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.

Failure Demand in action

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.

Recently, my work has involved some analysis of a local authority’s business processes. As part of that I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the concept of “Failure Demand”. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Failure Demand is described by the occupational psychologist and author John Seddon as:

“It is demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer. Customers come back, making further demands, unnecessarily consuming the organisation’s resources because the service they receive is ineffective. ”

Failure Demand – Vanguard Consulting Ltd

Whilst the Vanguard page is worth a read, there’s another great example of Failure Demand in the “How to break the first rule of Systems Thinking” post from ThinkPurpose.

What does Failure Demand mean in practice?

Any system used to provide a service has a given capacity. To use this efficiently, there is a balance between reducing resources and managing demand.

On the resource side, we can look at how resources are used:

  • Do we have the right people and skills?
  • Are they motivated and focused?
  • Are processes efficient?
  • How is IT used?
  • Can self-service help?

When it comes to demand, the first question to ask is not be how effective the use of resources is. We should really ask are they doing the right thing? Does it meet the customer need?

If it doesn’t then there will be repeat contacts, often relating to Failure Demand – where the volume of work is increased by managing incidents of failure within a process. Examples of Failure Demand include “you’ve sent the wrong item” or “the person didn’t meet the agreed appointment”.

It often takes longer to put something right than to get it right first time. An organisation can implement the very best systems but if it doesn’t meet customer needs in will fail. This is true whether that customer is internal or external; paying for a service or not; client, citizen, traditional “customer” or student. Customers will become frustrated and annoyed that they have repeated contacts to avoid issues. Staff suffer reduced morale as a result of their increased workload.

A real world story of Failure Demand

I spent a good chunk of one day last week working from a car dealership. It doesn’t matter which one… this could have been one of many up and down the country. I also know they are really hot on customer satisfaction. I’d like to make it clear that all of the staff involved were friendly, attentive and did their level best to help me. This is not a complaint, just a true story that helps me explain the Failure Demand concept.

My car is 3 years old, so it was booked in for a service, statutory MOT test, warranty checks, and a quote for an extended warranty.

As the day went on, I saw the Service Manager getting more and more stressed. He wants to do the best he can for his customers but the team is down from 4 to 2 at the moment. That’s going to be tough, but then we layer on the Failure Demand.

At 12:30, my car was nearly ready (it just needed cleaning) and I paid the bill. That was proactive, working to close my account and get me on my way. Great customer service, nothing so far to detract from the outstanding feedback that the dealer hopes to receive (maybe I’ll come back to that in another post).

But I asked about the warranty quote I had requested a week earlier. The person who could deal with that was off work (for understandable personal reasons) but the receptionist who had booked my appointment had assured me it would not be a problem. so, a message was left and someone will call me back after the weekend (Failure Demand 1).

At 13:30, I chased up to see why I was still waiting for my car. It hadn’t been cleaned (Failure Demand 2).

At around 14:00, I got my car back. The service handbook had been stamped and details added for the third service but the second was blank. I always take my car to this dealer, so it must have been missed last year. So the Service Manager looked up the details and added them to the book (Failure Demand 3), once he had found his stamping machine.

By now, I was embarrassed that I kept on going back with “things to fix” and I drove away. As I left, I found that my seat was in the wrong position, the dashboard display was unfamiliar, the doors automatically locked (and much more besides). The profile settings associated with my key were missing!

Having heard the receptionist fielding calls to try and let the Service Department focus on customers who were already in the building, I knew that phoning would not get me an answer any time soon. So, I returned to the dealership to see if the settings were lost for good, or backed up somewhere (Failure Demand 4).

Another Service Manager confirmed that they are not backed up. Some software updates are non-destructive. Others less so. So I left again, disappointed.

Except, as I started the car, my seat moved itself, the dashboard was set up as I expected! My profile had loaded but, presumably the software update had been incomplete before. Now it had finished, everything was back (phew).

Later that day, I received a text message. It contained a link to the video report of the inspection on my car during the service. Nice to have, except I’d authorised the repairs hours previously. Not exactly Failure Demand, but potentially another issue to fix in the process.

So, what’s the answer?

The intention is to move to a position where available system capacity is focused on “Value Demand”. Value Demand is characterised with things that deliver value to the customer or to the organisation, such as provision of information, or just getting it right first time.

If the warranty quote was ready when I paid the bill, the car had been washed when I was told it would be, and the service handbook had been stamped first time then I would have been happy and three items of failure demand could have been avoided. If the Service Manager had known to tell me that software updates might still be taking effect when the car was restarted I might have been less concerned about the missing profile.

The customer would have been happier, the Service Department’s workload would have been lower, and the Service Manager would have been less stressed.

It seems that spotting these issues as a customer is easy… the trick is working out how to fix them in my own work processes…

Featured image: author’s own.

Weeknote 13/2021: Project progress and procrastination

This content is 3 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.

This has been a short week (with only 3 days at work) but I’m pretty pleased with what I achieved in that time:

  • Publishing the Architecture Toolbox I’ve been working on for a few months. That sounds a bit grand for what’s really just a library of re-usable artefacts but, hey! I finally realised that I can’t do everything (perfection is the enemy of good) so it’s time to let it fly and let others contribute…
  • Starting to get under the covers of a new engagement with a local authority client where we’re carrying out some digital service design. It’s fascinating for me to learn from my colleague Richard Quayle (@RichardSQuayle) around concepts like the locus of control, the negatives of a command and control structure (cf. Edward Deming’s approach), failure demand – and much more as we jointly deliver this Business Consulting engagement.
  • A very insightful chat with a client where we’re looking to engage around an Architecture service. It was refreshing to hear that they find TOGAF too conceptual and want to take a more pragmatic approach around EA on a Page (which I referenced in my post on developing IT architecture skills).

I’ve struggled with procrastination/distraction this week too. The challenges of back to back online meetings are obvious but it seems meetings spaced out through the day can be equally problematic. The challenge is that they leave no time to really get into flow before the next meeting is due.

Anyway, both of these cartoons resonated with me…

(in the week that a the MV Ever Given got stuck and closed the Suez Canal, for 6 days.)

Back in the world of work, Alex (@LyleD4D)’s lateral thinking let me embed an msteams:// link in a SharePoint page, by changing the protocol section of the URI to https://.

Meanwhile, my colleague Richard Kleiser (@ThatRichK) introduced me to this diagram from Dave Clarke, which attempts to visualise the concept of Enterprise Architecture:

And that reminds me of something I meant to mention in last week’s weeknote – Rich Goidel (@RichGoidel)’s Strategy vs. Tactics cartoon, which featured in my Microsoft Catalyst pre-sales training:

I also started to see the direction that motoring is heading in. As electrification reduces revenues from servicing, software will become the next subscription opportunity.

Although it was probably intended as an April Fool, What Two Figures (WTF) pretty much sums up my feelings about What Three Words.

Outside work, the UK’s easing of “lockdown” restrictions saw the return to Caveman Conditioning – training outdoors again instead of over Zoom!

I also completed some online learning around First Aid Essentials in Sport. This is a requirement for my certification as a British Cycling coach but I’ve struggled to complete an approved course during “lockdown”.

A look ahead to the weekend

This weekend will see me:

  • Meeting up with another family for a country walk (something we’ve not been able to do for a while!).
  • Returning to Youth Training at my local cycle club (the first time we’ve been able to run a session since I became a coach).
  • Resuming Cyclist’s Dad/Directeur Sportif duties as my eldest son returns to racing.

It will probably also involve consumption of Easter Eggs (I did buy rather a lot of Creme Eggs this week).

Talking of Creme Eggs, Natalie Jackson (@NatalieDellar) alerted me to this post with “groovy things to do with Crème Eggs“.

And next week…

In addition to celebrating the 49th anniversary of my arrival on this planet, next week will be mostly spent at home including some time doing geeky hobby stuff in the Man Cave. There will also be the final assessment for my First Aid Essentials in Sport certification (which will be interesting over a Zoom call, to which I’ve been asked to bring a pillow and a bandage!).

This week in photos

Weeknote 7: Traffic, snow and an awesome party (Week 49, 2017)

This content is 6 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.

Another week means another weeknote and this one finished on a high because last night was the risual Christmas Party!

risual does Christmas parties rather well and I won’t go into the details here but suffice to say, a good time was had. I knew the weather forecast though and needed to be sober today (Mrs W wasn’t too happy about the idea of driving home in the snow) so I can bask in the delight of not-having-a-hangover.

Anyway, it was a joy to wake up in a Country House hotel this morning and see how the landscape was transformed. I took quite a lot of photos on my iPhone but Dropbox is currently refusing to upload them for me, complaining that one is corrupt (but not telling me which one!). I’ll edit them next week and post them then…

Then I drove home in the snow and ice. England can’t cope when it snows (or indeed with any other extremes of weather: too wet; too sunny; too windy). We do mild-grey really well though.

The week

My week was the usual mix of consulting (paid work), training and pre-sales. I was fortunate to spend a day at Microsoft in Reading on Tuesday, topping up my Microsoft 365 (Office 365, plus Windows 10, plus Enterprise Mobility + Security) knowledge. I’m hoping that, time permitting, some blog posts will come out of that.

I’ve been driving around the UK almost 30 years, and driving for work for most of them. This week drove home to me (excuse the pun) just how overloaded the UK’s road infrastructure is, when it took me more than 5 hours to drive to Reading and back (about 75 miles each way), then around 4.5 hours the next day to drive 190 miles on nothing but motorways and trunk A roads (180 miles of which were dual carriageway). It seems likely that the first place autonomous vehicles can take a hold is on major routes like this and I for one can’t wait. Maybe one day we’ll have segregated autonomous driving lanes on the motorways, where the cars can drive closer together (in constant communication and not constrained by human reaction speeds) and maybe even faster (if the law is changed).

This week also saw the quarterly Milton Keynes Geek Night, which I’m proud to have attended every one of! I’ve made a lot of contacts over the 5½ years it’s been running – some of whom I can now count as friends and this event had one of the best set of talks in a long while including:

  • Simon Collison (@colly) on “The Internet of Natural Things”
  • Laura Sutton (@L_Coull)’s “Non-geek’s guide to the Galaxy”
  • Dr Neil Smith (@neilnjae) showing us “Beatles vs. Rolling Stones: using data science to prove which band is best”!
  • Joe Leech (@MrJoe) wrapping up with “UX, Psychology and the Power of 100”

The next one clashes with my wedding anniversary, and Mrs W has even agreed to come along with me as an honourary geek!

At home

We’re hoping to convert our loft next year and the initial notice has been submitted for planning purposes. It seems that, now that councils are better at sharing information, marketers are scraping it to bombard us with offers of storage, home improvements, etc. Apparently, our neighbours will be getting mailshots from lawyers too… all very irksome…

Around town

I missed this event which was part of Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday celebrations – a floating carnival of decorated boats looks like quite a spectacle on the canal!

It’s really noticeable how many people are now sleeping rough on the streets of Milton Keynes. The Bus Shelter are trying to do something about that – but they need to raise funds to convert a double-decker coach to provide emergency shelter. To quote from their website:

“Homelessness can hit anyone – most of us are just three pay packets away from losing our home. With your help we can provide over 5800 safe, warm nights for people forced to sleep on the streets and help them find a positive future.”

Look out for the bus in the Intu part of the Shopping Centre (Midsummer Place) and please donate, if you can:

At the other end of the scale… I passed a man on the mean streets of MK proudly proclaiming that the best place to get a car parking space is the electric charging bays… it may not be illegal to park a petrol/diesel car in an electric space but it is selfish (especially as there are normal spaces free)…

Other stuff

Barclaycard sent me a new credit card “for security reasons”. It was nice to find that my Apple Wallet updated automatically on my phone and my watch. Sadly the many websites where I had the details stored for recurring payments (Apple iTunes, Microsoft, Amazon, M6 Toll, Transport for London, etc.) didn’t.

That reminds me… I wonder when my Curve card will show up… It seems I’ve been stuck with about 1500 people ahead of me in the queue for weeks now… in fact, the number seems to be going up (but if you use my referral link above, I can move back up the queue…)!

On the topic of referrals, my energy switch to Bulb completed this week. It was painless (though I will have to wait to get my credit from First Utility, my previous provider – who seem more interested in selling broadband to me now than reducing my energy bills…). Unfortunately, neither I nor my friend have received our promised referral credits from Bulb. Enquiries are ongoing…

My son and I needed to force-quit an app on my Amazon Fire TV Stick but weren’t sure how. This blog post helped by pointing us to Menu, Settings, Manage All Installed Applications where Force Stop is one of the options.

Sadly, Amazon and Google’s inability to play together nicely means my Fire TV Stick won’t play YouTube videos from 1 Jan 2018. One is not amused:

I’ve been watching Channel 4’s series about Donald Trump’s rise (An American Dream). I’ll leave the politics aside but it’s fascinating to see how the wealthy can grow to take such a position of power…

I noticed that my Nextbase Dashcam was showing the wrong time (1 hour ahead) and every time I changed it, it reverted after the next power cycle… then I realised there was a timezone setting and it was still on GMT+1 (BST). After changing to GMT, all was good. It seems that it picks up the time from the GPS, so the timezone is the important setting…

I’m torn about the use of the new HEIC image format on my iPhone. On the one hand, I want to store the best quality images I can, on the other, I need them to be readable on all my devices

Whilst I was at MK Geek Night this week, I spotted that War Horse is coming to Milton Keynes Theatre next autumn. I enjoyed the film and I’ve heard good things about the National Theatre production too, so tickets are booked for a family cultural treat:

My phone has decided that, when I get in the car, I’m headed for the local Tesco Express… that’s a little worrying (I wonder how does Siri determine my travel patterns?):

Podcasts

I’ve mentioned before that I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of these is the Microsoft Cloud Show. Sometimes, it can be a bit too developer-focused for my tastes but I enjoyed Episode 223, which pretty much encapsulates the conversations I have with customers as an Architect working with the Microsoft cloud!

I also got the chance to catch up with Matt Ballantine this week (one half of the WB-40 Podcast). It’s been a while since Matt and I had a chat but I really enjoyed bouncing around our thoughts on modern collaboration and team working. and team-working. Like Matt, I’m finding myself drawing/writing on screen more (at least when working, using a Surface Pro – my MacBook lacks any sort of touch capability) though it’s also showing how unpracticed I’ve become at writing!

Wrap-up

Anyway, before I get too far into Sunday evening I need to sign-off and check my children haven’t continued building their snow-wall across the neighbours’ drives…

Next week looks like it should feature a lot less travel (at least by road) and a return to cyclocross with my son. I might even be home a few evenings and maybe, just maybe, I’ll write a blog post that’s not one of these weeknotes! I live in hope…

A little consideration please…

This content is 11 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.

Over the summer, in common with a lot of Britain, I’ve got more and more interested in cycling. Maybe it’s the Olympics, maybe it was Bradley Wiggins’ success in the Tour de France, or maybe it’s just that a lot of my friends from the running club are also cyclists.  Regardless, that’s meant that I’ve started reading more cycling magazines, listening to cycling podcasts, etc. and it strikes me that there’s a very “them and us” view with cyclists against the world.

I tend to walk rather than take the tube in London and, as a pedestrian, I regularly have skirmishes with cyclists who don’t feel the need to stop at zebra crossings.  I know the argument about lost momentum but I’m afraid that’s no excuse. Imagine if a car driver used the same excuse (considering the environmental impacts of stop/start in urban areas)… it’s no reason to ignore crossings, stop lights, etc. and the argument just doesn’t stack up.

Then, last Thursday, in Guildford, I was driving at night and I (only just) spotted a cyclist coming towards me a hundred metres or so away on a road I was just about to pull out onto.  I stopped and waited but, as he passed me, the cyclist abuse me with a four letter word. Perhaps I would have seen him sooner if he had proper lights – instead, he had a flashing green light on the front of his bike (and no white light)! As it happens, I probably had time to pull out anyway, but flashing lights make it difficult to judge distance and speed so I played it safe, avoiding a potential collision between 2.2 tonnes of car and 100 kilos of vulnerable cyclist, yet resulting in abuse because I was a metre over the give way line…

Today, I was a cyclist, on an organised ride in Epping Forest. I slowed down on a number of occasions to be considerate to horse riders, families with small children, and dog walkers but it was amazing how many people seem to think it’s fine to wonder aimlessly across a wide track or to stop in the middle of a path.  On one occasion I was riding along a track and met a dog walker coming the other way, with two dogs, a small one dashing around and a large one, lumbering along. I slowed to a walking pace but he did nothing to call his dogs to safety. Then, as I passed the large dog, it moved suddenly, I slammed on my brakes, and my pedals left a nasty gash on the back of my leg. The result: in order to avoid inflicting injury on a dog, I injured myself instead… great.

Pedestrian, equestrian, cyclist or motorist, it really shouldn’t matter. We all need to share roads, paths, etc. and co-exist, so how about a little consideration for others? Is that really too much to ask, or are we all just too caught up in our own worlds?

The future of personal transportation?

This content is 12 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.

I’ve just got back from a long weekend in Barcelona and have to admit that one of the highlights (apart from sunshine, tapas and stunning Gaudi architecture) was riding the Heathrow Pod.

Really, I hear you say? You flew half way across Europe and the best part was the vehicle that took you to the airport terminal? Well yes, sort of. Even non-geek Mrs W. was impressed as we sped from business parking towards Terminal 5 in our own personal vehicle, with almost no waiting time but still in complete privacy (like a car, not like a bus or a train). Meanwhile I was acting pretty much as one of my young sons would be when faced with a new and exciting means of transport (I may be 40 in a couple of weeks’ time, but there’s still a part of me that’s more like a 7 year-old boy…).

For those who haven’t seen the pod (officially known as ULTra), it’s basically a personal transportation system, running on a dedicated “road” system where computer-controlled vehicles run on one of a number of pre-set routes.  I saw something similar last year on a Channel 4 programme called Brave New World, looking at a sub-surface system in Abu Dhabi’s smart city, Masdar and I think systems like this have a lot of potential.

Our roads are clogged with cars – and yet we still like to use them because they are convenient; they take us from where we like, to where we like, when we like (i.e.not on a schedule). That’s not the whole picture though: some of us like to express individuality through our choice of cars; some of us just like driving; and sometimes there really is no alternative (if I want to get from home, to the station and into London before 9am, there is no public transport option – and I’m only about 60 miles from London – imagine what it’s like for people in really rural areas). But why couldn’t personal transportation devices on special lanes replace buses, taxis, and private cars in metropolitan areas?

Yesterday’s news is all about how private companies will be allowed to build new road infrastructure in the UK (nothing new – we’ve had the M6 Toll for years now) but how about if a company were to invest in a system that would remove  cars and buses from the road within a metropolitan area – a pod-style system on a town-level, for example?  It can’t scale outside urban areas, but we already have decent motorways (or we would have if more long-distance freight went by rail) and a personal rapid transit system could be used from certain transport hubs (integrating with major transport routes, regional and long distance coach and rail travel) to take us the “last mile” (or 3 or 4). That way we don’t have to give up our flexibility, people can still choose to drive for longer distances (or when they are outside major urban conurbations) but we can do something about our congested city centre streets…

…or maybe it’s the Gaudi influence and I’m just thinking a little too far outside the box?

[Updated 21 March 2012: Added video]

With hindsight, it’s probably not a good idea to stand in front of a lorry…

This content is 13 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.

Imagine the situation: you’re just stepping out onto a Zebra crossing (you have right of way) and you see a seven-and-a-half-ton truck, 10 or 20 metres away, still moving at around 30mph with the driver looking down as if he is reading a newspaper, a text message on his phone, or something similar; you shout a warning (“Oy!”) and step back, slapping your hand on the side of the truck as it drives past but it continues its journey, as if nothing had happened.

That’s what happened to me this morning and it made me angry. I’ve spent enough years driving cars (and developing a sixth sense when I was a motorcyclist) to watch out for things like this, but imagine if I had been an elderly person crossing the road, or a child. I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

A few seconds later, the truck stopped at a set of traffic lights so I ran down the road and challenged the driver. I may have used a few choice words (I almost certainly did) but he denied that I was on the crossing as he approached (how would he know – he wasn’t even looking ahead!). Standing in front of the truck, I got my phone out to take a picture of the registration plate and the driver actually drove the truck at me as if to push me out of the way! There was no way he would deliberately run me over but he jumped out of his cab and grabbed my phone, telling me he would give it back (throw it under the truck more like) when I moved. For the next few minutes he refused to give it back to me, driving the truck at me once more as I protested to get my phone back. At one point he got out of the cab again and grabbed me by my jacket collar to move me out of the way (I’m seventeen and a half stone – but he was taller than me, stronger than me, and bloody annoyed with me). Eventually, after calming down and noticing I was shaking (showing some humility at least) the truck driver returned my mobile phone and we agreed that we would go our separate ways. I was still shaking, and I didn’t manage to record the registration number of the truck but it belongs to Biffa, a waste management and recycling company, and I’m sure they will be able to track it, should they so desire…

Throughout the incident, which probably lasted at least five minutes and was right outside a busy London railway station, during the rush hour, people stood and watched. Some took pictures with their mobile phones but no-one called the police when I called out and asked them to, on at least two occasions. I may have been stupid to pick an argument with someone who was prepared to drive a lorry at me but really, London commuters, are you really that self-absorbed that you won’t help someone out after seeing them being subjected to threatening behaviour bordering on physical assault?  Even if you didn’t want to “get involved”, you could have asked me if I was alright after the truck was driven away.

After travelling a couple of stops on the tube, I saw some British Transport Police officers and I asked for advice. The officer I spoke to was very helpful, including giving me the number for the Metropolitan Police but, I honestly think that reporting the incident will be a waste of my time and theirs. I have no evidence (only a blurred, shaky camera phone picture of the truck driving away, in which there are no identifiable markings) and, despite the city being littered with CCTV, the police have much bigger priorities.

Looking back, with slightly less adrenalin being pumped around my system, I can see it was not wise to put myself in a dangerous position but there is no excuse for deliberately driving a lorry at me. I’m sure the driver is a decent guy, just as pumped up by the situation as I was but, more to the point, if Biffa’s operatives are driving without due care and attention, the next person to cross the road in front of them might not be so lucky. As one of my (female – i.e. not testosterone-fuelled) colleagues observed, hopefully the incident will make this truck driver think more carefully about his actions, even if he won’t openly admit that he made a mistake. And I should be grateful that the worst thing to come out of this for me, was needing to replace my damaged iPhone headphones.

The effects of sunscreen on Volkswagen/Audi paintwork

This content is 13 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.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I bought a brand new Volkswagen Golf.  We’d been happy with our previous VWs (a Mk2 and two Mk4 Golfs, a 2004 Polo and a 2005 Passat) so were more than happy to purchase a Mk5 Golf 1.9TDI Match (in Blue Graphite Metallic) as a family runaround.  Fast forward around a year and we were slightly less pleased with our purchase…

…The car had started to develop white marks on the paintwork.  Each time they were polished out, they came back.  Strangely, some of them looked like little handprints and, when I asked the dealer about them, they instantly recognised the problem.  “That’s sunscreen”, they said, “and it’s not covered by the warranty”.

Sunscreen?! Yep. It seems that the modern (water-based) paints are not as hard as the nitro-cellulose or isocyanate paints used on older cars and that they are susceptible to damage from titanium dioxide – an ingredient found in many sun protection products, including the sunscreen we had applied regularly to our young children.

With just a few thousand miles on the clock, I wasn’t taking no for an answer, but we decided to use a little of the motor industry’s sexism to our advantage too as, from this point on, the negotiations weren’t with me but with Mrs W. instead!  After escalating the issue to an appropriate level within the dealership, it was agreed that the car would go into the bodyshop and the offending panels would be machine polished, as a gesture of goodwill.  Even though the job took much longer than it should (most of the panels on the rear and sides of the car were affected – have you ever tried keeping toddlers from plastering their hands on a car?) they dealer was true to their word and the car was returned to us in as new condition.

Damage caused by sunscreen coming into contact with car paintworkWhen I asked if this was a regular issue, Volkswagen told me that it wasn’t (although, later, an Audi dealer was a little more truthful, admitting that it happens a lot with modern VW-Audi paints and that the resolution is usually a machine polish – we also have friends with similar marks on their silver Bora).  Had it been necessary, I would have kept on pushing until the car was completely resprayed (I might have settled with a compromise agreement to pay for the materials but not the labour) but, as it happens, the problem seems to have been resolved, with just one small area of damage still visible.

We were lucky.  With just a few thousand miles on the clock, it was difficult for Volkswagen to suggest this was “normal”.  If the car had been used a little more, we might have been seeking legal advice to see if we were entitled to a return under the Sale of Goods Act (it is a family car after all, and blemishes as a result of contact with sunscreen might question its fitness for purpose) but I frankly wouldn’t fancy our chances at suing Nivea et al. for damages because their products don’t carry a warning that they may damage car paintwork!

Needless to say, these days we’re ultra-careful to wipe our childrens’ hands with wet wipes after applying sunscreen…

[I waited a while before publishing this because a) I wanted to be sure we had resolved the issue and b) it’s not the normal sort of content for this blog. As a result, the events in this post are written as I remember them; however it’s entirely possible that there may be some minor errors as part of the effect of time on my memory]

[Update – 5 September 2012: Two years after writing this post and I’m sorry to say that fingermarks are back again. It seems that the long term damage of the sunscreen goes deeper than a polish can deal with and our choice is either to accept the damage (on our now four-year-old car), or respray.]

So, where exactly is Silverstone?

This content is 14 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 I carried out the school run this morning (on foot), I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of extra traffic in town today.  Then I realised it was due to the British Grand Prix, which is taking place in Silverstone this weekend.  The A43 is closed for non-event traffic, which puts pressure on the M1, which in turn pushes traffic onto other roads in the area, including the main road through our town.

It’s not really a problem – The A43 is only closed for 3 days a year and the knock-on effect of having the home of British Motor Racing on our doorstep is increased engineering jobs in the local area (it’s a shame that Aston Martin moved out of Newport Pagnell in favour of their new HQ at Gaydon) – indeed I’m pretty pleased that Donington Park couldn’t get it’s act together so the British Grand Prix has stayed at Silverstone!

What was interesting though was a local BBC news story last night… BBC East was covering a (non-) story about whether Silverstone is in Northamptonshire, or in Buckinghamshire.  It’s simple – Silverstone village is in Northamptonshire, but the circuit spans the county boundary.  Why that’s the cause of such controversy is, frankly, a mystery but, then again, I know what a big deal crossing the county boundary is to some locals (for reference, I was born in Northamptonshire and now live within the Milton Keynes unitary authority, in what was once Buckinghamshire… and it will take 3 generations to be accepted as a true local in the town where I now live!).

What amused me was one of the people that the BBC interviewed for its package on last night’s news – when asked which county Silverstone is in, one guy responded that it’s in Buckinghamshire because, when he googled for the weather, Buckingham was the nearest town!  I found it quite amusing that people today are happy to judge geographic boundaries by Google search results, rather than by a map…

So, if you’re at the British Grand Prix this weekend (I’d love to be there but will be watching on a television instead) it seems that the Grand Prix circuit from Becketts Corner to somewhere near Village Corner is in Buckinghamshire, otherwise you’re in Northamptonshire (Rose of the Shires).

Ordnance Survey Map showing Silverstone circuit spanning the county boundary between Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire

Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

More on integrating an Apple iPhone 3G with Audi’s telephony and audio systems

This content is 15 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.

A few days ago, it was my birthday. Whilst 37 is not a particularly significant age to celebrate (I prefer to think of it as the 16th anniversary of my 21st birthday), I did get a little present at the start of the month (hopefully it wasn’t an April fool’s joke) when my new company car was delivered. Bye bye Saab (I liked you at first but you soon showed yourself to be a Vauxhall Vectra in disguise… with aftersales service to match…) – this time I’ve gone down the German route and plumped for an Audi A4 Avant S-Line. I have to say that, even though it’s still early days, this could shape up to be one of the best cars I’ve ever driven (especially with the extra toys I’ve added to the spec) – mind you, I’ve always liked German cars and have bought a few Volkswagens over the years.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to start writing car reviews – but I did write something a few months ago about integrating an Apple iPhone 3G with Audi’s telephony and audio systems and I wanted to write a follow-up, now that I’ve had some opportunity to spend a bit more time with a suitably equipped car.

First up, telephony integration. This is simple, as long as the car has the Mobile Telephone Preparation Low option. No cradle is required as the mobile phone preparation provides Bluetooth connectivity. As I wrote in my earlier post, just pair the iPhone with the car using the code 1234 within 30 seconds of opening the car and inserting the key (i.e. activating the car’s systems). The handsfree device will be something like Audi UHV 0000, although the number will vary and, once paired, calls will ring the iPhone and the car simultaneously. The Bluetooth logo and signal strength are displayed on the Audi Multi Media Interface (MMI) display:

Audi telephone connection (MMI)Audi telephone connection (Driver Display)

My iPhone 3G is running software version 2.2.1 and I seem to have no difficulties accessing the phone’s number lists and directory (although voice activation/control is not availablethe phonebook that this refers to is the voice tag system, not the directory accessed on the phone over Bluetooth):

Audi accessing iPhone phonebook (Driver Display)

One thing to note – the car can only act as a handsfree for one phone at a time (although it can pair with up to 4 devices). When I’m “on the clock”, I turn off the Bluetooth on my iPhone so that the Nokia 6021 I use for work can access the car systems.

If you’re still having trouble, Audi provides a Bluetooth FAQ as well as a PDF with details of supported handsets (which is now over a year old and so does not include the iPhone 3G, although it appears to work).

Because Apple has not provided Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) functionality on the current iPhone 3G or the first-generation iPhone, to integrate my iPhone with the music system so that I can access the phone’s playlists, etc., I needed to specify the Audi Music Interface option and buy an AMI iPod cable for £29. I think there is a minimum requirement on the sound system for this too (mine is the Audi Concert system).

The AMI is in the glovebox (close enough for a Bluetooth signal for the phone to carry on working) and the cable will charge my phone at the same time. The only problem is that the iPhone complains that the AMI is not a supported accessory and wants to go into airplane mode. If I tell it not to, the AMI will usually find the iPhone and let me navigate the playlists, etc. but I have found it seems to work better if I put start the iPod application on the iPhone before connecting:

This accessory is not made to work with iPhoneAccessory connected
Audi AMI access to iPhone playlists (MMI)Audi AMI access to iPhone playlists (Driver Display)

The good news is that the forthcoming iPhone 3.0 software is expected to include A2DP (and it should work with the iPhone 3G – but not the original iPhone), after which I should be able to stop using the cable (although I may just leave an old iPod semi-permanently connected to the car at that point).

[Update 12 December 2011: Even though iOS is now at v5.0.1, I’ve been unable to use A2DP. This worked in another Audi I drove recently so I assume the car needs a software update too.  This information from an AudiForums thread might be useful too:

“First, the difference between AMI and MMI, which threw me off, so hopefully someone else will find this helpful. This is for my 2011 A4… I don’t know what other years/models it may apply to.

  • MMI (Multi-Media Interface) is just the screen/knob system that controls the radio/sat/cd/settings/etc.
  • AMI (Audi Music Interface) is the link between the MMI system and your iPod or other MP3 device. It is a port in the glove box that you can attach different cables to for different music devices.”]