I love it when a plan comes together…

The main cast of The A-Team. Clockwise from to...

The main cast of The A-Team. Clockwise from top: H. M. Murdock, B. A. Baracus, Hannibal Smith and Templeton “Face” Peck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Required viewing for children young and old used to be the A team. It was fairly formulaic. Within an hour, you knew that B. A. Barracus would refuse to get on a plane, only to be tricked or sedated by the others in the team.

Howling Mad Murdoch would get to jump into some kind of plane or helicopter and pilot it with ease. Faceman would use his charisma to acquire whatever the team needed at the time.

My favourite bit was where the team would be trapped somewhere in an old factory or barn with a clapped out vehicle of some sort. The iconic music would burst into life as they welded and bolted unlikely looking accoutrements onto their battle wagon of choice before going out and blitzing the bad guys. Zillions of bullets would fly off in every direction and miraculously, no-one would be killed.

And at the end of it all, Colonel Hannibal Smith would utter those immortal words “I love it when a plan comes together”. The irony of course was that he never, ever seemed to have a plan up front.

The truth is, however, that no endeavour of any substance is likely to succeed without a plan and the bedrock of any plan is formed by the estimates for each task.

I still remember the first programming estimate I ever made. It was for a survey that was to be sent out to loads of people on floppy disk. The recipients would put the disk into their computers and answer questions, saving the answers back onto the disk before returning it. I was young, overconfident and lacking experience. I sucked my breath through my teeth (because that’s what I thought people did when estimating) and came up with my answer; a day. One working day. Utter madness. The design alone would take longer than a day.

Her Majesty’s Royal Artillery know that their entire craft is based on estimation. The forward observer has to estimate where he is on a map. He radios in the grid co-ordinates of where he estimates he wants the barrage of artillery to land. The guy in charge of the battery has to estimate the atmospheric conditions and wind speed before the gun fires an initial sighting round.

If all goes to plan, the forward observer will see where the shot lands and radio back with feedback. Another shot follows and so it continues until the forward observer has seen sighting shots on both sides of the target, at which point he radios a single word; “bracketed”.

The battery fires another shot exactly between the two which is hopefully direct on target, at which point the forward observer radios back “fire for effect!” This innocuous three word command results in all hell being let loose on the poor target.

This protocol is the only way to get a programmer to give a good estimate. Programmers hate giving estimates because it creates an expectation. Understandably so, because the craft of computer programming is complex and you  don’t know everything up front. You need a couple of sighting rounds to get on target.

Firstly, ask them if they can think of a similar task that took less than the task in question and how long that took. Then a similar task that took longer. If the guy’s worth his salt, these two extremes won’t be too far apart. Bracketed! The estimate you’re looking for must lie between the two. Once you have these estimates from everyone in the project, fire for effect!

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I wish I had a computer like they do in the movies

Jurassic Park (film)

Jurassic Park (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Depictions of technology in films and TV always make me either cringe or laugh out loud. Either they are so completely antiquated in their depiction or they exhibit properties so advanced that we can only dream of being able to do the same thing. I do feel sorry for the film directors because an awful lot of technology is fairly dull to look at. If you have a whole scene that revolves around your protagonist doing stuff on a computer, it’s going to look very dull indeed unless you spice it up somehow.

Sometimes the film makers do this by making the machine’s display ridiculously frenetic or by making the machine make noises. Often, they go completely over the top and exaggerate what today’s computers are capable of. How many times have you seen a computer which scrolls the characters onto the screen one at a time with a beep accompanying every letter? What about when a particularly grainy satellite image appears and someone says “enhance” and the machine crunches away, the pixels sharpen, the image zooms in and suddenly we can read the exact brand of cigarettes the bad guys smokes.

If someone wants to hack into a system in real life, they spend a long time cracking the defences of the target network. They might use social engineering techniques to unlock an initial chink in the armour. They might perform exacting research into who set up the security. They probably network with other individuals to share ideas. In short, it takes a fair amount of time and what appears on the screen is boring, mundane text. It’s not particularly cinematographic so I guess you can forgive the film makers for trying to jazz things up, but bars slamming shut across the screen or skull and crossbones appearing with some cheesy phrase seem faintly ridiculous.

Here are some of my favourite films and some of their technological howlers;

1. Superman IIIRichard Pryor steals the pence from every transaction in his bank’s computer system. This one touches my heart, probably because I work for a banking software company. He manages to hack into the system by typing the command “OVERRIDE ALL SECURITY”.

2. Independence Day – Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith fly into a really advanced alien spaceship and kill it with a virus. Really? I would have thought that such an advanced civilization might have come across that kind of threat before and don’t get me started on how Jeff Goldblum’s kit could just be plugged in – maybe the U in USB really is universal.

3. Jurassic Park – when our heroes discover that the whole computer system has been hacked by the resident nerdy programmer and locked up as tight as the velociraptor should have been, the young girl taps a few keys on the keyboard before uttering those immortal words “This is Unix, I know this”. She then proceeds to unlock everything in the blink of an eye.

4. Weird Science – two teenage kids create a beautiful woman in their bedrooms using their computer, a modem and a pair of bras on their heads. We have just about got 3D printing, let alone creating anything as complex as a woman!

I look forward to the day when our computers catch up with the movies.

 

Lies, damn lies

statistics often lie

statistics often lie (Photo credit: mac steve)

According to Reuters, approximately, we produce 14 billion bullets annually. That’s enough to kill everyone on the planet twice over. Seeing as we are all still here, a statistician might tell you that bullets are a woefully inefficient way to kill someone.

According to the World Health Organisation, 1.2 million people are killed annually on the world’s roads. Seeing as there are a mere 60 million cars produced a year, choose a car if you want to off someone. Or you could just leave them be. They are 1,500x more likely to die from cancer or 3000x more likely to die from heart disease.

Every time my Grandad saw statistics on accidents caused by drunk drivers, he used to make a quip that all drivers should be drunk whilst behind the wheel. After all, if 20% of accidents are caused by drivers who are under the influence, we could eliminate the other 80% if everyone was drunk. I think even a statistician would spot the error in that analysis. Every day, newspapers are full of stories backed up by statistics but how do we know they haven’t just done the same analysis as my Grandad and got the complete wrong end of the stick?

Everyone fills in surveys. In the UK, we are required to fill one in by law every 10 years – the census. I’m always amazed at how banal the questions seem. As I think it’s important for the government to have good information about the population, I take it quite seriously. I take care over my answers to make sure they are correct. Many people don’t. Everyone should, as there are harsh penalties for those who provide incorrect information and yet the 4th most popular religion in England and Wales in the 2001 census was Jedi.

If I fill in surveys other than the census, I tend to start with good intentions but then halfway through, there will be a question that seems utterly ridiculous or invasive and from that point on I either give up, or it becomes a box ticking exercise that I don’t take much care over. And yet, it is precisely these surveys that form the bedrock of many of the statistics we are bombarded with. It’s worth remembering that when you read some exhaustive analysis on why people who play Angry Birds are more likely to drink strawberry milkshakes.

After all, 78.4% of statistics are made up on the spot.

Secrets

Paddington station, still a mainline station, ...

Paddington station, still a mainline station, was the London terminus of the Great Western Railway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a deep, dark secret. I try to keep it quiet, but occasionally I make an almost involuntary utterance that gives the game away. It is a secret shared with my Dad. When Nan and Grandad were alive, we often used to stay with them.

One evening, Nan gave me a pile of books to read. They used to belong to my Dad. Most of them were unremarkable; the sort of reading material you might expect an adolescent boy to read. In among the smattering of comics and adventure books was the evidence that he shared my secret.

It was about an inch thick and the cover was missing. The binding and the pages showed signs of heavy use. Inside, every page was crammed with listings. I took a sharp intake of breath once I realised what they were. They were listings of locomotives. Many of them had been underlined in blue biro. My dad was a trainspotter. Swindon was a good place to be one because it was pretty much the heart of the Western railways. Many locomotives ended up there for maintenance, so there was a good chance of seeing a wide range of rolling stock.

I’m not a card-carrying, anorak wearing trainspotter, but I do like trains. Occasionally, when we are doing the crossword, I let on that I know that the foldy thing on top of the train that connects to the power lines is a pantograph and that an electric train made up of a small number of motorised carriages is called an EMU (or Electric Multiple Unit). There is a diesel equivalent too, but DMU is not a word.

Sometimes I can’t help myself. Before I know it, I tell people that the train gauge in the UK is 4 feet 8 and a half inches because of Stephenson, but if Isambard Kingdom Brunel had won the gauge wars, our trains would be bigger, faster and more comfortable because the gauge would have been 7 feet and a quarter-inch.

At its peak, the UK’s railway network had 37,000 kilometres of track. It must have been fantastic to have the freedom to travel from almost any town in the country to almost any other and trains used to always be on time. Thanks mainly to the axe of Dr Richard Beeching, today we have about 16,000 kilometres.

For reasons that make sense to someone, we have a separate company responsible for track and train operating companies responsible for trains. Our trains are the most expensive in Europe and they seldom run on time.

I guess that’s progress, but I still like trains. Just don’t tell anyone.

In the cloud

IBM Cloud Computing

IBM Cloud Computing (Photo credit: IvanWalsh.com)

One of the more interesting areas I have been lucky enough to work with is cloud. We run some banks live in the public cloud. The scale of the cloud offerings is simply staggering. There are three main big players; Microsoft, Google & Amazon. Between them, they bought 31% of the world’s CPUs in the last two years and Microsoft alone is pumping a billion dollars a year into the initiative.

I was surprised to learn that the datacenters that make up the cloud are not stocked with the latest generation machines, because slightly older stock makes much more sense on a dollar per CPU cycle basis. Also, the economics are quite surprising. CPU power accounts for less than 1% of the overall cost of the data centre. Between 50 – 90% of power that feeds into the datacenter is eaten up by lighting, cooling, transforming etc. and a sizable proportion is taken up by the storage arrays.

Siting the datacenters is extremely important. The first consideration is power. You need a lot of it and it needs to be reliable & cheap. You also need good internet links. There’s no point siting your fledgling data centre next to a nice shiny power station if people can’t connect into it. Climate is another consideration. Obviously, the hotter the country, the more your cooling costs will be. The last consideration is security. Obviously, the more the customer base builds up, the more attractive a cloud data centre becomes as a terrorist target. The ideal site for datacenters is Iceland. The climate is cool, there is plenty of cheap geothermal energy and all transatlantic internet links pass through Iceland. The UK is a very expensive place for a datacenter due to high land and labour costs.

The datacentres are populated using pre-fabricated containers containing 5,000 CPUs in readymade racks, preconfigured with storage. When the container is delivered, they plug in power, network & water (for cooling) and the container starts initializing. Not all the servers in the container can start up at the same time as the thing would melt, so they start up in waves equally spaced around the container. A typical datacenter will have many of these containers with typically 2 – 3 being added every week.

With this many machines, hardware failure is a fact of life. Anything up to a 3% failure rate is business as usual. If the failure rate hits 10%, the machine vendor dials in and performs remote diagnostics on the container. If the failure rate hits 30%, the machine vendor sends out an engineer to inspect the container and perform any remedial action necessary. If the failure rate hits 50%, the container is powered down and replaced.

I was surprised by how flexible the Azure cloud is. There are three ways you can use it. The first is what they call the “web role”, which allows any kind of web-based activity (web pages, active server pages, web services etc). The second is what they call the “worker role” which allows you to do pretty much anything providing the software you want to run does not require installation (i.e. it can be copied across) and does not need to access the registry.

There were big challenges to overcome. Because you never really know which machine your application is running on or where your data is, it gives regulators a heart attack. There is also the fact that the database is what they call “eventually consistent”. Because your data is spread around and copied onto different machines, there is no real backup as we would normally consider it. You can back up your data to a local backup, but if your database is big, you may want to take advantage of the service they offer whereby they post you a tape once a day. There is no such thing as a printer connected to the cloud so if you want a hard copy of anything, you have to get creative.

The costs of a cloud based solution are *very* compelling, especially when you consider that you are effectively getting a fully managed, fault tolerant data centre. There are a number of pricing options depending on how much you want to commit to. There is everything from pay as you go, right through to volume licensing. If I had my way, I’d put every server in the cloud.

 

My to do list

174x108

174×108 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I try to be organised, really I do. I work from a list. Occasionally, I rewrite my to-do list because many of the items can be scrubbed. I’m sure I’m not alone with some stubborn items that sit at the bottom of my to do list which get transcribed again and again. Well, enough’s enough. I can’t procrastinate forever. Each week, one of these items will get crossed off.

  1. Make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs
  2. Buy a clapped out DeLorean, restore it, get it up to 88 miles per hour on a dark and stormy night and go back in time to tell my first girlfriend to get over herself
  3. Run into a petrol station wearing a crazed expression and sporting a Zippo lighter. Flick on the lighter and shout “Yippee Kayey m***** f*****”
  4. Successfully face the Kobayashi Maru
  5. Cross the beams for a laugh
  6. Make my boss an offer he can’t refuse
  7. Buy a bigger boat
  8. Try defying gravity
  9. Say “I’ll be back” in a menacing voice and be taken seriously
  10. Shout “Get away from her you bitch” whilst toting a pulse rifle inside a power lifter
  11. Take some gremlins to the drive through and then throw them into the sea after midnight
  12. Put everything I own on 17 black and order a Martini, shaken, not stirred
  13. The next time I’m in a meeting where we dissect something that’s gone wrong – shout “Inconceivable!”
  14. Tell everyone I know about the fight club
  15. Poke Sauron in the eye
  16. Eat three shredded wheat and observe the consequences
  17. Cut the blue wire even though everyone is screaming at me to cut the red one
  18. Check out of, and leave the Hotel California
  19. Push an Oompa-Loompa into the chocolate river
  20. Turn my stereo up to 11

What’s the time Mr Wolf?

Railroad watch

Railroad watch (Photo credit: mpclemens)

I could never spend a large amount of money on a watch. To me, they are utilitarian devices that I can consult during the day to see where I’m supposed to be. That doesn’t mean I attach no importance to my timepiece. If I manage to walk out of the house in the morning without putting it on, I know I’m doomed to a day of looking at my bare wrist in a reflex action that’s very hard to shake. Of course, now I also carry a mobile phone. This device can tell me the time perfectly adequately, so why haven’t I consigned my analog wrist mounted device to the scrap-heap?

There is a certain amount of sentimentality as my mum gave me my current timepiece, but if I’m honest with myself, that’s not the only reason. Firstly, I have to fish my phone out of whichever pocket its hiding in. When I look at the digital numbers on the face of my mobile phone, my brain has to mentally convert these glowing figures into the analog constructs I’m used to. I don’t know how many times I look at my watch in a day, but probably enough to consider it too much of a faff to replace with my phone.

My first ever watch was a wind up affair. It came with a dour warning about the dangers of overwinding the mechanism lest the delicate clockwork parts inside break. I remember going into school one January morning and being confronted with the first digital watches. No need to wind these up, they’re battery-powered. Look, my one’s got a light so you can tell the time in the dark. If you press this button, you can see the date. One of them even had a tiny calculator built into the face of the watch with a miniscule keypad containing the buttons.

As a sucker for anything new, I found myself drawn to the dark side. The promise of no winding. The snazzy features. Being able to tell the time in the dark. But after a few minutes of playing, I decided that the new devices had significant drawbacks. The displays, being dark grey on a grey background, were difficult to read. The minute buttons were so small and hard that keeping them depressed for any length of time hurt your finger. The absolute worst thing about them was their appearance. They lacked the simple elegance of the analog face. In its place was a cheap looking display with all the charm of a cold, wet fish.

If the rumours are to be believed, Apple are about to release a watch. I’m sure it will be amazing and packed with multimedia features. No doubt it will be very successful, just like all their other recent inventions. Just so long as they don’t forget the fundamental purpose of a timepiece. When I look at my wrist, before I want a multimedia extravaganza, I want to know the time.

Hands off, that’s mine!

A man protests Digital Rights Management in Bo...

A man protests Digital Rights Management in Boston, USA as part of the DefectiveByDesign.org campaign of the Free Software Foundation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a saying in England that possession is nine tenths of the law. Today where we live surrounded by consumerism, ownership has become a very important concept. Whether we like it or not, society almost defines us by what we own. Against this backdrop, it seems bizarre that these days, ownership of many things has become a good deal more ephemeral.

My first experience of gainful employment was a paper round. I worked 7 days a week lugging around a paper bag that, at the outset of my round at least, weighed almost as much as I did. The worst day was Sunday where newspapers ballooned to 6 or 7 times the size thanks to all the supplements that came for free. The first thing I did when I got paid was head down to town where I foolishly blew my first week’s wages on some records.

My mum was less than impressed with my new acquisitions. She wanted to know what I was going to do for the rest of the week with no money. To me, the answer was obvious, listen to Dire Straits and Bananarama. I had no money the week before when I didn’t have a paper round, so I didn’t appreciate why it was so bad to have no money this week.

I feel sorry for the poor sod who has inherited my paper round today. Not only are the newspapers twice as big as they were, but when he foolishly blows his wages on music, the chances are that he won’t even own the titles he chooses. He will hand over his hard earned wages to some dot com or another in exchange for a license. OK, so that license will allow him to listen to his music. It won’t, however, allow him to lend his music to his friends. He won’t be able to sell it on, nor will he be able to leave it to his kids. In short, he never owns anything.

I have a number of books, but I have even more in electronic format. Most of these titles are protected by digital rights management software. Because I am a big fan of one particular publisher, more of my titles come from that company than any other. A few years ago, that company decided to exit from the electronic publishing industry, taking all their titles with it.

Suddenly, all my eBooks disappeared. Without apology or refund, the company rescinded my access to those titles I know and love. I checked the license terms and they were quite within their rights to do so. If you are going to put a button labelled “buy now” next to some kind of electronic product or another, then give me what you are advertising. Otherwise, the wording should be changed to “license now temporarily with limited rights”.

A state of war now exists between our two countries

Falkland Islands

Falkland Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Camping in the Forest of Dean during a chilly April in 1982 was not my idea of fun. Some people like to be at one with nature. I’m not one of them. I like my accommodation to have stars (the more the merrier), central heating and a bed. Preferably with some soft down pillows that you can just sink into.

When we arrived, there was a list of jobs waiting for us. The first thing to do was to put up the tent. It was massive. We were not. It was a struggle. Then we had to make a drying rack out of whatever we could find. If you know we’re going to need a drying rack, why not pack one.

Then one night, everything changed. The word went out. Something big was about to happen. We crowded into the only tent with a radio. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, made a live broadcast. Her tone was sombre. Her words were deadly serious. The Argentinians had invaded the Falkland Islands. Britain would put together a task force to retake them. “Where are the Falkland Islands?” someone asked. “Just off Scotland.” someone replied sagely. It felt like the most momentous event ever.

After the radio broadcast, some gurus came on and discussed what that meant. We then learned that the Falkland Islands were not just off Scotland. They were a very long way away indeed. Our task force had a very long journey ahead. It would be weeks before they arrived. America tried to broker a peaceful deal between the two countries in the intervening time, but to no avail.

War should always be a last resort, but there was a certain purity of purpose about the conflict that has sometimes been missing from later engagements. Argentina invaded because they though they owned the islands. We retook the islands because we disagreed. You could argue about who’s right and who’s wrong, but there is no doubt about why each country behaved the way it did.

Apart from the abortive diplomacy efforts by the Americans, there were only two parties involved. There was a definite trigger and the conflict came to a definitive end with nearly a thousand people dying in the process. The argument still rumbles on because both sides feel they are right. Funnily enough, a state of war was never officially declared.

A small garrison remains there to this day. The cost of this presence equates to over $30K per year per islander. If we spent as much for everyone in the UK, our defence budget would rocket by nearly $2 trillion!

I wonder if we had this clarity of purpose about the Iraq and the Afghanistan conflicts, would they have taken so long and cost so much? Would they have achieved more?

Would they have even started?

Four eyes, four eyes!

English: Eye with a contact lens (myopia).

English: Eye with a contact lens (myopia). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schoolchildren can sniff out weakness at 20 paces. It doesn’t matter whether you have crooked teeth, ginger hair or a slightly rotund midriff. Once they smell blood, they go in for the kill. Call it taking the Michael or extracting the urine, such teasing to a small child can be mortally wounding. Of course, once you’re older, such behaviour doesn’t tend to wound so much.

I wore spectacles from an early age. Because my prescription changed every 6 months, it made no sense to spend a huge amount on any eye correction I wore, so I suffered the ignominy of National Health glasses. These were spectacles provided by the state for those who couldn’t afford to pay for fashionable eye correction.

By necessity, they were cheap. There was only one design which came in chunky plastic. You could choose between brown, black and a kind of tortoiseshell colour. In the rough and tumble of childhood play, broken glasses became a fact of life. Mum or Dad would carry out makeshift repairs using sellotape or superglue. When I started wearing them, the lenses were like milk bottles, fashioned from thick, heavy glass.

Thank goodness, over time the manufacturers turned to plastic which cut down the weight significantly. In addition, they worked out how to make the lenses much thinner. The bridge of my nose was grateful for both developments.

Several people (including Da Vinci and Descartes) dreamed up concepts for contact lenses, but it was 1949 before someone came up with a design that was bearable for any period of time. The original lenses did not allow oxygen through to the eye which led to all sorts of nasty side effects. Over the coming decades, more sophisticated, comfortable and safer designs were developed.

As soon as I started work, I sought freedom from the spectacles I’d been shackled to. I happily wore contact lenses for a number of years, before my laziness overcame my vanity. I don’t miss all the faffing around. I do miss the ability to see in the rain or to have a clear view when coming in from the cold.

So every 2-3 years, I spend the equivalent to a top of the range iPad on new spectacles. If only on economic grounds, if I was brave enough, I should invest in laser eye surgery. Developed in the 80’s from IBM technology, it was Dr Stephen Trokel who pioneered and applied the excimer laser in a ground-breaking procedure. The idea of burning away bits of my eye to sculpt the perfect lens sounds like it would be difficult to fix if they got it wrong.

One day, a quick injection of stem cells or the insertion of some nano-technology that adapts to your exact correction requirements will be safe, pain and error free. Call me a coward, but I think I’ll wait.