Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Thursday, 23 December 2010

This is my idea of heaven!

The finest single malt whisky there is! 

Been out for a really cool ride today

Another Merry Christmas

Came across this and couldn't resist posting it. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Monday, 20 December 2010

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

I love my friends

Join Sir Roger Moore and stop the foie gras industry

Sir Roger Moore has teamed up with PETA once again to produce his latest film outing – an exposá of the cruel treatment suffered by ducks and geese in the foie gras industry.

Further details can be found on the PETA web site.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Saturday, 11 December 2010

University tuition fees. Good or bad?

The issue of university tuition fees has hit the headlines recently, mainly for all the wrong reasons. We've seen the violent protests, and the appalling behaviour of some of the demonstrators who have defaced the Cenotaph and urinated on the statue of Winston Churchill.

However, ignoring the mindless anarchists who have hijacked the protests for their own senseless, pointless enjoyment, the serious point is that of the funding of university tuition fees.

As reported in the press, the current annual tuition fee of £3290 is about to be raised to £6000 from 2012, with an upper tier of £9000 if the university can ensure access for poorer students.

From the student's perspective, this is obviously not a welcome change. Deciding whether you want to go to university will be as much about whether you and your family can financially subsidise such a venture, as it will be about whether university is the right choice for you, whether you have selected the right university or the right course.

There is now a formidable financial disincentive. Being faced with a maximum final bill of £27000 is enough to put anyone off applying for a university place, even those from middle class backgrounds and who are genuinely talented and / or hard working. The deterrent for those from poorer backgrounds must be greater still.

Another point worth making is that it is not just the students that benefit from graduating. Graduates with degrees in sought after courses such as the nursing, social care and health care professions will obviously benefit society as a whole.

On the other hand, is it fair to ask every family - irrespective of whether they have children, irrespective of whether their own children are going to attend university and irrespective of how financially destitute they may be - to subsidise every university student. Is it fair to ask a hard working family living in hardship, working to minimum wage, to fund a university student who may then go on to work in the investment banking sector earning a six figure salary?

The repayment terms for paying back tuition fees are very lenient. Your first repayment will be due in the April after you leave your course (the start of the new financial year). You’ll repay nine per cent of your earnings over £15,000 - but you can repay more if you want to clear your loans faster. The more you earn, the quicker you repay the loan. So, someone earning £18,000 a year (the average starting salary for a graduate-level job) will have to pay back nine per cent of £3,000 (£18,000 minus £15,000). This works out at around £5.19 a week - Directgov

If a graduate is earning less than the average national salary, they will never be subject to repaying their tuition fees at all. This will apply to many graduates. So in reality, many graduates will never have to pay back a single penny of their tuition fees.

The issue of tuition fees has polarised the population, with both sides of the debate never seeing the issue through the eyes of the other. It has resulted in a polemical debate without any clear consensus. There is never going to be any clear winner from this issue, and until each side agrees to compromise and listen to the other, then so the hostilities will continue.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Now there's no excuse for taking the car to the shops!

Web site measurements that bounce to the exit

While using Google Analytics recently, two measurements of web site traffic analysis came to my attention for their significance. These are Bounce Rate and Exit Rate.

They are quite similar, and can be confused with each other. Also confusing is when and why
you should use each of them.

The Bounce Rate represents those web site visitors who visit a web site, but then navigate away to a different web site. Rather than stay on the web site and continue to navigate their way around the site by viewing other pages, they have "bounced" away and left the site without opening any other web pages from the web site.

The formula for calculating bounce rate is:

Bounce rate = total number of visits viewing one page only / total number of visits

The Exit Rate represents those web site visitors who visit a web site, but instead of immediately bouncing away to a different web site, will navigate through some pages of the web site before exiting the web site. What is important to measure with Exit Rate is the page the user was viewing when they exited the web site.

Here are examples of both Bounce Rate and Exit Rate that hopefully explain the differences between these two measurements. John - our imaginary user - navigates to a page on a web site that tells him all about a particular bicycle. He has arrived at the web site via a search engine result listing. Clicking on the top search result link opens the page related to the bicycle he is interested in. After looking at the web page on the bicycle, he then leaves the site without visiting any other web pages from the web site. In this scenario John is said to have bounced away from the web site.

In the second scenario, John arrives at the same web site via a search engine result listing for the same bicycle. John views the web page, but rather than leave the web site, he decides to look through the web site at some of the other bicycles. He navigates to the "Find Us" page to see where they are located, and then leaves the site. In this scenario John is said to have exited the web site from the "Find Us" page.

There are several ways a user can exit a web site:
  • Using the web browser's back button to return to a previous web page from another web site
  • Entering an address (or URL) into the web browser's address bar
  • Closing the tab or web browser

Why are Bounce Rate and Exit Rate important?
The Bounce Rate is useful for determining how your landing pages are performing as compared to visitor expectations. For example, a high Bounce Rate may indicate a problem with the web page. Is there a problem with the web page? Does it error, is it slow to load, is it confusing? Does the content of the web page match the search terms entered by the user in their search engine?

What is important is to look beyond the Bounce Rate number, and apply due diligence in determining the reason(s) behind the Bounce Rate. If you're running a paid search campaign for bicycles on a car web site, you're going to need to re-evaluate your marketing strategy. In this case, there may be nothing wrong with the web page at all. It's your web strategy that is at fault.

A high Exit Rate for a specific web page may indicate a problem with a particular process. For example, many web sites contain processes, where the user is navigated through a series of web pages. For example when you make an online purchase, you will probably be asked to enter your item information, address information and payment information. When a user is navigated through a series of web pages with an endpoint or goal (in this case making a purchase), they should continue until they have completed their transaction.

If users are exiting the process before they complete their transaction, then you would want to find out which web page in the process that is causing the problem. Once the user has started to process their payment, why are they exiting before they have completed making payment? You will need to determine which page(s) have the highest Exit Rate, and determine if there is a problem with those pages. You would naturally expect to have a high Exit Rate for the last page in the process. Once the user has paid for their goods or services, they may well leave the web site and go elsewhere.

Whenever you look at Bounce Rates and Exit Rates it's important to look beyond the number itself. List the pages with the highest rates, and methodically look through them to look for possible problems. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe what those solutions may be.

When used appropriately, Bounce Rate and Exit Rate can help you maximise your web traffic, helping you to drive increased traffic to your site.

Put the fun between your legs!

Tuition fees protest...Defacing the Cenotaph, urinating on Churchill... how young thugs at student protest broke every taboo

In a grotesque insult to those who championed the very freedoms which allowed them to stage their protest, a baying rabble of masked and hooded troublemakers turned a student demonstration into anarchy yesterday.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Keep calm!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Friday, 3 December 2010

Heroes - Richard Dawkins

The latest article in my Heroes series is going to focus on Richard Dawkins. He was born on March 26th 1941 and started his academic life as an ethologist and evolutionary biologist. He came to mainstream prominence (some might say notoriety) with the publication of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The book is a detailed discussion of the gene centred view of evolution.

Although the idea was not unique, the book must surely take the credit for popularising the idea and bringing it to mainstream attention. Up to that point, the popular view of evolution was at the level of the organism, or to use the term used by Dawkins in his book - the vehicle. Dawkins makes a clear distinction in his book between genes, and the organisms (or vehicles) which carry them. Bodies that carry genes (including humans) only do so to help genes propagate themselves. At the level of the gene, a body's only purpose is to transmit the gene into future vehicles. Therefore the gene must act selfishly to do so.

"Dawkins coined the term "selfish gene" as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to the view focused on the organism. From the gene-centred view follows that the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense (at the level of the genes) it makes for them to behave selflessly. Therefore the concept is especially good at explaining many forms of altruism, regardless of a common misuse of the term along the lines of a selfishness gene." The Selfish Gene

Many critics of the book took the phrase literally, and accused Dawkins of condoning selfish behaviour at the level of the individual organism, including selfish behaviour at the level of a human being. This is a popular criticism, but it is entirely without basis or merit.

"Selfish", when applied to genes, doesn't mean "selfish" at all. It means, instead, an extremely important quality for which there is no good word in the English language: "the quality of being copied by a Darwinian selection process." This is a complicated mouthful. There ought to be a better, shorter word—but "selfish" isn't it." The Science of Selfishness

The first book by Richard Dawkins that I read was The Blind Watchmaker. Two books ignited my passion for science. One was The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan. I mentioned this in my Heroes article on him previously. When reading The Blind Watchmaker, I was fascinated by the ideas it contained. The title of the book comes from a reference made by William Paley in his book Natural Theology. Paley argues in his book that the complexity of living organisms is proof of the existence of a divine creator. He uses the watchmaker analogy to substantiate this claim.

The watchmaker analogy is a teleological argument for the existence of God. The argument states that the complexity of life, and of living organisms is analogous to the complexity of the internal workings of a watch. A watch is a complex piece of equipment containing many moving parts which must work together in intricate detail to serve its purpose of accurately telling the time. More importantly, a watch is designed by a watchmaker. Likewise, the complexity of living organisms must also have a designer. In this case the designer will be God.

In the book, Dawkins makes extensive reference to a computer model of artificial selection (which he originally developed himself on his Apple Mac). The program uses the concept of a "biomorph". This is a mathematical organism whose shape is defined by its "genome". The genome in this case is a vector of numerical values (don't be put off by the mathematics). The "genes" that define the "genome" are allowed to change over time within certain predefined boundaries. This process is akin to the way that evolution works in real life, and so gives a fascinating insight into the workings of evolution. In the book are depictions of how the biomorphs change (evolve) over time. Starting out with a fairly rudimentary biomorph, Dawkins supplies screen shots of the biomorph over time as it gradually evolves. It amply and very clearly demonstrates how complexity can arise from simplicity.

Dawkins goes on to give many explanations for living complexity, such as the evolution of sonar in bats. His explanations are so clear, so well constructed and written, that the arguments can be easily absorbed and understood. This is something I have admired throughout all of his books. He never assumes the reader is a scientist, nor does he assume the reader is a dolt. He assumes the reader is intelligent with a keenness to learn about the topic he is writing about. He never patronises the reader for not understanding some of the basics that a scientist may already know. He will devote pages, sometimes chapters, to describing and explaining any underpinning theory on which a later chapter may rely. It is a great skill to be able to disseminate and describe so ably to the lay reader some of the complex ideas in his books. He does so without ever losing track of the discussion, or losing the reader.

You cannot possibly write about Richard Dawkins without mentioning his atheism. He is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design. He was one of the founders of the Bright movement (of which I am a proud member). In his 2006 book The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that "a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion—a fixed false belief." As of January 2010, the English language version has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into 31 languages, making it his most popular book to date.

I read this book not long after it came out. It is the most comprehensive dismantling of religion I have ever come across. He uses his skill for well constructed debate and argument to powerful effect. Dawkins contends that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that belief in a personal god qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence. He is sympathetic to Robert Pirsig's statement in Lila that "when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion."

Richard Dawkins is a great supporter of critical thinking, of rational based decision making where evidence is fundamental. This comes through strongly in his writing. He is not afraid to tackle a subject, even supposedly sacred ones or taboo ones such as religion. He argues from fact, from science, from evidence. So when Richard Dawkins sets his sights on his intended target, you know with certainly that his arguments will be robust and based on hard evidence and science.

I admire Dawkins's writing skills, the fact that he can make complex ideas understandable to the lay reader who is sufficiently motivated to make the effort to learn about the topic. I admire his tenacity and heretical values. He is a fierce opponent who is not afraid of polemic. He does not shy away from debate or challenging long established doctrines and beliefs. His weapons of choice when debating are evidence, critical thinking and rationalism. These are traits we should all employ when discussing and debating ideas and theories.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

1/18 Scale DeLorean Time Machine Hard Drives

Looking for that perfect gift idea for the Back to the Future fan in your life? How about a 1/18 stainless steel scale model of the DeLorean time machine with a 500GB hard drive stuffed up its trunk? 

Thanks to Gavin Jennings for supplying the link.

Click here for the full article

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Rabbits abused and killed all for a cup of tea - help stop it!

Millions of animals are needlessly poisoned, maimed and killed in UK laboratories every year. 

The multimillion-pound company behind PG tips, Lyons and Lipton teas has abused and killed rabbits, piglets, mice and rats in tests so that the company can make health claims about tea. 

Sign up to help end these cruel and pointless experiments.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Friday, 26 November 2010

Rush - the biggest band you never heard of!

I've been a fan of Rush for 25 years. I've seen them twice in concert and own all their albums. They fill the world's biggest stadiums and arenas, but unless you're a fan, you've probably never heard of them. After The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kiss and Aerosmith, Rush have had the most consecutive gold and platinum albums. They're touring the UK next year, and I've managed to get my hands on 2 tickets to see them in Birmingham next May. Thought I'd share the great news!


"You can be the Captain,

And I will draw the chart,

Sailing into destiny,

Closer to the heart"


Live, Laugh, Love

Thursday, 25 November 2010

27 Beautiful Photos To Believe That Are Not Made in Photoshop

There are thousands of pictures you probably have seen on the internet. Today’s Post definitely think about these outstanding photos. This does not mean that they haven’t been photoshopped for cropping, coloring etc, but originally all the photographs are real using only in-camera tricks and photographer efforts. You will need to grab their creativity in these photos.

Follow the link to see the rest of the photos

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Beautiful 404 Error Pages

The design of 404 error pages is often overlooked and underestimated. However, designed carefully, these pages can make a random visitor stay on your website, take a look around and eventually find the information he or she was looking for in the first place. Effective 404 error pages communicate why a particular page couldn’t be displayed and what users can do next. A search box and list of useful resources (possibly related to the missing page) could be helpful in this case.

Follow the link to see examples of beautiful looking 404 Error Pages.

The rest of your life....average or memorable?? Only you can decide!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Avoid serious injury, stay away from my bike!

UN votes against protecting gays from execution


The UN has removed a reference to sexual orientation from a resolution condemning arbitrary and unjustified executions.

Click on the link to read the full story.


Saturday, 20 November 2010

If slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian

Music legend and activist Paul McCartney delivers a powerful narration of this must see video. Watch it to discover why everyone would be a vegetarian if slaughterhouses had glass walls.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Heroes - Lance Armstrong

Here is the second part in my Heroes series - following on from my Carl Sagan article. For anyone who knows me, it should come as no surprise that I have chosen Lance Armstrong for my second instalment of my Heroes series.

Lance Armstrong was born on September 18 1971. He is an American professional road racing cyclist. Even amongst those who do not follow the sport of cycling his name is well known. He retired from professional road cycling in July 2005, but returned to competitive cycling in January 2009, and finished third in the 2009 Tour de France.

He is perhaps best well known for winning the Tour de France a record breaking 7 consecutive times (1999 - 2005). This is quite simply an astonishing achievement. Prior to this, the most consecutive Tour de France wins was 5. This was by the Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain (1991 - 1995). Other cyclists have achieved 5 Tour de France wins, but have not done so consecutively (Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil).

In my opinion this is a record that will in all likelihood never be beaten!

If you don't follow cycling and are not familiar with the Tour de France, it is a 3 week stage race that circumnavigates France. Each day the riders will cycle between 150 - 200 kilometres, including mountain stages crossing the Alps and Pyrenees. There are only two other 3 week stage races on the professional racing calendar - the Giro D'Italia (circumnavigating Italy) and the Vuelta Espana (circumnavigating Spain). To finish the Tour de France is an achievement. To get on the podium is an achievement. To win it once is an achievement. To win it 7 consecutive times is an absolutely astonishing achievement.

What makes Lance's 7 consecutive wins even more astonishing is that they were all achieved after he was diagnosed with life threatening testicular cancer. Lance was diagnosed with his illness in October 1996. The cancer was so virulent that it had spread to his lungs and brain. His treatments included brain and testicular surgery and extensive chemotherapy. His original prognosis was poor.

Amongst the professional peloton, and therefore his cycling peers, he is highly respected but not always necessarily liked. He is quite often outspoken and is not afraid to make his thoughts on issues known, even if they are unpopular or controversial. His phenomenal self belief is often interpreted as arrogance or cockiness. It is precisely these qualities that I admire about him. Telling you how it is, and believing in yourself!

You don't win the Tour de France without having huge reservoirs of self belief. It's just not possible. While few people could ever hope to equal Lance in terms of self belief, most would like to be nearer to him on this particular quality.

As a cyclist, he is an amazing athlete. He has massive natural ability. An ability that he has since honed with hard training and dedication to his sport. By any accounts, his athletic abilities are exceptional. His measurements for V02 Max and lactate threshold for example are testament to his athletic prowess. His V02 Max is recorded at 83.8 mL/kg/min (the average person is between 40 - 50). He has a resting heart rate of 32 - 34 bpm, with a maximum heart rate of 201. When riding the tough mountain stages of the Tour de France, his body simply doesn't suffer as much his rivals.

Whilst many famous and successful sportsmen would be happy to sit back on their laurels and bask in their glory, Lance preferred instead to continue riding and winning the Tour de France. Lance single handedly brought cycling to the mass American audience. Although other Americans brought it to their attention, such as Greg LeMond, Lance was the breakthrough cyclist who brought an entire generation to France every year to cheer for their own home grown hero.

As much as I admire and respect him as a cyclist, it is also his tireless dedication to furthering the cause of reducing cancer through his Lance Armstrong Foundation that I greatly admire. In 1997, Lance Armstrong founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which supports people affected by cancer. The foundation has become one of the top 10 groups funding cancer research in the U.S., raising more than $325 million from the sale of yellow Livestrong bracelets. I own one of these thanks to a very good friend of mine. He has also acquired corporate sponsorships from companies like Giro, American Century Investments, Nike, Inc. and FRS to help raise funds for his charity.

Lance Armstrong is quite simply a living legend!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Armistice Day marred by Muslim protesters

The rights and wrongs of battle don't matter to the broken hearts of those the fallen leave behind. Today was Armistice Day, and like many others around the country today, I paid my respects by taking part in a two minute silence at 11am.

Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of war, past or present, today was not the time to show those objections.

It has sickened me to read reports of Muslims holding demonstrations. Muslims clashed with police after burning a large poppy in protest at Britain's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which was timed to coincide with Armistice Day's two-minute silence.

Whatever you may think about the rights and wrongs of war, today was not the time to make those objections. Today was about showing your respects to all those past and present that had died.

I am tired of the way my country has to tip toe around these people for fear of offending them. Clearly they had no such compunction when they burned a poppy and interrupted today's peaceful remembrance celebrations.

The British have been tolerant enough. We will not put up with such disgusting and offensive behaviour forever.

To all those who took part in such protests today, let me tell you, all you achieved was to tell the rest of the world that you are the lowest of the low!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Victory! Hens Spared Horrific Death in Grinder

Atheist cat

Catching criminals with social media

Modern police are to be taught on the use of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to catch criminals. As if we needed any further evidence that the old school concept of seeing bobbies on the beat was fast fading away.

Deputy Chief Constable Nick Gargin – acting head of the National Policing Improvement Agency – told the BBC that the move is “exactly what detectives need to tackle the challenges and complexities of modern policing effectively”.

Will such training courses include modules on “How to friend a felon” or “How to search Facebook users for people who list murder, paedophilia and drug dealing amongst their hobbies”. Will police detectives be sending out tweets or status updates along the lines of “If you know who murdered [insert victim's name here] please get in touch”. I wait with bated breath.

I’m obviously being tongue in cheek. Or am I? Does life imitate art, or art imitate life? Maybe this concept will finally put that question quietly to bed. If you’re an avid Daily Mail reader, you will no doubt have been brainwashed into believing that all of the world’s ills stem from the Internet, and that all social networking sites are inhabited solely by child abusers. The first thing I would say is – start reading another newspaper. The second thing I would say is – while I may be joking about the concept of police officers using social networking sites, I do believe that there is a strong case for its use.

In August 2010 Ian Green set up 11 Facebook accounts to distribute up to 100,000 indecent images of children.

In September 2010 Michael Williams – a postman form Cornwall - was jailed for eight and a half years after he admitted 27 charges of using Facebook and Bebo to abuse hundreds of children.

So while the idea of using social networking sites may not on the face of it seem to have any direct relevance to catching criminals, a closer inspection reveals that in fact it most certainly does.

To put all those Daily Mail readers straight – not all social networking users are child abusers – despite what you might have read to the contrary. Social networking sites are simply the new, modern means for such people to target , groom and abuse their victims.

If this idea is successful and results in the capture of criminals, then maybe it deserves to be “Liked” and Retweeted!

What is a moment?

Each day we live moment by moment. Each day is a series of moments. All those moments when taken together are our lives!

Make each moment count!

Check out this link to find out what a moment is.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The original geek is at it again!

As a bona fide geek, I thought I'd give this Posterous application a go. As most of you will already know, I already have my own blog, and co-author another blog. So I'll probably use this platform for posting shorter articles that may not fit in with my blog, such as half formed ideas, shorter posts, news, reviews etc. Or post messages, photos, links, videos and so on.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Heroes - Carl Sagan

I thought I'd do something different in my blog. I'm going to write a series of articles about people I greatly admire. I won't write these all at once, but rather write them over time interspersed with other blogs. These are people I admire, respect, look up to and who have influenced me in some way. The series will also hopefully give you a bit of an insight into who I am as a person.

For my first blog in the series I want to write about the late, great Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan was an American astronomer and author. Born on November 9th 1934, he passed away on December 20th 1996. He wrote the book behind the incredibly successful series Cosmos. This was back in the 1980s, and it was the first time I had come across him.

I have always been a naturally curious person, and have always had an interest in finding things out and asking questions. I have an almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge. When I watched Cosmos for the first time, my curiosity about the universe grew from an interest to complete wonder. My fascination was piqued.

I have since read the book Cosmos, and found it utterly compelling. The book that first got me interested in not just Carl Sagan, but science as a whole, was The Dragons of Eden. In the book Carl "combines the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and computer science to give a perspective of how human intelligence evolved" - Wikipedia.

If you don't think books on subjects relating to science can be interesting, then you have never read a book by Carl Sagan. I have read many of his books, including the Demon Haunted World, Billions and Billions and Contact (please don't watch the film that is based on the book - the ending to the book is utterly profound).

After reading The Dragons of Eden, my fascination with science blossomed and flourished. I had found an author who was not only extremely intelligent, but could write in a way that anyone with a keen interest could understand. More importantly than that however, was that his writing instilled in me a sense of wonder that has remained with me to this day.

Never has anyone caught my imagination as much as Carl has through his writing. Never has anyone made me feel humbled and fascinated by the universe and our place within it. His books are as intellectually invigorating as they are deeply profound.

I would strongly urge you to watch this video for Pale Blue Dot. It is only 3 and a half minutes so please make the time to watch it. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. The text to the video is taken from the book of the same name, so will give you an indication of his writing style if you have not come across him before.

"The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from a record distance, showing it against the vastness of space. By request of Carl Sagan, NASA commanded the Voyager 1 spacecraft, having completed its primary mission and now leaving the Solar System, to turn its camera around and to take a photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space." - Wikipedia

I have watched this video clip many times, and posted it onto my Twitter and Facebook feeds too. It never fails to make me feel humbled by the sheer vastness of the universe, how insignificant we are, and to put in perspective all of our inflated human egos. I challenge anyone to watch this clip and not feel humbled by it. If we could all think in the same vein as Carl narrates in this clip, we would advance as a species and progress our knowledge.

It is also fair to say that reading Carl Sagan started me on the path towards rejecting religion. Here is a typical quote from Carl that demands you consider the universe with more intellectual vigour than the introduction of imaginary gods:

"I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true."

It is not just Carl's sheer intellect that I admire, but his compassion. He writes not just as a scientist, but as a curious and thought provoking human being. It is clear from his writing that he cares deeply about our planet and its inhabitants - humans and non humans alike.

I have also taken to heart his quote that "there is no such thing as a dumb or stupid question" which forms a chapter from his book The Demon Haunted World. Anyone who knows me has almost certainly heard me say this. I never undermine anyone for not knowing something that I may know. They will almost certainly know a great many things that I don't know. By asking questions where you are not made to feel intimidated or undervalued, we all further our knowledge.

After a long and difficult fight with myelodysplasia, which included three bone marrow transplants, Carl Sagan died of pneumonia at the age of 62 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, on December 20, 1996. He was buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, New York - Wikepedia.

It is no accident that I have chosen Carl Sagan to be the first in my Heroes series. That should indicate how much I admire and respect him.

To live in the hearts we leave behind is to never die - RIP Carl Sagan

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Microsoft Office is up in the clouds

Microsoft has brought cloud computing into the office environment with the release of a cloud version of its popular Office suite. Also included in the Office suite will be its flagship collaboration tool SharePoint Online and email via Exchange Online.

Up until now most cloud applications have been based around Web 2.o applications such as social media applications, blogs, forums etc. With the launch of its Office 365 suite, Microsoft has brought cloud computing to the typical blue collar worker.

The release is currently named Office 365 (presumably as a reference to the fact that it is available 365 days of the year). It’s entirely possible though that the name will be changed to something else.

It’s aimed at small to medium enterprises (SMEs), with costs running between $6 and $27.50 per user per month. The specific cost will depend on the applications that are required, and the storage requirements.

With their office applications hosted via the Internet, users can therefore access their usual Office applications using any device that can access the Internet. This includes iPads, smartphones, as well as the usual PCs, netbooks and laptops. The devices need to support ActiveSync.

It is estimated that customers of Office 365 could save up to 10% over more traditional desktop versions of the applications. The Office 365 cloud computing solution is particularly suitable for companies with between 1 to 25 staff that are required to collaborate with external partners. This could include marketing initiatives, or product development.

For any SMEs wishing to look into reducing software costs, which typically runs at around 15% of total IT expenditure, it could be extremely beneficial to investigate the latest cloud computing offering from Microsoft.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Microsoft enters the Smartphone market

There was much speculation as to whether Microsoft would make the leap into the smartphone market. It’s a market already dominated by huge name brands such as Apple with its iPhone, and Google with Android. However, as of October 21 2010, Microsoft have entered the smartphone market with the release of the Windows Phone 7, which was launched in Europe and Australasia.

Coming so late to the market represents a great risk for Microsoft. With two huge brands in the guise of Apple and Google already firmly established, it’s not going to be easy to squeeze market share. Perhaps its saving grace is the fact that Microsoft is also a huge brand in its own right, just not in the smartphone market. However, entering the smartphone market also represents a great opportunity. Microsoft will have to work very hard if it wants to become the third major player. To do that it will have to leapfrog HP with its Palm Pre and Blackberry.

It’s also refreshing to note that Microsoft haven’t simply copied Apple and Google with its user-interface, but instead have developed something completely different.

As should be fairly obvious, to be successful in the smartphone market isn’t entirely about just the phones. To be successful you need to have lots of great, cool apps! You also need social media integration so users can keep up to date with their friends on Twitter, Facebook and so on. So the challenge for Microsoft is to have a simple user-interface so that users can navigate their way around their smartphone applications, and a feature rich / well documented API (Applications Programming Interface) to allow developers to write all their cool applications for it.

The Windows Phone 7 application development will be based on Silverlight, Xbox New Architecture (XNA) and the .NET Compact Framework 4.0. These are all technologies that will be familiar to a Microsoft based developer.

It will also use Microsoft technologies such as Bing for its web searching, and have gaming integration with Xbox.

It will be critical for the success of the Windows Phone 7 that it comes with a multitude of applications at launch, and with many more scheduled to come soon after. The quality of those applications needs to be fantastically high, given the massive head start of the competition. It has a lot of catching up to do if it seriously wants to challenge Apple and Google, or rather leapfrog HP and Blackberry. Those applications need to be cheap (preferably free), stable, simple to use and brought to the market as soon as possible (but without breaking the stability already mentioned).

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft fares in such a highly competitive and well dominated market. The coming months should reveal if the decision to move into such a market was the right one or not.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Crazy government spending

Prime Minister David Cameron has recently been very critical of the “crazy decisions” made by government IT procurement during the past decade. This criticism has come about after the report from Sir Philip Green highlighted the “shocking” inefficiency if IT purchasing.

IT purchasing was one of the main targets identified by Sir Philip Green for improvement. In his report he has called for changes to the “expensive IT services contracted for too long with no flexibility”. The main culprit identified by Sir Philip Green for causing such huge IT spending was the departmentally focused manner in which much of it is done. Instead of purchasing IT equipment centrally, and take advantage of the cost savings associated with such huge orders, it is purchased by individual departments where only small cost savings can be made. Sir Philip Green cited examples of both commodity IT buying and relationships with major IT suppliers as areas where there were opportunities for greater efficiencies to be made.

Sir Philip Green brought special attention to the telecoms costs, indicating that it would be necessary to put them under an “urgent review”. In his report he suggests that the current annual £2bn telecoms bill could be reduced by up to as much as 40% if purchased centrally rather than departmentally.

Also under fire was the £61m that is spent annually on desktop and laptop PCs. Prices vary between £353 to £2000 for such equipment. However, Sir Philip Green’s recommendation was that the government should buy all such equipment directly from a manufacturer, rather than through the 13 service providers that are currently in place.

The spending on mobile phones comes under criticism too. Of the £21m that is spent annually on such equipment, 98% of it goes to one un-named supplier. However, the 68 different contracts are negotiated separately by the various departments, rather than centrally where cost savings could be made.

The following is an example of the sort of spending that was found to be typical, and which highlighted the need for centralisation. The IT contract in question had 6 years still left to run and was costing £100m annually. However, some of the services being delivered under the contract were no longer required, but the terms of the contract did not allow for the fees to be reduced to reflect this. The contract also stipulated that rates of £1000 per day would apply for any work that the IT supplier provided, thus giving the supplier two profit margins.

The following conclusions by Sir Philip Green more than amply summarise the issue of government IT spending:

“There is a huge opportunity that has been clearly identified in central government and beyond, but without a clear mandate, energy, focus and commitment, this cannot be delivered. There is no reason why government should not be as efficient as any good business. Any large organisation would want to use its credit rating and scale to buy efficiently. The conclusion of this review is clear – credit rating and scale in virtually every department has not been used to make government spending efficient.”

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Importance of Making Mistakes

As human beings, we often feel mortified with ourselves when we make a mistake. When we get something wrong, when we forget to do something, when we let someone down. All these things are avoidable and make us feel bad about ourselves. They are all examples of mistakes that most of us will be familiar with.

What is important is not so much making mistakes, as everyone who has ever lived has done that, but what we learn from making a mistake. If we make a mistake, but then learn nothing from the experience, then that is a failure. If we make a mistake, but learn something from the experience, then that is a success.

No one is immune to making mistakes. We are all fallible and sometimes we get things wrong. That is human nature.

It is important to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Take control of the situation and take personal responsibility when you get something wrong. Why? Because it puts you in charge! If you constantly blame everyone else for your mistakes, then you can never rectify them, because in your own mind you didn’t make them. You can’t change anyone else but yourself. So by taking responsibility for your mistakes, you put yourself in charge, where you can take control and make things right.

Admitting to making a mistake is not always easy, and I’d be lying if I said it was. Some people are better at it than others. If you make the connection between taking responsibility for making a mistake, and seeing how that gives you control of the situation, then suddenly it becomes much easier.

Do not go beating yourself up for making a mistake. Self flagellation is pointless and painful. It doesn’t help you move forward, and it doesn’t remedy the situation. Apologise with total sincerity to those involved that you have made a mistake, learn from the experience, and move on. This changes the entire dynamic of the situation, from being a negative one, to a positive one!

Sometimes a mistake is not always black and white. It may be down to a difference of opinion or point of view. So what may appear to be a mistake to one person, may well be acceptable to someone else. Attitude and perspective are important components when judging a situation or outcome.

In life, sometimes the greatest successes are those that were achieved when mistakes were involved along the way. It is precisely because of these mistakes that we have a greater sense of satisfaction, because a greater degree of effort was required to overcome them and achieve the desired outcome. If we set out to do something, and nothing goes wrong, and we achieve our intended outcome, that is great. If we set out to do something, and we make mistakes along the way, and we still achieve our intended outcome, then that is greater still!

Mistakes are a fact of life and the way we are seen to learn from them, regain our composure and start anew is an important part of becoming a rounded, confident human being.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Being a sceptic

I have often described myself as a sceptic. When I refer to myself in such a way, what exactly does that mean? What am I telling you about myself?

People often confuse scepticism with cynicism. A sceptic is not someone who is cynical, close-minded or rejects new ideas. In fact, the opposite is true.

A sceptic will apply reason to evaluate a claim, and will demand evidence before they accept something as being true. As long as there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that is being made, then this will satisfy the sceptic.

I can remember reading the book The Demon Haunted World by the late, great Carl Sagan. The book is described as follows:

"The book is intended to explain the scientific method to laypeople, and to encourage people to learn critical or sceptical thinking. It explains methods to help distinguish between ideas that are considered valid science, and ideas that can be considered pseudoscience. Sagan states that when new ideas are offered for consideration, they should be tested by means of sceptical thinking, and should stand up to rigorous questioning."

The scientific method is the embodiment of the process that is used by sceptics to determine if a claim is true. Without giving a fully detailed explanation of the scientific method, it is a process that requires the gathering of data to formulate and test a hypothesis. Using the scientific method, claims of truth can be verified in a controlled, repeatable and consistent manner.

Scepticism is therefore a process of applying reason and critical thinking to establish validity. It is the practice of finding supported conclusions, rather than the justification of preconceived beliefs.

A sceptic should therefore reject a claim if there is insufficient evidence to support it. However, they should still be open to the possibility that the claim could still be proved true in the future if further evidence is found.

I have used this statement to define the stance I take when I tell people I am an atheist. I reject the notion of a deity on the grounds that there is no scientific evidence to support such a claim, but I keep my mind open to the possibility that one may exist if sufficient supporting evidence were found in the future. Remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and it is important to demand such.

To believe a testable, scientific claim when there is no supporting scientific evidence is irrational.

This is the beauty of science. That it has the capacity to correct the truths that it finds and can change the conclusions that it is able to draw. Far from being a weakness or a flaw, this is one of its greatest strengths! Any system or process for determining truth that is rigid is fundamentally flawed! As our knowledge grows and changes, so should the conclusions we draw from it.

By applying a sceptical mindset in our quest for the truths we are searching for, we can at least be sure that the knowledge we have gained is valid.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The reality of Sharia Law

My wish is that every person see this gruesome clip of Muslims administering Sharia Law to a young girl that didn't want to marry an old man, arranged by her family. The "tolerant" people are the very ones that should have to watch them deliver their kind of justice. Maybe then the "tolerant" among us would change from apathy to action against the Islamic leaders that want to establish Sharia Law in our Country.

Imagine this is one of your family members laying there. Not in the West you say? It's closer than you would think thanks to political correctness and mis-guided tolerance. The more influence it gains in our legal system, the harder it will be to stop. Islamic Sharia Law must not be allowed to have even the smallest influence in our legal system!

Friday, 27 August 2010

My 100th blog!

This is my 100th blog, so please join me in celebrating this fantastic milestone in my blogging pilgrimage. I published my first blog on March 31st 2009. I have covered many topics during that period including technology, social media, vegetarianism, atheism, current affairs, politics, science and some personal topics too.

Having a blog is a wonderful way of expressing yourself and giving your opinions a platform from which they can be read by others. I also welcome the opinions and feedback from those reading my blog. Unlike some people, I am happy to be challenged on a topic, and will happily change my opinion if I read a persuasive argument that I may not have considered previously. This is the ideal of the scientific mind - to be able to change it when presented with opposing evidence.

I welcome disagreement as much as I welcome agreement, as long as the view is expressed in a constructive manner.

I have used my blog as a learning tool, where I have written blogs about subjects on which I was previously unfamiliar. When you force yourself to write a blog on that subject, you are forced to study and research the subject in order to write about it. I have used this technique to learn many new topics, and will continue to do so.

I have used my blog to express my opinions and views on things I believe, including giving in-depth explanations for why I am a vegetarian and an atheist. When asked why I hold these views, I cannot always elegantly express my reasons in 5 minutes flat. I want to be able to give a full and considered explanation. When I made these choices for myself, I gave them full consideration, and I want to be able to do the same when someone else is interested enough to ask me about these views. With a blog, I have the time to write down in detail what my reasons are, and give those reasons the consideration they deserve.

I have used my blog to champion causes and campaigns I believe in, such as my support for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). I make no apologies for this. If I wish to support a charity, cause or campaign then I shall use my blog as a legitimate platform for doing so.

I have learnt the benefits that come with writing with a co-author. I co-authored two blogs with Vicky Perry recently, and found the experience to be both productive and positive. It was a great experience to be able to discuss blog topics and bounce ideas around with another author. We worked jointly on everything from generating the topic of the blog itself to the writing of the blog. In fact, the process of working with Vicky was so successful, that we have now since created our own joint blog called Green Eyes.

I have really enjoyed writing these blogs, and hope you have enjoyed reading them. I hope I will be writing a similar blog when I reach my 200th blog!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Opening up government data

The concept behind open data is that information should be in the public domain, and it should be easily accessible and transparent. The drive to open up data was first started by the Labour government, with the baton now in the hands of the coalition government. This would give the British public a clear picture of what information is stored at both central and local government levels, and promises to give transparency of its services to the tax payers, who fund these services. Certain questions remain though in how we achieve this utopian vision of opening up data to the public, such as what are the issues and benefits to achieving it.

It all started back in December 2009 when the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans to open up UK government data, including public services performance data, transport data and geospatial data. Who could be better placed to head up this initiative than Sir Tim Berners Lee. Together with Professor Nigel Shadbolt they produced a beta version of the web site. As of January 2010 there are now over 3,500 government data sets.

Under Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” initiative, a clear message has been made that there will be continued support for opening up government data to encourage citizens and communities to use this data to empower themselves. The new Public Sector Transparency Board has appointed both Sir Tim Berners Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt as board members. It has recently set out its draft principles including that public data will be published in reusable, machine readable form using open standards, and following recommendations from the World Wide Web Consortium.

Thanks to Sir Tim Berners Lee we’re now aware of the Semantic Web, and more recently the need for Linked Data.

“I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analysing all the data on the Web – the content, links and transactions between people and computers. A ‘semantic web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy, and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ that people have touted will finally materialise”.

To create these intelligent agents though, we need intelligent data, and with that, Linked Data has emerged.

In January 2010 Sir Tim Berners Lee told BBC News:

“It’s such an untapped resource….government data is something we have already spent the money on…..and when it is sitting there on a disk in somebody’s office it is wasted”.

So over two decades after the Web came into being, we may just be in a position to harness it in a way that can truly benefit everyone. The question is how do we achieve this utopian vision?

There have been two key phases to this process. The first was to get the data online in whatever format was available. So data that was held in Word, PDF and HTML formats needed to be converted into linked, machine readable formats.

The second phase is where we now currently find ourselves, and requires the adoption of a series of standards when publishing data to the Web using recommended linked data formats such as Resource Description Framework (RDF).

It we want true transparency then we need the data to be structured in such a way as to be open and interoperable. The Stationery Office (TSO) is working with organisations such as the Cabinet Office and The National Archives to bring this together, and to establish the principles for publishing government linked data.

If all this goes as planned, then the government will have generated something for the greater good of society. Something that will help make our lives better informed and to help us become more responsible citizens. We should all expect open data, and now we are getting nearer having the right to demand it. If the current plans go ahead without problems, we can also deliver it!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Be careful what you write on your social media channels!

A recent case in the UK has highlighted the need to be careful what you write on your social media channels, or indeed those of others. Whether you use Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or any of the others, you need to exercise caution. The written word is subject to libel laws, and you could face criminal prosecution if found guilty

Jeremiah Barber branded his former friend a paedophile on Facebook. The post was intended to be a joke, but the friend did not see the funny side, and neither did the courts. The post itself read

"Ray, you like kids and are gay so I bet you love this picture. Haha".

The courts fined Barber £1000 in libel damages.

This should be taken as a warning to anyone before they post a potentially libellous statement. Every word you write on public social media channels are subject to libel laws. What may begin as a joke at the expense of your intended target may backfire, and they could be laughing all the way to the bank!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

What a good manager should know

Before starting this blog I would like to make it perfectly clear that it is not aimed at any individual or any organisation that I have worked with. It is intended to make a general point with no specific reference to any specific individual(s).
I’ve had this discussion several times with friends and colleagues in the past, and it came up again recently with a work colleague. The discussion revolves around the issue of how much knowledge should a manager need to know about what his team does, in order to be an effective manager. In most cases, a manager will have progressed up the career ladder in the line of work in which they subsequently find themselves as a manager. So taking my own line of work within software development, a typical career path may be:

· Trainee software developer
· Software developer
· Senior software developer / Team leader
· Software manager

So it’s fair to say that by the time a person becomes a software manager, they should have a pretty good understanding of what their team does, the roles and responsibilities of the team members, and the key skills and knowledge that are required.

However, I have come across several managers who lack this essential knowledge. They are managers pure and simple. They do their team’s appraisals, manage the team’s budgets and Performance Indicators, but lack the knowledge specific to their team. They are to all intents and purposes, general purpose managers, with no real knowledge of the specialist skills and expertise of their team. They could be placed into any team, anywhere, and manage that team – without ever knowing exactly what the team actually does, or how it does it.

I’m not saying that you necessarily need to have an in depth understanding of what every team member does, that would be wholly impractical. That is why you have team members who have those specialist skills. It is their responsibility to understand the area in which they work in as much detail as is necessary to perform that role. Equally though, this does not imply that the manager can delegate that knowledge entirely to the team either. While the team members may perform their allotted roles, using whatever specialist knowledge they need to do so, the manager at the very least needs a basic understanding of those roles and responsibilities.

One of the roles of a manager is to provide direction and make decisions. How can you make decisions without understanding what your team does? How can you know what is achievable and realistic, or what is even possible?

While not every software developer will make a good software manager, or even aspire to be one, the best software managers in my experience have been those that have progressed up their chosen career path. One obvious advantage of this route to management is that you also have the respect of your team. They know you have done the same or similar job to them in the past, and can talk from experience. They know you understand their daily challenges, and can sympathise with their problems. They know you understand their role and what it entails, as you have done it in the past. So while you may have forgotten some of the detail of how to perform that role, you understand what it involves from a high level perspective. Never underestimate the value of respect within a team, particularly if you’re the one who is trying to win it!

In my opinion, to be an effective manager, you need to understand the various roles and responsibilities of your team, preferably from hard won experience. This will ensure you can make informed decisions, and that you have gained the respect of your team.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

My first tweetup

I’ve been an active Twitter user (or Twitterer or Tweeter) for around 18 months now, but have not until recently attended a tweetup. A tweetup is a get together of people on Twitter to socialise and get to know each other, and to put that crucial face to the name. You may know some of your Twitter followers in real life, you may not. So it’s an opportunity to meet people you have tweeted with, but perhaps not met. If the person has not posted their real picture on their Twitter page, you also have no idea what they look like.

One of my Twitter followers Richard Chester aka @captain_doodle had arranged a tweetup for Saturday 24th July. The location was Fairholme visitor centre in the Peak District, the activity a 10 mile walk around the Lady Bower reservoir, taking in some lovely scenery and stunning climbing in the process. This may sound like an odd way of getting to know people, but it worked very effectively. By walking with different members of the group on the way round, you got to spend time with all of them in turn, and find out about them.

To some people the very idea of a tweetup may sound dangerous or sinister. Meeting people you know only from the Internet. I agree this probably does sound dangerous or sinister, if that’s how you put it. However, we had all been in contact with each other for some time and had gotten to know each other well, and had shared comments, jokes and held conversations on Twitter. Hardly the activities of some obsessive serial killer! Also, as the location was a very public one (the great outdoors) there was not a lot that could go wrong.

So we all met in the Fairholme visitors car park before the 10am start. The weather was looking good, and a fine day of good walking lay ahead. On arrival I was introduced to my fellow Twitterers, some of whom I knew from outside Twitter already, some I did not. After the initial introductions were made, and some photos taken of us all, we made our way round the walk, with Richard and Shelley Chester acting as our guides as they knew the route.

The walk was absolutely gorgeous. Finding a stunning walk in the Peak District is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Point your boots in any direction, and off you go!

As we walked, we all started getting to know each other, with all of us taking the time to talk to each and every member of the group. What struck me most was how much a person reveals of themselves through their social media persona. Whilst most of us do not reveal everything about ourselves, we reveal enough to see that the real life and online personas are the same. The characteristics that endears you to someone online, their traits, quirks, sense of humour are all present when you meet the person for real. So it’s reassuring to see that they are exactly as they appear online. The jokes that someone makes online are the same sorts of jokes they make when you meet them.

The walk itself went extremely well. We had walked up some very steep hills, and over some very exposed ridges. Throughout the walk, the scenery was stunning and the weather was more than kind. We all bonded with each other, and now have a much better idea of what we are like.

By the end of the walk, I had gotten to know my companions really well, and had made some brilliant new friends in the process.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

How the economic crisis is hurting undergraduates

The current recession is hurting everyone, and no one has been immune to its effects. It has affected everyone universally. However, I can't help but notice that it has unduly affected undergraduates and graduates. I have seen this effect first hand.

With money being tight, fewer and fewer employers are hiring undergraduates, as they simply don't have the budget to do so. Those that do have the budget are using them as cheap labour, rather than actually investing the resource to train them adequately.

Many undergraduates are working tirelessly for an employer, trying to impress them and gain that valuable experience which will differentiate them from their peers. So that come the time for them to enter the job market, they will be the one who is successful in bagging that all important job. However, many are simply not receiving that experience. They are not being trained or receiving any kind of useful experience.

This is not the fault of the employer. With the best will in the world, they are just strapped for cash and cannot afford to give them the training they require and deserve, or are under resourced. Equally though, the undergraduate is blameless and is powerless to improve the situation for themselves.

The outcome is that many undergraduates are entering the job market without the necessary experience or skills to perform the job they are being asked to do. This is not the fault of either the undergraduate, or the employer who employed them. Both are victims of the current economic crisis.

What of the long term situation? As each generation of undergraduate enters the job market without the necessary skills or experience, are we just making the situation a whole lot worse? Will this problem make any economic recovery more difficult? After all, today's undergraduates are tomorrow's managers, supervisors and leaders.

Although an undergraduate may gain the necessary experience and skills eventually, it will take them much longer to do so. In the meantime, we have a raft of undergraduates who may not be up to doing the job through no fault of their own.

We need to have greater investment in our undergraduates. After all, the entire economy will suffer if we do nothing. Employers taking on undergraduates need to invest as much as they can into giving them the skills they need. Employers should be encouraged to take on undergraduates, even if this means government subsidies.

Over the longer term, everyone benefits from improving the lot of the undergraduate, not just the undergraduate themselves!