Thursday, December 22, 2011

Going off-line for the Christmas break

I am leaving tomorrow morning for a weeks holiday. Since the roaming charges on my phone are likely to be exorbitant and I won't be bringing my laptop with me I will be totally off-line for the week (definitely a change for me).

I think it is appropriate that the last thing I post to the blog should be my favourite Christmas tune which is Frank Kelly's adaptation of the classic song "The Twelve Days of Christmas". It is impossible not to laugh when hearing this song.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It takes power to stay connected

The big advantage of having broadband Internet access (instead of the ISDN access which I had before) is not the speed of the link, but the fact that my home is constantly connected to the Internet. This enables many applications, but it also requires that I keep the networking equipment in my home constantly powered on. I decided to measure the power consumption of the devices in my home that are permanently network connected to see how much power this is consuming.

I get network services from UPC. They supply me with a cable modem that consumes 6.1 watts and a wifi access points that consumes 6 watts or power, so this means that I need 12.1 watts to keep my broadband link active.

However, I also have some equipment at home which is left permanently switched on to use this network connectivity. I have a current cost electricity monitor that tracks my electricity usage at home and a bridge device that uploads the data to a tracking web site. In total this requires only 2.8 watts (it is good that the device is very power efficient).

I also have a Tonido plug  which is a small very small Linux server that can do a number of things. The most important thing from my point of view is that it uploads weather data from the weather station in my back garden to my personal weather web site and it also runs some software to help with my project to determine the accuracy of weather forecasts.  It consumes 5.1 watts.

This leads  to a constant power consumption of 20 watts, which translates to 14.4 Kilowatt-Hours  per month which would cost about €2. I think that €24 per year is a small price to pay for the convenience of being constantly connected to the digital world.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Getting ready for BTYSTE 2012

The highlight of the holiday season for me is the annual BT Young Scientist exhibition. Irish people will all be very familiar with this long running event which happens at the start of each year, but foreigners are sometimes surprised to hear that a science competition for school children generates such interest and excitement that event receives over 40 thousand visitors and the announcement of the winner is normally the lead item on that night's national TV news.

For the last few years I have had the privilege of helping run the IBM stand at this exhibition. It is always invigorating to meet young people with such obvious passion for learning about science. I always go away from the event with renewed confidence that Ireland will have a bright future with youngsters like this joining our workforce in the future.

IBM will have a significantly larger stand this year and very exciting plans for what we will be demonstrating. The dedicated  blog has just re-opened for business and will carry all of the details.

My personal role on the stand will be in helping demonstrate the capabilities of IBM's Watson technology  which recently made headlines by winning the Jeapordy TV game show against the best human competitors. The video explains a little why IBM believes that the technology developed for a simple game can be adapted to solve real world challenges.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Energy levels and my morning coffee

I am a big coffee fan. In fact I find it almost impossible to complete my cycle to work each morning unless I have topped up my caffeine levels with at least two mugs of the drug. While the coffee tops up my personal energy levels, I need to use some electricity to make the coffee. I decided it might be interesting to use my new energy monitor to measure exactly how much electricity do I consume to keep me fully caffeinated in the mornings.

I actually have three choices of how to make my morning brew (listed in the order of how much personal energy is required from me):
  1. I could use my old fashioned kettle to boil some water and then make instant coffee. This has the advantage of being really easy to prepare.
  2. I have a traditional filter coffee maker which makes reasonably pleasant coffee. The preparation takes a little more energy from me, but the taste is better.
  3. I recently got a fancy cappuccino making machine. Although there is quite a bit of work involved in using this machine, the result is a lovely tasty cup of coffee and so as a result this is my favoured choice most mornings.
The kettle does not consume any energy when plugged in, but not actually boiling water (I didn't expect that it would, but I checked to be sure). When I turned it on it consumed 2795 watts and took about 1.5 minutes to boil a half full kettle of cold water. This means that if I boiled the kettle once per day it would cost me about €3.50 per year in electricity (in reality I boil the kettle much more often than once per day).

If I use the filter coffee maker it consumes 928 watts of electricity and takes about 6 minutes to brew a medium sized jug of coffee which fills 3 mugs which is more than enough to kick-start my morning. If I used this device to brew my morning coffee every day for a year the electric bill would be just over 6 euro which is quite reasonable when you consider how much I would have to pay in a coffee shop.

However, I was surprised to see that the filter coffee maker consumed 2.2 watts when plugged in and not in use. I guess this must be because it has a clock built in and it is capable of being set up to automatically brew a jug coffee at a predetermined time so that I could have freshly brewed coffee available as soon as I step out of bed. Although this is a really appealing feature when the salesperson explains it in the shop, the reality is that I never use it, mainly because the mornings when I really need an instant cup of freshly brewed coffee are the mornings after the nights when I am least likely to set up the coffee maker correctly. Simply leaving the coffee maker was costing me about €2.70 per year in electricity - not a fortune, but I thought I might as well save that money so in future I will leave it unplugged when not in use.

Next I decided to analyse the electricity usage of the cappuccino maker. This is a more complex device and in fact the reason why I keep the filter coffee maker is because sometimes my personal energy levels are too low to make a cappuccino.

My first surprise was to see that the cappuccino maker consumes 1.6 watts when plugged in and not in use. It is hard to understand why this should be the case, unlike the filter coffee maker with its clock function there is no good explanation for why it should consume stand-by power because the cappuccino maker has no LEDs or other indication that it might be consuming electricity when not in use. I resolved that in future I  also leave it disconnected from the supply saving me a further €2 per year (every euro counts these days).

Next to look at the power consumption when actually in use.  The device has three different functions, each with their own power consumption profiles:
  1. The milk heater consumes about 466 watts when turned on, but the energy draw is not constant. The heating element turns it self on and off while the milk is being heated (presumably in response to a thermostat).
  2. The espresso brewer consumes 828 watts when turned on and it will turn itself off automatically once it senses that the coffee has been brewed (a little green LED comes on to alert me that it has done its work).
  3. The whisk is used to give a froth to the heated milk. It is recommended that I only need to use this for 30 seconds and the power consumed varies between 5 and 8 watts depending upon how deeply the whisk is immersed in the jug of milk. Actually I was surprised at how little power this was consuming because it makes such a loud racket that I would never accidentally leave it switched on - but the device consumes about 50% of the same electricity by simply being plugged in.
Overall the total power consumption to make a large cappuccino is 0.09 Kilowatt-hours. If I made an average of one cappuccino per day (which I do), the electric bill would be under €5 per year which is quite good value when you consider that there are some coffee shops in Dublin which would charge this for a single mug. However, I was surprised to find that I was spending an extra 50% on power simply by leaving it plugged in while idle.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A lazy person's guide to staying active on several social networks at once

I am a keen adopter of new technologies and as a result I sign up for account on most new social networking related sites. People sometimes as me how I manage to find the time to keep all of these accounts active. However, the truth is I can't keep active on all of these different sites, but with clever management of the feeds between the different services it is possible to give the appearance of being active on all of them without actually logging into most of the sites in question regularly.

For, example the following diagram outlines some of the automated information flows that I have set up between the various social networks on which I am active:

  • While Facebook is most popular among young students, LinkedIn is a social network more popular with older professionals. There is a large overlap between the people registered on both sites, but if you want to maintain links with all of your friends, you really need an account on both services. Since people seem to spend more time keeping their status updated on Facebook or Twitter than LinkedIn, LinkedIn has a feature that you can enable to automatically import status updates from the other platforms. This has the benefit of making it seem like you are paying more attention to your LinkedIn profile than you really are, but you need to be careful because the social norms on LinkedIn are radically different from Facebook and what is seen as a really cool status update on Facebook, might seem highly inappropriate on LinkedIn.
  • I use Foursquare for sharing with my friends details of where in the world I happen to be located at any one time. I like Foursquare because it is most fun to use, but since only a sub-set of my friends are active users of Foursquare I have configured it to automatically share my activity on Facebook and Twitter. Although some of the non-users of FourSquare are puzzled to read the announcements that I have become mayor of some arbitrary place, I get more comments and feedback through these other platforms than I get on FourSquare itself.
  • I track my exercise using the MyTracks application on my Android phone. This is a really handy application which uses the GPS in my phone to keep track of how fast and far I have been running or cycling. The data collected by this application is truly amazing, but it is not really a very social application. So when I want to share my training data with friends I like to use the DailyMile site. This site can automatically share information with both Facebook and Twitter. Luckily a colleague from IBM has developed a really handy Android application called Tracks2Miles which automatically transfers data from MyTracks on to DailyMile (which in turn shares it on Facebook and Twitter - which in turn feeds LinkedIn).
  • is a popular URL shortening service. If you create an account on this service and associate your Twitter and Facebook credentials with your account, then you can automatically share a status update to both services at the same time as shortening a long URL.
  • If you wish to interact with social networks inside IBM, security restrictions mean that web based tools can't help. However, BlueTwit sidebar is a Firefox extension that is available inside IBM. It is useful because it allows you to conveniently read and write status updates from several different social networks both inside and outside the IBM firewall from a single UI..It is available as a sidebar whenever you have Firefox open (which is most of the day for a lot of people).
  • In a similar vein, WildFire is an open source extension available for Lotus Notes that allows me to read and write social network updates to a large number of different social networks from a single UI. It is really handy for anyone who has the Lotus Notes client running all day long (most IBM employees fall into his category).
While these automated tools are really handy and save me a lot of effort, they do have one significant drawback. Although they give the impression that I am active on several sites, and alert human can easily detect the fact that I am not really engaged. For example, there is no way for an automated tool to read what someone else has written and leave them a thoughtful reply. Most social software experts advise that you should spend at least twice as much time reading as you do writing (in real-life nobody likes people who turn up at a party and talk incessantly without listening - this is what these tools make you look like online). In fact some people feel so strongly against automated tools like the ones I described here that they refer to them as "anti-social software"

This problem can be partially overcome by setting up email notifications (most social network platforms can be set up to periodically email you a summary of recent activity that might be of interest so that you can respond to some).

A service that I don't use much any more is - but if you really want to automate your status updates this is the tool for you. It is capable of connecting a huge variety of social networking sites and it is even extensible so that if support for your favourite network is not yet enabled, you can add it yourself. A really neat feature of this platform is what they call vocabulary expansion, this allows you to put special tags into your status updates and have the system intelligently replace these tags with something different when propagating your status update each of the target platforms. However, this feature never really caught on since most social networkers are more interested in vocabulary contractions than expansion.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is working from home a good idea?

One of the benefits of modern network technology is supposed to be the fact that "location doesn't matter" and "you can work from anywhere". While it is true that remote working is now very feasible for many occupations, I think that where you choose to do your work has a very significant effect upon your productivity.

I was recently at a conference and I noticed that during the lunch break many delegates chose to use the free time to catch up on the work they were missing by reading emails, checking voicemail, returning calls etc.. They were all a long way from their normal place of work so it is good that they could get some work done. However, they did not simply choose any location in which to do their work, instead there was a frantic search for suitable locations i.e. a quiet alcove where they had some peace and quiet as well as a place to sit and maybe even a place to rest their laptop.

What this means is that where you are located on a global scale doesn't matter. For example, you can easily do most jobs from New York City, but it would not be a good idea to base yourself in the middle of Times Square if your job requires some peace and quiet. Likewise you could probably do most jobs from a location in a remote wilderness location in African so long as you had power and in Internet connection, but you would probably need to move to a shady location ensure there was not too much glare on the screen.

IBM is quite liberal in terms of allowing employees to work from home if they want. In general the consensus seems to be that senior people can work productively even when remote from their colleagues, but junior employees benefit significantly from working in a team where they can learn from more experienced engineers. In some IBM labs in the USA, there are so many people working from home that people are beginning to complain that there is little point in being in the office since there is nobody else there to interact with, and the company has launched a "back to the lab" initiative to counteract the problem (which I guess is similar to the problem of city centres becoming empty shells when all businesses move to malls in the suburbs).

The factors influencing your decision about whether to work from home or not would include:
  • How far your home is from your normal workplace? I am luck enough to need only 20 minutes to cycle to work each morning, but many people live over 100km from work so they naturally don't want to make that journey if they can avoid it.
  • What is your home environment like? Some people are lucky enough to have a well furnished office space at home, but others might live in cramped accommodation shared with other people and hence working from home might not be feasible for them.
I am the only person from the team I am currently working with who is based in Ireland, so all of our team meetings are virtual meetings. However, I still find it useful to go into the office most days, becuase I know if I spent too long at home I would begin to suffer from severe cabin fever. It is great that companies allow people to work from home, but this does not mean that everyone could/should work from home on a regular basis.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Does the clock on my microwave consume more power than the heating element??

According to this article in the Economist "a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food". This seems very surprising to me so I decided to test if it is really true by using the individual appliance monitor that I bought from Current Cost Ltd. to monitor the electrical power consumed by my own microwave oven at home.

When not cooking food, my microwave consumes 2 watts of power to power the LED clock. This is actually higher than the 1 watt estimate used in the article and would represent a daily usage of about 0.05 Kilowatt-hours. When actively cooking food it uses about 430 watts, I was surprised how low this was since the microwave was sold as an 800 watt unit and seems to be capable of heating food as fast as expected by receipts written for an 800 watt model.

The total daily power consumed by the microwave naturally depends upon how much it is used. However, my figures were that the normal usage amounted to about 0.15-0.20 Kilowatt-hours per day. This means that for my microwave, the allegation in the article is not true. However, it is surprising to me that the LED clock is consuming 25-30% of the power of the heating element. Because of this information, I would like to plug out my microwave while not in use. Unfortunately the socket where the microwave gets plugged in is buried behind a press and it is not very easy to get access to so I will have to do some re-wiring before this is feasible.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Phone chargers are not all the same

When I initially tested the electricity consumption of my phone charger when plugged in but not actively charging, I was pleasantly surprised to see that no electricity was consumed. Since I was running that test with the current cost meter which could only measure to an accuracy of 1 watt, I decided to repeat the test with my new more accurate meter and also I compared three different phone chargers. The three chargers I tested are shown in the picture on the right.
  • On the far right is the charger which came with my phone (a Samsung Galaxy II).
  • In the middle is a charger that came with my first ever Android phone. I bought the phone from a clone maker in China via eBay because Android phones were not offically available in Ireland. The phone was truly dreadful, but the charger was really cute looking so I hung on to it.
  • On the left is a charger which was part of a multi-device charger set I bought in Lidl.
The results of my testing were that the chargers on the left and right truly consumed no power when not actively charging the phone. At least they consumed less than 0.05 watts since the measuring device reported the power consumption rounded to 0.1 watts. Unfortunately the charger in the middle (the cute looking one) consumed about 0.5 watts when plugged in but not charging. This is not going to cost much money (roughly 5 cent per month if left plugged in permanently) but since I have better charges available, perhaps I should consign this charger to its most appropriate use as an ornament.

All of the tests were done with the same phone. Obviously it has logic to stop drawing power once the battery is fully charged, I can't be sure that other phones would have the same feature. Therefore as the saying goes "your mileage may vary".

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are the weather forecasts in Ireland really as bad as people complain?

The weather in Ireland is notoriously changeable. As a result of this the common perceptions is that the professional weather forecasters often fail to accurately predict the weather even a few days into the future. However, it is hard to find definitive data about how accurate or not the weather forecasts are.

A quick search of the Internet will reveal several sites giving confident predictions for what the weather will be in the future and/or listing what the weather was at various dates in the past. However, very few of them reveal what their past predictions were and so it is difficult to find an objective measure for how much confidence you should place in a particular forecast.

I thought this would make a very interesting project for the BT Young Scientist competition for my daughter and a few of her friends. Unfortunately the judges did not agree and they rejected their entry into the competition. However, in anticipation of their project being accepted, I created a simple batch job that fetched weather forecasts from three different Internet sites each day and saved them in files for later analysis. Since the data was being collected anyway, I thought it would be a shame not to do anything with it and so I decided to a short bit of analysis which I write up here. If you don't want to bother reading all of the blog post the short summary is that the forecasts are indeed not very accurate.

When choosing the sites to use I was more influenced by how easy the data was to collect than by whether or not the source was authoritative. For example, the Met Éireann are the official forecasting service of the Irish Government, but their forecasts are deliberately translated from numerical predictions into a forecast that humans can easily understand e.g. "rain will spread from the west and become heavy by nightfall". It is very hard to do any statistical analysis on forecasts like that, so I deliberately chose three services which provided numerical forecasts in a format that was easy to parse:
  1. The Yahoo weather service is widely used. By fetching the contents of this URL each day I was able to retrieve an XML file with details of current weather conditions in Dublin, Ireland as well as their forecast for the weather the next 2 days.
  2. is the weather service provided by the well known Weather channel and it provides weather data and predictions for all parts of the globe. By fetching this URL I got an XML file with their current weather data for Dublin as well as a prediction for the next 4 days.
  3. WeatherOnline is not quite so well known a weather prediction site, but they make their data very easy to retrieve. By fetching this URL, I was able to get a CSV formatted file with current weather conditions in Dublin and a forecast for the next 5 days.
I have collected about 2 months worth of data at this stage. Initially I decided to analyse the accuracy of the WeatherOnline data for the practical reason that it was easier to transform CSV files into spreadsheets than to transform XML files.

The first thing I looked at was rainfall predictions. The following chart shows the predicted rainfall (on the Y-Axis in millimetres) plotted against the actual observed rainfall (on the X-Axis). If the forecast was perfect all the dots would be on a straight line with a 45 degree slope. I don't think that anyone would expect the forecast to be perfect, but I must admit that I was personally surprised at how poor this forecast is. I calculated the correlation coefficient between  the forecast and actual data and it came out at 0.28 - the general rule of thumb would be to interpret such a low correlation figure as "there may be some small association between the figures". If I looked at the prediction from 5 days before rather than the prediction from the day before the correlation coefficient goes down to 0.07 - this is normally interpreted to mean that there is no association between the prediction and actual values.
Rainfall Prediction v Actual (mm)

The next parameter I looked at was temperature. The following chart show the actual temperature plotted against the predicted temperature from the day before and from 5 days before.

I think you would agree that the temperature predictions seem to be a little better than the rain predictions and this next chart shows the predicted temperature readings from the day before (in degrees Celsius on the Y-Axis)  plotted against the actual temperature on the X-Axis. This is not the straight 45 degree line we would hope for, but at least there is some association between the two. Indeed the correlation coefficient is 0.33 which is jut high enough to indicate that there is a medium strength correlation.
Predicted Temp v Actual Temp
However, the team at WeatherOnline should not be too proud of this result because the temperature in Ireland does not swing very much from day to day so it should be easy to predict. The average error in their temperature prediction was 2.66 degrees.  I am sure that they use a very sophisticated prediction methodology, but if instead they simply predicted that the temperature tomorrow will be the same as today, their average error would only increase to 2.76 degrees.

I have only scratched the surface of this topic. If the girls' project had been accepted they would probably have done a much more extensive analysis. Areas that would be interesting to tackle would be:
  • Analysing the other factors of the prediction e.g. wind speed and direction, pressure etc.
  • Looking at different weather prediction services to see if some are better than others.
  • Looking at longer time scales. Because of the way I am collecting the data it is not possible to go back into the past and collect historical data, but if anyone knows of a data source showing old weather predictions I would love to analyse this.
  • Looking at similar prediction accuracy in other parts of the world. For example, the weather is an extremely popular topic of conversation among Irish people, but an Egyptian colleague assures me that Egyptian people rarely discuss weather among themselves. I guess a discussion of the weather among Egyptians would quickly become boring since most days are warm and dry. Presumably weather predictions in Egypt are probably more accurate than in Ireland (but maybe nobody bothers to read them).
If anyone wants to learn more about this you can download the raw data here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sleeping and still consumping electricity

I know that many people are worried about the amount of power being consumed by electronic devices which are in stand-by mode and not actually doing anything useful. For example this article from the Economist magazine suggests that devices on stand-by could be consuming either 5% or 10% of total domestic electric demand (depending upon what part of the article you believe). I recently found out about the One Watt initiative which aims to ensure that in future all devices will be legally obliged to consume a maximum of 1 watt each while on stand-by.

The current cost meter that I have installed in my home provides me with an indication of the lowest power consumption rate each day. This figure is normally around 140-150 watts. Presumably this rate is reached when all of the household is asleep and not actively using any of the many devices we have in the house. My total power consumption varies from day to day, but on a normal day this background usage level would account for roughly 20% of my total consumption.

Not all of the devices consuming power  could or should be switched off at night e.g. it would not be a good idea to unplug the fridge/freezer before going to bed each night. However, I am sure that we should be able to reduce this figure significantly.

In order to identify which devices are consuming power at night, I would need to take measurements of the consumption of the various devices left on at night. The amount of power that each device consumes would probably be quite small and so the current cost meter (which only measures to the nearest watt) is probably not accurate enough. So I bought a plug in energy monitor from Maplins. which was capable of monitoring to an accuracy of 0.1 watts.

My first impressions are that this is a great device and wonderful value for money. However, the device has two main drawbacks which make it difficult for me to use:
  1. The display has no back light and so it cannot be read unless I have a bright light shining on it. However, I can understand this since they don't want the device itself consuming too much power. And in any case, the use of a flash-light can overcome this problem.
  2. The digits on the display are so small that they are barely legible. The unit has a number of different modes. In each mode one measurement is displayed in large digits, a secondary measurement is displayed in smaller digits an unfortunately I can only guess what value us being displayed. It also uses an even smaller symbol to indicate what mode it is in an this sysmbol is so small that I have no hope of even guessing what it us. However, I have developed a little trick to work around this problem - the voltage reading will always be close to 240 and  it would be very bad luck if any other measurement gave a similar reading. If I cycle through the modes until I see a reading close to 240, then I can use the manual to see how many more times I have to switch through modes to get to the mode I want. It is a pity that a great device should be ruined by such a simple defect.
When I complete my measurements with this new device I hope to be able to report back here on which devices I was able to switch off and how much electricity I saved.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Microphone adjustment on the Thinkpad W510

As I blogged about before, my current work laptop is a Lenovo W510 which is a really great machine once you get it working, but the setup can be a little bit tricky. Because I work on Sametime and most of my collagues are remote from me, I spend most of my days in Sametime Audio/Video meetings. When I got the laptop initially one of the factors that impressed me was the quality of the built in microphone. In fact the quality of the built in microphone was so high that I no longer had to use a dedicated headset.

Unfortunately, after a few months people began to complain that they could not  hear me clearly. Initially I was able to solve this by simply turning up the microphone gain with the "sound preferences" application, but eventually people complained that they could no longer hear me even with the gain turned up to the maximum. I was so desperate to find a solution that I even tried using Windows on my laptop, but this didn't seem to behave any differently so I was convinced that the problem was a hardware one.

I raised a ticket with our local hardware support team to see if they could repair it. They reported that when they tested it the volume coming from the microphone was OK, but there was a lot of background hiss and so they replaced the microphone control board. Initially the microphone worked OK, but then it started to tun itself off again randomly after a reboot or a suspend/resume. Now that I was convinced that it was unlikely to be a hardware problem so I did a little bit more digging on the Internet.

Eventually I found a solution. It seems that although the "sound preferences" application treats the microphone as a single device, there are actually two different devices contained within it. The alsamixer application sees these two devices as "Capture" and "Analog Mic Boost" each with their separate settings (see picture). The sensitivity of the microphone is effectively a combination of both settings, but the "sound preferences" application only adjusts the level of the "capture" device. For some reason the "Analog Mic Boost" had been turned down to 0 and when I adjusted this back up I was then able to make myself heard at team meetings.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

An example of Foursquare's sense of fun

I blogged before about how FourSquare seems to have managed to inject the right amount of fun into their platform. Just today, I saw an example when I checked in this morning at a local coffee shop I got the following email from FourSquare. It is hard not to smile when you read this :-)

Congrats! Your recent check-in at Insomnia just unlocked the Fresh Brew badge, Level 2!

Look at you, Juan Valdez! That's a lot of coffee. Now that you've had your caffeine fix, get out there and conquer the day - one twitchy step at a time.

Nice! You've hit up 5 different coffee spots. 5 more new ones and you'll unlock Level 3! Foam moustache party!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It is leaving your laptop in sleep mode that consumes energy, not whether or not it is plugged in

I blogged before about how leaving your laptop charger attached to your laptop can cause it to consume a small amount of electricity if the laptop is in sleep mode as distinct from being either switched off or in hibernate mode.

When I was thinking again about this I realised that this is probably caused by the fact that the laptop's battery needed to be constantly topped up. Therefore I decided to leave the laptop unplugged in sleep mode overnight. When I plugged in charger to the laptop the following morning it started to consume about 24 watts of energy until the battery was back to full power again and then it went back down to the 1-2 watts of trickle power again.

As a result I had not saved any power overall by leaving the charger unplugged overnight.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Laptop Chargers consume much more power than phone chargers

Previously I blogged about the power consumed by my phone charger and I concluded that it was nothing to get too worried about. However, laptops typically consume much more power than mobile phones and so it is to be expected that laptop chargers will consume significantly more power than phone chargers. Therefore I decided to do a similar measurement on the power consumed by my laptop charger.

The laptop I used for the test was a reasonably old Compaq and the charger is not the original one which came with it (the original died a few years ago). I leave my laptop charger almost constantly plugged into the electrical socket in the wall, but for the purposes of the test I connected it through the Individual Appliance Monitor as shown in the picture.
  1. I checked the power consumed by the laptop charger when there was no laptop attached and like the phone charger it was consuming 0 watts.
  2. I waited until the laptop battery was well drained and then I plugged it in. The charger immediately started to consume about 63/64 watts of power.
  3. I put the laptop into sleep mode, but the power consumption of the charger did not decrease (presumably because it was still busy charging the battery). After 2 hours the power consumption gradually decreased to 1/2 watts but not to 0. I assume that this is because the laptop is still consuming power in sleep mode. To eliminate all power consumption I would need to either unplug the laptop or else put it into hibernate mode.
  4. The charger consumed roughly 0.05 KWh to charge the battery fully. At current electricity prices in Ireland this would cost slightly less than a cent.
  5. When I woke the laptop from standby the consumption went back up to 24 watts. I assume this is because the charger is providing live power to run the laptop, but not needing to charge the battery.
Overall I think the lesson is that leaving the laptop charger plugged into the wall is does not waste electricity, but leaving the laptop plugged into it and in sleep mode does consume electricity. However, if you leave your laptop unplugged in sleep mode, you will still need to charge up the battery when you do plug it in later. To be really effecient on power you need to turn off your laptop completely or else put it into hibernate mode if you are not going to be using it for a long time.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Does leaving chargers plugged in really waste electricty?

I have often heard people say that you can save significant amounts of electricity by unplugging your phone and laptop chargers when they are not in active use. However, I have also heard people say that this is rubbish because modern well designed chargers will consume virtually no electricity when not actively charging a device. I was not sure which advice to trust and so I decided to run some tests with my new current cost meter in order to check it out.

In order to test out how much electricity is used charging my phone, I made sure to make heavy use of it today and I completely drained its battery (not an unusual thing for me to do). Then I plugged it in to my phone charger and observed the electricity usage using my Current Cost monitor. Despite the fact that my charger was plugged in all day, it consumed no measurable amount of electricity until I plugged in my phone. As soon as I plugged in my phone the consumption jumped up to 4 watts for 2 hours before the phone was fully charged and the usage went down to zero again.

Based upon this measurement, I calculated that if I was paying 14 cent per KiloWattHour, I would spend roughly 50 cent on electricity to charge my phone for a whole year. Leaving the phone charger plugged in while not in use would make absolutely no difference to my bill.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What do I blog about and why

Recently I was interviewed by a member of the IBM internal communications team for their "meet a colleague" series. The interview, which was published on the IBM intranet went reasonably well, but there was one question that she asked me that I found difficult. She asked me "what do you blog about and why?". The reason why I didn't answer very clearly is because I don't really know this myself.

It might seem surprising that I write a blog without a clear idea of why I am blogging or even a clear plan for what to write about it. However, to understand how this situation arose you need to know how I got started blogging. I initially started blogging on the IBM internal blog platform as part of an effort to understand the usefulness of the Lotus Connections product which at the time we were proposing to develop. My motivation was simply to get a better understanding of how/if people could derive value from using these tools because without this understanding I could not really judge if the platform we were developing was a good one or not.

Towards the end of 2008, I had a discussion about my blogging activity with one of my mentors (who was an avid blogger). She advised me that blogging inside the IBM firewall was somewhat like cycling with stabilizer wheels - a useful training exercise, but nothing like the real thing. As a result of her advice, I established an external blog. Initially I wrote very few blog posts on my external but gradually I gained confidence and now I would say that I am reasonably comfortable with my blogging activity. I still have an IBM internal blog, but I post to that blog relatively rarely because I focus my efforts on maintaining the external blog.

I still can't really say that I fully understand exactly how blogging can provide value for the blogger, but the fact that I am still actively blogging years later is evidence that I must be getting some value from all this effort. In general blogging can be used for spreading information and/or for facilitating discussion. As you will see below, I use my blog for both purposes (with mixed success).

One of the advantages of a blog is that you have a record of your activity so I decided that I would do a detailed analysis on what I was actually writing about and whether or not it was achieving my goals. In terms of spreading information, I guess that it is successful if a reasonable number of people are reading my posts. On the other have, the number of comments left on my blog would probably be a better measure of whether or not it is helping facilitate discussion. Here is the detailed analysis of my blogging activity for the last year (apologies for the length of this post, but since you have read this far you might as well read the whole post):

  • Why blog on IBM internal platform rather than external blog?: During the last year I wrote 103 posts to my external blog which means that I blog on average twice per week. However, I only posted 6 times on my internal blog . Three of the of the posts on the internal blog were cross-posts form the external one (to increase the chance of IBM employees seeing the post). Of the remaining three internal only posts, two were on a topic that would not be of any interest to someone outside IBM and one was expressing an opinion on an IBM policy. As I said earlier, I knew my external blog was taking over from the internals one, but I was surprised at this statistic. On reflection I should probably redress this balance slightly (even if this is only done by cross posting more frequently).
  • What do I blog about?: In general I blog about whatever I am thinking about. When a though enters my mind about what would be a topic worth blogging about, I generally create a draft blog entry with that title to remind me. I revisit my blog when I have time available and work on polishing the draft entries until they are ready for publishing. At the moment there are 15 draft entries in my blog, but if I need more than a few weeks to polish them I take this as an indication that I don't have a very clear opinion on the topic to express and so I delete the draft.
    I analysed the content of the posts over the last year in detail and I could see that slightly less than half (45%) were expressing an opinion and hence were inviting comments. The remaining posts were split between passing in news about stuff that was happening (35%) and posts which were giving technical information on how to do something (20%),
  • Do people read my blog?: My first ever first blog post got 7 views, as my blog became better known the number of readers settled into the low double figures. In the last year, none of my posts got fewer than 10 reads, roughly 2/3 of the posts received between 10 and 50 readers and the remainder were split evenly between posts that received 50-100 readers and posts that received over 100 readers. In general I am happy with this level of readership, after all I am not a celebrity and in reality there are ways people can read the content without appearing in the statistics so if anything the readership would be higher than these statistics indicate.
  • Why do some posts receive a lot of readers?: This is a bit of a mystery for me because sometimes I write a post that I expect to be popular and it gets hardly any attention, but other times  a post will be an unexpected hit. The most popular post over the last year (getting over 1,200 hits) was a description of how I recorded OSSBarCamp and converted the content into a format suitable for posting online so apparently this is a subject that people struggle with. Most blog posts are mainly only read in the week immediately after they are posted, but occasionally a popular post will continue to be read for a long time afterwards. For example, shortly after I started my blog I posted a test entry from my mobile phone. The entry did not have much content because it is difficult to type much on my phone and in any case I intended to delete it once I verified that it was successfully posted (but obviously I forgot).  This turns out to be my second most popular post ever and interestingly almost  all of the readers come from mobile devices (the content describes how I posted from my mobile and hence it is more interesting for this audience).
  • Where are my readers?: Surprisingly, more of my readers come from USA (4,587) than Ireland (3,285) and my readers come from developed countries all over the world. As you can see from this map, Africa and South America are not at all represented among the readers of my blog..
  • Does the blog help start discussion?: Unfortunately I get very few comments on my blog. Roughly 80% of my posts get no comments at all. Half of the remainder (10%) get 1 comment an only 10% receive more than one comment. At first glance this is very disappointing and would seem to indicate that the blog has very little success in generating conversation. However, I do find that I get quite a few comments that are not left on the blog itself. Sometimes people will comment on the Facebook of LinkedIn platforms where all of my entries get cross-posted. What really surprises me is how often I will be standing in the queue for coffee in work when the person next to me will turn around and say "I was reading what you wrote on your blog about X and I was thinking ..." - this can often lead to a very interesting discussion.
  • Am I really a human?

    Lots of web sites implement a CAPTCHA system to stop access to their site from automated programs. Normally this involves showing a distorted picture of a few letters and asking the user to read them and type them into a text box to verify that they are a real human. The general idea is that reading such a distorted picture should be an easy task for a human, but it is a surprisingly difficult task for automated image recognition programs.

    When CAPTCHAs were first introduced the distortion in the picture was relatively minor and so it was not a major inconvenience for user to type in the letters. However, it should not have been a major surprise that the bad guys invested in improved software for reading distorted letters and the CAPTCHA developers were then forced to implement even greater distortion of their sample letters to trick the automated software. As a result I now find that the letters in most CAPTCHAs are extremely difficult for me to read.

    Maybe it is simply the fact that my sight is failing because I am getting older, but the last few times I have failed to complete it at the first attempt. I normally require at least 2 or 3 attempts before I manage to get the letters right which probably makes the site suspect I am not a real human. Do other people find the same problem with completing CAPTCHAs?

    Monday, November 7, 2011

    Much of FourSuqre's attraction comes from its mystery

    FourSquare is clearly the leading location based social network. The reason seems to be that most people agree that it is the platform that provides most fun. Unfortunately for their competitors it is hard to define exactly why it provides most fun. Personally I think that much of the enjoyment comes from an element of mystery about how exactly the rewards are handed out.

    If you have used FourSquare you will probably know that they award badges for various activity. Once you unlock a badge, they give you a page explaining exactly why you were awarded it. However, they don't tell you in advance exactly what you will have to do tho earn badges that you have not yet been awarded. It is not really hard to guess that for example the Newbie badge is earned for your first ever check-in and if you hover over the logo for an unearned badge they will give you a hint, but you still don't know the rules for sure.

    For me, I know that FourSquare often gives me a pleasant surprise when I earn badges or points that I was not expecting. For example, this morning when I checked into my local Lidl I got a surprise to see that I earned 25 bonus points for being the anniversary of my first check-in. If the FourSquare team keep up the good work  I will probably keep using it for a feew more years.

    Saturday, November 5, 2011

    Automatically starting the VNC server at boot time on your Linux virtual machines

    [Note: check this update before following these instructions]

    These days, many people in IBM (and I am sure many other companies) are using Linux virtual machines for their normal work. The hard core geeks are happy to connect to their virtual machines via ssh and do all of their work on the command line. However, the rest of use appreciate the convenience of a graphical interface and so like to use VNC. Unfortunately, the default configuration is that the VNC server does not automatically start every time you reboot. If you reboot your server regularly, it can be a pain to continually have to log into the server and start VNC.

    After a bit of digging I found this excellent blog post which describes how to auto-start the VNC server on Ubuntu.  However, most people I know tend to install Ubuntu on their laptop (which doesn't really need VNC server to be running) and use either SUSE or RedHat on their real servers. I had to make a few minor tweaks to get the script working on these Linux variants. The script below works on SUSE and RedHat variants of Linux. I have tested it on SLES 11 and RHEL5.6 - it should work on pretty much any Linux variant, but I would love to hear feedback from people if there are any issues.

    As described in andrew's blog, it is necessary to start VNC manually the first time so that you can enter the security password. The first time you launch the program will create a default ~/.vnc/xstartup script which you can customize to meet your preferences. You should download the script to /etc/init.d/vncserver (making sure that the script is executable with the command "chmod +x /etc/init.d/vncserver") and then use the command "chkconfig vncserver on" to configure the server to start at boot time.

    The bulk of the script is identical to Andrew's so you can read his description of how it works. I highlighted in red the places where I needed to alter it:
    1. The original script declared a dependency on the networking service, but this service is called network on other Linux variants. Changing the dependency to $network allows the script to be more portable.
    2. At the start of the script you can see some specially formatted comments which are interpreted as directives by the chkconfig command. There are several variants of this command and most systems do not have detailed documentation on what directives are used. The Debian wiki seems to have a complete list of possible directives. You don't need to worry about putting in special directives which are not understood by your variant of chkconfig because they will simply be treated as normal comments. The original script has enough directives to keep Ubuntu happy, but SUSE seems to insist on a "Required-Stop:" directive and RedHat seems to insist on the service description being included.
    3. The original script used log_action_begin_msg, but this seems to be a command only supported on Debian derivatives so I changed them to simple echo commands.
    #!/bin/sh -e
    # Provides:          vncserver
    # Required-Start:    $network
    # Default-Start:     3 4 5
    # Default-Stop:      0 6
    # Required-Stop:
    # Short-Description: Starts and stops VNC server
    # Description: Starts and stops VNC server
    # The Username:Group that will run VNC
    export USER="root"
    # The display that VNC will use
    # Color depth (between 8 and 32)
    # The Desktop geometry to use.
    # The name that the VNC Desktop will have.
    OPTIONS="-name ${NAME} -depth ${DEPTH} -geometry ${GEOMETRY} :${DISPLAY}"
    . /lib/lsb/init-functions
    case "$1" in
    echo "Starting vncserver for user '${USER}' on localhost:${DISPLAY}"
    su ${USER} -c "/usr/bin/vncserver ${OPTIONS}"
    echo "Stoping vncserver for user '${USER}' on localhost:${DISPLAY}"
    su ${USER} -c "/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :${DISPLAY}"
    $0 stop
    $0 start
    exit 0

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    Can you run 64bit Virtual Machines on a 32 bit host operating system

    I was recently trying to use VMWARE Player to run some 64 bit virtual machines which a colleague had built for me. I used Google to find out if it would be possible to run the 64 bit guest OS on a 32 bit host - unfortunately the results seemed to be split almost 50-50 between saying yes and no, so I had to try it for myself.

    When I tried to power on the virtual machine I got the following error screen. I went to the link suggested by the error page and I downloaded the utility to see if my CPU was capable of running in 64 bit mode. The tool from VMWARE told me that my CPU was not capable of running a 64 bit operating system. This puzzled me because until recently I was running a 64 bit operating system (RHEL6) on the same laptop.

    I still thought that the problem might be that it is not possible to run a 64 bit guest operating system on a 32 bit host operating system. Then I remembered that I still had kept the boot partition for the 64 bit OS, so I booted this partition and tried again to run the virtual machines. Puzzlingly I still got the same result. The VMWARE test utility was also still telling me that my CPU was not capable of operating in 64 bit mode which was deifnietly not true since it was running in 64 bit mode when I ran the test.

    I did a bit more digging and I found a utility from KVM which is supposed to check if your system can run 64bit virtual machines. It also told me that I couldn't, but it gave a very different error message. As the error message suggested, I went into my BIOS settings and enabled support for "Intel Virtualized Technology" and hey-presto I was able to run the 64 bit virtual machines. Unfortunately I don't really know what "Intel Virtualized Technology" is, but this article seems to have a feasible explanation.

    Sunday, October 30, 2011

    Progress report on my new job

    It is now roughly half a year since my new job was announced so I thought it might be a good idea to reflect on how my new role was working out. This blog posts summarises what I have done and perhaps equally importantly, how I felt about it.

    First, what I did:
    • Before starting my new job, I had been using Sametime for many years and I had developed a number of Sametime client plugins, but I had no experience at all of installing or configuring Sametime servers. So, I needed to learn a lot about unfamiliar technologies. As well as taking formal courses, I spent a lot of time doing test deployments so that I got a good feeling for how the process works and what can go wrong.
    • I joined the Sametime install team and I fixed a number of bugs. Many developers hate bug fixing work because they consider it unglamorous. However, I though that it was an important part of my familiarisation with the code (you really only fully understand code when you are able to fix bugs). In addition I thought it was important to make it clear to my colleagues that I was not shirking the unglamorous tasks.
    • I was given special responsibility in relation to a new feature which we refer to as "Install on existing Websphere" - where the Sametime installer does not install its own copy of Websphere Applications Server, but instead uses a pre-existing instance that was installed previously. The feature had been developed before I got involved with the team, but I had to test it and do some tweaking of the user interface.
    • Around this time I was assigned as a representative of the development  team for a small number of key customer accounts.
    • One of  the most important things I did was lead a deployment task force  that looked at what are the main issues encountered by users installing and configuring Sametime family of products. This task force produced a report that summarised the main issues (in priority order) and outlined steps that we could take to tackle these issues. This report was published inside IBM and reviewed with senior executives. I am now working on transforming the report into an agreed development plan where we will address the issues identified. The roadmap for my new role is now becoming clearer.
    • The report itself is naturally IBM confidential, but it is available on the IBM intranet. Given recent trends in the industry it will surprise nobody to hear that one of the top priority recommendations is to make Sametime more friendly to cloud deployments. 
    • One of the first steps on this journey is to allow users clone an image of a running Sametime server and get it working with its new host name. My recently published article on the DeveloperWorks site describes the manual steps required to do this. I was surprised myself with how complex the process is (the article is 20 pages long) and so now I am working on automating the procedure. These are the first baby steps in making Sametime more deployable for our increasingly important cloud customers.
    Next, how I felt (which followed a pretty typical cycle):
    • Initially I was in a honeymoon period where I was delighted to free from personnel management responsibilities. As people came to me to tell me about some personnel issue with the team, it was    a great relief to be able to pass them on to my replacement as manager of the team to handle it. At the same time nobody really expected me to be up to speed in my new role yet.
    • However, after about a month and a half, I began to enter what is typically called "The trough of despair". As I said earlier, I initially found my new role very challenging.  There were times when I was definitely overwhelmed by how much I had to learn and there were times when I doubted if I would ever master the technology. 
    • Fixing bugs in the installer can be very difficult - first you need to understand how the server needs to work once installed, then you need to understand how the installer needs to work in order to achieve that results and then finally you need to understand the complex Sametime build process (if customers think the deployment process is complex, it is nothing compared to the complexity of the build system). At times I spent over a week solving what seemed like relatively trivial bugs.
    • It was even more challenging to chart a long term strategy for an area where I was only really a beginner.
    • At this stage I was very determined not to admit defeat and I was careful to maintain a narrow focus and not allow myself get distracted by anything outside of the core job. Eventually this determination paid off. I learned more and began to gain some confidence. I also realised that other people also find the technology complex so I don't feel so bad.
    • I hope this does not come across the wrong way, but when I started working with customers I immediately I became relatively much more of an expert. Previously I was speaking with people who had worked on Sametime for several years so I felt like a novice, but speaking to customers who were only beginning to deploy Sametime I realised that I knew quite a bit. It also was great to learn first hand about how customers experience the Sametime deployment process.
    • At this stage I would say that I have finally got up to speed in my new role (but I still have a lot to learn) and I am more comfortable in my new role. I knew when I took on the job that this choice would be a long term one and so I am definitely going to stick with my decision.
    • I was surprised by how little time I spent actually writing code. If anything I spend much more time testing than coding. Any developer needs to also test their own code, but the length of time involved in testing an installer means that the development/test ratio is highly skewed towards testing.
    • One thing that surprised me is that I am missing the social aspects of being a manager. People often need to inform their manager about what they are doing and hence the manager is well aware of what is happening in the wider team. An individual contributor on the other hand only gets informed about things that directly affect their work.
    • My decision to consciously narrow in my focus probably made me even more isolated from the social life of the team. It was probably the right decision back when I was starting my new role, but now I think the time has come to widen my focus a little again.

    Friday, October 28, 2011

    BTYSTE project about Smarter Energy kicks-off

    Yesterday I visited Mount Sackville primary school to help get them started on their Smarter Energy project for the BT Young Scientist &Technology Exhibition. I introduced them to the concepts behind the IBM Smarter Planet campaign using a set of slides that had been specially adapted to be understandable by that age group. I was delighted to see that they had no trouble in understanding the message.  They were very enthusiastic and seemed excited to be involved.

    I also helped them use the lighting efficiency tester that I developed as part of the recent Hackday to measure the efficiency of a number of different types of light bulbs. The device was very popular. Children of that age love to get hands-on with technology (actually when I think about it men in their late 40s still love to get hands on with technology).

    My colleague Fred Raguillat joined me for the visit because he has experience from running a similar project with Dunboyne national school. After we left the class we configured the Current Cost meters that they are going to be using to monitor their electricity usage for the duration of the project. All went smoothly, once we figured out how to work around a problem with the bridge not interacting properly with the DHCP server on their network.

    I look forward to seeing their results at the exhibition in January.

    Monday, October 24, 2011

    You know you are definitely back from Holidays when you lose all of the Mayorships in Foursquare

    Earlier this year I went on a holiday of a lifetime in South Africa. I was so thrilled with myself for being so far away from home that I regularly checked in with FourSuqare. As a result I was declared "Mayor" of a wide variety of locations.

    After I arrived back in Ireland, the glowing feeling of well-being from the holiday faded fairly fast, but the FourSquare mayorships were surprisingly long lived. I was just notified yesterday of the fact that I was ousted as mayor of the beautiful Knysna Country House. I am still Mayor for Fancourt, Hotel in George - but I am not sure how much longer that will last and all of my Foursquare mayorships will ba back in Ireland.

    Sunday, October 23, 2011

    Blogger's new Dynamic Views are not yet ready for use

    Blogger recently launched a new feature called "Dynamic Views". They looked really cool so I tried them out for a while on this blog, but they are not functional enough to be used so I switched back again to my old theme.

    The good thing about dynamic views is that they let the reader choose from a number of really stylish looking layouts. Unfortunately it is not possible to use any widgets with these views. I know that I probably put too many widgets on my blog, but some are really useful and I didn't think the new look was enough to make up for having them all gone.

    You can see what my blog looked like with dynamic views enabled in the screenshots below:

    A floating voter looking for guidance

    One of the great things about living in a democracy is that you get to regularly make decisions which affect your country. In general, I think that this is such an important privilege that I always take time to educate myself on the issues so I can make an informed decision. However, on Thursday next, I will be faced with 4 different ballot papers and it will be tough to educate myself on all 4 ballots.

    Here is my position on each ballot (in descending order of certainty)
    1. The issue which has received most public attention is the election of a new President. I am delighted that we have 7 candidates to choose from - the complex nomination process often means that we don't get to choose. Unfortunately the campaign has degenerated into mudslinging which doesn't make any of the candidates look good (e.g.  Mary Robinson Tapestry for President group on Facebook gives a flavour of how juvenile the debating has become). I decided at the start of the campaign that I would vote for Michael D. Higgins and nothing during the campaign so far has made me change my mind on the topic.
    2. There are also two referendums being decided tomorrow. The first issue is fairly straight forward. When the constitution was being drafted it contained a clause that the government could never decrease the pay of a judge. At the time they probably wanted to avoid the possibility of a vindictive government arbitrarily reducing the pay of a judge who took an unpopular decision and so the clause made sense. They never considered the situation we recently encountered whereby the pay of all public servants was reduced and it is clearly wrong that Judges should be the only public servants exempted from these cuts.
    3. Despite the efforts of the referendum commission many people don't fully appreciate this second topic that we are being asked to vote upon. It seems that the government wants to increase the powers of parliamentary inquiries so that they can eliminate the need for expensive and slow tribunals of inquiry. This change has not been widely debated in the press, but the few articles and letters to the editor that I have read on the topic seem to be arguing against this change. It is hard to argue against making public inquiries more efficient, but some of the proposed new powers definitely seem to be open to abuse. It is important to also bear in mind that politicians are some of the people most likely to be the subject of a public inquiry so I don't think they are the best people to be put in charge of the subject. On balance I will vote against this change (but I could be easily persuaded to change my mind).
    4. In West Dublin, we will also have to decide who gets the Dáil seat left vacant by the tragic death of Brian Lenihan. After the last election we had 4 very high profile representatives from our constituency (Leo Vradkar - Minister for Transport, Joan Burton - Minister for Social Protection, Brian Lenihan RIP - former Minister for Finance and Joe Higgins who is probably higher profile than any Minister). I believe that there are 7 candidates to fill the vacant seat, but I couldn't honestly name more than 4 of them. Normally a by-election would be well covered in the media, but there has been so much coverage of the presidential campaign in the media that there has been hardly any space left for coverage of the by-election.  I guess I will be the ultimate floating voter on this ballot, because I might get a surprise when I see the full list of names.
    If anyone wants to change my mind on any of these ballots, feel free to leave a comment below.

    Update 26th/Oct: I just checked out the ElctionsIreland site for information about the candidates in our by-election and I found out that there were actually 13 candidates not the 7 I though. Clearly some of them have not been very scuessfull in making themselves know. 

    Friday, October 21, 2011

    What is the right way to treat unpopular former leaders

    Today's newspapers are full of gruesome images of the late Cornel Gaddafi beside pictures of Libyan crowds cheering an celebrating. I know that he was an extremely unpleasant person, but at the same time I must say that it seems incongruous to see crowds enthusiastically celebrating such a sad end for any human being.

    A few years ago I was talking to a friend from the Middle East about the prospects for democracy in the region. When I asked him if there were any democracies in the region, his answer was that there were some countries that pretended to be democratic but in no case was there a living ex-president. I thought that this was a very interesting way to judge whether or not a democracy is genuine.

    In western democracies, former leaders are normally treated with quite a bit of respect. Although the level of respect varies somewhat depending upon their record in office, there is no reason for any leader to fear that they will not be able to enjoy a comfortable and peaceful retirement (in fact many people believe that the pensions provided to our former leaders are excessive - but this is a different topic).

    I know the papers will often describe our politicians as "trying really hard to cling onto power", but none would ever fight quite as long and hard as Gaddafi fought to cling onto power. I can't help thinking that part of the reason why he fought so hard was because he knew what fate was awaiting him.

    I am watching the trial of former President Mubarrack in Egypt with great interest. While some people doubt that it will be a totally fair trial, at least they are making some attempt to follow the rule of law. The current batch of Arab leaders will probably be more likely to facilitate a smooth peaceful handover of power when the time arrives if they believe that they can enjoy a peaceful retirement.

    Thursday, October 20, 2011

    My blog gets a new look

    The blogger platform just released some new "Dynamic Views" and so I decided it was worth trying them out. One of the advantages of using a platform like Blogger is that you get these new features without having to do anything. The new template makes my blog look completely different with virtually no work required from me. Let me know what you think of the new look..

    If you click on the down-arrow beside the "Sidebar" at the left of the page header you can even choose a completely different layout. I think some of them look really cool although I must at some stage make a few more tweaks to ensure it looks correct and maybe even add back in a few of my old widgets which seem to have disappeared.

    Friday, October 7, 2011

    Where did you hear about Steve Jobs passing away?

    People of a certain generation always remember where they were when they first heard the news that John F Kennedy had been assassinated. I was only 14 months old when JFK passed away, but I still know where I was when the news came through because my father said that he had just come home from work and I was sitting on his lap when he turned on the TV news.

    Hearing about the passing of JFK was a real shocking moment for Irish Americans of my father's generation. In many ways the passing of Steve Jobs was an equally tragic moment for geeks of my generation. Apple computers was founded around when I was finishing up in secondary school and was learning about computers for the first time. When I was in college I followed with envy the exploits of the two Steves. I was personally more of a fan of Steve Wozniack than Steve Jobs, but I must admit that I would have loved to be more like either of these giants in the computer industry.

    I use Google Listen application on my phone to listen to a selection of Podcasts on my commute to and from work. On Thursday morning I was reviewing the podcasts that had been downloaded overnight to see which I should add to my Listen queue when I noticed that the TWiT network had just published a Steve Jobs Special episode. I suspected that the reason for the special episode was because he passed away, so added the episode to my Listen queue and then I checked the RTE news app to see that there was indeed a short story about Steve passing losing his battle with cancer..

    Listening to the show was a great review of a wonderful life. Steve Jobs was 7 years older than me and Steve Wozniack was a further 5 years older than him, but their growing up closely mirrored my growing up and the growing up of the computer industry. I know Steve Jobs would have probably preferred if I had been listening to the program on an iPhone rather than on an Android phone, but it was nevertheless a tribute to his contribution to the change in the computer industry that I was getting my news through a podcast from the other side of the globe rather than a local TV or Radio program.

    Getting Eclipse 3.4 working on Ubuntu

    Lots of people might be planning to develop Sametime plug-ins for Hackday. While the Sametime plug-in development environment is really easy to use once you get it set-up it can be tricky to get your environment configured. I always tell people that they must read the instructions in the Sametime SDK very carefully and follow the instructions exactly.

    One thing that is slightly annoying is the fact that the Lotus Expeditor Toolkit which is needed to configure your Sametime launch configuration can only be installed with Eclipse 3.4. This is annoying to users of any platform who may prefer to use a more recent version, but it is especially annoying to users of Ubuntu and other variants of Linux because there is a well known bug in this version which can stop Eclipse from launching.

    Fortunately there is a simple work around. You just need to edit the eclipse.ini file (which will be ins the same folder where the eclipse executable is installed) and add this line


    One you have made this change, eclipse will launch properly and there will be nothing to stop you from doing the coolest Hackday project ever :-)

    Thursday, October 6, 2011

    Hackday Project results in Patent

    Hackday 9 is taking place tomorrow and due to a training course, I won't be able to take part for the first time in several years. Therefore it was ironic that I just got notification of a patent that was just issued based upon a project I did back for Hackday 6.

    The patent is entitled "System and method for client-based instant message monitoring for off-line users" and it deals with an innovative way that I devised to get around the fact that I was forced to implement my Hackday project on the client side due to the fact that I didn't have access to change the server. If you want to find out more, you can access the patent via Google Patents.

    Good luck to everyone taking part this year. I hope you succeed in generating several more patents.

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011

    My Hackday mini-Project

    Due to schedule conflicts, I won't able to take part in Hackday 9 which is due to happen on Friday. However, I felt it would be setting a bad precedent if I completely ignored the event. Hence I decided to tackle a mini-project the last Sunday at home.

    I have been recently working with some local primary schools helping them to do projects relating to Smarter Energy for display at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition next January. In order to help introduce the concept I was decided to build a simple test rig with several different types of light bulbs that the students can use to measure the efficiency of the bulbs. This was not a technically very challenging job, but it did involve a few hours of hard work stripping wires and screwing in light fixtures. On the right you can see my completed handy-work.

    I have also purchased a simple plug-in power meter so that the students can easily measure the power consumed as each of the lights is switched on. Of course the power consumed is only telling part of the story - I also needed to measure the light output of the various bulbs because as well as having a huge variation in power consumption the bulbs also produce radically different amounts of light.

    Rather than purchase a dedicated light meter I decided to see if I could find an application for my phone which was capable of taking the measurements. After a bit of experimentation I settled on using the Light Meter Application from Borce Trajowski. As well as producing reliable measurements of light intensity, this free application also has a really attractive retro-style display. Of course it is only fair to mention that I also tried a different application called Light Meter as well as ones called beeCamLightMeter and  Lux Meter which didn't seem to work reliably at all (which just goes to show that you can't totally trust the application descriptions in the Android market).

    I plan to use this test rig in some upcoming visits to schools by myself, but of course I am happy to lend it to anyone else who would like to use it for similar events.