Yearly Archives of: 2005


John’s Christmas Bounty


As I’m the wrong side of 30 nowadays Christmas for me is all about family and having some time off from work. Christmas (at least the present-opening side of things) is for kids in my book. I say that, but come Christmas morning I’m not exactly unhappy to receive a selection of interesting presents! The following are some of the highlights…

The Broons Annual (it’s a comic book)

The Broons AnnualThe Broons are a working class family stuck in the 1950s who get up to all sorts of amusing and somewhat innocent adventures. They have 7 children, live in a tenement block, the mother does all the work and the father mostly goes down the pub or out fishing. It’s all written in Scottish so they say things like “JINGS! THERE’S NAE NEED TAE EAT SAE FAST YE DAFT GOWK!” and “MICHTY ME! THERE’S A MANNIE AT THE WINDAE! CALL THE POLIS!”. Every other year a new Broons annual is released and I’d eagerly read mine throughout Christmas day when I was a kid and it’d keep me busy. (Every other year they release Oor Wullie but I’ll save that for next year). My brother got it for me this year after a gap of many years so it’s like a trip back to my childhood! What’s strange is that it hasn’t changed at all, they’re still stuck in the 1950s, although the internet does pop up from time to time so they do have some of the modern trappings! Although my girlfriend can’t understand it as she disnae speak Scottish. I’m black affronted.

An Empty BoxSome Tasty Snacks That Didn’t Last Long

I love flapjacks and anything that in any way, shape or form resembles flapjacks. I also like shortbread. And caramel shortbread, and tiffins and anything like any of the above. So when I got a box full of delicious bite-sized snacks it didn’t take me more than a few hours to devour the lot. They were lovely though!

Some Things To Make Me Smell Nice And Age Well

Some Smelly StuffA collection of fine-smelling products like deodorant, shampoo and conditioner (what with the long hair) is fine, but now I’m getting older I notice I got some anti-wrinkle cream (I guess my good lady’s trying to tell me I’m not 21 any more). I’ll start to worry when I get presents including ralgex, foot powder and worse of all, Just-For-Men hair dye!

Coffee To Make You Smile

A Happy Cup Of CoffeeRegular readers will know I love my coffee and I also love my coffee machine. So I was very thoughtfully given some swanky coffee cups and some equipment to enable me to produce a more professional cappuccino like in the picture. Cool! What’s even cooler is that the smiley face remained all the way down until the cup was finished – just like a good pint of Guinness!

Alias Season 4 On DVD

Alias Season 4Alias is like James Bond (played by a very attractive woman – Jennifer Garner) crossed with Sunset Beach (insane story lines episode after episode, each crazier than the previous one). It’s fantastic and unfortunately I missed the start of Season 4 of the show so decided to wait until they reran it. No need as I’ve now got the box set courtesy of my brother! We’ve watched the first 9 episodes and it’s still as amazing as ever – and that Jennifer Garner gets sexier by the season…

Some Excellent Macadamia Nuts

Macadamia NutsI love macadamia nuts. I’d eat them all the time except Britain is the worst country in the world for quality food. The French PM is absolutely right when he says the UK has the worst food in the world. It’s terrible. However you only realise this when you travel abroad and try other food then come home to what they pass off as tasty. The only time I manage to get good macadamia nuts (among other things) is when I’m in another country or there’s a French travelling market in town. So it was with some surprise that I opened these ones and discovered that they were definitely up to standard! As a result they didn’t last very long… But at least I know where to get more.

Anyway, that’s a quick list of some of the nice things I received this year. Much more than I deserve but what can I do? Now, onto the New Year!


A Weekend Without The Internet

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There’s a fault with my telephone line that has two nasty side-effects. The first is that if I phone someone or they phone me, there’s a loud clicking sound about every half a second which is quite annoying. But the second problem is that I can no longer access the internet! No broadband and not even dial up!

They’re sending out an engineer on Monday morning but it means I’ll be spending the weekend entirely devoid of internet access. I won’t be able to look up little bits of information I see on TV, I won’t be able to IM friends, I won’t be able to Google my own name and I won’t even be able to check out for the latest gossip.

I guess we’ll just have to spend the time talking, going shopping, gazing longingly into each other eyes and other things that people used to do before the distractions of always-on internet access came along. I’m looking forward to it but I’m not sure my good lady is!


No Wonder People Complain About Slow PCs


So I was round at a friend’s last night “fixing” her laptop. She had just signed up for broadband using BT Broadband with Yahoo! and got sent a wireless router, some instructions and a CD. She dutifully followed all the instructions and everything seemed fine. For about 5 minutes. Her net connection kept hanging, software kept crashing and it was completely unusable. In steps me to figure out what’s going on.

I first changed the default channel on the router to stop it interfering with her neighbour’s wireless network (which I’ll be was on the same default channel). I then confirmed that my laptop could quite happily surf the net using her wireless setup so with a deduction as insightful as any Sherlock Holmes could have made, I reckoned it was her laptop that was to blame. Within two minutes of digging into what was installed I was shocked – there was so much junk on there! And it’s a new laptop.

If you have a wireless router and Windows XP SP2 installed, you don’t need any other software to surf the net – it’ll just work out of the box. So I was dismayed to find that the BT Yahoo! CD had installed all manner of connection software, its own browser (which looked in every way worse than any browser I’ve seen before) and a long list of other pieces of software that seemed to me designed to slow down your computer. She’d also installed McAfee virus scanner which in its default state installs another whole bunch of useless stuff including a personal security app that means as well as logging into Windows you have to log into that to connect to the internet. Why? All it did was get in the way.

So an hour after I started I had uninstalled virtually everything that was on there – from AOL to about 12 BT Yahoo! applications to most of McAfee. I had to get into the registry and take out a bunch of start-up tasks that weren’t removed by their uninstallers (more second-rate developers at work I guess). Once this was all done the computer ran a hell of a lot faster and happily connected to the internet and stayed connected. Oh, and removing the MSN toolbar stopped Internet Explorer from crashing too. I instructed her to never install any software again and she’d be fine. Job done!

It’s disappointing to see that the end result of BT and Yahoo! getting together to offer a broadband package (with wireless networking) – and presumably the real reason they’re doing it – is to install a bunch of useless adware on the customers machine. Sure, it constantly reminds them of the BT and Yahoo! – there are shortcuts on the desktop, popups, items in the system tray and God knows where else to get the branding across – but it adversely affects the user experience and just causes frustration. I wonder how many people have just accepted the lousy performance and flaky connection and assumed there’s nothing they can do about it?

And it’s also interesting to see McAfee trying to offer a competitive advantage in the form of a bunch of applications to keep you “safe” while on the net. I question the effectiveness and need to have any of them to be honest. You can have all the supposedly safe software in the world installed but there’s nothing to stop you from downloading a piece of software that trashes your computer and running it. You’re in control after all. So all it does really is slow down your computer and further damage the user experience.

Safety is all about perception. Just because you feel safe doesn’t mean you actually are. And in sales and marketing perception is everything.


John’s Background Switcher 2 For Flickr


Well, I’ve finally done it. I’ve finally written a piece of software that makes me smile when I use it. Something that as far as I know nobody else has done. And a piece of software that everybody I’ve shown it to has gone “wow!”. And the best bit? Despite the fact that I should probably sell it for real money, I’m giving it away for free instead!

I’ve spent quite a few evenings over the last month or two working on version 2 of my beloved John’s Background Switcher utility. This started as an application that would periodically change your desktop background selecting from a list of pictures you’d provide. I’ve had a lot of nice comments and suggestions from the surprising number of people who’ve downloaded and use it.

Everything was going well as I ticked off the suggestions people had made until my friend Ian made the suggestion “why don’t you integrate it with Flickr?”. I had a look at the Flickr API and realised it wouldn’t be hard at all to do so I set about putting it together.

The night I got the Flickr integration working was one of those moments I’ll never forget. When I got it to select random pictures tagged with “beach” and a beautiful photo from a beach in California came up, then one from Australia next a large grin came across my face – I was on my own yet I said out loud “this is brilliant”. No, not my coding skills, but the fact that you never know what’s coming next (something that doesn’t happen when you look at random pictures on your hard drive). Flickr really is very good.


A few friends and colleagues have been testing the software for the past few weeks and once I realised that I could make it choose the most popular photos from Flickr rather than most recent everyone agreed that the quality of the selected pictures went up drastically. There really are some amazing photographers out there and I’ve come across so many beautiful pictures I’m building up quite a collection (for this reason I added a “Save current picture as” option so you can save the picture to your hard drive for future viewing).

Anyway, if you’re running a Windows computer and want to see what I’m talking about, I’d urge you to go and download and install it (it uses Microsoft.NET 1.1 but if you don’t have that installed already it’ll be downloaded for you). Put it in Flickr mode and type “beach mountains sunset ocean” into the tags edit box (without the quotes). Then double-click the tray icon a few times to see some of the fantastic photos that come through. Alternatively, you can just tell it to monitor “My Pictures” on your hard drive and be bamboozled by your own pictures!

Oh, and in the event that you don’t like it, I’ve put a lot of effort into the installer so it’ll remove itself very efficiently! All suggestions and comments are gratefully received. 🙂

Go to John’s Background Switcher 2.


Another Certificate For The Wall


Well, my 3 day course on SQL Server 2005 is over and done with. I certainly learned a few things I wouldn’t have come across and have some things to think about. I still wouldn’t want me to administer a mission-critical SQL Server box but I have more of an idea of some of the cool new things you can do.

Not only did I take some knowledge away with me but I also got a Microsoft Certificate of Achievement as you can see below:


Yep, you can see the pride in my eyes! I haven’t found a place to put it yet so I’ll leave it in a drawer until I do – it may well spend the rest of its natural life in that drawer alongside those old phone chargers I never use. Oh yes, you can’t spell “John’s Adventures” without “Adventure”. I really need to get out more. 😉


Being Paid To Learn? Surely Not…


You may find it hard to believe but throughout my whole career I’ve never had any form of training. I don’t have any certificates that say I can write software, no professional accreditation, nothing. Never been on so much of a “how to turn a computer on” course. It’s amazing I’ve gotten this far with my sweet-talking alone…

That’s all about to end though. I’m going to be spending the next 3 days being trained on SQL Server 2005. This is the first company I’ve ever worked for that has actually followed through and put me on a training course! Of course, I don’t harbour any grudges. I’ve always been from the “pick up a book and read it” school of learning and it’s stood me in good stead thus far. I’ll be interested to see if this whole training thing is all it’s cranked up to be. I’ll keep you posted.


No More BMW


mynewclio.jpgWell, I finally got around to changing my car and it was an odd experience indeed. Trading in my BMW 325Ci Sport for a mere Renault Clio Sport 182 meant that the dealer actually gave me a large cheque when we swapped keys! It was a nice feeling.

You might think it’s a bit of a downgrade but I really don’t think it is. Sure, the BMW was nice and luxurious, the 6 cylinder engine sounded great and was very fast. But it cost a fortune to service and it used up petrol like a 747. I really didn’t think it was worth the money, it wasn’t that much better than a Ford Focus. The Clio, on the other hand, is much more economical, the servicing is cheaper and the tyres don’t cost £200 each. Oh, and it has all the toys and then some of the BMW – leather interior, climate control, cruise control, auto-lights and auto-wipers, xenon lights and much more besides. Plus it’s faster than the BMW too – lots faster!

It’s pretty quick up to 5000rpm but from then on it turns into an animal – in the wet it tries to take off! Anyway, I managed to get through the first day without crashing it which is always my aim with a new car. And I don’t miss the BMW so far – somebody actually let me out of a junction yesterday which never used to happen! Oh, and those wheels look much easier to clean than the spokey ones I used to have – should save a bit of time in my bi-annual car washing…


The Sign Of A Good Wedding


I went to the wedding of my girlfriend’s colleague on Saturday night and had a rather good time – and a bit too much to drink! I thought this photo summed it up:


I’m guessing that the empty glasses and bottles weren’t presents…


My Installer Fixation And NSIS


I love installers. I’ve found that wherever I work I end up writing one for the software and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s something that gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling inside when just a few buttons clicks can make the process of putting software on a machine seem trivial and just as easily remove it when in fact there’s a whole load of clever stuff going on underneath. Still waters run deep.

Take my last company. Before I wrote an installer it would take a person around a day to properly deploy the software. It consisted of C++ COM dlls, C++ COM+ components, an ASP.NET web site and a SQL Server backend. For anyone who’s had to deploy this type of software you’ll know that there are a great number of things that can go wrong and add time to an install. Never mind the fact that different operating systems (such as the different editions of Windows 2000 and 2003) all have their own little nuances…

I’ve seen in a lot of places a “deployment document” written consisting of a list of steps to perform when installing and you have to keep it up to date when you encounter problems as you go along. You end up with a numbered list where each item consists of a bullet pointed list and this is why an install takes a day. I find it surprising that companies seem to consider writing an installer as one of those “we’ll do it if we ever get time” projects that they never get around to. It’s surprising because the gains you get for such a small amount of work are immense.

At my last place I probably took a few weeks to write the installer and it dropped the time to install our software from a full day to around 10 minutes – and it always worked (once the bugs were ironed out!). Finally, instead of a customer install being a case of “okay, what’s going to go wrong this time?” it was a simple task that took no time at all. It was stress-free and made us look like a real bunch of pros to the customers.

If a glitch came up on a certain operating system, I didn’t go and append another “if this happens do this…” bullet point to some 50 page Word document, I fixed the installer and promptly forgot about it – the installer would deal with it.

I’ve used most of the tools out there including Windows Installer, InstallShield, Wise and the free and rather good Inno Setup which I’ve used more and more recently. I came to realise that you spend most of your time with installers writing code to do custom, tricky things like set up a COM+ application or configure a web site and despite products like Installshield supporting this, they aren’t flexible enough and I’d end up rolling my own code in VBScript or in a C++ dll I’d call. Inno Setup has been just fine for this.

However I’d been aware of another free tool out there called NSIS but had never actually sat down and learned how to use it. Until last week. And I must say, it’s amazing. I can see why companies like Google are using it – you can write a highly sophisticated installer in no time at all.

Installers consist of a bunch of tasks you need to do in sequence and you undo them in an uninstaller. You may want to create a bunch of shortcuts, copy some files, register some libraries, create a web site and configure some configuration files. Inno Setup was fine for things like that but if I needed to find some existing shortcuts and delete them, then add some new ones, then check to see if something was installed and if not download it from the internet and install it, then copy some files and so on it wouldn’t support it and I’d have to jump through hoops to do it. The steps weren’t fine-grained enough. NSIS lets me do whatever I want in any order I want, both installing and uninstalling.


I’ve been writing the new installer for version 2 of my background switcher and I needed it to do things like check if MS.NET is installed and if not, download and install it. I wanted it to fix up an install of any previous versions of my app installed including removing shortcuts that were in the “All Users” start menu when they shouldn’t be (naughty Inno Setup). I also wanted more fine-grained control over the uninstall process which I couldn’t really do before but with NSIS it’s easy. I can control the order things happen (e.g. delete this shortcut, then copy these files, then launch this application, then copy another file) to a degree I couldn’t do before and it’s completely extensible – I can create custom pages and call the windows API or write my own custom dlls.

And I’ll tell you something else, you could spend £1000 on a commercial product like Installshield or Wise, or £0 on NSIS and believe it or not, there’s nothing Installshield or Wise can do that you can’t achieve with NSIS – and trust me you spend more time working around the weaknesses in the big products than you do writing code for an NSIS installer. Now, guess what product I’ll be using to write the installer at my new job? I’ll give you a clue – it’s a four-letter word. And it doesn’t start with “W”…


Return To Form

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Three months ago I heavily sprained my ankle playing football and I’ve been trying to recover ever since. Everybody knows that once you sprain an ankle it’s easy to go over it again but what less people know is that if you rehabilitate it by strengthening around the ankle and work on the flexibility of the joint you should be able to get back to 100% fitness.

With this in mind I started moving it as soon as I could after injury and waited for the swelling to go down (which took weeks) before doing any heavier work on it. I was advised by a sports physio I know to work on strengthening my calf muscle and shin which I diligently did. I had to start gradually and gently build it up as the ankle was pathetically weak. I borrowed one of those big elastic band things to work on mobility and gradually strengthening the joint through it’s full range of motion. I even spent time sitting on a chair with my foot hooked around a door – pushing the door open – to strengthen the ankle (and boy did that hurt). I’d been assured that the ankle would often hurt like hell while exercising it but that while it would feel like something was going to snap I’d probably be alright!

Three months later and with much trepidation I decided to return to football on Wednesday not really sure if it would stand up to the punishment or not. Despite having done a lot of work on it along with plenty of running and weight training, there really is no preparation for actually playing football. You can’t simulate all the twisting and turning you do along with the fact that you get tackled, tripped up and pushed around so landing awkwardly is par for the course. I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous before playing before!

Incredibly I got through the game fine. My touch was a little off, my passing wasn’t the best, my positional play wasn’t that good, my tackling was even worse than usual (if you can believe it) and my movement wasn’t as fluid as it should be. But it’s exactly what I’d expect after not playing for three months. I was subjected to a couple of hard tackles with no ill effects (aside from losing the ball on both occasions). The ankle was a bit sore the day after but to be honest so was the rest of me! It was great to play again although I need to keep up the work or, like my dodgy knee, it could go again. Now, I just have to avoid any new sprains or strains. I’m in danger of losing count of the number of old injuries I have to keep an eye on!