Weeknote 14/2021: A week off work

This week has been spent at home. Mostly. It also involved some time wrapped in blankets in friends’ and family’s gardens, as England and Wales return to some degree of limited socialisation but northerly winds mean it’s still pretty chilly. Actually, it was snowing as I started to write this blog post.

As I mentioned last week, there were a few things planned for my time away from work. I celebrated a birthday on Monday. I had the final assessment for my First Aid Essentials in Sport certification on Tuesday. Then, Saturday was my first experience of coaching a group of young people to help them develop their cycling skills. It was… interesting. Oh well, they do say that practise makes perfect…

This week in tech

I haven’t really got much to report this week from the world of tech except:

  • After helping my youngest son out with renewing his Xbox Live Gold subscription (hint: CDkeys is your friend), he found that some updates in Minecraft were conflicting with the Windows Family Safety settings. That can be a minefield, but the error message directed me to the “Minecraft Realms and Multiplayer Troubleshooting” page on the Microsoft website, which helped me adjust the settings. The “I’m Getting an Error When Trying to Play Multiplayer with a Child Account” page makes it even easier to work out what to change, although I was able to leave the Privacy settings as they were (so only his friends can contact him by voice or text). Kudos to Microsoft for making it easy to work out what we needed to do.
  • I also got pretty frustrated with the limitations on my Apple Watch pairing with various old iPhones (or not). The end result is, I’m still selling my iPhone 8 Plus (which still has some residual value) and I’ve bought an iPhone SE for my wife. Expect to see a blog post here soon on the fun and games of moving cross-platform (I switched to Android when I bought a Samsung Galaxy S20 last year). Spoiler: don’t do it unless you really like messing around with tech and various platform lock-ins.
  • Apps asking for feedback really should be more considerate about when they interrupt your workflow:
  • Vodafone let us know that our monthly broadband is going up by £3 a month and by 3.9% above inflation. Apparently, that’s to cover the extra costs of running their network, but it seems to something that many providers are doing now…

Elsewhere in my life

Without going into specific details about my family’s medical history, Mark Booth at Body Limits is bloody brilliant. After just one session with Mark, my son could feel a tremendous difference in the knee pain he had been suffering whilst cycling.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure if carpentry and power tools are “tech” or not, but:

  • I found that drilling holes through plywood can easily split the face of the wood. The trick is to stop, just as the centre of the drill starts to emerge, and then use that centre hole to drill back in the opposite direction.
  • This video was handy as I fought with a jigsaw I’d borrowed from a friend. I had seriously started to doubt my blade-fitting abilities as I got through four of them to slice a sizable hole between two sets of shelves:

More thoughts on hybrid and remote working

I’ve been pretty open about my thoughts on remote and hybrid working and it’s only a few months since I wrote this post musing about the future of the office. This week, I saw The Economist had an interesting video on some of the challenges of working from home:

I was particularly pleased to see they called out having good home working facilities as a privilege many do not have and the consequential need for hybrid working (not just remote). Meanwhile, for those who can go fully remote, The Republic of Croatia is offering a Digital Nomad visa for a year

Back in Blighty, my friend Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) was finally pushed over the edge with one online meeting too many:

“By removing the last filter of meeting organisation, the meeting room, we probably are organising more meetings than ever before.”

Matt Ballantine: “Zoomed Out”

And, as for the impact of remote work on our mental health… maybe let’s consider it’s not just remote working that’s been introduced to our lives over the last 13 months but also a whole load of other restrictions on social contact:

This week in photos

Investigating my not-so-superfast broadband

I’m constantly frustrated by my broadband speeds. They are not bad, but not as good as they should be either, especially not when marketed as “superfast broadband”. And the real-world speeds seemed to drop about 10% when I switched ISPs from PlusNet to Vodafone a couple of years ago. I think I’m out of contract now, so it’s a good opportunity to take a look at what is possible.

For reference, I’m on a Vodafone Superfast 1 business broadband package, which should give up to 38Mbps, with a claimed average of 35Mbps and 73% of customers able to achieve those speeds:

Vodafone's estimated broadband speed for my phone line.

In the real world, I get around 22Mbps down and 7Mbps up, according to various speed checkers. The most I’ve ever seen on a speed test is around 25-26Mbps, with my previous ISP.

Step 1: Check basic broadband availability.

The Kitz Broadband Checker helps here, using BT Wholesale and SamKnows data to check what is available for a given phone number/postcode. There are basic details of the local telephone exchange and there is a rough indicator of how far away it is. It may be 618m as the crow flies, but I can tell you it’s more like 1500m by road/cable (assuming it follows the route I would expect around the local streets and doesn’t run along the alleyway behind my house). I don’t understand all of the acronyms and abbreviations but it seems to me that the site doesn’t (yet) understand whether Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) is available, or just Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) and earlier broadband options.

Step 2: A few more details from BT Wholesale

The BT Wholesale Broadband Checker was my next port of call. This tells me all sorts of things about my line, like that: I should be able to get around 42.5Mbps down (instead of my 22) – which is probably where the real-world claimed up to 38Mbps comes from; that FTTP is available (along with several other products); and that my current FTTC cabinet is Cabinet 10. I’ve spotted this cabinet on my walks around town and so I know it’s not particularly close to home – probably around 1000m by road, though it could be as little as 350m if the cable runs through the alleyway I mentioned earlier.

BT Broadband Availability Checker results for my phone line

Step 3: Check the modem stats

I stopped using my ISP-provided modem a couple of years ago and switched to a DrayTek Vigor 130 modem (since discontinued by the manufacturer) with a Ubiquiti AmpliFi router.

Logging on to the router’s web interface told me that I was syncing at around 27Mbps down and 7 up and on VDSL Profile 17A with a signal to noise ratio (SNR) around 6:

DrayTek Vigor 130 modem online status

That fits with my real-world performance in speed tests of around 22Mbps. Digging a little deeper via a telnet session gave me a whole load of stats:

> adsl status
  ---------------------- ATU-R Info (hw: annex A, f/w: annex A/B/C) -----------
   Running Mode            :      17A       State                : SHOWTIME
   DS Actual Rate          : 27400000 bps   US Actual Rate       :  7265000 bps
   DS Attainable Rate      : 28950732 bps   US Attainable Rate   :  7265000 bps
   DS Path Mode            :        Fast    US Path Mode         :        Fast
   DS Interleave Depth     :        1       US Interleave Depth  :        1
   NE Current Attenuation  :       25 dB    Cur SNR Margin       :        7  dB
   DS actual PSD           :     4. 3 dB    US actual PSD        :    11. 7  dB
   NE CRC Count            :      935       FE CRC Count         :    13805
   NE ES Count             :      261       FE  ES Count         :     7519
   Xdsl Reset Times        :        0       Xdsl Link  Times     :        7
   ITU Version[0]          : fe004452       ITU Version[1]       : 41590000
   VDSL Firmware Version   : 05-07-06-0D-01-07   [with Vectoring support]
   Power Management Mode   : DSL_G997_PMS_L0
   Test Mode               : DISABLE
  -------------------------------- ATU-C Info ---------------------------------
   Far Current Attenuation :       28 dB    Far SNR Margin       :        6  dB
   CO ITU Version[0]       : b5004244       CO ITU Version[1]    : 434da4a1
   DSLAM CHIPSET VENDOR    : < BDCM >

Comparing that sync speed of 27.4Mpbs with the BT Wholesale test in step 2, and my connection is running as quickly as it ever has (though I’m not sure what period the BT Wholesale test ran over for its maximum observed speed).

(It also tells me that my cabinet has a Broadcom chipset, so it’s most likely to contain Huawei equipment).

So, why is my “Superfast broadband” not so… superfast?

So, I have lots of metrics, what’s the analysis?

  1. Possibly: my connection. Several years ago (pre-broadband) we had a second phone line put in the house (since disconnected) and I seem to recall that some jiggery-pokery was required at the exchange to accommodate that, possibly even running two phone numbers over one copper connection. I thought that might explain why I get about half the theoretical maximum bandwidth (and my neighbour three doors down gets the whole lot).
  2. Possibly: internal wiring on-premises. My modem is connected directly to a line into the house but it’s not the BT master socket – it’s connected by some other external route that I don’t understand. I’ve tried moving previous modem/routers to connect directly to the master socket and it’s not made any noticeable difference to sync speeds.
  3. Most likely: physics. Whilst researching this post, I found information about FTTC speed vs. distance from the cabinet (repeated on various forums). At 1km from the cabinet, the most I will get, even on a 17A (80Mbps) profile, is 28Mpbs and I’m syncing at around 27 (this table at ThinkBroadband suggests even lower). So what about my neighbour who gets 38? Maybe he’s just lucky, or perhaps his line takes a different route around town…

Assuming my analysis is correct, this is probably about as good as it gets, without an FTTP upgrade. And, as the service is cheap (around £28/month including a home phone calling package and with no line rental), we might just stay put for now – after all my Teams calls work in the day and my Netflix and YouTube work in the evening/at the weekend!

SamKnows?

As a little addendum (and there is nothing in this for me), if you’re trying to work out what’s going on with your broadband, I’d recommend checking out SamKnows. I have one of their “white boxes” on my network and have had for several years (ever since the late Jack Schofield pointed me in their direction). In exchange for some real-world performance monitoring, which is aggregated to assess ISPs, I get reliable stats on the state of my connection.

SamKnows stats for my connection

Weeknote 4: music; teenagers; creating a chatbot; tech, more tech and tech TV; 7 day photo challenge; and cycling (Week 46, 2017)

Another week, another weeknote…

There’s not much to say about work this week – I’ve mostly been writing documentation. I did spend a good chunk of Monday booking hotels and travel, only to find 12 days of consulting drop out of my diary again on Friday (cue hotel cancellations, etc.) but I guess that’s just life!

Family life: grime, rap and teens!

Outside work, it’s been good to be close to home and get involved in family life again.

I had the amusement of my 11 year-old and his friends rapping to their grime music on my car on the way to/from football training this week (we’re at the age where it’s “Dad, can we have my music on please?”) but there’s only so much Big Shaq I can take so I played some Eminem on the way back. It was quite endearing to hear my son say “I didn’t know you knew about Eminem!” after I dropped his mates off. I should make the most of these moments as the adulation is dropping off now he approaches his teens!

Talking of teens, my eldest turned 13 this week, which was a big day in the Wilson household:

 

I’m not sure how this little fella grew into this strong chap (or where the time in between has gone) but we introduced him to the Harry Enfield “Kevin the teenager” videos a few months ago. I thought they were funny when I was younger but couldn’t believe how accurate they are now I’m a parent. Our boys clearly understood the message too and looked a bit sheepish!

Tech

I did play with some tech this week – and I managed to create my very own chatbot without writing any code:

Virtual Mark (MarkBot1) uses the Microsoft QnA Maker and runs in Microsoft Azure. The process is described in James Marshall’s blog post and it’s very straightforward. I’m using Azure Functions and so far this serverless solution has cost me absolutely nothing to run!

It’s also interesting reading some of the queries that the bot has been asked, which have led to me extending its knowledge base a few times now. A question and answer chatbot is probably more suited to a set of tightly bounded questions on a topic (the things people can ask about me is pretty broad) but it’s a nice demo…

I also upgraded my work PC to the latest Windows 10 and Office builds (1709 and 1710 respectively), which gave me the ability to use a digital pen as a presentation clicker, which is nice, in a geek-novelty kind of way:

Tech TV

I have an Amazon Prime membership, which includes access to Amazon Prime Instant Video – including several TV shows that would otherwise only be available in the US. One I enjoy is Mr Robot – which although completely weird at times is also strangely addictive – and this week’s episode was particularly good (scoring 9.9 on IMDB). Whilst I was waiting for the next episode to come around, I found that I’d missed a whole season of Halt and Catch Fire too (I binge-watched the first three after they were recommended to me by Howard van Rooijen/@HowardvRooijen). Series 4 is the final one and that’s what presently keeping me from my sleep… but it’s really good!

I don’t have Netflix, but Silicon Cowboys has been recommended to me by Derek Goodridge (@workerthread). Just like the first series of Halt and Catch Fire, it’s the story of the original IBM PC clone manufacturers – Compaq – but in documentary format, rather than as a drama series.

iPhone images

Regular readers may recall that a few weeks ago I found myself needing to buy a new iPhone after I fell into the sea with my iPhone in my pocket, twisting my ankle in the process…

People have been telling me for ages that “the latest iPhone has a great camera” and, in daylight, I’m really impressed by the clarity and also the bokeh effect. It’s still a mobile phone camera with a tiny sensor though and that means it’s still really poor at night. If a full-frame DSLR struggles at times, an iPhone will be challenged I guess – but I’m still finding that I’m inspired to use the camera more.

7 Days 7 Photos

Last week, I mentioned the 7 days, 7 photos challenge. I’ve completed mine now and they are supposed to be without explanation but, now I have a set of 7 photos, I thought I would explain what and why I used these ones. I get the feeling that some people are just posting 7 pictures, one a day, but these really do relate to what I was doing each day – and I tried to nominate people for the challenge each day based on their relevance to the subject…

Day 1

7 Days 7 Photos Day 1

I spotted this pub as I walked to Farringdon station. I wondered if “the clerk and well” was the origin of the name for “Clerkenwell” and it turns out that it is. Anyway, I liked the view of the traditional London pub (I was on my way home from another one!) and challenged my brother, who’s a publican…

Day 2

7 Days 7 Photos Day 2

I liked the form in this photograph of my son’s CX bike on the roof of my car. It didn’t look so clean when we got back from cyclocross training though! I challenged my friend Andy, whose 40th birthday was the reason for my ride from London to Paris a few years ago…

Day 3

7 Days 7 Photos Day 3

Not technically a single photo – lets’ call it a triptych, I used the Diptic app (as recommended by Ben Seymour/@bseymour) to create this collage. I felt it was a little too personal to nominate my friend Kieran, whose medals are in the lower left image, so I nominated my friend James, who was leading the Scouts in our local remembrance day parade.

Day 4

7 Days 7 Photos Day 4

I found some failed backups on my Synology NAS this week. For some reason, Hyper Backup complained it didn’t have enough storage (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Azure that ran out of space!) so I ran several backups, each one adding another folder until I had all of my new photos in the backup set. I felt the need to challenge a friend who works in IT – so I challenged my friend Stuart.

Day 5

7 Days 7 Photos Day 5

My son was cake-baking, for Children in Need, I think – or maybe it was my other son, baking his birthday cake. I can’t really remember. I challenged a friend who runs a local cafe and regularly bakes muffins…

Day 6

7 Days 7 Photos Day 6

Self-explanatory. My son’s own creation for his birthday. I challenged my wife for this one.

Day 7

7 Days 7 Photos Day 7

The last image is following an evening helping out at Scouts. Images of attempts to purify water through distillation were not that great, so I took a picture of the Scout Badge, and nominated my friend Phil, who’s another one of the local Scout leaders.

(All seven of these pictures were taken on an iPhone 8 Plus using the native camera app, then edited in Snapseed and uploaded to Flickr)

Other stuff

I like this:

And I remember shelves of tapes like these (though mine were all very neatly written, or computer-generated, even back in the 1980s):

On the topic of music, look up Master Boot Record on Spotify:

And this “Soundtrack for Coding” is pretty good for writing documentation too…

I added second-factor authentication to my WordPress blog this week. I couldn’t find anything that uses the Microsoft Authenticator, but this 2FA WordPress plugin from miniOrange uses Google Authenticator and was very easy to set up.

Some UK libraries have started loaning BBC Microbits but unfortunately not yet in my manor:

Being at home all week meant I went to see my GP about my twisted ankle (from the falling-into-the-sea incident). One referral later and I was able to see a physio… who’s already working wonders on helping to repair my damaged ligaments. And he says I can ride my bike too… so I’ll be back on Zwift even if cyclocross racing is out for the rest of the season.

Cycling

On the subject of Zwift, they announced a price rise this week. I understand that these things happen but it’s gone up 50% in the US (and slightly more than that here in the UK). All that really does is drive me to use Zwift in the winter and to cancel my membership in the summer. A more reasonable monthly fee might make me more inclined to sign up for 12 months at a time and create a recurring revenue for Zwift. Very strange business model, IMHO.

I particularly liked the last line of this article:

“Five minutes after the race
That was sooo fun! When can I do it again?!”

I may not have been riding cyclocross this weekend, but my son was, and Sunday was the popular Central Cyclocross League race at RAF Halton. With mud, sand, gravel and steep banks, long woodland sections and more, it looked epic. Maybe I’ll get to ride next year!

I did get to play with one of the RAF’s cranes (attached to a flatbed truck) though – amazing how much control there is – and had a go on the road safety rig too.

And of course, what else to eat at a cyclocross event but Belgian fries, mayo and waffles!

Finally, my friends at Kids Racing (@kidsracing) have some new kit in. Check out the video they filmed at the MK Bowl a couple of weeks back – and if you have kids in need of new cycling kit, maybe head over to HUP CC.

Wrap-up

That’s it for this week. Next week I have a bit more variation in my work (including another Microsoft event – Azure Ready in the UK) and I’m hoping to actually get some blog posts written… see you on the other side!

Weeknote No 3: subscription fatigue; travel; 7 day photo challenge; Microbits; and remembrance (Week 45, 2017)

Another week, another week note. And I really should try and publish these a bit earlier (it’s late on Sunday evening again!)

More on my new roof bars/carriers

Last week I wrote about buying my new Thule roof bars and bike carriers from roofracks.co.uk.

After I’d fitted the bars, I noticed a small dent in one of them. I had been super-careful when fitting them, so I can be pretty sure that it wasn’t anything I did. I emailed roofracks.co.uk and, whilst the dent is only visible in certain light conditions and difficult to photograph, they said they couldn’t clearly see the dent in the pictures I sent (including this one):

Dent in new Thule wingbars

(Is it just me? I thought the red ring would help…)

They wanted me to return the damaged bar at my cost so they could inspect and send a replacement (I’d already said it wasn’t worth it but asked if they could apply a small discount). For that reason, I can no longer recommend roofracks.co.uk. Which is a pity, because they have competitive pricing (presumably based on volume sales).

Subscription fatigue

I also referred to subscription fatigue in last week’s weeknote. I knew that my friend David Hughes had written about it somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where… he pointed me to his newsletters (issue 2 and issue 4).

“Each developer that moves to this business model says “it’s just the price of a cup of coffee” every month, and it is. But my […] issue is that many apps are moving to this business model, and that starts to add up.

I could be in the position where I am spending hundreds of pounds a year to essentially rent software.

That is not for me.”

Hear, hear!

Travel

I spent half the week in the north west of England. Rochdale to be precise.

As it’s so difficult to get a parking space near Milton Keynes station after about 8:00 on a weekday, I caught a bus from home. I found a great website that uses open data to list all UK bus services. Bustimes.org.uk is not an official resource but, like realtimetrains.co.uk, it is an incredibly useful one!

I’d bought a ticket from Milton Keynes to Rochdale and back which, despite showing as only valid via Manchester, was not clear about whether it could be used on trams between Manchester’s two main stations (Piccadilly and Victoria). Manchester Metrolink later confirmed that the ticket wasn’t valid (so it’s a good job I played safe and bought a tram ticket then!).

If only Transport for Greater Manchester took a leaf out of Transport for London’s book with tickets that include public transport transfers (cf. Underground between London termini on through journeys) though it seems you can get a ticket that is valid for tram transfers – I just don’t know how!

I found it interesting to see that people on Twitter thought £67.50 was expensive for a return trip from Milton Keynes to Manchester (I thought it was a bargain). It’s certainly not expensive when compared with demand-based pricing on peak Manchester-London services (which can be over £300) or with the cost of driving ~400 miles to Rochdale and back…

Anyone who’s spent any time in and around Manchester will know it’s a city with a reasonably high chance of precipitation. Stupidly, I forgot to take a coat that fits over my suit to Greater Manchester. Muppet. Luckily I had an umbrella in my work bag…

Also worth knowing (from my travels further south at the end of the week): the rear First Class section in Thameslink trains is declassified until further notice. I have no idea why but it’s useful to get access to some power:

The socket location is a little unusual though:

Work opportunities

A couple of nights in Rochdale also gave me a chance to catch up with an ex-colleague and one of my most supportive former managers, Alan Purchase (@AlanPurchase).  He’s at Capgemini now – who seem to be hoovering up a lot of people with Microsoft skills (as are Microsoft themselves). Meanwhile, I got one of the regular LinkedIn contacts asking me if I’d be interested in a fantastic opportunity from someone I’ve never heard of who won’t even say who they are working for but this one was really special: it would involve moving my family to Ireland. Tempting though it may be to keep my EU citizenship post-Brexit, thanks but no thanks.

The rest of the week

As mentioned above, I was back dahn sarf for the second part of the week and spent two days in London with the first one at Microsoft learning more about the capabilities of Azure with regards to data and the intelligent cloud. I’ve been trying to grok this for a while (my background is Infrastructure). The second day was more mundane, supporting a colleague on a consulting engagement.

I tried using Apple Maps for turn-by-turn navigation on my watch whilst riding my Brompton to Microsoft on Thursday. Unfortunately, Apple Maps lacks cycling directions (it only has walk, drive, public transport or taxi) and I got a bit lost with the various “no cycling” routes in Regents Park which made for an interesting route map!

7 Days 7 Photos Challenge

I’ve been “challenged” for the 7 days 7 photos challenge on Facebook. The rules are simple:

Seven days, seven black and white photos of my life. No humans. No explanation. Challenge someone every day.

Some people are critical of this – saying it’s not a challenge, and suggesting it’s just creating a bunch of poor black and white photos on Facebook. I’m actually finding it a great opportunity to think about what I’m doing and to capture something from the day. Anything that gets me thinking creatively about capturing images has to be good, right?

3 days in and my efforts are on Flickr – see what you think so far…

7 Days 7 Photos Day 2

Other stuff

I was signposted to John Naughton (@jjn1)’s 95 theses about technology by Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70). I think it should be required reading for anyone in a senior technology role…

I do most of my geek stuff with my eldest son, so I asked the youngest if he fancied a play with a BBC Microbit. Our inventor’s kit arrived this week:

We had a lot of fun and it was fantastic to see his face light up when his Microbit started playing the sounds and displaying the letter of the notes as he had instructed.

I’ve played with the Relive app a few times to generate a birds-eye view of a route I’ve cycled. GPX Hyperlapse takes a different view – using Google Streetview to help view a route (perhaps in preparation for a ride).

IBP Index looks interesting as an approach for measuring the relative effort of different activities (e.g. cycling, running, etc.).

Today was Remembrance Sunday and a particularly poignant one where I live in Olney as so many local men were lost at the Battle of Passchendaele, exactly one hundred years ago. It’s always good to see so many people turn out to pay their respects but such a shame the traffic wasn’t halted for the 2 minute silence, as it has been in previous years.

D700-20171112104016.jpg

That’s all for now

Right, that’s all for now. If you read this far, thanks for sticking with me. These posts take a long time to write so any feedback is welcomed – it would be good to know I’m not just writing a diary for my own benefit!

Running the Pixlr Editor (or other Adobe Flash-based apps) in a modern browser

Many people will be familiar with the Pixlr browser-based image editing tool, Pixlr Editor. Unfortunately, it’s developed in Adobe Flash, a technology that’s rapidly falling out of favour with developers (about time too!) and losing browser support.

A few weeks ago, I tried to run Pixlr Editor in Chrome and found it wouldn’t work. Same for Safari. Edge gave a similar experience – in fact only Internet Explorer would play nicely!

Then I found Paulo Amaroso’s Google+ post about the issue (yes, Google+!). It seems that what I needed to do was click on the “omnibar” (the secure padlock or info button to the left of the URL in the browser) to open up Chrome settings and select Flash then Always allow on this site.

Interestingly, I’m now seeing browsers prompting me to enable Flash for the website… I suspect Pixlr have updated their website to improve the user experience.

Allow Flash for pixlr editor website in Chrome

An open letter to John Lewis (and other retailers who charge for Click and Collect)

As the retail sector has adapted to meet the demands of Internet-based commerce, many retailers have found home delivery to be expensive and unprofitable. Free delivery may close the deal but what does it actually cost the retailer to ship to personal addresses? Probably far more than that £3-5 P&P charge…

New Delivery Models for the age of Internet commerce

To address this, many traditional retailers have integrated with their existing operations to provide “Click and Collect” services whereby customer deliveries are sent to a nominated store. Sometimes this is done well. Other times the divide between the online business and the brick and mortar stores is painfully obvious – particularly when handling returns.

Meanwhile, Internet-only retailers have created pick-up points (e.g. Amazon), partnered with retailers (e.g. eBay and Argos/Sainsburys), or developed premium services (e.g. Amazon Prime) to subsidise delivery. Others (like Doddle) have created a business model around providing somewhere to have parcels delivered for collection on the way home from work.

Charging for Click and Collect?

Whilst charging for delivery is commonplace (perhaps with free delivery over a certain threshold), one major UK retailer (John Lewis) charges for Click and Collect under a threshold value of £30. Their systems have the business intelligence to email me after failing to complete a transaction but sadly not the intelligence to understand why that might be (a £29.90 order that attracts a £2 click and collect charge, when a £30 order would be free).

This was my response, by email – and now here in public:

“Dear Sir or Madam,
Earlier today, I received the email below, based on a transaction that was not completed. I would complete my order, if it wasn’t for your policy on Click and Collect. My order is 10p short of your threshold for free Click and Collect.

 

Because you will charge me £2 for this, I will simply purchase elsewhere. I can have free shipping with Amazon, to home. Or I could just walk into your store and hope you have stock…

 

I understand that shipping to home is unprofitable – that’s why many retailers offer free Click and Collect and charge for home delivery. Charging for Click and Collect is short-sighted and, frankly, not acceptable. You have deliveries to store anyway, whilst it costs me to drive to you, then you charge me £2 for the privilege!

 

I would much rather support John Lewis than a faceless US-based Internet retailer and I urge you to reconsider your policy on charging for Click and Collect – not just for this transaction but for all customers, all of the time.

 

Yours Faithfully,

Mark Wilson”

I could buy another item to take me other the limit. There are even threads on Internet forums advising of the cheapest item to buy! I could even return the extra item immediately after collection (increasing costs to John Lewis as they process a refund). All of this is gaming the system though and it increases friction in the transaction, which translates to inconvenience to me as the customer.

Call to Action

If you, like me, feel John Lewis needs to take another look at its Click and Collect policy, feel free to use the text above as the basis for your communication. Contact details for John Lewis are on their website (or you can email Customer Services directly). The John Lewis Partnership website also has a list of Directors who manage John Lewis’ commercial activity and develop the strategy and business plan for the company.

Short takes: calculating file transfer times; Internet breakout from cloud datacentres; and creating a VPN with a Synology NAS

Another collection of “not-quite-whole-blog-posts”…

File transfer time calculations

There are many bandwidth/file transfer time calculators out there on the ‘net but I found this one particularly easy to work with when trying to assess the likely time to sync some data recently…

Internet breakout from IaaS

Anyone thinking of using an Azure IaaS environment for Internet breakout (actually not such a bad idea if you have no on-site presence, though be ready to pay for egress data) just be aware that because the IP address is in Holland (or Ireland, or wherever) location-aware websites will present themselves accordingly.

One of my customers was recently caught out when Google defaulted to Dutch after they moved their client Internet traffic over to Azure in the West Europe region… just one to remember to flag up in design discussions.

Creating a VPN with a Synology NAS

I’ve been getting increasingly worried about the data I have on a plethora of USB hard disks of varying capacities and wanted to put it in one place, then sync/archive as appropriate to the cloud. To try and overcome this, I bought a NAS (and there are only really two vendors to consider – QNAP or Synology).  The nice thing is that my Synology DS916+ NAS can also operate many of the network services I currently run on my Raspberry Pi and a few I’ve never got around to setting up – like a VPN endpoint for access to my home network.

So, last night, I finally set up a VPN, following Scott Hanselman’s (@shanselman) article on Setting up a VPN and Remote Desktop back into your home. Scott’s article includes client advice for iPhone and Windows 8.1 (which also worked for me on Windows 10) and the whole process only took a few minutes.

The only point where I needed to differ from Scott’s article was the router configuration (the article is based on a Linksys router and I have a PlusNet Hub One, which I believe is a rebadged BT Home Hub). L2TP is not a pre-defined application to allow access, so I needed to create a new application (I called it L2TP) with UDP ports 500, 1701 and 4500 before I could allow access to my NAS on these ports.

Creating an L2TP application in the PlusNet Hub One router firewall

Port forwarding to L2TP in the PlusNet Hub One router firewall

Short takes: deleting bit.ly Bitlinks; backing up and restoring Sticky Notes; accessing cmdlets after installing Azure PowerShell

Another collection of short notes to add to my digital memory…

Deleting bit.ly links

Every now and again, I spot some spam links in my Twitter feed – usually prefixed [delicious]. That suggests to me that there is an issue in Delicious or in Twitterfeed (the increasingly unreliable service I use to read certain RSS feeds and tweet on my behalf) and, despite password resets (passwords are so insecure) it still happens.

A few days ago I spotted some of these spam links still in my bit.ly links (the link shortener behind my mwil.it links, who also own Twitterfeed) and I wanted to permanently remove them.

Unfortunately, according to the “how do I delete a Bitlink” bit.ly knowledge base article – you can’t.

Where does Windows store Sticky Notes?

Last Friday (the 13th) I wrote about saving my work before my PC was rebuilt

One thing I forgot about was the plethora of Sticky Notes on my desktop so, today, I was searching for advice on where to find them (in my backup) so I could restore.

It turns out that Sticky Notes are stored in user profiles, under %appdata%\Microsoft\Sticky Notes, in a file called StickyNotes.snt. Be aware though, that the folder is not created until the Sticky Notes application has been run at least once. Restoring my old notes was as easy as:

  1. Run the Sticky Notes desktop application in Windows.
  2. Close Sticky Notes.
  3. Overwrite the StickyNotes.snt file with a previous copy.
  4. Re-open Sticky Notes.

Azure PowerShell installation requires a restart (or explicit loading of modules)

This week has involved a fair amount of restoring tools/settings to a rebuilt PC (did I mention that mine died in a heap last Friday? If only the hardware and software were supplied by the same vendor – oh they are!). After installing the Azure PowerShell package from the SCCM Software Center, I found that cmdlets returned errors like:

Get-AzureRmResource : The term ‘Get-AzureRmResource’ is not recognized as the name of a cmdlet, function, script file, or operable program. Check the spelling of the name, or if a path was included, verify that the path is correct and try again.

After some RTFMing, I found this:

This can be corrected by restarting the machine or importing the cmdlets from C:\Program Files\WindowsPowerShell\Modules\Azure\XXXX\ as following (where XXXX is the version of PowerShell installed[)]: import-module "C:\Program Files\WindowsPowerShell\Modules\Azure\XXXX\azure.psd1" import-module "C:\Program Files\WindowsPowerShell\Modules\Azure\XXXX\expressroute\expressroute.psd1"

Tools for troubleshooting Outlook autodiscover

In my post last week about Office 365 and proxy servers, I mentioned issues with Outlook autodiscover.  These were not exactly easy to troubleshoot, often with multiple subject matter experts looking from different angles (network, client applications, Exchange, firewalls, etc.). During the process, we used a few tools (as well as examining the traffic hitting the proxy servers) and I thought I’d highlight them here (if only for my own future reference):

Creating an Office 365 profanity filter (works for Exchange too)

As part of recreating the rules that my customer currently has set up with a popular cloud-based message hygiene platform, I needed to create an Office 365 profanity filter for Exchange Online. Believe it or not, there isn’t one built into the product (it disappeared with BPOS) but you can do some interesting things with DLP classification rules and policies.

I’d like to publish the exact steps here but I can’t, for commercial reasons. What I can do though is signpost some useful resources:

Once you’ve created a policy you can apply it in PowerShell with:

New-ClassificationRuleCollection –FileData ([Byte[]]$(Get-Content -path ProfanityPolicy.xml -Encoding byte -ReadCount 0))

If you need to update it then the cmdlet is Set-ClassificationRuleCollection and if you want to take it out again, Remove-ClassificationRuleCollection will do the trick.

With the classification in place, you can create rules that use the policy. In my case, one to block emails containing sensitive content (i.e. a list of pre-defined words) and send an incident report to a defined mailbox.

Even though I was working with Exchange Online (v15), the same process will work for Exchange Server 2013 and, presumably 2016 when it comes…

Finally, one gotcha I found (well, it was a user error really):

  • I thought my rule wasn’t working. When I later logged into the shared mailbox that blocked messages were copied to, I found copies of the messages I’d been sending for quite a while. My confusion was because I’d been testing with Policy Tips (which seemed a bit hit and miss in OWA) and that doesn’t actually block the message (doh!). As soon as I enforced the rule, my rude messages started bouncing back as expected…

NDR from message blocked by Office 365 profanity filter