Monthly Retrospective: May 2024

May’s update was late, and June’s is in danger of rolling into July, so here’s a few highlights from my life in and around tech…

At work

On the work front, it was a short month – I was on holiday for the last week and with public holidays too there was lots to cram into a few short weeks. Nevertheless, I still managed to:

  • Continue to develop Node4’s new ransomware scanning service.
  • Finalise a dozen product data sheets for our public cloud services.
  • Submit some blog posts to our marketing team to support upcoming campaigns.
  • Keep pushing some pre-sales activities forwards.
  • And mine and Bjoern Hirtenjohann (/in/BjoernHirtenjohann)’s internal Node4 podcast on public cloud was released:

But the biggest activity in the month was presenting at Node4’s Infrastructure Symposium. One of our Practice Directors brought all his teams together to learn about the products and services that we jointly deliver. With four (or five, depending on how you look at it) companies all merged, there’s been a lot of change at Node4 over the last year or so. Getting everyone together is a great way to break down boundaries and understand the direction we’re headed in. And for me it was a chance to outline that our cloud offers span public, private and hybrid delivery models – and that we will deliver what’s right for the client, not for us. We call this Pragmatic Cloud (and I freely admit we didn’t come up with the term, but it I like it a lot).

I also celebrated my 9 year anniversary of joining risual/Node4 in May. And, for those who were confused by my comments last month, I was saying that my recent move has been overwhelmingly positive and I’m in a better place than I have been for a long while!

Elsewhere

Away from work…

  • My youngest son, Ben, passed his driving test. I was ready for a big insurance bill, but what I wasn’t ready for was: a) no decrease on the bill for the 19 year-old’s insurance (now with 2 years’ experience); and b) a 350% increase in premiums between him passing his test 2 years ago and the 17 year-old passing now. Even with a black box, parents as named drivers, etc. the car insurance bill for the two old cars that our family share with the teenagers was around £4500. For contrast, the bill for my Volvo (with just me and Mrs W as drivers) actually fell and is now back under £500. Public transport is just not reliable enough where we live, so the choices are: a) drive the teenagers everywhere; or b) pay the money. I’m still getting over this assault on our savings… some families just won’t have that money and I dread to think how many uninsured cars there are on the road as a consequence.
  • My eldest son, Matt, continues to race his bike up and down the country. After a catastrophic failure of the fork steerer tube, his Canyon road bike was hastily replaced. That meant a drive to Wakefield to collect the new bike, but it is rather lovely. I don’t get to all his races these days but I did manage to watch him in Ixworth and I was in the team car again for the Lincoln GP. Unfortunately, when he went to Ireland to race the Rás Tailteann I had to make do with watching for updates on Twitter!
  • Ben and I have been planning our Interrail trip – and now we have bought our passes along with inbound/outbound travel. Plus, we’re going to be taking the NightJet sleeper train from Berlin to Vienna! There were a few challenges with seat availability (things have changed since last time I went – we can use high speed rail, but there’s limited availability and we need to pay a supplement). This is more of a problem when dates are fixed so we had to change our route a little. On the flip side, with the start and end locked in, the middle section of the holiday is now free for us to be flexible.
  • I completed the home network upgrade. Was the switch from AmpliFi to UniFi worth it? Time will tell. It’s certainly more flexible but it’s cost me more and my house does not lend itself to structured cable runs. Maybe I should have just replaced the broken AmpliFi mesh point but it felt like I could fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy.
  • On the home automation front:
    • Octopus Energy sent us a Home Mini, which should give more granular data on electricity consumption, once I get the Home Assistant configuration right (I’m still tweaking).
    • I’ve also continued to play around with Home Assistant, including a bed occupancy sensor (which I can link to turning off the lights). I will admit that’s probably a step too far into nerd territory.
  • The month ended with a short break in Spain. Originally scheduled for May 2021, we never did get to go on a family holiday to Barcelona and the Costa Brava, though Matt made it out there on a training trip to Girona earlier this year. So, half the holiday, with only one of the “children” (though he is now twice the size!), Nikki, Ben and I spent a glorious few days in an around Begur.

Writing

These retrospectives are a bit of a blogging catch-all, but I did write a post on LinkedIn that turned into a blog in its own right. You can read it at the link below:

Photographing

Bits and pieces

  • 300m short of 200km!
  • Choose your PIN wisely:
  • Commentary on technical debt and the British Library’s ransomware attack woes:
  • Who doesn’t love a bit of Top Gun?
  • Thoughts on location tracking for family members:
  • Why it’s better to find a real application compatibility fix instead of just giving users admin access:
  • And why encrypted messaging is difficult:
  • Finally, shipping sunlight for green energy. Not as bonkers as it sounds!

Featured image: author’s own

Monthly Retrospective: April 2024

Another look back at some of the things I’ve been up to over the last few weeks…

At work

April marks a year since I started my transition to a new role at Node4. I didn’t move over full-time until July, but that’s when I stopped running what was formerly risual’s Architecture team and joined the Office of the CTO. This is not the forum to share the full details but suffice to say I had manouevred myself into a position where I was very unhappy – neither close to the tech nor able to best use my skills to provide value to the organisation and to our clients.

The change in role has been a breath of fresh air: the focus has changed a few times and there have been some bumps on the road; but one thing is core – I get up each morning and think about how best to add value. Whether that’s building out collateral for our public cloud portfolio, developing a new offering to guard against ransomware, helping clients with their IT Strategy or getting some structure around our “thought leadership” outputs.

The month ended with Node4’s “Go To Market” conference, in Nottingham. It’s an opportunity to set the agenda for the coming year and make sure we’re all headed in the same direction. This was the first time I’d attended and it was also a brilliant opportunity to meet some of my colleagues from across the business.

I managed to get myself into the video somehow, despite not officially being one of the presenters…

After two days of socialising, I was completely wiped out and needed some time to decompress. It’s left me thinking a lot about introversion. On the flip side, I also need to work on my FOMO… being one of the last to go to bed on the first night was not smart. At my age, I should know better.

Blogging

As usual, I didn’t find much time to blog this month, but I did write a thing about Enterprise Architecture, based on Dave Clark and Sophie Marshall’s good work…

Away from work

It’s not often that I go to the theatre but I saw the 1990s TV sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey was returning in theatre format with the original cast. I then failed to book tickets, missing it in Milton Keynes by a week. I asked myself if I could be bothered to go to Birmingham instead? Well, why not… I had a birthday so that was an opportunity to do something different!

I loved it, but it’s definitely written for an audience of a certain age (and I fit that demographic). For those less familiar with the original TV programme, it’s still amusing, but it does help to understand the characters and how they have developed over 30 years.

A matinee theatre show in a major city gave us an opportunity for a day out. So, afterwards we wandered down to The Custard Factory in Digbeth, for food and drink at Sobremesa and Rico Libre.

Oh yes, and I couldn’t help but be amused when I spotted that the image on the vinyl wrap in the train toilets contained an empty vodka bottle…

Playing with tech

If last month was about Meshtastic, this month has been Home Assistant. After initially installing on a Raspberry Pi to try it out, I quickly moved to a dedicated device and bought a Home Assistant Green. There was nothing wrong with the Pi installation, but I could use a Raspberry Pi 5 for other things. I’m still getting to grips with dashboards but Home Assistant has pulled all of my various smart devices together into one platform. This thread tells some of the story:

Annoyingly though, iCloud’s “was this you?” messages are not very helpful when you have automated services using your account:

I’ve also been upgrading the home Wi-Fi, moving from a consumer AmpliFi mesh to a solution based on UniFi equipment. That’s been an adventure in itself and will probably be a blog post in its own right.

And, I “went viral” (well, certainly had far more engagement than my normal tweets do), with a family service announcement for Wi-Fi updates…

Elsewhere on the Internet

  • On the need for critical thinking:
  • On outdated anti-WFH rhetoric:
  • On brilliant advertising:
  • On the decline of reporting:
  • On the value (or otherwise) of a degree:
  • On blogging:
  • On whether or not it’s useful to refer to “cyber”:
  • On the reasons that things sometimes cost more than you think they should:

    Travel

    As is usual, supporting Matt with his cycling races has meant a fair amount of travel and this month’s Premier Inn destinations have been… Tiverton and Stockton-on-Tees. Stockton was the overnight stay for the East Cleveland Classic, where I was in the team car all afternoon – and what an experience that was!

    There was also a race in Leicestershire where Matt was in the break for 2 hours before getting caught and then boxed in on the final sprint.

    But the big one was supposed to have been the CiCLE Classic in Rutland, until it was unfortunately cancelled on the day due to biblical rain. I do feel for the organisers in these scenarios, but even more so for the teams that had travelled from overseas.

    Away from cycling, but very exciting, is starting to plan an Interrail trip with Ben this summer. I only have two weeks’ leave available, but i’m pretty sure we’re going to have a brilliant time. It’s not the first time for me – I went solo in the early 1990s – but things have changed a lot since then.

    This month in photos

    Wrap-up

    That’s all for this month… May’s nearly over now but I have some notes ready for a review – hopefully not too long after the end of the month!

    Featured image taken from Node4’s Go To Market video, on LinkedIn

    Monthly Retrospective: March 2024

    I managed the weeknotes for 9 weeks. The last one was posted as I was sitting on a plane, about to take off for a long weekend away with my wife. And then I started to take stock. I don’t have time for them. What had been a weekly reflective activity had become a chore.

    And then the unwritten thoughts started to build in my mind. There were still things that I wanted to share. And the feedback had been positive, though the weekly cadence was probably too much.

    So here we are. A new concept: Monthly Retrospective; 12 posts a year instead of 52. Maybe a better chance of me getting it out of the door on time too? I don’t promise it will be published exactly on the end of each month (I’m a week into April as I finish this post), but it will be there or thereabouts…

    So what’s up this month?

    Here’s a quick summary of what’s in the rest of the post

    • We have the tech – both at work and at home. Plus a few of the many interesting things I’ve spotted on my Internet travels (I still post most of them on X, and a more professionally curated set of posts on LinkedIn).
    • We have the events – typically evenings, attended to expand my knowledge.
    • We have the entertainment – music, film, TV.
    • We have life – family and friends.
    • And we have the photos – snapshots of life viewed through my iPhone.

    So let’s get started…

    In tech: at work

    I’m busy, busy as always at work, with more organisational changes to keep me on my toes. One thing I’ve tended to avoid in recent years is working on bids. This is partly because I find there’s invariably a slow start and a mad rush to complete before the deadline, and partly because I prefer to work on a consulting-led sell where I have helped to shape the solution. In a competitive tender scenario someone else has influenced the client, so you’re already on the back foot, second-guessing what the client needs cf. what the invitation to tender says they want. In this case, one of my colleagues asked me to help out, and we have a few weeks to create our solution. It’s also a really interesting project so I’m enjoying pulling this solution together.

    Meanwhile, the ransomware service is also moving forwards, though not as fast as I would like (or, more to the point, as fast as my boss would like). All being well, I’ll have something to shout about in next month’s retrospective.

    In tech: at home

    I’m still playing around with Meshtastic, with one node travelling mobile with me and another soon to be set up at home. Here’s the thread with the progress:

    In addition to the excellent Meshtastic website, Andy Kirby’s YouTube channel has tons of information.

    Other home projects include researching which CCTV cameras to put up (almost certainly from Reolink) and how to get an Ethernet cable to them…

    In tech: some of the things I stumbled across this month

    Some bits and pieces:

    • Advice to help build genAI prompts:
    • One of the many issues with QR codes:
    • Remembering some security advice I used last year:
    • One of my favourite design projects:

    In events

    March saw me getting out to a few tech events in the evenings

    • Milton Keynes Geek Night (MKGN) is always a good night out. In truth, it’s not really geeky these days – more creative – but I enjoy most of the talks and after a dozen years of attendance, I know a lot of the people in the crowd. This was the thread I created with the highlights from MKGN number 47:
    • A few days later, I headed down to London for the Windows Azure User Group Meetup. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use Node4’s London office, so I worked from the British Library and other locations for most of the day, before heading over to Elastacloud for the event in the evening. After Richard Conway (in/richardelastacloud) introduced the evening, Steph Locke (@TheStephLocke) from Microsoft talked about AI Landing Zones before Andy Cross (in/crossandy) gave a hilarious demonstration of how the death of coding is a little way off yet, even with multiple AI agents collaborating…
    • Towards the end of the month, I went to the inaugural NN1 Dev Club event, mostly to see what it’s about. I’m not a developer (though I might like to be…) and it seemed a good opportunity to get to know some of the tech folks in another nearby town. I enjoyed the talks – both PJ Evans (@MrPJEvans)’ tales of home automation (“Boiling Nemo”) and Dr Junade Ali (/in/junade)’s tales from the world of security research (“The Science of Software Engineering”) – so I’m sure I’ll be back for more events in future.

    In entertainment

    Cover image for The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

    When I was about 8 or 9, I read a book at school. I couldn’t remember much about it, except that it was about some children travelling across Europe, it was set in WW2, Warsaw was a part of it, and I really enjoyed it. I asked a group of friends if they remembered something like this and one asked ChatGPT. ChatGPT thought it might be The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier. I read the synopsis and that was it! Why I never thought to ask an AI, I have no idea, but it worked. I then had a very enjoyable few hours in the car listening to the audio book…

    On the subject of books, some more reading has arrived:

    This month’s TV has been about:

    • Explosive action (deliberate pun) Trigger Point, S2 (ITV).
    • Laid back and delightfully silly Detectorists, S2 (Netflix).
    • Stunning landscapes mixed with murder mystery Shetland, S8 (BBC).

    None are new, but they had been on the list for a while. The jury is still out on Shetland without Douglas Henshall in the main character role though.

    I’ve also decided that I need to get out to some gigs. My wife’s not into the electronic music that I enjoy so much and I was thinking about heading down to Greenwich with my youngest son for a Day with Chicane. Unfortunately the gig is 18+ and he will be 3 months short of adulthood, so maybe that will wait a while longer.

    In life: a trip to Tallinn

    The month started with a trip to Tallinn, Estonia. Nikki and I were celebrating 21 years of marriage and we had a fantastic weekend exploring a new city. As a country that’s been in and out of Soviet control several times in modern history we were not sure what to expect. What we found was a beautiful medieval city, food that seemed more Scandinavian than Eastern European, and public transport that was cheap and plentiful.

    Our hotel was only just outside the old town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so we didn’t actually need to use the transport much (the city is compact enough to walk). Even so, €2 each way for a bus to/from the airport seemed amazing value.

    Similarly, we ate and drank well at remarkably good prices compared with the UK – whether that was hot chocolate in Pierre Chocolaterie, hot wine in Ill Draakon (a medieval-themed bar), or one of the modern Estonian restaurants that we dined in. (For future reference, they were: Kaerajaan, Rataskaevu 16 and Pegasus). I came home thinking that, for the most part, the UK is a very dull and overpriced culinary destination.

    Other highlights were a visit to the top of the tower at the Niguliste Museum for views across the city. We also enjoyed a walk along the old town walls. Outside the old town, we took a short walk to Telliskivi and visited the photography exhibitions at Fotografiska.

    If you’re inspired by this and you fancy a trip to Tallinn (highly recommended), we flew with Wizz Air from London Luton and the Visit Tallinn website has a mine of information.

    Oh yes, and linking back to tech for a moment, I forgot that the delivery robots I see in Milton Keynes and Northampton have Estonian cousins…

    …and was amused to see people out and about experiencing virtual reality headsets in the centre of Tallinn…

    In life: a Welshman in Twickenham

    I may have been born in Northampton, but I identify as Welsh. And certainly when it comes to international Rugby Union, my team plays in red. I wasn’t going to say “no” though when I got the opportunity to watch England host Ireland at Twickenham. What a game! The final drop kick was at the other end of the pitch to me, but it was a brilliant match to be at.

    In life: sporty teens

    As ever, my sons are a huge part of what I get up to outside work. With Matt away in Spain, I was able to get to watch Ben play Hockey a bit more, including the Eastern Counties U17 tournament. Now Matt’s returned and he’s racing as much as he can, trying to get his Category 1 (and maybe Elite, if he can get enough points) road race licence. That needs my support sometimes (passing bottles, driving on the longer trips). At the other end of the scale, it was exciting to be able to watch him pick up a win at our local race:

    It’s fantastic to see the support he gets from his own teammates and some of the guys he’s racing against too (the video cuts off Richard Wiggins exclaiming “he’s got it!” just as I hit record). #ProudDad

    After a couple more races that I didn’t get to see (and didn’t exactly go to plan), he wrapped up the month with a particularly eventful weekend. On the Saturday, a couple of punctures meant his race only lasted a few minutes, but that was probably lucky as we then found the steerer tube at the top of his fork had a huge crack in it…

    That afternoon and evening, he rebuilt onto one of the spare cyclocross frames that were waiting to be set up, and then raced the Fakenham town centre crit’ on Sunday. It was a wet afternoon and my heart was in my mouth for the whole race but coming in third after an early break and leading for a good chunk of the race was a great result.

    In photos

    Wrap-up

    That’s all for this month… please let me know what you think in the comments and I’ll be back in early May to recap on April… plus, hopefully, with extra time for some other posts in between.

    Featured image by 139904 from Pixabay.

    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.

    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

    Weeknote 1/2024: A new beginning

    Wow, that was a bump. New Year celebrations over, a day off for the public holiday, and straight back to work.

    After a lot of uncertainty in December, I’ve been keen to get stuck in to something valuable, and I’m not breaking any confidentiality by saying that my focus right now is on refreshing the collateral behind Node4’s Public Cloud offerings. I need to work across the business – my Office of the CTO (OCTO) role is about strategy, innovation and offering development – but the work also needs to include specialist sales colleagues, our marketing teams, and of course the experts that actually deliver the engagements.

    So that’s the day job. Alongside that, I’ve been:

    • Avoiding stating any grand new year resolutions. I’ll only break them. It was literally hours before I broke my goal of not posting on Twitter/X this year. Though I did step away from a 453-day streak on Duolingo to focus my spare time on other, hopefully less gamified, pursuits:
    • Doing far too little exercise. A recurring health condition is impacting my ability to walk, run, cycle and to get back to Caveman Conditioning. It’s getting a bit better but it may be another week before I can have my new year fitness kick-start.
    • Eating badly. Logging everything in the Zoe app is helping me to see what I should avoid (spoiler: I need to eat more plants and less sweet stuff) but my willpower is still shockingly bad. I was also alarmed to see Prof. Tim Spector launching what appeared to be an ultra-processed food (UPF) product. More on that after I’ve got to M&S and actually seen the ingredients list for the Zoe Gut Shot, but others are telling me it’s not a UPF.
    • Redesigning the disaster recovery strategy for my photos. I learned the hard way several years ago that RAID is not a backup, and nothing exists unless it’s in three places. For me that’s the original, a copy on my Synology NAS, and copy in the cloud. My cloud (Azure) backups were in a proprietary format from the Synology Hyper Backup program, so I’ve started to synchronise the native files by following a very useful article from Charbel Nemnom, MVP. Unfortunately the timestamps get re-written on synchronisation, but the metadata is still inside the files and these are the disaster copies – hopefully I’ll never need to rely on them.
    • Watching the third season of Slow Horses. No spoilers please. I still have 4 episodes to watch… but it’s great TV.
    • Watching Mr Bates vs. The Post Office. The more I learn about the Post Office Scandal, the more I’m genuinely shocked. I worked for Fujitsu (and, previously, ICL) for just over 15 years. I was nothing to do with Horizon, and knew nothing of the scandal, but it’s really made me think about the values of the company where I spent around half my career to date.
    • Spreading some of my late Father-in-law’s ashes by his tree in the Olney Community Orchard.
    • Meeting up with old friends from my “youth”, as one returns to England from his home in California, for a Christmas visit.

    Other things

    Other things I found noteworthy this week:

    • Which came first, the chicken or the egg scissors or the blister-pack?

    Press coverage

    This week, I was quoted in this article:

    Coming up

    This weekend will see:

    • A return to Team MK Youth Cycle Coaching. Our local cyclo-cross league is finished for the 2023/4 season so we’re switching back to road cycling as we move into the new year.
    • Some home IT projects (more on them next week).
    • General adulting and administration.

    Next week, I’ll be continuing the work I mentioned at the head of this post, but also joining an online Group Coaching session from Professor John Amaechi OBE. I have no idea what to expect but I’m a huge fan of his wise commentary. I’m also listening to The Promises of Giants on Audible. (I was reading on Kindle, but switched to the audiobook.)

    This week in photos

    Featured image: Author’s own
    (this week’s flooding of the River Great Ouse at Olney)

    The magic of the Tour de France

    It’s July. That means one thing to me. The Tour de France! The greatest cycle race in the world – and three weeks of watching the highlights each evening!

    It’s not secret that I enjoy cycling – and that I have passed that on to at least one of my children. It’s also fair to say that he shows considerably more talent and physical ability than me.

    I started watching the Tour de France (and the Vuelta a España) in around 2011 or 2012. I’m not sure which but 2012 was the year when Team GB and Team Sky’s success started to switch Britons on to cycling and I think it was before then. I remember the discovery that it was more than just a race to see who is fastest around a course. There are actually several races happening at once. Then there are the team dynamics – who is working with whom to achieve what outcome. It’s a team sport and and individual sport, all rolled up in one. And the three “Grand Tours” (Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España) are huge spectacles, each with 21 stages over three weeks…

    In the Tour de France there are several competitions:

    • the overall leader in the general classification (shortest cumulative time since the start of the event) is awarded the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) and he wears that for the next day.
    • the leading young rider (under 26) is awarded the maillot blanc (white jersey).
    • the rider with most points gained for mountain-top positions (based on the difficulty of the climbs) wears the red and white polka dot jersey.
    • the rider with most points in the points competition (intermediate sprints, finish positions, etc.) wears the maillot vert (green jersey).

    The other grand tours have similar systems but the jersey colours vary.

    There are also prizes for the most combative rider, and a team classification. Put those things together and the dynamics of the race are many and varied.

    I watch the Tour de France on ITV – mostly because I like the production style of their coverage. In previous years, the highlights programme has featured quiz questions at the start and end of each advertising segment but this year it’s little facts about the race and the sport – which is steeped in history. I’ve collected some and posted them here, along with a few extras I added myself.

    AutobusA group of riders (typically non climbers) who ride together on mountain stages aiming to finish within the time limit.
    BaroudeurA rider who attacks the race from the start in order to show off their sponsor and try their luck in winning the stage.
    BarrageRace officials impede the progress of team cars when they could affect the outcome of the race.
    BonkA sudden loss of energy, cause by depletion of gycogen stores in the liver and muscles. Usually caused by a lack of proper fuelling.
    BlockingWhen riders of leading teams ride the width of the road to control the peloton’s speed, to ensure that no more riders join the breakaway.
    BreakawayA group of riders who have managed to ride off the front of the race, leaving a clear gap.
    Broom wagonA support vehicle following the race, that may pick up riders unable to continue. First introduced in 1910.
    Bunny hopTo cause one’s bicycle to become airborne momentarily. Usually performed to avoid pavements.
    CadenceThe rate at which a cyclist pedals (in revolutions per minute). High cadence is typical in climbers.
    Chasse patateFrench for “hunting potatoes”. A rider caught between breakaway and peloton, pedals furiously but makes little headway.
    Circle of DeathA Pyrenean stage including the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque. Dubbed the “Circle of Death” in 1910.
    Coup de chacalThe “Jackal Trick”. A surprise attack in the last few kilometres to detach from the peloton and win the race.
    Danseuse(French: danser – to dance.) Riding out of the saddle, standing up, and rocking side-to-side for leverage.
    DerailleurThe gear-shifting device which is controlled with a lever on the handlebars or frame. First permitted at the Tour de France in 1937.
    DomestiqueA rider whose job is to support other riders in their team, typically carrying water (literally “servant” in French).
    DossardRace number attached to the back of a competitor’s jersey. If not visible then fines will ensue.
    DraftingThe ride close behind another rider or vehicle using their slipstream to reduce wind resistance and required effort.
    EchelonA diagonal, stagger line of riders in single file. An echelon is formed to save energy when riding in a strong crosswind. The Belgian teams are considered the masters of riding in an echelon.
    Feed zoneA designated area for soigneurs and other helpers to hand out food and water to riders.
    Flamme rougeThe red flag suspended over the road to confirm that the finish line is one kilometre away.
    Full gasRiding as hard as possible, which can leave on needing recovery, and vulnerable to attack.
    Hors catégorieA term applied to the hardest climbs on the Tour. A climb that is literally beyond category.
    Hors délaiLiterally “out of time” – a rider finishing outside the time limit is eliminated from the race. Typically occurs on a mountain stage.
    King of the mountainsThe leader of the mountain classification. First sponsored in 1975 by Chocolate Poulain whose chocolate bars were covered in a polka dot wrapper.
    Lanterne RougeFrench for “red lantern”, as found at the end of a railway train, and the name given to the rider placed last in a race.
    Magic spannerThe scenario where a mechanic appears to be adjusting a rider’s bike from the support car. The reality is the rider is usually using the team car to rest of get back to the peloton.
    Maillot jauneYellow jersey. Firs introduced as the colour of the leader’s jersey in 1919. Yellow was the colour of L’Auto newspaper.
    MusetteFrench for a farm horse’s nosebag. Small cotton shoulder bag, contains food and drink given to riders in a feed zone.
    MuurDutch for wall. A short, steep climb. Muur de Huy is one of the more famous examples, last used in the Tour in 2015.
    PalmaresThe list of races a rider has won. (French, meaning list of achievements.)
    PanacheStyle or courage. Displayed by breaking away, remounting after a crash or riding whilst suffering injuries.
    ParcoursThe profiles of the race or stage route in French.
    PavéRoad made of cobblestones. Significantly cobbled stages have featured 6 times in the Tour de France since 2020.
    Pedalling squaresRiding with such fatigue that the rider is unable to maintain an efficient pedalling form that is strong and smooth.
    PelotonA group of cyclists that are coupled together through the mutual energy benefits of drafting, whereby cyclists follow others in zones of reduced air resistance.
    PullTo take a “pull” is to ride at the front of the peloton or group. Usually done in short bursts, it requires immense power and endurance.
    Road rashThe cuts, scratches and bruises that riders pick up after a fall or crash.
    RouleurA cyclist who is comfortable riding on both flat and rolling terrain. A powerful rider, they can drive the pace along for hours.
    SoigneurThe French term for “healer” who usually specialises in giving the riders post-race massages. A soigneur will also look after the riders’ non-racing needs.
    SouplesseThe art of perfect pedalling that gives the rider a smooth and efficient style on the bike.

    I’m not suggesting that readers of this blog will suddenly become cycling fans but maybe you’ll understand a little more about how it works when, later this weekend, the Tour de France culminates in a sprint on Paris’ Avenue Des Champs-Élysées and the overall prizes are awarded. And, if nothing else, enjoy the scenery along the rest of the route to Paris!

    Featured image: author’s own – a still from the video taken when I was a Tour de France marshall in 2014!

    A little taster of what professional cycling life could be like

    This content is 2 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

    As a parent, I should never live my dreams through my children, but I will do everything within my power to let my children live their dreams.

    It’s no secret (on this blog and elsewhere on social media) that I have two sporty teenagers. My youngest loves his team sports. He runs and cycles too, but he lives for his football and hockey. My eldest is a cyclist. No question of that. His bio says it all: “Matt Wilson. 17. Cyclist.”. Discovering cycling has changed him. Not just the self-taught bike maintenance or his athletic performance, but his social life and his general confidence too.

    Self-development

    Matt came to the sport quite late (he was about 13 when I took him to a Team MK Youth Coaching session) but quickly took to racing cyclo-cross. He missed out on British Cycling Regional Schools of Racing (RSRs) because of Covid-19 restrictions, but he took advantage of the extra training time whilst school was home-based. He worked hard. He started to win some races.

    Last summer he tried his hand at cross country mountain bike (MTB XC) racing. This summer he has focused on the road. He gained his 2nd category race licence after early season success at Deux Jours de Cyclopark (2nd on the podium). He raced some more road races to get experience of riding in the bunch. He rode E12 mid-week crit races at our local circuit (Milton Keynes Bowl). And he “nearly” scored a national point at the Bath Road Club Junior Road Race (came in 23rd, but needed top 20). The culmination of his final season as a Junior rider was to be the Junior Tour of Wales.

    Why Wales? Well, there are only two multi-day stage races for Juniors in the UK: the Tours of Mendips and Wales. We were on holiday when the Mendips took place. And Wales is our spiritual home (my father was and my wife’s father is Welsh), even if we were unable to click the “Welsh Rider” box on the entry form because Matt was born in Milton Keynes.

    The SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales

    Back to its full format for 2022, the SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales (@juniortourwales) is a four-day, five-race road cycling event which features time trial, road and criterium stages. Run mostly on public roads, it has the full experience of a major multi-stage event. That means the rolling road blocks, race convoy, medical backup – the full works. Basically as close to the pro peloton as a Junior rider can get. I’ve also seen it referred to as “the hardest Junior race in the UK”. Regardless, I can now say that it’s an awesome experience for around a hundred 16-18 year-olds each year. (Because of the way British Cycling age groups work, this year’s “Juniors” were those born in 2004 and 2005.)

    SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales 2022, Stage 5, Abergavenny, Wales
    “Let Stage 5 begin” [image © David Partridge 2022, embedded from the British Cycling Photographers‘ Flickr Photostream]

    Initially, it didn’t look like Matt had got in, and then, a few days before the race, I got a call from Richard Hopkins, the race organiser. Matt was on the reserve list, there had been some cancellations – did he want a place? Yes please!!! Even as he was resting, recovering from a stomach bug, there was no question – he would be on that start line on Friday!

    Preparation

    Bike preparation started. More spare parts were purchased. Two cyclo-cross bikes were set up for road, with another spare set of wheels taken from my road bike, just in case.

    For those wondering about why he was using cyclocross bikes – that’s all Matt has, apart from his mountain bike. As it happens, 40×11 is perfect gearing for junior restrictions. Next year those restrictions are going away so 53×11 will be the norm and race speeds will go up.

    I already mentioned that Matt does his own bike maintenance. It’s not that I can’t – it’s just that he’s faster than me and it’s good experience. My role for this race was to be Driver (to/from the race start/finish) and Soigneur.

    I’d already booked hotels “just in case”, so my attention turned to what we would eat. Carbs. Lots of them. We quickly increased our supplies of Matt’s preferred in-race nutrition (McVitie’s Hobnob’s snack bars, Clif Bloks and Torq gels). Pre/post race there’s also High 5 Zero Electrolyte tablets and an SIS Rego Rapid Recovery drink that he decided to try. Then there was the supermarket visit: Weetabix; fresh pasta; malt loaf; scones; hot-cross buns; Eccles cakes; milk; and fruit. We would be eating from a cool box in my car for a few days (with a frozen home-made Bolognaise slowly defrosting) and we had plenty to keep us stocked. I also bought some spare water bottles because they always get lost on races.

    Of course, there was a minor hiccup with the bike prep. The night before we left, Matt test rode his preferred bike, with a new chain. And then we found we needed a new cassette too (that’s not unusual but it wasn’t long since we’d changed the small cogs). Luckily a local independent bike shop had one and would be open for us to collect on our way to Wales the next morning. Competitive cycling is not an inexpensive hobby.

    4 days as a Soigneur

    I always over-prepare. There was no way I would allow Late Summer Bank Holiday weekend traffic on the drive to Wales make us miss the event. So we were there hours early. No bother. Plenty of time to recce the route, check into the hotel, and head over to race HQ to sign on.

    And then it hit me. Most of the riders were on teams. Matt was one of the individual riders. I’d seen that in the race manual the night before but that meant most riders had support cars with Team Managers (Directeurs Sportif), mechanics, spare bikes and wheels. We needed to find the neutral service car and – because Matt’s on 40×11 gearing – make sure they had a wheel for him because a Junior (14 tooth) cassette would be a major handicap!

    In addition, I would need to stay at the start of each race stage until the last possible moment and then drive to the feed zone, be ready to pass a bottle or provide technical support, and then drive to the finish.

    Not only was Matt getting a taste of life in the peloton, but I was getting a taste of life as a Soigneur. With the added stress of being a parent thrown in!

    The racing community

    Of course, I’m wasn’t alone as a parent of an individual rider. 98 riders started this year’s Junior Tour of Wales. Even if they were on a team, most had parents/guardians/family friends to help them. Over the years, I’ve got to know many of those people too – it’s always good to say hello as we’re waiting for our children to race past. Some have kindly provided Matt with technical support at times too.

    And then there’s the race organisation. The team running the event were, without exception, friendly and helpful at all times. Rich Hopkins responded to emails in record time when we needed to know if Matt had made the cut-off after the disastrous stage 4. And there’s a huge team behind Rich too: Commissaires; Drivers; Motorcycle Safety Officers (from the National Escort Group Wales); Timekeepers; Judges; Race Director; Neutral Service; Safety Officer; Marshalls; Route Managers; Stage Preparation; First Aid/Ambulance; HQ Management; Gear Check; Registration Team and – my favourite job title – the Director of Things. The SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales is a pretty big undertaking! There were also four official photographers and I highly recommend checking out David Partridge’s stunning event photos (a couple of which I’ve embedded in this post from the British Cycling Photographers Flickr Photostream).

    So, how did it go?

    Well, let’s use Matt’s own words for this:

    “A great experience for my last race as a Junior and if it hadn’t been for one shocking stage a Top 40 would have been possible. Instead, [I] came away with the Lanterne Rouge

    Matt Wilson

    He’s right in everything he says there, but I’ll throw in some more details. This blog post is mostly about this marvellous event for young cyclists – some of whom will go on to ride in the pro peloton. But it’s also, like everything else on this blog, an aide memoire for me to remember the highs and lows. Because, for me, Matt’s 2022 Junior Tour of Wales was an emotional rollercoaster.

    Stage 1: Brynmawr-The Tumble (Individual Time Trial)

    Results
    Matt’s verdict: “My first ever time trial. When I saw the result thought I’d messed it up but no – I rode my best ever 15 min power and just was completely outclassed.”

    Lesson learned: believe in yourself. A good chunk of the competition were on TT bikes. Matt was on a cyclo-cross bike with road wheels and clip-on TT bars. [Don’t subject Dad to a mardy teenager all evening until you look at your power numbers on Strava/Garmin Connect.]

    General Classification (GC): 57/97 (+1’52”)
    Stage 2: Abergavenny-The Black Mountain (Road Race)

    Results
    Matt’s verdict: “Hit the mountains, felt comfortable in the group all race but hadn’t taken on enough salts and cramped badly on the last climb but held on all be it in the saddle up the Black Mountain”.

    Lesson learned: take the electrolyte drink on hot/hilly races!

    GC: 61/95 (+5’48”)
    Stage 3: Pembrey National Closed Road Circuit (Criterium)

    Results
    Matt’s verdict: “Crit race. Back to what I’m used to. Extremely sketchy but came away with 26th.”

    Lesson learned: cyclo-cross skills can help when avoiding crashes!

    GC: 56/93 (+6’54”)
    Stage 4: Pembrey-Nantgaredig (rolling-flat Road Race)

    Results
    Matt’s verdict: “Eventful stage. Caught in a early crash then chased hard. Then the race was neutralised and when we went off it was so fast and spat me out the back. Finished but lost 30 mins”

    Matt’s being very matter-of-fact about this but the stage was a disaster (for his overall results). Despite getting caught up in the crash shortly after the race was de-neutralised, he wasn’t badly hurt but he did lose his water (sadly at least one rider ended up in hospital and several had major mechanical issues, including at least one broken frame). He rode hard to catch the race only to learn that it had been neutralised. Later, when the race was stopped, another rider spotted that Matt had worn his tyre down to the beading (when skidding into the crash) so he switched wheels, and then had problems with skipping gears. Next day, we learned that was due to chain damage in the crash. Once Matt had lost the bunch and dropped out of the race convoy he was caught up in normal traffic/road conditions and was losing time. He showed tremendous mental fortitude and made it across the line with seconds to spare before he would have been lapped by the winners!

    Luckily, the race jury extended the cut-off time (he was only just outside) but this stage effectively finished any chances of a good place on the GC.

    GC: 80/82 (+35’26”)
    Stage 5: Brynmawr-The Tumble (Road Race)

    Results
    Matt’s verdict: “All I can say is the Tumble wasn’t that bad – the earlier climbs however were pain!”

    I was worried about how this race was going to go with tired legs, a warm-up interrupted by the need to change a chain, and then an exploding inner tube on the rollers (after last night’s tyre swap). Matt was concerned that the fast roll down the A465 dual carriageway could easily end up in a crash. Luckily, neither of our fears were realised.

    Actually, he looked pretty comfortable at the feed zone, and I think he paced this race well. He also got a buzz from managing to keep pace with some of the faster and more experienced riders.

    Finishing 39th and only 3’39” down on Josh Tarling, was a pretty impressive result after the previous day. Yes, the Lanterne Rouge was disappointing, but completing the Tour was an incredible achievement.

    GC: 71/71 (+37’56”)
    SD Sealants Junior Tour of Wales 2022, Stage 2, Abergavenny, Wales
    “Snaking” [image © David Partridge 2022, embedded from the British Cycling Photographers‘ Flickr Photostream]

    Postscript about “the socials”

    There are a lot of posts on my Twitter (and Instagram) feeds about this year’s Junior Tour of Wales #JToW #JTW22, including one where I post how proud I am about Matt’s performance to even finish the race, regardless of position. It may seem a bit narcissistic, but it’s not meant to be – it really is my way of sharing my excitement, sorrow, joy, pride and host of other emotions. A place to ride this year’s tour meant a huge amount to us both and to be given that chance as an individual rider on a reserve list place was really special. It’s great to see other parents of some really successful riders liking my posts because we’ve all had a shared experience too. (Even if their kids are at another level and winning stages, and even landing pro contracts!)

    Special mention here to Kate Cole (@KKPreserves) who saw me at the feed zone on stage 5 and said “are you the #CyclistsDad?”. It’s nice to hear that someone likes my posts to hear what’s going on!

    And, if you’re reading this and you’re the chap who came up to Matt by my car at Race HQ after stage 5 and said “That was an incredible ride today – especially after yesterday” – thank you. I don’t know who you were (It would be good to know!) but that comment was lovely to hear. I really appreciated it (as did Matt). Actually, it made my day.

    So I’m afraid I’ll keep on posting pictures and unofficial commentary, until he says “Dad, stop it, you’re embarrassing me”.

    A cyclo-cross racer’s equipment list

    This content is 2 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

    After last weekend’s UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championship races (with excellent results for Britain’s Nathan Smith, Zoe Backstedt and a lesson in how to ride a course with no mud from Tom Pidcock), the 2021/22 cyclo-cross season is drawing to a close.

    Those who follow me on Twitter or Instagram will know that my eldest teenager is a keen cyclo-cross racer and this year has seen me supporting him at all six National Trophy rounds and the British National Championships as well as a few league races. February means I get some weekends back in a temporary lull before road and MTB Cross Country (XC) take over.

    Whilst I’d love to travel to races in a van, or even a motorhome, my budget means that transport is an estate car (currently a Volvo V60 D4) and accomodation is often a Premier Inn. So what does an aspiring cyclocross racer need their support team to take?

    A few years ago, I wrote a post about the tools in my box. Since then, I’ve added the following:

    Then there are the cyclo-cross specifics (although many of these come in handy for other race disciplines too):

    • Water (10 litre AdBlue containers are a good size for transport – I take 4 to a race, inside a 64 litre Really Useful Box to avoid spillages – a lesson learned from experience).
    • A battery powered pressure washer (and spare battery). I use a 20V model from Worx (and newer models are more powerful). There are people who will tell you that a battery washer is no good and that a high-pressure petrol washer is a necessity. Whilst a petrol washer will undoubtably get a bike clean more quickly and I’m always happy to use one if I’m with a team-mate: a) they are unreliable (the battery one is a good backup); b) they are dreadful for the environment (both petrol fumes and volume of water used); c) the better race organisers are now providing decent wash equipment (e.g. the Clanfield Cross event that was sponsored by Kärcher, or the new Hope setup featured at Round 6 of the 2021 National Cyclocross Trophy).
    • A selection of brushes (I use this Muc Off set) and rags.
    • An inverter (to charge stuff using the car’s 12V power supply) – mine is a fairly low power model (150W) as higher wattage inverters need to connect to the car battery, rather than the 12V socket.
    • (Solar powered) battery pack (and Shimano Di2 charger, for those using electronic gears).
    • Spare bike… cyclo-cross is a muddy business and bike changes mid-race are expected, especially later in the season.
    • Spare wheels (with different tyres/tread patterns).
    • A collapsible trolley. Make sure you get a decent one… I bought cheap and bought twice – the first one only lasted a few weeks of being dragged across muddy fields before it became “permanently collapsed”. The replacement was this model, which seems to have got through two seasons now.
    • Rollers (Elite or Tacx – there are plenty second hand on eBay, though you’ll probably have to collect them as they are awkward to post).
    • Luggage (modular sports bags from Kit Brix are really good, though the zips can be cumbersome).

    All in all, a pretty full boot…

    Estate car filled with cycling equipment

    Featured image by Owen Lake/Monument Cycling.