Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I am paying the Household Charge

There has been a lot of controversy in Ireland recently about the introduction of an annual household charge. It may prove quite difficult for the government to enforce collection of the tax because of the lack of a proper register. In addition, many high profile individuals have grabbed attention by declaring publicly that they have no intention of paying the charge because they feel it is inherently unjust and they have effectively challenge the authorities to pursue them for payment. It seems that this is the first instance where the Irish people are reacting to cutbacks in a manner more typical of the Greeks

In this environment I am almost embarrassed to admit that I have registered for the tax and made arrangement to have it automatically deducted from my bank account. It is not that I am simply afraid if getting into trouble. While, I tend to agree with the people that a flat charge for every household is inherently unfair the reality is that if the charge was adjusted based upon means I would probably end up paying more than the €100 flat rate. It seems to me that it would be weird for me to refuse to pay the tax on the basis that justice would demand that I pay a higher charge.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Is Dublin a hotbed of innovative startups?

After the dramatic implosion of the Celtic Tiger economy the Irish government set up an eminent task force to decide how Ireland could reposition itself for sustainable growth and prosperity in the future. One of the recommendations of this task force was that Ireland needs to become a much more attractive location for small innovative companies to establish themselves.

One of the initiatives which sprung up indirectly from this new government strategy was the establishment of a Startup Boot camp. Since IBM was one of the organisations involved in sponsoring this initiative I had a chance to visit the Boot Camp on Friday last and speak to some of the start-ups to discuss any possibilities of them establishing links with IBM. I must say that I was very impressed with what I saw.

Since the whole idea is to establish a culture and environment that encourages innovative start-ups, the whole ambiance of the area is critical. The building that they are located in is anything but plush: the building itself was completely derelict and was scheduled for demolition as part of a redevelopment project which has been put on indefinite hold until the property market recovers. A minimum amount of work has been done to make the building habitable (e.g. all the desks are made out of planks of plywood crudely nailed together), but this Spartan surroundings is probably a good reminder to the occupants that they can't afford to waste money on unnecessary extravagances. The enthusiasm of the start-up companies gives a cheerful air to the place which more than counteracts any gloom from the rough conditions. In fact the entire part of Dublin where they are located is a strange mixture of abandoned derelict buildings and  beautiful newly refurbished buildings as you can see from this picture. The amazingly plush Google HQ is almost directly across the road which is a contrast and acts as a goal for the start-ups to aim at.

I don't think that I can reveal the details of the various start-ups that I met with since many of them are not yet ready to launch. However, an interesting example  was a company which was founded by an American and a Chinese national. Due to the nature of their company they felt that there was not a big market in Europe and USA, but they felt that Dublin was the right place to come to start their company - partly because of the presence of the  Startup Boot Camp, but also because of the general environment which is friendly towards technical innovation. Actually I was able to validate their choice because although I don't see much chance for IBM to work with them in the short term, I was able to put them in touch with another Irish start-up (started by an ex_IBMer) that they hope to partner with.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Dunboyne Fun Run" lives up to its name

Today I entered the Dunboyne Fun Run on a whim, because I was out in Dunboyne anyway dropping off my daughter who was participating in the junior run. I must say that the organisers did a splendid job - the last-minute registration process was very smooth, the large field of runners was well marshalled and everyone enjoyed a run in atypically glorious sunshine.

I was pleased with my time -37 minutes and 6 seconds for a 4 mile route.

After the race was over there was even a bonus of a magnificent free spread of cakes and tea for all participants in the local community centre. They even had a band playing live traditional music. Definitely a day to be happy I live in Ireland.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Gathering of amateur and professional weather fans shows Dublin City of Science 2012 at its best

Today I spent a really fun day attending a conference entitled "The Science of Weather Forecasting" which was organised by the Irish Met Society. The talks were very interesting and educational, but what was really enjoyable was that during the breaks I got to chat with several enthusiastic amateur weather fans. It was an added bonus that the event was held in the beautiful Botanic Gardens and the day was one of the few Irish days with unbroken sunshine.

I suppose that all Irish people are interested in collecting weather data. The most common conversation opener for phone conversations in Ireland is "what is the weather like where you are?". Now that professional quality weather monitoring equipment has become available and affordable, we can now turn these informal weather observations into proper scientific measurements which can be used to improve forecasting. I met several people who had their own weather stations in their back gardens like me. I also found out that there is even a site dedicated to collecting this data from Irish amateur weather monitoring stations. I plan to connect my existing monitoring station to this site within the next few days.

This is an excellent example of the type of event which is being organised as part of Dublin City of Science 2012. It encouraged my existing interest in meteorology and I promptly joined the Irish Met Society and I have every intention of being an active member.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fingal Library Service add eBooks to their range of offerings

I was excited to see the new eBook lending service from Fingal Libraries service so I thought I would write a short review. I am a big reader and am normally in the middle of reading at least 2 or 3 books in a variety of different genres at any one time. Although I buy quite a few books, my reading habit would be unaffordable if I had to buy all of the books I read - therefore I am a big user of the Fingal Library service (in fact I am the long serving mayor of Blanchardstown Library on Foursquare).

The library is really great service and amazingly it is free. People who complain about the level of taxes we pay should at least ensure that they take advantage of the services that these taxes fund.  As well as providing a large selection of books available for loan, they also have a large selection of DVDs, Music CDs and audio-books to choose from. They even provide a facility to borrow paintings for a period of up to 3 months (although I have never availed of this service myself).

Some people dismiss the library as an institution from the past which is doomed to fade away in the internet age. I disagree very strongly with this view and I feel that the concept of a public lending library is an important one that we ought not to forget in the debate about the balance between the rights of creators and consumers of content. It is important that we maintain public lending libraries if we want to ensure that everyone in society has an affordable opportunity to access the educational materials they need. In fact the free internet access in the Library can be a vital service to people who might otherwise have  access.

Although I am a big fan of technology, many people are surprised to find that I have not yet embraced eBooks. I thought I would use an Android tablet that I received as a present for reading eBooks. Although I initially read a few eBooks on the device, I found myself in the situation where I could easily gain free access to paper books, but I had to pay substantial costs to have the slightly less convenient experience of reading the electronic version  those books.

Therefore I was very excited to learn a few weeks ago that Fingal library had added eBooks to their range of offerings. To access the eBook lending service you go to their eBook portal and sign in with your library card number and PIN number (this is the same PIN number you use to log into the regular library web page). If you don't have a PIN number then you can get one by calling in to your local library.

When you start using this service you could be initially a bit confused because this is not a web site run by Fingal Library service as such, instead you are accessing a global web site OverDrive but the cost of your access is being covered by Fingal county council. I am not sure exactly how the financial details work, but luckily I don't need to. I suspect that the books on offer to me are a selection bought by Fingal library service rather than a global selection because there seems to be an unusually large number of books with themes of Irish interest. The service is quite easy to use and any problems I did encounter were easily solved with assistance provided by the operators of the Fingal Library page on Facebook.

The eBooks in the library are available in two different formats. One format is compatible with Adobe Digital Editions which is usable on your computer. The other format is compatible with the OverDrive reader application which is available for a wide variety of mobile platforms. I used the OverDrive Android version on a miScroll tablet and found the reading experience to be very pleasant. I also installed the application on my phone - while the software worked perfectly, I can't imagine I would read an entire novel on the small screen of my phone.

There is a version of the OverDrive application which works on Amazon Kindle devices, but apparently the OverDrive site has placed restrictions which stop books borrowed from libraries outside the USA from being read on the Kindle. I can't see the logic behind this unfair regional restriction, but I guess I would get more worked up about it if I actually owned a Kindle.

When you borrow a book from the library you are free to read it on any compatible device you own, but you can't simply transfer the file from one device to another (which I initially tried to do). Instead you must download the book directly from the web site by selecting the "Get Books" option from within the application. I am not sure why this is necessary, but I assume it is something to do with ensuring you are not trying to bypass the usage limitations.

Each user is allowed to borrow up to three books at a time. When you borrow a book you can choose between a borrowing period of 14 days or 21 days. If you choose the OverDrive format you can return the book as soon as you are finished reading it, but with the Adobe format of the book you can't. This means that you would probably best to choose the shorter loan period because the book will be counting against your loan limit even though you have finished reading it. If one of your borrowed books has expired you can always download it again (unless someone else had borrowed it in the meantime). If you have not deleted the book from your library your stored bookmarks will be maintained.

What did I borrow:

by Dick Francis

I picked this first because I expected the content to be undemanding. I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable I found the  experience of reading the book, both in terms of the physical experience of reading an eBook and the fact that Dick Frances is clearly a very skilled writer. I did not know what the ending was going to be until I reached it, but I knew from experience that it was going to be a happy ending.
Breakfast with AngloBreakfast with Anglo
by Simon Kelly

The second book I chose was an account of the recent Irish property bubble as told by a property developer who was personally involved in the centre of the action. It was different from the previous book in that I knew in advance what the ending was going to be and that it was not going to be happy. Nevertheless I found it educational to see how things looked from the point of view of someone who was personally involved.

The last chapter was devoted to what lessons he learned from the experience. I know that hindsight is always 20:20 vision, but anyone considering getting involved in property speculation would be well advised to read this chapter.
If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your NameIf You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name
News from Small-Town Alaska
by Heather Lende

The third book I chose was different again. It was an account of what it is like to live in a small isolated town in Alaska. The author worked as an obituary writer for the local paper and the stories in the book seemed to be mainly derived from the information she learned while researching these obituaries. Irish papers tend to only publish obituaries for prominent people, but it seems that in Alaska they publish obituaries for all people who die. This meant that the stories described an eclectic selection of people who lived very different lives. 

It was ironic to be reading a modern format eBook about people leading an austere life with little access to modern technology, but overall I found it enjoyable.

In short, I really like this new eBook service. I don't think I will give up reading paper books yet, but I will definitely supplement my reading materials with regular borrowing from the eBook library.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The trouble with GRUB

Most Linux systems use the Grand Unified Boot Loader (GRUB) to control their boot process. In general this is a wonderfully simple but powerful system that allows you to easily define a menu that will be presented at boot time allowing the user to choose from a range of installed Linux versions to boot (of course most people have set up a default option which gets booted after a short delay if no other choice is made).

This tool is very useful for people who want to try out Linux, but want the security of being able to easily switch back to Windows if they regret the decision. Although GRUB doesn't officially understand how to control the Windows boot process, there is a well understood trick to allow you include Windows versions in your GRUB boot menu. Since Windows can only be booted from the first partition on your hard disk, you simply need to get GRUB to make the partition containing the version of Windows you want to boot look like the first partition and then GRUB hands control to the Windows boot loader to do the rest. Most Linux installers will automatically configure GRUB for you at install time with a choice of all of the different operating systems found on your different partitions, so you don't really need to learn much about how it works under the covers.

Every time you update your version of the Linux Kernel it is necessary to tweak the configuration files to include an entry for this new kernel, Luckily, the most recent version of GRUB (which is confusingly known as Grub2 although the current version is v1.99) has a great configuration system which includes scripts to automatically rebuild updated configuration files each time you install a new Linux kernel.

With such a glowing praise for GRUB, you might wonder why I entitled this post "The trouble with GRUB". However, there is one minor, problem with the way that GRUB works which is very annoying. The GRUB2 automatic scripts for building configuration files assume that the configuration files should be contained in the /boot/grub/ directory on the partition that the current version of Linux was booted from, but at boot time GRUB might look for a menu definition file in a completely different partition. For example I currently normally run Ubuntu Oneric (v11.10) on my laptop which is installed on partition /dev/sda5, but at boot time GRUB looks for its boot menu on /dev/sda3 (where RHEL 6 is installed) - this means that I need to remember to manually copy the grub menu definitions from  /boot/grub/grub.cfg on /dev/sda5 to /boot/grub/grub.cfg on /dev/sda3 or else I will continue to use an old version of the kernel.

This must be a nuisance to many Linux users and not just me. Does anyone know of an easy way to tell grub which partition should be used for storing Partition files? Even better does anyone know how the automated configuration scripts could be updated to figure this out for themselves?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Fantastic Dublin Science Hackday event indicates that ireland has a bright future

Crochet model of a red Blood Cell
The first ever Dublin Science Hackday was held this weekend in Dublin City University. The event was part of the Dublin City of Science 2012 celebration. This event involved teams of amateur completing challenging projects over a grueling 36 hours. I say amateurs as a compliment because although many of the participants are professionals, they completed in this event purely out of their love of science and technology.

I initially planned to take part in the event myself, but as I got closer to the event the reality of spending 36 hours of my weekend working on a hack began to scare me and I chickened out. Instead I attended the kick-off talks on the Saturday and then gave a few words of encouragement to the participants before I went back to my normal weekend activities. Luckily there was lots of status updates posted to the #dubscihack hashtag on Twitter so I could follow along with the excitement from home. I then returned to DCU on Sunday afternoon to see what had been accomplished. I found the participants very much more subdued (not surprising after 36 hours without sleep), but the projects were very impressive.

You can see all of the details of the projects completed here, of even watch the project presentations on Ustream, but the prize winners were:
  • Best use of Government Data went to the YPath project which developed an application for children to track their physical activity.
  • Most interesting Use of Data went to the Financial Market Sonification project which produced an audio stream which provides an audio stream that represents a summary of the activity in the market so that traders can have ambient awareness.
  • The Hardware Award went to the Aurora Lamp  which used LEDs to project information about the level of the Aurora Borealis activity.
  • The Design Award went to Open Stats Wiki developed a cool mobile application to allow fans to use their smartphone record statistics of a match the attended live as the action unfolds. This hack will have a bright future because there are many people who share an obsession with sport and an obsession with technology.
  • The People's Choice Award went to The Aurora Orrery project build a visualization of from where on the globe the Aurora activity can be seen.
  • Last but not least, the hBest in Show Award went to the Elements Trail project which built an augmented reality layer using Layar. to build a treasure hunt game based upon the periodic table
It is also worth giving honorable mention to:
  • Tríona (@triploidtree) completed who the CIYbio project (crochet it yourself biology) which involved  using crochet to build models of things to do with biology (to help teaching). I am not sure if it was useful, but the models were certainly cute.
  • μsic developed a cool application that mixed music listening with social networking.
  • The intermeter project projected the level of Network activity from the science hackday into a simple amp meter.
I think that Ireland has a very bright future when we have bright hackers like this. Well done to everyone who contributed to the event.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Hello! Hello! Can you hear me?

I believe that telephone based applications offer a huge benefit in terms of ease of use as compared with web based applications. However, many people don't even try to create applications with a telephone interface because they mistakenly believe that it is very hard to do. Now that we are on the eve of Dublin Science Hackday I decided it would be a good idea to tell people how easy it is to develop applications with a phone based interface by describing a simple application I developed myself.
 First, let me explain some of the background for why I developed the application. I used to work on the development of a computer telephony system. We were strong believers in the theory that it was important for the developers to get a good understanding of the end users' perspective of the system and so we encouraged all of the development team to use early builds of the system as much as possible.
Some of the Headphones I Use.
To be totally honest the experience was painful in the early days. Each time I made a call I knew there was a significant chance that the call would not be successful. Not only was there a chance that there was a bug in the latest daily build of the client which I had installed on my machine or in the server code which was also updated regularly, there was also a very significant chance that there would be some problem with the volume settings on my headset. Most headsets have hardware volume controls and/or mute options on the headset and these controls might not be set properly to interact with the volume settings on my laptop's operating system - and because I carried my headsets around in a bag with other hardware they frequently suffered physical damage.
Because of all of these potential problems I often spend the first few minutes of a telephone meeting shouting "Hello! Hello! can you hear me?". If I was speaking to another team member I could expect them to be understanding of this wasted time and/or poor audio quality while I tested several headsets to find which was working best. However, when I was making an important call to someone I wanted to impress, I needed some way to be totally confident that all aspects of my telephony setup were working correctly.
Anyone who uses Skype is probably familiar with the "echo123" virtual user. This is a virtual Skype account that anyone can call and be answered by a pleasant sounding lady who will listen to what you say and then repeat it back to you as it sounds to her. I decided to hack together something similar that could be used with any telephony system. After a bit of searching on the internet I found the voxeo developers site which offeres excellent free resources to anyone wanting to develop voice based applications. Voxeo make their money from providing commercial grade voice response systems to mission critical systems, but in order to convince people how easy it is to develop a user friendly voice interface to their system they give developers free access to their powerful web based development environment and they will even host your application on their test servers so that you can test it out in action.
Voxeo support a number of programming languages including the industry standard VoiceXML. Developing a VoiceXML server is very complex, but the good news is that since Voxeo have done that you don't have to. Developing a voiceXML application is very easy (there are excellent tutorials on the Voxeo site to get your started). I was able to develop my application in under 30 lines of easy to write/understand XML. You can get the full source code here.
The way VoiceXML works is that you specify prompts for the system to play and then you listen for the user to say something (or type a DTMF tone on their keypad). You specify in XML what should be done with the response. You can see I have only one
statement and I use the text to speech function to generate the prompt (it is also possible to record the prompts for a more natural sounding interface).

The only complex line in my code is the one that reads
record name="R_1" beep="true" dtmfterm="true" maxtime="10s" finalsilence="1s" silence="3s
Translated into English this tag means:
  • Record what you hear in a file named R_1.wav
  • If you hear a DTMF tone, stop recording
  • Listen for a maximum of 10 seconds
  • If you hear nothing give up after 3 seconds
  • If you hear something then terminate when the speaker leaves a gap of 1 second or more
The rest of the application is just instructions to play back the recording to the user (or play an error message if we didn't hear anything). It then loops back to the start so that it gives me time to adjust my headset and see if it sounds any clearer.
Obviously real world applications could get more complex and if you try to recognize  what the user is saying it can get things hilariously wrong when the caller is not a native speaker. But the general idea is not too hard to master. In any case we only need to distinguish between when we hear something so that the "filled" tag applies, or when we hear nothing and the "noinput" tag applies.
If you want to try out the application you can call +1(617)963-0648  to get the version with this source code, or if you prefer the sound of my voice you can call +1(617)500-5332 to hear a slightly modified version where the prompts use a recording of my voice.