Doing the TWiT

September 21st, 2014

Almost exactly 15 years ago, a Californian TV channel sent me a webcam. To be precise, they sent me a 3COM camera which came with a PCI frame-capture card. Connecting this up was a bit of a palaver, because I ran Linux on my home machine at the time, and I had to create a new partition and install Windows 95 so that I could run the supplied software. But it was worth it, because this was ZDTV, who were doing an interesting experiment on their Call for Help programme: interviewing people in remote locations using these new-fangled webcams alongside a traditional telephone call.

By the time my segment came, it was well past midnight, and I got a laugh by holding up a clock to prove that I was somewhere in a very different timezone, and by saying that, though they thought they were very advanced in California, they were still in Tuesday, while some of us had already moved on to Wednesday some time ago.

There were other guests on the show, and we made minor history by being the first time ZDTV (and perhaps anyone) had done a three-way call using webcams as part of a live broadcast. The presenter was a very nice chap named Leo Laporte.

Since I seldom saw any American TV, I wasn’t aware at the time of Laporte’s gradually increasing prominence as the host of shows such as The Screen Savers on the same channel (which had by then changed its name to TechTV). But he soon gained more international exposure with the launch in 2005 of the This Week In Tech podcast — affectionately known as TWiT — which grew into the TWiT.tv network, consisting of around 30 different shows. I have been listening to several of them almost since day one.

As the network grew, they built their own studio in Petaluma, California. And it just so happened that I was driving through there on Friday, so I stopped off to have a look.

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I stuck my head inside the door and said hello, and the wonderful Debi Delchini immediately welcomed this stranger from across the seas and gave me a guided tour, despite the fact that I had arrived right at the end of her Friday afternoon.

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The TWiT studio, though not large, is cunningly divided into half a dozen different sets, to allow different moods for different shows.

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The mixing desk in the middle can rotate to face whichever one is in use.

There are cameras everywhere. Unlike traditional studios where large cameras roll about on substantial bases, we are now in a world were adding extra small broadcast-quality cameras is cheap compared to arranging the building around a few bigger ones.

Leo wasn’t there, sadly, but I did get to sit in his chair!

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There was, however, a show being recorded: Fr Robert Ballecer’s This Week in Enterprise Tech.

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I noticed that he was interviewing two people over Skype.

That’s good, I thought: it looks as if the format has caught on after all.

Arboreal Analysis

September 20th, 2014

Today I drove down through northern California. And there’s something that everyone says you should do when you’re driving through northern California: go and see the giant redwoods.

CarRedwoodLeggettNow, I was interested in doing this, but mostly just to make a change from the other scenery I’d been driving through this week. After all, I had seen some pretty big redwoods elsewhere, and, dash it, we have some rather substantial oaks back at home. Still, it was only a small detour, so I turned off Highway 101 into the ‘Avenue of the Giants’.

And I was awestruck.

I mean, I knew they were big: I’d seen pictures since childhood of the ones you can drive cars through. And other friends and family had taken photos on previous visits, which might look something like this:

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or this:

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or this:

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But I think I’d never really caught on to just how staggeringly large these things are because, compared to most other species, they are remarkably tall for their width, and that’s very hard to capture in photos. You can put things near the bottom of them, like people, or my small rental car:

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But that only shows you the scale of the very bottom bit of the tree.

But to give you an indication, this is Founders’ Tree (admittedly taken with a wide-angle lens):

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Now, this fellow is over 12 ft across, which is pretty impressive… but it’s over 346 ft high! If, like me, you find the raw numbers hard to grasp, that’s taller than the Statue of Liberty or Big Ben. It’s over twice the height of Niagara Falls; in fact, you have to go noticeably higher than Niagara before you get to the first branch.

These trees are, quite literally, awesome.

And yet, put a few of them together, let them grow for a millennium or so, and you get a remarkably peaceful and beautiful place.

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If you get a chance to see them, do so.

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Vulture culture

September 19th, 2014

Turkey vultures aren’t too keen on being rained on. When the sun comes out, they spread their wings out to dry.

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On the Rogue River, Oregon, this morning.

Transatlantic Tariffs

September 18th, 2014

Two things keep reminding me that I’m in America and not Britain:

  • Firstly, no signature or PIN is needed on card transactions less than $50.
  • Secondly, completely filling my petrol tank from empty yesterday didn’t even get close to that amount.

River lights

September 16th, 2014

River lights, Astoria, Oregon

I’m at the mouth of the Columbia River, in Astoria, Oregon. It’s quite a river. The bridge that crosses it here is about 4 miles long. Here’s a little bit of it:

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Click for larger versions.

I had a surreal experience as I drove across the lower sections. Several species of birds were enjoying the updraft that the bridge and vehicles provided. I looked out of my car window at one point to see five large pelicans hovering, almost stationary, just a few feet from my wing mirror.

That’s when you wish you didn’t have to concentrate on the driving.

DevOps the Google way

September 6th, 2014

DevOps is a trendy term in the software industry in the last few years.

If you haven’t come across it, it’s (roughly) about trying to break down the traditional barriers that can grow up between software developers (who want to create exciting new features and get them out there) and the operations people (who have to ensure the software runs reliably and deal with the problems if it doesn’t, so are a natural back-pressure on the speed of innovation and deployment).

At Telemarq, where we currently have about 2.5 people, this distinction is not large :-) We all do everything and we all deal with the bugs. But the bigger the organisation gets, the more danger there is that these relationships can be frustrating or uncomfortable.

By the time you get to be the size of Google, and particularly when you have a user base that you number in hundreds of millions, you need to find good ways to make this work. Google has a team called ‘SRE’, focused on Site Reliability Engineering. I can’t say that a talk on reliability engineering sounded particularly inspiring, but I learned a lot from this one by Ben Traynor, who runs it. Some very good management ideas here: recommended for anyone in the software industry, and particularly for those in larger companies.

If you thought selling insurance was dull, you’re not doing it right

August 31st, 2014

I’m exceedingly proud to count Rose Goslinga amongst my friends.

Improve the visibility through your windscreen…

August 28th, 2014

Road tax discOn 1st October, the tax disc that British cars need to display in their windows is being abolished, nearly a century after it was introduced. Not the tax, you understand, just the disc.

The various government web sites talking about this say that it’s no longer needed ‘because of the electronic register’. They don’t tend to mention the CCTV cameras which now check your number plate much more reliably than the traffic wardens who used to check your tax discs.

This all makes good sense – it should help dramatically reduce the number of uninsured drivers on the road, for example – but it will no doubt also feed the fears of the conspiracy theorists…

MailMate

August 27th, 2014

For the last few months I’ve switched over to using MailMate as my main email app on the Mac. Alternative mail programs are not very numerous, partly because, overall, Apple’s default one does a remarkably good job. I’ve always rather liked it.

MailMate has a few quirks, and is still in development. (Hint: Turn on ‘Experimental features’, and under Software Update hold down Alt while pressing the ‘Check Now’ to get the very latest version. This sounds dodgy, but I’ve had no reliability problems.)

Overall, I love it. Here are some of my favourite features:

  • I like the ‘correspondence mode’ – when you’re looking a message, this extra window shows you all your correspondence with that person.

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  • I like being able to write my emails in Markdown.

  • It copes well with my 11GB of mail.

  • There are helpful prompts which warn you if you might intend to do something slightly different. For example, you’ve used words that suggest you’re attaching something, but don’t actually have any attachments. Or if you’ve hit reply on a message that originally had multiple recipients: it lists the other people and asks if you really wanted ‘Reply All’?

  • The search facilities are awesome. If you need to find the messages that you sent to Fred, or that he sent to you, before the start of the year, that don’t contain the word ‘invoice’, it’s easy to do.

  • You can save these complex queries as Smart Mailboxes. In fact, every list of messages you see is basically a database query, and you can treat them as pretty much alike.

  • You can rearrange the order of the mailboxes in the list on the left. So if your smart mailboxes are more important than your folder layout on the server, you can put them at the top.

These last two have combined to make the single best feature for me. In the past, I used to mark as ‘unread’ any messages which still needed my attention. The problem was that it was too easy, when skimming through messages on one of my devices, unwittingly to mark things as ‘read’ and never get around to acting on them when I got back home. And shuffling things into different folders was too much hassle while walking the dog; I just wanted a single inbox and a way of noting what was important.

MailMate’s smart mailbox came to the rescue. I now flag messages that need further action, instead of leaving them as unread. My number one mailbox collects the unread and flagged messages from all my inboxes into one place, and doesn’t show anything else.

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This is brilliant, because I know that anything I flag, from any program on any device, will appear there, along with any messages I haven’t yet seen. In other words, these are the only things that require my attention. It’s usually a nice short list, and it’s where I spend almost all my time.

MailMate costs $50, which is a hard sell when the Mac comes with a very good email program, and there are free alternatives like Thunderbird. There are a couple of minor features that I miss from Apple Mail, like its handling of images. And it took me a couple of weeks to feel really at home with MailMate.

But there’s a 30-day free trial, and I paid for it long before my time was up. Recommended.