jobs in publishing because of it, and spending a couple of years on the board of the UK TeX Users’Group.

What makes me worried is that they’re falling badly behind. The issue of TUGboat I got is dated 2002, even though it was typeset in 2003. The content is one large article, Formatting Information, by Peter Flynn. This article is freely available for download elsewhere, and while it’s a very good tutorial, and nice to have a paper copy, it does strike me that the TUG board are scratching about a bit for content.

A subscription to TUG is not inexpensive. Yes, you get the TeX Live CDs every year, but they’re an hour’s download on home broadband. TeX is a great system, but if I were subscribing as a new user, I’d find it hard to justify joining TUG.

What Every Householder Should Know

do not use on aluminum warning from washing soda package

According to the CBC, a Canadian has patented a method for extracting hydrogen from aluminium. While this patent has some extra specifics to deal with managing the reaction, it’s not that far removed from the old home science trick of dissolving aluminium foil in washing soda. Indeed, every box of washing soda I’ve used has come with the warning message above.

It takes a lot of energy to form aluminium from its various ores. According to an Alcan report, it takes over 15.5 kWh/kg to do this — that’s over 55 MJ of power per kg of metal. Smelting aluminium can also be massively polluting. I’ve heard tell that the smelting plant near Fort William used to turn the surrounding hillsides yellow from the fluorine emssions.

I haven’t done the sums properly on how much hydrogen a kilogram of aluminium will produce when reacted with caustic soda, but it’s probably going to be less energy than it took to form the metal. You’d also have to deal with disposal of alumina sludge at the end of the reaction, which is mostly harmless but bulky. There’s also a huge amount of heat evolved by the exothermic reaction, and thereby not turned into useful chemical energy. It’s a similar reaction those caustic soda/magnesium metal chip drain cleaning powders, and you know how hot they make the drainpipes.

This patent seems typical of many of the methods that are being thought up in our mad dash to a hydrogen economy; uneconomic, inefficient and ill-advised. But you can’t criticize it publically, ‘cos everything going to be running on hydrogen soon, isn’t it?

When Memes Collide: Bayesian Filtering + Srmabled Text = Unstoppable Spam

When scrmabled text, which was briefly popular in September 2003, meets up with Bayesian mail filtering, you get this:

I finlaly was able to lsoe the wieght I have
been sturggling to lose for years!
And I couldn’t bileeve how simple it was!
Amizang pacth makes you shed the ponuds!
It’s Guanarteed to work or your menoy back!

In other words, spam you can understand, but that your spam filter passes straight through.

I always thought it was a bit arrogant to assume that spammers wouldn’t almost immediately catch on to the limitations of Bayesian filtering. I’m guessing that spammers probably don’t like getting spam to their personal accounts as much as the rest of us do, so they’re probably using Bayesian filtering too. That means they too have access to a list of words with a high spam score, so they’ll know what to avoid.

So here’s a plan I call the Elitist Filter: reject a message if it has a certain number of spelling mistakes. While this would have problems if you received multilingual e-mail, it would have the serendipitous strong incentive for people to improve their spelling. And that can only be good.

New Tone, indeed!

I just restrung my banjo with Newtone strings. They sound great — really bright, with lots of sustain. They make my formerly rather shy Deering Goodtime much more outgoing.

My Favourite Octagenarian

Happy 81st Birthday, Ivor Cutler, Scotland’s living National Treasure. He has been broadcasting poignantly odd songs and stories since the late 1950s.

I went to school in the same area of Glasgow where Ivor grew up. Indeed, we’re cursed with the same accent; whenever I read out loud, I sound just like him.

When I lived in Scotland, I saw him perform live several times. I have a signed copy of “Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2” that I picked up in Foyles in London. It seems he randomly signs his books on the shelves there.

Ivor Cutler doesn’t like people quoting his work. But few people outside the UK know his work, so in order to let you know what he’s about, here’s A Real Man, from his 1999 book South American Bookworms (Arc Publications, ISBN 1-900072-35-1):

A Real Man

When I was 12 I wanted to be a real man — an old man with a beard, sitting at a table with a huge book full of wisdom. And what did society hold up to me for my admiration? A golfer, a boxer, a man who ran quickly; a soldier, a lawyer, a tycoon; a motorist, a pop star; a footballer. Into what kind of madhouse had I been born? And what have I become? A child, witlessly pouring out whatever enters my head. I am a madman and people gather to listen to me make a fool of myself. I am not a role model. This is my protection and security. I still long for the table and the book, the smell of an old man and an old book; the afternoon light fading.

If you want to hear what he sounds like, here is an MP3 recording of Ivor Cutler reciting A Real Man from a 1997 radio broadcast (via

Better yet, buy some of his books, or CDs. Virgin have recently re-released many of his older recordings, so there’s no excuse.

working for chicken-feed

Democracies depend on the political participation of its citizens, but not in the workplace

 — sign in a Tyson chicken processing factory, Springdale, Arkansas.
(quoted in Utne, Jan-Feb 2004.)

frailing miserably

A year ago today, I started playing banjo. None of that “Duelling Banjos” picking style, either — this is old-time 5-string clawhammer, or frailing. I can play a few tunes, given the best efforts of my teacher Chris Coole.

If you’re in Toronto on January 31st or February 1st, it’s worth seeing Chris play at the Flying Cloud Folk Club as part of the annual Banjo Special event. Last year was amazing; this year can only be better.

I also owe a lot to approximately 50% of the Holy Modal Rounders, Peter Stampfel. When he heard that I was taking up the banjo, called me from New York with tips on getting started. This quite unnecessary act of kindness seems typical of the banjo community.

Stewart’s caffeinated Sunday

After looking for about 10 years, I finally found macha again at The Big Carrot. The importer is CJay Tea.

Macha is the light green fine-ground “tea ceremony” tea. I had it in Japan, both as tea and possibly the best flavouring for ice cream ever. It’s good. I’ve read conflicting reports of its caffeine content; some people say it’s very low in caffeine, but I always got a monstrous buzz from it.

Just to make sure I’m getting enough of The World’s Favourite Alkaloid™, I also got some green Sumatran coffee beans and a grinder while I was at the Carrot. Local company Merchants of Green Coffee deserve the credit/blame.

PNG graphics on Movable Type

My host doesn’t support the graphics library that Movable Type prefers for making thumbnail images. Six Apart shows you how to use NetPBM, which is supported.

I also discovered that the version I’m running doesn’t do PNG graphic handling. That’s easily fixed. In lib/MT/, change the line:
my %Types = (jpg => 'jpeg', gif => 'gif');
my %Types = (jpg => 'jpeg', gif => 'gif', png => 'png');

As a Perl guy, I’m mildly horrified with the way this code works, but it won’t bite most people.

exobrains, ad campaigns, gherkins and marauding chickens

I got pointed at by Caroline, who recommend it for a friend who’s looking for an advertising internship.

They have TV ad showcases on the site, and I found this New, by hotdogboy. It’s odd.

Geeky PostScript Stuff

These scripts can be ignored if you’re not likely to be working with PostScript files. I wrote/modified these ages ago, and hope someone can use them.

Download epstotiff – convert an Encapsulated PostScript figure to just about any raster format.

Download bbox – calculate the BoundingBox of a page. Should probably be combined with epstotiff.

Download joinps – concatenate a number of PostScript documents.

You’ll pretty much need a Unix box with ghostscript to make these work.

icicles in ma nose

Today was the first “freezing nose” experience of the winter. Combined with my pre-work swim, this has resulted in the unpleasant experience of only being able to smell chlorinated meat all day…