Category Archives: Blogotron

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Taking cuttings

The winter just gone took its toll on several plants in the garden.  One particular casualty was a rosemary bush which was dead apart from the end of one branch.  Rosemary is one of my favourite herbs to cook with and so a month or two ago I took a cutting.  This evening I planted it back in the herb bed.  It doesn’t look great but it has taken root and will hopefully like its new pot-free conditions and fresh soil.  Time will tell.

As I firmed down the soil I found myself comparing my cutting-taking exercise to that of salvaging something useful from a failing project.  There may be times when something useful can be taken from the ailing project and used as the starting point of another project.  There might be times when there is nothing workable to salvage, but it’s still worth documenting what happened.  This might lead to an unexpected use of the work in the future or might at least save somebody else the pain of making the same mistakes again.

Having had more experience (some -v- none) of taking cuttings than of salvaging useful work from failing projects I thought it might be worth analysing the experience.  My starting question was that I could have just dumped the whole thing and so why didn’t I?

  • An interest in saving something from it.
  • Recognising that it could still have something to offer if used in the right way.
  • Being able to identify the one small usable section of a large dead plant.
  • Having the skills to give it the best chance to grow into something new.
  • Being prepared to invest the time, effort and the right resources to make it work.
  • Accepting that there was no guarantee of success but still having a go.


The Hazards of Forced Participation

If someone has had the opportunity (gaps in talking) to contribute to a group discussion, but hasn’t spoken up, then maybe:

  1. they haven’t got anything they want to contribute at that moment; or
  2. they don’t feel comfortable or confident expressing their views in the group situation; and
  3. they may well not appreciate any attempts, within that group situation at least, to cajole them into participating.


Adding Post Categories

Until about 20 minutes ago all posts on the blog appeared in one long list.  Now they don’t have to.

David suggested that it might be a good idea to have a separate space for any posts that are only really intended for that author’s future reference.  I agree that it’s potentially a good idea to provide separate spaces for the “hey everyone, here’s an idea” posts and the “here’s something I really need to look at in the morning” posts.

The only real concern seemed to be that interesting posts might get lost and so I’ve added in a new widget which prominently displays the 10 most recent posts regardless of which category they are in.  I’ve also added a category choice widget.

Also, as a side effect of choosing a single category to display, the front page now only shows the first few lines of each post.  I’m not sure whether this is an improvement.  It does make it easier to scan through the posts but you can’t see the pretty pictures any more.

Let’s give it a go and see what we think.

PS: David, this is a test. Please comment on this post when you read it otherwise I’ll think categories might not be such a good idea ;-).

It’s only useful if you use it

Last weekend I installed Dropbox.  I won’t use it to store any sensitive files, because of the privacy concerns surrounding the system, but so far I have found it very useful for keeping my general academic files in sync between a few computers.

Then I ran into a PICNIC error.  Yesterday, during a Skype call with a colleague, I made some notes in a simple text file on my home computer.  I am now in the office and have just gone to open the file on my laptop.  Which would be fine if I had saved it in my Dropbox folder and not on the desktop.  Problem code ID-10-T diagnosed.

My first thought was the obvious one in the post title but it also made me think about the importance of users integrating a technology into their computing practices so that it becomes instinctive.

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When best-efforts collides with business-critical

Just a quick rant while I wait for Skype to (excruciatingly slowly) download.

Skype is acting up for me this afternoon.  After problems logging in and a subsequent application error I decided to reinstall it.  I should have checked the Skype status page first but that’s another matter (maybe the sign in screen could have flashed up that there are issues today?).

It isn’t just about Skype.  It’s the whole “Cloud” thing that bothers me.  The Internet is inherently a “best efforts” means of facilitating communication and yet I seem to see increasing attempts by hosted services to seduce businesses.  “Got a server? Ha ha ha! Money-wasting fools! You need MyMiracleCloudDoofer<tm>”.

So let’s say I have a business with hosted file storage, email, VoIP and whatever else.  Whatever the perceived benefits of not having the server(s) in-house it doesn’t look good if the Internet connection fails.  Suddenly the Internet has become a business-critical resource, even if I want to send an internal email to the next office or print off a standard document.

To quote the wisdom of Yoda: “shafted are you”.

Tolerance of the learning curve

Having read David’s post about Dwarf Fortress (I keep wanting to call it Gnome Fortress for some reason) I had a “quick” play.  Admittedly my interest in computer games peaked when I owned a SNES (a D-pad and six buttons really should be enough for anything) and since then my tolerance of computer game complexity just about stretches to Command and Conquer style offerings.

But there was something strangely compelling about Gnome Dwarf Fortress.  ASCII graphics: check. Near-vertical learning curve: check. Certain defeat: check.  It doesn’t sound like a winning combination, but I was compelled to delete it before addiction set in.

Afterwards I kept thinking about the link between a product’s learning curve and the willingness of the end user to invest time and energy in learning how to use the product sufficiently well to obtain what they consider to be a successful outcome.

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Ubuntu Adventures 2011

I haven’t used a desktop Linux distribution since a frustrating experience with Ubuntu some time in 2004 or 2005.  My lasting memory was of having to load a terminal window not long after installation and fiddle about with various configuration files.  Even then things didn’t work too well for me and I was (and still would be) a contended user of Windows XP for my day-to-day computing needs.  My working life was firmly focussed on all things Microsoft and Linux was forgotten.

This week, after my long avoidance of desktop Linux, I installed the most recent Ubuntu Desktop LTS edition on a test machine in the office and was very pleasantly surprised.  So I decided to give 11.04 at home on a computer that was in need of a XP reinstall.

It installed quickly, runs very responsively and handled all of the hardware right away.  Even the wireless networking.  Most impressive.

I then took the plunge and installed it on my laptop.  Because a reasonable processor and 3GB of RAM doesn’t seem to be enough for Vista.  All was going well until I tried to connect to a wireless network and a sense of deja vu kicked in.

Cue Google.  Cue the Terminal window.  In the end it wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things.  The fourth or fifth possible solution worked.  Ubuntu didn’t keel over.  I only had to remove some packages, install one new application, download an obsolete driver, install it, protect it from updates and reboot.  I’ll put it down as a lucky escape.  For Ubuntu that is.  I was this close |<–>| to getting rid of it, buying Windows 7 and waiting another six or seven years before I tried again.

Taking a step back

I have been trying to configure a server and associated applications to use for research purposes.  The emphasis being on “trying to configure”.  It has driven me nuts.

My original goal was to configure this server so that it could be used in a production environment.  I also wanted to configure all the required applications from scratch and document the process to make it easily repeatable.  Things were not going well but I was determined to complete the job.

Then I asked for advice from someone with extensive experience of the software in question.  To paraphrase the response, my attempts to configure everything would be a nightmare and I should really think about using an existing pre-packaged bundle of the applications I needed.

Later that day I had everything up and running.  The solution is not immediately suitable for a production environment and does have a few niggles but it will be fine for research purposes.

Notes to self:

  • Spend more time at the outset thinking about the requirements of a technical project.
  • Sometimes “just enough” will do.  The server is just a tool to facilitate research and it is this research that will be the important outcome.
  • Take a step back and reconsider the situation when things are not going well.  Sometimes a different approach will lead to the required outcome.

McMeetup 11 May

Lots of interesting ideas from yesterday’s meeting but I was particularly taken with our discussion of what constitutes “success” and “failure” in a project and the value of documenting problems and unexpected outcomes for future reference.

The invention of Teflon seems a good example of achieving an unexpected success from an activity.

Definitely more scope for discussion and blogging.

Securing Google

I’ve been using my Google account to store increasing amounts of information.  It started with Gmail and moved on to Docs and Calendar.  It’s very handy to have access to my email and documents, especially research notes and other useful information, from any computer with an Internet connection.

But the more I stored on Google the more I worried about the safety of my information.  Admittedly I am paranoid when it comes to security but it troubled me that I was storing so much potentially sensitive information on publicly accessible servers, signing in on a number of computers and protecting it all with a keyloggable username and password.

Then I read this article and configured two-factor authentication on my Google account.  In a nutshell you sign in with your Google username and password and it then sends you a SMS message (or phones you using an automated voice system) with a six digit number which you have to enter before you can access your account.  You can configure several phone numbers including landlines.

There are issues if you need to use your Google account details somewhere other than the Google web interface.  This article goes into more detail but with the two-factor authentication in place I lost access to Gmail through the mobile app and my home email client.  Google will generate passwords for anything like this but they are complex and you can only view them once in order to enter them where required.  After this a password must be revoked and a new one generated if you need to re-enter it.  This will be a problem if an application is not able to store this view-once password.

For me personally the benefits, or at least my perception of improved security, far outweigh the niggle of occasionally generating a new password when my mobile’s Gmail app loses my account details.