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New Years Resolution 2011.1 – watch no broadcast TV

Posted by Mark Harrison on January 3, 2011

Yes, I know it’s the third of January, but various things have come together recently to make me resolve to watch no further “direct to air” TV in 2011.

Do I want to watch a show like this?

Over Christmas, we caught up with some old friends who we see once or twice a year. One of them told us about a friend of his, who has now added a second world record.

He was (and I hope I’ve got these the right way round) previously the holder of the “deepest dive by a blind SCUBA-diver” record. He is now, additionally the “fastest blind waterskier towed by a blind speedboat driver.”

He applied to a TV show in a which a “Celebrity Survival Expert” was to take people with disabilities on a trek somewhere remote. He was turned down because he was deemed too able, and apparently disabled people FAILING TO COPE would make better TV.

Do I want to watch the X-Factor?

Chris Dillow makes the case that I should care about the X-Factor, albeit because it exemplifies so many things that are sadly true.

So, am I no longer watching anything?

Video (by which I mean TV, film, DVD, downloads, irrespective of channel) is a classic example of how specialisation in the West Economy over the last few hundred years gives some stunning results. Take any recent blockbuster film – hundreds of people spending tens of thousands of man-years and tens-hundreds of millions of VC money…

… to give me something that I can have for a fiver.

There is truly great stuff out there. Personally, as someone who hid behind the sofa in the 1970s, I think that the re-birth of the Dr. Who Franchise is great, (and my children love the Sarah Jane Adventures spinoff, to the extent that the Season 3 DVD was the only thing my 6 year old actually asked for as a Christmas Present). Watching the “Christmas Carol 2011 special” was a great use of an hour!

But, it was the iPlayer version I watched, last night, rather than whenever the channel actually decided to broadcast it.

This is the point – I was able to choose to watch that programme AFTER it had been broadcast, and, more importantly, after I’d had enough feedback about it to decide it would be worth watching.

I have a complex mesh of getting recommendations about things – Amazon’s customer reviews are mixed enough to make me believe that they are authentic, not puffed up pieces by PR companies… and of course, the blogs to which I subscribe, and the people I know and meet in “real life” (That phrase needs quoting – it’s as if, somehow, only fake people talk on the Internet?)

But, the resolution – no broadcast TV in 2011 – is the first I’m publishing this year. Feel free to track my progress.


Posted in Investor Psychology, Personal Development, Productivity | Leave a Comment »

A new PC, and I’ve gone “Mac” for this one

Posted by Mark Harrison on February 14, 2008

I pity Microsoft at the moment – Vista is being poorly received by the lucrative corporate market and their latest debacle (in failing to release SP1 to IT professionals ahead of the general consumer launch, preventing IT support firms being able to give their clients any sensible assessment of the product) seems to be alienating the important IT support market.

For a long time, my servers have been running on Ubuntu, which is combining excellent stability, low cost of ownership (it runs very well on older hardware), and minimal support burden. This is true for both , which runs a high-availability Ubuntu cluster, and for / which run on a single server.

However, for the third time in as many months, my “trusty” Dell Laptop refused to boot on Sunday, so I took the plunge, and bought a Mac Mini at the Apple store in Bluewater. (As ever, the Dell came back to life without explanation on Monday morning, but I need a reliable machine!)

The only bad things I’d been hearing about Apple were from people who complained about the price – and they inevitably had no experience of the machines, other than to refuse to buy them.

Increasingly, I’m seeing my IT friends move away from Windows on the desktop, either to Ubuntu desktop or to Macs.

I already HAVE an Ubuntu desktop machine – the children use it for web surfing, and it is very, very, stable.

However, I wanted to try the “third way”, so I could have an informed opinion, so I spent a few hundred quid on an entry level Mac, and I have to say, I’m very, very, impressed.

In terms of applications, most of what I want to do these days is web-application based – I read my mail in Google Mail, I read my Blogs in Google Reader – so any of the big three would have coped with 90% of my requirement.

In terms of office suites, again little to chose – I have on both Windows and Ubuntu, and the Mac variant, shows how amazingly good “free” software is these days. (I’ve written before about the economics of free software.)

Some of the things that needed extra software in Windows are “just there” in MacOSX – an SSL client a VNC client are part of the standard Leopard install. Unless you’re an IT person, you may not need either of these, but I’m still CTO of a couple of startups, so I do 🙂

So, the combination of Ubuntu servers with Mac desktop seems to work very, very, well.

Update: OK, there appears to be an “issue” between Safari (the standard Mac web browser) and, which means that blog posts lose line breaks. Installing Firefox seems to have fixed this problem 🙂

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Remote working…

Posted by Mark Harrison on October 12, 2007

There’s a lovely blog post on dot neil about remote working, in which he gently pokes fun at the way that magazines try to depict “teleworkers.”

It did make me think about how much things have moved on even in the last year, though.

I don’t go anywhere without my mobile phone any more – OK, that’s probably true for everyone these days (even my mum has one now!) However, I’m also increasingly reluctant to go places without my laptop…

… and the reason that THAT has changed is that I’ve started using T-Mobile’s data service, and broadly it works. OK, there are some limitations – on the package I have I can’t access secure sites, and it’s slow… but heh, as I said… broadly it works.

For example, at Mog007, I was able to make a number of blog posts, including photos (via Flickr). I admit I had to scale down the photos quite a lot rather than posting them at the normal resolution, but even MS Paint can manage that 🙂

Which brings me onto the second bit of technology that’s helped – my current laptop has a built in card-reader… that means that rather than faffing about with cables and trying to hook up the laptop to the camera that way, I could just flip the card out of the camera, and stick it into the side of the laptop. Again, it all “just worked.”

Which brings me onto, I guess, a point about Operating Systems.

My laptop runs Windows XP Media Centre 2005… I needed that operating system, because last year I ran a bunch of training courses for a client on a particular product that had an MCE plugin. Alas, the new version of that product needs the Vista version of Media Centre, so the current laptop is no good for that… and the laptop is gradually getting slower as more and more bloatware seems to make its way onto the machine. So, I have five choices:

  • Get a Vista laptop. The ONLY reason I can think of for doing this is so I could run that particular training course… but if truth be told, I’d rather just borrow a desktop with Vista from the client in question (the course involves lots of other kit anyway, so it wouldn’t be an issue.)
  •  Carry on. The slowness is liveable with, and certainly the few seconds a day I’d gain wouldn’t repay the time it would take to ORDER a new laptop, let alone set one up 🙂 My friends with Vista, though, tell me that a new laptop with that runs just as slowly.
  • Get a Mac laptop. Erm, except that would cost about £1,000 MORE than the next option… however, if my iPod, or the Mac Mini that just runs a rolling display in the coffee bar at Architectural Plants are anything to judge my, Apple make lovely, easy-to-use kit.
  • Get a Dell laptop with Ubuntu pre-installed. It’s the cheap as chips option, and I’m looking with interest to see how quickly Dell start shipping with Ubuntu 7.10 which is due for final release this week.
  • Just install Ubuntu 7.10 on this laptop (probably as a dual-boot).

Here’s the point though, for 99% of what I do ANY of those solutions would be fine. For all that Macs, Linux and Windows have their advocates, as far as I can make out, 99% of the exciting development work is taking place in on-line applications. We deliberately released the CD-ROM from my property mentoring programme to run on any of them… and even have the files in either MS or format so those who don’t want to pay another £300 for an office suite can use them… and as far as I can make out most other people are doing the same. (There are still, alas, a few people who only seem to test in Internet Explorer… but I’ve stopped going to their sites because they scream “amateur night”.)

Newsflash people, the desktop war is over… and the result was that everyone one (except, maybe, lazy web developers who haven’t noticed what their customers use.) Compared to even 2 years ago, all three of the options really just work for everything I need anymore.

Posted in Open Source, Productivity | 2 Comments »

Outlook Express, you’re fired!

Posted by Mark Harrison on July 6, 2007

A few months ago, I had some major systems problems (compounded by my own stupidity, it must be admitted), and had to declare email bankrupcy.

At the time, Nik Butler suggest that I try a piece of software called Thunderbird instead of Microsoft Outlook Express.

I’d been using Outlook Express for about five years, and Outlook for many years before that – it would appear that many people don’t realise how different they are.

  • Outlook is a “personal organisation” product. It includes mailing, contact management, task scheduling, and calendaring functionality. When used in conjunction with an Exchange server, it  provides contact list management and sophisticated group scheduling. (While you can do some “meeting request” stuff in Outlook without everyone being in the same Exchange organisation, it gets far more powerful if you all are.)
  • Outlook Express is an “email client”. It sends and receives emails. It has some contact management, but nothing like as much as Outlooks.
  • Both of them attach to a variety of non-proprietary email servers using industry-standard protocols such as POP3 and IMAP.

As a “home user”, I was happy with Outlook Express. As a “small business” user, I’ve been happy with a Linux-based (free) mail server, and each of our staff using Outlook Express. Once in a while I’d miss the functionality that the combination of Outlook with an Exchange server brought, but never enough to pay for it. (And I don’t believe in using pirated software.)
Anyway,  I’d been using Firefox for a long while, and had got used to how much better it was than Internet Explorer 6 (Internet Explorer 7 was then released, which caught up in a lot of areas, but didn’t particularly move the game forward, and it’s Firefox I’ve ended up using as my default browser.)

Thunderbird is a sister product to Firefox. Indeed, earlier versions of Firefox were actually called “Firebird”, until it was discovered that there were trademark issues, because there was other software with that name.

I was recommended Thunderbird, because I was told that it connected to my server (which uses IMAP) more reliably than Outlook Express. What I’ve actually found is that it is not only more reliable, but much, much faster when downloading and reading messages from the server.

I’ve also found that it has two other pieces of functionality that work much better than Outlook Express’ equivalents.

Firstly, the  anti-spam (or “Junk” as Thunderbird calls it) filters really work very well. About 75% of all the messages I get in automatically appear with a “flame logo” next to them, meaning that Thunderbird thinks they are junk. I then run a single menu item (on the Tools menu) to delete everything marked as Junk. Thunderbird doesn’t correctly mark up every piece of rubbish, but I’ve not had a problem with false positives, meaning that it does flag up stuff I actually wanted as spam.

Secondly,  the Rules (or “Messages Filters” as Thunderbird call them) seem to be rather better than Outlook Expresses. For example, I subcribe to several mailing lists such as Ubuntu-UK. It was easy to set up a Thundbird rule that means that messages coming in from that mailing list automatically get filed in a particular folder…. no more clogging up the inbox, and I can catch up with what’s happening on that list in one hit once or twice a day.

Apart from the fact that it came bundled with Windows, I’ve not found any area where Outlook Express worked better for me than Thunderbird now does. If you have broadband, I’d definitely recommend you download it and give it a go.

In fact, looking at the applications I have running at the moment, I run almost entirely on FLOSS (Free, Libre, Open Source Software) these days, even on my Windows machines. The key applications I use are Firefox, Thunderbird, and OpenOffice – replacements for Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and Microsoft Office that work better, cost less, and have some extra features I need included rather than “extra cost” (like PDF creation in OpenOffice.)

The vision of ten years ago – that having large numbers of programmers work as volunteers on large development projects will create better applications than having smaller numbers of paid programmers – has turned up some cracking applications.

I still like the MS applications, and know they work very well, but my requirements are more than catered for in the free world. If OpenOffice does 250% of what I need, and is free, why would I pay £300 for Microsoft Office, even if it does do 260% of what I need…. “Doing everything I need, and then some” is more than enough 🙂

Posted in Open Source, Productivity | 5 Comments »

Mini Book Review – Wikinomics (Tapscott and Williams)

Posted by Mark Harrison on May 1, 2007

If, like me, you’re in the UK, you are going to have trouble getting hold of this book, since the hardback wasn’t released over here, and the paperback won’t be until July.

However, I’d heard good things about this, so I found a copy (on eBay Canada!) and got the vendor to fly it over 🙂

The fundamental premise of “Wikinomics” is that the value gained by sharing “information” with “the community” is often greater that the value that is given away by so doing.

An example: Office software

Apologies for picking an example from the IT industry – but it’s what I know, and there aren’t that many great examples from the property investment community 🙂 vs. Microsoft Office.  Microsoft Office costs about £300. If you buy a copy, you have the right to use it on a single PC, and use it “as is”. OpenOffice (primarily made by Sun – another US software company with a billionaire founder) costs £0. If you download a copy, you have the right to install it on multiple PCs, and make changes to it…  If you want to share those changes with other people, you submit them back to Sun, and if they like them, they will be included in the next release of the product. You won’t get paid for this (other than in reputation, which is as important in the IT community as the rest of the business world), but everyone will get a better product.

Now, I write as an user – frankly, I don’t find it (overall) as good as MS Office. However, it’s got one feature I love and use all the time – it can convert a file into Adobe “PDF” format. SMS Office can’t do that – you need to buy additional software such as Acrobat  Standard at an extra £150. (Adobe aren’t dumb – the reader is £0, but the writer is £150.) Hence, while MSO is better, it’s not worth an extra £450 to me, so I stay with

Tapscott and Williams make the point that no-one could, realistically, compete with Microsoft in producing a competitor to MS Office, if they had to do all the development themselves, but by opening up the “code” to its competitors, Sun is producing a product that is close. However, they can’t make money selling the product directly, but they can sell services. Hence there’s a “cost per seat” version of the product, called Star Office, which they do sell as a direct competitor to MSO – and that product also includes the community improvements. Works well for everyone except Microsoft shareholders.

It’s not just about IT

These concepts are familiar within the IT industry, but Wikinomics introduces the concept of “community product development” to a wider, business, audience.

The key message I need to get over in this review is that the concepts are beginning to be used heavily outside of the IT industry, and the book introduces examples from, say, the mining industry as an area where things that used to be regarded as company secrets, are now actively in the public domain… because sometimes customers, commentators, or just interested people can improve upon them, and those improvements can be fed back on a “share and share alike” basis.

I’m a convert to the concept, by the way – I posted a few weeks ago about the fact that anyone was welcome to take any of my articles, either from this blog, or from the newsletter, and re-write them (provided they included a link back to me.) What I get is improved material (and hopefully extra readers of the newsletter.) The hope for me is that doing this is twofold – firstly I might sell extra copies of my paid-for products because more people know about them… but secondly, I get back ideas about how to tweak my own investment strategy, and do things better, because people take what I’ve written, and improve upon it.

 So, what’s the book like?

It’s good – well worth a read. It’s well-written, and not too evangelistic. One of the problems with much that’s written about these concepts is that the writing is done by “evangelists”, or people who tell you that you should use Linux because of the (sic) moral argument.

Tapscott and Williams freely admit that the “Wikinomics” model isn’t the only one, or always the best, and pull out comparisons with other companies who have taken completely the opposite approach. For example, Sony have a complete “lockdown” policy on their products, so that “community improvements” made to, say, their consoles, stop working the next time they get an official update from Sony.

The arguments they make don’t claim to be “moral”, but are economic – and they don’t make conclusions about which is better – they do, however, do an excellent job of presenting the arguments for the “community collaboration” model of product- and service- development.

Is it worth importing? Probably not 🙂

Should you get it in July – yup!

Posted in Book Review, Building Businesses, Open Source, Productivity | 5 Comments »

I’m declaring bankruptcy, email bankruptcy :-)

Posted by Mark Harrison on April 26, 2007

I did something really stupid today.

I noticed that the email backups weren’t working, so I went in to see what was wrong. In order to do a “clean backup run”, I deleted the “partial backup” to start with a clean slate…. except it wasn’t the BACKUP I deleted – it was all my live email 😮

So, effective of about 15:30 today, I’m declaring what is known in the States as “email bankruptcy”.

  • I have consigned all those “unread messages” to the bin of history.
  • All those “re-marked as unread, because I sort of ought to do something about them” messages – well, they’re gone as well.

So, if you do need me to do something, better email me again about it 🙂

For about an hour, it was shocking… but now I’ve had a few hours to get used to the idea, it’s sort of liberating…

…  and I sure am glad that all my appointments live in a paper diary, and all my critical “to dos” live in a paper tickler file (thanks Dave!).

Posted in Internet problems, Productivity | 2 Comments »

Mini Book Review – Getting Things Done (Allen)

Posted by Mark Harrison on April 2, 2007

A couple of months ago, I reviewed “A Perfect Mess”, which I highly recommended. The authors were relatively critical of the excesses of the “planning industry”, and gave a number of examples of planning consultants and authors. One author they particularly commented on was David Allen.The name rang a bell, because my friend Nik Butler had suggested a couple of David’s techniques to me a while ago, which I’d found useful on a particular project.

Anyway, armed with a book I’d like, being critical of another book, I did the only decent thing, and bought it anyway – however, I’ve deliberately left it 8 weeks to write this review, because I wanted not just just read the book, but try out some of the techniques.

Mr. Allen has an interesting view of life, and I’m beginning to come round to his viewpoint now – he contends that most of us keep a big jumble of “things to do” in our heads, and accordingly suffer from two problems:

  • We can’t find out the detail for the stuff we want to do now
  • We keep getting mentally interrupted by our brains reminding us of all the things that we were meant to do as well

He then goes on to suggest that, at the simplest level, it is worth making up some lists of things that need doing, in a coherent manner, so that both of these problems are solved. I could understand why making lists would fix the first problem, but wasn’t convinced that having the info on paper would stop my mind jumping things on me… but I thought I’d give it a go.

Now, the “process” paperwork in my life is well-organised. I wrote quite a long article called “Administration, Administration, Administration” back in July 05 for my newsletter subscribers. The article is available here at

However, the “project” paperwork had never been that carefully organised. I had ended up with about 6 filing trays, marked things like “to do”, and “Dona to chase me”, and never really found a satisfactory answer.

Starting on page 173 of Getting Things Done, there are several pages of description (and diagram) of something called a “tickler file”. This is a fairly complex set up involving 43 suspension files, and therefore a new really useful company crate to hold them in. (Back in December, I wrote about how good those crates are – though for this requirement I had to go up to 64 litres away from the 35 litre crates I normally get.)

The tickler file was, frankly, a faff to set up, and it took about an hour to get the files labelled, and everything piled round my desk sorted into the appropriate files for future action…

… but I’ve been using it as my prime organisation tool for about six weeks now…

… and let me tell you, it’s fantastic! I have, genuinely, got more projects pushed forward in those six weeks than the previous twelve, and quite often now, by about 2pm, I’ve done “everything I needed to” and can push forward one of the long term projects (like the next book.)

Now, I could spend the next thousand words describing the tickler file, and how to use it, but I suspect it’s one of those tools that works much better if you understand the “why” as well as the “how.” So on that basis, I’m definitely recommending you get the book…

… note that this doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned the “Perfect Mess” view that there are some big advantages to having SOME disorganisation in my life… but in those items where I’ve decided I want some discipline, it seemed to make sense to use the best tools!

Buy “Getting Things Done” from

Posted in Book Review, Building Businesses, Productivity | 3 Comments »