Archive for April, 2009


Grey Screen of Death


Today I was taking part in an online presentation from Dr. Simon Ball of JISC TechDis; one of his regular HE updates.  They use an online presentation system known as Instant Presenter to deliver the presentations on a roughly quarterly basis and they last for about half an hour.  A genuine whistle-stop tour.

I connected to the specified URL in Firefox as usual and the presentation session kicked into life as usual.  However about three or four minutes from the end my screen went grey.  Totally grey!  I couldn’t Alt-Tab, turn caps lock on, or do anything to get a response out of my PC.  The audio from the presentation however did still continue to come through.  It was this that makes me think that it was probably some flash component having a bit of a panic.

I haven’t been able to reproduce it or find anything in any of the logs, but it certainly made a strange difference to the ususal blue screen of death and at least it was considerate enough to let me listen to the remainder of the presentation.  Unfortunately it meant I had to just cut out at the end and pass on my apologies to Dr. Ball by e-mail from my phone whilst I stared my lovely grey screen of death (gsod) or is it more a grey screen of coma?


PBWiki Devoured


When I’m asked about setting up a new wiki for a group, I often recommend PBWiki as it has a number of good features and for education it can be used for free.  Since I work within the HE sector this is a simple and quick solution for many of the cross-institutional groups and many people are familiar with it.

I was surprised a few days ago however that it is changing its name.  Apparently to reflect the fact that it is more than just a wiki.  For more information you can check out the story on the Daily Peanut – PB Wiki’s blog.

There’s a competition to guess the name and as yet I haven’t managed to crack this peanut.  I thought a search of domain names on whois might yield a common address or owner, but no such luck.  My only guess so far is given its wider nature and American source, it might be something like Peanut Butter and Jelly collaboration platform (PBJCP).


Excel – Dynamic Named Range


I’ve recently been helping some colleagues develop some reporting templates and they had a very particular requirement around drop down lists (which I’ll probably post about at some point in the future).  One issue that did occur however was that the dynamic lists that were incorporated into the workbook were added to and even though I had mentioned to the users about using Excel’s name manager to redefine the range of cells with that name, they forgot and inevitably the workbook would end up back with me to rectify.

Use name manager to define the dynamic range

Use name manager to define the dynamic range

I decided that I’d try and find a way of defining a range so that it would automatically extend itself when another cell entry was added to the bottom of the list.  It turned out to be more straight forward than I’d initially thought it might be.  The statement below sets a range that will begin at cell “A2” on worksheet “Sheet1” and extend down for the number of cells that contain a text entry.  It assumes that the list is unbroken and that the top cell is the name of the list (hence the -1after the “COUNTA”). Whilst the name is not essential I include it as having the name of the list in the top cell allows me to prgramatically carry out list operations by referencing the top cell in a column.


Example list

Example list

The screen shot on the right shows a sample list of colours that has a range defined by using the function above.  A drop down list is automatically populated from this list and is shown in cell B2.


The Gadget Show Live 2009

The Gadget Show Live 2009

The Gadget Show Live 2009

Unfortunately due to illness it’s taken me a couple of extra days to put this together, but at the weekend I attended The Gadget Show Live (GSL) at the NEC, Birmingham.  The Gadget Show is a UK television programme shown on Channel 5.  Each series has a weekly show and it showcases new technologies and compares leading products against one another.  it’s usually a good watch and the journalistic comparison is presented at a layman level and at the same time tends to offer some insightful points on practicalities of individual items.

Inside GSL

Inside GSL

My expectation of GSL was that I would get to see some of the latest consumer technology and maybe even get a hands on look at some of it.  The reality however did not quite match up to my expectations.  There were some notable exceptions which I’ll come on to, but in the main much of the technology that I saw were things that I could walk into my local electronics store or along the high street and purchase.  It really wasn’t as cutting edge as I’d hoped.

There were some interesting things that I did come across at GSL which I hope to post about at a later date.  But there are a couple of things that I feel deserve a more special and immediate mention.

Sony OLED Details

Sony OLED Details

OLED Screen

OLED Screen

The big thing that people seemed blown away by was in fact something very small.  Sony had a couple of OLED screens on display.  OLED stands for organic light emitting diode and is a technology that is going to lead the way over the next few years in terms of screens.  Apart from producing better colour contrast than LCD with a lower power usage, they can be laid onto a thin surface allowing OLED screens to be placed on materials and surfaces that might not be able to take the weight of an LCD unit or that would simply be impractical (a fabric wrist strap for a watch might be a good example).

The screens on display looked okay from a distance, but when you got up close the quality was evident.  The colour was really very rich and incredibly clear.  Unfortunately at over £3,000 these are a little too expensive for most consumers, though the price is set to drop dramatically in the next few years and hopefully we’ll start seeing larger screens appearing too.

What will be really interesting to see is how this is utilised for portable touch screens such as those on the iPhone or how about a roll-out mat that you plug into a screenless ultra-mobile device to run Microsoft Surface.  The future is looking cooler and geekier every day.

How-To with TechDigest

How-To with TechDigest

The second thing I thought was particularly noteworthy was the “How-To” sessions run by TechDigest.  I originally dropped by to sit in on a panel discussion around the future of mobile phones but a shuffle in timetabling meant that I also sat in on ‘How to choose and HDTV’ session.  Both sessions were lead by Daniel Sung (TechDigest’s Editor) and were really quite interesting and informative.  The mobile phone session was supposed to have Richard Warmsley of T-mobile, but for an undisclosed reason he didn’t make it – so the panel consisted of Daniel Sung, Duncan Geere (TechDigest Editoral Assistant) and a guy from Geek Squad whose name I unfortunately can’t recall (but he was a good addition).

The general thrust of the future of phones was suggested to be around services and particularly around functionality delivered through application stores.  The arguments for this were well reasoned and the pitch was very much like a round the water cooler discussion which was one of the things that really made this session appeal to me.

I also came away with a 1 GB flash drive with details from all of the how-to sessions.  A nice and much appreciated touch – so thanks to TechDigest for that.

So that’s my uber brief round-up of some of the best and whilst it didn’t live up to my personal expectations, it was certainly a lot more relaxed that the “ICT trade shows” I’ve been to for work.  Hopefully I’ll post a few more bits and pieces about GSL in the not too distant future.


The TED Interface


I recently came across a site called TED. It’s a web site for the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference.  The web site itself has a showcase of videos clips from conference speakers and is worth a look.  The thing I want to quickly post about however is something I think is quite innovative … an interface I’ve not seen anywhere else (yet).

TED.COM - Image Cloud

TED.COM - Image Cloud

The TED home page displays a set of images based upon criteria selected in the page’s left hand list.  The images are stills from different videos that are available to view from the site.  The size of the image is relative to the other images and is based upon the selection criteria – e.g. “the most popular technology videos” would have the most popular video identified by the biggest still image.  This is really just like an image version of  a tag cloud (see the categories section in the right column of this blog).  Many tag clouds give a precise indication when hovering on a link (e.g. number of occurrences), but this “image cloud” pops up an information box and displays the image at a standard size in the box – which helps see the smaller images.

I’ve not seen one of these before, but I can imagine that it will become more prevalent in the not so distant future.


Basic Plain Old Phone Ring Tone


This post has now been migrated to

Follow this link to go directly to the article


Download YouTube Video


youtube-saveI deal with a fair few academics and if there’s one thing they love about the Internet and the World Wide Web it’s YouTube and the vast resources it offers.  Giving multimedia presentations is obviously a great way of getting people engaged, but an issue is that when visiting an institution you can’t always guarantee that you will have access to the Internet so being able to download a video from YouTube is a huge benefit.

I was asked how to do this recently and I directed the user to a bookmark (/’bookmarklet’) I occasionally use for just such a task.  I use it from within Firefox whilst on a YouTube page and then simply click the bookmark on my toolbar to initiate the download.  Unfortunately WordPress doesn’t allow me to embed the Javascript for the bookmark directly into a link in this post, so you’ll either have to copy and paste the following into your bookmark location/URL…


… or visit the original source for this little gem, as the credit for the bokmark wizardry goes to a post on the Google Operating System blog.

I would urge anyone using this to pay attention to the terms and conditions of use of YouTube and at the very least credit YouTube and whoever created the original content in whatever academic presentation it might be used in.


Overlaid Text Display Problem


I came across a bizarre issue today in Microsoft Word. A user had a document containing a set of information laid out in a tabular format where the text in each cell was being condensed and overlaid so that the text was all being placed one character on top of another. The image shown here illustrates how “Hello world” looks when the characters are overlaid one on top of another.


Plain text and all the letters on top of one another

Copying and pasting the text out of a cell into the main body did not resolve the overlay issue.  Pasting the text into notepad did however prove that the text was indeed intact.  Therefore the issue was something that related to lay out.

There were no style or formatting settings that seemed to affect the character spacing in the way I expected so I then tried changing the font.  Originally it was set to Times New Roman, but changing it to another font restored the text to a legible format.  Changing it back to Times New Roman again incurred the overlay issue.  This suggested a font corruption.

I also tried adjusting the size of the text.  It then turned out that any size other than 12 pt resulted in the text being disaplyed correctly.  So anything but Times New Roman 12 pt was displayed correctly.

I had a quick look at the font file (found in the fonts applet in control panel in Windows XP) and the 12 pt size loked okay which suggested that it was something else affecting the way in which Word was laying it out on the page.  The page layout view was being used and this is built from the parameters of the current printer driver.

I changed the printer from the network HP printer located a few desks away to a CutePDF printer … and lo and behold the text appeared as normal.  I set it back to the HP printer and the overlay issue returned.  It seems a corruption in the printer driver was causing the issue.

I deleted the HP printer and then reinstalled it.  The text in the document was once again visible in Times New Roman 12 pt and the user also succeeded in printing out the document (which had previously suffered from the same issue as that seenon screen).

So if you have a bizarre layout issue in Microsoft Word that changing style based settings doesn’t seem to clear, try changing or reinstalling your printer.


Omnia to Oblivia (and back)


Having spent a good part of the last couple of days doing some housekeeping and updating on my Samsung Omnia I had a bit of an issue late last night.  The Omnia is aimed at doing everything (hence the name), but last night I owned an Oblivia.  I’m not sure quite what happened but I think a disagreement between Windows Vista and my Omnia may have been to blame.

The issue was that my onboard additional memory (i.e. the extra storage chip not a removable memory card) became corrupted.  Every time the Omnia tried to interact with it (which it does frequently) it mounted the My Storage memory into the file system and popped up a message asking if I wanted to view any pictures on the card.  Unfortunately from watching it try and load the folder structure in the explorer application it seems that it could never quite finish loading it and it would dismount.  A few seconds later it would mount it again and the process would repeat.

I tried accessing it as a USB hosted mass storage device from an XP and a Vista PC but neither could hold the connection long enough for me to take a good look around.

At this point I’d spent several hours trying to work out how to recover my phone and ultimately came to the conclusion that a hard reset was the only thing that was going to bring it back.  A standard hard reset does not reset the My Storage memory and is invoked by pressing the start and end call keys immediately after pressing the soft reset.

Like most mobile phones special engineer codes allow access to special functions.  One of these is what I call a “Really Hard Reset” where you can type in *2767*3855# … which can on some firmware releases reset the My Storage memory as well as the base internal memory.

Unfortunately my firmware seemed invulnerable.  This lead me to the hard reset software in the settings of the Omnia.  This is available in the System tab under Settings and allow you to reset the internal memory, the My Storage memory, or the entire phone.  The reset of the My Storage memory does however rely on the memory being mounted … which pretty much brought me back to square one.

At this point I’d been looking at the problem and testing various options for about three or four hours and was growing really tired.  I did manage to reset my Omnia in the end using the Hard Reset software but this was down to a lot of trial and error and good timing to catch it across two mount & dismount cycles with the confirmation windows.

The reset reformatted the My Storage memory and the Omnia has been functioning fine since, but I’ve spent most of the day rebuilding my phone – reinstalling software and adding data back on.  Hopefully I’ll find some time to post about some useful things I’ve done to help speed up this process.


Reclaim Even More Memory on a Windows Mobile Device


A little while ago I posted about some ways to reclaim memory on a Windows Mobile device.  The reason for this was that the main memory on my Samsung Omnia was almost at zero and it had been a fairly common occurrence.  I’ve spent a little while recently trying to get a Skype client working on it and installing it to anywhere but the main memory seemed cause a few issues.  Today however I’ve had a good day working on the phone and I’ve managed to not only get the latest version of the Skype client running from storage rather than main memory but also found a few additional ways of getting some more control over the main memory.

The Omnia comes with the Opera mobile browser and I do a fair bit of surfing on this browser (though I have a few others installed too!)  The issue mentioned in my previous post is that this browser stores downloads and the browser cache in the \APPLICATION DATA\OPERA9\ folders.  It is however possible to change where Opera downloads information to.

To reconfigure Opera, open the browser and type “opera:config” into the address bar.  This will then display the configuration page.  There are several groups of settings that can be expanded by tapping on them – they’re simply hyperlinks.

The ‘Saved Settings‘ group contains a ‘Save Dir‘ setting that determines where Opera downloads files to.  Change this to an area not in main memory and this will help keep things more manageable.  Make sure that you click the save button on this group when you’ve changed the setting.

Another group worth delving into is ‘User Prefs’ .  This one’s quite big so there’s a bit of scrolling to find ‘Cache Directory4‘ which determines where the browser cache is stored.  Again replace the entry with something that refers to a storage area rather than main memory.  Again after more scrolling you can click the save button to store the change of values.



As this is only a migration of the issue and there are a few other known issue areas I’d also recommend using an application called ClearTemp.  This will clear out a few of these standard areas and also allow you to specify some custom folders to clear out – such as those you’ve just specified for Opera.


Mobile Monger

Another tool I found useful in understanding where memory was being used was by using a great little mobile application called Mobile Monger.  This isquite similar to WinDirStat which is a visual tool I use with people to analyse what sorts of files are taking up their disk space and where they are.  The application displays the file structure as blocks with display sizes relative to space sizes.  This can really help highlight any areas where there are large numbers of files or even just a few files taking up significant amounts of storage space.