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26 December 2011

One Click by Richard L.Brandt

The Amazon effect. Hard to ignore. It's already led to significant changes on our local high streets. Bookshops have almost vanished, and those that remain struggle for profits. Pavement footfall on a cold winter's day has been replaced by mouse clicks by the fireside.

Richard Brandt's excellent book brings to life the story of Jeff Bezos - the man, the business executive and the visionary. And it explains in wonderful details how Amazon grew from the humblest of beginnings, to be mentioned in the same breath as Google and Apple.

There are fascinating insights into Bezos's early life. It's easy to see how his self-reliant, NASA-influenced, book-filled upbringing led to such high academic achievements and a love of technology. A boundless self belief helped sling shot him into a highflying executive career and ultimately to become one of the world's most influential entrepreneurs.

Yet, it was the early Internet, and its 2,300% yearly growth, that really caught his attention. A huge business opportunity just waiting to be tapped. The result was a classic US West Coast startup story, beginning as it did with a garage, one computer, two employees, a wife and a short course on book selling.

Amazon's stellar growth was only possible by forgoing all notion of profits, cutting non-essential costs, operating with a can-do attitude and attracting the right kind of investors. A strategy that resulted in a stock market floatation after only two years, those original $18 shares yielding a company valuation of $429 million. Only one year later the shares were $105, raising the valuation to in excess of $5 billion.

Despite the problems caused by the dotcom crash, Amazon expanded into CDs, DVDs, games and a host of other marketplaces - a trend that continues today with their wildly successful Kindle ebook devices. Yet, like any natural entrepreneur Bezos is always looking for the next big thing. The groundbreaking Amazon Web Services, which provide hosting services for a multitude of other companies (even some competitors), only confirms his impressive vision and boldness.

Amazon's phenomenal success, and his own billionaire status, has allowed Bezos to indulge in very personal projects. The Blue Origin company - with its aim of safe, affordable, commercial space flights - has its roots in those early childhood dreams of space exploration and NASA achievements.

On reading this book, it's clear the success of Amazon is down to Jeff Bezos's highly individual thinking, customer-obsessed focus, unconventional management style, unshakable self-belief and undoubted entrepreneurial skills - with an occasional slice of lady luck thrown in.

It's also clear Richard Brandt has the gift of conveying considerable amounts of information with splendid clarity, while maintaining a satisfying pace and sense of movement. I for one will be reading more of his work.

18 December 2011

PHP & MySQL: The Missing Manual by Brett McLaughlin

Right from the start PHP & MySQL: The Missing Manual assumes the typical reader will have no knowledge of PHP or SQL. Instead it suggests they are likely to be an HTML, CSS and JavaScript programmer, wishing to explore server-side development. As such, at least a basic understanding of HTML is a prerequisite.

At close to 500 pages there's plenty of space to cover each new topic in detail. Detail that includes numerous images, code examples, tips, notes and advisory warnings. All supplemented with wise best practice advice and informative background information.

Despite the book's length a clean layout and bold page headers ensure flicking back and forward to specific areas of interest is undemanding and rapid. As the content is intended to be consumed in a practical, hands-on manner, it's good to find a complete set of code examples available for download at the Missing Manuals website.

Brett has a light and entertaining style of writing, which he combines with a gentle wit. New information is presented in a fluid and coherent manner, even when introducing some of the more complex topics.

Structurally the book's thirteen chapters are divided into four main sections. While each section has its own well defined domain, they join together to form a smooth, interactive journey. A journey to assemble real-world PHP and MySQL-based web pages from scratch.

The first section successfully guides you through the basics. As you'll have to download the necessary software, instructions are provided for both Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac. This is followed by a step-by-step overview of the PHP and SQL languages, and the MySQL database product.

Located in the middle two sections are numerous web page examples, each designed to explore a specific element of server-side development. By the end of these sections you'll have the knowledge to create key elements for a typical website, and be able to dynamically retrieve, display and manage database-stored content. Any page you've created can be subsequently modified to address your own design requirements.

Important topics such as error handling are not only included, but covered in some depth. And Brett doesn't shirk from the more complex areas, such as regular expressions and managing database blobs (binary objects). However, this book isn't intended to be a PHP or SQL language reference and doesn't attempt to cover object-oriented programming or other advanced PHP techniques.

The final section covers the creation of a secure user authentication page - another essential website element. It builds upon the knowledge learned in earlier chapters, while introducing new topics such as authentication headers, credential validation, encryption, cookies and user sessions.

In summary, if you're after an excellent, straightforward, yet comprehensive introduction to web server application development, this certainly hits the mark.

10 December 2011

Ted Hughes

The airwaves have been full of tributes to the larger than life poet Ted Hughes, after a memorial was unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner. Numerous poets, writers and celebrities offered their thoughts on the man and his work. Some performed readings of the poem fragments that touched them the most.

However, nothing can match a reading by the man himself. His voice has an immense and immediate effect. He spoke directly from the soul. Words hung in the air, visualisations whirled around the mind. The poem breathes; it exists. It's a feat that can only be approximated by others, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Many say Hughes had such an immense presence he could hush a room simply by walking in. Nevertheless, it's his powerful, highly original voice that's burned into our consciousness; words that resonate inside our soul.

But, that notion brings both joy and sadness.

Hearing someone else read a poem I find there's something missing. It's the same if I read a passage myself. An extra dimension has been lost. It doesn't have the gravitas, authority and pure force of energy it needs and demands. Hughes lived those words; the delight, the pleasure, the heartache and the suffering.

Sadly, Ted Hughes cannot read to us any more. His words will always have the capacity to unleash a torrent of emotions and imagery. But I for one will seek out a reading by the man himself.

3 December 2011

The Bad Beekeepers Club by Bill Turnbull

Does the thought of beekeeping arouse your inquisitive side? Then this may be the ideal book for you.

Inside is a series of lighthearted and amusing tales describing the ups and downs of gaining entry to the beekeepers club.

Along the way you'll discover a multitude of things you never knew about bees, bee-behaviour, swarms, hives, honey, wax, pollen and propolis - not to mention the mindset and endless paraphernalia of a totally smitten apiarist.

By the end you'll also know quite a bit about Bill himself, including his ability to balance family life with both a beekeeping obsession and a demanding role as a globe-trotting TV presenter.

Becoming a beekeeper isn't a journey for the faint-hearted, but one that requires dedication, commitment and a certain level of bravery. And, as the passion takes hold, it's a journey that demands ever growing amounts of time, money and garden shed space - not to mention considerable patience and understanding from other family members.

If you're looking for a step-by-step guide to beekeeping or an in-depth look at bee biology, it's not the book you need. But if you'd like to be entertained by a collection of captivating bee-related stories, I can heartily recommend this book.

17 November 2011

In Praise Of Slow by Carl Honoré

Time. One of life's most precious assets. Yet, the art of savouring time is all but lost.

Today life is performed at a hectic pace. Every activity is planned, scheduled, prioritised. We're encouraged to mature quickly, attain academic brilliance, toil for long hours, and do something with every minute of our free time.

The result is we constantly sit in life's fast lane, as life goes by in a blur. No time to explore, reflect, imagine, dream or even breathe. Seldom is the question asked, "In the final reckoning what difference will this very urgent, very important diary entry make?".

Slow mediums are on the decline. Reading books, listening to the radio, hearing complete albums, watching nature and a whole host of art and craft endeavours have been jilted. Their place taken by smartphones, games machines, YouTube videos, bite-sized TV programmes, individual music downloads and anything that might provide instant stimulation and gratification.

Carl's book aims to be an antidote to this time-sickness. Within its pages are many thought provoking examples of how to take a more leisurely approach to living. There's the highly active Slow Food movement with their magazines, events and workshops. The Dutch inspired Woonerf-style ('living street') residential traffic management schemes. Japanese schools where schedules and subjects are set by the students, who never sit an exam. Even a whole chapter on the joys of Tantric sex.

Slow isn't easy. It takes courage and deep breaths to accomplish the necessary behavioural changes, and allow everything to happen at its own natural speed. But, as this book ably demonstrates, it's worth it. Slow is beautiful. Be sure you take the time to read it.

10 November 2011

Micro Mart Hat Trick

I managed a hat trick of publications in this week's Micro Mart issue 1183.

Firstly there's part two of my Coding Challenges series.

Then there's a journalistic style article about the future of Adobe Flash - highly topical as this BBC story broke the day before publication. And finally a product review on Mozilla's Firefox 7 browser.

Here's an extract from the Adobe Flash article:

Is Adobe about to abandoned Flash? Adobe's MAX conference, in October 2011, certainly included plenty Flash content. Flash Player 11 offers game developers a 3D hardware-accelerated programming interface. It's a specialist task, yet one that can generate impressive performance gains. And the new Adobe AIR 3 can bundle Flash code plus the Flash Player into a native code executable.

But web-standards were much in evidence at MAX 2011 too. HTML sessions were not only much more numerous than in previous years, but also among the most popular. Another indication of a sea-change in developer focus. And as HTML5 and CSS3 grow ever richer, they'll be less and less need to use proprietary, plug-in based solutions and tools.

Web browsers based on web-standards are a win-win scenario. Users will be able to display any Internet page using the operating system's default browser as is. No plug-in installation to perform, and no nagging plug-in version update reminders. Designers and developers can reach a much wider range of platforms and work with a more diverse range of tools, while experimenting with a rich palette of CSS functionality and powerful JavaScript libraries.

All indications point to a growing acceptance on the part of Adobe, and its band of loyal product advocates, that the Flash party is coming to an end. In the meantime Adobe will continue to hedge its bets, and provide ever more accomplished products and tools based around web-standards technology.

I've posted a PDF of the Adobe Flash article on my sample PDF page.

5 November 2011

'Coding Challenges' Series

Starting this week, issue 1182, is my new seven part series, Coding Challenges, which takes an in-depth look the challenges faced by software programmers.

The introductory article starts off by explaining why I believe programming is both and art and a craft.

The second article embarks on a mission to find the most appropriate software language for your project or task.

Article three examines the ever present issue of complexity, and discovers the inescapable need to become a polyglot programmer.

The fourth article is all about client-side development, including web browser technology and the various web development languages.

Article five turns its attention to server-side web development, including webpage delivery, data-rich web services and cloud-based computing.

The penultimate article examines how PC operating system evolution, cloud-centric computing and mobile device apps impact software development.

The series concludes with an investigation into the challenges involved with handling, storing, processing and analysing scientific data.

20 October 2011

Amazon's Silk Browser

Interested in Amazon's new Android-powered Kindle Fire?
Did you know it has a brand new type of web browser called Silk, that captures your every move, on every web page?

To find out more read my article The Problem With Silk in this week's Micro Mart magazine, issue 1180.

Here's an extract from the article:

Taking full advantage of Silk means maintaining a persistent connection to the Amazon cloud. In doing so the cloud acts as a middleman between the user and the Internet. Therefore, cloud services can monitor all your web browsing activities, trends and habits. By applying machine learning algorithms and predictive rendering techniques to this captured data, pages can be cached before they've actually been requested.

How does this work in practice? Let's say the server notices that after navigating to the BBC's news headlines, many people move to the sports page, before checking out the local weather forecast. In future, while you're digesting the day's news stories the sports and weather pages will be rendered and cached on the server, ready for instant loading.

Does all this web browsing analysis sound quite disconcerting? In one way it it's not vastly removed from what happens when you perform a Google search, or use your Tesco club card. However, you're free to use a different search engine, or choose whether to carry a supermarket loyalty card.

The problem with Silk is that there's nowhere else to go. If you own an Amazon Fire tablet all your web surfing will be done using the Silk browser. Therefore, by default, every page you visit will be noted, logged and analysed by Amazon's cloud.

If this isn't alarming enough, there's more. As I've already said, every request will be processed by the cloud server. So, what about user input? Even on secure websites? Well, it's captured too. Log into your bank and your account credentials are captured by the cloud before being passed onto the bank.

Amazon states the information gathered will be anonymous. But can we be sure?

Read more analysis posts.

8 October 2011

Twitchhiker by Paul Smith

An epic travel journey, conceived in a bath, finalised in a supermarket, enacted within days of getting married, and all totally reliant on the kindness and generosity of the Twitter community.

Most people would be nervous of relying on 140 character tweets to see them safely transported across their local town. Paul had a bigger idea, a much bigger idea. From Newcastle in the north-east of England to Campbell Island at the southern most tip of New Zealand - in just 30 days.

With a smooth writing style, flowing pace and plenty of humour, this book describes the incubation, preparation and unpredictable events of his adventure.

Events that evolved from insufficient items of clothing, spontaneous friendships, even radio and TV appearances. An adventure involving ferries, planes, cars and buses, passing though Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, New York, Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Kansas City, Laurence, Wichita, Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Auckland, Wellington and Stewart Island.

An idea which finished 18,848 km from his home. A trip that raised over £5,000 for charity: water. And a book that's well worth reading.

29 September 2011

The Perfect Cup of Coffee

So, you've got one of those clever coffee machines at home. But do your creative efforts miss the mark when compared with your local coffee shop? Are you struggling to make a great cappuccino or latte?

You're not alone, making the perfect cup is quite an art. Maybe a few professional tips wouldn't go amiss. But where to go for definitive advice?

I decided to pop down to my local Caffè Nero, a regular haunt in any case, and have a chat to award winning coffee maestro Eniko Marta. The resulting conversation was quite revealing, so I thought I'd share it with you.

First, let's make sure you're fully prepared. You already have your coffee machine and built-in steamer. But what else do you need?

A coffee tamper tool is one item - maybe it's still in the box? A strong, heat-resistant jug, stainless steel being an excellent choice. The jug can have a round edge or pointed lip (it makes a difference, as we'll see later). A thermometer is another key item. Full, semi, skimmed or soya milk, but it has to be fresh. Your favourite blend of ground coffee. And a pre-warmed coffee cup.

In reality there's not much to go wrong with the expresso part of the coffee making process. Loading the machine is straightforward enough, but tamping the coffee into the filter holder will make a difference. Tamping slows the flow of water through the coffee, increasing the shot strength. Some machines also have an adjustable water flow setting.

For best results the milk should be added as soon as the expresso is ready. This way you'll capture the rich crema (a creamy foam) floating on the top of the coffee. Wait too long and the crema will dissipate, so timing is important.

To create a perfect cup of white coffee, you'll have to pay close attention to milk preparation. There are a number of little tips to pass on. Firstly, the temperature has to be right. Too cold and you'll have a lukewarm beverage, too hot and as Eniko says, "You'll burn the milk!", giving your coffee an unpleasant after taste.

Let's get started. After putting the required quantity of milk into your sturdy jug, place the steamer nozzle deep into the centre. This is where the thermometer comes in.

Taking cow's milk first, the target to aim for is 60C (140F). Watch the thermometer carefully, and turn off the steamer as soon as it hits this temperature. "Notice," she says, "after turning the steamer off, the temperature rises a little more." And it does, by around 10C. For an extra hot cup you can leave the steamer on until it rises to 72C (160F). Any higher and it's likely to burn.

Soya milk is a little more sensitive to heat than cow's milk, so here you should be aiming at 50C (120F). "Is soya milk harder to work with?" I ask. "No," she answers, "with soya it's actually easier to get the right consistency." which is an interesting observation.

Talking of consistency, what exactly are you looking for? Well, as you'd expect all this aeration produces thousands of bubbles in the milk. However, what isn't obvious is you're aiming to create small, even-size bubbles.

After steaming, raise the nozzle gently and wait around 20 seconds for the milk to settle. Now for a key trick. Sharply tap the jug of steamed milk onto the worktop a few times (hence the need for a strong jug). This tapping removes the larger bubbles and makes for a smoother, creamier end product. Get it right and you should see a flat surface on your aerated milk.

How do you add the milk to the coffee? Well, it depends on the drink you're trying to make.

For a cappuccino it's poured slowly and carefully into the centre of the cup. "Choose a jug with a simple rounded edge." Eniko advises. For a latte it's still poured carefully into the centre, but initially the froth is held back with a spoon, then released towards the end.

Wondering how to create a flat white? "What you need to do" she suggests, "is pour the milk under the surface of the crema." Holding the cup at and angle and pouring it near the edge will help. And as she revealed, "Using a jug with a pointed-shaped nozzle makes this a lot easier."

So there you have it, a perfect cup of coffee. Well, maybe not the first time - but practice makes perfect, as they say.

If you'd like a book recommendation on the subject of artful coffee, Eniko recommends The Art and Craft of Coffee by Kevin Sinnott.

10 September 2011

Two Wheels Over Catalonia by Richard Guise

Starting from Portbou, a little north of his second home in Llançà, this journey follows the Catalonia's coastal roads to Saint Carles de la Ràpita, before finishing with a couple of forays into the Catalan interior.

Richard's steady pace and uphill bike pushing, necessary to protect an iffy knee, give rise to detailed observations of his surroundings. Observations that enrich the reader's imagination with tales of vineyards, fig trees, orange groves and hillsides sprinkled with delicate flora and fauna.

But, there's so much more to this book than simply a bicycle journey. Richard's 16 years experience as a part-time Catalan resident, combined with his inquisitive enthusiasm, ever observant eye and gentle wit, lift this book well above the typical travel narrative.

For a start, many historical references provide a backdrop to the country and its people. A backdrop that's enhanced by personal anecdotes and destination-specific tales or traditions. There's even an engaging lesson on some of the subtle differences between the Catalan and Spanish languages.

An occasional geological interlude takes the country's history to another level entirely. The rather special Cap de Creus and its 450 million years old ptygmatic folded, tourmaline crystal studded rocks being particularly memorable.

Whether encountered on the journey, or in the end-of-day towns and villages, the oft mentioned food and drink is a chance to discover some of the local dishes, wines and brews, including their 'sin' beer. And it offers the reader another opportunity to pick up a few more useful Catalan words.

Then there's the many interesting, and invariably entertaining, cultural references: from anchovy museums to wild boar hunts, from vague timekeeping terms to a propensity for late night eating, and from the home of Salvador Dali to the rather shady proceedings involved in purchasing a Spanish property.

Even passages chronicling the country's transportation systems threw a few surprises for this reader, especially the Iberian peninsula's strangely non-standard railway track gauge.

In conclusion this beautifully absorbing, highly entertaining book delivers a real taste of Catalonia, its diverse landscapes, traditions, foods and, of course, its people.

22 August 2011

Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande

An unexpectedly intriguing and captivating book!

Unexpected, due to the unique content. Certainly not another 'this is how you write' book. In fact, her dismissal of prescriptive books and writing instruction in general is particularly vehement. This despite having read as many books about writing technique as she could find, attending numerous creative writing seminars and exploring life in a literary colony. And she's equally vocal in her disapproval of discouraging and dismissive messages often given to keen students by tutors and successful writers.

Intriguing, as she had no desire to produce a book on writing. Until that is, she accepted a teaching position herself. A role which drove her to encourage self-development, as opposed to a rigid, one-size-fits-all programme. To shine a light on the psyche of a writer. And ultimately to write this book.
Ms. Brande's clarity of thinking is supplemented by practical advice, aimed at helping a writer discover, nurture and exploit their inner genius. Considerable space is devoted to establishing regular writing patterns and balancing the writer's creative side with the requisite self-critical aspect of writing.
Yet, she's also sympathetic to the writer's magic, and those unpredictable flashes of inspiration - flashes that occur almost exclusively when the mind is occupied with tasks far removed from the literary domain.

And personally very captivating. From start to finish I invariably found myself in agreement with the author's views. Page after page of strangely familiar messages, purposeful advice, and genuine value.
All in all thoroughly encouraging read, full of positive thoughts and stimulating passages, from an author far ahead of her time.

11 August 2011

'Taking Control' Series Continues

My hands-on Taking Control Series resumes with another three articles, starting today in the weekly Micro Mart magazine.

Mastering Pattern Matching, in issue 1170, is a guide to understanding and using regular expressions with Grep command examples.

Mastering Text Streams, in issue 1171, covers the various text stream processing commands and the powerful text stream editing programs Sed and Awk.

Networking Tools, scheduled for issue 1172, is a describes many useful commands for standard and secure networking control, plus the powerful web downloading utilities Curl and Wget.

22 July 2011

Last Flight of the Space Shuttle

On reflection every engineering project has a beginning and an end; an era in space and time. Sooner or later technology is replaced by a superior version, or becomes hopelessly outdated by changes in society. The internal combustion engine will eventually go this way.

Groundbreaking engineering projects can also find themselves relegated to museum pieces due to financial implications, public ambivalence and political manoeuvring. The revolutionary, and still unmatched, Concorde met its fate in just such circumstances.

On 21st July 2011 the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at NASA's Cape Canaveral runway in Florida. It marked the end of the Space Shuttle programme, the touchdown messages being particularly poignant. Just as with Concorde, without an obvious Shuttle replacement we've tumbled into an indeterminate period of history. One where the usual inexorable flow of advancement and innovation has folded in on itself. It's as if we are suddenly trapped inside a strangely out-of-sequence time bubble.

NASA's plan is that the private sector will eventually pierce this time bubble. It could be decades before we'll know if they made the right decision.

14 July 2011

Technology for Health and Fitness

Can technology help you stay healthy? Yes it can. As I discuss in my five page Technology for Health and Fitness feature article.

As published in Micro Mart magazine issue 1166.

Topics discussed include:

- diets and exercise software (such as DailyBurn)
- running apps, gadgets and hi-tech shoes (such as Runkeeper Pro and Adidas miCoach)
- cycle gadgets and ultra hi-tech bikes (such as Beru's Factor 001)
- gym personal trainer apps (such as Smaltek's GymGoal)
- game console titles (such as Your Shape: Fitness Evolved)
- expedition tested body-mounted sensors (from Toumaz)
- relaxation/sleep monitors (the Emwave Personal Stress Reliever and Zeo Sleep Analyser)

Here are a couple of extracts:

In recent times the UK has witnessed a huge surge in public participation in local and national running events. Regardless of whether you're a beginner or veteran runner, looking to stay upright at a local 3km fun run or compete in a marathon, technology can help.

It doesn't have to be expensive or overcomplicated to provide a benefit. Something as simple as a mechanical pedometer and watch will provide some feedback of the distance travelled and effort exerted. But let's consider some more advanced options.

Own a smartphone? Many have GPS functionality and, with an appropriate app, it's a simple matter to record distance travelled and time taken. Subsequent analysis will show the peaks and troughs of your running pace and average speed. The key to a well loved app for runners is simplicity.

Take the iPhone, Android and Windows Phone 7 app Runkeeper Pro for example. Just starting off? Just tap the Start Activity button. Want an in-run update? One tap displays distance, time and average pace. Need some motivational music? Runkeeper Pro's built-in playlist selection means no app switching antics. And at the end of the run just hit Save Activity to upload the run, for subsequent analysis or community sharing.

The smartphone-less runner has plenty of options too. Consider the Adidas miCoach Pacer bundled with a heart-rate monitor and stride sensor. In constant real-time communication with the sensors it delivers audible feedback and guidance based on previously entered goals. It hold up to 32 hours of run data, which can be USB-synced to a PC or Mac. The downside? Well, it takes a while to get to grips with software and enter your target settings.

Gadget weight and unobtrusiveness is a major consideration for runners. So, maybe the Nike + iPod system is superior solution. Pick up your special pair of Nike running shoes - with a dedicated insole sensor pocket - and connect the wireless receiver to your iPod/iPhone, and your ready. Every step of the run can be tracked, with a real-time commentary on your time, distance, pace and calories burned.

Is all this talk of exercise, training routines and general physical exertion leaving you a little breathless? Let's investigate another, equally important area of wellbeing - relaxation.

As all great athletes know, the ability to drop into a calm, focussed mental state before, sometimes even during, a physical performance is one of the secrets of their success. Yet assessing levels of inner calm and relaxation is quite difficult. You might feel relaxed, but how relaxed? And how much more can be achieved?

The portable Emwave Personal Stress Reliever might provide some answers. Using a combination of colourful LEDs and audio feedback, it aims to indicate a healthy balance of heart and brian activity. Symptoms of stress and emotional duress are picked up from a thumb or ear sensor.

Of course, you'll also need a good night's sleep. And there's a gadget for that too.

The Zeo sits by the bedside and communicates with a wireless headband - which contains a Zeo SoftWave sensor. In the morning it synchronises the alarm with an appropriate sleep cycle point.

Either gaze at Zeo's display, or upload the data to a PC to view the captured sleep pattern analysis. If your deep, light and REM sleep balance isn't what it should be, there's coaching and tips available via the website. And yes, it syncs with DailyBurn.

Read more analysis posts.

7 July 2011

Technology for Law Enforcement

Inside my six page Technology for Law Enforcement feature article I uncover the increasing importance of technology in gathering evidence, solving crimes and preventing terrorist attacks.

As published in Micro Mart magazine issue 1165.

Some of the many technology-dependent areas I discuss are:
- social data trails
- video surveillance and car registration plate tracking
- facial tracking technology
- Eigenface facial recognition technology
- video surveillance
- operational data storage
- data mining software
- patterns and trends
- data visualisation
- geo-spatial information mapping

In the process I examine the benefits of various software products and services, such as Link Explorer and Indexer from Xanalys, Analyst's Notebook from i2 , ArcGIS from Esri, Google Maps and Microsoft Bing Maps.

Heres a couple of extracts from the article:

Retrieving information of interest from large data repositories is, rather aptly, referred to as data mining. Successful data mining is dependent on a set of carefully defined search criteria, accurately represented in well constructed data queries. Badly formed queries could result in investigations following inappropriate leads - very expensive in terms of time, manpower and financial resources.

Unfortunately, achieving this goal across the myriad of data repositories, often requires far more database knowledge and technical skills than is available to an investigation team. And yet it's only this team who know what queries are relevant to their lines of enquiry.

The solution? Ensure investigators can construct their own queries by investing in intuitive, graphically rich software data mining tools.

As you'd expect all the big database players possess comprehensive data mining tools. Oracle have developed a specialised Data Miner (ODM) product, supplied as an optional add-on. Microsoft incorporate data mining capability as part of their SQL Server Analysis Services.

Yet, by necessity these are general purpose products. Out-of-the-box they aren't as intuitive to use a many users would like. Tailoring them to an investigator's needs requires considerable customisation and configuration effort, which in turn demands high levels of technical knowledge and expertise.

However, there are alternatives. Alternatives that have been developed by software companies specialising in the law enforcement and investigative arena. Alternatives that aim to speak the same language as an investigator.

One such product is Link Explorer from UK-based Xanalys. Data mining queries are built using icons representing investigation-specific object classifications, such as people, locations, vehicles, locations, phone numbers, weapons, and time periods. Relationships are defined by graphically joining any number of these investigation-specific objects together. Finally, specific attributes constraints can be defined, for example only phone numbers that start '020'.

Using this combination of icons, graphical joins and custom constraints, it's a simple matter to construct the previously mentioned 'males between the ages of 20 and 40, who have an address in London's NW2 area and own a blue car'.

Another UK company with a long association with law enforcement organisations is i2, who also provide similar capabilities as part of their sizeable collection of analytical products.

As you might imagine in a busy investigation office, new items of information, connections, leads and human intuitions occur all the time. The beauty of these intuitive, interactive interfaces is they encourage the rapid generation of case-specific data mining queries.

When new pieces of intelligence come to light, such as a witness account of grey hair, or a change of detail such as a white car, the queries can be rapidly changed. They also enable speculative theories or 'hunches' to be quickly ascertained - for example possible associations with a particular person.

Though there's a case for all kinds of advanced software to help with information analysis, it's the 1.5kg of grey matter that sits between our ears, that's the most effective weapon in piecing together the pieces of a puzzle.

Textual documents, spreadsheets and paper-based reports have their uses, but aren't well suited to uncovering relationships, trends and highlighting coincidences. Instead, consider the traditional incident board covered with names, notes, photographs and interconnecting lines.

Such a board certainly makes a great visual prop for your TV murder mystery programme. But it also embodies a visual representation of easily digestible and mentally stimulating information. Just a single board can encapsulate an amazingly complex story, represented by an assemblage of interlinked people, events, locations, vehicles, items, times, and much more.

Imagine creating an electronic version of the incident board by displaying the output from all those investigation-specific data mining queries. A virtual board that could be any size, with zoom and scale control. Where the click of a mouse could reveal detailed data stored against the image or icon. Where the graphical layout and style could be instantly switched, to better highlight relationship strengths or sequences of time-based events.

There are a number of law enforcement focussed products that do just this. The previously mentioned Link Explorer from Xanalys and Analyst's Notebook from i2, render virtual incident boards in a variety of user-definable formats, layouts and styles. For anyone used to dealing with paper-based reporting systems of simple charts, the manner in which these tools bring the information to life and engage their grey matter can be a revelation.

As displays get ever bigger and cheaper, realistically sized virtual incident boards become more attainable. Many exhibit touch interfaces, encouraging interactive involvement from all team members. We're not quite able to achieve the gesture-based data manipulation scenario, as famously envisioned in the Minority Report film, but, with technologies like Microsoft Kinect it's actually possible to create a very good approximation of the concept.

Read more analysis posts.

6 July 2011

Over The Hill And Round The Bend by Richard Guise

Conceived during a kitchen top moment with a map and some string, this 567 miles (913 km) bicycle journey encompasses the most Easterly, Northerly, Westerly and Southerly points of Wales. Despite frequent visits to Welsh soil, and a few years living within its boundaries, Richard saw this concept as an ideal opportunity to glimpse the real Wales.

Astride his trusty bike, Tetley, this compass point inspired trip was undertaken in a leisurely 20 days, including a rest day. The book's gentle paced narrative unfolds in a logical chapter-per-day format, ambling along in perfect synchrony with his cycling pace. It's a pace that, along with Richard's acute eye for detail, captures an authentic portrayal of the Welsh countryside, its towns, people and, of course, weather.

Bounding with wit and enthusiasm the narrative unveils an ever changing landscape, characters from the dour to the highly colourful, tiny hamlets, urban sprawls and various tourist attractions. The route incorporated just about every type of road and track, including many sections of National Cycle Network (NCN) routes.

On the way there were a few surprises. Only the most Easterly point, in Monmouthshire, could be reached without leaving the saddle, the others requiring a final stretch on foot. And only the most Southerly point offered any signage indicating a compass point extreme had been reached.

Food and drink play a significant part in the story. Whether it be a hostel, pub, restaurant, cafe, National Milk Bar, takeaway shop or roadside van, his innumerable stops for sustenance reveal a particular penchant for cakes and confectionary of all kinds.

Many of the towns on route are given a unique rating by the support crew, namely his wife. Rather cleverly this rating revolves around the car parking fees required to explore the town. From a not-much-to-see one coin town, to plenty-of-interest three coin one.

Entertainment abounds throughout the book. I particularly enjoyed the 'absurdly simple history of Wales' using ten Richard-defined phases. It's such an easy-to-grasp orientation, I wonder why all historical introductions don't use this approach. Even after the last chapter the fun continues with a summary of the '10 laws of cycling', a reality-based gradient categorisation and a Douglas Adams inspired "Meanings of Liff' list of Welsh words.

All in all Richard's book is a wonderfully entertaining way to explore many of the little known byways of Wales, right from the comfort of your armchair. No rain. No wind. No hills. Effortless really.

30 June 2011

NFC in 2011

This week's Micro Mart magazine, issue 1164, published my Near Field Communication in 2011 feature article.

Inside its six pages I discuss some of the key events and technologies occurring since my NFC article last year, including:
- e-commerce business forecasts
- NFC-enabled credit cards, such as Visa's payWave and Mastercard's PayPass
- virtual wallets, including the recent Orange/Barclaycard Quick Tap announcement
- other NFC mobile initiatives including Google's Nexus S
- the impact of NFC-embedded healthcare products
- the rise of NFC-enabled household devices and appliances

Here's an extract from the article:

For a while now a new wave of NFC-enhanced credit cards have been dropping through letterboxes across the country. In addition to normal credit card operation they can also be used at special payment stations.

Two of the main players are Visa's payWave and Mastercard's PayPass. The UK already has over 50,000 payWave/PayPass-enabled pay points - identified by a special contactless symbol. They're installed in high street stores like Caffe Nero, Subway, Barnardo's, Boots and Clinton Cards, and are starting to appear in taxis. You can pay for anything that's £15 and under with a simple tap of your card, a swift operation that doesn't normally require pin entry.

While expediting super quick transactions, the lack of a pin entry might surprise, or even concern you. As you'd expect there are safeguards. There's a transaction limit of around £15 and a blocking of contactless transactions if too many occur in a short period. However, as things stand today the £15 limit and any other safeguards are company set, non-negotiable parameters.

This form of NFC-by-stealth distribution and pin-less transaction capability didn't go unnoticed by card holders or the media. In fact the BBC's Radio 4 gave significant airtime to this new phenomena, eliciting listeners views on these replacement cards.

Many were unhappy at not being asked whether they wanted this new type of card. Even more so when a lost card could be used without pin confirmation. Another grievance was the non-negotiable transaction figure, which the banks had decided was an acceptable monetary risk on their behalf.

All entirely fair comment, and hardly the best of starts for introducing a cash alternative. Yet, by March 2011 there was already 12.9 million of these cards in UK circulation. So, other than cancelling your card, it seems to be something everyone will have to get used to. In fact, as early as next year there'll be a push to make this a key payment system in certain situations.

View or download this article from the Sample PDFs page.

13 June 2011

Smart Swarm by Peter Miller

Peter Miller used his 25 years as editor and writer for National Geographic, to create a fascinating, thought-provoking book that explores some of the complex, dynamic collaborations found in nature.

These collaborations and the scientific process of their discovery are explored in detail, and with beautiful writing clarity, along with examples of inspired-by-nature solutions to some of our more impenetrable puzzles.

As the book progresses he uncovers four key collaboration traits, namely Self Organisation, Diversity of Information, Indirect Collaboration and Adaptive Mimicking.

Ant colonies use self organisation to solve problems by distributing tasks across a very large number of individuals, using a system based on a few very simple rules. The end result is efficient resource allocation in complex, unpredictable and rapidly changing systems - an ideal model for resolving computational-hungry problems such as efficient aircraft boarding and the travelling salesman scenario.

Bee colonies exhibit diversity of information through individually acquired knowledge, which gives each bee a slightly different perspective. Decisions are made on a majority voting process, but crucially an individual only votes after they have personally assessed the situation. The end result is sound decision making, which isn't based on a follow-the-crowd scenario. It's a technique that has been successfully used by Boeing's flight operations, test and validation (FOT&V) organisation.

Termites use indirect collaboration to work together as a single unit, combining a multitude of small shared contributions. The end result is a process that can effectively and efficiently tackle very large projects and is an ideal model for networks and self-healing systems. Wiki sites, blogs and social tagging all work on this stigmergy basis.

Flocking birds, schooling fish and herding animals rely on adaptive mimicking to achieve their spontaneous and highly coordinated displays. Yet it all happens simply by each individual watching a few of their closest neighbours. Recognising how this works, helps to understand crowd flow dynamics, predict patterns at mass-protest events and design stadiums and other similar large-crowd structures.

2 June 2011

Zend Server CE review

Today's Micro Mart magazine, issue 1160, published my product review of the Zend Server Community Edition development tools and web server environment.

This comprehensive, professional-grade, zero-cost product has PHP 5.3, Apache, MySQL and the Zend Framework, all installed in a single integrated process.

20 May 2011

Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

David Byrne is better known for his music than his writing output. Although he's authored quite a few books this one stands out as one of his more mainstream offerings.

It's a book driven by, and full of, a passion for cycling and written by a practising pedal-head. Someone who's enthusiastically used a bicycle as a principal form transportation in his native New York since the early 1980s. And who endeavours to explore various parts of the world in the same human-powered manner.

The first chapter is a wide-ranging, and rather nostalgic, exploration into a number of American Cities. Unfortunately, he encounters many rather frustrating, disconnected rides through communities chopped into ghettos by massive concrete ribbons.

Subsequent chapters are dedicated to one particular city. As seen from a cyclist perspective, it offers a new way of exploring and interacting with cities you might already have some knowledge about. His artistic eye picks out the unconventional, the significant, the sublime and the striking across the urban landscape and in the local art, music and film culture.

Always a deep thinker, his views are heartfelt and expressed with zeal - at times in an intensely earnest discourse. His observations and very personal points of view are enhanced by a collection of text-embedded photographs. As you might expect, the majority of these images are very different to the usual tourist fare, and interesting in their own right.

It's a brilliantly eccentric and highly personal book, delivered in a lovely embossed cloth cover. Even the epilogue entertains with its look into the future of transportation, and an eye catching selection of drawings illustrating some of his bike rack designs - many of which now adorn the streets of NewYork.

15 May 2011

John (Richard Thomas) Sullivan

John Richard Thomas Sullivan failed his 11-plus exam and left school at 15 without any qualifications. The result was a succession of uninspiring jobs until one day a friend showed him a newspaper article about the TV scriptwriter Johnny Speight. He read that Speight earned £1000 for each of his Till Death Us Do Part episodes; equivalent to Sullivan's annual salary. It made a seminal impression.

He bought a second-hand typewriter, self-help books, studied English, and started work on a upmarket sitcom called Gentlemen. However, his self-motivated endeavours provided little in the way of success. At the age of 30 he took a job as a BBC scene-shifter, in an attempt to make useful writing contacts.

After encouragement from Ronnie Barker he started writing comedy sketches for The Two Ronnies and Dave Allen. Subsequently legendary producer producer Dennis Main Wilson accepted his story idea about a suburban social revolutionary, and Sullivan immediately took time off work to write a pilot episode. His Citizen Smith sitcom proved to be a great success, and was ultimately extended to four series.

He continued by writing the incredibly successful Only Fools and Horses, set in his childhood South London stomping ground and full of its colourful, down-to-earth characters. In the process he also penned many other notable series, including Just Good Friends, Dear John, Roger Roger and Heartbreak Hotel.

A fall out with the BBC led to the ITV Dickens-influenced comedy drama Micawber, followed later by the Fools and Horses spinoff Green Green Grass. In 2011 his final series Rock & Chips was aired; a Fools and Horses prequel set in the 1960s. A fitting tribute following Sullivan's untimely death, at the age of 64 on 23rd April 2011.

It's a remarkable story. A source of inspiration and encouragement for any writer.


12 May 2011

Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James

Written by one of our present day detective fiction masters, this slim volume contains a plethora of historical background, author analysis and exploration of writing methods. A book conceived following a request by the Bodleian Library's Publishing Department, located in her native Oxford.

From start to finish it's intelligent, insightful and informative. And she doesn't sit on the fence when expressing her views on fellow authors' techniques and proficiencies - for example Agatha Christie's reliance on 'pasteboard characters' and occasional less-than-credible narrative scenarios. But, for myself, this only adds to the book's readability.

Many pages are devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle's famous 221B Baker Street tenant, the literary richness of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the graphic realism of Dorothy L. Sayers and the story telling brilliance of Agatha Christie with her talent to deceive. And there's similar thoughtful discussion on Richard Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Georges Simenon, and many others.

It's always interesting to hear an author articulate her approach to novel writing. In particular, there's her rational, clearly presented argument for preferring a setting-based starting point, a notion which differs from many other authors in this genre.

In the forward P. D. James declares her intention to 'interest and entertain'. Regardless of whether you're a fan of detective fiction, I believe she achieves this aim. A particularly illuminating book in so many ways, and a fascinating read.

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

This highly individual book, from the much loved and missed Beryl Bainbridge, is the antithesis to a dry, historical tale of Scott's fateful Antarctic expedition.

With amazingly inventive imagination and striking clarity, she digs deep into the makeup of these familiar characters. The arresting result is they burst into life; convincingly real, alluringly complex lives, complete with loves, aspirations, fears, regrets and inner conflicts.

Few other writers are likely to achieve such rich character renditions. Totally credible and identifiable renditions.  Renditions that exhibit all the strength, fragility, confidence, vulnerability and emotional complexity you'd expect from men destined for such an expedition and ultimate fate. Men described in the book as, "misfits, victims of a changing world."

Interestingly each of these five main characters - Petty Officer Edgar (Taf) Evans, Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson, Capt. Robert Falcon (Con) Scott, Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers and Capt. Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates - are given their own chapter, written from the first-person narrative viewpoint.

These chapters are full of engaging dialogue; intimate conversation and drinking stories revealing past experiences, warmly remembered comrades and shared adventures. The story begins just before embarking on the long voyage south. Each subsequent chapter progresses through the 21 month timeline, guiding the reader inexorability towards its finale.

6 May 2011

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Rarely does a book induce me to say, 'an absolute delight', but this one did.

A sumptuously appointed narrative revolves around the Queen's abruptly acquired, all consuming passion for reading, and the ensuing miscellany of court antics, equerry interactions and other deliciously humorous situations.

The clever, understated, sure-footed prose and dialogue is so believable, so real, you feel as if you are actually there; observing silently, unnoticed in the corner of the room.

His bold, seemingly nerveless decision to choose and emphatically capture our monarch as the lead character, is matched by an ability to carry it off so effortlessly. 

Personally, I thought it had the feel of a classic. A classic in conception, originality and execution. And definitely classic Alan Bennett - a master of his craft.

Being a rather slim, 121 page volume its easily devoured in a session or two; time simply whizzing by. And yes, I wanted more, much more, more of the same. Please.

What does the Queen herself think of the book I wonder? One can only guess, but I'm sure this author knows the real answer.

1 May 2011

Fishing in Utopia by Andrew Brown

Part memoir, part nostalgic reminisce of a lost Sweden, part insight into a life of thoughts and words.

It's an entangled journey. Andrew Brown's very English childhood in Oxford, interjected by two years in Stockholm. A chance meeting with his future Swedish wife in a North Wales care home. A seminal period near Gothenburg, metamorphosing into a Swedish family man, while trying to discover himself. Followed by a self-launched writing career, bouncing between London and Scandinavia.

A journey threaded by a literary trail of fishing stories and experiences. A passion for angling that pumps like a main arterial vein. A passion that demands visits to silently desolate, engagingly surreal, forest bound lakes and rivers - described in poetic-like prose.

The time-travelling chapters and reflective nature of the first-person narrative, induce an awareness of a life passing by. Never really feeling at home in England or Sweden, this conflict adds a distinct objectiveness and sense of detachment when musing on the world around him. Yet he's undoubtedly in touch with the Swedish mindset, culture and deep rooted history.

Unsurprisingly, I found the writing references particularly interesting. His tentative and rather inauspicious start being transformed by some highly newsworthy stories, leading to a new life as a freelance journalist, columnist and author.
 
Sweden's enviable global status in the 1960s and 70s disappeared during the 1980s - suddenly and seemingly irreversibly. In the end he seems torn between a love for the country and the people and a despair for the future of them both.

24 April 2011

Three Men in a Float by Dan Kieran and Ian Vince

Take a classic 1958 milk float, three men and a journey from Lowestoft to Lands End, and you have the ingredients for a distinctly original book. This attention-grabbing concept prompted plenty of enthusiastic national media coverage, including a dedicated BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast in February 2008.

The book is jointly authored by Dan Kieran and Ian Vince, who share the writing of its twenty chapters - all written in the first-person narrative form. After describing the story behind the story, each day-long leg of the journey is allocated its own chapter.

These legs vary in length from as little as 17 miles up to 49 miles. Each day's eventual distance being highly dependant on weather conditions, driving terrain, characters encountered, extravehicular adventures and, of course, availability of suitable charging points. So, as you can imagine, it was a particularly slow journey, as confirmed by the book's subtitle - Across England at 15mph.

The pivotal third man, Prasanth Visweswaran (Pras), has the necessary electrical skills - and risk taking attitude - to turn their concept into a reality. Still, without the support of friends, supermarket managers, publicans, campsite owners and generously spirited members of the public, it would have been impossible.

The problems faced in securing adequate supplies of electron-based fuel are a central, and often highly amusing, theme within the story. A story imparts a crystal-clear indication of how far away the UK is from delivering a viable infrastructure, able to support battery-powered alternatives to our current fossil-fuel guzzling vehicles.

The milk float in question rolled off Cowley's Morris car plant production line on 2nd September 1958. In the intervening decades this once commonplace mode of door-to-door transportation, has largely been resigned to history. After all, when was the last time you saw, or heard, a milk float trundle down your street?

Parallels with Jerome K. Jerome's 1892 classic Three Men in a Boat are obvious. And the inspiration provided by Jerome's book is clearly stated in the text. But the narrative's pace, humour and sense of adventure ensure this isn't some pale imitation or shallow copycat effort.

Enjoyable as it is, it's unlikely this book will also become a classic. And yet, in my imagination, when this century ticks over into a new one, I can envisage a world where all transportation is electric powered. In such future times the trials, tribulations and experiences of completing a 600 mile journey three times slower than a cyclist could manage, might indeed become an interesting and amusing literary resource of a past era.

18 April 2011

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

After Dark is a novel set within a seven hour period, commencing a few minutes before the strike of midnight. With scenes set amongst the backstreets of downtown Tokyo, its pace beautifully captures the slow, stretched out feel of the nighttime.

Highly detailed characters are, ultimately, richly exposed to the reader through a trickle of vividly naturalistic observations, expressive behaviour, meaningful interplay and effective dialogue.

In fact, it takes most of the narrative to discover who the reclusive, bookish, thoughtful main character Mari really is; her background, her fears, her dreams and the depth of connection to her sister Eri.

When combined with Haruki's skilful prose, clear voice, scrupulously crafted atmospheric scenes and volumes of unspoken mystery, it's a technique that ensures we're always immersed, always keen to turn the page.

There are many writing devices and traits at work. Chapters entitled with an ever-increasing time - to denote the advancement of the night. Pronounced shortening of chapter length as the story concludes - to enact rapid scene change and raising the tension. Using a narrator voice when visiting a scene with mystical, dreamlike viewpoints - to endow a movie director like quality. An inconclusive ending - resolution

Its a novel immediately identifiable, albeit in a fascinatingly illusive manner, as a Haruki Murakami story, and a highly recommended read.

14 April 2011

People Power

This week's Micro Mart magazine, issue 1153, published my latest feature article, People Power.

It's an investigation into how, in our modern world, a few individuals can enact changes that cause rapid, radical and long lasting consequences for the IT industry.

It questions the justification for the enormous R&D budgets employed by the likes of Microsoft and Nokia, when compared with free spirited, shoe-string budget initiatives that create hugely popular, globally significant products in the social, mobile and entertainment arenas.

Click to read more analysis articles and posts.

2 April 2011

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Paul Chowder is in love with poetry and is determined to show us why. In a delightfully rambling story we're taken through a challenging period of his life. It's a story shared with Roz, various neighbours and friends, his dog Smacko, and the mouse.

Throughout the first-person narrative he conveys his thoughts on poetry and poets, rhyming and free verse, and in particular, rhythm. Having little regard for the iambic pentameter or the trochaic octameter, he maintains all good poetry is based around an underlying four beat or three beat rhythm - occasionally adorned with strategically positioned rests.

There are obvious parallels with western music and lyrical poetry. Especially with regard to the ballad stanza, which he describes as, "Four lines, four beats in each line, and the third line drives towards the fourth."

It's certainly an interesting and entertaining point of view. One argued by multiple examples from some of the greats: Edward Lear, Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Mary Louise Ritter, Alice Carey, Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale, T.S. Eliot plus many others - and liberal use of his sharpie.

Yet despite all this poetry knowledge and his previous successes he reveals, in a dryly comic manner, his lack of confidence and loss of motivation for creating the introduction to his poetry anthology.

Ultimately, this highly readable book is able to both entertain and inform. The way the prose subtly, almost subconsciously, imbibes gems of poetry knowledge and understanding upon the reader, is the mark of highly creative and skilled writer.

24 March 2011

Emergency Undelete review

Today's Micro Mart magazine, issue 1150, published my product review for Emergency Undelete from Diskeeper.

Due to it's small footprint and self-contained installation, it could be a useful addition to other, USB drive located, system maintenance and recovery tools.

Have a look for yourself at the product page.

17 March 2011

Taking Control - Personal SQL Databases

This Micro Mart magazine series explains how to build a software toolbox to take back control of your Windows platform. Each article will add new technologies to this toolbox, which deliver additional power and flexibility.

The fourth article, in issue 1149, focuses on the opportunities available for managing your personal information using an SQL database. In particular it examines SQLite product - a tiny, self-contained, highly portable database used in a wide cross-section of devices, including the vast majority of mobile phones.

The article includes a hands-on 'getting started with SQLite' tutorial.

10 March 2011

Taking Control - Interpreted Languages

This Micro Mart magazine series explains how to build a software toolbox to take back control of your Windows platform. Each article will add new technologies to this toolbox, which deliver additional power and flexibility.

The third article, in issue 1148, focusses on the benefits provided by interpreted languages, many of which can be freely downloaded and added to the software toolbox. In addition to a general overview, I take a closer look at Perl and Python, comparing their relative merits.

The next instalment will delve into personal SQL databases.

4 March 2011

Taking Control - Adding Shell Scripting

This Micro Mart magazine series explains how to build a software toolbox to take back control of your Windows platform. Each article will add new technologies to this toolbox, which deliver additional power and flexibility.

The second article, in issue 1147, focusses on adding a Windows-friendly shell scripting environment called Cygwin. This environment sits alongside Windows and can access any drive or file, yet offers a comprehensive list of powerful Unix-like shells, tools, utilities and applications.

A PDF of this article is available at the Sample PDFs page.

24 February 2011

Taking Control - Building a Toolbox

This Micro Mart magazine series explains how to build a software toolbox to take back control of your Windows platform. Each article will add new technologies to this toolbox, which deliver additional power and flexibility.

The initial article, in issue 1146, focusses on extending the rather limited Windows DOS functionality, by adding a personalised selection of open source GNU tools and utilities.

A PDF of this article is available at the Sample PDFs page.

3 February 2011

Scrivener for Windows Beta review

This week Micro Mart issue 1143 published my Scrivener for Windows Beta product review.

Previously only available for the Apple Mac, it's a product I use extensively to organise my thoughts, research notes and writing drafts.

I've taken quite a liking to Literature and Latte, the company behind the Scrivener. It started out as one man's dream and ambition to create a writing tool for writers.

Despite the recent expansion onto the Windows platform, it's still a tiny company, with a single product focus. Which is why, I believe, it's such an effective, productive and well designed piece of software.

You can find the full review on my Sample PDFs page.

1 February 2011

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

An open, honest, and thoughtful book, full of biographical reflections on running, writing and life in general. There's a peppering of poetic flourishes too - the special New England fall is my particular favourite. It all goes to make for a very enjoyable and interesting read.

Haruki's extensive running experiences and personal insights provide a rich resource for delving into the motivations of a long distance runner. His highly descriptive accounts of marathons, triathlons and other endurance events, will be of interest to anyone who runs, is thinking about running, or wonders why anyone would ever decide to run. He conveys the intimate link between the physicality of running and the associative state of mind, with phrases such as “All I do is keep running in my cosy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence”.

From a personal viewpoint, I found his insights into the mindset of a novelist, and a writer's life in general, just as interesting. Indeed, I can only feel a sense of poignant affinity with someone who's decision to become a writer was born out of a single thought, on one particular day. Like most writers he initially wrote in short, snatched periods, whenever his time-absorbing bar and Jazz club business allowed. But, after attracting significant attention with his early 'Hear the Wind Sing' and 'Pinball, 1973' novels he then, “hung out my sign as a novelist and set out to make a living writing” admitting to himself, “I'm the kind of person that has to totally commit to whatever I do”.

Wandering through the chapters it's impossible to miss the many connections between the solitary world of a long-distance runner and the solitary life of a creative novelist - something he explores, confirms and strengthens throughout the book. Both endeavours he maintains suit him, as someone who, “likes to be by himself” and, “doesn't find it painful to be alone”.

Finishing a long race in a personally acceptable time involves a hard, regular training regime to acquire not only the muscle tone and physique necessary, but also to train and strengthen the mind. Improvements are made daily, albeit at an almost imperceptible pace.

Tackling a book project requires an equally steely undertaking, sitting every day in focussed concentration. As he points out, even if no words are penned this process is necessary to build physical stamina and willpower - essential when completing a sizeable writing project, to a standard with which the writer can be proud. For him, being creative isn't a natural process, but a hard, physical one which requires lengthy toil, dredging out deep holes to find the sources of creativity.

In writing and running you need self motivation and inner drive; dedication and routine; confidence and optimism; willpower to keep going to the finish; and a desire to explore what's possible. The rewards are a heady sense of release, contentment and inner-calm that occur as you settle into a steady-paced running rhythm or find yourself amidst an outpouring of free-flowing prose.

Ultimately, in writing as in running, there is really only a single opponent to achieving your goals - yourself.

27 January 2011

Affordable 3D Printing

Today Micro Mart magazine issue 1142 published my Affordable 3D Printing article.

It's a seven page feature which explores the following areas :-
- overview of 3D printing concepts and history
- 3D printer anatomy
- 3D materials science and thermoplastic polymers
- significant developments and applications
- low cost desktop 3D printers (such as RepRap and Makerbot)
- potential impact of these affordable 3D printers

It certainly was quite a different topic to explore, and proved to be a particularly interesting subject to research and write about.
Issue 1142 will be available until 2nd February, and is still just £2.

1 January 2011

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Biographical books rarely start better than this: intimate and honest; moving and involving; poetic in rhythm and content.

Chapter one, Monday's Children, whisks the reader off to a childhood environment, studded with meaningful observations and subtle, tantalising indications of what destiny may have in store. The second chapter, Just Kids, proudly and successfully forms the core of the book, centred around that accidental - yet in so many ways unavoidably inevitable - meeting of two artistic minds and souls. Amidst the affection, tenderness and natural coupling is a deep seated respect for each other's talents and ambitions.

However, after diving expectantly into the Hotel Chelsea chapter, I noticed the narrative style had changed, the magic lost. As they gradually drift apart due to work, friends, relationships and circumstances, the book also seems to lose its way, even its sense of purpose. There are glimpses of the earlier magic, but small and fleeting in comparison, little reward in a huge 120 page chapter. There are, of course, many interesting tales to be told and many interesting characters to meet, and it's an important element in understanding the overall story. Yet the altered style and modified voice is more mundane and matter-of-fact, losing its previous beauty and energy. In my imagination it's written at a different time, in a different place and in a different state of mind to the rest of the book.

Happily, the magic reappears in the penultimate chapter, Separate Ways Together, then sparkles magnificently in Holding Hands With God - the final sweet, lyrical chapter awash with tenderness, affection and love. Conclusively demonstrating, when focussed on Patti and Robert, how exceptionally well the prose captures this intensely intimate relationship.

But it's also a book to discover Patti the artist - her drawings, photographs, silk-screens, installations and, of course, poetry - a delightful bonus. Overall this is a simply wonderful book - and an immensely engaging story.