Googling for Cold Callers

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Missed PPI Cold Call
Missed PPI Cold Call

I missed a phone call earlier – I’d just stepped out of the office for 5 minutes and when I came back in I had a missed call.

I hate missing calls, because my mobile is the main contact for all sorts of services. A missed call could just be an irritating sales call or it could mean that someone’s just ordered themselves a new Ferrari using my credit card details.

So I’ve taken to Googling the phone number. There are a lot of nuisance call prevention web sites out there and they’re pretty good at filtering out cold callers.

There’s not much chance of me calling this one back, it’s a PPI (re)claim company and not only do I not entertain cold callers but I’ve never had PPI.

Seed: From Student to Skilled Professional

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Seed Software Logo

As a senior professional in what might be termed the wider software industry I’ve worked with a lot of new graduates. On average I estimate that it takes 6 months for a new graduate to become an effective developer.

This is mostly because there is so much more to being a good developer than just writing code. Yesterday was James Croft’s last day as an intern at Seed, in his blog he takes time to thank us and gives a short précis of how he believes his year at Seed has helped him.

In The University we do the best we can to provide our students with knowledge of the working world. The University of Hull has an excellent reputation for producing well rounded, very employable Computer Science graduates. This is important, especially now that students are being asked to contribute so heavily and so directly towards their degrees: the employability of graduates is key to choosing a university and a course. A degree is an investment and you want to know you’re going to get a return on that.

I’m proud to be a member of the Computer Science Dept. at Hull, but no matter what we present in formal learning we’re never going to be able to teach what it’s like to be a software developer. That’s where Seed Software comes in.

Fire AppliancesWe run a professional software development practice from right within the Department of Computer Science. We’re not playing at it either; Seed is not an academic’s idea of what a real software house would look like. Most of the software we develop is in use by the Fire Service. Currently 15 fire services in the UK use our software, ranging from risk management applications to the very systems responsible for taking calls, selecting and mobilising fire engines and assisting the crews by providing communications and information at the scene.  Commercial software development doesn’t get much more critical than this.

So how does this benefit our students and where does James fit in? James worked with us as an intern – he took a year out of his degree (between second and third years) in order to work with us. This is a paid position, we don’t expect people to work for nothing and there are several positions available. Currently we have 2 intakes, roughly one before and one after each summer.

Students can also work for with us part time as a module in their MEng or MSc programme.

I couldn’t write a syllabus for what Seed teaches, but I see how our students and interns grow over their time with us. Some come in over-confident and quickly realise that the real world is far more complex than they had imagined. Others come in lacking confidence and realise that they actually do have the required skills. Seed often puts people outside their comfort zones, being a good developer is so much more than sitting behind a computer and writing code. It’s about teamwork, it’s about communication, risk evaluation, it’s about prioritisation, estimation, strategy, presentation, politics. I could go on.

That’s what we do in Seed, we take students and we turn them into real world software professionals. As a professional business person myself I would employ every single intern that we have ever had in Seed, perhaps not as they started with us, but by the end of the internship all have proved that they have what it takes to be a valuable asset to our industry.

So I’m proud to be a member of the team at Seed, proud of what we do and of what we’ve achieved and I genuinely look forward to the future, to making Seed even better and more effective as we ourselves learn and grow.


Norris, I Have a 12″ Black Plastic Disc with a Hole in the Middle…

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Ariston RD110 Turnatable
Ariston RD110 Turnatable

I’m the lucky owner of rather a good turntable – I came by it almost by chance some 20 years ago. Despite the advent of CD and MP3 I kept it primarily because I own quite a lot of music that simply has never been released on CD. That isn’t why I dug it out of the store, and it’s not because I needed something “vintage” to go with the enormous tiger striped beanbag.

I dug it out of the store because I wanted to listen to music. I’m not going to pretend that vinyl sounds “warmer” or in any way better than CD or MP3 because it’s a plain lie. OK, so with a top quality deck and a brand new pressing you could in theory get better quality than a CD but that’s just not how it works. Dust happens, scratches happen, wear happens and you can hear all of it. So why listen to an inferior reproduction system? Because putting on a record is a ritual, you don’t put on a record to play in the background. As Pooh Bear says that “When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen,” when you see someone putting on a record you can be pretty sure that they’re going to Listen to Some Music.

So I’ve been working through my record collection and rediscovering the world of vinyl and how much more flexibility it gave artists and record producers. There are coloured records, shaped records, picture discs and there’s enough room  in a 12″ pack to neatly fold all sorts of things, but especially posters. Then of course there are gatefold sleeves and the whole world of cover art. I used to have a wall display that was made out of record covers – 12″ of square cardboard is large enough to make an impression. The cover art of a record really matters, I’ve bought a fair few of them on the strength of the cover art alone.

There are a few less well known charms too, like run-out groove etchings. One of the most famous that appears on a lot of records, is this.

A Porky Prime Cut
A Porky Prime Cut

“A Porky Prime Cut” is the signature of renowned record cutting engineer George Peckham. Quite often the band themselves get in on the act too, often with weird and cryptic messages. One of the most notorious is the run-out groove etching on the Sisters of Mercy’s 1983 Temple of Love original 12″ single. I think we can safely assume that they were not fans of the temperance movement.

Sisters Temple '83

Clearly it’s not worth buying a load of vinyl and forking out a small mortgage for a top quality record deck. Vinyl is easily damaged, it wears out, it’s inconvenient to store and to play and it weighs a ton. But it has a charm than CD and MP3 simply don’t have and for that reason alone I love it.

Linux Equilibrium

Reading Time: < 1 minuteSomewhere in YorkSEED Software is fairly heavily Microsoft orientated. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Linux, indeed I started my career as a *nix developer. In 2000 though I was looking for my next career move and there just weren’t enough opportunities in the *nix world, so I jumped ship and became a Windows developer. Since then Linux has had to take a back seat.

However I recently ordered a new NAS and a Raspberry Pi. This means that I currently have;

  • My main workstation (Windows 7)
  • A backup workstation (Windows 7)
  • A SQL Server (Windows 2008 Server R2)
  • A Windows 8 Test Machine
  • A Windows 7 Test Machine
  • A Windows 7 laptop

But I also have;

  • A Linux dev / test machine (running Gentoo)
  • An Android smartphone (HTC Wildfire S running Cyanogen)
  • A (Linux based) ADSL router
  • A backup (Linux based) ADSL router
  • A (Linux Based) NAS
  • A Raspberry Pi

For the first time since 2000 I have got as many Linux machines as I have Windows, possibly more as there are other pieces of hardware that I have which could also be Linux based – I’m looking suspiciously at my TV for starters…

The downside of all this is that I think I may have just blown any pretence I might have had that I am not a geek. Hom hum, I can live with that!

Google’s Web Cache – Not Good For Bloggers

Reading Time: 2 minutesParis UndergroundI’ve stopped Google from caching this blog, it’s the only logical option.

Things change, circumstances change, events happen, our opinions change. The web though appears timeless, an article written 10 years ago can easily crop up in a search today and nobody reads the date. The advice that one might have given 10 years ago however may be entirely contradictory to the advice one would give today. The opinions expressed before the current recession may be entirely at odds with today’s. The conclusion we inevitably come to is that being able to edit and delete an article is really rather important.
Not only this but from a purely selfish point of view we might need to delete or edit articles – imagine writing an article that praised a particular company only to find out later that your own company was being taken over by one of their competitors. If the first time your new managers hear of you it’s because someone is telling them you’ve written an article supporting the opposition that stain is going to be difficult to remove from your reputation.

Articles can hang around in caches for a very long time after they’ve been taken down or edited on the original site. I’ve found myself writing articles and not publishing them simply because of this – I think to myself that I may change my mind about the subject at some point, or that the article is pertinent only to the world that exists today. So it’s a no-brainer for me and I would suggest any blogger, if you want to say anything that you may ever have cause to change or delete later, you have to try to stop it being cached.

Oh No, Snow!

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What to do in snow [image credits unknown]
Why does Britain – particularly England – grind to a halt at the first flake of snow?

Some of it, of course, is down to people being pathetic but the fundamental reason is clear – we’re just not set up for it. However one has to question whether we should be. Snowfall in the UK varies wildly depending on where you are but it’s a rare year that we have more than 2 weeks which are seriously disrupted by snow – 3.8% of the year. How much do we really want to invest in such a small percentage of our time?

Other (similar) countries don’t grind to halt because they have enough snow to make investment worthwhile. Finland is under snow, depending on where you are,  for between 3 and 6 months of the year.

To make this clear we’ll look at some of the cheaper and reasonable precautions one can take.

  • Get some long life / tinned / frozen food in.
  • Make sure you have a good supply of fuel – wood, coal, gas, oil etc.
  • Most people have a garden spade, it’s useful to have one in the car (whether this be the garden spade or a “travel shovel” specifically for the car).
  • Carry a couple of pieces of old carpet and perhaps planks of wood in the car. Maybe even specialist grip mats.
  • Make sure your screen wash is full and mixed up correctly for winter. You can buy concentrated screen wash at good motor factors, mix it up as per the instructions for winter.
  • Make sure you have proper boots that can cope with snow (good wellies will suffice).
  • Get some grit-salt in for your path and/or drive. It’s not expensive. You can use dishwasher salt or even table salt but they tend not to come in big bags for a couple of quid. If you haven’t got (enough) salt then sand, grit or even ash will help. It freezes into the surface making compacted snow more grippy.

These reasonable precautions won’t cost much. Motorists in Scandinavia however use Winter tyres. Even if you have a modest car that’s £300 and unless you’re going to pay someone to change them twice a year you can add the cost of a second set of wheels to that.

What’s more unless you do a lot of miles the tyres will probably perish before they run out of tread which just wastes money. They do make a real difference to driving on snow (in fact they have specific snow tyres in Scandinavia which are even better). For 4% of the year though where they make that real difference is it worth it?

That’s one simple investment we could make in our own cars but it highlights the issue rather well. Similar disproportionate investment would be required in much of our infrastructure if we were going to just carry on as normal in the snow in the same way that Scandinavian countries do. For 4% of the year it’s simply not worth us making those investments. It’s actually more cost effective for us to just to do the best we can with the limited resources available.

The key to dealing with snow in the UK is planning. We know it’s going to happen for a few days a year and the weather forecasters are rarely caught out by it, so plan in advance. Businesses should also be aware of the problems and should have plans. It’s all common sense.

Halfords We Fit

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Someone’s changed more than the wipers…

UK motor factors Halfords are running adverts for their new “We Fit” service and I absolutely hate them. There’s one common message – that even the most basic of car maintenance tasks is beyond the ability of the average motorist. This annoys me intensely because I firmly believe that every motorist should be capable of such simple tasks as changing bulbs and windscreen wipers – it’s part of understanding the vehicle that you’re driving. What’s more these things aren’t difficult. They require very little actual skill, just care and attention to detail.

However there’s a calmer part of my mind that says these adverts are actually good. I’ve seen the results when people thought they knew what they doing too many times and some of them have been pretty horrendous. Now I know that large chains don’t have best reputation for quality of workmanship but I’d still rather that vehicles using our highways were maintained by someone who’d had some form of training. That way there’s slightly more chance that the oncoming light in the freezing fog is actually a motorcyclist, not a car with only one light working.

The Last Remnant of 1993

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Computer Connection Mousemat
From the depths of history…

This is my mousemat. It’s about the same age as many of our students and it’s pretty much the only piece of computing technology from 1993 that’s still relevant today.

  • The 3.5 inch floppy was the standard way of supplying data and even software. Windows came on 6 to 8 of them depending on the edition.
  • Mice used to use a ball and rollers to track movement. They’re now optical.
  • Only cheap keyboards used membranes. Good ones were mechanical (switch) keyboards. These are now almost impossible to get hold of.
  • USB was unheard of. Peripherals either had to connect via an existing serial or parallel port or use their own interface card.
  • The Compact Disc was common, but the CD-ROM had not yet entered the world of computing (let alone DVD or recordable technology).
  • Monitors used Cathode Ray Tubes. This made anything bigger than 19″ heavy, awkward and expensive. If the office heating failed though they were good for that.
  • A myriad of interfaces have come and gone. ISA bus, VESA local bus, DIN style keyboard connections, PS/2, IDE, etc. etc.

There are a few things that haven’at changed that much.

  • Hard disks – the mechanical type – still use much the same physical technology. The data capacity now though is astounding. A “big” HDD in 1992 was 20Mb. It’s now 50,000 times that.
  • VGA was the latest and greatest in 1992. We still use it today, mainly for projectors although even this is fading in favour of DVI / HDMI.
  • Cases are still made of cheap steel and PSUs are still cheap switch-mode devices that fail every  more often than any other component.

Having said all this it’s not so long ago I lifted the lid on a piece of equipment that had just been decommissioned from a fire service. I recognised the CPU instantly, it was a Zilog Z80 in a DIL40 package, placing its vintage firmly in the 1980s and possibly as early as 1976. 

Small Scale Disaster Recovery Planning

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Or why to but a top efficiency freezer.

An A Rated Fridge-Freezer

So the power company decided to schedule a 9 hour outage for today and not bother telling us. At 09:15 the power went off and we were suddenly in the dark. No power, no network and even the cordless house phone was off. Sure we have mobiles but we live in a dip and have minimal signal.

We’re screwed, right?

Not at all, because when I became a remote worker I spent some time working out exactly what I’d do if this happened. Dress this up in fancy clothes and a consultant will call it “disaster recovery planning” and relieve you of the contents of your wallet. The reality is that it’s just a bit of common sense, but it is important that any small business actually does it.

There’s an old phone I keep in the spare bedroom that doesn’t need external power so within a couple of minutes we have some form of communication. All the utility company phone numbers are on a board by the fridge so within 10 minutes I want someone’s head on a plate. At least I know the score though and it means we’re out of the office for the day. We both use (docked) laptops as our primary machines so we grab them, an external HDD and a bunch of other goodies and decamp to a nearby relative’s. All sorted.

If you are a small business, a remote / home worker or a contractor you need to think about what you’d do if something goes wrong. There are four things to look at.

  • What can go wrong?
  • How likely is it?
  • How severe it it?
  • What are you going to do about it?

There are 2 parts to the last one. One part is obvious, what you do when it happens but you should also consider how you can mitigate it – how you can make it less likely or its effect less serious if it does happen.

Oh, and a small piece of advice, always get the most efficient freezer you can. 9 hours of no power and not a hint of defrosting!

Beating the Winter Blues.

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Woodbridge Harbour

It’s depressing – the end of September has gone and the nights are drawing in. Soon we will be getting up in the dark. I think most of us find it a little harder to get motivated in the winter, perhaps not to the stage where we would say we were actually depressed or suffering from SAD, just a bit “meh”.

Thankfully there are things we can do to alleviate that somewhat. Here are 2 that I do…

1 – Get a “Dawn Simulator” Alarm.

I’ve got a Lumie Bodyclock Starter 3o (there are much cheaper alternatives). Half an hour before the alarm goes off it starts to turn the light on. It steadily increases the brightness so that when the alarm finally does go off it’s actually quite light in the room.

The effect is relatively subtle – I don’t wake up full of the joys of spring as the marketing material for these things implies. What I find is that I’m alert when I wake up instead of half asleep and that actually makes a big difference to the start of the day, which in turn makes a big difference to the rest of the day.

2 – Use Daylight Coloured Lights

It may be a stereotype that programmers like to sit in the dark but not all of us are like that. I’m lucky – my office environment is under my control. I’ve replaced all the lights with daylight coloured LED units. This makes a big difference too – the office is bright and cheerful even on a grey winter day. It just makes putting in a day’s work that little bit easier.

If you’re not as lucky as me you can always put a request in to your building manager to get the light colour changed. Often “daylight” units are the similar prices to other colours so  you can usually get them swapped out, if not immediately then when the units fail.

You can also try getting a daylight desk light – be aware though that when using a desk light you have to make sure that you look away from your desk a lot. It’s rather easy to get zoned in for hours and that won’t do your eyesight any good at all.

These are 2 really simple and easy things that can make a big difference in the middle of December when you start and finish work in the dark.