Category

Mscellaneous

Expenses? Its gonna cost you!

Well, we’re into the 14th day of the MPs Expenses Storm and I can’t really let it go any longer without comment.  Now, because its a Newspaper,  I take everything coming from the Daily Telegraph with a pinch of salt,  but its certainly obvious that something went wrong somewhere along the line.  As far as I can tell, the Houses of Parliament expenses system have had somewhat ‘loose’ standards applied to it, which seems to have lead to some MP’s bending the system pretty much to breaking point.  Only now, the white wash has been removed to reveal that the supporting structure is pretty damaged and needs to be replaced.

All businesses I’ve ever worked for or heard about require full and detailed claim forms itemising every expense and requiring a justification for that.  Claims for goods and services require supporting VAT receipts as well, in order to satisfy good financial practices,  the auditors and the tax man.  But it seems that the HoP expenses committee allow a certain amount of ‘undocumented’ claims, whereby miscellaneous expenses are allowed under general categories, for example ‘Office Costs’ and  ‘Staying away from Home’ allowance.

Whilst I don’t doubt that all of our representatives have stayed pretty well within the ‘rules’ for the claims, the issue is that some of them have perhaps lost site of the ‘spirit’ of the rules.  The whole ‘duck pond’ fiasco illustrates this perfectly.  Sure, it was costs incurred running a second home, BUT, you don’t need a duck pond in order to conduct ministerial business.  I think some of them may have forgotten what they became an MP for – not for the fiscal rewards, but to serve their community and country.  Or have I got that wrong?

I don’t understand why the HoP can’t build a big hotel for all the MP’s to shack up in when they’re in London – kind of like students ‘Halls of Residence’, but perhaps a little plusher.  Granted, it will be a big initial outlay for the taxpayer, but then ongoing costs should be negligible.  They shouldn’t need much more – after all, they should be in London to conduct parliamentary business, not be on jolly’s,  and they should return to their constituency to serve their local community whenever they’re not in the Capital on business.

That’s not to say MP’s are paid amazingly well – I personally don’t think £63k is THAT much compared to other jobs around the country.  Yes, its more than a lot of us are on, but its not off in the realms of fantasy.  Even the Prime-Minister, by the time the bonuses e.t.c. are tacked on is only around £200,000 – much less than many FTSE-250 company directors I know of, and he’s in charge of the country.  It really is the frivolous extra’s that get the general populous excited.

Hopefully though once the storm does eventually settle, it will lead to us, the taxpayer getting a better deal with fair, open and responsible pay for MP’s to help them step up to serve us to get the best for the country.

I think there is light at the end of the tunnel in this – I just hope the bulb doesn’t go, as they won’t be able to get an electrical engineer in to replace it.

Am I Selfish?

Today I’m having a ‘me’ day – a day with as little contact with others as possible where I just mooch about eating what I want, watching what I want, doing what I want, without having to have a conversation or discussion about it.  Is this selfish of me?

I am happy to be on my own – as an only child, I learned to make my own entertainment and found peace with my own company.   Many people I’ve talked to over the years are surprised by this, but I am more relaxed by myself than I am in the company of others.  That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy being with others, but I do enjoy those periods of solitude I can occasionally experience.

I think this may be why I enjoy swimming so much.  When you put your head under the water, you cross from the normal world across a boundary layer into the watery world where the normal environment is excluded.  Even in something as man-made as a swimming pool, any sound and vision becomes significantly muted you in your own little world.

As I grow older, through work and home life, the opportunity for this quiet time becomes diminished.  I’m not sad about this, but it does mean that when I’m holiday, I like to take a day’s contemplation time to refresh and renew.   I suspect that over time, even this will be reduced, but so be it.   So I should say it now – farewell solace – you will be missed.

Inappropriate Religious Harassment?

Is it inappropriate for me to put a sign on my door that read’s "Bugger Off God Squad"?  The reason I ask is that they regularly feel the need to come a knocking trying to sell their wares to me, unannounced and uninvited.   Why, when even double glazing salesmen have stopped this aspect of their trade (at least round here) do the various religions feel that because I’m not in church, I must have missed out on what they’re offering, such that they must come and reedumacate me.

Well, let me tell you this!  This country teaches its children about religion, and I have been exposed to ‘Christian Value’s for the last 27 years, so I’ve kind of got an idea of what its all about.  And in my humble opinion, its all a load of tosh.  That’s just what I (and many others in this country) believe, but you don’t ever hear atheists tapping people up to ask if they don’t believe in a god.  I’m perfectly happy with people wishing to worship whatever deity, god or gods they may choose,  but don’t try and enforce your value’s on me.   So keep your prayers, thoughts and worship to your temples, homes and the occasional hour on the telly.  At least then I’ve got the opportunity to not participate in your beliefs if I choose not to.

Until that happens, I’m going to get some quotes from a sign company.

What time is it?

And the answer to the question is NOT Chico time.  The correct answer is ‘it depends’.  One of the core network services, but one that often gets overlooked is having an accurate time across all IT systems.  Back in the time before the railways,  the time of an area was generally set by sunrise and sunset.  This was fine when people only travelled a few miles each day.  But when you could journey several hundred miles across the country in a day, you could end up with massive problems, especially when you wanted to catch a connecting train.  If your intermediary station was on a different time to your watch and the timetable set at your departing station, you could be in all sorts of trouble.  Hence the adoption of GMT and ‘Railway Time’,  a commonly agreed standard time across the country and around the world, regardless of your location. 

And so to the modern age of time synchronisation across a computer network.   Why is this so important you might ask?  Well, having the correct time is less important than making sure every computer clock is set the same.   However, it does make it easier if everything is set to the correct time as well.  From allowing people to login at certain times of the day, to analysing logs from different devices as you pass through the network, if everything is on the same time,  correlating activity can be an easier task if everything is synchronised.  Back before the days of flexible working where you were expected to clock on at 9am and clock off at 5.30pm, you needed to know that you were on the same time as the boss, otherwise there’d be hell to pay!

The company I work for operates two time servers.  These servers run network time services which check both with time servers out on the Internet and each other to decide on the correct time.  The reason for this multiple checking is that as time data is sent across the Internet, the inherent time delay and number of hops can skew the time out leading to inaccurate information.  However,  the accuracy shown is generally accurate to about 10ms,  plenty enough for what we require.  Users of more accurate time servers such as finance services and broadcasting have access to far more accurate time sync services and generally synchronise with what is known as stratum 0 devices. 

Time servers are referred to being in stratum groups – Stratum 0 are the ‘core’ clocks, be they atomic, gps or radio clocks and display the most accurate time available.  These are generally not available to the network, but are connected to Stratum 1 servers.   These level ‘1’ devices receive the time feed from the 0 level, and then feed that down to Stratum 2 computers.  Our time devices are Stratum 2 devices synchronising with several stratum 1 servers.   These servers also check the time with each other to verify that neither are wildly off.  The companies servers, routers and other ‘core’ devices query these level 2 servers and become Stratum 3 devices.  Finally, your computers which synchronise with these servers become Stratum 4 devices.   It is possible to have upto 256 stratum levels, but generally 5-6 is seen.   However, stratum level DOES NOT INDICATE ACCURACY.  Because of the multiple check paths available to lower stratum devices, these can be more accurate than individual level 0 or 1 devices, because of this compare and contrast work that they do.  It simply notes how far ‘away’ from the central clock it is.

We could reduce the layers of stratum services within the company – the easiest way to do this is to invest in GPS time clocks.  GPS navigation requires each satellite to know precisely what time it is, in order that the receiver can compare the signals and work out how far away each satellite is, and therefore where it is in the world.  This can be harnessed using high quality GPS receivers to calculate the time, and passed to local stratum 1 servers, for example in the core data centres.  But is it worth it?  Probably not.

Another key requirement of the network time service is to ensure the clocks are regularly synchronised.  Computer ‘Real-time-clocks’ can be wildly inaccurate, often losing or gaining several seconds per day, especially when machines get switched off and on.  Our Stratum 2 servers synchronise every hour with the Internet and themselves, but generally lower stratums update every 4, 8 or 24hrs, or when machines are first switched on.   If you find that your clock is inaccurate, and you do not have the ability to update it,  try rebooting your computer and it should come back into line.

Network time is stored as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which to the casual user generally means GMT. This means that no matter what time zone you are in, or if its daylight savings,  your computer will be able to work out the correct time for your location, even if you’re based in Australia, the Falklands Islands or Central London (provided the time zone database on your computer is accurate).

So when you put your clocks forward this weekend (1am Sunday becomes 2am Sunday), at least you know that the clock at work SHOULD be correct.

**** me, this is difficult.

Those of you with filthy minds may have already filled in the missing word in the title of this article, whilst the rest of you can’t even think of a word.   Which raises an important point – what is a swear and what is acceptable language these days?  Now obviously on a corporate blog, you shouldn’t cuss, but I’ve never seen a swear list defined anywhere.  We’ve discussed this in the office around having a swear box, but the people who might perhaps use fruity language from time to time feel that perhaps there should be a sliding scale of seriousness for example a C is more expensive than an F but an S should be cheaper in comparison.  If you refer to the BBC list of swears, the most obvious are listed, and there is even a ranking of least to most acceptable.  Some words don’t appear (a male chicken for example) but some might consider them to be unsuitable for use, even if they are in peoples everyday vocabulary. 

A good friend of mine works in the billing department of a major utility supplier, managing their software tools, and one of his projects a few years ago involved creating a script that would spit out new and unique account numbers for any new customers signing up to the company.  Because the billing account could be alphanumeric, they didn’t want the system spitting out any account numbers which might be taken out of context, for example 1ISAFOOL124.  So he literally spent 3 weeks compiling a list of all possible swears that the system could generate, including researching lots of foreign word lists with swears included. 

Now, The company I work for (AFAIK) doesn’t have a word list like this, and I’m pretty sure that Sharepoint which we use on our intranet doesn’t filter content.  But even if it does, who has the final say as to what is appropriate and what is not.  I suppose language is a little like comedy – whatever you say,  the chances are someone somewhere will take offence and make a complaint.  But as we’ve been taught from our equality and diversity training, have a quiet word with me first and I’ll be sure to try and correct whatever has upset you.

NB.  The word above is ‘PING’

ET Fon Home

FonSpot

One of my personal projects at the moment is to look at a good way of getting Wifi minutes whilst I’m out and about, at a reasonable price.  Whilst 3G and HSDPA are great in built-up area’s, often its quite easy to stray out into the countryside and find that one is lacking in Internet connection.  Whilst this is fine for a few hours, I’m a little bit addicted to the ‘net so wanted to find an option whereby I could stop by a wifi point perhaps once a day and synchronise my e-mails, update my twitter and perhaps dial into my satellite box and schedule a programme to record.  I used to maintain a BT Openzone account, but this was costing me around £15 per month when I only needed it for ‘occasional’ use. 

So, during my research, I hit upon a product called La Fonera from a Spanish company,  Fon!  Their ethic is to offer a shared wireless service, where hotspot owners get free access to other Fonspots.  This works by a user acquiring one or more Fonspots and plugging it into your existing broadband router.  

The Fon router has two networks, the public Fonspot, and the private internal network, ensuring that any ‘public’ access is kept separate from the internal network, ensuring that a) People are less likely to try and break into your secure network just to gain internet access, and b) You cannot be held responsible for any illegal usage on the public network (all access requires you to be a member of the Fon community and requires logon).

There are 3 types of Fon users –

  • Fonero’s – People who own and run one or more FonSpots.  Fonero’s who share this connection may use all other Fonspots free of charge.  Fonero’s also receive a portion of the proceeds of any access passes sold through their Fonspot.
  • Aliens – People who do not share their network, and must pay to use a Fonspot.
  • BTFON – BT Broadband users who configure their routers to allow Fon connections.

The latter type of user is a BT Total Broadband customer (generally with a HomeHub) who enables the Fon service on their router.  This allows them to become a member of the Fon community without buying a specialist router, however, they are unable to receive payment for any credit sold through their Access Point.  This agreement however has vastly increased the coverage of the Fon service and made the service more appealing to UK customers.   Other international ISPs have also agreed to offer similar coverage in their local country. 

Fonspots can be located using the maps.fon.com site, a Google Maps service with Fonspots located, and it is also possible to download a Points of Interest file from the site for a particular country (or countries) you may be interested in.

Unfortunately, the delivery service is a bit poor – I’ve just been told that they should arrive within the next 3 weeks, so time will tell how the service will be, and if I make any money off it, but the major point to the exercise is to be able to get reasonable speed wifi whilst I’m out and indeed about.

The Folly of Heathrow Runway 3

First of, let me state for the record that this is not an environmental rant around the Government’s persistence with trying to increase capacity at airports.  I’m all for it, even if it does wreck up the environment.  We as humans have a thirst for adventure, and we’re going to satisfy it one way or another, and air travel (and within 100 years, space travel) is the best way to get our fix.

Anyway,  what with the ever increasing number of aircraft falling out of the sky (see New York, Amsterdam) quite close to airports,  it strikes me that at some point, one is going to fall out of the sky into a residential area – you only have to look at the 747 freighter that crashed into flats at Amsterdam a decade or so ago. Heathrow’s approach/departure vectors pass over the city of London, so to increase the number of flights passing over surely increases the chance that one of those might have a problem.  What about the 777 that landed ‘a little short’ coming in from China last year? 

Someone asked me not long ago where I thought an extra runway for London should be built.  My answer was ‘Birmingham’.   I wasn’t being obtuse, more thinking differently.  My reasoning?  Logistically,  it could be within 25 minutes of Central London.  All you need do is build a high-speed rail line ALA the Japanese.  I can’t see the London Underground being much faster.  Plus a good % of the country is accessible within 2-3hrs, unlike London which requires a flight connection to get near that time. And there is a reasonable amount of room for expansion.  However, I’d like to revise that statement and suggest East Midlands.   Similar reasons, but the flight path is reasonably away from built-up areas (Kegworth excluded for this purpose of course!) so apart from the people on the plane, hopefully the worst your going to do is burn up a few trees. To be selfish for a minute,  its also ideal for us Midlanders to get too, being only 30 minutes up the motorway, but not increasing the number of flights over my house – not that this bothers me too much either!  As for airlines not using it,  we just use the ‘Ryanair’ approach and rename it London Metropolitan or something vauge like that – The American’s would certainly believe it.

The runway is already designed to cope with the largest aircraft; DHL, FedEx, TNT and UPS all use the airport as a base, and the Airbus A380 has been certified to land at the airport when they were looking at the A380F.  

Of course, like any airfield in the UK, especially in relation to increasing the number of flights will attract significant local (and to a certain extent national) opposition,  but in all honesty, I think its the one solution that is the best compromise going.

Gahhh, WE’RE ALL DOOMED.

Or so some newspapers would have you believe.   A story crept into the media on Friday basically saying that people  who use social networking sites were at a higher risk of cancer.

A UK Boffin has conducted a study http://www.iob.org/userfiles/Sigman_press.pdf and published it in the Biologist (the journal for the British institute of Biology) which has found a link between social-isolation and an increased risk from cancer, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, influenza, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and the common cold.

This has been attributed to people using Facespacewitterbo to interact, rather than gathering together to ‘network’.  Research has shown that isolation can impaire the the development of leukocytes which help fight disease by circulating around your body.   Really though,  other than panicking,  perhaps we should all just calm down.  It should be no surprise if you spend your entire time sat on your butt, eating high-fat, high-sugar diets that you may die earlier.  But hey,  in other research,  living life will induce death.   Non of us know when our ticket is called, so we may as well just get on with enjoying whatever we enjoy doing, as you don’t know when its going to end.

In related news, common sense issued a statement  – "Don’t Panic".

WFH…

Today I’m working from home due to the plenty of snow that’s lying deep and crisp and even around the place, with more coming from the sky.  Its great that the company provides such facilities for use in appropriate circumstances.  I’ve managed to cobble together an effective office in a warm section of the house.

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The only problem is that I’ve had to put the heating on, and I’m a bit tight with the gas at home.

Oh well, glad that we’re seeing similar conditioners to the South, it makes the place look so much nicer.  Hope everyone has either made it into the office, or is able to work effectively from an alternative location.

Equality & Diversity.

As part of the companies training and development program, its now sending all of its staff on ‘Equality & Diversity’ training – basically a half day course instructing people not to be sexist, racialist, homophobic e.t.c e.t.c e.t.c,  and if you are subject to such abuse, what you can do about it.  All very noble and worthwhile, if a little obvious, but hey, the company needs to tick its boxes and I don’t mind a few soft-skills courses now and again.

The one thing I did enjoy though was a short DVD around segregation and the effects of treating people differently entitled ‘A Class Divided’.   Filmed for PBS in 1968, and reworked in 1985, it shows a primary school teacher dividing her class into the blue-eyes and the brown-eyes, and discriminated against one group on the first day,  another on the second day,  and watched what happened to the social dynamic.  I would recommend anyone who has not had E&D training or seen this video as part of that course should watch it @ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/ and really consider what they see.  Its certainly an eye opener (pun intended).