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Seamus K - Irish tech industry expat living in Sweden.

Month: February 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Mobile World Congress 2016

Arlanda airport on a February morning as I wait to travel to Barcelona.

Arlanda airport on a February morning as I wait to travel to Barcelona.

Here I am sitting in Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, waiting to board a plane towards Barcelona. I am going to be down there for the week for Mobile World Congress 2016. This is the highlight of the marketing calendar for us. The last few weeks have been occupied with getting ready. Long hours, far too much caffeine and sugar, all the frustration of trying to co-ordinate dozens of people across multiple countries, and aligning different often contradictory messages makes the job stressful and often frustrating.

During the week I will man a stand, organise meetings with employees, media, analysts, customers and partners. I I will act as a spokesman, a bouncer, a recruiter, a foreman, a camera man, an interviewer, an author, a scout and an spy. And I will talk my vocal cords raw (my voice went by the end of the second day last year).

But deep down I will love much of it. I am learning new things every day, about business, marketing and most importantly cloud technology. I rarely consider going back to college, when I learn far more intensively at work every day. I get to do really interesting things, like be one of the small team delivering a huge launch for a Fortune 500 company. But mostly I get to work with really great people. The team is totally international, from and spread around the globe. It is full of smart people who are pushing every day to be better, learn more and do more.

And when it all comes together it is a hell of a rush.

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Another great thing about Mad Men – the destruction of Budweiser

I was sad when Mad Men finally came to an end last year. But as well as the fond memories of the program it may be that I can also credit it with changing American’s terrible drinking habits.

According to this article in the Washington Post, since 2007 there has been a 6-fold increase in spirits consumption which a lot of people are attributing to Mad Men making it look cool again.

Mad Men Drinking

Back when it was fine to drink in the office.

Personally I have moved most of my drinking to spirits as loads of beer is not good for a middle aged waistline.

Whether that is true or not, what is heartening is that overall beer consumption has stayed largely flat while craft brews have taken off. The consequence is that per capita consumption of Budweiser (which barely qualifies as beer in most people’s books) has halved since 2005.

There is hope for the US yet!

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The weather, Cloud Computing and automation

My pre-getting-out-of-bed ritual includes a check on the weather. This morning I see that in Upplands Vasby (the Stockholm suburb where I live) the high will be 1°C and the low -3°C. Which is fine, except the current temperature is below -8°C.

When automated calculations go wrong

When automated calculations go wrong

 

And it is not just Weather Underground with this problem. The BBC is reporting similar unusual conditions for Stockholm with a minimum temperature 6°C warmer than it actually is already.

Whoever wrote the system for generating or importing the forecasts must have left out a check to see does the forecast match the current reality. But then again, if they did have one, what can the system do if it finds a mis match? Ask for the forecast to be re-run (a massive computation problem for the agencies that produce them), or try and come up with their own? Neither really is viable. I guess they just have t hope that the theory and the reality will converge during the day.

It’s an interesting problem from a technical point of view though. At the weekend I talked with a guy who works at making sure the reviews you see on price comparison sites are correct. He doesn’t ensure that if someone says a TV is great, that it is. His problem is that when they scrape the retailers websites for product details and prices, they must match the products that internet users are actually looking for. Nothing would damage the credibility of a site faster than if you search for details of a fridge, but the responses include electric toothbrushes.

The solutions of course cannot involve humans checking these things. The volume and variety of things that people look for in the internet mean this all has to run without human involvement. The job of the people is to build and tune machine learning systems that constantly improve the quality of the output.

This is one of the key things that I have learned about Cloud – it’s all about the machines. Providing services on demand to users at scale means automation. Everywhere. From the things people see – you don’t ring up AWS to get an EC2 instance provisioned. Through the back end platforms – the only time a human in Amazon should get involved in your bill is when it becomes so big that they feel you need your own account manager. All the way through to the management of the underlying infrastructure.

A metric I was given recently was that in a traditional data centre 1 person can manage about 50-300 servers. In a Hyperscale data centre like Google’s or Facebook’s it is well over 10,000 per admin. Why? Because of automation. As well as enabling the system to manage itself (I am sure they rarely see “routine” errors), automating everything also removes one of the biggest causes of issues in the first place – human error.

Of course this isn’t easy to do (or everyone would be at it). Cracking the problems of automation, governance, and machine learning has enabled the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook to scale to the size they have, without collapsing under the need to recruit half the planet to be admins for their infrastructure.

The challenge then is bringing that capability to everyone else. That’s what the teams I work with are doing, and is one of the reasons why I am (usually) happy to head into work each morning, even if it is -9°C.

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Twas the week before MWC

..and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Because they were all in the office writing and re-writing press releases, media statements, FAQs, powerpoints, demo instructions, invites, blog posts and recording explanatory videos.

If you want to know what cool stuff my colleagues and I are working on, then see us in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress 2016 next week. We will be in the Cloud Area of of Ericsson’s stand in Hall 2 all week.

We will be talking about Cloud (public, private, and hybrid), security, governance, data centres and hardware, and data storage, and analytics. All of Ericsson’s cloud stack really, and we will be making some interesting announcements.

Hopefully I will see some of you there.

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Hiking in Sweden – Lunsen National Preservation area

This week’s hike with the Stockholm Outdoor group from Meetup.com was in the Lunsen National Preservation Area 50km North of Stockholm. It’s an area of about 35 square kilometres, mostly forested, often swampy, and about as wild as you can get this close to the city.Walk route

It had snowed on Thursday so we had great conditions with temperatures of -4C and clear skies. There was enough snow to make everything pretty, but not so much that it made the going difficult.

Like the last walk the area was very well equipped. The trails were wide and easy to find with good markings and signs. Much of the route was on the Uplandsledden which we had walked on two weeks before. A lot of Lunsen is swampy, but any of the wet stretches had a board walk. I can guess that the place would be far less fun in the summer when the mosquitoes are rampaging.

LunsentorpetLunch was had at the Lunsentorpet. This log cabin sits in a clearing, and is open to all who want to use it. Inside there was some simple furniture, 6 bunks, and a huge traditional range and oven. It has no running water or electricity though. At the back was an outhouse for those that needed it, and in the clearing there were a few well equipped fire pits and a bivvy shelter. I will freely admit that I would love to own such a retreat in the woods. That would be my dream bolt hole. I would just prefer mine not to be in the middle of a swamp.

Hot dogs for lunch.Our group had brought fire wood, and a load of sausages. I am told this is the Swedish way of doing hiking. I wasn’t too keen on the long stop though and found myself getting cold. But I was able to retreat to the cottage where the stove had been lit.

The walk leaders set a good pace again this week. It was a shorter walk though. And I was surprised to see two people in jeans. Probably worse was the one who did the walk listening to music on full ear covering headphones all the time. Philistine. They were “Beats” though, which is a clear indicator of someone who doesn’t know anything about decent music hardware.

This week I learned:

  • The furthest you can get from any road in Sweden is 67km. Compare that with the 2km distance I have been given for Ireland. We don’t do wilderness!
  • The Mossies come out from about mid May until end of August/September.
  • More than a few of the Swedes have done some or all of the Kunglseden – the 440km hike in Northern Sweden. They all recommended it, which increases my desire to spend a least a week on it at some stage. The best advice they gave me though was not to go there during the Fjallraven Classic when about 3000 people are on the trail!

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Pancakes in Sweden. Better than in Ireland

While everyone in Ireland was enjoying their pancakes last Tuesday I had some roast vegetables. Not that I minded because in Sweden, every Thursday is pancake Thursday. And as today was Thursday it was time for split-pea soup with bacon, and pancakes.

Pancakes and Pea Soup in Sweden

Pancakes and Pea Soup in Sweden

It is served every week in the work canteen. The pea soup is a bit of an acquired taste, but there is no difficulty eating a plateful of pancakes with jam and some cream.

Wikipedia says the origin is religious and similar to the pre-lent tradition in Ireland – you ate pancakes to prepare for the coming fast. Not that I will be doing much fasting tomorrow.

I do miss lemon juice and sugar for my pancakes. But the kudos to the Swedes for deciding that this is a treat you should have once a week and not once a year. That is

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Rent controls damage housing supply in Ireland

The latest Daft.ie report on the state of the Irish property rental market has shown that the supply of rental homes is in free fall:

“In Dublin, between 2008 and 2012, there were an average of almost 5,200 properties available to rent at any one time. Since 2012, this has fallen again and again. As of February 1st, there were fewer than 1,400 properties available to rent – in a city of over half a million households, more than a third of whom rent.”

The problem of a collapse in building since the bubble burst in 2008 has been exacerbated by the government introducing rent controls. A large section of voters appealed for something to be done about spiralling rents. I am not sure if they were primarily Labour voters, but with Labour facing a collapse in popularity, and having their Deputy Leader – Alan Kelly, in charge of the relevant Environment portfolio they forced their coalition partner to take action. So they took a “lets do something quick” politician’s approach, and decided to go after the easy option of banning the symptom – “rent increases are prohibited”.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

H. L. Mencken

This is a classic complaint about politicians. That faced with a complex problem they go for the fast, solution, one that they can quickly identify as “we took action”.

Except this is not a complex problem. The property rental market is simple to understand. The issue is supply and demand. Demand is soaring, and supply has failed. This is something the likes of Daft.ie have been saying for years. Curtailing rents does not fix the underlying issue.

And it is not like there is a difference of opinion between economists in the left and right on this. It is one of the few areas of consensus between them – rent controls look nice in the short term (probably a few weeks) but encourage landlords to leave the market, reducing supply, encourage poor use of the remaining space, and benefit sitting tenants over those that are trying to get established – so it is another tax on the young (a topic I will come back to on this blog).

And you just have to look at the places where rent controls are implemented to see how toxic they are for a housing market. Like, em, Stockholm where I live. Rent controls offer you a decent place, at a low price. If you can get a primary lease. Except the waiting list for those is years. In popular neighborhoods it is decades*. Almost everyone is forced to look for a grey secondary lease where rents are significantly higher, demand is massive (the local equivalent of Daft doesn’t even show pictures of properties when they know people will rent them anyway), and supply is totally constrained. The actual result of rent controls is lack of supply, high rents, and young people (and those arriving in the country) getting penalised.

Why am I ranting about this? Because it is election time. And a scary number of candidates are saying that they back even stricter rent controls. If you want to fix the rental market in Ireland (and I totally agree it is broken) then they need to be challenged on the door step. Rent controls look nice in the short term. But ultimately everyone loses out. And the longer they go on the worse they make the situation. The focus needs to be on supply. Reject candidates offering you quick fixes that don’t fix!

I’ll see can I get another post up tonight with what I think needs to be done instead.

*  Last summer a person got an apartment in a place they have been waiting on since 1989!

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9 Things I learned Driving Across Europe from Stockholm to Vienna and Back.

Tomorrow I will hop on a plane from Stockholm to Vienna. It will take 2 hours and 10 minutes to make the 1288km trip. Of course it takes a bit longer to drive it. About 2 days. I know as I drove down with my father before Christmas, and I brought the car back two weeks ago.

In the spirit of click bait articles all over the internet here is my 9 things I learned driving between Stockholm and Vienna.

Wind Turbine blade1 – You see weird things. On the final stretch into Stockholm I saw a car on fire by the side of the motorway. It barely rated a yawn after 40 hours of driving where I saw everything from roadside brothels (Czech), to huge free range chicken farms (Germany), to gigantic wind turbine blades being moved by road.

No speed limits in Germany2 – You can tell what country you are in by their drivers. Czech drivers were the worst – aggressive, erratic and impatient. Germans were the fastest, but then much of the time there were no speed limits. And Swedes are by far the politest, most laid back drivers there are. I doubt the horn is even connected in their Volvos.

3 – Sweden is EXTREMELY boring to drive in. Malmo to Stockholm is about 6 and a half hours of trees. Swedes have so much space they don’t need to put motorways near built up areas. So other than 15 minutes looking at the lake near Jonkoping, and the sights near the Saab aircraft factory outside Linkoping, it’s nothing but trees, for hour after hour. I told the north of the country is even more boring. Somehow.

GPS map4 – GPS is wonderful, but.. Our children will not know the family rows our parents had driving on the continent with paper maps and trying to find the bloody Formula 1 hotel which you can see but can’t figure out how to get to. However it is not infallible. This I discovered when I found myself routed down a tiny Czech back road. I wasn’t the first to find themself there, as I was saved by a handwritten “Dresden” stuck on a stop sign which put me back on the right road.

5 – The whole journey is much easier if you sleep. Be sure to do the sleeping before you get in the car though. My biggest worry (other than snow) was getting tired and dozing off. I banked sleep for a few days beforehand and paced myself. Mostly it was 2 hour stretches then stop for coffee or food, and a driver swap if available. Only once on the trip did I feel tired, and then it was just for a few minutes. Boredom turned out to be the real challenge. But there is a solution to that.

6 – Music Music Music. When you are on your own it can be boring (see above about Sweden and trees). I found music made a big difference. I played my music collection off my phone, and was happily able to tunelessly scream out whatever I wanted. It did teach me I need to freshen up my music collection though.

Early start7 – The drive is easier when you have the road to yourself. So start as early as possible each day. I left Vienna at around 0600 on a Sunday so I didn’t see any real traffic until about about lunch time. By that stage I was across Austria, Czech, and all the way into Germany. The following day I had a 0600 ferry to Denmark, and was driving there at 0800. It was much easier as well to deal with driving in the dark when it is early in the day and you are fresh. Better that than after you have been going for 12 hours. The early starts meant some light early morning fog was the only problem. Which brings me to the weather…

8 – Between bad drivers and bad weather, I’d prefer to deal with the former. The weather was the one concern I had planning the trip. I was most worried about running into snow on the way which would totally kill my schedule. It turned out the greatest difficulties were heavy rain heading out of Stockholm on the first leg. It made for tiring driving and I was glad I could swap regularly with my father. On the return, snow and cold caused some problems. It had snowed across most of Europe the day before I left Vienna, but the next two days were when all that snow melted. Which meant slush, wet roads, and all sorts of muck thrown up on the windscreen. I had to refill the screen wash three times in 2 days to cope!

9 – It is good to be an Engineer – Being an Engineer I had a good car (Audi A6 with a petrol engine), which was well maintained, and equipped (winter tyres) so it was comfortable, reliable, and built for this type of driving. It also meant I knew what to do when I had my scariest incident on the road in the Czech republic.

At one point the road uses a causeway to cross a lake. The temperature went from +4C on the land to -4C over the lake in the space of about a kilometre. As the windscreen dropped in temperature it was suddenly coated on the inside by condensation. It happened so fast, and was so opaque I had to pull over. The car heater couldn’t clear it, even on full heat and blow. Being a good Engineer I figured the internal humidity was a  part of the problem. Once I brought in fresh dry air from outside the window cleared in about minute.

If there was a 10th thing, it is that this would have been a totally different proposition if I had the family with me. Synchronising everyone’s bladders, roadside dining timings and preferences, and getting them to tolerate my singing would have been far more challenging than the drive 🙂

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I still have a vestigal coding instinct

 

code

I haven’t coded for years*. But I was drawn to this story in The Register about customers and scary code. One of their examples was of a piece of terrible code that it took two embarrassed engineers a week to figure out. I was chuffed that I saw what was wrong straight away. Can you?

  int SUCCESS = 1;
  int status = getStatus();
        
  logger.debug("Got Status:" + status);
  while(SUCCESS) {
    //Do all the clever things
            
    status = getStatus();
    logger.debug("Got Status:" + status);
  }

Maybe if this whole Cloud Strategy and Marketing thing doesn’t work out I can go back to being a coder.

* My last serious coding was probably in 2004 when I was working as an Oracle developer and DBA. I worked for Accenture at the time and the customer was a large European mobile operator. We were building them a system to integrate with an external loyalty card platform. I ran the team building the database and we also had to code all the stored procedures the devs working on the business layer were using. I had made the jump from Microsoft SQL Server to Oracle 9i running in Solaris. And after getting over the initial steep learning curve I loved all the control and power I now had over the environment. I ended up writing scripts to build, deploy and manage everything. No more check lists of Microsoft things to click on.

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A specific computer animation problem

At the risk of getting my newly rebooted blog a NSFW rating, I thought I’d share this interesting article on “breast physics” – all about the methods used to render them in computer games. It’s a good primer on some of the techniques and issues associated with generally rendering humans as well.

The 3D models use a skin stretched over “bones” and these elements have to be tweaked to produce boob motion as well as all the normal body ones. But there are constraints in terms of how many elements you can render with the computation power you have.

And there is the problem of – how do they actually move. It’s not something people routinely study, and practical observation to ensure you are doing a realistic job may be problematic.

“If you’re around animators working, you often will see them stand up, or they’ll ask someone they’re working with—they’re trying to watch the motion, they will film themselves doing that motion. Interestingly enough, I’ve never worked with any female animators.”

Interestingly development companies often focus test their character models, and women turn out to be the harshest judges of “breast physics”

“Across the board, [the response from women] wasn’t a neutral response, it was a negative response,” Alex said. Curiously, the negative response occurred both when the physics were unrealistic, and when the physics were turned off. It seems as if there’s a very fine line to walk when it comes to breast physics: they can’t be too exaggerated or too toned down without having people feel as if something is wrong”

I can’t say it is something I have paid much attention to in the past. But then individual character models are rare in strategy games. But it is noticeable how the rendering quality of character models has improved immensely in the last decade or two. From jerky sub-cartoonish models, and excessive exagerated limb movements, the computer rendered models you see in modern games line Uncharted are very very good. Not cinema quality, but getting there.

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