Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Will wonders never cease...?

... a funny advert for the mainframe

"Can I interest you in a parallel sysplex?"

Revealed Preferences

Tim Worstall has a great article in today's Times.

Just as you should judge policies on their results rather than on their intent, you should look at what people do rather than what they say they do (or say you should do).

He makes the observation that, even though lots of people say taxes should be higher, only five people last year - out of all the taxpayers in the country - voluntarily paid more than they were asked to - and three of them were dead!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Newsflash: Salespeople don't like process

For the rest of this year, my consulting shoes have been firmly left at home - and replaced with my winning smile, firm handshake, snazzy cufflinks and smart shirts.

Yes. That's right: I've temporarily crossed over to the sales side.

Now, I'm not actually being a salesperson (I haven't been to Sales School and you don't just "become" one, in any case) and I'm not actually doing sales. Rather, I'm working alongside the services sales team as a technical expert. I guess you could call it "technical sales" for services sales.

The role is fascinating and challenging in equal measure.  It has given me a greater respect for the sales discipline but also provided a real insight into what makes a sales professional successful. Let's just say that following the process is something most of them hate. They know they have to.... and they do follow it.... but I've rarely seen a group of people less comfortable than those in the "getting to know the process" session I attended today.

If it wasn't for their commission cheques, I might even feel a little sorry for them :-p

Sunday, September 24, 2006

'Articulate' doesn't begin to describe it

Milton Friedman has a bad reputation in a section of British society as a result of some of the things that were allegedly done in his name in the 1980s.

However, I defy anyone to watch this interview with him from the 1960s and not at least take pause.

Key observation: don't evaluate a policy on its intent, evaluate it on its effect.


Don't try this at home

As a child, I used to enjoy doing electrical experiments and inventing things (one of the best presents I ever received was a device my uncle built for me that allowed me to drive relays from my ZX Spectrum and receive inputs from external circuits... I was forever building home-made burglar alarms and other systems).

However, I don't think the idea of building a nuclear bomb ever crossed my mind. It appears that some kids had more ambition...


Saturday, September 23, 2006

"The Net Asset Value [...] has declined approximately 65% month-to-date


O U C H !

French Winemakers get their act together

For most of my wine drinking 'career' I have ignored French wine because I had no idea how to relate "Bordeaux" or "Burgundy" or any other name into a grape variety that I knew.

In other words, by drinking too much new-world wine, my (minimal) knowledge of wine was in terms of "Shiraz" or "Merlot" and not in terms of French regions. It appears that the winemakers of Burgundy have woken up to this problem. In today's Guardian magazine*, there was an advert which appears to have had the sole purpose of informing the newspaper's readers that White Burgundy is Chardonnay and that (Red) Burgundy is Pinot Noir. Simple and effective. I can't think why they hadn't done it before.


* Yes, yes... I know.  Reading the Guardian could be considered an utterly bizarre thing for someone with my economic beliefs to do. However, I figure that my purchasing one of a shop's limited supply of papers means that I may have deprived somebody else of the opportunity to be unduly influenced by it. I also believe it is healthy to read opinions with which you disagree.   (And yes....  my purchasing of it may have the perverse effect of encouraging the publisher to print more but I'll take the risk that this second-order effect is negligible :-)   )

Customer Service

Due to poor planning on my part, I realised this morning that all my suits needed dry cleaning at the same time. (Well - I guess discovering this on a Monday morning would be worse planning but still...).

I walked to the local shop (Riverside newsagent on Narrow Street) and expected the worst.... return on Monday night? Tuesday night?   I could do without a suit on Monday (I'm at our office in Warwick - and although I always wear a suit when in the office, I don't really need to). But I'm at a client on Tuesday so I had to have a suit by Monday evening.


"When would you like the suits back, sir?"

"What's the earliest you can do?"

"This evening"

Wow... I've never found somewhere that would do a same-day service before (especially when I turned up at 11am). Excellent!

Friday, September 22, 2006


Courtesy of b3ta, we bring you the usbcell. What a fantastic idea!



Go, Morrison!

Currently trading at 245p. I bought in at 184p. Woo!

Three month chart

The question now is: when would it be prudent to sell?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Windows System Restore


This little slice of magic has just rescued me from a "computer won't boot because Richard is a silly boy who shouldn't have done what he just did" incident.

That is all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Three Styles of SOA

Ronan Bradley has an interesting article about Oracle's "Three Styles of SOA".

He lists the three styles as:

• SOA based integration
• Modern, composite application development
• Modernising mainframe and legacy applications

... and claims that no vendor has a tool that can do all three.

I must admit that I don't know as much as I should about mainframe modernisation but for the first two, I suggest he takes a look at WebSphere Process Server.

I would argue that it does both - and does both very well.

The reason Process Server can do this is, in part, the Service Component Architecture.  SCA provides a framework for building new composite applications - and does so in a way that makes integration solutions very easy to build (i.e. the metaphors and abstractions that are used in SCA - coarse-grained interfaces, "business objects", etc - are precisely the ones that make typical integration problems easy to solve). In other words, WPS's support of "style 1" is almost a direct consequence of its ability to support "style 2".

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

On the Chirality of London Underground train maps

The reopening of the Waterloo and City line means that now is a good time to discuss the chirality of maps on tube trains.

Let me set the scene.

You're sitting on a moving train in the "usual" style. That is: you're facing other commuters and the walls of the tunnel are in front of you and behind you (the front of the train is thus to your left or right).

You look up and see the route map for that line. It is probably linear, perhaps with a loop or a few branches at one or other end.

An interesting question then arises: does the direction of the train correspond with the direction implied by the map? That is: if you're travelling rightwards, does the map correctly identify that the next station is to the right?

Perhaps it does. Perhaps it doesn't.

Now you stand up, look menacingly at somebody on the opposite bank of seats and take their seat as they correctly sense you are performing an important experiment and choose to sit elsewhere. You now perform the same procedure as before. You look up and ask yourself whether the train is travelling the direction suggested by the map.

And this is where it gets interesting.

On some trains on some lines, the maps are accurate. This means that London Underground have gone to the trouble of producing two versions of the maps - a different one for each side of the train). On other trains, they use the same version of the map on both sides of the train - which means that one will be accurate and one will be "the wrong way round".

The question is: why is this the case and on which trains do they get it "right"?

In some cases, it's just not possible to get it right: The Piccadilly and Central lines, for example, have a loop which mean that, without getting out of your seat, the train would sometimes be travelling in the direction suggested by the map and sometimes not. In such cases, printing two versions is unnecessary - indeed, it runs the risk of having both maps being wrong.

However, on the Jubilee Line (with no loops and no branches), it would be possible to get it right (I can't remember if they actually do).

If a tube train has two maps - one for the left hand side and one for the right hand side of each carriage then we say it is chiral. Otherwise, we do not.

The question I am inviting you to help me answer is: can we compile a list of which lines have chiral maps on their trains and which do not?

Enquiring minds need answers.

[UPDATE 2006-09-19 19:21]

It appears I may have, entirely unintentionally, given the impression that I was sad clever enough to observe these phenomena. The blame should be spread more widely. As Henry politely poins out,

"As you will recall, on 30 October 2005 - following from her examination of a cellphone advertisement - Polly raised this important issue with the results for the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines. Other notable events in this subject's history: line investigations (you, me, Polly); coining of the term "chirality" for this phenomenon (me), mathematical discourse (Mark, Polly), investigation and discussion of depot positioning and sequence-changing stock movements (Ben, me), proposed solution for the London case (me)."
Never let it be said that I don't spread the blame for such triviality as widely as possible.

Exception Handling in BPM

Bruce Silver has an interesting post on the role of exception handling in BPM. He points out that BPMN has support for exception handling (although lots of vendors don't support it). BPEL also has this support - and WebSphere Integration Developer does a particularly good job of allowing exceptions and unexpected situations to be handled in a natural manner.

However, it does seem that the problem of exception handling is a good example of the gulf between IT and Business.

Business Modeling tools usually encourage a "flow of control" methodology: "do this... then do that.... did it work?  great... now do this.... did that work?  no.... ok... do this instead".  That is: business modeling software (and its users) have a tendency to deal with errors in terms of asking "did the thing I just tried to do actually work?"

The exception handling approach of BPEL (and BPMN, it would seem) works the other way: "try this and if it doesn't work, here's what you should do to recover").

The difference sounds subtle but it's equivalent to the difference between C and Java: C encourages a "test your return codes" approach to programming; Java encourages a "catch your exceptions" approach.

I believe the lessons we learned from Java and C have a direct analogue in this space.  The industry is littered with the fallout from those who failed to check their return codes.... there's always a case you fail to deal with and dealing with them all in line just gets messy and encourages dangerous short cuts. Humans, it turns out, just aren't very good at getting this right - our brains presumably just don't work this way.  Exception handling also has problems, of course (after you've caught them, you still have to handle them) but at least you're forced to do something or make a conscious decision to do nothing.

In the BPM space, the problem with the "test your return codes" approach is similar: as models are refined, they get utterly swamped with error handling cases. Worse, this proliferation of cases masks the problem that many cases have not been considered at all - you just can't easily tell. 

This becomes a real problem when the models are handed over to IT. If they have been developed in this manner, it is tempting to "augment" the model with the special cases that only the IT staff know about. This adds even more mess to the diagram and fosters the belief that the model has changed beyond recognition once IT get their hands on it.

Working with an exception-handling methodology, by contrast, removes several of these problems: business-relevant error-handling logic can be kept in the diagram and the less-important cases and purely technical cases can be handled as exceptions (out of sight with respect to the main diagram).

I think it was James Governor who claimed that there's nothing new in IT and he's right: the lessons of C and Java are just as relevant here.

Maybe I'm just too cynical

It appears the Royal Mail have launched a service for buying and printing postage from the comfort of your own home. (As reported in The Register)

I'm too cheap to buy a stamp and see what it looks like but I imagine it will be one of those groovy 2-D barcodes. In principle, this is a great idea but I just can't help thinking they've probably slipped up somewhere.

I assume there are already cryptanalysts looking at this. My guess is that it will be cracked within two weeks and we will see a "Royal Mail suspends online postage 'experiment'" story shortly afterwards (it will be rebranded as an experiment after the fact).

Any advance on two weeks?

Nuclear Power

I went along to a Stockholm Network / Economist debate on the role of Nuclear Power yesterday evening.  The motion was: "We must embrace nuclear power to solve global warming"

Speaking for the motion were Paul Domjan (an energy security expert) and Patrick Moore (of Greenspirit, formerly of Greenpeace).  Speaking against were Dr Caroline Lucas MEP (Green Party) and Professor Tim Jackson (Sustainable Development Commission).

The Economist's Vijay Vaitheeswaran was the humorous and effective chairman.

I found Patrick Moore amusing and forceful and thought Dr Lucas entirely unconvincing and disingenuous but was most impressed by Professor Jackson. He headed a commission that looked into the role of Nuclear Power (details here) and came to the non-intuitive (for me, at least) conclusion that pursuing nuclear is not necessarily the best current solution to our energy security and climate change needs. His reasoned, evidence-based approach to debate eclipsed Dr Lucas' over-the-top, hand-waving, alarmist style and gave me pause. I had previously been a strong supporter of restarting our nuclear programme and, although I still am, he made me think again.

I've just signed up for a copy of his report (here)

I should say that I wasn't entirely convinced by all his arguments, however. One of his pointswas a moral one (essentially that it's not right that we impose the costs of nuclear clean-up on future generations without truly accounting for the cost). However, he seemed to ignore the reasonable assumption that future generations will be unimaginably wealthier than us and the argument that it is possible to treat waste in such a way that its half-life is manageable and so put a limit on the liabilities we are imposing on the people of the future.

It was an interesting night.


Thanks to Delusions of Adequacy, I learned about the "ps2" command line tool for ThinkPads.

Try typing

ps2 ?

at a command line.

You can do all sorts of stuff... turn off wireless, switch between the LCD and external monitor.... and more.  Hours of fun for everybody...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Tesco are fantastic

Sometimes I don't know why specialist retailers even bother to get out of bed.

We enjoyed rather too many bottles of a rather good - and extraordinarily cheap - Rioja when on holiday. Having failed to bring any home with us (we drunk it all...), I thought I'd order some.

Naturally, I tried the specialist places first.... Virgin Wines... Majestic... Thresher (no online ordering... useless!).... Oddbins....   They either didn't stock it or were charging quite high prices.

On a whim, I tried Tesco's website. They undercut everyone else by a significant margin.

Guess who got my business...

The Economist will be in ecstasy this week...

... they may finally have some competition. This, surely, is the culmination of the Economist's entire mission... perhaps they'll close down, content that competition has at last arrived to the sleepy world of weekly business newspapers.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Never read Dilbert the day before returning to work

I am currently working in a role that will give me far more exposure to the commercial side of our business; one of my key responsibilities will be providing technical "sanity" to proposals and bids. Given that I'm still new to one or two of the aspects of the role, I did not need to read this sequence of cartoons:


(p.s. That split infinitive in the first cell of the second cartoon is annoying me. This, I suspect, is the sign that I should go to bed)

Where did it all go wrong?

I'm speed-reading as many blog posts and letting most pass without comment... I have a week's backlog to catch up on.

However, this one from my colleague Andy Piper caught my attention. He links to some apparently valid criticisms of the UIs in Outlook 2007 and Microsoft Vista. He then points out that Gnome has some human interface guidelines and implies there is no equivalent for Windows.

The problem is.... there is - and there has been one for years.   This may be it (although I'm not completely sure and it wasn't exactly what I was looking for on MSDN)

So perhaps the current problems in Outlook 2007 and Vista are simply signs that the UI police haven't had a chance to wave their batons over this pre-release software in Redmond yet. Or perhaps it is a sign that things really are not what they were. Some of the examples highlighted were pretty shocking. I wonder where it all began to go wrong...

I should admit that I have a reputation for being something of a Microsoft apologist at work - I have no shame in admitting that I think Windows (the NT bloodline) is a stunningly good piece of work (yes, really), that Word, Excel and Powerpoint are the best in their class by a clear margin and that a company that spends billions of dollars everywhere on pure research is likely to come up with something good every so often (although even I sometimes struggle to identify tangible things that Microsoft Research have come up with)

However, excellence in one area does not imply even cheerful average-ness in another. I support, service and sell enterprise middleware. Thankfully for my business, Microsoft's offerings in this space are another story entirely...

So, what did I miss?

I returned from holiday yesterday and feel surprisingly refreshed.

Things I learned:

  • Monarch airlines are actually rather good. The pilots are good-natured and humorous, the in-flight catering is simple and effective and it is clear that they know how to run an airline: they spend money where it matters and don't bother on the extraneous stuff. My expectations were low and I was pleasantly surprised.
  • Spanish moths are even more stupid than British moths. Flying into candles, and becoming immediately entombed in wax, is a pretty universal trait of moths. But flying at a swimming pool (that was lit from beneath), almost drowning, escaping and then immediately jumping straight back in takes the biscuit.
  • Driving a diesel Ford Focus with four adults, their luggage and a week's worth of supermarket shopping up a steep hill is not a good idea. When the car grinds to a halt on the steepest section, the clutch starts to make a bad smell and the car starts to roll backwards, you know it's time to consider offloading some items.

Things I enjoyed:

  • The stunning view from the villa and the outdoor pool
  • Playing mindless games of cards into the night
  • Practising my feeble diving skills by fetching berries that had dropped to the bottom of the deep-end
  • Drinking stunningly good Rioja for prices less than the duty on a bottle of wine in the UK
  • Relaxing: this was intended as a "do nothing... just sit there, read, enjoy the sun" kind of holiday.
  • Finally reading Jeremy Paxman's "The English" (which I think I borrowed from Jon... I really must give it back), finishing a couple of Richard Dawkins books (I so wish I'd bothered to read these when I was at school), finding myself spluttering in rage at the first chapter of Francis Wheen's "Mumbo Jumbo" but agreeing with most of the rest of it, giggling through PJ O'Rourke's "Peace Kills" (loads of great quotes of his here: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/P._J._O'Rourke)

So... back to work tomorrow. I've replicated my mail to make sure there's nothing utterly terrible awaiting me (phew...) but there's still enough that I need to deal with to make tomorrow an interesting prospect.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Being about to jump on a train to the airport, my blogging around here is likely to be light...  Back next week....

Quantum Mechanics Explained...

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for this link.

See... it's not as confusing as you thought it was! (well.... I'll let you be the judge of that).

The annoying thing is that I read Feynman's "The Strange Theory of Light and Matter" years ago and seem to have completely missed the point.  This article does an excellent job of explaining how part of the difficulty in understanding some of the results of quantum mechanics are the fault of how we traditionally think about classical mechanics.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Cheap flights to New York

Thanks to MoneySavingExpert.com, I discovered that Delta and Continental are selling return economy tickets to New York for silly money.

I've just booked a return to New York in March next year for £160 including taxes per person.


(p.s. if I've been ripped off, please don't comment immediately but let me feel smug for a few hours...) 

"Maximum Fines" and morality

It appears that you can be fined £20 for travelling on the DLR without a valid ticket (e.g. by forgetting to "touch in" using Oyster).

A one-way fare into Zone One on Oyster is £1.50.

Therefore, the fine is equivalent to about thirteen or so journeys.

If the frequency of inspections is less than about 1 in 13 journeys, the rational response would be to travel without a ticket and pay the fine when caught.

Is personal morality the only reason for not following this strategy or are their other "sticks" the transport authorities could use were one to take this path?

I'm glad I'm not in the paid-for newspaper business

For the first time in several months, I failed to finish last week's Economist before this week's arrived.

There were a couple of reasons:

Firstly, I'm listening to more podcasts. Indeed, the second part of Russ Roberts' interview with Milton Friedman is the first podcast I ever recall looking forward to.

Secondly, there are now more free newspapers in London than I know what to do with: Metro and City AM in the mornings, "The Wharf" and "The Docklands" once a week near home and "London Lite" and "thelondonpaper" now in every evening.

Thus, the twenty minute periods I used to spend reading the Economist are now spent speed-reading the free-sheets or listening to PodCasts.

The idea of buying a daily newspaper no longer even occurs to me.

Andy comments that he hasn't seen any of the evening papers yet. For what it's worth, London Lite sucks but thelondonpaper is surprisingly good.  Given that Associated (publishers of London Lite) need to protect their 50p-a-day Evening Standard whereas News International (publishers of thelondonpaper) are trying to destroy the Standard, perhaps none of this is surprising.

Andy also asked why the free papers (with the exception of Metro) were unavailable inside train stations. The answer (as far as I know) is that Transport for London view the right to distribute papers in their stations as valuable and so auction it. They sold the rights to the morning rush hour to Metro and will shortly be doing the same in the evening. Until they do, nobody has the right to distribute free papers inside their stations - hence all the people outside zone one stations thrusting papers at you.

My advice: take a "thelondonpaper" and politely refuse London Lite.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Web Services Interoperability

One of the problems I find at many of my clients is that it's easy to forget that interoperability doesn't come for free - it doesn't matter whether you're talking about file formats between systems (witness the interminable and unbelievably dull discussions you can read everywhere about .odf, etc) or whether you're talking about Java programs (do you want to use the new stuff in 1.5 or do you want it to run on old JVMs?) and it certainly doesn't come for free when you're talking about web services.

The key point is that if you want your web service to be consumable by tools other than the one that created it, you need to tell your tooling that this is what you want. (Some tools will default to this behaviour, others may default to whatever that vendor prefers or what version 1 of their product used or whatever... the point is that you at least need to check... don't assume!)

However, even if you check all the right boxes, you still need to be sure your vendor really can interoperate with others.

So I was delighted to see this post on the JBoss blog. I always had a vague suspicion that the vendors must work with each other to check that their products interoperate but it's something I hadn't given much thought to (since my experiences have suggested that, with the right care, interoperability can be achieved).

The importance of the JBoss post is that it shows that interoperability really has gone further than making sure you can invoke a .NET "stock quote" service from WebSphere and is now in the territory where real value lies: distributed transactions...

Owl Magnets

There's nothing better than seeing a self-satisfied, over-earnest, smug man being mocked.

Look at my beautiful face!

A cure for dry coughs

I had the misfortune of setting next to a man on the tube this morning who wouldn't stop coughing. Every few seconds, he would make a feeble attempt to clear his throat, stop and then start again. I suspect he had one of those irritating ticklish coughs that cause you involuntarily to cough without warning but which aren't really cleared by the act of coughing.

Either way, it annoyed me.

After he had coughed for the fifth time, I could take no more so I summoned every ounce of Englishness from my body and did the proper thing. I glared at him.

Miracles! He promptly stopped coughing and I didn't hear a peep out of him until I alighted at Embankment.

I think I should patent my glare before somebody else does.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Web Services Issues

Andrew Ferrier links to an article by Andre Tost about Web Services issues.

I'm glad to see somebody senior (and credible) talk about this subject. If you're working on any project that is using web services today, you need to read this article.

It's all good but if you want to stand any chance of getting something working on a real project, I suggest you pay attention to points 1) and 3).

Firstly, not all web services are created equal and, while you don't need a mandatory corporate standard (e.g. "always use doc/lit wrapped"), you do need to know what kinds of web services you're using and how your tooling supports them.

Secondly, keep it simple: just because WSDL or XSD allows you to do something really obscure and cool, don't be tempted: the closer you stick to the mainstream, the greater the chance that your tools (no doubt provided by multiple different vendors) will be able to interoperate.

"Mark All Read" is evil

Coté says something I've been thinking for a long time.

There is nothing more frustrating than accidentally marking a whole batch of emails or unread articles as "read".

I use "unread marks" in my email to remind me that an action is still outstanding and so removing that mark inadvertently is extraordinarily annoying.

Coté requests a feature that makes it hard to mark all as read. That would be a good start. An "undo" would also be just fine...