Portable Coffee

Wednesday, 30 November, 2005

Of course you can’t always been near a quality espresso all the time which means the need for portable coffee solutions. My two favourites (because the are neat in a “portable” way) currently are:

  • Swiss Gold Filter - this is an “on-cup” filter that is re-usable (rather than the disposable version used in restaurants). Drip filter coffee provides a good brew and the simplicity of the design, as well as portability, make this a great office device. It incorporates a gold-plated filter for a btter brew.
  • Smart Cafe Travel Cafetiere - cafetieres also produce nice brews, although they tend to be fuller and less smooth than filter or espresso. The Smart Cafe design is clever and ideally suited to hotels and cards.

New GPS Kit

Monday, 28 November, 2005

We use GPS fairly regularly in the Centre for GIS at Kingston so tend to keep an eye on developments in kit, particularly those that are useful for human geography/geoscience. We currently use (in conjunction with PDAs running ESRI’s Arcpad) some Fortuna Slim bluetooth GPSs which are cheap and sufficient for many purposes.

Recent announcements up the ante for low-cost, accurate, GPS. In particular the fully integrated Trimble GeoXH which claims a <30cm post-processed accuracy. For a little bit more money you can acquire the Thales Promark 3 which boasts <1m real-time accuracy and <1cm post-processed.

Blackboard Experiences

Sunday, 27 November, 2005

I don’t know about other users, but I have a mixed reaction to the use of “virtual learning environments” (in my case Blackboard). On the one hand I am a proponent of the web based dissemination of learning materials. If you are to integrate this within an environment that incorporates enrolment, then the benefits can be clearly seen (e.g. summative and formative testing, access restrictions etc). However this is not a grown up networking environment; just look at the rich facilities available to users of Microsoft Sharepoint. The overarching web-based, group-based, environment is still the same, but the facilities and power are so much more apparent. That said, Sharepoint is clearly not directed at educational environments. So for the moment Blackboard it is and, to a large extent, it does a reasonable job. However one key area is dissemination of learning materials and in Blackboard this requires adding learning materials one at a time; a painfully slow experience. Not only that, but if you come to download past modules, then the XML-only format is painful-in-the-extreme to work with.

One of the features supported by Blackboard is the uploading of “package” files. These are standard ZIP files that you can use to contain mini web sites. For me, they are the ideal means to create your own easily updatable material that can be uploaded to Blackboard. Not only that, but they are easy to extract from the debris of an exported Blackboard XML file should you so need. You can also apply your own design, including the use of forms, to create a bespoke and, if you’re good enough, rich environment. A little bit of flexibility and lateral thinking is a good thing, particularly in the world of Blackboard.

Respondus

Saturday, 26 November, 2005

At Kingston University we use Blackboard as our learning management system for registering students on modules and allowing interaction with course material. Specifically I use Blackboard for the distribution of lectures/practicals (including data), assignment submission, sitting exams and group interaction.

Something I have been increasingly using is the exam mode where students take formative and summative exams. The benefits for me are a unified environment for sitting exams, automatic grading, instant feedback and easy to download marks. In addition I can monitor at how students perform on different parts of the exam and so help me write better exams in the future. This semester I have been experimenting with weekly formative multiple choice questions (MCQs) and have generally been pleased with the rapid feedback and progression of the students. Setting MCQs takes considerable time (I have written well over 100!) which then requires them to be incorporated in to the Blackboard environment. KU have therefore invested in Respondus for generating tests and uploading/integrating them in to Blackboard. I have to say that I am converted to using Respondus; it is relatively simple to use, generates fully operational questions and has so far seamlessly integrated in to Blackboard. And if you purchase the “campus” version it can publish to multiple courses.

For me the benefits are off-line exam composition, local storage of exams and easy upload/setup of exams. Its not perfect though as it uses an almost completely non-standard window environment that feels antiquated and loosely based upon an HTML page. It does try to present a wizard-style interface but I personally don’t like it. It also insists upon storing all exams in a “data” directory; yes you can change this to any directory on your system (and I have changed this from its location in “Programe Files” to “My Documents”), however this is irksome as I much prefer working in a file-based manner. This means I would normally store the exams with the other teaching materials for a module and then double click on it to start Respondus. Not so, you have to start Respondus and then load a file from its data directory. I can only request that software companies try to stick to default windows work methods otherwise you end up with a horrible mush of usability add-ons that end up confusing the user. That said, it does what it says on the tin and does it very well.

Prosumer camera RAW files

Sunday, 20 November, 2005

As part of my project exploring the use of kite-based remote sensing I have been using a Nikon D70 to take aerial imagery. Initially I have been shooting images and storing then as RAW mode files. This is an interesting area as, for the D70, the images are initially captured in 12-bit mode (per channel). I was quite surprised by this as I had been expecting 24-bit colour images, with 8-bits for each of the red, green and blue channels. The Nikon is somewhat unusual as it stores then in the proprietary Nikon NEF format; this can be uncompressed or compressed. It would appear that the compressed format (the only one available for the D70) quantises the data down to 9.5-bit, although the dynamic range is maintained.

Anyway, once you have NEF files (or any other RAW mode files) you need to convert them to something that most bits of image processing or remote sensing software can understand. I had initially used Adobe Photoshop, however it applies a shed-load of post-processing to the file (to make it look nice). If you are interested in “raw” pixel values then you need something else. Thankfully DCRAW came to the rescue. This is a command line programme that has reverse-engineered the structure of a whole swathe of commercial RAW files, allowing you to convert them to PSD (Photoshop) or TIFF formats. Usefully for an impatient person like me, RAWDROP has provided a graphical frontend to this. The final result does not look nice, but you do get the raw pixel values to play with.

Saving SWF files in Firefox

Saturday, 19 November, 2005

Isn’t it always annoying when you find a web page with a Flash file embedded in it. You want to save it to look at later, but when you right click on it, all you are given are the Flash specific settings which don’t include saving the file. Well if you use Firefox there is a very simple solution. Right click on the main area of the page and goto “View Page Info.” Select the “Media” tab and you will see information on media files used in the webpage, including all Flash files. If you select the Flash file of interest you can then hit the “Save As” button. Easy!

USB SD Card!

Wednesday, 16 November, 2005

USB_SDI regularly use a Palm ZIre 72 to store my contact and diary information. Increasingly I find it great to refer to reference material and, through the excellent DocumentsToGo , natively edit Microsoft Word and Excel files. The Palm Zire takes SD storage cards and I have recently come across the Sandisk Ultra-II Plus. Not only is this a fast and spacious (0.5 or 1Gb) SD card, it very neatly folds to reveal a USB connector turning it in to a standard USB memory stick. It means I can place all my Powerpoint files on the card, view/practice them on the Palm and then plug them straight in to the USB port on the host computer.

Teaching Aids

Monday, 14 November, 2005

Over the years I have accumulated a few gadgets and tips to aid the presentation and delivery of course materials. My favourite teaching gadget is the Interlink Presentation Pilot Pro, a remote control device for controlling Powerpoint (and the mouse), as well as having a built in laser pointer. It is a radio-frequency remote control (meaning it doesn’t need line-of-sight) that requires a USB stick to be plugged in to the host PC. When not in use, the USB stick recesses away in to the body of the RC which also acts as the permanent off switch; very neat. It is also ergonomically designed and fits VERY snugly in to the palm of the hand. At ~$US70 it’s not cheap, but well worth the money.

Given the above, its not surprising that I use Powerpoint to present many of my lectures. Whether research seminars or undergraduate lectures, I usually make these available for download at a later date. I usually put my Powerpoint files through two stages:

  • 1. NXPowerlite - this is a stand-alone program which optimises Powerpoint file sizes. Specifically it resizes and compresses graphics and “flattens” (into graphics) OLE objects. It generally does an amazing job of compressing a Powerpoint file.
  • 2. I often want to distribute PDFs of my Powerpoint material. This prevents people stripping elements out of my presentations for re-use. I am not averse to this, but would prefer people to request this. For a while I have been searching for a PDF print driver that can perform edge-to-edge printing in such a way that the PDF looks like the original Powerpoint. I have had little success until recently when I installed Open Office 2. Unlike Powerpoint, Open Office (in particular Impress) can export a Powerpoint file to a borderless PDF (or indeed a Flash animation). OO’s ability to import Powerpoint is excellent, so this is the route I use now.

Freshly roasted coffee!

Sunday, 6 November, 2005

Like your coffee?? Well you need freshly roasted beans in order to get the best cuppa. Whilst unroasted (”green”) beans retain flavour for months after they have been picked, roasted beans only last weeks, whilst ground coffee lasts days. Vacuum packs are designed to minimise this degradation (and they contain a one-way valve to allow de-gassing, rather than exploding the packet!), however you really need to get freshly roasted beans.

Having tried a few places I now order all my coffee from Hill and Valley Coffee in Aylesbury. They roast daily and post out immediately. You should get your order within 2-days of roasting. I can recommend the Ethiopia Unwashed Harrar as being a particularly good medium coffee!

Dualit Road Test!

Saturday, 5 November, 2005

Dualit espressoI’ve been thoroughly testing a Dualit espresso machine (84009) for the last year. Yes it’s a little expensive, but it makes fantastic coffee. I really can’t fault the brewing of an espresso, which produces a great crema on top. It comes with a capacious 2 litre water container and a 15 bar pump. As a result the milk frother is first rate.

Beware that making good espresso is a very messy business. Be prepared for alot of coffee and water getting thrown around. And if you live in a hard water area, the machine will need very regular (monthly) cleaning; this means running a vinegar solution through the machine and then flushing it.

OK that’s good news. Reliability wise its been a bit hit and miss. I returned the first one after 4 months as the pump blocked. The second one has been fine so far, however I have been through six (yes six!) brewheads. The plastic “splitter” that diverts the brewed coffee in to two cups repeatedly snapped off after limited use. Would appear to be a manufacturing fault; to Dualit’s credit they simply sent out a new one, but they can’t just replace the plastic splitter. It’s got to be the whole brewhead.

That said I couldn’t live without a pumped espresso maker now and the Dualit certainly makes good coffee!