Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Visit of Friends from the US

I had not seen my friend Paul and his girlfriend Linda since 2005 - he had worked also at Rockwell Scientific and had left around the same time as I (summer 2005). At one time we had driven around Thousand Oaks in my Eldosaurus (the 1974 Caddy Eldorado Convertible), and they had fond memories of this. Now they were coming to the UK, and they planned a stop in Leeds, during their trip from London to Glasgow. After Ken had been here in autumn 2005, nobody else from my US friends had made it to Leeds, so Paul and Linda were the first ones since then.

My schedule allowed to take Wednesday off, and I planned to drive them around a bit. Unfortunately in my Smart car there can be only one passenger, and I hesitated to take the Citroen, because I might get some problems - there had been recently a flicker of the lights and the RPM meter. Not sure what this meant, but I did not want to take a risk with my guests, and so I decided to rent a car for a day. Got an Astra, with automatic transmission, from Enterprise.

First I thought we could visit the Peak District and see Chatsworth House. But the drive took longer than expected, and after a short break at Chesterfield we decided to cancel this plan and move on straight away to another friend whom Paul wanted to visit. This meant driving into Lincolnshire, where I had never been before.

We made it back in time to Leeds Station for their evening train to Glasgow - it was great to spend some time with them and to catch up after more than 4 years!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

In Austria

On Friday I have a whole day to give a workshop on "Scientific Publishing" to PhD students. I did the first part of this workshop last year in Cyprus, so this time is a continuation, with more advanced topics.

The day goes by well, but in the evening I am somewhat exhausted from talking the whole day. Go for a glass of wine with Erwin and Julius.

Next day, Saturday, I have reserved for my own ventures: I visit the Roman ruins at Carnuntum, which is located at the Danube between Vienna and Bratislava. I had been there 15 years ago, but my pictures were only on film, and I have not yet digitised them. Also, they made much progress at the Carnuntum excavations, as I saw from the web site, so I was very much looking forward to this.

The weather in the morning appeared to be somewhat foggy; I had hoped for bright sunshine. So when I arrived at the first sight, the Civilian Amphitheatre of Carnuntum, it almost felt a bit nippy, as the sun seemed to hide behind a thin cloud layer. But later this layer disappeared, and it was a really glorious day, with 26 C. There are several sites in Petronell-Carnuntum: two amphitheatres, an open air museum with excavations and reconstructions, a indoor museum with finds, and the "Heidentor" (heathens' gate) outside of the town. I spent several hours at the whole set of sites, looking at details, and trying to imagine how it was here, during its peak time, and then during its decay after the barbarians invaded from the North.

The ruins of the "Heidentor" outside of Carnuntum, shown with a non-digital Augmented Reality display.

I took lots of pictures, then had a nice quiet lunch at a Gasthaus in Bad Deutsch-Altenburg right at the banks of the Danube river.

Afterwards I drove to Erwin who lives not very far from Carnuntum. He was just getting wood for his wood fire heating at home, and so I had the chance for the first time to try a motor chain saw. Cutting wood is so easy!

Then a few bits of shopping, buying some stuff that one cannot get in UK, e.g. Austrian Lebkuchen, Kaminwurzen etc.

After coming back to Krems, I met with Peter and Ingrid who had invited me to their home for a nice dinner and chat.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Travel to Krems, Austria

On Thursday I had a full day of travel: getting a taxi in the morning 7:15, train leaves Leeds Station at 7:55, arrives at Manchester Airport 9:15. Flight leaves at 11:00. Everything works like a clockwork, but I am somewhat tired. The night before I had worked on my presentation for Friday, and I had brought it in the final shape. But then I only had 4 hours of sleep. So I closed my eyes and slept during the flight. Nothing else to do - the night before I had forgotten to check-in online, so I did not have a window seat on the first leg of the trip.

In Munich I only had very little time between the flights. But I wanted to get some local food. The restaurant Kaefer would only serve full meals, but I just had time for a quick snack. So I just got a single "Breze" from them. Hmmm, these real Bavarian Munich Brezen (=pretzels) are just soo good! Soft and warm dough, but a thin crust outside. Just right. On the way to the gate I saw another place, which had a Leberkaese, and I got a roll with warm Leberkas and sweet mustard. Is a staple of Bavarian rustic cuisine, and I did not have one for a long time. So while waiting for the boarding, I just stood there and munched my sandwich, to the envy of the other waiting passengers.

For the flight to Vienna I had a window seat. But there was nothing to see - a thick white cloud seemed to hang over all Central Europe. When landing in Krems, there was even a slight drizzle.

Got the rental car ok, and then drove from Wien Schwechat towards Krems, which is about 70 km west of Vienna. Not much traffic on the road, I moved along swiftly. Once arrived, I rushed to the town center to get some essential purchases, for example something to drink for later. Also got some cash from the bank. Realised that I had forgotten to tell my bank that I will travel abroad - I am sure that they will block my debit card soon again, as they usually do when I use it abroad.

Go to the restaurant "Alte Post" in the centre of Krems, a quite rustic place with typical heavy meals. Afterwards I do some last fine-tuning of my presentation

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What is a "blog"?

In the past, the definition of the term "blog" came from the abbreviation of "web log". This term describes a kind of online diary, because its entries are sorted by date.

Recently, I have seen that the term blog appears to be often used just to denote a single entry. For example, sometimes a single forum post is called "a blog" by some people who want just to denote this one particular entry. So in their view, a blog is something like a single reflection, a single "blurp" about something.

I think that this latter definition is wrong - it changes completely the meaning of the term "blogging" and reduces it to just another form of expressing one's opinion. Such a single post has a name: "blog post" or "blog entry". And in my opinion, this is how it should remain.

Two Leeds Met Staff shortlisted for THE Awards

Every year in autumn, the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine gives awards to universities in different categories. Leeds Met has been shortlisted and commended a few times in the past years. When this year's shortlist came out today it was nice to see that two members of staff are on the shortlist for "Most Innovative Teachers of the Year": Nicholas Halafifi from the Carnegie Faculty, and Catherine Sanderson from the Faculty of Health.

Congratulation to you two for this nomination, and best wishes for the actual award ceremony!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Buying Car Insurance - Through Web Comparison Sites

Today my car insurance was due for annual renewal. I had gotten a quote from my previous insurance, but the price had actually gone up in a year, although my no-claim-bonus (NCB) has increased, which should actually have brought down the premium to pay. So I was looking for an alternative. Fortunately there are good sites out, and decided to do a brief comparison. I checked: GoCompare, Compare the, and Quoteline Direct.

Each of the sites opens a separate browser window, with the browser controls missing. This is a bit annoying, because now I cannot have this in a separate tab, nor can I do all the things I would like to, e.g. "find in page" etc. I assume that they all use the same software for these comparisons.

GoGompare usually comes up the first thing when I search in Google for car insurance comparison sites. I had successfully used this site last year for two insurance quote. The forms online are easy to fill in, and if one check mark remains checked, the first two cheapest insurances will actually call you to finalize the deal. I did that last year, so within 15 minutes after starting the search I had my insurance completed. This year I unchecked this box, so that I could further follow up.

CompareTheMarket makes these nice TV commercials with the Meercats -, quite innovative, and yes, that commercial sticks in your head when it comes to thinking about comparing insurances. But the site had a problem: it did not allow me to choose an EC/EEC license. When I entered an "International License", I was quoted almost double the price I paid now... only entering "full UK license" gave more reasonable prices.

So far, GoCompare was ahead of the two sites regarding getting a good deal on the insurance. But then I tried again another site which I came across when searching for how "endorsements" can influence the insurance price: Quoteline direct. Their web form is a bit finicky, it is easy to make mistakes, but they provide very good guidance for each form item, so eventually the form can be filled in correctly. They came up with quite a high price, but I thought this was the effect of the (few) points I have on my license. Some of the quotes were for direct online booking, others were only available if one would call. The cheapest one was for calling in - so I called them. It turns out that the web form was incomplete - did not capture that I have been in the UK only since 4 years. So the price went up - and I found this not acceptable. They should quote based on complete information, and they should capture this information through their online form.

I went back to GoCompare and was curious: what would be the difference between getting a quote with indicating the "points" and a quote where these "points" are omitted (not telling them about points "may" invalidate the insurance!). To my surprise both quotes came out the same - the few points on my license did not make any difference at all!

Summarizing I can say that of these three insurance comparison sites, GoCompare wins clearly. I will use them again at my next renewal, and also for any other insurance comparisons I might undertake. CompareTheMarket is ok too, their price results are similar and sometimes even better than GoCompare, but they need to revise their forms to get all the info for making correct quotes. At the bottom is QuotelineDirect, which had overall the most expensive prices, and then even made them higher because not all info had been captured by the forms.

Some car insurance companies (e.g. Aviva) make a pointed statement in their commercials of not wanting to be included in those comparison sites. I do not quite understand why - they must have too high prices and must be afraid being compared with others, so there is no loss for me in not comparing them to others.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Movie: "The Truth is Out There..."

Today I did something that I wanted to do already more than 25 years ago, but never had an opportunity to do so: I directed a movie.

The Leeds Met Staff Development Festival began today, in a scaled-down version compared to previous years. But nevertheless, there are great events, workshops, and activities throughout this whole week. One of these activities caught my attention back in summer when the schedule was announced: "Make a Film in a Day", organised by the Northern Film School of Leeds Met. I have been fascinated by the medium Film since the late 1970s when I began to get interested in the art of movie making. At one point during my last years at high school I even toyed with the thought of becoming a director, being inspired by such masters like Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Tati, Claude Chabrol, Werner Herzog, Robert Altmann, Billy Wilder, and the classic masters of film noir. But when it came to choosing a career, I opted out of this path as it seemed to me a bit too much high-risk. However, I kept a high regard for movies and movie-making, and while living near Los Angeles for nine years I enjoyed being so close to the movie production scene with its still vividly living history (of movie classics), with highlights of renting my old car (1971 Plymouth Fury Stationwagon) to movie and TV productions ("Almost Famous" 2000 by Cameron Crowe, although my car did not make it into the final movie cut) and with once meeting the actress Jane Russel and the TV host Robert Osborne from TCM.

So when I saw the "Make a Film in a Day" event, I did not hesitate and enrolled myself. So today at 10:00 I showed up at the Northern Film School in the "Electric Press" building in Leeds City Centre, together with 19 other like-minded colleagues. First we were taught a few of the basics and terminology of film making. Then we were divided into 3 groups: each got a task to make a short 3 minute long film. I got into the group "Leeds Metro Studio" which was given the task to produce a "Science Fiction Western", with the sentence in it "the truth is out there..." and with using the props of a space helmet, a cowboy hat, an American flag, and an alarm clock. We then divided the roles in the group. I was interested in the editing, but someone else took that first. The director's job was left - I first hesitated, but then thought about my long interest in movie-making, and volunteered for the director's job.

The first two hours were spent on outlining the story. Everyone in the group came up with ideas, from something like "Back to the Future III", "West World", "Kate and Leopold". It was hard to come up as a group with a consistent story line - each of us had very interesting ideas regarding the visuals, but it appeared difficult to include them all in a consistent story. But thanks to the help of screen writer / director Dan Meldon a story slowly evolved: a young woman, played by Victoria, exits an elevator/lift in a building, then sees something unbelievable: at the reception desk there sits the clerk Chip with a cowboy hat, played by Muthu. She thinks she is on the wrong floor, goes back into the lift, goes to another floor. There is Muthu again, this time wearing a space helmet. She asks if she can register here. Muthu sends her to the 52 floor, but not without giving her the helmet because "the air is thin up there". She goes up there, leaves the lift wearing the helmet, arriving at the ground floor of the newly opened Rose Bowl lecture hall where she is greeted by fellow colleagues who applaud her and take pictures of her with their mobile phones: she has arrived at the Staff Development Festival. A live chorus sings in the background. This latter thing actually was not planned, but it happened as we filmed in the Rose Bowl, because another event had the Leeds Met Singers in the background.

Pretty weird story, we wanted to make it quite surreal. Unfortunately we only had very little time for the actual filming. After we had the story sorted, we got an hour of specialist training, so the editor, camera and sound crew could do the job. The actors and directors of each group were told about some basic rules of filming, the different shots, and the "do not cross the line" rule. We got our props sorted, then went to the two locations: in the Civic Quarter buildings, and in the Rose Bowl. Filming time was set to only 1 h 15 minutes. The first scene took already longer than expected to shoot. We did several takes, with various shots: medium, closeup, and in different directions, to get the initial dialogue. I was the one saying "action" and "cut" - quite some fun. It was also my duty to coach the actors into great performances, and discuss with the camera woman the particular aesthetics of the shots, to preserve that intended surreal feel.

I really enjoyed this whole directing. Unfortunately time was running out, and despite of filming for a total of more than 2 hours, we could not film all the various shots we had planned.

But when then our editor put the scenes together in "Final Cut Pro", a very nice short flick developed. In the end we had a screening of all three films that were produced by the groups today: one had created a film noir murder mystery, the other had made a parody of a blackmailing mob movie.

Filming in Civic Quarter buildings of Leeds Met

Editing in the post-production

This was a great fun, and when later this evening I watched in the movie theatre Tarantino's "Inglorious Bastards" (very recommendable, if you can digest Tarantino's lack of inhibition against violence depiction), I could somehow more appreciate all the work that had gone into this movie.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

New Mobile Phone: XDA Guide

Since a week, my mobile phone acted up strangely. It just kept freezing, and I had to do numerous restarts until it would work again. I suspected that it would be related to a memory problem, but there was still more than 40MB free. Of course, some people will say "I told you so" - because this phone runs Windows Mobile.

I have used Windows Mobile devices since a very long time, when it was still called Windows CE. And there was always some trouble with them, especially related to the synchronisation with a PC: there were in many cases duplicates of contacts and files created, and I had manually to go through them and delete them.

But what I always liked about these Windows Mobile devices (PocketPCs) was that they would fit in well with my desktop (or laptop) PCs: I liked the "compatibility". Back in 1998 I had bought for work a NEC Mobile Pro, running Windows CE 2.0. And since then I had a series of devices, all working with the Windows OS. Great was the Toshiba PocketPC, or Handheld PDA as it was called in 2002. My brother gave me a GPRS modem for it, and I made phonecalls and connected from the net with that thing. Since 2006 I had a mobile phone running Windows Mobile: the O2 XDA Exec, with a nice keyboard and a 640x480 screen. In 2008 I switched to a XDA Stellar (HTC TyTN II), with a smaller keyboard, a smaller screen, but this reduced also the weight and size of the phone overall. This phone is the one that now somehow got sluggish since a week.

This Friday afternoon I wanted to make a call and send some txts, as I was on the way to a meeting - and the phone just would not start. Everything froze after a few strokes on the touch screen. I had enough then and entered the next O2 store. A day before I had already scrolled through a few models on the web site, so I knew that for a non-business tariff there would be no phone with a keyboard anymore. They had an XDA Guide, and after a short deliberation I took it. I needed to upgrade my phone plan for this, but then the phone itself was free. I later found that O2 has more other XDA phones available, but not in stores, only online. And some are also only available on business tariffs.

Here are the first comments about this phone XDA Guide:

It runs Windows Mobile 6.1. Yes, some people do not like Windows, but I like the fact that I can use Excel for utility consumption lists and petrol mileage, that I can write Word-compatible (sort of) files, and that I can look at my powerpoint files on the phone (I actually never ever did this, but if I want, I could). I also like that I can write software, using Visual Studio and the whole .NET framework. And since Microsoft ActiveSync 4.5 I actually never had any problems with synchronisation, no more duplicates. I also like the direct connection to the Microsoft Exchange server at our uni, so I can get all the emails right on the phone, share the address book with my more than 2000 entries between the server and the phone, and can have my whole work calendar on the phone. These reasons are why I resisted the Apple iPhone lure, which is very tempting. But I see currently no alternative to a Windows Mobile phone for my requirements. Version 6.1 now has a nice integration of Exchange, Gmail Hotmail, or any other email service into one interface. Also, applications can now (finally) be closed down. The greatest advantage of Windows Mobile phones over the iPhone is that they can be used as modems. This is really great - I always have internet connection on my laptop, no battery-power-hungry WiFi is needed.

The XDA Guide runs a special user interface on top of Windows Mobile: TouchFlo uses the touch screen for iPhone-like interaction with the fingers. However, the integration with Windows Mobile appears a bit superficial: top and bottom line on the screen show the Windows fonts and colours, and in between is the FloTouch screen. There was probably not an easy other solution to program this, but it looks definitely not as classy and sleek as the iPhone. But it works nice.

The XDA Guide has a GPS built in, and it comes with the software CoPilot 7, which provides voice navigation. This is very nice, because the software would otherwise cost an additional amount to purchase. The cradle for installation in the car is ok, but the power cable which one needs is a bit short. It also goes out straight from the bottom, so one needs some space underneath the device on the dashboard, otherwise the cable connector will eventually get bent. The battery life when using GPS is short as with all GPS-powered phones, so while driving one needs the power from the cigarette lighter.

The overall device is very light and slim. Quite a difference to my previous bricks that I carried. Also one big improvement: there are no buttons or controls that can accidentally be pressed. With my previous phone, the XDA Stellar, it happened more than once that while I carried the phone in the pocket, phone calls were made (to the last caller) just by accidentally pushing some buttons. The XDA Guide only has a "on" button at the top, which needs to be pressed down very firmly and cannot just be activated accidentally.

Overall I am quite satisfied with the phone so far. Great set of features, does everything I want. of course I miss the built-in keyboard... the onscreen touch keyboard is ok, but a bit too small for my fingers for fast typing. Somewhat silly is also that one has to change between letter mode and number mode - and the decimal point is in the letter mode, so when entering decimal numbers, one has to switch back and forth between the modes...

But overall this is a nice device. Has of course also a camera, quite standard at 3.2 MP. The quality is ok, but is no match for a normal digital camera. Memory is better than on any previous model: 340MB RAM for data and 186 for software, so even after installing a few apps the memory still is more than 270MB data and 100MB program space.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Back at Work

I had 3 weeks off. During this time, I did a few excursions around Yorkshire, travelled on a steam train, took tons of pictures and videos. August was quite nice, with no really hot day (max temperature was 25C), but with some nice sunny days. I also used the time to familiarise myself with the Diffie-Hellman-Merkle algorithm, which allows to create a secure shared key for encryption/decryption, which is generated simultaneously on the client and the server, and does not need to be sent between them - allowing data to be sent encrypted over an insecure connection.

Now since Tuesday I am back in my office. I still have to solve that mystery why on some days exactly at 7:04 in the morning my PC shuts down... some mysterious remote control from the IT dept?

Did a few reviews for a conference (ISVC), wrote a referee report about an applicant due to promotion (at a foreign university), otherwise did just slacking off. Could watch during the daytime at 15:00 episodes of the US TV series Monk which is about a detective with some serious obsessive-compulsive disorder - one of my favourite programs while I lived in the US.

Now the daytime program for me takes place in my office, or in meetings. And a long list of things to do: preparation of teaching material, writing one or two paper manuscripts, preparation of a workshop. And of course apply for funding of my research work activities.