Saturday, 28 January 2006

Basketball and catfish

I’ve been in Atlanta since Sunday night and am staying another 2 weeks. Tonight, I was taken to a female high school basketball game. It was great! Even though the team we were cheering lost. I had my camera, with the long telephoto lens. I thought this lens is great for wildlife so should do nicely for basketball players. I was right but had not anticipated how fast the game is. I have a few nice shots but nothing fantastic. Thus I need to improve my sports shooting skills.

After the game, we went to have dinner at a place that serves typical southen food. I had catfish. I was very nice.

Tomorrow, I’m heading downtown to see the Georgia Aquarium if I can and possibly Underground Atlanta and other things in the area.

Wednesday, 25 January 2006

Battery Life

I decided to test the battery life of my IBM Thinkpad T42 tonight. The test was very simple: start the laptop with a full battery and use it until the battery is completely empty. The usage mostly consisted in browsing the Internet over the Wi-Fi connection available in my hotel room. I didn't turn any battery saving features on. In particular, screen luminosity was on maximum the whole time. So all in all, the machine was being used in a high performance configuration, rather than a power efficient one.

The result is that it took 3 hours for the battery to go down to 10% charge, at which point the laptop beeps and the battery indicator in the task bar goes amber. It then took another 10 minutes for the indicator in the task bar to reach 5% charge. At this point, the laptop beeps again and the battery LED starts flashing. Finally, it took 10 more minutes for the laptop to decide it could not function properly anymore, at which point it automatically hibernated.

I was pleasantly surprised by the results of this experiment. 3 hours and 20 minutes of battery life for a high performance laptop is good. But the really nice touch is that it hibernates automatically rather than completely run out of power. This ensures that you can't lose data accidentally when running on battery.

Tuesday, 24 January 2006

BYKI and Optimus keyboard

Thanks to Google targetted adds in my gmail inbox, I found out about BYKI yesterday. It is a piece of software by Transparent Language based on flash cards. The good news is that the lite version is free and available for PC and Mac. So I downloaded it and am trying it out. It won’t teach you grammar but it is unexpectedly effective at teaching you words. Of course, they would like you to buy the full version but it’s nice to be able to try it out and actually learn something with the free version.

The only problem I have is Transparent Language themselves. I bought products from them in the past and their interpretation of sending you email about products you might be interested in verges on spam: I got quite annoyed at regularly deleting email from them telling me they had a special offer on something or other. At the end of the day, if I am serious about learning a new language, I’d rather stick to that language for some time so I’m unlikely to be a repeat customer very soon.

While using BYKI, I came back to the good old problem about learning Arabic: if you want to learn how to write it as well as speak it, you will need to be able to do the writing exercises. When you have a UK English keyboard, the only option is to use the software character map and this is very time consuming and takes all the fun out of learning anything. The obvious solution would be to get an English/Arabic keyboard and switch keyboard mapping. And the day I want to learn, say Russian, I’d need an English/Russian keyboard. But I’d hope that by then, I’d be able and would want to keep writing Arabic: I’d have to plug the Arabic keyboard back in! I’m not even getting in the complications due to the fact that I already need to be able to write French, Spanish and Italian that all require extra characters in addition to the English ones. So I set to look for something I had seen last year and found it again: the Optimus keyboard. Now, how cool is that? A keyboard where each key is an OLED that changes when you change the keyboard mapping in the OS. You want to write in English? Switch to an English layout. Arabic? Switch to an Arabic one. Russian? Ditto. It looks like it will be available in February but at what price, nobody knows. It’s a cool piece of kit though. I want one of those!

Monday, 23 January 2006

Atlanta here I am!

I just arrived in Atlanta. The flight was good. The weather here is mild (9 Celsius) but very foggy, like London on a bad day.

It's the second time I come here and the logic of Atlanta's airport luggage management still escapes me. I mean it's the only airport in the world I know where you have to pick up your luggage twice: once before customs then you have to check it back in, take a train to baggage reclaim and pick it up again there. Tonight they also managed to spread the luggage from my flight between two carousels at the first pickup, meaning we all had to go from one to the other until we found our stuff; and at the second pickup, they were very careful to only indicate carousels for Delta Airline flights. A sign did say that all international bags were on carousel 3 but not seeing mine, I eventually asked some staff who pointed out as if it was obvious that the bags from the Air France flight were on carousel 4. Having picked up my luggage and heading for the exit, I saw that they had a box of feedback leaflets. I would have happily filled one in to help them improve their service if the box had not been empty.

Anyway, I'm here with all my luggage so it's all good.

Saturday, 21 January 2006

Cucumber + Lemon = Oyster

I have been told tonight, and in no uncertain terms, that the though I am about to post now could qualify me for life internment in a mental hospital. It is therefore fit for publication on the web, this most wonderful library of the weird and the bizarre.

I was in the pub tonight, with two friends. In the pub? Surely not! You never go to the pub!, I hear you say. Anyway, we ordered food. I will spare you the episode where the kitchen staff tried to convince us the breaded scampi we had been given were really the fried camembert wedges we had ordered in disguise. All dishes came with salad and funky edible decoration composed of thin slices of and similarly thin slices of . The artful arrangement of said decoration meant that some slices of cucumber were lying on slices of lemon. As I like cucumber, I decided to eat some of the decoration. I discovered, to my surprise, that the combined taste of cucumber flavoured with lemon was very much like the taste of . I shared my view with my friends who looked at me incredulously but refused to taste the cucumber and verify whether I was indeed off my rocker, as they were implying (well, especially one of them, who shall remain incognita).

Assuming I am not completely potty, I'm sure there's an explanation for it. Maybe the molecules that produce the taste of lemon added to the ones that produce the taste of cucumber react in a way that transform them into molecules that are very close to the ones that produce the taste of oysters. Anyone who has eaten will agree that it is undeniable that lemon does trigger a chemical reaction in other foods. Maybe this is not that far fetched after all. It would also explain why lemon goes so well with oysters, and most seafood for that matter.

The best web design conference on the planet

@media 2006

I attended the @media 2005 conference last year (obviously!). It was by far the best and most useful conference I have ever been to. The speakers included some of the best known names in the industry. Every single presentation was excellent. And the evenings were a great opportunity to meet other professionals.

Vivabit are doing it again this year with @media 2006, this time in a much larger venue. I just registered for it so I will definitely be there. If you are involved in web design, you should book 15th and 16th of June in your calendar, register for @media 2006 and arrange travel to London now. Your boss might need a bit of persuasion to pay for it but believe me: this will be an investment that will pay for itself several times over.

Friday, 20 January 2006

Bus Crunch

I was coming back home today, quite happy that the whole London transport system was working well and I'd be back quickly when the bus had an accident with a white van. Basically, the white van tried to sneak on the bus in the inside lane while turning around Hammersmith roundabout. Now, on a sharp turn like this, a bus needs more than one lane to manoeuvre and it will take the extra room on the inside. So, it went crunch! There wasn't much but it still took the two drivers 10 minutes to argue it out. Therefore I have a piece of advice for white van men: you are smaller than a bus so don't push your luck, even if you think your souped up Ford Transit is faster than a Ferrari.

Shares and Customers

I’ve been doing work for my American customer Tuesday and today. I didn’t do anything yesterday because of a bad cold. Anyway, I wasn’t expecting to do anything before being physically in the US next week so this is good.

Yesterday, I got some papers from Jordans, the company I created my company through and who act as my Company Secretary for the first year. They are not the cheapest on the market but they really know their stuff so it’s all been pretty smooth working with them. The papers I got through the post were the share allocation ones, that I signed and sent back today. I originally created the company with 100 shares and decided to allocate 51 to myself and leave the other 49 in the pot, in case I want to issue more to potential future partners. It doesn’t really matter if it stays a one person company but you never know. So, at £1 per share, I am now the proud owner and director of a company with a capital of £100!

Back to potential customers, I had a long call with the senior technical guy from the company that has offices in Malta that I had been talking to before. It sounds interesting and what they require is right up my street. Maybe I’ll end up visiting Malta when I’m back from the US.

Then again, this is all speculation because I also had a phone call from the guys in Saudi Arabia. They need help and it sounds urgent. My contact there is actually flying out tonight to meet me tomorrow and flying back Saturday! That’s a return ticket Riyadh-London and a hotel room booked at the last minute to discuss a key project! Then again, he sent me the requirements document and I do understand why they’ve got a problem now. Nothing impossible, you understand, just… difficult. If I ever work on that one, I’ll need a bullet-proof contract before I do anything, as they do like to argue the terms of a contract after it’s been signed over there.

After 11 years in the IT industry, I have learnt to become pragmatic and take things as they come. The amount of work that is generated as a direct consequence of something going wrong and needing fixing is scary. It happens even if you are extremely professional and try to do The Right Thing™. But then, who am I to complain? It looks like direct consequences of unfortunate events are going to pay part of my bills for the months to come.

Wednesday, 18 January 2006

Recycling Smut

My upstairs neighbour has been cleaning up the pile of mail that was meant for previous tenants and put everything in my recycling box. That's absolutely fine but I decided to open everything to ensure the contents were indeed recyclable. I found one letter that should really be sent back to the sender so I will do that. But the most interesting in the pile were two simple brown A5 envelopes addressed to Tom, the guy who used to live upstairs and who got more or less thrown out of the flat for rowdy behaviour: they contained mail order catalogs for porn DVDs. Now should I recycle them or bin them?

Printer Found Again

I was wrong yesterday. Contrary to what I thought, I wasn't upset after calling the Apple Store. The credit note I received was purely for their internal accounts and my printer is on its way. For some reason they had the wrong email address attached to the order hence why I never received anything. Unfortunately, the printer should arrive on Monday or Tuesday, while I am in the US but fortunately a friend of mine can be there to receive it. Good.

PAYE, dividends, and the taxman

Starting a company is good. Being paid by your own company so that you can pay your bills is better. In English law, with a limited company, there are two ways this can happen: as an employee of the company you can pay yourself wages or as a shareholder you can pay yourself dividends. Wages include national insurance and pension contributions so you definitely need some of that. Dividends are taxed less than high band wages so it’s good to have some of that as well. Hence the best solution is to have a combination of both. You could spend days calculating what is the ideal balance between wages and dividends to pay a minimum of taxes but as my accountant said: “Gordon (Brown) will get his money anyway”.

So I am now in the process of getting a PAYE (Pay As You Earn) scheme set up for the company and myself registered as an employee on that PAYE scheme. Hopefully I should be able to pay myself my first wages in February.

Tuesday, 17 January 2006


I have a cold. I reckon I caught it while in Luxembourg over the week-end as the temperature there was below zero Celsius. I have spent the day next to a box of tissues and my nose is now painful because I've blown it so much. Hopefully a few Lemsips and a good night sleep will get rid of it.

Printer Saga

Between Christmas and New Year, the Apple Store failed to deliver me a working printer. They came to pick up the defective one the week after the incident but haven't yet delivered a replacement. I was planning to give them a call tomorrow to check where said replacement printer was, especially considering I have had no communication from them at all regarding this order. However, I found a letter when I arrived home today. It was a credit note saying that they refunded the amount I paid for the printer. Therefore, I assume they are not sending a replacement, when I had been clearly told on the phone they would do it. I will call them tomorrow as planned to check what their story is. I strongly suspect they will tell me I need to order a new printer on a separate order. This will be extremely inconvenient as I will be out of the country for 3 weeks from Sunday so will be unable to get anything delivered. I have the feeling I will be upset after calling the Apple Store tomorrow.

Thursday, 12 January 2006

IBAN, BIC, SWIFT and all that malarkey

I went back to the bank yesterday to ask for the details I need so that I can invoice my customer in the US and they can pay me. What I need is simple: I need the relevant codes to enable them to send an international payment to my account. I had gone on Tuesday already but the answer I had got at the counter was not satisfying so I decided to ask a financial adviser. As I suspected, the actual answer is quite different.

In the UK, an account is given a 6-digit sort code and an 8-digit account number. The sort code identifies the exact branch where your account is held. The account number itself identifies the exact account in that branch. Those two pieces of information are all you need to transfer money from another account held in the UK. However, if you want to transfer money to your UK account from a foreign account, you need more than that and it can take three forms:

  • IBAN, International Bank Account Number is an alphanumeric code that identifies the banking institution, country, branch and account. It has a standard format and is widely used in the European Union. In practice, IBAN for UK accounts include the sort code and account number but add more information to make it recognisable internationally.
  • BIC, Bank Identifier Code, is an alphanumeric code that identifies the exact branch where your account is held, like the UK sort code, but is recognised internationally. To fully identify your account, you need to provide the local account number as well, like the 8 digit UK account number.
  • SWIFT, Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is the organisation through which most international transfers are executed and it looks like they have their own codes to uniquely identify the branch where your account is held. Because SWIFT is a widely used international body, their codes are widely used as well. Like BIC, you need to provide your account number as well to uniquely identify the account.

I now have all those different bits of information for my business bank account and have included them on my invoice template. So no customer of mine should have any problem paying me. The first invoice is in the post.

Tuesday, 10 January 2006

Vodafone change of ownership

Before my previous company closed down, I filled in all the forms so that the Vodafone contract for my mobile phone be moved from the company to me. I haven't heard from them all this time. So I decided to give them a call yesterday. They say they never received the form so nothing has been done. They are sending me a new one that I will need to send again, with a letter from the company. I managed to arrange the letter so I should be able to get everything done. Now, the Vodafone guy said that the transfer would need 21 days. So it looks like it will happen while I am in the US. Now what are the chances that something will go wrong and I will end up without a working phone while in the US?

SWIFT code and Saudi Arabia

I went to the bank today to ask them about my SWIFT code so that my American customer could do an international transfer to my account. I was told it was on my bank statement and that having the branch BIC code would not be enough, I would have to request my own SWIFT code if I didn’t have one. The first statement is definitely false. The second is I believe false as well because every payment software I have designed always needed a SWIFT branch BIC code and an account number so in theory the branch BIC code and the account number should be enough. I’ll go back tomorrow and talk to my account manager rather than the person at the desk.

Back at home, I called a friend who works for a Middle Eastern company my old company used to partner with. He is in a bit of a quandary because my old company ceased to exist just when he signed a contract to deliver a system based on our software. He can either contact the American company that took over the software (and for whom I’m going to Atlanta in 2 weeks time) or decide to build the pieces he needs from scratch. In both cases, he’s likely to want me to get involved, in which case I might end up spending some time in Saudi Arabia.

It never rains, it pours. So I am now in a situation where, if all the prospects I have become real contracts, I’ll have to refuse work. Or find a way to be in 3 different places at the same time.

Miserable failure

I failed miserably to take a picture today. I went to Holborn for an interview with a company. I was there, just opposite one of the only remaining Tudor building in central London (Staple Inn), 2 blocks a way from the oldest pub in the City of London (Ye Olde Mitre, established 1546) and I didn’t have my camera! What was I thinking? Shame on me! I shall have to repent by taking at least two pictures tomorrow.

Monday, 9 January 2006

A good day for business

It was a good day today.

I started the day by dropping at the bank to give them the last pieces of paperwork they were expecting to be able to fully open the business account.

I then had a meeting with guys from a company that is in the same space as my old company and who are currently recruiting. We had a very good meeting and they are interesting not only in doing business with me but also with the rest of the technical team I used to work with. As those guys are on short term contracts at the moment to perform technical hand-overs to the Irish company that took over some of our old customers, it might be a good opportunity to get their next jobs sorted.

When I came back home, I called my first customer, the American company that took over my old company and the whole reason why I am starting my own business now. I wasn’t aware of it but apparently I can already invoice them for being available for phone support during the month of January for one of the customers they took over. It’s not a huge amount of money but it will definitely help my cashflow. Fantastic! I’ll have to go to the bank tomorrow to get the SWIFT code of the branch so that they can transfer the money across the pond. I also need to sort out flights to Atlanta as they want me out there on the 23rd for a few weeks.

Then I called the CEO of another company I had seen before Christmas and who was interested in doing work with me as well. He still wants to do so, once I’m done with the work in the US, so I’ll talk to his head techie this week and I might even end up spending a couple of days in Malta to see their technical team. Just what I need: a couple of days in the sun, in a place I’ve wanted to visit for some time. And all in the name of business.

Central Asia road trip

I bought a copy of this month’s Wanderlust today and they have a good article on overland trips. They mention Wild Frontiers that has quite a few trips to central Asia, including Uzbekistan. It’s definitely worth investigating.

Back to Atlanta

It looks like I’ll be in Atlanta for work starting on the 23rd of January, for a duration of 2 to 4 weeks. This time, I’ll make sure I have the SLR camera to take good shots. And maybe I could pop in the shop where I bought my 100-400mm lens last year to show them some of the shots I took with it. The guys there were extremely helpful.

Sunday, 8 January 2006

London to Jordan via Europe, Turkey and Syria

I’ve always wanted to visit Jordan and Petra in particular. I came across the idea of doing the journey by train via Turkey and Syria when I stumbled upon this website while looking for something completely unrelated.


I am currently looking for a good way to manage customer projects, before I actually start getting into the nitty gritty of one. I came across Basecamp which looks like exactly the right type of software. What’s more, it is reasonnably priced and the people behind it, 37signals, are known in the industry for providing good quality solutions.

Saturday, 7 January 2006


Once again, I changed from tube to bus at Hammersmith, thinking that it was worth waiting for a bus that would drop me just in front of my house rather than take a quicker tube that would drop me an 8 minute walk away (yes, I timed it). Once again, I was appalled by the tasteless muzak that was coming out of the speakers at Hammersmith bus station. Not only that, they insist in playing it at such a volume that I can't drown the noise with my iPod. It's supposed to be background ambient music, not awful classical music at nightclub volumes, you insensitive clods!

Friday, 6 January 2006

Erratic Entries

I realise that the frequency of posts on this blog is very erratic. Sometimes I wont post anything for weeks, at other times, I will post several entries a day. So I have just promised myself that I would try to add at least one entry a day, even if it is a very short one, assuming I have access to the net. And to make sure I would do my best, I made the intention public on 43 Things.

Monday, 2 January 2006

Happy New Year!

This is it, we are now in 2006. The party was nice, the champagne was good, the fireworks were colourful and I got home suitably late (or rather early in the morning). Now for the next few weeks, I will have to be very careful each time I write a date to ensure I write 2006, rather than 2005.