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Cornwall July 2013

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In what seems to be turning into an annual tradition we took the dog to Watergate Bay in Cornwall for a week of beach running, eating and lazing around. Warning – there are a lot of photos of my dog that follow!

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John’s Luggage Advice For Non-Flying Business Trips To London (And Other Cities)

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Long time readers will know I’m obsessed with luggage. Whenever I see a shop that sells luggage I stand and look at it, imagining it being grabbed by its owner at baggage reclaim in some far-flung part of the world. Oh the adventures it would have being thrown into a taxi and driven to a secluded getaway in a tropical paradise, a beautiful city, a historic town, student accommodation in a new place. If only someone would buy it from this shop and give it the life it deserves… But I digress.

Following a period of a lot of flying I wrote John’s Guide To Travelling With Hand Luggage Only and at the time was a big fan of those cases that have wheels for wheeling around an airport. Large enough to fit a few days clothes and yet small enough to stow safely in the overhead compartment of a plane. I recently spent a few months working several days a week in London and initially used my favourite piece of hand luggage for the job. But soon I realised that while it was great when flying to New York, it wasn’t so good in the following scenario:

  • Travelling 3 hours on a train in the morning and fitting neatly in the overhead compartment, some of which are smaller than others.
  • Jumping on the London underground, fighting through busy crowds on the way to various offices without getting caught in people’s feet and not being awkward when carried up and down stairs.
  • Going back to the hotel via the London underground (see above).
  • After unpacking at the hotel acting as a day bag for the rest of the week in an office – so not being as large and unwieldy when fighting through those crowds (see above).
  • Looking cool, hip and not too business-like (London is full of annoyingly good-looking youngsters).
  • Travelling home for 3 hours on a train (see above).

My hand luggage bag was too rigid to be carried on the shoulder over distance (the best way to battle through crowds) and didn’t compress when I took all the clothes out of it – so continuing to be no fun to carry on the shoulder. I began to do some research and after a while came across a type of bag known as an “overnight bag”. Such bags are soft, worn over the shoulder, can be stuffed full of assorted paraphernalia, come in a variety of rather cool designs (and some uncool ones) and it seemed like the perfect bag design for my travel needs. They’re basically large messenger bags and lots of hipsters wear those – what’s not to like?

In the end I settled on the Weird Fish Hopton Overnight Bag. It looks something like this (pictured here with a regulation Lhasa Apso for size comparison):

My Hopton Overnight Bag And Billy

Let me first note that I paid for the bag myself so I speak only as a happy customer. Also note that any free luggage will be gratefully received (did I mention I’m obsessed with luggage?). I looked at and tried other bags but in the end the combination of the following features put this bag over the finish line:

  • You can stuff loads of things in it and it swallows them easily. Put a couple of things in and it seems like a much smaller bag, taking up no space at all. Ideal for travelling or use as a day bag – it’s like a shape shifter.
  • Nice thick, adjustable strap and nice, thick shoulder pad. Too many of these bags have thin, poorly designed straps that aren’t much use when it’s stuffed full of laptops, clothes and washing kit. They’re often too long and when you want to shorten it the shoulder pad doesn’t actually fit over your shoulder. A heavy bag hanging down your knees is a bitch to carry – that’s not a problem here.
  • It’s flexible. Rigid bags that hold their shape mean no matter how empty or full it is, it’ll always sit in a fixed position on you when it’s on your shoulder. This isn’t great when it’s only got a laptop in it – it’ll be too bulky and you’ll knock into people on the tube and spend all the time being apologised to (even though it’s you who owe them an apology). A flexible bag shapes around your body no matter how full it is – you can pick through crowds like a ninja!
  • A couple of external pockets that actually close for easy-to-reach storage. Pockets are great, there’s no sense having to fish around inside the main bag when you have pockets. Some bags, though, have magnetic clips to hold the pockets closed – except they never stay closed. Proper push studs or straps are a must (this bag has the former).
  • It’s brown. I don’t know if you’re aware of this but all cool luggage has to be brown. Black is for “suits”, brown for everyone else. Just like shoes.

You can see a series of photos below explaining the various design features that make it a winner for a multi-day business trip to London:

If you’re thinking of taking a business trip to London – heck even a non-work weekend trip to London – then you owe it to yourself to invest in the proper luggage. I don’t want to see a photo of an overnight bag on a website, in a shop or a magazine. I want to see it slung over your shoulder while you attend a board meeting, sip cocktails in a posh bar, check into your 5 star hotel (the usual Presidential Suite), sit in a sushi restaurant munching on raw tuna, get thrown out of a strip club and run away from the paparazzi into the night. Because that’s what quality luggage is for!

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John’s Background Switcher Adds Support For 500px, Last.fm, Pixabay and Tumblr Blogs

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I know I’ve said before I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time working on the Windows version of John’s Background Switcher, however I lied and I simply couldn’t resist. If that makes me a bad person then so be it! Following on from adding Instagram integration last year I decided I needed to add a few more sources, fix a few bugs and add stop making excuses and add some translations again – after all there are a great deal more non-English-speaking JBS users than English-speaking. Anyway, I digress.

As always with John’s Background Switcher I let the people who use it decide what to add to it in a reasonably democratic way (the more people ask for something the quicker I do it, pretty much). So if you don’t like it and are a JBS user then take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself why you haven’t complained to me about it!

500px Photos

For a long time Flickr was the place to go to see the best photography and best photographers on the internet but since Yahoo! took over and development ground to a halt it opened the door for other people to come along, innovate and do great things. 500px is the pick of the bunch. If you’re a photographer or a fan of photography then you’re already on 500px but if you’re not then you have to check it out, even if you don’t use JBS. It’s full of simply amazing photos, is free to sign up to and now you can use the photos for your desktop seamlessly. I’ve been testing it for a while and I’ve never seen a photo from 500px that hasn’t made me think “wow!”.

Last.fm Integration

Last.fm is a service that keeps track of the music you listen to. I’m a big Spotify user so as well as annoying my friends on Facebook with the music I’m playing I also send that data to last.fm. I know what you’re thinking: what has music got to do with my desktop? Well the answer is you can now authenticate JBS with last.fm so that you can see the top artists, albums and recent tracks you’ve listened to, right on your desktop. Since last.fm artwork isn’t that large it works best in one of the montage modes and you’ll end up with awesome backgrounds like this:

Pixabay Photos

Pixabay is a really cool and useful site that not only has a great collection of high quality photos, but every one of them is a public domain image. This means if you use Pixabay photos for your desktop, see one and want to use it for your next advertising campaign you can go ahead and do so! It’s free to sign up and use Pixabay and even if you like boring, static desktops but are still interested in public domain images then go check it out!

Tumblr RSS Feeds

Tumblr is a blogging platform that currently hosts over 100 million blogs and it’s fair to say that there are a very large number of Tumblr blogs that are dedicated to photography. Up until now JBS hasn’t been able to get photos from Tumblr blogs which has meant not being able to laugh at White Men Wearing Google Glass or Awkward Stock Photos, follow interesting projects like Humans of New York or look at cool photos on blogs like the Hipstamatic blog. All you need to do is find the ‘RSS’ link on the Tumblr blog you like and select ‘Add’ > ‘RSS photo feed’ in JBS, copy in the link and you can produce cool montages like this:

Multi-Lingual UI

I speak excellent English, despite being Scottish. However it’s a big world out there – I hear the web is world-wide – and a lot of people’s primary language is not English. It turns out that a lot of these people, like me, hate having a boring, static desktop and so want to use John’s Background Switcher and indeed used to. But then I started complaining about not having enough time to coordinate translations so the last two versions have been English-only. Not this time. JBS is now available in English (obviously), French, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. So if you install JBS on a French version of Windows then the JBS UI will appear in French and so on. You can manually override the language but it will pick up your language automatically. Also, like I always say, everything looks cooler in Japanese!

Oh, And One More Thing…

So snapshot scrapbooks (postcard and Polaroid piles) are pretty cool. It’s like taking a bunch of photos and throwing them on a table. However what’s even cooler is that you can now tell JBS to throw even more of them on the table (desktop) by reducing the spacing between them. Go to the ‘Montages’ section of ‘More Settings’ and change the ‘Spacing Between Snapshots’ slider to a value below zero and you’ll find them more tightly packed.

A Postcard Pile With Loads Of Overlapping

A Postcard Pile With Loads Of Overlapping

Enough Already, Go Get It!

Ok, so those are the highlights of John’s Background Switcher 4.7 (there are also a bunch of bug fixes and performance improvements but they’re boring) so if you’re a Windows user (Mac version coming in a few months) then get yourself over to the download page and give it a try! Plus, if you don’t like it you can have your money back (it’s free).

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A Week In Lanzarote

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Following a miserably cold and wet Winter which was preceded by a miserably cold and wet Summer my good lady and I decided we needed a bit of sunshine. We didn’t want to fly long haul and we didn’t want to spend a fortune. In fact our criteria was “the hottest, cheapest place we can find”. And that turned out to be Lanzarote.

It’s a bit of a British holiday destination but where we were staying, Costa Teguise, is pretty quiet at this time of year and not full of drunken teenagers making a lot of noise (we’re a bit old for that sort of thing these days). Anyway, we pretty much got what we wanted and a few photos follow! I think it’s fair to say we drank a lot of coffee.

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The British Winter Tyre Conundrum

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Here in Britain we’re obsessed with the weather. Many find this puzzling since Britain has a pretty mild climate: not very hot in the Summer, not very cold in the Winter and not very exciting in between. We don’t get monsoons. No tornadoes (other that the sort that are so small they wouldn’t get a mention on a Texas weather report). No metres of snow in the Winter. No Summers where you can boil an egg on a road. It gets a bit windy, a bit sunny, snows for a few days in he Winter and pretty much rains for all time in between.

However during most Winters there is a period of a week or two when the country comes to a complete standstill. A mere inch of snow is enough to block all the motorway, leave people stranded in their cars in the night and cause countless crashes. Yet, while the average temperature between November and March stays below 7C, it rarely dips into double negative digits. And if there’s a grand total of a foot or snow over the Winter period then that’s considered a “bad” Winter (such as this one). Countries such as Germany never have these problem. So what’s going on?

The difference is Winter tyres. In a lot of European countries if you crash in Winter with Summer tyres fitted your insurance is declared void. So when the temperature dips below 7C people swap their Summer tyres over to Winter ones and swap them back when temperatures rise above 7C the following Spring.

Brits tend not to buy Winter tyres for two main reasons:

  • There isn’t enough snow and ice to justify them
  • Cost – the fact is motoring in the UK is expensive enough

However after doing some research it’s easy to argue that those two above points are invalid and you’d be crazy not to. Firstly the snow issue. Contrary to popular (in the UK) belief, Winter tyres do not have spikes on them. They differ from Summer tyres in two distinct ways: different rubber and different tread. The rubber in Summer tyres stays soft and pliable above 7C and this means they reshape themselves and stick to the road, providing you with grip. However below 7C that rubber hardens to the point where instead of gripping onto the road surface it loses that cohesion and on wet, slushy or snowy conditions the grip, so traction and stopping distances becomes significantly worse.

Winter tyres on the other hand come into their own below 7C. The rubber stays soft at those lower temperatures and so are able to move and grip the road. Next, the tyre tread is different to allow better gripping in snow and slush. If you look at the picture below closely you can see that snow sticks in the tread and this helps provide better traction on snow. The little ridges on each knobble also grip into the road and slush to help things further:

Some Winter Tyres

Next is cost. Since the rubber on Summer tyres hardens below 7C it turns out that they wear much more quickly than Winter tyres that are designed to work in the cold. So if you switch to using Summer tyres in the Summer and Winter tyres in the Winter you’ll find that both pairs will last longer than using Summer tyres all year round. While the cost difference between Summer and Winter tyres isn’t great it means that in the long-term it can work out cheaper to have both sets of tyres – so long as you have a place to store the spare wheels and don’t use the same wheels and swap the tyres over (since that means paying for tyre fitting and balancing twice a year).

I was interested to see how good they were so bought a spare set of wheels with Winter tyres for my wife’s car when it started getting cold late last year and prayed for snow. Fortunately my prayers were answered and we’ve had one of the coldest Winters in recent years in the UK and plenty of snow. And I tell you what, having tried Winter tyres you’d be crazy not to fit them!

As I mentioned an inch of snow in the UK grinds the place to a halt, but an inch of snow when driving with Winter tyres is nothing at all – it’s just like driving on a wet road. Zero fuss. One night my wife was out babysitting and drove home while a couple of feet of snow was falling. Cars were abandoned all over the place and the only things moving were 4×4 vehicles and her little Fiat 500. I, on the other hand, ended up staying at a hotel from where I was coming home – despite having snow socks for my car, in the end I had to quit and call it a night. If I had Winter tyres I’d have had no problem getting home. Grip in the wet was also very good – altogether infinitely safer than my car on its useless Summer tyres. Sure, you still slip on ice, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as on Summers.

The fact that we stopped caring about the weather forecast because we knew we could get through any snow and slush took a lot of potential stress away and made me a Winter tyre convert. Whether it snows or not they’re far safer than Summer tyres and when it does snow it gives you a much higher chance of getting home without crashing into a tree. I’ll definitely be getting a spare set of wheels and Winter tyres for my car for next time. I would strongly urge you to do the same. Unless you live in Bora Bora. In which case, you lucky git!

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7 Things I Love About Having A Dog

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I’ve always been a cat person. I used to like the fact that they were independently minded, did their own thing, were cute, furry and tough when they wanted to be. When I lived at home we had a few cats over the years and I never once wanted a dog.

That changed over the course of a few holidays with friends and their dog. It soon became clear to me that there really is no comparison between dogs and cats – they’re furry but the similarities end there. Early last year we acquired a rescued Lhasa Apso after a long period of time thinking about getting a dog, doing the research, watching endless episodes of The Dog Whisperer and looking at Google image search results for ‘lhasa apso puppies‘ (if there’s anything cuter than a puppy I haven’t seen it). Nine months later and I wouldn’t swap Billy for the world.

Billy sunbathing

So here is my list, in no particular order, of the things I love about having a dog, and if you’re half tempted to get one, they’ll hopefully tip you over the edge.

1. Dog packs accept both dogs, humans and you

Dogs are, at their core, pack animals. Whereas we humans might live in a house, a caravan or boat, dogs live in a pack. It’s the essence of their being and while their distant relatives wolves only accept other wolves into their pack (and treat everything else as food), dog packs can contain both dogs and humans. Which is great as dogs are incredibly social animals that will treat you as family, want to be with you at all times, will protect you with their life and do whatever they can to keep the peace and keep you all happy (which may involve licking you).

Once Billy got used to the fact that he was in my pack and that he wasn’t the pack leader, he completely relaxed, put his trust in me to make the decisions about what we do, feed him, shelter him and generally take care of him. That trust he has in me swings both ways so I trust him – I almost never put him on a lead since if I call him he’ll come to me and behave himself with other dogs – he knows it’s my job to protect him from bad dogs so he lets me do it and shows me by cowering behind me or barking that he needs my support. Likewise if I see a dog I’m scared of I can cower behind Billy and he’ll take care of the big hairy beast!

2. Dogs live in the moment

We humans tend to live in the past, often a slave to previous experiences and letting that cloud the present. It can cause repeated arguments over and over again, the last time you walked along that path you sprained your ankle so you tread more carefully (which ironically makes you more likely to sprain it again) and so on. Whereas dogs live in the here and the now. Take my dog.

When he was rescued he’d spent 10 days out on the moors in the depth of Winter, lost a lot of weight and most likely been, cold, wet and miserable for that whole time. When my friends parents let him in the house did he jump for joy? Collapse in a heap and cry? Sit looking longingly out the window and ponder the last 10 days? No, he jumped into their lap and didn’t give it a second thought. Dogs that have had tough lives aren’t defined by that. It’s usually us humans who project that onto them by being edgy in situations we know they’ve suffered in and dogs tend to mirror our emotions.

Dogs don’t hold grudges. If you tell one-off for misbehaving they instantly let it go because that was in the past and this is now. They make the most of every moment they have in their lives and that’s something that, to a certain degree, we should all do. It’s certainly something I try to do and is the perfect excuse when I misbehave and am being told off – I can simply reply with “live in the moment, the past is gone!”. It doesn’t always work.

3. Cute dogs turn you into a babe magnet

I’ve never had much luck with women. I partly put it down to the fact that I’m too nice and women generally go for guys who treat them badly (I stand by that assessment and should probably write about it some time). I also put it down to my lack of boyish good looks and “on day release from a lunatic asylum” look when I have my hair cut short. Then there’s my irritating sense of humour. The list goes on.

Anyway, since getting cute little Billy things have changed. Suddenly I’ve gone from being the sort of person women cross the street to avoid to being completely approachable and any stunningly attractive woman I walk past will stop and speak to me, usually noting how sweet my dog is. If only I realised this when I was single… Anyway, I’m happily married now but if you’re single and struggle to meet women then I’d highly recommend a Lhasa Apso.

Billy and his girls

4. Going for a walk is fun, dogs know this already

I’ve always been a highly active person. I’d go mountain biking, hiking, footballing, running, snowboarding, oh the list goes on. But on a normal sunny day if I didn’t have some kind of action activity planned I’d just sit around and do nothing in particular. This changed when I got a dog.

Since walking a dog is an essential part of having a happy dog, you really have to walk your dog at least a couple of times a day. And that’s great! Now if it’s a sunny weekend afternoon or evening I’ll put the earphones in, listen to some podcasts and go walking along the local canal with Billy and just keep going. Sometimes for a good couple of hours.

Me and the dog on a walk

It’s not just going for a walk, it’s going for a walk with my little mate. We’re a team. He could run off if he wanted to but he never does, he wants to be with me and I want to be with him. It’s hard to describe what a fulfilling thing taking a dog for a walk is, but trust me, no matter how frustrating a day I’ve had, it melts into insignificance a few minutes into a walk with Billy. And that’s even if we don’t bump into any attractive women.

5. You can train a dog to annoy your friends (or “why bark when your dog can bark for you?”)

While Billy got used to us he spent the first two nights barking for several hours non-stop. I wanted to kill him but fortunately managed to avoid it. And that was it, he wouldn’t bark any more. This was troubling because I wanted to get him to bark on command as a way to annoy people (particularly my wife) and any instructions you read about training a dog to bark on command starts with:

“First get your dog barking, then repeat the command you wish to use over and over…”

And since I could never get him to bark under any circumstance I was stumped. Eventually I realised that on a long walk he’d have mad turns where he’d run around in large figure of eights barking away. And then he’d snap out of it. It took many of these episodes and me saying “speak” to him (then later at home looking at him and repeating “speak” while being met with a blank expression) before he finally realised what I meant. When he got it and barked it was truly an amazing moment! They don’t speak English but dogs are pretty damn clever when you consider that us humans are incapable of understanding any non-human animal on the entire planet. We’re a lot more stupid than we realise.

So as if to prove it, I can now annoy my friends by getting Billy to bark on command. Dogs rock!

6. Dogs teach you empathy

Dogs think differently to humans. When a child gets overly stressed (perhaps those monsters under the bed are sharpening their claws) the human reaction is to provide comfort, often with the act of cuddling. In humans that calms the child down and everything is right with the world again.

With a dog, cuddling is read very differently. So if you come home and your dog is stressed as a result of you being away, bouncing off the walls and urinating on your shoes and you do the human thing and cuddle it, the dog actually reads it as “ah, so my human master is happy with the way I’m behaving, I’ll continue to be this way EVERY time they come home, particularly the part where I pee on his shoes”. So by treating a dog like a human you’re causing unwanted behaviour. (And no, fortunately my dog’s never done this, although I’m sure he’s been tempted).

Instead you have to remember that a dog thinks differently to you and it makes you see the world through their eyes rather than your own. You empathise with them. If more humans displayed empathy towards each other I’m pretty sure it would be a better place. That’s what dogs do for the human race. Or me.

7. As Cesar Millan says: “When a dog is balanced, you are going to enjoy a true friend”

Dogs never judge you. They never get bored of you. They never fall out with you. They never decide that they don’t like you any more and don’t want to be your friend. When I got Billy I assumed I’d want to leave him at home when I do some things to have a break from him. But now that I have him I want to have him with me all the time. If my company allowed dogs at work I’d spend a lot more time in the office and a lot less time working from home! I’m much more relaxed and productive knowing that he’s laid around on the sofa in my home office. And if I have a tricky problem to solve, I take him for a walk and come back with renewed vigour.

All I have to do is feed him, shelter him, walk him and in return he gives me everything he is. If you ask me, you’ll never see a better deal than that!

Cuteness Dogified

And the cuteness comes for free. :)

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Pictures From A Few Weeks In London

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I’ve spent the past month or so trotting back and forth to London and have been rather enjoying myself. Since I take photos everywhere I go I’ve been taking lots of pictures. However looking at them, they’re not exactly what your average London visitor photographs. No sights, no London Eye, no House of Parliament. No, they seem mostly of food. Not sure what that says about me, but here’s a random assortment of pictures from London! I’m sure I’ll add more to this album over the coming weeks.

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Put Instagram Photos On Your Desktop Wallpaper With John’s Background Switcher

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I promised myself when I released John’s Background Switcher 4.5 a couple of months ago that I’d take a break and go build some iPhone applications I’ve been thinking about. I’m primarily a Mac user now so JBS (currently Windows only) isn’t something I really use and after 8 years working on it in my spare time I figured I’d taken it as far as I could. In short, it was time to work on something else.

Then, while taking a photo with Instagram (you know, that iPhone / Android photo app that Facebook bought for $1 billion), it struck me how cool it would be to add Instagram as a photo source to JBS. Instagram forces you to take square photos and JBS has a few options that make square photos look awesome. With JBS you can make it set your desktop background to a single picture (with a different one on each monitor if you have more than one) and that’s fine, but it can also create cool montages like a mosaic, postcard pile or a polaroid pile like these below:

Since Instagram was cool enough for Facebook to acquire I figured it might be cool enough that people would want to see Instagram photos on their desktop. So following a weekend’s work I’m rather pleased to release a new version of John’s Background Switcher that supports Instagram! (Those montages above were in fact created by JBS using Instagram photos).

Once you’ve installed JBS and brought up the settings window you can click ‘Add’ then ‘Instagram photos’ where you’ll be prompted to authenticate with Instagram:

You’ll need to have an Instagram account to use the JBS integration, so log in and you’ll be able to let JBS (on your computer only) read your feed. You can revoke access at any time from the Authorized Applications page on Instagram. Once you’ve authenticated you can create ‘sets’ from any of these options:

  • Your own photos
  • Your photo feed (the one you see when you fire up the Instagram mobile app)
  • Popular photos (the same photos from the mobile app)
  • Photos you’ve liked
  • Tags (add a tag and JBS will choose photos with that tag)

You can add all of the above and create as many sets as you like (so if you like photos of sunsets, sunrises, cats, lhasa apsos and hamsters, create a set for each tag).

Since Instagram photos are pretty small it won’t work very well if you use a single picture for your desktop, instead choose either a mosaic, postcard pile or polaroid pile for best results. You can select the picture mode here from the settings window:

Anyway, go to the download page, get yourself a copy of JBS (which is completely free) and enjoy! If you want to help me keep staying up late by drinking coffee and making JBS better, there’s a donate button right on the download page.

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The Perils And Pleasures Of An Inquisitive Mind

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If you follow the tech news you’ll often come across stories of “hackers” that have broken into secure military systems, stolen user’s login details to social networking site, extracted lists of credit card numbers from online shops, written viruses that spread across the world blocking up networks and a host of other “evil” and disruptive things. Quite often it turns out that the people doing it were young and inquisitive and instead of having evil motives just wanted to do it to see if they could.

It’s easy to look at these people with scorn and say they should channel their computing skills more wisely, but I never think that because I know exactly where they’re coming from.

I’ve managed to make a career writing software for a living. I’m fortunate in that the products I’ve built are, at any one time, in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people. I pride myself on my software craftsmanship – making phenomenal attention to detail my minimum requirement. I’m pathologically obsessed with details and building the best and most robust products I can while balancing the fact that I can’t spend an eternity polishing and improving – ultimately I have to get what I build in to the hands of people. And you know what? I may not be the smartest guy, the most talented developer or the most creative soul, but I’m pretty good at getting it done – shipping quality software.

While my University degree did cover a bit of software engineering, everything I’ve learned I learned by working with great people and having an inquisitive mind with a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement. However I had to start somewhere.

Back when I attended University it was the early days of the internet and there was a networked computer system that all students had access to. You logged on from any of the desktop computers and could access a variety of systems. I can’t remember what any of these systems were but I can remember the login system. You typed something like ‘login’ and hit a screen that asked for your user name and your password. Then you were in.

It struck me that it wasn’t very secure. If you walked up to a computer that was already showing you the login screen, how would you know it really was the login screen? So I decided to write a small piece of software that looked exactly the same, but when a user put their details in it would store them to a file, tell them they’d entered invalid login details and exit. They’d assume they’d mis-typed their password, login again and success!

Anyway, I wrote my little program, copied it onto a few machines when nobody was looking and ran it on each one so that as I walked away, anybody sitting down would think it was left at the login page. I returned a day or so later and sure enough, on each machine I’d have a look at the hard drive and my password file would have a user name and password for a real user. I tried one out, it worked, then I logged out.

To be clear, my motives had nothing to do with stealing passwords or logging into other people’s accounts. My concern was that the login system was insecure and I wanted to prove it in the best way possible – with real users. Clearly I was ahead of my time in terms of usability testing principles! I wanted to prove that the system was easy to hijack and, once I confirmed that to myself I deleted the programs and all the password files. I was much more interested in how I’d solve the problem to make the login system more secure than using login details for mischief.

The Windows NT Log On ScreenI found it interesting that when Windows NT came along you had to hit Ctrl+Alt+Del to bring up the login dialog (see right). Since that key sequence couldn’t be hijacked on Windows you could guarantee when you pressed it that nobody was running a malicious login screen. Most people didn’t realise this fact but I did following on from my investigations of the network login page while I was a student. I realised then that the people in Microsoft who came up with that solution clearly thought the same way I did. And now I know they do since my career has been doing the same thing they do – building software.

It turns out that to write robust software you need to think about every possible thing that could go wrong because if you have more than 1-2 users, everything that possibly could go wrong absolutely will go wrong at one time or another. The most consistent difference between good developers and mediocre ones is that the latter always code for the ideal situation – it never occurs to them that the user’s network connection might fail, their system might run out of memory, they might delete some files out from under you, that a service you’re using might fall over or that when they query for some data, nothing may come back, etc. Good people look at something and instinctively think “what if X goes wrong?” and try to think through all the edge cases they can. That same attitude is what made me look at the flaws in my University network login system and think about how it could be made more secure.

I’m definitely not the only software developer who’s done questionable things with software in their youth in the name of curiosity or inquisitiveness. Still, I never got caught because I learned to keep my mouth shut. Until today. So let’s just keep this a secret between you and me dear reader! ;)

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A Weekend Camping Near Aysgarth, North Yorkshire

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What better way to spend a rare sunny weekend in Yorkshire than camping with friends and dog in the Yorkshire Dales near Aysgarth? Since I couldn’t think of any other way that’s exactly what we spent the weekend doing and as you’ll see from the photos we had a fantastic time! And Billy, our dog, turned out to be the perfect camping companion. Chilled out and enjoying hanging around with great people (and me). :)