Monday, October 14, 2013

My Love/Hate relationship with my new Mac

Slightly over 10 years ago I bought an Advent home computer in PCworld. It really served us well and never gave any real problems especially once I upgraded it from Windows XP to Ubuntu. However, I recently decided that I should upgrade to something more modern and I decided that I needed to splash out an buy reasonably good hardware if I expected this new PC to last as long as its predecessor.

I was advised by friends to consider buying Apple. I don't have very happy experiences with Mac-OS, but my Mac loving friends tell me that I just needed to be more patient and once I learn the oddities of Mac-OS I would eventually fall in love with it.

I briefly considered buying an iMac 27", but I balked at paying almost €2k for a PC. Eventually I settled on buying a Mac mini and a separate ASUS 27" screen which reduced the price down to slightly over €900. Having the screen and PC in one unit is handy, but didn't justify doubling the price. Overall I am quite happy with my purchase, but my opinion of Mac-OS has not really been a love affair.

I really only have two problems with the new system
  1. I have an old HP OfficeJet 4500 which  should be capable of printring, scanning and faxing. However, due to a long standing fault in the paper feed mechanism it only works as a scanner. Linux just calls this a generic scanner and it works fine. Mac-OS recognizes it asa HP Officejet 4500, but even when I download a special driver from the HP web site it refuses to work (a helpful error message "internal error"). 
  2. The computer refuses to suspend when I select sleep from the system menu, but at least it does suspend OK based on an inactivity time.
However, there are also some features of Mac-OS that continue to annoy me e.g.:
  • There are a well documented set of control key combinations which are almost universally implemented in every computer system (e.g. crtl-C to cut, ctrl-V to paste etc.) It seems that Apple hate following any standard that they didn't invent themselves, but these key combinations are too well known to be ignored so they compromised by implementing them, but not with the control key. Instead they implement these with another key whose name that I don't know (it is in between the control and alt keys). This is OK once you practice using a Mac for long enough, but I still make the mistake of expecting the control key to work the same that it does in every other operating system.
  • Likewise the middle scroll wheel on the mouse works the wrong way on the Mac. I know that Apple probably claim that there is some reason why the way they implemented the mouse scroll button is better than everyone else, but anyone (like me) who uses more than one type of computer will hate when they don't go with the consensus,
On the plus side I find that there are normally more help documents online for Mac than there are for Linux.

I am a pretty persistent guy so I will stick it out a while longer before I take the nuclear option and install Ubuntu on my new system.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Can you really learn all about Spotify in 10 minutes?

When I was in the library a few days ago I spotted a book with the catch title "Teach yourself Spotify in 10 minutes". I had been using Spotify for the last few months and thought I knew how to use the service already - but then I though "why not invest 10 minutes of my time to really learn how it works?"

The title of the book is slightly misleading. Although it is really little more than a booklet it still took me about half an hour to read. (A5 sized and about 160 pages in length with much of he space given over to pictures). Nevertheless I was delighted with the valuable stuff I learned.

I initially signed up for Spotify as a replacement for the Pandora service after they changed their policy and decided that Irish residents would not be allowed to use their service any more. I assumed that Spotify would be a direct replacement for Pandora - and I wasn't disappointing because it fulfilled this role fully. However, after reading the book I realized that Spotify has loads of features which Pandora doesn't (e.g. music sharing, 3rd party applications etc.) and so I was only using a tiny fraction of the service that I paid for.

I strongly recommend this book to any Spotify user. Even if you can't borrow it for free from your library it still costs slightly more than one month's subscription and after reading this book you will get much more value out of the service you are paying for.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Why I won't be sorry to see the seanad disappear

At the moment Ireland has two parliaments, but tomorrow we will hold a referendum to decide if one of them should be abolished. I am in favour of the abolition and this post describes why.
  1. The Dáil is roughly the equivalent of the English House of Commons and its members are directly elected in a pretty conventional election process with single transferable voting. This parliament has all of the normal powers you would expect to make laws and appoint governments etc.
  2. The other parliament Seanad (or Senate) has virtually no power and is roughly equivalent to the English House of Lords. It is elected by a complex and slightly bizarre method:
    • The bulk (43) are elected by an electorate which consists of members of local government groups e.g. county councils and city corporations. These positions are normally filled by politicians who unsuccessfully went for election to the Dáil (the deadline for nominations is set to be after the result of the Dáil election is known - hence the public perception that they are essentially rejected or second best politicians.
    • 6 members are elected by graduates of either Trinity College Dublin or the National University of Ireland (3 each). At the time when the Seanad was formed these were the only universities in existence. Over the year, graduates of some of the newer universities have occasionally complained about the unfairness of it - but in general nobody gets too worked up about it because nobody cares enough about the Seanad to get very worked up about it.
    • 11 are directly appointed by the incoming Taoiseach. This means that the party with a majority in the Dáil is almost guaranteed to also have the majority in the Seanad. By tradition the Taoiseach's nominees have included some well respected public figures who were not associated with the government party, but this is only after they have appointed enough party members to ensure that they have a safe majority.
Much criticism has been made of the fact that the Senate electorate are effectively the elite and privileged members of society. Of course, when the state was initially founded this was the intention. The idea was to form a second chamber which would have a larger influence from the protestant elite (who were more likely to have a university degree)  which formed during British rule and to moderate the more extreme influences of the uneducated masses. However, I think that this motivation hardly makes sense in modern Ireland (I don't have statistics  but I imagine that Catholics and Protestants have broadly the same chance of having a university degree today).

The Seanad has effectively no real powers to influence legislation  In theory they can delay the passage of legislation, but this has rarely ever been used. Therefore it is effectively a debating club. While I agree that some senators have contributed to public debate, these senators are a minority and in any case we could rectify the loss by asking the newspapers to provide better coverage of the debating societies that exist in all universities.

Nobody really supports the current Seanad, but the debate has included many people who argue that we need a second chamber to provide more debate and they would argue that we should keep it, but reform the election process. This might make sense - but nobody has proposed a realistic proposal for exactly how the reform should be done.

The campaign in favour of abolition has been mainly focussed on the potential financial saving, estimated to be €20m. However, I don't think this is really a large amount of money and it would be good value for money if it really improved out law making process (but as I said earlier it doesn't so I think I will be voting for its abolition).

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Microsoft is doing to much too late

Companies who fail to adapt to new market realities are often accused of doing "too little, too late". However, in the case of Microsoft I think they may be a case of doing  "too much, too late".

Until recently Microsoft had a virtual monopoly in the market for operating systems and productivity software that ran on Desktop PCs. People who were technology aware tended to favour either a MacOS desktop (which its fans claimed as being so much better that it justified the extra cost) or Linux (which is available for free but is rarely offered pre-installed on new PCs). However, there was (and indeed still is) a market for people who don't want new features and would prefer if the interface stayed the same as the one that they fist learned to use over a decade ago. In order to defend their monopoly position Microsoft made minimal changes to their software and put a top priority on backward compatibility which ensured that they appealed to people who did not want to learn any new interface.

In the last 5 years or so it became clear to Microsoft executives and anyone else observing the computer industry, that the desktop is becoming less important. In order to appeal to this new market Microsoft developed Windows mobile and then Windows v8. This was a brave move because, although these interfaces have received good reviews from people who have put the effort into learning them - the interfaces are very different from earlier versions of Windows and hence they force Windows users to learn something new.

I personally know only one person who has a Microsoft windows based phone - although he tells me that he grew to love it once he invested in learning the unconventional interface. The only thing I hear about Windows 8 based desktops is enquiries from people who are technical laggards asking if there is any way to downgrade from the version of windows 8 which came with their new PC.

I applaud Microsoft for their bravery to experiment. However, they have already lost their fans among the technical elite because of their slowness to innovate. With Windows 8 coming out I feel that they might also be set to lose their fans among the sizeable portion of the public who don't want to learn new technology.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Monitoring my Heart

I recently acquired a blood pressure monitor from Lidl. I find that the readings vary considerably depending upon when I measure it. This encouraged me to dust off my Polar Bluetooth heart rate monitor which allows me to monitor how my pulse varies as I take part in various activities.

I find that when I go running my pulse goes up to 145-150 BMP and stays there for ~4 minutes before falling back to 120 BPM for the remainder of the run.  When I use the cross trainer, my pulse climbs to roughly 170-180 BPM and stays there.

Interestingly when I meditate, my pulse stays level around 85-90 BPM. I think this is an indication that I am not very good at meditation, because this is higher than my normal resting heart rate of 75-80 BPM. If I were a Zen guru, I should be able to bring my pulse down very low while meditating.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The SPAM comments are back again :-(

I had a problem with SPAM comments some time ago. After trying a few defence mechanisms I finally settled on forcing people to log in. Recently I saw a revival of the SPAM comments. Of course this time I know the identity of the people leaving the stupid comments. I would threaten to leave junk comments upon their blogs - but this would not deter them (they might welcome the extra traffic).

 At the moment I am deleting the SPAM comments shortly after they are left, but if the problem doesn't go away I might be forced to introduce comment moderation.

 As they say It is an ill wind that blows no good. While I was deleting the SPAM comments I noticed that my home weather station has been off line since 14th of August. Hopefully I will be bringing it back on line again soon.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

A good vision for how a Smarter Electricity grid might work

Although I have blogged a lot about smarter-electricity, I have also gone on record as a sceptic about the benefit of eliminating electricity monopolies. With the current archaic electricity infrastructure there is little to be gained by introducing competition into the market. However, this recent presentation bu Amit Sheth paints a picture of how the grid might work in the not too distant future. This has converted me to a fan of competition in such a smarter electricity grid.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A really interesting new robot

In recent decades, the field of robotics has advanced  from science fiction to practical industrial use. Nobody is surprised when they visit a modern factory and they see a robot doing much of the repetitive and specialised work. However, it is only relatively recently that robots are becoming mainstream in homes. The Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner is popular-but often more for its novelty value among geeky owners than for its really practical usefulness.

I was very impressed to see a recent proposal from a small company names Matia Robotics for a robot which effectively replaces a wheelchair. I think this is a very practical use that many people would be willing to spend money on.

The following video explains the details of the device. I don't really know any more about it other than what is contained in the video, but apparently it looks like a major improvement over a conventional wheelchair for people suffering from spinal cord injuries.

They have a FAQ page on their site which answers many questions that people might have. They are not shipping units yet, but they are taking advance bookings which are expected to ship before the end of 2013 and will cost about US$15,000.

I know that this is quite a hefty price, especially when compared with manual chair (prices counted in the low numbers of hundreds of dollars) - but it is probably fairer to compare this with a motorized wheelchair whose price would already be counted in the low thousands. Hopefully the price will comedown considerably once the large volume manufacturing starts.

Friday, July 26, 2013

What it feels like to be a victim of Online crime

I normally like to view the internet as a fairly benign and safe place, but I have been a victim of cyber crime  three times in recent years. I don't think this will have a major impact upon my habits, but I suppose it is natural that it will make me a bit more cautious online.

Here are the details of the incidents:

I normally only use eBay to buy items, but a few years ago I was getting rid of some old gadgets and decided to see if I could sell them via eBay. Shortly after I placed the items for sale I got two emails enquiring about details of the laptop that I had for sale. This puzzled me since I wasn't selling any laptop. Shortly after this I got an email from eBay customer support saying that they were suspending my rights to sell on eBay due to suspicious activity on my account.

I still am not sure exactly what happened, but I think that someone was advertising laptops for sale on eBay such that the payments would go to the criminals and the irate customers would contact me when the laptops never arrived. I changed the password on my eBay account, and while I have never suffered any more fraud on eBay this is mainly because my bad first experience dissuaded me from ever selling anything on eBay again. In any case, if I did try to sell something, I am sure my seller reputation rating would be very low

Around the same time also suffered when somebody gained access to my Skype account. At the time I had set up a facility whereby my Skype credit would automatically get topped up whenever the balance fell too low. I would normally only need to top up my account every few months and so I was surprised to be notified that it was topped up twice in two days.

I investigated this and found that someone was making lots of calls from my account to phone numbers in the UK and Nigeria. Since none of these calls were to numbers I recognise or know, I assume they were fraudulent. I was keen to stop this and so I immediately changed the password on my account (it was already an obscure and hard to guess password)  and cancelled the instruction to automatically top-up so that my exposure would be limited to the current balance. This stopped the flow of calls being charged to my account.

I tried to make contact with Skype customer support to inform them what happened and have them investigate further. However, they showed no interest in making any enquiries. I am surprised at this because I would assume that the people involved ate still defrauding Skype customers. The amount of money I lost was not very significant, but I must admit that my opinion of Skype and their security controls was damaged by the way they reacted (or failed to react) to this incident.

Earlier this month some malicious individuals gained access to my Twitter account. I am not sure exactly who gained access, but it seems that they used the access to send some strange Direct Messages with links to malware to my Twitter followers.

The first I knew about this was while I was out in a pub with a friend and I started getting messages from friends querying why I was sanding such strange Twitter messages. I decided to postpone investigating until I returned home, but when I got home I already had an email from Twitter customer support  saying that they noticed suspicious activity on my account and had disabled it. The email had a helpful link to instructions on how I could change my password and re-enable my account.

Overall the impact on me was relatively minor and I must say I was impressed with the speed and efficiency with which Twitter dealt with the issue.

I took a few lessons from these incidents:
  • Malicious people will try to gain access to your online accounts even when there is no direct potential to steal money with this access (e.g. Twitter).
  • Different online companies have a very different level of reaction to abuse of accounts on their system.
  • When you are a victim of fraud, you can end up being seen by companies as of dubious honesty. This is just a sad fact of life.
  • It is always important to stop malicious people gaining access to your account, but it is more important if their is a potential for this access to cost you money.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Cycling around the Ring of Kerry

Last weekend I took part in the 30th annual Ring of Kerry Cycle. The distance of 180km was the longest cycle I have done, but it did not feel very tough because of the lovely weather, the beautiful scenery and the fact that I was cycling in the company of over 8,500 cyclists of varying levels of fitness.

The most famous participant was the Taoiseach Enda Kenny who gave an excellent example to all Irish people that it is possible to find time for exercise. I bought the commemorative jersey which is quite attractive and even includes a map of the route in case you forget.

The terrain was relatively flat apart from one significant climb over Molls Gap near the end of the route. I took it quite easy (average speed just over 22km/hour) and as a result I didn't have any aches or pains the day after.

Someone told me that whenever someone completes the ride it is inevitable that they come back every year afterwards to repeat it. I think they are probably right.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Initial Design for my SmartHome project

I have prepared an initial design for my Smart Home. The first version of the system will simply be able to detect the temperature in the house and turn the heating on or off.

I chose this design on the basis that I should concentrate on a single use case at first. I also wanted to make maximum use of the equipment I already have installed (all the items in green are already installed and only the items in white remain to be ordered). I also have a number of redundant communication paths because this is advised in the Insteon whitepaper.

As always, I would welcome feedback from people with more experience in this area.

Next week I will be adressing the Intelligent Systems Summit hosted by University of Ulster in Derry/Londonderry

Here is the content I will present.

I hope to travel up and back by train, because a colleague told me that Michael Palin declared that the trip between Belfast and Londonderry is the most scenic in the British Isles. It should also be more relaxing than driving.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

How and why our intellectual properties became ludicrous

Most software engineers agree that the current laws covering intellectual property rights in our business are a disaster and impossible to implement. However, we should remember that nobody ever set out to design the system this way, it just evolved based upon a different environment which existed when the laws were being drafted.

To understand our current laws we must look back to Shakespeare’s time. Back then there were very few laws that protected the creative works done by William Shakespeare and his contemporaries. As a result they had very little financial security and had to rely upon the generosity of patrons.

It was of great benefit to the English language that subsequent authors felt free to re-use passages of Shakespeare's work with out fear of litigation from his heirs. However, most people felt it was wrong that he was not getting financial recompense from his creative output and so a series of copyright laws were enacted. These laws evolved over time, but they all maintain the principle that the author retains rights to control anything they create for a limited time after which the work reverts to the public domain.

As well as protecting publications, many countries felt that they needed a legal protection for inventors. One of the big differences between inventions and creative works is the fact that there is no inherent reason for inventors to publish details of their inventions. The initial patent laws granted inventors total control of their inventions for a period of 10 years in return for the inventors publishing a detailed description of their invention that others could follow after the protection period expired.

The basic idea behind patents has still been retained in modern laws, but the main area of change has been in relation to the length of the protective period. Currently patents last for 20 years, but there has been much debate about this in relation to medicines.
  • On the one hand, 20 years probably provides enough protection to allow the original inventors make a decent return on their investment.
  • On the other hand, it seems reasonable that 20 years after the invention, the consumers should benefit by having market opened up to competitors (who presumably would sell the medications at cheaper prices).
However the speed of innovation in the software industry is much faster than in the pharmaceutical industry. A 20 year exclusive right to implement an invention is a long time on the internet. In fact things move so fast in the software industry that parallel teams are coming up with similar ideas while the original invention disclosures are still being evaluated by the patent office. As a result companies find that they are accidentally infringing upon patents that they had no way of finding out had been already filed. There are many examples of patent trolls who try to make money by extorting money out of technology companies rather than by implementing any technology themselves. This practice has much in common with Mafia protection rackets and needs to be stamped out whenever possible.

The copyright system works pretty well for the software industry because software programs are similar in many ways to books.  Nobody begrudges commercial companies the chance to control the programs that they have developed at huge cost. However, the patenting system is not working as well.

NB - I should emphasise that what I have written here is my own personal opinion and not the opinion of my employer IBM. IBM's position is that they are currently the most prolific user of the patenting system, but they are also actively campaigning for reform of the system.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Equipment for my SmartHome project arrives

This week I took delivery of an Indeon SmartHub and a Raspberry Pi model B. Both of these will play a key role in transforming my home into a SmartHome.I don't have a detailed system design yet, but I think that the SmartHub will be the central controller and main web interface while the Rasberry Pi will probably become a media centre.

I already have most of the other bits and pieces (e.g. Arduino boards), but I am sure I will also probably need to make a few purchases - especially cases which will be required to make the system neat and tidy.  However, my initial observation was how differently these two different devices were packed for shipment. Although the devices are roughly similar in size when unpacked - the Raspberry Pi was simply packed in a jiffy bag and the postman was easily able to slide it through my letter box, but the Indeon device was packed into a box along with bubble wrap and this box was in turn packed into an even larger box so that I struggled to attach the large box to my bike carrier when I collected it from the post office.

If anyone with experience ins Smart Home projects has advice to share with me, I would be delighted to hear from you so I don't have to learn all of the lessons the hard way.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Completing my first Olympic distance Triathlon

I originally signed up for the Sprint distance at TriAthy, but when the races schedule was published I found that the sprint distance would not be held until the evening when I had a conflicting commitment. As a result I signed up for the Olympic distance instead.

The registration for this event closed at 8:30 am, so I was up and on the road from Dublin at 7 am. I was already excited before I arrived at the registration venue, but my adrenalin levels went into orbit at the sight of a beautifully decorated school filled with athletes preparing their equipment. I was dismayed by the length of the queue for registration, but the organisers were so efficient that it was no time until I was heading back to my car with race number etc. safely in my hand.

There is a lot of preparation required for a triathlon and so I didn't have time to draw a breath until it was 10 am and the race marshal announced that it was time for the competitors to line up behind a pipe band and march to the starting point. This was a lovely touch which added to the sense of occasion. I was delighted to meet a former college classmate and two work colleagues also lining up for the start and so I knew that even if I was crazy to be competing in Triathlons at my age - I was not the only one. The competitors were very friendly and offered lots of encouragement to each other.

We were soon under way and the 1,500 meter swim went much better than expected. I was surprised to find myself getting cramp in calf muscles towards the end of the swim, because I had not really been kicking my legs very much. I took it easy during the transition in order to give my legs a chance to recover.  This was  probably a good idea because I was delighted with my performance on the 40 km cycle. I used the tri-bars for most of the run and average marginally over 30 km/h. However, this did take a lot out of me and I limped home quite slowly on the 10 km run with plenty of time to admire the beautiful scenery along the River Barrow. The results are not yet available on-line  but I guess that I probably completed it in around 4 hours because I reached the end shortly after 2:30 pm and I was in the 4th wave to leave which meant it would have been after 10:30 and before I started.

I later found out that Leo Varadkar (the current Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport) was one of the competitors in the sprint event. I think that this is great example for a Minister for Sport to be personally involved in such an active sport. .

Overall I think this was a great way to spend a sunny June Bank Holiday weekend.  I overheard some experienced triathletes who said that if there was a prize for efficient organisation - TriAthy would be the winner. However, the pains in my legs the day after have convinced me that maybe I should stick to the sprint distance in future.

Update 12:30pm:  It seems that my tiredness caused me to be wildly inaccurate about my timing. When the official result was released it seems that I was closer to 3 hours (3:07) than 4 hours. This beats my expectations. Unfortunately they recorded me as 21 years old rather than 50.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What tool do I use for interacting with Twitter?

Because, I am a frequent user of Twitter, many people ask me what is my favourite tool to use. I like to be helpful, but the reality is that I do not have a single favourite tool and I use many different tools depending upon the circumstances.

Luckily Twitter keeps a record of the tool that is used to publish each status update, so I decided to write a tool which would automatically analyse my feed.

The following table shows tools that I used for the 1,000 most recent tweets from my account (ignoring the tools which were responsible for less than 1% of the Tweets each):

Percentage Count Tool
31.67% 317 web
24.38% 244 TweetCaster for Android
11.49% 115 foursquare
10.79% 108 LinkedIn
4.00% 40 Tweet Button
3.70% 37 HootSuite
3.30% 33 Facebook
3.30% 33 Twitter for Android
2.50% 25 NetworkedBlogs
1.60% 16 bitly
1.30% 13 Flipboard

Another thing that people sometime comment upon is whether Twitter is a broadcast service or a conversational service. So I also looked at what percentage of my tweets were replies to other people (8.7%). However, almost half of my tweets (42.8%) are accounted for by retweets of content originally Tweeted by someone else.

An academic once told me that my social networking style was "to collect interesting information and share it with my friends". However, a more honest explanation would be that I am lazy and it is much easier to click on a "retweet" button than to think up original content to Tweet about.

My colleague Andy Stanford-Clark was recently featured on a list of Tech Execs that smart people follow and so I decided to compare his activity to mine. More than half of his tweets (67.5%) were replies to other people and retweets accounted for only 10.8% of his tweets. Therefore it is clear that he uses Twitter as a conversational service more than I do.

He also used a much smaller set of tools to interact with Twitter. He only used 8 different tools (as compared to my 18) and over half of all of his updates (65.4%) were done directly on the Twitter web site.

Percentage Count Tool
65.40% 654 web
8.80% 88 Twitter for iPad
8.70% 87 TweetCaster for Android
6.80% 68 txt
5.40% 54 Twitter for Android
4.70% 47 TweetChat
0.10% 1 HTC Peep
0.10% 1 Tweet Button

It is also interesting that Andy is a much more prolific user of Twitter than me. I had to go back as far as 23/Nov last year (about 6 months) to get 1,000 tweets from my feed, while I only needed to 10/April this year (slightly over a month) to get 1,000 tweets from Andy's feed.

It would be interesting to a similar analysis on a wider sample of Twitter users, because I guess there is no such thing as a typical Twitter user.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Training for my second Triathlon

I signed up for my first triathlon last year to mark my half century. It went so well that I was confident to sign up for TriAthy this year. I didn't worry too much about my preparation, because the race wasn't until June. However, it just dawned on me that it is now only 2 weeks to the event and so the time is running out to ensure I am prepared. I did my first open water swim of the year today in Blackrock.

I am inspired to increase my dedication to keeping fit after reading the inspiring autobiography of  Gerard Hartmann's the renowned physical therapist. I new that he had been an athlete in his younger days, but I hadn't realized that he dominated the early days of the Triathlon sport in Ireland before his career was tragically cut short by a serious cycling accident.

I feel I am fairly well prepared for the cycling, because I am training for the Wicklow 200/100, but I think I still need more training for the swimming and running legs.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Draft slides for @3dcamp

Here is the first draft of the slides for my proposed talk at 3D camp in Limerick the weekend after next. Feedback and comments are welcome.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Seamless sharing between Linux and Windows

I am a big Linux fan, but sometimes my work requires me to work on Windows based machines. To do this I use the Remmina application to allow me to connect my laptop's screen, keyboard and mouse to the remote machine.

The main function of Remmina is to facilitate remote interaction through the VNC protocol for Linux servers and the RDP protocol for Windows servers However another thing that many people struggle with is the need to share files between the local machine and the remote server. This is possible, but can be tricky to set up. For this reason the Remmina dialog for setting up a new connection includes a simple check-box which allows you to specify that you want to share one of your local directories with the remote machine.

When you make this selection Remmina will automatically configure a SMB share for the directory for the directory that you selected. Then it connects to the share on the target machine so you will see a shared drive listed in Windows Explorer on your target Windows machine (see the example screenshot).

I am not aware of any tools for file sharing in the opposite direction (i.e. sharing files between a Windows Laptop and a Linux server). However, I would be very surprised if there were not several tools available to meet this need. Maybe one of the readers of this blog could post a comment with a link to such a tool.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tweeting about local weather conditions

I am quite proud of my personal weather station and the fact that it automatically makes reports available through a dedicated page on the Weather Underground site. However, until recently I was embarrassed to admit that the weather station didn't have its own twitter feed. Yesterday, I rectified this situation and I can now boast to my fellow geeks that the station is Tweeting hourly weather reports as @LLweather which is a new Twitter account I created for the weather station. In fact it is one of a large network of private weather stations in Ireland tweeting weather reports with the #iwn hashtag - this should not be surprising because most Irish people are obsessed by weather.

Initially I tried to write a short python script to do the updates, but then I discovered that this feature was already supported by the PYWWS package that I was using to upload the data to Weather underground. There were even clear instructions available on how to configure the software on their web site (I had to upgrade to v12.10 to get it to work).

After I set it up I was surprised to notice that the weather station was apparently giving weather reports about 20-25 minutes into the future. When I investigated I found that the clock on my Tonido plug was running alarmingly fast. I tried to set up the NTP deamon to keep the clock synchronised, but this proved complicated because the plug is running a very old version of Ubuntu. I corrected the time manually and will keep an eye on it until I get around to configuring NTP properly.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

How much do you need to pay for a bike computer

I like cycling and I like gadgets so I suppose it is not surprising that I consider that it is essential to have some form of bike computer to keep track of my speed and distance. Currently I am using simple bike computers on each of my bikes which I bought for €5.99 in Aldi.

Some of my cycling friends recommend that I should consider splashing out on a Garmin 500 series model. This would give me certain neat features not present on my current model:

  • It has built in GPS so as well as tracking my speed it can also record exactly where I was cycling.
  • It allows uploading of data directly to the internet so I can analyse my performance with neat visualization tools.
  • It connects with additional sensors to track things like my hear rate and cadence so I can judge how effective my training is.
However, these features come at a price. The Garmin model costs about €250 as compared to only €6 for the Adli model. Therefore I think I will stick with my Aldi computer for the moment. In any case I can use some neat free apps for my phone to track my training in addition to the bike computer.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The demise of Google Reader and Google Listen

Like many other people I was surprised to hear about Google cancelling two of my favourite tools - the Google Reader service for managing your RSS feeds and the Google Listen podcast player.  Apparently the reason given is that they could not see any way to make revenue from these products, but I would have though that the users of Google Reader would have been a gold mine of data in relation to what feeds are most popular through the number of reads/favourites/shares etc..

I like the simplicity of Google Listen and you can still install Google Listen, but only if you have  saved a link to it (it no longer shows up in search results). I occasionally find that Listen will crash at random times and since Google have cancelled the project they are unlikely to fix it (I wonder why they didn’t Open Source the project like they did with Google Wave),  As a result I have switched to BeyondPod as a replacement. Overall I find it reasonably easy to use - I have paid for the Pro version, but I don't think I really use any of the Pro features so the free version is equally good from my point of view.

Apparently Google Reader site will be shutting down in July, so while there is no mad rush to get off the platform, it is still a good idea to find some other tool to replace it. The consensus on the internet seems to be that Feedly is the best alternative - my initial experiences seem to back up that claim.

Monday, April 29, 2013

How big does your city have to be in order to make Sentiment Analysis worthwhile

I wrote earlier about a solution I helped develop which allows city leaders monitor the sentiment being expressed online about their city. As we present this solution to the leaders of various cities, one of the questions that is always asked is whether their city is well known enough to generate enough mentions so that the sentiment charts will be statistically significant.

The general rule of thumb we have been using is that a city must have a population of at least .25 million in order to make the tool feasible. The thing that matters is the number of mentions of the city online (we would hope for at least 5k per week) and many times (but not always) the population of a city can be a rough guide to how many mentions that are likely to be made. Therefore I decided to run a quick test to see how many mentions I would find for a pseudo-random selection of cities with both large and small populations (some of the smaller places were not technically cities) in the first week of April this year.

This table summarises the results:

CityPopulation Mentions/week 
Cergy-Pontoise   183,430235
New York19,570,261440,535

This can be visualised by the following chart:

I think you can see that there is a correlation between city size and the number of mentions (correlation coefficient = 0.83). You can also see that Galway is getting roughly enough mentions to make sentiment analysis useful despite only having a population of 75k, while Cergy-Panoise has more than double the population but is not getting enough internet mentions to make sentiment monitoring useful.

A few examples of where the city gets a number of mentions very different from what would be predicted for their population:
  • Both Bethlehem and Nazareth get many more mentions than would be predicted by their population (e.g. they are both mentions significantly more than Navan and Dundalk which have larger populations). This is probably due to the biblical significance of the towns - in fact this is why I chose them for inclusion in the test and I don't know the names of any other towns in the middle-east with such small population.
  • Where the name of the city in the local language was different from the name in English I searched on both versions of the name. In general the local language version received more hits (e.g. there were 6.5 times as many mentions of 北京 as there were for Beijing. However, for the Israeli cities it was the other way around. For example the word "Jerusalem" got 20,711 mentions while the Arabic and Hebrew translations of the city name only had 17 and 39 mentions respectively. Perhaps this is an indication that people in other parts of the world are talking about the city much more than the locals.
  • Cergy-Ponoise only gets 235 mentions,while Lorient gets 1,971 mentions despite having a smaller population. I am not sure why this should be the case, but perhaps it is due to the fact that Cergy-Ponoise is so close to Paris that local residents consider themselves to be Parisians. Lorient has no similar large city nearby to overshadow it.
  • The statistics will vary over time.For example,if I has run my test for the 3rd week in April rather than the first, the number of mentions for Boston would have been 1,893,159 rather than 111,035 - probably due to coverage of the marathon bombing.
  • In the case of some of the cities I chose, there are multiple cities with same name - for example, the wikipedia disambiguation page for Boston lists several cities with this name, but I only counted the population of the capital of Massachusetts (the population of the other cities would probably not be very large). 
  • Wikipedia sometimes has several different estimates of population because of ambiguity of how large an area to include. I only considered the first number listed(which is typically the smallest). In some cases the difference might be minor, but in others it would be very significant. For example the estimates of the population of Boston vary by an order of magnitude from 625 thousand to 7.6 million.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cycling in the Wicklow Mountains

Earlier this year I was persuaded to sign up for the Wicklow 100/200 cycle event. This event takes place in June and offers a choice of two routes, one 100km long and another 200km long. A 200km cycle would be challenging enough, but this route has the added challenge of passing over several steep climbs.Luckily you don't need commit to either distance when you enter and you are allowed change your mind at any stage until you come to the fork in the road where the two roads diverge.

I don't have much experience of cycling in the mountains so I am unsure how I would get on.Yesterday I rode over the Sally Gap for the first time. I found that I was not a strong climber and was constantly being dropped from the group as we went uphill. Luckily I had no problem catching up again when we came to a flat section, but it is looking very much like I will be opting for the 100km route in June. I will also need several training cycles in the meantime to ensure I complete it in a decent time.

View My Firsttime Cycling Over The Sally Gap in a larger map

Thursday, April 25, 2013

[xpost] Smasher now works with juniper firewalls

As many people know, I was the original developer of the smasher Sametime plugin for automatic BSO authentication. However, I have not been actively maintaining it in the last few years. The last update I did was in 2011 when I partially fixed a problem which stopped SUT and smasher working together. Whenever people ask for new features or bug fixes, I typically point them at the location of the source code and then politely suggest that if they really want their issue solved they should fix it themselves.
Recently the Böblingen lab announced that they were planning to replace all of their CISCO BSO devices with juniper ones. This caused a flurry of emails from German employees since neither smasher of any of the alternative tools work with the Juniper firewalls. I was not in a position to help because I don't have access to any of the new firewalls to test, Luckily Thomas Immel was kind enough to help out and he developed a new version 1.3.5 which apparently works with the new firewalls.
The new version of smasher is available from the same update site URL as before - I didn't get a chance to do any testing with this new version (I no longer use smasher myself), so just in case it causes problems for anyone the old version is still available at
I hope you enjoy (and send any praise or complaints to Thomas rather than me).

Sunday, April 21, 2013

To tri-bar or not to tri-bar? - that is the question

When I bought my racing bike through the bike to work scheme, I had 50 euro left over. The bike shop offered to give me a voucher for the unused money, but I was keen to spend it on some accessory. I asked the shop what I could get for 50 euro and I finally decided on getting tri-bars.

Tri-bars are extensions to the handlebars on a bike which allows the cyclist to take on a more aerodynamic position. They are called tri-bars because they are normally only used by participants in either a triathlon or an individual time trial.

The advantages of the tri-bar are:

  • The position of the cyclist is more aerodynamic so it is possible to cycle faster and expend less effort.
  • While using the tri-bars the cyclist will normally rest their elbows on soft pads which eliminates all strain on your arms or back.
  • You look really cool when using your tri-bars (this was probably the main motivation for me to purchase the tri-bars),
However, the tri-bars also have some dis-advantages:
  • When your hands are on the tri-bars they are quite some distance from the brakes, so sudden braking is not possible. Hence they cannot be used in traffic or when cycling in a group.
  • You have minimal steering control while using the tri-bars so they can only be used on straight road. In fact it is not even feasible to swerve to avoid pot holes while using the bars so they can't be used on poor road surfaces.
  • While it is more efficient to cycle with tri-bars, it takes some practice to get used to the different cycling position.
  • The tri-bars use up some space on the handlebars which reduces the space for attaching other accessories. 
When I initially started cycling on my new bike, I found that I hardly ever used the tri-bars and so I decided to remove them. However, when I started training for a triathlon last year I re-attached them and decided to make a concerted effort to learn how to use them. I still find that I don't use the bars very often, but I think that it is still worth having them because they don't get in the way very much when not being used.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mysterious growth in visitor numbers from China

Readership statistics according to Blogspot
It is now 3 years since I started this blog and so I decided to review the visitor tracking statistics. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was an apparent dramatic increase in the number of page views near the end of 2012.

This surprised me since I hadn't changed my blogging habits in any significant way. Therefore I decided to dig a little deeper. When I started the blog, I enabled Google Analytics tracking because the statistics provided by the Blogspot platform was much more limited. It turns out that the statics provided by each tracking platform were quite different and Google Analyitics doesn't see any  similar growth in visitors.

To understand why there might be a difference you need to understand that Google Analytics works by executing a snippet of JavaScript in the visitor's browser. Almost all browsers today support JavaScript soI would not expect many normal visits to fail to be registered. However, visits to the blog that come from automated programs won't register. It seems that there has recently been a huge leap in the number of visits to my blog that come from automated bots.

The other thing that has changed is the location that the visitors come from. When I looked at the location of my visitors from 2011 most of my visitors came from Ireland (which is not a surprise) and  I had no readers at all from China (I assume that this was because the great firewall of China was blocking access to the Blogger platform). However, I got my first visitor from China in 2012 and they now represent the a very significant proportion of the visitors (according to Blogger statistics, but not according to Google Analytics)

There is definitely something dodgy going on, because I don't think that I am suddenly popular in China. Perhaps this article from the BBC gives some clue.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

[xpost] No longer a reluctant blogger after 7 years

I recently got a note about the plans to finally shut down the old BlogCentral blogging site. This was the first internal Blogging platform deployed in IBM and although it is technically still active, in recent years employees have been encouraged to use the blogging service that is bundled in IBM Connections instead.

The old service currently gets very little traffic and so it is no surprise that the service will be turned off - however, since blogs can be a useful historical record there is a plan to migrate content from the old service to the new one. In order to reduce the load on the migration tool, the administrators asked all blog owners to review their blogs and to delete anything that they didn't think should be migrated.

This is the first social networking site that I ever used, so I was a little bit nervous to see what embarrassing rubbish I had been writing back then. I saw that my old blog was called "Brian's Braindump" to reflect that I wasn't sure what I wanted to blog about (not much has changed there), but I was surprised to see that my first blog post was entitled "A Reluctant Blogger", and it was published almost exactly 7 years ago. In this initial post I explained that I didn't really see the point in all of these social networking tools and that I was only establishing the blog due to peer pressure of colleagues telling me that this would be the next big thing and that I ought to try it out.

I suppose a lot has changed over the last seven years. While I might still struggle to explain my own motivation for using social networking tools, I definitely could no longer be described as a reluctant blogger. In fact I suppose that I have taken to the concept with the zeal of a convert. I wonder what I will be writing about in 2020 and what tools will I be using to write it?

Thursday, February 7, 2013 really works!

I am a big fan of the idea of applications that allow citizens to directly communicate with their local council. As a result I installed the FixMyStreet Ireland app on my phone which is a convenient interface to the web site which can be used to report issues to your local council. In common with similar services in other countries this is a deceptively simple application that automatically directs your problem reports to the appropriate council. Whenever, citizens spot a problem the most common reason given for not reporting it is that the person doesn't know whom to report it to. The beautiy of FixMyStreet is that it knows where to forward your report based upon what type of problem it is and where you are (it can use the location from your GPS to figure out which council is responsible for solving the issue).

My inner geek was keen to try out the app. However, I was reluctant to divert valuable council resources into fixing minor issues just so I could see whether or not the app works properly. For the last few months I have been searching for a real problem that I could report (there is never a pothole available when you need one).

There is a bridge that I needs to cycle across on my route to work each morning.  A few weeks ago I noticed a minor blemish in the road where somebody had dug up the road to lay a cable and had not repaired the road properly. Initially the problem was very minor, but the recent cold weather seemed to cause the material used to repair the road to crack and come loose. Gradually the problem became worse until there was a sizable hole in the road which made one entire lane impassable on a bike.

For a few days I got off my bike and carried it past the hole, until I suddenly remembered that this was an ideal opportunity to try out the app. Yesterday morning, I filed my first problem report describing the issue. Unfortunately I didn't properly save the picture. I suspected that the council officials would think I was exaggerating about the size of the hole so I decided to stop again this morning and update my problem report with a picture.  To my amazement I saw that the problem was already fixed.

I must publicly applaud Fingal County Council - even in this tough economic climate they are doing a great job of responding to complaints,

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bluetooth devices don't always admit all of their capabilities

The Bluetooth protocol is used to communicate between all manner of diverse types of device. In order to ensure that you don't try to do something silly like play music on your heart rate monitor, devices must declare which of the various profiles it supports. Of course it is becoming increasingly common for devices to be capable of multiple different functions and so the standard allows them to declare support for more than one profile.

The most common type of Bluetooth device, is a hands-free unit which allows you to make phone calls while driving your car without taking your hands off the wheel. These devices implement the Hands-Free Profile. These devices must be capable of outputting sound, so it should in theory be possible to use this device for listening to the music stored on your phone.

Unfortunately, many of these devices don't declare that they implement the A2DP profile. Perhaps this is  because the A2DP standard states that devices implementing this profile should be capable of outputting high quality audio and many hands free units have poor quality - but high quality is a subjective judgement which should be left to the user to decide.

If you have such a device, don't panic because  there is an android application called BT Mono which can solve the problem for you. It works by fooling your hands free unit into thinking there is a call in progress and then whatever sound you play on your phone will be directed to the hands-free unit.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Do modern smartphones support magic?

Arthur C Clarke famously declared "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Modern SmartPhones are certainly close to passing this test.

I recently upgraded my phone from a Samsung S2 to a Samsung S3. I didn't upgrade for the new features (it should suffice to know that I also invested in a screen protector at the same time), but I am still excited to learn how far technology has advanced in the year or so since I bought my last phone.

The one feature which really amazed me is that if I open a contact record in my address book, I can call it without even pressing the "dial" button. All I need do is simply hold the phone up to my ear and it assumes that I want to call the contact on the screen. To be honest I don't know how it works, but I was just prompted to enable this feature when I first opened the address book. I assume the phone's accelerometer can detect the fact that I raised it up quickly before holding it still - but as Arthur said all those years ago, it is hard to be certain that magic is not involved.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

WiFi Ruler - an essential Android App

One of the good thinks about living in a well developed country is that you can get mobile internet access most places. What is even better is the fact that, you will nearly always be able to find a café or similar establishment which is willing to offer free Wifi internet access. However,  one thing that really annoys me is that many of these free access points will require you to click on a button to say that you accept their terms and conditions of use. I understand that mostly they have been advised to do this by overly cautious lawyers, but it is really quite ridiculous because nobody ever reads those terms and conditions anyway and if you were tempted to engage in illegal activity you would hardly be put off by the need to click on a button.

The reason why this feature is annoying is because many people would like to set up their phone to automatically connect to certain WiFi access points when encountered. This saves you the bother of explicitly configuring your phone to connect to the WiFi service every time that you enter the café. However, if the café has a "clickwall" connecting to the WiFi is not enough to give you internet access unless you explicitly launch your phone's browser and click on the button. What is even more frustrating is that your phone will probably disconnect from your mobile provider's 3G service on the assumption that you don't need this when you are connected via WiFi.

Luckily I recently found out that there is an Android app called WifiRuler, which can solve this problem. It allows you to set up rules for what to do immediately after you connect to a particular WiFi service e.g. click on the accept point or enter your username/password. This application will stay running in the background and automatically accept the terms & conditions on your behalf. There is even a blog where you can get new versions.

There is a paid and free version of the application, but to be honest I am not sure what the difference is.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: The Seven Deadly Sins

I have previously made my position on Lance Armstrong quite clear - I believe that he is a hero and I don't think particularly highly of the people like David Walsh who have spent so much time hounding poor Lance about his drug use. It is not that I believed that Lance never used performance enhancing drugs, it is just that I didn't think it was a really big deal since apparently practically all of the leading cyclists use such products. Therefore I probably would not have bought this book, but since I received it as a Christmas present I enjoyed reading it. I suppose it is always good to read materials which challenge your assumptions.

The sub-title of the book is "my pursuit of Lance Armstrong" and the cover photo shows a silhouette of a cyclist in racing gear. This makes it quite clear that the author thinks of himself as a hero. I was personally put off by the implication that his persistence and dedication in sticking doggedly to this story over the years is somehow comparable to the dedication required of a professional cyclist.

The first thing to note is that the book is very well written. David has been a journalist for many years and clearly knows how to lay out the narrative in a way that is quite gripping.  He really described the life of a sports journalist very well, even if I think he has an overly high opinion of the importance of his profession.

While I previously thought of David as a virulent anti-drug campaigner, it is clear from the story that he started out quite ambivalent on the topic and only developed these strong opinions after observing the effect that drug use was having on professional cycling. As I read the book, I also found myself constantly re-evaluating my own attitude towards drug use in sport.

However, while the author eventually becomes convinced that this is clear choice between right and wrong. He thinks that drug abuse in sport is a terrible cancer which must be fought at all costs, but I still think that there is a lot of moral ambiguity in this story. For example, David is gushing in his praise for Betty Andreu and the role that she played in bringing down Lance Armstrong - but I think the morality of her actions is very questionable.

The quick summary of her story is that she and her then fiancé Frankie Andreu (who was a professional cyclist) were visiting Lance Armstrong in hospital while Lance was undergoing treatment for cancer. She claims that she overheard Lance tell doctors about his use of performance enhancing drugs (in answer to the standard question "what other medication are you on"). Betty subsequently repeated this story to David Walsh when he was researching a his book LA confidentiel. Lance still claims not to remember this conversation, but Betty is adamant that she heard it because it caused her to tackle her husband Frankie about his own use of performance enhancing drugs. I tend to believe Betty accurately recalls the conversation, but I have serious reservations about the morality of her repeating it. Even according to her version of events, the doctor asked her to leave the room before he interviewed Lance, but Lance said it was OK for her to stay because she was a friend whom he felt he could trust completely. Admittedly Lance was particularly vicious in his treatment of Betty once she publicly spoke out against him, but I can hardly blame his for being annoyed that she would betray his trust in this way.

As I read this book it became clear that Lance Armstrong is ruthless in pursuing his goals. I suppose that this should not be surprising since he could not have won so many bike races without a ruthless determination to train and win. However, it was scary to read how ruthless he was in dealing with public relations. He went to great lengths to discredit anyone whom he saw as an enemy - especially if that person was a former friend (e.g. Greg LeMond). No doubt psychologists would have a field day analysing how this attitude arose from the tough environment in which he was raised, but this is outside my field of expertise.

Overall I recommend this book to both Lance Armstrong fans and detractors. It is an entertaining read and also a book which makes you rethink your attitudes - what more could you expect in a book. Clearly it was a very good choice of Christmas present - thanks!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Looking for a Triathlon swimming coach - any tips

One of my proudest achievements last year was to complete a Triathlon. I did it shortly after passing the half century mark and it definitely helped me feel like I will have many productive years alive ahead of me. Therefore, I decided that I will complete one or two Triathlons again this year.

I am not necessarily aiming to be fast, but I do want to make sure I am able to comple the course. I am reasonably confident that I will be capable of finishing the cycling and running legs. Unfortunately, I am not as confident of the swimming leg - typically I need to stop a few times to catch my breath and check direction. I think it would be a good idea for me to team up with a formal swimming coach for a few sessions. Does anyone have any advice for me on who would be a good person to go to for advice?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Young Scientists in action again

January is often a dull month after the excitement of the Holiday period, but in Ireland the highlight of the month for me is always the Young Scientists exhibition. This years event is kicking off today and I can see that there is a great batch of excellent projects on display This gives me great confidence in the future of the Irish economy to see young people with a great enthusiasm for getting involve in science and technology projects.

I will be helping run the IBM stand on Saturday afternoon and I am looking forward to viewing the projects myself in the morning. The IBM stand will feature a number of exhibits -  I will be involved in showing off the power of the scratch programming environment which is a popular programming environment for young children who are learning to code for the first time. I also believe that there will be a stand representing the CoderDojo movement so we will have a chance to see what young Irish coders are capable of acieving.

Best of luck to all participants!