Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What is this?

I took this picture through the window of a plane, flying from Japan to London in March 2004.

I'm guessing that we were somewhere over east Russia.

Update: I asked Reddit, and the answer is: a river with Oxbow lakes. What we call a billabong in Australia. Thanks to utexaspunk for providing the answer.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Drip feed network

Did you ever here the old saying "the cobbler's wife goes barefoot and the doctor's wife dies young"? Well in my house, the person who gives other people advice on keeping their infrastructure up to date has failed to keep her own infrastructure up to date. Specifically, I have failed to maintain our household internet connection in line with our usage. As a consequence, we are on rationed internet usage for the rest of this month.

I blame Steve Jobs for this, because I am pretty certain that it was downloads from iTunes that maxed out our quota, though it is not entirely his fault. Our current (note that word) ISP is Optus, the local minion of the larger Singtel group. Some time in 2002 I had an Optus cable modem installed, and the data plan in place today is what Optus is pleased to call 'Unlimited Pro'. This plan is in no way, shape, or form unlimited: what it actually provides is 20GB per month of peak hours data, and 20GB per month off peak (where peak is noon to midnight). When it first went in, this was fine: the service was fast, and the possibility of an iTunes store in Australia was but a glint in the Jobsian eye - and I didn't even have a Mac in 2002. However, the years have passed, Mac have proliferated all over my house, there is an Apple TV in my family room, my husband (who is still in thrall to Microsoft) has also discovered iTunes, and online gaming and online shopping, and our data usage has gone through the roof. Meanwhile, more people are now using the Optus cable service, and on some days it is so slow that it is next to unusable. What I think happened in this instance is that one of us (probably me) kicked off a download from iTunes in the off peak period, and it took so long to complete that it slid into the peak period. So I checked our usage last week, and discovered that we have less than 1GB of peak data left between now and the end of November. If we use more than that, Optus throttles our link to 64kbps for the rest of the month. We have experienced this before, and it is not fun.

And I can't upgrade the plan - this is the best that Optus can offer - and I can't just give them money to make the problem go away.

So right now, we have Internet access in the mornings - we still have plenty of off peak data available. In addition, I have bought a Pocket Wifi from Vodaphone: it came with 3GB of data, and it works beautifully, so I can get online in the afternoon if I really need to do so, and of course I have my iPad and its 3G connection. And I am taking steps to get rid of Optus, and to replace them with an ISP who offers more flexible data plans. My choice is iiNet, and I'm hoping that they live up to their reputation for competence and good customer service. The first thing I need is a new standard phone line: that is supposed to be installed tomorrow.

I had intended to deal with this earlier. I had actually ordered a new firewall - which is now languishing on the dining room table, because I don't want to waste our limited bandwidth setting it up. I just didn't act quickly enough.

Still, I wasted less time on random browsing this weekend.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Other Project

I've had some complaints lately about the infrequency of updates. I know things have been a bit quiet, and this is because I have been working on something else. In fact, on a completely different web site.

Do you remember Omni Magazine? It was published between 1978 and 1995 - so you have to be of a certain age to have encountered it - and it featured wonderful artwork, groundbreaking fiction and a rather variable level of commentary and reporting. Quite serious science reporting was intermingled with hilarious nonsense and crack pot theories. Viewed today, it provides an interesting commentary on a period in history - there are far more tobacco ads than you would see in any current American publication . You can trace the diamond industry's carefully orchestrated campaign to convince people that two month's salary is a reasonable amount to spend on an engagement ring. There was a wonderful series of ads from the International Paper Company, called "The Power of the Printed Word", each ad a two page spread on a subject such as "How to read faster" or "How to use a library". The fiction published in Omni included William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic", Harlan Ellison's "Mefisto in Onyx" and stories by Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card and many, many other notable authors.

I don't recall when I first encountered Omni - I know that I bought it regularly for much of its life, because many the copies I have still have the newsagent's reservation stickers on them, the early ones with my maiden name written on them, the later ones with my married name. However, some numbers I acquired second hand, to fill the gaps: all the early numbers seem to have come from a university fund raising book fair.

I have a full set now (I filled the last few gaps from eBay), but the paper is beginning to degrade. The company that originally published Omni is long gone, and whatever copyright still exists appears to reside with either the original authors of the material, or with Friendfinder Networks. I can't envision any way in which Omni could be reprinted, so eventually it will probably disappear. This seems a pity: if some entity like Zinio could get the rights, they could reissue Omni to an enthusiastic audience. Omni has many fan sites, and its own Facebook page. But I don't see this happening, because of the copyright issues involved. So a friend and I are scanning the whole lot, as well as we can, so at least there will be a soft copy that we can refer to when the paper copies become unreadable.

Scanning magazines is time consuming, and as a side activity, I am developing a comprehensive index. The fiction component has been indexed in the past, but not the whole contents. If you check the Facebook page, you will find many people who can remember something that they believe that they read in Omni, and which they want to find again. Searching 200 issues is impractical, and lot of requests could be satisfied by a decent index. However, manual indexing is labour intensive, and I'm being hampered by the fact that some of the artwork is not credited. So a lot of my free time has been going into scanning, indexing, and creating a web site where I can store the basic tables of contents and author indices. The detailed content indices will take months to complete (an issue takes about 3 or 4 hours to completely index). If you want to have a look at what has been done so far, the site is The Complete Index of Omni Magazine.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Vendor Swag

Last week I had the pleasure of spending two days at VMware's vForum 2010 at Darling Harbour. It was a great event, particularly since I was there as a conference attendee, and not as a company representative. If you have never had to man a booth at a trade show, let me assure you that is very hard work. You try staying on your feet for two days, while being upbeat no matter who you have to deal with, and see how you feel.

I met a huge number of old friends, which is always fun: you get to compare career paths, and since I changed jobs last May, a lot of people were keen to know where I had moved to and why. And the catering was excellent.

However, right now all the "stuff" that I was given to me by various vendors in the course of the event is stacked on my dining room table, and looking through it makes me question the sanity of some company's marketing departments. So what did I get?

First, from the conference itself, a shoulder bag. Nominally a laptop bag, and it would do in a pinch. I used it yesterday to carry my camera and accessories to the city, to shop for a new camera bag. Today, it's on it's way to the attic to join all the other spare bags in the house. I may never use it again, so as brand name placement it's a bit of a dud.

A coffee mug. I have coffee mugs from companies that don't even exist any more. They get used either when I have tradesmen on site, and need to provide hot drinks; or for large social gatherings, when I don't have enough cups. The only vendor mugs that I use regularly are some steel ones that APC gave me a few years ago: they are really nice, and I'm happy to put them on the table. The new one is a mundane white china thing with a logo: it's going into storage in the attic.

A squashy foam ball. Unremarkable, but it will wind up on my desk in my customer-site office, because if you are a naturally fidgety person (such as me) you need things to fidget with while you are thinking.

An object made of a similar squashy foam, and intended to represent a telephone - the office type, with many buttons. Of the vendor who gave me this I can only ask "why"? What were you thinking when you ordered this stupid thing to be printed with your logo? What do you expect the recipient to do with it? I'm either going to chuck it in the toy box that I keep for visiting children, or add it to the pile of missiles that I keep handy to throw at Percy when he is clawing the rug or biting Mungo.

Pad of sticky notes, printed with logo. Always useful, and will go to my main office.

Quite a decent pen, but I have scores of vendor pens: my Mum will probably get this one, since she does a lot of crosswords and loses pens regularly.

A screw-top "test tube" full of red jelly beans. This could have worked, but it doesn't have a logo on it at all. The tube will probably end up in my knitting bag - it looks to be the right size to hold buttons and small tools.

A key ring, the fob of which combines a tape measure and a flash light. I wouldn't use this as a key ring, it's too bulky, but a tape measure is always handy in the office, and a flash light can be very handy in a data centre - some of them are quite dimly lit. I recall once, working in El Segundo, and having to go to the nearest Fry's to buy a flash light, so that we could read the asset tags on the equipment.

A 4GB USB flash drive. Always useful, but this one has a cap that is going to get lost easily, and the rep who gave it to me told me that his marketing people had only provided a couple of hundred (this for a conference attended by 4,000 people), because they cost $20 each. You must be kidding me! A 4GB flash drive, even with three colour logo printing, should not cost more than $15, and half that for larger quantities.

A box of three Lindt chocolates. Nice, but again, there is no logo (other than Lindt's). I don't even recall which vendor gave me this.

A collapsible "frisbee" type flying disk. These always go down well with the folks on the help desk.

The purpose of this type of marketing material is both to lure the prospective customer to your stand for a conversation, and to keep your name before their eyes for days, weeks, and if you are lucky, months to come. Given the amount of money that is spent on conference give aways, I'm astounded at how poorly they are targeted.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The iPad, 5 months on

It's now late October, and the iPad has been part of my daily life for almost exactly 5 months. It has turned out to be a perfect fit for me, for a number of reasons:

I work as a consultant, and I spend a lot of time on the premises of large banks. Banks, quite justifiably, will not allow wandering consultants to plug just any old laptop into the corporate LAN. In fact, the bank where I am working at the moment has kindly issued me with a corporate IBM ThinkPad, running the bank's preferred standard operating environment. Unfortunately, their SOE is based on Windows XP and IE6, which is like being summarily dumped back into the last century. One of the (many) reasons that Microsoft has no hope of ever being "cool" is that for a large number of people, their daily experience of Microsoft is not Windows 7, or even Vista: it is Windows XP, and it is old hat. The bank also (quite reasonably) blocks access to some website from within the corporate LAN - for example, Dropbox. However, my iPad does not need to connect to the bank's network, and I can use it to access anything that I need, without hindrance.

I have acquired a few new apps since I first acquired my iPad: Quickoffice, Zinio, Nebulous Notes, Airsketch, Flipboard, Wordflick HD, the Google mobile app and Soulver. All of these are good, solid apps.

However, considering what I use most frequently, I would have to say the following, in no particular order:

The built-in mail app

Atomic Web browser









Amazon Kindle

CSV Touch

I do use all the other apps that I have installed, but not as consistently. I take meeting notes directly into Pages. I use Goodreader constantly, to read and manage files. Evernote is installed on every device that I use regularly, as is Dropbox, and I cannot imagine life without either of them. The Atomic Web browser, particularly when combined with Safari Online (see previous post), has simplified my life enormously, because I now have ready access to technical manuals whenever I need them, without have to purchase the physical books. By my reckoning this has already saved me more that the cost of the Safari subscription already, and it has also saved me from buying several books that were not as good as their initial, optimistic, reviews. Instapaper, Zinio and Flipboard always give me something to read, so that queuing time is never wasted.

I took the iPad to Melbourne last month (a brief holiday, to celebrate a wedding anniversary), and it was so much easier than lugging a laptop. I spent today at a conference (vForum 2010), and the iPad didn't weigh down my shoulder bag, but it did do everything I needed. Anyone releasing a device in this category will have to go a long way to surpass the iPad.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

How do we remember things?

In the mid to late 1990's I had a job that required me to work most of the time on a help desk. Generally I provided second and third level support for technology resellers and integrators, with the occasional exception where I would actually have to speak to an end user. And from time to time I would stand down from the help desk, and go and work for my employer's training department. During these periods I would generally teach for two straight weeks, starting with the general introduction to Unix, and moving on through Unix system administration, TCP/IP, serial communications and shell programming. Two weeks was enough to do the full cycle, and I quite enjoyed teaching. According to my class feedback forms, I was pretty good at it. And there is nothing like teaching a subject to really clarify it in your own mind. I knew my subjects, knew them well. All those obscure Unix command line arguments, the vi editor, the tips and tricks that make all the difference between coping with an operating system and actually managing it were second nature to me.

Years passed (cue falling calendar pages or whatever), and I moved into consulting and then into presales. I dallied with other operating systems. I learned other technologies. And somewhere along the way, I began to forget my old skills.

I've now gone back to consulting (rather joyfully, I don't think I have any great talent for presales work), and a few months ago I began to learn Python. Python is rather a fun language, and I needed to learn it to satisfy the requirements of a customer. I got that job done, having learned enough Python to perform the task at hand but not much more. So I looked around for something else that needed coding: I can't learn a language unless I have something to do with it. Working through the exercises in books bores me to tears: I need a practical task to which the language can be applied.

I found a suitable task fairly easily. A while back there was a reminiscent post on Boing Boing about the old Omni magazine. Now I have a complete collection of Omni, from 1978 to 1995, about 180 or 200 issues. I hadn't looked at them in years - they were in journal boxes in my non-fiction room (shown on the house plans as Bed 4, actually full of book shelves). So I dug them out and had a look. I had forgotten what fun they were. A bit of online research showed that many people recall Omni fondly - there is even a Facebook page - and that it has never been properly indexed. There is a fiction index, but no comprehensive index of the whole thing. There have been some abortive attempts, which appear to have foundered because someone attempted to type every citation in manually, and got bored after the first half dozen issues.

Here's a job worth doing, and actually not that hard. I can scan the contents pages, put them through an OCR process and then write some scripts to reorganize and reformat the output, and to construct an index. Ideal for extending my Python knowledge, and good practice at getting back to the command line, a place that I haven’t spent much time recently.

Now anyone who has ever made much use of OCR knows that it is far from perfect. Particularly on old or degraded print, the recognition can be spotty, to say the least. So as each chunk of text is rendered, I open it up in vi and do some basic cleanup manually. The first few times that I did this, I struggled: I couldn't remember the vi commands to get things done quickly. I was actually trying to learn Python, so I didn't want to have to keep stopping and looking up the vi MAN pages. And then, quite suddenly, it all began to come back. But it wasn't as if I had remembered the keystrokes that I needed - it was if my fingers had remembered. Quite strange. Once I'd entered a command, my brain could analyse it and go "oh yes, I remember that syntax now, and it works like this". Since vi has a very regular command structure, once I got a few commands back into my brain, I could get most of the rest by extrapolation.

There is a scene in Robert Heinlein's novel "I will fear no evil" (if you've never read it, synopsis: extremely wealthy elderly man - Johann Smith - arranges to have his brain transplanted into a donor body. He recovers consciousness to discover that not only has the operation worked, but that previous occupant of the body has not entirely moved out, and furthermore was female -Eunice Branca), in which Johann Smith attempts to play the piano, a skill that he used to have. He can't do it, his new body won't cooperate. Then the "ghost" of Eunice takes over and operates a complicated piece of office machinery that Johann has never used. It works perfectly, because as Eunice says "the body remembers".

I've heard similar things from someone I know who had to learn to walk again after suffering brain damage. His brain knew how to walk, but his body had to relearn the skill (which his said was astonishingly difficult, for something that we take so much for granted).

Anyway, my fingers seems to have remembered all the vi short cuts that my brain forgot, and the Omni index is progressing nicely. I have it on line over here, if you want a look, and I'm hoping for some help with the proof reading.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Latest Apple Gadget....

Is not an iPhone 4. I walked down George Street yesterday, and there were literally hundreds of people queuing outside the Apple store, and more large crowds outside each of the various telco outlets between my car park and my office. Some of those people must have spent most of the day queuing. Good lord, some of them had set up camp on Thursday, with sleeping bags and chairs! Don't they have jobs? How on earth does someone with nothing better to do with their time than wait in the street to buy a mobile phone afford a mobile phone in the first place?

Any way, I have already have mobile phone, an iPhone 3G, which is running iOS 4.0.1 perfectly well (perhaps the display of SMS messages is a shade slower since the upgrade, but I have had no other issues/crashes/complaints, and I completely fail to understand all the gum flapping in the press about "iOS 4 rendering iPhone 3G's unusable". Poppycock, etc.). I'm sticking with my existing iPhone until (a) the furor dies down, and I can just walk into a store a get an iPhone 4 without having to queue; and (b) I have enough time to deal with changing phones and telcos (note to Optus: you're dumped). Yes, I know that iTunes will sync all my data and apps from the old phone to the new phone, but I'll still have to negotiating getting off Optus and onto Telstra (my current employer's preferred supplier) without losing my existing mobile number, and then I have to get the new phone re-paired with my car and blue tooth headset, and established as a sync client for various apps. No, it is not going to be a five minute job, and I have a proof of concept kicking off next week, and several other streams of activity that need my attention for at least two weeks. So later for the iPhone upgrade.

The new gadget is one that I bought on Thursday (when it was still safe to go into the Apple store): the new Apple Magic Trackpad.

First, I hate the name. Someone in Apple's marketing department has "magic" on the brain at the moment. Perchance too much exposure to Disney children's classics has induced some sort of overload in the fairy dust department? Whatever, the device itself is really working for me. I've hardly touched a mouse since I got it (well, them actually, there's one in my office as well), which is good, because I still have this wretched tendonitis in my right arm, and using a mouse isn't good for tendonitis. The action of using the Trackpad is quite different, because you don't have to "hold" anything. Just holding a mouse causes the muscles in your arm to tense slightly, and moving the mouse works both muscles and tendons quite a lot. Using the Trackpad requires much less movement, and it's a different movement to mouse movement. Yesterday was a completely mouse-free day, and my arm was better for it.

The Trackpad (I refuse to using the 'M' word) does take a little getting used to, but I've adjusted quite quickly. The only thing that I've had trouble with it is using the Marquee tool in Photoshop for large selections; a Wacom tablet will still be better in Photoshop, no question. Everything else - scrolling, clicking, right clicking, dragging - works perfectly. I do have to be careful not to rest my fingers against the pad by accident, because it does interpret a very light touch as a direct order, and does it's level best to act on that order. The result is usually annoying.

Right now, and until I can get the tendonitis fixed, this Trackpad is the perfect pointing device for me. I think I may find it difficult to go back to a mouse in the long run.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pictures for the DIY iPad Stylus

My apologies for the delay in getting these pictures up: actually taking the pictures turned out to be trickier than I had expected, and in the end I had to borrow the portable photo booth that my husband uses to take pictures of his model tanks (thank you, darling!).

However, here we are:

Get your piece of conductive foam:

And your Q-tip:

And your mechanical pencil:

Trim the Q-tip stem:

Glue the foam to the end of the plastic tube, and trim to shape:

Insert into jaws of mechanical pencil, and you're done:

I've managed to get hold of some Sugru, and I want to see if I can improve on this stylus by capping the end of the tube with a blob of Sugru before adding the foam. If that works, I'll post about it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Living with the iPad

I've had my iPad for 3 weeks now, and I'm using it more every day.

For taking notes in meetings, including diagrams, it is perfect. I can use OmniGraffle, of if I just want to sketch freehand, Adobe Ideas (which is free) works beautifully. I have made myself a basic stylus (see note for instructions), simply because it feels more natural to draw with something pen shaped, and there is no practical difference that I can detect in drawing on the iPad and drawing on paper, at least in terms of output. And I don't need to haul a laptop around with me - the iPad slips neatly into my handbag, and when I need it, it's on instantaneously.

For the first time in my life, I see a reason to have a subscription to the Safari Online book service. I can read a book as easily on the iPad as I can on paper, and for technical books, Safari is great. I have a lot of hard copy books that I have had to buy in the past, and in many cases I have read less than half the content before I have learned what I needed, after which the book has gone onto my already overloaded shelves. Now I can "rent" a book from Safari, read the bit I need, and not have the trouble and waste of storing the volume afterwards. A Safari subscription costs less than 3 average technical manuals, while giving me access to thousands.

To make this work gracefully, you need the Atomic Web Browser for iPad, which can identify itself to a server as anything from Mobile Safari to Firefox 3 (even IE6, should you be so inclined, though if you are, you probably need help). If you try to use the Safari mobile service using the built-in Apple Safari web browser (now isn't that confusing, guess no one got the trademark on the word "safari"), you will get frequent and annoying interruptions from O'Reilly, protecting their content by making you complete Captchas every few minutes. I wouldn't mind one now and then, but every three screens is excessive. Atomic fakes them out neatly, and this pointless nonsense goes away. O'Reilly folks: get over it, and move on.

In fact, I've written this post on my iPad, while sitting in my favourite easy chair and not at my desk. This is a double blessing, because I have a serious case of tendonitis in my right elbow, and I'm not supposed to use a mouse at the moment. An iPad is tendonitis friendly, which is an enormous help right now. If you have never had "tennis elbow", be grateful: it hurts, a lot.

I have not, so far, lamented the absence of a USB port, or any other sort of port. I have Dropbox, Google Docs, email and as a last resort, cable-based sync. File transfer is not a problem.

The only thing with which I am not entirely happy is Apple's iPad case. I don't mind the design itself: it is light weight, robust and practical. But it shows scuffs. I've had to go over it vigorously with a stiff clothes brush, to return the surface to a tidy condition. However, I can find no other case that I prefer, so I will stick with it for now.

Note: how to make a stylus. First, find, an old-style mechanical drafting pencil, the kind that takes a 2mm lead. Make sure that it has a metal finger grip. I'm using a Staedtler Mars Technico, which you can get from any decent art shop (try Eckersleys, if you are in Sydney). Get a piece of conductive foam (Jaycar, about $AU10 for far more than you need) and a piece of fine plastic tubing. I am using the tubing out of a Swisspers cosmetic applicator, try the pharmacy, or if your significant other is female, ask her. What you are about to do will not damage the pencil in any way.

Take your piece of foam, and cut a slice about 2cm long and about 1cm wide. Make a pin hole in it, and then work your piece plastic tube in about 0.5 cm. Put a small drop of some convenient, thin, fast drying glue to the end of the plastic tube, and push it into the foam. Wait (do email or something) while it dries. Cut the plastic tubing so that there is about 0.7cm or less of exposed tubing sticking out of the foam, and insert that into the lead holder. The conductive foam must touch the metal finger grip for this to work. Trim the end of the foam with scissors, to achieve a shape that works for you, but which does not expose the tubing. You are done now. Hold the pencil barrel so that your fingers touch the metal grip. Your stylus will now conduct the tiny current needed, and it will work on the iPad.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What can I do with my iPad?

Sydney finally got the iPad on Friday May 28th. I will omit here any description of media beat ups, long queues of people standing in the rain, etc. Suffice it to say that I am surprised that neither Apple's website nor their chosen courier company's website melted down under the onslaught of frenzied geeks repeatedly refreshing their screens in an effort to work out when they would receive their iPads. I got mine just on 10AM, and after a check to see that it was OK, and a chance for my co-workers to have a look at it too, I stuck in my brief case and got on with my work.

I've spent most of my free time on the weekend installing apps, setting things up to suit my proposed work flow and syncing data. Apps that I have installed are:

  • CSV Touch
  • Do androids dream of electric sheep: Dust to Dust #1
  • Dropbox
  • Evernote
  • Goodreader for iPad
  • iBooks
  • Instapaper Pro
  • 1Password Pro
  • Numbers
  • OmniFocus
  • OmniGraffle
  • Pages
  • Penultimate
  • Sudoku HD for iPad
  • The elements for iPad
  • Weatherzone
  • WIRED Magazine
And I have configured Contacts, Mail and Maps, loaded some music and photos and arranged things to suit myself.

From the iPad I can now access my email and contacts (built in apps) and my to do list (OmniFocus). I can use Pages for word processing, and OmniGraffle for diagrams, so:

Which is perfectly satisfactory for capturing something that a customer is describing to me, and will be even better when I take the time to read the OmniGraffle manual.

Penultimate looks OK, but I think I am going to need to investigate a stylus to get good results with it. And it will never compensate for the simple fact that I can't draw (sigh). I think I am likely to use Pages for taking meeting notes - I don't find the on-screen keyboard a problem, probably because (a) I'm a girl, my hands are a bit smaller; and (b) I've spent years typing on various portable Palm Pilot keyboards, until my last Palm (LifeDrive) refused to hold a charge any longer.

Dropbox, Evernote and 1Password Pro I use constantly, and I'm pleased to see that they work well on the iPad. Goodreader promises to be a real boon: I've already synced half a dozen large manuals in PDF format.

iBooks will probably be more useful when the local iBooks store launches properly. Instapaper Pro is even nicer on the iPad than it is on the iPhone (if you haven't tried this app, I do recommend it).

"The Elements" is just amazing, and I'm sure I shall read all of it, which may fill some gaps in my rather patchy education.

Sudoku HD works well, but could use an option to clear a game and start over.

"Do androids dream" and WIRED are exactly what I hoped to see: the future of publishing, slick, attractive and clever. Other publications, please take note.

CSV Touch is a little flaky, and the dev is looking into the problem.

So tomorrow the iPad goes to work with me, and I find out if if can replace a paper notebook. I rather think it can, and it is going to save me many hours (and the world many trees). The iPad is lighter than my Eee PC, and does more.

Verdict: A++

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Between jobs

I left Alphawest on Tuesday, and I must say it was a wrench. It's the first time I have ever left a job that I really didn't want to leave. On almost all previous occasions I have left my old job because I could not stand it any more: either the work or the management was driving me to distraction, usually both. A couple of moves have simply been about money, but usually I've moved to avoid impossible workloads and delusional managers. Leaving a job where the work was fine and where I liked and respected my boss is a first. However, as stated previously, I'm not prepared to spend hours in commute time, and I know that many of my former colleagues feel the same. So it was not so much a case of leaving the team as of getting out before the rush for the exits starts.

I usually don't get much of a break between jobs - sometime no more than a weekend - but this time I got three whole days. I intended to use the time to square away some domestic matters, so that I have a fairly clear first month, with the minimum of external interruptions. However, the people making my bedroom furniture are running about 3 weeks behind schedule, due to some problem with getting wood of the correct type and quality. And the people making shutters for my kitchen hatchway have had some sort of accident with a glass panel during the glass toughening process, and they are having to remake the panel. I am guessing that both parties will declare themselves "ready" next week, when I am too busy to deal with them.

And I'm looking forward to starting work, because the eerie quiet of "not working" unsettles me. The first time that I really noticed this effect was when I left Sun Professional Services in 2005. I quit, and suddenly the torrent of email that I dealt with normally dried to a trickle. Instead of opening my inbox every morning to see 50 or 60 new messages, 75% of which were important enough to require a response, I'd open my inbox to see 5 or 6 messages, of which perhaps 1 would merit attention. It was the sense of connectedness that I missed, and I was surprised at just how much I missed it. No other job has ever produced quite that volume of email for me, probably because Sun is the only major multinational that I have worked for since email became really commonplace. If you work for a company which really has a global presence, someone, somewhere, is likely to be generating work for you 24 hours a day.

What I am missing this time is the constant ping and buzz of my iPhone. This is the first job where I have had a smart phone connected to the company email system, bringing the background noise of email and meeting invitation sound effects to my side all day long. When I deleted my Exchange account from my iPhone, things went quiet. It feels strange.

I've synced the iPhone to TestLogistics' Google Apps mail and calendar, but until I start on Monday, there is not going to be much traffic. Most of the email that I am getting at the moment is either routine vendor spam, or from recruiters who don't realise that it is too late to offer me yet another "unique position".

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Endings and Beginnings

Tomorrow is the beginning of my last full week with Alphawest - I'm working up until the 18th, a Tuesday. Soon will come the "last" events, the last Monday, the last team meeting, the last lunch from my favourite local salad bar. I've already removed a lot of my personal effects from my cubical - some stuff transferred to my new office, some to my home. I already have my new business cards, and I'm aiming to hit the ground running. Happily TestLogistics (my new employer) is not in thrall to Microsoft, and they do not use Exchange: they use Google's commercial mail offering, which means that I can use any mail client I choose. In fact, no one is going to enforce a Standard Operating Environment, or expect me to comply with one. The great advantage of working with a team almost all of whom are "technical" is that there is an expectation that we can all take care of our own environments in a responsible manner.

This doesn't work in larger companies, because as soon as you have a significant contingent of clerical staff, you need to take steps to prevent them bringing malware inside the perimeter, unless you can prevent them using Microsoft products, and those seem to be the default choice for most companies. I can't think why - Microsoft makes ugly, expensive software, every bit of which can be replaced with something cheaper if you just bother to check the options. IT managers protest that using Microsoft is cheaper, while they pay exorbitant licensing costs, and waste hours of staff overtime patching, fixing things that patching broke, and dealing with outbreaks of malware. What they really mean is "the Microsoft certification exam was easy, and managing this stuff gives me a job for life".

I plan to enjoy the freedom to select my own tools to enable me to work more efficiently. I've set up OmniFocus for task management - I live by my to do list these days - and I hope to reduce Windows to something that I only need to run Visio. And only I plan to use that when a customer insists - Omnigraffle should meet my day to day diagramming needs. The thought of a working environment that is not bogged down with Managesoft, Active Directory, and never ending antivirus scanning routines is very appealing.

Roll on the 18th

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Moving on

It is amazing what changes the passing of a few days can bring. When I went to work on April 12th I little thought that I would be looking for a new job by the end of the day, or that I would be resigning from my old job in less than two weeks.

On April 12th we were assembled for a "company update" and informed that our office was being moved from the current Sydney CBD location to an unspecified building in Macquarie Park. The news was greeted with something less than enthusiasm - in fact it went down like the proverbial lead balloon - and I went home, did a fast update on my resume, and sent it to a couple of recruiters.

If you have ever spent much time in Sydney, the problem with the proposed office relocation will be obvious, but if you haven't, it goes like this. The Sydney central business district is at the south end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Macquarie Park is well north of the bridge. The bridge is a major traffic bottle neck on good days. On bad days, it's a car park. I used to work in North Sydney (just north of the bridge) when I worked for Sun, and when I quit that job I vowed that in the future I would avoid any position that required me to commute across the Harbour Bridge. I am just not prepared to waste hours every week stuck in traffic. Forget public transport: the New South Wales state governments for the last few decades have completely failed to provide Sydney with anything even vaguely resembling efficient public transport. This has nothing to do with politics, just the fact that our state governments tend to talk a lot about infrastructure, but they deliver next to nothing. A sane person might well question why the hell we have state governments: they seem to be an expensive but quite impractical luxury. We also have local and federal governments, so why the useless layer of state-based parasites? However, I digress.

When I first heard rumours that we might be relocated I did the necessary analysis - which took about 5 seconds - and I had already made up my mind that I was not going to work at Macquarie Park. I have to go up there occasionally to work on the Optus campus, and I already know how horrible it is. So I sent out my resume, did a couple of interviews, and I got a letter of offer on Thursday. I resigned yesterday morning, and I have received a stream of emails, phone calls and LinkedIn comments from colleagues past and present, friends and vendor representatives, variously protesting my decision, congratulating me on the new job, or asking "can I come too?". I imagine that there will be more next week, when people get back to work after the Anzac Day long weekend.

My new employer will be TestLogistics, and several of my former colleagues from Sun already work there, so it should be fun. It's a small company, unburdened by excessive bureaucracy (no one has asked for my resume, and I've seen no sign of an HR department). They try only to hire people that someone already in the company knows and recommends; and they believe that, if they hire clever people, then they can solve anything. I'm honoured by their faith in me.

What the job actually is, at a detailed level, I'll find out on May 24th.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

New desk

My new desk has been delivered, fresh from the workshop of John Gallagher from Piece Furniture. The new desk replaces an ancient table and a couple of small. cheap computer desks, which made the rather small room extremely cluttered. John took my original design (done in Google Sketchup):

And added a slide out shelf on the right for my scanner and other small devices. The result:

I've spent half the weekend rearranging things and getting the cabling right. Because the room is so small, I can't take a really good picture, but take my word for it: this is a great desk. John has done his usual sensational job - he has made several cupboards for me in the past - and just walking into my study is a pleasure now.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Who designs hotel rooms?

In the second week of March we went down to Canberra to see the Masterpieces from Paris art exhibition, which was stupendous, but thank goodness I managed to get early access tickets, or we would have had to wait for hours to get in (think queues of people stretching out into the street and down the road). We stayed in the Hotel Realm, which is possibly the quietest hotel I have ever stayed in in my life - I usually have trouble sleeping in hotels, because every little noise wakes me - but the Realm was virtually silent despite the fact that there was a wedding on in the hotel. The room was nice, the staff we dealt with were pleasant, and the Konoba restaurant served us a great dinner. I would definitely stay at the Realm again.

However, there was one failing, and it is a failing that is common to almost every hotel I have ever stayed in, in any country: no mirror suitable for applying makeup.

Not that there were no mirrors - there were several - but a make up mirror needs to be appropriately lit and you need to be able to get really close to it if you are trying to apply mascara with confidence. Or pluck your eyebrows (if you have never plucked your own eyebrows, take my word on this one: you need a very clear and close view if you don't want to wind up looking weird).

I have lost track of the number of hotels I have stayed in over the the years: they have ranged from ghastly little shoe boxes in London, through to an extremely nasty place outside Boston which reminded me of a rabbit hutch. I 've stayed in serviced apartments in Los Angeles and boutique hotels in Hobart. There was the place in Columbia , Maryland, where the hotel restaurant played the same Harry Connick CD every night that I was there, and the food was so horrible that my German colleagues relocated to another hotel; there they found that the food was just as bad, and they finally believed the rest of us (a group of Sun employees, there for a two week training course) when we said that what they were experiencing was normal American food. I dealt with it in my usual way, back having the hotel driver take me somewhere that I could buy fresh fruit and basic supplies.

There was the place that I stayed during a conference in New Orleans, where all delegates were given a map of the surrounding area and told not to stray from the marked zones unless we wanted to be mugged. There was the Hilton where Steve and I stayed in Perth (Western Australia, not Scotland) , where the interior decorator had perhaps been given too free a hand:

I've no idea what impression or message was supposed to conveyed by these objects. The room was clean and pleasant, but it would have been improved considerably by removing the tasteless tat on the walls.

Then there was the Sebel in Melbourne, which seemed to have become confused about whether it was a hotel or a bridal reception centre: the restaurant appeared to be permanently reserved for wedding receptions, and on the one occasion when I managed to get a drink at the bar, I was served a martini with a straw in it. My advice on that establishment is to avoid it like the plague: the bathroom looked grubby, the service was careless and there are many better hotels in Melbourne.

Of all these and dozens of others, exactly one had a proper make up mirror: the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, on Maui, where we stayed in 2002. If you go to their photo tour page, and look at the Guest bathroom picture under the Accommodation tab, you will see what I mean. An illuminated make up/shaving mirror on an extendable arm.

Now I will concede that the Ritz-Carlton is a very expensive hotel - I didn't pay to stay there, the trip was an all expenses paid prize, for winning an award from my then-employer, Sun Microsystems. But surely it should be possible for any hotel room to have one mirror which is reasonably well lit, and which a person can get close to - a mirror behind the vanity unit is too far away. I now carry a small, magnifying mirror with its own build in LED and little suction cups on the back when I travel. I can usually stick this somewhere reasonably convenient - often the shower screen - so that I can see what I am doing. But I can’t be the only woman who has this problem, and surely there are women working in hotel room design who must wear mascara themselves - have they never looked at a hotel bathroom and thought "how would I manage my normal grooming routine in this facility?"

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The litter is too deep

I don't usually make New Year's resolutions, because I work on the principal that if something needs doing, it should be started promptly. However, this year a resolution has sort of crept up on me, as follows.

One of my tasks over the holiday break was to tidy up my study, and I did make a start, but there is a long way to go. Now my study is not a big room - it's actually rather small, and resembles pretty much what Rands in Repose calls a Nerd Cave. My cave is green, not red, but otherwise, pretty similar. One wall is fitted bookshelves with cupboards underneath. One wall is mostly windows (heavily curtained against the afternoon sun). One wall is my desk and a small unit which holds my scanner and printer. One wall is almost entirely filled with a set of bi-fold doors, and the last wall has a large Ikea drawer unit on wheels, which is filled with a mix of craft materials and computer parts. Yes, five walls.

The trouble is that every surface is full, often full to over flowing. Books, journals, boxes of CDs, piles of paper, stray tools, odd cables and various knick knacks. Such as the foam Linux penguin, the Matchbox Mercedes car that my husband bought me while we were still courting, and stuff like that.

The books need to be weeded, and the stuff that I don't need frequently relocated to shelves upstairs. Tools and cables need to be sorted, and either stored in the attic or the garage. The CDs are mostly software, and mostly ancient, and mostly heading for the bin. The real problem is the paper. I have a bad habit of saving bits of paper: cuttings, recipes, cartoons, quotes, all things that I might want to refer to again. The trouble is, it would take me weeks to find the one I want, even if I remember that I have it. I have therefore decided that the entire collection has to be converted to digital format. I went through a great pile of yellowing newsprint over the new year break, and was delighted to find that many articles were still on line. What I couldn't find, I scanned. I'm dumping everything to EagleFiler databases, tagging as I go. I think our paper recycling bin will be overloaded next week, and there is still a very long way to go, but it is getting better.

I've also had a mammoth business card scanning session, and every last business card that has been lying around on a desk either at home or in the office is now in the address book on my Mac, nicely synced via MobileMe.

Cartoons have proved to be the greatest challenge. Do you remember the days before email? I do. Today, if someone comes across something funny, chances are that they email it to a few dozen friends. But in those long ago days, funny things circulated via fax machine. Person A would photocopy something amusing, and fax it to Person B, who would fax it to their friends, who would fax it to their friends, and so on and so on, the image losing quality each time it passed through a fax machine. Sometimes someone would get a pen and manually darken the images before sending it on to someone else, so you would get a combination of lossy transfer and amateur graphics.

Cartoons are hard to Google without some attribution information. I've found a few, where I could identify the cartoonist, but some are very old, and have zero citation data, so that I cannot find the originals. So I'm going to post a few here, and see if anyone can provide a reference, or an artist's name.

I've known cats like this.

The style is familiar, but I can't place this one.

OK, I have a low sense of humour.

Clues, anyone?


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