Thursday, December 28, 2006

ADSL Update

Attentive readers will know I've been suffering ongoing woes with my ADSL connection: slow downloads, intermittent disconnections, highly variable speeds.

On the day I left London to travel up north to visit my family, my connection was totally broken. It appeared that BT had just disconnected me. They weren't being malicious; it was part of the "fix", apparently.

According to my ISP, they had finally accepted there was a fault and were in the progress of performing a "lift and shift" on me. This isn't quite as unpleasant a procedure as it sounds and is, I understand, the process of disconnecting my line from one connection into their systems and moving it somewhere else.

If my ISP is to be believed, the reason for my multiple-day lack of connection was that they had "lifted" me before a suitable place to "shift" me to was available.

Anyhow, I was away at the time so didn't really care.

Upon my return last night, imagine my delight when my router was in Sync and thinkbroadband was reporting a download rate of over 5Mbps. Joy of joys!

I'm going to give it another day and, if it's still working, will call my ISP, thank them and tell them they can close the ticket.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


I am in Liverpool (visiting my parents and siblings) and have deliberately not brought my laptop home with me. Therefore, I am cut off both from my work email and from my feed reader. I thought it would be more painful than it is. Logging onto the computer without having a list of articles pre-downloaded for reading is a strange experience, though.

We bought my father a laptop for his birthday (which is tomorrow) and I have set up a wireless network for them so he can print and surf the web from downstairs.

So far, I have also avoided getting into any heated political arguments. I thought I was going to explode today when I read one of the most hypocritical passages ever seen in an article (in The Independent - where else). I managed to contain myself, however, and took my mother's advice. I've sent them a letter. That'll sort them out...

Virgin Trains

I have unexpected news to relate: I travelled on Virgin Trains on Friday 22 December and they didn't suck. Indeed, the journey was swift, comfortable, pleasant and punctual. Given the number of passengers wanting to travel before Christmas and the extra load thanks to problems at the airport, I think they deserve a round of applause.... well done Virgin!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Jingle Cats

Yes... I know.... linking to YouTube videos is soooo last year. But sometimes one just can't help oneself...

Tipping Etiquette

Readers, your help with a dilemma, please.

The development I live in has staff (building manager, three regular porters, groundsman, two cleaners). They're friendly, have been very welcoming and are very helpful.

What is the etiquette for tipping at Christmas? (Not whether but how much and in what form?)

Any rules-of-thumb?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Wireless USB

Please can somebody implement this idea for me?

I do most of my work and web surfing and blog reading from my laptop. Plugging in USB devices (memory sticks, printers, iPod) is a pain in the neck.

I want to have a device with several USB ports and with ethernet or wireless connectivity. I want it to work such that when I attach a USB device, it communicates with my laptop and provides the illusion that the device has been inserted directly into the laptop.

Let's call this imaginary device a Wireless USB hub.

Typical use-cases would be:

  • iPod docking station permanently plugged into this Wireless USB hub. When the iPod is plugged into the docking station, the Wireless USB hub would communicate with my computer, which would believe the iPod was plugged directly in, and iTunes would kick into action and synchronise my music
  • My printer would be permanently plugged into the Wireless USB hub. My computer therefore thinks the printer is directly attached. I can therefore print wirelessly.  (Note that Apple's AirPort Express offers this limited use case and does it quite well).

At a conceptual level, this shouldn't be too hard to implement...  Let's imagine a naive implementation of USB Plug'n'Play functionality in the operating system.  You insert a USB device and, after some magic, a function (in reality, probably lots of functions) are called on the operating system by the appropriate driver(s). The operating system may return results or perhaps invoke some callbacks or do some asynchronous magic.  The usual. A similar thing will happen once the device is fully recognised and is in use. 

The trick is to intercept these calls and fire them over the network to software performing the "mirror-image" functionality on the other side. And vice-versa, of course.

Now, I can envisage problems with latency, throughput and perhaps even mangement of state. But nothing that isn't insurmountable.

The reason I'm confident is that it appears somebody has already done it:

But it seems this solution is focussed very much at the corporate market and costs more than I want to pay. I've emailed to ask if they have a consumer version. If not, they should do!

ADSL progress

It appears that this is the week of ADSL positivity. First, Andrew reports that PlusNet are sucking less than they once did. And now, I can exclusively reveal that there is progress on my broadband, too.

After taking 54 hours to update a "flag" on my record to allow my ISP to book an appointment, BT finally decided that sending an engineer round might be a reasonable way to determine where the error on my line was located.

There is, of course, a problem when a problem is intermittent... what do you do if it isn't actually happening when the engineer comes to visit?

This is the dilemma I faced yesterday: my connection had been rock-solid for hours by the time the engineer arrived and was performing pretty well.


He plugged in his equipment and got on his mobile to the exchange. The opening conversation wasn't promising... general comments about the lack of any visible problem.  Just as I thought I would be hit with a £50 charge for claiming a fault when none existed, the noise on the line kicked in and the engineer saw what I have been seeing for weeks: the signal to noise ratio collapsed, the router lost its sync and he agreed that something was wrong.

He called me up a few hours later to say that he had gone to the exchange and run the same test there - and had seen the same problem so he believes the problem is with a piece of equipment in the exchange (a "line card"). He has opened a ticket to get it replaced, he says.

So, who knows... perhaps I'll get a stable broadband connection soon...

How exam papers are really marked

Via the ASI blog, an explanation of how exam papers are marked.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I haven't lost it...

Ben (a regular commenter on this blog) observed when we went round to his for lunch at the weekend that the shortest day of the year (21 December?) is not the same as the day with the latest dawn or earliest sunset (which was a few days ago, apparently).

At work today, somebody linked to an explanation. I didn't get to read it because it started off with an analogy about clocks that made me realise I hadn't done any mathematics for ages.

The example invited the reader to consider a regular analogue clock - one with a big hand and a small hand. The question was: assuming it starts at 12noon, at what time will the hands next line up exactly?

It's clear from inspection that it'll be somewhere shortly after five past one... but when, precisely?

I decided to find out.

After a bit of fiddling about, here is the solution I came up with. What I'm interested in knowing is: is there an easier way?

  • Let t be the time since noon in seconds
  • Let b(t) be how far the big hand has rotated at time t
  • Let s(t) be how far the small hand has rotated at time t

We can see the following:


s(t)= 2.pi.t/(3600*12)

So, when the hands are aligned, they must be at precisely the same angle.

Thus, at alignment, s(b)=b(t)+2.pi.n, where n is an integer.

To see why we need the 2.pi.n term, consider that the big hand may perform several full circles before it aligns with the small hand. Therefore, we have to consider the case where the alignment occurs without any "extra" loops, when the big hand has looped once, when it has looped twice, and so on.

Thus, cancelling where possible, we get

t/3600 = t/(3600*12) + n

Rearranging, we get

t = 12*3600*n/11

For n=0 we get the trivial result.

For n=1 we get t = 3927 3/11, which means the answer to our question is: five past 1, 27 and 3/11 seconds.

So there we have it.

(Actually, now I come to think about it, there are eleven alignments in any given hour 12-hour period, so an appeal to symmetry would yield the same result... i.e. an alignment every 12*3600/11 = 3927 3/11 seconds. Sigh...)

[UPDATE 2006-12-15 15:58. Thanks to Lee for spotting the error... there are not 11 alignments per hour; there are 11 alignments per 12-hour period.]

[UPDATE 2006-12-15 16:01. Talk about pedantic... apparently it is necessary to multiple the numbers by 12 as well as make it clear in the text. Good grief!]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

London's Toytown Train Station is suddenly all grown-up

It appears that Marylebone has sprouted two new platforms.

I was there last week and I can't say I noticed them. Where have they hidden them?!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Wireless Router Configuration Misery

The ongoing ADSL saga took a new twist yesterday evening. In addition to the ADSL side of things continuing its flakiness, the router decided to start playing up: it started freezing spontaneously.

The last time it did this, I traced it back to MSN Messenger - the D-Link 604+ firmware couldn't deal with it.

This time, however, I could find nothing to correlate the router's hangs with. The problem became worse and worse as the evening progressed (last night was a night in, after a late night on Friday).  I turned the router off before going to bed in case the problem was caused by overheating. No such luck: it froze within five minutes of turning it back on.

And so, this afternoon, after lunch with friends in Soho (at The Endurance... the best roast pork I've ever had in a pub... highly recommended), I popped over to PC World on Tottenham Court Road to pick up a new router. I had pre-ordered it this morning and, thanks for the "collect at store" system was able to get a 20% discount on the in-store price (meaning I paid less than most other online retailers were showing once you took into account delivery), was able to get it home today (no waiting for deliveries) and was ushered to the front of the (ten-long) queue to pay for it. Result!

Or so I thought...

I have just spent two hours of my life that I will never get back trying to set it up :-(

It all went so well to start with... it took less than sixty seconds to get it connected to the internet and to surf the web via ethernet. Getting the wireless set up, however, was a whole different proposition.

My first mistake was trying silently to "swap it out" so that the systems that relied on the old router (two laptops and my Apple Airport Express) wouldn't even spot the difference.

This meant enabling 128-bit WEP encryption.

One of the laptops connected just fine - which gave me confidence that I had configured it correctly. Sadly, laptop #2 and the Airport refused to connect. 

Laptop #2 could see the router and was able to try to connect. Sadly, it never got past the "obtaining IP address" phase... the router would just not serve an IP address.

Utterly maddening.

I'll spare you the details of the various things I tried to get it to work.

In the end, I gave up on my clever-clever attempt to switch the routers seamlessly and reverted to the more reliable approach of getting the basics working before trying to get clever.

It goes without saying that turning off the WEP security on the router and all the clients fixed the problems immediately.

Once this was done, I went back and turned security back on - but opted for the superior WPA (which my previous router didn't support). Updating the clients one-by-one resulted in a gratifyingly positive result.

An initial review of the evidence led me to believe that the router (a Belkin F5D7633uk4A) had a defect in its WEP support. Sadly, I think the problem is more subtle than that: the algorithm it (and the software on the first laptop) used to convert a text-string to a hex-string for the WEP password was different to the algorithm the Airport and Windows uses. How utterly stupid :-(

Is this really true?

Via Tim Worstall, I learn of a company (which employs tens of staff) that will shortly be put out of business as a result of a chain of events stemming from an inspector "misinterpreting" a form.

The article really does reward reading.

I'm not sure what's more scary: the prospect of having to fight such a faceless, intransigent bureaucracy or the thought that one's government would ever stoop so low as to pass a law designed solely to put a law-abiding, compliant employer out of business.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Important Magnet Update

Attentive readers will remember that I dropped my keys down the lift shaft last week.

This is the offending gap:

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Since the day of disaster, I have made some progress.

On Wednesday, my friend Ben lent me a magnet that he had extracted from an old hard drive (don't ask). Thanks to how it was packaged, it had the valuable property of providing a strong magnetic pull along one plane, with far less magnetism in other directions. This gave me confidence I would be able to lower it down the lift shaft without it sticking to the sides.

This is the magnet:

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The magnet is hidden between the two triangular-shaped pieces of shiny metal.

Full of confidence, I tried to use the magnet on Thursday evening. Unfortunately, even given its casing, it still had too much of a tendency to stick to the sides of the lift shaft and I didn't want to get it jammed.

I was ready to give up.

On Friday, I joined a conference call where I was due to talk a client through a project plan for a piece of work I am hoping they will engage us to assist them with.  I was somewhat surprised when the first question I was asked was "have you got your keys back yet?"!

A useful conversation ensued and the questioner, Martin, pointed out the rather obvious (in retrospect) fact that I could stick the magnet on a rigid pole to give myself far more control. Perhaps all was not lost after all!

I couldn't try this out last night as we had friends over for drinks.  Upon arriving back at home after lunch at a friend's today, however, we stopped to say hello to the porter. By chance, it was the same one that was on duty when I first lost my keys last week.

He amazed us by going into one of the back rooms and bringing out a three-metre long piece of wood, with a screw sticking out of the end that he had obtained for us. Fantastic!

We now had all the pieces we needed... a sufficiently long stick, a magnet and time.

A couple of minutes - and several layers of parcel tape - later, the magnet was adhered to the stick and I was poking it through the gap.

The keys were back in my possession almost immediately.


Upon returning the stick to the porter, he told me he had called Otis during the week and they told him their standard charge for retrieving keys is £150.  Ouch...

So, does anybody have any suggestions on what would be an appropriate way to show my gratitude?

Yoghurt Update

I observed in November last year that excess hygiene in hospitals was probably just as bad as insufficient hygiene.  The problem is that washing hands religiously and removing most bacteria just leaves a huge space for those left behind to multiply.  Given that the ones left behind are likely to be the nasty, hardy, scary ones, this is a problem.

The recommendation, only half humorously, I gave then was for doctors to wash their hands in yoghurt.

Regardless of the solution, whatever we're currently doing still isn't working:  Iain Dale has a story of another patient killed by MRSA, courtesy of the NHS.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sending letters to the Isle of Man

I asked on one of the internal forums at work and nobody knew the answer to this. Or, rather, nobody answered within 15 minutes of my asking...

So here goes: if I want to send a letter to the Isle of Man (from London), what stamp should I put on it? Is a regular first-class stamp OK?

[UPDATE 2006-12-06 10:31] I was too impatient. A colleague points me here - it seems a first class stamp should do just fine.

Steve Forbes

I had a busy day on Monday. As well as a client meeting in Preston and my nightmare train journeys, I had to be back in London to a deadline in order to make another business meeting.

Following that particular piece of stress (the return train was also delayed), I just had time to whizz across to London's Clubland (that's St James's, not Vauxhall...) to attend a talk being given by Steve Forbes, the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes magazine and two-time candidate for the Republican nominee for president. I went along with Andrew, who has also blogged about it.

Although my primary reason for going was the topic (his argument for the introduction of a flat tax), I must also admit that the chance to hear someone who got pretty close to running for president speak is not something that happens every day.

My mind is not made up on the flat tax and I'm not sure he advanced any arguments I hadn't already heard. However, the evening was still a big success and this was down to his mind-bogglingly large knowledge of economics and politics around the world.

The depth of his knowledge was astounding. He out-argued knowledgeable Brits on subtleties of early-eighties British politics and was able to give wide-ranging answers to questions that compared and contrasted the situations in multiple countries in multiple continents without sounding like he was showing off or trying to make cheap points.

The event itself had an interesting format. The host (from The London Junto) clearly knew a lot of people in the audience (e.g. Eamonn Butler from the ASI) and brought them in from time to time to add their perspective. I didn't warm to that approach at first but, with hindsight, I could see that it added a dimension to the discussion that is lacking when the audience is entirely anonymous.

All in all, an interesting evening.

[EDITED 2006-12-08 09:16. I spelled Eamonn Butler's name incorrectly - now fixed. He has blogged about the event here.

IP addresses by capita

Via the Adam Smith Institute blog, a fantastic diagram showing the distribution of IP addresses around the world, adjusted for population.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


I'm sure my readers are more knowledgeable about ADSL than I am so let's see if you can help me out.

In short, the connection is slow and highly variable. Here is a graph of upload and download speeds over the last week:

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You will observe that both upstream and downstream speeds are ultra-variable.

I have one telephone socket, which is of the type where the front faceplate can be removed to reveal another, hidden socket behind it.  The back of the faceplate has a plug in it such that when the faceplate is attached, the faceplate is "plugged in" to the "secret" socket.   I believe this socket is known as an "NTE5" socket. Look at "Part III" of this document to see what I'm talking about. (There are no wires attached to the back of my faceplate, which I assume means there are no extension sockets in the flat)

A sample screenshot from my router's "Line Condition" screen shows the following:

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You will observe the following:

  • The downstream attenuation is high
  • The number of errors ("FEC", "CRC", "HEC") that are being dealt with per second is horrific
  • The router claims that it is getting a downstream rate of 5120 Kbps. That may well be the speed it has negotiated but the errors are ensuring I get nothing like that.

Here is what I have done so far in an attempt to improve the situation:

  • Moved the router from the kitchen into the living room in case there was electrical interference in the kitchen
  • Stopped using the dimmer switch in the living room as I read this can cause interference
  • Re-routed the power to the router so that it is as far away from the phone line as possible
  • Tried disconnecting and powering-off the cordless phone
  • Bought a new micro-filter
  • Plugged the micro-filter directly into the "secret" phone socket
  • Upgraded the router's firmware
  • Spoken to the building manager to understand how the phone cable gets into the flat. He says that it is taken from a "distribution point" in the fire escape.


I have also spoken to my ISP several times and they have asked BT to check the line several times. BT reports no fault but the ISP agrees that there is a lot of "noise" on the line and that the number of errors is abnormally high.

So, given all this, what do you suggest I do?

My inclination is to request that a BT engineer comes out to do some tests (downside: I'll be charged £50 if they find no fault). 

Can anybody suggest anything else apart from that?

Monday, December 04, 2006

I was wrong... there really *are* excuses I haven't heard before

I should have known my trip to Preston today would be problematic when I heard that the Waterloo and City line was closed due to "excess dust on the platforms".

Yes, really:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Luckily, my route didn't require me to use it but it was clearly a warning sign.

My long distance trip, on Virgin Trains, started out well: by booking ahead I managed to get a first class ticket for less than half the price of a walk-up standard class ticket (and, crucially for expense purposes, for less than all other advance purchases).

However, as soon as we left Crewe, things went very wrong.  Network Rail had decided that having four tracks was excessive and that one was more than sufficient.   So we spent ninety three minutes stationary whilst trains in front of us and trains coming the other way took turns to use the single piece of track.

By the time I arrived at my client, it was time to go home!  I changed my plans to take a later train (I got the ticket office staff to allow it even though my ticket was inflexible) and booked a cab for as late as possible from the client to the station. Even so, this meant that I had far less time with the client than I would have liked.

I'm really not sure if there's a lesson in any of this but excuse of "dust on the platforms" is one I'll always remember.  I'm sure there's a poem about this.....  "For the want of a vacuum cleaner...."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

We need more magnet shops

No... not kitchen designers but shops that sell magnets.

I popped over to see the porters this afternoon because a micro-filter I ordered on Wednesday evening hadn't arrived and I was wondering if they had signed for it but forgotten to tell me (they hadn't; it just hasn't arrived yet).

As I stepped out of the lift on the way back to the flat, my keys fell out of my hands, slipped through the gap and landed in the pit at the bottom of the lift shaft.  ARGHHH!!!! 

This is not an immediate problem (I'm using the spare access fob and keys now) but it's a pain in the neck.  I returned to the porters and asked if they had access to the lift shaft. Unsurprisingly, only the lift maintenance company do and Otis - get this - did their annual inspection yesterday. So only 364 days to go until they return :-(

Now I am not the kind of person to give in and if Otis can't help me then I'll help myself.

So, let's consider the facts:

  • The keys are at the bottom of the lift shaft, which is about two metres lower than the ground floor.
  • The gap through which they fell is about three centimetres wide
  • I have no access to the pit
  • An analysis of the spare set of keys suggests that neither they nor the entry fob are magnetic.
  • The key ring may be magnetic (the spare set's key ring is but I changed the key ring on the stranded set which means I don't know for sure)
  • If I shine a torch through the gap, I can see the keys directly below. Apart from the keys, all I can see is some dust and lots of red elastic bands.... Tsk, tsk Royal Mail.

So, what are my options?

  • Lower a long, thin stick with a hook on the end through the gap and attempt to capture the keys.
    • Problem: I may push the keys further out of reach
  • Lower a long, thin stick with glue on the end and attempt to get the keys to stick to it
    • Problem: knowing my luck, I'll end up gluing the stick to the side of the lift and or sealing the doors shut or something
  • Lower a long, thin stick with molten wax on the end and touch it to the keys. Wait for the wax to set before lifting them out
    • Problem: actually, this may not be as foolish as it sounds...
  • The wax idea but with jelly
    • Problem: I don't have any jelly, silly
  • Lower a long, thin stick with double-sided sticky tape on the end. Attempt to capture the keys.
    • I'll probaby capture the dust long before I capture any keys.
  • Lower a magnet on a string. Capture the keys. Reel them in

Given the options, it strikes me that the magnet approach is best.

And this is where I am tearing my hair out... I can't find one for love or money!!!

I started by searching the flat:

  • There is one in each of my nice speakers. I don't want to ruin my nice speakers.
  • There is one in my guitar's practise amp (aside: what role is "practise" playing in that sentence? Is it a verb? An adjective? I do hope I shouldn't have spelled it with a 'c'). I don't want to break my amplifier.
  • There are three magnets in the bathroom cabinet. I tried prising one out with a knife. I almost cut off my finger :-(  
  • I thought about wrapping some metal-cored garden twine around a screwdriver and plugging it into the mains as a make-shift electromagnet before deciding against and realising that I couldn't remember whether an electromagnet needed AC or DC.

Realising that there were no useable magnets at home, I walked to Canary Wharf. The staff at Robert Dyas couldn't help. Waitrose had none. Neither did Tesco or Marks and Spencer or Boots or anyone else. Arghhh!

So, readers, I implore the entrepreneurial amongst you: open a magnet shop. For the love of all that is decent in this world, we need more magnet shops! 

Thursday, November 30, 2006

New British Airways tail-fin design

Guido reveals all.

"Signal Systems Failure"

I'm sure there must be an industry for producing new excuses for poor service.

The Central Line was messed up last week because of a fun problem:

"the loading of new computer software containing London Underground's revised timetabling information caused a total breakdown of the systems at the start of service"

Rather than describe this as a "signalling problem" or "signal failure" (the usual excuses when signalling is implicated in train delays), London Underground used the phrase: "Signalling Systems Failure".

As I'm sure you will agree, this sounds far more serious and special than a routine signalling "problem".

So special, in fact, that like a highly contagious virus, the concept has spread far and wide.  It started to afflict the Circle and District line earlier this week (I heard delays on those lines attributed to it on my way home from work on Monday).  The excuse has now evolved further and has infected those who explain delays on our main lines.

According to the BBC,

"Thousands of rail passengers were stranded in London because of a signalling problem.

Services from St Pancras to the East Midlands were cancelled on Wednesday evening because of a systems failure in the Luton area."

They've tried to be clever and have separated the phrase "systems failure" from the word "signal" but we know what game they're playing...

Quite astonishing.   I'm quite sure we'll see statistics in a few months showing how routine "signalling problems" showed a sharp decline in the autumn, with a footnote in the report commenting on how some extraordinary "systems failures" occurred but shouldn't be counted as they were so special.

Watch this space...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What would you do?

Via Tim Worstall, Jackie Danicki is seeking help identifying somebody she claims assaulted her last week.

As I read her post, I couldn't help wondering what I would have done had I been on the same carriage as her.

I would like to think I'd have intervened to help. However, I suspect I'd have hesitated.  I'd be interested to know what my readers would have done had they been in that carriage....

Money for old phones

Chris will be so proud of me.

I'm blogging about recycling and the environment and stuff.

You see.... if you dig out all the old mobile phones in your cupboards and drawers and go to this website, they'll send you a jiffy-bag. You stick your phones in the bag, send the bag to them and then they give you free money.

That's the kind of recycling I can put up with :-)


I live less than 0.7miles from my local telephone exchange. I pay my ISP for an "ADSL Max" service. This service promises "up to" 8Mbps connectivity. I understand that "up to" does not mean "at least" and it does not mean "close to" and it does not mean "around". But, surely, it doesn't mean "1.5Mbps on a good day and 300Kbps on a bad day?"

I'm currently on hold to my ISP.... I wonder what they will say.....

[Update 2006-11-28 10:12. After 15 minutes on hold, my ISP took one look at my line configuration and the stats I quoted at them and agreed there was a big problem. Either my filter is bad, there's something extraordinarily noisy in the flat (from an electrical point of view) or there's horrific contention at the exchange. They've raised a ticket with BT to investigate further. Progress, of a sort]

Small Changes, Big Pain

I commented last week that the forthcoming changes to Daylight Savings Time in the US is likely to cause big pain for lots of people.

It turns out that one of the biggest problems around (the updating of the multiple JVMs that everybody has) isn't as bad as I feared.

This article on IBM developerWorks introduces a new tool that can search a machine for IBM JVMs and offer to update them.


(Note: the version currently published is a version for early adopters. The best advice is probably to apply patches to existing applications and supported JVMs and then run this tool later on in order to catch any JVMs that were misssed)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Blackfriars Knitting Woman

Do any of my readers walk through the underpass beneath Blackfriars station during the week?

Quite often I see a fairly old woman who sells The Big Issue. She always stands in the same place, has a large collection of soft toys sitting on the ground next to her and always has a knitting project on the go.

She works longer hours than I do (she is there when I go to work and still there, still knitting, when I go home) and she is by far the most meticulous Big Issue retailer I've ever seen.

To my shame, I have never spoken to her (I will). In the meantime, does anybody know her or know her story?

Don't turn out the lights

It appears that some organisation called "Global Action Plan" are conspiring to ruin my view and it's just not on.

At night, the view of the towers at Canary Wharf from the flat is beautiful. It just wouldn't be the same if they turned off the lights.  Carbon emissions be darned!! :-)

Code Injection

When I first head about "Code Injection" I had one of those 'Doh!' moments... why didn't *I* think of that? It's so simple and yet potentially so dangerous.

This site explains that code injection isn't restricted to SQL and UNIX scripts, etc... there's a whole other world of pain waiting to be discovered. Be careful out there....

[EDIT: 2006-11-22 Minor change to make content reflect wikipedia description]
[EDIT: 2006-11-22 Simon - if you read this, I just looked at the teamroom... I really did blog this before I saw your link!... I'm not trying to pull a "Bruce"]

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale and Jazz

A very lazy day today.... loads of us headed over to the Princess of Wales in Chalk Farm for lunch and jazz before heading down to the Odeon in Camden to watch the new Bond movie.

I was pleasantly surprised by it.  It was slightly long and I thought they could have done a better job of reinforcing the end-to-end narrative (it felt more like a collection of smaller stories) but these are minor points. It was by far the best Bond film I've seen in ages.

Free Money!

For the last few years I've been very good at being one of those annoying people in shops who gives exact change or who hands over £10.19 when purchasing something for £2.19 (it never fails to confuse the cashiers). This means that low-value coins (1p, 2p, 5p) don't build up in my pocket.

However, I've only started doing this recently and I have a big back of coins from years ago.

Yesterday, I solved this problem. I remembered seeing a machine in a supermarket some months ago that promised to convert loose change into "real" money (for a fee) and decided to make us of it. A quick google search turned up a company called Coinstar ( and it turned out that my nearest machine was at the Whitechapel Sainsbury's.

I hopped over there (on the tube.... walking from Limehouse to Whitechapel is far too scary a proposition; I'm a wimp).

The market stalls by Whitechapel station were interesting: some good value fruit and veg stalls and lots of people forcefully trying to sell DVDs of the movie "Borat". Given that it is still showing in the cinema, I have to assume these copies were somewhat less than 100% legal.

Regardless, I made my way to Sainsbury's and located the machine.  It was like being a child at the fair again.... so much fun!  I poured my bag of coins onto the mesh container and then used my hands to feed it into the narrow slot.  The sound of clanking and clinking coins filled the store and attracted the attention of pretty much every shopper in the fresh flowers and fruit and veg section.

After further clunking, a voucher popped out and, after the fee, I had turned my dead bag of coins into just over ten pounds. Result!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Milton Friedman is dead

I came late to the Milton Friedman party. A friend recommended I read "Free To Choose" earlier this year and it changed the way I think about a whole array of issues.

I first heard him speak only a few months ago - on one of Russ Roberts' EconTalk PodCasts. It was clear then that he was very frail.

CNN has a piece and Andrew and Tim have also written something.

The Guardian can usually be relied on to produce a mean-spirited take on things and Richard Adams obliges.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Project Definition Workshops

I've been in Warwick today to attend the first portion of a PDW we're running for a client.  I wish I could have stayed longer; the project is fascinating and I enjoy working with their people. It's always good to work with smart, technically astute people who also have a grip on the business side of things.

Health Tip

When intending to catch a train, don't delay leaving a client meeting too late or you'll have to run most of the way. Running from IBM Warwick to Warwick Parkway Station with a heavy laptop bag and a winter coat is not recommeded.

I feel dizzy and the train wasn't on time anyway :-(

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The cost of "small" changes

I just received an email to remind me that the United States government made some changes to when Daylight Saving Time begins next year (Link to Californian State page but the principle is the same)

The stated reason is to reduce energy consumption.

However, I wonder if those implementing this change have any idea what a massive cost has been imposed on the world economy?

Just look at a list of the affected IBM software products.

Or the adjustments required by users of Microsoft products.

Or Sun...

The same search for Oracle (changes to dst 2007 yields nothing official-looking.  Boy are their customers in for a shock!

And that's just some major software vendors (and Sun... ho ho). We can add in the impact on the countless independent software vendors and businesses around the world with home-grown software. 

Add in the costs of missed meetings, VCRs recording the wrong shows and the effects on cell-phones and car radios and more and you quickly see quite how much work is involved in dealing with this change.

It's good to see that organisations are getting on top of this (well, some of them are...) But I think the true cost will prove to be far higher than anyone would have predicted when passing this change to the law.

[Usual disclaimer: I'm speaking for myself and not my employer. My opinions are my own. I have no idea whether my employer regards this change to DST positively or negatively]

Monday, November 13, 2006

State of the internet...

... and of investment banking regulation.

A colleague on their internal IBM blog linked to a Morgan Stanley report on Web 2.0. It caught my attention because it has Mary Meeker's name on the front of it. My readers may remember her from the first internet bubble...

Anyhow, the slide deck is as interesting as reports of this nature usually are (that is: not particularly) but what caught my eye was the final four pages.

In ultra-small print, there are more disclaimers, disclosures and regulatorily-inspired data points than in the main body of the document itself. I knew the fallout of the bust had resulted in big impacts but it's only when you see a report like this that you realise quite how many resources are now spent on compliance. Scary stuff.

IBM to buy a bank?

It would appear from the Associated Press that IBM are teaming up with Citigroup to buy a bank!

Quite clearly, I have no inside knowledge of this deal but, if true, it sounds like it could be a great idea. Guangdong Development Bank, it is reported, is financially weak and I it may be the case that its IT systems would benefit from work. Assuming this is so, IBM and a large bank could, together, engineer quite a transformation.

This will be one to watch.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ticket Touts as a positive influence on society

I asked for arguments against ticket touting on this post and received some good responses - including arguments I hadn't heard before.

Firstly, let's dismiss one absurd argument:

The argument that motivated me to talk about this topic was a truly malign comment I heard on XFM last week. The DJ was referring to the fact that tickets for their "Winter Wonderland" event had sold out and were available on eBay at "inflated" prices. Because some of the ticket price goes to charity, the DJ claimed that these touts were "stealing" money from the charity.

That statement, clearly, is a vicious lie: it matters not one jot who buys the ticket; the donation is paid from the initial ticket price and would be made whether the purchaser was a "tout" or a "fan" (whatever those terms mean).

However, there are some better arguments.

Jon writes:

"if touts didn't bulk-buy tickets in the first place, they wouldn't sell out so quickly in the first place and normal human beings could buy tickets for reasonable prices instead. I.E., the market for touts is created by the touts."

This is really an argument that we shouldn't allocate on price but should allocate based on people's willingness to queue in line for a ticket.  In cases where more people want tickets than there are tickets available, it's the same as saying that those who can't get in the queue at the right time or jump through some other hoop will have to do without.

In other words, it's an argument that says that they way you demonstrate your desire for a ticket is by being willing to give up lots of time or incur inconvenience rather than by the more usual method of paying more for it. I'm not sure the lesson of history is that scarcity, queues and rationing is a desirable goal.

trp (Is that you, Tim?) makes several arguments.

His first is that touts don't pay tax or otherwise act as good businessmen. I think that argument can be dismissed out of hand as irrelevant. If somebody fails to pay tax or breaks the law, they're being naughty regardless of the line of business they're in.  If, on the other hand, they are forced to run their businesses because of the questionable legitimacy of their enterprises then we're getting into a dangerously circular argument.

trp's next good point is one about consumer protection: you pay market price to a tout but any rights you have (e.g. to a refund if the concert is cancelled) are restricted to face value.

It's a good point but I think there are two good counter-arguments

Firstly, this is an argument for promoters to start pricing more realistically (i.e. by underpricing and hence incenting the activities of touts, they are exposing their ultimate customers to uncertainty and risk)

Secondly, as a purchaser, you know this is the case when you purchase the ticket and so should take it into account when considering how much to pay. (i.e. the small but non-zero risk of losing the difference between market- and face- value should influence how much you're willing to spend)

trp then goes on to make another good point.

To understand it, you must first endure one of my pro-touts arguments.  My claim is that touts provide a valuable service to promoters by buying tickets early and in bulk. The latter service lowers transaction costs and the former lowers the risk for promoters (the risk of selling huge swathes of tickets has been transferred from the promoter to the touts).

trp's point is that this transfer of risk results in the problem that information is lost: the promoter doesn't know how many tickets have been sold to people genuinely intending to come (and hence intending to spend money on drinks and merchandise).

I think this problem is easy to dismiss: the market price for tickets could very easily be used to infer how many tickets have ultimately been sold.

Finally, trp closes the loop and raises the "problem" of social engineering. Often, promoters want to exercise control over who attends their event: perhaps they only want "home" supporters in one stand and "away" supporters in another. Alternatively, perhaps the BBC wants to ensure only "poor" people attend a screening of a new show.

In the first case, I agree that public safety may be a valid reason in some cases for restricting the secondary market. However, I think the problems are overplayed and are actually a smokescreen for those who want to benefit from preventing tickets selling for their true value.

The second case has no merit whatsoever (in my very humble opinion). Polly has the best rebuttal to it.

She says:

"Sometimes a benevolent impressario, such as the BBC, puts on a show with a limited audience and it hopes to give the most deserving in society the opportunity to benefit. It feels resentful when the most deserving in society decide that they prefer money to the well-intentioned show, and sell the tickets to those who are less deserving, but value the show more. In a sense the impressario feels that it still owns the tickets, though they have been given away freely."

In other words, if you claim to know better than somebody else what is good for them then you deserve what you get. Paternalism is a nasty little habit and I resent any attempt to tell "the poor" or any other group of society what they can or cannot do with their life or their assets.


At its heart, the overall "touting" issue is this: promoters often deliberately underprice tickets for their events.

Their reasons are multiple:

  • They may not know the demand in advance and don't want unsold tickets on their hands
  • They may want to sell the tickets at a price the "fans" can afford
  • They may want to attract certain kinds of attendees (e.g. students) to create the right atmostphere
  • They may want to subsidise the ticket price to leave attendees with enough cash to spend on other items inside the vanue

The first is a good reason for touts (they allow the true value to be discovered at minimal risk to the promoter)

The second is an unrealistic intention: if somebody is selling something for less than it is truly worth, there is an irresistable pressure for somebody to step in and capture the difference between the true- and face- value for themselves.

The third point (desire to attract "students" or whatever) is also a good one... some bands would be aghast if their audience turned out to be hundreds of middle-aged couples rather than skinny indie kids with bad hair. However, there are other ways to ensure a majority of attendees are of a certain type: ensure facilities or other ancillary aspects of the experience are relatively less attractive to those you don't want to come

Finally, the fourth point could be resolved by including "drinks vouchers" or something of that sort with a more-expensively priced ticket.


So, there we have it. trp has given me pause for thought and it took me longer than I expected to rebut Jon's point (not sure I've done it justice yet) but I still think I'm on the right side of the argument :-p

Price Discrimination in action

Tim Harford finds it hard to talk about anything other than price discrimination and I'm beginning to understand why.

The basic idea is that, as a vendor, you want to maximise the amount of money you make. If you charge a lot for something, those able to afford to buy the item will pay for it but those who can't will not.  If you lower your price to attract the more price sensitive shoppers, you inadvertently give a discount to people who would have willingly paid more.

What is one to do?!

Tesco and other retailers do it through such tricks as dressing up similar products in different ways (price sensitive customers get low prices by buying unattractively labelled "value" lines and less sensitive customers willingly hand over gobs of cash for similar products in nicer boxes with "finest" written on them).

Another of Harford's examples is Starbucks: they'll sell you a cheap "short" latte if you ask for it specifically (but they don't advertise it so that only the truly price sensitive - those willing to ask "do you have anything cheaper?" - benefit) and will willingly put syrrupy liquids in your cappuccino if you ask them to - for a high price.

I realised twice this weekend that also does something similar (I'm probably late to this party...)

I will be spending New Year with some friends at a cottage we've hired in Ludlow. I tried to book my train tickets last night. The first price you see is the easy, no hassle one:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

£51  for a standard class return

£117 for a first class return

But wait.....!  Let's click on the "2 singles could be cheaper" link and see what happens...

If you're willing to sacrifice a little flexibility, look what happens: 

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

That's right.... not only are two singles cheaper for standard class (£42 vs £51), it's also cheaper to go first class  (£48).

So I'll be travelling to Ludlow in First Class for less than the less price-sensitive would pay for a standard class ticket.


Of course, for every good article, balance must be restored

John Naughton's incisive piece in today's Observer requires, of course, an imbecilic piece to balance it out.

Thankfully, Will Hutton (as usual) delivers.

Will makes an impassioned defence of the BBC (saying that it is right that we should be forced to pay ever increasing sums for it). As Tim Worstall points out, Will's argument can be distilled down to: "The poor should be hit with a regressive tax so that I, a wealthy upper middle class type, can get the TV I like."


Newspaper journalists as pets

There's a good piece in the Observer today about the failure of newspaper editors (and others in the media industry) to realise that the reason young people don't buy many newspapers is not the fault of the young people.

"Now look round the average British newsroom. How many hacks have a Flickr account or a MySpace profile? How many sub-editors have ever uploaded a video to YouTube? How many editors have used BitTorrent? (How many know what BitTorrent is?)

And while some of our teenagers' interests coincide with ours, many do not. Here, for example, are the top blog tags on Technorati last night: Bush, careers, college, comedy, Congress, death, Democrats, elections, Flickr, gay, Halloween, Iraq, Microsoft, money, Republicans, Saddam, Ted Haggard, vote, war, breaking-news, tagshare, YouTube. Some you'll recognise. But you won't see much about many of these in the papers.

These are the future, my friends. They're here and living among us. They're not very interested in us, and I'm not sure I blame them. The best we can hope for is that one day they may keep us as pets."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Lord Mayor's Show

I popped along to the Lord Mayor's Show today (or, rather, I emerged from Bank station and found myself trapped in a crowd).

I most enjoyed seeing a DeLorean in "Back To The Future" styling drive past.  I'm not really sure what that has to do with the event but things don't always have to make sense :-)

DLR update

It is getting tedious now.

I was delayed on a Bank-bound train yesterday because a train in front was experiencing difficulties in the tunnel.

I repeat my previous questions: what on earth is going on?

How many people work for the UK's probation service

I was only giving Thursday's "Question Time" partial attention this week so I may have misheard something.

But I could swear I heard one of the panellists claim that 20,000 people work for the UK's probation service and they collectively oversee 14,000 "clients."  Her numbers were not challenged by the host or any of the other panellists.

Are those figures really true? Is there really more than one member of staff for each ex-prisoner "supervised"?  In the light of the recent revelations concerning the shocking lack of supervision, what on earth are they all doing with their time?

Why do we regard ticket "touts" as evil?

It appears to be generally accepted that ticket "touts" - those who buy tickets for events at face value and sell them on at market value - are somehow malign.

Ignoring events where tight control over who purchases a ticket is important (the Register has an example of where this may be important... not that I'm convinced), can anybody make a credible argument for why those who trade tickets to events are any more evil than those who trade fruit and vegetables or those who trade shares or those who trade anything else?

I think I have a pretty robust argument for why ticket "touting" is a good thing that should be encouraged but I'd be interested in hearing the "anti-" arguments first....

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Taking WebSphere Process Servers into production

Via David Currie, I learn that Charlie Redlin has started a series of articles on how to take WPS into production.

On this subject, when Charlie talks, you should listen.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Is it wrong to post links to flash animations?

If so, I am a bad person.

If not, then take a look at this cool clock. I think I stumbled across it in the b3ta newsletter (so a hat-tip to them, if so).

Either way, it's my screensaver now. That's a big deal. I don't normally do screensavers.

The Economist Business Travel Index

I subscribe to the Economist, keep the current copy in my laptop bag and read it when travelling for work. I find it serves as a useful proxy for how much of my life I spend travelling on business.

Normally, I find that my "Economist Stress" is a weekly occurrence... I get to Thursday evening and I haven't finished it. This is a good sign: it means I haven't spent too much time travelling.

This week, thanks to multiple trips to Bedfont and Hursley, I completed reading it this morning. No wonder I'm tired!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Feeling Gloomier

We went to London club night "Feeling Gloomy" in May and went again on yesterday evening.

It was another excellent night - where else would you hear Pulp's "Babies", Tammy Wynette's "Stand by your man", Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and more Smiths songs than you could shake a stick at within thirty minutes of your arrival?

Attempting to walk home from Islington to Wapping was probably not a smart idea.... defeat was admitted and a cab hailed somewhere around Bishopsgate...

The Emperor and the Tiger

After all the furore surrounding my local council's Bonfire Night celebrations, I decided I had to go and see for myself.

In its wisdom, Tower Hamlets council decided that a bonfire and a few fireworks would not suffice and so they commissioned a light, sound and pyrotechnic extravaganza at Victoria Park.

We invited a few friends over for drinks and pizza and then walked to the park along the Thames and the Regent's Canal. The walk was beautiful - fireworks lighting up the river and the canal - and the event itself was worth the walk.

Great use of light, some larger-than-life-size animals (clearly modelled on the Sultan's Elephant) and a fantastic firework display.

I wasn't bothered that they chose to base the evening on a theme other than Guy Fawkes; it was simply an interesting vehicle around which to hang the lights, sounds and fireworks.

So, Tower Hamlets Council, you know I can't approve of your frittering away my money in such a cavalier fashion but, given that you did, I'm glad you spent it this way rather than on yet another dull bonfire and firework party. 

Saturday, November 04, 2006

I am economically literate!


via the ASI's Blog Review 37, we find The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis' Economic Literacy Test.

I scored 13 out of 13. Phew!

SOA Tips 'n' Tricks

Chris and Andrew have launched a new blog, SOA Tips 'n' Tricks. It is dedicated to discussion of - and advice on - how to get the best out of the products in IBM's SOA portfolio.

It's looking good already.

Great idea, guys...

I must take issue with the name, however. As English is a living language, we should respect de facto punctuation rules. As Guns N' Roses taught us all those years ago, the correct name for the blog should be Tips N' Tricks.  Tut.

So, lose the initial apostrophe and capitalise the 'n', guys. Forget what you were taught at school and feel the ROCK!

Crossing a busy railway concourse

I described how to avoid crashing into strangers without slowing down several months ago. Although I have yet to receive any international prizes for contributions to conurbial efficiency, I think it is just a matter of time.

However, my technique involves a large amount of lurching and corner turning. Could, I wondered, there be a solution to the problem that does not involve such gymnastics?

I was given reason to consider this problem when I was at London Waterloo earlier this week.

The problem at Waterloo is that the underlying assumption in my earlier solution does not hold. In my previous solution, the assumption was that you are fighting against a crowd that is walking in a uniform direction (directly at you, in fact)

At Waterloo, by contrast, people act as if they are acting out a random walk (indeed, I'm fairly sure that most of them are there solely to get in the way of others). People are milling around by the departure boards, people are walking to and from the stairs to the underground, people are walking to and from the platforms and between the platforms and the ticket machines and the shops. Other people are carrying precariously balanced cups of coffee as they massage their ticket out of their wallets to avoid stopping as they approach a ticket inspector.   And while all this chaos is unfolding, the incessant beep, beep, beep of electric buggies and clank of rubbish carts is pervasive.

What, readers, is one to do?

The solution, counter-intuitively, may be to disregard the advice of my earlier result and, instead, resolve never, ever, to change direction. Instead, modulate your speed. That is: as you see the other station users inconsiderately embark on paths that will cross yours, make no attempt to divert. Instead, slow down (or speed up) in order to ensure your paths do not cross.

I have tried it (once) and it almost worked.

Therefore, I'm pretty sure I'm on to a winner here.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Mine your own business

I was in Westminster last night to view an IEA-organised screening of a new documentary on the "dark side of the environmentalist movement", called "Mine your own business".

It has been described (as Tim Worstall points out) as "using a style reminiscent of Michael Moore, whose film Fahrenheit 9/11 lampooned the Bush administration"

The Telegraph reported that the film-maker, Mr McAleer, "lured environmentalists into making statements that were false or patently ridiculous."

I think that's a little unfair. These people were not tricked; they were jaw-droppingly, outrageously dismissive of the desires, hopes and needs of those they were claiming to speak for and were unashamedly brazen in doing so: they really did believe that they knew best, that they knew better than the locals. In other words, they were acting as imperialists of the worst kind.

I thought the documentary would have benefitted from slightly tighter editing (a few minutes could have been cut out), some of the subtitling needed proof-reading and I think the film-makers made a mistake making their biases so clear so early in the film.

But none of this detracts from the valuable purpose this film served: regardless of which side of any developmental argument one stands on, it was important to see a rebuttal (however flawed) of the core arguments rolled out whenever a major project (such as a mine) is proposed.  I suggest supporters of WWF or other environmental charities watch this film: it may challenge some of your beliefs but, even if it doesn't, you will at least be equipped with better ideas on how your leaders should present themselves in public :-)

Richard's Economic Beliefs Questionnaire

I've long wondered why it is possible for people to hold utterly opposite views on matters that are resolvable by examination of evidence.

A classic example is whether top-down, centralised, redistributive economies are better than decentralised, competitive free-market economies.

Without having to provide examples of "pure" examples of either, there are enough examples along the continuum to tell us which works best.

And then it dawned on me... perhaps the anti-free-marketeers are actually arguing about another point.

So here's my thought experiment.

Imagine two possible countries (not based on real ones; please don't debate whether such places exist!):

  • Country one: everybody earns £2,000 per year - total equality
  • Country two: the poorest earn £10,000 per year and there is a range of incomes up to mind-bogglingly large salaries - great inequality but even the poorest are better off than those in country one.

Which would you rather live in?

My suspicion is that free-marketeers would vote for country two because everybody is richer than in country one and that those opposed to economic liberalism would vote for country one because of the gross inequality in country two.

Have I characterised this correctly?

The Tragedy of the once-great DLR continues

The Docklands Light Railway taught me a useful lesson today: just because you think things can't get any worse, it doesn't mean they won't.

The warning signs were there this morning. I had meetings in Bedfont today so passed through Bank on my way to Waterloo (and on to Feltham). The DLR's Eastbound platform was utterly packed - far more so than normal. I chuckled to myself at all those poor people whose journey to work takes them with the flow rather than my journey which, more often than not, takes me against the flow and so makes for a more pleasant experience. Ha!

I shouldn't have been so smug. I left Bedfont earlier than normal this evening as my meetings were over and I could do the rest of my work from home. This meant I was passing through Bank at rush hour.

I walked right into Serco's latest masterpiece: somebody in their head office has discovered combinatorics.

I have previously blogged about recent DLR failures due to train failure, points failure and signal failure.

Well, they're moving onto combinations of excuses now. This evening's calamity was the result of: "signal failure caused by a previous train failure".


How to deal with an annoying colleague...

Courtesy of, a warning about what can happen if you push your colleague just a little bit too far...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

SOA Facts

Courtesy of Andy, a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to the basic tenets of Service Oriented Architectures......

(I think this is an example of what people sometimes call "humour"... but I'm not sure...)

Whatever next? Think Tank conferences in Second Life

Via the Stockholm Network, I learn of a forthcoming public policy institute seminar in Second Life.

"Eudoxa, a think tank dedicated to describing the effects of emerging technologies and their societal impact is therefore organizing a seminar on public policy issues. Director Waldemar Ingdahl will discuss how virtual worlds impact on economics, on entertainment and politics and how they open up for a host of new opportunities for interaction. How can public policy groups and activists use virtual world? Can virtual worlds improve local democracy? The seminar will be held on Uvvy Island in the virtual world Second Life (please read more on its webpage at on Friday November 3rd at 19h00 Central European Time (13h00 EST, 10h00 PST)"

London Underground Geographic Maps

Redmonk's James Governor points to this fantastic collection of maps of the London Underground that would have Harry Beck turning in his grave....

[Update 2006-11-01 15:09 My colleague, Cameron, also recommends this book:]

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hypochondriacs of the world unite

Government intervention in a sphere of life is rarely desirable and the UK's National Health Service is an excellent example. (My take: completely separate commissioning/procurement of health services from provision. Argue about the role of the state in the former and accept the manifest obviousness of the need for private responsibility for the latter).

However, every so often, something good comes out of it. Browsing for information on something completely different, I discovered the NLH Question Answering Service.

It appears to be a beta but for the even mildly hypochondriac, there is a lifetime's worth of diseases to worry about. Excellent :-)

Firefox 2.0 backlash begins

Slashdot is reporting on problems with Firefox 2.0.

I like the new look of Firefox 2.0 but I can't say I've noticed any other noticeable improvements.

I have noticed new problems, however.

The one that is annoying me most is that, sometimes when I open a new tab the keyboard focus does not move to the address bar. Sounds trivial but is actually infuriating.

I still use Firefox as my default browser but IE7.0 is certainly going to give them a run for their money.


My first job at IBM was in the development organisation at the Hursley Lab. The claim back then was that if Hursley was a software company in its own right it would be the fifth or sixth biggest in the world. The story then went on that IBM Software Group was the second biggest overall (after our friends in Redmond).

I was surprised, therefore, when I read this IBM press release last week. Look at the last paragraph:

"Oracle is the world's largest enterprise software company"

Yes. That quote really did appear on an IBM Press Release. I did a double-take at the time and promptly forgot about it.

Well... John Simonds in SWG Analyst Relations has just pointed out something interesting... 

"IBM Software Group Surpasses Oracle in SW sales to become Number 2"

So... perhaps the press release was right after all. Oracle may, indeed, have overtaken us at some point.

Good to know it was only a temporary aberration :-)

New Twenty Pound Note

Woo! If BBC News 24 is to be believed, Adam Smith will replace Elgar on the Twenty Pound note from the middle of next year.

Nothing from Madsen and Co yet..... am sure they'll have something to say about it tomorrow :-)

I started reading Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" earlier this year. I found it pretty hard going and ground to a (temporary!) halt about half way through.

What I managed to read by that point, however, was astonishing... his insight into incentives and the nature of markets is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it.

What amazes me, however, is not how relevant he is but the extent to which people who should know better choose to ignore him.

[EDIT 2006-10-29 22:34 Report now on BBC online]

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I think I may *finally* understand Comparative Advantage

As Tim Worstall points out, the principle of comparative advantage may well be the only non-obvious, non-trivial result in the social sciences.

The idea is easy to state: even if you are better than somebody else at everything, it may still be beneficial to trade with them. The reason why is explained here.

Café Hayek continues to be on the first blogs I turn to in my newsreader each day and Don Boudreaux has an enviable talent for rendering economic arguments in ways that one can readily understand.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Early Binding vs Late Binding

I was asked a good question by a reader of my recent developerWorks article today.

The question was about WebSphere Process Server's support for late binding. This is a powerful feature that allows multiple versions of a business process template to be "live" in a system at the same time.

This means that you can deploy a new version of a process (e.g. to change how you handle a special case or to reflect a new offering) without having to worry about whether this will mess up the currently executing processes; they'll continue to run according to the original definition.

The question I was asked was, in essence: "I've tried it and it doesn't work. What gives?"

If you find yourself in a similar position, the trick is to remember that sometimes you don't want late binding.  As soon as you realise this, the solution becomes clear.... if there are two alternatives, there must be a way to specify what you want!

For the sake of brevity, I will assume you are familiar with Process Server and will not explain my terms... the rule of thumb to use is: "if you wire two components together using an SCA wire, you'll get early binding. If you invoke a process using the BPC API, you'll get late binding". Easy :-)

Can you see what it is yet?!

Diamond Geezer has a fantastic quiz on his blog today.

Using the principle that tube maps distort reality, can you apply a bit of mental manipulation to determine which tube lines are represented by each of these diagrams?

The pictures are well worth a look even if you don't participate in the quiz :-)

Answers in the comments to his post.

[EDIT 2006-10-25 00:03: Diamond Geezer has pointed out in the comments to this post that including his image directly in my post is probably a little impolite. I've removed it but urge you to look at his post anyway... it's rather cool]

I've just about had it with the DLR

We have a new excuse today.....  having exhausted "train failure", "signal failure" and "points failure", the excuse for my aborted journey on the DLR this morning was "Train stuck in tunnel". Classic.

I wonder if my email to will receive a reply.


Dear Sir,

I have been a regular user of the DLR for several years now and have had nothing but good things to say about it. Its reliability, frequency of service, cleanliness and speed has been exemplary.

However, over the last couple of months, reliability has been appalling.  My journeys have been disrupted by points failures, signal failures, train failures and more. Today was a classic example: I understand one of the trains in front of mine got stuck in the tunnels at Bank. I had to detrain at Shadwell and use the East London Line instead.

Can you let me know what you are doing to remedy this precipitous drop in the quality of the service you offer please?

Thank you,

Richard Brown

[EDIT: 2006-10-25 22:41 - I received a reply from Serco within 24 hours. It didn't answer my points directly but  did acknowledge that there had been problems recently and that they're trying to improve things. Top marks for responsiveness]

Monday, October 23, 2006

Speaking of ideas...

The other day, Andrew was musing on the importance of patents to IBM and other technology companies.

It would appear that Amazon are about to learn more about such things...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

I wish somebody had told me this before we bought the flat...

It would appear that the borough I live in (and have lived in for the last two and a half years) is the second worst place to live in the UK.

I'd love to know what criteria were used to come to this conclusion. Having one of the most breathtaking river walks in London, being home to Canary Wharf and imposing minimal journey times to central London makes this a remarkably pleasant place to live.

(Yes, yes.... I know.... not all of Tower Hamlets is as nice as the bit I live in.... but even so.... I know of some pretty unpleasant places elsewhere in the country...)

Looks like I was a day early...

It's unfortunate that this story appeared in the Evening Standard rather than a paper that supporters of the BBC would find harder to dismiss but, if its contents are true, it confirms everything I suggested only yesterday.

Flower pots

My parents were down this weekend. For such a short trip, we managed to pack a lot in

A walk along the Thames to do a spot of book buying with my father, dinner at Plateau (Andrew's customer service ranking system should know that we enjoyed it and the service was good... discreet, efficient and effortlessly professional when they corrected the only mistake they made) and a rather unplanned trip to the garden centre.

We managed to turn the previously barren patio into the early stages of a real garden: multiple silver plantpots, 450 litres of compost, jasmine, lavender, black grass, passion flower, skimmia, ivy and multiple tulip and daffodil bulbs. The extravagance even extended to my purchasing a cordless power "hammer-action" drill. Those who know me will confirm that purchasing power tools is not how I typically spend a weekend. I'll be putting up shelves next...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Downsides of SOA

Gerhard Poul makes some good points about SOA.

He mentions several things to be aware of (referential integrity, availability, governance, etc, etc).

His first two points are worth emphasising.

SOA allows powerful composite applications to be created: combining new logic with functionality provided by other systems is a compelling proposition.

But, as I've stressed to several clients, there are also challenges you need to address.

The first is availability: the availability window of a composite application is the intersection of the availabilities of the systems upon which it is critically dependent. Crucially, the intersection is not the union and it is not the average.  Take note.

The second challenge is related to Data.  Gerhard talks about referential integrity but you need to think about more than just this.

The simplest example of what you need to think about is: "how do you do a join across two web services?"

Example problem: you have one table in a database that contains all customers' account balances and another contains their addresses. How do you produce a list of all customers in London with a balance of $1000 or more?

Joining across two tables is easy in a relational database

Products like WebSphere Information Integrator let you join across different data sources (neat!)

But, if you naively "do SOA" by providing a "get customer addresses" service and a "get customer balance" service (and nothing else), you'll have a tough time solving the problem.

The consequence of this is nothing surprising: you need to expose reusable services at a suitable granularity, you need to use the right tool for the right jobs and, most importantly, you need to remember that SOA is not a magic wand that magically makes the last forty years of computer science irrelevant... all the benefits the marketing folks talk about are real but there is still a need for thoughtful architects and designers!

Viral Labyrinthitis

A relative has just come down with viral labyrinthitis.  Nightmare!

Some of the online articles suggest antiviral medication might have a role to play in improving the symptoms and lowering the risk of long-term hearing loss.

Anybody know if this is true and what antivirals the doctor should be asked about?

About Time

There is a cosy consensus in the UK that our state broadcaster (funded by a regressive tax on all television owners) is utterly, unimpeachibly, unbiased.

This is, of course, nonsense but it's often hard to prove.

The guys at Biased BBC do a good job of highlighting the "stealth edits" of BBC News online articles, the degree to which interviewers on "Today" give interviewees a hard time and much more.

However, a potentially even more interesting new service has just started up: "News Sniffer" does a couple of things but one of the most important is spotting all the times that the BBC edit an article on their website without changing the "last updated" timestamp.

From a quick glance, most of the edits are minor corrections and clarifications but the service will come into its own when a contentious issue is in the news.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

IBM Bloggers

I've only just noticed this useful feed: it aggregates the blogs of all the IBMers who have identified themselves as bloggers.  I suspect the traffic will be overwhelming but it could be useful for a browse

Technorati tags: , , ,

Jumping cursor

Ever since I took possession of my ThinkPad T60p, it has suffered from an infuriating fault.  When I am typing, occasionally, and without warning, the cursor will jump to somewhere else in the document.  Sometimes it will even jump somewhere else and highlight a chunk of text at the same time.  This means I can be typing quickly and inadvertently delete a sentence from three paragraphs earlier in the document.

It drives me insane.

I figured out the problem today. My trackpoint (the red nipple) was configured to support "Press-to-Select".

I must have been brushing past it as I typed and making it think I had clicked the mouse. So, the insert cursor was jumping to wherever the mouse was positioned - and highlighting a section if it sensed that I was pressing for a longer period of time as I brushed over it.

The solution was simple

Control Panel -> Mouse -> Ultra-Nav Tab -> TrackPoint Settings -> Deselect "Enable Press-to-Select"


Tim Worstall should Edit the Today Programme

As must as I hate it, I find it impossible to turn the Today programme off.

Yesterday, I almost vowed never to listen to it again after a sanctimonious, economically illiterate speaker on "Thought for the day" urged listeners to help the poor of the world by refusing to buy the goods they produced. Great idea, Einstein. I think the words I yelled at the radio were something like: "This man is talking B*LL*CKS".

Anyhow, I'm glad I didn't start my boycott as they had an interesting piece this morning. Apparently, they will be allowing a group of listeners to edit the show on New Year's Day 2007.

Now I don't think I've yet done enough to establish my credibility as a balanced, knowledgeable, economically-literate observer of world events. But I know of a man who has.... Tim... if you're not preparing your application as we speak, you should be.


Sun's Jonathan Schwartz is proving to be just as big a publicity machine as his predecessor.

His latest ruse is "Project Blackbox" - a datacenter in a container. (Containerisation's all the rage... I blogged about the double-decker container boats that roam the Thames only yesterday)

In essense, it's a data centre in a box: it contains the CPUs, memory, disks, cooling, etc, etc. You drop it somewhere, connect it to a network, plug it in, plumb it into a water system and off you go.

I understand the idea was triggered, in part, by a customer of Sun telling them it had taken the best part of three years to build out a data centre (compared to You Tube who had been founded, gone live, ramped up to millions of users and been acquired in less time).

However, I can't help thinking that we're comparing apples with oranges here.

Compared to working with an existing estate of software and systems is completely different to building an entirely new infrastructure: in the latter case, you get to write your apps from scratch and don't have to worry about legacy applications or integration. In short, you don't have to worry about the things that are truly difficult.

In reality, installing the hardware is never the hard part. It's all the other "tiny" things you have to do before you can consider your deployment complete: getting the operating system configured and patched to the level that the software you're using requires takes time. Installing the middleware adds a bit of extra time (can you think of an enterprise-scale application that doesn't require some sort of middleware services?) Then you have to configure the middleware... make sure any clustering is set-up, database connectivity sorted, failover tested. Oh... you might want to install some databases (I hope the data you need isn't kept in some other data centre, owned by some other application) 

And that's before you've even written your application or installed it.

In short, what Sun are doing is a nice idea and it almost certainly has value but let's be clear that there are lots of reasons why data centres take a long time to build out and getting a bunch of boxes installed is only one of them.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Gendal World

Welcome to Gendal World if you've just arrived via

I am an SOA and BPM consultant working for IBM Software Services for WebSphere. This means I help my clients, typically users of IBM WebSphere software, to architect and implement solutions to their integration problems.

I'm currently working in a pre-sales mode, which explains the lack of technical postings of late - I'm not engaging directly on projects at present. I'd love to blog about how we sell our services and how we scope engagements but I suspect you'd find it a bit dull :-)

When I'm not working, I have an avid interest in politics and, especially, the intersection of politics and economics.

I hope you stick around to read future articles I'm preparing on why all business journalists are provably second-rate (spoiler: if there were any good ones, they'd have already fixed the appalling quality of business journalism in the UK), why I think I may be a libertarian (without the guns bit) and, if you're really lucky, I may devise a new design pattern for modern life.

Today, my blog is two clicks away from the front page of

That's not something that happens every day.

Of course, Andy Piper is only one click away.

He will be unbearable when I meet him for a drink in an hour.

TV Star

Can my day get any more exciting?

At the DLR platform at Limehouse this morning, I changed my routine and stood at the end opposite to where I normally stand.

This meant that the District Line was a better way to complete my journey from Bank this morning - as fighting the crowds to the other end of the platform for the Waterloo and City line was unappealing.

This meant I had to walk from Blackfriars along the South Bank to my office.

As I walked along, I noticed one of those boats full of yellow containers that sail up and down the river. One of the containers was missing so I looked over to see what the bottom of the gap looked like... I wanted to know how they were secured to the boat. Imagine my surprise when I realised there was another container underneath.... the boats contain (at least) twice as many containers as I had previously thought.

If this change of routine and voyage of discovery was not enough for one day, I was accosted by a researcher for ITV1's "This Morning" show and asked if I would participate in a segment they were filming.

I had to take a chocolate, eat it, describe the flavour and then react when told what the flavour really was.

I will not spoil their show by giving the answer here... I'll just repeat what I told them: "that was really quite unpleasant".

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Wow. She's lucky to be alive

Given that you can get every bone in your face broken for asking someone to move their car, this woman is either brave or stupid.

"Put out your cigarette!"

Brave, stupid and very admirable.

Why has the DLR started to suck?

I first observed that DLR was beginning to take on the characteristics of a typically awful LUL line a few months ago.

Since then, more points failures (two days in a row), signal failures (trains crawling between stations under manual control) and other niggles have become the norm rather than the exception.

Not good enough, Serco.

SORE Point

It has just been pointed out to me that I mis-spelled "illiterate" in this post.

The irony is not lost on me.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Repealing the Law of Gravity

I don't care whether Richard Dawkins coined it or not, I don't like the word "meme" and so I have no intention of propagating its usage.

However, a question that is currently doing the rounds is: "Which law would you like to break?"

The title of this post hints at the usual, unimaginative, answer to such a question.

I much preferred the answer that Gavin Ayling reported someone had given:

“I would love to break the law of unintended consequences but there would probably be a down side I hadn’t counted on…”


Reuters Reporter Embedded in "Sadville"

The Register seems to have something of a downer on Second Life.

Several of my colleagues are convinced of the potential of Second Life and other "metaverses" and are running with it as hard as they possibly can.

I admire their enthusiasm and passion and am following their progress with interest and admiration.

However, I don't think it's inconsistent also to state that I can't help feeling that I'm missing something. I'm not ashamed to say that I just don't get it.

However, this Slashdot article reminded me why I'm probably wrong. When government starts to realise there's money being made (and decide that they want their cold, dead hands on it), it suggests there really is something interesting going on...

So, even though I'm not convinced this is an area that's "for me", I'm glad to see that people I know and respect are in there and making it their own.