Category Archives: Motoring

Motoring

Stuck door lock on Mk5 Volkswagen Golf

My wife’s ’08 registration Volkswagen Golf (Mk5) refused to unlock the rear passenger door earlier this week.  After trying various combinations of keyfobs, inside door locks, locking and unlocking, I hit the ‘net and found a multitude of articles with various bits of advice – usually resulting in trying to remove door trims and expensive garage bills.  I did find one post on the Mk5 Golf GTI forum that looked hopeful though (even though ours is a Match not a GTI!) and decided it was worth a try:

“You do need two people.

One operates the central lock switch on the drivers door while the other tries to open the passenger door. You try and open the door at the same time as it tries to unlock.

Can take ages.”

I tried this a few times with the outside handle (I could hear the lock “clunking” but the door still wouldn’t open) then I tried with the inside handle a couple of times and – hey presto, an open door!  I think the mechanism could do with some grease (not sure what sort), but seems to be working at the moment.

Internet search saves Mark a couple of hundred quid at the local Volkswagen dealer…

Motoring Technology

Short takes: managing Bluetooth devices in a Volkswagen; seating Micro SD cards in a Hudl

In an attempt to close some tabs in my browser and transfer some notes to blog form, another “short takes” post…

Deleting paired Bluetooth devices from a Volkswagen MFD

The advice is for a 2012 Passatt but it worked for my Tiguan and probably for a Golf, etc. too (there’s a maximum of 4 connected devices – although only one can be active at any one time):

  1. “Go to the Phone on the center information panel
  2. Go to Users and you will the the phone names
  3. Scroll to the phone you want to remove
  4. Push the OK button on the steering wheel
  5. You will be offered some options, scroll down to Delete and hit OK”

Incidentally, Know Your VW is a useful site (although it is intended for the North American market).

Patience required inserting a Micro SD card in a Tesco Hudl

After buying my Tesco Hudl a few weeks ago, I decided to get a memory card to expand the on board capacity (e.g. cary more music/video with me).  Of course, Tesco is the last place I want to buy accessories like that and I picked up twice the capacity for half the price (or something like that) at MyMemory.co.uk.

The problem came when I wanted to insert the card into the Hudl.  For a while I seriously thought I had a faulty tablet that would need to be returned (a bit of a shame after getting it just how I wanted it, including rooting and customising…) – I kept on pushing the card in but it would spring straight out again.  It turns out that the Hudl’s card slot is very deeply recessed and some long nails (or even a knife) might be needed to push it in far enough and get it to stay in place!

 

 

Motoring Technology

Hardware lineup for 2014

For the last few years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012, and 2013). This year, Dan Delaney reminded me when he borrowed the idea (and I originally stole it from someone else…) so here’s the belated 2014 line-up…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

I’m still enjoying my current company car even as it approaches its 2 year anniversary and am actively working to keep the mileage down as I may buy it at the end of the lease. Whilst I might be able to get a deal on a second hand Q7 or Toureg, this was specced up the way I wanted it  including a retractable towbar and I’m more than happy. Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Apple iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini

Windows Phone 7.8 was a disappointment and the lack of apps for the Windows Phone platform means I’ve gone back to iOS for my personal phone (second-hand from the SmartfoneStore), although I hope to jailbreak it to get some of the features that are missing for me in iOS 7. Meanwhile, my company iPhone 3GS has been replaced with an Android model (the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini), which is infuriating in many ways but at least lets me get experience of working with the other dominant mobile platform. (iPhone) Verdict 7/10. Hold – something new is too expensive. (Galaxy Mini) Verdict 5/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet, especially since we bought a touch PC for the family (read on). If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or a Tesco Hudl). Verdict 5/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook P702 (Intel Core i5 3210M 2.5GHz, 8GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

This PC is my main computing device and is a small form-factor replacement for the previous Lifebook I used.  I like it, but a BYOC scheme would be more likely to leave me buying a competitor’s PC. Just as well we only have CYOD! Verdict 7/10. Still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work but not holding my breath.

Family PC: Lenovo Flex 15 (Intel Core i5 4200U 1.6GHz, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard disk)

Lenovo Flex 15When it eventually arrived, I set this PC up with Windows 8.1, Office 2013 and an account for everyone in the family.  It’s been a huge hit – the kids love it and I find it really useful to have a PC in the kitchen/family room.  I’m glad I held out for a touch screen – Windows 8 is so much better with Touch – but I should possibly have got something with a bit more memory… Verdict 8/10. A bit underpowered but a good balance between price and form factor.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Rarely taken out of the drawer – only used when I want to play with Linux (Ubuntu) or upload some new code to the Arduino. Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100Although I’ve fallen out of love with photography, I’m sure I’ll get back on the wagon some time. A full-frame DSLR is still my favourite format and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good. The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like and I increasingly tolerate using the iPhone instead (poor camera, but always with me). (D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold. (P7100) Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive. Still too expensive to replace, but as long as I’m not doing much photography, this will last a while longer… Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300Our late-2012 technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my family’s media consumption habit with my children watching more iPlayer content than live.  The software is a little “buggy” but it does the job – as a half decent TV it’s more than adequate and I’m thinking of getting a 22″ version for the den (when we build one…) Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 4S, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300) Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago (although the Dell server I bought a few years ago has come out of retirement in preparation for that task). We bought a Yamaha PSR E-343 music keyboard for my son this Christmas so this PC may be brought back to life with Garage Band or as a media server as it takes up almost no space at all. Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should but my sons make more and more use of it, and bought me a copy of FIFA 2014 for Christmas, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use. No plans to replace it with a newer model though. Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Raspberry Pi, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Raspberry Pi has replaced my atom-based infrastructure PC, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago.  I still need to consolidate the various USB hard drives onto the  3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive and sort out the various cloud-based services that I use. (Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25? (ReadyNAS Duo) Verdict 5/10. RAID failures mean I’ve lost confidence.

Other tech: Arduino Uno, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

I’m still occasionally playing around with electronics using an Arduino – although I need to do more with this. I’m also slowly regaining control over my filing using the document scanner (and it’s very cathartic shredding old documents!) (Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support. (Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostatLego Mindstorms

Just as last year, I still have my eyes on home automation and tech toys but budgets (and other hobbies) mean they are unlikely to become real for a while yet.  A smart watch is a possibility too… just waiting for the right one…

Motoring Waffle and randomness

Be safe, be seen #cyclesafe

Listen to a cycling podcast or read a cycling campaign website and you’d be forgiven for thinking that all of the issues with cycling in the UK are down to motorists, poor road design, and the mixture of large vehicles and vulnerable cyclists.

So, as I wandered from Vauxhall station in South West London to my hotel this evening, I was flabbergasted to see just how few cyclists had adequate lighting.  Perhaps as many as a quarter of the cyclists I saw on the Albert Embankment just after dusk had either no lights, or lights that were so dim as to be useless. I even saw one rider, in black clothes and with no illumination, concentrating more on operating his mobile phone than watching the road ahead.  I also watched as a concrete mixer truck pulled out of a petrol station, then waited for a barely-visible cyclist who appeared a few feet away: nice road bike; nice gear; no lights; death wish?

It’s not an isolated incident either. This morning, I had a ringside seat from the top deck of a bus as I watched a cyclist cut down the inside of a construction lorry, despite large warning signs on the rear of the vehicle warning cyclists of the danger (and the tragic loss of life earlier this week when another cyclist was killed after a collision with a tipper truck – for the record, I’m not suggesting that the cyclist who died was at fault – we simply don’t know – but that there are clear and evident dangers and the cyclist this morning was being reckless).  This is in spite of the efforts of organisations like TfL and RoadPeace with campaigns like See Me Save Me trying to warn of the danger presented by large vehicles. There was an excellent piece on ITV’s The Cycle Show about the issues that truck drivers have in seeing cyclists – and even the dangers that advanced cycle stop lines can present (it’s a pity it’s not been released as a public safety film).

It may be a minority that give the rest of us a bad name (I’m a cyclist as well as a motorist – and I can recount stories of idiot drivers too) but it’s a significant minority and the consequences could be fatal. Maybe the Times’ Cities Safe for Cycling campaign should focus on educating cyclists on the dangers they present for themselves and others, rather than just on the dangers that they face from other traffic.

[Updated 21:56 with reference to yesterday’s tragic death]

Motoring Technology

What do Aston Martin, design, learning styles and digital storytelling have in common? (#MSRN)

Every now and again, I get invited to a fantastic event and, earlier this week, I found myself at a former school (now a “creativity and innovation space”), on one of Britain’s first council estates, in Shoreditch, East London, home of our very own “silicon roundabout”, to discuss research, disruption, invention and innovation.

If time permitted, I could write a dozen blog posts based on the discussions at Microsoft’s Research Now event. Unfortunately, the highlights are all I can deliver right now, but there were many of them…

The art of design

Aston Martin Parking OnlyFirst up, Head of Design at Aston Martin, Marek Reichman (@Design_Dr) gave a fantastic presentation on the iconic brand’s approach to design. Living, as I do, just a few miles from Aston Martin’s spiritual home in Newport Pagnell, I may be a little biased but there are few brands that stir the imagination as much as seven-times bankrupted Aston Martin – which is partly why they have been the coolest brand in the UK for five out of six years (the anomoly being the year that Apple temporarily took the top spot, since reclaimed for 2012/13 with YouTube in second place and Aston Martin in third).

The company’s new headquarters is a modern version of a castle in the middle of England, built from local stone, in a circular shape, with a moat, a drawbridge and narrow windows and signifies how design is integral to the culture of Aston Martin. Even so, Aston’s design studio (the company’s first in house studio, created in 2007) is a separate building with 6m tall windows, joined to the main complex with a glass corridor – an ivory tower in which to design, with transparency so others can see in.

I won’t continue to reproduce Marek’s presentation – I just can’t do it justice – so here are just a few choice words: power; beauty; soul; cool; exclusivity; luxury; creativity; and craftsmanship.

“Coolness” is something that one cannot claim – it has to be bestowed – but Marek Reichman describes it as stylish, innovative, original, authentic, desirable, unique. That’s a great set of adjectives that, for me, perfectly describe Aston Martin.

Design from the boardroom to the shop floor

With the unenviable job of following Marek Reichman’s keynote, Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, Mat Hunter (@mat_hunter) started out by commenting on the relationship between job titles and confidence, mocking has own grand title in comparison to Marek’s understated “Head of Design”. Mat’s presentation was no less engaging as he took us on a journey with:

  • A logistics company that’s seen improved revenues since they started to better communicate what they do through branding and graphic communications.
  • A discussion of form and function with the kettle evolving from a stove-top model to an electric kettle, one with an automatic off switch, to a cordless model, to a stylish model.
  • Disruption through changing meanings – why do we need a kettle? Why not simply have a tap that dispenses hot water for a cup of tea? Or how about the wrist watch, with Swiss craftsmanship commoditised by cheap Japanese digital timepieces, only to be usurped once more by Swatch, who took analogue technology and made it a fashion item? In another example, Streetcar (which became Zipcar and is now owned by Avis) proved that, in some markets, people want access to a car, not necessarily to own one. Then there are concepts like The Amazings – for people to try something old and learn something new.
  • Looking at innovation, Mat described the “double diamond” design process where we use the left side to redefine the brief before finding new solutions to a problem. Examples include: the Mailbox app which is aiming for a a clean mailbox and using a queuing system to manage demand [only time will tell how successful that is – I’ve lost interest already]; Casserole Club which uses the social web to connect people and provide peer to peer “meals on wheels”; The Matter which gives young people work experience and drives a better quality of output by involving them in local planning and decision-making; and even the Government Digital Service, aiming to transform the way in which the UK government provides online services with a set of human-centred design principles, integration, board-level leadership (and recruiting the best people).

Design-led transformation and innovation

In the next slot, Microsoft Consultants Fred Warren and Phillip Joe spoke about why and how to innovate using design. I really need to take another look at the slide deck to properly understand what was presented as we jumped from anecdotes such as Virgin Atlantic’s redefinition of transatlantic flight by “reframing the experience” in Upper Class, getting travellers from A to B (not Heathrow to JFK) and removing friction points to Pine and Gilmore’s Experience Economy and on to customer experience evolution but I got the impression Fred’s part of the presentation (the “why?”) could be summed up as “step back and look at the problem from a different angle” – and “don’t die hesitating”.

Phillip spoke about the “how?” with four themes of orchestration (guide the vision), envisioning (explore scenarios and define visual and textual narratives), empathy (understand what users want), and execution (take the vision and make it real – which parts of the narrative will be built out).

To be perfectly honest, this was the session that I didn’t really get. Maybe I was tired. Or maybe the previous presenters had given me so much food for thought my brain needed time to adjust… but the basic premise is sound: finding out what the problems are, rather than offering solutions right away (although isn’t that just what consultants do?).

Organisational DNA

This slot was the surprise for me. A real gem. Strategic People and Organisation Development Consultant, Elizabeth Greetham gave a talk on getting an organisation culture aligned for innovation. The concepts that Elizabeth visited are not new, but it’s good to re-visit them.

Honey and Mumford’s learning styles are a cycle of learning by doing (activists, jumping in at the deep end), reflecting (think and observe), theorising (through models) and trying out (pragmatists, starting in a safe environment). Often we skip the reflection, eradicating the time to think creatively, which in turn stifles innovation.  Meanwhile activist-pragmatists skip the theory, which can be valuable to re-engage with from time to time.

Moving on to perception and memory processing, Elizabeth spoke of four learning strategies:

  • Visual (pictures, written word).
  • Auditory (spoken word).
  • Kinaesthetic (actions and movement).
  • Tactile (touch).

Whilst visual and auditory learning are well understood (e.g. leading to success of PowerPoint) kinaesthetic learning is about doing, reaching, feeling. Restricting people to one screen limits this – the movement is important (mind maps can help). So does hot-desking – some people need their own space. The implications of touch are still being explored and, whilst it’s discouraged in the workplace there are some benefits that have been discovered through work with autistic children.

On cognitive styles, Elizabeth described two types:

  • Verbal-imagery: words vs. pictures (not everyone’s brain creates images – sometimes they need to be provided)
  • Wholist-analytic: global vs. components (some people need the big picture and to know what comes before and after their part vs. individual widgets in detail); another way to look at this is breadth first vs. depth first.

The psychological contract is about the perceptions between an employer and an employee about their obligations to one another – more than just a written contract of employment. Promises are often made or implied, e.g. during recruitment, in appraisals, at a social event, when travelling together – and we shouldn’t make promises that are not in our gift to deliver.

Elizabeth then spoke of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, before highlighting that intimacy is key to success – for every person in an organisation, someone else needs to know what makes them tick. Organisations need a structure that supports this; small working groups enable people to get to know one another much better.

In summary, “well it’s how we do things around here” is made up of people, how they learn, the psychological contract status, and personality factors. And that, is the organisational DNA.

Design in the digital physical world

In his presentation, Principal Interaction Designer at Microsoft Research, Richard Banks (@rbanks) explained some of the ideas he’s been working on for digital storytelling. His team’s ethnographic work is a combination of social science, computer science and interaction design; they look at people, see how they work, spot anecdotes about life – and spark ideas for things that can be designed. Specifically, Richard talked about the theme of the future of looking back: creating new value from reflecting on the past.

For example, on inheriting his late grandfather’s box of photos, Richard discovered they had been recorded with “metadata” (names written on the back). But with most of  us creating thousands of digital images each year, that’s a lot to pass on when our time comes.

Technology has moved past the point where it’s a play thing, it’s now an integral part of our lives and we need to deal with death on social media too. We all have boxes of sentimental objects that we don’t keep on display. The question is whether digital artefacts be sentimental too? To take another example, old diaries provide an insight into others’ lives – even if the points recorded seem mundane at the time. May be our tweets will be the same some day?

Richard showed pictures of physical items created to store digital artifacts, such as:

  • A box to backup your tweets.
  • A digital slide viewer which backs up Flickr images into a box that looks like an old Boots slide viewer.
  • A digital photo display focused on one individual containing events throughout their life structured on a timeline [à la Facebook] providing the context for where things fit.

Another interesting angle is the motivation behind digital storytelling, perhaps just creating a record for a sense of permanence – not necessarily interesting now but it may be later. And then there are the new possibilities afforded by digital media – such as putting two people into a picture that could have been together, but were not (e.g. a grandfather and grandson when one had passed away before the other was born). I’m currently taking something in the region of 10-12,000 pictures a year and I have hundreds of slides in the loft inherited from my late Father. It’s high time I took a good look at my own digital curation and storytelling…

Envisioning the future

Microsoft Chief Envisioning Officer, Dave Coplin (@dcoplin) gave the final talk before the inevitable panel session to wrap-up the day. I’ve blogged about Dave’s talks before – fast paced and highly entertaining. The twist this time around was to ask the question “What can you change in your business that you do because you’ve always done it?”. See the big picture. Avoid the arrogance of the present. Look for outcomes, not process. Set your people and your data free. Fundamentally, think human, be human. And empower others.

Conclusion

It’s been a while since I attended a Microsoft event that was as thought-provoking as this one. Most of the company’s output is pure marketing but this was a refreshing change; enabling others to lead the conversation, facilitating discussion, and leading thoughts without the distraction of a product pitch.  For this reason alone, congratulations are due to the Microsoft UK Enterprise Insights team (@MicrosoftEntUK), who hosted the day. Add in the first-class speaker line-up and it was well worth it.

As for takeaways, well, I’ve written many of them in this post but, whilst design is not at the core of my work, it can help me to think about things differently and the organisational DNA talk has given me plenty to consider as I plan for building my own team inside the organisation where I work.

Motoring Photography Technology

Hardware lineup for 2013

For the last couple of years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012) and I thought I’d continue the theme as we enter 2013.

In these times of austerity, there’s not a lot of scope for new geek toys (some more camera lenses would be great, as would a new MacBook) but there’s no harm in a bit of aspiration, and it’s always interesting to take a look back and see how I thought things would work out and how that compares with reality.

So here’s the tech that I expect my life will revolve around this year…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

My company car was replaced in April (a nice 40th birthday present) and the Volkswagen Tiguan I drive will be with me for at least 3 years. Whilst there are plenty of more capabile 4x4s and the space afforded by a 7-seater might be nice at times, “the Tig” has been great – my family all love the high riding position, my wife is happy swapping between this and her Golf (she should be – they are practically the same underneath the covers!) and, whilst I miss some of the refinement of my Audi, I get a lot more for my money with the Volkswagen.  Putting a retractable towbar on this car has created new possibilities too, allowing me to use a 4-bike towbar-attached carrier for family cycle trips.

Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800My initial enthusiasm for the Nokia Lumia 800 waned considerably, after Microsoft announced its Windows Phone 8 plans and the handset lost 60% of its value overnight.  That means I won’t be trading it in for a new model any time soon and, depending on whether Windows Phone 7.8 ever makes it out of the door, I might consider looking at options to run Android on the (rather nice) hardware instead.  Still, at least we got an update a few months ago that, finally, enables Internet Sharing on Lumias (Windows Phone 7.5 supported this capability, but the Lumia 800 firmware did not).

I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available for Windows Phone (i.e. most of the time) and, whilst I’m unlikely to get another smartphone from the company, I am considering a second-hand 4S to replace this as the 3GS is getting a bit long in the tooth now…

(Lumia) Verdict 5/10. Hold, under duress.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet and there’s still nothing that comes close to the iPad from a media tablet perspective (except newer iPads).

If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or an Amazon Kindle Fire) but and Apple’s decision to stick with a 4:3 screen ratio on the iPad Mini means I have little interest in that form factor (it’s almost the same hardware as my current iPad, albeit in a smaller package). If I were to get a new tablet, it’s more likely to be something that could really be a laptop replacement – perhaps a Microsoft Surface Pro? We’ll see…

Verdict 7/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220This PC is my main computing device. I’d love a ThinkPad, but the Lifebook is a perfectly capable, solid, well-built notebook PC, although I frequently find myself running out of memory with the number of tabs I have open in a typical browsing session! A recent hard disk failure meant my free space dropped (my 250GB drive was replaced with a 160GB one) but it’s due for replacement soon.

I’ll be looking for a smaller form-factor device to reduce the weight of my work-bag – at least until BYOC becomes a possibility (an ultrabook, Surface Pro, or a MacBook Air would be nice, but not available to me on the company’s catalogue).

Verdict 6/10. Unlikely to be with me for much longer now, although still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Yet again, this device has hardly seen the light of day. Usurped by the iPad, it now runs Ubuntu and is only ever used for tech projects (e.g. uploading software to my Arduino). My kids have one too but even they are frustrated by the small screen and tend to use my wife’s notebook PC instead.

Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100I still love my DSLR and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good, even 2 years after launch.

The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like.

(D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold.
(P7100) Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive.

Still too expensive to replace, I think this will last another year, at least…

Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300My most recent technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and has given us back a lot of space in the living room! I’ve been really impressed with the Smart TV functionality (more on that over the next few days) and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my media consumption habit.

In time, it may be joined by a sound bar (to improve the experience when watching films) but at the moment the TV’s built in speakers will have to make do.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, Lumia 800, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – except for the addition of a Smart TV – and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago. I still haven’t bought the music keyboard and this PC’s role as a multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc. has been replaced by a Smart TV in the living room.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs but it may be brought back to life as a media server as it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should to make full use of it but the arrival of BBC iPlayer and the death of our DVD player promoted the Xbox to be our living room  media centre, at least until the Smart TV arrived (and the two still complement each other). My sons are reaching the age where they play games too now, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Atom-based PC still provides infrastructure services for the home, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago. I recently bought a 3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive to replace an assortment of smaller USB hard disks and am preparing to supplement this with suitable cloud storage as we become more and more reliant on our digital assets.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

New toys from 2012: Arduino Uno, Raspberry Pi, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

At the end of my 2012 post, I mentioned a few potential purchases and I did pick up one of the first Raspberry Pi computers, which is a fantastic hobby/educational machine to use with or without my children.  I also started to play around with electronics using an Arduino – which is great fun – and I hope to be doing more with both of them this year (more Raspberry Pi postsmore Arduino posts).

I’m slowly regaining control over my filing with the aid of a dedicated document scanner. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s portable, but the fast duplex scanning to PDF and multiple sheet handling (with very few mis-feeds) is a huge step forward compared with the all-in-one printer/scanner/copier I have in my home office.  Mine was an “Amazon Warehouse Deals” purchase (which saved me a few pounds) and the advertised condition suggested it may have a scratch or two but it seems to be in perfect condition to me. It will certainly be a big part of my push to digitise much of my paperwork this year.

(Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25?
(Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support.
(Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Lego Mindstorms

Of course, as a geek, I have my eye on a whole host of potential purchases and these were two that took my fancy in last year’s post, plus one more that I’ve had my eye on for a while (may be something for the kids to get and Dad to play with?).  In all honesty, I’m not sure that I’ll be buying much at all this year, but anything I do is likely to be in the general electronics, robotics and home automation field.

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.

Motoring

Towbar 101

A few months ago, I mentioned that my new car had been delivered, complete with factory-fitted towbar (incidentally, the instructions to release/retract it are in the handbook, just not under any index heading that might help, such as “towbar”).

Since then, I’ve been having fun with my new 4-bike carrier on the back of the Tig’ (no more piggyback carriers scratching the bikes and the car…) but I did go through a pretty steep learning curve, so I though this post might help other “towing virgins” (except perhaps caravanners).

Firstly, I should clear up that I have no aversion to caravanning (well, actually, I do – particularly when trundling along  behind them on single carriageway roads on a summer Saturday – but that’s not the point here) however, I understand that caravans need extra electricity or something (for fridges, etc.). I was advised at order time that the factory-fit towbar on my car has “single electrics” and so that might be a consideration for those who use a caravan (sadly at least one Skoda-driving-caravan-owner was not given the same advice).  As I have no intention of joining the Caravan Club any time this side of… ever… that’s not a big issue for me but I appreciate that for many it would be…

A trailer might be useful sometimes though, and I already mentioned that my use of the towbar is to carry several bikes on the back of the car (the roof would be another option – but more expensive, and more difficult to lift them on/off).

One thing I quickly found was that, in common with many older trailers, my carrier had a UK-style 7-pin “N type” plug (cf. the 7-pin “S type” used for caravan wiring) and that my car had a 13-pin Euro socket (albeit with just 10 live pins). Halfords sell a suitable converter for under fifteen quid and that did the trick nicely, although I struggled to get it on the first time, it’s become easier over time (full marks to the guys in Halfords, Wellingborough, who were really helpful).  Unfortunately I can’t leave it on the car when not in use as it prevents me from retracting the towbar (no great shakes really).  Those who do have a full set of electrics and who need to tow a house on wheels might find a “spider” adapter useful to split the 13-pin Euro connection into two 7 pin connections (one N and one S, confusingly known as 12N and 12S!).

I found it interesting that the wiring on my car is intelligent enough to disable the rear parking sensors (the display shows a picture of something being towed) and will also sound the alarm if disconnected when the car is locked.  It should also disable the vehicle’s fog lights in preference to the trailer/trailer board’s lights, although I haven’t tested that.  Whilst I sometimes wonder if it might have been less expensive to have an after-market towbar, features like this are a useful side-effect of using a factory-fitted model.

Of course, towing something generally obscures the rear registration plate so I needed to get an extra one (the dealer who supplied the car was happy to oblige there – thanks to Citygate Volkswagen’s fleet sale department) but I needed to drill holes in the plate to mount it on my bike rack.  A few tips that might help here (I picked most of these up from a forum for Vauxhall Vectra enthusiasts):

  1. Start with a small drill.
  2. Use a slow speed (turn town the speed if your drill is variable).
  3. Leave the protective plastic cover on (I started from the front side) until the holes have been made.
  4. Drill through onto a block of wood.

Finally, I got a bit nervous with the bikes on the carrier using just the supplied straps (they are OK for a few miles but I’d be concerned using them for long distance at motorway speeds).  I picked up a 5m ratchet strap (again, from Halfords) and I use this for extra security.  For those who aren’t used to ratchet straps, they can be difficult to get used to but there is a great video on YouTube that might help.

So that’s my top tips for towbar newbies. It’s not complicated, but there was definitely a learning curve involved. If you’ve any tips to add, please leave a comment, although I can’t really support people with their towing questions (especially when it comes to caravans!).

Exercise Motoring Technology

Short takes: Kids coding in C (!); new car; and finally “fit at 40″!

Last week I kicked off my new initiative to actually get some blog posts out, despite not having time for all the details…

This week was less event-focused but nevertheless contained a few things that I thought were worthy of note.

Kids coding in C? (Our Arduino)

Last weekend, I was “playing” with my new Arduino proptotyping board, with my sons.  Understandably, my 5 year-old wasn’t too bothered (to be fair, he liked putting components onto the breadboard) but I was amazed to see just how my eldest (who is 7) grasped the programming side of things.  I’m not saying he’s writing C – but just using some example code to flash a set of LEDs in sequence, he asked why he was putting // in front of some lines.  I showed him that each was a function call and he was “turning on and off” different things that the program could do.  Before I knew it, he wanted to chain functions together, before then moving on changing the delay times on the lights.  I thought that the coding side of things would be an uphill struggle but I was really encouraged to see how quickly kids can start to adapt the examples. Hopefully our Raspberry Pi will arrive later this month – and then I’ll get him writing in Scratch or another child-friendly environment!

New toy for Mark

Last November, I wrote about ordering my new car and it arrived on Monday. No longer am I tarred with Top Gear-esque comments about Audi drivers (I did really like my A4 though) – I’m now a sensible, 40-something Volkswagen-driving type! The Tiguan (or “softroader” as my hardcore Range Rover-driving manager calls it) has a towbar too, so I should be able to load the family bikes on more easily and, hopefully, we’ll get out a bit more this spring/summer… which leads me on to the next feature…

Another decade on the clock – and my “Fit at 40″ challenge draws to a close

Towards the end of the week I celebrated  my 40th birthday – which marks the end of my Fit at 40 challenge. Having hit my target weight a couple of weeks ago, I’ve managed to hold that off but haven’t managed to push any further yet.  The final numbers are not quite in, but it looks like I’ll have raised just under £2000 (plus gift aid) for The Prostate Cancer Charity – thanks again to everyone who has supported me and helped make me a happier, healthier husband and father to my wife and children!

Motoring

Releasing and retracting a factory-fitted towbar on a Volkswagen Tiguan

This post is probably of limited value because it only applies to a factory-fitted retractable towbar on certain Volkswagen models (mine’s a Tiguan Sport) but, being a towbar newbie (I don’t tow but I do want to fix a decent bike rack onto my car!), I wanted to see how to “fold out” the towbar (and to retract it again).  The driver who delivered the car didn’t know how, there are no instructions in the handbook, and googling didn’t turn up much either but it’s quite straightforward once you find out how…

  1. Lift the rear hatch (boot) door and look out for a cover on the top-left of the rear bumper.
  2. Lift this cover by tucking something into the hole and prising it off (the car key works well for this) – there is a “knob” underneath.
  3. Give the “knob” a good tug and the towbar will be released. Pull the towbar it out until it locks into place.
  4. To retract the towbar repeat steps 1-3 but push the towbar back in under the bumper.
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