Thursday, 18 December 2008

Festive Fun in the Office

Spinning Geomag Christmas Stars

This morning my colleagues and I got even more creative than usual with my favourite desk toy, Geomag. We realised that the magnets stick to the metal parts of the ceiling between the ceiling panels. Initially we had one long column hanging from the ceiling but it was not strong enough to support anything more than a small pyramid. So we then went for a two column approach to spread the load. This allowed us to hang a spinning star going one way and a spinning diamond the other way, as pictured above! I can see we're going to be working hard this last day in the office!

More Geomag constructions (not my own) can be seen at The Geomag Wiki.


Friday, 12 December 2008

The Road To Sepilok

A Short Travel Story

What follows is my entry into the 2008 Telegraph Travel Writing Competition. The brief was to write a short story in a maximum of 500 words about an adventurous travel experience. I'll let it stand for itself, except to say that it happened while my wife and I were on honeymoon last summer. My wife is called Alex too - which you need to know while reading this or you will get confused!!

The Road To Sepilok
by Alex Bowyer

The fuel light had been flashing furiously for an hour. It was dark now. In 100 miles we’d seen only two petrol stations; our anxiety grew into panic when we found a third one deserted.

Driving across Malaysian Borneo was always going to be ambitious, but we really wanted to see orang-utans in the wild. We hadn’t anticipated this kind of trouble.

“If we run out, who could we call?” I wondered aloud, “I bet there’s no AA here.”

“No,” sighed Alex.

At last the endless palm plantations receded. We’d reached the outskirts of Sandakan.

“Can you tell how far it is?” Alex asked. Her voice was strained.

I checked. “No.” Useless map.

Minutes passed. We drove on.

“Hang on!” I yelled. “I saw a sign.” We must be close!

She pulled over.

“OK, you go and check. I’ll turn around.”

I walked back to the roundabout and crossed the road carefully, invisible in the darkness. Cicadas chirruped loudly in the dense jungle all around. I reached the signpost. It read LABUK B&B – 600 METRES, with a big arrow. I smiled. What a relief! I bounded back, eager to share the good news.

Getting closer, I froze. Four Malaysian youths surrounded the car. Shit. I ran, my heart pounding. Shouldn’t have left her.

The back of the car was hanging over a three foot ditch. A guy in a baseball cap and scruffy jeans was trying to communicate with Alex, “Apa yang telah terjadi?”

It was clear she was struggling to respond.

“I was reversing… I didn’t see the ditch,” she explained to me, as I drew near.

I could see they were trying to help. The man in the cap took charge, and we pushed the car with all our might. The wheels just skimmed the ground, splattering mud over my leg. I didn’t care. He tried to instruct Alex, but we could not understand him. He gestured that he should take the wheel. Alex got out. We exchanged a look. We were taking a huge risk; all our possessions were inside.

In that instant, I understood what it is to be completely vulnerable. We were putting our trust in a complete stranger.

He revved continuously. We gave one great heave. The wheels caught. The car sped forward. Instinctively, I hung onto the spoiler to try and stop the car driving away. I felt silly as he stepped out.

I shook his hand warmly; we thanked the men profusely for their help.

Back in the car, we felt overwhelming relief. My heart was still thudding.

“We were so lucky.”

“Yes, that could have been a lot worse.”

Five minutes later, we arrived; a wooden chalet amongst exotic jungle bushes and colourful flowers. Peaceful. We felt both euphoria and disbelief. We made it.
The next morning we filled up less than a mile away. We had an unforgettable day watching orang-utans being fed and swinging around the jungle – made all the more memorable by the adventure that took us there.

Some photos from Sepilok


Thursday, 11 December 2008

I've been around the world and I I I..

Track your travels with

I've just found an interesting site,, which draws up a personalised Google Map of countries in the world you've been. Here's my personal map...

Powered by 29travels

Still lots of white bits, I better get cracking!


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Putting users first

SMS Haircut Reminders

My hairdresser, The Green Room, recently took an innovative step forwards; it now texts customers a reminder the day before their appointment. It struck me that this is a very smart move on their part, and a great example of how listening to your users - in this case people coming for haircuts - can not only improve their experience of your product but also help your business.

I chatted to Scott, the manager, about the process. He'd mentioned that they were having lots of problems with people not turning up for appointments. This was causing an impact to his business because those slots were lost business - which could not be refilled at such short notice. Also it meant that staff would have nothing to do during those slots.

Having chatted to some customers about this he had established that often people just completely forget - especially as appointments are often made weeks in advance. It's something about the busy lives we all lead these days - it's so easy to forget things like this if, like a large proportion of the population, you are not ultra-organised. I'm fairly organised and I managed to forget one once - even though I had it on my calendar.

So having worked out that really people just needed a reminder, he took the really simple step of buying a pay-as-you-go phone with a £15 per month unlimited text bundle, and having his staff text all of tomorrow's customers each morning. The cost of the phone & texts is neglible - and the time taken by staff is easy to cover.

As a result, he has noticed a 50% reduction in no-shows - which not only helps avoid any business impact and improves staff morale - but also is a real benefit to customers. I find it great peace of mind knowing I'll get that reminder - and it's just one small thing that acts as a differentiator for them from other competing hairdressers.

The lesson is clear: Listen to your customers, understand their problems, and think of ways to solve them that your business at the same time.

Earlier this year, I attended HCI2008, the Human-Computer Interaction conference, in Liverpool, and learnt all about User Interviewing and User Persona Creation. Personas are essentially fictional characters that you create to represent your users - and you use them as a means to drive the software design and development processes.

What's interesting is that it's not about asking users what they think of your solution or your ideas for features - it's about understanding users' goals, motivations and mental models, to equip you to make better design decisions.

It sounds such an obvious idea really, but it's amazing how many software companies do not routinely have these sorts of conversations with their customers. So I'm starting an initiative in my department at work to interview some of our customers and generate some personas. Once we're done, I'll blog here about how it goes.


Thursday, 4 December 2008

Keeping in touch in the digital age

Using ooVoo for three way family webcam chats

I live in Hampshire, my brother lives in Scotland, and my parents live in Northumberland. Not ideal really, but that's the way it's ended up. This generally means we only get to see each other altogether about twice a year - not as often as we'd like. As you may know, my wife and I are moving to Canada next year, even further away - so I decided it was time to do something to make sure we get to see each other often. I don't want to have even less contact due to being overseas!

First we experimented with Windows Live Messenger (MSN), Yahoo Messenger and Skype, which didn't do the job for various reasons - we needed something that would work on Windows XP and Mac OS X, and which would allow more than two participants at a time.

We eventually found the ideal piece of software for having webcam & voice chats with more than two participants. It's a great piece of software called ooVoo. It runs on Mac or PC, is a free 15Mb download, and is very easy to set up.

So now we can have 3 way video-conferences (in fact, ooVoo supports up to six participants) at a set time every week - which will make the distances seem a lot less. It's so much more than just a phone conversation, it is much more like seeing your family in person. Problem solved! I love it when technology actually improves your life! If your family or friends are far away, I recommend you give it a go.


Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Speed up Windows Boot Time with StartupDelayer

Maybe you still need those apps, but do you need them right away?

I recently read this article about how US employees are suing their employers over lost hours due to the time it takes Windows to boot. It's also struck me I really should do something about my Thinkpad's Windows XP boot time. It typically takes me the the best part of 15 minutes from power on to "ready to work" state. So it was good news when I came across a piece of software that can really help me gain some of that time back each day!

Some of the delay is due to the so-called "quick launch" applications that the likes of Adobe, RealPlayer and QuickTime install without asking. Many of these can be shut off but there are many drivers, applications and Windows services which are less obvious and think they need to load after Windows boots: anti-virus programs, Thinkpad drivers for Touchpad, TrackPoint etc, various corporate spyware apps my company makes me install, not to mention the applications I do need to use now and then - such as Messenger, printer drivers, Nokia phone software, Bluetooth support etc.

There are programs that let you optimize your system by removing/disabling some of these. A good write up of this is on Lifehacker here. You do need to make extensive use of Google to work out what a given EXE or DLL actually does. I see that they have improved this a bit in Windows Vista which provides more information on process names in its task list.

One of the problems with this approach is that often you do need some of these things to load - just not all together at the beginning. It's this "big hit" of 15-30 small apps all trying to load at once that renders your machine unusable when you just want to quickly check your calendar, email or a webpage. (i've actually arrived at work at 9.45 for a 10am meeting and still been late because of the time it's taken to boot my laptop and get into my calendar!)

The problem comes that (much to my disappointment) I do actually need a lot of this crud to run just to make things work (yet another reason why I prefer the Mac!). However I'd still like to avoid that initial delay that stops me starting working straight away. R2 Studios have come up with an ingenious solution - StartupDelayer. Essentially this is a program that lists your startup applications and lets you disable any of the items you want to - but more importantly, to specify a delay for each one - so that you can stagger your boot sequence and work away happily without overloading your processor. Here is what it looks like:

Screenshot of StartupDelayer

I've staggered the applications that still need to load over a 15 minute period, with things like TrackPad support and Access Connections loading straight away, and the items I'm least likely to need loading last of all. I activated the Delayer and restarted and the difference was noticeable - I can now get into the Web (thanks to Chrome's fast startup) well inside of 5 minutes. Lovely!

I'm not normally a fan of downloading extra applications to enhance Windows but this is one worth using. I recommend you give it a try!

Update: Well, it's name and shame time; I've found that the following applications add themselves back into the Windows Startup List and refuse to be controlled by StartupDelayer - meaning they will insist on booting up straight away and causing a CPU spike at boot time:

  • c4ebreg (corporate spyware thingy, can't be disabled or delayed)
  • ISAMtray (corporate spyware thingy, can't be disabled or delayed)
  • ISSI EZUpdate Service (internal company installer thingy)
  • BMMGAG (ThinkPad Power Monitoring, seems to be needed)
  • pmonmh (IBM My Help, seems to be needed although I'm tempted to get rid of it)
  • msnmsgr (Windows Live Messenger, fortunately auto-start can be disabled in Messenger preferences)
  • ISUSPM (something to do with InstallShield, can't be disabled or delayed)
Fortunately, if you're reading this, most of those won't apply to you (unless you work for the same company!). Oh well, at least things are better - now if I only I could get rid of these corporate monitoring applications! Any tips on getting rid of (or at least delaying) these last few are welcome!

Author's notes: Please excuse the strange vertical line down the middle of the page - I can't figure out where it's coming from or why it suddenly appeared - I suspect Blogger may have changed their template and since I customized it for a wider page, I'll need to go deep diving into the template HTML. Oh what a joy! Any tips are very welcome. Secondly, I just wanted to say that I can't believe I've been back a month from India now - I have a few blog post ideas kicking around so will aim to get them down over the next couple of weeks! As ever, thanks for reading.