All 92 entries tagged Musings

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May 30, 2007

Exercising is rubbish

How do people manage to enjoy exercising? I’m trying to get a bit fitter with some running and some tennis and whatnot, but the bit of it which eludes me, and always has, is managing to enjoy the exertion. When I’m running, I feel out of breath and achy and sweaty and try as I might, I struggle to find a positive spin to put on these sensations. What’s the secret? Maybe:-

  • It always feels like that, but you eventually learn not to notice.
  • It stops feeling like that and starts to feel like something pleasant.
  • It continues to feel like that, but you develop some sort of masochistic streak and come to enjoy the pain.

Frankly, if someone beamed into my room from the future and told me that whether I exercise or not, I’m going to live to be ninety and enjoy good physical and mental health right up until the day I die peacefully in my sleep, I’d probably never run again. But this seems unlikely, for three reasons:-

  1. Time travel from the future hasn’t happened (yet) so in the absence of some really convincing special effects (and nowadays, probably not even then) there’d be a credibility issue.
  2. There’s a distressingly large body of evidence to suggest that good health into old age is almost entirely a function of, sigh, diet and, sigh again, exercise.
  3. The physical evidence accumulates around me. When I was a child, my parents used to moan sometimes about their aching backs or stiff necks or whatever, and I remember feeling a mixture of bewilderment and slightly supercilious pity; I never had any aches or pains, so it was, with the lack of empathy so characteristic of teenagers, almost impossible to imagine what being in such a state would be like. But now I don’t have to imagine any more; aches and pains come and go with annoying regularity.

So I struggle on with my laughable attempts at fitness, mostly through a mixture of fear and guilt. It would be so much better if I could swap those out for a feeling of joy. But how? Perhaps I can order some from Amazon.

May 29, 2007

Strange gardening facts number… who cares?

When the lawn needs mowing, the borders and shrubs also look overgrown and shaggy. But after the lawn is mowed (mown?), the self-same borders, despite not having been touched, look fine. Tidy, even. Peculiar.

May 17, 2007

Practice makes perfect, non–linearly

Having spent an intermittently enjoyable hour on the tennis court up the road from my house with a bucket of balls trying to improve my (currently pathetic) serve, I’ve come to the conclusion that when you’re practicing something, ideally you’d like your practice to yield linear, detectable improvement. If every time you practiced something you got a little bit better at it (enough to notice), the practice would be enjoyable and you’d want to keep doing it. And if you never improved at all, then you’d probably give up. But the frustrating truth is that neither of these cases generally happens; like almost everything in real life, there’s no smooth, linear graph; improvements come in fits and starts and are punctuated by bursts of deterioration.

Hitting five good serves in succession: satisfying. Missing the next ten completely: embolism-level rage-inducing.

May 11, 2007

The tortoise and the… camera

Writing about web page

The tortoise and the cameraBrowsing the New York Times this morning, I noticed this image in the sidebar of the article I was reading. Based on the image, what do you think the article was about?

  • The photographic memory of the tortoise?
  • Cameras which work by actually sucking their subjects inside their body?
  • Animal-technology hybridization (the bionic turtle, if you will)?
  • Deadly camera-destroying amphibians which like to chew their way through consumer electronics?

Disappointingly, it’s none of the above; it’s shutter lag in digital cameras. It makes sense once you know, and on the page itself, it’s a whimsical but not absurd illustration of the topic. But it’s an amusing example of the icon problem; most modern interfaces use icons to represent actions and objects. So the home icon in your web browser means “Go to your home page”, and the left arrow icon means “Go back to the previous page”. But how do you know what an icon means?

  • Sometimes the implication of the icon is so obvious that even if you’ve never seen this icon used before you can guess what it will do.
  • Some icons are universally used to mean something, so even though the icon doesn’t imply its meaning in isolation, you learn its meaning once and can then re-use your knowledge everywhere else. The cut/copy/paste icons are like this; they aren’t intuitive, but since every application which supports CCP (which is almost all applications) uses them, you end up knowing what they stand for even though they don’t visually represent themselves clearly.

The problem is that most icons aren’t like this. Most actions aren’t easy to convey with a single static image. Most applications have a bunch of actions and objects which are specific to that application, and therefore the designer can’t rely on users having seen and learned the iconography elsewhere. Example: how many of these icons (from PowerPoint) can you confidently predict the meaning of?

PowerPoint icons

January 31, 2007

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Writing about web page

Long, thoughtful article in the New York Times, but the nub of the thing is summed up in the very first line. Interesting distinction between food and nutrition, and between seeds (which we now eat too much of), and leaves (which we don’t get enough of). Food for thought.

January 26, 2007

Diet or exercise?

It’s a slightly futile thing for me to wonder, since I’m very bad at both, but I sometimes speculate about whether diet or exercise is more important in determining your health and longevity. Obviously no sane person would argue that you should focus on one and ignore the other (in fact, if there’s one piece of health advice which is never going to turn out to have been wrong later, it would be “moderation and variety”).

But, thought experiment: What if there was a pair of identical twins? And although they share the same genetic make-up (which fortuitously, in our thought experiment, doesn’t include any markers for unpleasant diseases, so they aren’t predestined to die unexpectedly of something horrid), they for some reason adopt very different approaches to life: twin 1 eats very, very healthily, getting five portions of fruit and veg a day, staying away from the sugar and the salt and the fat, combining the right amount of protein and slow-release carbohydrates with all the minerals and vitamins the body needs in a daily package of a modest number of calories. But he’s also a slob. He drives to work, he sits behind a desk, he comes home, he watches TV, he goes to bed. Repeat forever.

Twin 2 is an exercise machine (not literally; I don’t mean he’s a treadmill or anything. Perhaps I should have said he’s an exercising machine.) He runs, cycles, swims, goes to the gym, the lot. But he eats like a pig, scarfing down pizza and ice cream, biscuits and cakes, ingesting fruit only to the extent that it’s found in Refreshers and Mr Kipling’s products and vegetables just about never.

Which one lives longest?

January 24, 2007

On team working

Writing about web page

Joel Spolsky reviews Dreaming in Code, a new book about the Chandler personal information and calendaring application which has fairly spectacularly failed to actually materialise in the real world for a fair few years now. As usual, Joel’s insightful and funny, and the quote that really got my attention is this one:-

... The only thing harder than trying to design software is trying to design software as a team. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a meeting with even one or two other programmers, trying to figure out how something should work, and we’re just not getting anywhere. So I go off in my office and take out a piece of paper and figure it out. The very act of interacting with a second person was keeping me from concentrating enough to design the dang feature.

What kills me is the teams who get into the bad habit of holding meetings every time they need to figure out how something is going to work. Did you ever try to write poetry in a committee meeting? It’s like a bunch of fat construction guys trying to write an opera while sitting on the couch watching Baywatch. The more fat construction guys you add to the couch, the less likely you are to get opera out of it.

He’s on the money. I like to think that my colleagues and I work pretty well as a team, but one thing I’ve noticed is that when we sit around in groups and talk about how features in our applications should work, it takes longer and is often less satisfactory when it’s done than if one person goes off, thinks about it, and comes back with the confidence to say “It should work like this”. Even then, it sometimes takes us a couple of go-rounds to get it just right, but in general, I think, our hit rate is higher when one person figures it out.

January 08, 2007

Is film over?

Writing about In praise of Digital Cameras from Secret Plans and Clever Tricks

Chris writes enthusiastically about how his new digital camera has made it possible for him to experiment with as many different variations on a photo as he can come up with, and how favourably this compares to the bad old days of film photography where each shot cost you money, and you had to wait days or weeks to see how they turned out.

I agree with everything he says, but it leaves me wondering a couple of things:-

  • Is there a (consumer) market left at all for film cameras? I don’t know much about professional, large format film photography, but I have an idea that this may be an area where film remains competitive. But if we’re talking about consumer photography, even high-end stuff, are there any reasons left to prefer a 35mm SLR over its digital equivalent? Lots of manufacturers (eg. Kodak) have just completely dropped film from their product range. But when CD superseded vinyl, it didn’t completely kill the market for LPs; there was – and is – a legitimate argument about the sound quality of vinyl (as noted recently by Fake Steve Jobs) which means that it’s persisted, albeit as a niche product. Is there anything comparable for film photography, I wonder?
  • Are there any disadvantages to digital photography? If we assume that people mostly want on-screen or modestly-sized prints – up to 10”x8”, say – then I don’t think there are any quality downsides to speak of. There are a few things I can think of, though:-
    • Digital photography is slowly but surely eradicating the viewfinder, at least in the compact world. This is mostly fine, but there isn’t a TFT yet made that works well in bright sunlight. Framing is slowly becoming a loose, approximate sort of thing, to be tidied up afterwards on the computer rather than done by eye at the time.
    • When you take a lot of photos, do you also end up keeping more not-actually-very-good stuff around? I suspect I do. During a week’s holiday, whereas I might previously have taken 36 or so photos, now I might easily take ten times that. And I don’t weed my way back down to 36 afterwards, not because there are a hundred wonderful pictures there, but because it’s too much effort to decide which of three near-identical snaps is the best one. Maybe this doesn’t matter, of course; you’d have to take a lot of photos to fill even a modest-sized 80GB disk. But somehow I’m irked by the idea of keeping lots of similar-looking, not-that-great images around just because it was so easy to take them.
    • Editing is fun in small doses, but how much do you really want to do? It’s pretty amazing that after you’ve taken your image you can fiddle around with it in so many ways – crop it, remove annoying blemishes, fiddle with colour, contrast, light, shadow, add metadata – in ways which only really dedicated enthusiasts would or could have done with film. But how much is too much? I’m starting to feel (and this could easily be a just me thing, not a problem with digital photography generally) as though I have to edit each image, rather than just having the option to do so. Maybe in a while I’ll start to miss the good old days of getting prints back, throwing half of them away, sticking the other half in an album and having done with it!

January 02, 2007

More work resolutions

Follow-up to Work resolutions from Autology: John Dale's blog

At the beginning of 2006 and of 2005 I wrote about what I thought the landscape might look like for our web development in the coming year. My 2005 predictions were, as I confessed at the start of 2006, largely wrong. Were my 2006 predictions any better? Happily, yes. I predicted that we would:-

  • Make it easier to deploy our web applications, especially SiteBuilder, and this has come true in spades; in the second half of 2006 we released dozens of versions of our applications, with new features galore. We’re now at the point where all our applications are largely painless to deploy, so there is no reason not to push a new release out even if it’s only a small change, or one which affects only a sub-set of users. This is largely thanks to Chris’s sterling efforts and determination to make it come true.
  • Introduce more Ajax into the user interface of our applications. This is true-ish. There still aren’t many places where you can do genuine edit-in-place or dragging to sort items or what-have-you. But we’re gradually making more things work in-place and introducing more elements such as the flyout and auto-suggest in the standard web template. And we know a lot more about how to make UI elements which work in this way than we did a year ago. So good progress, but more to do.
  • Reduce the burden of application support on developers. Again, there’s been good progress in this even if we’re not all the way there. But there are lots of areas in SiteBuilder and Blogs and Forums now where sysadmin tasks can be performed through a web interface, and our newer applications, such as Files.Warwick, are being designed to work that way from day one.
  • Lose the Java WYSIWYG editor. Done. Tick. Sorted. We now use a javascript editor instead (tinyMCE if you’re interested) and while it’s not perfect it has at least removed the dependence on the user having a suitable java run-time library on their PC and therefore saved us lots of support aggro.

So what’s on the horizon in 2007? In process terms, I think we’re in pretty good shape; there’s a great mix of skills in the team, and the development cycle seems pretty mature to me, with everyone comfortably plugged in to the tools and processes we use to define and manage changes, write and test code, and deploy applications. Will there be more stuff done outside of Java this year, perhaps? The Flash media server stuff that Steve Carpenter is working on is pretty cool, if we can find a way to integrate and support it properly. And there have been a few simple usages of Ruby in the team recently; could 2007 be the year where we take the plunge and have a non-trivial production-grade application running in Ruby?

One thing’s for sure, though: XP icons are out and Vista icons are in. So at least one person is going to have a busy year.

XP vs Vista icons

December 18, 2006

Keeping the Dream Alive

It’s nearly Christmas, which obviously means that there have been Christmas songs played in shops and pretty much everywhere else for several months now.

Here’s a little snippet of a song I seem to hear more of around Christmas time:-

There are two things which I believed about this song, neither of which are true:-

  1. It’s a Christmas song. It sounds like it should be, with the strings and the twinkly synths and so on. But it doesn’t mention Christmas anywhere in it, and it’s not from a Christmas-specific album.
  2. It’s by Paul McCartney. It sounds uncannily like McCartney circa Pipes of Peace, I think, with a dead-on McCartney vocal-plus-harmonies and those cello-like synths. It’s even muscially like a McCartney composition; famously McCartney’s Beatles songs move up and down the scale much more than Lennon’s, who was apparently a lazy singer, preferring to write songs where the melody stayed rooted around a small range.

So I was wrong twice over. It’s by a German band called Freiheit, and I have no idea whether they intended it to sound as McCartney-and-Christmas-esque as it does. I gather that Macca does the occasional side-project which he releases under a pseudonym; it’d be nice to think that one of his pseudonyms is in fact a completely separate band with its own twenty-five year career. But I suspect not.

December 07, 2006

Infinity less one

My son, like many children of his age (five), likes to keep track of who he likes the most. He does this with his friends and other family members to some extent, but it most commonly pops out with his mum and me, though it’s impossible to predict who’ll be the most favoured parent on any particular day.

What saves this from being annoying or depressing is that he has a pretty good grasp of tact for a five year old (better than many bloggers, certainly), and so he’s careful not to present his views as Like/Don’t Like or even Like More/Like Less. Instead, he presents it as liking one of us just fractionally more than the other. This morning, the discussion went like this:-

  • “I love you to infinity, daddy.”

Then, quickly:

  • “And I love mummy almost as much. To infinity minus one, actually. Which is…”

Long, long pause for reflection.

  • “Nine hundred million and thirty eight.”

Infinity seems to exert a powerful hold on the imagination of young children; it’s come up on my blog before, in the guise of the infinite pizza conundrum.

December 06, 2006

Best spam ever?

Like everyone, I get plenty of spam email. Part of the reason it’s so annoying, it seems to me, is that not only is it uninvited, it’s also rubbish in several ways; it’s frequently offensive, or illiterate, or just stunningly banal. You could regard all advertising as spam in the sense that it’s unsolicited, I guess; you don’t especially want adverts in your newspaper or during your TV show or before the movie you’ve gone to the cinema for.

But at least sometimes, advert makers seem to understand that since adverts are uninvited, they should work hard to make something that’s engaging or beautiful or funny. That hardly ever seems to be the case with email spam; I’ve never had a spam that made me laugh or seemed clever to me. But Jason Kottke (whose blog is always full of interesting stories and links) has had at least one: here it is (not safe for work, could conceivably cause offence if you’re very easily offended, I guess).

December 04, 2006


Writing about web page

Update/disclaimer: Since I originally wrote this entry, the web site I linked to has stopped being a student calendars site and has become a porn site which will try to open popup windows and generally be unpleasant if you visit it. I don’t recommend doing so.

So I’m a big fan of Nath’s PhotoBlog so when one of his recent shots included a link to the intriguingly-titled Unibabes I thought that perhaps there was more of his photography to be found there, and followed the link.

But now I’m puzzled. Unibabes describes itself as “The place for sexy student calendars and posters” which isn’t that puzzling in its own right. But why are the only two universities whose students are represented Bath and Warwick? And why are Nottingham, Coventry, Leicester, Glasgow, Leeds and Sheffield listed as (presumably) the next universities whose students will appear. It seems like a strange and arbitrary collection of institutions.

There seems to be a charitable angle too; buy a calendar for £7 and a pound goes to (an unspecified) charity. Registered charities can advertise for free on the site too. The About us page says:-

Unibabes is a student-run organisation based primarily at the University of Warwick. It aims to provide valuable tools for students, and by this we mean sexy guys and girls on calendars and posters. Unibabes also aims to raise money for its associated charities through the sales of its products and advertisement fees. The Unibabes Network is a community of student calendar producers with the shared goal of raising money for a worthy cause. If you are currently or would like to produce a charity calendar, just contact us and we’ll invite you to the Network and help you out where we can (but it must be for charity).

I wonder if the models are paid to take part or whether they too are keen to raise money for charitable causes. Hmm. Now I don’t know whether it’s worthy or sleazy or both. Perhaps it’s slorthy, or weazy.

November 28, 2006

On dismissal

One of the interesting things to come out of the recent email problems was the assertion that somebody should resign or be fired because of them. The most trenchant observation about this was probably Edward Ryan, who said:-

Has the head of IT resigned yet? If not why not? If he has not he should be sacked immediately.

but there are often suggestions along the same lines, sometimes slightly less directly, whenever there are problems of one sort or another at the university.

I’m curious about this, not in the particular context of IT at Warwick, but in the more general sense of whether summary dismissal is a good, effective or widely used management tool. It seems to me that we might ask both why it would be a good strategy to dismiss somebody, and when (in what circumstances) you might choose to do so.

When I studied law, many years ago, one of the topics in my criminology module was about the reasons for sending people to prison. There were three distinct arguments, as I remember it; prison sentences achieve:-

  • Retribution. Our sense of justice or morality requires us to punish wrong-doing.
  • Deterrence. Sending people to prison discourages other people from committing criminal acts, and may also discourage the offender from re-offending later.
  • Prevention. People in prison can’t commit other criminal acts while they’re locked up.

(There was a fourth argument too; rehabilitation, the idea that going to prison might improve you as a person, making you less likely to re-offend. However, nobody seriously believes that any more, and it’s not relevant to my discussion here, so let’s pretend I didn’t mention it.)

Those three arguments, it seems to me, map quite well on to arguments in favour of firing people when bad things happen. We’re angry at the loss and damage that the bad thing causes, and in our anger we want to see somebody punished for the problem. Or we believe that if we fire people when they screw up, everyone else will try that much harder not to screw up. Or we don’t care about punishment or setting an example, but we just don’t want the person who screwed up to be in a position to do it again, and firing them seems like a good way to accomplish that.

I find each of the arguments unsatisfactory in one way or another, though; punishment doesn’t seem as though it accomplishes anything for the organisation; deterrence pre-supposes that people can choose to perform better – be more competent, more expert, more aware, more responsible – if there are severe penalties for failure. But is this really true? People aren’t generally good at anything other than very short term cause and effect, so if you fired someone, you might expect everyone else to try a bit harder for a little while, but the effect would be very short lived, so you’d have to be firing people a lot, so you’d be doing it for less substantial reasons, so would it really send the right message? Prevention is more persuasive in some cases; if you’re a pilot who forgets to lower the landing gear even once, perhaps it’s a good idea not to take the chance that you might forget again (not an entirely serious example). But most failures are more complex than that, involving lots of events and lots of people. It’s hard to be sure that firing one person or one team will really have the preventative effect you’re hoping for.

And that brings us on to the second interesting question. If you can persuade yourself that some combination of the three arguments above justify firing people in some circumstances, when would you choose to do it? What combination of factors would justify it? You might take into account:-

  • The seriousness of the damage caused. If you do something wrong that causes lots of harm, you’re more culpable than if there was only minor damage. It seems reasonable, but it could also be kind of harsh: suppose, for example (and this is a purely fictitious idea) that in the recent outage we’d lost data from Warwick Blogs as well as from email, and that we established conclusively that Lazy Worker A had negligently failed to do email backups, and Lazy Worker B had negligently failed to do blogs backups. They’ve both failed in the same way, but people care much more about email than they do about blogs (yes, even yours). So is LWA more deserving of being sacked than LWB, if they’re generally comparable posts?
  • The extent to which there is identifiable negligence. Sometimes we assume that when bad things happen, somebody or other is ipso facto responsible for it, if not in terms of what they actually did or didn’t do, then because the buck somehow stops with them. Ministers take the rap for errors in their department (or at least they used to) even when they personally didn’t know and wouldn’t have been expected to know what was going on. Lawyers have a term for it: Strict liability. But would you fire a manager of a department where things had gone wrong, if that manager had been intentionally kept in the dark about problems? Or if the problem was attributable to issues beyond the control of the manager? If I owned a chain of shops and told each manager that they’d be fired if shop-lifting exceeded 5% of turnover, but refused to underwrite CCTV and store detectives and other anti-theft measures, would it then be appropriate to fire those managers who missed the target?
  • The organisation’s confidence in its legal position. I might be as sure as sure can be in my own mind that Lazy Worker C is responsible for fruit flies ruining my apple crop this year. But do I have enough proof to back up my position and my decision to fire him if he decides to contest my decision in the courts? Did I tell him, in writing, what was required? Did I train him in how to do it? Did I provide reminders and/or warnings in the period prior to the disaster? And so on. Despite the popular belief that in the private sector people are fired as a matter of routine when things go wrong, a quick straw poll of my friends in private sector jobs reveals that firing as punishment/deterrent, as opposed to redundancy for financial reasons, might in fact be a fairly rare thing because of the legal exposure it can open up.
  • The costs and benefits of firing. A prudent organisation might want to ask itself, even if firing someone is in principle justified and legally supportable, will we be cutting off our nose to spite our face? I don’t for a moment agree with Mr Ryan’s assertion that the Director of IT should have been fired, but it’s interesting to think for a moment about what the costs and benefits would have been if that had happened. Good IT directors aren’t easy to find, so the first effect would have been that IT Services would have been without a director for perhaps six months or so. Departments without a director don’t always do a good job of fixing whatever the problems leading up to the dismissal were, and they are prone to drift, sometimes harmlessly, sometimes expensively. We would have had to pay for adverts, agencies, head-hunters and so on, and we would have borne the internal costs of drafting, advertising, short-listing, interviewing and so on, perhaps more than once. Senior posts require senior people to participate in the recruitment process, so it wouldn’t have been cheap. I’ve heard estimates of about £60k spent to recruit university posts at this level; I don’t know if that’s accurate or typical, but it seems plausible to me; there would be a measurable cost associated with the firing, and then further, harder to measure costs associated with the ramp-up time a new director would need, and the costs associated with the risk that the new director might turn out to be a dud – worse than the old director.
  • The marketplace you’re in. If Warwick became more gung-ho about summary dismissal, it would be unusual among UK universities. Would it be harder to hire academics, managers and administrators if your hiring and firing reputation was different from that of your competitors? It could go either way, I guess; some people might be attracted to a university which reacts more strongly to failure, on the basis that you’d be working with better, more motivated colleagues. Others might be less persuaded. My instinct is that being tougher than comparable employers in the sector wouldn’t be a net gain in recruitment terms.

None of which is to say that there aren’t ever cases where firing is an appropriate response. But I wonder whether people who suggest it are doing so because having calmly weighed all the evidence at their disposal, they believe that it’s strategically the best choice for the organisation, or because they’re understandably furious that their email is unavailable and they need to vent.

November 02, 2006

Shed security

So last week the shed at the bottom of our garden was broken into and two bikes were stolen. It’s irksome but not too serious, since the bikes were insured so we can replace them more-or-less costlessly.

What’s more challenging is how we can stop it happening again. When we first moved in, it seemed to us that the shed was fairly insecure, so we had a locksmith fit a much stronger lock and reinforce the door to support it. Until last week, we congratulated ourselves on a job well done, but it turns out we were premature – thieves are more determined than we had anticipated. In this case, they:-

  • Climbed over an iron gate into the alleyway behind our garden
  • Climbed over our fairly tall wooden gates into our back garden
  • Used a claw hammer to smash away enough of the shed door to gain entry (the lock remained intact, but was ripped from the door)
  • Carted two bikes away, lifting them over our wooden gates and then over the iron gate at the end of the alley.

So it seems fairly clear that thieves are willing to put a degree of effort into their activities. How can we make it sufficiently hard next time to persuade them that it’s not worth it? We have:-

  • Installed some sharp spiky plastic stuff called Prikka-Strip on top of our wooden gates and fence at the bottom of the garden, making it difficult and potentially painful to climb over. The packaging, slightly ghoulishly, says “maximum deterrent with minimum harm”. Our locksmith, however, points out that throwing a thick leather jacket on to the spikes and then climbing over that probably wouldn’t be too difficult.
  • Reinforced the shed door some more, with extra thick wood running down the opening edge, and two locks at top and bottom with steel plates overhanging the frame to make getting leverage harder. However there’s no point in kidding ourselves; it’s still a wooden shed, so it’s never going to be impossible to smash your way in.

Things we should maybe also do:-

  • Put a floodlight with a motion detector on the shed. Conveniently, there is already mains electricity in the shed, so it wouldn’t be too difficult to add a light. Interestingly, though, opinion is divided as to whether it’s a good idea, since (a) unless the light is positioned high out of reach, it’s pretty easy to just smash it, and (b) only nervous rookie burglars are put off by a bright light; more experienced burglars know that nobody’s going to see whether the light is on or off at 3am, and it just makes it easier to see what you’re stealing.
  • Put an alarm inside the shed so that violent attacks on the door (but hopefully not cats walking across the roof) set it off. We could even maybe get something which goes off loudly in the shed but also sends a signal into the house that we should get up and do something.
  • Find a good way to secure the bikes inside the shed. Locking them to each other would be a start, making it harder to carry, drag, or wheel them away. But locking them to something solid would be even better, because cutting through a good d-lock isn’t easy. Only thing to watch for is that the shed itself doesn’t count as something solid, since as has already been proven, it’s just thin planks of wood which can easily be smashed. There are plenty of good ground anchors which you bolt into a concrete floor and then lock the bikes to, but it would mean cutting through the floor of the shed, and in fact it’s brick underneath, not concrete, which is slightly less ideal. What we really need is just a very heavy object like a paving slab or an anvil with a loop in it which sits on the floor of the shed and has the bikes d-locked to it. But I haven’t yet been able to find such a thing.

Anyone else have any good tips for securing bikes in a shed?

October 30, 2006

Tivo woe

The best piece of consumer electronics I’ve ever owned is my Tivo. When people talk about devices with a great user experience, they almost always name-check one or more of the Tivo (for video recording), the iPod (for portable music) and the Sonos system (for wireless music streaming).

I was an early adopter; I bought my Tivo in 2001, and it’s given me more than five years of great service. Pick a programme, then record the next episode, or all future episodes, regardless of when they’re shown; it’s just about perfect. But now, alas, it’s died; a recent thunderstorm zapped its modem, and without that, it can’t dial out to get schedule data, and without the data it doesn’t do much.

All is not quite lost, though: the modem isn’t user-replaceable, but you can add an ethernet port to your Tivo and then you can tell it to get its guide data via the internet. I’ve tried doing this, and it almost works; the test call works fine, but when the Tivo tries to get its guide data, it fails, looking, to my inexpert eye, as though the http post it issues is being dropped by either my router or my ISP. It’s 99% there, but some small but crucial thing isn’t quite right. (If there are any linux/networking experts out there who believe they could in principle fix this, I have crisp blue notes waiting to hand out; a Tivo is just a Linux box with a nice UI, so you can telnet into it and poke around, and watch its http talk with Ethereal, so there’s nothing particularly specialised or arcane going on.)

But in the absence of an expert figuring out how to fix the thing, I’ve been looking around to see what if anything I could consider as a replacement PVR device. I only really have three requirements:-

  1. I want season passes (the ability to record all episodes of a show without having to know when they’re on)
  2. No monthly subscription. I rule out Sky Plus for that reason.
  3. I want a silent or near-silent box. I’m quite sensitive to even low levels of background noise, so anything too rowdy in the lounge is a Bad Thing.

So what’s out there? There are several choices:-

  • Just get another Tivo. In many ways, this is the smart choice. A Tivo with a lifetime subscription to the guide data will cost about £230 on E-bay, and then I could move my larger hard disk and my other accessories from my old, broken Tivo to this new one. The problem is just psychological, really; I can’t quite bear to spend money on a box which is exactly the same as one I already have, when the one I already have so nearly works! But it would be the cheapest solution; most other options cost much more.
  • Get a Freeview PVR such as the Humax 9200. These are hard disk recorders with a couple of Freeview tuners inside. This would be quite appealing, since I’d like to drop Sky and switch to Freeview anyway, except that they don’t currently do season passes, and the UI is generally reckoned to be quite a long way behind Tivo’s. There is however a new standard for Freeview PVRs called Freeview playback which includes season pass functions, and the first models to do this should be appearing in the next few months, so perhaps it’s worth waiting.
  • Get a Media Centre PC. Microsoft do a version of Windows called Media Centre Edition which includes an interface designed for use on a TV, does PVR stuff, adds music, photos and other stuff to the interface, and also lets you watch your recorded content on other devices in your home such as other PCs or an XBox 360 if you have one. I don’t desperately want that stuff, but I wouldn’t say no if it was there. Trouble is that a purpose-built Media PC is going to cost the best part of a grand so it’s not a cheap way to go, and your PVR is now running Windows, with all the unreliability, vulnerability and fiddliness that that implies. (I’m curious enough about Windows Media Edition to want to have a play with it, though; if anyone can lend me a CD to try it out for a while I’d be very grateful.)
  • Get a Mac Mini. I’d like to move all the PC hardware in my house over to Mac kit at some point anyway, so this might be a cool way to start. Apple do something called Front Row which is kind of like Windows Media Edition – except that it doesn’t do the one thing I want, which is TV recording with season passes. There are other bits of hardware and software you can get for the Mac which might in principle make it all work, but there doesn’t seem to be a single, unified solution that’s comparable to a Tivo or Windows MCE.
  • Go for a Linux box, probably Ubuntu with MythTV. This avoids the problems associated with running Windows, and MythTV looks pretty feature rich; more like Windows MCE or a later generation Tivo than Apple FrontRow. The hardware demands for Ubuntu are quite low, too, so getting a quiet box to run it ought to be fairly painless. (Can you run Ubuntu on a Mac Mini?) The problem is that this is really a hacker’s solution for somebody who’s prepared to (or enjoys!) fiddling around with command lines and shells and scripts, and that’s just not me; I don’t have the time or even the inclination any more. It seems to me that there ought to be a market for a small, quiet box pre-built with Ubuntu, MythTV, a pair of Freeview tuners and a remote control, but if there is, I haven’t found it.

So there you go. If you too are in the market for a PVR, that, as far as I can tell, is the full extent of your choices. (I haven’t factored HDTV into my calculations, because I just can’t bring myself to care enough.) Inevitably, everything I’ve said will be out of date in six months; if you want to keep up with new hardware and software for PVR systems, the best news source I’ve found is PVR Wire.

October 25, 2006

Calorie restriction & scary people

Follow-up to 1200 calories from Autology: John Dale's blog

Way back when (longer ago than I can quite bring myself to believe, in fact) I wrote about calorie restriction as a strategy for extending lifespan. It turns out, you see, that if you consume fewer calories per day, you’re likely to live longer. And if you eat a lot fewer calories a day, then you might live significantly longer than the average lifespan for your current age and gender.

But as Chris pointed out at the time, living at near-starvation levels is going to be a pretty miserable experience, and so you have to weigh up how you feel about trading longevity for actually living the way you want to live and doing the things you want to do.

Well, today I came across an article written by a journalist who tried the diet for two months and also spent time in the company of some pretty hardcore CR folks. (CR is Calorie Restriction.) And it is just scary.

I’m going to need a moment to deal with the slight attack of existential vertigo that’s hitting me just now. All evening, I have let the bubbling enthusiasm and essential reasonableness of my guests carry me past the little weirdnesses that go with being calorie-restricted. But the weirdnesses are starting to pile up, and my guests are looking weirder and weirder themselves, like emissaries from a future I’m not sure could ever feel like home…

But I console myself with the thought that in the larger case, the following suggestion is, I believe, quite wrong:-

... lacking spiritual faith, I am perhaps inordinately susceptible to scientific promises of longer, healthier life. I’m of the generation that made marathon running a popular pastime, for God’s sake, so fleshly discomfort in the name of self-involved achievement is a surprisingly easy sell. Throw in a promise that any undue pain and suffering will be masked or compensated by a psychic well-being possibly chemical in origin, and the deal is just about clinched. (...) CR’s growth from cult to subculture to fact of mainstream cultural life is not so unimaginable.

There will always be some people with the necessary self-discipline and determination to starve themselves, whether it’s for longevity or some other reason. But most people are driven by their evolutionary instincts, and those instincts tell us to eat as much as we can, because who knows where the next meal will be coming from? When calories are cheap and readily available, most people over-consume, which is why obesity, not near-starvation, is the big health crisis facing the developed world. Normally I find that depressing, but just for today, after reading this strange, perverse article, I find it oddly comforting.

September 22, 2006

A moving experience

HomeSo, long time, no blog. Though not as long, I note, as Nick Wake who impressively manages both to leave a year and a half between posts, and them come back swinging with a great, if black, joke.

Anyway, I’ve been moving house, and this turns out to be a pretty much 100% demand on my time. Also, I don’t yet have any broadband at the new house, so no blogging from home. (Though actually, I have to say, I’m quite enjoying not having the internet in the house; it’s brought it home to me just how much of a time sink it really is. Were it not for that fact that my wife needs it for her work, I’d be quite tempted to do without it, I think, and not keep checking my email and surfing around the same old web sites all evening.)

It’s often suggested that moving house is one of the more stressful things you can do, and I think that’s true, although it’s not the actual moving that’s stressful – packing things into boxes and then unpacking them somewhere else is a bit tedious, especially if you’ve accumulated eight years worth of stuff and two children since your last move, but it’s not exactly complicated.

The stress, I think, as is often the case, comes from the uncertainty, and moving house is uncertain in two ways: first, you have to make a pretty big decision on the basis of not very much evidence. You look round a house for at most a few hours; you don’t get to try living in it, or fitting your stuff into it, or finding out what the area is like or anything other than a few quick first impressions. So in all the time between making an offer and then moving in, there’s a sense of uncertainty about whether your judgement that this will be the right place, based on not much more than a quick look round, was a good one.

The other uncertainty relates to all the dependencies you have to take on in order to move house. You have to believe that your vendor, your buyer, your solicitor and your moving firm will all do what they’re supposed to at exactly the right time to make everything come together. But you don’t know any of these people; you’ve probably never dealt with any of them before, so it’s something of a leap of faith that everything will happen as it’s supposed to. For us, at least, it did. But we didn’t know that it would right up until the day we moved. Good times.

Anyway, now I can try to get all the things that have caught my attention between then and now out of my head and on to the screen. Good for me, unlucky for everyone else.

August 03, 2006

Great customer service

Writing about web page

David Pogue writes about the great customer service he received when he was buying a car stereo from an (American) company called Crutchfield:–

[The customer service rep] also gave me a little pep talk about considering installing this thing myself, just as my readers had suggested. He said it would probably take two or three hours, but that Crutchfield’s agents would be with me the whole way by phone (!), and that the company would send along its own, custom–written instructions.

Sure enough: when the package arrived, there was Crutchfield’s installation manual, with the company’s “we’re here to help you” toll–free number printed in 60–point type on the first page.

What are they, nuts!? They are actually inviting people to call them for free technical support? Don’t they have any idea how that idea will kill their revenue stream? Haven’t they learned anything from the computer industry?


[The advisor's] repeated invitations to call back for further hand–holding were so shocking, I’ll never forget the transaction. (I’ve called back twice, meanwhile, to ask questions about my Pioneer unit, and received expert, immediate answers both times.)

Above all, I can’t help wondering why nobody else has questioned the wisdom of the current “go away, customer” attitude that prevails in the penny–pinching computer and software industries.

It sounds like a great user experience, and David's enthusiasm for the company, and his recounting of the enthusiasm with which his readers recommended the company, suggests that this policy is working (though whether the cost/benefit of delivering such great customer service stacks up for Crutchfield is obviously something David has no way of knowing; since they're still in business, presumably it does).

But it raises a slightly different question in my mind: how does a company go about delivering this kind of service? If you decide that the best business strategy for your company is to make your customers so happy with your service that they come back to you and recommend you to their friends, what would you have to do? You can set up some of the mechanical details easily enough – freepost addresses, freephone numbers, and so on – but it seems to me that the really important part of the whole process would be getting your employees who work with customers to behave in a way which delivers this great experience. Is that something you could just tell people to do? Give them some product training and a big lever arch file of tips on being helpful? Or is this kind of customer service actually a talent which you'd have to try and recruit for, rather than something which could be taught to anyone as a kind of process or methodology?

July 03, 2006

Alphabetical iPod

One side effect of transferring big chunks of your CD collection on to your iPod is that you get to see what your collection would look like if you were the sort of person who alphabeticised meticulously, but with no regard for genre, decade or anything except artist or group name. I find the juxtapositions that this throws up strangely pleasing: for example, when I look at my iPod and select Music » Artists, I find that:–

  • Dido is next to Dion
  • The Scissor Sisters are next to the Seekers
  • Cat Stevens is next to Rachel Stevens who's next to Sufjan Stevens

I don't know why that tickles me really, but it does.

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