Wednesday, 16 April 2014

On The Steel Breeze

by Alastair Reynolds
ISBN: 978-0575090453

Fantastic! I loved this book. I really struggled to put it down and was reading it at every opportunity. I was even reading it for the three minutes it took to microwave my lunch at work each day.

It’s great not to have to start my review saying that this book is excellent, but not as good as Revelation Space, because it is, although it’s not as broad in terms of the scope of the story.

Unlike Blue Remembered Earth, you’re straight into the action with On the Steel Breeze and there’s none of the slow character building. It sits so well on the foundations created by Blue Remembered Earth that I wish I’d gone back and read it again first. I also liked all the characters this time.

There’s a great sense of mystery right up to the end. Most science fiction stories based around a paranoid machine intelligence remind me of HAL. However, HAL was a well intentioned, mislead child. Arachne, at least the version of her integrated into the Earth mech is clearly evil.

Science fiction is usually a look at possible future societies and many of them are utopian futures where there is no more conflict or murder and all of them are wavering on the brink of falling back into chaos. It’s the same in the future painted by On the Steel Breeze. And of course the characters acting for the good of everyone push it over the brink.

Following an experiment that went catastrophically wrong and destroyed a holoship, all development of the engines needed to slow the holoships down and allow them to reach their goal was prohibited. I was frustrated with the authorities making this decisions all the way through the book. It just felt so short sighted, but this is often how governments are. I also missed why the holoships couldn’t turn themselves over and use the engines they’d used to reach their transit velocity to slow down.

The end only answers about 90% of the questions asked by the rest of the book and sets the scene perfectly for the third and final part of Poseidon's Children. In the meantime I’ll be readying Doctor Who: Harvest of Time, also by Alastair Reynolds.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

MobDevCon 2014 Sponsorship Packages Announced

MobeDevCon 2014, Norfolk’s Mobile Development conference, will take place on Wednesday 9th July at the Kings Centre in Norwich. As a sponsor this is an ideal opportunity to get exposure to around one hundred mobile devs and decision influencers from the Norfolk area and beyond. Please take a look at the sponsorship packages below and if you would like to sponsor, please email Tickets for MobDevCon 2014 are onsale now from £80 plus fees on eventbrite.

Associate £300
  • Mention on twitter
  • Logo on website
  • Logo on slide in opening presentation

Partner £800
  • Mention on twitter
  • Logo on website
  • Logo on slide in opening presentation
  • Table & space for a small banner at the conference
  • Lunch and refreshments for person manning the stand

Elite £1500
  • Mention on twitter
  • Logo on website
  • Logo on slide in opening presentation
  • Table & space for a small banner at the conference
  • Lunch and refreshments for person manning the stand
  • 30 minute speaking slot that may be of a sales/marketing nature (all other presentations are strictly technical)

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Workshop: Test Driven Development (TDD) in Ruby

What: Test Driven Development (TDD) in Ruby

When: Wednesday, 23rd April at 7pm.

Where: Further, The Old Church, St Matthew's Road, Norwich, NR1 1SP


This month I will will be leading a workshop on Test Driven Development in Ruby:

Most of my experience with Ruby has been creating Rails apps using the command line engine and plenty of help and advice from people like Matthew Wells, my co-director at Naked Element Ltd. How a vanilla Ruby programme hangs together and especially how you use Rake to build one has been quite opaque to me. When NRUG asked me to do a session on Test Driven Development (TDD) in Ruby I saw this as an ideal opportunity for this to change. 

Concentrating on testing outside of a Rails context, Paul will be covering the setup and structure of a testable Ruby program, and will demonstrate how you can write your own tests.

To take part in the workshop bring along a laptop with Ruby installed.

Monday, 31 March 2014

NorDev: Mainframe for Startups & Naughty and Nice advice on mobile design

What: Mainframe for Startups & Naughty and Nice advice on mobile design

When: Wednesday 9th April 2014 @ 6.30pm

Where: Virgin Wines, 4th Floor, St James' Mill, Whitefriars, Norwich, NR3 1TN


Mainframe for Start-ups
Colin Mower

Many view the a Mainframe as big, expensive and archaic. As the Mainframe (or System z as it is known) reaches it's 50th year, you will learn in this talk how these views are challenged, and understand how it has been evolving quietly, remaining at the cutting edge of IT. System z is still as relevant today in modern computing as it was in the 1960's, and can be applied to almost any business size and need.

Colin Mower has been working in IT for 17 years, joining Norwich Union as a Mainframe Systems Programmer, before moving into cross platform design and architecture. He joined IBM in 2011 as a client facing architect, and spends most of his time on Greater Anglia trains or on the A11. Outside of work, he is kept busy with two young children, a mini computer museum and vague attempts at keeping fit through cycling and running.

Naughty and Nice advice on mobile design
Matt Davey

A quick guide on the building blocks of mobile design. Exploring the tiny details that make the difference. Exploring Rhythm, Clarity, Copy, Accessibility, alignment and typography. This won’t be overly specific to mobile applications more a basis for visual awesomeness.

Matt Davey is a designer. Currently he runs Everpress a product startup and designs at 1Password.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Angular JS Full Day Hands on Workshop (Norwich)

What: AngularJS in a day

When: Thursday 10th April 2014, 10am to 4.30pm

Where: Kings Centre, Norwich, NR1 1PH

How much: £30


AngularJS is big news: though newer than Backbone or Ember, it is already hugely more popular. Its secret is the huge productivity of its UI primitives. For example: why reinvent wheels to make a live updating list or grid when you can declaratively repeat, filter and edit with Angular's simple extensions to HTML?
In this session we'll learn the core of AngularJS, demystify some of its rough edges, and peek behind the scenes to understand how it all works. We'll then build up a full single-page web application so you are ready to start applying Angular to your own projects.

Tim Ruffles 

Tim is the founder of SidekickJS, a code-quality tracker for teams. He teaches & mentors developers for General Assembly and EventHandler. Previously he was front-end tech-lead for Skimlinks and Picklive. He talks about Javascript at conferences and events.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Issue 05 of the Norfolk Tech Journal Out Now!

This is the first issue of the Norfolk Tech Journal that you won’t be able to hold in your hands (unless of course you’ve printed it yourself). We’re making the journal purely digital for the time being to explore that channel more thoroughly and to target it at a wider audience. We’re working on a facelift for the journal and a marketing strategy that will get it in front of more people.
As always, watch this space and if you can help us, now’s the time to shout.
I’ve written before about how Agile East Anglia, the group that went on to be part ofSyncNorwich was inspired by the Extreme Tuesday Club (XTC) in London. Another group I’m a member of is the ACCU (formerly the Associate of C and C++ Users). The ACCU hold a conference that inspired the Norfolk Developers Conference. The ACCU conference runs for 5 days and includes a full pre-conference tutorial day and four days with four tracks, ending on a Saturday. It usually attracts between 300 and 500 people. One day I hope NorDevCon will be of a similar size and structure.
Since I joined in around 2000 and the proliferation of C++ has declined, the ACCU has often had a crisis of faith. They, including me, are not sure what they are or what they want to be. This has come to the forefront again in the last few weeks as membership has dropped significantly. There is a fee for joining the ACCU which gets you the associations magazines and a discount on the conference. So dropping membership numbers puts the magazines in jeopardy. The future of the ACCU isn’t looking bright, but I for one hope it can find a way to continue. It could be that the conference becomes the main focus and rest is allowed to slowly fade away.
The ACCU does have two things that I am quite envious of and hope we can find a way to incorporate into Norfolk Developers (NorDev). It has a large international membership and a very active mailing list which stimulates communication between its members. NorDev has a mailing list ready and waiting and in the coming weeks we’ll be pushing it quite hard.
You can download isssue 05 of the Norfolk Tech Journal here and view it on Issuu here.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Diving into the Digital Ocean

I’ve been looking for a good, online continuous integration solution since late 2007. It’s useful, even as a lone developer, although running it on your development machine can be problematic, especially as back then I developed on a number of different machines and those I wasn’t using were turned off.

IaaS (Infrastructure As A Service) was in its infancy then and those providers I spoke to were shocked at the idea of building and running an executable, especially as the boxes were predominantly shared. My hosting provider installed Cruise Control for me, but it never really worked. 

In the end I used a spare machine at work to run Jenkins and at home I went without until I decided to buy a server and virtualise it. That worked quite well, but it took a lot of setup and the performance wasn’t great. I couldn’t afford a huge amount of memory or super fast disks. That worked sufficiently for about eighteen months until I gave the machine a good dusting internally and it refused to start again. So I was back to looking at online providers.

In the meantime PaaS (Platform As A Service) had come along and Cloudbees have quite a good hosted Jenkins based offering for Java development. The free tier gives you a limited number of minutes per month but I found I used these up far too quickly. One reason being that it ran very slowly. I was told that the paid for tier was much, much faster but at $99/month, for me at least, it didn’t represent value for money. Plus a lot of my projects run integration tests against a variety of databases and using the Cloudbees solution would mean I’d have to also find a database hosted elsewhere. Cloudbees have a fantastic offering but it’s not for me.

By this time I was writing a course on Continuous Integration that also used Sonar for measuring code quality and ideally I wanted a hosted solution for that. Again, there is one, but it costs $20/month.

Having heard a great deal about Amazon Web Services (AWS) I turned to that. From the start I found it unintuitive and complicated in the extreme. How to get going and the billing were quite opaque to me and I had to rely on some help from a colleague. I started off with an S3 Ubuntu Linux instance running Sonar and MySQL, both of which died frequently. So I moved to AWS Linux and a separate database server, both of which I thought were in the free tier, that is until I received a bill for nearly £200. Thankfully AWS saw my point of view and refunded the money. 

To be on the safe side I removed all my instances and started again. This time just with a free S3 AWS Linux instance that I used to run Jenkins for a local NRUG meeting. I haven’t used it since.

My perception of my own behaviour is that I don’t usually respond to online advertising. However, when the Digital Ocean advert for server instances with 512 MB of RAM and 20GB of SSD space for $5 a month popped up on Facebook it was too much to resist. I clicked though. And set up an account in just a few seconds, but then I left it for a couple of weeks or more as it takes time setting these things up from scratch and I was busy with other things.

Then I started a new project that needed Sonar, Jenkins and Nexus (artefact repository). I logged back into Digital Ocean and went about creating a droplet (what Digital Ocean calls a server instance) for Sonar. It was fantastically easy in only a few steps:
  1. Select a host name.
  2. Select a size. There are six sizes to choose from ranging from 512 MB RAM, 1 CPU, 20GB SSD storage and 1TB of traffic for $5 per month to 16GB RAM, 16 CPUs, 160GB SSD, 6TB of traffic for $160 per month.
  3. Select a region to host the Droplet. The choice is New York 1, New York 2, Amsterdam 1, Amsterdam 2 or Singapore 1.
  4. Select an image. There are five Linux distributions to choose from Ubuntu, CentOS, Debian, Arch Linux, Fedora. You can also choose the version.
  5. Click create droplet.
The root password is emailed to you almost immediately and in less than 60 seconds the droplet is created, ready to go and you can SSH into it. That really is all there is to it.

I got Sonar set up really quite quickly as I’ve done a few times in the past. Then another Ubuntu droplet to run MySQL, another to run Jenkins and another to run Nexus. It was all so easy I managed to get most of it set up in a single evening and it all worked just like it was my own instance on my own box running in my own data centre. 

I did have one problem, that I had also seen with the AWS instance. Sonar would frequently fail to respond for a few minutes. I thought there  might not be enough memory for the droplet running Sonar (512MB) or the droplet running MySQL (which already had 1GB). Increasing the memory of the Sonar droplet to 1GB was incredibly easy. I shut it down, went into the droplet configuration, upped the memory and restarted. The problem went away.

It became apparent that a JIRA instance would be really helpful for running Norfolk Developers, The Norfolk Tech Journal and a few other projects. JIRA hosting is from $10 a month. If you have your own hardware its $10 a year, if not free. So I went back to Digital Ocean and set up a new droplet with 2GB of RAM, installed JIRA and pointed it at the existing MySQL database. All without a hitch.

I now have six droplets running on Digital Ocean and haven’t had a problem with any of them. The bill for the first month came to measly sum of $16 (a little over £10). I have all the flexibility I need with very little complexity at an affordable price. Digital Ocean is a simple service, you don’t get all the fancy tools that you have with AWS, but if you have straight forward needs and/or are just starting out I would recommend you start with Digital Ocean.

Originally published on the Norfolk Tech Journal.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Norfolk Software Leaders

Talking smarter together.

The best decisions are rarely taken in isolation. They’re the happy outcome of conversation, the back-and-forth of ideas and knowledge, and keeping an ear to the ground. In the fast-flowing waters of software, it’s those ideas, that knowledge, and solid networking that can make all the difference.

So why aren’t we talking?

Norfolk Software Leaders brings the region's  brightest and best leaders and decision-makers together for clever conversation, smart business, and informal networking.

We meet monthly for lunch at All Bar One in Tombland in Norwich.

To join the group and find out what’s happening and when, visit the meetup site or contact Paul Grenyer. You can follow Norfolk Software Leaders on twitter, @NorSoftLead.

Words: Indi Debah

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men isn’t a sci-fi and it doesn’t have Keira Knightley in it, but it does have guns! So it just about meets my loose criteria for a good film. The Monuments Men is fantastic and perfectly cast. You should go and see it. There have been a lot of films for older actors in the last few years and they’re usually cheesy, entertaining, but ultimately rubbish (although I do love the expendables).

It moves along at a reasonable and consistent pace throughout. As with a lot of World War II films, it starts with a specialist team being put together from soldiers and other professionals who have been put out to pasture. But unlike a lot of other films this isn’t drawn out or over detailed. There aren’t really any action scenes either, but they weren’t missed because there was a story.  The climax is quite low key too, but fits perfectly with the rest of the film.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

SyncIpswich January Review: From Employee to Business Owner

I don’t get to SyncIpswich as often as I’d like. It’s a shame because they’re such a friendly crowd, especially when you consider I’m from across the border. Carl Farmer has been running SyncIpswich at the Eastern Enterprise Hub for ten months now and he’s doing an excellent job.

There were about 30 people there to hear Jason Firth. In my experience this is a good number for a January event. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the proximity to Christmas and the New Year, I don’t know, but people just don’t seem to like coming out in January or February. Tonight wasn’t helped by the fact the venue wasn’t ready and was locked up when Carl arrived. We could see the lack of lights as we walked across from the far side of the bay. It was rather disconcerting. However when we arrived we were directed to the bar to wait, where we roughed it.

It was clear from the moment he shook my hand and beamed that Jason Firth “wasn’t from round here.” Now living locally, he was at SyncIpswich to inspire, inform and entertain us with his story.

Jason decided to leave Sheffield in South Yorkshire and take up a position with a risk management consultancy firm who needed a Sharepoint expert. He knew he would be made redundant within two to three years and the notice came on Christmas Eve. He didn’t tell his wife until Boxing Day!

Jason faced redundancy with a little apprehension as up to this point he had been in a well paid, low stress job. By the end of his gardening leave he had formed Mindpoint, with a logo designed by his children and secured his first client. Since then he hasn’t looked back and work has come to him. Mindpoint have just secured a contract with Jaguar.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Knowing nothing about setting up a business, Jason was ripped of by about £1000 just to set up a company. He later found a local accountant, who was willing and able to provide the necessary flexibility, while they were both out walking their dogs. He received a lot of advice along they way from friends and from business coaches, a lot of which turned out to be bad advice. The one good thing to come out of speaking to a business coach was a recommendation for a book, The E Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber. This led Jason on to read a lot of similar, very useful books.

Jason went on to tell us the thing every client must have: money. He never works for free and if a client cannot tell him what their budget is he just walks away. He even charges for the initial workshop with clients. It demonstrates how good he is. Always avoid the “Yorkshire Bargain hunters”, people who want something for nothing.

Mindpoint was so successful that after three years Jason had paid off his mortgage.

If you take nothing else from this, make sure you go away understanding that Jason is a successful businessman. My opinion is that his success is due to his own drive and strong focus. He knows what he wants and isn’t prepared to compromise. (Did I mention he was from Yorkshire?). Those of us who want to be successful in business can learn a lot from him.

Jason’s slides are available here.

Originally published on the Norfolk Tech Journal.