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College Life February 21, 2010

Posted by CLibra in Life.
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First of all, an apology – I’ve been neglecting my blog, as being a college student now means I have no free time. I’ve been tweeting a lot more though, as I’m finding it’s a lot less pressure to tweet, rather than to construct a blog post. Now, halfway through my first year, I have the opportunity to finally write.

Since I started college in September, life’s been a frantic mix of overworking and over-socialising, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ve met so many amazing people, and hardly see people who I don’t want to see. The studying environment is so different from what I was used to – teachers treat you more like adults. And although there’s on-site catering, we often find ourselves at the milkshake bar in town ;) Of course, the amount of stairs & the fact that campus is on a hill ensures that a milkshake vice doesn’t take too much of a toll. Within seconds from college I can be in the centre of town, and that’s something I really love about it. What I don’t love? The bus journeys every day. Need I say more?

So what’s the actual studying been like? My timetable’s an interesting mix to say the least, including Mondays without breaks, and a very laid back Friday. Computing is a very enjoyable lesson, with a mix of practical programming and theory. At GCSE, it was focused on planning and designing, but Computing is a lot more “real” Computer Science, with a lot of Maths involved. Maths, ah glorious Mathematics – it’s certainly a step up from High School, but it’s not as difficult as people have claimed it to be at AS; perhaps it’s down to the teacher, I don’t know, but I certain enjoy it more than I envisaged. At the other extreme, Physics; loved it at high school, but after a term I dropped it, because it really wasn’t for me – when there’s such a jump in level, you can never be sure how it’ll end up.

To replace Physics, I’ve taken up Italian, as it’s always been an ambition of mine to study it (because of a family background) but I was never able to due to the fact that few people in the UK actually speak Italian. Of course, I’m carrying on with French and Spanish as they were always two of my strongest subjects, and I’m finding them the easiest at the moment; they’ve become more demanding at AS Level though, with lots of independent study required. My language classes are very one of a kind, and we’ve such a mix of personalities but the end result is that we never have a dull lesson. And with the language assistants burning us CDs of foreign music, grammar work doesn’t seem so bad at all.

College has given me the opportunity to develop some new skills too. I signed up for two elective classes, Creative Writing and Japanese, to add a bit of variation to my studies, and I really love what they offer me. Although the goal of my Creative Writing class is to produce a portfolio for the NOCN credits in Creative Writing, it’s on a very casual basis with no pressure to write – the focus is on enjoying it. The range of literature we study is a refreshing break from narrow GCSE poems, in which every theme was either motherhood or sheep. And Japanese? It’s a two-year course, with no particular aim for a qualification, but it’s useful as it’s focused on gap-year scenarios. I was sceptical about learning the Hiragana script, but now I write it every opportunity I can. Japanese as a possibility for uni? Maybe so.

Speak of university, my language teachers are hoping me to go to Oxford or Cambridge, to study languages, but if I’m honest I doubt that I’m good enough. Sure, I’d love to go there, but Southampton is more realistic, and it’s still a great languages uni here in the UK. Still, I’m going to apply to Cambridge quand-même. So what are my plans for next year at college? Carry on French, Spanish and Computing to A2 level, join an A2 Italian class to sit the whole A-Level in one year, and carry on Japanese into the second year class; Maths is difficult to pass, so if I get a good grade at AS, I’m pretty set up for the future, and Creative Writing lasts only one year. I’m considering signing up for a Photoshop class, and saving some money to pay for piano lessons at college. But I’m not sure. It’s too early to decide.

Hopefully after this stint, I should get back into writing more often, documenting my life as a student, and of course, the computer ideas that I have. ¿Hasta pronto, sí?

End of an Era – RIP Geocities October 26, 2009

Posted by CLibra in Clippings, Internet, Websites.
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As of today, Yahoo! are pulling the plug on Geocities; it’s kind of sad to see these websites disappear into nothing, as some were – albeit corny – quite interesting to visit. Of course, Archive.org will always exist with backups of your favourite Geocities, and for ones that are still up, you can copy them to your hard drive with tools like HTTrack.

This marks the end of the 1990s internet – scrolling text, flashing banners, webrings, counters and guestbooks. Geocities used to be divided categorically into ‘neighbourhoods’, but a majority of what it hosted was always tacky personal pages, which will be missed by all.

Nocs: a Notepad replacement with a twist October 4, 2009

Posted by CLibra in Clippings, Google, Notes, Software, Sync.
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In my never-ending quest to find the perfect note-taking application, I stumbled across nocs, a lightweight application very similar to Windows Notepad that can be used for taking text notes on the fly; the catch is that your notes are saved into Google Docs, with the option of encrypting them to. After testing, I found that nocs was very fast and easy to use, it took up very little system resources, and it was good that my notes were saved online because if my hard drive broke, I’d lose them, and it means I can sync my notes between PCs.

However, nocs does lack a little in a few places; the notes are saved in an obscure spreadsheet format in Google Docs, making them unreadable through a browser, and as of yet there’s no Mac client. Notes can’t be read offline, and at the moment it’s only focusing on plain text notes, but in the future we might see nocs develop further.

All in all, I’d recommend nocs for a quick replacement to Notepad, but it’s still in its early days yet.

[http://code.google.com/p/nocs/]

Scan Gmail’s spam for false positives September 23, 2009

Posted by CLibra in Clippings, Email, Gmail, Google.
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Gmail’s spam folder works excellently for me, but it was only since I read this article that I realised that there were legitimate emails slipping into the spam folder.

Labnol writer Amit points out that with an easy to construct filter, you can scan Gmail’s spam folder for messages specifically addressed to your name, so you can pull out messages that look like they should have been delivered to you. Admittedly, some spam can be returned to the inbox using this method, but if you have too much spam in your junk folder to personally look through, have a go at this filter as it may be able to take the hard work of checking Gmail spam for you.

[http://www.labnol.org/internet/scan-gmail-junk-folder/9904/]

Looking to the future August 27, 2009

Posted by CLibra in Life.
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August 27th. GCSE results day

Everybody my age has been looking to today with a blend of excitement and apprehension. I’m pleased with my GCSEs, my first real qualifications. I’ve left school with 13 GCSEs, all graded A*-B; 3 A*’s, 9 A’s, and 1 B. Additionally, I’ve managed to land myself a merit in Critical Thinking from the college and a selection of academic awards. Not bad, hey?

This is the end of an era for me. Compulsory education is over and I’ve made the most of it. This summer has been a transition phase, as I’ve stopped being a pupil at high school and thought about my future. In a few days, I’ll start my life at college, where I’ll be doing AS levels; I intend to study Maths, Physics, Computing, French and Spanish, as well as my additional studies of Creative Writing & Japanese. It’s gonna be a fun time for me, but I know that I’m gonna need to develop as a person to succeed in the next two years of my education.

And after that? It becomes a little foggy. I know I want to carry on with the two things I enjoy the most – computing and languages – but I don’t want to have to give one of them up. Perhaps a dual honours degree scheme, Computing and Language Studies? And then afterwards, who knows? Google HQ in Paris, perhaps? CERN? Teaching English as a foreign language?

Life’s about to get a lot more exciting, independent, and uncertain. And I’m going to embrace it.

Vacuum the Firefox database for a speed boost August 25, 2009

Posted by CLibra in Clippings, Firefox.
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Over time, as history & bookmarks are added and removed from Firefox, the browser can become sluggish; this is because this information is stored in a SQLite database, and items removed from it are just marked as ‘empty space’ instead of being properly cleared out.

Fortunately, it’s very simple to trim the empty space so that the database isn’t larger than it needs to be, and therefore it can be accessed faster. Mozillalinks posted an article on the ‘VACUUM’ command and how to use it within your Firefox database – a simple matter of copying & pasting a line of code. I noticed an immediate improvement in performance, particularly in start-up time, awesomebar delay, and generally add-ons that dealt with bookmarks and history. It’s recommended that if you Firefox regularly, you should give your database a defrag often, and there’s even an extension that can schedule it in the background so it’s always taken care of.

Perhaps in the future Mozilla will integrate vacuuming into Firefox, as it really seems like something an average user shouldn’t have to do, but at the moment it’s a very easy step to give Firefox an instant speed bost.

[http://mozillalinks.org/wp/2009/08/vacuum-firefox-databases-for-better-performance-now-with-no-restart/]
[https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/13878]

Best of: Thunderbird edition August 23, 2009

Posted by CLibra in Articles, Email, Extensions, Gmail, Mozilla, Thunderbird.
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Although there are claims that email is dying (or more specifically, desktop email clients), Thunderbird still remains the best free and open source alternative to proprietary email clients such as Outlook; just like its cousin Firefox, Thunderbird can be extended, tweaked, and re-used in unorthodox ways to power it up, and so it’s possible to turn Thunderbird into the ultimate Outlook replacement, or make it integrate smartly with Google’s services.

A calendar is a must have for any email client, and at the moment Thunderbird doesn’t come with out out of the box. However, the Lightening project embeds a fully-featured calendar into Thunderbird, which supports CalDAV so you can synchronise Google Calendar easily; by doing this, you’ll also benefit from Thunderbird picking up event invitations sent to that GMail address. Extending the calendar further are extensions such as vcs Support, which allow you to import & export vCalendar files, multiple timezones can be managed by using FoxClocks, and tasks from Remember The Milk can be managed from within Thunderbird with the Provider extension.

A simple way to keep your contact list in the main view is the Contacts Sidebar, and you can access your Google Contacts in Thunderbird by using Zindus to keep them in sync. In fact, by using Zindus on multiple machines, you’re able to effectively keep your contacts synchronised and still access them online through Gmail.

Several annoyances can be fixed in Thunderbird easily, making it more powerful. For example, MailTweak will allow you to change so many advanced options in Thunderbird – I found it useful as it removed those pesky ‘Local Folders’ which were unused because I used IMAP. Speaking of IMAP, I recently posted about a fix I came up with to correct Thunderbird’s behaviour in the way it handled the GMail spam folder, as beforehand messages in spam were treated as new mail. Also, you can get a reminder when you forget to attach a file to an email, which I’m sure we could all benefit from, and you can remove that message sending dialog box. Finally, this extension will let you chose between inline or attached forwarding easily.

Outlook features a note-taking app and an RSS reader, and while Thunderbird has the latter, the trend is to opt for an online feed reader; using Thunderbrowse, you can embed Google Reader straight into Thunderbird so you can continue to read your updates in any browser. And the notes app? A while ago I came up with an unorthodox way of using GMail’s filters and Thunderbird’s templates to make a note-taking system tied to my email.

To send IM messages on a range of networks, or to simply use Twitter from within Thunderbird, have a look at the SamePlace extension which adds more messaging features to the client. It’s also possible to get a lightweight weather forecast from anywhere in the world in your sidebar with World Weather+; although weather extensions are stereotypically bloated and annoying, this one’s made really well.

If you’re an IMAP user and want more information & control over your messages, take a look at these two extensions: Display Quota does exactly what it says on the tin as it shows a progress bar of how much space you have in your email account, and GMailUI adds several features from GMail such as keyboard navigation, archiving and expression searching.

GMail supports IMAP IDLE in Thunderbird, so email is pushed to me as soon as it arrives. For greater control over sending & recieving of email, MagicSLR provides lots of options including a combined Get/Send button similar to Outlook. You can delay the sending of email until whenever you like by using Send Later, and you can ‘bounce’ a message to the correct recipient whilst keeping headers intact with mailredirect.

Finally, these two extensions will allow you to add extra information to your emails; you can timestamp your messages with the current date and time, and XSMTP can insert additional headers into an email to denote urgency, confidentiality and other things.

I’ve tried to compile a list of the best power tools for Thunderbird to make it suitable to replace Outlook (and GMail’s web interface to an extent), but if you have any other tips or extensions that are worth a mention, please let me know!

Locked out UK August 21, 2009

Posted by CLibra in Articles, Language, Travel.
1 comment so far

How culturally aware is the United Kingdom? Of course, we know the stereotypes, but how much do we really understand and appreciate our neighbouring countries on the content? We all know that the Italians gave birth to pizza, but do we know how many words in English came from their language? And – with cars and fashion brands aside – does our country really know where things originate from? The UK is unfortunately very locked out to other countries around us. We’ve become an outsider to the rest of Europe, to an extent, and I believe that our nation’s attitude is very unlike that of our neighbouring countries.

Consider this; how often do we get a foreign-language song in the UK charts? The occasional tune like Dragostea din tei, but why is the music of countries so close to us missing in our society? Generally speaking, music on the continent is more shared around; a song from Turkey, for example, will often be played in Italy, and although people may not understand the lyrics, they’ll still go out and buy the song if they enjoy it. In fact, it’s almost embarrassing that the music that we do know to be of foreign creation has somehow been injected with English – artists such as Shakira and Enrique have to change the lyrics of their songs into English just to stand a chance in the UK music market.

Why is this? Are we the reject of some elite club of nations? Or perhaps our people have entirely the wrong attitude, which is a shame because there is a wealth of music, films, literature and culture that’s ready to be enjoyed, with language being the only barrier. Whatever the cause is, we’re showing up the rest of Europe as a member of the community because they’re just seen as holiday destinations.

Keep the kids off Facebook August 8, 2009

Posted by CLibra in Articles, Social, Websites.
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When you sign up for a website, be it an email service or a social network, there’s a certain element of trust involved; do you trust that website with your data? Equally, does that website trust that you’re not lying to them? Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lie about your age on websites, and as such, there’s a boom in children using social networks. There are good reasons why Facebook users need to be 13 years of age to sign up for it, and I think it really says something about the youngsters of our generation who seem to have no problem in inputting a false birthday and lying about their age; are the children of today people who don’t find any trouble whatsoever in lying?

And also there’s a certain censorship element involved in Facebook; imagine that, for example, a friend’s 10 year old daughter added you on Facebook. It’d make me rather uneasy about what I should and shouldn’t post online, solely centred around this one youngster. There is also a large amount of quizzes, apps and groups that feature sex-orientated content heavily, and a lot of parents wouldn’t want their children to partake in such things. Facebook’s demographic isn’t the said age group so it shouldn’t need to censor it because its target users – aged 13 and above – are generally mature enough to deal with such themes, but more and more ‘age faking’ could result in Facebook needing to change.

What I’m finding is that because young people (and by that I mean under 13) as a whole haven’t developed enough as a person, they aren’t fully aware of social conventions, and as a result, this is carried across onto the internet. It’s obvious that you don’t friend every person that you’ve either seen or heard the name of, but to a younger person on a social network, they may not realise it, and proceed to involve themselves in every aspect of that person’s online life. And to top it all off, a lot of people don’t know how to work their privacy settings on Facebook anyway, so I doubt that younger children will be able to protect themselves with highly tweaked privacy, and will probably be more naïve towards strangers adding them as friends, which can lead to all sorts of dangers. Is it the innocence of children, or irresponsibility of parents that is in the wrong here?

I feel very strongly about youngsters on Facebook and I don’t think that it’s a safe nor wise thing to do. I’m in no way criticising Facebook, but I think that people should enjoy it when they’re older and more knowledgeable about the internet and the world around them, otherwise there could be serious regrets in the future of the consequences of social networking. Although Facebook is a prime example of where you can find children disregarding rules set up to protect them, it unfortunately takes place all over the internet because the system relies on trust and so is strongly flawed.

Concept: Notes Format August 7, 2009

Posted by CLibra in Code, Creations, Email, Notes, Sync.
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There a standard formats for the things we use everyday, such as email, music, calendars, and photos, and this is so that they can easily be manipulated and shared through different programs and operating system; however, although there are many note-taking tools out there, there is no one standard format, and as such, our note data becomes fragmented through incompatible mediums. It would be much easier for developers and end users to have a single format that everyone used when developing note applications.

I’ve tried to come up with a basic, open framework for notes that anybody can use, and it can be easily extensible so third party features can be coded in. It also provides version IDs and author information, so developers can provide functions to sync and share notes. I think that it’s important not to define too much information in a notes format because a lot of things should be handled by the client, and so therefore they can all intergrate it into their own clients.

I’ve published my initial idea to Google Docs, but I’d like lots of feedback so I can develop it further, so feel free to give me your input & criticisms; the first draft is very rough and I’d like to improve it a lot in the future. Anyone’s welcome to use it and build upon it but please link back to me if you do, and I’ll give you a mention on my blog.

[https://docs.google.com/View?id=ah7rdrmx7vm4_60hrpdxwct]
Photo: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/yggg/130617196/]

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