Craig Box's journeys, stories and notes...

Shouting into the void

September 27th, 2015

Every now and then, kindly sends me an e-mail announcing a new version1 2 That reminds me that I do actually have an active WordPress installation, and a moderate obligation as a citizen of the Internet to make sure it's not being abused to send "make money fast" e-mails mine Bitcoin.

Much has changed in the five or so years since I was a semi-regular blogger. I still read a lot (on Google Reader and then Feedly, but mostly both through the Reeder app), but it seems feeds are almost as irrelevant as blogs are today. I'm still mostly a completionist. I eagerly await the weekly arrival of The Digital Antiquarian. I tweet a reasonable amount, but bitrot had kept the "recent tweets" on this blog locked in 20123.

I've tried to sort out some of the most obvious bitrot, but various plugins I used to use don't work any more through the passage of time, or won't update due to server configuration. Reading back through a couple of pages of posts I find links to sites that no longer exist, domains that are now being squatted, photos removed from Flickr4.  Do I delete those, fix them, or ignore them?  To bring the content up to date it could well take a good couple of days; add a couple more to move it to Google App Engine, in an "eat your own dogfood" sense, and then more still to file the bugs I would expect to uncover.  The other option would be a site like Medium, who does all this for you, where you trade off control for overwhelming attention to typography.

In the earliest days of the Internet, I had two web sites which I lament the loss of - one on GeoCities, which I can't find a record of the name or number of, the other on my own domain name (in 1996!).  On the other hand, the BBS I used to run is safely archived on a CD at my parents, which I assume is gradually losing its phthalocyanine dye coating and probably suffering a similar fate.

The debate about online advertising continues with the release of iOS 9 and content blockers, and the news cycle around Marco's quick change of heart. Many people rewrote his post, adding nothing new, in order to gain attention and something to sell advertising against. The only polite, non-tracking way to make good money online — which I have no desire to do, let me be clear — seems to be native advertising, either by having a large audience and selling sponsorships, or having a niche topic and advertising things that that audience might want by virtue of reading that niche. God bless those who do the latter. I already mentioned the Digital Antiquarian: I equally enjoy London Reconnections, who have an audience so niche they will still buy a paper magazine. These publications will survive.  Many of the people whose bottom-feeding livelihood is threatened by ad revenue they might lose probably deserve to go.

It's easier than ever to get started writing today, but harder to have something to say. The audience for my writing here has ranged from "my close friends, who will get the in-jokes", many of which I've lost touch with since leaving New Zealand eight years ago, to "people who might want to hire me for my work with technology" for various technologies that I no longer use, no-one uses any more, or are now my employer's competition.  Most writing of this type has moved to Facebook, in which case, you end up being "content" for someone else's advertising machine.

Anyway, that I've written all this clearly means I'm procrastinating.

Is there anybody out there?


  1. I love that it says "If that was an indiscretion you'd rather forget" as it's unsubscribe footnote. 
  2. I had to look up the markup for footnotes. 
  3. I tried to use Google to show the cached version, but apparently I have a robots.txt blocking that. More bitrot. 
  4. If you do anything where you expect longevity, especially where you link to other content, it seems like mirroring it yourself is a good idea. 

Title of Record

June 29th, 2012

Londoners take their titles very seriously. Filling in my name on the TFL's web site's "Contact Us" form, my options for Title are:

  • Ms
  • Mr
  • Mrs
  • Miss
  • Dr
  • Cllr
  • Prof
  • Sir
  • Not given
  • Air Cdre
  • Ambassador
  • Baron
  • Baroness
  • Brig Gen
  • Brother
  • Canon
  • Captain
  • Cardinal
  • Cllr Dr
  • Colonel
  • Commander
  • Count
  • Countess
  • Dame
  • Dowager Lady
  • Duchess of
  • Duke
  • Earl
  • Empress
  • Father
  • Fleet Admin
  • Gen
  • Gp Capt
  • Hon
  • Hon Mrs
  • HRH
  • Imam
  • Judge
  • Lady
  • Laird
  • Lieut Colonel
  • Lieutenant
  • Lord
  • Madam
  • Major
  • Major General
  • Marchioness
  • Marquess
  • Mayor
  • Pastor
  • Pc
  • Prince
  • Princess
  • Rabbi
  • Rev
  • Rev Dr
  • Revd Canon
  • Rt Hon
  • Rt Hon Baroness
  • Rt Revd
  • Sergeant
  • Sheikh
  • Sister
  • Sqn Ldr
  • Viscount
  • Viscountess
  • Wg Cd
  • Other

They list HRH, but not HM?  Surely, it's not unreasonable to assume that the Queen has complaints about service on the Underground?


Three months with the TouchPad

December 4th, 2011

I first started writing this post on 2 September 2011. It was going to be called "three days with the TouchPad". I'd like to say that my opinion has changed substantially over the three months since then, but for that to have happened, I would have had to spend serious time with the device.

I haven't.

Last time anyone in our house tried to use the TouchPad it got thrown on the couch in disgust1 On the contrary, our iPad is happily used every day. Is this just a case of "you get what you pay for"?

The story so far

I fought my way through the broken websites to purchase an £89 HP TouchPad when they cleared their stock at the end of August. I couldn't be sure that Carphone Warehouse had stock for all their orders, so I was overjoyed when mine turned "dispatched" later in the week. Then, it never arrived.  I wasted hours on the phone with CPW and Yodel (cheap courier of choice for "free delivery" everywhere), who claimed it had been delivered, when no knock had ever graced my door. The driver only spoke Bulgarian, and intimated (through a translator and wild hand gesturing) that he had given it to someone who had come up from the stairs below us - an empty flat.

I had all but given up on the delivery when, after the weekend, our neighbour came over and said their housekeeper had collected it on Friday and had it the whole time.


Eventually, thanks to people like me, the TouchPad ended up getting 17% of the market!

Of everything that wasn't the iPad.

(So, more like 1.8% then.)

And remember, I very nearly wasn't a member of that club, as it seemed very unlikely that Carphone Warehouse would have been in a position to give me another one, had the first one not surfaced.

The TouchPad was an impulse buy, as we already owned an iPad. I had opted for middle of the range - the 32GB with 3G.2 At clearance price, my iPad cost 7 times more than the TouchPad, but remember that the original retail pricing for a comparable device was £399 for HP vs £429 for Apple.

With all that in mind, here's a collection of thoughts about the TouchPad today. It is not a review: if you are interested in a review, albeit one from before the fire-sale, go read what Shawn Blanc wrote. The experience has hardly changed.

The good

I came into TouchPad ownership with a very open mind, based in part on my ex-colleague Sergei owning a Palm Pré and not hating it. Also, everything I read about webOS online made it seem that it was designed, where Android was mostly congealed. (My apologies to Douglas Adams.) Further, I wanted webOS to be a success, because I like to use systems that feel like they are consistently designed throughout, and I didn't think it would be good for the world if iOS was to be the only relevant platform for which that was true. We are in the odd position today that Microsoft has replaced Palm as the loveable underdog: Windows Phone (and possible Windows 8 for tablets) has taken the mantle of "mobile operating environment which actually has some moden design principles applied, rather than just copying iOS", which surely must provoke some cognitive dissonance for all the people still bitter about how Microsoft stole everything from the Mac.

I only made one note from three days after unboxing: "It is really handy to have the number keys on the keyboard all the time". It still is. I suppose there are other nice things, depending on your point of comparison. Notifications are good, in general, though I really don't care that each web site I visit exposes a search endpoint, so I don't appreciate that the TouchPad displays me a notification for each and tries to add them to the search.

Grasping at straws, I still like the card metaphor, though not as much for multiple tabs as for multiple applications. And the things that were good about webOS on the phone, such as the integrated contacts, are still good here, though not as useful. The only other thing I noticed in a quick look through the menus is that it has Beats Audio, which I like to think makes me one step closer to Dr Dre than most. I don't think I've ever actually tried to make the thing play audio in order that I might notice a difference.

The goblin

How long after the horse died is it acceptable to still be flogging it?

The TouchPad is slow, out of the box. Nerds like me can make it faster with - wait for it - syslogd and kernel patches, and even overclock it if they feel the need. (I didn't.)  The iPad 1 still runs rings around it in everything - even though the iPad has half the CPU cores at a much lower clock speed, and one quarter the RAM of the TouchPad.

It has a handful of apps, but not enough to retroactively justify the purchase to me, even at £89. If I go to my Applications list, I have a beta Kindle reader, which I had to side-load as it is US only: the best Twitter experience is something called "Spaz HD Beta Preview 2", which is both award-winning and open source, though apparently named by the people who came up with "The GIMP". In fairness, it's not bad, it's just not up to the experience which is available on any one of the great Twitter clients for other platforms. And with the on-again off-again abandonment by HP, surely most of those who came into the TouchPad did it eyes-open, knowing the chances of it ever developing a good app ecosystem were not high.

Most of what I do on a tablet is web browsing, and so even if it had no apps but did web browsing brilliantly, it might be redeemed. It doesn't. It has Flash, which really just serves to make YouTube worse. Maps are horrible, scrolling is slow and sluggish, and clicking doesn't normally hit the link you want it to.

Physically, it feels cheap, due to the plastic back.  It is a good weight however.

The purchase

In my mind, there were three groups of people who wanted to buy a TouchPad at fire sale prices:

  • People who wanted a "tablet" (iPad), but couldn't afford or justify one at market (iPad) prices
  • People who wanted an "Android tablet" and figured that a port couldn't be far away
  • People who liked webOS and actually wanted a TouchPad to use webOS on it

I was in the third group, but I also suspect that was about 1.8% of the people who actually got the device.

If you were to compare the experience on a £89 TouchPad vs. whatever else you could legitimately purchase for £89 - how long were the queues for the Binatone HomeSurf 7? - it seems like a no-brainer. If there was no chance that the tablet were ever able to run Android, I don't think it would have sold nearly as quickly. At the time of writing there is an alpha-quality CyanogenMod release of Android for the TouchPad, for developers, rather than end users. With the recent release of Android 4.0, it's likely there will be a reasonably good upgrade path for the application story, and on this kind of hardware Android should be about as good as it is on any other kind of hardware.

I bemoaned this fact when I came to buy it:

Three months later, has my attitude changed? Somewhat. I simply don't want to own an Android tablet. (Neither do many other people, as we established before.) Would it be better on this hardware than webOS? Probably. Ask me again when 4.0 is released for the TouchPad - I don't think the attempts to shoehorn Android 2.x onto tablets have done hackers any better than Samsung.

I don't think there can be any argument that the fire sale was a dumb idea, and HP's CEO eventually paid the price. Would I have paid £200 for this? No, but they would still have sold out at that price.

The summary

First world problems much? Our two tablet household isn't as good as it would be if we had an iPad each. Sure. I knowingly bought an £89 gadget to have a play with, and I suspect I could easily get that back if I wanted to sell it. Alternatively, if either of my brothers read my blog, I might be convinced to post it to them for Christmas. Over time, I think I might find a use for it - if I could pick up the Touchstone dock-slash-stand, I think it could make a great digital photo frame.  Even if all it ever did was be an LCD Kindle, it was still a bargain.

But the crux is that neither of us ever want to use it. It almost got put in the cupboard today. Attempts to use it provoke disgust, throwing it back onto the couch, and getting up to find the iPad. There is really nothing redeeming about it.

  1. Fern later clarified: "It wasn't thrown on the couch, it was thrown at the couch. 
  2. If I were to look back on that purchase, I would say the money spent on the 3G was mostly wasted - tablet usage is mostly at home. The iPad spent over a year without a 3G SIM card, though it has one now thanks to Arunabh, who pointed out that T-Mobile have a remarkable 12 months free on an iPhone 4 PAYG SIM, and the iPad takes the SIM quite happily. 

Review of "Amazon Web Services: Migrating your .NET Enterprise Application"

September 23rd, 2011

Amazon Web Services: Migrating your .NET Enterprise Application
Rob Linton, Packt Publishing

(Review copy supplied by Packt Publishing.)

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is not a small topic. Just listed on their 'product summary' page are 28 different topics, most with an entire set of both product and API documentation behind it.

Condensing that into a book is not a trivial task, and it requires establishing a suitable narrative. This book has taken the angle of a ".NET Enterprise Application", and starts off well: a sample application, if a little trivial, is provided, and a goal stated to move the application from traditional server hosting to the Amazon cloud.

Good, but short, consideration is given to why you would put such an application in AWS rather than a platform solution. It then dives in to creating instances for deploying the application.

A book that takes you on a journey, as opposed to a general reference book, should not be afraid to make choices. Five pages are dedicated to the Import/Export service, which lets you post Amazon a hard drive. Shipping terabytes of data is a problem that users are unlikely to have up front - the book should acknowledge its existence, but it wastes time and confuses users by going in-depth on a subject which should be an appendix at best.

Similarly, Chapter 6 covers SQL Server, required for the example application, but then also covers Oracle, MySQL (RDS) and Amazon's key-value store SimpleDB, none of which are used or required. It is great to see that the notification (SNS) and queuing (SQS) are discussed in the context of how the application could be enhanced to use them, although using these services means you are "locked in" in much the same way you are on a platform service - somewhat undermining the point the book made in the beginning.

Many statements in this book are just plain wrong (such as not being hosted on AWS, or network (EBS) volumes being faster than instance disks - whole books could be written on this topic alone). Other sections of the book are have been made outdated as Amazon has rolled out improvements - the most major of which being the new license mobility options allowing the use of SQL Server Enterprise. While there is nothing the author or publisher can do about progress, there are occasions where the book is internally inconsistent - for example, referring to 4 regions in one section and 5 in another. In general, poor editing detracts from the reading experience.

One of the reasons Amazon is so much cheaper than regular datacenter providers is they allow you to build reliable solutions out of commodity hardware. However, this means you need to make allowances that are not at all discussed in this book. Deploying applications across availability zones is absolutely essential - Amazon is up-front in saying that they expect failures, which are widely reported by people who do not understand that AWS is not a traditional, expensive battery-backed-SAN-reliable datacenter. This book mentions availability zones, but doesn't show how to properly use them.

Redundancy is only briefly touched on - SQL mirroring and failover, possibly the most important topic this book could cover, is given two paragraphs and then offloaded to Microsoft. Even though there appears to be enough servers for a redundant architecture, the eventual service is riddled with single points of failure and there is no way that an application built to this model should be allowed into production on AWS.

Further, many best practices, especially those around firewalls, security groups and Active Directory, are described incorrectly, and are likely to lead to insecure or unnecessarily expensive deployments.

The author clearly understands both Windows/SQL Server and the basics of AWS, but taking 28 topics and picking out the important ones is a difficult task, and overall this book does a poor job of it.

Updating a manuscript to include new functionality means it would effectively never be published. The alternative is a 'living document', published online: hard to make money from, but guaranteed to be up-to-date. I am unlikely to bother reading another book on AWS.


Cloud pricing is hard

September 6th, 2011

One of the many benefits to cloud computing is the pricing model. Following Amazon's lead, any provider worth their salt lists their per-hour pricing on their website, and that is the price you pay, regardless of what you use.1 Gone are the days where you have to call for a custom price list, tailored for you by a man in a suit who is incentivised to charge exactly the maximum he thinks you will pay, no more no less. This means startups can get hold of scalable infrastructure at economies previously only available to the canny corporate negiotiator.

However, even in the automated, API-driven present, there are still different models for pricing which you can choose from. For example, Amazon has an on-demand price, reserved instances (pay up front to buy the right to run a machine for a cheaper rate) and spot instances (an instance market, where you bid a price and if the spot price is below that price, your instance runs). While spot instances sound like a curiosity for people doing queue-based distributed computing that can be started and stopped at will, James Saull points out they turn out to be an oddly cost-effective way to run your always-on infrastructure. You may not like the risk, and you are not getting the guarantee of instance availability that comes with reserved instances.

For the general case, once you understand what your infrastructure requirements look like on Amazon, you buy suitable reserved instances: you then save 34% or 49% on the cost of running the equivalent on-demand instance over 1 or 3 years.

Mull that over for a second. This morning, I came across a comparison of pricing between IBM SmartCloud Enterprise and Amazon EC2 (via Adrian Cockroft). I don't know a lot about the IBM cloud, but I do know bad math when I see it.

Lies, damned lies and estimated usage quotes

Amazon offer an online cost calculator. It's accurate, and always kept up-to-date, but admittedly it can be hard to use. For example, you have a small drop-down box at the top of the page which dictates which region you're in; if you are adding infrastructure in multiple reasons, it's easy to get lost.

The author of the IBM article, Manav Gupta, has obviously lost his way around the AWS calculator. His first estimate comes in at over $10,000 a month, as  "Amazon has included costs for redundant storage and compute in Europe". Amazon do no such thing. No data crosses a region unless you specifically request it - an important thing to note for compliance with data protection law. What is more likely is Gupta has started pricing his infrastructure in Europe, noticed his error, and continued in the US, without realising that AWS offers five global regions (six if you include the new US GovCloud) and you can easily provision infrastructure in all of them. In fairness, the IBM calculator seem to be much simpler; I can't find information on where IBM host their SmartCloud.

Quote 1 is replaced by quote 2, which comes in at $6370.62. Ignoring the obvious-but-insignificant errors (how does an application which does 20GB of inbound data per week do 120GB/week through its load balancer?) However, a quick look at the bill tab shows storage allocated in US-WEST, where everything else is allocated in US-EAST. Gupta's quote includes 7GB of S3 storage which is not mentioned on the post (or accounted for in the IBM quote). Not only that, it's charged twice: once in US-EAST and once in US-WEST! Assuming that's an error, I removed both allocations, and in order to be fair to what has been requested, added 300GB of snapshot storage for the EBS volumes to the correct page of the calculator.

Our new estimate - only correcting for errors, and without touching the compute cost - is $4211.90.

I've already beaten the published IBM price, but why stop there? As I mentioned above, sensible cloud purchasing almost always involves instance reservations. Because the pricing appears to have changed since the IBM article was published (I can't find a way to make IBM instances cost the same as shown in the calculator screenshot), I can't tell what reservation was used (if any) in the initial calculation. However, IBM offer 6- and 12-month reservations on a 64-CPU pool, with the note that "reserved capacity may not be economically attractive with the low monthly usage you have selected above".

Let's go for a 12 month reservation on AWS, in case our habits change. (And if they do, remember that reserved instance pricing can apply to any instance in the same availability zone on the same account.)

Our monthly cost has dropped to $2738.04. We do have an up-front reservation cost to pay, but if we amortize that over 12 months (as IBM does in their calculator) we are down to $3420.54 per month. Why not throw in Gold Premium Support? It's only another $341/month.

With regard to Gupta's criticisms about not having a PDF export on the Calculator, I find it easy enough to hit "Print to PDF" on a web page myself, and the fact I can export these quotes and publish them on this blog, far outweighs that hassle.

On the topic of software licensing

Pricing is even harder when you have to factor in the price of licensing. In fairness to IBM, the quoted Amazon costs do not include Red Hat Linux licenses. However, I suspect the only reason they were included, aside from IBM being a Big Support kind of company, is that commercially licensed software (RHEL, SUSE, Windows) is the only option you have on SmartCloud Enterprise.

If you want to run Oracle applications on EC2, why not run them on the freely-licensed Oracle Enterprise Linux? Or the most popular operating system for the cloud, Ubuntu Server?

Alternatively, if the requirement for Red Hat Linux is hard-and-fast, then there is an option to run Red Hat on-demand with Amazon EC2. Reserved instance pricing is not currently available for RHEL, therefore you would be better advised to bring your own RHEL licenses to the cloud with Red Hat Cloud Access.

In the interests of full disclosure, the on-demand RHEL price is $4519.34/mo, vs the $4211.90 above.

Did I mention the "everything else?"

Amazon have defined the cloud computing marketplace - at least for infrastructure - with EC2. As Adrian Cockroft points out in his excellent write-up on using clouds vs. building them, no-one can even come close to the price and performance, let alone the global scope, of EC2. If I were building Manav Gupta's web application, I would have the benefit of resiliency by balancing the application between multiple Availability Zones, and the benefit of reduced maintenance by using RDS for the database tier. And the price would probably be even lower, too.

The cloud provides great benefits to those who can make their application fit its ways. This is not a trivial task - sometimes even working the calculators can be too hard. If you want help with this, I am the Head of Cloud Services at Stoneburn in London, and I'd love you to get in touch. (And follow me on Twitter.)

Update: Manav Gupta has commented and provided a much neater explanation for why his first quote was vastly over-provisioned: there is a sample 'web application' option in the AWS calculator, which assigns a bunch of sample infrastructure over and above what was included in the IBM sample web application. The moral of the story is to ensure you are comparing like for like (as much as possible with differing size options between cloud providers) when making provider comparisons.


  1. Or, tiered options are clearly laid out, as with AWS data transfer. 


August 19th, 2011

Interesting week for mobile. Google buys Motorola Mobility, hp abandons webOS devices, and only six months after promised, Symbian Anna (aka PR2.0) is released. It's best feature? New icons. No, really.

What's in it?  Lots. Let’s break down the main changes section-by-section. There are the new icons, of course, but there’s a whole lot more under the hood.

The reason Nokia gave for not drastically overhauling the look and feel of Symbian in S^3 was maintaining a "familiar look and feel". Yet their most important change in their first major update... new icons. So long, recognition. They didn't even put the new Nokia Pure font on there.

Anyway. let's update my N8. Turns out, the update is not available over the air in the UK. One of the two distinctly different ways to invoke a software update on the N8 says there is nothing available, the other says I have to use Nokia Ovi Suite on the PC to update. Well, I don't run primarily run a PC, so I dig out a Windows laptop, install Ovi Suite, back up my phone, and... am offered three games, and no system update.

"Server is probably overloaded", the Internet says.

So next morning, I try again. Lo and behold, the system update awaits! Four small steps to follow. But I can't pass step 2 without a SIM card installed. I dredge out my NZ PAYG SIM (which appears to have expired, possibly taking my very old and very awesome phone number with it). However, apparently even a useless SIM is SIM enough for Nokia. Authenticate, back up (again), only to be told at step 3 that there is no update available.

Then, if I unplug the phone and plug it back in again, Ovi Suite tells me there are 9 updates, including applications, but the update screen says "Select the applications you want to install" and then offers nothing to choose from, and no active buttons except "Later".

Later, indeed. I had high enough hopes for this platform that I went to work for the Symbian Foundation, but with the lack of control we had over the platform, I'm not going to be pouring out any 40s in its memory any time soon.


I should point out that I'm not even using this phone any more: thanks to the generous Eiren O'Keeffe I'm currently borrowing an HTC Mozart, running Windows Phone 7. In general, and in comparison to the N8, it is fantastic.1 Data works reliably, mail works (without requiring a regular reboot), I can have both my calendars, etc, etc. I can't imagine how long it would take to get to this point with Symbian.

I still think it's too early to call if Nokia made the right choice with WP7. Symbian was obviously not going to get to Mango-good by November. The N9 looks nice, but it's running the abandoned half of Maemo, not the "Intel collaboration" half of MeeGo. Android was out. My friend Nez called it months ago: WP7 is OK. OK enough to sell Nokia phones when other manufacturers have the same software? We shall see. I have not been a fan of Nokia's industrial design of late, but I really do miss offline maps.

So far, the downsides for me of WP7 are the aforementioned maps, a weird bug where it wouldn't let me hang up once, and a lack of "official" apps. There is a free BBC News app in the Marketplace, with "This is a 3rd party application in no way associated with the BBC" on the front screen, but no actual BBC app. The Twitter app is passable, and apparently much improved in Mango.2 It's still hard to find third-party apps that are anywhere near as good as what you get on iOS, and especially hard to judge that from the Marketplace app on the phone.

There is an stolen-firmware update to WP7 Mango but I'm laying off installing it, expecting the official update will probably be out within a month. I somewhat expected it to beat Symbian Anna out.


Further RAGE: creating a ID requires a "9-50 character username" (one character longer than my first and last name concatenated) and a password with a maximum of 15 characters (counting out my regular password, "correct horse battery staple".)3

They also can't get their story half straight:

On the form: Must be 8 or more characters and contain a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters (A-Z or a-z) and at least 1 number (0-9).
After submitting: Invalid Password. Password is case sensitive with length between 5 and 15 characters. Password cannot be the same as the user name.

And then it didn't like my phone number.

And then the captcha, which had not changed all the way through, changed.

And then it mentioned, for the first time, a field I hadn't updated.

And then, after EVERYTHING WAS FINALLY ACCEPTABLE, "Your session is no longer active".

It disturbs me a little that I have very little positive comment to make about all this technology at the moment. Perhaps I should have used 'curmudgeon' as my Cisco username. That's over 9 characters.


This last one actually started out as a positive story, but quickly soured: I found that with Miray HDClone, you can take a Windows machine running on Amazon EC2 with an instance-store (S3) root, clone the disk to an EBS volume, and then attach that EBS volume to a new machine. Voilà, one persistent machine!

After applying 2 years worth of Windows updates, and for the first time ever, I actually found and cleaned malicious software with the Microsoft Malicious Software Removal Tool. Unfortunately for recovery purposes, getting "the Windows CD" on EC2 seemed a little harder than it should be - even a couple of ISOs I threw up there were not recognised. Unable to guarantee the system was in a good state, I advised the machine needed to be rebuilt from scratch, which of course requires the owner to audit all the software that was installed on it over the last 2 years. They will have fun with that!


  1. Except for the squareness of everything. Round those rectangles and I would be a happy camper. 
  2. I sometimes felt the Gravity fanboy-ism on Symbian. However, Gravity has had to reinvent the entire platform to become half decent, and suffers from decisions made in less connected times - I still have to wait to "Go online" before I can use the app. Sorry Ole, but I'd rather use an OK app on a good platform than a great app on a burning platform. 
  3. I had to look that up - it obviously wasn't as memorable as the list of 10 objects I was asked to remember in first-year psych, which are still burned into my head. 

Please do not press this button again

April 1st, 2011

Nokia Pure, now with more purity

March 28th, 2011

After my scoop on the new Nokia Pure font yesterday MyNokiaBlog posted a new tutorial on how to update the font.  And then, "GI@" (I have no idea how to pronounce that, it's Italian) from posted a fixed version of the font, with the correct symbols for the main homescreen, and a much nicer weight.  Compare and contrast old vs new:

I don't know the pixel density of the N8 off-hand, but these screenshots don't half get big when you put them on a computer!

On a somewhat related note, four more days until the end of operations at the Symbian Foundation.  I considered reviving #symbiancountdown for the occasion (and in December also), but never more than 12 days beforehand, which ruins the best joke.

Putting Nokia's new "Nokia Pure" typeface on your Symbian phone

March 26th, 2011

Some history

Symbian^3 was meant to be the first step in a "new generation" of Symbian user experience.  However, Nokia seem to be loathe to make wholesale changes to their UI, and have had a pretty consistent visual experience in their Symbian phones at least since S60 3rd Edition in 2005, underpinned by the Nokia/S60 Sans typeface.1

The iPhone came out in 2007 with Helvetica throughout (except the Notes app; thankfully, John Gruber cared enough to hex-edit the app to change it. For Android, Google needed a typeface that they could distribute gratis; they commissioned Ascender to come up with a typeface family for mobile devices, which became Droid. Palm turned to Font Bureau for their popular Prelude font as used throughout WebOS. Windows Phone 7 uses a font from the Segoe family which was introduced in Vista.

You have no idea how much the people cheered when early theme screenshots for Symbian were rendered in... plain Verdana.

Nokia recently announced a new corporate typeface family, "Nokia Pure", developed by Dalton Maag.  It even comes with its own exhibition. (I must admit though, I was much more excited about going to see Stormtroopers in Stilettos, until I learned it closed a fortnight ago. I guess I will have to make do with the Doctor Who Experience.) Anyway, they've announced that all their phones will end up using this typeface. Even though they said they wouldn't make changes to the Windows Phone 7 UI, in order to try and drive consistency. We'll see how that one plays out.

tl;dr: Fonts matter to some people, like my friend Perry.

Thanks to its use on the Nokia Brandbook, you can download the typeface (the Text and Headline variants). And then, you can install it onto your mobile phone, and see just what tomorrow will look like, today.

Some implementation

It is possible to change the system font on a Symbian^3 phone, so we can get an idea of what Nokia Pure will look like on a handset, and you can install it yourself today.

The Ovi store lists an application which can apparently change the font from a nice UI. Apparently the £4 version is not compatible, but the limited free version is - either way, I've ignored this option.  The standard advice is to copy the TTF to your mass storage, with four copies under four different names. MyNokiaBlog tells you how to do this, so I won't go over it here.

Until recently, if you did this, you would break Qt applications - which includes the Ovi Store.  Thankfully this bug is fixed in Qt 4.7.2. The only way to get that at present is by downloading the Nokia Qt SDK.  Thankfully, someone has downloaded it for you and put the 3 .SIS files up on the 'net.  Of course, you shouldn't randomly install software on the Internet, but they do appear to be the correct versions as they are signed by Nokia. This should also be fixed by an update of the Smart Installer, though apparently not until the end of May.

So, after all of that, what does the future look like?  Not too different from the past.

But, Qt applications work!

I suspect it would look nicer if I could find the TTF for the 'light' weight of the font. This will probably escape in the next week or so.

Some suckage

I did all this months ago with the Droid Sans font — I would rather have nice text rendering than the Ovi Store — but reverted to play with Nokia Bubbles. Only the Qt problem has been solved since. If you install your font to your mass storage2 and you plug your phone in by USB, it can no longer read the font to draw letters it doesn't know about. "File manager" becomes "i e  r" in the, erm, "Alt-Tab box" below.

Also, some of the icons used on the phone appear to be characters in the font, which don't exist outside of Nokia Sans.  See the square next to "General".  I have only tried English - I wouldn't be surprised if this rendered painfully in any other language.

Hopefully with the release of the fabled UI firmware update this summer there will be a nice shiny new look to enjoy, but until then, enjoy your slice of what passes for "bleeding edge" in the Symbian world.

  1. Amusingly, S60 phones from people like Samsung used this font, and the Nokia Tune ringtone, which was renamed the Samsung Tune! 
  2. It's the future.  Why do we still have this distinction exposed? 

Revitalising the public library

January 10th, 2011

My friend and colleague Ian McDonald tweeted that our local library is in danger of being privatised.

Pros and cons of this decision aside, the article says:

The authority said it has completed a public consultation that assessed how to “provide better value for money but also encourage people to use our libraries more”.

It has seen a drop in the number of visitors aged between 16 and 44.

As a member of the public firmly between the ages of 16 and 44 (near-on exactly between, as it turns out), I'll offer an opinion.

I like books, though I don't particularly care to own them; I am not particularly attached to books physically (they don't smell as nice as they did when I was a kid), and I'll rarely re-read a book soon after the first time through. Further, I've lived in three countries in the past 5 years; books tend to be heavy and more expensive to cart around than just to re-buy in a new country.

You might think I'm a perfect candidate for a Kindle, and you would probably be right, if not for two reasons:

  • I like the lendability of books, which Kindle is only starting to address
  • E-books aren't nearly cheap enough

A good public library addresses this situation.

A good public library

Before moving to Richmond, we lived in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada for two years.  Though their libraries were physically as much a living relic of the 1970s as any other, and their website was more Web 0.5, the Kitchener Public Library and I had a beautiful thing going.  It worked a little like this:

  • Go to a book store
  • Look in sections of interest, and on the "What's New" table
  • Write down titles
  • Go to KPL website and reserve books

Cost to me: $0. Time expenditure: minimal. I would then get an e-mail when the books I wanted were available; I'd walk into the library (conveniently, not even 5 mins from my work), go straight to the reservation shelf, walk the book the ten steps to the counter, and be out in under a minute.

I generally go to bookshops as time-wasters while in shopping malls. When I'm in a bookstore, I already have a book I'm reading at home.  I am not there because I have nothing to read; I'm there because I want to know what I might want to read one day.  The somewhat random nature of library reservations worked well for me, in that I would get books as they came available.  If I ended up with more than I could read at once, I'd just re-reserve the ones I didn't have time for. Remember, this is just me; I know that your mileage will almost certainly vary.

A not-so-good public library

How does this work in Richmond?

  • The Richmond library network probably doesn't have the book
  • If they do, you pay almost a pound per book for reservation (average price of a paperback book: £8?)
  • There are so few copies of books, spread amongst many branches, that it can take months to get to you if it's half-way popular
  • To top it off, most commuters probably get back to Richmond after 6pm, when the library closes.

See why I don't bother going to the library?

Why libraries are hard

Lets ignore all the other benefits of a library as a civic space (as I rarely use them myself, so on the theme of privatisation, I wouldn't pay to keep them around) and focus only on the borrowing.

Generally, my discovery system tends towards the popular books - those that make it into Whitcoulls/Chapters/Waterstones etc - though there are some that I learn about online and would love to read. To me, libraries have always felt like they are places where books go to die. In some cases, libraries are probably the only place to find old books; it should be pointed out that fiction rarely changes, but non-fiction books are often supplanted, or refer to outdated concepts.1

This sounds like a problem that requires consideration of the "long tail" theory. Consider, for a second, They already have a warehouse system, allowing them to stock goods that likely wouldn't be profitable to show in a store.  For anything more than that, Amazon opened their platform to let others advertise on it: the additional cost of listing rare items tends towards zero. Other people can make a business of selling rare books, perhaps at a higher cost, or perhaps just for the love of rare books. Maybe the stock isn't kept on hand, and has to be ordered from the publisher as each copy is ordered. Maybe, over time, this model will tend towards businesses like, where, when you order a copy of the book, it will be printed for you there and then. Imagine that in your library?

So, as time passes, the 20% moves into the 80%, and the popular books move into the long tail. Libraries obviously keep books a long time. Why show them? Have the most popular books - the 20% - on display, and the rest discoverable online, where the council suggests most people are already looking.2 The library of my teens, the Hamilton Public Library, had a section called "Core Stock" which contained a lot of their older books; however, it was still a (relatively small) room you could go walk around.  Make this a machine-indexed basement, and charge people for getting books that they can't get any other way - a rare book is worth far more than 80p to someone who wants to read or cite it.

Why not offer a Netflix model, where I can pay ~£4 for a book which is posted to me, and comes with a return envelope?

The council knows that 16-44 year olds use the Internet, and know what they want.  The job of letting people know what books exist no longer needs to be performed by a library.  Many enjoy browsing shelves looking for a book, so keep a browseable library,3 but a much more focused one; then optimize the case where people want to order a book online and have it get to them somehow.

I'm not sure Richmond council can wait on the existence of miniature publishing machines (and the requisite copyright changes) to make a decision on their library. A public library has to compete with other media (film, internet), free (pirated books), digital/electronic and easy (Kindle, iBooks etc), digital/paper and easy (Amazon).  In a business context, many people try and compete by charging more and offering a better service; not really something that local government can do.  I'm sure it can find a niche.  If it can offer a good solution to my workflow, as Kitchener did, great.  Maybe the time will come for libraries to stop existing altogether, but I don't think we're there yet.

  1. As much as it would be a walk down memory lane to re-read the Commodore 64 books I read when I was 8, I don't think they need to be taking up space on library shelves. 
  2. And make the online display appealing - you have all the space, and attention, you want. Show full cover images, rather than thumbnails, and link to web services that can tell you more about the book from its ISBN. 
  3. Or build your branches next to a book store. That'll learn 'em!