I wrote a software

It was born out of a couple of itches I needed to scratch:

  1. I wanted to learn Haskell [1]
  2. I wanted to make collaboration with Excel less painful

Excel is heavily used in organisations. It’s clunky, prone to users making errors and next to impossible to incorporate someone else’s changes. Especially once you start emailing Excel attachments to your co-workers. Yet people can’t give up on Excel. Apparently because it is a convenient way to lay out a tabular structure:

He typed the current date in the top of the spreadsheet, printed a copy, put it in a three-ring binder, and that was pretty much his whole, entire job. It was kind of sad. He took two lunch breaks a day. I would too, if that was my whole job.

Over the next two weeks we visited dozens of Excel customers, and did not see anyone using Excel to actually perform what you would call “calculations.” Almost all of them were using Excel because it was a convenient way to create a table.

Felienne Hermans of Delft University of Technology has some great research on the subject. In A modern day Pompeii: Spreadsheets at Enron she talks about digging around subpoenaed Enron emails to find that:

Over the 15 months that the email set spans, we counted 100 emails per day (!) involving spreadsheets. Some emails occurred double in the set, as both the sender and receiver were in the mailboxes acquired, so it would be more fair to say there were 100 spreadsheet email – interactions a day. But still! Talking about errors in the spreadsheets was also pretty common, 6% of all spreadsheet related emails contained word such as error or fault

We just can’t wean ourselves off Excel, despite all its shortcomings.

People have tried to solve this problem before. One of the key principles of the Enterprise Software industry is that it will replace your crappy, inefficient Excel-based processes with accurate, real-time information. Yet each new enterprise system is sufficiently inflexible in the real world that it spawns a whole set of Excel spreadsheets at either the front-end (forms or tables to collect data to feed into the machine) or at the back-end (download data to Excel to run your pivot tables for analysis).

If replacing Excel with a web-accessible database system isn’t going to do the trick, what if there were an easier way to address some of the issues people have with using Excel?

[1] Consider it “personal development”. Some people go on training courses. Some people try to pick up new programming languages and techniques. Functional programming has been completely eye-opening for me. Also it’s been great to remind myself of what developers have to go through on a daily basis even without pressure being exerted from an uncomprehending management layer.

On the importance of climbing trees

Wow. So about a year ago I was going to resurrect this blog. And then work got incredibly busy and my best intentions got swept aside.

So here’s another go. For my first post in a long time I wanted to write something a bit more personal.

I’ve seen a lot of postings/commentary about school age starting. Probably due to the fact that my peers are in that sort of place. And wanted to share a personal view for what it’s worth.

My wife and I thought long and hard about where to send our kids. As any parent would. Luckily we have/had the luxury of a choice.

In the end we went for a system where reading doesn’t start till 6 or 7. 

For me, at least, I was more than happy to delay the start of formal reading in exchange for earlier exposure to foreign languages.

And so far there seem to be no ill-effects. I’m more than happy that they spent their early years climbing trees rather than trying to learn to write. Plenty of time to put away childish things later on. Mens sana in corpore sano


Cough cough

It’s getting a bit dusty in here. Time to sweep the old cobwebs away.

I can’t believe it’s near on 4 years since I last posted here. Looking back at my posts and even some of the recent comments it feels great to see that some of what I had to say then is still of relevance and use. And it’s inspired me to try to start again.

Also, to be honest, I’ve noticed a large increase in spam comments getting through recently which prompted me to log into WordPress to clear them out.

Back in the day I had 2 blogs: Alan Buxton’s eSourcing Place, where I blogged about eSourcing from the point of view of being the guy who headed up the product at TradingPartners; and Golden Pebbles where I would get more technical. I imagined the audience would be pretty different for both. And at one point they even had their own domain names.

I’ve now combined the two into one and look forward to blogging here a bit more regularly than once in 4 years. See you around.

All the best


Weird and wonderful traditional auction types

I’ve always thought that auctions work best if they carry on while bidders are happy to bid. Most offline (and online) auctions I am familiar continue until no more bids are received – just like the way the standard procurement reverse auction works.

On the other hand eBay is notable for always finishing an auction at a predefined time. This encourages bid sniping where potential buyers tactically try to wait for the last possible moment to get their best bid in. So I was fascinated and entertained to read in “The English Year” by Steve Roud about traditional buying auctions which rely on a fixed time to end rather than continuing indefinitely.

In a candle auction a candle was lit and bids were accepted until the candle went out. Or a pin would be put in a candle and bids would be taken until the candle burned down far enough for the pin to drop out. Apparently this was an officially sanctioned way of running auctions in the 17th century and Steven cites examples where candle auctions still take place in England (on the 6th of April at Tatwell, 13th December at Aldermaston).

Other weird and wonderful (to modern readers) auction types Steven cites are

  • The Running Auction that takes place in Bourne, Lincolnshire on the Monday before Easter. This is to auction grazing rights on a piece of land, and bids are accepted for as long as it takes for 2 children to complete a 200 yard race, and
  • An auction at Wishford in Wiltshire that takes place on Rogation Monday, also for grazing rights, in which “[b]uyers are summoned by the church bell, about fifteen minutes before sunset, and the parish clerk walks up and down between the church porch and gate while the bidding takes place. As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, he strikes the church key on the gate, and the auction is over”.

Looks like eBay’s approach has a good historical pedigree :)

The serious point, though, is that these types of auctions that tried to fix a specific end time eventually died out to be replaced by open-ended auctions.

Getting started with Tellurium and Netbeans

One of the principal devs here had heard good things about Tellurium, a testing framework that sits on top of Selenium, so I decided to take a look. Unfortunately the “getting started” material is a bit vague at best and incomplete at worst so here is a quick checklist of the activities I had to go through to get Tellurium tests to pass on my Netbeans installation.

From http://code.google.com/p/aost/downloads/list get http://aost.googlecode.com/files/tellurium-core-0.6.0.jar
and http://aost.googlecode.com/files/tellurium-0.6.0-dependencies.zip

Extract these into a lib folder somewhere and replace the groovy version 1.6 file with the groovy-all-1.6.4.jar from http://groovy.codehaus.org/Download

Now follow the instructions at http://code.google.com/p/aost/wiki/CustomTelluriumNetBeansProject (but obviously make sure you include all the jars you downloaded, not just the ones listed).

My New Gig

I’ve recently started at Rated People as their Technology Director.

I find the company fascinating for a bunch of reasons:

  1. They are a marketplace that allows people to find tradesmen very easily. It’s shocking how easy for the user it is, in fact – and I speak as someone who has used the service as a user. The model is pretty similar to MFG.com – regular readers will know I’m a fan.
  2. But even better than the traditional online marketplace idea, Rated People is more like a dating agency. I don’t go on the site and choose from hundreds of plumbers. The system chooses the best plumbers for me based on my location, budget etc.
  3. The upshot of all of this is that the ratings system on Rated People is the best I’ve come across. It is the hardest to fake. Amazon’s ratings are useless – as a manufacturer I could easily hire plenty of people to post positive reviews of my goods. Even on MFG.com I could register myself as a supplier, create a number of fake buyer accounts, award myself some contracts and give myself a great rating. On Rated People you can’t just do this.
  4. It’s still sourcing!

On a “small world” note, I was out with one of the guys last night and found out that he once used to be a buyer at Brakes where he used to run their reverse auctions and was involved in the early incarnations of Trade Interchange.

On owning your .com domain name

Received wisdom on the web is that if you are running a business you should own the .com domain name or else you are doomed to being an also-ran.

So I was surprised to read The Sunday Telegraph Stella Magazine’s (8th March 2009 – yes it was a slow Sunday) article on “the great eccentrics of world fashion”. Some are listed alongside URLs:

Susie Bubble of http://stylebubble.typepad.com
Tavi Gevinson of http://tavi-thenewgirlintown.blogspot.com
Diana Pernet of http://ashadedviewonfashion.com
Yvan Rodic of http://facehunter.blogspot.com

Out of these four, only one runs the .com domain of their online presence. The others are content to let blogspot and typepad do the heavy lifting and are evidently happy to be associated with those domains.

And given that 99% of first time visitors to your location will get there by typing in the name  (e.g. facehunter) into Mr Google’s Guidebook, the .com-ness or not of the domain name becomes less relevant.

Google search for "facehunter"
Google search for "facehunter"

Not surprisingly, as with pretty much any .com name made up of two arbitrary words, facehunter.com is apparently owned by a domain squatting organisation. I presume this to be the case because (a) facehunter.com is just a list of links to adverts and (b) I’m struggling to see what other reason Rough Media can have for registering 2,000+ domains.

Google is wise to this: if you even do a search for “facehunter.com” you still get links to the “real” facehunter at http://facehunter.blogspot.com rather than the squatted domain.

Google search for "facehunter.com"
Google search for "facehunter.com"

Where is the benefit, these days, of having http://www.myname.com over http://myname.wordpress.com or  even http://www.twitter.com/myname? How long before having your own .com domain starts feeling rather stuffy, quaint and old-fashioned?