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.

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.

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.

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!).

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!

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.

Hardware lineup for 2012

Last year I wrote a post about my “hardware lineup” – i.e. the tech I use almost every day so I thought I should really do the same for 2012.  Much of it’s still the same but there are some changes – it will be interesting to take a look in retrospect next year and see how my plans for 2012 have worked out. 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 is due for replacement in the spring and I’ve ordered a Volkswagen Tiguan to drive for the next 3 years. I really like the Audi A4 Avant that I drive at the moment but it’s recently had a lot of money spent on it (new clutch and major service costing over £2,500 – thankfully not paid by me) and I’m not sure that a three-year-old car with 60,000 miles on the clock is  worth the money the lease company wants for me to take it on…

Due to price increases, another A4 with the same spec will cost me quite a lot more each month and, whilst the Tiguan is a little smaller, it’s also more practical (I looked at the Q3 too – but it’s “fugly”, overpriced and there is limited engine choice at the moment). With my growing family the addition of a towbar should allow me to take 4 bikes around on a carrier without scratching the car too.

Verdict who knows – it’s not been delivered yet!

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800I recently joined the 1.5% and jumped into the Windows Phone market. I like it – and want the platform to succeed – but really feel Microsoft has a long way to go. Thankfully I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available or when the Lumia is just too infuriating…

It was a risk buying the Nokia Lumia but the hardware is lovely, the software will improve, and it was a major investment so, realistically, it’s likely to remain with me for the next 2 years! Meanwhile, I’m still hoping to get myself an iPhone 4 or 4S to replace the 3GS but the chances are best described as slim.

(Lumia) Verdict 7/10. Hold.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadNo change here – the iPad is my media tablet of choice and no-one else even comes close. I may be tempted by an Amazon Fire or the new (rumoured) baby iPad but at the time of writing this device is still great for occasional surfing, a bit of TV catchup, and social media on the move.  It’s also great for the kids to play games and catch up on vital episodes of childrens’ television programmes that they missed (using BBC iPlayer)!

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220I’m still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work, but this 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!

When it comes up for replacement, I’ll see if I can blag something smaller (really need to be a grade more senior for that) and reduce the weight of my work-bag…

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

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

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Netbook, schmetbook. I hardly used this in 2011. I did install Ubuntu 11.04 on it and have a couple of blog posts to write before I use it to play with Windows 8. I bought the S10e for Windows 7 testing 3 years ago so it owes me nothing but the netbook form factor has been usurped by tablets and low-cost notebooks. 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.

The P7100 joined me this year as a device to carry everywhere and it’s been pretty good, 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)This MacBook needs to last a while longer before I can justify its replacement but I did upgrade the hard disk in 2011 and it may get another upgrade this year. 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive. I’d better get saving for something new in 2013…

Verdict 5/10. 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)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – although both disks in one of my NASs failed and I need to re-rip my CDs for my music library (iTunes had already done a good job of mangling it). I still haven’t bought the music keyboard (maybe this year) but it’s lasting well as my multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and 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 (although I am enjoying my latest purchase: Lego Pirates of the Caribbean). Hopefully the next few months will finally see iPlayer land on the Xbox at which point it will become a really useful media centre for the living room (it works with my aging SD TV).

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

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

My Dell PowerEdge 840 has been retired to save energy (although it could still be wheeled out for any virtual machine workloads to test infrastructure scenarios) and, as I already mentioned, one of my ReadyNASs has suffered a multiple disk failure (waiting for me to sort out some warranty replacement disks) but, once recovered, these machines will remain as the mainstay of my computing infrastructure. Cloud storage for my photos is still too expensive so I’m likely to add another NAS at a family member’s house to maintain an off-site backup.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Raspberry Pi

These have taken my fancy and I’m seriously considering them all in 2012. Only time will tell what I buy (and when) but I’m sure you’ll hear about my exploits on the blog!

Brave new world

One of the advantages of spending most of yesterday in bed nursing a dose of man-flu was that I got to catch up with some tech-related TV including Channel 4’s Brave New World with Stephen Hawking (via the 4oD app for iPad). The episodes I watched focused on Machines, Health, Technology[,] and the Environment (the final episode in the series is focused on biology and will be broadcast next week) [and biology] – with each one including five new technologies that have the potential to change our world, presented by prominent scientists like professors Kathy Sykes and Lord Robert Winston.

As someone who spends a good chunk of his time thinking about the future application of technology (in an enterprise IT context), it was good to see the application of technology to much broader problems and here are the topics I saw covered:

  • Machines:
  • Health:
    • 75% of new human diseases cross from the animal/plant world to humans and the effect is exacerbated by increased communications (for example, it’s thought that HIV crossed over from SIV in the 1880s but was effectively contained until the 1980s). In Cameroon and elsewhere, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative is looking to find new diseases before they cross over, potentially alleviating the greatest threat to mankind.
    • At St Thomas’ Hospital in London, biorobotics are being used to provide a less invasive approach to cardiac surgery. Advanced X-ray/MRI scanning is used to build a three-dimensional “roadmap” which can then guide a catheter to act on difficult-to-reach areas of the body with high frequency radio waves. Eventually, it is hoped that software can replace surgeons in the operation/guidance of the robotic procedure, increasing the number of operations that may be performed.
    • Some scientists are experimenting with optogenetics to take photo-sensitive properties from some cells and apply them to others then control them with light. It’s hoped that this ability to target and control parts of the brain may be used to treat brain disorders and even common mental illnesses such as anxiety and stress, where treatments based on drugs are less than ideal.
    • Every 30 seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies from Malaria and, whilst insecticides and drugs are available, they are expensive and often its an easily-damaged net that forms the first line of defence. At Columbia University in New York, scientists have found that they can use a light barrier to repel mosquitoes that might lead to the creation of a high-tech laser mosquito net. Elsewhere, scientists are experimenting with genetic modification of mosquito so that they can’t even carry the Malaria parasite.
    • Current forms of cancer treatment affect not just the cancerous cells but healthy ones too. At the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, scientists are working towards a new era of personalised medicines and smart-drugs that act on cancer at the genetic level. Unfortunately, not all mutations have drugs so it’s not a universal cure for cancer but treatments like this can be used to help people to live with cancer.
  • Technology:
    • At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists studying Reality Mining believe that that, by understanding our behaviour, they may help us to live happier, healthier or easier lives. The key to this is the data about our personal movements and activities – but people are generally not too keen on the idea of “big brother” watching. The scientists at MIT believe that, by treating our information like a commodity, we may each own the data about ourselves and this presumption of ownership leads to a different balance of power.
    • Most manufacturing involves shaping raw materials to create the desired object, typically hewn out of a solid block. Additive manufacturing (commonly known as 3D printing) takes a design and builds it layer by layer. This allows more complex/efficient shapes to be created with minimum material use. One day maybe we will be able to just pop into our local 3D print shop to create spare parts for our washing machine, car, computer, etc.?
    • With the closure of NASA’s Shuttle programme, it’s hoped that private space exploration may provide the means to transport people and cargo into space. Founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is the first private company to put a craft into orbit and return it intact and hopes to be the next step in enabling humans to move towards a multi-planetary existence.
    • Abu Dhabi is both built on, and dependant upon, oil but on the outskirts of this city a new city is being created. At a cost of $18bn, Masdar will house 40,000 people and aims to be the most sustainable city on earth. Transportation is sub-surface, with driverless electric capsules (personal rapid transport), not unlike the pods at London’s Heathrow Airport guided by GPS and running on pre-determined routes/speed. Street level is reserved for pedestrians, with traditional Arab low-rise buildings and narrow shady streets. Wind towers catch air and bring it down to street level (no need for air conditioning) and the largest solar power plant in the middle east (with 88,000 solar power panels – and a new “beam down” solar concentrator project in development) creates all the electricity that is required, and more. The aim is that the technologies showcased at Masdar can be taken to other cities around the world.
    • Neutrinos or “ghost particles” flow around and through us at around the speed of light as a product of the sun’s nuclear fusion. The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) has been created 2km below ground in order to avoid interference from cosmic rays, studying their reaction with heavy water and to help us understand how the sun is working.
  • Environment:
    • The Frozen Ark is aiming to save the genomes of endangered species of wildlife, 10,000 examples of which are expected to become extinct overt the next 30-50 years.
    • As out ever-growing population places new demands on the planet, around a third of our land mass is used for livestock production. At Maastrict University, scientists are “growing” in-vitro “meat”. As it’s more than 70% meat, it can be used as a processed meat product and consumed by humans under existing regulations but it’s still expensive and lacks the favour, texture and taste of real meat. Nevertheless, it could provide a method to produce meat for processed foodstuffs in the near future.
    • It’s expected that our energy usage will double by 2050 but with fossil fuels running out, nuclear under the spotlight and renewables unlikely to fill the gap, we need a new power source. Scientists believe that source may come from nuclear fusion. Unlike fission (splitting the atom), which requires the burning of heavy metals, available in limited supply, and creating radioactive waste products, fusion combines lightweight atoms (e.g. hydrogen) and, whilst it needs a lot of energy it releases more. The US National Ignition Facility has the world’s largest laser, split into 192 beams that can be fired onto a tiny pellet to generate tremendous amounts of energy.
    • Many of our planet’s problems are man-made but there are also natural forces at work – such as those when solar winds interact with the earth’s magnetic field (“space weather”). We our society based on complex electrical networks, we’re more vulnerable than ever but a new NASA satellite allows us to view the sun’s activity using different wavelengths of light and develop an early warning system.
    • Just as the Frozen Ark is storing animal genomes, the Millennium Seed Bank is aiming to store the seeds of plant life facing extinction. Each seed is cleaned, dried, x-rayed to check for an embryo, damaged seeds are discarded and healthy seeds are stored in a glass container at -20°C along with growing instructions for future generations (e.g. some seeds do not grow in soil/water but need smoke to trigger germination).
  • [Biology:
    • In central America, scientists from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups are looking to harness the power of bacteria to help defeat one of humanity’s greatest killers. By taking the toxins created by a bacterium that grows in the ocean, they have successfully killed breast cancer cells and it’s thought that the ocean could provide scope to further expand the frontier of medical science.
    • By combining biology and engineering, we can harness natural processes to work for us in what is known as synthetic biology. In the past this has been used to create paints, petrochemicals and plastics but now it could be used for fuel and medicines. In one example, at the Joint Bioenergy Institute, scientists are successfully altering the genetic make-up of e-coli bacterium before feeding them with plant cellulose, to create sugars that are then metabolised into biodiesel.
    • Medical research is also pushing the boundaries to allow our bodies to heal themselves. At the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburgh, scientists are researching the use of extra cellular matrix (ECM) – a structure that can be used for the body to build/rebuild itself. Used as a “scaffold” upon which bodies are built in the worm, ECM also helps small children to heal but then stops working. By using ECM to recruit stem cells and build healthy tissue instead of scar tissue, it’s possible to overcome horrific injuries. In another example, regenerative cardiologists at the University of Texas have performed open heart surgery on mice, removing part of the heart and watching it grow back, after observing that heart cells continue to beat (and multiple) outside the body (in the first few days of life). Whilst this is still some way off a human application, in the future it may provide the key to new treatments for human cardiac diseases.
    • Much of the research performed by geneticists is concerned with fixing what’s wrong but advances can also come from looking at what’s right with our bodies. In San Diego, scientists are examining why some people (dubbed the “welderly”) are living into their 70s and 80s without encountering any serious diseases, regardless of their lifestyle. It appears that, whilst there is no gene to help us live longer, there may be one that controls dying sooner and that manipulation of this may provide opportunities to prevent age-related damage to our bodies, although with a growing population there are some moral issues to address around increasing human lifespans.
    • It also appears that our lifestyle can affect not just ourselves but also our children and our childrens’ children. Studies into epigenetics have shown that there is a correlation between early (pre-pubescent) smoking fathers and obesity in sons, regardless of social circumstances. Furthermore, overeating in pre-adolescence can impact the next generation. In females, stress during pregnancy has been shown to negatively impact cognitive ability and to increase emotional difficulties encountered by children. It seems that the lifestyle we choose not only sets and example but can also have a biological effect on health – i.e. that our environment controls us, not the other way around.]

If you think these topics sound interesting, you may just catch the programmes on 4oD but the whole series is also available to download from iTunes.

[Updated 21 November 2011: including details from the last programme in the series]

The hardest thing about choosing my new car? The colour!

A few weeks ago, I received the paperwork to replace my company car. My car scheme gives me the option of taking an allowance or leasing a car via the company and I’ve always chosen the latter option – there may be other ways to save some money but it’s probably not that far off the mark, it’s not my problem when things go wrong and it doesn’t leave me committed to payments on a car if I lose my job (not that I plan to… but you never know in the current economic climate).

I really like the Audi A4 Avant S-Line I drive at the moment so I considered getting another one – until I found that the same car with the same specification was going to cost me considerably more money (partly due to price increases and partly, I think, due to Lloyds TSB Autolease being sold to Lex). I also liked the idea of a Q5, but would have had to drop from the S-Line to an SE in order to stay within my budget, effectively placing Audi out of reach for me. So I looked at BMW and even test drove a 318d Sport Plus Touring (which is very tax-efficient due to its 120g COemissions). Unfortunately, for all its many qualities, the 3 Series failed to inspire and its orange dashboard felt like I was being transported back to the 1980s.

With all of the favourites out of the running, I started to thinking about other options and it seemed that the choices to suit my lifestyle came down to mid-powered diesel estate car (wagon for US and Australian readers), MPV (I think the Americans call these minivans) or an SUV.

A few years ago, one of my friends suggested that men who drove MPVs had given up on life. Clearly he gave up before me (last time I saw him he had sold his Porsche 911 and the family car was a Ford S-Max) but that has stuck in my mind, particularly as I approach my 40th anniversary on this planet.  After a succession of estate cars (Passat, Saab 9-3, A4), it seemed like my time had come but when Mrs W. and I tested a Touran (with Audi off the table, Volkswagen was next in line) she didn’t really like it. Result – no MPV for me! We also test drove a Passat but, even though it’s a great car, the days of having to fill its cavernous boot with pushchairs and assorted baby/toddler paraphernalia are, thankfully, behind us and it would be  just a little too long with a 4-bike cycle carrier on the back.  Then I saw the Tiguan.

Built on the Golf’s PQ35 platform, I thought the Tiguan would be too small for my family but the high driving position means you sit up, rather than back, which means more leg room in the back. Combined with rear seats that slide forward to give a choice between leg room and boot space (for camping trips, holidays, etc.), it seemed like it could work well for us (at 470 litres, the boot is larger than a Golf’s 350 and only marginally smaller than my A4 Avant’s 480, but a more practical shape).

Leasing the Tiguan will involve “topping up” my monthly allowance and so I looked at the Skoda Yeti as a less expensive alternative, except that it was missing some options that I find useful (like iPod integration). I also considered the Audi Q3 but there are none in the UK yet so I would have been ordering “blind” and the brochure indicates a body shape that leaves too little boot space. I was pretty sure that the Tiguan was the right choice and a couple of weeks ago I had one on a 72 hour test. We all loved it so I decided to order one.

Unfortunately it wasn’t quite that simple. Most of the options were straightforward (this is the configuration I went for; sadly there is no R-Line Tiguan at the moment) but I was stumped on the engine choice and the colour.

Engine first and, contrary to popular belief, SUVs do not have to be gas-guzzling monsters. I was tempted to go for the 2.0 TDI 140PS model with BlueMotion technology, but my Audi A4 has a 170PS  variant so I’d be looking at quite a drop in power (20% lower output and 10% less torque), combined with a 50% heavier car. If all my driving was on motorways that wouldn’t be too much of an issue but I live in the sticks and being able to overtake safely on rural roads is an important consideration.  I got in touch with Volkswagen and they told me that a local dealer had a 140PS version that I could test so I arranged to drive it, only to check the sticker next to the spare wheel and find that it was actually a 125kW version (i.e. 170PS).

A friend told me about an £89 “economy tuning chip box” that can be fitted to take the power from 140PS to 165PS and I have to admit I was tempted, but  I didn’t really want to make unauthorised modifications to my company car (I figured that could get me into hot water). So, with no opportunity to drive the low-power diesel, I decided to played it safe and to take the tax hit on the 170PS version – vowing to walk/cycle a little more often instead of driving… (had it been my own car, I would have gone for the 140PS and the box of tricks).

That left the colour. I didn’t want to pay for metallic or pearlescent paint but there are only two solid paint options on the Tiguan in the UK. Mrs W doesn’t like “Candy White” so that left “Deep Ocean Blue”,  for which Volkswagen didn’t have a swatch.  Brochures and websites are no good for colour matching (even the pictures in the brochures are computer generated these days) so I spent hours on the ‘net one evening last week searching for Volkswagen Deep Ocean Blue cars…

I found that Deep Ocean Blue has a colour code of LA5H but I couldn’t find any examples (except the same colour code, called Blue Lagoon, on a 2001 Jetta). After about 4 hours of searching I found a Deep Ocean Blue Touran for sale at an Audi dealership in Germany… and was not convinced.  With minutes to go before the end of the month, and fearing a manufacturer price increase, I decided to pay for metallic paint (Night Blue) and placed my order anyway.

There’s a 5-6 month wait for it to be built (Volkswagen seems to have particular delays on 2.0 TDI engines right now) but I’m looking forward to taking delivery in the spring… in fact, it should arrive just about in time for my birthday…

[Update 20 November 2011: I finally found a swatch for “Deep Ocean Blue” and it’s not the colour in the links above… it’s not too bad actually (the website colour is not far off) – probably best thought of as 1970s British Rail blue…]

Handy to know about: fuel cover emergency release on an Audi A4

A couple of days ago, my wife called me and said the low fuel warning light had come on on my car as she set out to take the kids swimming (a 25 mile round trip). “No worries”, I said, “you’ve got enough to get home – I’ll fill it up later”. Fast forward to today, when I drove to the filling station only to find that the cover on the fuel filler cap (controlled by the central locking) wouldn’t open.  Thankfully, I was close to home, so I went back (fuel range now showing as 5 miles!) and called the lease company’s breakdown service, who said I might have to wait up to 90 minutes for a technician. Not great, but acceptable – and at least I was home.

A few minutes later I got a call from Volkswagen/Audi Assistance and 15 minutes after that the technician was on site (the RAC provide the Volkswagen/Audi Assistance service – but with dedicated technicians, so a different queue).

I explained the problem and he tried (and failed) to open the fuel cover the same way that I did… then he popped open the boot, removed a cover and pulled on a wire – which promptly opened the offending fuel door.  Result! If only I’d known about it at the petrol station an hour earlier. (For reference, the car is a 2009 Audi A4 Avant – the B8 model – but I wouldn’t be surprised if the A5 has a similar mechanism.)

So full marks to VW/Audi Assistance – both for the rapid response and for following me to the filling station in case I ran out of diesel on the way.

And, for anyone else with a fuel cover that’s linked to the central locking on the car, it might be worth checking if there is an emergency release…