Friday, October 28, 2011

The day I was virtually slapped by Westboro Baptist Church

So I arrived at work this morning to find police guarding the door. Westboro Baptist Church were in town picketing a conference going on in our offices. Later we had crash barriers outside,  but all I saw were three counter protesters with a dog and a handful of journalists. Apparently three protesters did turn up, but were greeted with apathy. The Westboro people seem to feed off counter demonstrations, but being dour Edinburghers we can't really be bothered with that sort of thing. The Starbucks across the road was busier than the demonstration and nobody over there had even noticed it was taking place.

The day's events ended up with myself and @echurchblog being told by Margie Phelps that we are doomed (via twitter - she wasn't actually here).

According to the Phelps clan there are precious few people who God doesn't hate and most of them appear to be members of the same family! Over here we don't go in for that sort of fundamentalist claptrap. We have bigger issues to deal with and our country is too small to fall out with everyone else.

All I saw was a few counter demonstrators (with a dog) hanging round the door, two policeman and a woman waiting at the bus stop!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A bit of prescience from Rudolf Steiner

This could have been written today:

"You will no doubt have heard that certain people are over and over again proclaiming to the world that democracy must spread to the whole civilized world. Salvation lies in making the whole of humanity democratic; everything will have to be smashed to pieces so that democracy may spread in the world... Concepts are taken for reality, and as a result illusion may take the place of reality where human life is concerned by lulling people to sleep with concepts. They believe the fruits of their endeavours will be that every individual will be able to express their will in the different democratic institutions, and they fail to see that these institutions are such that it is always just a few people who pull the wires, whilst the rest are pulled along. They are persuaded, however, that they are part of democracy and so they do not notice they are being pulled and that some individuals are pulling the strings. Those individuals will find it all the easier to do the pulling if the others all believe they are doing it themselves, instead of being pulled along. It is quite easy to lull people to sleep with abstract concepts and make them believe the opposite of what is really true. This gives the powers of darkness the best opportunity to do what they want. And if anyone should wake up they are simply ignored." Rudolf Steiner, The Fall of the Spirits of Darkness, 1917

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My Simple Fruit Scone Recipe

This is my simple recipe for making fruit scones. It uses fewer ingredients than some recipes and can be made with the minimum number of utensils, especially if you have a set of electronic scales that can be zeroed between ingredients.

Some of my fruit scones

List of ingredients
225g self raising flour
55g lightly salted butter
25g caster sugar
150ml semi skimmed or whole milk
1 egg
100g sultanas or raisins

List of required utensils
Plate for holding the butter while it softens.
Mixing bowl.
Baking tray
Bowls, if required, to hold sugar and dried fruit
Pastry cutter (1” / 2.5cm)
Table knife
Chopping board
Measuring jug
Bowl for beating the egg.
Balloon whisk or fork for whisking the egg
Rolling pin

Cut 55g of lightly salted butter into cubes of less than 1cm and leave on a plate to soften.
Set the oven to 220 degrees or gas mark 7.
Grease a baking tray.
Beat the egg in a bowl with the milk.
Measure 225g of self raising flour into a mixing bowl (this does not need to be sieved as it is going to be crumbed).
Quickly rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Add the 25g of caster sugar and stir in using a normal table knife.
Add 100g sultanas or raisins and stir into the mixture - if you prefer you can add slightly more
Measure 150ml of milk into a measuring jug
Make a well in the middle of the bowl and stir in the milk and egg mixture a little bit at a time until there is a smooth pliable dough. It is easy to add too much so go slowly. You will not need it all - the rest will be used later.
The correct dough mix should be wet enough to hold together into one lump and come off the bowl, but not so wet it is sticky.
Turn the mixture on to a floured chopping board and turn/shape smooth then lightly roll out to 2.5cm (1 inch) thick.
Cut scones using a 7.5cm (2") pastry cutter.
Place on the baking tray and brush with the the milk and egg mixture.
Bake near the top of the hot oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown and well risen.
Cool before eating.

This recipe will work fine with just milk and no egg, although it may not rise as much. You can brush the top of the scones with milk instead of  egg too.

If you like this recipe you might like my simple fruit cake recipe which uses fewer utensils and makes less mess.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray - the Edinburgh connection

John Gray
Whilst the news is full of church concerns about gay clergy and gay marriage, its worth remembering that a former rector of St Peter's, Morningside, Fr John Gray, was a close friend of Oscar Wilde and addressed by Wilde in a letter as "Dorian" long before the novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" was published.

His most important supporter, and life partner, was Marc-André Raffalovich, a wealthy poet and early defender of homosexuality. Raffalovich himself became a Catholic in 1896 and joined the tertiary order of Dominicans. When Gray went to Edinburgh he settled nearby. He helped finance St Peter's Church in Morningside where Gray would serve as priest for the rest of his life. The two maintained a chaste relationship until Raffalovich's sudden death in 1934. A devastated Gray died exactly four months later at St. Raphael's nursing home in Edinburgh after a short illness.

This is just another of Edinburgh's many literary connections.

Gray's poem "Summer Past" was dedicated to Oscar Wilde:


There was the summer. There
    Warm hours of leaf-lipped song,
    And dripping amber sweat.
        O sweet to see
The great trees condescend to cast a pearl
Down to the myrtles; and the proud leaves curl
        In ecstasy.

    Fruit of a quest, despair.
    Smart of a sullen wrong.
    Where may they hide them yet?
        One hour, yet one,
To find the mossgod lurking in his nest,
To see the naiads' floating hair, caressed
        By fragrant sun.

    Beams. Softly lulled the eves
    The song-tired birds to sleep,
    That other things might tell
        Their secrecies.
The beetle humming neath the fallen leaves.
Deep in what hollow do the stern gods keep
Their bitter silence? By what listening well
        Where holy trees,

Song-set, unfurl eternally the sheen
        Of restless green?

How to stop line breaks disappearing in a PHP generated email

I recently had a problem with a PHP script which accepts input from a form, formats it and then sends it out as an email. All of the fields were working fine apart from the textarea box used to input the body of the email. When sent, the emails had lost all their line breaks and just became one continuous line of wrapped text.

The script was intended for sending plain text email and I was using the linewrap command to keep it to 70 columns and preserve some sort of formatting. To try and get the line breaks back I tried the following:

  • Manually adding \n to the end of every line as part of the linewrap process.
  • Commenting out the linewrap command.
  • Adding \r before the \n.
  • Stripping out any instances of  ^P or ^M in case it was a windows encoding issue (I was clutching at straws by this point).

None of these worked, but I slept on it and the next day realised that it was nothing to do with the text of the message at all. It was the headers.

I had set the encoding headers as:

 $headers .= "MIME-Version: 1.0\n";
 $headers .= "Content-type: text/html\r\n"; 

Simply removing the MIME type header and changing the other one to:

$headers .= "Content-type: text/plain; charset=iso-8859-1\r\n";

fixed the problem and my line breaks started working again.

I will return to the script later and add the ability to alternate between html or plain text, but for now I have the problem of the missing line breaks solved.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Seventeen Degrees

Seventeen degrees Celsius is the temperature at which I turn on my heating. Most people heat their houses to twenty degrees or more so seventeen feels quite chilly if I am not moving around. Why seventeen? I can't stand living at sixteen. If I could I would. You see, I am part of the squeezed middle. Prices are going up, but my salary isn't. My only choice for survival is to reduce my spending. Every aspect of my life is being trimmed. Surplus possessions are gradually going to new homes via EBay. I have stopped any unnecessary car journeys, but I need the car to visit my kids. I only buy food that will definitely be eaten and I throw nothing away. Every service I don't use has been cancelled. There is no dead wood remaining. Which brings me to my electricity bill of £50 per month. Unfortunately for the government I can't change supplier. My landlords won't allow it so I am hostage to the best deal I can get from Scottish Power.

Which brings me to the injustice of the regular monthly bill. My £50 per month is based on previous year's spending, so reducing my electricity consumption will make no difference for many months. Maybe I just have to bear with it and get my overpayment back in the spring. It might be the closest I get to feeling like a lottery winner. Until then I will be chilling out at seventeen degrees.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Which UK Web Hosting ?

Having worked in the web hosting industry in the UK for nine years I have seen a lot of brands come and go. I am still involved in some web development work and have set up sites for a few businesses and charities over the past few years. This puts me in a good position to recommend companies based on either personal experience or inside knowledge of how they are run.

Here is my list of recommended UK web hosts:

I have to confess a personal interest here as I founded the company. Although it has changed hands twice it still has some very good hosting plans - particularly for reseller or multiple domain users. The new owners have invested hugely in making the service reliable and with good support structures.

Here are a couple of voucher codes for money off Hostroute web hosting (use them in the order form):
GordonH 20% off web hosting
GordonHReseller 25% off web hosting

I use Blacknight for the hosting of my work web site and I have used it for several other web sites. Reliability is incredibly good because they use a clustered system (separate mail, web and database servers) and support is very responsive and helpful. Although the company is based in Ireland their connectivity to the UK is superb and hosting in Ireland makes it slightly more difficult for someone to take legal action against you for something you may have said about them. For that reason its a good choice for bloggers and they have a lot of Wordpress experience. The slightly complex control panel system can take a bit of getting used to (see this article) so it might be better for hosting of single sites that need good reliability. Highly recommended.

I know the owner of the company and it is a well organised set up. Providing cheap web hosting aimed at the UK market. Worth considering.

Mini VPS
This is the VPS brand of Xavvo providing VPS servers at remarkably low prices with high reliability (based on their independent uptime statistics). If you need a VPS this is somewhere worth considering.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

My take on the potential split of the Church of Scotland

I thought I would make some observations on the current state of the Church of Scotland. As an outsider with a bit of an insiders view, what seems to be going on does not make much sense.

The current crisis centres around the issue of “gay ministers”. Traditionalists (a secret church code word for “evangelicals”) are portraying their complaint against the church as a protest against the ordination of gay clergy. However, in the Queens Cross case the minister was already ordained, and he had the support of the majority of the congregation calling him to his new charge. This means that the evangelicals look like they are trying to prevent a congregation calling their own choice of minister, even though the right to choose their own minister was something people suffered great hardship to achieve in times gone past. Whilst you can argue that the Church of Scotland has presbyterian government, and ministerial approval is somewhat centralised, other than the central administration and a limited number of joint decisions made by the general assembly, the church behaves as a congregational union. If it had been truly presybeterian then the rise of either faction, liberal or evangelical would not have been possible as the majority middle ground would have dominated.

The real situation is that Gay ministers are not the real issue at all. The church has probably always ordained gay ministers. I have known several personally over the years. All were greatly loved by their congregations and played an active role in the local community and the wider church. Nobody complained then, so why now? I think the reason is that evangelicalism in the UK has become narrower over the past 20 years with every splinter faction of Christianity retreating further into its own separate idea of truth. At the same time they have become more authoritarian and quite keen on telling other people what to believe or how to behave. What we see in the Church of Scotland is just a symptom of this. The churches and ministers leaving may get some temporary self satisfaction, but any pretence that they are making a stand or protecting their congregations is patent nonsense.

The real mystery, though, is why evangelicals are leaving the Church of Scotland at all. After decades of wanting to be in control, the evangelical wing of the church has never been numerically stronger and is producing more of the people who do the donkey work than ever before - including ministers. All they have to do is keep on this trajectory and dwindling church memberships will mean that only the hard core of the very keen will be left, and most of those will be evangelicals.  I can’t help thinking that if the evangelicals leave and form gathered churches rather than parish churches their ability to influence Scottish society will be considerably less in the future. They are undoubtedly throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Maybe its time for traditionalists to accept that each congregation has a right to call the minister of their choosing and leave it at that. It may mean losing a battle now, but all they have to do is wait and they will win the war. If they do decide to leave en masse then the church will need a new motto and logo.

Sed tamen ex parte consumptus (“and yet it was partially consumed”)

How to include an RSS feed in a web page or template

Sometimes you want to embed a summary of an RSS news feed in a web page, blog post or template.  Having tried various ways of doing this I have found that the simplest method is to use this service:

Its not perfect and it is remotely hosted, but it works. There are javascript, iframe and php options. The php would be ideal for including in a Wordpress template. There is also a an RSS Include Wordpress widget for embedding a feed in a sidebar or other page element.

Here is an example of what it looks like (this is the iframe version):

Friday, October 14, 2011

How to synch Google contacts with iPad

There are a number of conflicting articles about how to achieve synchronisation of diaries and contacts between  Google and iPad and iPhone devices. I know, because I have been through all the articles. The short answer seems to be that you can use Google Active Synch without needing to plug the iPad into the computer and using iTunes.  This article shows how to do it:

This is how I am doing it and it works. Of course, its cunningly labelled in the settings as "Microsoft Exchange" so it would be easy to miss it or not realise it could be used for this. If you are going to do this you will need to turn off the calendar and contacts synch for any Gmail account you have added to the iPad or you could end up with duplicate entries.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Recreating Miles Davis' muted trumpet sound

I had to do a Miles Davis soundalike recording this week. Specifically I had to try and reproduce his 1980's muted sound. For these records he was using a harmon mute and I have seen some debate about which brand of mute to use. After a bit of experimenting I think the issue is more to do with  mouthpiece choice and processing of the final audio. I experimented with various mouthpieces and my Denis Wick harmon mute and found that the closest was a quite deep Warbrton 3MD with a very large no 12 backbore. Even this was still not quite like the records so I equalised the sound to bring up the bass. See what you think, but I think its pretty close to the timbre of sound Miles Davis was producing in the 1980's:

Cognitive dissonance in evangelical Christian reporting of attacks on Christians in Egypt.

As the BBC reports the deaths of 24 Coptic Christians in Egypt I am left speculating how long it will be before fundamentalist evangelicals try to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand they will want to portray events in Egypt as Christians being persecuted by Muslims, but at the same time they will be discomfited by knowing that they don't consider the Coptic Church to be Christian. Lets face it. We all know that if one of these Egyptian Christians walked into an evangelical church on a Sunday they would not be welcomed as brothers in Christ, they would be a target for conversion from their ungodly faith. The same is true of Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic Christians.

This is a regular problem for evangelical commentators reporting in events from the middle east and is something that social psychologists refer to as "cognitive dissonance". Interestingly the term was originally coined to explain changes in religious belief:

Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. The phrase was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent beliefs. It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. (source: Wikipedia)

It will be interesting to track how this story gets reported by Fundamentalist commentators. At time of writing Pat Robertson's CBN has made no comment, deciding to carry a verbatim copy of the AP article. It may be too early for the US media to have picked up the story.