Better Learning With Anki

Having recently gone through the rigmarole of yet more exams, I’m in a good position to talk about learning things*.

Spaced repetition has been around for ages, as has the wonderful program Anki. Based on the SM2 algorithm, it’s a valuable tool in the would-be reviser’s arsenal. I’m not here to convince you to use Anki in the first place, as that has been well-discussed elsewhere (eg this Reddit discussion or this recap of 10 000 flashcards.

The ’20 rules’

It’s a good idea to start off with SuperMemo’s Twenty Rules of formulating knowledge; this turned me on to Cloze deletion (which can be achieved Anki with a dedicated card type and shortcut for adding them) and better card formulation.

Recognition and two-way connections

I use reversed cards extensively now- wherever possible, basically. It help solidify connections, eg:

Front: What is the Warburg Effect?
Back: What is the name for the process whereby malignant cells gain energy by glycolysis (rather than oxidative phophorylation)

So if a discussion comes up about the Warburg Effect, you know that it’s very roughly about cancer cell metabolism (unless the people discussing it are plant scientists); and if you’re thinking “hey, what’s that thing called where cancer cells get energy differently”, you can easily recall the name too.


When you see hundreds of cards in the ‘due’ column, finding motivation to sit down and work all the way through can be challenging. So, instead, set a time limit.

You can do that via the ‘timeboxing’ setting in preferences:

Knowing that you’ll only be at it for ten minutes (or less) helps you stay focused. I’ve found myself trying to get as many done in the time limit as possible…

Well, see how many you can lick in an hour. Then try to break that record.

*: Check back in a couple weeks to find out if I did indeed actually pass

Show Progress Bar During dd Copy

There are a number of ways of showing the progress of a dd copy. The easiest is sending the USER1 signal to the dd process, like:

dd if=FILE1 of=FILE2
pkill -USER1 dd

But that only gives a current status – eg 12345678 bytes transferred (11.77MB) … [8.56MB/s]. Not that helpful if you want an ongoing update. You can make it periodic by using the watch command:

watch -n 10 pkill -USR1 dd

Still not perfect. If you want a progress bar, ETA and so forth, you’re best off using pv, a utility that measures the speed of a file through a pipe. If you don’t know what that means, I’d recommend reading up on the UNIX philosophy and pipes, but basically it means you can tell what dd is doing. Use it like so:

pv FILE1 | dd of=FILE2

For my use, backing up a 500GB hard drive that I use with a NAS (an NSLU2 I’ve probably mentioned before), I used the following command:

sudo pv /dev/sde3 |dd of=~/tera/nslu2.img

/dev/de3 is the data partition on the drive
~/tera/nslu2.img is the image file I want written to a terabyte-sized hard drive, mounted at ~/tera/.

As a post-script, the reason I’m backing this drive up is my nslu2 is failing weirdly. It was running without a hitch for years, then it without apparent warning dismounted the drive in slot1 and reverted to running from flash. I only figured that out as I had to log in with an old password. Trying to start it up results in it beeping once every minute or so, with the ready status lamp flashing orange. It seems to go through a loop. I thought it was a temporary glitch, as when I plugged the drive into my desktop to check the thing was intact the partitions showed up, then when I plugged it back into the nslu2 and turned it on it worked fine.

That was 3 nights ago. This evening it’s done the same thing, except repeating the steps didn’t sort it out. Running the drive through some brief SMART diagnostics and a partition check shows up no problems, so I’m inclined to believe the problem lies in the nslu2. I’ll post again if I can sort it, but at this stage I think a re-flashing is in order. Only problem is I can’t remember what firmware I flashed onto the nslu2 in the first place. D’oh!

Nostalgia is Playing Wipeout 2097 Again

Let me paint a picture for you. It’s 1996. Clinton is in power in the US and can do no wrong, while on this side of the pond John Major’s grip on power is weakening. One bright grey afternoon at my sister and brother-in-law’s flat my sister pointed out a new device on the floor of their living room. “Do you see what we’ve got?”. Not being familiar with the device in question, I asked “A Nintendo 64?”. The reply came smugly: “No… a PlayStation.”. Ace! I’d heard of that! It was supposed to be really cool. “Can I see?”.

So in due course Wipeout 2097 was loaded (I should say wipE’out” 2097, or Wipeout XL for our American friends) and I gazed in awe at the marvellous 3d graphics and smooth gameplay. Soon enough I was playing it myself, even more in awe of the power of this new machine.

So I took a trip down memory lane today and relived my first PSX moment. Despite being very rusty I breezed through the first four levels, but on the final two my lack of practice started to show:

It’s still a really good game, in my opinion. And while the music wouldn’t be my first choice for a lazy Sunday afternoon, it definitely complements the game.

Connect to a WPA/WPA2 Secured Network In Linux

This turned out to be dead easy, although it took a bit of futzing around due to my own slowness. The situation arose during an a failed upgrade of my dad’s machine to Ubuntu 10.04 (aka Lucid Lynx). I’m sensing a pattern here; I don’t think there has been an upgrade that has gone smoothly on that machine. To be fair I think there may be problems with just about every component apart from the hard drive, but you think I would realise that upgrading that machine is a Bad Idea. Anyway, the solution:

A combination of wpa_supplicant and wpa_passphrase will do the trick.

  1. Get a root prompt. Either sudo su, or boot to single user (recovery) mode. Just don’t do that, select netroot, then get bored and hit Alt-F1 for a console 1. For some reason, that makes the machine very unhappy and so your wireless hardware probably will complain about device busy in step 2. So don’t do that.
  2. Run iwlist scanning, and check your card can see the wireless network in question
  3. If it can, run wpa_passphrase [your-wireless-network-name] > wpa.conf
    (eg wpa_passphrase pegasus > wpa.conf). The prompt will wait for you to enter a passphrase. Do this and hit enter.
  4. Run wpa_supplicant. Replace wext with the correct wireless driver (which is probably wext, but run wpa_supplicant --help to check) and wlan0 with your wireless interface
  5. wpa_supplicant -Dwext -iwlan0 -c/root/wpa.conf
  6. If that works, you should see text to the effect of “successfully associated”. If not, try again with a different driver, make sure your passphrase is correct, and make sure your wireless interface is working properly.
  7. Hit Ctrl+c, then the up arrow, then add a -B (for background) onto the end of the last command, thus: wpa_supplicant -Dwext -iwlan0 -c/root/wpa.conf -B
  8. Run dhclient -r to release any DHCP leases you have.
  9. Run dhclient wlan0 to get a new IP address. Substitute wlan0 for your wireless interface, of course.

You should now be connected. This is a handy trick for any Linux user unaccustomed to connecting to wireless networks from the command line – let’s face it, network-manager has spoiled us rotten. But when an upgrade fails and won’t leave you with a functioning graphics driver (grr) and you need some packages, this is the way to do it.

One Week

So, as of yesterday evening, I’ve been here for a week. Since my last post I have moved out of the guest house. I’m grateful for this, the room was dark all day around (or light, if you put the single flourescent light on). It was adequate, but no more.

I am currently staying with a friend (who is technically a friend of a friend, but they are so friendly and helpful it would be an insult to call them that now). A big thank you to Sabela for letting me crash here while I find a place, and for translating things from and to Spanish. ‘Big help’ would be an understatement.

Flat hunting is a monumental task, twice ior three times so in a foreign language. I’ve gone through hundreds of listings on and culled a (long) shortlist of 30ish places to view. I have organised them by priority, so I (hopefully) won’t have to work my way though them all! I’ve seen a few… more on that later.

I met my contact who I got in contact with thanks to a friend at the amnesty group I’m a part of (thanks David). She was (brutally) honest about my chances of finding employment here. The fact that I’m Scottish will work in my favour in an Irish bar (close enough, apparently), but even still I’ll be very lucky to get a job. I’ll still pursue the teaching Spanish angle, but even that is less hopeful than I had initially hoped. Might have to burn a bit of money unfortunately!

Flats and the hunting thereof

I. Hate. Flathunting. At least, I hate doing it in a language in which I am not competent. More specifically, I hate speaking on the phone in a language which I am not competent and – to a lesser extent – talking to people in person in a language in which I’m not competent.

Perfectionist, or just a craven coward?

As far as I’m concerned, the main thing for me is that I just don’t have all the words to convey what I mean. This in itself isn’t a nice feeling. I now have a much greater empathy for people who suffer this problem. The other problem is, well… I don’t want to say something unless I’m going to say it right. The fact that I might stuff it up or forget words/phrases creates a whole bunch of anxiety for me, which I something I’m not so familiar with any more. It’s a bit of a ridiculous viewpoint, looking at it coldly and logically, but unfortunately cold logic can;t snap me out of it. I’ve tried.

I mean, trying (and perhaps failing) to speak another language is much better than taking refuge in my own language; and people aren’t going to hate me if I sound silly. On paper (or on a blog) it’s all very straightforward, but see when I go to dial a number for a flat, or even get through to someone, the panic is paralysing.

What I’m going to do is try a fun little technique. When I decide I need to phone someone, I’m going to do it as quickly as possible, suppressing all other thought and hopefully I’ll be able to sneak past myself and have the phone call before I realise what’s going on. Either that or have a couple of beers to take the edge off first…


(ramble, feel free to skip!)

I went to view a flat today. It was one from the top of the pile, so it was one I was quite keen on. €310/350 a month (two rooms available).

So anyway I walk there for 2PM in shorts an a t shirt, which I mention only to gloat about how blissfully warm it is here. I get there, check the number, ring tthe buzzer. No response. Again. And a third time. I get a rather irked voice telling me that I had the wrong place, I think. He has speaking fast and I was expecting to be buzzed in, so I was a bit overwhelmed. So anyway I figure I could phone one of the two people I had a number for, but I figured I should check I had the right street first. I did.

When I got back to the place, there was someone with a piece of paper and who was getting the same treatment from the now-presumably-even-more-irked man. I ventured an “Hola” and stuttered my way through asking if we were looking for the same place… which eventually amounted to just pointing to my corresponding piece of paper. She agreed we had the same place. In English, I should add. It turns out she had booked a viewing for the same place at the same time. She phoned the contacts. Y didn’t answer, but A did. We were told to press the buzzer that we had been pressing all along, so we did again just for the sake of the thing. Nada. My fellow-flathunter (M) phoned Y again and we told that the place had been rented. Most curious.

M didn’t have another viewing till 4, so I suggested a coffee over which we could compare notes, so to speak, on flats. M said she was here from Paris to look for flats for January, when she will be coming to start her PhD. No easy task – I think all the flats I have seen on loquo have been entry 1) now 2) a week or 3) December. Anyway, potentially mutually useful came of it – M had seen a flat she liked, but was unable to take it as they wanted her to enter in December, which of course would mean paying for a month unnecessarily; so she offered me the details and so I may have a place to stay till December. While it is lovely of Sabela to continue to let me crash here, I don’t want to wear out my welcome. We shall see! I did my best to be helpful by furnishing M with the details of a place with 2 smokers, which would suit her better than non-smoking places.

As an aside, it is surprising how many places are listed on loquo as ‘non-smokers only’; it seems (seems!) like there are a lot more smokers here than in Glasgow. Even if that isn’t true, there are a lot more pedal bikes, motorbikes, and scooters.

So I have several places to view tomorrow, and many many more to phone. Good luck to me! I have rambled enough, if I think of anything that needs added, I will below.

Second Day

Another after-the-fact post. This is written at about 1420 on the 9th of November.

Right. So after sleeping in this morning (my room has no external light and my phone had no charge) I went down to the nearest movistar shop to get a SIM card. Once again, I found the place mostly through luck (I didn’t even know what it was called). It took me about 2 hours in total to go, go the phone and get back. 2 hours! Also, i seem to have ended up with 2 phones instead of the single SIM card. Why? BEcause they didn’t have any SIMs alone in stock, a single cheapo phone was €26, while *two* cheapo phones were €20. Mine’s not to reason why.

So I’ve gotten in touch with home to let them know I’m alive, etc etc; and contacted my contact to let them know I am here, and I’m still waiting to hear back from them. they themselves may be en-route back here but who knows.

I also discovered that my Wifi switch was off and there is in fact a LOT of wireless acess points in range. Sadly, all are encrypted. Even *more* sadly, the strongest wignal is WEP encrypted which means if I hbad been able to install Linux before I left I could have had a shot at, ah, decrypting the signal. For funsies, of course. Sadly my drives are in a RAID that I couldn’t get the standard or alternate Ubuntu 9.10 installer to like, so it was not to be. the alt. installer did see the RAID, to be fair, but it only would let me partition the whole disk when I had already partitioned the space. Sigh. I didn’t want to risk it and install anyway as I’ve had bad experiences with that recently.

(For those that are interested: I decided to upgrade my dad’s machine from 9.04 to 9.10. It seemed to work okay at first, in fact I went away while it was downloading the packages and came back and it was sitting at a 9.10 desktop. Sadly, after a cold boot things went bad. It refused to mount /tmp for some reason (I think) and I couldn;t see a quick way of fixing it (this was on Saturday morning when I had to leave in a couple of hours). So I decided to reinstall 9.10. Still no luck. So I decided to go back to 9.04. it then decided there was a problem reading form the CD or hard drive (it wasn’t specific) and refused to install. It did this three times, before a firm reboot got it to co-operate. This was with literally about 15 minutes to go before my train arrived. Needless to say, it added to my stress somewhat.)

Anyway, time for me to have a wander around this place to see if there is a notice up regarding wifi passwords in here. If not, I’ll pop round to the (do doubt extortionate) internet cafe a couple blocks away.

ADDENDUM: No, not that I can see. No-one to ask either. Oh well, time to start contacting people about flats…


This post is retroactively posted as there’s no wifi at the place I’m staying. It’s 2242 local time (so 2142 UK time), and by now I’ve arrived, checked in (kinda, more on that later) and eaten. Getting here was, well, interesting.

Firstly, I saw Eddie Izzard at the MEN arena last night. He was pretty damn funny from where I was sitting anyway – and I was in a pretty good seat. Some good jokes, although a lot of callbacks to his old material. Not too much I suppose, but a couple of them felt more for the audience’s sake than because it was funny in and of itself. Anyway, I hold Eddie to impeccably high standards, so it’s natural that I find a small fault which probably only existed in my mind. If you can, go and see him.

Getting to Manchester Airport was a dawdle, thanks to the airport rail link. I really do hope Glasgow does get it’s airport link, it makes so much sense.

Checking in, etc, was fine. Although I think airports generate ‘stupid fields’ as my IQ definitely slipped a few points going through there. The flight itself was fine, at a short 1 hr 40 min. I fall asleep so easily on flights. Like, there’s something about the engine droning that just sends my brain straight into delta waves. Or something. i’m going to try to recreate that when I go to sleep at the end of this post.

The temperature was 12°C on touchdown, which is a very pleasant temperature. Once I got off the plane, things started to get interesting.

Barcelona airport is member of the “Brotherhood of Airports that Generate ‘stupid fields'”. I say this as I went and stood in the non-EU citizen line at first, and wondered why it wasn’t moving. D’oh. Sorted myself in the right line, got trhough and started looking for baggage claim. Well, it wasn’t by the place we came out of. Apparently we had to go out of the exit and get it from another part of the airport. Another terminal, in fact. So, confused me went a-wandering through the airport, through more security (where the ‘stupid field’ intensifies and is compounded by the language barrier), and eventually found the correct baggage claim, partly through luck. Got my bag whchi by now had a broken strap – thankfully non-critical.

So I went to find some transport. My initial plan had been to find a taxi, but having looked at a map, I found that the place I was staying in was pretty central, probably a 5 or 10 minute walk from where the bus terminated. What’s more, the bus probably costs about a tenth of what the taxi does. So, getting a bus was now my plan. Then I met an Irishman with a Scouse accent.

Yes, an Irish man with an accent that wouldn’t sound a bit out of place in an episode of Brookside. He was ranting and raving about Ryanair buggering him about (i’ll spare you the grisly details) but he recommended I get the train into the city, reasoning that a T10 card works on both the train and the metro and is fairly cheap. Fair enough said I. So I wandered back through the airport to find the train station, which I did eventually. The trains left every half hour, so of course I arrived 5 minutes after one had left. Sigh.

I eventually got on the train, and as it pulled away at the station at high speed (Spanish trains don’t run on electricity, they run on pure WIN) I realised I hadn’t the foggiest idea which station I was meant to get off at. Oh dear. So I sat on my seat, alternating between vaguely terrified and a Twoflower-esque calmness as I reasoned that I could sort it out eventually, even if I did end up in Valencia. This was a real worry, as there are trains to Manchester airport from Glasgow, so there was a real possibility I’d end up in another city hundreds of miles away.

I got off at a station that had metro signs up (phew). I wandered upstairs and found a map and realised that the place where I wanted to be was only 4 or 5 (or somewhere up to 8, the map was imprecise) blocks away. Did I decide to walk it? For a change I was sensible and decided not to, reasoning I had nealy 17kg on my bag and another bag that was around 10 kilos. So I got a metro train instead. The Barcelona metro is a wondderful thing. I’ve always supported the simple Glasgow circle, but seriously we could learna thing or two from these guys. Oddly enough, it was curiously reminiscent of the Newcastle metro, and I mean no disrespect by that.

I got off at Place Catalunya, which seems to be the Barcelona equivalent of Times Square. On reaching ground level the first person I encountered tried to sell me drugs (told you it was like Times Square). Anyway, after a quick look around I realised that although this place was undoubtedly close to where I wanted to be, I didn’t actually know where that was. Bugger. I set off in what seemed like an appropriate direction until I came to a map. I would say that it wasn’t a very clear or helpful map, but it did get me going in the general direction I wanted to go, although I claim some of the credit. I walked up the big road which I forget the name of (big, wide, apparently famous street), and after a block or two another realisation hit me. I was on the right road (hurray), but I had no idea if I was going in the right direction. I decided to hedge my bets and kept going in the direction I was already heading in, hoping I’d find the street that crossed it soonish.

After a couple of crossroads of not recognising street names I must confess my hope was dwindling (and my back and shoulders were killing me) and I stopped and asked for directions in a smallish hotel. The rather nice chap informed me that iwas indeed going the right way and had only another block to go till I hit the correct street! So I found the street (hurrah!), and then promptly failed to find the guest house (horroo.). I found the correct number, but there was no facade, and no sign to indicate there was a guest house there. In fact it just looked like a residential block.

It is hard to convey the sinking feeling I had at that moment, without involving the Titanic or quicksand or other things of that nature. I could see things unravelling, spiralling out of control… But wait! First I decided to get a damn good grip on myself and make a quick enquiry in the restaurant beside the place. The buy at the bar knew what I wanted to ask before I had asked it, bless him. Apparently the guest house was where I was trying, I just had to puch the right buzzer. Hmm. I got it on the second try and after some strainedshoew conversation I was buzzed in.

I showed the nice-if-rather-confused lad my booking confirmation. You see, the proprietor (Vincent, if memory serves) was not there and so they didn’t know I was meant to be staying there. He and the person helping him out (who seems to be English, but hasn’t said “God bless the Queen” yet to confirm) agreed that I had thew right place, and I should probably come in. I was shown to a rather small room and asked if I wanted it. I answered yes, of course, as I figured my alternative was to say no and leave, and my neck and shoulders would just not have put up with that by then.

I gave myself a rinse and a change of t-shirt (walking while burdened is hot work) and went out to get some food. I must confess that I opted for a Burger King that I espied on Placa Catalunya> I was not in the mood for adventure. Also, I figured if language was a problem I could grunt and point at the pictures. I wasn’t lowering myself to McDonalds though (I passed two on the way to BK). I do have *some* standards. After a BK Doble Cheese Bacon (with chips and water) I felt a lot better and headed back to the guest house. I had to buzz twice to be let in (they had no spare keys to furnish me with). I was on my way in when the buzzer was answered (the street door was ajar and I figured I could hammer on the internal door) which was momentarily confusing.

So anyway I went for a wash of the face and to put some aqueous cream on my face. My skin has been quite dry and itchy lately; I have removed part of one of my eyebrows with scratching. It’ll regrow. I know this from experience, sadly. All I’m saying is don’t eat a LOT of vodka jelly in the company of some poeople you do not know. My aqueous cream seemed to have been opened by inspectors (joy). I don’t know what they did, but it seems to have been diluted. It’s now a proper sloshing liquid instead of a viscous cream. Most peculiar.

Right. Bedtime. First I must go ask for some water (I’m hilariously thirsty… no, deliriously thirsty) from one of the other residents. I know they’re awake as I can hear music playing. So goes my first night.

ADDENDUM: I’m told the tap water in this place isn’t good to drink. It has cement in it (?!). Fuckery.

Finally, A Real Pin

Blood Donor Bronze

The title of this post conveniently ignores all the other pins I’ve earned, which must be at least…. for certain… that I know of… to be sure… 1 other. If not more. Maybe. Anyway, having earned pins in games such as the Battlefield series, it was interesting to actually get one. What’s more fun is it’s in the same style: “Do X, Y times, get pin”. In this case instead of “revive 8 people in a round” it was “have your blood drained 10 times”. I thought it had been more, but obviously I’ll need to visit the vampires more.

In other semi-interesting news, I bought a laptop. It’s a Dell M1730 and it’s big, beefy, weighs about the same as a 2 year old and draws enough power to dim the lights when I turn it on. In the neighbourhood, that is. Also, while we’re on ridiculous things, the display has the same resolution as my 28-inch monitor and they keyboard has a numpad.

I’d give you a picture of the laptop too, but my camera has electric arthritis and just grinds and whinges in a manner reminiscent of a small child in an antique shop. Still, that at least gives me ANOTHER thing to buy for going away, which is happening this Sunday by the way. Yay! Or rather, I’m going broke like I have a terminal disease.

PS Twitpic doesn’t like it if you link to files from outside of it, which should be obvious except to me.

(If my writing seems out of sorts it’s because in my head it’s the rapid sardonic babble of Ben Croshaw, or Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation to give him his Sunday name)

Spanish Adventure Update: Banks Aren’t Useless After All

Well, not completely useless. A follow up to my post from a few months ago.

So, by now I have decided to go to Barcelona. I will be entering medical school next September, so don’t worry, I haven’t given that up! I don’t have any particular job lined up, but I have heard from various people that teaching English is the way to go. Importantly I have a very useful contact out there who has been most helpful in answering my many questions about accommodation, learning Spanish, the city, and a million other things. Don’t worry; they will be suitably rewarded.

Anyway, I figured it would be useful to have a bank account set up out there. I’m not really a pick up and go type person (I’m trying), and I figure that paying a bank to spend my own money (overseas fees FTL) is a form of ridiculousness I don’t want to be involved in. So, I went and asked my bank about their subsidiary over cashing a couple cheques, and the helpful chap actually went and phoned the Spanish team, who very promptly sent me an information pack and application form!

I must confess at this stage I dallied a bit, partly because the form was all Greek to me (well, Greek would have been an improvement, let’s say, oh, Finnish*) and partly because having it filled in would mean I actually have to leave.

So anyway eventually I got my rear in gear and went back to the branch and had some help from the lovely John (I think… might have been Dave. Sorry, whichever you are) who was as helpful as helpful can be.

The next day I went back with a couple questions I missed. Sadly, on this occasion I got someone somewhat less helpful. She said there was uncertainty as they didn’t really get many people in to do the Spanish stuff, only yesterday John/Dave had said the exact opposite. He was in close contact by email with their contact on the Spanish end, he even serendipitously got an email with her phone number which he used to clarify a couple of my questions. Confusing.

Then I had to convince the person dealing with me to certify a copy of my passport. Never mind this is something the same bank said I needed to do to as a prerequisite for opening my new account. Part of the problem was I wanted to take it away with me, as I was intending to send my documents next day delivery due to an impending Royal Mail strike. More on that later. Anyway I finally got out of the bank an hour later after going through the rigmarole of the international monetary transfer. Did you know the FBI can get information on your transfer (and you) pretty much just by asking nicely? Or any other organisation, bound or not bound by Data Protection Laws. What fun. At least the person doing the transfer was quite pleasant, although she did question my being at university for 9 years – purely from a financial point of view, right enough.

Anyway, after all that, the bit that restored / boosted my confidence (apart from JohnDave and his helpfulness) was that I put a handwritten note in with my application saying essentially: “THERE’S A STRIKE ON, PLEASE BE CLEVER AND NOTIFY ME BY SOME MEANS OTHER THAN POST”. The next day, they phoned me and did just that. The system works. In this specific circumstance. For me, anyway. Kinda.

So now all I have to do is sort flights and accommodation. After that, I’ll probably do something even more fun, like self immolation.