Astronomy Course

The Astronomy Course materials for the Open University's S194 course have arrived. Flipping through the book it looks like one of those courses where you have to remember lots of facts, and also have to do practical things too.

The course starts on the 12th, so I'll be spending time getting the resources lined up and in readable forms. If I can get them all into one convenient OneNote file that I can access from Laptop, PC and elsewhere then I can study in a 'portable' manner.

I'll find a nice little cloud to put them all on, or dump it all in SkyDrive.

Stacking Images

In other news, I'm currently working out how to stack astronomical images to improve piture quality and resolution. Apparently sticking a web-cam on to my telescope, taking a large sequence of images and sticking them in Registax is the way forward for this.

Web development on the Android Desire S

Well bugger me, it never, ever occurred to me that I may be able to do this on a phone! I’ve accidentally discovered I can make web pages on my phone and FTP them to a remote server.

This basic little demo page was coded as a result of the following experimental process. I used the following three apps:

I had already downloaded the excellent ES File Explorer, which allows me to move files around on my phone, rename them and so on. This got me wondering about coding my own apps and things, and also wondering if there was a way to create a local (‘permanently-on-phone’) web app (‘thingy that gets info off the web’), or perhaps scripting for the phone (automating a few functions).

920 Text Editor

I started looking for a text editor in which to bash out some HTML. I found 920 Text Editor and installed it. I set it to highlight HTML tags (Menu-> Highlight -> HTML), though it will also highlight PHP, ASP and so on.

Tapping in code is made easier by the row of icons at the top of the screen which contain shortcuts for curly brackets, angle brackets, the ubiquitous semicolon and so forth.

A quick and dirty HTML page later, and I wanted to find a way to check it on my phone.

I saved it to my SD card in the ‘My Documents‘ folder

Opera Mobile

Selecting the little ‘page with globe’ icon on the tool bar gave me the option of opening the file in different browsers. I like Opera the best on mobile devices so I chose that.

You can of course set the browser to file://localhost/mnt/sdcard/My%20Documents/test.htm, to use my example. I’ve bookmarked file://localhost/mnt/sdcard in my browser for convenience.

Wow, it worked. Now how do I get it onto my server?

FTPing to Website

This was the bit that made me happy. Hell, it’s all made me happy so far, but this was the best bit.

ES File Explorer has FTP functionality. It can move files from the phone to a website on the internet.

  • Go to Menu -> Show Tabs and 
  • touch the FTP tab. 
  • You’ll find an empty screen with the helpful message ‘Add FTP by Menu->New->FTP’.
  • Do so, and enter the details of your FTP location and details and you’re away.

It’s a very minimal setup, and building a large website on it would be very fiddly, but it could be useful for correcting typos and so on on the fly.

A couple of caveats though:

File size limitations

Firstly, I’m not sure what the largest file I can use on my phone in 920 is. I have an 8GB SD card which I may backup and replace with a 32GB at some point. I’m concerned that I may unwitingly end up with a atruncated file!

Use WiFi

There’s always a possibility I may end up crapping all over my data-limit if I use my mobile provider’s network instead of WiFI by accident. Note to self: ensure WiFi is on, and Mobile data is off.

Anyway, pretty pleased with this so far.

Using Chessbase files with Android and Scidonthego

Chessbase is the company behind Fritz, one of the chess programs I use. As well as making chess engines that Kasparov uses for training, they also compile whacking great databases of played games that can be analysed by pro chess players, huge great tutorial DVDs with databases of annotated games and video tuition, and they run an online server thing so you can play against people around the world.

I use Fritz and make use of the odd tutorial DVD, but not so much the huge databases or the ‘play against real people online’ thing. Their database system has however become the de facto standard for most chess players, and so there are a large number of Chessbase-format databases with tutorials and annotated games floating about. Everymanchess, for example, has released a whole raft of Chessbase-format eBooks on different topics.

Sadly Chessbase haven’t yet ported their stuff to Android or iOS, and so if you want to rake through a stack of historical chess games and commentary on your mobile device you’ll probably have to stick with the archaic .pgn text format. So, what to do if you only have Chessbase format?

These directions show you how to use Fritz to convert a Chessbase database to a .pgn file, and load it into a free bit of software called Scid On The Go.

  1. Open Fritz
  2. Open the database managing screen (F12)
  3. Open your chosen database
  4. Select All games in the database (ctrl-A)
  5. Go to Menu -> Selection to text file
  6. In the popup window, select ‘pgn‘ in the radio buttons
  7. Click ‘OK‘ and find somewhere suitable to save it

Right, assuming you have Scid on the Go installed on your Android device, you’ll need to get your .pgn file into the /scid/ directory. I just connected my phone to the USB of my laptop and dragged it across.

Once done:

  1. Open Scid on the Go
  2. Go to Menu -> More -> Import .pgn file
  3. Select your .pgn file from the list (it will list whatever’s in /scid/)
  4. Wunderbar, it automagically turns it into a Scid database that you can browse at your leisure…

This is great because it means I now have ‘Starting out: 1.e4’ on my mobile phone!

New Phone


Farewell then, LG Prada. Hello to the HTC Desire S.

I tried and tried and tried to fix/recharge the old Prada phone, but with great regret I ended up making the difficult decision to upgrade. That Prada phone had been my constant companion for a good few years now, and I had resisted upgrading simply because I liked it so much. It was scratched, it was battered, the Prada logo had flaked off and it had become a shadow of its previous minimalistic elegance, but it would text and call with no problems, and take the odd photo.

To be clear, I'm not an early adopter. I'm a very late one who tends to see consumer tech developments as marketing gimmicks designed to fleece the unwary. I generally refuse to update my tech unless there's a clear advantage to doing so.

Having had some experience of the Android operating system with that generic 7" tablet my mother had given me (see here), I liked the way I could easily shunt things between my PC and the device using just a USB cable, and figured that a smaller-still Android advice with which I could also text people and phone would be a cool plan.

Some Googling and calculations on the basis of my current mobile phone usage later, I wandered into O2 on the way home from work. Getting the new phone cost a small amount, and I bolted on some data-transfer to my tariff as well, so I now have an easy to use phone/Android device to fiddle with and play chess on.

What's in the Box

There was the phone, some earphones, a quickstart guide, and a charger thingy. No manual, case, strap, software disk to help syncing with PC or fine-weave polishing cloth (I was clearly spoilt by the Prada package). I found the manual in a pdf file in the folder /sdcard/User Manual/, once I'd installed a file browser.

I mean, FFS, who sells a device without a bl00dy file browser? They put a mirror app on it, so I can see my face in the phone, and a torch app, but no file browser!

Android Market

It came with the Android Market on it, and Google know who I am now thanks to my Blogger account (which runs parallel to my Livejournal one), so downloading apps is a bit easier that downloading .apk files and moving them across.

I downloaded the following:

  • A file browser. Actually, two: Astro (which has adverts on it) and ES File Explorer
  •, but I'll go for Shredder later
  • Google Sky
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Opera browser

I stuck to free apps because the Android Market doesn't let you use PayPal, you have to give Google your credit card details. I do not trust them with my credit card details, and so paid-for apps will remain unbought for the time being. Hopefully the still-forthcoming Amazon Appstore will make life a bit easier.

Siranui recommended a few useful-sounding things: an app-killer for freeing up memory, and a 'turn off and on again' thing for quickly disabling wifi etc to save battery.

Will see how it goes. I have discovered that it should be possible to develop HTML/Javascript/CSS apps for it easily enough, so it's looking like an interesting thing.

OK, the rhyming’s a bit ropey, but quite funny 🙂

iTunes U

I was always rather ambivalent towards Apple’s products. I love their design, easy-to-use interfaces and accessibility, and I was also impressed by the way that the iPad and Macbook managed to make having a computer ‘cool’. Thanks to Jobs and co, a laptop was no longer the accessory of a besuited workaholic desperately mining every last ten minutes of their life in search of ‘productivity’, or the insecure computer geek who cannot bear to be parted from their copy of Netbeans and access to Slashdot.

What I wasn’t so happy about was the way Apple put the brakes on independent development via a rigorously-policed Appstore, and the way one couldn’t easily USB an iPad to a PC laptop and drag/drop files between them, but then I’m a born tinkerer and plugger-inner who finds things like that annoying, and was mildly concerned that this closed architecture would set an unholy precedent. I’ve always been fond of the way Microsoft gives away free dev tools for both the Xbox and PC and bags of tutorials, and especially fond of the way Linux practically encourages you to take it apart and make your own OS. I like that kind of thing.

Anyway, a couple of days before Steve Jobs died, I discovered something rather lovely. I was disabling an installation of iTunes on my PC because it kept trying to ‘do things’ (update itself, update Quicktime etc.) when I discovered something called ‘iTunes U’.

iTunes U is a section of iTunes that sits alongside the TV show bit, the music bit and the film bit, and it contains lectures from various universites, such as Stanford, Oxford and the Open University.

Luckily the iTunes software itself is a free download, and the stuff on iTunes U is also free. You don’t need to sign up for anything or create a profile either. The downloaded files are just .mp3 or .mp4 files that sit in a download folder (by default C:Users[username]MusiciTunesiTunes MediaDownloadsiTunes U), and they have no DRM.

This means you can happily put and use the material on your Creative Labs mp3 player, your mobile phone or your Windows laptop. You don’t have to watch them in the dreadful Quicktime, you can use whatever media player you like, and you can also pass them on to friends.

To my mind, this is what the internet should be about. Our culture and society is immeasurably richer when we have the option of learning whatever we like easily and for free. It’s no substitute for studying at a university and having access to the library, attending seminars and having 121 tutorials with a member of faculty (it would be unfair to expect the same ‘density’ of information in a 20-minute video), but a bunch of online videos and sound files that can be carried around in a little box is definitely a step in the right direction.

For my part I had a happy evening watching lectures on Medieval English, Cosmology and one on Metaphysics and Epistemology. Wonderful stuff.