Voskhod instruments by Tom Royal on Flickr
Valentina Tereshkova with Vostok 6 by Tom Royal on Flickr
Voskhod Capsule by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Heron by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr

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About that EDL Newtown tweet

December 16th, 2012

A note before anything else: I’m no fan of the EDL. I’d be happy to see them disappear entirely from the UK’s political discourse, because I think they add nothing of any benefit. But I firmly believe that facts, and fact-checking, are important. So, here’s something we should discuss.

The other night, screengrabs started circulating of a pretty disgusting tweet from the EDL about the Newtown attack. The EDL claims that it was faked, and a video was posted online in support of its veracity. Here’s a grab:

The video shows a tweet ID of 241922092158143412 in the address bar. If you try to call up that tweet, either via the web or the API, you’ll get a not found error.

But here’s the thing: tweet IDs are not random or sequential – they’re generated by a tool called Snowflake, based on a timestamp. So, in theory, you could decode an ID back to a timestamp. And there’s code, here (created by @NGalbreath),that allows you to do just that.

So I decoded the ID. You can see the results here.

The first decode is a test, using my own tweet here. You’ll note that the decoded time is two hours out, but with the correct date – I’m assuming this is a time zone issue, as my server is not in the UK.

The second decode is tweet ID 241922092158143412. You’ll note that it’s from September sometime.

So, this suggests to me one of three possibilities:

A) I’ve read the tweet ID incorrectly – as I did, in fact, the first time I tried. If so, please let me know (though I see that the Bartholemew’s Notes blog has read the same ID), or

B) Either the Snowflake to UTC converter, or my implementation of it, is incorrect*, or

C) The tweet was faked

I’d be very pleased if somebody could reassure me that the correct answer is either 1 or 2, because we really shouldn’t have to resort to option 3 when it comes to idiots like the EDL.

* Geeks – I used: echo(gmdate(‘Y-m-d H:i:s’, (snowflake2utc(241922092158143412))));

The best iPhone apps for learning Japanese

December 9th, 2012

Ever since I started to learn Japanese, I’ve done a lot of studying on the train to and from work. At first this meant carrying around home-made paper flashcards and a big English to Japanese dictionary, but these days an iPhone can replace both of those and help you do much more – there are apps for flashcards, for learning the stroke order of kanji, and even fully fledged dictionaries.

I’ve downloaded and tried loads of apps, and even created a few, but here’s my personal top five covering everything from basic kana to kanji-lookup.

1 & 2) For learning Hiragana and Katakana

I learned hiragana and katakana before the iPhone existed (sadly – it was a pain), but still need to brush up on my katakana every so often. There are dozens of kana apps, but the best I’ve found come from a Japanese independent developer called Kenji Hioki (hk2006).

They are rather large to download, but this is because they’re packed with audio: the app spells out a word (in the screenshot above right, the audio says: “ku – ku – kuruma… kuruma”), while you tap it out using the kana shown on screen. This helps to build up recognition between the sound and forms, while also teaching you basic vocabulary at the same time.

The hiragana and katakana apps are completely free – I also like his Kanji apps as a quick way to revise basic kanji.

3) For learning Vocabulary

For vocabulary, I’ve found that nothing works more effectively than flashcards: English on one side, Japanese on the other, so you can learn from Japanese to English first, and then the other way around. There are dozens of flashcard apps, but for me the key thing is ease of adding cards: you need to be able to add them quickly, in bulk, and in either kana or kanji.

It’s much easier to do this on a computer, and for that reason I recommend Touchcards 2. This relatively simple flashcards app has one great trick, shown above and to the left: it can import vocabulary from a Google Docs spreadsheet. This means you can easily create and manage huge lists of vocab, then sync them onto the iPhone to learn when you’re out and about.

That function aside, it’s simple and to the point: you can study cards in both directions, customise the size of the text, study in order or at random, and enable a scoring system when you want.

4) For Kanji, and as a Dictionary

Only a few years ago I had a big, heavy paper dictionary and was tempted to buy a Canon Wordtank. Now, I just use the appropriately named Japanese, by CodeFromTokyo. This great dictionary app is ideal for looking up words by sound (as shown above, you can type phonetically in roman letters), or kanji (by component, SKIP, or handwriting).

It also has a handy lists function (shown above, right), and an extensive flashcard system for learning those. I use this for drilling through kanji – it works for vocab, too, but you can’t set kanji or kana display per item or add cards that aren’t forms in the dictionary. The app costs $10, but that’s ridiculously cheap considering just how much it can do.

[Update 11/13: in the end, I found the multiple readings in the dictionary got in the way when trying to study kanji – all I wanted was to quickly learn the simple readings found in my textbook (Japanese for Busy People). So I made a new app entirely – my Simple Kanji Flashcards app includes all the kanji from JFBP2, with only the simple readings listed. I hope you might like it too!]

4) For Verbs

A huge disclaimer here: I made, and I sell, this app. But the reason for that is that there wasn’t a good one available before. There comes a time – after you’ve picked up kana, and a bunch of vocabulary – where you’ll need to start learning various verb forms beyond the simple masu / masen / mashita / masendeshita ones, and I wanted a way to learn these in a flashcard-like fashion. So, here’s my Japanese Verbs app, which does just that.

The app is free, with ten basic verbs included, and teaches the masu, dictionary (plain), nai, ta, and te forms of each, along with English translations and classification (Regular 1, 2, irregular). You choose the verbs you want, pick the front and back of each card – English to Dictionary, say – and then drill through the flashcards. A 99c / 69p in-app purchase unlocks 35 more verbs, covering most basic tasks. A second app teaches transitive and intransitive pairs.

So those are the Japanese apps that never leave my iPhone. If you’ve got a recommendation for another I should try, please leave it in the comments below or tweet it to @tomroyal.

How To: Install an Xcode Docset in OSX Lion

November 16th, 2012

Good lord, this is a pain. But here’s how:

Open Terminal. Run ‘sudo bash’ to get root access. CD to the root of the disk.

CD Applications/Xcode.app/Contents/Developer/Documentation/Docsets

CP -r (path here)/name.docset ./name.docset

Restart Xcode

How to use ADP Freedom in Windows 8

November 4th, 2012

ADP freedom is an online payroll management system, designed years ago and somehow still in use. It does not allow you to log in using any recent version of Firefox* or Chrome, and now also rejects IE10. So, if you’re using Windows 8, you could be completely locked out of your own salary  and tax information. Almost. Fortunately, there’s a trick.

Here’s how to get past the utterly stupid “Unfortunately the browser you are using does not have a sufficient level of functionality to support this application” error.

UPDATE: Try opening this link: https://myfreedom.adp.com/ukWelcome.asp. IE10 should switch to IE5 emulation automatically. If not:

Open IE10 on the desktop. Click the settings cog icon on the right. Click ‘F12 Developer Tools’**.

A Firebug-like panel will appear at the bottom of the browser. Click ‘Browser Mode: IE10’. Choose Internet Explorer 7 from the list.

Instead of the usual login page, go to this link: https://myfreedom.adp.com/ukWelcome.asp

IE10 will now act like IE7, which will in turn switch into IE5-like quirks mode, and you’ll be able to log in. In my experience it works well enough to get access to payslips, but you’re entirely unable to book any time off work (brilliant). Once you’re done, click ‘Browser Mode: IE7’ and put the browser back to normal IE10 behaviour.

* You can’t even trick it using the Firefox User Agent Switcher plugin – this will get you past login, but nothing inside the website will work.

** This option may be disabled by group policy on some PCs. In which case, sorry :(

Japan on a Budget: Fukushima-ken

October 31st, 2012


Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima-ken

Three years ago, most people probably hadn’t heard of Fukushima. Today everybody has heard of it, but very few people are visiting. This is a great shame, for many reasons.

The name itself is something of a problem. Fukushima is the prefecture, a city within it, and also the namesake of the nuclear power station that suffered a level-7 disaster after the earthquake. Both the city and the majority of the prefecture (pretty much everything west of the city, in fact) are located outside the exclusion zone, and considered safe for travel by the FCO. So off I went.

Getting into Fukushima-ken isn’t hard, but you can’t rely on the quickest trains: Hayate services on the Tohoku shinkansen bypass both Fukushima and Kouriyama. Instead you’ll need a stopping service; these have some unreserved cars making them easy to catch.

I jumped off the main line at Kouriyama (tip: exit station, straight across main road, tiny katsu restaurant, fantastic food) and changed onto the Ban’etsu West line, which is a tiny one-track service into the countryside. After a long, dozey ride, I arrived in Aizuwakamatsu.


Aizuwakamatsu is an old city nestled in the mountains. It’s obviously put some real effort into tourism: there are tourist offices not just at the station, but also in other locations around town, with a bike rental scheme and a decent map of the town in English. There are, however, not many tourists. If you can, grab a bike: the city plan looks small, but it’s actually a good day’s walk to get around.


There are several interesting things to see. At one end of the town, a huge seven-tiered castle keep: this is a fake, rebuilt in the 60s, but it’s still impressive to see and there’s a good view from the top. There’s also a site commemorating the Byakkotai (a group of very young soldiers who committed ritual suicide) – strangely this includes a huge and hideous memorial sent by Mussolini.

Nearby, there’s the Sazaedo, a curious wooden temple that conceals two spiraling staircases, each hidden from the other – it dates to around 1790, and you can walk up and down it. The whole temple area is really rather pretty.


Finally, there’s a small cluster of onsen ryokan just outside the town – you’ll need a bus or bike to get there, I think, and sadly I didn’t have the time.

Staying and Eating

Aizu has several hotels; I stopped at the Toyoko Inn next to the station which cost next to nothing. There are some cheap restaurants near the station, plus a few convenience stores and izekaya.


Unfortunately, Fukushima marked the end of the line for me on this trip. Out of time, out of money and out of clean clothes, I headed back to Tokyo the next morning, from Tokyo to Narita and Narita to home. Given a few more days, I’d like to have explored a bit further into the backwoods around Aizuwakamatsu: the local train line runs on, through dozens of smaller towns, for anyone with the time to travel it.

Next time, then.

This post is a part of my ‘Japan on a Budget’ collection – you can browse the rest here.