Yearly Archives of: 2010


The Very Serious Pursuit Of A Cup Of Coffee


If you know me you’ll know I love coffee. If you know me and don’t realise how much I love coffee then the next time you bump into me ask and I’ll be happy to bore you for hours about it. If you don’t know me then take it from me – I love coffee.

Not just any old coffee mind. I can just about tolerate Starbucks coffee (aside: if you think Starbucks coffee is good coffee then let me assure you it’s the junk food of the coffee world – it’s ok but not a patch on the good stuff), I don’t drink instant coffee because it’s all universally terrible and if I find a place that makes great coffee – such as Bean Loved in Skipton – I stick with it.

My Trusty Gaggia Classic Coffee MachineSo a few years ago we bought a Gaggia Classic coffee machine. It’s one of those ones where you get some freshly ground coffee, put it in a holder, twist it in place, hit a button to run the hot water through into a cup, put some milk in a jug, flick a switch to heat the machine up more so it can generate steam, put the jug under a pipe, fire some steam through it until it runs out of puff, wait, then run some more through until the milk’s up to temperature, then pour into the mug and job done – you have a latte. As you’ll gather it was a time consuming process, you could only make 2 cups at a time, but it made a hell of a good cup of coffee (once I figured out how to get the best out of it).

A few years and many cups of coffee later and the amount of effort it took to make a cup of coffee was starting to take its toll. If we had friends round and I made a coffee for everyone it would take an age (2 at a time you see). Sometimes I’d screw up the milk frothing or overfill the coffee loader and blast ground coffee all over the kitchen. But most importantly I’m not a morning person and when I get up bleary eyed and grouchy I find a delicious fresh latte is the only thing to bring me to the land of the living. However as I spend every second I can in bed, the last thing I want to do is have to get up 10 minutes earlier just to make a cup of coffee. Things had to change.

A couple of years back a good friend of mine (who likes coffee even more than I do) decided to buy a fully automatic Jura coffee machine. If you take a look at their range you’ll see that they are very expensive. At the time I thought that while I’d love to have one, I just couldn’t justify spending what would buy two round the world airline tickets and only made a hot beverage. However I do feel very rough and get very grumpy in the morning so I started, foolishly, by asking my friend if he thought his coffee machine was worth it. Turns out it’s a brilliant piece of kit that makes the perfect cup of coffee every time, is very well engineered and can easily handle making the copious amounts of coffee he drinks.

I then resorted to the web and found the Seattle Coffee Gear channel on YouTube where I watched loads of reviews and demonstrations of many different machines. I wanted a fully automatic one that ground the coffee, heated up the milk, and basically did it all for you at the touch of a button. Oh, and preferably one that wasn’t expensive. Turns out that there is no such coffee machine and you get what you pay for. And that the Jura ones are very highly recommended.

Normally my wife would be the voice of reason and talk me out of such an expensive appliance purchase, but you see if anything she’s more of a coffee addict than I am so it was like asking a car salesman if I should buy a new car. Soon after we found ourselves in Peter Maturi in Leeds (the only place around that stocks such hideously expensive coffee machines) trying out the various Jura machines (we needed to see if the top of the range one really was that much better than the bottom) and several cups of coffee later walked out with a shiny new Jura Impressa J9 machine.

My Jura Coffee Machine

This was a couple of months ago so we’ve had a good time to see if it really is worth the money and if I’ve been able to make myself a cup every day. The bottom line is yes and yes! So to make a perfect latte you get a milk bottle out of the fridge, run a tube from the machine into the milk, put a cup under the nozzle and press a button. Walk away for a minute, come back and you’ve got the perfect latte ready to drink. My wife prefers stronger cappuccino’s – no problem! You can program each button to your exact tastes and job done. Switch it off and walk away while it cleans itself out. Fantastic!

It does seem a bit more demanding though as it tells you when to put more water in, when to empty the drip tray, when to put more coffee beans in, when to give it a deep clean (you just put a tablet in and press a button though) and when to replace the filter (no limescale here). However it doesn’t do it very frequently and is a small price to pay for one-touch operation. The only problem is that it’s so easy to make a great cup of coffee that you end up drinking more than you used to. Still, it keeps our local coffee bean shop in business and I’m all for supporting the local economy!

So next time you’re round my way, drop by and I won’t grimace when you ask for a cup of coffee – it’s only the press of a button away!


So It Turns Out The Best Small Car That Isn’t A Fiat 500 Is A Fiat 500


My good lady’s Peugeot 206cc was starting to show its age. Being a French car it was rattling like a bucket of bolts and generally starting to fall apart (why did we ever buy a French car?!). And though the folding roof still worked perfectly with no leaks, we live in Yorkshire where a sunny day is rarer than a world class Scottish footballer (for non-football / soccer followers that is a very rare thing indeed). However the biggest problem with the car were the running costs. It’s 2010 and petrol in the UK is very expensive – £1.18 per litre at the moment – and with an ageing, inefficient 2.0 engine that meant pouring money down the drain. And to cap it all the road tax was around £200 a year.

So we thought it was time for a change. Something small (because she doesn’t need a big car). Something economical (most small cars can do 40-50mpg easily). Something with cheap insurance and tax (a lot of small cars have no road tax or a mere £20 a year). Something that would last (she’d be keeping it for 5 years so didn’t want it to fall apart – ie. be non-French). Something cheap (no point having cheap running costs if you have to spend a fortune buying the thing). Something with air conditioning (many cheap cars don’t have it and there’s no way we’d live without it). Something quirky (preferably a car you sit in and think “I love this car” – although this wasn’t mandatory, just a nice-to-have). Oh yes, and something that wasn’t a Fiat 500. Cool though Fiat 500s are (she’s always loved them), we thought they were over-priced and therefore discounted them entirely.

And so our search began.

There are plenty of car showrooms near where we live so we went to all of them looking at what they had. The VW Fox was too paper-thin and cheap, the old VW Polo looked boring and the new one, though lovely, was way too expensive. The Citroen C1 ticked all the boxes and was dirt cheap (even brand new) but while my other half wrestled with putting the deposit down she just couldn’t see herself living with it for 5 years (remember, it’s French).

We tested the new Ford Ka which is apparently built on the same platform as the Fiat 500. We expected good things but were disappointed. It was quirky, looked nice, had all the bells and whistles (being the top of the range) but it handled like a rocking chair (which is to say not very well). The Mazda 2 was a bit dull but very nicely put together – a little expensive but a real contender. Definitely on the maybe pile. We looked at several other cars but in the end we just didn’t see anything that really stood out and made us want to put money on the table. Then we decided that we’d be fools not to test drive a Fiat 500 so we’d see what they’re like.

This proved to be rather tricky as the nearest Fiat dealer was an hour away. We had a look at a couple of them and what was immediately clear was the smile on my good lady’s face that hadn’t been there when looking at any other car. To be fair the 500 is an extremely cool little car and very stylishly done. We came back for a test drive another day expecting it to suck as much as the Ford Ka but it was a completely different animal. Much more solid, handled nicely and soaked up bumps in the same sort of Germanic way my Audi TT does. In other words it’s a small car that’s high quality and miles ahead of anything else in its class. We both loved it.

Fiat 500s are not widely available second hand and as they’re so popular you can’t get a discount so we resigned ourselves to buying a new one. Fortunately there was a white base model with a white and red interior and air conditioning on the system in manufacture (meaning a couple of week wait rather than a 2-3 month one) and we put our money down then started counting the days…

Her Fiat 500

So all this happened a couple of months ago and looking back I think we made the right call. The car really is dirt cheap to run with its fancy stop/start system and efficient engine. It looks great, the interior is quirky without trying too hard and there are many cool design features like the circular speedometer and rev counter. The attention to detail clearly sets the standard in the class of car and is way beyond any of the other cars we looked at. It’s easy to drive and park and feels much larger inside than it should be – every time we drive past another Fiat 500 we see how small they are and can’t believe we’re in the same thing – it’s a very clever trick. And best of all my good lady loves it and smiles every time she drives it. As far as I’m concerned that’s what matters the most!

So it turns out that the best small car to buy that isn’t a Fiat 500 is none other than… A Fiat 500. Strange that, but there you go!


A New Site Design For Autumn


It’s been a couple of years since I built the last theme for this site. I always have great intentions of creating new ones relatively frequently but I have to wait for design inspiration to kick in and that can take quite a while (since I’m not a designer by trade). Anyway, I started playing around in Photoshop, set a cork pinboard style background and began adding random things until it didn’t look terrible (that’s pretty much my design methodology). The result is below with the old design on the left and the new on the right:

New Theme Comparison

Since I’m lazy I used the same theme and layout (I solved all the hard problems about browser compatibility and what not last time around), tweaked some fonts, colours and a few other bits and pieces and changed the graphics in the background. As before I’ve stuck with the idea of incorporating elements related to me and my life into the theme and indeed most of the contents are literally straight out of my wallet (I’m a sentimental old thing). The previous theme was also rather dark so I figured I’d brighten and freshen things up a bit.

Unfortunately while the design may be new it’s the same old tedious content. So apologies in advance. 😉


Welcome To The Cloud John, Enjoy The View


The latest chapter in my software development career makes interesting reading. You may remember some time ago I joined a start-up with some friends (who also happened to be ex-colleagues) of mine to build a product in the performance and attribution world of financial investment (exciting indeed). We were then acquired by RiskMetrics Group and that took us into a wonderful world where instead of thinking about how we could build out a product with minimal costs and minimal hardware, suddenly our concerns were how we’d scale to hundreds of clients looking to shift huge amounts of data around using shed loads of high-spec machines in a data centre. It was like a dream come true for a techie like me.

Even better were the calibre of people. I always want to work with people  I can learn from and RiskMetrics was definitely that place. I was working with people who were incredibly smart, insightful, able to think in ways you just can’t teach and analyse and solve the sort of problems that make your brain implode. Hearing about so-called rock star programmers and the type of people who can change the world is one thing, but when you’re sat in a room with them while they think about how to solve incredibly far reaching and complex problems was quite another. I had to pinch myself to believe I was working with these people.

We spent a couple of years building our product under the leadership of and with help from some of the best people I’ve ever worked with. And as a result we built something that continued to push the envelope of what you can do with the Microsoft development platform. Everybody who saw our software was blown away – there was literally nothing to touch it in terms of usability and potential in the industry and by the middle of 2010 we had ticks in most of the boxes potential customers were looking for. The team expanded so that development was happening in the UK, Switzerland and the USA. Everything was coming together better than I could have expected (up until then I didn’t believe you could do distributed development in this way but it turns out that with the right people you can).

And then everything changed. After some unconfirmed rumours it transpired that we were being bought out. Since most of us had been through this sort of thing before we decided to just keep our heads down and continue building our product. Many others became consumed by speculation and couldn’t focus. Of course the writing was on the wall and ultimately the decision was made to close our office and kill our product – literally exactly the same thing that happened to me almost 7 years ago. Some things never change!

The last time this happened I was a little bitter and twisted and annoyed that we’d come so close to success but been cut down before our time. This time I shrugged my shoulders thinking “such is big business” and phoned a recruitment agent. I figured there was no sense wishing things were different – people way above my pay grade had made the decision and whether it was right or wrong (in my eyes) that didn’t matter. What’s done was done and it was time to move on and find something new. And that’s exactly what I did.

So just a few weeks later I started  at a company called They build an accounting product on the cloud computing platform, something I’d not really paid attention to (I’d been so busy building software on the Microsoft platform I hadn’t really looked outside that for a while). So far I think it’s fair to say I’ve landed on my feet and in many ways my new role is a much better fit for what I enjoy doing than my previous one (so every cloud has a silver lining after all). Plus after only a few weeks I feel like I’ve known my new colleagues for years (always a good sign)!

And the more I learn about the platform (as it’s known) the more impressed I am. I’m used to having to build software from the ground up and therefore having to reinvent the wheel every time (and wasting months doing it). On you’ve got so much for free in terms of an application platform, relational database, consistent user interface model, batch processing, scalable, reliable hosting, the fact that you’re building on a trusted platform, the list goes on. Sure, you’re giving up quite a lot of control – you have to live within the limitations of the platform and there are plenty of things you can’t do – but on the whole it means you spend a lot less time writing boilerplate code and a lot more time focusing on actually building a product.

So all in all it’s been a very interesting couple of years filled with many highs and lows. But if it’s alright with you I’ll be quite happy if things stay the same for a while. All this being bought out makes me feel like a commodity rather than a human being! 😉


John Does Yoga


I mentioned a while back that I’d been going to a physio to deal with the ravages of age combined with being kicked around a football pitch. It turned out that it was nothing to do with age and everything to do with me having no flexibility at all. I started spending time every day stretching and noticed a dramatic improvement in recovery times after games and improved movement during them. But then my physio started nagging me to try yoga and how it would be perfectly suited to me and I’d be crazy not to at least give it a go. So I did. And to show I was serious I actually cut back on a game of football a week to go to yoga instead.

Like many men I thought that yoga was just a bunch of attractive women in a room bending themselves into different positions, showing how flexible they were and that I’d find it pretty easy and relaxing. I was right about the first part, however completely wrong about the second.

I started going to an Iyengar Yoga class weekly and found, much to my surprise, that I rather enjoyed it. The first thing I was wrong about was it being relaxing and easy – I quickly learned that some of the sessions can be really hard work. Holding positions for periods of time that require quite a lot of strength it turned out I didn’t have meant I was sweating in no time. However after every session I’ve come out feeling great, relaxed and really glad I listened to my physio! Since yoga concentrates on good posture and doing the positions correctly I’ve found it a lot more useful than just doing stretching on my own – having an instructor really helps to make sure you’re getting the best out of it.

My middle back (which has always been stiff and inflexible) is starting to actually have movement in it, my endlessly tight hamstrings are gradually loosening and a lot of aches and pains I was living with from playing football are no longer there. In fact my footballing has definitely improved as my movement is better, my flexibility is improved and my recovery after playing is a lot better even than when I was stretching daily (no more hobbling around for days after a match). Heck, I even bought my own gear so I can practise at home:

My Yoga Equipment

While just doing stretching can be a bit tedious and easy to give up after a while, yoga’s one of these things you can spend a lifetime getting better at and while there are some things I can do, there are many I’m awful at. However the motivation to improve and feeling myself improve (albeit slowly) makes me keep coming back for more.

The one thing I was right about was the room full of attractive women. But while I was worried I might find it incredibly distracting it turns out that you lose yourself in what you’re doing so don’t have time to ogle the ladies (and that’s the line I’m sticking to!). Plus a few men go and they’re definitely not my type!

So while the last time I recommended going to a physio and doing flexibility work, this time I’d definitely recommend trying yoga whether you’re male, female, an athlete, a couch potato, old or young. Give it a go, you won’t regret it! And don’t be scared, I guarantee you won’t be as terrible at it as I am! 🙂


Growing Our Own Veg – Year Two

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After our successes growing our own veg last year we decided this time to take it to another level. We bought a greenhouse and created a few more raised beds so that we could grow strawberries, salad (too many types to list), cucumbers, peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes, sweetcorn, peas, mange tout, carrots, onions, beetroots, raspberries, potatoes and probably some more things I can’t remember right now. Basically, moving our growing operations up a step! And if you’ve got any veg growing tips then let me know!


The Return Of The Return To The Isle Of Arran


Having been to the Isle of Arran a couple of times before (here and then here) we had a couple of weeks holiday and decided to spend one of them returning to our spiritual home. We’ve always been blessed with perfect sunny weather when we’ve visited in the past and this year was no exception. Arran is an island an hour’s ferry ride from the mainland on the west coast of Scotland and is a great place to chill out on sandy beaches, hike up challenging mountains, bike around miles of forest tracks, sit in cafes and enjoy fine dining. When my lottery win comes in we’ll buy a house there in a shot! As usual I took a few photos…


My Kind Of Hand Luggage


I make no secret of the fact that I love luggage. Whenever I see luggage in a shop I imagine standing in some far-flung country waiting for it to come off the plane. Or slinging it over my shoulder as I check into a 5 star hotel. It’s not just the luggage, it’s the potential I see in it for adventure. While you’re travelling you’re relying on this thing to carry everything you need with you, that it won’t abandon you or let you down, that it’ll be a constant companion and even though it’s an inanimate object, it’s shared your adventure with you and lived to tell the tale.

I wrote a while ago about my current strategy of flying with hand luggage only in a bid to avoid queueing to checking it in, waiting for it at the other end only to discover it ended up in Bora Bora while you’re in Stockholm and that it’s Winter and you packed your warm clothes in it. I spoke about the bare essentials you need to survive up to a week with just that one bag but I didn’t really go into much detail of the actual bag itself. Anyway, since that article I’ve been using a Briggs & Riley 17″ expandable rolling brief – which is just a fancy way of saying one of those cases that has a telescopic handle, wheels, fits in an overhead compartment on a plane and can carry enough kit for a week-long trip. The case itself looks like this (click on the pictures below to read some details):

The case rocks and I’d heartily recommend it. What’s particularly impressed me about the case is that it’s clear every detail has been carefully thought through. I’ve travelled enough that I’ve noticed various things that have bugged me about previous cases – however this one is pretty much perfect.

First of all, it’s expandable – something that’s much more useful than I realised before I got this case. It must be some strange law about travelling that when you pack your bag you think to yourself “it’s a bit of a squeeze, but don’t worry, when I come back there’ll be less in it and therefore much more space for a couple of presents”. However what actually happens is that no matter what you do, you can’t fit everything in as you pack to come home and you end up having to crush everything in hoping it won’t burst. Cue the expandable case. If you keep it in its smaller size when packing on the way out, then coming back you can expand it and you have a very useful extra bit of space to pack in those new Hawaiian shirts. If you’re not flying but are going to stay with friends for a few days then instead you can use that extra space to fit in your dancing shoes (something you probably won’t bring on a business trip). So the expandable clothes section makes the case an absolute winner.

I always take my laptop and an assortment of cables and chargers with me wherever I go (such is the enslavement technology brings). So having a stiffened storage compartment is essential to stop those 3 pin plugs from stabbing through your shirts. Also, since I travel with hand luggage only that means bringing bottles with shower gel, shampoo and toothpaste with me. I know from experience that if you put your toiletries into a compressible bag then you find the first thing you do when arriving in the hotel is wash the shampoo out of all your clothes (it’s amazing how much damage one small bottle of shampoo can do). So the fact that my case has a stiffened compartment means I can put my laptop, cables, plugs and toilet bag in without worrying about damage or spillage caused by bottles being crushed no matter how rough someone is throwing their bag into the overhead luggage compartment.

One thing that’s ticked me off about previous cases is the way the designers decide what you should put where. You’ll find a perfectly good sized section that’s ruined by having a bunch of separators sewn into the case that effectively means you can’t neatly fit things in unless they’re a specific size. Normally I get the scissors out and remove the separators! However my current case doesn’t enforce that organisation on you – there are separators, but you don’t have to use them and they don’t compromise the raw size of each section. And when you think you might be attending an ambassador’s reception you’ll need that extra bit of space to fit in your bow tie and cummerbund.

Some of the other cool features my case has include a very useful magnetic pocket right on the front. This is ideal for putting travel documents or newspapers into for easy recovery (handy when standing in a queue or at passport control). Likewise there’s another useful zip pocket right on the front that’s ideal for putting your passport into that you can get at quickly. It comes with a detachable laptop pouch that you can quickly remove to pass through an airport scanner separately without having to fiddle around fishing it out of the case – it’s designed to come out quickly and go back in the same manner. It even comes with a shoulder strap – something very rare in cases like this and makes life easier when you’re forced to walk up long flights of stairs. Finally, the material the case is made of it seems very hard wearing but not too hard, so it looks like it’ll last me many years and can be compressed somewhat to fit into whatever space it needs to (very useful when you’re travelling on certain low cost airlines).

As I said at the start, I love luggage and could talk about it all day – I think my ideal job would be as a luggage designer! Anyway, if you’re looking to cut down on travel time and go hand luggage only, I’d definitely recommend my Briggs & Riley 17″ expandable rolling case. As with most things in life you get what you pay for and if you want to own a piece of luggage you can rely on that you can take to the edge of the earth and back and still have room for a packet lunch knowing that it’ll take everything you can throw at it, then go get yourself one! Alternatively they have a host of other cool cases. Although I’d better not look or I’ll spend hours staring at them imagining taking them to far off lands! 😉


John’s Background Switcher 4.2 Released!


John's Background SwitcherEvery time I start work on a new version of John’s Background Switcher I’m full of optimism that I’ll be able to add hundreds of new amazing features, take it to previously unheralded levels and of course fix all the bugs in the previous version. And of course every time life gets in the way.

I maintain a list of every idea and suggestion I get for JBS along with lots of things I’ve thought of and would like JBS to do and my ultimate plan is to implement all the good ideas and quietly brush the bad ones under the carpet. However since I have this unfortunate financial situation where I have to work during the day to keep a roof over my head it leaves only my spare time to develop JBS. So unless I win the lottery I have to pick and choose what I spend my time doing to JBS and in this version I’ve concentrated on bug fixes (shed loads of bug fixes), performance improvements (particularly when using folders of pictures on your machine) and three very useful features.

Firstly, I’ve added support to what has now become my favourite wallpaper site – Vladstudio. Vladstudio wallpapers are created by digital artist Vlad Gerasimov and once you start using them for your desktop you won’t bother using any other picture source if you’re anything like me. If you’re a registered Vladstudio user you can enter your credentials into JBS and benefit from the full-sized non-branded wallpapers. If not you’ll still see high resolution wallpapers and I’m sure soon enough you’ll be signing up yourself! Speaking of which, if you sign up for a lifetime Vladstudio account using the code ‘JBS’ (without the quotes) you can get it for $19.99 instead of $29.99 – a bargain! (Note: I don’t benefit financially in any way from the offer, I just love the wallpapers and I’m sure you will too!).

Next I’ve added support for downloaded Webshots pictures and collections. If you’ve previously been a Webshots Desktop user you’ll no doubt have a large number of pictures and collections either downloaded or created with the application. You’ll no doubt also have found that without Webshots Desktop there’s not a lot you can do with them. No longer. If you add either Webshots pictures or collections to a picture list in JBS, or if you add a folder containing any of these files then JBS will magically start choosing from the originals as if they were just regular pictures. Pretty cool huh?

Finally, JBS is now available in English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese-Brazilian and Japanese (even thought I don’t understand a word, the JBS user interface looks very cool in Japanese). I’d like to take a minute to thank the JBS users who’ve taken the time out to help translate the 750 phrases JBS uses into their own language for the benefit of all the other people out there who can now use JBS in their native tongue. So maximum respect to Albert, Sidnei, Erix, Thierry, Niels, Lorenz, Nico, Asabukuro and the other translators who helped out when they could. It’s very much appreciated!

Anyway, if you’re a current John’s Background Switcher user then it’s a recommended upgrade – just run it over the top of the current version. And if you’re bored of the same old background on your Windows PC or you’re a Windows 7 user who wants more than just local pictures that the built-in desktop slideshow offers, then go and download John’s Background Switcher now!  And for the full details you can read the full release notes too.