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Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Continued mapping functions

I continue to be impressed with the functions that are standard in Google Fusion Tables. I discovered that you are not forced to have the same pointer for every entry (orchestra) in the table. Not only that but you can do a simple mapping to a range of different coloured icons.

Why is this useful? Well if you've been reading this column at all you'll know that I have fretted from time to time over what an "orchestra" actually is and therefore what warrants inclusion in the list. Because I've now added many types of ensemble it can sometimes be difficult to identify what you're looking at. So, with different colours (both dots in the map view and backgrounds in the main tables) I've started to make that choice a little easier, I hope.

Since the most easily chosen colours are five in number I've chosen five categories, representing broadly the most common four groupings and the "rest":

Let me know what you think.

Oh yes, and the total number of entries is now 900.

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Another milestone

Total Entries - 851

This was today's message from the program I use to build the site. Due to the fact that a number of ensembles appear on more than one page, the actual number of groups I now have listed is 800! That's a lot of groups...

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

A little adventure in domain-land

A largely quiet few months preceded this week's events which were prompted by some less than spectacular support from my web hosting provider. Some of you may have been wondering why my replies to your emails have been few and far between. This has been the result of a number of the popular email providers (Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL etc) blacklisting the mail server belonging to my hoster. I won't speculate as to the cause, but the result has been that many my outgoing emails have "bounced", albeit after usually more than a day which has been quite confusing.

Faced with an uncertain timescale as to when this problem was due to be fixed, I made the decision it was time to move - one in which I am not alone, it would seem. So in what I hope has been a relatively seemless migration the amateur orchestra's web site is now hosted somewhere different (I won't name names, this IS early days, after all), and I've learnt a lot more about domain registration and IPSTAGs and much more besides.

Oh, and this is probably a good time to thank publicly those folks who have generously picked items on my wish list as a "thank you" for the site. Nothing more welcome than an unsolicited thank you gift!

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Mapping online, and another little problem

Following the breakthrough with Google Fusion Tables, and an important new function that allows simple updating, I've now linked to the map version of the page from the front of the website, so it is now "in production".

I've also been notified of a little problem with the email links (they continue to be a challenge). It turns out that a "small change" I made a few weeks ago broke every single one of them. Luckily a little bit of diagnostic checking meant I was able to fix it. If you're interested, I put the full details in my blog.

Monday, August 9th, 2010

A breakthrough on the mapping front

As you'll have read below I've been contemplating a mapped version of the site for quite a while. So long in fact that during the time in which I've been trying to understand how to use the various mapping APIs to present the data those nice folks at Google have come up with a ready-made solution: Google Fusion Tables

Like many of Google's innovations, it's currently not a production environment, but a set of "lab" functions, but they seem to be very functional. In fact all I had to do was import the main data file that I use for the site, get Google to automagically geo-code the entries and hey presto, here's a map with all the orchestras plotted on it, with their details in little balloons when you click on them.

Never as simple as that, of course, since at the moment less than half of the 780 entries actually have a location in a form that Google can geocode. However, the tricky bit of plotting them is now straightforward and I can get on and collect postcodes for all the remaining orchestras....

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

A little re-formatting

I think that making the site into a map has lost a little focus for now. Meanwhile I woke up from a deep slumber with an idea for re-formatting the main tables. (Yes, sometimes I dream about this site). In simple terms I've moved the orchestra descriptions underneath the other information into what I hope is a slightly more efficient and clearer format. It makes the space for the rehearsal venue and contact information a little less cramped, although I'm sure I'll end up tweaking it during the coming weeks.

It all seems to look fine in the main browsers I test with, IE (8 currently), Firefox (3.x) and Opera (10.x), with just a little piece of strangeness in Chrome. For some reason it has decided to add the frame around the outside of the tables. Doesn't look too bad, but I've preferred them without for some time now. I've tinkered (extensively) with the style sheet options to try and make it work, and even with the excellent developer tools within Chrome I haven't yet pinpointed what's causing this. The tools did, however, alert me to a whole lot of madly formed html which I was able to fix in a flash! I've tested on a wide (1920 pixel) and a less wide (1280) screen and it still looks OK, and it even seems to degrade in a more readable fashion when I increase the screen magnification or decrease the window size. Phew!

As always, I'd be more than happy to have your feedback as to whether it looks better or worse or you just don't care. If you think that it would make sense to do some optimisation for very small screens (i.e. mobile phones etc), let me know.

Tuesday, April 6th, 2009

Another milestone

As the site re-generated this evening the program flashed up:

Total Entries - 750

Now, there are only 400 or so left for me to add postcodes to in the "Grand Map-Making Project". Since my last report in January 2009, I have made some strides in deciding how to map-enable the site, and the prototype code for generating the required co-ordinates is working. Not long now...

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Obfuscation at any price?

After a bit of to and fro emailing with the chair of one of the orchestras listed on the site, I had a bit of crisis of confidence in my mail obfuscation scheme. Since the main part of it relies both on some javascript to de-cipher the address and the mailto: tag to trigger a local email client, there are a number of points at which it can produce a less than optimal experience for the user of the site.

In particular, if you're running without javascript enabled you'll have a problem, although I have a warning that pops up in that case. Also, if you happen to run a slightly non-standard email client that doesn't integrate well with your browser or you're browsing from somewhere that has no client at all (e.g. using a webmail client in an internet cafe) you may also not be able to send an email direct to the orchestra of your choosing.

The solution? Well in time-honoured compromise style there's no real "solution", although I did like the sensible suggestion to place a more explicit warning on all of the pages pointing the user to the almost universal links to the orchestras' websites here by clicking on their name. That will probably have to do for now, or until the spammers stop. Ha ha.

Finally, for now, while researching possible other solutions I came across a very elegant and simple mechanism for obfuscating an email address which I've immediately used for my own contact details on this site. There is a clever stylesheet mechanism which allows you to change the direction that text is displayed. The net is that the email address displays the correct way round, but is stored in reverse. Neat. Thanks to Silvan Mühlemann for demonstrating the efficacy of this technique.

As always, I welcome your comments

Happy New Year!


Friday, September 4th, 2009

What's the cost for a listing on your site?

You are not the first to ask this. My usual response has been to say that there is no cost, the site costs very little to keep running, and the kind emails I get from many ensembles are enough of a reward.

This is still true, but for those of you that really want to give your thanks in a more physical way then you could take a look at my Amazon Wish List and see if there is anything there that you would like to send me!

The list is just a mirror of my private wishlist - I tend to add things more as a reminder for when I go shopping or Christmas, so it doesn't have a specific "orchestral" theme. If you can't see anything that is inside the amount that you think the service I provide on the site is worth - then don't worry - I really was not looking for any financial gains for running the site in the first place!

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

Not actually much news to add, even less progress to report on my attempts to turn the site into a fully map-enabled one. My primitive data storage system continues to destroy the detailed geographic data, which is making it a bit long-winded to add the necessary information. I'll working it out soon!

Meanwhile today's update (nothing new, but quite a lot of minor corrections) means that the site now has 651 entries on the 14 pages! I'm still grappling with a firm definition of which ensembles to include, in vain.

Oh yes, one other bit of news. I started a Facebook Group called UK Amateur Orchestras. Perhaps it'll get a bit more traffic than the Wikis I started?

Happy New Year!

Monday, March 17th 2008

Quite a long time since the last news update, and a couple of things to comment on. Firstly today marked the final demise of the old website location. Despite the many reported problems with Demon hosting, they were remarkably quick at removing all trace of my old web space and email hosting (within 5 minutes of my phone call). I'm expecting to get a set of emails from folks not able to find the site, but this should calm down. Site hits on the old site had fallen to near zero, and while referrals still continued, I'll gradually find them and sort them out.

You might notice the little box just to the right of this text. I'm experimenting with the web-based messaging interface, meebo. If I'm logged on you'll be able to use the box to send me an instant message. We'll see if it works and isn't abused! Let me know what you think.

Thursday, September 6th 2007

Rather an extended gap since the last site update. Summer holidays seem to have extended for a long period wrapped up with a busy period at work so I'm just attempting to catch up with the backlog. In doing so we've reached the 500 ENSEMBLE milestone!

Monday, June 25th 2007

When you start running a web site, one thing you start to find in your inbox is a pile of email from "well-wishers" wanting to help get your site noticed. They promise to register your pages with every search engine, robot, spider, or whatever to make sure you get the most hits possible.

When you want to retire a site, however, no-one ever tells you how difficult it's going to be! Because once your site has been around for a few years it IS in every search engine, robot, spider or whatever and it's almost impossible to remove it. As you might guess this is what I've found at the end stage of moving the site hosting. I'm still getting a stubborn 20-30 hits a week on the old site location (running at 300 or so a week on the new site), nearly all the hits resulting from Google searches. So I've been learning about robots.txt and meta tags, and hopefully I'll be able to remove the site completely soon...

Thursday, March 28th 2007

Stage 3 today - removal of all the pages from the old site location. Of course for now I've replaced them with a "moved" page which automatically redirects to the "new" location. I'll track how often it gets accessed before finally removing it - hopefully not too long so that I can discontinue paying for the space! There are a number of places where the old address is linked from - time to get on to Google and find them all...

Wednesday, March 27th 2007

Well I'm happy to say that the move seems to have gone without too much incident, just some residual tidying up to do, and so far no-one seems to have noticed. The Amateur Orchestras page now has its own host, and doesn't rely on a sub-section of my personal site, which is a relief. I can now get on and move that too, except this will mean changing the domain name which will be a bit more traumatic. If anyone has any good ideas for a nice domain name, I'm all ears.

Tuesday, March 26th 2007

I mentioned the change of hosting in January and of course the tyranny of choice has meant that it's taken me a long time to decide how and where to move the hosting of the site. It has been complicated by the fact that I also want to move my own pages, change my email address etc etc etc. Anyway, the net is that the decision is made and tomorrow I start the process of transferring the website from one server to another. Hopefully not too much will break - probably wishful thinking!

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

The email "obfuscation" appears not to have too many problems which is a relief. Of course it could simply be that no-one has visited the site in the last month and tried to get to an email, or everyone links to the orchestras directly. Anyway, I've not had any complaints in the month since I started the experiment.

Of course a New Year starting would be nothing if it didn't mean some kind of change. In the case of the Amateur Orchestras site this will very likely to be a change of hosting. Since it started I have actually held the pages on my personal site and used a website re-direction service to "pretend" that it's at This is becoming limiting in a number of ways, not least of which that my current ISP doesn't allow server-side scripting for personal pages. So during the course of the year I'll be moving the site (physically, not logically) which will probably break all the old pointers that folks have. So first, I have to track down all the people who point to my site that way...

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

It's been a while since anything significant changed with the site. The number of ensembles now stands at 447, with 475 entries once the duplicates are built in.

So naturally I wouldn't be writing this unless something significant HAD happened. Following an email conversation with one of the orchestras' contacts I've decided to try to alleviate some of the problems caused by the "harvesting" of email addresses from the site. I've chosen to use a mechanism that obfuscates the email addresses then uses a script to rebuild them when you click on the email links. I've tested it with IE, Firefox and Opera and it appears to work, thanks too to my willing external tester (for it was he who suggested it).

If you use a tool such as Proxomitron or disable scripts you will now be unable to easily send mail to the orchestra contacts. I anticipate a little difficulty with this at first - let the email comments commence!

Friday, June 30th, 2006

Following a recent collection of updates I've made a couple of changes to the website design, one very subtle and one not so subtle. The latter is in response to a comment that it is sometimes not obvious that to reach an orchestra's own website you have to click on their name in one of the main tables. So for now I've added a little icon to see if that helps. Let me know if you notice it!

In the process I discovered that some of my previous html is "deprecated" and that it's replacement is to use the float stylesheet property. Well I duly did this and also simplified the underlying table by using the same construction to display the email icons. In doing so I saved a bit of space and the layout is mostly more pleasing. Not perfect. Just a bit more pleasing.....

Monday, April 24th, 2006

A work trip to Italy and the Easter holiday are amongst the things that conspired to prevent me from making an update since March. And of course as soon as I turn my back a good crop of emails arrive, and hey presto the number of ensembles is now 420!

Thursday, March 16th, 2006

One of the things I find hardest about keeping this site is having to turn down a group for listing. I think when I started I'd intended to list only orchestras, you know the things with Strings, Winds, Brass & Percussion. As the more perceptive amongst you will have noticed I haven't managed to stick strictly to that criterion, so there are entries for amongst other things string-only ensembles and wind & brass only ensembles (typically called concert bands).

However, I decided some time ago that to avoid a potential mushrooming of the site I would not list chamber ensembles. An additional consideration was that the prime intention of the site was/is to match players to larger ensembles, and I wasn't sure whether it was the ideal place to bring together chamber players. I'm still not sure. Finding someone to replace the missing player from your wind quintet, for example, is a bit like match-making. You need someone who is compatible with the existing players, both in character and in playing ability. This, it seemed to me at the time, is best done personally rather than impersonally via a website. This is less important in a larger ensemble where the playing and personality differences are to some extent subdued by the conductor - ah, could that be it? The elusive definition I'm searching for - only conducted ensembles?

Of course that doesn't help the poor player who is desperate to play in a quintet but doesn't know anyone else. That was my thinking when I started the wiki (see the link above and the comments below). It hasn't exactly been a roaring success, but we'll leave it for a while longer to see.

If you are actually reading this and have any thoughts, please let me know!

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

After a few recent emails I've been prompted into starting an experiment to see whether some collaborative efforts might be worth trying. Specifically I've started up a "wiki" at which I hope could be the starting point for a set of bulletin boards and information exchange between players looking for ensembles and ensembles looking for players. At the moment I'm cavassing for organisational ideas for the space, so if you have any thoughts drop me a line or add your comments to the front page of the wiki.

Thursday, July 7th, 2005

Against the background of the terrorist attack in central London it seemed somehow surreal to be updating the site, perhaps that's enough said for now.

I checked the statistics, and I've been averaging 35 hits a day over the last four months. I don't know whether that's more or less than I expected.

Thursday, April 14th, 2005

Well it finally happened, complete meltdown of Windows on my PC. I'm a short distance into rebuilding my machine after trying (perhaps too hard) to salvage a working system after a power blip at the weekend stopped the machine from doing anything remotely like working. The good news is that I've made it as far as being able to once again automatically generate the web pages for this site - only four days. Great. What is interesting is what DOESN'T get re-installed....

Tuesday, March 8th, 2005

Well I clearly had the bit between my teeth this week! It turns out that my excitement at going over 350 entries was perhaps a little premature. I've finally dealt with my slightly flakey mechanism of keeping track of entries that were duplicated between regions (for boundary reasons alluded to below). As a result of doing that I discover there are actually 343 ensembles represented, which expands to nearly 360 entries. I've also re-written the page-generation code to cope with the new way I store the data, doing it the way I should have done in the first place. Doh.

You may also notice a little counter has appeared on the bottom of most of the pages. This is to help me optimise the site for the majority of users. So far the browsers viewing the site split 4/3 for Internet Explorer 6/Firefox, but it's far too early to draw any conclusions. Did I mention I usually use Opera?

Monday, March 7th, 2005

A concerted (!) effort today has brought the number of entries to over 350. I normally rely on word of mouth and osmosis to garner new entries to the list, but I've had a list of orchestras hidden in my browser bookmarks for a while. As it turned out some of them had already been added as a result of requests, and the remainder (largely from Scotland and East Anglia - not sure why that was) I've added today

One of the things that has begun to bother me about the pages is the somewhat arbitrary nature of the areas that the country is divided into for this collection. It raises its head particularly for orchestras whose home lies close to a boundary, and since the boundaries are rather loosely defined that can be a challenge. For example, is St. Albans really in East Anglia? Thinking people might say no, but when I "borrowed" the map in the first place I don't think I intended it to stay as it is. SO - if you have a better idea, let me know! Perhaps I could forestall some of the questions by putting a list of counties for each region? Should be simple, eh?


P.S. OK, I thought about and have added the county names to the title of each regional page - that'll save me having to think about the problem for another few months!

Monday, July 5th, 2004

I returned from holiday to an email from an observant orchestral player who spotted that actually finding my contact details wasn't as easy as it could be. In the redesign I completed last year I'd neglected to include a link to the form for adding an entry! Well, it's reappeared as a link off the task bar, and I took the opportunity to spruce up the backgrounds in various places. Let me know what you think - changing back can be done in the blink of a style file!

Thursday, January 29th, 2004

I'm managing to break the back of a rather large number of updates that have arrived over the last few months. My apologies to those who sent emails to request an entry for your orchestra towards the end of last year - it will appear, SOON.

I've just added, amongst others, the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra. How on earth I can have left this orchestra out for so long I cannot imagine, after all it is based in London and my original attempt at these pages started with a list of London orchestras in 1999. Oh well, at least that omission is now rectified.

Finally I'd like to add a public Thank You for the unsolicited emails of support I receive from time to time. These emails seem to indicate that these pages do sometimes act successfully as a recruitment advert.

Happy New Year!


Thursday, December 4th, 2003

As you may have noticed, the site has undergone a radical re-design. These appear to be obligatory for any website after a period of time is up! I hope that you find this one improves the site. Please let me know if you have praise or complaints.

For those that might be interested, two underlying things have changed:

These two combined should ensure more consistency between the pages of the site and a common viewing experience. This will of course depend on the capability of your browser in its support of CSS2. I preview the pages in Opera 7.2 (my usual poison), Internet Explorer 6, Netscape 7, Mozilla and Netscape 4.7 just to check what the style-sheet "challenged" will see. If something isn't quite right in YOUR browser, I'd be interested to hear from you


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