Watford ‘keeper on Dragons’ Den

Fresh from facing Manchester United last Saturday, Watford goalkeeper Richard Lee appears on tonight’s edition of Dragons’ Den. Apparently he and his business partner are looking for investment in their baseball cap business. Should be interesting to watch, and hopefully they will be on for more than 30 seconds. Richard always comes across as a nice bloke, and does not fit the typical footballer stereotype. Saturday was his first appearance in 16 months after an unsuccessful loan spell at Blackburn so it is good to see that he has pursued other non-footballing avenues during that time.

Farewell BSAD

Watford are now three games into our return to the top flight, and we only have one point to show for our efforts so far. Saturday saw Manchester United visit Vicarage Road and for many Watford fans it also signified the last match to be covered by the first and best Watford fan-site: Blind, Stupid and Desperate.

For neigh-on twelve years, BSAD has provided Watford fans, and fans of football with a view of the goings on at Vicarage Road, both on and off the pitch. Ig and Matt have a particular talent for perfectly capturing the mood of Watford supporters in their writing. What’s more, BSAD was never the rosy-tinted, biased place that most unofficial football websites become. They told it straight, never more so than in the last ever match report, and displayed objectivity and honesty that puts most professional sports writers to shame. The glorious tangents that match reports often took also highlighted a fair amount of comic talent.

When Ig started the site many years ago whilst working for a web design company in Brighton I’m sure he never thought it would still be going strong after so long, but sadly, time has come for Ig and Matt to call it a day. I first came across BSAD and the Watford Mailing List whilst at university in Leeds, and I started to occasionally contribute pieces, but as time moved on and work and the like get in the way other priorities got in the way. How Ig and Matt have kept it going so long I don’t know, but with Ig being self-employed and Matt having a young daughter to take his attention and sleep I can fully understand that it is time for BSAD to stop. Thankfully, speaking to them on Saturday, they plan to start a blog so at least the web will still benefit from some great writing.

All good things must come to an end, and they don’t come much better than Blind, Stupid and Desperate. Thanks for the memories chaps.

WebSphere ESB performance tuning redpaper

A recently published redpaper draft titled WebSphere Business Integration V6 Performance Tuning provides some useful information for people wishing to set up, tune and configure WebSphere ESB, and WebSphere Process Server. It also documents some best practices for architecting your modules to gain maximum performance. These range from deciding how to get the right granularity for SCA components and modules, through to making judicious use of asynchronous versus synchronous invocations.

The paper is written by the WebSphere Process Server and WebSphere ESB performance test teams, including Paul, Sam and Rachel here in Hursley, so this is useful information straight from the people who know.

Talking of performance, we’ve been doing a lot of work recently on a couple of performance items for the next release of WebSphere ESB and the initial results look very promising.

Online grocery shopping delivery discount theory

Unlike Richard’s theory on Tesco barcodes, I am attempting a slightly more legal way of saving money on my grocery shopping.

We recently started to use Sainsbury’s online grocery shopping service to pick our groceries and have them delivered to our door. You pick a particular delivery slot on the day of your choice. The last time we did it the man in a van turned up just two minutes outside our chosen slot and handed over a £10 voucher off our next shop by way of recompense.

This got me thinking about how I can try and maximise the chance of late delivery. There are a number of factors which need to be taken into account:

  • Position on the delivery schedule
  • Route
  • Traffic and road works
  • Weather conditions

Both times so far our delivery has been towards the end of (or after) the chosen hour, which means we are probably towards the end of the delivery schedule. However this is dependent on who else has chosen to have a delivery in that hour. Therefore it makes sense to choose a time in which other people are most likely to want a delivery. Probably on a weekend, with Saturday being most likely. So far, we have chosen Saturday 12-1pm so this seems to back this up.

In order to work out the significance of the route we need to determine where the driver is likely to be coming from. It is a fair assumption that they start from a Sainsburys store, of which there are three possibilities. It is probable that they have a number of vans each servicing a fairly standard set of routes with a variable number of stops each time. Over the course of time through friendly chat with the delivery driver I should be able to ascertain more information on the route which will help me when I come to consider…

Traffic and road works. Once I have a better idea of where the van is likely to come from, then I will have a good idea of what times of day they are most likely to hit congestion. Due to the fact that we live in a marina, there is effectively only one route in and out of where we live (they are unlikely to revert to water-borne delivery methods) which gives us a good starting position. Given the location of the Sainsburys stores, they are likely to come from the generally West or North of us. To the West is the city centre which houses a major shopping centre, retail park and leisure complex which normally causes heavy traffic on Saturday lunchtimes. To the North is the home of Southampton Football Club which gives us a particular advantage on days when Saints have a home game with traffic build up between about 12-2 before games, and 4:45-6pm after games. After games tends to be much worse.

Road works are harder to judge, but for instance there are currently works on a nearbly one-way system which any van coming from the West would need to traverse. The westerly direction also includes a level crossing occasionally used by trains entering the docks, though this is very hard to predict.

The final variable is the weather. We all know that traffic snarls up during bad weather, but we also know that weather is notoriously hard to predict with accuracy. We can choose a delivery date from next day to up to three weeks, so logic suggests that choosing a much nearer date on which there is a reasonable chance of inclement weather is better than a far-off date.

So, taking this all into account, the optimum time for delivery is on a Saturday late afternoon when Saints are playing at home and it is pouring down with rain. Unfortunately the cupboards are bare, so we are getting one this Saturday when Saints are away to Barnsley. We’ve gone for 11-12pm to try and hit the shopping traffic at its peak, and to try a slightly different time to before to see if it makes any difference in the place we seem to get in the delivery schedule.

Of course, after all this we could just go to the store and forego any chance of saving getting a £10 discount but not have to pay £5 delivery charge either, but that wouldn’t be as interesting now would it!

Dragons’ Den

I’ve been watching the current series of Dragons’ Den on BBC2 and am astounded by the stupidity of some of the business ventures people try to get the Dragons to invest in. Obviously it is edited to make favourable TV, and there is also the argument that anybody with a really innovative product/concept/service will not need to go on national TV to try and win backing. The only thing that they might gain is exposure. However, given most of the pitches I’ve seen, it looks like you are more likely to embarrass yourself by either:

  • Your demo not working
  • Not knowing basic details about your business plan/projections
  • Freezing up

As for the Dragons themselves, the only one I think I’d like to have working with me would be Peter Jones as he seems the most astute and straight-talking of the lot. The rest seem too quick to criticise and their decisions to invest or not are not as well justified. Duncan Bannatyne in particular seems to rub me up the wrong way, whilst Theo Paphitis never actually seems to stick his neck out and make the first move.

The top product of the series so far seems to be the Novaflo device. Interesting that the pitcher decided to turn the Dragons down.

I’ve never seen any of the previous series’ so I’m not sure whether any of the touted products and services have gone on to really make money, anybody know?

First aid at work

This week sees me on first aid duty at Hursley.

As a site of 2500+ people, there is a regular set of qualified first aiders on a rotation system, meaning for any week of the year there are four employees assigned to cover first aid duties. This is on top of the site security team who are all first aid trained, the emergency team (again made up of employees) who are on permanent call, and the occupational health department. As a mainly office based environment the site itself isn’t particularly prone to a lot of what you learn to deal with during the training, but that doesn’t mean it is a responsibility to be taken lightly.

My initial desire to get qualified was as a pre-requisite to getting my PADI Rescue Diver qualification which requires a certified first aid qualification. Getting work to pay for it seemed to be a nice bonus. I’m expected to do two weeks on call per quarter, and receive a small honoria payment in return.

Being on call involves carrying a radio and first aid kit whilst on site (of course, it also means I can’t work from home at all that week) and responding to calls from security when somebody phones them to request first aid. Over the two years I’ve been doing it I’ve only been paged three times, and thankfully for nothing too serious. Only once has a call I’ve been involved with required an ambulance, and then only as a precaution.

As there are four first aiders on call normal procedure is to call at least two out for each situation, unless it is a trivial matter such as applying a plaster. You are also backed up by site security who handle any liaison with the ambulance service. We have to re-qualify every three years, and the site also organises a yearly training exercise led by Hampshire Ambulance Service.

All in all it is a very worthwhile thing to do, but here’s hoping for another quiet week!

The wonder of eBay

My eBay auctions are now over and of 36 items, 27 sold. I’m constantly amazed by how much you can achieve for the things you no longer want. Highlights included:

  • A six year old amplifier which sold for £30 less than I paid for it new, and only £56 less than you can buy the brand new better version.
  • An Apple iSight webcam which previously featured on my list of 5 worst gadgets. It turns out that Apple don’t sell them anymore so it went for pretty much what I paid for it new 18 months ago.
  • My two year old Flexifoil power kite which again sold for £30 less than the best online price of the newer 2005 version.
  • A Miglia TV-Mini USB digital TV tuner for Apple Macs which actually went for more than you can now buy it new!!

Of course, one or two items went for less than I was hoping. Most notable being a Pure DAB tuner which completed listings suggested could have gone for about £120.

I’m by no means an expert eBay seller, but I do seem to get good prices. My top tips are:

  • Always, always do 99p starting price no reserve auctions. It draws people in and gets more watching your item. They think they will be in with a good chance of getting a bargain.
  • Always do a 7 day auction.
  • Schedule the start time for a Sunday late afternoon, so it ends at the same time the following week. That way potential bidders can make sure they will be online at home and are less likely to be distracted by work and the like.
  • Common sense, but provide good photos and a clear and accurate description. Be honest with any faults/blemishes.
  • Answer questions quickly and accurately. Post them to the listing to avoid having to answer them multiple times.
  • Don’t be tempted to only sell to the UK. You’ll probably have to post the item anyway so it doesn’t cause any more hassle to list across Europe as well and you open yourself up to new bidders.
  • Be accurate with your postage costs and provide a range of options.

This is also common sense and always stated by eBay themselves, but never, ever be tempted to sell off eBay if somebody asks. They are asking you as you will probably give them a price less than you’ll end up receiving by letting the auction run its course. You’ll get no protection and may end up being scammed.

One final thing. eBay isn’t the best place to sell goods of a particularly specialist nature as you are less likely to realise the best price for them. Along with my recent auctions I also wanted to sell a particularly good dry suit for scuba diving which I’ve owned for 18 months but only used a handful of times. eBay showed only one sold in previous completed listings, and not for a price I’d be happy with. However, placing a personal ad on a well known scuba diving forum came up trumps for me.

To change broadband provider or not?

I’ve recently been thinking about whether or not to change my broadband ADSL provider. Mainly to increase speed, but also to maybe save a bit of money. As a tech-geek I am more interested in the former than the latter 😉

I’ve been a customer of Pipex for five years now, and have never had a problem with them. I’ve gone from a 512Kb connection up to my current speed of 2Mb. I’ve always chosen to stay with their uncapped service, not because I am a heavy user (I don’t use P2P at all for instance) but because I use the connection a lot for work and because I like to know that I can be a heavy user if I want to be 😉 I currently pay £23.99 per month.

For those who might not be familiar with the UK broadband market, there has been a bit of a price war breaking out between providers recently. This kicked off with Carphone Warehouse offering to supply free broadband if you subscribed to their Talk Talk phone call plan. Companies like Orange and Sky have followed suit, whilst traditional broadband providers like BT and Pipex have repackaged their offerings to remain competitive. All this is made possible by the concept of Local Loop Unbundling (LLU.) Until recently, ADSL providers had to buy the ADSL “product” (e.g. 2Mb ADSL or up to 8Mb ADSL Max) from BT Wholesale. The crucial factor here is that BT owned all the equipment in the exchange and the vital copper cable leading into your house. Thus, all the providers supplied products with their own markup on the price they had to pay BT. LLU allows providers to put their own equipment into the exchange and effectively take over the running of your phone line, avoiding the need to pay BT anything.

I therefore had a number of potential options open to me if I wanted to move providers:

  • Firstly, I could get IBM to pay for my connection. This would have the obvious advantage of meaning I pay nothing, and would currently mean I get a 2Mb uncapped connection (provided by BT) which is exactly as I currently have. I’ve always resisted going this route however as I prefer to be free to do what I want with my connection. Not that there are any technical restrictions to what I can do, but I’d feel like I should be responsible on it. It also brings into question use of the connection by the other member of the household. Finally, I’d be tied into only being able to move up to higher speeds as and when all users are migrated.
  • As I pay over £30 per month for my mobile phone from Orange, I qualify for their free broadband offer. This would be an up to 8Mb connection with a 2GB limit and would cost me nothing. However to get an uncapped connection I’d need to pay £10 month on top of my mobile phone contact. This would still save me £13.99 month. The downsides here are that I’ve heard rumours about delays in getting the service provisioned due to supply problems, and I’d be moving to a service which I’d had no previous experience with in terms of stability and support.
  • Go to another traditional broadband provider. I could consider a move to BT, Zen or any number of other providers. The move should be pretty painless and I could probably get a cheaper price than Pipex. The downsides are again moving to a provider who might not give me the same level of service and support.

I phoned up Orange and spoke to a nice chap who confirmed I’d only have to pay £10 more per month to get and uncapped service. However when he checked my phone no, it came up as being not available for broadband for some reason. I then tried on the BT website and the same thing happened. I then remembered an email from Pipex which I’d deleted a week or so ago. It mentioned an outage due to engineering work, but gave little detail. After checking out the excellent Sam Knows site, the penny dropped – I’d been LLU’d by Pipex! A quick call to Pipex confirmed this, and also that I could change to an up to 8Mb uncapped connection for just £1 per month extra. It did mean a new 12 month contract, but that’s no problem. It also means a faster upload speed which will be very useful for work and things like flickr. I don’t save any money, but I do get to stay with a service I trust and know performs.

Finally, being LLU’d means that I am in pole position to be able to use any ADSL2+ products once Pipex launch them, giving the potential of up to 24Mb connection speeds.

BT Broadband HomeHub

With my parent’s recent move, I took the opportunity to get them to change Broadband provider from Pipex where they got a 2Mb connection with 2GB limit, to BT Broadband with up to 8Mb and still a 2GB limit (they are light users so this isn’t a problem.) Not only is it cheaper but also provides free evening and weekend calls over VOIP, and 250 BT OpenZone minutes a month, which they won’t use but I definitely will 😉

They already had a Belkin wireless router which I’d set up for them mainly so I can have a wireless connection when back there. However I got them BT’s new HomeHub which you may have seen advertised all over the place. It is a repackaged and re-badged Thomson Speedtouch ADSL router with two Ethernet ports and two USB ports. You can connect computers either by Ethernet, USB or wireless. On the wireless side it supports 802.11b/g and comes pre-configured for 64 bit WEP encryption which I immediately replaced with WPA2 AES.

As the connection is an ADSL Max service you have to leave the router for about an hour as it synchronizes with the exchange equipment to obtain the optimal connection speed. During this period it will drop and reconnect a number of times. It eventually seemed to settle down at about 4Mb downstream and 488Kb upstream. Over the first 10 days or so the line continues to learn (with the odd dropout of connection as a result) to work out the fastest stable speed you can achieve.

Given that BT don’t require you to configure a userid/password on the router, setup was simple. I installed the BT supplied CD onto my parent’s computer which put on a customised version of IE6, BT communicator, a wireless connection manager and various other stuff.

Of course, being a geek I started to poke around the web based management interface of the device. BT have obviously tried to make it as simple as possible to configure, which means that most useful settings are relegated to advanced menus. Examples of this include the firewall and wireless security settings. The net result is that actually configuring the device in any meaningful way becomes a bit of a pain and it can be hard to determine exactly where certain settings are. There are also some configuration settings which are not exposed at all within the web interface; a prime example being setting up a dynamic DNS client which can only be done via the undocumented telnet interface.

The interesting part of this device however is the VOIP capability. As part of the package you get an 056 phone number which acts as a SIP based VOIP phone line separate to the main BT line. During setup of the router, you configure it with the phone number and password and it connects to BT to validate these settings. On the back of the router is an RJ11 phone jack into which you can plug an ordinary phone which will then enable you to make and receive calls over VOIP. More interestingly however, the router itself contains a built-in DECT base station. My parents already have a BT DECT phone to which they have four handsets. Only three of them were in use, so I got the spare one out of the drawer and registered it to the router’s base station (note, it has to be a GAP compatible handset to work.) This worked flawlessly and allows my parents to make VOIP calls without the need to be either at the computer or even near it, which is a real bonus. Pick up the phone and you hear a higher pitched ringing tone indicating that it is the VOIP connection. After a bit more playing around I found out you can register the handset to multiple base stations, so by pressing 5 before dialling it can call out via their normal phone line instead. The VOIP number supports normal BT facilities such as caller ID and the 1571 voicemail service.

Of course, all this is possible with routers from the likes of Draytek, or even by plugging in an extra box to your existing router, but this was so simple to set up and use that I can really see my parents making use of it. As a whole, if you are a geek like me then you’d probably be frustrated by the configuration of the router, and I’ll certainly not be replacing my Zyxel router anytime soon. I am very interested in getting a SIP based VOIP solution sorted out however.

IBM podcasting gets publicity

IBM has really taken podcasting to heart, both externally to our clients (and potential clients) and also internally. PodTech.net have just published a podcast entitled “Big Blue Dives into Podcasting” with Ben Edwards from IBM Corporate Communications on how we use podcasting on both sides of the firewall.

Externally there are a wide variety of ‘casts available. The first and still one of the best is the “IBM and the future of…” series. Each episode looks at the future of a particular area of life and how technology will affect it. Over at developerWorks you can find the “Websphere Technical Podcast” series which covers various aspects of our SOA story, including an episode from fellow Hursley blogger Richard Brown.  You might also want to check out the “Week on DeveloperWorks” and “Developerworks Interviews” podcasts. Details of all the DeveloperWorks ‘casts including the feeds are here.

There’s loads more out there that I’ve not personally listened to, such as this new “Shortcuts” series.

Internally, we have a central podcasting site to which any employee can post their own podcasts. Of course, as we do with blogging we have a set of podcasting guidelines as well. There are all manner of ‘casts available internally from recordings of teleconferences (which help the company save significant amounts of money by allowing people to listen to the calls in their own time rather than needing hundreds of lines on the teleconference.) to an internal Battle of the Bands podcast which has proven to be hugely popular.

I’m in on the game. Along with my partner in crime, Steve Haskey, I produce a podcast called “Park Life” which is an occasional series of technical interviews, features, news and off-the-wall pieces based on what’s happening at Hursley. We’ve produced three editions so far, the last of which focussed on the Hursley Technical Exchange event held a couple of months ago. HTX sees a week of presentations and events aimed at giving employees a chance to interact with people and topics they don’t normally come across. We get a number of external speakers in and amongst them this year were Simon Singh (science broadcaster and writer) and Robert Llewellyn (technologist, presenter and actor.) We managed to grab interviews with both of them for the podcast.

Of course, being an internal podcast, I can’t point you to a link (if you are inside the firewall then just go to Podcast Central and look up Park Life.) However, included in the aforementioned Podtech.net podcast is a snippet of Park Life and some nice complimentary remarks about us 🙂