Friday, September 28, 2007

To ban or not to ban

I grew up in a family of smokers. Well, my mum didn’t smoke, but my dad smoked a pipe, and in their teen years all my sisters picked up the habit. Dad quit before I hit ten, and two of my sisters quit in later life. The third is still carrying on, though she’s moved on to cigars on the theory its better if she doesn’t inhale.

I never got the habit myself. Tried it a couple times, but never enough to get past the coughing phase. My personal philosophy though is to worry about myself and mine, but not bother too much about others choices. I’m not a strident anti smoker, though I’ve twice asked people to stop when they blatantly light up in non-smoking areas. If friends wanted to smoke around me, their company was more important, and they have always been welcome.

Now though, this report. I always thought the smoking ban was too heavy handed. It seriously limited a persons freedom of choice. The facts about smoking are clear, and if people want to ruin their future lives, so be it. Yet if just one factor, heart attacks in non smokers, has decreased by 20%, that means something. I would never have attributed that big a factor to passive smoke.

That changes the balance in my mind. The right of non smokers to not inhale smoke is greater than the right of smokers to smoke. So long as there was little attributable risk to non smokers, my personal opinion weighed on the side of the smokers. Personal choice and will is the definition of freedom. However, personal choice is just that, you can do what you want to improve or ruin your own life, if your doing so adversely effects the life of another, then you do not have the right to do it. To me that is the basis that can’t be denied.

So, smokers, I’m ever so sorry. I was on your side, thought the laws pushing you to the frigid streets for a quick fag was too extreme, too much an attack on your personal freedom. Now though, the evidence is against you. If your being on the streets means 20% fewer non smokers will have a heart attack, then get your jacket on. Better yet, put that packet of ciggies away. In the end though, that is your choice, and I will die to defend your right to do as you choose. Just not next to me, OK?

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Another of the wonders of the Microsoft House was the smart kitchen counter. It was quite posh, nice polished marble, but had an RFID reader embedded in it, and a descrete projector installed in the ceiling. This allowed for some pretty cool functions.

For example our host went to the cupboard and pulled out some corn meal and flour, then asked the house what he could do with it. The house told him (it could speak as well as listen) a number of recipe options, plus displayed the list on the counter. He asked for the corn muffin recipe. Oblidgingly the house displayed a recipe, noting which items he had and where in the kitchen they were. One item was out, and the house asked if he wanted it added to the next grocery delivery.

He then asked the house to help him through the recipe. It began both talking him through it, and projecting both written and graphical instructions onto the counter top. The house even set the oven to the right temperature to be warm and ready for when it got to that step. Pretty cool if your a cooking novice, but I think I'd find it a bit of a pain. The knowing what items where in stock in the house or not was nice, plus keeping an interactive shopping list. Wouldn't it be nice to just tell your house you're out of spelt flour and know it was added to the list, rather than having to remember with a faulty memory? Apearently the house could even keep track of what food wrappers were thrown out so that it could add them to the shopping list as well.

There was another interesting function. When he stopped the recipe funtion the house reminded him he needed to take his medication. He them pulled out a large box of medicine bottles. If you have an elderly parent who needs to take eye watering amounts of pills this is not at all out of the ordinary. Then, as he took bottles out of the box and put them onto the counter, the house either cirlced them in red for the wrong medicine, or in green for the right ones. Then lettering appeared beside each to show how many pills to take out.

It even then was able to identify the pills themselves (did you know the pharmaceutical companies had standardised the colouring and sizing of medicines to help in their identification), in case a bottle had the wrong pills in it. For that function alone I'd buy this tomorrow for my mum. Getting her medication right is a nightmare!

Again though, this has its down sides. Do you really want a piece of technology knowing what you've bought, used and thrown out? To a certain extent we're not far off from that. Anyone who uses a supermarket loyalty card already tells the world exactly what they buy. But, having it also know what and how you use those goods could be explosive. The house could be programmed to put only certain brands on the shopping list, or heaven forbid the government begin to punish those with an unhealthy diet.

Technology can be a real boon. Unlike the smart mirror I quite liked the smart countertop. There where many functions I know I'd find useful as a cook. However, the potential for an invasion of my privacy and abuse of my data is significant. I don't want Nestle (who I don't buy from anyway) knowing what of their products I have in my house or when I threw them out. These technologies can be wonderful, but we have to use them with caution.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mirror mirror on the wall

One of the more interesting aspects of my recent trip was a visit to the Microsoft House. This is a long standing initiative of Bill’s redone every year or so, and meant to play with ideas of how technology can grow. The concept the current house is arranged around is there being no standard computers. No big box with a big screen and keyboard. It plays with a lot of ideas that are both exciting and a bit scary at the same time.

Some of the technologies will never make it out of the lab. Some will in ten year’s time, some are very close indeed. Take the smart mirror. One of the rooms in the house was a teenage girl’s room. It had a big floor length mirror in it. The mirror was actually just a big LCD screen with a reflective surface.

Now, you may not know this, but most cloths sold by the big retailers these days has imbedded in it a small RFID tag. This is a little microchip, flexible, washable, that activates when in range of a radio broadcast of a certain frequency. This frequency gives the little chip just enough power to broadcast back a small snippet of information. Retailers are starting to use these to track inventory both during the logistics process from factory to store, but also in tracking what’s in the store. Effectively all the cloths in a shop tell the shop they are there. These days the little chips effectively go silent once out of the shop, their job done.

However, that doesn’t mean they stop working. The premise of the smart mirror is that it knows all the cloths in your wardrobe. So, you hold out say, a blouse. A picture of the blouse then appears in the mirror. Below it suddenly appear a number of pictures of matching trousers and skirts. All which she owns, all of which are currently clean (the mirror can query what’s in the wash basket, or sitting drying in the laundry (useful things those RFID tags). What the “girl” of the room has done is told the mirror her preferences for colour or pattern matches, or accepted the manufacturer’s recommendations for matches. It could also know what she has recently worn, and only make recommendations based on cloths not used in the last week thus saving the girl the sin of overly worn goods. You could also bring up an image of the girl dressed in the various combinations. She doesn’t even need to try things on to test the recommendations.

Cool huh? I told LL about this and she wanted one right away, yesterday if possible. It’s a piece of technology that makes sense, adds value, brings usefulness to its owner’s lives. It’s a good thing.

Or is it? This technology also has a dark side. There are many scenarios for its use. The mirror could, quite easily, also show the girl matching options of what’s for sale in the shops. It could, properly networked, even allow her to order any of those cloths and have them show up the same day. This might be very cool for the girl, not so cool for the parents who have to shell out the money.

That also allows the shop to know about the girl’s wardrobe. They could know down to the last sock exactly what’s she’s got. With full access they could even know which one’s she’s worn, how often they’ve been washed, what they’ve been paired with. Very useful from a retail point of view. Suddenly you could have very rich data on what’s in or out, how it gets worn, how it gets washed. From a retailer point of view this is mana.

Washing machine manufacturors could know what clothing is being washed and how (oh, did I mention the washing machine that could automatically choose the right washing setting by knowing what cloths had been put in it). That would help them build better washers, understand what its users wanted.

Or, it could be interrogated by the police. They could find out everyone who was wearing a certain piece of clothing at a given time. Invaluable from a crime solving point of view. The list goes on and on.

To be fair to Microsoft, part of the role of the house is to invite debate. Not only in how the technology should be used, but also in the privacy debate. At what point is enough information too much? How and when should people be able to determine what the outside world knows about their lives. Its all well and good to have a mirror that knows about your cloths, but is it really that good to have the outside world know as well? Worth thinking about before you go out and buy one. Worth thinking about before you buy one, this is technology that will almost certainly hit the markets soon.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Home again, home again, quick quick quick

Almost back at home. I had a both lovely and hard weekend in Vancouver. First I met number 2 sister in Seattle Friday Night. She lives in Southern Washington State, so popped up to see me for the night. Was very nice, we don't get nearly enough time together over the years, though we natter on the phone a lot.

Then up to Vancouver. My mum is really doing just fine, which is comforting. There's no question that some things are just gone. Her memory of words is poor, she just can't cope with complex conversation, and you hear a lot of stories more than once. Yet she is happy, still able to play the piano and guitar, and enjoys reading just as much as before. Probably doesn't absorb as much, but still enjoys it. We just had a lazy day together, then number 3 sister came and we went out to dinner.

Sunday was a bit harder. We got up and went to Church. She is still a stallwart of their local church, though she had to give up on things like being treasurer. The minister has a very laze faire style, which isn't entirely to my liking, but is a very friendly congregation.

After the service was the hard part. We went to my dad's gravesite where his headstone had finally (after almost two years) been laid. A surprising number of people showed up for a small memorial service, very laid back. Yet it was enough to make me cry. My sister and I quietly blubbed together, while everyone else was telling happy stories of my dad. It was heart rending.

A lunch back at my mum's house, then off to the airport. That finally gave my sister and I a little time. We had some legal stuff to talk through. The case is finally heating up, so hopefully we can get to some sort of conclusion soon.

The flight was fairly inconsequential. I had a shower out at the airport, now I'm back in the office for the afternoon. I can't wait to get home and see my family, and... sleep!

Friday, September 21, 2007


So, another day in lovely Seattle, then up to Vancouver to visit my mum. Its a shame I don't have the kids with me, I know they'd all love to see each other, but such is life sometimes. My father's gravestone finally has been laid last week, so we'll go and visit. I am really looking forward to seeing her. Plus, my sister who lives in Southern Washington State is coming up to have dinner tonight. It won't be a restful weekend, but it will be a good one.

Its been a good trip workwise. Its always fascinating to see what Microsoft is up to. We're getting a view of what's coming in the next two years, not the stuff out there now. A lot of it is background stuff, but the convergence of voice, IM and email is quite exciting. Your inbox will change, and in many ways disappear. Become more a store, rather than your primary interface.

Plus conversations about how to move people on to the new version of office. I have mixed views on that. The interface is very changed. If you haven't seen it, your normal top bar is completely different. I've been using it for a while, and it does take some getting used to. It can still be irritating, as it tries to show you want it thinks you want, and occasionally gets it wrong. When it does get it right, its very very useful.

But onwards. My long trip is almost done. I'm absolutely knackered, not getting more than 5 hours or so sleep a night. My poor internal clock is completely screwed up. Had a very nice dinner last night at a posh steak house. An absolutely brilliant steak, but once I'd finished it I almost feel asleep into my plate. Had to just head out back to the hotel and leave the festivities. Very unsocial, but I'm a bit beyond caring...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Going Septic

Just had a sewage consultant in. He actually recommends a simple septic system rather than a complicated sewage treatment system. Less moving parts to fail plus being on a hill with sandy soil, we wouldn't be contaminating the water table. I was intrigued plus it saves us some cash. That does mean we can't do a grey water system as we need the water for the septic system. That would have been the same for a treatment system though. Pity though we're still going for a rainwater collection system that we'll run the loos off of. Nice to have something fun outside of work to engage the brain.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Jet Lag

Nothing like a bit of time zone change to make life a bit interesting. I woke up at 3:30 local time. Which when you convert to UK time of 8:30 is positively a lie in. When you consider I went to sleep at 9pm or 2am UK, its not that great.

Its a good time to do email and make phone calls though. A busy boy is not a bored boy...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Gay Paris

LL had a grad school reunion in Paris over the weekend. She went out a few days before, and I brought out the kids for the show and tell. It was an enjoyable, but very tiring weekend. I think the kids enjoyed it too, but we were all shattered by the time we got home last night.

I took them on the Eurostar, which was part of the fun. Then we did a bit of tourist stuff before getting on the bus with everyone for a trip out to a chateau that had been booked for the night. Very posh, and very nice. The weather was perfect plus it had a pool. That was all the kids needed to be happy. Sunshine and water. It didn't hurt that there was a couple other boys the same age they could play with (from Australia, who won the long haul award).

Dinner was superb. It had been organised to put the kids in a seperate room with their own menu. A shame really, the boys would have loved the food we got. Still, they got roast chicken and chips, so weren't exactly unhappy. They stayed up far too late larking about with their new mates while the adults quite noisily sozzled in the next room. It was a good night, but I left LL to a few more glasses while I finally got our exhausted kids to sleep.

Breakfast was equally good. The boys love croisant and jam, plus a nice batch of scrambled eggs. Then back to the pool for the morning until it was time to pack up and head back to paris. We had a bit of time to kill to did the Louvre and took them to see the necessaries ("Leonardo de what?" Will likely go down in family history as a favourite quote to wheel out and embaress the children).

Back on the train, a battle on the M25 to get home, and the weekend was done. Like I said, fun, but tiring. Now I'm in the fine fine town of Boston to enlighten the benighted natives on the intricacies of Search Optimisation... I leed such a life...

Friday, September 14, 2007

The joys of jetsetting

Last Monday = London
Last Tuesday = Weisbaden
Last Wednesday = Gutersloh
Yesterday = Copenhagen
Today = Home
Tomorrow = Paris
Next Monday = Boston
Next Wednesday = Seattle
Next Saturday = Vancouver

The Boy = Exhausted

I often meet people, who on describing what I do, respond enviously that it must be nice to have such a jetsetting lifestyle. If I'm honest, there are some perks. I get to eat many interesting meals. However, I also get to eat many horrid meals (the joys of German industrial canteens), sleep in numerous different, and often uncomfortable beds, have no social life outside of forced events with business colegues who will never make the jump to being "friends", and spend far to much time in airport security queues and badly air conditioned lounges.

Like any job, its work. One with longer hours, many very unproductive, many stolen from what should be your own time. Its necessary, technology can't quite wipe out the value of real face time, yet its hard hard work.

So the next time you see a vapour trail high above you say a little prayer for the boy as he's off again...

PS A free bottle of wine to the first person who gets right who I would be visiting in Gutersloh (on an honour system of NOT checking wikipedia...)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Pride of Being English

The pride of being English is also the shame of being English. I am proud of the fact English is the lingua franca (isn't that a lovely irony) for business and science. I love the fact it is a language of inifinite complexity. That there is no central institute of control is a truely wonderful thing.

However... I hate that the pride makes us crap at speaking other languages. I can kind of get along in French, and just survive reading German, but I can't speak either really. It is hugely embaressing to always arrive in a new local and have someone else speak my language. They are all so good at it. How in heavens name did they learn? I mean I can't imagine reruns of Mash and Fawlty Towers are quite enough, are they?

I'm on the road travelling yet again, and everyone around me speaks English. Yet again I'm telling myself to get off my duff and do something about it. Yet its just so easy to let all of them speak my language. Most positively want to speak English for the experience. Which makes it worse, of course.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Head Scratch Time

There are moments in life when you just have to stop and scratch your head. When thing just aren’t adding up, or add up into a sum that doesn’t make sense. Saturday was one of those moments. It was actually a nice day, for the kids a very very nice day. Swimming lessons first, then off to a birthday party (which all three ended up playing at), and finished off with a picnic for Pirate Pete’s year, with all the families chipping in to rent a bouncy castle.

All in all, a really good family day, and the kids sure enough really enjoyed themselves. What made me scratch my head though was food. Perhaps the numbers do add up in a way, but it’s a way that just shows either a complete laziness or complete lack of regard for health and the environment. Please note, these are all rather well off families. The combined income of the parents at that picnic would probably fund a small country.

Yet, despite that prosperity, or perhaps because of it, the food in evidence was generally pretty appalling. Now modern kids parties have a relentless logic. You’ve got to have, at a minimum, little sausages, white bread sandwiches, ice cream and jelly and a cake. From my experience those seem pretty universal. Some people play about the edges with vegetables or other types of food, but you have to have those bits or else some kids won’t eat.

I accept that, and sure enough our parties tend to have the same. Yet there are two ends of the extreme. At this party the sausages looked like they came pre cooked out of a pack, as did the sarnies. The cake? Vibrant colours and looked like it was pressed out of a mould (ie store bought). I hate to say it biased (which I am, of course), but this was with a stay at home mum. Lovely lady, I quite like her, but LL and I, with two very full time jobs, manage to make all the food for the kids parties. Hell, I often even bake the bread for the sandwiches. LL considers it her maternal duty to bake a cake. Mind you, she’s a perfectionist, so its fairy castles and dinosaur cakes, but a simple round one with a bit of icing might take an hour at most.

Then it was on to the picnic. Sure enough there was nice rugs, and many had picnic hampers with plates and wine glasses. Yet these same people would also have a couple supermarket bag which they’d proceed to unload and pop back the plastic tops of the lunch someone else had made. I was absolutely appalled there were two large black bags filled to the top at the end. OK, the kids were extraordinarily well behaved, and the park was tidier at the end than the beginning, but everyone was eating factory made pap.

Its not hard to make a picnic. OK, I baked some fresh roles, but we brought the makings with us, and stuffed the sandwiches on site. LL took one minute to make a dip with some yogurt, chives and garlic, but that was it.

Many of these families have a parent at home. Just what do these women do? I know homemaking can be a career in itself; my mum did it for many years. Yet isn’t that supposed to be the point? The most time that had been spent on the food that day had been in the shops! Though I will be the first to admit to finding shopping a stressful activity, its not exactly time consuming.

Though I don’t think I grew up in a golden time, I do have to wonder at some of the ways our society is going. No wonder the environment is in a mess. If people can’t be bothered to take just a little time to prepare their own food, its time to get out the spiked cool aid and end our chances as a species. Bloomin ‘eck, there weren’t even glasses and thermoses for the kids, it was all little bottled waters and fizzy drinks. I depair, I really do.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Building Excitement

We met with our architect last night, going over the final building plans on the extension. I’m starting to get excited again. We’ve been at this so long, more than six years. Its been this weird mix of excitement, disappointment, then long stretches of deliberately not thinking about it.

Now though, its very close. The plans are getting a final treatment, then we put the pitch to tender, and the market is such we should hopefully start work in November. It seems it’s a good time to build. There is less going on, which means we should get keen bids, and hopefully a competent builder.

Last night was fun as we started going over the details. He came with a number of options for doing a green roof. Do you know, there are now systems that will allow you to put up to a metre of soil on a flat roof? You can even grow trees! We’re not going that far, but we will do an expanse of ceedum and herbs. It should be quite pretty.

We’re getting in a sewage engineer to discuss what to do. Our aged septic tanks just aren’t coping any more. It hasn’t been a huge problem as they’re currently under a dense set of trees and bushes (and why might that be…), so the risk of contamination is low. However, the kids are at a stage when forts in dense bushes are attractive and I’ve had to shoo them out a few times. We’re going to go for a fairly advanced system of both grey water and sewage treatment. The grey water will be re-used in the toilets, and then allow LL to water her precious garden. The newer sewage treatment systems get you to close to potable, though we won’t go the final stage to take it to that. It just means it will filter safely down into the water table.

The geothermal heating unit will be a bit of a palaver to put in, a large stretch of garden will need to be dug up, but it will reduce our energy usage on heating by 5 times or more. Plus, because it’s a continuous system, the house stays minimally heated 24 hours a day. It can even be reversed to cool some of the main rooms. We’re going for underfloor heating in all the new rooms. We already have that in the conservatory, and it very very nice. Nothing like having your feet gently warmed as you walk about.

I got to talk about how I wanted the house wired. We’re going high tech, a full gigabit Ethernet lan with a small network cupboard. If we’re going to be here another 40 years I want the place as future proofed as possible. I’m sure I’ll have to change it all at some point, but it will last us long enough. Part of the extension is a large family room. That will be extensively cabled so each kid can have a small workstation for homework. By the time they’re in senior school I imagine computer access will be compulsory, so best to plan for it now.

Its all quite exciting again and is actually going to happen. I’d been keeping my emotions in check until it was certain to happen. Too many false starts in the past. Sure, it will be months of home hell with builders crawling all over the place. I’m definitely not looking forward to that bit, but I think the result will be worth it.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Had my first exec board meeting over the last few days. It was an interesting affair, and I particularly loved watching the interactions. Many things I didn’t expect, and many I did.

This was a somewhat staged affair, but they always are. It started late one afternoon, then went late in the evening (one of our august body had to fly in from Singapore). Then restarted early the next morning so another of us could fly off again. The things you have to schedule for are intense, and above all anything to do with a client takes precedence.

Various people were wheeled in and out to do short or sometimes overly long presentations. Lots of talking and even a few decisions (those these where surprisingly few and far between). To a certain extent they don’t call them board meetings for nothing. Everyone in that room was a superb talker, its how you get to that point. I don’t mean that facetiously (well, not totally), but senior management in the end is about two things, thinking and people.

You can have the thinking, but not be a good manager. You can be excellent at people and not be a good manager. It takes that combination of both, a bright mind and an ability to express your thoughts and take people with you that matters. Everyone in that room was good at both. It helps if you’re also good at humanity, but sadly its not a requirement, and far too few seem to have that.

So, though boredom was an underlying theme, there were topics that made everyone sit up. That was the fun bit, when we got into debate or argument. A number of foundation stones for remaking the company where set down yesterday. I’m glad (very) to say that I disagree with none of them. They were exciting foundation stones, ones about new capabilities and changing how people work without mass redundancies and restructure.

The trick now will be to make it happen, and make money out of it. I’m supremely confident at this point, particularly about my bits, but its going to be a hard slog. That however, is what makes it fun!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

School's In

Having children sometimes really shoots home your own memories of youth. This week its back to school. The cloths are all bought, tags with their names all sewed in (the one chore I feign masculine incapability on (the only one I might add)), supplies bought, pencil cases prepped and pencils sharpened. All is ready.

The pleasure though is in how excited the kids are to be going back. It’s a mixed sort of scared and excited, but no less pleasurable for all that. Its new teachers, and for two of them, whole new classrooms of children to meet. My Princess was literally hopping up and down this morning as she got to put on her new dress.

I remember that feeling. Of being just that bit bored by the end of the summer, of not having seen so much of your friends as holidays and trips interrupted, of wondering what was going to be different and what you might learn. I loved that feeling, really loved going back to school. Not that I didn’t enjoy my summers, I always did, but it was an anticipated change that you loose somewhat in modern life.

Then again, as I wrote that line, maybe you don’t. I recaptured some of it in changing jobs, I just didn’t get the bored two months off in between (real pity that (I have a good friend who’s just about to resign this week, and will be sent home for an enforced three month sabbatical (bastard…))). Still, its not as intense as I remember it being, and it didn’t happen like clockwork the way it does when you’re young.

I’m glad the kids are excited, glad at least Pirate Pete has good friends to go back to. The other two will do well. Ali Baba is a very shy boy, but also very likeable. He’s in a very small class (just 8 other boys believe it or not), so he’ll get to know them all. Princess? She’ll be like a pig in mud, no longer only having her older brothers (who’d rather not play with her). I think she’s going to do just fine.

So the world turns another day, and new chapters begin. I love being a parent to watch it through eyes that remember my own happy times. Time to go, the bell’s about to ring.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Doubting Thomas

I quite enjoyed this article yesterday. I find it quite comforting to this of us in a culture of doubt. Doubt only arises from thought and question. That means people are openly looking around them and wondering. Doubt also means a somewhat open mind, it means alternatives have not been rejected, just not quite accepted yet.

Doubt can be healthy, if, as with most things, taken in moderation. To doubt everything means to trust or love nothing, and this is very unhealthy. There was a particular quote in the article, that most Christians, at some point in the conversation, bring up love. Love implies trust, and has to be core to life.

I like a bit of doubt, because its certainty that tends to lead to the worst in life. Whether it be religious extremism, or the political will to change the world (through taxation, legislation and constitutional change), it can be a bad bad thing. Iraq is a case of certainly without knowledge. A bit of doubt and we wouldn’t be in the place we are.

So here is to a healthy amount of doubt, leading to question, debate, and a growth of knowledge and wisdom. If it is done in an atmosphere of trust and love, then the world will come out all right.


In a phone call with one of my sisters last night I learned some results from a recent report on my mum. She could not do basic cognition tests like matching cards she held of coloured squares, triangles and circles to ones the pschycologist placed in front of her. This was a woman with a tested IQ of over 140, yet as well as raising a family of four started three businesses (one to employ mentally handicapped adults, it actually made money), would informally adopt adbused teens and adults to help them get on the straight and narrow (most did, some still call her mum).

4Ds mate the baseball bat is so very tempting. Then last night my sister reminded me that my mum would never tolerate another life being ruined just because hers was. My thoughts shame me, but its still bloody tempting.