Monday, December 17, 2012

What does it mean when you are endorsed by someone on LinkedIN

When I initially signed up for an account on Linkedin, the site asked me to provide a list of my skills. I didn't think this unusual because  knew that LinkedIn was intended to be a site to help people build their career (as distinct from Facebook which is more intended to be more of a site for people to enjoy themselves and relax). However, since I was not seeking out a new job, I didn't pay too much attention to what I filled in there.

Recently I started getting notifications from LinkedIn to say that one of my contacts on the site had "endorsed" one of my skills. I never actively sought out these endorsements and so I was somewhat intrigued to know what was going on.

About 2 weeks ago, I got a LinkedIn connection request from someone I know and when I approved the request I was presented with a list of the skills this person claimed to have and was asked to endorse them. Since I knew this person to be reasonably competent, I clicked the "endorse" button beside some of the skills. Then the site asked me if I wanted to endorse more skills from other contacts. It began showing me an apparently random set of people/skill combinations and prompted me to either click on the "endorse" button or else click on the "next" button to see more choices.

In general, I endorsed contacts' skills when I had a reasonable knowledge that the person did hold the skill that they claimed. I sometimes declined to endorse someone's skills either because I did not know them very well of because I knew their abilities and I did not rate them very highly (two very different situations). Although I spent a while reviewing skills, I abandoned the endorsement exercise before I had a chance to review most of the people/skill combinations so many of my colleagues were not endorsed by me due to lack of time/motivation.

I suppose the bottom line is that when you see that the skills a person's LinkedIn profile have been endorsed by someone else it gives you a slightly increased confidence that the person does indeed hold the skill that they clam, but if there are no endorsements for their skills it does not necessarily mean they are not skilled.

Friday, December 7, 2012

I'moving to Zurich

One of the wonderful features of the internet is that it should not matter where in the world you are located. The protocols of the internet were designed to treat all traffic fairly so once you have a connection to the internet you should be able to get at any internet resource.

However, there are a number of industries (primarily music and movies) who continue to try an pretend that the internet is not a global phenomenon and continue to try and limit availability of their products and services to particular geographies. As I wrote before, these services are doomed to obsolescence - partly because such a business model is seen by consumers as unfair, but also because it is a technically difficult task to restrict your internet service to a particular country or set of countries.

There is an advertising series running on Irish Radio stations at the moment with the punch line "That's it, I'm moving to Zurich". The "joke" is that the speaker is actually planning to change pension providers to Zurich Life rather than actually emigrate to Switzerland. However, it seems that the administrators of our work network are planning a similar move.

It used to be the case that we could not access any Irish related web sites from work because most internet geo-location serviced (such as Where is my IP) seemed to be of the opinion that we were based near Portsmouth in the South of England (presumably since we used an internet service provider who was based near there). My colleagues didn't mind too much because it also meant that we got a chance to try out services which were supposedly only available in the UK. However, a recent change in our network configuration means that most internet servers now thing that I am based in Switzerland (not too far from Zurich).

I wonder are there any interesting TV shows running in Switzerland that I should try to catch up on?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Is Google AdSense a lucrative way to earn money?

Many bloggers believe that including Google AdSense advertisement on your site represents an opportunity to earn some significant money that will defray your costs and even provide you with an additional source of income. When I established this blog, I deliberately decided not to include any advertisements because I wanted to make it clear that I was not motivated by potential earnings.

When I registered for Movember I decided to temporarily enable Google AdSense ads for the month. I was partly hoping that this would provide me another way to collect money for the charity, but I was also experimenting to see how much money could be earned from this stream.

The bad news for the Irish Cancer Society is that this did not result in a significant revenue stream. In total I earned 7 euro and 64 cents during the month. Since they don't allow you to withdraw any money until your account earnings exceeds 10 euro, there was very little chance that I would consider giving up my day job and living off my AdSense earnings (in order to ensure that the charity didn't suffer I made a personal donation in lieu).

This experience, matches the experience I had a few years ago with trying AdSense advertisements on the web site of a local soccer team. The earnings from google were negligible, while the club had no problem convincing local businesses to pay several hundred euro per year to have their logo appearing on the web site. Of course, it could be the case that the local businesses are paying above the market rates for the existing advertisements - in fact many of them may be consciously doing this in order to build up good will in the community or to support what they believe is a good cause.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Are we suffering from Affluenza?

The latest eBook, I borrowed from the Fingal Libraries eBook lending service was called "Affluenza: When too much is Never Enough". This book talks about how modern Australia seems to be suffering from the affliction of Affluenza, which is defined as:
"a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more"
This was a really thought provoking book. The book was specifically talking about Australian society, and hence most of the statistics included related to Australia. In a few cases they reported data relating to the United States for comparison. In summary the authors conclude that the level of wealth in Australia and USA is roughly similar as is the level of obsession with consumerism. However, while most American's realise that they are a rich consumption obsessed society, Australians seem to think of them selves as surviving in tough economic circumstances.

When I read the book I wondered whether or not Irish people are suffering from the same malaise. The Irish media are full of stories about how dramatically circumstances have changed for Irish people in recent years since the demise of the Celtic Tiger. However,  I am old enough to remember how tough times were in former decades and so I don't think we are that badly off at the moment in comparison.

I was delighted to read the survey reported in yesterdays Irish Times which contained an interesting fact that the percentage of Irish people who claimed to be "totally happy with their standard of living" had increased from 59% in 197 to 71% in 2012. The journalists seemed surprised with this statistic given Ireland's current economic crisis, but I think it is a sign that we have a good perspective on our economic circumstances.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Mo has got to Go

Today I cut off my moustache since November is over. Although it is only a short while since I started growing it, I had got used to the feeling of a hairy upper lip. My growth was nowhere near as flamboyant as some of the samples that I saw my colleagues growing. In fact, according to this amusing guide to facial hair in the technology industry my moustache reveals that I am a natural legal analyst. I don't think that is the image I want to project so I will stick with clean shaven for now.

Although the growing season is over, the money collection will continue for a few more days. If you want to donate money my Movember page is still open and the green envelope is still at my desk.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Contributing to my Mo

My mo-running partners
As I mentioned earlier, I am participating in the Movember fundraising initiative. My moustache is progressing reasonably well, although the moustache is slightly hard to see it since it is grey in colour as compared to the hair on my head which is light brown (and getting lighter as I age). This week people are saying to me "are you growing a moustache?", while last week they were saying "you missed a bit while shaving".

Unfortunately the fund raising is not going quite as well. Mainly this is to to my own reluctance to come straight out and ask for donations. To help get around this fact I am going to put a sign up on my desk at work with a donation envelope directly below it. For those of you who want to donate on-line, there are full instructions available from the  Movember website.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Is it a good idea to write about your work on your personal blog?

Recently I attended a presentation by Marie Wallace telling people how to "tackle" social media. She made the point that it is important to have a clear idea for what your goal is for using social media or else you won't achieve it. During the subsequent discussion it became clear that most of the people attending the talk were planning to write primarily about the things that they are working on and associated social networking and blogging primarily with  advancing their career. In addition they didn't really enjoy using sites like Facebook and preferred to only use sites like LinkedIn with a more business orientation.

I enjoy engaging on social networking sites and my motivation is more personal that career oriented, but the discussion caused me reflect to  upon my motivation is and what I blog about. As I looked through my old posts I noticed a post which I wrote about a year ago analysing my motivation and this is generally still accurate a year later. However, I was surprised how few of my blog posts mentioned IBM or the work I do for them.

At a rough count, my blog post fall into 3 categories:

  1. Roughly 20% have something to do with IBM or the projects I work on. I included anything vaguely work related in this category e.g. I wrote several posts about the Young Scientist Competition which are not really related to my work, but I counted them because I got involved through IBM's sponsorship of  the event. 
  2. About 50% were technology related posts that had nothing to do with my work (e.g. reviews of mobile phone  applications) .
  3. The remaining 30% non-technology related (e.g. expressing opinions about politics or sport)

Since I spend well more than 20% of my time thinking about my work I would have predicted  that (due to simple statistics) a higher percentage of my output would be work related.

I make no secret about what I work on, but my reasons for not writing about work relate to two main reasons:

  • If I write about IBM or an IBM product I find it rad to get the right balance. If I a praise the company too highly it sounds contrived, but if I am too critical of an IBM product/policy it might have negative consequences too.
  • It takes me longer to write about a work related product because I feel that people will expect me to be accurate and check all of my facts. For example if I was to write a technical article for DeveloperWorks about a product I was working on, I would typically expect to spend several weeks getting it exactly right. In contrast I can write a comparison between RunKeeper and MyTracks in a much shorter time and I don't feel obligated to double check any of my statement since I don't claim to be an expert.

After reflecting upon this a little, I decided to keep with my current balance of allowing personal posts to predominate on this blog. After all I have plenty of other forums in which to write about my work. If articles are published elsewhere about stuff that I am working on, I often promote them to friends and colleagues by sharing on Facebook and/or Twitter. Perhaps I in the future I will try remember to also cross post to LinkedIn, since this seems to be more popular with my generation.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A late starter for Movember

Last year many of my colleagues at work took part in Movember and so I resolved that in 2012 I would join them. However, 1st of November came and went without anyone reminding me of my resolution (perhaps many are taking part, but their facial hair is not yet obvious).

This Friday, my daughter told me that she signed up for the Mo-Running event in the Phoenix park next weekend with a friend of hers and she persuaded me to join them. I think that the girls intend getting a moustache from a costume shop, but I though that I ought to take part fully.

While shaving yesterday, I left my top lip untouched. I don't think I will have much of a moustache by the race day next weekend, but I will continue growing until 8th of December to make up for the late start.

I don't know the logistics of how to donate money yet, but I created a profile on the Movember web site and once I find out the details I will share them via this blog. In addition I just turned on Google Ads on this web site and I will donate any money earned to the charity. I don't  want to violate the Google Ads guidelines, but if you want to donate a few cents to the charity the easiest way might be to click on one of the advertisements.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Should Irish people get involved in the US presidential election

In theory Irish people should not care who is president of the United States of America. However, in reality the recent election was the single biggest topic of conversation in Ireland for the last few weeks. This is partly because USA is such a dominant world power, but also because for historical reasons most Irish people have many close relatives living in the USA. In fact many Irish people (including me) have a right to a postal vote as a result of holding American citizenship. So there are active groups campaigning in Ireland for such votes.

Half-Page Ad in Irish Times
publicizing the Paddy Power
early pay-out offer
In the lead up to election day, most professional opinion polls were predicting that the election was too tight to make a definitive prediction. However, on the day before polling, Irish based bookmaker Paddy Power announced that they were so confident that Obama was going to win that they were going to pay out immediately to anyone who had bet on him. This was effectively a very cheap publicity stunt becuase although they claimed it cost them over half a million euro, it ended up costing them nothing because Obama won and the would have had to pay out on all these bets anyway.

I know that the advertisement for this offer which featured the tag line "Sorry Romney - you're not black or cool" was intended to be very much tongue in cheek, but I must say that I found it quite offensive. It was intended to poke fun at Mitt Romney who is not very popular among the Irish public so maybe they felt safe, but the attached picture of president Obama is not very flattering so I suspect that they alienated many of his fans also.

There has been some debate in Irish newspapers recently about whether Ireland should offer some form of voting rights to the Irish Diaspora. This could be quite significant since there are many more Irish citizens (or at least people entitled to Irish citizenship) resident in United States than are resident on the island of Ireland. I wonder how Irish people would feel if a similar advertisement poking fun at Irish politicians was running in American newspapers.

[xpost] Who needs to be involved in running a successful "Show and Tell" event for a Hackday

[This article was originally posted to the IBM internal hackday blog, but it is not really IBM specific]

I find that one of the most enjoyable parts of any Hackday is the Show and Tell event  when the hackers get to quickly present a summary of their project. Typically these events involve about 20-30 projects being presented and since it is unreasonable to expect the audience to sit through more than 1-1.5 hours of talks it is necessary to impose a strict time limit on each presentation (typically 2-3 minutes each). When most people first hear about this event format they predict that this will become a chaotic mess. This is a real danger so it is important that the event is very tightly controlled and well planned.

We are currently planning the show and tell event for the Ireland Lab in conjunction with the recent Hackday X. The main organiser was asking how many volunteers he needed to recruit and so I thought it might be worthwhile to list the various roles which are needed to help run a sucessful show and tell event. Don't be scared by the length of the list, it is of course possible for one person to fulfil more than one role during the event, but it is good to clarify exactly what you are asking each person to do and if you are lucky enough to have enough volunteer helpers it is nice to have a job for everyone so that they feel useful.
  • Time Keeper: because of the tight schedule this is probably the most important role. We normally use a highly visible clock that can be seen by both the audience and the speaker so that there is no surprise when the time runs out. It is essential that no leeway is allowed because distilling a presentation down to 3 minutes is hard and if any speaker is allowed to over run the allocated time it is unfair to the other speakers whose speaking time will have to be cut even shorter (alternatively all of the speakers will assume that if the prevoous speaker was allowed to run over by a minute it is OK for them and the entire schedule goes out the window). We find that a referee's whistle or some form of a loud gong is a good way to remind speakers that their time has expired.
  • Master of Ceremonies: It is important to have someone speak at the start to tell the audience (and speakers) what to expect and they should also speak briefly at the end to tell people about the judging process (see below). The MC can also help the time keeper by subtly stepping forward as each three minute time slot expires to say "thank you x for your presentation and up next we have y" - it is a very brave speaker who will continue speaking over the MC.
  • Speakers: Naturally you can't have a good event without speakers, but it is important to check that you know exactly who is going to present (typically people might not want to present their project if they feel they didn't achieve anything to boast about) and in what order. Someone (either the MC or someone else) should make sure that they seek out the next speaker while the current presentation is bing given and get them to stand next to the podium. Since the allocated time is very short, a significant proportion of it can be wasted waiting for the speaker to walk from the back of the room.
  • Judge(s): Normally we give out some local prizes (even if these have only a token value e.g. a certificate). This means that you need at least one judge who is taking notes and scoring the presentations. If you have a judging panel of several judges, you need to clarify how they are going to interact. Typically it is a good idea to ensure that the judges turn up anout 15-20 minutes before the show and tell itself starts so that they can discuss judging logistics among themselves.
The above roles are needed for a single site show and tell. However, in the Ireland lab we have a number of different physical locations and so we like to hold a virtual show and tell so that we can have both presenters and audience taking part from wherever they are based. This is a good idea, but it does add some additional logicistcal challenges and so you need some more roles to be filled:
  • eMeeting Moderator: someone needs to run the eMeeting. In IBM we typically have a choice of eMeeting servers to use each with their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes we choose to use an experimental version of the eMeeting service (this is Hackday after all), but if there is any doubt that the service will be working during the show and tell it is a good idea to have a backup plan in place just in case the primaty server is acting up.
  • eMeeting Observer: as I mentioned it is possible that the emeeting service will either fail completely or else be working sub-optimally (e.g. noticable delays in updating the screen in the eMeeting). Therefore it is a good idea to assign someone who is physically in the same location as the speakers to also join the eMeeting as a participant so that they can alert the speaker and/or the eMeeting moderator if there is any problem with the emeeting.
  • Recorder (optional): It is not ncessary to record the show and tell, but when you have gone to the effort of arranging the event it is a shame to lose it. Most eMeeting tools and/or teleconference services offer a recording service. The recording might need some post-processing, but you can often find that some of the hackers have a dream to get involved in the movie business and would love the chance to practice their skills

Monday, November 5, 2012

The new format for the Irish Times

The new and old format Irish Times
When I read about the proposed new format for the Irish Times I was worried that they mean that they were switching to become a tabloid.  However, the change in page size is so small that I wonder why they even bothered. The page is exactly the same height as before and less than an inch narrowed (the picture on the right shows today's Irish Times pictured in front of an edition from last week for comparison).

On the other hand, the changes they made to the way the articles are laid out on the page are quite substantial and look great so I must say I am reassured that my beloved newspaper has not been ruined.

The easy way to configure VNC service on your Linux server

While looking at the access statistics of this blog I noticed that one of the most popular posts is an article I wrote a while ago about how to configure the VNC service on your Linux server. While these instructions continue to work, both RedHat and SUSE have released updates in the meantime which make these instructions partly obsolete.

In REHEL6+ and SLES12+ the configuration screens that come with the operating system include an option to configure what they call remote desktop access. The way the VNC service is configured is slightly different on each Linux variant, but since the  configuration screens allow you to configure the VNC service with a simple point and click UI, you probably don't need to worry about the detail of what happens under the covers.

Of course the instructions I wrote still work so if you followed them and your server is working as desired, there is no need to change. However, it is probably easier and better to use the configuration screens built into the operating system if you have not yet started to configure it. Likewise, if are using an older version of RedHat/SUSE or are using a Linux variant which has not yet integrated VNC configuration into its utilities then feel free to continue using my script.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Have social networking services become one of the vital services which need to be maintained through natural disasters

Luckily I was nowhere near the path of the destructive storm Sandy. However, I have many relatives and work collagues who were in the danger zone so I was anxiously looking at various news sources to find out what was happening. One factor I noticed was that people seemed to update their social network straight away even when they didn't have many essential services such as elctric power, and heating.

I suppose that this is not surprising since social networks are a very efficient way of getting out the message to as many concerned relatives and friends. It is also a testament to the resilience of some of the infrastructure. Since the people involved didn't have electric power they typically sent the update via their smartphone - the cell phone network is inherently quite resilient since if individual cell towers are out of action your cell phone will automatically connect to any other available cell tower that is still working. In addition the social networking sites typically use a range of servers around the world with automatic fail-over when any individual data centre is off line. This meant that the service could be resilient even when an entire region is knocked off the network.

I think that authorities will have to consider social networks as a key part of their disaster recovery plans.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

My role in adding Sentiment Analysis capability to IBM's Smarter Cities offerings

Earlier this year I announced that I was changing jobs again to incubation team leader. In this role I am supposed to lead innovative projects to introduce experimental new features in our products. The nature of these innovations means that there is bound to be some risk of failure, but I am delighted to be able to say that the first project to develop a city sentiment dashboard was an even bigger success than expected. In order to ensure were meeting real customer needs, we developed it in conjunction with a large European City who gave us very specific requirements. The end result was so well received that this week the software was formally upgraded from a customised solution into a fully supported IBM product.

Our solution uses Cognos Consumer Insight (CCI) to analyse sentiment being expressed about the themes that the city is interested in. CCI provides really excellent analysis capabilities, but the user interface can be daunting for non-experts to use.  Hence, the software we developed pulls the key information into a single easy to understand dashboard that is part of the Intelligent Operations Centre (IOC). Our dashboard was released in the form of an update to the IOC. Customers will typically deploy this software as part of a Smarter Cities project. If you are interested you should get in touch with your IBM sales representative or if you don't have an existing relationship with IBM leave a comment here and I will arrange for someone to get in touch.

Since IOC has many features, the information about the new sentiment analysis feature is buried deep on the product page. The screenshot below shows the dashboard we developed. I deliberately blurred the text in the screenshot because I don't think that I am at liberty to reveal what city we were working with or what topics they wanted to track. However, I think you can get a feel for how we managed to squeeze all of the sentiment data onto a single easy to understand screen:
  • On the left there is a hierarchical list of the themes that the customer specified that they are interested in tracking sentiment about. For each theme there is a thumbs up or thumbs up icon to give a quick indication of whether we found more positive or negative expressions of sentiment about the theme in question.
  • If you click on a theme, we will display details about the sentiment we discovered for this theme. We have pie charts showing the overall distribution of sentiment observed as well as a more detailed breakdown of the sentiment for each type of site (e.g. we might have observed radically different sentiment in newspapers, blogs and twitter).
  • On the bottom we have a trend chart showing how the sentiment statistics varied over time and finally on the right hand side we show you a few samples of positive and negative snippets that we found. Clicking on these snippets will bring you directly to the original source of the sentiment so you can read the snippet in context.

It is amazing what can be achieved by a small agile team in 6 months. Hopefully we will be equally successful with our next projects (which have not yet been decided).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hackday X is coming and I registered my project

Time flies by and it is now just over a week until the IBM company wide Hackday that Ginni Romety announced earlier in the year. This morning I met with some of my colleagues in the IBM Dublin lab and decided on what we would be doing locally to promote participation in the Hackday and ensure it is a fun day for everyone.

Since this is an IBM internal event, I can't reveal too many details of the project on my public blog. However, I will say that it relates to my earlier post about using automation to make it easy to keep active on several social networks and it extends the idea by allowing information to flow through the company firewall.

I think that this project idea fits well with the theme of this Hackday which is transforming IBM into a more social business. Any reader who works in IBM will be able to read more about the project on the Hackday site and hopefully there will be a working prototype ready next week.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Playing podcasts of music through a Bluetooth Headset on Android

I like to listen to many podcasts on my Android phone. When running or on my bike I tend to listen through headphones. However, it feels strange to plug in headphones while driving in my car. I bought a lead which allows me to connect my phone to the sound system in my car via a cable plugged into the headphone socket on my phone.

This arrangement worked reasonably well until recently when the cable connection started to get loose and crackly. Rather than buy a replacement cable I thought it should be easier to use the Bluetooth hands-free unit to connect  my phone to the car's sound system, but I searched in vain to find a system setting on my phone which would allow me to direct the Bluetooth connection.

After a bit of searching on Google, I found the BTmono application which adds this simple feature. This application is very simple, but effective. When the application is running audio which is normally directed to the headphones (e.g. music or podcasts) is instead sent to the connected Bluetooth device. This means that I can now listen to my podcasts in the car via the sound system or even use a Bluetooth   headset to entertain me while running.

I think this is a clear example of why the Android open model is better than the close system run by Apple for their iPhones. I am guessing that this application would probably not have been allowed into the Apple AppStore.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Is it safe to listen with headphones while cycling?

One of the hotly debated issues about cycling is whether or not it is safe to cycle while listening to something through headphones. I can certainly understand the view that it is important to be able to hear what is happening around you as you cycle. I personally like to use the time I spend on my bike to catch up on podcast episodes and/or music. However, I would like to do so safely.

I tried using the Around Sound application which is a cool application fro Android devices which measures the ambient sound and automatically pauses your music/podcast whenever the ambient noise exceeds a threshold. The intended use of this application is when you might be listening to music while working in a quiet office environment, but when your colleague comes up behind and asks you a question you would like your music player to temporarily pause to allow you to hear him/her. However, I found that I could not find a suitable volume threshold setting that worked well while cycling. Instead I use a low-tech solution of only attaching one of the earphones while leaving the other ear free for listening to traffic. In order to protect my ears from any potential long-term damage from earphone use I constantly switch ears.

Research shows that the biggest factor in determining the risk of using a mobile phone while driving is the content of the conversation. Apparently you are at much less risk of crashing while having an idle gossip with the phone held to your ear than if you were conducting a stressful interview through a hands free device. Using a similar logic I choose to make sure I am not overly concerned if I actually hear all of the items I listen to while cycling (e.g. I listen to a general chat about the news of the day rather than trying to take an on-line course which would require me to pay close attention - therefore if the traffic situation requires my close concentration, I am not worried about missing part of what is said on  the podcast.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Triathlon Report

Glynn-O'Donovan Triathlon Team 
As you may have noticed, I have been doing a lot of talking recently about my triathlon preparation. The big day finally arrived on Sunday and I was quite nervous when I got up, especially when I looked out over the lake and saw that there was a strong wind blowing and hence the lake was quite rough. My worries only increased when the rain started to fall shortly afterwards. However, I had committed myself to completing the triathlon in such a public way that I couldn't back out and so I proceeded to the start point.

Luckily the weather began to improve as the day went on and when I saw the under-age competitors (starting with the under 8 event) I began to gain in confidence. When the rest of the family team arrived along with a vocal group of supporters I even began to change my focus from competing the event towards achieving a good time. The wind also died down and the lake was quite calm.

When the swim started I hung back near the back of the group to avoid getting crowded. Unfortunately many of the swimmers at the back were doing breaststroke rather than crawl and hence were taking up more room and it seemed to be equally crowded. At one stage I decided to put my head down and swim hard, when I lifted my head to look around a canoe based marshal was shouting at me "turn right you are off course". Although this detour added to the distance I had to swim, it was probably a good move overall since I was then separated from the crowd and able to swim in peace from then on.

When I got out from the swim I got a big cheer from my extended family and so my spirits were lifted. I struggled getting out of my wet suit, but when I got on my bike I saw that it was only 24 minutes from the start so I was ahead of my schedule. I cycled steadily and I managed to complete the cycle leg in slightly over 40 minutes. I almost got a penalty as I  went through the second transition because I thought I was allowed unclip my helmet  immediately after dismounting - luckily the marshal knew that it was an honest mistake and so he let me off with a warning.

The began to fall towards the end of the cycle, but this didn't really interfere with my progress because it was only light and helped keep me cool. I struggled on the running phase, but just concentrated on keeping moving rather than trying to keep a fast pace. The full results are now available on-line and I have been credited with a time of one hour 35 minutes and 4 seconds which seems a respectable time for a beginner.

Overall I was delighted to have taken part and even began to discuss about possibly coming back again next year. My father told me that he ran his first marathon when he was about the same age as I am now. I think staying active has worked out well for him and I would be very happy if I am as healthy as him in the decades ahead.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Triathlon Plan

It is now just under 4 days to go to the triathlon, so I am taking the advice that I should stop training to ensure I am fully rested on the day. I have never done a triathlon before so it is hard for me to judge what would be a reasonable time goal, but I am going to aim for 1:50 minutes in total. I am allocating my time as follows:
  • Swimming 750m in 30 minutes: In the gym I normally complete my 750 meter swim under 25 minutes (in fact often below 20 minutes), but I think that 30 minutes will be a challenging goal for swimming in a lake.
  • Cycling 20 km in 50 minutes: Based upon my training times, I think that this should be quite achievable. In fact this is where I will try to get ahead of schedule if possible.
  • Running 5km in 30 minutes: I normally aim to complete a 10km fun run slightly below the hour mark. In theory I should be capable of doing a faster pace over 5km, but the fact that this will be the last leg of the triathlon will mean that it will be quite tough to even reach this pace.

I used to think that when people spoke about their Triathlon nutrition plan they were wondering what they should eat before and after the Triathlon, but it seems that it is also important for me to plan what I should eat and drink during the race itself. My current plan is:
  • I will have porridge for breakfast the morning of the Triathlon since the slow release of energy from the Oats tends to keep me going. I will also indulge myself with a few espressos to top up my caffeine level.
  • I will have a bottle of plan water attached to my bike for consumption during the cycle. I also plan to have two power bars stored in the pocket of my cycling jersey so that I can consume as much of them as I feel able for during the cycle. During training I found that it was almost impossible to open the wrappers while cycling at pace, so I will have the wrappers partly removed before I start.
  • I don't think that I will need to eat any more during the running plase, but I will store a bottle of GatorAde in the transition area to bring woith me for the run. I think I might needs a more sugary drink at that stage of the event, I had experimented with the idea of bringing along Lucozade tablets and adding them to my water bottle, but again this is messay when I am getting tired so the bottle of GatorAde is plrobably more feasible.
  • After the race I think I will replenish my fluids with Guinness the national drink especially while watching Galway beat Kilkenny for the second time this year in the All Ireland Hurling championship.
P.S. I found out why I was accidentally posting supersonic swimming times to DailyMile. I use the Tracks2Miles application and I had set my default distance units to be Km because this makes sense for running and cycling. When I entered details about a practice swim I would enter 750 in the distance field and then click on the drop down selection box to change my distance units to meters. What I didn't realise was that the application was trying to be helpful by automatically converting the distance I entered into 750000 meters (I didn't notice this  because I wasn't paying full attention, but also because the application automatically advanced focus to the comments field and hence the distance field was no longer visible).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Triathlon Training Update

Some of the equipment I need to bring
when going for a swim in the Gym
I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of positive reaction I got when I announced that I was going to complete a triathlon to celebrate my passing the half century mark. Lots  of people have been giving be advice and encouragement. The triathlon I signed up for is now only a week away so I thought it might be nice to share an update on how my preparations are progressing.

I am amazed at how much equipment is needed to complete a triathlon. I know that not all of the equipment I purchased is absolutely essential, but I want to ensure that I don't fail due to lack of the proper gear. In any case it is part of the fun to get kitted out like a professional athlete. One of my main worries is that I will forget to bring along some of my new gear on the day of the event. I have been told that bringing along a bulging kit bag is a sure sign of a rookie - the experienced athletes will bring along just a few essential items.
  • Initially I was most worried about the swimming. I still think this will be my weakest link of the 3 events, but I have now swam the distance several times and I am confident that I will be able to complete the swim even if my time is not too fast.
  • Since cycling is my normal mode of commuting I am confident of my abilities on this event. Since I started triathlon preparation, I switched from my normal commuting bike to my racer so that I become comfortable with it. Unless I am running late for work, I typically divert through some of the back roads of county Meath on the way to work each morning so that I can get a real training cycle in. 
  • The main area that I still need to work on is my running. I have been neglecting this a little since I thought 5km is not a very long distance, but I suspect that it will seem a lot tougher when I go straight from swimming and cycling into my run.
I didn't realize when I entered the race that it would be on the same day as Galway's first appearance in the All-Ireland Hurling final in 20 years. However, the organizers have kindly arranged a big screen at the event so that all athletes will be able to watch the match as soon as they complete their event. I suppose this will provide additional motivation not to do a slow time and miss seeing the match.

Monday, August 27, 2012

What should be free and what should I expect to pay for

One of the strange things about internet culture is the fact that people expect to pay for leisure materials such as music, movies and games - but they are very reluctant to pay for tools that they use to run their business.

The entertainment industry has been very vigilant in trying to ensure that people continue to expect to pay for their music. In Ireland the recording industry association managed to persuade artists to stop allowing their music be used on the free CDs distributed with Sunday newspapers. Although the newspapers were paying royalties, the association feared that the fact that the consumer was not explicitly paying for the music would create an expectation that music should be free.

In fact they were so successful in pushing the idea that music must be paid for, that many people are reluctant to download music from sites like the Free Music Archive because they fear that there must be  something dodgy about a site that allows free music downloads. Until recently there was a Russian company which undercut iTunes by offering tracks for 39 cents each rather than 99 cents - consumers who would never dream of pirating music were reassured by the fact that they had paid for the tracks, but it seems that the company was not passing on any royalties and simply pocketed all the money.

The market for office productivity tools is significantly different. You might expect that people would be willing to pay for these since they are typically used only in a business context, but the fact that some of the leading suites of productivity tools like Libre Office are available for free download leads consumers to expect that they don't need to pay for such products. I don't normally feel sorry for Microsoft, but it is very unlucky for them that not only do they loose market share to open source competitors, but the fact that these are available free of charge apparently makes people feel less guilty about pirating copies of Microsoft Office.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A sad day for sport

Like many other people all over the world I was shocked to hear that Lance Armstrong is admitting defeat in his battle to prove that he has not breached the rules in relation to the use of drugs in cycling. I am not totally naive and so I would not be shocked to read that someone had definite proof that Lance Armstrong was using drugs. However, one feature of Lance's life to date is that he has been determined to continue battling even when the odds seems to be stacked against him and so it surprising that he is giving up on  this battle.

In his life, Lance has faced a long series of battles:
  • He was born to a teenage single-mother. Although he has great praise for the way his mother raised him, it can't have been a very easy life. His mother did have a few boyfriends and subsequently got married, but none of these proved to be a positive father figure for Lance.
  • When Lance initially took up cycling it was not a very well known sport in his native Texas and very few people were even aware that the Tour de France was taking place. This also meant that English speakers were not so common on the tour at that time and apparently not particularly welcomed by the representatives of the more established cycling nations.
  • Lance was struck with testicular cancer in his mid-20s. Initially the prognosis was not positive and the disease was expected to be fatal. However, he made a recovery and amazed everyone when eventually returned to the sport and performed even better than before.
  • As Lance became the most successful competitor ever in the Tour de France it was not surprising that many other competitors regarded him as the one to beat. Lance relished adversity and continued battling when many other people would have retired gracefully and enjoyed the fruits of his success.
Lance has been hounded for many years by allegations of drug use, mainly because people are reluctant to believe that someone could perform so strongly without artificial aids. This is similar to the way the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin was treated. The evidence of her drug use was eventually quite strong, but initially the suspicions were only based upon her results. It is becoming ridiculous if athletes can't perform too well for fear of facing accusations.

I think that the time has come to examine the fundamentals of the rules about drug use in sport. In many ways the debate on drug use in sport is similar to the debate on professionalism a few years ago. At that time amateur sportsmen seemed noble, but with the benefit of hindsight it looks like an elitist system that gave an unfair advantage to upper class athletes who could afford to take time off work to train.

I know that the analogy is not perfect, because drug use is dangerous. No athlete will die because he/she gets paid too much, but as we have sadly found out, it is entirely possible for athletes to kill themselves by over indulging in performance enhancing drugs. However, the rules should be adapted to focus on athlete safety rather than on the complete elimination of performance enhancing drugs.

Lance has plenty of experience of dealing with dangerous drugs. As he stated in his excellent autobiography many of the chemotherapy drugs used to fight his testicular cancer were a much more dangerous than EPO (he commented on the fact that the nurses injecting the drugs into his vein wore protective gear to ensure that none of the drugs accidentally spashed onto their skin).

I know it is a radical idea, but we would have a fair playing field if athletes were allowed to use safe doses of certain performance enhancing drugs under carefully controlled conditions.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Is Julian Assange a hero?

In recent times Julian Assange has been making headlines all over the world. Many people (including Julian) would like us to believe that we have a choice between supporting him and all of his actions or supporting the actions of the US secret service and their allies. However, the reality is a little bit more complex than that.

I feel sorry for Julian. But the reason I feel sorry for him is mostly because of his dysfunctional upbringing rather than because he has been unfortunate enough to become a target for reactionary forces within the US military and their allies.

First let me state clearly that I think it is a good thing that the wikileaks site has uncovered many unsavoury actions undertaken by the western powers during their so called war on terror. This is clearly a situation where the response to the alleged threat of terrorism was in many instances much worse than what it was supposed to be preventing.

However, the credit for making this information public must go to Bradley Manning, the brave soldier who made the information public and not to Julian Assange whose only role was to design the process which was supposed to assure Bradley and similar whistle-blowers of anonymity. In fact the process which Julian designed failed  badly in this case and a a result Bradley Manning is currently held in solitary confinement due to the failure to protect his identity and has no prospect of ever addressing the world's media though the window of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Julian is currently facing extradition from UK to Sweden to face charges that have nothing at all to do with his involvement with WikiLeaks. It is true that the laws on sexual assault in Sweden are much more favourable to the victim than in the UK, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. In any case, I am sure that he would get a fair trial in Sweden if he returned there. He claims that he fears that the Swedish government might turn him over to the Americans, but in fact that UK government would be much more likely to do that than the Swedes.

I think that part of Julian's problems are that he has an inflated view of his own importance. The current outpouring of sympathy for his position is only making this situation worse.

Update on SPAM Comments

I notice that the number of SPAM comments being left on my blog has reduced dramatically since I introduced the CAPTCHA test. However, the problem has not gone away completely which tends to confirm my suspicion that the attack is being launched by a semi-automated process. I think that a fully automated process would not be able to breach the CAPTCHA system, but a recent comment (which was automatically detected as SPAM) is a brilliant example of why it must be an automated system:

This blog is wonderful. You are clearly and expert in %PAGE_TITLE%. I have shared this post with all of  my colleagues ...

This could be a boost to my ego because I am proud to boast about my expertise in a wide range of subjects, but %PAGE_TITLE% is not one of the areas that I claim expertise.

Since the CAPTCHA is not being totally effective in blocking the SPAM, I will disable it. Instead I will force users to register for an account in order to leave a comment. In addition I have enabled a rule whereby comments have to be approved before becoming visible on old posts (most genuine comments are left fairly soon after the post is initially published).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Improving the accuracy of the GPS in Your phone

The GPS device in your phone is normally very accurate. However. like all computer devices when it messes up it can often do so in a spectacular way (e.g., I once went running around Galway at a moderate pace and then found out that my phone thought I had been swimming around the Irish Sea at a world record speed)

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is an amazingly complex piece of technology, so I suppose it should not be surprising that it occasionally fails. However, there are a few things that you can do to to increase the accuracy of your GPS readings:
  1. The software that interprets the GPS and other signals required to determine your location is very complex. The technology involved is constantly being updated. Therefore, if you are experiencing poor performance it is a good idea to update the operating system software and/or buy a new phone.
  2. The preferences on your phone should include "Use Wireless Networks" and "Use Sensor Aiding" - you should be sure to enable both of these options. On Android devices this will be under the "Settings\Location and Security" menu item, I am not sure where the equivalent setting is on an iPhone, but I assume it is named something similar. If you enable these it means that your phone can use several other clues to help decide where it is located even if there are not enough GPS satellites clearly visible in the sky.
  3. Don't start running until you have a good GPS signal. It might take a minute or two for your phone to lock onto the GPS satellites properly, if you are moving around while this process is happening you make it more difficult for the phone to guess its position. The RunKeeper app even has a useful feature whereby it will warn you if you try to start tracking a run without having already locked onto the GPS system. If your favourite app doesn't have this feature then it is probably worth installing a specialised application such as GPS status to check.
  4. Change your privacy settings to allow Google/Apple collect data from your phone. This is a clear case where you need to trade off privacy versus a benefit for yourself. The way that the "Use Wireless Networks" feature works is that hopefully Google or Apple has a record of the locations of the WiFi points that are currently visible to your phone and since the range of a WiFi network is not very large, it can quickly narrow down the possible locations where you might be. However, if nobody has shared this information for the area where you are running, the feature won't work. I personally don't think this information is very private because anyone walking past your front door can collect the same information, but I know many people feel differently. In any case, it is in your own interests to help map the location of  WiFi points in your neighbourhood especially if you are going to be regularly exercising in the same place. If you are really worried about privacy, then enable it for a few runs along your normal route before turning it off again.
I hope this information helps. If not, remember Google is your friend and a quick search of some of the forums related to your brand of phone will probably provide you with plenty of other useful tips.

Incidentally, I previously posted that I was switching back to using MyTracks instead of RunKeeper. However, I sometimes find that it is interesting to have both applications tracking my progress. Both applications have a tendency to occasionally crash for no reason, so having both applications recording your activity means you are fairly certain that you won't loose any data.

At the moment I have RunKeeper configured to announce periodic summary statistics in a female voice while MyTracks uses a male voice. The way I have them configured the two application normally announce at different times and because of the voice difference I know instantly which application I am hearing statistics from. Occasionally the two applications decide to announce statistics at exactly the same time which ends up sounding hilariously like a married couple arguing about whether or not the speed limit is being breached.

Update: 21-Aug
In the tips above I forgot to mention the obvious tip - try rebooting your phone. I sometimes find that my phone won't lock onto a GPS signal even if I can see the screen clearly and everything seems to be set up correctly. In these cases, turning the phone off and then back on again will often solve the problem.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hacking becomes mainstream in IBM

In a large company like IBM, not many employees have a chance to meet and interact directly with the CEO. However, the CEO will act as a role model for all employees about how the should behave and all executive communications are regularly examined carefully for clues to what is considered good behaviors.

In the book "Who says Elephants Can't Dance", Lou Gerstner described about how he was advised to start using email when he took over at IBM because apparently his predecessors got secretaries to read email on their behalf and this did not project a very good image for a leader of a high tech company. In the early 1990s reading email was considered to be leading edge. When Lou was replaced by Sam Palmisano in 2000 nobody questioned whether or not he was using email, because by then it was assumed that everyone would be. However, when Sam was recently replaced by Ginni Rometty the pendulum had swung so far that people have now started boasting about how little email they need to use.

Ginni doesn't look like a typical Hacker,
but appearances can decieve

In the short time that she has been in charge, Ginni has proven her tech credentials by becoming a highly visible user of social media communication tools. All of he quarterly employee messages are delivered on an IBM internal blog and she also regularly uses many of the tools provided by the IBM Connections product.

In a recent update posted to her blog she even went a step further and announced that she was going to hold a "Social Business Hackday" in which she expected participation from all of IBM's 400k+ employees. The exact format of this Hackday is still being decided, but what is clear now is that during a designated day in early September all employees will be expected to come up with a plan for how they can make better use of social media tools in their work. In addition it is expected that they will make concrete steps to implement this plan during the Hackay.

I think this is very significant for a number of reasons:

  1. The original Hackday events in IBM were launched without any formal management approval. I think the originators were afraid to ask for approval in case it might be refused. Over the years the reaction to any executive who found out about the events has been mostly positive. However, we have has some feedback that the word Hackday projects a negative image. I think that when the CEO publicly declares her support for the events we should not have any trouble convincing other IBM managers that they are a good idea.
  2. In IBM we have always been careful to ensure that participation in Hackdays was as diverse as possible and not restricted to just developers. For example we had prizes for the best hacked business plan and we also even had a semi serious prize for the best hack that didn't involve either Sametime or Connections (because these products are extremely popular subjects for Hackday projects). I think that the Social Business Hackday will increase the participation level even further.

Officially this will be an IBM internal event so I am not sure how/if it will be publicised outside of IBM. However, due to the nature of the event I am not sure that it makes sense to keep it secret (even if we could).

Sunday, August 12, 2012

My planned mid-life crisis

I will have a significant birthday this year (I won't say what age I am, but I am approaching the half way mark in my bid to persuade the President to send me a congratulatory cheque). It is traditional for people of my age group to have a mid-life crisis where they try to make themselves feel younger by doing something normally associated with younger people.

I considered buying a flashy sports car, but I didn't think that would suit my personality. I also considered going out to late-night parties, but since I used to fall asleep at parties even when I was younger I ruled out that possibility. Eventually I decided that the right think for me to do was to participate in a Triathlon in Loughrea on 9th of September. I am reasonably confident that I can competea 5km run and a 20km cycle should not be a major challenge, but the 750m swim will be a major challenge for me.

A picture of me modeling my new Triathalon swimming Goggles
I did a few practice swims in the gym before deciding to sign up and since they went fairly well , I am now purchasing the necessary gear for the event.

The fact that my nephew is also planning to take part should be a major help to my preparations. I don't know if we will be able to emulate the teamwork shown by "Mrs Brownlee's Boys" but hopefully we can complete it without any disaster.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Recognising SPAM comments on blogs

Like anyone who has been using the Internet I have often received SPAM emails, but it was only recently I encountered SPAM comments on my blog. The content of SPAM comments on blogs is very different from the content of SPAM emails and so I didn't instantly recognise what was happening - luckily Google has more experience of such practices and they immediately removed the SPAM comments before I even got to look at it.

SPAM emails typically try to trick the receiver to part with some money and/or click on a link which will infect your computer with some malware. The content is not always offensive, but it is certainly embarrassing to read about some of the alleged services being offered. Very few people who read a SPAM email would confuse it with a genuine email, but of course if the spammers send out enough emails they will surely find someone foolish enough to be tricked.

When I first established this blog, I was given the choice of implementing a policy that all comments would have to be approved by me before becoming visible on the site. I decided not to implement this policy because I was not too worried about the type of comments that user would leave. Until recently, my confidence in human nature was repaid and none of the hundreds of comments left over the last few years were comments that I would not have approved if I was reviewing them.

Since the same word is used for SPAM emails and SPAM comments, I foolishly thought that the content would be similar. However I recently discovered that the content of SPAM comments is surprisingly different from email SPAM, because all the authors are trying to do is manipulate their Google page rank by posting a link to their site on your blog. As a result the SPAM comment will deliberately be crafted to look at first glance as close as possible to a real comment.

My knowledge of the topic this changed about a 2 weeks ago ago when I received notification about a few surprisingly complimentary comments left on my blog. These comments were praising the quality of my writing and although I was surprised at how gushing the praise was, I didn't initially suspect that anything untoward was happening (bloggers typically have an inflated self-image and so I suppose it is not surprising that blog authors will often accept such praise at face value). However, when the trickle of such comments grew larger my suspicions arose and I began to look a little closer.

None of the comments were duplicates of each other, but they all followed a pattern. The comments were gushing in praise about the quality of the blog, but they would refrain from specifying what exactly made the content interesting (presumably because the comments were being left by some semi-automated process that doesn't involve actually reading the content). The comments would all end up with a line like "you might also be interested to read my blog" and then they would provide a link to their own site (but of course genuine comments also frequently end with a line like that).

When this flood of comments started, I was on vacation without convenient access to the internet. Therefore, about a week had passed before I investigated and about 40 of these comments had been left. Luckily the Google Blogger platform was intelligent enough to catch all but 2 of these as SPAM without me having to do anything. When I then reviewed all the comments from the previous year and I found only one which was a previous incidence of the same pattern (my naive self was pleasantly suprised at the praise, but my new Jaundiced eye brought me down to earth). So clearly my blog has been added to some list of "easy targets" for comment SPAM.

A sample CAPTHA
In the meantime, the flow of SPAM comments continues to grow even more frequent. Although it is good that the blogger platform automatically categorises them as SPAM and hides them, it is still a nuisance that I can do without. Therefore I have been forced to implement a captcha system to slow the flood.

I personally hate captchas because I find them very difficult to complete (perhaps it is my fading eyesight). However, I think that I will need to leave this defence mechanism in place for a while until the spammers go away to softer targets.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Irish Revenue Online Service is an example of the wrong way to implement an online service

Most citizen's don't particularly enjoy paying taxes, because nobody  like parting with their hard earned money. Therefore, the tax authorities should try to make the process of filing a tax return as painless as possible. In fairness the Irish tax authorities have done a good job  of making the paper forms and associated documentation quite easy for the lay person to understand, so when I recently started using  the revenue on-line service  I was expecting that it would be equally simple to use. Unfortunately I was very disappointed and found it very frustrating.

This service was originally developed to be used by tax professionals who spend most of their working life dealing with tax issues and is it is optimised for this type of user. It was only in recent years that they opened the system to "normal taxpayers" and they have been surprised that the system has not proved more popular. However, from my experience (which I will describe below) I can totally understand why people are sticking with the much more user friendly paper based system. I understand why the tax authorities would prefer people to use the on-line system, but they will have to adapt the system significantly if they hope that a large section of the population will be willing  to switch.

The first hurdle that users must battle with is the registration process. They need to be careful to avoid fraudulent registrations, but the system they devised is almost guaranteed to take about over a week to complete and hence relatively few normal taxpayers will have enough patience to do it properly.
  1. When you initially register on their web site you will in a normal enough looking web site registration form. However, when you complete this form you are not really registered you have simply applied for a ROS Access Number (RAN) which is required to progress to the next stage. For security reasons this RAN is printed on a physical piece of paper and then posted to your home address. This is done to ensure that the person applying for access to your tax records is really you (or at least has access to post delivered to your home).
  2. However, the need to print and post the document ensures that there is a delay of several days before you can move to the next steps which is to apply for your Digital Certificate. When you apply for the certificate, they don't issue it to you straight away, but instead they generate an access password which must be printed out and posted to you. This second postal interaction doesn't really increase security, because anyone who can intercept the first letter will probably be equally able to intercept the second. 
  3. In any case, you must wait until your password arrives in the post before you can retrieve your Digital Certificate and begin using the system.
Although this system seems quite straight forward, the delay involved effectively stopped me from using the system the first two years I tried. Like many citizens, I normally only need to interact with the tax system once per year when filing a tax return. As soon as I have collected all of the necessary information to complete a return, I like to complete the return straight away so that I can then relax and forget about the tax system for the next year.

The first year I decided to try filing my tax return on-line I was full of enthusiasm. When I had all of my documents ready to file a tax return, I was disappointed, but not surprised that I had to wait for the first postal step. However, when the letter arrived with the revenue access number I was frustrated that I could not complete the form straight away and so I completed the return on paper before the second letter arrived.

The next time I thought about the ROS system was when it was time to file a return for the following year. I found the old letter in my file with the access code to retrieve my certificate. Unfortunately when I tried using it I was told that the password had expired. Therefore I went back to using the paper system for another year.

The third year I decided that I should be a little more patient and so I completed the registration system from scratch. This time I encountered technical issues when I went to retrieve my password. The system gave me the unhelpful message "Something has gone wrong. Please contact the ROS HelpDesk". In fairness, the people operating the help desk were very responsive and did their best to help. However, it was hard for them to diagnose the cause of the problem from this generic message.
  1. Their first suggestion was that the browser I was using might not be a supported one. They supplied me with a list of supported browser versions. I tried three of the browsers on their list but all of them gave me the exact same error message.
  2. The next guess from the help desk people was that it might be an issue caused by the operating system I was using. They suggested that I try again on a Windows system. Since I would never destroy a good PC, by installing Windows on it, I was forced to create a Windows virtual machine image that I could use exclusively for accessing the ROS system,
  3. Unfortunately when I tried accessing the system from the windows system it was still telling me "something has gone wrong". When I told this to the help desk, their next suggestion was to try updating the version of Java installed on the machine. Luckily this suggestion worked and after a delay of 3 weeks I was finally able to use the ROS system.
Since I am using a virtual machine to access the tax system, I should be able to keep a backup of my exact environment and use this to access the site next year. However, many users will be constantly updating their environment and it is likely that they will encounter fresh issues each year.

I think that there are a few simple changes that could be implemented to make the ROS system easier to use for non-professionals:
  • If they abandoned the use of private digital certificates it would simplify the registration process and also allow them to be much more fussy about the details of the software used to access them. Most banks think that normal SSL encryption is secure enough for their web interfaces, so surely the revenue site should go along with this concensus.
  • It would be helpful if the web site gave more helpful error messages. As a software developer I appreciate that it can be difficult to generate meaningful error messages, but surely they could do better than the simple "something has gone wrong". 
  • It would also make life easier if they added an option to summarise the user's environment and email it to the help desk people so that they could see all of the relevant details at one glance. The  help desk people were simply guessing in the dark about what might be the cause of my problem, because there was no better way for them to diagnose the problem.
In summary the process the system seems to be quite fussy about the computer environment users have when trying to access the site. Tax professionals who spend quite a bit of time accessing the ROS site will probably be willing to install specific versions of software to enable them to access the site. However, the majority of citizens who only want to access the site once per year will be much less willing and hence will probably stick with the paper system unless it is made easier.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

RunKeeper compared to MyTracks

I am both a fan of exercise and of technology. Therefore, whenever I run or cycle, I like to use an application that leverages the GPS functionality of my phone to keep a track of exactly where I have been going and how fast I have been running/cycling etc. I have been a long time happy user of the  MyTracks  application from Google. Recently I converted to using RunKeeper because after watching a presentation on the benefits of sociability in training apps, I wanted to use an app which was more sociable. Ironically I am now switching back again because RunKeeper is too social.

In terms of core functionality, the tow applications are similar. MyTracks  application is a typical Google product which tends to appeal to most geeks like myself. It doesn't have lots of features, but it does one thing and it does it very well. The one thing it does is use the sensors in the phone to track exactly where you went.

  • It does not even assume that you are using it for tracking fitness related activities - for example I first started using MyTracks, I was walking around neighbourhoods and tracking the location of roads so that I could update OpenStreetMap.
  • If you are using MyTracks for tracking your training you can simply select the menu item "send to Google" each time you complete an activity and Google will automatically create a Google Docs spreadsheet with all the details of your training statistics without any effort on your behalf.
  • The level of detail in the data is more than would be collected by a professional athlete, but there are no fancy graphs or charts. However, it is easy to use that application of your choice to create any chart you want.
  • Likewise they don't attempt to implement any sociability features, but they make it easy to export your data to any other application if this is what you want to do. For example, I occasionally  use the excellent Tracks2Miles application written by Ben Hardill to send my training data to the DailyMile site so that I can share information with friends.
I said that MyTracks makes no direct attempt at being sociable with your training data, but the  makers of RunKeeper seem to assume that the only reason you are collecting data is so that you can share it on their site. If these applications were real people, I would compare MyTracks with a work colleague who believes that there is no need for social chit chat at work. In contrast RunKeeper is more like one of those annoying cheerleader types who keeps offering encouragement (whether you want it or not). Initially this encouragement is great, but after a while it begins to get on my nerves.
  • The only place that the RunKeeper application will store data is on their site. Of course it is possible to later export the data to share it elsewhere, but not many people will go to this trouble. I suppose this is a natural choice for them, but I personally prefer the Google approach of making it easy to share data directly from their application to wherever you want.
  • The charts on the RunKeeper site are much more visually appealing than the plan text spreadsheet created by MyTracks, but Google actually makes the raw data easier to get at.
  • The default settings on RunKeeper is to share every piece of data with everyone. Of course it is possible to change these settings, but it would be easy for a shy person to be embarrassed by accidentally over sharing.
  • The RunKeeper site will constantly send you congratulatory emails and/or post to your Facebook profile when you achieve significant training milestones. I suppose this is probably viewed as a good feature by some people, but personally I found it to be patronizing when I first started using RunKeeper and went on a fairly short slow run to try it out. They were gushing about how it was my longest run ever and a personal best (of course it was my longest ever run from their point of view).
Choosing an application, is somewhat like picking whom to be friendly with - there is no one choice which is right for everyone. Both of these applications are very good, but I think it is important to pick an application that its a good match for your personality. This is why I am sticking with MyTracks (for now).