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Happy New Year?

Living in the UK we have been blessed recently (well, last May), with a coalition Government between the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, and the Liberal Democrats, led by Nicholas Clegg.  This coalition came about because no party gained enough votes to hold an overall majority. I read this as meaning that the public who voted were not enamoured enough of the policies of any party to declare an outright winner. Unfortunately, they didn’t see it this way and have taken their ‘election’ (and I use this term in it’s loosest possible sense), as a direct mandate from the masses  – the 65% that turned out.

Since the coalition came in we have seen an assault on everyday working people and the country in general. How else could you explain the amazingly drastic cutbacks and changes that this government have so far implemented. Currently they are dismantling the National Health Service – despite the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, promising that there would be “ major top-down reorganisation of the NHS..”. They are expecting Doctors to manage the Health Service. Have they never heard of the ‘Peter Principle’?

I feel that people in the UK are not happy with what is happening at present. The cost of living is increasing dramatically, inflation is on the rise, fuel duties increase (fuel duty plus Value Added Tax means that 70% of every pound spent on fuel goes to the Treasury), squeezing the ‘middle earners’ and so on. Not to mention scrapping the Ark Royal and getting rid of all the Harriers (another issue).

Now they are talking about increasing interest rates to counter inflation. How does that work? I have already cut down on my heating (gas) and electricity usage. I buy less food – and that which I do buy tends to be own brand or cheaper. I have an allotment – so I grow some of my own food – as much as I can. I haven’t bought new clothes or furniture for many months, and don’t intend doing so. I don’t go out to pubs, clubs, theatre or cinema. I don’t drink that much at home. I eat a balanced, often vegetarian diet. I am selling my 2.0 litre car, and will not replace it. I bought a cheap bike from Tesco and will try to use that as much as possible. I have even cut my use of the washing machine down to once a week! Am I doing my bit?

Probably not – as part of the ‘Big Society’ looming on the horizon I will be expected to take a more active part in the community no doubt. Perhaps running a local play group, or the Library – if the Council hasn’t closed it down – as seems likely. May be sweeping the leaves from the pavements or providing grit in the next cold snap. Community policing maybe, or tending parks and gardens – all for no remuneration of course – except for the warm feeling that I am making the world a better place.

Makes me wonder if John Carpenter’s film ‘They Live!’ was a glimpse into the future. Pass me the sunglasses……….

Acer Revo R3610 and XP Adventures

I have just bought one of these little computers to use as a media centre – attached to my TV. It comes out of the box with a version of Linux on it named ‘Linpus’. I had never heard of this version before. It seemed quite user friendly when I booted it up however my main purpose in buying the machine was to play video files. So I put a file onto a USB stick and offered it up. The media player program started up, looked at the file and basically said that it couldn’t play it. Looking on the web, others say that Ubuntu is a better version of Linux to use. I have had a go at using SUSE and Red Hat in the past – all goes swimmingly until something goes wrong – then I have inevitably had to wipe the machine and install a Microsoft product again. I’ll keep trying though.

Not being the Linux expert I would like to be I thought I would try and put XP onto the machine, because I have used that for quite a few years. Problem is, as I have said, is that the computer doesn’t have an optical drive. This means that I had to try and install from a USB stick. I trawled the net to find out how to do this – and there’s a lot of info out there. First off I knew from experience that getting XP drivers for the machine was important. The machine uses an NVidia chipset, so I trawled their website to find the right ones. Then I had to find some other bits – like the wireless network driver. In case you are interested, here are the links: Graphics, Sound, Digital Audio, Motherboard,Wireless Network.

Then I got into the computer BIOS by pressing ‘Delete’ whilst the machine was booting and checked that the hard drive type was not set to ‘AHCI’ – because that causes problems. Then I changed the boot priority to the ‘removable drive’ – ie, the USB port. Now I had to make the USB boot stick. I chose a 4GB stick and looked on the web for instructions. After a few false starts (about 2 hours worth), I found this site which although not specifically about the revo, has the details that I needed. Making sure that I had my real copy of Windows XP Pro, I set about the task of making the stick.

It didn’t work – but I got farther than I had before. I kept getting messages like “ntldr missing” and “missing or corrupt hal.dll” . Looking through the files on the stick, I could see that these files were actually there – it was just that the machine didn’t seem to be able to find them. Having worked on computers for a little while I thought I would try moving the files to help the machine find them. There were two main folders on the stick ‘$WIN_NT$.~BT’ and ‘$WIN_NT$.~LS’. The latter one had all the files in it, whilst the former had only a few. I copied the contents of the latter into the former and tried again. Ho Ho – it worked! The boot process took quite a while – but then the install started.

It is important that when booting from this stick you do not remove it until the entire process has finished – that is until you can see the Windows desktop. Even through a few reboots. Then wait for a while and remove the stick. Incidentally, if  the machine tries to boot from the hard drive rather than the stick, press f12 as the machine boots to choose the boot menu. Then choose the stick.  If you have successfully downloaded the drivers listed above, you now use them to make the system happy. I found that the digital audio driver did not work until it was the last one to be loaded. Even then I had to go to Device Manager and choose to update the driver on the last yellow question mark – pointing it to where I had stored the files. Not untypical for XP.

After putting on a free antivirus product and VLC Media Player. I connected the thing to my TV and off I went. The only problem that I had was getting sound using the HDMI lead to connect to my HD TV.  Using the NVidia graphics control console soon sorted the screen out – I have it cloning – so I see the same on both screens (it sees the TV as two screens – one as a monitor, one as a TV). The ‘TV’ screen is HD when using the HDMI lead – but no sound. The ‘Monitor’ screen has sound – because I used a 3.5 jack connection into the TV.

Eventually solved it by using the Sound options in Control Panel to choose the NVidia Digital Sound as default rather than the Realtek. This means that it now comes through the HDMI lead but, you’ve guessed it, no sound on the ‘Monitor’ screen.  If I just use the ‘TV’ screen to control the computer, this isn’t a problem.

I can now watch HD files on the television, and use the internet to connect to various sites that broadcast TV – like the BBC iPlayer service. All seems to be working well. It’s just a shame that I don’t watch that much TV. Still – it’s the challenge of the new – and I like to keep up with technology. I’ll think about that.

Violent Earth

I realised a while ago that most of the places that I wanted to go to on our planet had quite a lot of volcanic activity. Don’t know why – just turned out that way. Then I found the IRIS Seismic monitor website. Wow! If you want to see how things are going – have a look for yourself. I find it fascinating (perhaps I should get out more). Website is here. By the way – it’s snowing here in the UK at the moment. The most snowfall we have had at this time for 17 years it seems. Are things changing?

Harking Back to Better Times

In the UK we currently have a spate of historically based TV programmes. Is it odd that in a upcoming ‘Time of Austerity’ TV producers are seemingly prepared to remind us all that a simpler life in the past was better? There is even a new version of that old staple of TV re-runs ‘The Good Life’ from the 70’s. Mind you – this new version is barely watchable – concentrating primarily on the personalities of the presenters rather than the substance of the content. In fact, I only managed to watch the first two programmes.

Another programme tries to recreate a series of high street shops from different eras in UK history. This could have been good. It’s not for two reasons. The first is that the time given for each of the ‘eras’ is only a week (must take a while to change each shop ready for the next era), and the second is the ‘Chamber of Commerce’ – a group of people who seem to be a bit like the ‘Dragon’s Den’ panel – who stroll into the High Street dispensing opinions and problems in equal measure. I watched two of these as well. I have given up now. Then – there is ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘The Edwardian Farm’.

I think that there is a lot of looking back with rose-tinted spectacles going on here. Times were better in the old days – for a very few. For the majority life was not so good. Disease was rife, money was short and living conditions could be very harsh. Things were not better for your ‘average’ person. I am glad that I was born into this time, in this country. That last is also an important factor – because there are places in the world where it is not much fun to be alive and where disease is still rife, money is very short and living conditions remain very harsh. So if you are warm, have shelter, aren’t hungry and no one is abusing you, these are the better times.

Overuse of Plastics and Rampant Consumerism

Whilst expending time and fuel taking a load of plastic containers to the recycling point yesterday I was pondering on how many other people do the same? I make a point of collecting all plastic bottles, trays and food containers that we use. It is very surprising just how much there is – given that there are only two people in my house now. If I just threw all of that stuff in the bin it would end up in landfill – but what if I had no choice? I have the means to recycle this stuff, but I am sure that there are many people who are in situations where this is impracticable – and their plastic ends up in the bin.

It seems that there are two ways in which the situation can be eased – one is to cut down on the amount of plastics used by the supermarkets (let’s be honest – most of us shop in them), the other is for Local Authorities to collect plastics for recycling along with the other stuff which is collected. I understand that some Authorities do this – but my city, for example, doesn’t, and it’s a big city. Not all ‘biodegradable’ plastics degrade easily it seems – have a look here. This is an important consideration.

At some future time I think our descendants will be amazed at our society – and the way that we have let things slip before we tried to pull back from the edge. The push to make us all consume more and more is great – and even now we tend to be suckered into believing that we actually NEED the latest add on, gadget or thing. A lot of electronic items now come in cardboard packaging – which perhaps seems ‘greener’, but what about the energy needed to actually make the thing? That’s another issue.

Back to plastics. Could supermarkets cut back on the amount of plastic that they use? Could they change the type of plastics to really biodegradable ones? I think the answer to both of these questions is ‘yes’. Better still would be for the ‘consumer’ (hate that word) to choose to shop elsewhere. Is it really fun wandering around an aircraft hangar sized shop wheeling a trolley the size of a small car? If it is, then why do people fondly think of times when there were true high streets full of individual shops, and personal service was the thing? Things tended not to be wrapped in plastic either!

Inveterate Collector

I collect things. I wish I could say that the things I collected increased in value as the years go by – but I can’t. I tend to collect technological type stuff. One of my vices over the years has been the urge to record. I was the kid who had the reel to reel tape recorder with the mike propped up against the TV speaker to record episodes of ‘The Champions’ and ‘The Persuaders’ because they seemed so good at the time that I just wanted to keep them. Watching a re-run on TV a few weeks ago indicated quite clearly to me just how wrong I was. Some remnants of these recordings are still hanging around somewhere. I found an old reel to reel tape in the attic a few months ago, and I know that the reel to reel recorder is up there somewhere as well. What are the chances of it working after 35+ years?

I moved on to audio cassette recordings, then video recordings, flirting briefly with formats such as  ‘U Matic’, ‘Phillips 2000′ and ‘Betamax’, before settling on VHS. Onto CD for audio and games, then DVD for audio, games, TV programmes and films – and suddenly realised that I had amassed a lot of self recorded material, taking up a great deal of space. This is in addition to all the stuff that I had bought – on lots of formats. More stuff in fact that I could listen to watch or play in two lifetimes. I’ve even got DVDs still in their original cellophane covers – never having been opened. The other day I found that I have two copies of ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ – and I don’t know why. I have a complete box set of Series Three of ‘Six Feet Under’ (a TV programme I have never watched) – and I don’t even know where that came from!

Don’t get me started on ‘free’ discs that are given away with magazines. I subscribed to several computer mags for quite a few years and kept all of the discs – mostly CDs, but in the latter years they started to give away DVDs as well – and some of those were double sided. Anyway – I have boxes and boxes of these things – many of which are designed for Windows XP, 98 and 95. Some even for DOS (yes, I go back quite a way).

I have been ‘having a clear out’. All of my self recorded VHS and audio tapes have been consigned to the bin. I tried to give them away – free – but no-one wanted them – not even on Free Cycle. I transferred the films of my kids when they were young and some other important stuff to DVD.

I gave most of my commercially recorded tapes to charity shops a while ago – which they accepted grudgingly. Apparently no one wants them any more. I must admit that I still have two boxes in the attic which I am finding it hard to release. I remember watching ‘Pingu’ and several other things with my children – and I can’t quite bring myself to throw these tapes. I have gone from over 300 tapes of various type down to less than 20. They will go to – eventually. It’s the discs next – there must be well over 2000 of these in various guises. I’m resisting the urge to buy Blu-Ray discs – although I do have a player now. I joined a rental club that means that I don’t have to keep the discs. But there lies another problem. Sometimes I have the disc at home for two or more months – and then send it back unwatched. Where’s the sense in that?

What a good little Consumer I have been over the years. My last two DVD players are, you’ve guessed it by now, in the attic. Even the old VHS player is loitering up there. Perhaps they hold sullen conversations with the older but no wiser Reel to Reel Tape Recorder? No, that’s just silly.

The Actual Allotment

I really do have an allotment. I was there only yesterday. As I live in the UK the clocks have just ‘gone back’ to allow us lighter times in the mornings – but this means that the evenings draw in very quickly. On my allotment the grass is still making a determined effort to take over. I have some grass paths to split things up, and this makes it easier to walk on in the winter – but needs constant maintenance. As well as trimming the grass with my rechargeable electric strimmer I was taking down the last of the runner beans and picking the remaining produce.

I have a lot of chillies (again) – I need to look up what variety they are. I still have a carrier bag of cayenne peppers in the freezer from last year – can’t seem to use them up! I will invent some kind of preserve this time I think. I made up something I called ‘Tiger Preserve’ last year – involving chillies and ginger. Very hot! I also have a lot of ordinary bell peppers and some nice long sweet red peppers named ‘Frigatella’. I was thinking of drying those and preserving them in oil. Also brought back some carrots, beetroot, french parsley and butternut squash. Also the last of another type of squash – looks like a dumpy flying saucer. The celeriac, parsnips and leeks are doing well.

I need to go back and finish tidying up – the grass is still winning at the moment. That’s the problem with the strimmer – it runs down quite quickly. I would go today – but it’s just started raining, and the forecast isn’t good. Besides which, I’ve promised to take my Mum shopping – she can’t get out by herself and so I usually do her shopping for her. Sometimes she likes to come with me – along with her portable oxygen tank. Ho Hum.

Movember Again

I can’t believe that it’s two years since I first mentioned Movember – and here it is again!! I’m not doing it myself this year – but if you are interested – have a look here. I realise that I have been lax in not posting – but a lot seems to have been happening both in my life and in the world. I will try to be more regular.

Rising Fuel Costs

I’ve been trying really hard recently – making sure that things are turned off when not needed. I’ve even been scrabbling under my desk to make sure that my computer, and all the periphery around it, are turned off at the wall. In the UK – which is where I am, all the Power Companies are eager for you to switch to them. I did a while ago when British Gas increased prices once again. Now on a fixed price tariff which I manage online. I can even see graphs of my usage – and it was decreasing. Fine.

Yesterday – a letter arrives telling me that my direct debit payment is increasing by £31.00 per month! I remembered something about companies and cashflow – and I found this on the BBC News website.

I’m not happy about this – especially when the wholesale price of oil has dropped dramatically recently (and we were told that the former high price of crude was one of the reasons for increasing prices). I’m sure that I am not alone in thinking that someone somewhere is making a lot of money on this. I know it’s not me!

Friend Surfing in Facebook

It’s quite surprising just how far you can get friend surfing in facebook. Many people do not alter their privacy settings and by clicking on ‘friends’ of friends you can often glean interesting and not so interesting things about them. Just as well that I’m not a stalker or out to rip people off – ‘cos it wouldn’t be that hard…

The other thing that amazes me is just how personal some of the stuff posted up on there is. Do people think that the anonymity of the keyboard and screen stops it being personal? Some seem to live their lives on facebook. Also, many of the pictures that people post are of them in situations where they are ‘having a good time’ – which seems to consist of being rather the worse for wear, having had ‘one over the eight’ – or eighteen in some cases. How about the situation where you hold a fairly responsible position and you post up pictures of yourself drunk? I’ve seen it happen. How about your kids seeing you that way? Also a bit worried about younger people putting themselves up – complete with photos. There are a lot of predators on the web.