Motorola Xoom: Discoveries, Disappointments, Delights

Preamble

photo of Xoom in typing position
Typing Position

Back in my happy Nokia N900-using days, I realised that the days of Maemo/Meego were numbered, and that I would need to migrate to another platform – most likely Android. To get a feel for Android, and see whether I would be able to get on with it, I acquired a cheap, Chinese, 7 inch tablet, called rather amusingly, a "Haipad."

All along, I had reservations about using a touch screen, as opposed to a physical keyboard. However, after finding decent keyboard software (Swiftkey X,) I was surprised to find how well I got on with it on a trip away. This, upon the demise of my N900, led to my acquisition of an Android phone.

As part of an ongoing experiment to see just how much I could use mobile devices in preference to laptops and larger computing platforms, I found that I was quite happy to use the phone for short e-mails (and I mean short,) looking things up on Google and Wikipedia, and other minor tasks. However, due to such a large number of web sites failing to accommodate the needs of mobile users, and the general awkwardness of typing on a tiny, on-screen keyboard, the tablet format still seemed preferable for more than quick and casual use.

Impressed with my Samsung phone, I was on the verge of purchasing a 10 inch GalaxyTab, until I discovered what I considered to be some highly undesirable characteristics, namely no standard USB connector, no facility for an SD card. That, coupled with the fact that the device is only 8mm thick – which I foresaw would be less than ideal for my large and clumsy hands, made me do a comparison with the Motorola Xoom, which I could obtain on a data contract from Singtel Optus for very slightly less.

After deliberating the matter overnight, I rang Optus in the morning to order the Xoom, hoping that I had made the right decision.

Fragile, handle with care

photo of Xoom in lectern position
"Lectern" Position

Whilst the Xoom weighs about three quarters of a kilo, as opposed to just over half a kilo of the GalaxyTab, it's still a fragile little beast, especially in the hands of the fragile, but not so little, beast that is yours truly. I have a nasty habit of Dropping Things, and Banging Things Against Other Things that would give any device insufficiently robust the sort of life expectancy generally associated with, say, mayflies.

Again, from the experience with my Samsung phone, I looked to Otter Box for a case. Although the polycarbonate and silicone rubber Defender Series case takes the weight of the tablet to over a kilo, and gives it a certain military look, the thoughtful design and features of this case far outweigh any downside that I can see.

The case comes in two sections, one in which the tablet is permanently embedded, the other forming a lid when used one way, and a stand that allows for flat, typing angle and what I would call lectern use. I find the typing angle very good indeed, whether used on a table, or on the lap.

I feel quite confident about chucking the whole thing in my small rucksack when I am out and about. If someone were to try to snatch it off me, the weight and robustness would allow a quick tap to the head to fell any attacker up to and including a medium-sized rhinoceros. OK, it's not that heavy and robust, but I am sure that you get my gist.

The Tablet

photo of Xoom, case closed
Case closed, looking distressingly like a speed camera.
Ruler shown for scale.

So what about the Xoom itself?

First impressions were of confusion, nothing to do with the hardware, but this being my first encounter with tablet-optimised Android (3.1), all previous experience being with the early phone versions, which just happen to have been deployed on tablets. There are actually less physical keys than I am used to (my phone doesn't have physical home/back keys, but it does have a dedicated area of the touch screen.)

After the culture-shock, and some oddities with getting the thing set up (reboot required,) I have had no real problems with the interface.

Bad Stuff

Those things that I do not like about the Xoom were very conveniently forgotten in the sales blurb – and didn't even crop up in any of the reviews that I read, although reviewers seem to be obsessed with games and watching movies, and possibly don't realise that people use them for work on-the-move, so maybe I should not be surprised.

I was put off the GalaxyTab by (amongst other things) the need to carry Yet Another Charger. It was thus with great annoyance that I discovered that the Xoom also requires Yet Another Charger and cannot be charged via USB. Whilst it's not a proprietary connector like the GalaxyTab (perhaps that's why Apple was trying to block sale of the product in Australia,) it does mean that I have to find space for, yes, Yet Another Charger. I appreciate that the current available through USB is limited, but a USB slow-charge option against the wall-wart fast-charge would have been desirable.

The second – and so far final – annoyance is the SD card slot, although this could possibly be broken down into two annoyances. Firstly, it is a combined SIM and SD slot, so you can't take out the SD card without taking out the SIM. My little Haipad gets it right, from my perspective – the SD card goes into one of those little pop-out slots, just like on a laptop. But far more annoying is the information in the quick-start guide that advises that the SD card slot does not work. What? Suspicious that this would be a firmware issue, rather than every device being sent out defective or with missing components, I did a little research and found that – like some of the annoyances with my phone – it can be cured by rooting the device. (The SD slot is enabled with a custom kernel – as far as I understand, there is a kernel module either missing or disabled.)

Good Stuff

photo of Xoom, showing this page in browser
Recursion. This page on the Xoom.

The thing that most excited me about the Xoom (and I am not normally one to get excited) was something else that I saw neither in the sales blurb, nor the reviews, but which I consider to be a very important feature indeed. Had I known about it, I would not have even looked at other products. The Xoom has device encryption. I can find very little technical detail on this – knowing the algorithm would be nice – other than the fact that is uses the regular Linux dm-crypt.

I have long held that, if a device is taken out of the secure (for a given value of secure) environment of office, house, etcetera, it should either be encrypted, or contain no sensitive data. (I consider the loss, by whatever means, of a laptop/tablet/phone containing unencrypted client or other commercial data to be culpable negligence.) This has reduced what I do with mobile devices, and certainly reduced convenience/ease of use as I would, for example, never let a web browser remember passwords on an unsecured device. Whilst I doubt that the Xoom has the same grade of security of Blackberry devices, I certainly feel comfortable using it in ways which I would never have considered on an unencrypted device.

It's got a nice, big, screen. Relatively speaking. Certainly a step up from my 7 inch tablet, and a quantum leap from my 4 inch phone. Which means I can use Better Terminal Emulator Pro to do what I consider an essential away-from-office task, which is ssh into and administer my servers. Note that I was able to do this on my Nokia N900, but the screen and keyboard size made it possible – but painful.

The Xoom has a notification light – something that I really miss on my Samsung phone.

There is little more I can say about the device itself as I have had it for less than a week, and most of the functionality that I enjoy is down to the applications, rather than the hardware. It certainly suits me well.

The Optus Experience

I am a great believer in redundancy. Whilst my phone contracts are with Vodafone, I carry a spare (Motorola RAZR V3i) GSM phone with a Telstra prepaid SIM. This means that if the Vodafone network is out of range – or goes down – I can still communicate through another carrier's network.

I have done likewise with my data. As I don't really like dealing with Telstra, I decided to get my data redundancy through Singtel Optus, the other of the three major carriers in Australia. (They generally drop the Singtel bit – I guess that being an obvious part of Singapore Telecom doesn't look too good on an Aussie brand. I will, therefore, just refer to them as Optus.)

My previous experience with Optus was when I was looking to move my main mobile account away from Telstra. I e-mailed the address given on the web site – and never received a reply. Since that time, Optus has raised its game oh, so much. Due to our local council being a bit, er, just "er", our street address cannot be validated against the national gazetteer. The upshot of this is that I am unable to place online orders with the larger companies like telcos, because my address is invalid. Another issue for me is that I want to use this tablet overseas, with a local SIM. That means I need it to have no carrier locks.

With these two points of enquiry, I contacted Optus via Twitter. The next day, I had a reply with a link to a social media contact form. I submitted my enquiry through the form and, the next day, had a message on my voicemail saying that it was being looked at. The day after, I received an e-mail saying that I could get online special pricing if I called their Sales Support line and that, after I had received the tablet (I was talking about the GalaxyTab, back at that stage,) I should contact them again through the form, to get it unlocked at no cost. Which was quite a surprise.

I phoned the number and, without the expected, interminable time on hold, had my order – complete with dodgy address – dealt with in a friendly and helpful manner. The tablet arrived two working days later and my subsequent experiences Sales Support, getting an ETA (only to find that it was sitting at the local Post Office), and activating the SIM, were to the same high standard.

So, all-in-all, a very positive, pleasant, customer service experience. But, to crown it all, I discovered that the Xoom had neither network lock (so it didn't need removing) nor ghastly Optus branding. It arrived as a stock standard machine. Which is good. (I had to root my Samsung phone before I could remove the Vodafone bloatware that was on it.)

Conclusion

From my experience so far, I would recommend the Xoom/Otter Box combination for anyone who wants a relatively secure, robust tablet – and doesn't mind a bit of weight. If you are comfortable with rooting (and thus voiding your warranty and running a small risk of trashing the device) the Xoom, you can also get a working SD slot – although I have yet to try this myself.

Also from experience so far – and we are only talking just over a week – I have been most pleased with my dealings with Optus.

Microcontrollers – Moving Forward

More Than Just A Hobby

Whilst I have been playing (and I can’t think of a better word) with microcontrollers on and off for a few years, as I am beginning to incorporate
custom embedded hardware design into my business, I have had to start
re-evaluating both the parts I use and the tools with which I develop
the necessary firmware.

Nearly seven years ago – when this was very much a hobby – I
wrote in this journal of my plans to evaluate different families and manufacturers of 8-bit microcontrollers. The first part of my evaluation was
to look at the sampling performance of the shortlisted manufacturers.
My report on this attracted a response from Freescale Semiconductor
and it is that response, the ongoing correspondence and support that
came from it, that has made me comfortable with my decision that
Freescale parts will be specified first in the designs for my major projects.

The Other Contenders

It’s not going to be Freescale all the way. For one, I don’t think that
vendor lock-in is wise in any business, but the main reason is that I just
want to have experience with other families of devices.

AVR

Up to this point, just about all the work I have done has been with
Atmel AVR parts. AVR has an excellent Open Source toolchain
but, otherwise, I don’t really seen any particular advantages. I think
that I have only persisted with them to date is because any other family
presents a learning curve, and I have a few parts to hand looking for
gainful employment.

From a commercial perspective, the fact that the
ATMega128 costs twice as much from my distributor (Element 14) as
does the very similarly specified Freescale MC90S08AC128 makes me wonder
whether I have been working with AVR only on the strength of said
toolchain. (Although the AVR community, particularly
AVR Freaks, is pretty good.)
I have a design which I have built (but not programmed) with AVR parts –
but this will be my last, other than quick “junk box” projects.

MSP430

The Texas Instruments MSP430 range of 16-bit devices has much to recommend it,
and I will be using it in my Solstice Clock project, when I finally have the time to get back to it. I am drawn
to this line partly by the excellent low-power performance of these devices – and thus suitability for running for long periods of battery – the excellent
and inexpensive, nay, dirt-cheap, LaunchPad development board, which can also serve as a
JTAG programmer for other devices and other low-cost and interesting
development products, such as the very hackable
EZ430 Chronos sports watch.

Last, but not least, it was the book MSP430 Microcontroller Basics by John H. Davies that sold me on the line. It’s possibly the best-written
microcontroller book I have ever read, and gave me more than a few
‘Eureka’ moments on concepts with which I had formerly struggled.

The let-down of MSP430 is that the development tools provided by TI are Windows-only. To run anything on Linux, I need to use GCC for MSP430 – not an issue. However, the mspdebug tool,
which is required to – via the LaunchPad – programme devices, does not
keep pace well with new parts, making development on Linux a tricky affair.

8051/8052

I still have Dallas samples of 8052-based devices. I will be using these
more for my own education than anything, because not having worked with
anything from the 8051 family is a bit like studying English literature
without including Shakespeare.

And The Winner Is Freescale Semiconductor

Why Freescale? If I consider the entire product range, rather than
just microcontrollers, my reason for going the Freescale route may be
summarised thus:

  • A very broad range of microcontrollers.
  • CodeWarrior – an IDE which actually runs natively on Linux which
    covers everything from simple 8-bit HCS08 up to the 32-bit
    Kinetis (ARM Cortex M4) parts.
  • A very interesting range of digitally-interfaced sensors.
  • Very important: the exceptional level of
    support that I have received from Freescale, despite my being a
    one-man operation, and even when I was really just in hobby-mode.
    The Kinetis samples I was given recently only being the latest part
    of this – and I can’t wait to get board designed for them.

For the time being, I will be working with HCS08 devices for my main projects,
with some stuff brewing in the background based on the Kinetis ARM parts –
the mixed-signal capabilities of which I am planning to incorporate into
synthesizer modules.

Whilst in hobby-mode, I have always tried to use only Open Source tools,
for reasons of cost as much as anything. When I first started looking at
Freescale devices, all those years ago, my only feasible tool option was
SDCC – and whatever programming
tool was available then. CodeWarrior was a Windows-only affair, and thus
out of the question.

Re-visiting now, I am delighted to find that CodeWarrior is now Eclipse-based, and will run under Linux natively. Whilst there was a time when
I was all about idealism (using Open Source,) I have become somewhat more
pragmatic with age, and now focus on task completion rather than noble
causes. CodeWarrior looks like it will do the job for me, both with
HCS08 and Kinetis parts. The free version is code-size restricted – if that
becomes an issue, I will buy an appropriate license – if I am ever able
to figure out all the licensing options and what exactly they entail. (Black
mark there, guys.) I have already been down this route with the Cadsoft
Eagle PCB design software, and feel quite comfortable with paying for
these things, albeit somewhat lighter in the wallet regions. This is,
after all, business – and I am sure that the time that I save using
a development environment tailored for the parts I am using should more
than recompense me for the financial outlay.

Conclusion

It is the merits of a broad choice of products, a single development
environment that takes care of all those in which I am interested and – above
all – the peace of mind that there is a Big Company that gives a damn
about the small operator that has created my brand loyalty for Freescale
Semiconductor. 2012 will see the development of systems for one project,
already underway, using HCS08 parts and some interesting designs I have in
mind for my precious Kinetis parts – finally I can get my hands dirty
with some ARM!

Samsung Galaxy S II – The Bad and the Good

Things Break

I have a long history of destroying mobile phones, often in unusual and amusing (although expensive) ways. It got to the point where I had to go to something physically robust, which is why, five years ago, I moved to the
Motorola RAZR. Sufficient to say, whilst this phone was indeed physically robust, it did not survive my wife putting it through the washing machine. My second RAZR, however, is still alive and well, and equipped with a Telstra pre-paid
SIM – for emergencies.

I can't recall exactly why I abandoned the RAZR in favour of a Nokia N900, but a
pocket-sized tablet computer running a variant of Debian Linux was something
an inveterate UNIX user like myself could not resist. Note, I refer to the N900 as a tablet, because this is how it was actually sold. A tablet computer that
could do telephony, rather than a phone that could do computing.

With my track record of destruction, I handled the N900 very carefully, although I did drop it a couple of times without damage. That was until three weeks ago today, when I dropped it face down, outside, onto a rock. I am still unsure of the exact damage, but I do know that the display was destroyed. Whilst I plan to resurrect this old friend, after scouring eBay and some deep soul-searching, I decided that it was time to move on – especially since I could
obtain a replacement phone from my carrier, Vodafone Australia, in a couple of days.

After a quick "what shall I do?" on Twitter, a couple of personal
recommendations for the Samsung Galaxy S II resulted in me reading a very
attractive technical specification. I was on the phone to Vodafone within the hour, and in possession of the new phone within two working days. (Would probably have been quicker, had I not dropped the N900 on a Friday.)

The Bad Stuff

Why am I listing the bad points first? Because I want to get them out of the way. Whilst there are annoyances, I can give a specific list. With the good points, I just keep finding them. So here's what I don't like:

  • It's too thin. Rather, it's too thin for large, middle-aged, and slightly stiff fingers. I was actually struggling to pick the phone up from a flat surface, as there is so little to get a grip on. This problem was overcome quickly though, as I put it in a temporary, cheap, silicone case. Now in a decent,
    Otter Box case, the thinness of the device itself is a non-issue.
  • Vodafone has kindly pre-installed a load of bloatware that I am unable to remove. Whilst I cannot blame this on Samsung, it is an issue that comes with the phone. Getting rid of this unwelcome software requires what is known as rooting the phone – replacing the provided Linux kernel with one that allows the user much more control over the device.
  • The camera appears to have two flash modes – overflashed and off. I will discuss the camera in more detail in the next section.
  • Changing the SD card necessitates removal of the rear cover and the battery and, of course, any after-market case. Compared with the hot-swap SD card on
    my Android tablet, this is something of a let-down.
  • I have saved the worst for last. When you plug the phone in to charge, it makes a loud beep. When the phone finishes charging, it also makes a loud beep. These noises cannot be turned off. Now, like many people, I charge my phone overnight, beside the bed. Being woken up in the middle of the night to be told that one's phone has finished charging is irksome, to say the least. The only solution to this "feature" is to root the phone. So I have to void
    warranty, just to stop damn stupid noises.

So, five problems, one already addressed, two require rooting to resolve, the camera flash issue might just go away with a suitable firmware upgrade, and the SD card? Well, I don't need to get at it that often.

The Good Stuff

  • It's fast. After the N900, oh boy, is it fast? Refreshing my IMAP mail
    takes a second or so – the N900 could easily take a minute. Web pages load faster, everything is just, well, fast.
  • I must stress again that the N900 is a tablet that does telephony – but using the Samsung as a phone is a breath of fresh air after very quirky
    telephone software of the Nokia.
  • Barring the flash, the camera is really excellent and takes much sharper pictures than I would anticipate from something without a "e;proper"e; (read: big) lens. With the flash set to off all the time, I have taken some
    good low-light pictures. Whilst these pictures have a heavy colour-cast,
    I am sure that some fiddling with the white balance can correct this. Or even
    correct it in post-production.
  • Large screen. I had been holding off moving to an Android smartphone until I saw one that had a screen the size of that of the HTC Desire HD, and had
    a physical keyboard. Being a touch-typist with large-ish fingers, I have
    always struggled with on-screen keyboards due both to the small size, and
    not being able to feel where my fingers are. However, on-screen keyboards
    became far more usable for me when I discovered
    SwiftKeyX, a replacement for the
    Android keyboard. Having used this with considerable success on my Android
    tablet, I figured that maybe I could use a phone with no physical keyboard,
    especially as I could always use a BlueTooth keyboard if I found myself
    struggling. I am delighted to say that, with the help of SwiftKeyX and about
    four and a quarter inches of screen diagonal, I have been able to operate the Samsung quite comfortably. The large screen also makes it less of a struggle
    to view web sites – at least the ones that are styled to be viewable on
    smaller screens.
  • Android. I am far from being an Android "fanboi", indeed having a
    deep suspicion of anything originating at Google. However, being a mainstream
    operating system – which the Nokia's Maemo never was – means that there
    is a profusion of good applications available (I will document my essential
    Android applications in another post) and a huge user-base, meaning that
    support should be easy to find.
  • Easy to root. I haven't rooted the phone yet, as the required tools
    either require a Windows computer (I run Linux on the desktop – the tool
    crashes my Windows virtual machine,) or Heimdal, which should run on Linux, won't talk to my specific device. These may be issues for me, but my research suggests that this device is actually one of the easiest onto which a rooted kernel may be loaded. The process certainly looks simple.
  • Stuff just works. My previous experience of Android devices is with
    tablets – devices that are not phones running a phone operating system. This
    can lead to a certain amount of quirkiness, and a requirement for
    considerably more technical knowledge than should be necessary to use
    a consumer device. I would also extend the latter observation to
    desktop operating systems. Stuff should just work, in an intuitive fashion.
    Mobile operating systems appear to be showing the way in consumer
    computing. Native applications (or 'apps,' if you insist,) are far more
    oriented to task completion which, at the end of the day, is what consumer
    interaction with computers should be about.

Conclusion

In my third week of working with the Galaxy S II, I would say that I am very happy with it. Once I have rooted it, I think things will get that much better. Especially if I can go back to charging it at night.

I Killed My FaceBook Account. Or So I Thought.

Preamble

I joined Facebook for two main reasons: to become more connected to clients and to view my brother's wedding photographs which were only available on that platform.

Whilst I tried to engage with the Facebook environment, I found the interface confusing, the advertisements annoying (targeted advertising should not put singles ads in for someone who has stated they are married,) and every visit left me with a sour taste in my mouth. For me, Facebook had little or no value, even as entertainment. Contrast this with Twitter, which I find to be a valuable communication channel, network builder, and a source of entertainment.

I am now in the process of leaving Facebook, not because I just don't get on with it, but because of the behaviour of those who run it. Every now and then, Facebook releases a new set of Terms & Conditions; it seems that, each time this happens, members' privacy is impacted. Things that were originally private, to be shared only with contacts ('friends' in Facebook terminology,) suddenly become public and the ways to make these private again (if indeed they can,) become increasingly complex. To misquote a popular meme, "all your data are belong to us."

Whilst I appreciate that Facebook's clients are not the members, but the advertisers and those to whom they sell all this data we have so kindly provided, I regard this behaviour as totally disrespectful to members, and irresponsible in the extreme. I regard Facebook as having a Duty of Care to preserve the privacy of its members and for all data to be private by default. The process of making data public should make it clear exactly how public the data will become and include information or links to information explaining the possible consequences of this. (If the general public were more aware of the possible effects of the broadcast of their private data, I would imagine that Facebook would have a much smaller user-base.)

Leaving Facebook

The thing that got me really riled about Facebook's privacy abuses was the fact that leaving the service was anything but easy. After jumping through a few hoops, I discovered that my account was merely suspended, not deleted. Up to the very end of the process, I thought I was really leaving – but discovered this to be anything but the case. All my data is still there, waiting to be mined and sold on. At the time I suspended my account, I discovered that the only means to fully delete it is to un-suspend it, go in and delete every single post, contact, etcetera, one-by-one. Only then would it be possible to ask Facebook's support team to delete the account. Since then I have been advised by Mark Pesce, in a comment on his Manifesto, that there is a possible, easier, means to delete an account documented at WikiHow, but I have yet to put this to the test.

Further Reading

Whilst it had been my original intention to explore Facebook's privacy abuses on a case-by-case basis, events have overtaken me, with a swarm of members deserting the platform and articles being published left, right and centre.
So, rather than make this the type of article will take me forever to complete (I have already been at it a month,) I am presenting the following as further reading on the subject. Yes, this list may be biased; you will not find "Facebook is Extra Nice with Sprinkles" articles here, because what I am presenting is here to reinforce my position.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the many people who shared links – mostly through Twitter – which I have used in this article. Special mention must go to Tony Hollingsworth who alerted me to so many relevant items.

Short URI for this article: http://bit.ly/ayKnRp

Gay Dogs Not Allowed

Blogging Against Disablism Day

I thought I had pretty well exhausted all material that I might use for my 2010 Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) post until I turned up this rather odd news item, Gay dogs not welcome, on the Adelaide Now news site.

Read the article and judge for yourself, but I think that even if you believe the story that these people thought the man had a gay (not guide) dog, then they were guilty of sex discrimination if not blatant disablism.

So now we do not only have direct disablism, but we have disablism by proxy – making barriers for assistance dogs.

May I suggest that you now go to the BADD site and have a read through some of the fine contributions there – and maybe write a post of your own if you haven’t already done so.

Finding Ada 2010: Kate Lundy

March the 24th was Ada Lovelace Day. I am running slightly late, but would like to give brief mention to Canberra's (Australia) Senator Kate Lundy, as my nomination for ALD recognition.

Kate Lundy (Twitter: @katelundy) is not a professional technologist, but a technically well-informed politician and Open Government advocate to boot.

Other than just being an IT-savvy politician, Kate is also a voice of sanity when it comes to the issue of mandatory Internet filtering/censorship in Australia. It is for this positive political influence on technology for which I feel that Kate should receive recognition. (I am sure that I am not the only one who wishes that she had the Communications portfolio – something she seems far better qualified to handle than the current incumbent.)

When I say that Kate is well-informed, I should advise that some of that well-informedness comes from her political adviser, Pia Waugh (Twitter: @piawaugh,) one of Australia's most influential Open Source advocates. So I should probably slip Pia in as an ALD nominee too, whilst I'm at it 😉

Technology: Business Asset or Business Risk?

Risky Business

Everything we do, every day, has an element of risk. This is equally true in business as in other aspects of life. Whilst we may be aware of the risks inherent in driving to work, we are often unaware of risks involved in our work – not the regular health & safety risks – but more subtle risks to the business itself. Decisions we make in our use of technology assets generate risks, risks that might go unnoticed but could have a devastating impact on our business, should things go wrong. [And thus on the businesses of the clients that rely on us too; always remember that.]

This is a fairly long article, but I make no apology for this: business risk is a very serious matter. It could be worse: given the subject matter and my years in IT/network management, this could have been a very long article.

Seek, and Ye Shall Find

The process of identifying risks and their potential impacts is known as risk assessment. Risk assessments can be carried out by expensive consultants – or by anyone able to apply a little logical thinking and common sense. (When issues are complex or large amounts of money are at stake, it may be well to consider the expensive consultant route.)

For the purposes of this discussion, I am suggesting that we should list all the technologies that we use in our business and do a risk assessment on them. For each item we need to start by asking two questions:

The Yes/No Question

If this technology were to suddenly become unavailable, for whatever reason, would it affect my ability to do business?

The Quantity Question

Should the previous question yield an answer of ‘yes,’ for how long would I be able to work without this technology before its absence became a serious problem?

Write It Down!

Forewarned is forearmed. When undertaking a risk assessment, findings, plans of action, whom to call, etcetera, should all be documented. There is little point going through the exercise, having a risk become an incident and then finding that nobody can remember what is supposed to happen next.

In the following sections, I will run through a list of what I consider to be critical technologies, although not all will apply to all businesses. This list is not intended to be exhaustive but exists to give readers a starting point in performing risk assessments of the technology in their specific businesses.

The Telephone

Whilst there may be businesses out there that still do not have a computer (I have visions of people sitting at high desks, wearing fingerless gloves and half-moon glasses, writing with quill-pens in heavy ledgers,) very few will not have a telephone.

The Telephone Yes/No Question

As regards telephones, I cannot see the Yes/No question ever returning a ‘no.’ I make very little use of the telephone myself but it is an essential tool for When Things Go Wrong. Anyone who thinks that their business would not be affected by the loss of a telephone service should be asking exactly how they intend to call the fire service when their premises are burning down.

The Telephone Quantity Question

How long a business can operate effectively without a telephone depends on the nature of that business. I would not be comfortable knowing that I had no telephone service for over, say, one hour; the next thing to go might be my Internet connection – how would I call my ISP?

For any business where the telephone is a major means of communication with clients, any downtime is bad.

The Telephone – Discussion

Landlines

As we are starting off by looking at one of the most mature of technologies in use, let’s consider first the most mature of telephone technologies: the landline. As there may be businesses that do not have computers, there may be businesses that do not have mobile telephones. Strive not to be one of these because you need some means to call for service when the landline stops working. (Anyone thinking “oh, but we’ve got 10 lines” should be made aware that a backhoe can take out a 40-pair cable just as easily as a 4-pair cable.)

PABXs

If the business in question has a PABX, it should have a service contract for it. (Please tell me it has a service contract!) The answer to our Quantity Question should be used when negotiating the guaranteed response time for the service contract. If the answer is zero time, the minimum response time should be chosen.

–> Important Bit <–

Or should it? If the contract cost with the minimum response time sounds a bit steep, a little more thought is required. The cost of the outage (loss of business, etcetera,) should be weighed against the cost of the contract. Customer expectations should also be borne in mind as a part of this process. This is an important decision for the business owner and should not be undertaken lightly. This decision-making process applies not just to PABX service contracts but all business technology service contracts and Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for online services such as web hosting, too.

Final Word on PABXs

Things may be different nowadays, especially if the telephone service is provided over fibre; however, traditional PABXs used to have ports for ordinary, analogue, handsets to be plugged in to provide a service in the even of power failure. If you have a PABX, find out if it has such a port(s) and get a handset connected for emergencies if one is not already fitted.

Mobiles

Landline hansets tend to be rather hard to lose and are reasonably robust (decent business handsets, at any rate.) Mobile handsets, on the other hand, are horribly easy both to lose and to break. I have two pieces of advice for the mobile ‘phone user to help mitigate risk:

  • Buy a USB SIM card adapter and software. These are very cheap and allow the contents of the SIM card to be backed up to a computer. Make backups regularly, especially if you add new numbers to your phone book on a regular basis. (Make sure that numbers are always saved to SIM, not to phone.)
  • Have a cheap, spare, handset that you can put your SIM card into in the event of the phone taking a tumble, a ride in the washing machine, or whatever. My SIM has survived the death of several handsets, including Death by Washing. My spare handset has a pay-as-you-go SIM card in it; should the main handset be lost or stolen, I can still make calls.

I know very little about smartphones and do not aspire to own one. However, a smartphone is a just a portable computing platform. Computers should be backed up. Check with your vendor to find out how.

Computer Hardware

Computer Hardware Yes/No Question

After some consideration, I an unable to think of a scenario where a business has a computer or computers but can work quite happily without them. On the strength that anyone reading this article is doing so using a computer (rather than have a secretary print off a hard copy to avoid touching that Devil Machine,) I will, as with the telephone, assume that we will be looking at a ‘yes’ response here.

Computer Hardware Quantity Question

This question is where I would expect to see a bit more variance in answers. A business that only uses a computer to run accounts once a week would probably be somewhat more comfortable with an outage than, say, myself. (I am a developer; no computer = no work. It takes a genius like the late but amazing Ada Lovelace to write software before the computer has even been built.)

As the computer is such a fundamental and critical component of my business, I will detail what I do to keep myself in operation.

Computer Hardware – Discussion

If the computer is a key tool in a business, the simple fact is that a spare should be available or some guaranteed means of laying hands on another one quickly. Not only does the spare machine need to be available quickly, it also needs to be ready to do what the regular one does (or did in the event of a failure) – any software used should be installed, it should be set up to work with the office network, etcetera.

Desktop Machines

Thinking about desktop machines, if someone in the organisation is any good with hardware, a set of spares can be carried for emergency repairs. (If several computers are involved, it helps if they are the same make/model or at least that spares are interchangeable.) A spare power supply and hard disc should be carried at the very least. The simplest approach, however, is to have an entire machine into which we can swap the hard disc (assuming this hasn’t died) from a defunct machine, or cannibalise for parts. (Also consider having a spare keyboard, mouse, monitor to hand – although most businesses seem to accumulate these in the course of upgrades.)

Where is the data used by the desktop machine stored? If it is on a server and the user has been disciplined to not save files to the local disc, swapping the machine out with another pre-loaded with the required software should be quick and simple. If, however, files are stored on the local machine a second, mirrored, hard disc (RAID 1) should always be employed if the machine is mission-critical.

Note that repairs/replacement could be effected by someone outside the business if they were known to be able to attend quickly. However, consideration should always be given to the fact that the critical person may not be available due to whatever reason. Contingency plans should always be made to cover this eventuality.

Laptops

Laptops are far less easy to repair than desktops. Keeping just-in-case spare parts is far more expensive than for their desktop brethren. Furthermore, laptops are easy to drop, steal, spill coffee in (far worse than spilling coffee on a desktop keyboard,) and generally give a hard time.

If, like me, the primary machine is a laptop, a spare is needed. This is probably the point where some readers will be saying “argh, expensive! I can’t afford that!” I would ask those readers to put a cost on the work that they will not be able to do without the spare.

The spare laptop need not be the same as the main one; it just needs to have the same software installed and be configured in a compatible manner. It can be clunky and slow so long as it is up to the task. I run a large, desktop-replacement ThinkPad as my primary. It does a great job, but is only portable in a fairly loose sense of the word. My secondary/backup is a little Vaio; it has a somewhat smaller screen but is very portable. It was also quite cheap.

Only one laptop ever leaves the house – the Vaio. As this puts it into Getting Stolen risk category, the hard disc is completely encrypted. (My machines hold sensitive client data; I have a duty of care to my clients to ensure that their data never ends up where it shouldn’t.) When at home, I keep the two machines synchronised after every file save. (I do this using version management software – a topic which exceeds the scope of this article but which I mention for the sake of those who might be curious and wish to investigate further.) So, when coffee hits keyboard, ignoring the repair bill, things are not so disastrous.

Oh, and a spare for a laptop can always be a desktop; it might prove a bit tricky to go walkabout with it though. If portability is not an issue, it could save a few $$$.

Networking Gear

I have experienced about as many failures of networking equipment – modems, routers, hubs/switches – as I have actual computers. As with computers, carry spares. If your business has a $5,000 managed hub, have a little $70 to tide over essential services when it goes “pfft!” I have a spare Ethernet switch to hand (an old one that I upgraded) and a ready-configured ADSL router/wireless access point. Total cost: $150.

Note that network cables tend to suffer all sorts of abuse – having a couple of spare in the drawer could just help save the day.

Contracts

My approach in the Computer Hardware section has assumed small to medium businesses which look after their own hardware requirements. An alternative, especially when dealing with expensive servers, is to have a maintenance contract. Maintenance contracts are just as much for sole traders as they are for large corporates. My points made in the PABX section regarding response times/SLAs apply in this context too.

With computer hardware services, there are a large number of fly-by-night operators (they exist in the telecomms sector, too.) Anyone considering a contract should look carefully at who will be delivering the service. My inclination would be to buy only from the Big Names such as Dell, IBM, HP/Compaq, Sun if any form of maintenance contract is required.

For those who particularly want to deal with a smaller operator, go ahead – but ensure that second and third smaller operators are also identified for when the first choice cannot/does not deliver.

What About Apple?

I am not an Apple user (apart from my iPod;) this section was written with PCs in mind but all concepts still apply. Vendors should be consulted regarding maintenance contracts and the like.

Network Services

In this section I will be discussing that all important tool, the Internet connection, along with e-mail, web hosting and this thing they call The Cloud. Now, I’ve already given two examples about the Yes/No question and the Quantity Question; for this section I will leave these as an exercise for the reader
and launch straight into some critical network services, the risks and how
they might be mitigated.

Internet Connection

Readers may have noticed a theme through the discussion so far – critical technologies require some form of backup. (Readers who have not noticed this are invited to have another coffee before re-reading this article 😉) Internet connections – if mission-critical – should have some form of backup just like all the other technologies mentioned so far. Assuming that the main Internet connection is coming in over a telephone line – either ADSL or a private pair (older technology) – mobile broadband makes a logical backup solution. However, there are limitations:

  • Mobile broadband is not available everywhere
  • Mobile broadband can be slow (it hardly deserves the epiphet ‘broadband’)
  • It might not be possible to plug it straight into an existing network (some routers can accommodate this though)

My advice with regards to backing up Internet connections for those of a non-technical nature is simple: talk to the ISP providing the main service. If this ISP cannot assist with a backup service, it may be worthwhile shopping around for another ISP that can.

E-mail

There are many different types of e-mail service (Amanda Gonzalez has written this simple guide at Flying Solo,) each with its own risks. The three main risks that an e-mail system presents are:

  1. Not being able to send/receive e-mails
  2. Losing sent/received e-mails
  3. Losing address books

A few tips/points regarding e-mail:

  • The safest e-mail service is probably a hosted one where availability of backups and an SLA are guaranteed by contract.
  • Personally, I like IMAP; I run (and back up) my own mail servers. My entire IMAP folder structure is copied to a second server in my office and also a server in the USA on a daily basis. IMAP also makes it convenient in that I can access my mail from either laptop at any time.
  • The risk of data loss with POP may be mitigated by backing up the appropriate folder(s) on the computer used to access mail on a regular (daily or greater) basis.
  • Unless using an enterprise mail system (GroupWise, Exchange, etcetera) where address books are a server function, address books for IMAP/POP mail clients need to be backed up.
  • Free e-mail services can provide a handy secondary/backup for regular e-mail services. Address books from primary services should be synchronised to secondary services on a regular basis.
  • I would discourage the use of any free e-mail services for mission-critical applications. When paying for a service, the provider has a contractual obligation to make sure that things work; with free services, it is a gamble. (I have seen enough instances of outages, compromised (hacked) systems and user data loss in free e-mail services to recommend them only as secondary/backup systems.)

Web Hosting

Here are a few points to consider when assessing the risks of web hosting:

  • SLA – 99.99% guaranteed uptime sounds great. But is that per year or per month? Lose a 9 there and that’s just under 9 hours in a year. Examine these figures very carefully.
  • Hosting providers (especially the cheaper ones) often perform scheduled maintenance without warning customers. How critical is uptime – is this an issue?
  • Overseas hosting providers often perform scheduled maintenance during the night – which might be in the middle of business hours elsewhere. Could this present an issue?
  • If a hosting provider is also handling DNS and/or registration for a domain, it may be very hard to move to another provider in the even of the first provider going broke (doing a runner, turning ‘funny,’ etcetera; I’ve heard them all.)
  • Always have a hosting contingency plan should it prove necessary to move a site in an emergency.
  • Remember that ftp is not a secure protocol. Personally, I would not use a hosting provider that used ftp with plaintext user name/password logins for any site that handled sensitive (personal, financial) data. ftps (encrypted ftp) should really be the minimum standard.

The Cloud

Readers are likely to have been hearing much buzz of late regarding ‘The Cloud.’ The main thing to understand about Cloud Computing is that, rather than having software installed on my computer, I run software on another computer (or computers) somewhere else.

It is at this at this point that I should disclose that I am a self-confessed Cloud Skeptic. Whilst I can see the many benefits and possibilities of Cloud Computing, I am very much aware of the risks that come with this technology and which need to be addressed before the business world becomes over-reliant on it.

Web Applications – There Rather Than Somewhere

Here I am, a web applications developer, saying that The Cloud is risky. Is this not an odd thing to do? No – and for two reasons:

  1. I constantly analyse the risks of my own business
  2. I make a distinction between the applications I write and host in known physical locations with applications running somewhere (anywhere.) I run Virtual Private Servers (VPS) for myself and my clients; these are located in data centres I have specified. If I were to ask my provider, they could even send me a photo of the physical machines the VPSs are running on. With a Cloud-hosted application, I just have to be content with it running ‘somewhere.’

My concern over Cloud-hosted applications is that there the systems required to produce server instances ‘somewhere’ are by far more complex (and immature – and I’ll cop some flack for saying this) than those required to deliver a Virtual Machine on that computer over there. –> *points*

Internet Connection

No, this is not an inadvertent copy and paste from earlier on in this article. If I run software – say a word-processing package – on my computer and my Internet connection fails, I can carry on using it. However, if my word-processing package is actually running as a service somewhere in Cloud-Land, whoops – it’s gone. The Internet connection thus becomes the weakest link in the business for which provision needs to be made accordingly – such as a means of being able to work offline.

Use The Cloud, by all means – just be prepared.

Conclusion

If all that technical detail has readers reeling, not to worry! I will now summarise the entire article in three bullet-points:

  • Technologies on which a business relies present risks.
  • For each technology used by a business, an assessment should be made as to whether it presents a business risk and, if so, to what degree.
  • Action should be taken for each identified risk which may include:
    1. Acquiring backup equipment
    2. Taking out support contracts
    3. Identifying alternative vendors
    4. Documenting plans on how to respond to a risk becoming an incident

Other Stuff

Likely as not, if looking at business risks for the first time, readers might be starting to think that they extend far beyond the technology risks I have discussed. I will, therefore, leave you with some further avenues of thought:

  • Infrastructure – power, water.
  • Premises – where to relocate?
  • Key staff – should more than one person understand their role?
  • Work vehicles – alternatives when off the road?
  • Zombie attack; seriously. Zombies only exist in the movies (and my office, before my first espresso,) but analysing the risks of a hypothetical, if fictional, scenario may identify gaps elsewhere.

Phew, finished! It’s a lot easier to do risk assessments than to tell other people how to do them. Hey, wait, is this thing still recording?

Welcome to the Wheeling Gourmet!

I am pleased to announce the release of a new food site,
The Wheeling Gourmet by friend
and former chef, Nicolas Steenhout.

The Wheeling Gourmet will have a constantly growing set of recipes,
cooking lessons, tips and tricks, and food blog posts.

Whilst there is no specifically gluten-free material at the time of writing,
Nicolas tells me that this is an area he will be exploring and developing over the next few months. (I will be sure to keep reminding him of this!)

Nicolas is running a Twitter account for the site: @WgChef in addition to his regular @vavroom account.

Smiffy’s (Gourmet) Bacon and Egg Pie

Preamble

When I was a child, I used to be fed something called bacon and egg pie. I later heard of this referred to as quiche, which sounded a bit posh and nobby for such a humble dish. The recipe presented here follows the bacon and egg pie/quiche concept but is gluten-free, having no pastry crust, and fairly low-carbohydrate, for the same reason.

This dish composes 2 parts:

The Filler

Bacon, onion, and other vegetables are chopped fairly finely and fried in olive oil. This could be a full-blown ratatouille, if you fancy. The important thing here is to cook until nearly all the water has evaporated; we do not want a wet filler to go with our egg mixture.

I have made 2 version of this dish – one with fresh tomato in the filler; the alternative is to add tomato paste to the egg mixture. If using fresh tomato, just observe the caveat of getting rid of the water.

The Eggs

To fill my pie dish, I require 8 eggs, about 100g of goat milk yoghurt and a generous pinch of salt. Yes, other types of yoghurt may be used, but a good goat milk yoghurt lends a savoury flavour that others cannot. Yoghurt should be either set or fairly thick – watery will have a potentially adverse affect on texture.

Egg/yoghurt mixture is beaten thoroughly with a hand-whisk. A mild but flavoursome, hard cheese is grated into this mixture (I use the goat cheese, Chevrette.) The cooked bacon and vegetables are now stirred into this mixture. If using tomato paste, this goes in now.

Cooking

Mixture is transferred to a greased pie dish and into the oven. In my fan oven, I cook this at 175° Celsius. This dish should rise as it cooks, from the outside in. Once it is risen evenly to the middle, it is cooked.

Serving Suggestions & Variations

Serve with chips and/or salad, or just on its own. Goes with a wide variety of wines or dry cider.

If you want a meat-free variant, leave out the bacon and use a stronger-flavoured cheese to maintain the savoury nature of the dish.

Whilst the dish is risen and light (at least mine turns out that way,) separating the eggs and beating the whites separately before whisking all together should make it even lighter.

Enjoy!

Getting Better 2009

The Story So Far

Executive summary: I’ve been sick for a while. (End of summary.) I have reported on this at various times in this journal; in February 2007, which would have corresponded fairly closely to the nadir of my health issues, I described a day in the life of (me.)

Skip on a couple of months and I started – albeit slowly – weight training. The Weighty Matters section of this site (includes this article) documents my weight training progress.

Now, 2 years and 10 months from that low point, things are much better – and I am talking quantum levels better, from my rather subjective viewpoint, at any rate.

The Story Today

I think that my work capacity speaks volumes. At the beginning of this year, I was able to work about 12-14 hours per week, never more than 4 hours a day (on a really good day) and never 2 consecutive days. At the time of writing, I am able to work in excess of 20 hours per week, sometimes up to 6 hours per day (best days) and up to 2 days consecutively.

As regards lifting weights, improvements during this year include some of my troublesome joints ceasing to be so (and for the first time in my life,) and breathing issues that hindered exercises with heavier weights, far more than the weights themselves, having resolved.

Where I Am With Weights

My weight training progress seems to have been the most constant of improvements. This is a good thing as it creates motivation (and something to feel good about in general) through positive feedback.

Primarily due to elbow issues – the last of my joint troubles to persist – and a weakness in my thoracic spine due to a probable combination of scoliosis and an old horse-fall, I have simplified my workout cycle to something resembling the following:

  • Bench press
  • Variants on the lat pull
  • Squat
  • Bench press
  • Variants on the lat pull
  • Deadlift

Including rest days, this constitutes about 10 days to 2 weeks of workouts. I tend to avoid using the same intensity of exercise for more than two sessions of a specific workout.

Numbers-wise, I regard workout-weight to be that which can be performed for 6-8 repetitions, expressed in terms of bodyweight. (My bodyweight, that is!) Squats are at 1.75, deadlifts at 1.46 (with hooks – wrists still a bit dodgy,) bench press lagging at 0.92, with 5 reps at 0.97.

My most significant, recent, milestones in terms of absolute weight were reaching what had for long seemed the unobtainable 4+ reps at 100kg (after months in the 90’s,) and achieving 4 sets of 5-rep deadlifts at 130kg without hooks. Meaningless milestones to most, but morale-boosters for me. And yes, I can be a bit numbers-obsessive; I have a terrible compulsion to count things – wonder if it means I’m a vampire?

Quantum Sleep-Leap

My health improvements have been due to factors both within and beyond my control. In the list of ‘beyond my control,’ I include things which I could control, but am unaware. It turned out that my sleep quality was one of these things.

After 4 years of CPAP therapy, I thought that my sleep apnoea issues were well and truly nailed. So did my respiratory/sleep physician and the rest of my medical team. At my last appointment, my physician suggested a machine upgrade as the old one was rather old and I had no backup should it fail. (No machine = no sleep. Or at least, no sleep that would count.) I followed up on this advice and acquired a new machine and mask.

Within a week of starting with the new equipment, I had far more energy and my work capacity shot up. Why? Despite 100% CPAP compliance and despite data downloaded from the machine suggesting that all was well, there was more to the problems of sleep than just apnoeas. The discomfort of the mask – possibly designed by a member of the Spanish Inquisition – and the noise of the old machine appeared to have been giving me really lousy sleep-quality. I just wish I had known that a long time ago.

CPAP therapy isn’t the scary thing that it may seem to those who think they may need it or are about to start on it. You need it, you use it, you get used to it. At least I do/did. Having the extra bag when traveling and trying to find a power point near hotel beds can be a bit of an inconvenience, but that’s life. It would be far worse without it.

Keep Taking The Medicine

One of the key players in my improved health has been my doctor (GP.) Lots of diagnostics, trialling medications (mostly hormones,) and regular reviews have finally hit a relatively sweet-spot. Whilst I’m still well below-par when compared with that elusive beast, the population average, I am very pleased with where I am and what I can do compared with that time nearly 3 years ago.

Although I’m not writing the prescriptions or ordering the blood tests, the business between my doctor and myself is very much a factor within my control. Collecting and presenting relevant information and complying with a doctor’s suggestions (including taking medications) is very much the patient’s responsibility. Doctors can’t work miracles.

Despite the best of intentions in both directions, things can go wrong. I have experienced a few occasions where everything started going wrong – fatigue started to get worse again, the weird eye problems that limit my work came back – almost like forgetting to take medications. It transpired that, on each of these occasions, there was a common factor: stale medication. A crucial, heat-sensitive, medication (hydrocortisone,) short-dated and sourced through a rural pharmacy which has no cold-chain deliveries seemed to be the culprit. Changing the source to an online supplier – which incidentally seems to have much longer-dated batches – and ordering for delivery during cooler weather has eliminated yet another unanticipated, external factor.

In addition to medication, I have also received several treatments from a massage therapist. This has certainly helped with various skeleto-muscular issues, which has helped with lifting weights. (Having a massage therapist who understands weight training is a big advantage.)

Lifestyle Management

That which isn’t from my doctor or lifting weights falls under the catch-all of Lifestyle Management. This I will break down into two sections: Eat Well and Don’t Overdo It.

Eat Well

I’m not going to give a nutrition lecture unless it’s “don’t eat processed food.” I tend to break my own rule here by eating the occasional protein bar.

Don’t Overdo It

You may need to push yourself a bit to get moving but, once moving, don’t keep pushing – you may end up crashing to a halt.

One of the most important lessons that I have learned through the time of my incapacity is to learn to gauge my limits and work within them – whether working, lifting weights, gardening or anything else. I won’t pretend otherwise – this can be incredibly frustrating; stopping a job half-way through because you’ve reached your fatigue threshold may be very hard. But then so is the crash from over-doing it and equally frustrating the week that you are unable to work due to poor body-management. I have been there many times. I think that I am finally getting the message and no longer exceeding my limits.

Conclusion: My Message

  • This article is all about me. If you see yourself or somebody you know in here, take heart, you are not alone.
  • Chronic fatigue is probably one of the biggest cop-out diagnoses being made by doctors in this day and age.
  • Don’t let your doctor write you off; if looks like they’re going to, write them off first and find one who really cares and wants to help you.
  • Sick people can lift weights – and doing so with care can help make them less sick.

Stupid Disclaimer

I am not a doctor, this article doesn’t constitute medical advice. If you want medical advice, go to a healthcare professional.