Tag Archives: Projects

Reuse-friendly Business Cards

This gallery of interesting and creative business cards was on Neatorama a very long time ago. There’s some really nice examples here, and there are many other galleries out there with lots of cool ideas. Some of them are functional, some are more about the “design” rather than being, y’know, readable.

Several years ago, all the talk was about Hipster PDA’s and the like. One idea which I started using was to use my old business cards as notelets to write reminders to myself. In my line of work, I get a box of business cards. I’m not really “client facing”, so I will usually give away a maximum of 50 out of the box of 500 before my title, phone number, or office address changes. Then I’m left with 450 obsolete cards. I hate throwing stuff like that away, so they get used for shopping lists and the like. A Hipster PDA Mini, perhaps. I started another new job in January last year, and I’ve been clearing out my drawers, so once again I find myself with a near-full box of obsolete cards.

So to avoid this in future, how about making business cards with the maximum amount of reuse possibilities? You could put a calendar on the back – this Flickr set shows one (slightly complex) possibility for a business card calendar. But that’s only one year. Here’s a few other possibilities:

  • Generic calendar table
  • Tipping chart (useful for those of us who struggle with the percentages)
  • A nice list for making to-do or shopping lists, with tick boxes
  • 1/4″ ruling with a 1/4″ margin – good for lists or general notes
  • 1/4″ grid – maximum flexibility!

Here’s the first suggestion – a generic calendar table. This is a calendar that is not fixed to a particular month, but can be easily marked to show the dates for any month in the past or future.

Generic Calendar Table - Blank

22232425262728 F
2930 A,J,S,N31MONTH:

The parts in italic would be written in manually, giving a functional calendar. The little letters next to 28 and 30 remind us which months have that many days. Here’s the calendar marked up for March 2014.

Generic Calendar Table - March 2014

22232425262728 F
2930 A,J,S,N31MONTH: March 2014

I like this idea. Would it be worth doing? Probably not. Nice little exercise in what-if though.


Horse Project

I’ve been working on some pages describing the handmade wooden rocking horse my Grandad Harold Lloyd used to make from 1975 to 1986. There are photos, descriptions of each horse, and some other bits and pieces.

The plan is to try and contact people who may know the folks who bought the horses. I’ve got some good leads, so we’ll see how that goes.

The main project page is here, and I will add any additional information as I find it:

Lloyd's Handmade Rocking Horses logo

A Soda Against The Collapse

This time tomorrow we’ll be on the plane to Heathrow, so we’re doing the last loads of laundry, dusting off the suitcases, and mending the bed which collapsed under us at 2am last night.

I actually slept through it – a combination of age, a Pavement gig the previous evening (review to come) and Nyquil (or Wal-Quil, Walgreen’s flattering imitation). Cassie had to shake me to wake me up, and she asked if the bed had collapsed. Things did look a bit skewiff, so we got up and checked under the bed, and sure enough, the centre bar which runs up the middle of the bed was resting on the floor at one end. What had happened was that the extra fold-down legs which held the centre bar up had folded up, and all the weight was on the bracket which held the bar to the headboard. This bracket was held on which six surprisingly short screws, and these just ripped out, and our downstairs neighbor got a nice wakeup bang.

We had some choices: mend the bed there and then; go upstairs and sleep on the air mattress we have for guests (mains powered – it’s awesome); or complete the disassembly of the bed and sleep on the mattress on the floor. We tried to fix it by putting the screws back, but the holes were all ripped out, so they wouldn’t stay in. Not good. We went for the mattress-on-the-floor solution. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, I said, “bolts”as a way to fix it, then fell asleep.

We haven’t  had this bed long, but because it was a display model which we got for half price, it isn’t covered under warranty. I’m not sure that this is reasonable wear and tear, and it may be a result of incorrect assembly by the delivery men, but we don’t have time to wait around. So this morning we called around for handypeople, tool rental, friends and so on. The problem is that I could fix it easily, but I don’t have any tools except for a couple of screwdrivers and a hammer. I had accrued a nice set of tools in the UK, but gave them away when I left.

Luckily Cassie’s old high school friend Taylor is very handy, lives in SF, and is very happy to help out. So we met him for breakfast down in the Castro near his office, and borrowed a power drill. Cliff’s Variety furnished the hardware, and I’ve just finished bolting the bracket back to the headboard. I’m not taking any chances with feeble short screws.

So in return for his kind deed, let me recommend to you…

Taylor’s Tonics

“America’s Most Innovative Soda Kitchen”

Taylor started Northern Unified Brewing quite a few years ago, selling chai herbs, concentrate, and other niche items. He then branched out into artesan craft-brewed sodas, starting with the delicious Chai Cola, then  recently adding three other varieties: a low-calorie version of the original product; Maté Mojito, a blend of mint and lime which is great on its own and awesome with rum; and Cola Azteca, a mocha spiced cola, which is a whole new flavour experience.

All the drinks are available around the city and beyond – Taylor is always trying to get it into grocery stores and corner shops. Natural food giant Whole Foods has them all at eye level in their drinks aisle, so things are looking, and tasting, good.

You can get a free Taylor’s Tonics bottle opener keyring by following these instructions. Follow them on Facebook, basically. And look out for the crazy Taylor’s Tonics Tricycle at an alternative desert gathering near you!

Thanks, T.

Disclaimer: This was not a paid advertisement except that Taylor lent us his power drill, has helped out with lots of stuff in the past, and is an all-round good egg.

Downscaling My IT Operations

My desktop computer has been playing up for a while. After it was shipped to the US, I managed to blow the power supply because I didn’t know it was non-auto-switched. I got the PSU replaced, but like someone’s back after a minor rear-end collision, things were never really the same again, Doc, just sign here, cheers thanks.
A series of problems manifested themselves. I would press the power button, and nothing would happen. I would press the power button, the machine would get through grub and then freeze on the Ubuntu logo. Or it would freeze partway through the drive check it kept wanting to perform. Other times it would boot up, connect to the network, and operate for hours, but then freeze at some random point when I was in the middle of doing something important, like playing Nexuiz.
When it froze, I found that neither pressing the little reset button or holding down the power button would work – I had to use the PSU switch on the back.
After some poking around and asking some questions, I was told that it may be the memory that was at fault. So I downloaded the Memtest86+ ISO file, burned a bootable CD from it, and rebooted then machine from that. The program found multiple errors, so I bought some new RAM sticks from Crucial. It was pretty simple to figure out which type I needed, because although the Crucial System Scanner only works with MS Windows, they had a tool to figure out what manufacturer and model my motherboard was. I bought the maximum 4GB, and when they arrived, I opened one stick and tested the box with it.
No luck – it still froze at the same places.
This was getting tedious, so I called Castro Computer Services, a few blocks down the hill from my apartment. I had checked their reviews on Yelp, and they seemed pretty good, and this feeling was reinforced when I dropped the machine off. An unassuming front window with blinds and a couple of screens showing screensavers hides a large workshop with big tables, those high stools you remember from the science labs at school, tools in racks, and machines being worked on, as well as a Yorkshire Terrier and a big parrot. I brought the machine in at the weekend (desktops are heavy!) and explained the various symptoms. Yesterday I got a call saying it wasn’t good news – my motherboard was dead. My drives were still OK, and all the other various parts are probably OK too. So, question: Do I want to build a new desktop and start again?
Perhaps not. I’ve been thinking about downsizing to a laptop for a while. Why do I need a big powerful computer? I don’t do video editing or music production, apart from the minor dabbling which doesn’t need much horsepower (think OpenShot, SoX, and espeak). I don’t really play games anymore, apart from some MAME, and the above mentioned Nexuiz. The former doesn’t need a powerhouse, especially for my older favorites like Strike Force, Robotron 2084 and Defender, and the latter can be scaled back to provide fast action without all the glow, shadows, particles and rippling water (I keep the blood splatters though, otherwise where’s the fun?). In addition to all this, space is limited in our apartment – at least space for a big desktop is limited. A big desktop needs a big desk. We have a smaller desk in the living room, but that has Cassie’s Macbook and papers on it. My big desk that I bought in San Diego takes up a big load of space in the bedroom, and it’s just not really justified anymore. I still have my nice widescreen monitor, keyboard, mouse, external drives and so on. I can plug those in if I need them.
So. A laptop. It just so happens that a few days ago I finally received my free Dell Mini 10v from Comcast for being such a good little customer. I was going to put it on eBay, and then buy another laptop with the proceeds plus some more, but the situation has forced my hand somewhat.
So it was that last night I spent a couple of hours setting up my shiny new black 10″ laptop. It came pre-installed with MS Windows XP, and I couldn’t resist playing Space Cadet 3D Pinball for a few minutes. I read around before breaking the seal on the box, and it appears that Ubuntu will install fine. So that might be a project for the next week.

Because we all now how well I deal with these ongoing IT projects.

PDF Forms, Linux, Fax Machines And Pain

Because I know you’re all crying out to hear about how things are going in SF with C, I’ve decided to write about creating PDF forms in Linux. I knew you’d be pleased.

When I got home from work at about 18.45 a couple of days ago, C told me she had to had to fill in (or is it “fill out”, now I’m “American”?) a form for a job application. It had to be done quickly, and we agreed that it would be best to do it electronically. That way it would be neat, legible (not that C’s writing is poor, quite the opposite) and correctable in case of error.

The form was a PDF file, but it didn’t have form fields built in, which would have allowed C to simply enter and edit her information. This is fair enough, I think. Many organizations have PDF creation tools, such as the Adobe PDF printer, and of course Mac and Linux systems have PDF printers built-in. Anyone can create a nice form in a word processor and create a PDF for distribution. But form fields require fancy tools to create, and as such they aren’t as common. Surely, I thought, surely there is software out there to add form fields? Surely there is a free or open-source package to do this?

(If you’re thinking, “But you can create forms with MS Word”, kindly leave.)

Google found me several possibilities.

pdftk – The PDF Toolkit

Command-line tool which looks very powerful from my brief glance at the man page. Can chop up PDFs, rotate pages, and much more, all from a command-line interface. But it doesn’t enable you to add form fields. You can complete them, by providing a text file containing your desired entries, but not create.


I tried Inkscape as a side-attempt, but it screwed up the fonts in the document. Inkscape is great, and well worth using and supporting. It’s an open-source vector graphics editor that uses SVG as its native format, but it can open, edit and save PDFs as well. I’ve used it for fun and flyers and stuff, but for this purpose, it wasn’t the tool I was looking for.


This turned out to be the one that saved us. PDFescape is an online, JavaScript powered, GUI-driven PDF editing system. You can create PDFs, edit and download them, or save them to your free account. And yes, you can add form fields, so that when you download the PDF, you can use Adobe Reader, Gnome Evince Document Viewer (the default Ubuntu PDF viewer), OSX Preview, or your PDF viewer of choice to enter your details, and then save or print the results.

It’s worth noting that Evince doesn’t work right when filling in fields. It doesn’t use the correct font size you set when creating the field, using instead a tiny sans-serif font. No good.

At first the process ran like this. I would open the PDF in PDFescape on my Ubuntu desktop PC downstairs, then use the clearly laid-out interface to add text fields and check boxes. I was able to save at regular intervals, and when I was ready, I downloaded a finished PDF to my Desktop, and then copied it to our shared folder on Dropbox, where we regularly swap files.

C would then open the PDF in Preview on her Macbook upstairs, finding various errors and problems with text size, placement and so on. So I would open the form again downstairs, make the edits, re-save and on it would go.

At one stage my PC froze, which it does from time to time if I don’t watch it. I think it may have been due to my moving the desk on its casters to plug the printer in – I find US power sockets very tenuous and wobbly. Not like the huge, proud, Imperial heel-crippling UK ones – that’s the spirit! Luckily, the PDF was saved on the PDFescape site, so nothing was lost. A quick reboot and re-login allowed me to continue.

One persistent error with the form fields caused the text entered in one field to be duplicated in another, somewhere else in the document. This was probably due to the moving, copying and pasting I was doing. I reported it as a bug anyway.

After a few loops of the edit-review cycle, we realized it would be easier to add the form fields and add the text at the same time, on my PC, with Cassie dictating the contents over my shoulder. So we did that, and eventually, at about 1.30 (yes, AM), we had a document that was completed and ready to print and sign.

Printing, yes…

I have a printer that I rarely use, an HP PhotoSmart 8050, which has worked well in the past, although the cartridges are of course excruciatingly expensive. I set it up, and a couple of test pages showed that it wasn’t printing right. I cleaned the cartridges, but that didn’t help. I think the 18 months and more that it has sat unused in the cupboard had meant that the ink in the cartridges had dried up. By a huge stroke of luck, I had one black and one color cartridge at the back of a drawer. I inserted them, ran the alignment, and all was running fine. We were able to print the PDF so that C could sign and date it.

This printer is pretty good, all told. But the cost, and drawbacks like this of rare use, have got me think about alternatives. I’ll post something about my thoughts later.

It was now nearly 2AM, and although we could have connected up my crappy USB-powered flatbed scanner, which would have another painful project, scanned the signed copy and emailed it, we were both dead on our feet. C said she would take it to a copy shop to fax it the next day.

Jensen’s Mail and Print up the hill from us charge $2 per page to fax a document. This of course is outrageous, and part of why they have consistently terrible reviews on Yelp. Not wanting to pay $20 to fax the 10 pages, C got them to scan the document. She emailed it home, and then found that some problem meant she couldn’t forward it to the person waiting for it. So she emailed it to me at work, to ask me to fax it.

The quality of the scan from Jensen’s was terrible, it looked like a bad fax. If I faxed that again, it would be doubly illegible. Eventually, C went to a Kinko’s, and they faxed the original. It was done!


All in all a pretty unpleasant experience. I looked around on the net for faxing alternatives. All the fax software you can get expects you to have a fax modem in your PC, which I don’t. There are services which will provide you with enterprise-level email-to-fax services, which allow you to email an attachment to a special email address, and have it pop out of your contact’s fax machine, complete with attachment. That would be ideal, but it would be nice to have a one-off service for situations like these. The available services are all $10 a month or thereabouts.

The Phone Company provide a free fax service, which allows you to send text messages from your email account, via a specially formed email address to any supported fax number. Because it’s a free service, not all numbers are supported, and you have to check first. Also, if you have to send non-text information, it has to be in a MIME attachment type, such as TIFF. Not so bad, but a bit labor-intensive. But free!

Ubuntu On The EeePC, Part 5 – It’s Alive

See also Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

With the recent release of Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope (the number means April 2009, and the name is an alphabetical progression – the last release was Intrepid Ibex, with Hardy Heron before it) I was able to grab the Netbook Remix version. This has a few extra bits and pieces to make working on a slower computer with a smaller screen more comfortable. My Asus EeePC fits this bill perfectly, it being a “child’s toy laptop for baby girls” according to Cassie, user of a creaking and lovingly browned Apple iBook G4.

My previous attempts to replace the OS on the netbook met with no success whatsoever. It seemed like there was a problem with the 4GB internal flash drive, which borked the install each time. I don’t know why I expected it to work this time. But it did! I downloaded the (frankly huge) IMG file, followed the clear and straighforward installation instructions, loaded the IMG onto my panda-shaped USB stick, and set it on it’s way. No errors on the drive, all fine. I restarted. Ubuntu loading screen!

One of the big sells for the Netbook Remix is the netbook launcher,  a configurable launcher program that fills the screen with a nice interface for your applications. But it seemed very slow on my box. Too slow to use, in fact. So on the advice of this page I switched it off and installed XFCE instead. That works nice and smoothly. Another good trick is the package maximus, which forces all windows to fill the screen. I like this, even when it blows up a small dialog with just ‘yes’ and ‘no’ buttons. With such a small screen, why bother showing 2 things at once? (This may well come back to bite me.)

To replace the launcher thing, I will install a keyboard launcher such as Launchy or Gnome-Do. I like to avoid the trackpad as much as possible, and plug in a mouse when I have to. Launchy is great on my desktop, and Mercury was fine on the original EeePC Xandros installation, but I want something more slick now, and I’m not tied down to the Xandros repositories any more.

I also removed OpenOffice because it’s quite a hefty suite, and this machine won’t be used for slide presentations, or databases. To replace Writer I installed Abiword, a much more lean but still high-functioning word processor which I can tap away on. To replace Calc I installed Gnumeric for the same reason. I don’t need to replace Impress, Draw or Base.

When I first tried it, the built-in webcam didn’t work, but a quick search told me to check the BIOS setting. I did and I found that it was disabled. I switched it on, tested it and it works fine with Cheese and Skype.

All looking good… then down to earth with a bump. When I tested the sound for Skype, I found that I couldn’t get the sound to work at all, not with music or video or anything. There are some bugs listed regarding this, so I’ll have to check those out later.

At least the damn thing boots into a usable interface now.

Rescued Geocities ‘Fry and Laurie’ Scripts

Taking a cue from Phil Gyford, I decided to take a punt on mirroring this Geocities site of out-of-print scripts from A Bit Of Fry And Laurie here. The previous link may well be dead soon, because Yahoo!, the owners of Geocities, will soon be shutting the place down.

The script site was last updated in 2000, so I think it’s safe to say that it is dormant. Of course, the copyright holders may have something to say, but they haven’t up til now. If there is a problem, please contact me and I will honour any takedown requests

I grabbed the site using this Windows version of that amazing web-grabbing tool wget, and it’s all there, warts and all. Some image links are dead, some URLs lead nowhere. Should I fix them, or leave them as they were?

I chose this site to rescue because I’ve always been a huge fan of Messrs Fry and Laurie, from their early days popping up on Blackadder (II onwards), Saturday Live, Happy Families, and so forth, and their bibliographies are pretty darn cool too. Being a British man living in California, I find it amusing to watch the sickeningly multi-talented Mr Laurie on House, and of course Mr Fry continues to be a true modern geek renaissance man. Heroes both.

Anyway, here it is, if I can get it to work.

Snoopy Home Button

You Make Me Feel Like A Technical Woman

This is my post for Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating Women in Technology, after my pledge to celebrate the inspiration and assistance that women have provided to me throughout my academic and professional careers.

When I was studying for my A-Level in Computer Science at Biddenham Upper School (formerly Pilgrim, don’t get me started, grumble grumble), the teacher was Ms Capon. It shames me to say I don’t know her full name, despite a quick search, or the proper honorific – every female teacher was “Ms” through sheer laziness I think. Ms Capon steered me through my coursework of creating a theatre ticket booking system, complete with seat booking interface, for the BBC Master System. I remember trying to convince her of the importance of having a good acronym title for the project in the style of V.I.N.CENT from The Black Hole. In this she was very tolerant, as she was when I would use my walkman to help concentrate in the programming lab. She was the first female computer geek I ever met.

The name Ada Lovelace is associated with this campaign, and it has particular significance for me in one small way. When studying at Manchester Polytechnic, one of the courses I took was Computer Programming Principles (or some such), and one of the languages we worked with (along with Modula-2, COBOL (!) and Smalltalk) was Ada. Designed for use with real-time applications such as missile guidance systems and safety-critical industrial processes, it was of course named after Ada Lovelace herself. It was a very interesting course, but after I left Manchester to study in High Wycombe, I never used Ada again, although the principles involved were of use in my early career as a PLC programmer.

In High Wycombe I continued working on my degree, and for my dissertation I did an investigation into image processing tools and principles, including writing code which would perform matrix convolution filters on a scanned image. My tutor for this exercise was … once again I am ashamed to say I have forgotten her name. Another classic computer geek. She was again very supportive, allowing me to plagiarize her QBASIC code for reading the scanner output to a raw TIFF file, which could then be filtered by my code (I used a scanned image of a friend’s roommate’s dog swimming in the dyke at the Rye). I will endeavour to find out the name – this is embarrassing. An indictment of the lack of recognition of women in technology? No, just of my Swiss-cheese brain.

A fellow student at High Wycombe also deserves a mention. Catherine was my roommate and my coursemate, and she helped me a great deal, with coursework, and with getting up on time. She got married several years ago, and we met a couple of times when I lived in London. I hope you’re well, Catherine, if you’re out there – I couldn’t have done it without you!

Bringing things up to date, I really should mention my good friend Mira, whom I miss a great deal. We’ve been friends for a long time, and she remains one of the most driven and articulate people I know, male or female. Her work with Virtual Learning Environments is fascinating, and she’s a big advocate for Open Source software such as Moodle. She’s the first person I know to have bought an e-book reader (not a Kindle!), we shared our experiences with Palm gadgets for a long time, and her intellectual and political curiosity (and sheer frequency of blog posting) put mine to shame. The breadth of her knowledge and expertise is amazing, and she always wants to know more. I guess the reason she qualifies for this post is that she wants to make the world a better place, in many different ways, but an overarching theme is that intelligence combined with technology can be a vital tool to achieving this. That’s why I look up to her.

Ubuntu On The EeePC, Part 4 – An Ending?

The story so far: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

After the events of Part 3, I went to CVS and bought a $14.99 1GB USB stick in the shape of a panda. I had a choice of panda, tiger, or frog, or SanDisk Cruser infected with U3, and of course I wanted to avoid that. Over the weekend I got it home, used gparted to format it to fat32 (painless), ran unetbootin to install the Easy Peasy ISO to it (also painless) and hit the EeePC.

I plugged the stick into the EeePC, turned it on, and hit ESC until the boot device menu came up. I selected the USB stick to be the boot device, the Easy Peasy logo came up, and the LiveCD install ran. Then it asked me a few questions like user name and timezone, then the install process began.

Then about about halfway through, I got this message:

The installer encountered an error copying files to the hard drive:

[Errno 5] Input/output error

This particular error is often due to a faulty CD/DVD disk or drive, or a faulty hard disk. It may help to clean the CD/DVD, to burn the CD/DVD at a lower speed, to clean the CD/DVD drive lens (cleaning kits are often available from electronics suppliers), to check whether the hard disk is old and in need of replacement, or to move the system to a cooler environment.

I tried reburning the ISO to the stick with unetbootin – same error, different percentage progress. I tried burning a different Ubuntu-on-the-EeePC ISO (Eeebuntu) to the stick, with the same result. I went back to Easy Peasy, with the same result, but a further percentage. I used the 4GB SD card in the side of the EeePC instead of the Panda drive to boot from, still no luck.

So what’s the frickin’ problem? Anyone?

Drop And Give Me One Hundred

Last week I started doing this One Hundred Push Ups program. It’s a plan to get doing up to 100 pushups in 6 weeks, with a clear plan and tests along the way. Why I should be inspired to do this, rather than just doing more exercise, I don’t know. I think the clear plan, with steady progress means it’s easy to follow and keep up with. I’m on the second week so far, and all seems to be going OK.

I know that “upper body strength” is never something I’ve had, or indeed aspired to. My single abortive effort at surfing is testament to that – all that paddling. And I’m not trying to get “built”, just a bit more active.

I’m tracking my progress through the plan here. Maybe if I manage this, I’ll try the Two Hundred Sit Ups plan. That way I may be able finally to decide between the two waist sizes I oscillate between.