Aug 19

Squeegee

What started as an exercise in skills refresh for me has finally grown into a side-project that went live today: Squeegee

A personal finance software SaaS product. Yes there’s a thousand of those out there already, but I used this as an exercise in learning how to take an idea all the way to fruition. There’s clearly more work to be done, but it’s a satisfying milestone to reach.

It would be great if you could check it out and let me know what you think!

 

Aug 05

Government announces Operation Sovereign Data

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis today announced a new government initiative known as Operation Data Protect. This nationwide program will act as a data backup service for the nation, relieving the millions of Australians with connections to the internet from having to worry about safeguarding their data.

Mr Abbott reveal that the scheme would be rolled out later this year and would retain 2 years worth of data for every internet connected Australiaa. “People are afraid. Their precious memories are only a dropped laptop or stolen mobile phone away from being lost forever.”

Senator Brandis told the media contingent that after reviewing commercial services currently available, the Government had decided to step in. “Some of these services aren’t even located in Australia. There was a real risk that data was being sent to ‘the cloud’. That’s not even a country.”

“We simply could not stand by while a generation of Australians lost their documents through a lack of a backup” added the Prime Minister. In addition to backup, the service will index all the data stored so that users can easily find their files when they need to. “Handily this helps copyright owners check their records of ownership against the backed up data so we can ensure that they have received every last cent they are owed” confirmed Senator Brandis.

A glossy brochure was distributed at the press conference, listing some of the other benefits of the service. In the future, people applying for public service positions will be able to let the government simply refer to their indexed backup instead of having to complete arduous selection criteria. When asked about the whereabouts of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister Abbott informed the press conference that he was “out negotiating a great deal on the hard drives required. Malcolm practically invented hard drives in Australia and knows a fair price when he sees it.”

Questioned about the security of the data stored on behalf of Australians, Senator Brandis said he would use a really strong password – “with those funny characters and everything” and would keep this written inside the cover of a random book on his parliamentary bookshelf. “I can’t give away which one, but it rhymes with twine-teen gatey-floor” said the winking Senator.

Aug 04

Ditching GoDaddy

I have a number of domains I originally registered with GoDaddy and I’ve finally dumped them. I’ve transferred both the DNS hosting and the Registration over to DNSimple. I got sick of trying to be sold dumb shit, piss poor web interface, and just sleazy marketing with GoDaddy. They were damn cheap I’ll give them that.

 

If you want to do something similar, here’s an overview:

  • You can change just your DNS hosting
  • You can also move over your Registration (I recommend going the whole hog)
  • You can do it without any downtime

 

The general process is:

  • Create an account with DNSimple
  • “Add’ domains to them
  • Export your Zone file from GoDaddy
  • Import the Zone file into DNSimple
  • Verify that the DNSimple servers are resolving your site
  • Change over the root nameservers for your domain(s) to DNSimple and await for propagation – this might take 24 hours
  • Cancel any domain privacy you have with GoDaddy, and ‘Unlock’ the domain (to allow transfer)
  • Transfer the Registration to DNSimple (using an Authorisation code from GoDaddy per domain)
  • Click ‘Confim’ in a few email links
  • Delete your GoDaddy account
  • Crack open a beer and put on a smug smile.

 

It is that simple. But why DNSimple? Nice, clean UI. Simple pricing structure (yes dearer than GoDaddy but it’s worth it). Two-factor authentication. You can still have WHOis privacy to obscure your details from the public registers.

 

DNSimple provide a guide to the process here. And if you are thinking about signing up, it’d be nice if you went via my referral link.

 

Jul 28

Why Free-to-Air TV matches are not HD

In the ultimate of first-world-problems, free to air NRL matches in Australia are broadcast in standard definition (SD), much to the annoyance of anyone with a decent pair of eyes. At the same time as a big game of footy is being broadcast, Channel 9 are bound to be utilising their High Definition (HD) channel for something really spectacular – like a re-run of an old Elizabeth Taylor movie from 19 diggity 8. No disrespect to Liz, but the fast paced action of sport is better suited for the HD channel. So why is it like this?

The main reasons are:

  • Government legislation
  • Government standards
  • Money

Firstly the legislation. With the introduction of Pay-TV in Australia, laws were introduced that are known as ‘anti-siphoning’ laws that prevented all the major sporting events Australians love to watch from being sucked up and only shown on Pay TV providers. Ensuring these major sporting events (Rugby League, AFL, Cricket etc) stayed on free to air TV was a great win for sports fans. The Pay TV providers can show additional events from these sports codes but as long as there is a minimum shown on free to air everything is cool.

Now for the standards. With the introduction of digital TV in Australia and then the switchover which would see the end of analogue television the government decided that the minimum digital TV standard would be Standard Definition (SD), or 480p. With all the short-sightedness of Mr Magoo, SD became the minimum standard digital TV broadcast experience for free to air TV. Additional HD channels came along as broadcasters were allowed to expand their free to air offerings. But these are essential ‘bonus’ channels because they are not required to show anything on them.

And of course money. There’s two factors for this – by offering to show sports in HD on Pay TV, there’s money to be made from people who want to cough up the cash to enjoy the sport they love in glorious HD. The problem is, the HD games they show are not the ones that are shown on free to air TV – or they are delayed if they are. The other money angle relates to ratings. Why don’t the TV stations just simulcast the games and show them on SD (as required) and in HD? The way TV ratings are calculated sees these as separate shows and so instead of ratings of “800,000″, you’d end up with ratings of “500,000″ and “300,000″. TV stations love ratings and need them to be as high as possible so they can charge higher advertising rates.

So there we have it. The possible solutions are to change the way TV ratings and advertising rates are calculated. Change the anti-siphoning laws and run the risk of losing access to these sports on free-to-air TV altogether, or to change the minimum standard for digital TV broadcast. I can’t see any of these changing any time soon, so I guess the situation we have now is one we’re stuck with. Well, at least you now know what it is the mess that it is.

 

 

Jul 22

Azure website – how to change web hosting plan

In Windows Azure Websites Microsoft have introduced a concept called a web hosting plan. This allows you to control a group of websites all at once and makes for changing their hosting settings easier. The problem is, they haven’t yet introduced a way through the Portal to change the web hosting plan for a website.

 

So if you’ve got a bunch of free websites and want to promote one of them to shared hosting, you’ll find that changing one changes them all – because hosting options are now configured at the web hosting plan, not the individual websites. When they introduced this change they created a default group for all your existing websites and you’ll find they are all grouped together.

 

If there’s no way to change this through the Azure Portal UI, how do you do it? Time to crack out the PowerShell. Open a Windows Azure PowerShell session and run through the following.

Login

Add-AzureAccount

Switch to Azure resource mode

Switch-AzureMode AzureResourceManager

Create dictionary to represent the new web hosting plan (note the fact that we’re setting the ‘serverfarm’ property here)
$whp=@{"serverfarm" = "<newplan>";}

Apply the changes
Set-AzureResource -name <sitename> -ResourceGroupName <groupname> -ResourceType Microsoft.Web/sites -apiversion 2014-04-01 -PropertyObject $whp

 

So the above works if you’ve already got a second web hosting plan to change the website(s) into. How do you create a new web hosting plan? The non-PowerShell way is described over at this article. Essentially – creating a new website, and specify to create a new hosting plan when creating it.

Microsoft have published an In Depth Overview of Azure Web Sites Hosting Plans if you want more detail on the above.

 

Jul 21

HTC One

My HTC One is the first Android phone that I have stuck with the original ROM for a prolonged period of time, which is remarkable given there’s even a ‘pure’ Android ROM available for it. In the past I’ve been happy to upload custom ROMs for my original HTC Hero, my Samsung Galaxy S II and even my Galaxy Nexus. Going from the Galaxy Nexus back to the HTC One I thought I might want to change the ROM because I didn’t think I’d like (going back to) HTC Sense. But these days it’s not very offensive, and the CPU of the phone just handles anything you throw at it.

In the past I’ve changed ROMs because I wanted access to cooler new features or to mitigate performance problems. Even though there’s a lag with the time a new version of Android is released and the time HTC get it out to my phone, I’ve found the incremental feature upgrades to either be minor and not worth worry about, it not of interest to me.

Long live the HTC One M7!

Jul 14

15 months with a FitBit One

I’ve owned a Fitbit One for 15 months now and it’s great fun. Has it helped me lose weight? Yes and no. Have I definitely walked further and been more active than I would have been without it? Hell yes.

The FitBit One is basically a fancy pedometer that can sync up with an appropriately Bluetooth enabled phone, or a PC wirelessly via dongle that comes with the device. It has great web based software that can give you all kind of amazing details about your activity during the day – and night. This is meant to make ‘being active’ more fun and motivate you to achieve your goals – whether they be walking a certain number of steps a day, having a certain number of ‘active’ minutes per day and of course weight loss. It even comes with an elastic sleeve you strap around your wrist so you can wear it at night to track how long, and how well you slept for.

Overall the device works really well – I’ve found it consistent and accurate with regards to steps. If you want to nit pick, yes you can shake it and falsely get the step count higher than you walked. But really, why bother? It’s meant to be acting as a guide so you know if you’re kidding yourself about how much exercise you actually do.

When it comes to weight loss I’m in the camp of Input – Outputs = Net Result. That is, Food, Minus Activity = Gain or Loss. The FitBit is only doing the Outputs, or Activity side of things. If you want to track food you can use the FitBit software, but not if you’re outside the US. Booo. However, you can use the excellent MyFitnessPal website. You can link your accounts so that the food tracked is seen against your activity levels so you get nice little graphs like the one below.

 

FitBit Charts screenshot

Walking around and being active was definitely more fun when I first got the device. But after a while it got a bit less exciting. I’m pretty sure a Canberra winter kicked in and my activity levels drop and my weight loss enthusiasm also waned. So I fell off the bandwagon. I kept wearing the device and have worn it pretty much every day since I bought it. I haven’t been as serious about measuring my sleep and had a few months there where I didn’t wear it at night.

For this device to work for you, you need to be obsessive about checking it’s still strapped to your belt as it can be easily lost. Either the holder that it is encased in pops off your belt, or you bump against something and it pops out of the holder. I’ve lost it a few times but thanks to detecting it pretty soon after the event I’ve found it again. I’d buy another one if I lost it.

One great thing – the support behind the product is great. I contacted them after a few months because I lost the rubber holder and wanted to buy the accessory replacement in Australia. They said “don’t be silly”, and FedEx’d me a new one. Pretty great stuff and another reason I’ll be loyal to them.

So if you’re interested in a Pedometer in general, and you’ve got a smartphone and can afford it, I recommend buying the Fitbit One. It’s going to help you achieve your activity (and maybe weight loss) goals if you use it correctly and stay motivated.

Jul 10

Quick and dirty Azure SQL database backup

Before I made a deployment of updated code to www.australianandroidapps.com yesterday I wanted to make a point-in-time backup of the database that runs the site in case I needed to rollback the changes. I then realised I’d never done this before. I found that you have two options:

  • Copy – which is neat and simple and creates a copy of your database on the same server
  • Export

The Export option has a few more steps but also lets you download the file and restore locally if you want to. Ideal for grabbing a copy of ‘Production’ and running it up in a Test or Dev environment.

Export requires that you have a Blob Storage in your Azure account. If you already have one you can use an existing container or create a new container. The resulting file (it takes about a minute to run, depending on the size of the DB of course) can be used to import the database into a local instance of SQL Server using the SQL Server Management Studio. Alternatively, you can also use Import on Azure to create a copy of the database that you just exported – and this time you have the flexibility to specify a different destination SQL Server if you want to.

So – Copy is quick and dirty, uses the same server. Export allows you to download the files and restore locally if you want, or create a copy of the database on a different Azure SQL Server.

For more info on either, see How to Import and Export a database (SQL Azure) and Copying Databases in Azure.

 

Jul 09

Renewable energy and resistance to change

A country like Australia has boundless renewable energy resources in the form of wind, solar, geothermal and tidal to exploit and could easily be powered completely by renewable energy. We have a substantial hydroelectric dam system in the Snowy Mountains Hydro scheme which was a massive nation building exercise that has served us well over the years. So why aren’t we harnessing all of this wonderful energy?

 

We also have a large amount of easily accessible coal and natural gas which can also be used in electricity production and has been used for decades. The resistance to changing from an economy powered by these fossil fuels to one that surges forward with renewable energy providing our electricity is strong and really comes down to one main factor: money.

 

Market valuations of companies is related to their potential. It is a reflection of how the company will perform in the future. The valuation of companies that make money from digging up and exploiting fossil fuels is tied to the reserves of the fossil fuels under their control. The stuff they still have in the ground that will give them future profits is all taken into account. If overnight the value of these fossil fuels disappeared and there was no demand for them then the market value of these companies drops to basically nothing.

 

Now think about everyone who has investments in these companies – whether they be significant shareholders, or through superannuation and retirement schemes that invest broadly in the stock market. Nobody wants this scenario to happen. At the same time, those who stand to profit from increasing value of these companies (and the profits they generate in the meantime) don’t want to see a gradual decline and phase out of our use of these fossil fuels either. This generates a massive resistance to change. Those who want to see the status quo remain can use their financial resources to fund campaigns against the use of renewable energy, lobby politicians and put forward all the positive aspects of maintaining the use of fossil fuel and decry the evil that is ‘free’ energy.

 

There has been a surge in growth in renewable energy electricity production in Australia in recent years thanks to targets such as the RET. This has come about because the government set a clear target of producing 20% of our electricity from renewable sources by the year 2020. Without this catalyst for change the status quo would have remained. I don’t have a lot of faith that it is going to exist for much longer, let’s just hope that the market forces behind renewable energy are now strong enough to keep the momentum going.

 

Jul 08

Fixing computers for family

For me family gatherings such as Christmas, Easter and weddings are less about spending time with relatives you haven’t seen for a long time and more about fixing their computers. As someone who works in the IT industry I have long been requested to have a look at and fix computers of relatives, friends and complete strangers.
I have spent many frustrated hours in front of an aging computer riddled with spyware, viruses and general funkiness while the anxious owner watches on and offers their apologies as we both stare at their dial-up modem willing it to download faster. Early on this riled me so much that I would get pretty obstinate and deny any knowledge of how to fix computers – “I’m a Solution Architect, not a Help Desk jockey. I have two degrees!” I would proclaim in arrogant frustration.
People outside the IT industry have little understanding of the myriad different roles and breadth of skills that it contains. Not everybody involved in aerospace is a rocket engineer.
“But you work with computers don’t you?” would come the hopeful reply. Sure, but so does anyone who works indoors, so by that logic couldn’t I also be an expert in city planning, human resources or banking?
As I’ve gotten older and wiser I’ve mellowed and now offer my services to an inner circle. As the years have gone by I’ve witnessed grown men accumulate multiple laptops as they are unable to make the emotional decision to part with the old one. “This one I use for my internet banking, and this one is for my photos” seemingly unaware that they can use the same portable device for many activities. First world problems defined – too many laptops to maintain! And the root cause of all their problems is they use both those laptops for browsing dodgy porn sites.
After applying updates, correcting settings and replacing crapware with better alternatives I’m left to drop awkward hints like “If you use this browser in this mode, you won’t have as many problems with popups and all those strange adult sites appearing in your browsing history for no reason at all”.
So why the more benevolent attitude? Maybe it’s the realisation of that line from Spider-Man – with great power comes great responsibility. Or a sense of guilt that I am part of an industry that has made computing too hard for the average person. Or maybe it’s just the reward of having other people find all the dirtiest websites for me. Safe browsing people, embrace it.

Older posts «