My Bass Guitar Self-Build Project

My amazing daughter presented me with a Harley Benton DIY Bass Guitar Kit recently and I finally completed the project to design and assemble it (with her help along the way). These kits are surprisingly well made and the bulk of the effort in building them was spent designing the finish of the body and shape of the headstock, after which final assembly was pretty straightforward. Here is a snapshot of what this very enjoyable family project involved.

The Guitar Kit

There are a few styles available in this range and mine was the classic Precision model. The kit itself included a finished timber body and neck (with a generic headstock that you can shape to your liking), along with a scratchboard and all the other electronics and mechanics needed. 

The instructions were also pretty comprehensive and very clear so there were no major issues to report with regard to assembly or functionality of the finished article, although the choice of online images showing what’s in the kit was surprisingly limited (as you can see above).

The Body

Our initial plan was to simply paint the body in a plain colour, perhaps a gold or silver, but we felt this would be too simple (and, quite frankly, boring) so we then tried our hand at rendering a partly concealed LEGO brick pattern, hiding beneath a cracked, plain surface. However, we just weren’t happy with how this was working out so we sanded it down again and went back to the drawing board, as they say.

My daughter then suggested we try our hand at hydro-dipping, which involves (spray) painting the surface of a large container of water and slowly immersing the guitar body into it, where the thin film of (spray) paint formed on the surface transfers onto the guitar as you insert it.

We decided on a 3-4 colour blue/white pattern for this and before applying our base coat, we first applied a few coats of basic white primer.

We then applied around 3-4 coats of our midrange blue base colour, allowing around 3-4 hours for each coat to dry and sanding lightly in between coats to iron out any blisters or excess coverage from the previous coats.

Next, after waiting for a relatively calm day, we prepared our impromptu outdoor hydro-dipping studio (not sure if that’s what you’d call it), which consisted of a plastic storage container large enough to accommodate the entirety of the guitar body at a shallow angle (so with sides could be covered in a single attempt), a selection of white and blue spray paints (but not including the base colour) as well as a wire coat hanger (no DIY project is complete without one of those)!

We also attached a short wooden plank to the guitar body so it could be cleanly immersed into (and out of) the water to maximise the amount of the body the sprayed paint would cover.

While this worked, to a point, and we got a pretty good effect on our first attempt, we realised that doing it outdoors caused the spray paint to dry very quickly and this caused a lot of blistering and poorly covered areas on the body, which needed sanding down afterwards (before varnishing).

We also felt that too much of the base coat, which we both really liked, had been lost in translation so we decided to re-apply a light coating of the base coat over the sanded hydro effect, which actually turned to be a masterstroke, giving it a beautiful knurly, marble effect in the end. A few coats of (sprayed) gloss varnish later (with 2-3 hours in between), the body was finally finished!

It also seems that, in all this excitement, we forgot to take a photo of the body at that stage of completion but don’t worry, keep reading and all will be revealed at the end.

The Headstock

The second major challenge was to select a suitable shape for the generic headstock provided in the kit. After some research online, I decided to go with something inspired by Van Halen bassist, Michael Anthony, who played a very nice Schecter precision-style bass for a time.

After failing to locate a template for this online, I took my chances with printing a cropped version of the above photo, multiple times with varying degrees of scale, until I got one that approximated the size of the generic headstock in the kit. After a quick trip to my brother’s house, to use his microfile saw and vice, I had the basic shape that I was after.

I then set about using my Dad’s old (wood/steel) files to smoothen and deepen the various edges and curves by hand, until I was finally happy with the outcome, which also turned out great!

After a few coats of (sprayed) matt varnish, the headstock was also ready for final assembly.

Final Assembly

Armed with the completed body and headstock, both of which had been varnished (with a gloss effect on the body and a matt effect on the headstock), we set about final assembly.

You’ll note the marble effect on the body that we mentioned earlier, which was achieved by applying (several coats of) a base coat, a single hydro dipping of both sides, followed by sanding and reapplying 1-2 light coats of the base coat again (followed by varishing). The remaining pieces needed for assembly were all provided in the kit (below).

The only real challenge we had during assembly was locating the pre-drilled holes for the pickups on the body, which had become invisible due to the layers of primer, base coat and hydro dipping. We solved this by fitting the scratchboard first, which helped us relocate the pickup holes.

We also had to clip a tiny sliver from the inner edge of the scratchboard, where it seemed a little too tight against the neck (where the neck was fitted to the body).

The Finished Article

While the design and finishing of the body and headstock took several weeks of elapsed time to complete (with various weather-induced delays and trial & error phases along the way), the final assembly of the finished guitar took just under 2 hours (including the tweaks above), and here it is!

I have to say, I couldn’t be happier with it. It’s exactly the look and finish I was hoping for and it plays and sounds as good as it looks, so a thoroughly enjoyable experience from start to finish.

Thanks, Kelly!

Getting Road Legal on a Motorcycle in Ireland

I’ve been enjoying the joys of owning a vintage motorcycle over the past few years (something that’s been declared a midlife crisis by some) and, given the number of times I’ve been asked about the process of getting the bike (and me) legally on the road (in modern Ireland), I decided to document what’s involved for the benefit of others considering a similar hobby.

This is also a catalog of the things I could have done with knowing myself when embarking on the journey, which would have saved quite a bit of time (i.e. knowing that some items require others to be done first and there’s a long lead time involved).

It’s also worth noting that, in my case, I’d never had any kind of prior bike license (apart from the standard moped license that permits driving of vehicles with engine sizes up to 50cc) so I was effectively starting from scratch in my journey.

Many of the items can be done in parallel but there are also some dependencies to note. There are some long waiting times and surprising costs involved too, which you should be aware of.

Theory Test

Before you can get a driving license in Ireland, you need to pass a (computer-based) test that assesses your knowledge of the theory of driving. This used to be a written test but is now fully computerised and there are different tests for different types of vehicles (e.g. motorbike, car, truck).

The test itself consists of 40 multiple-choice questions on various driving-related topics (e.g. road safety, road signage) for your vehicle type and you need to answer 35 (or more) correctly to pass.

You can also purchase a CD with the same software used in the test (available in most bookstores and local libraries) to prepare yourself for the official test. I strongly recommend this because the pool of questions and user interface on the CD is identical to the official test and taking 1-2 practice tests per week in the leadup to your official test is a very effective way to prepare to pass.

The test costs €45 and you can book online at https://theorytest.ie. However, the waiting time for a test appointment could be several weeks (potentially months depending on Covid-19 restrictions).

Learner Permit (incl. Public Services Card)

In Ireland, your first driving license is called a Learner Permit (it used to be called a Provisional License). You must have passed the Driver Theory Test before you can apply for a Learner Permit.

You can apply for a Learner Permit online but to do this you will also need a Public Services Card (PSC) which many young drivers (or full-time workers) may not have. Obtaining a PSC is actually quite a manual process, requiring an in-person visit to your local Government offices, so this is something you should consider starting much earlier. There is no cost for a Public Services Card and, to be fair, once you have one the process of requesting the Learning Permit is very smooth.

There are some restrictions to driving a motorcycle on a Learner Permit, the main ones being:

  • You cannot carry a pillion passenger.
  • You must wear a hi-vis vest with an “L” sign on it while riding.
  • Depending on your age, you may be limited to the size of bike (engine) you can ride.

You will also need to select a suitable License Category when applying for a Learner Permit. There are several motorcycle categories (all beginning with “A”), linked to your age and/or the power of your bike (e.g. engine size). I recommend choosing the highest category you can (e.g. A2), which will allow you more options for the size/type of bikes you can ride.

A Learner Permit (for a car or motorbike) costs €45 and is valid for 2 years. You can book online at https://ndls.ie. If requested online, it only takes a couple of days to arrive.

Initial Basic Training (IBT)

In Ireland, you cannot get motorcycle insurance until you have taken a 2-day basic training course called Initial Basic Training (IBT). While I understand (and agree with) the logic of this and the course itself was pretty good (one day in the classroom and one day out riding a bike), I found the cost to be extremely expensive at a whopping €495.

If you have been driving a car (on a full driving license) for some time, contrary to some beliefs, this does not give you an exemption from needing to complete the IBT.

The IBT certificate is only initially valid for 2 years but will be eligible for an extension if you had applied for (or attempted) the full driving test within that period of time.

Motorcycle Registration

Depending on the motorbike you plan to use, you may (or may not) need to register it. Most new or second-hand bikes will already be registered for you but, in my case, I had to re-register my bike as it had not been road legal for almost 30 years (and had long since been archived by the relevant Government transport authorities).

Re-registering a bike has a nominal cost of €12 but requires some official paperwork to be signed and stamped by a local Police department official, which can take extra time.

Motor Tax

All motorised vehicles in Ireland are required to pay a motor tax before legally being allowed onto public roads. The cost, which recurs annually, depends on your vehicle type and engine size or emissions but is significantly cheaper for vintage vehicles (e.g. €35 per year). Apart from the bike being formally registered, there are no other prerequisites for paying the motor tax, which can be done online at https://www.motortax.ie.

Motor Insurance

The final step to being allowed onto a public road is to get your bike (and yourself) insured. Again, the cost here depends on your age, driving experience, motorcycle type/size/value etc. However, you cannot get motorcycle insurance until you have completed the Initial Basic Training above.

Bike Gear

You should not take to the public roads unless you are wearing suitable protective clothing. As I understand it, in Ireland, the only legal requirement here is a helmet but the importance of proper bike gear was outlined in a very practical way during Day 1 of the Initial Basic Training:

If you are involved in a biking incident at 30km/h, where you come off your bike and slide to a stop on the ground, while the chances of a fatal injury are low, the chances of needing time off work to recover are very high. In that regard, the difference between wearing proper protective clothing or not could be 6 days out of work (with gear) or 6 months out of work (without gear). You decide!

The cost of proper bike gear was also something I’d not fully understood beforehand and it’s not cheap either. Here’s a summary of what I bought, along with indicative costs:

  • Helmet: €80
  • Jacket: €180
  • Boots: €125
  • Waterproof Pants: €100
  • Gloves: €35
  • Hi-vis Vest (with L sign): €25

The brands/styles I purchased were entry-level in most cases but I did choose to pay a little extra for the boots, jacket and (open faced) helmet as I felt they suited the era of my bike.

Cost Summary

While your costs may vary, here is a summary of the total costs I incurred en route to my first trip:

  • Driver Theory Test: €45
  • Learner Permit: €35
  • Initial Basic Training: €495
  • Registration: €12
  • Motor Tax: €35
  • Insurance: €280
  • Bike Gear: €550

Clearly, you need to factor in the cost of the motorcycle itself, but the additional costs on top of that, to get your bike (and yourself) legally onto the roads, could easily exceed €1,500. 

Next Steps

Once you’ve been riding for a while, you should consider taking the full Driving Test. If successful, this would reduce your insurance costs, allow you to carry passengers and eliminate the need to wear the hi-vis “L” vest.

While you are free to take the test without any formal lessons, I would recommend you take some lessons beforehand to help eliminate any bad habits you may have picked up and to get you generally “test ready”. The lessons may also help ensure you only ever have to take the test once.

Fifty Firsts for a 51st Orbit of the Sun

For the day that’s in it, and because today’s milestone will see me commence my 51st orbit of the sun, I have been reflecting on some of the milestones that have shaped my life during the first 50 orbital cycles. In many ways, these are a template for what many life journeys look like over time but where the precise details on how the milestones happen are different for all of us, in good ways and in bad, just as it should be.

In the interest of time (and data privacy, as some of the details could be used as security questions for online systems), I’ve deliberately not divulged any specifics. However, I have enjoyed recalling those to myself and my family, and hope that you enjoy reflecting on your own individual answers with you and yours, no matter what age you are (or are not). 

I guess the ordering of the items is somewhat chronological (and telling) in my case, which can result in some curious inferences about my priorities in life at the time 🙂

  1. First childhood memory
  2. First Christmas morning (that you remember)
  3. First day at school
  4. First time riding a bicycle (without stabilisers)
  5. First time shooting a gun
  6. First time visiting your Dad’s place of work to see what he does all day long
  7. First time catching a fish by yourself
  8. First time rowing a boat by yourself
  9. First time riding a horse (or donkey)
  10. First time at Bingo (and winning £25, a small fortune at that age)
  11. First time camping (in a tent without a zip on the doors)
  12. First time swimming more than 5 metres by yourself
  13. First time staying up past midnight to see the clock radio switch from 23:59 to 00:00
  14. First time on stage performing at a music, arts or culture event
  15. First time on TV
  16. First sports day at your parent’s place of work
  17. First state exams
  18. First record/tape/CD (or digital music) purchase, with your own money
  19. First time on an oceanic car ferry
  20. First date
  21. First kiss
  22. First paying job
  23. First bank account not controlled by my parents
  24. First Godchild
  25. First time paying tax (still don’t understand that one)
  26. First time voting in a national election
  27. First pint (Guinness, of course)
  28. First hangover (resulting in lifelong aversion/allergy to a specific alcoholic brand)
  29. First time passing your driving test
  30. First college qualification (29 years ago today too, as it happens)
  31. First night after moving out of home
  32. First professional job (for which you are academically qualified)
  33. First serious data loss due to not taking backups seriously (credit to Heather MayburyRIP for using a blameless culture (before that was a thing) to help me learn from it).
  34. First flight
  35. First sun holiday
  36. First car
  37. First (and only) marriage proposal – when, where, and how?
  38. First house (and mortgage)
  39. First (and only) wife, where your house became a home
  40. First neighbour’s house warming, who would become lifelong friends to this day!
  41. First time being best man at a wedding
  42. First person you’ve met who was born after Italia ‘90
  43. First mid-week barbecue leading to copious amounts of Bulmers cider
  44. First child, and the unbridled joy of calling yourself a Father (followed by abject fear of what lies ahead by being responsible for something so beautifully delicate)
  45. First life loss (and what this can teach you about life) – one I’d rather was not on this list
  46. First College Reunion
  47. First time skiing (on snow), and thinking you didn’t need sun cream because it was so cold.
  48. First time paragliding
  49. First time arriving on a video call, expecting a single colleague but finding half of your extended work team there to wish you a happy milestone birthday, complete with photos from your earlier years that were clearly provided by members of your immediate family!
  50. First loss of a parent (definitely missing my Dad today)

So as I begin my 51st orbit of the sun, I count myself very lucky to have experienced so much good in my life (with a little bit of the bad and the sad to keep me firmly grounded).

I hope you enjoy thinking of some of the moments that have shaped your life, along the same lines as mine above, and I look forward to updating the list in the years and good times ahead.

Thanks for listening!

Life Lessons from an Angel

As I reflect on the 18 years that have passed since I first became a father (on this very day in 2002), I do so with incredibly mixed emotions and a deep sense of anguish that we cannot share the occasion with our beautiful son, Jake, who left our world after just 9 days, on Friday, 25 October 2002.

However, while there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of him and we yearn to hold him in our arms just one more time, we are comforted (and often surprised) by the things that his short life has taught us in the years since his passing, and I thought it might be nice (and potentially helpful to others) to share some of those lessons today in his honour.

Life is not over – it’s just very, very different

The loss of a child is something you will never, ever “get over” but it is something that you can learn to accept and live with, with the passage of time, while experiencing some enormously uplifting moments along the way. Not only will these moments keep you firmly grounded in life, but they can also serve to inspire the best in yourself and in others, in ways that may otherwise not have been possible.

Some of these moments that I recall and that I hold dear to my heart include beautiful remembrance ceremonies and anniversary Masses at Crumlin Hospital, Dublin, receiving a posthumous bravery certificate from the Irish Heart Foundation (our son underwent heart surgery less than 24 hours after his birth) and a Roll of Honour certificate from the Irish Kidney Association (I am proud to say my son was also an organ donor).

Our annual, overnight trip to Dublin to mark his anniversary has also become an extended family tradition which our other children and their cousins now hail as one of the highlights of their year.

The Japanese Maple tree that stands proudly at the bottom of our garden is also a constant, warming, living, breathing reminder of his place in our family unit. Be it the smile it puts on your face while cutting the grass or the happy sounds of your children playing nearby, or even seeing your own Father stand in silent prayer there at random moments throughout the year, these are all uplifting experiences that you learn to love dearly, and that enrich your now very different life.

Find the positives where you can – they do exist

A close friend of mine, with some personal experience in this area, was brave enough to say this to me a few days before Jake died and it took me several years to learn what it truly meant, and to accept how true it is. That is because, no matter how far you travel in life and how sorry you may feel for yourself because of what happened to you on that life journey, you will learn (several times over) that there is always someone less fortunate than you are, with no exceptions.

We were blessed with a perfect pregnancy, photographs and videos of our newborn son, living and breathing. We got to hold him, to smell him, to hug him and kiss him, multiple times over. Some of our extended family members got to meet him too, if only for a brief moment, and so we have memories, real memories.

Sadly, we have met many people that experienced a similar loss to ours, but with none of the memories we have to cherish. Oddly, we count our blessings for this.

Material things simply don’t matter – family is what matters

I like my home comforts, gadgets, cars and other material possessions as much as the next person, but I definitely find them far less important in my life on foot of the experiences of 18 years ago. Others I’ve met have conceded feeling the same way over time.

I don’t dwell on this and it’s not a major discussion point in my life, but I definitely find myself less motivated to spend time with (or on) material items. I guess it’s because these things are ultimately replaceable, if you know where to find them at the right price, which makes them ultimately less valuable in a human context.

However, the things that I now find most happiness, motivation and contentment in actually cost nothing. They are spending time with family, creating life memories for (and with) our children, but with a far deeper appreciation for why they are so important, valuable and irreplaceable.

We are therefore so especially proud of our first-born son, Jake, today for teaching us all so much about the truly important things in life, in his own special way.

Happy Birthday, son, and thank you!

Reeling in the Tears

I recently came into possession of a rather curious looking spool of tape when going through some old things belonging to my Dad. This surprise discovery (which, amazingly, he never thought to mention when he was alive) was initially met with a mixture of curiosity and excitement, but then tinged with sadness as I remembered he is no longer around to ask about its origins or contents.

Of course the curiosity soon got the better of me and I felt I owed it to him to find out what was on it anyway, considering he had clearly safeguarded it for the better part of 50 years. I therefore set about finding a way to have it converted to some form of modern digital media.

I began by contacting a friend who had recently converted some vintage video reels of the same shape and size, and while he was able to confirm that I was in possession of a Reel-to-Reel Audio tape, he did not himself possess a suitable playing device and neither did any of his hobbyist friends. Fortunately, The Force is strong in this one and so we kept trying.

I then decided to try my luck on the I Am Waterford Facebook page (home to some 20,000 Waterford natives) and was greeted with a delightful array of helpful suggestions, a sizeable majority of which were directing me towards one person, Gary Burns (Audio Visual Technical Officer at Waterford Institute of Technology), who later chimed in himself and offered to do the conversion for me.

As we both live in the same town, I was able to hand over the reel the following day, and within a few days of that I found myself downloading an audio file with the contents of the reel in all its crackly glory – all 35 minutes of it!

Naturally, the anticipation at this point was sky high and indeed, I took a quiet moment to prepare for an emotional reveal. After all, no matter what was on this reel, it was put there for a reason and that reason alone represented an insight into a part of my father’s life that I knew nothing about until that very moment. I consider myself very lucky to have that opportunity, as those in my position will no doubt understand.

So what was on the reel, I hear you ask? Well, I had given this some thought during the previous few days and thought it might have been a recording of him (or his family) singing or playing the accordion, or perhaps a recording of someone describing some of the video reel footage I’d converted some years earlier.

In the end, it was actually none of the above and instead was a collection of 14 songs recorded from the radio, ranging from 1969 to 1974. There were occasional hints of the voice of Brendan Balfe along the way (a popular RTE Radio presenter at that time), so I’m assuming it was his radio show that was being recorded.

Here is a full catalog of the extracted from the reel, which was derived after several hours of painstaking listening for recognisable lyrics, against a backdrop of electrical noise and melodic crackling. I’ve linked each one to a YouTube video of the original song for you to enjoy also:

  1. No Matter How I Try (Gilbert O’Sullivan @ 1971)
  2. Goin’ Down (Jeff Beck @ 1972)
  3. Sing a Song of Freedom (Cliff Richard @ 1974)
  4. Soley Soley (Middle of the Road @ 1971)
  5. Softly Whispering I Love You (Congregation @ 1972)
  6. The Sunset Years of Life (Slim Dusty @ 1965)
  7. Cotton Fields Back Home (Credence Clearwater Revival @ 1969)
  8. Big Strong Man (The Wolfe Tones @ 1970)
  9. You Can Get It If You Really Want (Desmond Dekker @ 1970)
  10. I’ll Take Care of Your Cares (Frankie Laine @ 1967)
  11. I Will Follow You (Dana @ 1970)
  12. Sweetheart (Engelbert Humperdinck @ 1971)
  13. Banquet for the World (Freshmen @ 1970
  14. Which Way You Goin’ Billy (Poppy Family @ 1969

Apart from the curious variety in musical styles (and fashion), I was actually rather impressed with the coolness of some of the tracks, especially Jeff Beck and Credence Clearwater Revival. He certainly kept a few of those guilty pleasures quiet for all the years that he instead lauded the dulcet tones of Foster & Allen!

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable, albeit very emotional, few days that, thanks to the help of people I had never even known one week before, is now set to become part of a new chapter in our family memorabilia that I hope will last for another 50 years, and more.

Thanks Dad, and thanks Gary!

Building a Cloud while in the Clouds

So you’re heading to the US for some business meetings with your Chief Architect then you get upgraded to business class where there’s free WiFi and you’ve got 6 hours to kill. You options are watch movies (seen them all before), drink wine (a given) and/or have an in-flight hackathon to test out the quality of the WiFi.

And so we did just that and went ahead and provisioned an instance of the latest Aerogear Mobile Services powered by OpenShift Origin, resulting in very own cloud platform built in the clouds!

Indeed, the Internet connection was spotty at best but in between the spottiness, our installer script did run to completion…

…and we did (eventually) get the all-elusive OpenShift Console with the Mobile tab in all it’s beautiful glory.

We also needed to get very creative in order to share the screen shots (which involved USB-C cables and several other travel accessories that only an Architect and Director would have) despite physically sitting beside each other, but such is life. And for good measure, we also published this blog article from the air!

So what have you done to test your in-flight WiFi and how was it for you?

Reflections of JavaSI ’17

Summary

I travelled to beautiful Portorož, Slovenia last week to speak at the JavaSI ’17 conference. This was a most enjoyable experience and it was a special honour to be asked to deliver the keynote address on my very first visit there. It was also my first time to visit Slovenia, which was equally enjoyable and also every bit as inspiring as the main event.

The JavaSI conference (organised by OpenBlend and SIOUG) itself took place over 2 days with day 1 consisting mainly of talks and day 2 comprising of a number of technical workshops. The time keeping was excellent throughout and all of the sessions were very well attended, which was no surprise considering the high quality of the content and the presenters.

The Venue

The conference was held at the Hotel Slovenija in the beautiful resort of Portorož, which is situated on the western seaboard of Slovenia, on the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia is approximately the same size as Northern Ireland but has just 40km of coastline.

The Talks

My own talk was entitled, “Mobilising Your Enterprise: A strategy for modern app dev in the enterprise, with a mobile twist“, and provided some real-world insights into the strategies being used by enterprises when designing, developing and delivering modern applications, as well as an overview of some the mobility solutions built on and powered by the Red Hat Mobile Application Platform.

Some of my other highlights from the conference included:

  • “Using MicroProfile APIs to build cloud native applications”, by Heiko Braun (Red Hat).
  • “EnMasse: Open sourcing the messaging and IoT”, by Paolo Patierno and Ulf Lilleengen (Red Hat).
  • “One click to rule them all – Continuous Delivery for everyone in 45 minutes”, by Christian Klingbacher (Altran Concept Tech GmbH).
  • “A Quick and Dirty guide to Kubernetes”, by Mitja Bezenšek Outfit7 Ltd (creators of the Talking Tom & Friends games).
  • “What’s coming in JDK9”, by Tomaž Cerar (Red Hat).
  • HELP! A Beatles Tribute, who entertained the attendees during the social evening.

Beautiful Slovenia

I was also fortunate to be able to sample some of Slovenia’s cultural treats during the same trip, including the beautiful port of Piran (the western-most tip of Slovenia) and Lake Bled (below), including it’s famous Bled Cake (a.k.a. Kremsnita).

Overall, this conference was extremely well organised, very well attended and one that I would highly recommend.

How nature outsmarts your Smartphone

There is no doubt that modern technology is getting smarter, smaller and cheaper all of the time, and the modern smartphone is to the fore in how most humans (that own one) access these advancements in technology.

However, it’s also refreshing (and a reassuring in a strange kind of way) to know that such humble and innate everyday objects, found in the most non-technical and un-advanced parts of our world, can still outsmart us all!

The Joint Photographic Experts Group – JPEG

A significant majority of modern smartphones (and digital cameras) use the JPEG image file format to store the photographs taken by the device. This file format is named after the Joint Photographic Experts Group, which published the first version of the specification in 1992.

The file format was famed for introducing 3 main features:

  1. The possibility of more than 16 million different colours for each pixel in the image.
  2. Varying levels of image compression, reducing the size of the files and making them ideal for use on websites.
  3. An ability to store additional meta data (known as Exif data) inside the image file (e.g. date, time, location, shutter speed).

Digital Compression

By recognising repeating patterns of colour within an image, the JPEG compression algorithms are able to reduce the size of the file containing that image, usually without any significant (or noticeable) loss in image quality. However, with the ever-increasing storage capacity of smartphones, digital cameras, memory sticks and computer hard drives, how many of us ever really take any notice of the size of image files that we are dealing with?

Nature’s Patterns

As it happens, I did just this on foot of a recent family occasion in our back garden where I took rather a lot of photographs featuring grass (plus family members, of course). While syncing the photos to my computer later that evening, I noticed that it was taking much longer than usual so took a closer look when the transfer was complete.

What I discovered then lead me to take a number of other photos of nature scenes the following day, underpinning my theory that nature was clearly outsmarting my smartphone in a variety of very interesting (and surprising ways). Here is what I found.

The Evidence

Each of the following photos were taken using the same smartphone, using the same unmodified Camera app, over the course of 2 days. For the most part, they are shown in order of size (smallest to largest) with some exceptions along the way.

Part Ocean, Part Sky, Part Rocks – 1.5MB

Clearly, the proliferation of grey/dark colours here has lead to a very high level of compression, resulting in a much smaller file.

Very Cloudy Sky – 2.4MB

This very consistent pattern of grey yielded a very high compression rate also, but with perhaps with slightly less dark colours causing a marginal increase in file size.

Semi Clear Sky – 2.6MB

Surprisingly, this quite different skyline (with a lot more blue) was only marginally larger than the very cloudy scene above, but it still compressed very well due to the consistency of regions of blue, grey and white throughout.

Part Sky, Part Ocean on a Grey Day – 3.4MB

With around 60% of this shot featuring some random sea waves, the level of compression achieved is slightly less than others.

Rippled Water – 4.2MB

While featuring a mostly blue/green hue, the degree of randomness to the ripples prevented a higher level of compression here.

Beach Stones – 5.2MB

So now it begins to get interesting, with nature fighting back. This scene features a large selection of pebbles and stones, of differing shapes, sizes, colours and orientation. Overall, quite a random scene which is duly borne out in the largest file size so far.

Plant Leaves – 5.3MB

There’s quite lot of the same shade of green in this shot, which should yield good compression, but the random shape, size and orientation of the leaves is clearly confusing the compression algorithm, resulting in a larger than expected file.

Cliff Rock Closeup – 5.7MB

Large rocks are normally quite uniform in their colour but a couple of thousand years of being battered by the elements is bound to introduce some character in the form of random edges, wear & tear as well as other inclusions, all reducing the amount of compression the camera was able to achieve.

Forest Ferns – 6.6MB

This scene features predominantly green elements of generally the same shade. However, the size, orientation and varying shape of the leaves and branches across the full spectrum of the shot result in a very confused (and highly random) panorama for the camera.

Regular Garden Grass Closeup – 7.2MB

Surprisingly, the most ordinary patch of grass (somewhat close up) causes the most havoc and lowest level of compression for our camera, with the utter chaos that is the size, shape, length, colour, orientation and depth of the blades of grass resulting in the largest file size. The camera even struggled to retain it’s focus in the outer regions of the shot (see top left), further proving that nature always has the upper hand.

Pebble Dashed Wall – 6.2MB

For good measure, I also sampled this man-made creation with a reasonably high degree of randomness. While the colour and dispersal of the pebbles was most definitely random, the camera did still manage some level of compression, most likely based on the consistent colour of the background cement.

Disclaimer

The level of scientific analysis conducted during this impromptu experiment was minimal at best and no pixels were harmed during the gathering of evidence herein. But you’d be amazed what other surprises mother nature is likely to throw up so get out there and discover your own flavour of randomness!

More Effective Meetings with Google G Suite

There are plenty of spirited articles that outline techniques for more effective and efficient meetings. But assuming you’ve done the basics that the theorists recommend, how can modern software tools help you squeeze that little bit of extra time and effort out of your meetings?

In this blog post, I’ll show you some simple tips on how to use Google’s G Suite (a.k.a. Google Docs) to reduce the running time of your meetings, efficiently identify and assign actions, as well as ways for attendees to get more value from the meeting and track what actions were assigned to them (at this and other meetings they attended).

And please don’t be tempted to give up after reading the first 1-2 items, thinking you know this stuff already. Trust me, the rest of them will be worth it.

Google G Suite

Originally named Google Docs, G Suite is the current name of Google’s web-hosted productivity software offering. Along with the usual Email (Gmail) and File Sharing (Drive) services, it also comes with a variety of “office” software products, including (but not limited to) Docs, Sheets and Slides, each of which support a wide range of very neat collaboration features.

There are, of course, similar offerings from other vendors but I’ve not used those as much as G Suite. But enough about thats, let’s get your efficiency up!

1) Sharing

Because Google Docs are stored in the Google Cloud (and not on your local laptop), more than one person can access them at the same time. And in terms of what these people (a.k.a. collaborators) can do, they:

  • Can View – people can see/read the contents of the document but cannot change it.
  • Can Comment – people can see the contents of the document, can make comments on that content but cannot make changes to the document itself. Their changes need to be reviewed (and approved) by the document owner.
  • Can Edit – people can edit the document directly themselves, or make comments on content created by others.

So assuming that you’ve already/recently created a Google Doc to track your meeting(s), and assuming you’ve outlined a very basic agenda therein, the first thing you should do is share that document with the others attendees, giving them Edit access.

That way, they can add their comments/updates ahead of time and give a verbal update during the meeting instead. Not only will this be a more engaging experience for them and others (allowing for a more focused discussion) but it will also save the chairperson the time of having to minute their verbal update, which will keep the meeting moving along. This could also give the chairperson just enough time to record actions relevant to those updates there and then, also saving them time after the meeting.

Once the meeting has concluded and once you’ve made any final adjustments to the notes/actions, you should then share the document to the final, wider audience with Can Comment access. This will automatically alert them that the meeting notes are available for review, but also allow them to ask any follow-up questions they might have but without consuming the time of all the original attendees – just the document owner.

2) Comments

Anyone with Can Edit or Can Comment access to a Google Doc can select sections of text and make a comment about them. These comments are then recorded in the document for others to see (or respond to). The document owner is also alerted (by email or mobile alert) when a comment is made in one of their documents.

It’s also possible to reference another collaborator when making a comment in a document (assuming they have access to the document). This can be done by referencing their email address (with a plus symbol before it) in the comment body. In this case, that collaborator will also receive an alert (as will the owner).

Once a comment thread (or discussion) has concluded (i.e. the question has been answered), the document owner can Resolve the comment, after which it will no longer be visible. It will always be recorded in the document history but only visible to the document owner thereafter.

3) Introducing Action Items

This is where it begins to get really interesting, so thanks for sticking with us until now.

In more recent updates to G Suite, Google enhanced the commenting functionality so that when referencing another collaborator you have the option to Assign the comment as an Action Item to them. The difference between this and an ordinary comment may not be entirely obvious yet, but keep reading and you’ll see the value shortly.

4) Auto-Assignment of Action Items

In order to initiate a regular comment (or Action Item) in a document, you first need to select some text, choose the Insert, Comment menu option, address the intended collaborator and tick the to option to Assign as Task. That’s a lot of typing and clicking, when you’re otherwise trying to listen to meeting attendees give verbal updates and transpose those into appropriate notes and actions (for them or others).

Fortunately, G Suite has a very clever feature that can help (subject to certain conditions). If the document owner (or another collaborator with Edit access) phrases an update to the document in a certain way (e.g. “John to follow up with the Sales team”) and the document has been explicitly shared with someone called John, then G Suite will automatically attempt to assign that piece of text as an Action Item to John (prompting you first of course).

This is not only another excellent time saver but another reason to share the document ahead of time (to the right people). It’s also a strong incentive to be more prescriptive and succinct in your narrative as the meeting chairperson.

5) Revealing and Reviewing Your Action items

So you and your colleagues are a few weeks into your new G Suite regime and you’ve personally chaired a good few meetings and attended several others. And in doing so, you know you’ve amassed a sizeable number of action items but have no idea which documents they’re in or how to find them (since your last browser restart did not preserve your open tabs).

So give this a try instead:

  1. Go to your Google Drive home page.
  2. In the Search box at the top, enter the criteria: followup:actionitems (or click the Search Options, scroll to the bottom and select the Follow up drop-down menu and select the Action items only option).
  3. Voila! You now have a list of all Google Docs where there’s an action on you (including ones not owned by you).

Note that this does not work for ordinary comments – you need to be sure that the original comments were Assigned as Action Items in their respective documents.

You’re Welcome!

Reflections of Red Hat Summit 2017

I returned from the annual Red Hat Summit last week, which was as exciting and inspiring as ever. This year the summit returned to Boston and was held at the highly impressive Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC), which is located in the Seaport District of Boston.

The summit took place over 3 days and we were treated to an astonishing array of sessions from Red Hat developers, staff, customers and partners, with each one being better than the next.

It was also an excellent opportunity to see a series of presentations from several members of the Red Hat Mobile team, including two from myself; a Lightning Talk at the main DevZone entitled, Application Health Monitoring from the Inside Out and a breakout session on Cloud Solutions for Enterprise Mobility.

There were numerous other highlights but some of my personal favourites were:

  1. A new partnership between Red Hat and Amazon Web Services;
  2. The launch of OpenShift.io, a hosted developer environment for creating and deploying hybrid cloud services;
  3. The launch of the industry’s first Health Index for container images;
  4. The story of Easier AG (a Swiss medical company) and how Red Hat’s Innovation Labs helped to make their ideas a reality, which all started in our home office in Waterford.
  5. Attending a baseball game at Fenway Park to see the Boston Red Sox in action, live!

I’m already setting my sights on Summit 2018 and am very much looking forward to the year ahead preparing for it.