Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Thursday, 18 November 2010

How to read PDFs, and other docs, offline on an iPhone using Dropbox

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Note - there are other ways to do this, I just happen to have used this one to save files to my iPhone. 

I was inspired to dig out the draft text of this post after reading a Facebook status update from my friend David Bradley aka @sciencebase recommending the service. As far as I'm aware Dropbox works perfectly on an iPad although I don't have one of those so can't confirm.

General guide to using Dropbox While I can't pretend to understand the minutiae of cloud computing Dropbox is an example of this sort of thing. With a free account (which gives you 2GB of storage space) you can access your files via the internet from any networked computer. But, and this is important, your files are also stored as a local copy on your own machine - you just need an internet connection to synchronise them with the online version.

On downloading the Dropbox software (I don't think it's very big) it will create for you a Dropbox folder within your own file architecture (you can choose where it goes) and you can start putting files in there. I have Dropbox downloaded onto my home and work computer and the files that I tweak on those computers appear, miraculously ready-tweaked, when I get into work and vice versa. If your internet connection isn't working and you make changes to a file it will remain on the computer on which you edited it, but it will be unsyncrhonised with your other Dropbox.

You can tell the health status of each file and folder as there's a little green tick next to any file / folder which is up to date and syncrhonised, there's a rotating blue icon to indicate one that's being updated and when you open a file to work on it will have a red cross next to it (you need to save and close for it to update). So if you want to try this go to (they have a video there you can watch to tell you more about the service), create an account and sign up.

And now a word from our sponsors :)

Anyone can sign up for free 2GB but if you know someone who already has an account ask them for their 'referrer link' which can net you an extra 250mb - @sciencebase's referrer link is (Disclaimer: he isn't actually sponsoring me, I just like that phrase - my referrer link's at the end of the blog I'm just giving him top billing as he inspired me to update my post).

'MakeUseOf' have written a free guide but I confess I've not actually looked at it as I'm very familiar with Dropbox, but here it is
Edit: Originally I mistakenly said that David had written this but he let me know that it was another company so have edited the above sentence.

You'll need an email address and a (self-created) password to log in - once you've installed the software you won't need to log in to use your files on your computer(s), only if you want to use the web interface. The web version is good - you can upload and delete files (but to edit them you'd have to download, delete and re-add so better to use your Dropbox folder for that).

A very easy way to sign up, if you don't want to start from scratch, is to ask one of your friends to send you an invite to share a folder with them - this will lead you through the process quite nicely.

Dropbox on the iPhone
The iPhone Dropbox app is free from the appstore so all you need to do is download it and log in. Your files will then synchronise and you can read them online. It can open most things - I think it used to struggle with .rtf but that may have been fixed now. Most of mine are .txt, .doc, .ppt and it handles them fine. I can't remember if it cares whether it's .doc or .docx so you might want to double check.

For me, the big bonus is that you can open any file while connected to the internet and favourite it (using the star icon at the bottom of the iPhone screen). This means that if you need to access it in a low signal area you'll be able to. In the settings section (available from the app's start screen) you can set the size of your local storage (mine's 200MB but you can go up to 1GB). If you download the free PlainText app you can sync it (the default is a single PlainText folder but you can tweak it to sync with all your folders) and you can create new .txt documents on your iPhone - ie you can type something on your iPhone and then pick it up at your desk or at home. Nifty.

EDIT: I read a comment on one of Ben Goldacre's (secondary) blog posts which highlighted that this also works for .mp3 files etc. etc. Of course it does, why didn't I think of that??!!

What happens when you exceed your storage space?
I once did this - don't forget that if you share Dropbox folders with other people then all of the contents you share adds towards your 2GB limit and it soon adds up. No files were deleted but I couldn't save any edits or add new files until I moved or deleted some older files. My only annoyance with Dropbox is that it didn't tell me there was a problem until I was at 2.5GB and had it mentioned it sooner I'd have pruned some files with less stress. But all was fine, but it's not a bad idea to check periodically what percentage of your allowance you're using.

Be aware though, that if you delete a file on your computer it isn't permanently deleted - this is often a good thing if you delete in error as you can undo this. As far as I can tell, 'deleted' files may actually contribute to your storage space - you can log in to your web account and choose the option to show deleted files, you'll see them in grey. You're then given the option to delete these permanently. Deleting files is a two-step process which, in the long run, I think is no bad thing - but useful to be aware of in case your storage starts to rack up.

I've been using Dropbox since January 2010 and am very pleased with it - I am not affiliated with them or anything dodgy like that :) ...and my referral link is

Saturday, 13 November 2010

testing everystockphoto script

Apart from the fact that this is quite a nice photo I wanted to test this Everystockphoto widget. Seems to work OK.

Downloaded the image directly from their site and it looks like this

Monday, 8 November 2010

Tweeting - dot .@ and at @ messages

Edit 22 October 2011 - I added this info in table form (click to enlarge)

------------------------ Original post ----------------------------

(I wonder how will resolve the URL from this title...! )

Let's pretend I follow @HomerSimpson and @MargeSimpson and so do you.

If Homer sends an '@ message' to Marge such as

HomerSimpson: @MargeSimpson I'm hungry...

then both you and I can read it but other followers of Homer (who don't also follow Marge) won't see it unless they look at his profile page (ie the message will show up on Homer's profile page and is visible to anyone who looks at it, but it won't show up in his followers' twitter feed pages).

If Homer wants to encourage others to provide food he should write (note dot)

HomerSimpson: .@MargeSimpson I'm hungry...

and then ALL of his followers will receive it in their twitter feed.

Note the '.' character isn't important it could be any character that 'breaks' the @ symbol being the first character.

(It used to be possible to switch off an option so that you didn't see @ messages between Homer and Marge, then Twitter stopped this - the howls of outrage brought it back, unfortunately as something from which no-one can opt out, as far as I can tell.)

Direct messages
Putting D or d as the first character will send that message only to the recipient (the @ is NOT necessary) but you can only send a D message to someone if THEY are following YOU.

HomerSimpson: d MargeSimpson I'm hungry...

will go from Homer to Marge and no-one else.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

How to clean a loo bowl with vinegar or "without chemicals" for the hard of thinking

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If you've got a bit of limescale in your loo bowl and you want a slightly sparklier version, try the following.

You will need
  • Gloves
  • Vinegar (I use distilled malt vinegar (clear in colour) from Sarson's, it's about 59p for 284ml but much cheaper stuff is available in bulk, I just get it from my local corner shop for convenience's sake).
  • Loo brush and / or old toothbrush (the plastic bit at the tip with the brush on is quite good for more stubborn limescale)
  • Cotton wool in strips, not the little balls but the stuff that is concertina-folded.
  • Small yoghourt pot type of vessel to remove water from the bowl (I use an old M&S container which had creme fraiche in it, and a smaller one which used to contain bicarbonate of soda).
  • Old sponge (optional, see point 3 below)
  • Bicarbonate of soda (optional, see point 6 - use for extra science fun)
  • Patience
The more limescale you have, the longer you'll need to leave it. For some areas you might need to do this process a couple of times or more.

1. Don your gloves
2. With the larger of the two 'vessels' start bailing out the water in the bowl. You need to get the water below its natural water line (as that's where the limescale will start to build up) and if your limescale is present further down the bowl then you'll need to use a smaller container to get rid of it.
3. If you want to get rid of the maximum amount of water, use an old sponge to soak it up from the bottom.
4. Take strips of cotton wool and soak them in vinegar - I just hold them over the open bottle and upend a few times in different bits so that some vinegar can spread onto the wool pad. They don't have to be absolutely sodden (it'll only trickle out) but enough that it soaks the whole pad. You can split a pad in half to reduce its thickness but they tend to break.
5. Place the vinegar-soaked pads onto the limescaled areas pressing down firmly.
6. If you've removed all the water from the bowl and want to get limescale off its bottom then you can just pour it in neat. At this point I sometimes add bicarbonate of soda because it fizzes. I don't think it really contributes that much, but it makes it feel a bit more sciencey. Don't add too much though or the fizzing might make you worry that your bowl's about to explode ;)
7. You'll end up with a loo bowl that looks a bit like Father Christmas with a wispy white beard all around it. Leave it for as long as possible. Anything less than an hour is probably a bit pointless - a few hours is fine, overnight is better.
8. Remove and discard all the cotton wool.
9. Before flushing use the loo brush and toothbrush to rub off some of the limescale. Some will come off easily, some will need to be chipped with the plastic tip of the toothbrush and some will be very resistant to your efforts and may need a second application.
10. Flush once or twice.
11. Admire your sparklier bowl.