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2011 Review

I’ve not done one of these for some time, mainly because I’ve had nothing that I would particularly want to write home about over the past few years, but not only has 2011 been a little different but I’ve also written “blog more” on my list of New Year’s resolutions, the rest of which I won’t reveal for fear of jinxing them. So here goes:

My year

For me it’s been a relatively good year, which is a welcome change. Every year since 2006 when my business failed up to and including 2010 was unpleasant and negatively stressful in some way. I say “negatively stressful” because there is such thing as “positive stress”, which is what I have been thriving on this year. Those previous years brought nothing but stressful losses, whether financial, of personal relationships, of employment and even my home. I can’t say that I’ve regained all of those things because that would be far from the truth, but I do believe to be on my way in a sustainable and realistic manner.

I started 2011 unsure about my current job and I was tempted by a very extraordinary opportunity that came across my path. I wasn’t offered the position in the end, I fell at the last hurdle during the recruitment process. I’m glad that happened now because my position at Glide developed and improved dramatically throughout the rest of the year and I am very settled there now. I see myself staying with the company and being involved in its development and future diversification for some time. Although I have been in higher paying positions in the past I can quite honestly say that it is the most rewarding job I have ever had and I really wouldn’t swap either it or the people I work with for anything less than something that I’d simply be an idiot to pass up.

With greater happiness in my job came greater acceptance and belief that my move from Manchester to Birmingham was a positive step, because for a while I quite honestly wasn’t sure, and this lead me to be able to move in to a place of my own in the middle of the city in November, which has made me immensely happy. Living on my own, on my own terms, in the middle of another fantastic city and with everything in walking distance again is a dream come true and I cherish it every day, whereas when I was living in Manchester I took it for granted. I’d like to thank all those who were so instrumental in helping make it happen for me.

2012

As I mentioned before I’ve a list of New Year’s resolutions and I’m so determined to stick to them that I have designed a spreadsheet that measures my success with each on a month by month basis. By that you can obviously infer that “be less anally retentive” isn’t one of them. However, also as mentioned before I’m not sharing them.

I’ve high hopes for my job and my team as the company I work for grows. We’re moving offices at the start of March to the Alpha Tower from our current base in the Jewellery Quarter, which should make things a little easier although I’ll actually have a smaller desk and my team will lose the separate room that we greatly enjoy at the moment. My team will expand (probably two-fold) and the company’s diversification plans are thoroughly exciting. A pay rise would be nice but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I want to continue to improve and expand my skill set and experience as you might expect. As mentioned before I’ve learnt more in my current position than in any other position so I don’t expect that curve will get any shallower any time soon, nor would I want it to. I want to get into mobile applications if possible as it would be nice to have something that just earns money for me while I sleep, but as with most software development you typically (but not always) need a problem before you can come up with a solution.

There are some demons still haunting me from the collapse of my business that I want to put to rest this year, finally, I think if I carry those over to 2013 I really will be doing something wrong.

The rest is all personal, really. Yes, I’d quite like to meet another fella, before you ask, but this isn’t high on my list of priorities, mainly because I’m old and ugly enough to realise that such things will happen to you when you least expect and whether you like it or not, so to seek them out would be a futile waste of precious time. That said, I’ve not been as “eligible” as I am now for some time now, so who knows.

I wish everyone who’s bothered to read this far a fabulous 2012. Let’s hope it doesn’t all end horribly on 12th December, eh?

Notable despatches

This section is a footnote really in the absence of a full review of news events this year. I would note that I actually read and/or watch the news every day with a keen interest and during my early days of blogging I would blog almost every day with my comment on whatever was going on, however, more recently Facebook and subsequently Twitter have provided more effective means of comment, meaning that rare is now the occasion where I will create a full blog about current affairs.

Banned shopping

Col. Gadaffi, the Libyan despot who ruled for 42 years since taking power in a military coup. An unpleasant relic from the 20th Century, no doubt, but I think many people will secretly miss the entertainment that he used to provide to the rest of the world. Modern world leaders may well be safe, responsible (Gordon Brown notwithstanding) and largely democratically elected but I can’t think of a single one who I would describe as “a character”, nor will any of them be remembered much beyond their tenures, not that I’m suggesting infamy to be something to aspire to. The circumstances surrounding Gadaffi’s death, however, raises worrying questions about Libya’s brave new future.

Invented nuclear fusion

Kim Jong-Il, the “Dear Leader” of the bizarre world that is the North Korea, itself also a haunting relic of the 20th Century that the world could well do without. Kim’s death was not unexpected, and although he was an abysmal failure as a leader, despite what North Korea state media insist, his passing on is not necessarily a good thing. The pampered idiot he’s left in charge is just that and nobody in the rest of the world wants a nasty coup in a rogue, pariah state armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and the world’s fifth largest army. Orwellian societies were never designed to leave the printed page.

Bins taken out on Bank Holiday


Osama Bin Laden, the criminal mastermind behind the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, who was tracked down to a compound in the middle of an affluent area of Pakistan near to a military academy, which embarrassed the Pakistani authorities immensely and has since strained relations between the two countries. This news was not entirely surprising what with the tenth anniversary of September 11th and Obama’s pledge to remove US troops from Iraq looming large. His elimination was a necessary pre-requisite of being able to say the job was done. May America’s wounds now heal properly.

Also mad

Steve Jobs, the visionary creator of Apple, now the world’s most successful company. I’ve been an Apple user for coming up to 6 years now and I have never looked back. Jobs initially tempted me away with the iPod and Intel-based Macs, and has continued to deliver ever since. The world needs more people like Steve Jobs. He has no clear heirs-apparent in the computer industry. There are contenders, without a doubt, but only time will tell if they end up making the sort of difference that he did.

The BBC have a slideshow on more notable deaths in 2011.

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Birmingham City Boy

Yes, I am aware that it's another flat above a shop

I’ve moved to Birmingham city centre, ending my 18 month tenure in the nice-but-dull former royal town of Sutton Coldfield. This may seem sudden to everyone but it’s actually something I’ve been wanting to do since moving to the West Midlands and that I have actually been quietly planning for six months or so, which is how long it has taken me to bring it all together for various reasons.

My new one bedroom flat is in Temple House, a popular development on the corner of Temple Street and New Street (the main outdoor shopping street in Birmingham, analogous to Manchester’s Market Street). It’s a 15-20 minute walk to work, which will be reduced by five minutes or so once the company for whom I work has itself moved in the New Year. No longer do I have a total of two and a half hours commuting time each day, which is great, because I get to spend longer at work and at home so everyone wins.

This year even drearier

It’s fabulous being back in the city centre. I always missed it, but now I’m back I realise just how much I missed it. This flat is arguably even more central than the Manchester flat was and there’s always a buzz going on outside, which I can observe from the balcony off the living room, something that only a few apartments in the building have.

Recipients of my Dreary Seasonal Newsletter accompanying my Christmas cards this year will note that I am also using it as a method of informing everyone of my change of address, in case you were wondering why you had not already received such a notification from me. Second class stamps cost 36 pence each these days, you know.

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New life for old Mac mini

Mac Mini (original case)

18 months ago I replaced my aged 2006 Mac Mini with an up to date model, which is still my main desktop computer today. The old Mac Mini was relegated to being a quasi-media centre, but of course because it was actually a desktop computer it really wasn’t a very good media centre, but due to its age nor was it a very good desktop computer, hence why I replaced it.

I never used it as a media centre beyond the odd occasion and it’s spent the last 18 months mostly consuming enough power to sleep and collecting dust. Until this evening, that is. I’m moving again soon (which I’ll cover in full in a different post) and I’m trying to take as little as possible with me. I was using an old Dell PC as a local Linux development server, which isn’t anything special but did the job nicely. There were three problems with it, however, specifically that it’s as ugly as hell, chews through electricity because it was manufactured at a time when computer manufacturers thought it grew on trees, and it belongs to my housemate.

I don’t really want to take it with me when I move because of all of those reasons, although I’m sure the last one could be eliminated with £30 or so. Then I remembered that I had this entirely idle old Mac Mini tucked away on a corner of my network doing nothing. I wondered if it would accept an installation of Ubuntu Server, given that it’s an Intel-based Mac (the original Intel Core Solo model, no less). Sure enough, it turns out that it can, and it works a treet.

My old Mac Mini has a 60Gb hard disk and 1.25Gb of RAM. It’s not going to break any records with its single-core 1.5Ghz processor, but for running a local Apache2 server it’s nothing less than what I need. The only caveat is that it won’t boot on its own into Linux straight from the hard disk, I have to keep an CD with rEFIt on it in the CD drive for it to do that; it’s certainly not the end of the world.

From a cold-boot to getting a login prompt with all services started it uses just 85Mb of RAM and with all the software I need on it and my Git repositories in place it’s using just 2.5Gb of it’s hard disk. All this on a 65 watt power supply. In addition to this, and despite the fact that it’s very different internally to my new Mac Mini, the two look identical from the outside and so look pretty good stacked on top of each other.

So don’t throw out your old Mac Mini, give it a proper job to see out its old age! The only thing I can’t do with this which I was thinking about doing with the Dell PC was putting an x100P card in it. I’ll live.

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Flattening LaTeX source files for use with conversion software

I’ve been working with LaTeX quite a bit recently and I came across a very silly shortcoming that some of the programs that convert LaTeX to other formats suffer from. It’s moronic, but certain of them (pandoc, I’m looking at you), don’t follow includes (i.e. \input commands).

I have a PHP script which compiles all my LaTeX source files into various destination formats, including PDF, HTML, MediaWiki markup and text, and so in order to compensate for this ridiculous incapability I added this function which creates a “flattened” version of any LaTeX file by inserting the contents of any included files at the point they are included. It’s recursive, so if those included files also include files, they too are processed.

It’s simple but effective. Pass the path to the file to flatten. A string is returned with the entire flattened file. You may need to pay attention to relative paths in your \input commands if you includes are in sub-directories.

function FlattenLatexSourceFile($path) {
	
	// read in file
	$src = file($path);
	$flattened = "";

	// process each line
	foreach ($src as $line) {
		
		if (preg_match("/^\\\input/",$line)) {

			// include (input) line, extract filename and recurse
			
			$input = trim($line);
			$input = preg_replace("/^\\\input\{/","",$input);
			$input = preg_replace("/\}/","",$input);
			
			if (substr($input,-4,4) != ".tex") $input = "{$input}.tex";
			
			$flattened .= "% {$line}\n";
			$flattened .= FlattenLatexSourceFile($input);
			$flattened .= "\n% (end of included file {$input})\n";
			
		} else {
			
			// normal line
			$flattened .= $line;
			
		}
		
	}
	
	// return flattened file
	return $flattened;
	
}

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Mountain biking renaissance

Trek Antelope 830

The only way you can tell it's 19 years old is its lack of technology.

When I was sixteen my parents bought me a new mountain bike as a congratulations present for passing my GCSEs. It’s a Trek Antelope 830, an American design which was, so I’m told by the grease monkeys in Halfords, something of a classic model from the early 1990s. It’s seen little use since I learnt to drive and languished in the car park of the apartment building in Manchester for a full seven years before I moved to Sutton Coldfield, disused and neglected.

I’d been meaning to get it fixed up for some time ever since moving because almost on my doorstep I have the largest urban park in Europe, Sutton Park, and the place is perfect for spending an afternoon biking around. It has roads and bridleways and once you’re bored of those it has hundreds of square miles of terrain to explore. So after having earned a bit of overtime during a busy period at work recently I finally got around to taking it to the local branch of Halfords to get it fixed up. For £160 I secured the following:

  1. New gear shifters.
  2. New saddle and saddle column. The last one “went missing” years ago from the W3 car park.
  3. New rear inner tube. Surprised that it didn’t need both tubes replacing, actually.
  4. Full service, plus another free service in 12 months time.
  5. New cycle helmet.
  6. Front and rear LED lights.
  7. Bicycle pump. They look completely different these days to what they used to.

The original gear shifters were broken and the parts were no longer available. The staff at Halfords remarked on these because they remember when that particular model of shifter first came out as they were apparently one of the first 7×3 shifters. They have been replaced with modern equivalents. This is a shame because it means that the bike is no longer completely original, but they are of course a necessity if I want to actually use it.

So yesterday I took it for its first proper outing to Sutton Park and I had a fabulous time. The bike’s great to ride, despite having a distinct and noticeable lack of modern technology that seems to be ubiquitous on modern bikes, most notably suspension and shock absorbers. As a result it’s a bit of a bone shaker when compared to a modern bike. It also has the old fashioned rim brakes, whereby the brakes are rubber blocks applied to the rim of the wheel, as opposed to the more modern disc brakes, which look like and act on the same principle as car brakes. This means that the bike can be a little tricky to stop quickly in an emergency. However,  I never intend to have it in a situation so extreme that I cannot easily plan my way out of it. I know the bike has limitations compared to a modern equivalent and it’s just a case of taking them into account.

The bike rides fine, just like it used to, except the chain seems to slip quite frequently and it’s difficult to get it onto the third (largest) cog on the front sprocket. Indeed, at one point it failed so miserably to do this that the chain came off and became wrapped around the pedal shaft, which required half an hour with the bike up on end and some very oily hands to work out and sort out. I’m not sure what might be the solution to this. They didn’t replace the chain at Halfords so it may well be the case that it’s just a bit old and needs replacing. I am consulting friends who are more into mountain biking for advice on the matter.

Lessons I have immediately learned from this first expedition are as follows:

  1. Take more than a litre of water for an afternoon. You get thirsty really quickly.
  2. Take a pair or two of those medical rubber gloves. When the chain came off my hands got absolutely covered in oil fixing it and I had no way of getting it off until I reached the bistro where I had my late lunch.
  3. There is barely any mobile signal in Sutton Park and so it’s difficult to use Google Maps. Sutton Park is extremely large and will take some time to learn properly.
  4. Skiing sunglasses make perfectly good cycling glasses and don’t look absurd with a cycling helmet.
  5. Cycling helmets don’t look even a fraction as ridiculous as they used to in the early 1990s.
  6. If I ever become reasonably serious about mountain biking I do think that I might have to consider a new bike at some point as I have a very sore arse today and this would probably have been avoided had the bike had some form of shock absorption technology.

Today my legs are absolutely killing me, as is my arse, but I fully intend to do exactly the same trip next Saturday, weather permitting. Ahead of that, however, I want to by a trip meter of some sort and some sort of attachment to hold my phone onto the handlebars would also be beneficial. Some people have also recommended padded shorts to reduce the arse soreness problem, but I won’t be seen dead in cycling shorts, it would have to be something I can wear underneath normal cargo shorts. I’d also probably do well to get a pair of gloves as I remember mashing my hands up quite significantly when I came off the bike as a teenager.

Cows in Sutton Park

Sutton Park is a nature reserve and boasts much wildlife, including these cows which are free and have the run of the park. They are apparently quite used to being around humans.

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Birmingham Pride 2011

I went to my first ever Birmingham Pride over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend. Last year I didn’t go because I had just moved to the area and was still out of work, so I simply couldn’t afford it, but this year was different and I had an absolutely fabulous time and I’m very glad that I went, even though after so many years of doing Manchester the setting and the people were largely unfamiliar to me.

Birmingham Pride operates under a similar format to Manchester Pride in that there is a parade through the city centre followed by a giant street party in the gay village that lasts several days, although in Birmingham it only lasts for two days instead of of the whole duration of the bank holiday as it does in Manchester. This was a good thing for this year at least because it absolutely plummeted down with rain on the Monday and so it would have been awful.

The other key difference between the two events is the ticket price. Manchester will relieve you of the best part of thirty quid for a wristband for entry into the village (if you don’t know the correct people), but in Birmingham there is no such requirement. It’s free, all weekend, indeed it’s apparently the UK’s largest free music festival. The payoff is that the acts on the main stage aren’t nearly so well known, but that’s fair enough, and frankly for me the pride events aren’t all about the main stage acts. I absolutely love the atmosphere and the noise experience there. Everybody is happy and it’s great. Just wish I had someone really special in my life to share it with.

Birmingham Pride is always early in the year and kicks off the pride season, with Manchester finishing it off on August bank holiday. I don’t like London Pride, it’s utterly up its own arse, so I never bother with it, but I do like Brighton Pride when I’m able to make it down there. That too is free, taking over the whole of Preston Park for a day in a format very similar to what London Pride used to be in the 1990s, before it became so heavily commercialised.

Many thanks to my friend and colleague James, who I spent most of the weekend with. We’ve been promising ourselves for ages a good night/weekend out and pride provided the perfect opportunity.

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PHP Vacancy

We’re hiring for a Software Engineer at work to join our technical team based in Birmingham city centre (Jewellery Quarter). If you’re looking for a challenging PHP role and you think you might fit the bill, please do drop me a line with your current CV. Full job specification below. Please don’t be put off by the crappy website, we’re literally just about to launch its replacement :)

Glide is a rapidly growing energy and telecommunications company specialising in looking after tenants, landlords, letting agents and property investors across the UK. They supply gas, electricity, telephony and broadband services to residential and commercial customers.

About Glide

They believe in hard work in an informal atmosphere that encourages people to express their ideas. They look for talented people who want to work with technology and can tackle problems in a smart and creative way. Their employees enjoy working in a challenging environment that brings out the best in them. Customers and customer service are at the heart of everything they do – their business revolves around their customers.

They have their own in-house development, customer support and sales teams and remain focused on keeping their costs low through automation and keeping customers informed through good communication. As technology evolves, they aim to bring new and improved services to their customers as early as possible.

About The Role

They currently have an opportunity for a full-time senior software engineer, starting immediately, as part of their in-house software team.

The role will focus on developing their bespoke systems. Their systems are written in object-orientated PHP with a SQL database. You will need to be a highly competent programmer  in PHP, SQL, Javascript, AJAX, Smarty templates, Model-View-Controller and in documenting your work. Good familiarity with Ubuntu/Debian based systems is required. Experience with invoicing routines, SVN or accountancy systems would be useful.

The role will involve working on projects to develop existing products, launch new products and services, improve internal customer service systems, update and maintain accountancy systems and invoicing scripts, debugging and diagnosing problems with their existing code base and working closely with their customer service teams. The role also includes integrating their system with multiple third party suppliers, redeveloping customer portals and revamping their website.

You will be enthusiastic about new technology, eager to learn, and will hold a degree in Computer Science or equivalent. You will be capable of managing your own time.

Application Details

The company is a place where everyone can be heard. If you like the sound of this opportunity, they’d love to hear from you. Please direct your communication and correspondence through my team or direct to me. Please view the website at www.glide.uk.com for more background information to assist you with your response.

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Technical Notebook

If I have any regular readers, they will have noticed that I’ve started to use my WordPress as a notebook as well as a blog. This site is more or less a general dumping ground for my online stuff that I’m willing to show the world. If you don’t understand it, then don’t worry about it.

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