Archive for August 2008

Goodbye OU & thanks!

After over 7½ years at the OU, today is my last day. Still hasn’t quite yet sunk in that I’m leaving, or that in only 2 weeks time I’ll be beginning my placement in Ethiopia.

I’ve really enjoyed working here, in IET, KMi and on the OpenLearn team, have learnt loads and have met lots of great people.

Also thanks for all your generosity in donating to VSO to help with the work they’re doing – very close to reaching my fundraising target now :-)

I’ll be making sure that I keep my blog up to date so you’ll be able to keep track of how things are going, so keep in touch and there’s an open invitation if you fancy a holiday in Ethiopia!


Mozilla Labs have just launched the Ubiquity plugin for Firefox and to me it looks fantastic. The plugin makes it really easy to embed a map say into an email – without all the faffing around of cutting and pasting URLs from Google Maps into emails etc – it also does much more than this – but I’ve only just started to play!

Even though I’m not generally one for command-line type interfaces, this one works for me. Will be interesting to see how many developers jump on this to create new commands. I can see how you might want to add an IM command (for MSG of course) or one for Cohere. Also, how will this affect some other Firefox plugins, for example if Delicious wrote a set of commands for this (maybe they already have?) then would you really need the Delicious Firefox plugin?

Learning Languages

Realising the other day that I don’t even know what Amharic or Tigrinya sound like when spoken I’ve now found a few learn Amharic videos on YouTube… the one below gives some basic phrases to use whilst shopping or eating out:

Though not sure I’ll ever be able to pronounce ‘… ligezaw ifeligalehugn’ (meaning ‘I would like to buy…’)!

The LOJSociety has posted up several more Amharic instruction videos which I’ll start to try and learn.

Unfortunately I’ve not found any videos for learning Tigrinya, though I did find out that Tigrinya and Amharic do use the same script/alphabet (Ge’ez) – but unsure yet if that actually makes things any easier or not!

If anyone has any pointers to videos of how to learn Tigrinya, then please pass them on.

Clouds cast shadows

Like many people, I’ve been gradually moving towards using web based apps and keeping my data ‘in the cloud’ (e.g. GMail, Remember The Milk, Google Docs etc). This is despite the occasional report of problems, such as having your GMail account deleted – I’ve basically been thinking that this would never happen to me.

Well, you may have seen my posting the other day about being banned from Google Groups. This is still unresolved – despite sending a number of emails to Google support – and has made me much more wary about my ongoing usage of these types of services.

I do realise that these are ‘free’ services (though Google does generate huge profits) , so maybe shouldn’t expect too much, but I would at least expect to have received notification that I was being banned and the reasoning behind it – as far as I know I’ve not knowingly done anything wrong. I appear to be blocked from accessing all Google Groups using my GMail account – including groups I’ve never visited before – which is contrary to the message I receive which says that the group administrator has blocked me.

My main problem with all this is that fact that I am now the administrator of 3 Google Groups which I am unable to access (and I’m the only administrator for each) – so now I’m unable to prevent other users signing up and posting inappropriate messages.

I wonder how many more times my experience will be repeated for other users before Google does anything about it… but with 08 Q2 profits at $1.25bn they probably won’t care too much.

CD/DVD read/writing on the Asus Eee

A few days ago I ordered myself this external USB powered CD/DVD for taking away with me so at least I’ll be able to watch films (and backup my data!) on my Asus Eee.

It arrived earlier today and I’ve just been having a play (if you can play with a DVD drive!), all appears to be working fine so far- I was unsure that the USB ports would have enough power for the drive, but fortunately they do ;-)

The only slight problem I’ve found is that when playing a film I can’t get to the main menu screen for the DVD, so I can’t change the language/subtitles or get to the ‘extras’. Though I suspect this may be more to do with the Totem Movie Player than the drive itself – if anyone knows any different, or has a way around this, then please let me know!

Until then I’ll only be able to watch ‘The Bunker’ in directors commentary mode and ‘Shaun of the Dead’ dubbed in Russian.

4 weeks to go… (very scary!)…

It’s now only 4 weeks until I’ll be flying off to Ethiopia – my flight details arrived this week. I also now have only 2 weeks (till end Aug) left working at the OU, I’ve been at the OU for over 7 years and don’t think it’s sunk in yet that I’m actually going , though having the flight details makes everything somewhat more real!

I’ve just come back from my final VSO training course at Harborne Hall, “Training Skills”. Peter, who I met on my first VSO course (“Preparing to Volunteer”), was also on the course and by coincidence, him and his wife are the same Ethiopian town I’m going to (Mekelle/Mek’ele/Mekele/Makelle or various other spellings!) – and I met a couple of the other volunteers who’re going to Ethiopia (there are 24 of us altogether going in Sept).

I found the training skills course to be the least intensive of the 3 VSO courses I’ve been (only one day where the course ran till 8pm), but was fun and I learnt a lot nonetheless – possibly because it was the course I was most prepared for and had a better idea of what to expect. The best aspect for me was getting to practice running training sessions. We had a very short practice session of 10 mins, then a longer one of 25 mins, each time training the other course participants. The others in my group ran courses in… ‘What is communication advocacy’, ‘How does school self-evaluation fit into the school development cycle’, ‘How to measure pulse’, and ‘The ethics of corporate sponsorship’ – so a wide spectrum of topics!

Mine was different again, I did a session on how to create a blog (2 blogs successfully created: here and here). It’s been long time since I’ve had to train a group of people in front of computers so had forgotten about the different speeds at which people work and how difficult it can be keeping them engaged if they’re waiting for me to answer someone else’s query before I get to them (and I only had 4 people to train!).

My remaining worry about my placement at the moment is how I’m going to train people in IT with unreliable power and internet connections, and how I can do IT training without computers – if anyone can point me at some good resources for this then they’d be most gratefully received ;-)

Google Groups grrr…

Just been to visit the “IT Volunteers in Ethiopia” group that I set up the other week, only to find that I get the message “The owner of this group has banned you from this group. “:

So apparently I’ve banned myself from the group :-/ (not quite sure how I would’ve managed that- or why!)

Then if I try to return to the groups homepage, I get “Forbidden Your client does not have permission to get URL / from this server”:

*but* if I then log out of my Google account, I’m able to see the group and I have permission to get to the Groups homepage…

Simple as Pie

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that I’ve added a ‘VSO feeds’ section to the side bar. I wanted to be able to aggregate feeds from other VSO volunteers to show on my site, unfortunately the RSS widget built into WordPress won’t aggregate feeds for you – you’d need to create a new wdiget for each feed – not really what I wanted.

However, I did find the SimplePie Plugin for WordPress which has done exactly what I needed and was very straightforward to get up and running. The display is all done via templates and is very configurable. The only (very small) niggle that I have is that you need to specify the feed urls in the code, rather than in the WordPress admin pages, e.g.

echo @SimplePieWP(array(

      ), array(
     'items' => 10,
     'date_format' => 'j M Y',
     'truncate_item_description' => 100

At the moment I’m only showing feeds from 3 blogs, but if you have a feed that you’d like me to add then please send it on.

Rather unfortunately the blogging system that VSO uses ( doesn’t provide RSS feeds of the postings (!) – though it does provide an email subscription service. So there are several other blogs I’d like to include in my aggregator which would be very relevant, e.g. Julian Bass’s blog, but I can’t until vso-stories provides an RSS feed factility :-(

When doesn’t “removeelement” remove an element?

When you’re trying to use XUL. I’ve just been working on enhancing the Cohere Firefox plugin/extension/add-on so that you can optionally show a toolbar, this toolbar will also show the ideas from Cohere which are linked to the webpage you’re currently looking at (quick screengrab below):

Anyway, getting back to my original point, I needed to be able to dynamically change this drop down list whenever you browse to another page, or select another tab. Getting my plugin to go off and query the Cohere webservice to find the relevant ideas all worked fine, the problem I had was being able to remove the current items from this drop down list.

The documentation seemed to show that I can use ‘removeelement’ to remove the element from the list by setting the removeelement attribute to true (though does seem to be bit of an odd way to do things – setting an attribute to remove an element), but it didn’t work and I spent a little while figuring out why .

In the end it turned out that setting the removeelement attribute to true only means that the element is removable, so you can create the following:

<menulist id="menulist">
    <menupopup id="menupopup">
        <menuitem label="my label" value="a value" removeelement="true"/>

but the item “my label” will appear in the drop down list, to actually remove the item you need to do something like this in your javascript:

var ilist = document.getElementById('menupopup');
for (var i=0; i<ilist.childNodes.length;i++ ){

Thought I’d post it up here as it confused me and might save others struggling to figure out what’s going on ;-)