Blog in isolation

There is a radiant darkness upon us

Music for Sheep

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People often write in and ask ‘Norman - just what is this mysterious “Music For Sheep” playlist of which you speak ?’

‘Music For Sheep’ is my favourite music playlist of all time. It has provided solace and hope during some pretty bleak times. The playlist is ironically named as a tribute to all the social music sharing services like Spotify and last.fm which encourage sharing of your favourite bands, music and playlists. This is a novelty for 12 minutes but, ultimately a bit irrelevant because, as I remarked way back in 2006:

‘You like your music. I like my music. We may share some common interests but it really doesn’t matter’.

So why am I posting this ? Well, because initially I created this playlist on my Android phone for walks around the park and then it got erased when I had to reset the phone.

Then I used Google Music to store the crucial list of songs for eternity but I was subsequently so horrified to find this service sync’ed everything but playlists (coupled with the demise of Google Reader), I chose to delete the bulk of my Google services.

Then I had a brain wave and created a DokuWiki - primarily to store this playlist. But then I let my hosting lapse in favour of Amazon S3 so I found myself re-creating it yet again.

Here it is - salvaged from an old DokuWiki backup - not for you as much as for me.

  • Falling Down - Oasis
  • She Just Wants To Be - R.E.M.
  • These Wooden Ideas - Idlewild
  • Crush On You - Brakes
  • Sappy (live) - Nirvana
  • Little By Litle - Oasis
  • Cuyahoga - R.E.M.
  • Pilsner Trail - The Fall
  • Conversation 16 - The National
  • D-7 - Nirvana
  • There There - Radiohead
  • Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks - The National
  • Here And Now - Ride
  • Mistake Pageant - Idlewild
  • Carrion - British Sea Power
  • Spank Thru (live) - Nirvana
  • The Lord’s Prayer - Siousxie And The Banshees
  • Simple Stuff - Echo And The Bunnymen

Slightly skewed with two songs from The National and surprisngly nothing from The Smiths or The Chameleons (who I always list in my favourite bands together with The Fall).

Where Are They Now ?

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People often write in and ask ‘Is Oracle blogging dead ?’

Well, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the list of Oracle blogs I posted way back in 2007 and see what they’re up to.

  • Life After Coffee - dead (last post May 2011). The pressure of the No. 1 slot proved too much.
  • The Tom Kyte Blog - frequency much reduced but Tom’s a busy man.
  • Rittman Mead - now a multi-user, shiny, corporate blog.
  • Oracle Scratchpad - Jonathan Lewis is still going strong.
  • Eddie Awad …so is Eddie.
  • Doug Burns - Our favourite Scotsman is still active and contemplating a migration away from Serendipity.
  • Kevin Closson - occasional poster.
  • David Aldridge - as above (when something annoys him).
  • Tim Hall - still travelling the world, presenting, reading books and watching weird films.
  • Jeff Hunter - resting (inactive since May 2012).
  • Peter Scott - alive and well blogging under the Rittman Mead umbrella.
  • Andrew Clarke - sporadic flurries of activity from Tooting.
  • Chris Foot - not known at this address.
  • William Robertson - still manages to exclaim ‘WTF?!’ once a year.
  • Howard Rogers - still blogging from Down Under.
  • Robert Vollman - resting (since August 2012).
  • Andy Campbell - hijacked by spammers. Either that or he really is pimping satellite TV systems and payday loans.
  • Moans Norgaard - pining for the fjords (since July 2010).
  • Laurent Schneider - actively blogging about Oracle.
  • Lisa Dobson - went to the trouble of getting her own domain and then neglected it (since Sept 2011). No longer a ‘newbie’.
  • Jeff Moss - pimping vacations in Florida.
  • Beth - Data Geek Gal has been quiet on data quality (since Oct 2012).
  • Steve Karam - the alchemist is busy mixing up strange concoctions involving Hadoop, Hue, Oozie and occasionally Oracle.
  • Eric Emrick - nothing since March 2009.
  • Alex Gorbachev - busy growing Pythian Corp.
  • Robert Baillie - blogging about Agile, Extreme and project management after a 3 year lull.
  • Gary Myers - moved house (still in Oz) but helpfully remembered the redirect.
  • Nuno Souto - still blogging from Sydney.
  • Daniel Fink - The Optimal DBA blog has been dropped with constraints cascaded - which is suboptimal.
  • Ed Whalen - wrote a popular book in 2011, got rich on the proceeds and retired in the Caribbean.

Kingstonian FC 4 Grays Athletic 0

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Saturday 7 September was non-league day. There were no Premiership fixtures and Kingstonian FC had a number of offers to attract football supporters down to Kingsmeadow (half price admission for any season ticket holder).

I had attended Kingstonian’s opening home league fixture and been pretty impressed by the new players recruited by Alan Dowse and the quality of the play in a 3-0 victory over Enfield Town so, on a sunny afternoon, I paid my second visit of the season to watch the K’s.

I like to stand behind the dugouts as you get a good view of all of the pitch and have the added bonus of hearing the manager’s and coaches shrewed tactical thinking as the game unfolds.

Kingston started quite sluggishly and fell behind after 15 minutes when Dee Okojie carelessly lost possession on the halfway line and Duru took advantage by firing past Rob Tolfrey to give the visitors a deserved lead.

Kingston came back without creating many clear cut chances and the Grays goalkeeper embarked on time-wasting often taking a lengthy drink and applying sun tan lotion before finally taking each goal kick.

Dowse tirelessly urged his team on shouting ‘Keep going - it’ll come’ and sure enough, on the stroke of half-time, it did come when Andre McCollin met a decent cross and planted the ball back past the keeper into the corner with a firm header.

It wasn’t a dirty game was spoiled by some rather fussy and at times inept refereeeing. In addition, there were a couple of ‘handbags at six paces’ confrontrations where all 20 outfield players foolishly chose to get involved screaming ‘Leave it - he’s just not worth it’. Not a great advert for non-league football.

The second half got underway and Gary Abbott, Dowse’s Number 2, rather aptly kept on screaming ‘Second ball now, lads’, ‘Seconds’, ‘Let’s have seconds’. Martin Tyler (first team coach and Sky commentator) who has probably had enough of constantly talking during a football match, remained seated in the dugout for the most part keeping a dignified silence. The other theme for the day seemed to be ‘Squeezing’. Dowse and Abbott repeatedly and loudly kept urging the players to ‘Squeeze’. Sometimes, it was to ‘Squeeze ‘em’ or ‘Squeeze up’ or occasionally ‘Just fucking SQUEEZE !’.

When his team is defending, Dowse also uses a very strange phrase to his defenders - it sounds like ‘Good foul, good foul now’. As Alan Dowse has a heavy Geordie accent, I can’t make it out properly - it might be ‘Go on now, tackle him and dinnae give away a foul, man’ or it might just be ‘Commit a good foul but disguise it so no free-kick is given’.

Anyway, I digress - Kingston opened the second half quite brightly and, after 53 minutes, took a rather undeserved lead given that Grays had been on top for the first half hour. A carefully rehearsed free-kick routine saw two players both go to take it simultaneously, everyone laughed and while Grays were distracted, the ball was thread past on the blindside of the defensive wall for McCollin to net his second and put Kingston into the lead.

Five minutes later, McCollin completed a fine hat-trick when some neat passing from the midfield launched a lightning counter-attack as Grays were pressing forward for an equaliser and McCollin again finished with great efficiency.

3-1 to Kingston. Some Grays’ heads went down, they lost shape and some discipline and for a while it looked like Kingston were going to score every time they crossed the half-way line. The Grays goalkeeper seemed oblivious to his side”s predicament and continued his infuriating timewasting antics.

K’s secured victory with a brilliant fourth goal as McCollin completed a delightful passing move that got most of the coaching staff off their feet and celebrating with the players. As the chap next to me said ‘It’s just like watching Brazil’.

All of this proved just too much for the Grays No. 5. After being run ragged by McCollin and conceding 4 goals in a match they looked capable of winning, he finally snapped and, after being penalised for yet another clumsy foul, yet another pushing and shoving episode ensued with both linesmen enterting the field of play to try to maintain order.

Shortly after, both protagonists (McCollin and the No. 5) were withdrawn by their respective coaches. K’s promising midfieder, Dan Sweeney, picked up a knock which meant he hobbled through the last 15 minutes. The fussy ref made some more bookings and kept marching out the 10 yards at every single free-kick and a lot of late substitutions were made by both sides.

K’s cruised home and the 4 goal hero, McCollin, ensured that Kingstonian extended their lead at the top of the Ryman Premier to 1 point over Wealdstone.

An exciting, eventful game packed with incident and goals. Pity only 394 people were there to see it.

Next fixture: Monday 9 September, 19:45 - Bognor Regis (H)

Arundel House Hotel

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The Arundel House Hotel is a decent, clean, tidy and reasonably priced hotel in Cambridge. The hotel is ideally located adjacent to Jesus Green so you can easily walk into Cambridge for sight-seeing. In addition, it has a large car park which is free to residents.

However, one unfortunate incident at breakfast means that I will probably never return there or honestly be able to unreservedly recommend it.

I am grabbing some fruit and yoghurt and returning to our table in the light and airy conservatory. As I pass the ‘Please wait here to be seated’ sign, I am surprised to see Norma standing there, waiting to be seated as she already has a seat allocated. With me. In the conservatory. Was it something I said ?

I am even more surprised to hear her raising her voice slightly at a waiter. My wife rarely gets cross or raises her voice. When she does, she doesn’t really sound angry, loud or intimidating but her voice quivers slightly.

Anyway, she said ‘Listen - I just want a cup of tea. I am a customer in your hotel and I have paid for breakfast. Is that really too much to ask ?’

The waiter nodded and replied ‘Not at all madam, I will have some tea brought over immediately’.

When we both sat down, my wife explained the background to this little outburst.

Tea and coffee wasn’t served to your table. Instead it was available for self-service in two large coffee pots. Fine.

The coffee pot containing tea was empty. Norma politely asked a waitress if she could bring a fresh pot out.

My wife ate some cereal. The tea didn’t arrive. She ate some toast. The tea didn’t arrive. She got up again and politely asked for some tea. Again.

A waitress rather forcefully told her - ‘Yes - I know. It’s coming. It’s coming. Look - here he is now’.

My wife poured some tea into her cup from the freshly brewed, steaming pot of tea. Some grey liquid entered her cup. She frowned - waited 30 seconds, sluiced the content of the large pot around in an effort to strengthen it up and tried again. She go the same grey liquid - this time with a pinkish tinge.

She asked another waitress for a single pot of tea. She was told, rather forcefully, ‘No - tea is served from the table in the conservatory’.

Norma is now getting officially pissed off so she grabs a small teapot from an empty or vacated table and asks a waiter - ‘The tea from the large pot isn’t very nice. Please can I have a pot of tea in here ?’ (helpfully points at teapot).

Waiter responds - ‘No - that teapot is only for Green Tea’ and dismissively walks away.

Wife is now verging on enraged which is where I originally saw her at ‘Waiting to be seated’ sign, blissfully unaware as I sipped at my perfectly acceptable filter coffee.

The saga ends when a waitress finally comes to our table brandishing a teapot.

Or, it would have ended there, if she had not slammed the teapot down on the table with such force that the plates with mini-jars of marmalade and honey shook and a table leg nearly gave way.

I looked at the waitress. She looked cross, very cross. If looks could kill, there would have been a massacre.

Screw this - this has gone far enough. She’s not insulting my wife like this.

I gestured to the cup of grey liquid in the teacup (with a strange pinkish tinge) which looked so unappetising, I daren’t even try it.

‘Look at that tea - it’s disgusting’.

‘Looks alright to me’, the sullen waitress replied.

‘Are you serious ? Would you drink that ?’

‘Yeah - I would drink it’ and she glared at me for that little extra touch of customer service.

She was lucky she wasn’t wearing the damned cup of grey slops when she departed with a face like a kid who had been denied sweeties, had her phone taken away and grounded for a week.

Kids of Today

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Over the weekend, I was helping Norman Junior III with a C programming exercise (a wordsearch puzzle). I had rather hoped purchasing him the original and definitive text ’Kernighan and Ritchie (Second Edition)’ would enable him to become a C wizard without any further intervention from me but no.

In a flash of inspiration, I had introduced some symbolic constants for each of the eight possible directions.

When I asked him - ‘Can you remember how to specify a constant in C ?’, he replied ‘Oh yeah - I know, I remember. Hashtag define’.

Sigh.

Amazon Customer Service

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I am currently hosting this site on Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3). For the first 12 months I am eligible for the Free Usage Tier pricing.

The Free Tier isn’t completely free but includes ’5 GB of Amazon S3 standard storage, 20,000 Get Requests, and 2,000 Put Requests’.

Initially, I had to test, review and deploy the entire site a few times before I got things right and Google’s crawler was busy re-indexing the site so I wasn’t wholly surprised when September’s bill was a measly 15 cents.

The breakdown was as follows:

  • S3 storage $0.01
  • GET requests $0.03
  • PUT requests $0.08
  • Tax $0.03

The only element that puzzled me was the S3 storage which is free for up to 5GB. I checked the size of the site which is just 21MB (all images are outsourced to Picasa).

$ du -sh public
21M    public

I sent an email to Amazon customer service asking for clarification - not because I can’t afford a penny - but because I would like to understand the pricing structure ready for when the 12 month Free Tier period expires.

In the interim period, I found the answer on the AWS FAQ - the Free Tier assumes Standard S3 Storage will be used and I was using the following ‘s3cmd’ to deploy my site.

s3cmd sync --acl-public --reduced-redundancy public/* s3://#{s3_bucket}/

The choice of the Reduced Redunancy Storage option makes sense as this normally costs less ($0.093 per GB) than standard storage ($0.125 per GB) and this is a low traffic website (and I have multiple backups).

However, this caveat is actually covered in the last section of the FAQ

Does the AWS free tier include Amazon S3 Reduced Redundancy Storage (RRS)?

No, the AWS free tier does not include Amazon S3 RRS storage. The AWS free tier includes 5 GB of Amazon S3 standard storage, which offers the highest Amazon S3 durability.

A couple of days later I received a response from a Amazon Customer Service rep who confirmed that Reduced Redundancy Storage wasn’t covered by the free tier, apologised for the misunderstanding and applied a $5 credit to my AWS account for the ‘inconvenience caused’. For me, this will probably equate to 3 years ‘free’ hosting.

Once again, fantastic customer service from Amazon. I was originally thinking of investigating altenative hosting options when the 12 month period expires but, on reflection, I don’t think I will bother.

Octopress Versus Drupal Performance

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One of the main advantages of a statically generated blog (like Octopress) over a blogging platform that uses a database (WordPress, Drupal) is performance.

My humble blog doesn’t get enough traffic for performance to be a consideration and I thought I wouldn’t be able to discern any improvement.

This graph is from Google Webmaster Tools. Can you guess when the blog migration from Drupal to Octopress was done ? Yes - that’s right - the middle of September (17th to be precise).

Undeniably, the performance is much better (fastest response time of 128 milliseconds) and reliable since the move to Octopress. Unfortunately, this ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparison isn’t ideal. Previously, the blog was running Drupal 7, configured with a small number of modules using MySQL and hosted on cheap ($6 a month) shared hosting with Bluehost.

The performance spikes (high of 2.5 seconds to access a page !) are probably related to high usage of the Linux server my blog was co-hosted on (rather than a specific Drupal performance problem).

When I migrated to Octopress, I also moved the blog to Amazon S3 storage so it’s not entirely clear how much S3 has contributed to the relatively stable and fast response times of the blog since mid-September.

With hindsight, I really wish I had phased the migration by deploying Octopress for a month on the same Bluehost hosting (using rsync) and then moved to Amazon S3. Still, it’s a but late for that now.

However, it looks like I am ready for the SlashDot effect.

Diamond Geezer’s Audience

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Diamond Geezer recently posted his annual analysis of how many blogrolls he appears in. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the number is steadily declining and he finds it harder to find new blogs to add to his list.

I thought it might be interesting to look at the blogging platforms used by the 98 blogs listed. Here are the results:

  • Blogger 60
  • WordPress.com 11
  • WordPress.org 11
  • Typepad 4
  • MovableType 3
  • Livejournal 2
  • Canalblog 1
  • Drupal 1
  • ExpressionEngine 1
  • Nucleus CMS 1
  • Serendipity 1
  • Guardian (journo) 1
  • Custom 1

The dominance of Blogger/Blogspot didn’t surprise me that much. I have noticed before that it’s very popular amongst UK bloggers; particularly veteran bloggers who maybe had less choice avaiable that the plethora of options available today.

Which blogging platform do you use and why ?

Back to Basics

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Frustrated at the inability of Google to provide a simple sync process that works for disparate versions of Chrome and Chromium browsers, I decided to adopt a pragmatic approach, return to Victorian values and go back to using a Web based bookmarks service.

Way back, in 2005, I evaluated three different bookmarking services and dismissed Delicious, mainly on the grounds of the user interface design of the home page which, according to me, ‘looks like an undergraduate knocked it up during a lunch hour’. This was a little rich from someone with no design experience whatsoever but still.

Seven years have passed though and now my requirements are slightly different. I use three different computers (desktop, work laptop and netbook) and different Web browsers (Firefox and Chromium). In addition, I consume content (Google Reader, Google Plus and identi.ca) on an Android phone so the requirement is for a reliable Chromium extension, Firefox addon and Android application, that simply supports posting and searching, for the bookmarking service.

In the intervening period, I had also played with diigo and this service is still available but leaning towards a Premium model (free basic service with paid for add ons and additional features).

All the cool cats currently tend to favour Pinboard which has a simple business model - a one-off fee that gradually increases as more users join the service. The current fee stands at $9.90 but I can hardly justify that for what is essentially a private dump of bookmarks as I would make limited use of the sharing and discovery elements.

So that was easy - delicious was aquired and subsequently sold by Yahoo! and have thankfully lost the silly del.icio.us name which now simply redirects to delicious.com.

I am using the following delicious tools:

Sorted.

Speeding Up Octopress Generation

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My site has 966 posts and 70 categories.

By default, Octopress re-generates the entire site - every single post, all the category pages, the archive pages

On my Acer Aspire One (Intel Atom 1.66GHz) netbook, the regeneration takes around 10 minutes.

There are a couple of options that can significantly reduce this time and make the write/preview/edit iterative process more tolerable.

Firstly, you can use ‘rake isolate’ to move all other posts into a ‘stash’ directory and simply process the newly created post.

$ rake isolate['speeding']
$ ls source/_posts/
2012-09-20-speeding-up-octopress-generation.markdown

This reduces the generation time significantly to 18 seconds.

$ time rake generate
## Generating Site with Jekyll
unchanged sass/screen.scss
Configuration from /home/andy/blog/octopress/_config.yml
Building site: source -> public
Successfully generated site: source -> public

real    0m18.192s
user    0m14.369s
sys     0m1.368s

This is helpful for previewing the post as it will work on the site and fixing typos but still the time consuming site generation needs be to done prior to deployment.

$ rake integrate
$ rake generate

The second method is to use ‘jekyll –limit-posts ’. I added a new Rake task as follows:

desc "Generate jekyll site (last 5 posts)"
task :fastgen do
  raise "### You haven't set anything up yet. First run `rake install` to set up an Octopress theme." unless File.directory?(source_dir)
  puts "## Generating Site with Jekyll (last 5 posts)"
  system "compass compile --css-dir #{source_dir}/stylesheets"
  system "jekyll --limit_posts 5"
end

This also significantly reduced the site generation time

$ time rake fastgen
## Generating Site with Jekyll (last 5 posts)
unchanged sass/screen.scss
Configuration from /home/andy/blog/octopress/_config.yml
Building site: source -> public
Successfully generated site: source -> public

real    0m59.061s
user    0m40.995s
sys     0m6.956s

Out of interest, I converted my content into Hyde (a static site generator written in Python).

Hyde generated the entire site in 9 mins 17 seconds. However, Hyde also supports incremental builds (which took just 34 seconds for a single new post).

I also tried raw Jekyll using the default Tom Preston-Werner theme. This took 2 minutes to generate the site in its entirety.