Thursday, 20 January 2011

virtualbox, procrstination and concentration

Like most people, I am highly skilled at finding sources of distraction, and as we all know our always on world is great at providing these - email, google reader, twitter, and the rest.

And of course there is a fine line between speculative research on a topic and aimless surfing - serendipity can be both a wonderful and distracting thing.

Getting work done requires structure to your day, and while setting an hour or so for email is fine on the weekends, it's not the answer during the working day. Sure I knock off most of my email, twitter and RSS feeds in a concentrated bursts first thing in the morning, but we all know the world doesn't work like that, which means you end up sitting with a set of tabs permanently open in your browser with email, nagios and the rest running just in case something important happens.

They're a distraction - just like a rat in an operant conditioning experiment there's a natural urge to respond to the ping of email in case it brings rewards or punishments.

So, just recently, I've started a new trick. It's astoundingly simple and very productive.

Let's assume that most of your work is web based and that all the documents you need to work with are on a range of web accessible stores (Google Docs, Skydrive, Dropbox, OneNote). Let's also assume that a decent editor and a word processor will satisfy most of your work needs.

Here's my trick, with the aid of virtual box, build an Ubuntu vm. It has Firefox, Open office, gedit etc out of the box and adding abiword, kwrite, or GUI LaTeX tools is straightforward. And it is of course network enabled. And Firefox is just Firefox, meaning Google Docs, OneNote and the rest work the same

Start your VM in full screen mode. Providing you can maintain the discipline to not connect to twitter, email and the rest, you can sit there happily, access the resources you need and work on the document you need to get finished and upload it somewhere. And if you need to flip over to your normal buzzing environment to respond to a phone call, you can.

It does also mean that you have to be disciplined about organising material, be it clippings in OneNote or saving pdf's of relevant web pages in a structured way - no bad thing as it allows you to build up a good set of supporting documents, hopefully with a bit of annotation.

Basically, it's called being systematic about things.

It's the electronic equivalent of closing the study door. Utterly simple, utterly productive ...

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Martha Lane Fox and the 98 pound pc

News that the UK is to try to get the last nine million or so internet refusniks online by offering them recycled pc's running ubuntu for ninety eight pounds a pop.

Good luck. Reusing recycled pc's is a good option - it worked sucessfully at York university where the students set up a scheme to resell ex university machines to needy students. That worked well because he machines were all very standard corporate machines using standard motherboards, network cards and the like and were on the whole the product of a single manufacturer - meaning that there was always a supply of spares to replace dead hard drives, mother boards, network cards, monitors and the rest. The other thing is that while perfectly usable, especially when coupled with Linux, older machines are worth zilch second hand as they often lack the power to run more modern operating systems, eg windows 7.

As I proved to myself with the $83 machine and ppc imac of blessed memory is that older hardware is surprisingly useful.

So you would think I would be cheering this innovation. I'm not. I think it's a great scheme, but there's a slew of problems that need to be addressed:
  • older hardware is less reliable than newer hardware. Simple fact of life. It's one thing for me, who allegedly knows about this stuff to spend a thursday evening replacing a dead video card and installing the drivers for fun, another to do this commercially - and it will be a commercial service as most people either don't know or don't want to do this.
  • maintenance provision requires standardisation. Believe me I know, I've run a hardware support service. Unless you control the specification of the hardware closely you end up with a nightmare and supporting several different video cards, motherboards, monitors etc. You need to ensure that you have a very small choice of components so that anything replaced is identical with what was there - plug'n'go 10 minute maintainance
  • Operating and system maintenance. - Don't do it. People install weird things and do stupid things. (I know of a computer centre director who, in the days of dos, deleted io.sys and as they didn't appear to do anything useful). If you must - offer an option to reset to a standard configuration from a recovery cd
  • You need to decide first up what to do about network provision and support - internet services cost money, and it's no use doing cheap hardware if people can't afford an adsl service. Equally you've got be assured that the network service is reliable
So how would I do it?
  • Do a deal with microsoft, google or whoever to provide people with an email account and a few GB of online storage out of the box
  • Do a deal to provide a cheap basic adsl service with again a few GB monthly allowance in the box
  • Get my sums right - work out if by buying cheap new hardware I can get my support costs down so that the TCO is less than using recycled hardware with higher support costs. UK universities managed to do this with pc maintenance getting it down to a few percent of the cost of the machine
  • Bundle linux, but provide people an option of an ookygoo interface if they want, automatic backup scripts, and perhaps access to service like Google Docs or Office Live
  • Make it cheap over three years. Ninety eight pounds is a great price point but it's no so great if you end up having to add the cost of internet, maintenance etc. Ten quid a month all in for three years is probably a better deal.
  • Make the service easy to use - and this is where cloud based services are good, especially when combined with automatic backup of the users data. That way you can probably get away with offering a swap out rather than a repair service
  • Offer an option for a second data backup disk in the box for heavy users. That way if the hard drive dies they have a backup, and all you need to do is move the drive across. People care about their data, not their machines.
  • Be prepared for people to call you rude names. You won't get everything right and they will. Providing a decent empowered helpdesk system is worth it. That way people have confidence that even if/when you stuff up, you will fix the problem for them

Clouds and resilience ...

The floods in Brisbane were a bloody awful mess. And one of the consequences was neatly summed up in this anonymised tweet:

All UQ Library servers on both DR sites being shutdown due to flood and power cuts.. Hopefully this will push the case for UQ going cloud.

Now, I don't know, but I'm guessing that UQ had a classic dual data centre design with a machine room in two geographically separate locations, both of which got flooded. They are not the only institution to operate such a design and universities are prone, in these cash strapped times, to use in house facilities rather than moving their backup facility to some properly geographically separate location several kilometres away rather than just the other side of campus.

Of course there are no guarantees in this world and you could simply have bad luck and choose a backup provider that also went out of action due to rain, hail, flood or a plague of demons.

Cloud initially seems attractive as an alternative due to its distributed nature but you need to be sure about what you are buying - for example is your data replicated to multiple locations for resilience or is it just out there in on a server in Ktoznayetistan? If the latter you, havn't gained a lot more than having it replicated to a server a few hundred kilometres away.

For example, when I was on the steering group for the UK mirror service in the 1990's data was held at Kent and Lancaster universities and replicated between the two, with a bit of load balancing logic to stop sites being overloaded. The net result was near perfect uptime for the service if not for the individual sites. Adding a third site would have made things even better.

And the key was real geographic separation such that major local events could knock out one site but the other would keep going. You don't need cloud to do this - although using cloud is a valid approach - what you want is decent replication and geographical separation - which isn't cheap as you have both network traffic costs and storage costs to consider.

And of course, if you move all of your data to the cloud you want to be damn sure that it's in to non adjacent locations at all times, it rains in Ktoznayetistan as well.

But data is well, just data. With out the execution devices, ie the web servers and data base servers that act on the data to provide content management, websites, institutional repositories, mail services and the like all you have is a pile of expensively replicated ones and zeroes.

Now most sites have multiple servers with a bit load balancing doing critical jobs, and these days most are virtualised meaning that they can be run on someone else's infrastructure just as well as yours - just add some load balancing logic.

There are companies that will provide hosting services, otherwise known as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), but again it costs money, but as the old UK mirror service experience shows it does deliver performance and resilience, but remember what you are paying for is simple resilience - meaning you need to clearly understand which servers you need to replicate and why and the consequences of not replicating those you choose not to replicate. And, because they are in a dynamic load balancing configuration you need to understand that there will be network traffic charges and general running costs.

So Cloud can be part of the answer, but is not the answer. Peering possibly is a better answer where groups of universities, who all run broadly similar services on broadly similar hardware get together and provide both data and execution hosting for each other ensuring reasonable geographic separation, say so that you both had data and execution in three places, say Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide, or Kent, York and Glasgow. But remember, you can have cheap, or resilient, but not both ...

literacy and counting things

some time ago I blogged on literacy as the child of accountancy, the argument being that if you start to need to count things, be it how much grain and oil you have stored, or how many men you can reasonably call on in case of conflict, you need a means of recording this, and that means literacy, as seen in the Minoan greek stock taking lists from Knossos, or indeed the 'Catalogue of Ships' from the Iliad.

The Senchus Fer nAlban is such a text - as well as listing the genealogies of the Kings of Dal Riata it lists the territorial divisions, of Dal Riata and how many boats (seven benchers - even gives us an estimate of the size of early Gaelic galleys) and men can be raised in case of raiding or conflict, and indirectly an estimate of population.

We of course see a similar sort of thing with the Mercian Tribal Hidage, which again could be used as a basis for tax assessment or an army levy, and interesting for what they tell us about the organisation of a society, not just in terms of individual units, but in general organisation.

We lack substantial records from the early medieval period in the British Isles - no charters to speak of, and a few battle poems, giving a view of society being ridden by conflict and disorder.

The times may have been insecure but the existence of these documents suggest that there was more organisation, planning and structure than previously thought ...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

tablets vs netbooks

Well, 2011 is being touted as the year of the tablet, on the back of the quite phenomenal rise of the iPad, with a slew of models, mostly running Android, being announced. At the same time Lenovo has speculated that the rise of the tablet will see the end of the netbook.

Not quite true. Asus's original Eee netbook was a game changer. Low powered, light, versatile, cheap. Made an ideal second computer to take travelling, especially given its use of SSD in place of a conventional HDD. The use of a linux based operating system meant that it could provide reasonable performance on fairly low powered hardware.

In fact I thought that this might spread a mainstream adoption of linux but it was not to be. While manufacturers jumped on the netbook bandwagon, they either went for a dumbed down linux interface or a version of XP or Windows 7 that had the effect of turning usable hardware into what was a low performing and limited laptop.

This probably made a lot of people's netbook experiences less than optimal. Yes, sure they were a bit cheaper than a full laptop, but the environment wasn't quite so rich, and performance was a bit less, yet at the same time the hobbled linux interfaces seemed to restrict flexibility.

In short, a missed opportunity. Provide an interface of the quality and sophistication of Ubuntu 10.10, and people who want a lightweight machine would be pretty happy.

This of course begs the question - who wants a lightweight machine?

The ipad experience is instructive. The iPad is a content access device - ie you can surf the web , read blogs, ebooks and the like, but it's aimed a content consumption rather than content creation, be it blogging, tweeting, serious email, writing documents and the like. Unlike a dedicated device such as an ebook reader, which is optimised to do one and only one task well, the ipad is designed to allow a range of content consumption based activities.

A netbook is on the other hand a general purpose computer, one that can run software that allows you to do interactive work. While you can of course course use it purely as a content consumption device, its general purpose nature allows you to run any program compatible with the host operating environment.

While both the ipad and the netbook have been touted as cloud access devices, ie devices in which the majority of applications used would be cloud based - eg gmail, google docs, windows live, in the case of the netbook this didn't turn out to be the case due to the use of operating systems that were designed as stand alone and didn't need always on connectivity.

Ipads are a purer case with all these applications that poll the web for content - the iphone/ipod touch model, and while they can be used offline, they don't really shine as offline devices. So while you can use a netwbook without a network connection or occasional use of a 3G modem an ipad really needs pervasive network access, either over 3G or wi-fi.

And this is an important distinction - a device like an ipad can seem an ideal second computer - lightweight, easy to take to meetings preloaded with the meeting papers, and having some capability for browsing and email. But it does assume connectivity.

However, the ipad has virutues of its own as a serious as opposed to recreational device.

Without wanting to seem sarcastic an ipad can seem an ideal replacement for a pile of A4 and a notepad, or even a PalmPilot - enough capability for diary checking and the odd email, plus the ability to do some background fact checking - exactly what you need for meetings.

Laptops tend to be a pain for meetings - the screen orientation's all wrong, they're bulky, they give people something to hide behind, and tap away doing their online shopping if you're being boring. Netbooks are no better. In fact in some ways they can be worse, with smaller screens and poorer battery life.

On the other hand if you need to take extensive notes, work in a library, and carry the damn thing about with you a netbook comes into its own. You can write extensive notes easily, cross check material on the web, use the library catalogue, email, blog, tabulate information on a spreadsheet, and do a whole lot of things.

But then how many people need to do this? Not everybody. Probably fewer people than who want to just check the news, and read a few blogs or an e-book on the way to work. And given the startup costs to make these things its not surprising that manufacturers want a share of the tablet market. If they get it right they'll sell a truck load of the things and be able to charge a premium.

On the other hand a netbook is always going to look like a cheap lightweight laptop.

Friday, 7 January 2011

university grade inflation

Over in the UK, the Telegraph has been becoming exercised about the dumbing down of university degrees - grade inflation in other words, where more an more people are given a higher grade.

And while one expects a degree of variation year on year long term one would expect that the ratio of firsts to upper seconds to lower seconds would remain roughly constant over time.

Now in one sense this doesn't matter. Having a degree shows that you have read and understood a lot of complex material and produce sensible conclusions from it, and acquired a range of discipline appropriate skills, some of less use than others - in my case the stand out for long term uselessness was being able to hold a rat with one hand while colour coding its tail with the other.

After you graduate, no one is ever going to ask you to colour code rodents, discuss the use of religious imagery in Tudor writing, or use formal methods to prove an algorithm. Employers on the whole want to know if you're clever and well read and can say interesting things. (Oh, and have a definite work ethic). And after ten years or so it doesn't matter a damn if you've got a degree or not, or where you got it from.

Mind you having that bit of paper that says that you have a 2:1 from the University of Poppleton does help open doors initially - or not depending on the reputation of the university concerned. And that is really all a degree is - a bit of paper that says 'this person is probably competent, reasonably literate, and has some knowledge of x'. The degree class is not terribly relevant, after all if you're recruiting someone for a marketing job you probably care more about their time producing drama, or organising student protests, than what their actual degree was.

Of course things are not so straight forward. Employers do like to claim that their staff have better degrees from better universities, if only due to the vague feeling that they make better employees long term.

So, if most people have high scoring degrees we will see that employers (and most people do go to employment) start looking for other discriminants, such as professional certifications, MBA's, and so on, so that they can say we have a highly qualified workforce with above average qualifications - and therefore a better more flexible workforce.

This of course, is a delusion on their part, as actually they are trying to recruit people who look as if they can do the job, fit in, and possibly put back more than they get out of the job. After all very few recent graduates have ever done any 'real' middle class style professional work.

And that's even true of the professions. Most lawyers end up doing jobbing conveyancing and wills, most medical doctors end up doing fairly routine medicine. Mostly they need to be highly competent and practiced and know how to spot a problem - and that comes from experience, not qualifications or where they studied ...

Thursday, 6 January 2011

sometimes online isn't best

As I'm sure you've noticed we've just had Christmas.

Exchanging gifts is part of Christmas, but if you've family overseas you've got to be a bit organised about it, including buying and posting things well in advance.

Well this year we weren't, and by the time we realised we needed to do something it was too late to go and buy things that would post (arty calendars usually) and then pay a small fortune to Australia Post to send them airmail with any hope of them getting there in time.

So we thought laterally - Christmas cards were ordered and sent via Moonpig who posted them in the UK, and calendars were ordered via Amazon in the UK.

And some of them got there and some of them didn't. One of the ones that didn't was intended for my father who has recently moved to a flat in a sheltered housing complex which has a concierge on duty, in other words there is always someone there to sign for things.

And while it's in a small town in rural Scotland it's not a difficult address to find.

Now because we knew about the bad weather in Scotland we tracked the package, and the tracking site wasn't updating, which is a bad sign. And sure enough, a couple of days ago, a month after the order Amazon emailed us to say that the address was undeliverable and they were refunding our money.

No, not true. My father's flat has a street address, a postcode, and look at it on StreetView should you want to. What it meant was that the delivery company used had given up.

Now, I'm not blaming anyone. Amazon has acted properly in refunding money, and I appreciate that in one of the worst winters in years, it could genuinely have been the case that when the delivery company tried a delivery run the truck couldn't get through.

(I'm being charitable. Once when we lived in York there was a fuel tanker driver's strike, which genuinely meant delivery trucks couldn't get anywhere for fear of running out of diesel. We were due to take delivery of some furniture from Habitat which they were going to send us direct from their warehouse outside of Oxford, rather than via the local store.

I remember being phoned up on the day we were supposed to take delivery by this posh sounding woman who said that they couldn't possibly deliver anything as 'we lived in the north'.)

So a lesson learned. Next time click on the 'use Royal Mail' button next time when ordering stuff from Amazon in the UK for delivery to friends and family in the UK, for despite their foibles and sometimes outrageous charges neither Australia Post or the Royal Mail have ever lost a package, or if they have, they've found it again, like the package of books that for some unaccountable reason came via Stockholm and Cape Town.

And the same goes for the US Postal Service, Canada Post, La Poste, and the Spanish, Thai and Indian postal services.

None of them are cheap, but they're reliable, if occasionally a tad slow.

Of course one of the problems with online retailers is the cost of shipping. Basically, when you buy online, either domestically or from overseas, you need to be assured that you will actually receive the goods. And a reliable service costs.

That's why, when we're having our debate in Australia about people avoiding GST by buying from overseas, instead of focussing on the GST free sticker prices we should think about comparitive costs, which is why when I've done my quick and dirty book price comparisons I've always included shipping costs.

Shipping is a service. Just as when you go to a physical store having a sales assistant help you buy a set of headphones is a service. Now compare the quality of service that you get in most stores....

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Having fun with Sighelm

Between them Sighelm and Michael Wood have a lot to answer for.

Just before Christmas I'd come to the following conclusions about Sighelm and his journey to India or not:

  • Sighelm the bishop was probably not old enough to be the person Alfred instructed in 883 to take alms to India, but Sighelm the ealdorman was. Nothing precludes Sighelm the bishop travelling in Sighelm the ealdorman's party.
  • The pilgrim route to Rome was well known and well travelled
  • Most pilgrims to Jerusalem took ship from Italy rather than travelling overland
  • There was a flourishing spice trade via Alexandria to Kerala
  • Some early medieval pilgrims travelled via Alexandria and St Catherine's monastery to Jerusalem
  • There was (possibly) an established pilgrim route via the Gulf to Kerala from Jerusalem for nestorian christians
Which has led me to conclude that Sighelm could certainly have made the journey to India following the sea borne spice route he could well also have gone via Judea and followed trading/pilgrimage routes to Baghdad and the Gulf.

To do any more I need more knowledge about christian pilgrimage in the pre-Islamic middle East and christian communities in the east after the advent of Islam. The presence of a community of St Thomas Christians on Socotra in the tenth century is interesting and, there may have been others on the coast of Yemen and Somalia that have left no trace.

Equally the establishment of a monastery and xenodochia at Sir Bani Yas in Abu Dhabi is provocative and suggests that people certainly were travelling that way. And where there's one xenodochia there should be others.

And I was happy to leave it at that, and perhaps occasionally poke at it in a dilletante-ish way. I'd learned a lot and felt happy with what I'd learned.

And then between Christmas and New Year I picked up a second hand copy of Michael Wood's 'In Search of England' as light reading. Bad choice. Wood of course is seriously interested in late Anglo Saxon history and had material that had me scurrying to the library in my lunchtime (one of the joys of working for a university) to follow up on Anglo Saxon links with Pavia, which is a whole set of other interesting stories and problems, eg the formation of early medieval states ...

As I said I'm having fun with this ...