Monday Aug 18, 2008

Something's gone wrong with the Olympics

Clearly, we have fallen through some wormhole in space and landed in an alternative reality. That can be the only explanation for Great Britain being third in the medals table ahead of Australia and Russia. I remember when I was a child we would be lucky to win one or maybe two gold medals at the olympics and here we are with twelve and we're not even finished yet!

I'm not a big sports fan, but I have found this olympics is more and more grabbing my attention. Not just for the fantastic results of the Brits, but for sights such as Usain Bolt 'jogging' to victory in his semi-final of the 100m.

It really is great to see that, despite the media claiming we're a country full of fat children, we have a large pool of world class sporting talent. Of course, the reality is that we've always had this, it's just that until about ten years ago you'd have found that British team members would have been training whilst holding down a full time job. Thanks to the national lottery we can now provide funding to talented athletes without calling on the government to do it.

Despite the great results I doubt we'll ever do better than we did in 1908. It's quite amusing to see how things have changed. The games were being held in the UK and we fielded about a third of all competitors (some events only had Brits participating). The events have also changed a bit; now we have BMX biking and the triathlon (oh, and synchronised swimming which really does stretch the meaning of sport). Back in 1908 we had figure skating, polo and, get this, tug of war.

I wonder what the ancient Greeks would have thought.

Friday Aug 01, 2008

A nineteen year wait

The other day a friend of ours stopped by for dinner. Since he was passing through (indirectly) on his way back to Australia he didn't want too much luggage and so decided to leave us a book he'd just read.

Back in 1989 I was lent a book by a different friend who said, "You must read this, it's great". That was a Friday and I sat down to read it in the evening. Stopping only for sleep and some food I read the book from cover to cover in one go, all 680-odd pages of it. What book was this? It was The Eight by Katherine Neville. A mystery revolving around the game of chess it soon became one of my favorite books of all time. The author has written a couple of books since them but none of them (in my opinion) lived up to her first book.

Imagine my surprise the other evening when I'm handed a book by my friend called The Fire, written by Katherine Neville and a sequel to The Eight. To make things even better it's a pre-publication copy and it won't be available generally until the middle of October.

My first thought was to sit down tonight and re-read The Eight from cover to cover and then start on The Fire. Nineteen years later things are a bit different and I suspect that my two year old son is not going to be too amenable to letting Daddy sit around and read a book all weekend. Still, it'll be great to see if the original is still the way I remember it (it's been a few years since I last read it) and how good the sequel is.

Tuesday Jul 01, 2008

The start of another year

It may seem a bit weird, but today is actually new years day. Well, it is in financial terms for us here at Sun since we just wrapped up financial year 08 (FY08) and today is the start of FY09.

So my new financial years resolution is to restart my blog, post more regularly and make my posts a bit more technical. All noble ideals; let's see how far I get. Especially since I leave on vacation tomorrow and will be in the US for a week after that meaning I won't be in the UK again until almost August.

One good thing that I recently discovered is Ecto a piece of blogging software for the Mac. Since I now use a MacBook Pro for my laptop (like almost everyone else at Sun) this seemed ideal. One of the nice features is the simplicity of creating blog entries offline and uploading them when you're back online. I'm probably still in the dark ages for blogging but it seems good to me.

Here's a couple of things I'm working on at the moment that I'll try to blog about in the future:

Project DAVE (DTrace Advanced Visualisation Environment) . I wrote about this ages ago and really want to get this out onto but there's a few things I need to do first. I recently rewrote the way that this application interfaces with DTrace using the new-ish Java API. Really easy to do and now we don't have a nasty write interposer that requires fiddling with LD_LIBRARY_PATH to start the app. I've also been looking at how to integrate support for Ruby, JavaScript and Python using providers that people have recently created. Another really cool thing would be to integrate it with NetBeans to allow access to source code for methods/functions. There's also the issue of making sure that I follow the licensing terms of the open source graphing library I've used. Clearly something for my leisure time.

Sun SPOTS. These have been around for a while, but there's still serious fun to be had with these. I've been working on a simple wheeled robot platform with a range of sensors and I have a few other ideas bubbling at the moment.

Multi-touch screen. I built this for a session at JavaOne back in May, which I felt went pretty well. I've done some work on this recently to improve the response times and sensitivity which is all working pretty well. Once I've got the calibration part working correctly I'll go back to integrating JavaFX with it to hopefully do some really cool things. I have one idea combining this with Sun SPOTs that I think could make a very interesting demo.

There's clearly plenty to write about. I just have to figure out how to carve out enough time to do the writing as well as the development (oh, and still maintaining a manic travel schedule and dealing with a two year old toddler who's rapidly becoming quite the skilled engineer - at least in terms of dismantling things).

Thursday Apr 03, 2008

First world country, third world airport

I'm sure few poeple can have missed the recent events that marked the rather less than successful opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow. Things just really don't seem to get better, do they?

I returned from South Africa last week and flew in to Terminal 3, arriving at just after seven in the morning. This is an especially busy time at that terminal with several loang haul flights all arriving very close together. Forget problems with luggage, just getting past passport control was a complete nightmare. When we came down to the immigration hall the queue for European passports was even longer than non-EEC and it was total chaos (as usual). The reason? Only two desks open and checking EEC passports. The wisdom of whoever plans staffing here defies comprehension.

This week I'm in Russia for the TechDays and had my first experience of Terminal 5 on Tuesday morning. Thankfully this was a painless experience and I and my luggage made it to St Petersburg only half an hour later than scheduled. It did feel weird though; I've been travelling from Heathrow for over twenty years so a new and unfamiliar terminal was quite something.

Let's wait and see if the return journey tomorrow is as smooth and the luggage arrives at the same time...

Monday Feb 25, 2008

Home again, home again

My bag was returned on Saturday evening; only forty eight hours after I got back home. Considering it took BA over a week to get my bag to me last year I guess I should consider myself fortunate.

Roll on Terminal five, opening next month. Let's see if that solves all these problems...

Saturday Feb 23, 2008

Tracing continues...

I've not been writing in my blog recently, simply due to the number of other things I have to do. However, the events of the last couple of days make me feel it's time to put fingers to keyboard once.

Last week was really busy. I flew to Istanbul on Monday for our developer day on Tuesday. We had to leave promptly on Tuesday afternoon to catch a flight to Bucharest for the developer day on Wednesday. In the evening it was back to the airport to fly to Athens ready to present again on Thursday. All this with one of the worst colds I've had in a long time. I'm surprised anyone could understand what I was saying. I cut my trip short by a day due to everyone being sick at home as well and booked myself on the 7.25 BA flight back to Heathrow. Will I never learn? There was an Olympic flight ten minutes earlier; I really, really should have taken that.

On arriving at the airport I discovered that the flight was delayed by two hours. This actually translated into over two and a half hours and we finally took off at 10pm local time. The pilot issued the obligatory, glib apology whilst setting us up for potentially further bad news. Since we were leaving so late there was a chance we wouldn't get to Heathrow before the night flight curfew started, in which case we'd get diverted to Gatwick.

We made good enough time to get to Heathrow before the curfew (one which doesn't actually seem to have any effect, since I live near Heathrow and have heard aircraft departing and arriving at all times of night). Off the plane and as usual we were as far from the main building as possible. No real queue for passport control and I thought I'd actually be back home before midnight. Ha! How wrong I was. When I came down to the baggage hall I was met by a scene of complete pandemonium. Literally hundreds of people all waiting for their baggage, only two carousels in use and the display that tells you which carousel to get your bags from out of order. I'd heard that the luggage handling system in terminal four had failed a couple of days previously, but thought that coming through terminal one I would have been unaffected.

I sidled over to the baggage inquiries desk and, since there wasn't a long queue, asked what was happening. I got a pretty short reply that an announcement had been made and that staff were trying to get baggage out as quickly as possible. I found a seat and waited. And waited. And Waited. Forty five minutes later there had been two announcements. One to apologise for the delay and one to announce (to cheers from some parts of the crowd) that the bags from Morroco would be on belt two. It was now half past midnight and I'd had enough. I joined the now lengthy queue for baggage inquiries. When I finally got to the front of the queue I registered a missing bag claim and headed for the exit. Of course, the fun wasn't over. Try getting a taxi at one in the morning from Heathrow. Not one to be seen, especially since the road outside terminal one was closed for construction work. I had to walk all the way over to terminal two and wait another 20 minutes before finally getting a taxi home.

I'm willing to accept that problems happen, but BA's customer service is decidedly less than impressive. At one point while I was queuing for the baggage inquiries desk the BA supervisor came out to talk to passengers, presumably to make them feel like something was actually being done. What made me laugh was that he had two armed policemen standing behind him, since he clearly didn't feel safe with so many irate passengers around. Even if there are problems what people want is information. Why not make regular announcements so at least people would know how things were progressing?

That was Thursday night. It's now Saturday afternoon. No sign of my bag. No information via the website, and as usual the phone line is so busy I can't even get in the queue.

Needless to say, this is doing nothing to improve my view of BA.

Thursday Dec 13, 2007

Wrapping up another year

It's day two of the JavaPolis conference and I've now finished with speaking for the year (hurrah!) JavaPolis as ever is a lot of fun, and I have to say that I was very impressed with the demonstration Stephan did this morning for version two of the Parleys web site. I've found the one way system in Antwerp more manageable this year, primarily because I'm staying at a different hotel. Give how hard it is to find a taxi in Antwerp I'm very glad that I brought the car, although the traffic coming through the Kennedy tunnel into town on Tuesday when we arrived was just horrible.

As I wrap up this year I'm also going to give Frankfurt (where we had the TechDays last week) my prestigious 'worst airport of the year' award. Leaving on Wednesday evening I just could not believe how inefficient the whole process of getting through the airport was. Frankfurt is an extremely busy airport so why do they only have four security lines open, one of which is reserved for business class and for the remaining three two are sharing the same metal detector? Given that there were a possible eight lines that could be used this seemed very poor. After a thirty minute wait I managed to get through securtity and then had to face the most officious and unfriendly passport inspector I suspect I have ever had to deal with. I'm leaving the country, not trying to get in, so why give me such a hard time? Just when I thought it was all over I get to the gate (where the plane is starting to board) and have to go through another x-ray/meta detector security check. I asked the woman standing next to the machine why this was. I was rewarded by a blank stare and decided this was not an argument that was even worth starting. Finally onto the plane and on my way home? No such luck. Despite my flight being scheduled to depart from Frankfurt it appeared that the plane was parked in Munich, or at least that was the way it felt given the length of the bus ride to get from the gate to the plane!

I'm spending ten days in Nice after Christmas and will not be taking a laptop or accessing the internet. I'm sooo ready for this.

Friday Nov 09, 2007

In the land of the rising Sun

I'm just getting ready to leave Tokyo having been here for the Tech Day events. A very hectic couple of days presenting on Sun SPOTs, features of Java SE 6 and 7, Using the concurrency libraries and performance programming. All good fun and judging by the questions I got the audience enjoyed it (it's always a challenge working through a translator and remembering to talk slowly enough; sometimes enthusiasm gets the better of me).

I had a couple of hours free so I was able to visit the centre of all things geeky, Akihabara. This is a bit like Tottenham Court Road in London, but several order of magnitudes more intense. All manner of cameras, phones, MP3 players and audio visual goods can be purchased here. Although the prices aren't very cheap (even for someone converting to pounds), it's good to get a look at what's at the forefront of the next wave of consumer goods. A couple of things that caught my eye were a TV recorder from Panasonic with one terabyte of disk space. Enough for a huge number of films and TV programs. It's only logical since disk drive capacities are growing.

The other thing was something I spotted in the six story Sony showroom. This was a thing called a Rolly. Check out the video below.

Or the full length advert

When I first saw it in the shop, I had no idea what it was for (much like when you watch most of the commercial). All the description was in Japanese and the thing wasn't switched on. There was an advert playing on a screen, but without sound. At one point there were a couple, sleeping in bed with the Rolly between them. Visions of Woody Allen sprang to mind...

As I was looking, one of the sales staff came over to do a demonstration where everything became, er, clear. I even got to play with it. I guess the Aibo didn't have a wide enough appeal so this is a kind of combination robot and music player. Novelty value: yes, wide sales appeal: unlikely.

Monday Nov 05, 2007

Fleeing decidely

I'm in China at the moment currently sitting in a team meeting to discuss all the evengelist activities that we do. It's certainly proving to be a lively discussion!

I arrived on Friday just in time to do two presentations at the Beijing TechDays; one on real-time Java and one on profiling in NetBeans which didn't go so well. The demos did not perform as well as I'd hoped but that was not down to NetBeans but my laptop. Sadly my Acer 3400 (the bright red Ferrari model) expired the day before I left resulting in a rapidly redeployed install on a different machine, hence the problems.

I've been to China several times over the last few years and you can see a real difference in the country, at least Beijing which is where I am. The number of people who speak English is really impressive. Of course, some of the translations in print remain somewhat humorous. I found a smoke hood in the wardrobe to aid my escape in the event of fire (how may hotels bother with that?). I took the time to read the instructions, the last one was "Choose way and flee for your life decidedly".

We're off for Peking Duck this evening at the famous Da Dong restaurant. I'm particularly happy to be going here as Heston Blumenthal fetured this restaurant in his search for the perfect Peking Duck recipe.

I'm leaving early tomorrow morning to fly to Tokyo ready for the TechDays later this week.

Thursday Oct 18, 2007

Digital X-Ray photography

I went to the dentist this morning and needed an X-ray of part of my jaw. Nothing terribly exciting about that except that this time it was rather different. When I've had X-rays like this before the dentist stuffs a piece of cardboard in your mouth (containing the film), zaps you with the X-rays and then the film has to go away to be developed. The age of digital photography has now been extended to this area as well. Now the dentist puts a flat sensor in your mouth which is connected to a PC. After zapping you with X-rays the image is displayed straightaway on the screen of the PC. Cool! If you don't like the shot, just take it again (of course using X-ray radiation may mean you don't want to do it too often).

I wonder how easy it would be to connect one of these sensors to a Sun SPOT? Of course running the X-ray source off the SPOT might be a bit difficult.

I really must start carrying around a USB pen drive with me so I can get a copy of images like this.

Wednesday Oct 03, 2007

What happens in Vegas... week is the Sun CEC conference.

I'm rather looking forward to this event as I'll be presenting on the use of DTrace and Java with my good friend Jon Haslam. Of course, the fact that it's in Las Vegas doesn't hurt although, since I was in Las Vegas only a couple of months ago, it's not as big a deal (if you'll excuse the pun) as it might have been.

I'm currently working on some updates to project DAVE which really needs to be revived and put to some proper use plus looking at some of the new features that maybe available in Java SE 7. This will allow you to define your own probes directly in your Java code (like USDT for native code). Hopefully by Monday when we present we'll have some nice demos to show all this in action. After all there's several whole days between now and then.

Wednesday Jul 11, 2007

Trapdoor in a rowing boat

That's a great analogy for just how useful British Airways customer service and baggage tracing is.

The good news is I finally got my bag back! I got home from Malta on Saturday morning and checked, once again, the baggage tracing web site. "Tracing continues, please check back later". A few more futile calls to their telephone number and I just accepted that I'd have to continue my wait.

At 11.15 that evening I was tucked up in bed when the phone rang. I just got to it when it stopped ringing. Back to bed. Two minutes later, the phone rings again. Again, I get to it just as it stops ringing. Whatever. In the morning I get up and find a card has been put through the door telling me that BA tried to deliver my bag last night and getting no response have left it with a neighbour. Of course, at 11.15 they couldn't find many people awake so it's half way down the road.

Like I say, as useful as a trapdoor in a rowing boat. BA say they'll deliver baggage until ten at night. Well, 11.15 is definitely after ten pm. If the delivery monkey bothered to ring my phone twice, why didn't he try ringing the doorbell? To make things even more ridiculous, I checked the web site and it's still saying "tracing continues, please check back later".

Still, according to the BBC news I'm not alone in having to wait for my luggage. The fact that BA needed volunteers to help with the backlog of luggage speaks volumes for their organisational skills.

Monday Jul 02, 2007

Entering the 'Luggage Lottery'

British Airways are really not "The World's Favorite Airline" at the moment (a phrase they felt was accurate since more people flew with them, rather than people actually liking them). We returned from Barcelona on Saturday and whilst we made it, our bags did not. I like to think I'm an understanding person; I know from time to time these things happen and if you fly enough sooner or later a bag goes astray. However, according to the Sunday Times magazine I read recently BA looses more bags than any other large European airline. Even that would be bearable if they had something resembling customer service to deal with these problems. Here's what BA do for you:

Having discovered our bags didn't make it to Heathrow queue up at the baggage information desk. Wait. Wait. Wait some more (there were a lot of people from all manner of destinations who didn't have their bags). The poor people from Vancouver had been waiting two hours for their bags, which were coming out four at a time with ten minute breaks between them. Fill in a customs declaration and give the details of what type of bags had gone missing. Receive a baggage file reference number.

Go home and check on the internet to see what is happening with our bags through the optimistically named 'Baggage Tracer Service'. Until recently that was simply reporting 'Tracing continues. Please check back later'. Since this morning the load on the system has obviously exceeded its capacity and now it either times out or, if you're lucky enough to get the form, the results are an internal server error.

Attempt repeatedly to phone the Tracing Lost Baggage line. Most of the time this gives you a recorded message that BA are experiencing "extremely high call volume, please call back later", i.e. you can't even get in a queue. If you do manage to sneak in you can hold for thirty minutes without talking to anyone, presumably with the idea that attrition through frustration will lower the call load.

This would seem to me to be a text book example of how not to keep your customers happy and get repeat business. Certainly given the way I've been treated by BA over the last six months I'll be trying to use any other airline wherever possible (with the possible exception of Aeroflot, who are even worse if you can believe it).

Thursday Jun 28, 2007

Which is the "right" side?

The Barcelona metro system caught me out yesterday on my way back to the hotel. Getting from the hotel to the venue for The Server Side Java Symposium was easy, just buy a one price (very cheap) ticket and go straight there with no changes. What caused me problems was the barrier to get into the metro on the way back. I put my ticket in, the machine read it, and spat it back out. The arrows illuminated to show acceptance, but the barrier wouldn't move. I was confused. The ticket was valid and had been accepted. Why couldn't I get through? Thankfully a very nice Spanish lady set me straight by pointing out that the ticket reader was on the left of the barrier, not the right, so I was trying to go through the wrong barrier. Duh! According to the article on Wikipedia 8-15% of the general population are left handed so why put the ticket reader on the left? Of course you could argue that people will be holding bags, etc in the right hand so the left side makes sense. What really doesn't make sense to me is why it's not consistent. If it was always on the right or always on the left that would be sensible, but apparently randomly choosing a side is bound to cause problems.

Wednesday Jun 27, 2007

The cost of smoking in Barcelona

We're only a few days away from an almost complete ban on smoking in public places in the UK., which suits me fine as I'm not a smoker. Although much of Europe is still very tolerant of smoking, places like aircraft and metros are most definitely smoke-free due to safety, rather than health reasons. I was on the metro in Barcelona this morning when I saw a sign that showed the fines for travelling without a ticket and smoking. For not having a ticket the fine is €40, which seems reasonable to discourage people from fare dodging. For smoking? €30.05. Thirty Euros and five cents? Who thought it would make sense to add that extra five cents? I'm guessing that if people do get fined on the spot most of the time the fine is a nice round thirty Euros.

It really does amaze me that there are times when a decision gets made like this and nobody realises how ridiculous it is. No doubt it was a committee that made the decision.




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