Yearly Archives of: 2008


Something Cool You May Not Know About Water


When I was a kid I used to play with Star Wars action figures. I’d imagine battles and stories and play them out with my range of characters (and being a kid and therefore inherently evil the bad guys would usually win). Anyway, my parents used to have a large chest freezer and some days I’d take my Han Solo character and freeze him in ice – pretending it was like the carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

A Grainy Old Photo Of Some Of My Star Wars Figures

Being a nerdy young lad I wanted to try and re-create that authentic look so tried freezing him in Coke – which is black like the carbonite from the film. Sadly rather than the jet black effect it pretty much ended up looking like regular ice with a bit of slush on the surface. Lesson learned – don’t waste Coke by freezing it, just drink the stuff.

I once froze him submerged in a glass jam jar just for fun. Unfortunately I then discovered the interesting fact that when water freezes it expands as the jam jar had cracked into several pieces in the freezer. (I didn’t mention this to my parents). Lesson learned.

In the end I found that if I put him in a shallow plastic container on his back (a small Tupperware would do) then I could recreate the Return of the Jedi frozen Han Solo look after a few hours in the freezer. I could then carry on playing and act out a rescue scene where the villains let him think he’s getting away and kill him at the last minute (because the bad guys always win).

Anyway, I froze him quite a number of times, thawed him out in a rescue attempt and froze him again for the next chapter. Once, out of curiosity, I put warm water in the container instead of cold. I imagined that the small quantity of warm water would defrost the entire freezer and spoil all the food therein. I was quite wrong (sadly) and even more surprisingly the water actually seemed to freeze quicker than it normally did (being a very impatient child I’d check on the freezing process many times until it was done). Since it made no sense at all that warm water would freeze faster than cold I just thought I was mistaken and carried on playing.

But you know what? Believe it or not – and I’m pretty sure you won’t – warm water DOES freeze faster than cold water. It goes against all rational thinking, but it’s absolutely true!

How to Fossilise Your Hamster: And Other Amazing Experiments For The Armchair Scientist First described by Aristotle back in 350BC, this curious effect had long been forgotten until it was re-discovered in the 1960’s and called the Mpemba effect after the youngster who came across it. I read about this phenomenon from a book called, I kid you not: “How to Fossilise Your Hamster: And Other Amazing Experiments For The Armchair Scientist” (pictured right). It’s published by New Scientist and is filled with interesting experiments you can do at home including demonstrating that hot water can freeze faster than cold (the optimal test is to fill two ice cube trays with water, one at 5ยบC and the other at 35ยบC and put them in the freezer – you’ll find the latter freezes first even though the former reaches 0ยบC first).

The even more curious thing about hot water freezing faster than cold water is that there’s no scientific explanation as to why. There are plenty of theories (and no, it’s not because the thermostat in your freezer goes into overdrive as the water is hot making it cool faster – you can do this outside if your Winter climate is cold enough and the same thing still happens) but none that have been unequivocally proven to be correct. Can you think of a reason?

It just goes to show that even in the 21st century with all our miracles of modern technology that something as seemingly inert and simple as water can be shrouded in mystery. Now, time to head to the pet shop for a hamster to fossilise… ๐Ÿ˜‰


WordPress Reaches 2.7 And Open Source Software


My move from Movable Type to WordPress (the software that powers this site, barring the forum) just over a year ago has turned out to be a great choice with hindsight. At the time I liked the look and extensibility options of WordPress and the fact that a vibrant community had built up around it so I switched and I’ve never looked back.

Ever since then I’ve become a bit of a WordPress evangelist to friends and have used it to build a few sites and encouraged other people I know to do the same. I like to keep an eye on the next version as it’s being developed and have a local copy on my computer that I play with. Early through the 2.7 development process it became clear to me that 2.7 was going to be very good. Things like threaded comments, paged comments, sticky posts, auto-updates, bulk editing and above all the revamped administration interface so impressed me that I started using the bleeding edge builds on this site. I’ve been working in the software industry a long time and have learned to steer clear of beta builds of applications I depend upon (particularly Microsoft ones I have to say) – I’ve been burned too many times to count. But with WordPress I felt differently, and it’s all about the people who work on it and the way it’s developed.

The New-Look WordPress 2.7 Dashboard

Coming from a corporate development background as I do I’d always assumed that popular open source projects would mean a lot of people pulling in different directions and therefore require a lot of management overhead to filter out the noise and move the product onwards. I assumed that outside of the more rigid “need to make money out of this” corporate environment open source projects would tend to bumble along rather than stride along. But watching the WordPress development process has shown me that I was quite wrong and pretty much the opposite is true.

The more people who use a particular piece of software the more they’ll want it to do this little thing that nobody else would use but they absolutely want and will moan and complain if it doesn’t (I get plenty of that with John’s Background Switcher and that’s nowhere near as popular as something like WordPress). Or you get passionate people who love the product but want to pull it in different directions and won’t back down. A handful of these people can result in a lot of bickering and momentum slows. In the corporate world you’re either a slave to these people and have to create some Frankenstein’s monster of a product to please everybody (making compromises) along the way or they can be ignored completely which is easier as the development process isn’t publicly visible like an open source project is.

What I like about WordPress is that there are a bunch of talented people, passionate about what they do working on it. Matt steers the ship and can have the final say on something that needs the final say, anybody can contribute their suggestions, ideas, bug fixes and so forth and rather than having battles as to what direction WordPress goes in, there’s always the option of “if you don’t like it, fork it and go your own way”. This was how WordPress itself started, as a fork of b2. If someone comes up with a great idea that improves WordPress then there’s every chance it’ll make it into the product. Since the type of person who contributes to the development of WordPress will be passionate and care about the product, they want to make it better for everybody. And as the development process is open to all, there’s no excuse to not be connected to its evolution.

So where was I before I went off on a tangent? Oh yes, installing the bleeding edge version of WordPress 2.7 here. I could watch the development of 2.7 unfold in front of my eyes and if I found something wrong I could raise a bug report or even submit a fix (as could anybody else) and knowing the quality, dedication and passion of the people working on it and seeing how great it was going to be, I wanted to start using it as soon as I could. And you know what? WordPress 2.7 is even better than I thought it would be!

WordPress99% of the people who use WordPress no doubt have little interest in its development (quite rightly, being users rather than developers) and the first they know about a new version is either when it’s released or when they read posts prior to release discussing new functionality. Some may moan and complain about releases being too frequent or changes that they didn’t think were necessary (like another redesign less than a year after the last one), but when you see the amount of work, care and thought that goes into each release and the reasoning behind all the decisions (such as the latest redesign making it a platform to take WordPress far further than was possible before), it’s clear to me that they’re doing the right thing and WordPress is in good hands. And if you don’t like it, you can always fork it and take it in your own direction. But I wouldn’t recommend it as you’ll find out just how hard it is to create successful software that people will love. Software like WordPress.

Anyway, if you’ve never used WordPress, go and take a look and if you’re already a user, read all about the new version here. Quite simply, it rocks! Oh yes, and open source isn’t bad either! ๐Ÿ˜‰


From Joe Average To Premiership Football In One Year?


While out in my garage doing a weights session to get over my latest footballing injury (it’s official, I now have two dodgy knees) I heard an interesting article on Radio 5 live. A 23 year old lad called Arton Baleci was doing an experiment to see if he can turn himself (a self confessed ‘average’ footballer) into a professional footballer good enough to play in the English Premier league (arguably the best league in the world).

Being a professional footballer is the dream of many a young lad but as anybody who’s played football to a decent level knows, the difference between someone who can stand out at Sunday league or top amateur level and a professional who plays in the Conference (the lowest of the professional leagues) can be vast.

My friend Stu used to play semi-pro and when he was a youngster he went to an England schoolboys training camp (or something like that). He said some of the kids there were amazingly talented and he felt they were a level up from himself (he’s modest though so I take it with a pinch of salt). And yet how many of these kids made it in the game, even in the lower leagues? Not one. To play in the Premier league which is filled with world class players you can’t just be a decent footballer, you have to be a great footballer.

So how can a 23 year old recent graduate think he’s got a chance of going from being out of breath running for a bus, having not played competitive football in years to being able to get a pro contract for a team in the top football league in the world in a year? Well, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s got a plan.

The Beautiful Aim

He’s surrounding himself with top coaches so that he can get himself to the standard of fitness required of a professional footballer (which at 23 and looking at his physique I don’t think will be a problem so long as he keeps his determination). He’ll be using the latest scientific techniques to speed up his ability to learn the footballing skills he’ll need to make it as a player. He’ll be analysing the attributes of what makes a top player and using the latest techniques (both physical and psychological) to get into the right mindset and make those attributes his own. He’ll be using the latest sports science combined with his determination to see if it’s possible. He’s the guinea pig in his own experiment to see how much we understand what “that something special” is that separates Wayne Rooney from his classmates at school and see if it’s possible to learn how to do what came naturally to him.

It’s definitely possible to make a good player into a great player through the right type of training and sheer hard work over many years as real-life lower league professional footballer – Gavin Strachan – talks about here. But to take a non-professional footballer right to the top in such a short space of time sounds like a bridge too far. Had he set his target on just getting a professional contract then I’d say he’s got a pretty good chance since more often than not it’s the mental strength and determination that separates the lads who get dropped by clubs from those who get pro contracts. But the Premier league, I suspect, will be beyond him in such a short space of time.

Having said that, he’d never get the publicity if he wasn’t setting his sights high and frankly I’d love to be proven wrong. Not only would it give hope to a lot of kids who’ve not made it and want a second chance, but it could take football and other sports to a higher level in the future. Just imagine what the training techniques that can take a regular guy to the top could do for someone with natural talent and exceptional pace as a result of lucky genetics!

Anyway, I’ll certainly be following his progress over the coming year and if like me you wish you’d been the next Paul Scholes then you should too. He’s documenting his journey at The Beautiful Aim and has a YouTube channel too. Good luck Arton! ๐Ÿ™‚

Update (3rd August 2012): Well looking at the fact that the site is now dead I’d say that his mission failed. Perhaps not surprising given how hard it is to make it as a professional footballer and to make it late to the party requires something special. Still, good to have seen him give it a try – nothing ventured, nothing gained!


The Mystery Of Our Plant Pot Vandal Solved


My good lady has a bunch of big plant pots in our garden and something kept digging up the bulbs she planted. I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and started taking pictures and the culprit was revealed…


Night Photography, Flash Guns And Too Much Of Me!


My good friend (and highly talented photographer) Ade and I went out the other evening in Leeds for a night photography shoot. He was mostly practising using multiple flash guns and I was mostly looking very camp!

I really did try and look menacing, or moody, or smouldering, or angry, or aggressive on each shot but for some reason every single one came out somewhere between mildly camp and super-gay! I guess I’m just not cut out for the modelling business, aside from being too old and not good looking enough I clearly have no ability to act in front of the camera! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Anyway, try to ignore the model (they’re almost all of me) and instead look at the lighting effects which I’ll try to explain in each shot…


The Days When The River Tay Used To Freeze Over


I’m only in my early thirties but already within my lifetime I’ve seen marked changes in the climate. I grew up in a little village called Wormit (and then latterly in a slightly bigger village next door called Newport) on the river Tay. At this point the river is just under 2 miles wide. It’s a proper, fast flowing river and many people have been swept to their deaths in it over the years.

And yet, when I was a lad I used to get woken up in the Winter by the noise of huge blocks of ice bashing into each other as they creaked their way down the river. My dad took a photo one Winter morning of the ice flows which you can see below (note the chunks of ice in the middle distance and that Dundee is lost in cloud):

Ice Flows In The River Tay

Today a mere 20 years later people would think me crazy if I suggested the river froze in Winter. You’d be lucky to see a flake of snow anywhere near the place. I remember the local schools having to close as a result of heavy snowfall and we’d sit watching the cars spinning off the road at that corner by our house (see above). Nowadays? The Winters are so mild that neither is an option.

Scotland used to have several thriving ski resorts and yet now the season is shorter, some of the resorts don’t open at all and the amount of snow is a fraction of what it was. The Winters just aren’t cold or sustained any longer and it’s happened in only a few years.

When I visited New Zealand in 2003 it was amazing to see pictures of the Franz Josef glacier as it had been just a century earlier and know that the car park a couple of miles from the glacier was covered by the glacier only a few decades earlier. Glaciers the world over are melting and ski resorts across Europe (for example) are seeing shorter seasons year on year. While periods of warm and cold are cyclical over time the years since the 1980s have seen rapid glacial melt well beyond anything predicted by scientists based on historical records.

Whether you believe that global warming is real and exacerbated by humans or whether it’s a government conspiracy used as a stick to beat tax payers with (or are somewhere in between), the fact remains that we’re coming out of an ice age earlier than expected and it’s looking increasingly likely that within my lifetime the polar ice cap may disappear completely in the summer months – consigning polar bears among other animals to history.

We have short lives and therefore a very short-term view of the world in which we live. But in that short time the world’s climate is changing, extinctions are at a level higher than at any time in the past and in geological timescales these changes are happening in an instant instead of a long time.

I often wonder what archaeologists a million years in the future looking at the fossil records would think. I suspect they’d wonder if some global catastrophe occurred in the same way we’ve wondered why the dinosaurs died out. My concern is that they’d be right. And that the catastrophe was us.


A BlackBerry That Takes Over Your Life In A Good Way


My BlackBerry BoldWhenever I see people on the train typing away on a BlackBerry I feel a deep sense of pity for them. I’m sad that they feel their company owns them to such an extent that they have to spend the time before (or after) work on the train replying to “important” emails. It’s not as if they work for MI6 and have to reply to an email about intelligence concerning a terrorist attack where every second counts!

If I see people on a weekend typing away on their BlackBerry (and I’ve seen a few) I want to shake them and tell them to enjoy their spare time while it lasts.

So when I was presented with a work BlackBerry at the start of the year I made sure the email notification was turned off and used it strictly as a phone to make and receive calls from my colleagues. At all other times it was sat on my desk being ignored.

Last week my BlackBerry was replaced with a brand new BlackBerry Bold and while I initially expected to treat it the same way as the old one, I’ve actually been blown away with what a cool piece of kit it is. As before I’m not going to use it particularly to send emails – the keyboard’s too small and if I’m working then I’m in front of a computer so can send and receive them there. And if I’m not working then the last thing I want to do is send and receive work emails! However it does a great job of letting me do the following:

  • Listen to MP3s – it comes as standard with 2GB of storage and a pretty good pair of earphones with in-ear rubber inserts (ideal for cutting out background noise).
  • Surf the internet – not only is it 3G but it can connect to the interweb via WiFi with a pretty good browser.
  • Take pictures – my previous BlackBerry couldn’t and while the camera’s not amazing, it’s good enough to take pictures of chickens wandering the streets (which is the sort of thing I’d take a picture of).
  • Use for Sat Nav – it has GPS and European maps built in along with directions so I can use it to get from here to there (although to be fair I mostly one go from my house to the cafe).
  • Stalk my brother – he’s got a BlackBerry Pearl and the BlackBerry Instant Messenger is always turned on, mwa ha ha, there is no escape!
  • Get my sudoku fix – oh yes, there’s even a sudoku game!
  • Send SMS messages without using that useless T9 predictive texting – since it has a full QWERTY keyboard it makes life somewhat easier to text.
  • Get 2-for-1 cinema tickets – since it’s on Orange (the old one was on Vodafone) I can take advantage of Orange Wednesdays.

In summary, I’m really impressed with it. So much so that I’ve diverted all calls from my own mobile and am going to use the BlackBerry as a my primary phone. In one fell swoop it’s managed to retire not only my own mobile but my iPod Touch (well, for short train journeys at least) and my Sat Nav. It’s going to encourage me to go to the cinema more often and save my thumbs from premature arthritis brought on by sending SMS texts using T9 predictive texting.

But if you see me sending work emails on the train you have my permission to shake your head and call me a hypocrite!


LOLCats, DeviantArt, Zooomr, ipernity, photobucket And More On Your Desktop With John’s Background Switcher 3.6


John’s Background Switcher has long supported photo sites like Flickr, smugmug, Phanfare and Picasa Web Albums and even Facebook a couple of versions ago – but they were never enough. I’d regularly have people on my forum or emailing me directly asking to support myriad other photo sites and I’d dutifully add them onto my to-do list. More often than not the sites wouldn’t have any sort of developer API I could use to extract photos and my frustration would grow.

All that changed with the wonder of Media RSS. This is a common feed format that, without getting boring and technical, means that if added support to JBS for it, I’d suddenly be able to support a whole host of photo sites without any more work. And with version 3.6 that’s exactly what I’ve done.

RSS Feed IconTake DeviantArt for example. If you browse through the site you’ll notice that on pretty much every page – be it a category page or a person’s photo page, there’s a link near the bottom that looks like the icon to the right (albeit somewhat smaller). That’s the feed link. Click on it and you’ll see what the feed version of that page looks like – in most browsers it’s not very interesting. But if you copy that address and paste it into the ‘Add Feed’ dialog in JBS then you’ll be able to see those photos on your desktop.

The RSS Add Feeds Dialog

Or take a site like LOLCats (which I love). My good lady thinks I’m insane but it always makes me laugh. Anyway, there’s a big orange feed icon right at the top of the page. Copy that URL into JBS and your desktop can look like this!

A LOLCats Desktop

You can use as many feeds as you like at the same time and JBS will choose photos from all of them. So you’ll be able to mix your Zooomr photos with LOLCats, attractive women on DeviantArt, photobucket photos, featured photos from Webshots (for some reason only the featured feeds are Media RSS, user feeds aren’t) and so on. Just look out for the orange feed icon!

JBS 3.6 has been tested with a host of sites but if you find one that you think should work but doesn’t, then let me know and I’ll try to support it in the next version. Bear in mind that not all sites provide enough information in their feeds for JBS to use properly (FriendFeed being one that springs to mind – come on guys, put the photo page URLs in your media:group’s!) but hopefully in time I’ll be able to support them too.

I’ve also added a bunch of highly requested features such as ‘Shuffle mode’ for folders, a ‘Never Show Again’ option so that if a picture comes up that you don’t like it’ll never appear again, a workaround for problems in Windows where your monitors get displayed the wrong way round, some useful defaults for first-time users, options to explicitly set your own snapshot scrapbook background and a host of bug fixes.

Anyway, you can download the latest version at the John’s Background Switcher page. It’s free, it’s fun and, eh, did I say it was free?!


Some Photos Of My Brother And I From The 70’s


When I was last in Scotland I borrowed some 35mm slides from my dad and finally got a scanner to bring them into the 21st century. Here are some of my brother from the late 70’s that’ll make you laugh!

My dad often tells me that I spent a lot of my childhood whizzing around the place on a toy car and from this representative selection of photos I think he’s right! It’s so strange looking at pictures of myself and my brother and see that really we haven’t changed all that much. The baby ones of my brother particularly so as he had his cheeky grin right from birth!


My Start-Up’s Been Acquired!


Back in February I mentioned that I was joining a start-up founded by some ex-colleagues of mine. I was hoping that we’d build a product and spend a few years building up a business that would mean an escape from the evils of the corporate world. To have a direct say in the direction a product takes and potentially a better share of the success of the company. Instead only 8 months after I joined we’ve been bought out by a large American company called RiskMetrics.

I’ve not had a lot of happy times working for American companies before. One closed our office down thinking they could kill our product off (and ironically it’s the now only product that they are able to sell) after a prolonged period of “us against them”. They were a large, slow-moving company with more Vice Presidents than I’ve had hot dinners, everything that’s wrong with corporate America. The second company did pretty much the same thing and made the working environment so miserable that I left after a year and a half. So it was with some feeling of dread that the directors told us that they were thinking of selling out to a big American company.

However following a 2 day trip to New York to meet some of their senior people I was really impressed. This wasn’t the sort of company that had 20 layers of management (and no obsession with Vice President of this and that). Every person we met was not only very intelligent and insightful, but genuinely interested in and passionate about what they do. We had a meal out with them on the first night where we were just ourselves and so were they (although to be fair I’m just myself all the time) – and we had a great time. But the thing that really impressed me was how the people were the next day – the “corporate types” I’ve worked with before would be friendly outside of work but put their business faces on the next day as if the previous night had never happened. This was not the case with these guys. From the 2 short days we had it was clear that these were the sort of people I’d relish the chance to work with and could learn a great deal from.

I do have mixed feelings about joining a new, 1000 employee company. As a regular employee I don’t make any money from the buyout and my long-term hopes for the company will not come to be. But I will get the chance to work with some incredible people on a platform the scale of which I’ve never encountered before. A big reason I joined the start-up was to work in a small company away from a large organisation and that’s exactly what I’m going back to – time will tell what working for this company will be like although all signs so far are good. The work I’ve spent the past few months doing has been pretty frustrating and “bitty” while we were chasing business in the short term (which I guess is unavoidable in a start-up) so having the backup of a larger company will mean we can be more organised and structured and I can get more of a chance to do what I do best.

Ultimately from what I’ve seen so far this may turn out to be a great opportunity that otherwise I’d never have had the chance to take. And so the John Conners career roller-coaster ride continues with more unexpected twists and turns!

I’ve certainly learned a few lessons in this short journey working for a start-up that would make me a lot more wary about doing it in the future. But then again, to coin one of my favourite non-Steven Seagal phrases: nothing ventured, nothing gained!