Yearly Archives of: 2009


John’s Guide To Travelling With Hand Luggage Only


The Problem

An Airport QueueOne of the most tedious parts of flying (apart from being forced to fly economy class) is luggage. With the introduction of checking in online you can beat the queues to check in! Unfortunately instead you have to queue for just as long to drop your luggage off, so no gain at all. Next, when you arrive you have to go and collect it which means standing around for 20 minutes waiting for the luggage to be unloaded from the plane. Then you wonder if your luggage actually made the trip with you (if not you’ll end up in a world of hurt). When it does finally turn up you have to battle to get it then queue again to get through passport control with a lumbering suitcase. Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to do any of that?

The Solution

Which brings me onto flying with hand-luggage only. For my recent trip to Los Angeles I decided to not check any luggage in at all as an experiment. I scoured the web far and wide for advice and the perfect piece of luggage that would be small enough to fit into an overhead storage bin on the plane, have enough room for 5 days worth of clothes along with compartments for my laptop, washing kit (more about that shortly), books, glasses and everything else I’d need for my trip.

The Luggage

After much research I settled on the Wenger Patriot case. It ticked all the boxes: it had a section for clothes, a removable laptop case (so that you’ve got another smaller bag to carry around at the destination), a pocket for magazines, a handy pocket that perfectly fits things like passports, boarding cards and directions to hotels and a roomy front section filled with pockets and sleeves for all the other things you need like phones, chargers, adapters, books and so forth. And most importantly it’s got a telescopic handle that makes wheeling it around an airport dead easy. You almost spend more time queueing to have your passport checked than actually flying these days so to not have it slung over your shoulder is a real bonus. It goes without saying that the bag meets all the regulations of hand luggage size so doesn’t even raise an eyebrow from the cabin crew.

The Wenger Patriot Bag

The Toiletries

These days you can’t carry normal sized bottles of shower gel, deodorant, shampoo and so forth on as hand luggage. Instead you have to put small quantities of each inside a clear plastic bag for inspection (as if liquid explosives were the only option for a would-be terrorist) which is a bit of a pain if you need a week’s supply. Sure you can rely on using the products you’ll find at your 5 star hotel when you arrive, but for those of you with sensitive skin or allergies that’s not an option. Fortunately Boots have a range of handy travel accessories like small bottles you can decant your favourite shower gel and conditioner into (I’d recommend you use separate bottles). For deodorant Lynx make these rather metrosexual perfume-like mini deodorant sprays called bullets. Now you wouldn’t catch me putting one of these in my ‘man bag’ (whatever that is) for a night out but they’re ideal for hand-luggage international travel. Add a small tube of toothpaste and a razor (yes, you carry disposable razors on as hand luggage) and you’re all set!

The Clothes

Generally I pack n+1 pairs of socks and pants where n is the number of days I’ll be away. I then throw in a spare pair or so of cut-off sports socks for special occasions. A few t-shirts, long sleeved tops, a shirt and a pair of ‘New Zealand’ trousers (they’re the ones that have zip-off legs that turn into shorts – two garments for the price of one) cover everything else and as long as I’m wearing a jacket that’ll get me through the local and destination weather I’m good to go. Oh, it can’t hurt to throw in a Hawaiian shirt if you’ve got room – they’re good for those unexpected party situations.

The Screaming Baby Blockers

My iPhone goes wherever I do so I can listen to calming music while flying / queuing for passport control / waiting in the departure lounge. So I bought a pair of the souped-up Apple iPhone earphones that you insert deep into your ear canal. They have the benefit of blocking pretty much all external noise so while you listen to podcasts and Boards of Canada you’re oblivious to that screaming baby in the seat next to you. Note that if you’re flying business class (as you should be) you’ll be far less likely to have a screaming baby next to you but the earphones will help block the irritating toothpaste company executive next to you telling you about the latest tongue scrapers and what their profit margin is.

The Results

So as I said at the start I decided to test this travelling without check-in luggage and I have to say it was a complete success! I didn’t find myself waiting around quite as much and I didn’t have that nagging feeling that my clothes weren’t going to turn up when I arrived – I had everything on me at all times. Of course when Microsoft decided to hand out laptops to everyone who attended the PDC my first thought was “how the hell am I going to fit that in my bag?!” but fortunately I was able to get one of my colleagues to put my Hawaiian shirt into his check-in luggage and I was all set.

So I think that from now on any trip I do of less than a week (except a snowboarding holiday – I’d never get my board in my bag) I’ll go hand-luggage only and cut out all that hassle of queueing and checking in bags safe in the knowledge that I’ll never be separated from my kit and can breeze through an airport like I own the place!


A Weekend In Lyon And The Fete des Lumieres


My good lady and I just spent a long weekend visiting our friends in Lyon, France. It just so happened that the annual ‘Fete des Lumieres‘ was on this weekend so we went to see what all the fuss was about. It turned out to be pretty cool with light, video and all sorts projected onto the myriad historical buildings throughout the city. All in all a great weekend with great friends, wine and food!


My Thoughts On The Microsoft PDC 2009


I was lucky enough that my company paid for myself and a couple of my colleagues to fly all the way out to sunny Los Angeles and attend the Microsoft Professional Developer Conference last week. The idea of the conference is that Microsoft get a bunch of software people in one place and announce / explain all the cool new things they’ve been working on and what they’ll be releasing next.

Some Skyscrapers in LALet me start by saying that while I’ve made a career out of building software on Microsoft’s platform with their tools, I’m not a die-hard fan who thinks the Microsoft way is the one true way. I like to think I’m relatively open minded and can see the benefits of one platform over another. As such I tend not to bother with Microsoft beta software and try not to listen to hype about not-yet-released products and technologies. I prefer to wait until things are released for real and then see what they’re like. I could cite many instances over the years where things haven’t lived up to the expectations but on the whole Microsoft get there in the end.

Anyway, having spent a few days listening to various sessions discussing what tools and technologies Microsoft will be releasing early next year I’ve come away very impressed. I’ve worked on all kinds of software over the years from small standalone applications to web apps that have had to scale across a few servers, so have found myself spending a lot of time writing similar code over and over again that can be quite tricky (such as multi-threaded code that can handle all the various exception cases that are easily missed). What came across loud and clear was that, aside from Azure which I’ll mention in a minute, a great deal of support is being added to the languages and tools to make multi-core software development a lot easier to write. There are tools to make multi-threaded debugging easier to visualise and understand, simplified ways to handle concurrent processing without really having to think about locking, blocking, race conditions and so forth (clever people than I at Microsoft have done that for you). One of the most interesting things I saw was AppFabric which makes scaling services across multiple servers a whole lot easier than it currently is handing a distributed cache and so forth.

Azure – which is Microsoft’s cloud computing platform – was the big thing Microsoft were talking about at the PDC. It just so happens that my company have been working with Microsoft to spread out some of the calculations that one of our products performs to the cloud and are hoping to eventually run it across 10,000 nodes in time, so my colleague who’s been lucky enough to work on the project knows all about Azure. While Microsoft are somewhat behind the curve in terms of cloud computing for the masses, I’m very confident from what I’ve seen and heard from the inside and out that Azure is going to be a real game changer. Anybody who’s used development tools across platforms knows that Microsoft produces the best ones and Azure nicely plugs into these tools to the point where a Visual Basic programmer will be able – without having to be an expert in writing and deploying highly scalable software – to write an application like Facebook that can scale to incredible proportions at the click of a button. You’ll be able to take a standard web application and without a great deal of work deploy it to Azure and suddenly you don’t have to worry about the cost and maintenance of servers.

And if you’re not a Microsoft person that’s fine, you can run LAMP on Azure and I was rather surprised to see Matt Mullenweg appear during the keynote speech and talk about how you can run WordPress on Azure (in fact Oddly Specific, from the people behind LolCats, runs on Azure in that configuration). I found this the most surprising thing of all – that Microsoft isn’t doing its usual platform lock-in trick. Clearly under Ray Ozzie’s guidance Microsoft’s moving in new directions.

Of course Azure isn’t for everyone. Most of the companies I’ve worked at wouldn’t be at all happy letting their data live out in the cloud on Microsoft’s servers and don’t have the complex calculation requirements that the cloud can help with (i.e. being able to pay for the processing that you use rather than buying a load of servers you only use a tiny percentage of the time). But I can see people like the next Facebook, financial institutions, research institutes, NASA and so forth will lap it up. I just think of when my colleagues formed their start-up the first thing they had to do was buy a load of kit and that cost money. If they were starting next year instead all they’d need would cheap computers to develop on, no office or server room, deploy to the cloud, only pay for what they use, and they’d be able to do it with all the knowledge of developing on the Microsoft platform already. Like I say, I think it’s going to be a game changer. And as an added bonus I’ll finally be able to build John’s Dead Man’s Switch and know that in the incredibly unlikely event it becomes popular, it’ll be able to handle it!


A Week In St. Ives, Cornwall


My good lady and I just spent a week in the village of St Ives in Cornwall and were blessed with stunning weather, sandy beaches, great food and lots of great little shops and art galleries to explore. We came back with slight suntans, a lovely oil painting, memories of many delicious meals including one at Jamie Oliver’s 15 restaurant (which really was amazing), but above all we returned relaxed and refreshed, not wanting to leave. Which I guess is the point of a holiday! Not surprisingly I took a few photos to document the visit…


John’s Background Switcher 4 Goes Live!


John's Background SwitcherJust over 2 years ago I started designing a major revamp of John’s Background Switcher. My goal was to take all I’d learned from tens of thousands of people using it, hundreds of pieces of feedback about what was good, what sucked and what was just plain confusing to produce a much better product. It didn’t take me long to write a short spec with a couple of diagrams and I was ready to go! So why has it taken me 2 years to make it happen you might ask? Well, I spent longer working on the existing versions of JBS than I’d have liked adding new features here and there knowing that to start work on JBS 4 would mean quite a big revamp and a long period of sustained work. Also, being part of a start-up meant my free time was somewhat limited. But after being acquired that settled down quite a bit. So on the 20th of May 2009 (that’s 4 months ago!) I started work, dedicating my evenings and weekends to creating JBS 4 and at long last it’s ready to go live to the world. Oh yes, and it’s still completely free!

I’ve redesigned virtually every aspect of JBS in ways you can see and an enormous number of ways you can’t. I’ve added dozens of cool new features, fixed countless bugs and tweaked loads more things to hopefully make this version by far and away the best – and fastest – ever. It also gives me a better base to take future versions of JBS to another level. If you’ve ever sent me an email or posted on my discussion forum suggesting a feature or filled in the ‘uninstall feedback’ page you get when you remove JBS then rest assured I pored over what you said to make JBS 4. Anyway, click on the screenshots below to see a few of the highlights of the new version and follow the link to the main John’s Background Switcher page here.

I must give thanks to the beta testers (you know who you are) who made sure JBS 4 didn’t come out riddled with bugs and ensured that it’s ended up even better than I’d hoped it would be! Cheers guys! 🙂

Anyway, go and get John’s Background Switcher now! Oh, and you can read the full release notes here to see what I’ve been up to…


A Long Weekend In Wales

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Our friends Ben and Anna recently ‘escaped to the country’ and bought themselves a lovely bungalow in north Wales. In search of sunshine we spent a long weekend staying with them and it’s fair to say that we really didn’t want to come back!

As well as a cottage with lots of character and features (like a big fire) they’ve also got a fantastic garden with enough space, nooks and crannies to keep any gardener occupied and enough veg plots to feed a family year round. There’s no two ways about it, they’ve bought our dream house! 🙂


Rock Star To Marine Corps In One Minute


I don’t know about you, but every couple of years I get sick of being mistaken for a rock star, tired of women chatting me up all the time and have had enough of guys looking at me with jealousy in their eyes. When I can’t stand any more I decide it’s time to get my hair cut off to scare them all away!

Ok, all of that is a complete lie. What I meant to say was that every couple of years I get sick of shampooing and conditioning my hair all the time, tired of having to try and make it look anything other than a total shambles and have had enough of it getting in the way and making me overly hot when playing football. When I can’t stand it any more I decide it’s time to get my hair cut off so I can focus on the important things in life – and stop being obsessed with my hair!

And today was just such a day. Time to switch from rock star to military man. So here is that transformation process in all its glory courtesy of my lovely assistant. Sort of like going from a moth to a caterpillar. (If you can’t see it in your feed reader, click here).

There, all gone! And I’ve got lots of hair to start work on a Yeti costume! 🙂


The Cheesecake Comes Full Circle


When my brother and I were youngsters my parents would often organise dinner parties. My memories of these dinner parties start with my mother cooking lots of lovely looking food, which we weren’t allowed to touch. As the time people were to arrive neared my brother and I would be lectured on how we were to not make any noise while we were upstairs and to leave them alone – and absolutely not to fight. We could stay downstairs to say hello but then we were off to bed! My mother would, for reasons we couldn’t understand, get more and more tense as the clock ticked closer to arrival time (not helped by my brother and I fighting of course). She’d be making sure the food was going to be ready, would get changed into smart clothes and ensure that the house was spotlessly tidy and all our toys were away. I don’t remember my father having much involvement with proceedings at this point, but it was another era where women generally ran the kitchen and men generally went out to work, so that may be why. Or perhaps he was sensible enough to go down to the pub to avoid my mother’s fretting.

Anyway, my mother would often make a special cheesecake for these dinner parties. The cheesecake was special for two reasons. One: she would only ever make this cheesecake for dinner parties and not for us to eat at normal times. And two: it was absolutely, positively, magnificently delicious. I mean unlike any store-bought cheesecake you could ever have – it was heavenly. These two factors tended to conspire against my brother and I since by definition the cheesecake would be eaten by those attending the dinner party – and that meant no leftovers for us to eat the following day. So we’d beg her to please, please, please make sure some was left for us and if not could she please, please, please make one for us next weekend?! We promise not to fight and to tidy our rooms! Being the wonderful parents that they were there most often were leftovers and we’d eat every last drop of the cheesecake and then crave more.

So fast forward 20 years (actually it’s more than that – but 20 years sounds better than the truth) to last Saturday. I’m attending a dinner party with my other half and in this particular case one couple is making the starter, one the main course and another – that would be us – the dessert. There’s nothing for it, I’m going to make a cheesecake! Now it’s a proud Conners tradition (that I made up) that only a Mrs Conners can make my mother’s cheesecake, and since I’m Mr Conners (to you), I thought I’d make a white chocolate cheesecake instead – a recipe from a friend of mine who has a sweeter tooth than I – knowing from making it in the past that it was delicious. I don’t actually like white chocolate but love this particular white chocolate cheesecake – which says it all. Except of course I’d lost the recipe and my friend lives in New Zealand and the only other person who has it isn’t around!

In an ironic twist I had a document called ‘Torrie’s White Chocolate Cheesecake’ that was in fact my mother’s cheesecake recipe mis-titled! Anyway, I had a look through several cook books for a similar white chocolate cheesecake recipe and finally found one that was more elaborate, but seemed to fit the bill. So cut to me on Saturday morning at 1am taking the cheesecake out of the oven (they take quite a while to make) and worrying if it was going to set, was going to taste nice, how I was going to decorate it and so forth, hearing my mother’s voice in my head laughing “see John, it’s not as easy as it looks, and you’re only making the dessert!”.

I decorated it with some white and milk chocolate and finished it off with some raspberries from the garden:

My Cheesecake

And you know what? It tasted bloody delicious! And even better, there were leftovers for the next couple of days which I happily polished off. 🙂

I always used to think dinner parties were formal affairs, somewhat posh and a bit pretentious. But they’re not. When you’re young you meet out at a pub, maybe get a burger or kebab if you’re hungry. As you get older your taste improves and you dine out at a restaurant. Then kids come along and you can’t get out as much (babysitters and what not) so instead meet up at friends houses for dinner – and voila, you have a dinner party. So while we were out on Saturday night at our friends I couldn’t help think of their young daughter upstairs and remember that being my brother and I. Sitting, hoping there would be some cheesecake left over in the morning. And there I was downstairs eating exactly as my parents would have all those years ago (albeit dressed a lot more casually). And so the circle of life – and cheesecake – is complete!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, when we’ve made my mother’s cheesecake since it still does taste just as good as I remember. Although it’s never quite the same without her telling me I’m not allowed any of it!


My Annual Camping Trip To Pendleton


I mentioned last year (wow, is it a year already?!) that some friends and I meet up and camp in a field in the small Lancashire village of Pendleton every year, have a barbecue and hit the town of Clitheroe for a drunken night out. We always have a great time and I continue to be surprised how nice Clitheroe is for a night out. It’s the sort of place you see people from 18-75 having a drink in the same place and always has a nice atmosphere.

As you can see we actually had sunshine this time. Over the past couple of years it’s generally been cold, cloudy and inevitably rainy (i.e. a typical British Summer) so the sun was a pleasant surprise.

Sunshine In Pendleton

Last year we were blown away when we attended a karaoke night that seemed to be filled with very talented professional singers making our efforts look even more lame than usual. This year there was a beer festival in one of the pubs so we spent most of the evening there sampling the guest ales before moving along to a couple of other venues. Before I knew it we were getting taxis back to our field in the middle of nowhere and seeking out our tents. Time flies when you’re having fun!

We had a couple of guys with those fancy tents that you take out of the bag, put on the ground and as if by magic pop up and you have a tent ready to use. You don’t even need to put your drink out to do it. They look pretty cool and while I know my tent can handle anything a British Summer (or Winter) can throw at it, it’d be nice if it only took 5 seconds to assemble. However these pop tents do have a downside which I recorded a video of – they take an age to put back in the bag!

They got there in the end but I think I’ll stick with my tent for the time being!


Dinner At Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Restaurant In London


Pain is something that’s very difficult to describe. Many years ago I got a filling and decided to have it done without anaesthetic. My thinking was that the pain of a dentist drilling into my teeth would remind me to brush my teeth so I wouldn’t need another one (plus it wasn’t a deep filling so I was assured it wouldn’t be too bad). It was, perhaps predictably, very painful. I remember realising at the time why torturers liked drilling holes in teeth as the pain was excruciating and there was no escape from it. But trying to describe that pain – what it felt like – to someone else proved particularly difficult. No amount of description could really do justice to the sound and sensation of the drilling and the electric shock-like shooting pains that you just couldn’t prepare yourself for.

And it’s exactly the same with the other end of the spectrum describing intense pleasure. Like, for example, eating an amazing meal.

This weekend to celebrate my birthday, my brother’s birthday and our anniversary, my good lady, brother and I went to Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Restaurant in Grosvenor Square, London (England) for dinner. We’d given my brother a voucher for Christmas to go for a meal there and he reported afterwards that the whole experience was superb and the food was sublime so it was time to find out for ourselves if that was the case.

The first thing to note is that while the restaurant may bear Gordon Ramsay’s name, the executive chef is Jason Atherton so really the menu is designed, selected and created by him. Anybody who follows the world of chefs knows that Jason (a Michelin star chef) is straight out of the top drawer, and the fact that he’s a Yorkshireman makes him even better since that’s where I live!

Anyway, the restaurant itself was beautifully decorated, a real quality look without feeling overly posh (i.e. I didn’t feel completely out of place!). The service was probably the best I’ve ever experienced. Having been a waiter myself during my student days I can appreciate a slick operation when I see it and at the Maze they were like a well oiled machine. You never even thought about topping up your glass as it was perpetually filled, the food seemed to appear and disappear, we never felt like we were being hurried out at the end and there was none of this spending 15 minutes trying to attract someone’s attention to pay the bill!

And so to the food. This is where it gets tricky to articulate. We all went for the set 7 course meal where you had a choice of a couple of options on 3 of the courses. Each course was small, beautifully presented (like pieces of art on a plate), the ingredients were all top quality and the flavours were out of this world! Each course seemed to complement the previous one and we kept marvelling at how ingredients were put together in unexpected ways to create a taste sensation. Heck, one of the courses had mini shepherd’s pie and I’ve never tasted one like that in my life!

We quickly lost count of how many courses we’d had and how many were left. It was like eating the most amazing tapas one dish at a time and soon enough we got to the dessert (which I really should have taken a picture of) and our culinary adventure was over. As is always the case with tapas-style food I felt I could have eaten more but when I stood up later I realised I’d actually had enough.

Overall the experience was fantastic. The ambiance, the service and the wine were all tip top. But the food was indescribably good. It wasn’t like eating a meal, it was more like being injected with a cocktail of pure class A drugs. No wait, that’s a terrible analogy! Let me try that again… It wasn’t like eating a meal, it was like… Eh… You see, it’s not easy to describe what it was like, nothing I could say would do it proper justice. Let’s just stick with a single word – divine. If you find yourself tempted to go to one of Ramsay’s restaurants but think “that’s a lot of money”, I can assure you it was worth every penny!