Sporting Developments

I recently started reading Agile Software Development with Scrum by Schwaber and Beedle. It’s a great introduction to this branch of the Agile movement. It’s easy to read and contains practical advice and straight-forward explainations of the terms and processes involved with Scrum.

Even more satisfying than the read itself was the realisation that I’ve been using a good number of the Scrum techniques in managing projects within my team for the last three years or so. I love the idea of a development team reaching a nirvana-like hyper-productive state though one of the examples of a four-person team at Quattro producing 1000 lines of C++ a week took me aback.

In the middle of last month I moved to a new position at WTSI, Team Leader for the New Sequencing Pipeline development team (currently consisting of me). Since then I’ve been working on what I’ll now call a code sprint and last week I had my first product increment. The product is a smallish system for tracking runs on the new technology sequencing machines but is around 10,000 lines of Perl (excluding templates, CSS & tests) built on a light MVC framework I produced in the same time. A one man-team producing 3,333 loc in a week seems ultra-productive and I can’t believe it’s *purely* down to the fact that Perl is easier to write than C++.

Anyway, I’m on a C++ course all next week, so I’ll soon be able to tell. Shame it’s not about Rails instead ;)

Hosting, advertising, content

Well more than a year has passed and it’s just plain embarrassing having not written anything here. So much has happened the choice is either to update or delete. I’ll try updating…

So… I’ve switched ISP again. This site is now free from shackles. I’ve delegated the DNS over to http://afraid.org/ which is updated by web-client from one of the psyphi.net servers. Everything you now see is running over my home ADSL line. It’s not too bad but could seriously do with better upload bandwidth. This new setup now allows me full control over everything server-wise and as much storage as I can eat. Hopefully it saves a small bucket of cash too.

I’ve switched advertising from AdBrite to AdSense which seems to be a little more effective. If and when it starts generating a few cents revenue it may even pay for the domain and the meagre subscription to afraid.org .

It mostly boils down to content in the end and yes, I know there is very little around here. Of course I’d like to change that little by little but I won’t promise anything because then it definitely won’t happen. Steve Pavlina reckons he generates $9000/month with his productivity site and whilst I know I won’t reach that for some time it’s still fairly inspiring. There are still a couple of months left to make my million before the deadline.

Going Green / The Iceman Cometh

Well it’s turning cold again. Doesn’t say too much for this country but we’ve definitely seen the last of summer. The fog’s setting in and it won’t be long before I’m scraping the ice off my car in the mornings.

So it’s cold, and I want myself, my family and my house to be comfortably warm as cheaply as possible. I’ve always tried to be fairly green but it turns out it’s not particularly cheap in terms of initial outlay although it tends to pay for itself in the longer term.

It turns out of course that it’s not just more heat but also more light you need come winter. So when we moved into the new house I set about replacing the lightbulbs with the disproportionately-priced energy-saving lightbulbs (the folded fluorescent-tube variety). Unfortunately the kitchen and bathroom are each fitted with a series of 50-watt mains-voltage spotlights, GU10 if memory serves. Energy-saving (7-watt) equivalents are nigh-on £10 each from Homebase , and not particularly common, either.

That’s really not a particularly enticing price when simply compared to the full-on regular bulbs for well under £2 each. But, like I say long-term they will pay for themselves pretty quickly, depending on how much you pay your power provider.

So switching out these bulbs got me thinking about how to cut out the electricity supplier all together. Where my place is located, it’s not directly near any sources of water or constant wind (of the renewable-energy-source variety). I figured solar panels were my only option. Not bad when you find out you can have some of the installation paid for by the government, but not so great when you find out that the total cost of an average installation is of the order of £10,000. Hmm – we’ll be saving up for a while!

Well, then I widened my criteria – a lot of my searching for energy efficiency is actually driven by the need to lower expenses and outgoings. Obviously finding the lowest-cost service provider is a good start – I tried out Uswitch to move from Powergen to EDF (but not before I’;d claimed my free energy-saving lightbulbs as a “new” Powergen customer!).

So I realised a large chunk of my outgoings are car-related. With the current, wallet-shattering prices of diesel it’s a good place to look for economies. Biodiesel definitely seems to be the way forward. From a little scouting around I see that there are two common types of useful fuel, 100% biodiesel and 95/5% petroleum diesel and biodiesel mix. A little more digging and you can find lists of cars and which approved mix their warranties allow. Sadly it was at this point I found my Peugeot 306 seems to only accept the 95/5 mix (I forget which standard code this is) so it’ll only save me 5 pence in the pound. Next time I change my car I’ll be sure to make this one of my criteria.

Of course there’s a thriving cottage industry in recycling frying oil from vans, chip shops and the like. Making your own biodiesel seems to be relatively easy given a simply chemistry kit and the right license. Only a little more surfing and it turns out one pretty neat thing to do is to couple the electricity supply problem with the biodiesel phenomenon. Buy a little generator and either run it straight on home-brew biodiesel or modify it to convert plain old vegetable oil on-the-fly. Fantastic idea but my wife doesn’t want the “pleasant aroma of french-fries or popcorn” in a cloud sat in the back-garden. We’re sufficiently close to the neighbours that I suspect it wouldn’t go down too well with them either.

Oh well, back to the drawing-board.

Back, at least to the energy saving… The right windows and doors are obviously important and that’s next on the big list of home-improvements. I think it’ll wait until next summer or so, when we’ve saved up quite a few pennies. I reckon we should be able to fit the place out (a moderate-sized 3-bedroom semi-detached) for around £4000-£4500 . Not insignificant, but again worth it in the long term.

Until then I’ll have to make do with simply replacing the loft-insulation. It’s gone from around 1cm thick ancient rubbish to shiny, new, pink, 17cm thick over the half I’ve done. The only problem now is I’d like to add loft floorboards without popping out the plasterboard ceilings below. Doh! Maybe I’ll go with 10cm thick stuff for the rest. It’s all currently 3 for the price of 2 rolls, again from Homebase.

The ISP Hosting blues

Initial work on the sign-on is done. It’s a shame Namesco don’t support the SSL virtualhost in the same way that Simply did. I really must finish the sign-on code and make it use session keys instead. Maybe some sort of javascript hashing thing client-side simple for obfuscation would help. Hmm.

I can safely say that after a good few years running a (admittedly el-cheapo basic) webserver at a remote ISP is a pain in the proverbials. I’m really looking forward to setting up John’s parish server & services on his DSL connection.

So my ISP renewal is up soon. I’m sure I’m paying too much but it’s *so* painful switching services over – finding out what’s supported and what isn’t; finding out that all your CGIs have to be renamed .cgi and can live anywhere, or vice-versa – named anything but all live in cgi-bin (well, that’s the way I do it).

Anyway… This will be the first entry in my hastily lashed-up weblog system. At least it only depends on my code plus XML::RSS. Goodness knows (well ok I should really look into it) what movabletype depends on.

Generating PDFs from .docs, .ppts and friends

So a few weeks ago I set up a system to fix a standing problem I’ve had for a looong time. We have an internal web-based repository for tracking versions of documentation. It takes any sorts of files but the majority of them seem to end up as .docs and .ppts.

That’s fine for the minority of our users on Windows but by far and away most are on UNIX – primarily Linux & Tru64 – and they can’t do much with those formats. Ok, so some of them have OpenOffice installed but for those who do it’s still a pretty bulky application to startup to view these things quickly.

The answer it seemed was to convert them on-the-fly or on-update to a format which is more easily viewed. PDF seemed the obvious choice, but how to generate? Initially we had a copy of Acrobat Distiller running on a Windows PC watching a shared folder on a network drive but that really isn’t the right solution. The wvPS suite was also considered but at the time the webservers were running on Alpha/Tru64 and the suite didn’t compile up easily.

Last week one of the queries I had reminded me that I still didn’t have a solution to this problem. Googling around a bit I found this thread which describes a macro to perform the right sort of thing. Combining this with the openoffice commandline options -invisible -headless -nologo you’d think this would work without also requiring X. Unfortunately openoffice still wants a display – presumably to access fonts, but I’m not sure.

Enter Xvfb, the X virtual framebuffer. This is a virtual X display which effectively runs headless. You can screengrab from it using the xwud tool (another part of the Xfree86 distribution). Running Xvfb on a given display and telling openoffice to open on that display means the whole system can run headlessly and is scriptable at last. The machines running the webservers are significantly more beefy than those on people’s desks so things don't appear to be too slow to kick off.

Another useful thing to do is to duplicate the OpenOffice macro to support other file-types and selecting the right macro via a command-line switch based on the extension of the file to convert. It seems we have a workable solution and relatively flexible one at that. Conversion quality is generally pretty good too. Here’s looking forward to OOo version 2!

… of course the only thing is that now the web systems are linux-based wvPS will work properly. Doh. The consolation is that we can do PPTs, RTFs and of course the native StarOffice and OpenOffice formats and other weird and wonderful things.

VoIP at Home

Some time ago I bought myself a Netgear TA612V broadband VoIP adaptor. I’d been looking around at Sipura , Broadvoice , Vonage and the like and quite liked the idea of the TA612V. It provides two separate analogue phone lines out, ethernet in from the DSL or cable router and ethernet out with QoS traffic-shaping to give the audio lines precendence. It even came with 555 Minutes of calls from Sipgate (a German company).

If you make less than around £10 calls per month (above which I think Vonage would be cheaper) then the initial layout (around £60 from http://www.broadbandbuyer.co.uk/ ) for the netgear adaptor probably pays itself back under a year. All UK calls via sipgate are around 1.9p per minute at time of writing.

So I signed up for a free sipgate number. I went for 0845 as it’s Lo-Call rate in the UK – that’s to say I make the same savings as with calling out with any other sipgate number, but it also works out cheaper for people to call in. Sipgate’s tech support are pretty prompt and helpful though as with so many support services, don’t necessarily answer the questions they’re actually asked.

Anyway, one thing I didn’t like so much was that the TA612V turned out to be tied to the sipgate service – I was really hoping for a terminal adaptor + router with QoS which was configurable by hand. Netgear’s support also seems minimal and I’ve also developed the impression that only ten of these units have been sold. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a BIOS flash which allows the SIP configuration by hand.

What with VoIP being flavour of the year I’d expected a little more hype from Netgear about their neat little adaptor. I guess they’re keeping quiet to see if it’s all as big a deal as the pundits are making out. Asterisk certainly continues to make a stir.

One other point to note is that my TA612V sits behind my DSL+NAT+Wireless router. Unfortunately my entire home network *apart* from the VoIP adaptor is wireless and that renders the QoS on the VoIP adaptor utterly useless. I guess I’ll need to invest in one of those fancy MIMO access points or something and disable the 802.11G-network on my primary. Maybe when Alex moves back up to Leeds he’ll give me back my old Netgear FM114P wireless + firewall.