Where did the last few years go?

I’m back, after not really giving this web site (or myself) much attention over the last few years.

Things have been pretty difficult, but, over the last 6 months or so, I feel like I’ve started to find myself again.

I’ve made some changes; as of today I’ve lost 3 stone (42 lb) since November 2013.  I’ve been trying to get healthier during that time also.  For the last 5 weeks I’ve been going through the C25K (Couch to 5K) programme, to be able to run a 5km race, although before that I was doing loads of exercise bike work and brisk walking.  It feels good to have found the ability to ‘get out there’ again and change my life for the better.

I don’t know how much I’ll post on this site but just wanted to check in again, after a long period of absence.

No-bake protein bars

I wish I could remember where I got this recipe, if I do I’ll give appropriate credit here…

Number of Servings: 9

  • 1 1/3 cup oats
  • 4 scoops of chocolate protein powder
  • 1 cup dry nonfat dry milk
  • 1/3 cup each: sunflour seeds, dried cranberry, coconut flakes
  • 5 tbs peanut butter
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Oil square baking pan, mix all dry ingredients, mix water and vanilla until smooth. Spoon into pan and refrigerate for two hours. Cut and individually wrap. Makes 9 bars.

Sadly I also don’t have the nutritional value for these – I don’t think it was on the original page, although it came from a fitness site I seem to remember…


Cinema for the masses

I was looking into local Vue cinema times to see “Let Me In“, the US re-make of the fabulous Swedish “Let The Right One In” – sadly the remake has already been relegated to late Saturday evening as the only slot, and it’s only gone on release recently.   Even more sadly, the original didn’t even make it to our local cinema at all and we ended up seeing in in the West End of London.

Why oh why do cinemas in small towns/cities just insist on serving up the same old chaff month after month?  if you want to see the latest brainless purile comedy or some romantic bore-fest then you’re in luck!  Want to see anything else and you’re probably stuck with renting it on DVD unless you’re fortunate enough to have an art-house cinema within reach.

I’ve not got to see “Let Me In” yet – I hope it does the original justice but I somehow doubt it will have the same emotions and qualities of the original.  Some may think the original is “just a vampire movie” yet that is only such a small part of it when really the true themes are about lonliness and friendship.  If you haven’t seen the original then you really should…


First use of iPad

I had my first go on an iPad today as we're got one at work in the Talis Education team.  It's the top of the range 64Gb WiFi + 3G model and I've got the pleasure of having it at home for the evening.

It's (obviously) a beautifully crafted and usable bit of kit, as are all Apple products and I'm normally a big fan with my own iPhone, iPod, MacBook Pro and another MacBook Pro for work but I'm currently still wondering what I'd regularly use the iPad for.

It probably doesn't help that there isn't much installed on the device yet as it was only purchased at the weekend and I don't have the iTunes account password to install anything else on it but after the initial "Oooh!" factor I was longing for my laptop again to actually do things on.

Yes, YouTube looks great on it, The Times iPad app is great and very usable/readable and iBooks is also very nice to use but, for me, personally, I don't think I'd make use of one on a daily basis to justify the expense.

I'm probably not the target audience though.  I can imagine that if I did a lot of travelling on public transport or stays in hotels then I'd probably love it just because of the bigger screen and decent web browsing, reading of books/docs and watching some BBC iPlayer stuff.  Right now though I hardly ever use public transport and don't travel through work.

We've got it at work to investigate the device now that they are starting to be used in educational contexts and it'll be great to try some app development on it but I think my money will stay in my pocket for now for one of my own.

I'm looking forward to using it more over the coming weeks/months and my opinion may change as we get more apps on it but right now my MacBook Pro and iPhone do what I need perfectly.

Did I write this blog post on it?  No, I did this on my MacBook Pro 🙂

Updated Aspire list editor

It’s been a while since I made a blog post.  Today, however, there is something worth writing about.

XIP-1324 went live today in Talis Aspire.  That code number won’t mean anything to most people but it’s indelibly imprinted into my brain and will be for the foreseeable future.

Today’s release contained an updated version of our reading list editor and is the result of several months work.  I started it around Christmas and took it through many iterations of subtle tweaks and also quite a bit of scope creep from what was originally planned.  Nad dipped in and out as time allowed at the start and BrickRed took the reins a couple of weeks before the end to sort out the data conversions, squash a few bugs and give it a good test as I was diverted onto another project. So, thanks to all who helped out along the way.

The crux of XIP-1324 is giving users the ability to create/edit reading lists in draft and keep working on them until they are happy with the result and then publish them as live.  There may not be much visiblly different in the UI (some of the other features can be found in the associated release blog post) but it involved some complex changes to our caching mechanism and a total internal rework of how the list editor worked under the hood.

I also wrote the first version of the list editor over a year ago and that caused its own problems.  There was a  decision then to use rdfQuery – some of this was based on need – the ability to suck an RDF model out of an XHTML+RDFa marked up page and then save multiple changes to a reading list in one go.  This didn’r scale well however and performance was poor with extracting the model from the page, especially when we ended up sending hte old and new model to the server at save time to update the changes to the list.  Maximum practical list size then was about 100 items and even that was touch and go in IE7 – the most used browser by our end users.

The new version does things pretty differently.  The read-only version of the reading list is still marked up as XHTML+RDFa but when you go into edit mode it drops pretty much all the RDFa on the page but just keeps the subject URIs for the main list elements such as sections and items.  DOM size has been stripped back as much as is practical for now as the previous DOM bloat with RDFa and other superfluous markup was causing some of the speed issues.  The new editor makes small AJAX calls via a queuing mechanism whenever items are added, removed, editor or moved around on the list.  Keeping the updates in a queue allows us to let the user get on with their editing without blocking operations whilst ensuring that the changes are applied to the data for the list in the correct order.  The new version has been tried with a list just under 500 items in size and performs acceptably – even on IE7.  The JavaScript is still using Prototype.js/Scriptaculous behind the scenes – there’s probably still mileage in tweaking that or giving jQuery another go but, at the time, the draggable/droppable functionality in Scriptaculous was much closer to what we were trying to achieve with little customization that jQuery was.

It’s a shame I can’t point at a live runnining copy of the editor that’s open to the general pubiic but if you want to see some of the general reading lists then try out any of the live instances at Plymouth, Sussex, St Andrews or Nottingham Trent Universities.

It’s been a long journey but I am so very glad it is now live.

Great service from tsohost.co.uk

I’ve been on the tsohost.co.uk Pro hosting package for a couple of years now at home.  I used to be with DomainCity for several years but after service got worse, email was down regularly and a general lack of features it was time to move.  I posted to the Web Host Chat forum asking for recommendations and Adam from tsohost.co.uk contacted me, advertising their services.  A couple of emails later I was a customer and have never looked back.
In two years I have never had any problem with their service.  In the approx 5 times I have raised a support ticket with a question I think the longest it has taken them to respond with an answer is 20 minutes.  Today I raised a support ticket and got a reply within 2-3 minutes – this seems the norm and is excellent customer service – and on a Saturday too.  Weekends don’t seem to make a difference to how long it takes them to reply.
So, a big ‘thank-you’ to tsohost.co.uk for your excellent service over the last 2 years – I’m a very happy customer!

More IE7 CPU spiking

A while ago I wrote about an issue with CPU spiking in Internet Explorer 7, recently I encountered another instance of this that required a different fix. To recap, we have a rich-client drag-drop interface across two scrolling panes.  You can drag and drop within the main pane on the left (a nested list with 'sections' and 'items') and you can also drag things from a pane on the right onto the pane on the left.  A read-only display of this (without the drag/drop and right-hand pane can he seen here for reference. Last time, we had a CPU spike causing slow juddering drag/drop when there were were only about 7 or 8 items in the left hadn pane.  This got progressively worse as you dragged more items onto the list.  After trying various things from Steve Souders' excellent blog and other Googling it ended up with selectively switching elemts of the screen off until I could narrrow it down to see what was causing the problem.  It turned out to require a few CSS 'min-height's being set on a couple of attributes but I'm not 100% sure why.  I'm guessing it could be some manifestation of the IE 'hasLayout' problem and the min-height could have been the equivilent to the Holly Hack to coax the IE rendering engine into working properly. This time however the same symptoms manifested themselves but a different cause and different solution was found.   More selective disabling of page elements/events and head-scratching later this one turned out to be caused by an absolute positioned button in the top-right of the left-hand scrolling pane.  There was no need for this to be absolutely positioned so I just tweaked the CSS again to float it to the right of the list title and, hey-presto, IE7 CPU spike goes away and performance returns to normal. It's these kind of things that give IE the reputation it has with web developers…. 🙂   Love it or hate it, it certainly gives you some interesting issues to sort out.


Dragon's Den is always interesting to watch on TV but every so often there's a product on it that sparks your interest and makes you want to go out and buy it. Our first Dragon's Den purchase was a while ago now and was a Yakibox and the most recent one was a trueCall. Don't bother ordering anything from the Yakibox site now as I'm not sure the company is still trading – we ordered some other stuff from them a while back and never received it and never received any replies to emails).  The Yakibox itself is great though! Our trueCall arrived today and has just been plugged in – all good so far, set up and ready to go.  Even though we're on the telephone preference service we still get loads of calls from Indian call centres and silent automated callers.  The TPS cuts down a lot but we're hoping the trueCall will cut it down even more. For those that don't know how it works it basically intercepts your calls and checks if the caller is on your know 'starred' list.  If it is then it lets it straight through and your phone rings.  If it doesn't recognise the number, or it's withheld, your phone doesn't ring and and trueCall intercepts it.  It asks the caller for their name – if nothing is given then it rejects the call without your phone ringing.  If they do leave their name it then rings your phone and announces the caller, giving you chance to either accept the call, reject it or ask them to leave a message.  You can add callers to a permanent 'starred' list (to always get through) or a 'zap' list, to always be blocked. We've tried it from our mobile phones and all seems good, and tried the messaging service and this seems better than BT's 1571 service.  With trueCall's messaging service you can check the list of inbound/outbound calls and messages from the internet and also have a control panel for other settings and star/zap lists. Looking forward to seeing how it performs over the next few weeks!

Tesco Home Delivery fail us again

Since the Tesco online grocery delivery started, several years ago, we generally use them about once a month to buy certain bulky items so that we don't have to pick up as much when visiting the store.  Over the years though we have changed what we do order from them as, increasingly, their inability ro deliver good quality meat, fruit and vegetables gets more pronounced. These days we never usually order fresh produce from them – we always pick these ourselves at the store.  We have had rotting fresh produce delivered on at least 5 occasions and would regularly have been sent produce right on the edge of 'sell by' date.   They'd probably deny that they try to get rid of items that is barely fresh through the online service, but that's how it increasingly feels to us. For the last few orders we haven't ordered anything fresh but tonight we had a delivery including potatoes – these arrived and were soft, with several convered in mould.  Ridiculous…. So (another) email of complaint has just gone out to Tesco and I'm sure I'll get their standard email of apology back. From this point forward though, absolutely no fresh produce will be ordered through their online service – you just can't trust them to pick anything decent. There are some hilarious quotes on their web site

Picking your fresh food
Our expertly trained shoppers always pick from the back of the shelves to ensure you get the freshest produce and the longest sell by dates. They also carefully select fruit and vegetables as if they were shopping for themselves. They ask themselves the question “would I buy it?” and therefore do not send out anything that is not of the highest quality.