Cloud is dead. Long live the cloud!

I’ve seen a few articles recently that talking about how organisations are moving workloads out of the cloud and back to their own datacentres. Sometimes they are little more than clickbait. But there is a really important discussion to be had here. So I thought I’d lift the lid on this topic and have a look at what I think is really going on.

The promise of the cloud

Cloud is great for many things. On-demand access to vast amounts of computing and storage resource, on a pay as you go basis. Brilliant. No need to invest in capital. Just pay for what you use.

Except that’s not how all businesses work. At least not for all application workloads and data sets.

Possibly the most famous of these “we found cloud expensive and moved back on-prem” articles is David Heinemeier Hansson (@DHH)’s why we’re leaving the cloud post for 37 Signals, written in 2022. In that post, DHH says that renting someone else’s computers didn’t work for his business. He describes 37 Signals as a “medium-sized business with stable growth”. But, I’m willing to bet that most of the readers of this post are not running SaaS applications in AWS for a global audience of B2B and B2C customers. Some will be, but most of my clients are not.

In fact, in his video on kicking cloud to the curb [sic], David Linthicum (@DavidLinthicum) flags that SaaS providers will scale in a repeated pattern, whereas enterprise [and SME] workloads scale differently. Cloud still has a place for most organisations. DHH’s follow-up post (the Big Cloud Exit FAQ) is worth a read too. Just remember that most business don’t follow the profile of 37 Signals. And that 37 Signals are still using co-lo facilities (because building new datacentres in 2024 is a very brave move, unless you are a hyperscaler).

But you’re not 37 Signals

In 2024, I would seriously question why anyone is running their own office productivity tools (email, IM, intranet, etc.) on-premises. There are many services that can do this for you on a per-person-per-month basis. And they will have better up-time than you ever did, despite what your former email administrator tells you. Those jokes about “Microsoft 364” whenever there’s a blip in the matrix… how much more did you spend on storage to make sure that you got to even 99.5% availability in your Exchange servers?

But let’s move on past the “low hanging fruit” that can relatively easily be replaced by SaaS. Let’s have a look at all those other applications that actually run your business: the finance system; the case management system; the modern data platform; the reporting and analytics; the years and years of accumulated unstructured file data that no-one knows what is needed and what is not. (“The business”* says “that it’s up to IT to sort out”. IT says “we don’t know what you need”. No-one agrees to the blanket retention policies, just in case that file deleted after 3, 7, 10 years is really important.)

What I’ve seen happen, time and time again, is that almost everything is moved to the cloud. I say almost, because the cloud discovery process often turns up evidence of virtual machines that were created, are no longer used, but are left running. This happens because on-premises infrastructure is seen as “paid for”. There is no cost to leaving things running. Except there is – not just in wasted processor cycles and storage, but in the size of the infrastructure that’s required.

Lifting and shifting without transformation

There are many motivations for cloud migrations but the most common I see is because the datacentre is closing. Maybe it’s the end of an outsource, maybe the site is being sold for redevelopment. But it’s nearly always “we must exit by” a particular date. No time to transform – just transition. We’ll sort it out later. Except “later” never comes. The project to move to the cloud is completed. The team is stood down. The partners are disengaged. “Phase 2” to transform the estate doesn’t have a strong enough business case** and things stay the same.

And then the cloud bills come in. They look a bit steep – especially for IaaS. You’re using more storage than you expected, and those VMs are a little pricey. Some “optimisation” is done to adjust VM sizes. Reserved Instances and other benefits are used to reduce the monthly charge.

Watch the costs rise

A year later, the prices rise. Inflation. Exchange rate variance vs. the $ or the € (depending on your provider’s base currency). That’s OK, it was always expected. Wasn’t it? Another round of “optimisation” happens. A couple of applications are no longer used, replaced by SaaS. Some VMs are switched off.

Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

A few years on, but you’ve still not transformed. Those resources that you “lifted and shifted” to the cloud are, like the old adage, the same computers running in someone else’s data centre.

The CFO looks at the cloud bill and says “how much?!”. It looks astronomical compared with industry norms. They bring in a new Head of IT and tell them that they have to reduce the cloud spend. “We’ll move back on-premises – where it used to cost less”, they agree.

But it’s still the same systems. With the same technical debt. And now it needs power, and water, and expensive servers and storage and… you see where we are going.

Refactor or modernise

Cloud is not a cycle, like in-source/out-source. It’s a business model. And, like all business models you need to tune the way they are used to make best use of them. N-tier applications running on VMs in IaaS will generally not be cost-effective. Look at how to move the presentation tier to web services. Can the application be re-factored? Could the database run in PaaS too? Often the challenge is ISV support. But it’s 2024. If your vendor doesn’t have native support for Azure or AWS, maybe it’s time to find a different vendor.

And if you’re moving to the cloud to save money, maybe it’s time to look again at your business case.

Use the cloud for innovation, not to save money

Cloud can save money. But only after the workloads are transformed. And only then with continual optimisation. The trick is to make the effort you put into transformation cost less than the savings you return through efficiencies. We can do this on-prem too, but it normally involves capital spend. And that’s another major advantage of the cloud. Once you’re there you can use it to try out new products and services, without a major investment. All that AI innovation that’s happening right now. You can try it out in the cloud, for relatively little effort. Now imagine you needed an investment case for the infrastructure to develop new AI models in house? Cloud gave you agility and flexibility.

And don’t forget about efficiency

To borrow a metaphor from David Linthicum, remember that cloud is a utility. If you leave the heating and lights on at home, you can expect a big bill. It’s no different in the cloud, if you run inefficient infrastructure and applications.

Look at the long-term viability and placement for your services, Make right-sizing decisions based on application workload and datasets. The problem isn’t the cloud – it’s that some people are trying to use it for the wrong things.

* I used this term to be deliberately provocative. I could write a whole separate post on the concept of “the business” vs. “IT”.
** It should have. If properly thought through.

Featured image: author’s own

Weeknote 2024/07: pancakes; cycle races; amateur radio; flooding; and love stories

The feedback I receive on these weeknotes is generally something like “I’m enjoying your weekly posts Mark – no idea how you find the time?”. The answer is that 1) I work a 4-day week; and 2) I stay up far too late at night. I also write them in bits, as the week progresses. This week has been a bit of a rollercoaster though, with a few unexpected changes of direction, and consequently quite a few re-writes.

This week at work

I had planned to take an extra day off this week which looked like it was going to squeeze things a bit. That all changed mid-week, which gave me a bit more time to move things forward. These were the highlights:

This week away from work

Last weekend

I was cycle coaching on Saturday, then dashed home as my youngest son, Ben, said he would be watching the rugby at home instead of with his mates. England vs. Wales is the most important Six Nations fixture in my family. My Dad was Welsh. He wasn’t big into sport, but, nevertheless I remember watching 15 men in red shirts running around with an oval ball with him. Nikki’s Dad was Welsh too. Even though we were both born in England, that makes our sons two-quarters Welsh. Cymru am byth! Sadly, the result didn’t quite go our way this year – though it was closer than I’d dared dream.

On Sunday, our eldest son, Matt was racing the Portsdown Classic. It’s the first road race of the season and there were some big names in there. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the result he wanted – finding he has the power but is still learning to race – but he did finish just ahead of Ed Clancey OBE, so that’s something to remember.

I’m just glad he avoided this (look carefully and Matt can be seen in white/blue on a grey bike with white decals on the wheels, very close to the verge on the left, just ahead of the crash)

The rest of the week

Our town, Olney, has celebrated Shrove Tuesday with a pancake race since 1445. It even features on the signs as you drive into town.

I didn’t see this year’s race as I was working in Derby. Then driving back along the motorway in torrential rain, in time for a family meal. We were supposed to be getting together before Matt flew out to Greece for 10 weeks, but those plans fell apart with 2 days before his outbound flight. Thankfully he’s sorted a plan B but I’m not writing about it until it actually happens!

For a couple of years I’ve struggled to ride with Matt without him finding it too easy (and actually getting cold). I miss my riding buddy, but it was good to hear him say he’d like to ride with me again if I can get back into shape. Right. That’s my chance. Whilst he is away it’s time to get back on Zwift and prepare for a summer on the real bike. I need to lose at least 20kgs too, but that’s going to take a while…

…which reminds me. I must find a way to pull all my information from the Zoe app before my subscription expires.

As last Sunday’s bike race was “only” around 75km, I didn’t have any roadside bottle-passing duties so I took “the big camera” (my Nikon D700 DSLR). Then, I got home and realised my digital photography workflow has stopped flowing. My Mac Mini has run out of disk space. My youngest son, Ben, now uses my MacBook for school. And my Windows PC didn’t want to talk to the D700 (until I swapped cables – so that must have been the issue). It took me a while, but I eventually managed to pull a few half-decent images out of the selection. You can see them below, under “this week in photos”. I love using the DSLR, but do wish it had the connectivity that makes a smartphone so much more convenient.

The Portsdown Classic was my first opportunity to take a hand-held radio to a race. I’d seen spectators using them at other National Races last year but I didn’t have the equipment. I’d asked someone what they used and considered getting a Baofeng UV-5R but didn’t actually get around to clicking “buy now”. Then Christian Payne (Documentally) gifted me a Quansheng UV-K5(8) at Milton Keynes Geek Night. A chat with a friendly NEG rider and a little bit of homework told me which frequencies British Cycling uses. It was fascinating to be able to listen to the race convoy radio, both when driving behind the convoy at the start of the race and then when spectating (at least when the race was within radio range).

Listening in on the action gave me a whole new perspective on the race. So much so that I’m considering completing the ConvoyCraft training to be able to drive an official event car

I mentioned that Christian had gifted me a radio last December. That was on condition that I promised to take the exam for my RSGB Foundation Licence. Well, I took it this morning and passed. The results are provisional but, assuming all goes well and I get my licence from Ofcom, I’ll write another post about that journey into the world of RF and antennae…

Finally, I wrapped up the week by meeting up with my former colleague, manager, and long-time mentor, Mark Locke. I learned a lot from Mark in my days at ICL and Fujitsu (most notably when I was a wet-behind-the-ears Graduate Trainee in the “Workgroup Systems” consultancy unit we were a part of in the early days of Microsoft Exchange, Novell GroupWise and Lotus Notes; and later working for Mark on a major HMRC infrastructure project); he was the one who sponsored me into my first Office of the CITO role for David Smith, back in 2010; and we’ve remained friends for many years. It was lovely to catch up on each other’s news over a pint and a spot of lunch.

This week in TV/video

My wife and I started watching two new TV series this last week. Both are shaping up well, even if one is a rom-com (not normally my favourite genre):

This week in photos

Elsewhere on the Internet

In tech

At least one good thing came out of the VMware-Broadcom situation:

The NCSC appears to have rebranded 2FA/MFA as 2SV:

But this. This is a level of geekiness that I can totally get behind:

Even I have to accept that playing Snake on network switches is a little too niche though:

Close to home

The river Great Ouse in Olney saw the biggest floods I can remember (for the second time this winter). The official figures suggest otherwise but they measure at the sluice – once the river bursts its banks (as it now does) the sluice is bypassed through the country park and across fields. The drone shots are pretty incredible.

This is a fantastic project. The pedant in me can almost forgive the errant apostrophe in the final frames of the video because the concept is so worthwhile:

Underground-Overground

Transport for London decided to rename six formerly “Overground” lines, This is one of the more educational stories about it:

It’s not the first time naming these lines has been proposed:

But British Twitter stepped up to the mark and delivered its own commentary:

Or at least some of British Twitter. Those outside the gravitational pull of London were less bothered:

St Valentine’s Day

Every now and again, the social networks surface something really wholesome. This week I’ve picked three St Valentine’s Day posts. Firstly, from “the Poet Laureate of Twitter”, Brian Bilston:

And then this lovely story (pun entirely intended) from Heather Self (click through for the whole thread of three posts):

This one just made me giggle:

Coming up

The coming weekend will be a busy one. Ben is heading off to the West Country for a few days away with his friends. It’s also Nikki’s birthday… but I won’t spill the beans here about any plans because she has been known to read these posts. And then, hopefully, on Monday, Matt will finally get away to train in a sunnier climate for a while.

Next week is half term but with both the “boys” away it will be quiet. When they are at home, we have the normal chaos of a busy family with two sporty teenagers. When they are away it’s nice to enjoy some peace (and a slightly less messy house), but it sometimes feels just a little odd.

Right, time to hit publish. I have a birthday cake to bake…

Featured image by -Rita-??? und ? mit ? from Pixabay.

Weeknote 2024/06: more playing with NFC; thoughts on QR code uses; and a trip to AWS’ UK HQ

Last week’s weeknote taught me one of two things. Either I’m getting boring now; or AI fatigue has reached a level where people just read past anything with ChatGPT in the title. Or maybe it was just that the Clippy meme put people off…

Whilst engagement is always nice, I write these weeknotes for mindful reflection. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I’m writing them. There’s also a part of me that says “you’ve done six weeks now… don’t stop and undo all that work”. Hmm, Sunk Cost Fallacy anyone?

So, let’s get stuck into what’s been happening in week 6 of 2024… there seems to be quite a lot here (or at least it took me a few hours to write!)

This week at work

Even with the input from ChatGPT that I mentioned last week, I’m still struggling to write data sheets. Maybe this is me holding myself back with my own expectations around the output. It’s also become a task that I simply must complete – even in draft – and then hand over to others to critique. Perfection is the enemy of good, and all that!

I’m also preparing to engage with a new client to assist with their strategy and innovation. One challenge is balancing the expectations of key client stakeholders, the Account Director, and the Service Delivery Manager with my own capabilities. In part, this is because expectations have been based on the Technical Architect who is aligned to the account. He’s been great on the technical side but I’m less hands-on and the value I will add is more high-level. And this is a problem of our own making – everyone has a different definition of what an (IT) Architect is. I wrote about this previously:

What’s needed are two things – a really solid Technical Architect with domain expertise, and someone who can act as a client side “CTO”. Those are generally different skillsets.

My work week ended with a day at Amazon Web Services (AWS). I spend a lot of time talking about Microsoft Azure, but my AWS knowledge is more patchy. With a multi-cloud mindset (and not just hybrid with Node4), I wanted to explore what’s happening in the world of AWS. More on that in a bit…

This week in tech

Let’s break this up into sections as we look at a few different subjects…

More fun with NFC tags

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the NFC tags I’d been experimenting with. This week I took it a bit further with:

  1. Programming tags using the NFC Tools app. This means the tag action doesn’t rely on an iOS Shortcut and so isn’t limited to one user/device. Instead, the tag has a record stored in its memory that corresponds to an action – for example it might open a website. I was going to have a tag for guests to automatically connect to the guest Wi-Fi in our house but iOS doesn’t support reading Wi-Fi details from NFC (it’s fine with a QR code though… as I’ll discuss in a moment).
  2. Using a tag and an automation to help me work out which bins to put out each week. Others have said “why not just set a recurring reminder?” and that is what I do behind the scenes. The trouble with reminders is notifications. Instead of the phone reminding me because it’s the right day (but perhaps I’m in the wrong place), I can scan and check which actions are needed this week.

QR codes are not the answer to sharing every link…

Yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice how many QR codes featured in my day. Unlike most of my recent journeys, my train ticket didn’t have a code. This is because Thameslink (the train operating company for my train from Bedford to London) appears to be stuck on an old technology stack. Their app is pretty useless and sends me to their website to buy tickets, which I then have to collect from a machine at the station. If I need to collect a ticket I might as well buy it on the day from the same machine (there are no Advance discounts available on my journey). So, paper train tickets with magnetic stripes it was.

Then, I was networking with some of the other delegates at the AWS re:Invent re:Cap event and found that people share QR codes from the LinkedIn app now. How did I not know this was a thing? (And to think I am playing with programming NFC tags to do cool things.) To be fair, I haven’t got out much recently – far too much of my post-pandemic work for risual was online. I even have paper business cards in my work bag. I don’t think I’ve given one to anyone in a long time though…

But QR codes were everywhere at AWS. They were In every presentation for links to product information, feedback links, even for the Wi-Fi in the room. And that’s the problem – QR codes are wonderful on a mobile device. But all too often someone creates a code and says “let’s share this – it will be cool”, without thinking of the use case.

  • A QR code for exchanging details in person. Yep, I get that.
  • A QR code on physical marketing materials to direct people to find out more. That works.
  • A QR code on an email. Get real. I’m reading it on one device – do you really want me to get another one to scan the code?
  • A QR code on the back of a van. Nice in principle but it’s a moving vehicle. Sometimes it won’t work so better to have a URL and phone number too. In which case what purpose does the QR code serve?
  • Multiple QR codes on a presentation slide. Hmm… tricky now. The camera app’s AI doesn’t know which one to use. What’s wrong with a short URL? Camera apps can usually recognise and scan URLs too.
  • QR codes for in-room Wi-Fi. Seems great at first, and worked flawlessly on my phone but I couldn’t get them to work on a Windows laptop. Well, I could read them in the camera app but it wouldn’t let me open the URL (or copy it to examine and find the password). For that I needed an app from the Microsoft Store. And I was offline. Catch 22. Luckily, someone wrote the password on a white board. Old skool. That works for me.

More of my tech life

  • I think Apple might have launched a VR headset. This is the meme that keeps on giving…

That visit to the AWS offices that I mentioned earlier…

I started writing this on the train home, thinking there’s a lot of information to share. So it’s a brief summary rather than trying to include all the details:

  • The AWS event I attended was a recap of the big re:Invent conference that took place a few months ago. It took place at AWS’s UK HQ in London (Holborn). I’ve missed events like this. I used to regularly be at Microsoft’s Thames Valley Park (Reading) campus, or at a regional Microsoft TechNet or MSDN event. They were really good, and I knew many of the evangelists personally. These days, I generally can’t get past the waitlist for Microsoft events and it seems much of their budget is for pre-recorded virtual events that have huge audiences (but terrible engagement).
  • It was a long day – good to remind me why I don’t regularly commute – let alone to London. But it was great to carve out the time and dedicate it to learning.
  • Most of the day was split into tracks. I could only be in one place at one time so I skipped a lot of the data topics and the dedicated AI/ML ones (though AI is in everything). I focused on the “Every App” track.
  • A lot of the future looking themes are similar to those I know with Microsoft. GenAI, Quantum. The product names are different, the implementation concepts vary a little. There may be some services that one has and the other doesn’t. But it’s all very relatable. AWS seems a little more mature on the cost control front. But maybe that’s just my perception from what I heard in the keynote.
  • The session on innovating faster with Generative AI was interesting – if only to understand some of the concepts around choosing models and the pitfalls to avoid.
  • AWS Step Functions seem useful and I liked the demo with entertaining a friend’s child by getting ChatGPT to write a story then asking Dall-E to illustrate it.
  • One particularly interesting session for me was about application modernisation for Microsoft workloads. I’m not a developer, but even I could appreciate the challenges (e.g. legacy .NET Framework apps), and the concepts and patterns that can help (e.g strangler fig to avoid big bang replacement of a monolith). Some of the tools that can help looked pretty cool to.
  • DeepRacer is something I’d previously ignored – I have enough hobbies without getting into using AI to drive cars. But I get it now. It’s a great way to learn about cloud, data analysis, programming and machine learning through play. (Some people doing like the idea of “play” at work, so let’s call it “experimentation”).
  • There’s some new stuff happening in containers. AWS has EKS and ECS. Microsoft has AKS and ACS. Kubernetes (K8s) is an orchestration framework for containers. Yawn. I mean, I get it, and I can see why they are transformative but it seems every time I meet someone who talks about K8s they are evangelical. Sometimes containers are the solution. Sometimes they are not. Many of my clients don’t even have a software development capability. Saying to an ISV “we’re going to containerise your app” is often not entertained. OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
  • One thing AWS has that I’ve never heard Azure folks talk about is the ability to deliberately inject chaos into your app or infrastructure – so the session on the AWS Fault Injection Service was very interesting. I particularly like the ideas of simulating an availability zone outage or a region outage to test how your app will really perform.
  • Amazon has a contact centre platform called Connect. I did not know that. Now I do. It sounds quite interesting, but I’m unlikely to need to do anything more with it at Node4 – Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx are our chosen platforms.
  • The security recap was… a load of security enhancements. I get it. And they seem to make sense but they are also exactly what I would expect to see.
  • Amazon Security Lake is an interesting concept, but I had to step out of that session. It did make me wonder if it’s just SIEM (like Microsoft Sentinel). Apparently not. ASL is a data lake/log management system not a SIEM service, so bring your own security analytics.

In all, it was a really worthwhile investment of a day. I will follow up on some of the concepts in more detail – and I plan to write about them here. But I think the summary above is enough, for now.

This week’s reading, writing, watching and listening

I enjoy Jono Hey’s Sketchplanations. Unfortunately. when I was looking for one to illustrate the Sunk Cost Fallacy at the top of this post, I couldn’t find one. I did see there’s I see he has a book coming out in a few months’ time though. You can pre-order it at the place that does everything from A-Z.

What I did find though, is a sketch that could help me use less passive voice in these blog posts:

Inspired by something I saw on the TV, and after I found my previous notes, some of my thoughts here grew into a post of their own: Anti-social media.

My wife and I finished watching Lessons In Chemistry on Apple TV this week. I commented previously that one of my observations was we still have a long way to go on diversity, inclusion and equality but we’ve come a long way since the 1950s. And then I read this, from the LA Times Archive, reporting on how a woman was jailed for contempt of court after the Judge took offence to her wearing “slacks”, in 1938.

This week in photos

  • Only one from my instragram this week:
  • This isn’t mine, but I love it…
  • Also:
  • And what about this?

This week at home

Putting home (and therefore family) at the end seems wrong, but the blog is about tech first, business second, and my personal life arguably shouldn’t feature so often.

The positive side of trying to be in the office at least a day or two a week is that I can do the school run. I may only have one “child” still at school but he’s learning to drive, so he can drive to school and I’ll continue to drive to work afterwards. He’s also driving to his hockey training and matches so its a good way to build experience before his driving test in a few months’ time.

Next week, my adult son (Matt) heads back to Greece for a couple of months’ cycle training. He’s also building new gravel/cyclocross bikes for later in the year, so “bits of bike” keep on appearing in the dining room… including some new wheels from one of the team sponsors, FFWD Wheels.

Meanwhile, my wife is very excited because Matt will be invited to Buckingham Palace to receive his Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. He can take a guest, hence Mrs W’s excitement. Let’s just hope he’s in the country at the time.

I really should try and use the time whilst he’s away to get out on my own bike as my own fitness is not where it should be.

That’s all for this week. See you all around the same time next week?

Featured image: author’s own.

Anti-social media

I’ve slowly been catching up Professor Hannah Fry‘s Secret Genius of Modern Life series. Summing up the episode on virtual assistants, Prof Hannah says:

“[…] it’s the technology that leads the way it’s and only later society asks the question of whether it’s something that we really want in our lives. And that I think is a trend that we’re going to have to deal with a lot more in future”

Professor Hannah Fry, The Secret Genius of Modern Life: S1E3 Virtual Assistants

This, very astute, observation is a concern. Virtual assistants are a branch of the technology field known as artificial intelligence. But they’re not the only examples of technology created without consideration for their impact on society.

As created, technology is neither good, nor bad. Whether it becomes one of those things is about the way we use it.

All too often, we invent something and then work out how to use it. And all to often, the techies decide the way, with society left to mop up the issues.

Social media is one such example.

Social networks come of age

This week, Facebook turned 20.

Gen-Xers like me didn’t grow up with social media but we’re heavy users of the technology. Or we were. Now, as the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk work out how to make money from the vast platforms, they are losing their purpose.

Once it was easy: Facebook for social sharing; Instagram for photos; YouTube for videos; WhatsApp for messaging; LinkedIn for who knows who; Twitter for brief micro-blogging; blogs for long form prose. But Google killed blogs; LinkedIn tried to be Facebook for business (small B, Facebook also tried to launch Facebook for Business); and the other platforms copied each other until they all had versions of similar features. Meanwhile, one of the world’s richest men appears to have delivered a lesson on how to destroy a social network.

Anti-social media

Modern politics – and modern media – seems to be about setting groups of people against each other.

Cyclists against motorists. Brexit or remain. Guns or no guns (in the USA). Your choice of political party (red or blue – on both sides of the Atlantic). Woke or anti-woke (whatever that means). Even whether it makes sense to park a car forwards or backwards.

Social media should have been a force for good. but everything was reduced to a soundbite. It lost the nuance, context, critical thinking. As Zoe Kleinman wrote in the tweet I embedded earlier, “at its best, it brings people together. At its worst, it destroys them.”

Where did it all go wrong?

I stopped using Facebook a while back. The Cambridge Analytica data scandal showed how the information we were giving away freely was being used by others. Not just to advertise but to target for political means. Even, some might say, to subvert democracy.

My experience of Twitter in recent years is that it has descended into a place that’s full of hate, division, bots promoting porn, and with very little genuine engagement. Instagram became very needy, with notifications trying to encourage the growth of Threads, or cross-fertilisation to other Meta properties (like Facebook).

Where next?

I’m still on LinkedIn, reluctantly, and scaling out my use professionally.

But what replaces Twitter/X (I still can’t bring myself to use the new name)? I don’t know but it’s probably not Bluesky, Post, Hue or any of those similar sites. Certainly not Mastodon. That one network where everyone came together is gone… the future looks like it will consist of small niches. Special interest groups. 

Writing last year for Wired Magazine, Jason Parham said that first-gen social media users have nowhere to go. That article is from a Millennial perspective but it resonates with Gen-X me too. Fifteen years of scrolling for news and entertainment. And fifteen years of having a platform to share, discuss and learn. What do I do now? Increasingly, I feel lost.

I’ll work out a new content strategy in 2024. We’re already a month in and I’m not sure what it is yet. One thing I do know is that you’re likely to see less from me on Twitter/X, once I work out where and how to host my history. And I’m too old to start again somewhere else.

Featured image by Daria Nepriakhina ?? on Unsplash.

Weeknote 2024/05: using ChatGPT to overcome writer’s block; and why do UK supermarkets use technology so badly?

This week’s weeknote is shorter. Just a few nuggets… but I did actually write some real, standalone blog posts:

I hope you enjoy them. There was another one I planned about anti-social media. I thought I had it in note form but I can’t find the notes now. Maybe that will follow soon. But there’s also a possibility it will go to the great list of unwritten or part-written blog posts…

Some artificial assistance from ChatGPT

For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to write some data sheets to describe some of the Node4 services that I’m responsible for. I’ve really struggled – not so much to understand what the service entails – but to generate lists of features and benefits.

One of my colleagues is a big fan of ChatGPT. I’m not – because I value quality writing – and I’m concerned it just churns out very formulaic text filled with buzzwords. (Sadly, in this case that might be exactly what I need!). In addition, I’ve probably mentioned previously that my wife is a copywriter so I am a little biased. Even so, ChatGPT 4’s content has at least allowed me to move past my writer’s block – it gave me a draft that I could refine.

Retail pricing inefficiencies

I started my career working in supermarkets (Bejam/Iceland, and then Safeway). It was the time when we saw the end of individual price ticketing and the start of barcode scanning. Back in those days (the late 1980s), it was someone’s job to make sure that the shelf edge tickets matched the store computer.

I’ve just got back from a trip to a major UK supermarket. I’m not going to name the chain, because I’ve had similar issues in others, but it was interesting to see, yet again, an advertised offer that didn’t match the scanned price. And the store’s reaction is almost always to remove the shelf edge ticket (not to correct the computer).

But we have technology that can keep these things aligned. e-ink displays are used on shelf edges in some other countries – it mystifies me that we don’t use them in the UK.

Retailers will argue that they work on small margins that that investment in systems is secondary to reducing prices. Except that right now they are doing it badly – and inefficiently too!

Not only would the use of e-ink displays allow a guaranteed match between the shelf edge and the point of sale systems, but they would remove an admin task of replacing tickets (something which is clearly not done well). They could also allow for demand-based pricing, though I’m less keen on that idea…

Plus “random” checks for self-scanning

Then, to add insult to injury, the store systems selected me for a “random” check. For a dozen items, totalling £12.69. And it seems to happen quite frequently (hence the quotes around the word random). Not long ago they were encouraging us to use an app and self-scan. Now they seem to be seeing self-scanners as potential criminals. Either innovate, use the technology, and take action when someone is abusing the system, or pay for more staff to run checkouts. The choice is yours Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, et al. But stop treating the customers that help you reduce your costs as potential shoplifters.

More “coffees”

Last week’s weeknote featured the concept of “coffees”, as meeting people without an agenda, to catch-up and to learn. No sooner had I hit publish, then I met up with another old colleague and friend, David Saxon (@DMSaxon). David and I worked together for many years and he’s now at Microsoft so we still have a lot in common. He was staying near me last weekend, so it was a great opportunity for dinner and a chat.

I didn’t line anything up during the work week but as we roll into a new month there will be another pairing in the WB-40 podcast coffee club, plus I’ve got a couple of former team members that I really must check in with. And, in a few weeks, I’m due to catch up with my former colleague then manager, and long-time mentor, Mark Locke.

Things that caught my eye this week

At home

I’m at the stage of life where frequently at least one of my sons is away from home. Last weekend my wife was too – so there was just me, my youngest son, and the dog. Since Sunday evening, we’ve been a complete family again – which has been good. Matt’s back from two weeks skiing (which he referred to as altitude training) and is quite pleased (and surprised) to have been taking Strava segments on skis (he’s used to it on his bike). I need to make the most of it though before he goes back to Greece for a training camp. He’s racing next weekend, so I have one more trip away to support him before he disappears for a couple of months.

I’ve also booked the exam for my RSGB Foundation Licence (as promised at the last Milton Keynes Geek Night), so I have some revision to do.

Finally, I’m giving myself a gold star, because today, I restrained my “inner chimp”. I received a text message from my son’s school, advising me that he will soon be held back for a detention. That’s fine. He needs to learn. But it niggled me that the message contained a glaring grammatical error. This is a school which is very proud of its history and standards for students but doesn’t always follow through with its own communications. The pedantic side of me was desperate to reply and point out the mistake but I managed to restrain myself!

That’s all for now

No tech projects, no new TV, no podcasts of note, no photos. I’ll be back next week with another weeknote – and hopefully soon I’ll be able to shout about a cool new service I’ve been working on for Node4.

Featured image created using the Clippy Meme Generator at Imgflip.

Watercooler moments, and hybrid work

In last week’s weeknote, I asked a question:

“Much is made of “watercooler moments” as a reason to return to the office (RTO). Well, is there any reason that such moments can’t happen outside the office too?”

I wrote about “coffees” (as a metaphor for meeting up with no agenda), but only this afternoon I witnessed a “watercooler moment” away from the office. Two of my colleagues were on a Teams call, and they discovered that they live only a few streets away from one another. Actually, as the call went on, I realised that 80% of the attendees were in/around the same city (I was the exception).

But what also became apparent to me is how these four people in the same city had different needs – and that travelling to a city centre location was almost easier for me (80 miles away) than it was for some of them!

This is where the subject of this blog post shifts to hybrid work. And it seems that the thing to remember about hybrid work is that what works for one does not necessarily work for another.

It’s complicated

On the one hand, we want to nurture a culture, and to get people working as a team. One way to do that is to co-locate them. But we have distributed teams too. Regionally, nationally or globally. There’s limited value in going to the office if you won’t actually be in the same place as your colleagues. Conversely, there’s an view that you might meet people from a broader cross-section of the company. That holds some merit.

I planned to be in an office tomorrow, then my diary filled up and it looks like I will spend half the day on the same Teams calls I would have attended from home. Is that a good reason to be in the office?

There’s also the view of productivity. Being present in an office isn’t the same as doing good work. Some find it easy to work at home. Others struggle to get motivated. Some find it easier to work in an office. Some struggle with the noise and disruption. Some people have better IT at home (e.g. a faster connection to the Internet).

Some people will say “you used to come to the office before Covid”. But did we? Working patterns have been changing for a while. Even before the pandemic, I was at home or on client sites most of the time. I was rarely at a company location.

And there seems to be an assumption by some that employees took remote or hybrid jobs as if it was some kind of favour, and can now absorb the time and costs associated with commuting. I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005. If I travel to an office, it costs the company money, not me. That may work for a professional services business charging me out on a fee-earning basis, plus expenses. But less so when it’s “everyone into the office x days a week”.

I do feel for those who are starting out or early in their careers. It must be tricky when you don’t see the people you work with. I learned by observing others, and by being shown what to do. We need to find new ways to do that and to nurture people’s growth.

But, for those with caring responsibilities, the flexibility of working from home means they can continue delivering value to the organisation whilst fulfilling the needs of those they care for. As a society, we’re living longer. Those of us in our middle age are sandwiched between the needs of our children and those of our aging parents. And that’s not considering the changes in our ability to work that come with this time of life, for example adapting to deal with the menopause (that’s a whole blog post in itself).

We don’t want to lose good skills to when we really just need to accommodate different people’s needs.

And then there’s the green angle. “How can we be more environmentally-sensitive?”, asks the person responsible for the organisation’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals. Perhaps, by travelling less?

It’s about autonomy

I’ll be the first to admit that 100% remote work doesn’t work for me. And I get a lot from being with others to collaborate on something. Earlier this month I did travel to meet a colleague and “write on the walls”. We got a lot of value from that meeting.

And that’s the nub of it. Not blanket RTO edicts, as I’ve heard mentioned in multiple organisations recently, but autonomy and flexibility. Or, as one Gartner Analyst put it:

“The key to hybrid work is allowing employees the autonomy to work when they want and where they want.”

Gavin Tay, Gartner Inc.

Provide a place for people to meet and collaborate. Provide a place with a desk and decent Internet connection for those who don’t have a suitable workspace at home. Encourage people to come together. But be clear what it is you are trying to achieve. If the answer involves filling up rows of hot desks, then you may want to think again.

Related posts

It seems this is a topic I keep returning to (I clearly have Opinions on the topic), so here’s some posts I wrote earlier:

Featured image by Israel Andrade on Unsplash.

Removing password protection from PDF files

Important note: this post wont help you if you have a PDF file and don’t know the password. This is for removing passwords on PDFs that you have legal access to, but don’t want to be password-protected any more.

A while ago, one of my employers started emailing payslips in PDF format. Now, I know there are many issues around accessibility with PDFs, but it works for me – I get a digital version of a document that looks exactly as the printed one would have. Except that someone decided email (even to a company-secured account) was not secure enough, and they password-protected the files. In theory, this stops another employee from opening my payslip. In practice, they used a known piece of personally identifiable information (PII).

Anyway, I wanted to keep a copy of the files on my own file storage. I can do this because, technically, they are not company data and they are (or at least should be) private to me. Indeed the company in question has since moved to a system that emails a link to a personal email account, inviting the employee to download their payslip from a portal.

I didn’t want the copies of the payslips that I held to be password protected. That meant I needed to remove those passwords.

QPDF

QPDF is a computer program, and associated library, for structural, content-preserving transformations on PDF files. It’s not for creating, viewing or converting PDF files.

One of the things it can do, is remove the password protection on a file. Remember, this is a file that I have legal access to, so removing the password protection is not a crime. I’m not hacking the file – in fact I need to know the password in order to remove it.

QPDF can do much more than remove passwords (for example I think I could use it to create new versions of a PDF file with just a subset of the pages), but this was what I needed to do.

A little side-note

This was the second time I performed this exercise. I first did it a few years ago, but only on the payslips I’d received up until that date. Later ones were still password-protected. I didn’t document my method the first time around though… so I had to work it all out again. This time I decided to write it down…

A little PowerShell Script

It looks like, the first time I ran this, I downloaded a Windows executable version of QPDF and either wrote, or more likely found, a PowerShell script to adapt. The script is called payslips.ps1 and looks like this:

$children = Get-ChildItem # Save files in a variable. Piping the rest of the script from Get-ChildItem in a single line was a bad idea
$children | ForEach-Object {
Write-Debug "Working on $_.Name"; #Doesn't actually display a lot
$fileName =[System.IO.Path]::GetFileNameWithoutExtension($_.Name); #Strip name, we will append "tmp"
$ext =[System.IO.Path]::GetExtension($_.Name);
$tempFile = $fileName + "tmp" + $ext; # Append "_tmp" Move-Item -Path $.Name -Destination $tempFile; #Move the file to a temporary location
..\qpdf.exe --password=AB123456C --decrypt $tempFile $_.Name; #Use qpdf to decrypt it, save in original location
#Remove-Item $tempFile #Remove temporary file
}

ABC123456C should be replaced with the actual password. Actually, it shouldn’t, because including credentials in code is sloppy security practice. There are better ways to pass the password, but I’m just converting 50 files as a one-off exercise, not building a repeatable business process. If you go on to use this in a business environment, please don’t do it this way!

Release notes

The script makes a temporary copy of each file, suffixed with _tmp but preserving the file extension.

If you run the script against the current folder, it will run against all files, not just PDFs. That means it will rename itself and all the QPDF files with _tmp. This will cause it to fail.

It looks like, when I ran this a few years ago, I used a files.txt file to control this behaviour. files.txt was just a list of filenames and is easily generated using the following command:

dir /b /a-d > files.txt

But, this time, I couldn’t see how to provide that as a parameter to QPDF, so I had to:

  1. Place all the files to be converted in a subfolder of the folder containing QPDF and my PowerShell script.
  2. Edit the payslips.ps1 script to refer to ..\qpdf.exe (i.e. qpdf.exe in the folder above the current one).
  3. Change directory into the subfolder.
  4. Run payslips.ps1 from the subfolder – i.e.:
..\payslips.ps1

This means it will only run against the files in the subfolder, and not against QPDF, the script, or anything else.

It doesn’t seem to remove the temporary files. I didn’t try to work out why. It had already created what I needed by then.

Featured image: author’s own

Weeknote 2024/04: Coffees, and staying curious

Another week, and lots of positive feedback from colleagues on these weeknotes, so they keep going. This time I’ve written it over the course of the week, rather than in one huge writing session at the weekend. I’m not sure it really helped… it’s still way too long. Anyway, here it is.

(I’m also slightly concerned that some people think I have too much time on my hands. I really don’t. I just stay up too late and don’t get enough sleep!)

This week at work

I struggle to write about work at the moment. I’m doing lots of cool stuff, but I don’t really want to tell competitors what Node4 is developing. Even so, it’s no secret that we’re driving forwards with our Digital delivery (that’s why Node4 bought TNP, risual, Tisski, and ThreeTwoFour) – and public cloud is a big part of that, particularly in the Microsoft space.

My presentation to the Node4 Go To Market community on our public cloud transformation capabilities seemed to go well. And it would be remiss of me not to say that, if you want to know more about how we can potentially help your organisation on its Microsoft Azure journey then I, or my colleagues, would be pleased to have a conversation. Feel free to get in touch on email, or book some time with me.

Beyond that, I joined an interesting call with IDC, looking at the European cloud market in 2024. And I’m just getting involved in a project with some cool tech to help address the ransomware challenge.

Most exciting though is that I’ve submitted a request to join Node4’s Innovate Leadership Development Pathway for 2024. This looks to be a great programme, run over several months, that results in an ILM qualification. The reason I’m excited is that, for the first time in a while, I feel that I’m in a role where I can exploit my leadership potential. I had a career diversion into management, because I thought I needed that experience. Then I got out of it, only to fall back into it (and was very unhappy for quite a long time). Management and leadership are very different things, and over the years I’ve learned that I want to be a leader, not a manager.

Coffees (virtual and IRL)

Much is made of “watercooler moments” as a reason to return to the office (RTO). Well, is there any reason that such moments can’t happen outside the office too?

In 2023, Matt Ballantine ran a “100 coffees” experiment to chat without any particular agenda. It was a big success so it’s rolled on into 2024, currently at around 138. (I was number 49.) Incidentally, you don’t have to drink coffee. It’s about taking the time to chat with people and other beverages are equally acceptable. Or, as Matt describes it in a post he wrote for his employer, Equal Experts, about the process and its benefits:

“Coffee here is a metaphor. A metaphor for being intentional about making space in our working days to create serendipity, build relationships, reflect, have new ideas, share old ideas and a wealth of other benefits that come from conversations without agenda.”

Matt Ballantine: “How to have coffee”

Earlier in the month I had some “coffees” with some colleagues I no longer work with on an daily basis. It was brilliant just to check in and see what they are up to, to keep myself in touch with what’s going on in a different part of the organisation. This week, in addition to some “quick chats” with a couple of my peers, I met several people outside the company for “coffee”. Their roles included: a Chief Evangelist; a Managing Director; and a Digital Transformation Consultant.

One I hadn’t seen since we worked together over a decade ago. Another is part of a “coffee club” that Matt set up to encourage us have a monthly conversation with someone we don’t normally talk to. And one has become a friend over the years that we’ve been catching up for coffee and occasional lunches. My own lack of confidence makes me think “what do I have to add to this conversation”, but invariably I learn things. And I assume that the value of meeting up with no agenda to “just have a chat” goes both ways.

Some of the things we talked about

Our conversation topics were wide and varied. From family life to:

  • Recognising when to buy services vs. learning to do something yourself.
  • “Thought leadership” and qualitative vs. quantitative metrics – looking at the “who” not the size of the reach.
  • Next-generation content management systems.
  • How localisation is more than just translation – sometimes you might rearrange the contents on the page to suit the local culture.
  • How UK town centres seem to encourage chains to flourish over independent retailers.
  • The frustrations of being an end user in a world of corporate IT security (managed devices, classifying information, etc.)
  • Being proud of your kids.
  • What travel was like when we were young, when our location wasn’t being tracked, and when our parents must have been super-worried about where we were. (Is the world more dangerous, or just more reported?)
  • Finding your tribe by showing things in the background on virtual meetings.
  • Bad service and food vs. great coffee but no space. And on what makes a good English breakfast.
  • Parenting young adults and supporting their life decisions.
  • Publishing newsletters, weeknotes, blogs. Owning your own content, and why RSS is still wonderful.
  • Fountain pens, a place for everything (and everything in its place) – and why I’d like to be more like that… but have to accept I’m just not.
  • Four day weeks, balancing work, health and exercise (or lack of).

That’s the whole point. No agenda. See where the conversation leads. Get to know each other better. Learn new things. Build relationships.

And all three “coffees” ran out of time!

This week in tech

  • Here’s something I wrote a blog post about. I had intended there to be more posts, but I overestimated the amount of time I have for these things:
  • A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I’d been looking at Calendly. It turned out to be a trial (I missed that) and I need to subscribe for some of the features that I set up. So, I guess that experiment didn’t work out…
  • I don’t understand why Google opening a new data centre in the UK this is news. All of the hyperscalers already have data centres in the UK. This is just another one. I’m not sure that they contribute much to the economy though, except maybe in construction and through services consumed (electricity, water, etc.). As for the PM’s statement that “Google’s $1 billion investment is testament to the fact that the UK is a centre of excellence in technology and has huge potential for growth”. Poppycock. It shows there is a demand for cloud computing services in the UK. It’s got nothing to do with excellence.
  • I found a new setting in Microsoft Teams that makes my video feed look like I’m using a decent camera! It’s so much better than the old background blur.

Some posts I liked elsewhere

  • On digital inclusion…
  • Of course, not everyone finds online easy. And we have to recognise that sometimes, for any age group, there’s a need for a human connection…

Life

Some readers may know that I have been using the Zoe personalised nutrition programme to see what insights I can get into my diet. I’ve tweeted a bit, and it deserves a longer blog post, but I found this article in the Times very interesting. Jay Rayner has a slightly less reverent view in The Guardian. (Kate Bevan shared both of these articles.)

And I have a holiday to look forward to… or at least a mini-break. Mrs W and I have just booked a long weekend in Tallinn for a few weeks’ time…

This week’s watching

After finishing our recent dramas, it was time to start something new. Several people had recommended Lessons in Chemistry (on Apple TV) and we’re really enjoying it. As an aside, we still have a long way to go on diversity, inclusion and equality but, oh my, we’ve come a long way since the 1950s.

This week’s listening

I listen to a lot of podcasts when I’m walking the dog, or when I’m driving alone. The Archers is the first on my list but please don’t judge me.

I also like to listen to The Bottom Line, though sometimes find Evan Davis’ views on modern work to be a little “traditional”. This week’s episode on e-commerce returns was fascinating, though I do wonder why no major UK retailers (e.g. Next, John Lewis) or online-only retailers like Amazon or even Wiggle wanted to take part…

I used to listen to The Rest Is Politics – it’s a great podcast but there is just too much of it – I found the volume of content overwhelming. But I did listen the Rest Is Politics Leading interview with Bill Gates. I was looking for a link to the podcast episode to share, but I found it’s available on YouTube too, so you can watch or listen:

Some of the things I took away from the interview were:

  • It’s well-known that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, but it’s clear he was a very smart kid… he quietly mentions finishing his classes a year early.
  • I was interested in his responses to tough questions – like asking if his approach at Microsoft was “flattening competition not creating excellence”. And on monopolistic views of the world and how they needed to lower prices to gain market share. Remember the mission was to get a computer onto every desk and into every home.
  • On his position as a rich and powerful person, and why he follows the philanthropic path that he does of trying to kill malaria rather than direct giving to those in poverty.
  • On family, the impact he can have on his granddaughter’s future world, and the advantages/disadvantages of growing up with wealthy/famous parents
  • On the future of AI.
  • On politicians he admires (and giving very guarded responses!)
  • His rather odd (IMHO) views on climate change.
  • On learning from Warren Buffet, and on a lifetime of staying curious.

Maybe that’s what I should call this blog… “staying curious”.

This week in the press

On the PR front, I had a brief quote in Digitalisation World’s Tech Transformations for 2024 article.

…and not in the press

After initially being flattered to be contacted by a major UK newspaper for comment on the importance of public sector work to Fujitsu, I declined to comment. Not sure if it was my media training or common sense, but it feels right. I had already written a brief post on LinkedIn, but a lot will have changed in the time since I left and anything I can remember would already been in the public domain.

More thoughts on the Post Office Scandal

I was going to write about this last week, but I was still reeling from some of the comments I’d received on social media, so thought on for a bit more.

Understandably, this is a very emotive subject. Lives were ruined. Some who were affected took their own lives. It’s nothing short of a tragedy.

Even so, it was upsetting to be told last week on Twitter/X that anyone who has Fujitsu on their CV should never work again (or words to that effect). I was at ICL or Fujitsu for around 16 years over one internship and two periods of employment. In common with most people there, I had nothing to do with (or knowledge of) Horizon, other than knowing of its existence, in a separate business unit. And, in common with most people who saw the recent ITV Drama, I was shocked and appalled.

I can’t defend Fujitsu – but I am going to use someone else’s words, because they sum up the situation about their future in the UK public sector market perfectly for me:

“A lot of innocent people [may] lose work at Fujitsu. All of us who have worked for outsourcing partners will know the nature of contracts means many will know nothing of other ongoing projects. Today many workers at Fujitsu [may] be ‘at risk’ for something they had no control over.”

From a technical perspective, I found this video from Dave Farley to be an excellent explanation of the types of technical issues in the Horizon system that led to accounting errors. Then add in believing the computer over the humans, together with an unhealthy dose of corporate mismanagement (as is being uncovered by the ongoing inquiry), and you get the full horror of the Post Office Scandal.

This week in photos

Looks like I didn’t take many, but I did wrap up the week with a nice dog walk in the winter sunshine.

Featured image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay.

Using NFC tags to automate my home

Imagine a home with a smart thermostat to control the heating, smart lights to control the lighting, and smart sockets to control other electrical devices. Well, for some people, that doesn’t require a lot of imagination – it’s just the way things are!

My home isn’t quite like that. We still have an analogue thermostat switch on the hall wall (one day we might upgrade) but there are various smart sockets around and we do have some smart lighting. The smart sockets control things like the heater in my Man Cave, the Christmas tree lights (mid December-January 6th only) or the fairy lights in the garden. And I wrote some posts about the smart lights, in this two part series in 2021:

NFC tags

Many of us are familiar with Near Field Communication (NFC), even if we don’t know it. It’s the technology used in contactless payment cards. To learn more, I thoroughly recommend watching Professor Hannah Fry‘s Secret Genius of Modern Life TV episode about the bank card, on BBC iPlayer.

And those smartphones we carry everywhere with us, well, if they are NFC-enabled, they can read NFC tags to perform other operations. It’s not just for making electronic payments!

All you need is to buy some tags and, as much as I try to avoid the big online marketplace that sells everything from A to Z, that’s where I picked mine up.

What follows is for iOS, as my family are all iPhone users (tested on 17.2.1). Android users can do similar things, but you’ll use a different app.

Shortcuts and automations

The iOS Shortcuts app has a section called Automation.

  1. Click + to create a new automation.
  2. Scroll down to NFC.
  3. Click Scan and scan your tag, then name it.
  4. Pick when to run the automation (immediately, or after confirmation) and whether to be notified.
  5. Select what the automation will do.

That’s it. Just touch the top of the iPhone to the tag and it will run your automation. Stick it to the desk, the wall, or wherever is handy to run the automation.

Things I discovered

In this experiment, I did find out a few things…

  • I should have bought tags with sticky pads. Or maybe not – a glue stick seems to work pretty well for attaching them to things.
  • They don’t seem to work on metal things (like my desk lamp, or the metal switch sockets in the Man Cave). I guess it interferes with the signal, so you’ll need to stick them nearby.
  • The iOS Shortcuts app will integrate with many applications, but not directly with Alexa, it seems. I have tested a couple of workarounds though:
    • Play a recording that issues the Alexa command.
    • More elegantly, use the scripting option to Open the Alexa app, wait a second, speak “Alexa”, speak the Alexa command.
  • You can also create quite advanced no-code scripts to launch menus and ask for input – for example scan the same tag and ask whether to turn on the device or turn it off, then take action accordingly.

There’s more in this thread on Twitter/X…

Conclusion

NFC tags are cheap (especially when bought in bulk) and an effective way to automate tasks around the home (or at work, in the car, or wherever). There’s lots more that you can do with NFC tags and YouTube is full of videos to provide inspiration. Have fun!

Featured image from the Computer Science Wiki, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence.

Weeknote 2024/03: missing cyclocross; digitally transforming my family; installing Ethernet and much, much more

Another week has flown by – this time I kept notes to keep track of it all in the hope it would speed up the weeknote writing. It didn’t, so I need to work on the format. Anyway, this is how it looks this week.

My week at work

Understandably, I can’t write much about what I do in the day job. Suffice to say, it’s been busy, busy, busy. I’m preparing for a presentation to the Node4 Go To Market (GTM) team next week. This will be me, along with my colleague Bjoern, presenting to the entire salesforce and trying to convince them why they should be selling more of the services we’re responsible for. And, in parallel, I’m refreshing the collateral to support the sales of those same services.

I also spent some time on a call with one of our business partner this week, learning more about how they are developing their offers and how we can potentially do more work together.

My week in cycling

I know, this blog is supposed to be about tech, but I also have two very sporty teenagers that I’m very proud of. Their sports activities are a big part of my week (and my life in general).

Last weekend, I should have been in Falkirk, supporting my eldest son, Matt, at the 2024 British National Cyclocross Championships. As things transpired, that was not to be…

At 2023’s National Champs (Matt’s first senior year), Cameron Mason was so dominant in the Elite/U23 Men’s race that only 7 riders were permitted to finish the race (under the 80% rule). It’s a big investment of time and money to travel the length of the country for a short race but we would have been there, if Matt felt he was ready for it. Unfortunately, after a challenging few weeks with a return to racing after spending the autumn leading cycle tours in Greece, he decided to end his cyclocross season early. Apart from podiums in the local Central Cyclocross League (CCXL), third place in the Central Regional CX Champs was to be his only significant result this season. He’s preparing to build two new bikes for the 2024/25 cyclocross season – and he has plans for the 2024 road season too. I’m sure those plans will end up in these weeknotes in due course.

Just as a side note, after the demise of GCN Plus, it’s great to see BBC Scotland providing mainstream TV coverage of the national champs!

My week in technology

Adding AirPlay to an old Hi-Fi amplifier

With a bonus weekend at home, I got to finish up a tech project that’s been on the list for a while – adding AirPlay to my old 1990s Technics amplifier. When I moved in with my wife, my mid-range Hi-Fi stack was labelled “black loud crap”. As a result, it was banished from the house, but still lives on in the Man Cave. Adding an old Raspberry Pi 2B running as an audio gateway has provided the necessary tech to cast audio, without needing to invest in more Sonos (or IKEA Symfonisk) as I have in the rest of the house. This is the guide I followed, at PiMyLifeUp.

There’s the odd stutter, which I think may be due to a weak 2.4MHz Wi-Fi signal. It could also be down to running on a relatively old Pi 2. It certainly beats connecting Spotify via Alexa which used my account and so only worked for me and not the whole family. Plus it also works with other apps, like Pocket Casts and Audible.

Wilson family digital transformation

Late last year, I convinced Mrs W that we could use the family calendar on our iPhones to manage our busy family life. Previously, the paper calendar on the kitchen wall was the single source of the truth. That’s not too helpful when we’re not at home. This digital transformation of the Wilson family has been a huge success but it’s also shown me that people use calendars in different ways!

For example, our eldest son is currently away skiing. Is that one long appointment for 2 weeks? Or do we just need to know the dates he leaves and returns? And how do we record our youngest son’s Hockey training sessions? Is it the actual session times, or the times we leave the house and return? I’m trying not to be too “Mark” about this, but it’s an interesting insight into how other people think!

On a related note, I also learned this week that not everyone sees pictures in their mind, like I do. I don’t know what they do “see”, but it explains why not everyone can visualise what something will look like when it’s finished!

AirTag all the the things

After a trial with an Apple AirTag in my luggage (very useful when it wasn’t put on the plane at Stansted one holiday), I’ve been expanding our use of these devices. One use case that’s been particularly helpful is my youngest son’s keys… as he’s already had to replace at least one set that he lost before I tagged them. Now I regularly hear the “FindMy sound” as he searches for them before leaving the house.

On a similar note, for Christmas, my eldest son bought me an Apple FindMy-compatible tracker for my glasses. It doesn’t have the Precision Finding feature of the AirTag, but it does tell me where they were last seen, and lets me play a sound. Now, when I leave them somewhere, I can listen for the chirp of the Orbit sensor. It’s a bit strange charging my glasses though, but this is relatively infrequent.

Other bits and pieces of tech

  • After seeing a thread about date formats, ISO standards and RFCs, I thought about my frustrations with people who write dates “the wrong way”. By the wrong way, I mean not putting the most significant portion first. The US convention of mm/dd/yyyy is nonsensical. UK dd/mm/yyyy is better, but I generally name files using yyyymmdd etc. because they appear in order. On that basis, I realised that my naming for these weeknotes should be year/week number (inspired by Sharon O’Dea). Previously I had erroneously named them week number/year. From this week forwards, that is corrected.
  • After watching a YouTube video, I successfully resuscitated an apparently-dead Li-ion battery pack (the on-board circuitry needed its capacity recharging before it would accept a charge). This is potentially dangerous – I’m not responsible for anything that happens if you try it, but it worked for me, and saved me quite a few quid. Some say to use a resistor for safety. Others stress to only “jump start” momentarily (as I did).
  • I was looking at some communications from Vodafone about the 3G switch off… and wondered if that is the same part of the spectrum as 4G… i.e. more channels freed up for 4G/5G or will 4G/5G have access to extra spectrum now? Twitter helped me out with that…
  • Hopefully that section between the hall (OpenReach ONT) and the garage “datacentre” (ISP router) is all the Ethernet I need to run, but I have plenty of spare cable if I need to pull any more for a potential CCTV project… (I’ve been watching lots of videos about Reolink cameras).
  • Oh yes, one more thing. I finally changed my LinkedIn profile picture… my previous professional headshot was taken when I was in my late 30s, I think. I’m nearly 52 and afraid it’s time to look my age. This may not sound like news but it took me ages to find something suitably professional that I liked!

My week in TV

I’ll spare you all my YouTube highlights this week but, over in streaming TV land, Mrs W and I wrapped up three excellent series:

  • Mr Bates vs the Post Office (ITV);
  • Slow Horses (Apple TV); and
  • The Crown (Netflix).

This last season of The Crown has been criticised for being too dramatic but I thought it was well done. There will be no season 7 and it feels like it was left at just the right point, at the marriage of Charles and Camilla (then Prince and Princess of Wales) and the early days of William and Katherine’s relationship (the current Prince and Princess of Wales). It even contained a nod to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, with her involvement in the plans but also some scenes that linked to the actual events last year.

And in case we hadn’t had enough Toby Jones, we’ve started watching season 2 of Detectorists, for some light hearted relief from the more serious stuff.

Other things that should probably be a blog post on their own

I was going to write some more, but I’m getting bored of writing this now – goodness knows how you feel, dear reader. So there may need to be an overflow post or two about these topics, or maybe the tweets will say enough:

  • Well-paid IT folks moaning about the inconvenience that strikes have on their lives… playing to the “them and us” narrative.
  • Rebooting the car to get Apple CarPlay to work again!
  • CTOs with 30 years of industry experience being approached about a job that claims to need a technical degree.
  • Storytelling. And how pictures can convey messages that words alone cannot. Or bring meaning to words when they are in another language that you only have a passing knowledge of.
  • Rail fare “simplification” and the very different approaches taken by LNER (UK Government-owned) and ScotRail (Scottish Government-owned).
  • Public sector IT contracts, and the need to be a good client – it’s not all about the supplier.
  • The increasingly anti-social nature of social media.

My week in pictures

Featured image: author’s own