Steve's blog

A blog about what's going on in Analysis UK...

Happy Birthday

Wow, apparently it's 10 years ago today that I first registered, I'm not sure how long after that it took me to get a proper website deployed, probably a month or two.

Since then traffic has grown nicely, I've had some great feedback via email and the UserVoice community and I've expanded the general theme to a variety of popular currencies such as and more recently to cope with conversion between Canadian Dollars/Australian Dollars/US Dollars and so on.

Initially I was able to get daily updates from the federal reserve but recently they stopped that so the data is now from XIgnite in either 15 minute or 60 minute up dates and I'm looking to improve on that as well.

The server has gone from being a classic asp IIS server back in 2000, then to a LAMP setup for many years, and now back to Windows IIS using ASP.NET, and with a recent transition from a rented server into Amazon's AWS EC2 cloud.

It's been an amazing experience, theirs so many things you just don't appreciate as a developer, the best has to be feedback from customers, so I'd like to say a huge thank you to everybody who uses or one of my currency sites (and even my other non-currency based websites!). 

If you are a developer and don't have your own website then your missing out.  Go do something simple, look at, how much more simple could it be!, get the experience of trying to host a site, keeping a database and web servers running at 99% uptime, backing up the website, dealing with customer requests, trying to generate revenue, generating analytics from log files and Google Analytics, try buying adwords, and most importantly something us developers always put down, try your hand at sales and marketing your website - I promise you it will be a shock, chances are if you don't get sales and marketing right your website will be nothing.

It's also been interesting to see the UKs take on the Euro, I was concerned early on that I had wasted my time with and that the pound would be no more, but it's still going strong.

I've got some more updates in the pipeline for the website, as well as some new websites almost ready to do, so 2010 should be another interesting year.

To celebrate I'm off to the 14th Cambridge Winter Ale Festival!

I Have A Dream

Tonight, after a horrible drive I returned home to a cold flat, my central heating had broken. I had no heat and no hot water.

Fortunately I'm a bit of a DIY nut, a few quick checks on the boiler, it had electric, I tried switching it off and on again, still nothing. Turning on the hot tap, the boiler made a noise, life! - but no heat. I checked the pressure gauge, low, very low but still green and no warning lights. I was all out of ideas until I decided to try and put some more pressure in the system. The pressure gauge rose and then the boiler fired up – yay, heat, lovely heat and hot water a bonus!

So how many (be honest now) readers would check the pressure and put more water in the system? I'm guessing very few, and that's fair enough, personally I'd have been pissed if I'd spent the night in the cold and then an emergency visit from the boiler repair person resulted in a 2 minute fix to add some pressure. Wouldn't it be better if you could point your computer at the boiler, have it return an error code which linked to a page on the manufactures website, with suggestions on how to fix the error.

This hasn't been the only time I've returned home to a problem. A few weeks ago I returned home to find the fridge door open. Everything was fine, but I was lucky. Now how many people have returned home to a flood? Or some other situation that you would like to have known about earlier on.

I have a dream, a crazy one, and one that's very unlikely going to happen. I've been thinking about many of these things for a while now, so maybe, just maybe if I tell someone it will come true, failing that we might just take a step closer, so here goes...

Every appliance in the house should have a network connection. There. Simple hey!

Now I know it's added cost, and manufacturing is kept as low as possible, but I would buy the next model up if it had a good network port and wasn't a blatant rip-off for what it was like so often happens.

So what should be networked?

  • Central heating? Yes
  • Microwave? Yes
  • Cooker? Yes
  • Fridge? Yes
  • Freezer? Yes
  • Washing machine? Yes
  • Tuble dryer? Yes
  • Light switch? Yes (I'll explain latter).
  • Air con? Yes.
  • TV? Yes
  • HiFi? Yes
  • Satellite receiver? Yes
  • Wheelie Bin? Well, maybe a stand for it, waste by weight? Sneaky neighbour using your bin?
  • Any more? Yes – everything (except the kettle and kitchen sink)
  • heck, maybe even the kettle and kitchen sink (how much water do you use to wash up?)


I'm a big fan of home automation, you've probably figured that out from my dream, but the market sector is a horrible mess and the consumer devices are generally cheap (yet expensive) and naff.

I've got lots of X-10 devices laying around the flat that are no longer user (a very disappointing and expensive hobby in the UK).

Now I've got some Home-Easy devices kicking around, and for the most they work well, but the range is disappointingly limited. A few simple changes and Id be over the moon, but for now, it's still naff.

So what should this network connection onto these devices do?

I'd love to see two things, first and most importantly reporting. Lets have some reasonable sensors wired into the network, then secondly control of the devices as an added extra where possible.

A few examples:

  • Central Heating:
  • Reporting - internal water pressure/flow, water supply pressure/flow, gas pressure/flow, flame temperature, last on, last off, send and return temperatures for radiator system, system age, firmware version and importantly error code.
  • Control – on/off times if settable. Manual override of on/off.
  • The Fridge:
  • Reporting – internal temperature, door status, light bulb status(1), alarms, last on, last off, power usage.
  • Control – operating temperature, alarm hi and lo points.
  • The Washing Machine:
  • Reporting – wash progress, efficiency (load/cost), age.
  • Control – On time, Off time. I have a Home-Easy device on a timer so my washing machine will start automatically in the morning and shut off late at night.

Now a lot of these values are currently measured one way or the other but not reported, and some are not measured, such as power usage. But something like the fridges temperature are so core to the operating of that device it would be hard to find one without it.

How about control, well a lot of device still use mechanical systems, and maybe they should stay that way, although I wonder if it might not be cheaper and easier to provide the control through the network port and some solid state electronics.

Now I'm not suggesting every device implements a full blown web site with Ajax styled web pages and all that, that's a recipe for disaster! (2), instead what I would want to see is a REST based API interface, you point something at the device, it returns a list of capabilities and endpoints that you can connect to and query the devices sensor values.

Why REST, well it's very simple, just hit the endpoint, maybe with a parameter or two and it returns you an lump of xml, fantastic for automation, and if you want to make a nice UI to go with it, no problem – the device manufacturers could then have a skin-able application that the consumer runs on their PC or Mac (even if it's just javascript downloaded from the devices web server) and you've got a nice UI where you can provide much better feedback.

Where does this lead us, well you end up being able to monitor what's happening in your home, make changes based on the results, prevent systems failing, or catch them earlier – wouldn't it have been better for me to find out my fridge was open as I was leaving the house, or that the heating had failed at lunchtime when I could have been able to get it seen to in the afternoon? How about a warning when I go to bed that I've left the oven on or that the front door is unlocked?

Lets talk more about the fridge because theirs two other aspects that are interesting. What happens when the power fails? The fridge and freezer start warming up, and with no power (perhaps a blown fuse), chances are theirs no way for the device to warn you until it's too late.

Well, the network port can provide a low level of power, enough to ensure the monitor and reporting system can be kept alive. Currently corporations everywhere are rolling out Power-Over-Ethernet for use by VOIP phones, how about consumers, well POE devices are coming onto the market, many of us have decent broadband, so how long before we want a nice desk phone connected to the internet giving us free calls?

So lets leverage that, a POE network switch, combined with a small UPS to keep the power going to your fridge, freezer the little magic box that monitors them, and your broadband router, so you can get a SMS message or email when something goes wrong and the devices get to keep power when it's out, and get to tell you theirs a problem.

If were going to implement Power-Over-Ethernet we can even go a step further. This is where the light switches come in. Lets do away with the old light switch, it's got problems, pull out that twin and earth cable feeding it and drop in a Cat 5 cable, attached to a POE switch at one end and the other, to a new lighting switch, that has a motion sensor, a light level sensor, a microphone and possibly speaker, and to top it off it's a touch screen like your iPhone.

Where does that take us? We get much better control over the lighting, the ability to control the lights in another room (left the downstairs light on after going to bed?) The ability to automatically switch off lights in rooms when the daylight is enough, or theirs no activity in the room, and maybe even that star trek intercom system where we can page another room (kitchen to bedroom page for the kids anyone?)

I have a Home-Easy sensor in the kitchen and some small cabinet lights hooked up to a Home-Easy power switch, when I go in the kitchen the lights go on, their usually enough for my needs, when I leave the lights go off after about a minute. With the X-10 set-up I was able to turn any other lights in the kitchen off as well, but I can't do that (3) with the Home-Easy set-up.

Did I mention the idea of a UPS on the POE system to maintain power? Well lets push that a step further as well. All the rage now days are LED lighting, low power bulbs with long lives. What happens if it's dark and the power fails? People fall over, light candles and set fire to the house? How about using LED lighting, either the odd lamp or having a nice arrangement of ceiling lamps like we see with the halogen ones now days. And how about if they were networked as well. When the power fails one or two of these lamps could be driven in low power mode from the POE switch, the back-lights on the light switches can come on to help the occupants find the door, the sensors can figure out of theirs anyone in the room and save emergency power by switching off the lights in that room.


How about if theirs a fire? You can get smoke alarms that send out RF signals, you could monitor that and in the event of a fire you could switch on lights to help the occupants find their way out. Maybe the light switches can determine what rooms have people in, or excess heat to help out the fire brigade.

So I've diverged from the fridge haven't I. How many times have we heard about the fridge that figures your out of milk and orders it for you, we see photo's of the fridge with a LCD monitor built in – now that's silly as them things get hot, it adds a lot of expense and will no doubt provide a poor user experience because hardware people just don't get software (4)

You know, it would be great if out food had RFID tags and the fridge and freezer could work out what's in them, oh, and the bin could also (5), but really those devices should just make this information available via the network port so we can get it from where ever we happen to be parked with out laptop, or iPhone, perhaps even in the supermarket, query your fridge to see what's missing whilst in Tesco's anyone?

If theirs ever a time to start pulling all this together it's now, the technologies there, the green movement is on us to save energy, electricity suppliers are going the way of smart meters so we can take advantage of cheaper electricity, or if were not careful, use more expensive electricity, broadband adoption is huge, and people are embracing the web more and more.

Infact some of this is already happing, you can DIY your own home sensor network with ioBridge however that's more for techy geeks like me and I believe it still needs a server, I want to see that stuff build into appliances so all you have to do is connect up a network cable.

Which brings me onto another issue, the network cabling, not everyone's like me and got 8 network outlets in the kitchen Cat 5 cable is really easy to install, it's a lot less dangerous than mains cable and it's fairly cheep, the only difficult bit is making a nice connection at either end, and that's just a case of punching 8 colour coded wires into the 8 colour coded terminals on a patch panel or outlet.

I'm not the first to wire up my pad for networking, and I sure won't be the last, Scott Hanselman has a great series of blog posts Wiring the new house for a Home Network althought I think it should be said both our set-ups are perhaps a little OTT (I could make do with 1 patch panel, 1 switch and 1 UPS, that would remove 5 of the devices in the rack!, but then I'd have nothing to play with).

Scott's set-up is quite large, personally I've got a small 19 inch case in the loft which is descreet and easy to manage, but only does the cat 5 network cables. Now not everybody wants to have network cables so you could argue, that like my Topfield 6000 PVR it should be wireless. If you've ever tried setting up a Wi-Fi network on a device other than a PC you will know it's a hideous job, best bet is to have a simple network connector on the fridge/freezer etc., have it default to DHCP to get it's IP address and then use a Netgear wireless link to do the wireless bit. Putting a little LCD screen on the fridge just because you want Wi-Fi is going to make the costs even worse.

Hopefully in the future part of the first fit of a house will include dropping some network wiring into each room, TVs now come fitted with Ethernet network connectors and hopefully more and more appliances will, so hopefully new build houses will improve on that.

Why do I think this is never going to happen? Well theirs a few reasons:

  • The general aim of manufacturing an appliance is to keep costs as low as possible, throwing in sensors and a network port add to that, and the cost of that extra stuff can easily be multiplied by 4 by the time the various middlemen take their cut.
  • Hardware manufactures generally don't get software, and putting high tech stuff into a low tech fridge is probably something the manufacture is not that confident at doing.
  • Software support , hardware people are generally rubbish at software, which means that if we do get the network port it's likely to be a poorly implemented website rather like the one offered on my toppy.
  • Does anyone other than me and a few random geeks actually want this stuff? Now the basics maybe, and I'm sure a few people wished they could get an alert when the freezer is defrosting so they could save the food, but the overhead of networking up the appliances? Too much maybe. Perhaps we need a simple short range wireless set-up rather than ethernet?

Anyway, there you have it, my crazy idea for a tech filled house.

What am I doing to move along that route and why am I sharing this dream?

Well I've got a little Arm micro controller running .net micro framework and a network adaptor for it, plans include the light switch I talked about, light control using LED lamps and networked temperature monitors. Oh, and somehow I want a device to track what's in the fridge and what gets put in the rubbish bin for a new website I'm working on.

Making a hardware platform to sell is really tough and expensive, so theirs no hope of me doing that, so sharing my ideas hopefully will help those that can and do.

How about you? What do you see in the future house? What tech would make your life better.

  1. Finally I will be able to see if the light stays on when the fridge door is closed!

  2. My Topfield satellite receiver has a web server with nice little web pages in, but it's limited to what you can do with those pages and little automation is possible via that interface.

  3. I have a small Arduino project in progress to fix that issue.

  4. And that's one of the main reasons I say we won't see this, because the hardware manufacturers don't get software, and when they think they do the result is usually poor the only good combination I've seen around is Apple.

  5. One of my wishes for is to detect what's going in the bin.

Implementing GTD SOP #2 with the help of Dinner Timer Lite.

Once again Bob has a fantastic suggestion to help us get things done on his blog, the basics of GTD SOP #2 are that you spend 48 minutes working with an allowance of 12 minutes slack time every hour (although I’m hoping this doesn’t apply to 24 hours a day – although it sure feels like it sometimes!).

Every now and then I find another use for Dinner Timer Lite. Today is no exception, with some very simple modifications to the settings Dinner Timer Lite makes a great timer for GTD SOP #2 (IMHO!) - not to mention that the timer Bob recommends is out of stock at as I type this and Dinner Timer Lite is available as a free download!

Dinner Timer Lite is a free PC based timer originally intended to help me reduce the number of meals I burnt because I returned to the PC to work and forgot to set the timer in the kitchen or when I did it went off and I kept working thinking I would just do another 30 seconds when it was really 5 minutes extra.

Configuring Dinner Timer Lite for GTD SOP #2

From the main menu choose Settings -> Options.

On the General Options tab set the following:

Default timer run time : 60 min.
End point close warning time : 12 min.
Over end point first warning time : 4 min. (or as you feel appropriate)
Secondary over end point warning : 8 min. (again as you feel appropriate)
Stop all notifiers after end point: 10 min.

That has set up the timer to run for 60 minutes by default, warning me 12 minutes before the hour is up (i.e. 48 minutes after the start), then again warning me at the end of the hour, combined with two possible over run warnings at 4 and 8 minutes in case I keep slacking! – as if that would happen! and a stop at 10 minutes in case I have wandered away from the PC.

Naturally when you are working you don’t want to be clock watching but you might just want to see how long till you get some slack and at the same time it’s good when your slacking to see how long you have left so lets setup the opacity of the timer.

The settings here are :
Timer stopped : high visibility.
Timer running : Low visibility.
48 Minutes up : good visibility.
Time up : high visibility.
Over run slacking : full visibility.

Getting notified:

The current release version of Dinner Timer Lite features 2 styles of notification (future versions have some more notifiers currently being written).

Here are how I have configured Dinner Timer Lite :

Select both bubble and sound notifiers on the notifiers tab.

Click Bubble Notifier then the Edit Settings button to open the options for the bubble notifier.

From the top drop down box work your way through the various options, setting the Action as Run Once or Don’t Run where you don’t want a bubble to appear.

The text will appear in a bubble pop up from the system tray area when the appropriate event occurs.

Started : "Timer started"
Stopped : "Timer stopped"
EndPointClose: "Slack Time, you now have 12 mins slack time to surf and make a cup of Tea!" (This event is the one set to occur 12 minutes before your hour is up).

EndPoint: "Time to get back to work – remember to restart Dinner Time Lite" (occurs when the 60 minutes is up).
EndPointMissed1: "Stop slacking and get back to work"
EndPointMissed2: "That’s enough slacking you won't get anything done"

Naturally you may wish to change the messages for ones that are a little more motivational (or polite)!

Next set up the sound notifiers in a similar way. I would suggest you use a sound on the start event so you know for sure that the volume is working when you start the timer!

When setting the sounds use the Run Once or Run Twice Action options otherwise the sound will keep going until you stop and that would likely ruin your 12 minutes of slack time!

You can choose your own sounds if you don’t like any of the built in ones, they were chosen to get attention. Sound Rangers is a great site to get a variety of sound effects from.

If you don’t want sound notification or bubble pop up then unselect that notifier.

NB: sound configuration and notifier selection changes only takes effect when the application is restarted for Version 1.0

That’s it for configuration of Dinner Timer Lite, next let’s put it to use.

Using Dinner Timer Lite:

Returning to the main window we see the 60 min default value in the drop down in the menu strip. If you want to work longer (or shorter) change the time here, but you will still only get 12 minutes slack time (sorry!)

When you are ready to start working hit the Start button.

The timer updates to show the time remaining, the start and completion times and how long the timer is running for, as well as a progress bar showing oddly enough the progress through the hour.

The timer also updates it’s transparency to the low visibility state (not shown in the screen shot), clicking on the minimize button sends Dinner Timer Lite to the tray, hover over it to get the time remaining for the hour. When it’s slack time we get prompted with a balloon from the system tray and some weird noise from the speakers, then when it’s time to get back to work more balloons and noises!

When you’ve finished your slack and are ready to start back remember to hit Stop and then Start again to start the next hour. And if you were slacking more than you should have been the timer keeps counting past the hour so you know how much work you skipped.

Cooking dinner whilst working.

Naturally if you are like me and stick some food in the oven and return to the computer to get a bit more work (ok, slack) done then just start up another Dinner Timer Lite and set the timer to run for how long your food needs cooking whilst the other GTD SOP #2 timer is running, however be warned that the settings will now be to warn you 12 minutes before dinner is ready as the settings are global.

Other uses of Dinner Timer Lite?

If you have found Dinner Timer Lite useful for timing something that you thing others would also benefit from then drop me a line, post a comment or something and I will look to add details about it and see if some simple improvements to Dinner Timer Lite can make it a better product.

ESWC 2006 Day 1

Well here I am trying to focus on the screen to give a summary of day one from the European ShareWare Conference 2006 here in Cambridge although very tired at present so the spelling and grammar are probably going to be even worse than usual.

Well first of all if you were at the conference then Hi and if not, well shame on you as you are missing a very interesting and informative conference.

This is the first one of these I’ve been to so I was unsure as to what I should be expecting, how many people would be their and all that. Numbers were good today, a nice big turn out but no to large that it was difficult to see/hear, although given this is a Europe conference then I guess that actually very few of the micro ISV’s/ShareWare authors have come along.

I think calling it a ShareWare conference is selling it a bit short as today covered SEO, email marketing and goggle adwords which were really interesting to me for both my web based products (Dollars to Pounds exchange rates and as well as windows applications (i.e. Dinner Timer for timing your cooking), where "ShareWare" tends to conger up the thoughts of a standalone application that installed on your computer.

All the talks from today were very interesting, some to know as background and to be aware of for future developments and others for here and now.

I was pleasantly surprised by Thomas Wetzel’s talk of “Grow your Google Adwords account successfully”, I’ve used Adwords for some time now and whilst I’m no expert I did think I understood a fair amount. I learnt a lot from Thomas’ talk, not least about his analytics tool for adword tracking which I’ve downloaded already and I’m about to go and play with. I also learnt that I’m not alone by loosing money with adwords, although to be fair I did expect this from the way I have it configured and how I want to attract customers.

I was also very impressed by the presentation Sinan Karace from InstallAware. Installers are the first thing your customers get to see of the product for windows applications and it’s critical for the success of the product that it goes better than just OK. At other companies I’ve worked at I’ve purchased the well known installer that is a competitor to InstallAware, which I ended up having to use to create installers for the applications I had written and I have to say how much I hate that other companies installer application and upgrade pricing!. InstallAware’s product looks really good, having written installers I know it’s no stroll in the path and to see the examples and the flexibility of the InstallAware product I was impressed. I shall be downloading that very soon and running it through it’s paces, their pricing also looks very impressive and a much more friendly upgrade policy!

I couldn’t end the post without mentioning Bob Walsh of My MicroISV and author of Micro ISV, From Vision to Reality of which I am half way through, this is a great book, full of useful links and interesting interviews. Anyway, it was great to see him talk in person, and very interesting as well. You may also want to check channel 9 as their are a couple of interviews with him under the micro ISV section (sorry no link, it's a nightmare to navigate channel 9, maybe I'll post the links in my next post when I have a little more time).

I’m looking forward to Sunday’s presentations, although dreading the 9am start, I mean, a 9am start on a Saturday and Sunday I’m a night person and this is one major shock to the system!

Book Sale Directory Service.

A few days ago LRABooks launched Book Sale Scout, a web based book sale directory.

This looks like a great service to locate book sales, unfortunately for me it appears to be USA specific at this time, but then if you could see the books piled around me in my flat you might say it’s for the best!.

Check out more details on the Book Selling Online blog post and the follow up article reviewing the launch.

I have to say, being a programmer, developer, software engineer (or what ever other name you wish to use) I was a little disappointed to see their programmer getting some flack for a few of the early bugs.

No software application is without bugs (OK, maybe NASA have a couple of bug free apps, but most commercial stuff will have a few thrown in for free). Whilst us developers do our best to keep them out I personally believe it is ultimately the job of the tester to make sure the application is fit for purpose and operates in an acceptable manner.

Many small companies go without software testers, especially one person micro-ISV’s, but where ever possible someone other than the programmer should test the application before it gets released, us developers are too close to the code to be able to test properly.

So whilst I’m not surprised Book Sale Scout had a couple of bugs I am disappointed that the poor programmer got the blame so freely and not the tester or who ever decided to release the application.

Anyway, rant over and done with, check out Book Sale Scout it looks to be a promising resource for books and I wish them all the best success.

Also if your into selling books I can highly recommend Steve Webber’s Selling Books blog.


European Shareware Conference – Hope to see you there.

The 2006 European Shareware Conference is being held up the road from me here in Cambridge, UK on the 4th and 5th of November. I naturally signed up as soon as I found out. It looks like quite an interesting schedule even if it does start way to early on a weekend morning for my liking!

Anyway, I’m very excited as this will be the first shareware conference I’ve been to and I’m looking forward to meeting lots of other ISV’s in the same boat as my self and learning lots of new skills (fingers crossed for marketing and sales!).

Hope to see lots of you there,