Monthly Archives: November 2012

Technology

Useful links: November 2012

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

Site notices Technology

Website moving to a new server…

My hosting provider has told me that they are moving this website to a new server over the weekend.

All being well, the move will be transparent but I will also need to point the domain names at new DNS servers, so, if I disappear offline for a while on Sunday night, please bear with me and I should be back again once the interwebs have updated…

Technology

HomePlug Ethernet, part 1

As more an more computing devices are being allowed into my living room (Xbox, Smart TV, etc.) I’m starting to find that the Wi-Fi in our house, which seems fine for basic surfing, email, social media, etc. is struggling more and more when it comes to streaming video content.

It could be a problem with my Wi-Fi setup but I have a pretty good access point, located in a reasonably central position (albeit upstairs) and an Apple Airport Express acting as a repeater, connected to some speakers in our garden room.  I have a feeling that the TV and Xbox are picking up the Airport Express, rather than the main access point (no way to tell on the Airport Express as its diagnostics are almost non-existent) and the lengthy Wi-Fi journey between access points may be the cause of my problems.  I could redesign the network but it works for streaming Spotify to the garden room/kitchen so I started to consider alternatives.

Creating CAT5E/6 cable runs around the house is just too disruptive (I did consider it when we extended a few years ago, but it was quite expensive too), so I started to look at running Ethernet over the household electrical system with HomePlug devices.

A bit of crowdsourcing (asking around on Twitter) turned up quite a bit of advice:

  • Develo dLAN devices seemed to be well-regarded and I nearly bought a dLAN 500 AVtriple+ starter kit.
  • A few people mentioned the TP link Powerline products too.
  • Some people told me to go for faster connections (500Mbps) and that slower devices may be limited by 10/100Mbps Ethernet connections.
  • Others suggested higher speeds are more vulnerable to overheating and interference (that was another common theme – depending on the household wiring it seems you might not get very close to the stated maximum).

Ultimately, whatever I use will mostly be streaming content from the Internet (BBC iPlayer, etc.) over my ADSL connection (which runs at about 6Mbps downstream) so the home network shouldn’t be the bottleneck, once I get off Wi-Fi and onto some copper.

I mentioned that I nearly bought the Develo kit, so why didn’t I? Well, just as I was getting ready to purchase, PowerEthernet (@PowerEthernet) picked up on my tweet and suggested I take a look at their product, which is really rather neat…

Instead of plugging into a socket (either with or without pass-through power capabilities), the PowerEthernet devices replace a standard UK double socket to provide a single socket and four 200Mbps Ethernet ports. You need a pair (of course) but they work together to create an encrypted (AES128) mesh network that’s compatible with the HomePlug Alliance AV standard.

Professional installation is recommended but, as Paul Ockenden (@PaulOckenden) highlights in his PCPro article:

“Most competent DIYers should be able to replace an existing two-gang socket with a Power Ethernet faceplate, and indeed the IEE Wiring Regulations do allow for a confident consumer to do this. For a new installation, however, or if you lack the confidence, you’ll need to consult a qualified electrician.”

I haven’t installed mine yet – I only collected them from the Royal Mail today – but I intend to report back when I’ve had a chance to play. In the meantime, Jonathan Margolis (@SimplyBestTech) wrote a short but sweet piece for the FT. PC Pro’s full review suggests they are a bit pricey (almost £282 for a pair including VAT) but Girls n Gadgets’ Leila Gregory (@Swannyfound them on Amazon at closer to £80 each (as did I).

I’ll write more when I’ve had a chance to use them for a bit…

Motoring

How Volkswagen turned an angry customer into a happy one

Every now and again, it’s nice to post a “good news” story. This one’s about great customer service. You see, I’ve criticised Volkswagen before because of the problems with water-based paints on their cars, so it’s only right to call them out when they see sense and give great service too. Unfortunately, there is a sting in the tail for one dealer, who will never see my credit card (or any other method of payment) again…

Indeed, one afternoon last week it was a minor miracle that I didn’t tweet my anger and frustration at Volkswagen’s attitude to repairing a known issue on my wife’s low mileage car. The only reason I didn’t was because one of my friends had asked earlier in the week if I needed a “virtual hug” as it seems I’ve been very grumpy on Twitter recently!

A known issue

Our family Golf, which is just over 4 years old (so out of warranty) but has only been driven around 14,000 miles and has a full Volkswagen service history (it’s only just come off a Volkswagen service, maintenance and tyres agreement) was showing a warning lamp for the Electronic Stability Program (ESP). According to the handbook, that means the Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) isn’t working either (normal braking will be fine) and that’s not so great with standing water on the roads and ice to follow later this week.

I booked the car in with a local mechanic, who very kindly, diagnosed the fault and advised me to take it to Volkswagen instead, as the “G201 brake pressure sensor” issue is a known problem on Mk 5 Golfs and Tourans (indeed on a number of other VAG, BMW, and even Citroen cars). Whilst he could take my money, he thought I might be able to get Volkswagen to contribute to the cost on such a low mileage car, as it’s not really a service item and shouldn’t wear out or get damaged.

Furious with the Volkswagen dealer’s response

So I called the local Volkswagen dealer, Wayside Volkswagen in Milton Keynes (Jardine Motors Group), from whom I have purchased the last two (new) cars for my wife and one company car (with a previous employer) as well as placing almost all of my Volkswagen servicing business with them since about 2003. I didn’t even get past the service reception. In fact, I hung up the phone in frustration at the unhelpful, obstructive Service Manager who wanted around £90 for someone to take a look, couldn’t carry out the diagnosis whilst I waited and wasn’t even prepared to discuss the possibility of any goodwill repairs on a car out of warranty*.

Perseverance

After taking a few deep breaths, I tried another dealer, My Volkswagen in Northampton (Parkway Motor Group) who were sympathetic to my problem, explained they would have to charge a diagnostic fee of £69 (including VAT) but that, depending on the outcome, they would speak to Volkswagen UK on my behalf to see if there was any goodwill available. And they could look at the car only a couple of days later (usually I have to wait weeks to get some time with a technician at Wayside).

Good news all-round!

I took the car over today and was delighted to hear a short while later that Volkswagen UK had looked into the circumstances and would carry out the repairs free of charge. Even better, the technician was working on the car and it would be ready the same day. Clearly this won’t happen for everyone – I was really lucky – but this is excellent customer service from a brand I trust, with a car that shouldn’t exhibit this issue (indeed, my Tiguan has been driven more miles in 7 months than my wife’s Golf has in 4 and a half years).

Furthermore, rather than using an independent garage (although I do feel bad because of my local mechanic’s honesty and that might swing things) I’m considering entering into a service contract with Parkway now, which sees the next five years worth of servicing go their way. Oh yes, and my (leased) company car is due for a service in a few thousand miles too, so guess where that will go… and guess where it won’t? So, a part that should cost about £132+VAT, plus labour, and some brake fluid (probably about £400 in total) has cost Wayside Volkswagen a lot of goodwill, together with thousands of pounds worth of servicing and parts over the next few years, maybe even our next family car too.

Customer service matters. Thanks to my local mechanic. Thanks to MyVolkswagen. Thanks to Volkswagen UK. And to anyone reading this blog in the Milton Keynes area, I’d avoid Wayside Volkswagen if I were you…

*I also had cause to complain to Wayside Volkswagen in Milton Keynes when I was choosing my last car, as the pre-sales service I received was so bad – but that’s another story.

Technology

Unable to access Barclaycard-powered credit card websites? Try InPrivate browsing

Late last night, I was trying to log on to the website for a credit card that I use, that’s branded as belonging to a hotel chain but actually provided by Barclaycard*.  After going through the usual security theatre to log on, the system kept telling me that it was unable to access my account:

Unexpected error
Sorry, an unexpected error has occurred and we can’t continue servicing your account online at this time.

I’ve seen this before so I decided to try another browser, then another PC, then a Mac, then yet another PC – all to no avail.

The fact that I tried so many machines (some of which I wouldn’t have used before to access the site) suggests that the problem is not to do with cookies but I eventually managed to access the site using Internet Explorer’s InPrivate browsing mode (Ctrl+Shift+P – some other browsers have similar functionality).

So, if you’re having problems accessing a Barclaycard-powered site, InPrivate browsing might be the answer.

Strangely, I tried again this morning, from one of the PCs that didn’t work last night and everything worked as it should… bizarre!

*Barclaycard’s own cards appear to use a different system.

Technology

5 “stars” to linked open data

Every now and again I have a peek into the world of linked and open data. It’s something that generates a lot of excitement for me in that the possibilities are enormous but, as a non-developer and someone whose career has tended to circle around infrastructure architecture rather than application or information architectures, it’s not something I get to do much work with (although I did co-author a paper earlier this year looking at linked data in the context of big data).

Earlier this year (or possibly last), I was at a British Computer Society (BCS) event that aimed to explain linked data to executives, with promises of building a business case. At that event Antonio Acuna, Head of Data at data.gov.uk presented a great overview of linked and open data*. Although I did try, I was unable to get a copy of Antonio’s slides (oh, the irony!) but one of them sprung to mind when I saw a tweet from Dierdre Lee (@deirdrelee) earlier today:

Star rating of #opendata can be improved sequentially. Describe metadata using #RDF even if content isn't yet #dcat #LinkedData #datadrive
@deirdrelee
Deirdre Lee

The star rating that Dierdre is referring to is Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s 5 star model for linked open data. Sir Tim’s post has a lot more detail but, put simply, the star ratings are as follows:

No star web data Available on the web (whatever format) without an open license
One star open web data Available on the web (whatever format) but with an open licence, to be Open Data
Two star open web data Available as machine-readable structured data (e.g. excel instead of image scan of a table)
Three star open web data As for 2 stars, but in a non-proprietary format (e.g. CSV instead of Excel)
Four star open web data All the above plus, use open standards from W3C (RDF and SPARQL) to identify things, so that “people can point at your stuff”
Five star open web data All the above, plus: link your data to other people’s data to provide context

It all sounds remarkable elegant – and is certainly a step-by-step approach that can be followed to opening up and linking data, without trying to “do everything in one go”.

*Linked and open data are not the same but they are closely related. In the context of this post we can say that open data is concerned with publishing data sets (with an open license) and linked data is concerned with creating links between data sets (open or otherwise) to form a semantic web.

Attribution: The data badges used on this post are from Ireland’s Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

 

Technology

Some thoughts on modern technology: email, gadgets (and how children view them)

I haven’t found much time to blog recently, but this post pulls together a few loosely related streams of consciousness on technology – how we use it (or does it use us?), how it’s sold to us, and how the next generation view the current generation’s tech.

on Email…

Driving up to and back from Manchester last Friday night gave me a great opportunity to catch up on my podcast backlog – including listening to an entire series of Aleks Krotoski’s The Digital Human (#digihuman). The “Influence” and “Augment” episodes are particularly interesting but I also found that some parts of “Intent” sparked some thoughts in my mind. That episode featured comments by Douglas Rushkoff (@rushkoff) of Program or be Programmed fame, which I’ve paraphrased here.

Email can be seen as a [broken] game with many unintended consequences coded into it. For many of us, our working life is a game called “empty the inbox” (in the process, filling the inboxes of others). Email has a bias to generate more email – even when we’re away we auto-generate messages. In effect, all problems become a “nail” for which email is the “hammer”.

We’re almost entirely reactive – and we need to understand that it’s a person on the other side, not a computer – someone who is expecting something of some other person. So, standing up to your Blackberry is really standing up to your boss/colleague/whoever, not to the technology. It takes a brave person to send an out of office response that says something to the effect of “I’m deleting your message, if it was urgent, send it again after I’m back”. But that is starting to happen, as people realise that they are the humans here, with finite lifespans, and that a line needs to be drawn “in the digital sand” to show their limits.

I was also fascinated to learn that the average US teenager sends 3000 texts (SMS messages) a month – a stark contrast with ten years ago, when I had to explain to American colleagues what SMS was. At that time, the USA still seemed to be hooked on pagers, whilst SMS was really taking off over here in Europe.

on gadgets…

I spent a chunk of this weekend shopping for a (smart) television and a smart phone [why does everything have to be “smart” – what next, “neat”?].

The experience confirmed to me that a) I’m officially “a grumpy old man” who doesn’t appreciate the ambient noise in John Lewis’ audio visual department (nor, I suspect, do many others in the department store’s target demographic) b) John Lewis’ TV sales guys do not deliver the “well-trained and knowledgeable” confidence I associate with other departments in the store (i.e. they don’t really know their stuff) c) Samsung reps attached to consumer electronics stores are trained to up-sell (no surprise) d) Even John Lewis’ under-trained TV sales guys are better than Carphone Warehouse’s staff (who told my wife that the difference between the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 starts off with the operating system… at which point I bit my tongue and left the conversation).

Incidentally, Stephen Fry’s new series, Gadget Man, starts tonight on Channel 4 – might be worth a look…

on the way children see gadgets…

Of course, the shopping experience had another angle introduced by my kids, who decided that it would be a good idea to change the channel on as many TVs as possible to show CBeebies (it kept them amused whilst we talked about the merits of different models with the Samsung rep who was in store) but I was fascinated to see how my boys (aged 6 and 8) reacted in Carphone Warehouse:

  • The switch from “oh phone shopping – that will be boooooring” to “oh, look, shiny things with touch screens” was rapid.
  • They liked using a stylus to write on a Galaxy Note.
  • All tablets are “iPads” (in fairness, my wife pointed out that that’s all they’ve ever known in our house).
  • An e-ink Kindle is a “proper Kindle” and the Kindle HD (which they had been happily playing games on – it took my six-year-old about 30 seconds to find “Cut The Rope”) was “the iPad Kindle”.

The irony…

After slating email as a “broken game”, I posted this by email using the new post by email functionality in the WordPress Jetpack plugin. I guess it still has its uses then…

Waffle and randomness

Tomorrow night I’ll be taking calls for Children in Need 2012 (#CiN)

Normally, on a Friday night, I can be found in my living room, on the sofa, watching something on TV.

This week will be different because tomorrow night, instead of watching telly, I’ll be working in one of the Children in Need call centres.  My employer is one of the organisations selected to provide the service for the BBC’s annual fundraiser and many of us have volunteered to “man the phones” so, if your call ends up in Manchester tomorrow, there’s a (small) chance that it will be me that takes your details.

There will be events taking place up and down the country in support of this great charity initiative and, if you’re able to do so, please give generously. More details can be found on the official BBC Children in Need website*.

*markwilson.it has no affiliation with Children in Need, other than as a supporter.

 

Technology

Creating new endpoints to open up access to Windows Azure virtual machines

In my recent posts on creating a virtual machine on Windows Azure and connecting to a Windows computer running on Windows Azure, I mentioned endpoints but didn’t explain the process for creating new ones, i.e. opening up new ports for Internet access:

The RemoteDesktop endpoint shown above was created automatically when my virtual machine was provisioned but it may also be necessary to create new endpoints, for example allowing HTTP access over TCP port 80, HTTPS over TCP 443, etc.

To create a new endpoint, open up the virtual machine in the Windows Azure management console, then select Endpoints and click the Add Endpoint button at the bottom of the screen.  When creating endpoints, a new endpoint can be established or, if one already exists, this may be selected to load balance between multiple virtual machines. I only have a single virtual machine and so I selected add endpoint:

At this point, specify a name (HTTP would have been a better name than the one I used in the example below), select a protocol, and chose the port numbers:

The endpoint will then be created and the virtual machine will be accessible using the chosen protocol and port numbers:

To test the connection, I connected to my virtual machine over RDP and configured Windows Server roles/features in Server Manager (I installed IIS, just to prove that the machine was Internet-connected – but the server could be running any workload). Then, I connected to my virtual machine’s public DNS using a web browser (I could also have used the public virtual IP address shown in the dashboard for the virtual machine):

 

Technology

Connecting to a Windows computer running on Windows Azure

In yesterday’s post about creating a virtual machine in Windows Azure, I left out the details for connecting to the virtual machine.

Virtual machine connections are controlled using endpoints, like the one shown below:

In this case, the endpoint for RemoteDesktop was created automatically as part of the virtual machine creation process so it’s pretty simple to connect to the virtual machine. Just fire up a Remote Desktop client and connect to the DNS name given to the virtual machine when it was created (in my case, that was mwil-playground.cloudapp.net). Alternatively, click the Connect button at the bottom of the Windows Azure management console:

Then, follow the prompts to:

  • Connect to an computer with an unknown publisher:
  • Provide  appropriate credentials:
  • Confirm that there is no certificate to validate the connection:
(It is possible to specify management certificates in the Windows Azure management console but that’s outside the scope of this post.)
After a short while, during which remote desktop configures the session, a connection should be made and the operating system can be administered as normal:

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