OSGeo Live 7.9 for teaching “Geospatial Information Services”

20 01 2017

This post follows on from my previous post about using OSGeo Live 6.0 (and subsequent versions) for teaching on a module called “Geospatial Information Services”. This is delivered to the University of Nottingham’s MSc in Geographical Information Science, as well as other postgrad courses at the university. I’ve presented on this topic at FOSS4G before too.

I’ve decided to add an additional entry for my experience in 2015 as a) I think the previous post was getting a bit long; b) the teaching IT environment has changed quite a bit so I’ve had to rethink the strategy; and c) the year’s solution is much easier to redistribute so I intend to link to re-usable content here.

The change in IT environment was due to the loss of our dedicated IT cluster (for reasons of space) so this teaching has had to transfer to a centrally managed cluster. Thankfully the UoN Information Services team have been very helpful in managing this transition. However it did mean that it would no longer be possible to boot from a USB memory stick, to run the OSGeo Live system as the native OS. Essentially then, to keep using OSGeo Live as the working environment for the practicals in this module, this meant going back to running it in a virtual machine.

While I’m aware that there are solutions that can be built around using VMWare products, particularly with academic site licensing, my preferred VM solution continues to be Oracle VirtualBox as it matches the open ethos of this module, in which I teach about and use the open OGC standards, we build on the open OSGeo software stack, and we use UK Government open data for the GIS analysis and web mapping. VirtualBox is open source and thus simple for students not only to install at home on their course, but also to take away and use in any environment they go on to or back to after the course. The VirtualBox host runs on Windows, Mac, Linux and other OSs.

My first thought was to use Portable VirtualBox. This is essentially a clever way to package VirtualBox so that it can run off a USB memory stick. The Portable environment is, as far as I can tell, a cunning script environment that adjusts the launch scripts for VirtualBox to take account of the shifting drive letter/mount point assignment of the memory stick, etc. It’s a neat solution: the VM host software and the VM itself could all be on the USB stick for a completely portable solution. However this runs up against a security policy on our system preventing software from running of a stick (for obvious reasons, I guess), and making a suitable hole in this policy seemed to big a challenge to even raise with Information Services.

Thankfully the IS team were happy to install the VirtualBox host as part of a special “Geography” image for the lab I’m using for this module, to support the transition from the locally managed lab. A small detail, which I wasn’t involved in having to set up, is that VirtualBox has to be truly locally installed on the machines as part of the image as it hooks into various device drivers, whereas many of our PC cluster applications run through a virtualised environment using Microsoft App-V. In this pattern, the VirtualBox host is installed on the host PC – the plan was to have the OSGeo Live VM running from a USB stick. (If you look back at the previous post, you’ll see that in the first year I ran this I had a scheme to run VirtualBox with the source OSGeo Live VM image locally installed in the PC’s C: drive but saving diffs to a SAN. This seems rather over-engineered now!)

This has turned out to be fairly straightforward. I’m using OSGeo Live 7.9 as it was the latest version at the point where I had to prepare the VM. I copied the 7.9 image from the OSGeo Live web site. As previously I made a couple of tweaks. I installed the VirtualBox “Guest Additions” in the VM – this allows the user to copy and paste between the VM and host, to mount host file systems inside the VM, and to dynamically resize the VM “screen” size by adjusting the host window size, all useful facilities when using the VM.

Installing the Guest Additions is not simple as I’ve found that one usually has to go back a long way inside the package manager system in the VM to refresh and update its contents before being able to download the Guest Additions dependencies, before finally being able to install the Guest Additions. This is a real barrier to access, and one reason that I try to solve all this on my particular distribution of OSGeo Live for my students. This web page is one place to start if you’re faced with this task. (The OSGeo Live 7.9 VM is based on Xubuntu, a variant of Ubuntu).

This year I placed all the required data inside the VM image in a directory /home/user/data/giservices. All the data in this directory is unzipped as I’ve identified any unzipping step as one where lots of virtual disk space gets consumed (by having the source ZIP files hanging around still as well as one or more unzipped copies of the data).

A thing to avoid at all costs is the VM running out of system disk space. If the VM runs out of disk space for Xubuntu, the OS will fail and once shut down will typically refuse to boot again. It’s a fiddly job to mount/open the virtual disk from the host operating system to free up space (albeit my recent experience is with having to mount a caspar file from the bootable USB system rather than the VMDK file of the VM). Such rescue jobs are best carried out in a Linux host or possibly MacOS as they are more flexible for mounting foreign virtual disks (though possibly this is because of my experience).

The USB stick preparation is much simpler than in previous years (which involved complex formatting of the stick, and cloning using CloneZilla). This year I’ve again used 16GB, USB 3 Kingston DataTraveler drives (these particular ones, as it happens). These were very reliable last year and have been so far this year too. USB3 is well worth having as it can speed up access to the system. On reflection, I’d have been better using 32GB sticks (such as this Data Traveler), for reasons I’ll explain below. Preparing the drive is simply a matter of reformatting the stick with a single ExFAT partition – this format is writable on any OS (e.g. NTFS is read-only in standard MacOS) and can cope with files larger than 4GB (such as the VMDK virtual disks). The VirtualBox virtual disk files can then simply be copied onto the USB drive. This is a straightforward exercise, first formatting all the new USB sticks, then one by one copying the contents from my hard drive to each stick. For what it’s worth, the copying was a lot quicker on a newer system – a) with an SSD hard drive, b) with a USB3 port, and I suspect c) with a better designed internal USB bus in the laptop.

If you want to try my version of OSGeo Live 7.9, with the Guest Additions installed for VirtualBox 4.3 and with the open data package for my my module, you can get it as a 5.5GB ZIP file. Download this file, unzip it on your hard drive, and copy the contents to the root of the ExFAT formatted USB stick.  Note too that you can also use the contents from a hard drive – you don’t have to copy it to a stick.

Assuming that the host PC has VirtualBox installed, the VM can most simply be added to VirtualBox by double-clicking on the “OSGeo-Live-7.9.vbox” file (this may show up just as “OSGeo-Live-7.9” in Windows, if Windows is hiding the file extensions). This should open VirtualBox with the “OSGeo-Live-7.9” virtual machine automatically added and configured.

The configuration includes two auto mounts for the host C: and Z: drives (the latter is a network drive on our PC cluster). If these are not present or somehow restricted, VirtualBox will present warnings that can be ignored. These auto mounts are to provide a means to back up data out of the OSGeo Live environment. The following command can be executed in a Terminal window in the VM to mount the host C: drive at /home/user/c-drive in the Xubuntu filesystem.

sudo mount -t vboxsf -o uid=1000,gid=1000,rw C_DRIVE /home/user/c-drive

At present this is unfortunately not reliable – writing to /home/user/c-drive usually produces a “Protocol error” indicating something is not yet right in the VM configuration (though it is possible to use “touch” in the Terminal to create files in this directory).

An alternative, more reliable means to give more storage space and to allow a means to backup, is to plug an extra USB drive into the PC, and associate this USB drive (using the VirtualBox “Devices” menu for the VM) with the VM OS rather than the host. The OSGeo Live Xubuntu system will see the external USB drive as if it was attached to the VM and will auto mount it in the Xubuntu filesystem in the /media directory.

As discussed above, disk space is a concern. The VM files fit on a 16GB USB drive but there’s a potentially fatal problem that I will have to be careful to avoid. The actual VMDK virtual disk file is a dynamically allocated virtual disk with a 20GB capacity. As supplied the VMDK uses ~12GB of disk space but this could expand to 20GB if the virtual disk is filled inside the VM, and this would exceed the USB stick capacity. Unfortunately I spotted this problem after buying the sticks! The best solution is to buy 32GB sticks – at present the VMDK capacity can’t be simply reduced to less than 20GB. Theoretically one could alternatively create a new VMDK with a smaller capacity and use a tool such as “dd” inside a VM to copy the contents from the existing virtual disk to the smaller virtual disk. In practice I’m being careful with the practical exercises to avoid the virtual disk’s allocated storage growing so much that the VMDK file reaches the USB stick capacity.



OSGeo Live 6.0 for teaching – a saga

4 02 2013

I don’t often blog (to say the least) but I thought I’d write up a little saga that I’m actually still in the middle of (but I think is sorted). I’m going to start just by writing it all down while I remember – I’ll hopefully come back to put links in, and later to write this up more formally (a FOSS4G paper, maybe!).

Last year I ran a new module on our MSc GIScience for the first time call Geospatial Information Services (GIServices from here on). The aim of the module is to introduce students to OGC web services, interoperability, Google mashups, etc. and the new, Web-based ways of “doing GIS”. As part of this, the practicals are to populate a spatial database (PostGIS), connect an OWS server (Geoserver) to create WMS and WFS services and then connect desktop (QGIS) and web (OpenLayers) clients to the services. As you can see, all done with an open source, OSGeo stack. The demonstration data was all gathered from data.gov.uk and so is Open Data too – a fully redistributable practical set.

To support this, I need each student in the class to have access to a machine that’s set up as a web server with PostGIS & Geoserver, and a way of testing clients. Initially, last year, I decided that a neat way to do this would be to create an Oracle VirtualBox virtual machine (VirtualBox is also open source, and pretty solid) that each student could have a copy of. I managed to create this is such a way that each lab machine had the original source VM image which was not updated – the VM differences were written to the student’s directory on the School of Geography’s SAN. In theory then they should be able to switch machines and still pick up where they left off. The VM I used was the OSGeo Live 5.0 system which is fantastic as it comes already configured with the services I needed (and a lot more).

This was only partly successful. Firstly, it work ok with one person in the lab who sticks to the same machine. It doesn’t scale very well with multiple students (network bandwidth to the SAN – I should have seen that coming). There’s also another subtle problem that each VM source image on each different machine ended up with a different UUID (because of how I installed it, I presume) so swapping machines didn’t work as VirtualBox didn’t recognise the source images as the same.

An issue that I also didn’t solve was the network access in the VM. I wanted each VM to get its own IP address so the physical host machine could be used as a client to the VM’s web server. However getting the VM to acquire an address from the university’s locked down DHCP services was a battle too far, and we stuck to localhost testing of the VM services – a little disappointing but not the end of the world. (I’ve had some success with this since, ask me if you’re interested).

The UUID problem I could probably have fixed but the network to the SAN wasn’t easily fixed and I felt that this was not reliable enough. So half way through last year’s course we swapped to using bootable USB memory sticks. We bought a stack of Kingston DataTraveller 100 G2 16GB memory sticks for the purpose (lots of room for the data – you can squeeze OSGeo Live 5.0 onto a 4GB stick).

So, how to set up the memory sticks? Well thankfully there were instructions as to how to create an OSGeo Live 5.0 bootable USB stick. I had some problems making this work at first (which are now irrelevant so I won’t go into here). Eventually I achieved this. Slightly annoyingly the “persistence file” that allows the Live Xubuntu linux on which OSGeo Live is built to save data is capped at 4GB because of FAT32 file limits on the USB stick, so a lot of the 16GB of the stick was left unusable from OSGeo Live. However this was enough for the practicals (just – as long as download ZIP files were deleted as the students went on with the work). I also had to set the university’s proxy settings in the running OSGeo Live system (unfortunately this is a bit of a hassle in Xubuntu (as opposed to plain Ubuntu) as it involves editing linux config files), and I copied some of the data from the previous steps in the VM into the memory stick system to give the students a leg-up towards where they had already got to in class.

At the end of this I had a “master” USB drive prepared for the class. Then it was a matter of cloning this to the rest of the drives. I tried “Clonezilla” but settled on another package, OSFClone to do the job. It could do direct drive-to-drive USB cloning, preserving the bootability of the target drive. I spent a day cloning USB drives in the background to other work.

And it all worked! There was the odd problem in class when students filled the persistence files by not deleting ZIP files but overall it was pretty good – the OSGeo stack all worked well. What suffered however was really student confidence (not marks, interestingly – about the usual histogram for such a course). There was too much technology in the way of the lessons, between setting up the VM just right and then switching to the USBs. And I had a lot of work mid-semester to construct the USBs – quite a number of late nights!

This year…

The plan for GIServices this year is to repeat the practical content but sticking with the USB sticks from the start. Last year the USB sticks were given to the students in exchange for a deposit for roughly the value of the stick (10 pounds!). The students had the choice of returning the stick & getting the money back, or keeping the stick and forfeiting the money. In the end no-one tracked me down to get their money back. I see this as hopefully a good thing: the students go away with a full, bootable “GIS in a box” with example data too.

This year therefore we’ve bought a stack more DataTraveller 100 G2 sticks. Same stick, same process, n’est ce pas? Non.

It seems that for some reason this year’s batch of sticks are not all of exactly the same capacity (possibly I should have complained but I’m out of time for that). The variation is a fraction of a GB (though I remember when 100MB was a lot of disk space!) but it’s enough that drive-to-drive cloning won’t reliably work as sometimes the target is smaller than the source!


I also wanted to recover the “missing” space of the USB stick to be useable in the OSGeo Live system, on top of the persistence file.

As a result of all this I’ve created a new “master” USB stick this year. And since I’m doing that I’ve upgraded to OSGeo Live 6.0.

After some experimentation, the partition map for the USB sticks using an MBR / MSDOS boot sector, it has an ~9GB primary FAT32 partition (for the OSGeo Live system + 4GB persistence file which contains an ext2 file system), blocked at the start of the drive. It has a ~5GB extended partition containing a FAT32 logical partition, blocked at the end of the stick’s drive map. This leaves a small unallocated space between the primary and extended partitions that can account for the varying stick capacities.

Here’s the partition map in gparted (I have to say, I’m not an expert at partitioning and copied the partition flags from a working partitioned disk – I’m not sure if I need ‘lba’ on the first partition or elsewhere. parted will warn about poor alignment of partitions when you create them, and in this case I get no warnings. I used parted and not gparted to create the partitions as it could be scripted and gave better feedback on the choices I was making. I check what’s been created in gparted):


The OSGeo Live 6.0 system is then installed in the first, 9GB partition according to the updated instructions for this version of the Live system (in this case, I used OSGeo Live 6.0 burnt to a DVD-ROM to do the installation)

In the OSGeo Live 6.0 system, I’ve made three adjustments on this occasion (by booting the master USB stick and making changes before cloning). I’ve copied in some source data; I’ve set up the proxies, and I automount the 5GB logical partition under “/giservices” to make it automatically accessible from OSGeo Live. Another advantage of the 5GB partition is that it can be simply accessed both in OSGeo Live and when the stick is accessed from a Windows machine. (The persistence file’s ext2 system is not simply accessible from Windows). This means that results and data can be transmitted simply from OSGeo Live to Windows (and back).

So, that’t the “master” drive. Now I need to clone this drive to all the others, handling the difference in stick capacities. Well for this I’m back to using a two step process. I’ve used Clonezilla to first take images of the two FAT32 partitions (the primary and logical partitions), and stored these on the internal hard drive of the PC. To create a clone, I boot into an OSGeo Live system (could be any Ubuntu-derived live system), and used “parted” to set up the same partition structure with empty FAT32 file systems as on the master stick (the unallocated space will vary in size with the target stick’s capacity). I then use Clonezilla to restore the partition images to the target stick. This overwrites the empty FAT32 partitions and in fact restores the UUIDs of the original partitions too (handy for that automount). It’s a little slow – about 30 minutes per stick. It also makes sense to create the partition maps for all the sticks first, then boot into Clonezilla and do all the restoring.

At the end of it though, I do have a stack of USB drives with OSGeo Live 6.0, with the extra 5GB partition automatically mounted at boot. For some reason the OSGeo Live 6.0 boot seems to be a lot slower than for 5.0 (several minutes, versus about 1 minute) but we can live with that – it seems to be fine when it’s running.

I’ll add an update when the class has been using them, and when the bugs have crawled out of the woodwork. Now to rewrite the practical documents!…

PS: If anyone wants more details (e.g. of a little script to feed into parted to automate the USB drive partitioning), let me know.

UPDATE (5 Feb)

Well, there’s one small problem. The partitioning scheme doesn’t quite do what I wanted. It’s fine in the OSGeo Live system – the logical partition automounts fine. However Windows 7 won’t mount that extra partition, only the primary. It’s visible in & understood by the Win7 Disk Management tool but just won’t mount – it seems that Win7 doesn’t support any more than the first partition on a removable flash drive. MacOS 10.7 (Lion) mounts both partitions. I’ll add a note about Win XP (I expect this will be ok – XP is less fussy about partitions.)

If there’s no way round this in Windows 7 (as it seems) then it may actually be better to have a single partition, create a data directory on it and find a way to mount that directory in the OSGeo Live file system. (Normally, the physical file system on the first partition (as opposed to the persistence file’s virtual file system) is mounted read-only under /cdrom in the OSGeo Live system).

GISRUK 2010 abstract submissions

7 12 2009

Well we’ve just pushed past 100 abstracts submitted for the next GISRUK conference at UCL next April. We defined several themes in line with the interests of UCL, the London location for the conference and the “Global Challenges” overall theme. This is how the abstracts have split out:

  • Crime and Place (7 submissions)
  • Environmental Change (6 submissions)
  • Geodemographics and population (8 submissions)
  • Human-Computer Interaction, Usability and Geovisualisation (8 submissions)
  • Intelligent Transport (6 submissions)
  • London as a global city (4 submissions)
  • Migration and Identity (1 submissions)
  • Open GIS and Volunteered Geographic Information (9 submissions)
  • The geoweb and neo-geography (13 submissions)
  • Public Health and Epidemiology (8 submissions)
  • Simulation and Modelling (27 submissions)
  • Other (5 submissions)

We’ll actually close the submission tomorrow (as I write), 7th December, so if you’ve a paper ready to go, there’s still the chance to get in there! It seems that webGIS in its various forms is a popular topic still.

Alton Towers – the best theme park in the UK?

2 10 2009

A couple of weekends ago I visited the Alton Towers theme park which is just 50 miles from our new home in Nottingham. Probably for that same reason the University of Nottingham have a number of links with Alton Towers too, not least through our new Digital Economies hub and doctoral training centre (DTC), so there was some professional interest in an otherwise family visit. My perception of Alton Towers has always been that it’s the premier theme park in the UK and it’s this I want to reflect on in this post.

My first visit to Alton Towers must have been in the mid-90s as a single male in his 20s. Thrill rides were the thing. I went back with friends after the opening of rides like Nemesis and Oblivion but then haven’t been for a while. For context, I’ve been to Disney parks in the US, Japan and France and Universal Studios and Busch Gardens in Florida. Again, mostly for the thrill rides. In the UK I went to Chessington and Thorpe Park in the 90s too.

Of course now my circumstances are different, with a wife and young family (both kids under 5). We recently went to Legoland near Windsor for a family day out (tip: spending Tesco Clubcard vouchers on this is cost effective!). After a great day out we figured that we could probably get good value from a Merlin annual pass, which gets you into Thorpe Park, Chessington, Alton Towers, the London Eye, and various other attractions. As a result, in the last few months I’ve been to all of the latter. We also went to Disney near Paris in 2008.

An interesting side note – though Merlin are the park operators they no longer own Alton Towers. The park was part of a leaseback scheme a couple of years ago. The Alton Towers park is an interesting place itself, of course, with a long history of decline leading eventually to its opening as pleasure gardens and then its eventual evolution into a theme park. It’s been through a number of owners in its guise as a theme park. (There’s a potted history on Wikipedia). One thing in particular that separates Alton Towers from many other theme parks (e.g. Chessington) is that there is lots of space, both for expansion and between the ride areas.

So, what of the park nowadays? Well the thrill rides are still there and there are new ones since I was last there (Spinball Whizzer, Air & Rita in particular). Also, like many places Alton Towers runs a parent pass scheme . You get a card listing each ride; one parent queues for a ride and gets the card stamped just before going on the ride; then the other parent can jump to the front of the queue (often in front of the fast pass line) and ride quickly. You of course have to have the kids with you to get the card. This scheme works doubly well if you buy one fast pass ticket so the first parent uses a fast pass to skip a lot of the main queue. So my wife and I were happy because we could get round the thrill rides. (I just wish that I hadn’t built up so much of a tolerance for these rides – the adrenalin and anticipation of the rides just isn’t there so much any more, though being on the rides is still fun.)

So far, so good. I think there are two issues though – one relating to having the kids along, and the other relating to the zoning and park experience.

Of course taking kids to a theme park should be a great day out for everyone (especially with the parent pass, etc.). Our experience of Alton Towers was that the kids rides are perhaps too concentrated in a couple of zones. Thorpe Park, for example, seems to have kids rides much closer to the thrill rides so everyone can be happy. Because of the larger size of the Alton Towers park, it’s actually quite a trek (especially with short under-5 legs) between the zones. Still, the rides themselves are fun (though the Charlie and The Chocolate Factory ride doesn’t really work in my opinion – it’s trying to be too macabre, doesn’t really fill the space, the animatronics and pretty poor and it doesn’t really convey the narrative of the story).

And then there’s the zones of the park. This needs some serious rethinking (tricky of course, given the rides are fixed!). The zone with Oblivion (X-Sector) feels like a half abandoned corner, Ug Land makes no sense (the Rita roller coaster is based on a drag racing theme or something and just doesn’t fit the prehistoric theme), and Storybook Land has almost nothing in it. The main entrance way, Towers Street, is a sad reflection of the main streets of places like Disney with mostly closed building hoardings rather than exciting retail outlets. All in all, I feel that Alton Towers has been resting on its laurels, relying on the thrill rides to bring people in, but in my view these parks are about the whole experience, including its weird internal logic, and not just the rides. My suspicion is that the period of ownership by Dubai International Capital, part of the Dubai sovereign wealth fund, is when the vision was lost but this is only because I suspect an investment business probably has less specific interest in the theme park business. This lack of focus on the park as a whole is also reflected in the gardens areas. The plants are reasonably well maintained and the fish thrive in the ponds but architectural features, such as the Gothic Prospect Tower seem to have been allowed to decay. Couldn’t some of the income from the rest of the park keep some of this heritage alive? Similarly, down in the gardens areas there are buildings, including what looks like an old tea room. OK, I’m middle aged and a father now (how did that happen?) – I could have killed for a decent cup of tea and some cake at a quiet spot in the gardens. It seems like a missed opportunity in the family market.

Best ride? Probably Spinball Whizzer – not the most intense ride but having the car spin round so you’re facing different directions through the ride was an exciting addition, adding a new dynamic I hadn’t experienced before.

And the ‘geo’ aspect?  Well the park’s crying out for better mapping: tailored mapping and interactive mapping are possibilities, but even the current all-in-one map could be greatly improved to help route finding through the park. Don’t put labels over the junctions! And how about virtual games in the park areas too, a form of location based activity?

iTunes or Spotify, or, how much music do I really need to own?

18 09 2009

Growing up, there were two ways to buy music albums: on vinyl record or cassette. (Bear with me, we’ll get to Spotify eventually). Since cassettes degraded by being played or got eaten eventually by the tape player it was usually better to buy the record and then record it to tape. The advantage of tape was portability, to use in a car or a Walkman-like player. The only real choice here was what sort of tape you bought (ferric/chrome/etc.) and whether Dolby noise suppression was supported or worth it.

Then came CDs. Now there were two choices for the stable, archive format (that’s the way I was looking at it, even if not in those words). Initially CDs were more expensive than records so there was a period where I judged how much I valued the album and then decided to buy it on record (cheaper, and I perceived them to be of lower quality) or CD. For me, the loss of album art with CDs wasn’t such a big issue.

In the end of course CDs came down in price and I stopped buying vinyl. It was around 7 years ago that I stopped really playing my vinyl albums. This was mostly to do with moving in with my now wife and a change of lifestlye.

At a similar time I started to stop playing cassette tapes. First of all I switched to the technology I’d always (effectively) wished I’d had for personal stereos: MP3 players. I won’t bother with the list of players I’ve had but I’m currently on a fifth gen. iPod with video. It’s a separate post perhaps to discuss why I’m not onto a iPod Touch or iPhone yet.

Cassettes hung on for a while though as a convenient way to play music in the car, especially as I only had a tape/radio in my Elise. The death knell for tapes was really the purchase of one of those devices which look like a tape with a lead coming off to plug into the headphones port of, in my case, an iPod. Looking back, I’m glad I skipped the minidisc technology, etc.

Although I’d essentially stopped buying vinyl because CDs were easier and as cheap, the adoption of an MP3 player would I suspect have spelled the end anyway. At the time in particular (end of 2002 / early 2003), there was no good, quick way to rip music from vinyl – with CDs you just popped them in the computer and software took care of it for you (N2MP3 initially, then iTunes).

(Of course since then the record companies have tried messing around with the CD format to insert noise bursts to try to foil this. As far as I’m concerned this is just pushing me more towards digital music and is selling a broken medium since often these don’t play or don’t play properly as audio CDs in a computer CD-ROM drive. It’s a clumsy attempt to foil piracy which harms their normal users more than the pirates, I suspect. Blogging note to self: should I be going off and sourcing properly researched articles?..)

So, that was the brave new world: in my case, iTunes + iPod has served me very well for 5-6 years. Mostly this has been a pretty stable situation. A trend during this time though has been a slow shift from buying CDs to buying more, digitally, through iTunes. I actually still prefer to buy CDs – it’s a hard medium that survives most things except a house fire if at all looked after (i.e. the kids don’t chew them and you don’t leave them to slide around in the car). But I’ve had less time to go out and buy them; digital purchases gets you the music now rather than in 1-2 days from Play (or insert your favourite retailer here); and as I mentioned I’m pissed off at buying useless “CDs” that have been deliberately corrupted to stop me using them this way.

I perceive the impermanence of digital media to be a particular problem though and back up my music on a couple of hard drives (one via Time Machine and one via Backup – I’m a Mac user) and the cloud (MobileMe – at the moment, just purchased items and not ripped CDs).

I’ve found though that there’s been a subtle, emergent problem. I just don’t know my music and what I own any more. I think this comes from two sources. Firstly, in the CD age, there was the process of finding the/a CD case to get the CD to play the music. There was a physical reality to the music which my brain could catalogue. On the other hand, perhaps I have too much music now.

What’s too much music? Isn’t that as weird a concept as too many books?

This relates to my use of new music. There’s the “getting to know you” or “in love” period where I play the album or track a lot (and it floats to the top of my last.fm play counts). Then with time it gets played less and subsides to some background play frequency. Now, the more music I’ve acquired, the more an album has to ‘fight’ to get background play time. I also have to remember that it’s there, and this relates back to the previous point. I just don’t find the catalogue in iTunes enough to get a mental picture of all the music I have and could play. Maybe in part it’s because I don’t really use coverflow (to fiddly to flick through and I don’t recognise many of the covers now). And on the iPod I have there isn’t a coverflow option – it’s just lists.

I’m discounting age here.

This probably also connects back to those days of tapes and making compilations from albums; or simply having an evening in listening to tracks off different CDs. That bred more familiarity with the music and its album container. This lack of familiarity is compounded by the seductions of random play on an iPod – can’t decide what album or playlist to play? Just stick it on Shuffle.

Maybe there’s an issue too with having an increasing library of music and hence some form of musical experience that means that new music has to be more different and appealing to be remembered. I’m undecided about this – there’s lots of good new music out there still.

So, recently, I’ve been wondering whether to buy as much and probably have slowed down in buying music. This is where I hope to use Spotify. My plan is to play-test music through Spotify. This currently means listening from my laptop or desktop machine (Spotify don’t support Nokia/Symbian (yet?) and my iPod’s too old to have a network connection, etc.). Then if I think an album has actually been worth it, I’ll buy a copy in/to import into iTunes to keep and have on the iPod. Music I’m less keen to own I can always go back to in Spotify.

Is this the start of another shift, to subscribing to a cloud database of music and not owning it myself? I’m not sure. Spotify could help drag me across if their client could scan my iTunes library, both to pre-populate Spotify with a list of my favourite music for easy access, and to import my current playlists. (A moving target for Spotify given Apple’s attempts to keep its platform private, e.g. modifying the iTunes database structure between iTunes versions).

There’s one side issue of effectively re-purchasing a licence to the music I’ve already bought but Spotify’s monthly subscription is currently about the same as one new album a month so maybe that’s not too bad.

A big downside though is that you can only play the network music in Spotify’s database. What about podcasts / iPlayer /etc.? What about online radio (iTunes aggregates real radio station sources; Spotify’s “radio” is really a guided random playlist)? What about video (I watch TV programmes on my iPod when travelling)?

Overall then I think Spotify will remain a music pre-purchase solution for me for now and another source of random playlist radio. But these shifts are gradual and based on utility for me – and my listening opportunities are different now I don’t have 2 hours a day commuting by train.

If I’m still blogging in a year or two, maybe I’ll come back to this.

Back from London

16 09 2009

I’ve been back down to UCL this afternoon for the final poster presentations of the Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering MSc students (not just the geomatics students but these were the ones I was concerned with). Why go down for this? Well, I was almost in the area (OK, Northampton) for a meeting anyway. And more importantly having supervised 6 or 7 projects it seemed important for the students concerned that there would be someone there who was really interested in their work.

The posters replaced the previous practice in the former Geomatic Engineering of final presentations. Was this better? Well it certainly allowed the process to be quicker and it’s a different form of presentation for the students to practise (assuming they get presentation practice elsewhere in the MSc). Whether they each get the same level of attention from the academic staff I’m not convinced – it’s much more dependent on the academics concerned (whereas with presentations the keener academics effectively covered for those who didn’t make it to student presentations).

Never go back, they say and there was some of that here. It was strange to parachute in (I made it down relatively late in proceedings). I guess I felt I was doing a form of good deed <<never goes unpunished>> but of course so soon after leaving one gets pulled back into the relationships with the people there. The process of moving to Nottingham is still on-going.

And the posters? Mostly professional attempts and a wide and interesting range of topics. It was certainly worth going for the stated purpose – catching the students and their work at the end of their year at UCL.

It was a great trip back from Northampton too – clear roads, loud music… (See jmorley @ last.fm for some idea of what I was listening to – I’m making the leap here to assume you might actually be interested).

Hello world!

8 09 2009

So here’s my start in the world of blogging. And co-incidentally it’s also the start of a new job, as Deputy Director of the Centre for Geospatial Science at the University of Nottingham. After around 12 years as a lecturer at UCL it’s felt like a big step to move jobs. On the other hand, I think I (and my family) already feel pretty settled in Nottingham. But it’ll take a while just to find my way around Nottingham, its systems, etc.

This is a different role from that at UCL – much less teaching or responsibility for teaching, more research focus, and of course working with Mike Jackson to keep money flowing into the Centre to enable its world-class research.

My aim is that this blog will come round to thoughts on aspects of  geospatial research and not so much a commentary on what I’m doing day to day but we’ll see. Maybe there’ll be some other non-work thoughts and news too. Like, were Muse deliberately trying to sound like Queen on some of the tracks on their new album?