Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

30k hits

Wow… I mean, wow!

The blog’s now had thirty thousand unique hits, and that’s from people who go to the site directly, not via RSS feeds, bloglines or any of the other ways of accessing a site.

I’m flattered, and very pleased.  And this month will be my second busiest month, after the peak of August 2008 when my posts about the Elonex OneT gained me an extra few thousand hits in a couple of days.

Thanks to everyone who comes to read, and thanks to those who have left comments on the postings.  I now leave comments open on new postings as the spam filter used seems to be much better after a glich in October.

Where next?  One thing that I will try to avoid is posting something simply in order to get my hit counter up – it’s so tempting to do that, and I may get a short term buzz, but it doesn’t make for a sustainable readership.

I will continue posting news about my teaching (and learning) where it’s appropriate, and I’m sure my reputation as a mac fanboy won’t diminish (especially with some news in the next couple of weeks).  But there will be fewer gadgets (not least of which because I’m buying fewer at the moment), and hopefully more about technology, and project management in general.

Watch this space.


Podcasts – the truth

I don’t very often get on my soap box but here we go.

The vast majority of podcasts avaiable from the iTunes store are not worth the server space they are stored on.

There, I’ve said it now.

There are just two exceptions, I’ve got over forty podcasts sitting on my iPod at the moment waiting for me to listen to, but apart from one, they are all produced by the BBC.  I’ve tried many other podcasts, including by people whose work I generally enjoy.  They tend to fall into four categories.

  1. The advert.  This is particularly true of any podcasts related to American shows.  The Simpsons podcast is a case in point.
  2. The fanboy.  There’s so many of these around.  I subscribed to a couple of Doctor Who podcasts during the season run (not the official BBC commentary podcast, that’s in a different league).  All they do is rehash the news, adding their own spin onto it and using Skype to interview other fanboys.  Of little interest to anyone who’s not in the cliqué.
  3. The tech show.  Oh boy, there are a lot of these, and I used to subscribe to a couple, including of course LugRadio which was unusal in being well produced and well written – the only problem I had was the potty mouths of the presenters (I’m no prude, but there’s gratuitous swearing and there’s really gratuitous swearing).
  4. The star, or stars.  These are the worst shows of all, with one exception (see below).  You like the work of someone on radio or tv, find their podcast online and subscribe.  You then find that without a script, or group of script writers that they really are just like you and I.  I’m a great one for overhearing coversations at coffee bars and in the pub, but these aren’t using my bandwidth.  Whilst hating to pick one out specifically, Armstrong and Miller’s podcast for the Times is a classic example of this, their podcast of their Christmas preparations stays with me still.

So which non-BBC podcast do I subscribe to?  It has to be Stephen Fry of course, who is as close to being the living embodiment of the best bits of the BBC that it can be.  The only shame is that his official podcasts on the iTunes store come out so infrequently, though there’s much, much more on his site.

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now, it’s rare that I have a rant like this, but having spent half an hour last night trying to find any non-BBC podcasts that stirred my interest, and failing, I felt I had to share it.  I wonder if we’ll look back at podcasts in ten years time the same way that I look back on the audio tapes that as an eight year old I used to prepare in my bedroom with my new cassette recorder, then bore the rest of my family with by playing as we ate Sunday dinner.  Interesting, and creative, but ultimately embarassing.

Get Smart

No, not this


or this


I’ve usually worn ‘smart casual’ to university.  Having spent too much of my working life wearing a shirt and tie, or for a good few years a suit and tie, I was relieved to be able to cast this off.  Of course I can ‘do’ smart when necessary, external training courses, graduation, induction events etc.

However, I’ve noticed that as part of our new faculty there’s a ‘norm’ for academics to dress maybe a little smarter than previously.  This came to my attention last week, when a couple of admin staff that I’d been talking to in order to get a room booking sorted thought I was a student.  Whilst it’s somewhat flattering to be thought of as such, it also acted as a timely reminder.

So whilst not ‘suited and booted’, I am now ‘shirt and tied’, following a visit to my tailor (a Mr Tesco, I can’t recommend him highly enough).


(the slight drooping in the pocket is, of course, my mobile phone).

Project Ideas

I’ve spent much of this afternoon working on developing project ideas for undergraduate students.  It’s taken much longer than I thought it would, even with some cut/paste.

But as always, it started with a mind map – I was sharing this on this blog, but with hindsight it’s probably best that it’s only made available through official channels – sorry!

I just hope that the students recognise the effort that goes into the preparation – it’s nothing compared to the project co-ordinator however who’s done a lot of the legwork.

All this means that I’ve not started marking exams yet today, but I’ve spent enough time in front of Big Mac today, so I’ll do this somewhere else though, away from my office (in fact I’ve spent too much time here over the last few days, as it’s the quietest room in the house when the builders are doing their stuff next door.

TFI Friday

It’s been a long week – teaching, marking and preparing for next semester seem to have taken their toll on me, and I’m shattered.

No working on Saturday (hurrary!), but I’m sure I’ll do some exam marking on Sunday.  I also need to think of some project ideas as I’ve been moved from postgraduate to undergraduate projects, and the process is different.

I’m also stressed about stuff at home, away from my workplace(s), which isn’t helping me.  I’m trying to take my own advice, these things will pass, all things change etc. but it’s not helping here on a Friday night when I’m not sure what the coming week will bring.

This all sounds very low I know, but I’ll be back to my usual self I’m sure.

I’m still a geek!

First, check out this comic from the as-ever excellent xkcd.

Are you back?

The problem I faced today – marking a load of 75 question, multiple choice papers.  I usually do this by using photo booth to record a movie of me saying the answers – ‘question 1, C, question 2, D’ etc.  Tedious, and for some reason photo booth on my macbook wasn’t playing today (I find this the least stable of all the OS 10.5 applications, a real shame.

Then this ‘say’ command popped back in my head… why do I need to do all the ‘hard’ work.

First thing was to strip out the answers from the word document.  They were in this format.

Q1    Which document describes a failing of a product to meet the customer’s requirements?

A)    Exception Report
B)    Off-Specification
C)     Follow-On Action Recommendations
D)    Issue Log


Load the file in Open Office, copy and paste to text edit, click on Format, make plain text, and I had a file I could manipulate.

Into the terminal prompt, some navigation and I’m at the directory.  First extract the answers –

grep ANSWER “prince2 answers.txt” > “prince2 speech.txt”

The last time I used grep in anger was about six years ago.

That gave me a file that looked like this




What happens if I lose my place though?  Back to openoffice, open the text file, and simply use the ‘numbers’ button of bullets and numbers.  I then have a file that says



The next bit’s a cheat.  I tested this though the Services menu, and it came out too rushed.  So I added a double new-line, and the speech was well measured. Make sure this is saved as a text file now!

Finally, the say command.

say < “prince2 speech.txt” -o “answers spoken.aiff”

and I’ve got a .aiff file I can play in quicktime, or iTunes.  A shame I can’t upload it here.  OK, was this quicker than me recording it.  Probably not, but it is more accurate (it has to be, it’s from the file itself so no transcription errors, though like any good geek I did double check that the question numbers and answers correlated).  More than that though, it got my geek muscle flexing a little, which can only be a good thing I guess.

As my friend said in an iChat – “Cartoons can be educational”

We’re all going on a summer holiday…

One of my summer holiday breaks is booked… should help deal with any post-clearing stress.

Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)

This has been appearing at the bottom of my blog posts for about a year I guess.  I sometimes get some ‘hits’ from appearingly random blogs.

But recently the ‘related posts’ have become more and more obscure.  I won’t go into details, but some have been disturbing (not obscene, but clearly written by people who have a different, and much less tolerant view of life than I have).

To turn this feature off (which is on by default), under the new WordPress dashboard, Select ‘Appearance’, then ‘Extras’, and ensure ‘Hide related links on this blog, which means this blog won’t show up on other blogs or get traffic that way’ is checked.  Yes, you have to select a function to ensure it’s not enabled!

I’m not that desparate for the traffic that I need these hits, and I would argue that the screen space saved would make this sacrifice worthwhile for most bloggers.

A long day

…but I was determined to get my marking up to date.  I did a fair bit yesterday, but today broke the back of it.  I’ve also emailed the provisional marks out to some students, I’ve printed copies off for others to distribute via their teaching tomorrow, so another early start into the office before my own teaching.

But my energy levels seem to be holding up well, well better than they have for a while anyhow.  I can’t say I’m out of the woods health-wise (I looked and sounded like an old man climbing from Millennium Point back to New Street Station on Friday.

It’s a cliché I know, but I’m sure there are ways to work ‘smarter, not harder’.  One thing that I’ve found useful is ‘batching’ work.  I came across this years ago when I was a programmer, and was making the same changes to the same programs month on month.  My batch method of marking works along these lines.

  • Ensure that the pro-forma or marking sheet is complete and up to date.
  • Put the students name or number on each pro-forma, and save with the file name of the student name/number.
  • Mark the assignment, print off the relevant number of copies of pro-forma (easier said than done I know) .
  • Double check the marks – even with calculators it’s easy to make a mistake.
  • Create the marks spreadsheet if one is needed.
  • Email/distribute the feedback, with the usual caveats to students about provisional mark, subject to internal/external moderation.

Each of these steps has to be carried out for each student, but ‘batching’ the work really does save time.  I did a similar (though different) process with my Open University marking.

Any more ‘batching’ processes people use?

Open University mentoring

Yesterday morning saw me up with the lark with a skip delivery next door – bang (and crash and clatter) went my chance of my only opportunity of a lie in this week.

A little later saw me at Harborne, meeting the new OU tutor who I am mentoring over the coming year, whilst I take a break from tutoring.  Strangely enough we did know each other already, and in a series of flashbacks throughout the day I realised that I owed the guy a big favour.  When I was preparing for my interview as a lecturer at UCE (as it was at the time), he had guided me via a phone call to a suggested structure for my presentation (I’ve just looked, but there’s been too many backups and crashes since then).  So in no small way he helped me get my job at Birmingham City University (almost six years ago to the day).

The mentoring event itself was well structured, with clarification of the role of the associate lecturer, discussion about the leniency (or otherwise) of extensions and marking, and discussion about the formal mentoring process (I”m there for some hand holding and informal advice rather than a formal structure).  We completed the morning session by marking and giving feedback on a mock TMA, which was an interesting process.  I have a (very) vague memory of doing something similar a long while back when I was a new tutor (September 1999, nearly ten years ago!).

The rest of the day was spent buying tiles, and to recover by watching Trashy DVD’s and chilling after what had been a very busy week.  Today has been paint shopping (anyone spotting a pattern here – kitchen decoration starting on Tuesday), and I’ve been sending emails for a good couple of hours later to catch up with friends, and work colleagues.  There’s no alternative now though, I have to start clearing the marking backlog.  Ah well, the sooner I start the sooner I can finish.