Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Solving the iPhone Calendar Colour Problem

A long standing irritation of mine, and something many people have stumbled across when syncing multiple calendars to their iPhone, is the calendar colour problem. While the calendar entries are synchronised correctly, the entries show up in the wrong colours. This is actually far more irritating than you might immediately suspect...

The problem is, theoretically at least, solved if you use MobileMe to sync rather tha syncing directly from your Mac, but at least for some people this doesn't seem to resolve the problem.

It currently looks like if you were a .Mac subscriber, and your calendars were already synced to .Mac, then you still get randomly assigned colours when the calendars sync to your iPhone from MobileMe. However interestingly, the calendar colours are correct inside the MobileMe web application. This recently suggested a fix to me...

Go to MobileMe and select each calendar in turn, hit the calendar actions button which is just to the right of the Month drop-down at the top of the calendar. Select Calendar Info and you'll get a pop-up which has the calendar name a selector to choose the colour for the calendar. Re-select the correct colour, and hit Ok to save the colour choice. Now, after syncing with your iPhone, it'll show up with the correct colour. Even if the colour you just selected was the same colour you always had.

Irritating, but there you go...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Tablet PC Trial

I've had a tablet PC on loan from the Open University for the last six months or so and, as it's getting shipped back to them tomorrow, I thought I'd bounce a few ideas around about how I got on with it...

The Toshiba Tecra M7

The OU lent me a Toshiba Tecra M7, which is about two years behind the cutting edge, and had fairly lackluster reviews even back then. However I know at least one person who, despite the relatively poor uptake of tablet PCs in general, swears by theirs and wouldn't have a normal laptop, so I was really interested to get my hands on one for an extended test.

However even after six months with the Toshiba, using it for all my OU teaching support and marking, I'm not a convert. In practice I found the tablet an ergonomic nightmare to use. While in the end I worked out a method of propping the tablet and my elbows up to different levels using stacks of books, so that I could use it for several hours at a stretch to mark scripts, it was hardly an elegant solution. Using the tablet on its own for any length of time severely exacerbated my RSI, making it almost entirely un-portable.

I don't really want to get into issues specific tablet model I was testing, for instance placing the power jack directly under where you'd normally want to put your elbow was an act of twisted genius, but suffice to say there were many.

However I can see why the OU lent it to me, in theory being able to write comments, draw freehand diagrams, and scribble equations onto student work allows a much more flexible approach to marking work submitted electronically by the students. In practice the tablet only partially lives up to what, in theory, it should be easily capable of...

It really didn't help that the software integration of the tablet into the OS is also pretty poor. Writing large chunks of text you intend to be read by the OCR software is a laborious process, and spinning the display around so I could use the keyboard to do so wasn't really practical, or particularly convenient. I'll draw a polite veil over the possible comments I could make about painstakingly spelling out words on the software keyboard.

Ergonomically therefore, the tablet PC was a total bust. I'd almost go as far as saying it was unusable. It was certainly almost entirely un-portable, it also counts as one of the heaviest laptops I've ever had the misfortune to have to carry around. If you've followed the blog for any length of time, you'll know that I subscribe to the notion that there are two main core demographics for laptop users. The road warriors, who would kill for another half hour of battery, or half a kilogram less of laptop, and the power users who desperately want another couple of inches of screen real estate, and another hundred gigabytes of hard drive.

I definitely fall into the road warrior category, the tablet PC I had on trial weighed three or four times as much as the Dell mini I recently picked up to use while traveling.

So it's not exactly with a heavy heart that I'm saying goodbye to my loaned PC. I can see the problem the tablet PC is trying to solve, but at least for me, it doesn't even come close to living up to the hype.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Worryingly senior...

Astronomy is one of the more computing intensive of the sciences, and historically we've pushed the boundaries of the available computing resources. But we're also dependent on a thinning cadre of dedicated hero programmers...

Our ability to provide comprehensive software suites to our users hinges on our ability to hire staff experienced in both scientific data analysis and software engineering... In the absence of such people, much larger teams containing both astronomers and industry programmers under formal project management need to be formed. - Economou et al. 2004
However with the data reduction systems and the telescopes themselves becoming more and more automated replacements for those hero programmers are becoming hard to find because of the lack of experienced developers with an appropriate astronomical background, and the fact that it's not really a respectable profession...

We have found it extremely hard to hire good people to work on astronomical software. There is no career path within the universities for software specialists, despite the fact that there's no logical distinction between building hard- and soft-ware instruments. Smart and sensible graduate students, desirous of a career in astronomy, simply don't choose to specialise in the software required to reduce modern observational datasets. - Lupton et al. 2001
Which of course is the reason we're having to replace those hero programmers in the first place, without some sort of established career path the astronomical software community is suffering from 'leakage' around the edges. My own situation is typical, I'm generally described by faculty as a "worrying senior" fellow.

Despite industry-led criticisms of the hero programmer paradigm, such software-scientists are a required. Building complicated bespoke systems to do science takes domain knowledge, not just of software engineering, but also of the underlying science behind what you want to accomplish. Simply put scientists, and the institutions the employ them, can't afford to support the large structured software teams that would be necessary if those hero programmers didn't consitently punch above their weight. Scientists also generally aren't that keen to get involved in the software design process made necessary by more formal processes that larger teams would entail.

Unfortunately historically those same scientists have been reluctant to provide the necessary support and career advancement that would be required to keep people like me around, sometimes through a misguided belief that software is easy and robust software can be produced by any wet-behind-the-ears graduate student.

While there is of course a huge oversupply of hopeful candidates for any long term posting in astronomy, but if you talk to software-scientists at those watering holes where we usually congregate, like the recent ADASS conference in Quebec, you'll find more than the expected amount of doom-and-gloom going around. My situation isn't unique, I'm not the only worrying senior programmer living contract-to-contract...

Of course up until recently, despite our complaints, it's been other people worrying how senior we've become, not us. Most of the programmers that have managed to stick around inside academia for any length of time, and there are many that just come and go, are usually fairly good at what they do. That means they knew they could go out and get a 'real job', probably paying more than they were earning in academia, when or if it came to it...

Unfortunately, amougst other things, the current economic turmoil has taken away our comfort blanket and left us very much out in the cold. Although, perhaps, with a better winter coat and a set of decent boots than many these days. None the less, its not a situation that's going to encourage people to specialise in software.

I don't see any of this changing in the near future. In fact I see the situation getting worse, the current generation of students are further away from the software, and underlying hardware, than I've ever seen. A culture of black boxes is very much in evidence. But you have to ask, what happens when the black boxes break?

Friday, November 14, 2008

The non-arrival of the (next) Dell mini 9

So after buying one of Dell's new netbooks, the Inspiron mini 9, for myself as a travel laptop and living with it for a month or so, my wife was sufficiently impressed with it to order one herself.

She placed the order on the 16th of October with an expected delivery date of the 31st of October. A couple of days before it was due to arrive her expected delivery date was put back until the 17th of November. Today, a couple of days before it was due to arrive, she received another revised delivery date of the 26th of November. That's a full month lead time now, and two slips in the shipping date.

She isn't happy, and since the reason she was getting a new laptop in the first place was an incident involving a dog, a baby, a low table, a full cup of milky tea and her previous Dell laptop you can probably figure out why. Her unhappiness hasn't really helped by the fact that my original mini 9 was delivered over a week early...

This has started me wondering why the shipping dates for Dell's "off the shelf" mini 9's are slipping, and whether this has anything to do with their deal with Vodafone. Are UK destined netbooks having to be diverted to fulfill Dell's obligation to its partner? Is Vodafone putting pressure on Dell to slow down shipments of stock netbooks to encourage sales of their own WWAN-enabled version? You have to wonder...

Update (17/Nov): Well you have to be reasonably impressed by that. Having spotted my complaint on the blog someone, somewhere, did something. One phone call and an email later, the laptop shipped. We all know things go wrong, and delays happen. But if you point out a problem, and the problem gets fixed, that's good customer service.

Update (19/Nov): The laptop has now been delivered.

Missing Google ads?

So if you follow the blog by actually going to the website rather than getting posts via my RSS feed, which actually accounts for most of my readership anyway, you'll have noticed something over the last few days. No advertisements, my AdSense account has been disabled.

At this stage I'm not entirely sure what's going on, I'm presuming it's something to do with out of the ordinary click activity originating on the site, and considering Google's track record about such things I don't really anticipating finding out either way, even if I do by some sort of miracle get my account reactivated.

So, for now at least, enjoy your Daily ACK advert free...

Update: ...and that, is very much, that,
...after thoroughly reviewing your account data and taking your feedback into consideration, we have re-confirmed that your account poses a significant risk to our advertisers. For this reason, we are unable to reinstate your account.