Archive for the 'freebies' Category

The Maths in the City competition is open today

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Join Marcus du Sautoy on a mathematical adventure in the city. Enter our competition and you could win great prizes including a subscription to Nature and even naming a mathematical object.

Open to all ages, competition entries need to show:
•    an interesting example of maths in the urban environment, or
•    a clear explanation of some maths you see in your city, or
•    a great way of demonstrating your mathematical idea on the streets.

Entries will become part of a virtual mathscape of cities around the world.  And finalists will be invited showcase their entry at an event in Oxford and meet Marcus du Sautoy.

Anyone is welcome to enter the competition, you can either enter individually or in a group, and the stories can come from any city in the world.

Tell us your favourite stories of maths in the city by visiting

The competition runs until noon 3 May 2011.

Marcus du Sautoy points up and mathematicians look up

Marcus du Sautoy and his mathemagicians

Switching from Windows to Ubuntu

Monday, January 11th, 2010

So, after a long time grumbling about how Windows gives me hassle, I’ve switched to Ubuntu on my work PC.

I had originally planned to dual boot both WinXP and Ubuntu whilst I figured out stuff like Active Directory domain membership, but in the end I got so fed up of Windows getting in my way, one day I just decided to switch. (Our IT team recognises that the developers in our group need administrator access to setup our tools and servers so, on the understanding that we don’t put our machines or the network at risk, we’re allowed fairly free reign.)

It took a while to get set up as I like it, but I think I’m there – so here’s a little overview…

NB: I’ve had only a little exposure to Windows Vista (where I found the continual “security” confirmation dialog boxes incredibly annoying), and to Windows 7 (where the window tiling function looks genuinely useful), so maybe MS have these newer versions of Windows would compare better than XP does.

What’s good?

  • I’ve installed (and use) software for web site browsing, word processing, vector drawing, image editing, version control, remote access sessions, programming, time tracking, and countless utilities – all with a few clicks from the built-in repositories (at zero purchase cost). The wealth of software available is amazing, for which the free software community is justifiably proud, and has my admiration and thanks 🙂
  • Easy access to remote files. I can browse Windows shares (without needing AD integration), and even better, I can browse our Linux servers via SSH (really not very pleasant on WinXP), all integrated with the Gnome desktop via Nautilus.
  • Virtual desktops – I’m amazed that Windows still doesn’t support this. I know there are hacks and 3rd party extensions, but the ones I’ve tried were rubbish in comparison to Gnome’s default configuration.
  • Using VirtualBox virtual machines I can use multiple versions of IE in virtual machines, and my old suite of Windows apps if I have to handle proprietary file types.
  • Software updates are smooth and rarely interrupt me.
  • Startup and shutdown are a lot quicker than Windows, never leaving me with x updates to install before the machine will shutdown (which is good as I like to switch off the machine at the socket).
  • No slowdowns due to a virus scanner.
  • All the little things which seem to happen because of Free Software. Simple useful integration that just works, like that Nautlius’ file property dialog shows size and codec information for media files.

What’s bad?

  • Evolution is supposed to be able to connect to MS Exchange for email and calendars, which it sort of does – unfortunately the MAPI connector doesn’t seem to work at all, and the Webmail connector is slow and tends to disconnect often. It’s ok for light use but, if I’ve got a lot of mail to deal with, I’ll often open Windows in a virtual machine and run Outlook.
  • doesn’t have seamless compatibility with MS Office files (arguably Microsoft’s fault).
  • Connections to Windows file shares have crashed on occasion.
  • The video is a little unstable, crashing very occasionally, but I’m chalking that one up to the Nvidia closed-source binaries. I’m glad that Nvidia provide a driver at all, but believe they’d end up with a better product if they were more open-friendly.
  • The task switcher (ALT+tab) is slow if desktop visual effects are on. This used to be fine, and I guess it’s the Nvidia driver disagreeing with the kernel about something.
  • A few cosmetic issues like notifications appearing at the wrong position.
  • There are other areas I’ve bumped against at home that are also worth a mention: The lack of decent video editing software, the ongoing transition to PulseAudio/JACK for regular/pro audio use. These aren’t a problem at work though.

Overall I’m happy – my day to day workflow is much smoother, and – at risk of becoming a FLOSS advert – I get warm fuzzies from following the progress being made in various parts of the Free Software environment – like a non-destructive editing version of GIMP, desktop activity awareness, local map applications, pro audio –  there’s too much to mention it all! 🙂

Maps on the internet

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

It used to be difficult to get good quality maps on a website – or at least long-winded and expensive finding them and purchasing a license, or clearing copyright.

In these Web 2.0 days it’s easy to get a good looking map on your website, and I’ve just done that for Vikings: raiders, traders and settlers (one of the 25+ online courses we’re running this term).

We provide simple maps with settlements marked and annotated, as well more complicated maps with tools to investigate the languages from which town names are derived, and detailed exploration of a town’s heritage of defense against the vikings 1000 years ago – still visible today!

Visit the Vikings maps pages to explore and learn about notable viking settlements through text, video and panoramic images, all linked up using the Google Maps API,, and PanoSalado.

Photoshop on the web

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Adobe have released a Flash-based photo editing site Photoshop Express. The functionality is limited, and similar to other products like Picnik. Will probably be useful for casual snappers, but isn’t going to replace Photoshop or the GIMP.

Linux pretending to be Windows

Monday, March 17th, 2008

My housemate has user account on my Ubuntu laptop, which she mainly uses for browsing the web. Last night I noticed that the online poker game she was playing wasn’t browser-based, but an MS Windows application.

This made me a little nervous at first, as I believe those sort of downloads are a major vector for malware, but as a) the site looked reasonably respectable, and b) I suspect that running Windows malware in an unprivileged account in Linux is less dangerous than running it on Windows – I figure it was probably safe.

But how was this Windows poker program running on Linux in the first place? I had already installed WINE, a Windows compatibility layer, to try and run Populous: The Beginning, and when my housemate downloaded and ran the installer program, it Just Worked – she hadn’t even realized anything special had happened.

Getting Populous to run hasn’t been so easy (I’m still working on it), but well done to everyone at the WINE project for a great system!

Copyright infringement is different from theft

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Although the media industries like to confuse copyright infringement with theft*, it’s not the same thing. The Los Angeles Times has a nice article covering the subject: File ‘sharing’ or ‘stealing’?.

* For instance, the annoying would you steal… trailers, at the start of DVDs.
Whilst on the subject, the fact that you cant skip these messages about not viewing the DVD on an oil rig, etc. is a fine example of DRM – which should be enough reason for anyone to conclude that DRM is a Bad Thing.

Have you thought about your thoracic cavity today?

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

UC Berkely is releasing videos of course lectures on YouTube (including Integrative Biology 131 – Lecture 05: Skeletal System) .

I don’t think there is anything particularly amazing about this from a pedagogical point of view, as it is just standing in front of a big room with chalk and talk – you could probably get the same facts from a text book. It’s reasonable to expect that lecturers can be more engaging and give more insight than studying a text book alone – but not necessarily true.

The most value here is in widening participation – these lectures could reach a lot of people. Combined with other online resources like Wikipedia, they can be used for learning with far less commitment (e.g. in time and money) than enrolling on an actual course.

Spread the knowledge 🙂