Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The Internet Of Letterboxes

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    It's currently fashionable here in England to castigate large companies for not voluntarily paying more tax that they are legally obliged to do. Amongst the so-called offenders is Amazon, who have grown a huge order management, warehousing, and distribution network throughout the UK. Probably because we seem to be one of the countries that has wholly embraced the concept of online purchasing.

    I'm a regular Amazon customer for a whole range of goods, and I ignore the pleas of those who demand a boycott on "tax avoidance" grounds. Basically I'm on the side of those who feel that if the Government thinks they aren't collecting enough tax from a huge employer who pays for large expanses of real estate and employs lots of people, when that company is following the rules, then they need to change the rules rather than just complaining.

    And as a regular customer, I finally gave in and signed up for the "Prime" service where deliveries are made by Amazon themselves (or some subcontracted organization). It wasn't that expensive when I joined, though I may baulk at renewing now that it's gone up dramatically in price because you get the "Instant Video" streaming service in with the package (I've had it for four months and only managed to watch the first two minutes of one film to see if it worked).

    But what does amaze me is the efficiency of the delivery service. In the past they used to say that online purchasing would never really catch on because people wouldn't be prepared to wait for goods to be delivered, or they would get lost or damaged in the post, or wouldn't look anything like the picture when they arrived (though you could say the same about most microwaved instant meals).

    I preordered the latest Stephen Booth book some while ago. I love his books because they are set in the Derbyshire Dales and Peaks, right here in our part of the country, and I know all the towns and places his characters visit. In fact they even came to a café in our local town in one book, visited the aquarium in Matlock Bath where we went last year, and drive along the roads that we regularly use. And his books are a good read as well, of course.

    But, straying back onto topic, the amazement that prompted this rambling post was that I got an email yesterday to say that the new book had been dispatched. Then another at 9:25 AM today saying "We're going to deliver your order today. If there's nobody in when we arrive we'll post through your letter box if possible, leave with an available neighbour or in your preferred safe-place, if you've previously provided us with those details." OK, that in itself is not so amazing. But at 2:15 PM I got another email saying "Your order, containing the item(s) listed below, has been posted through your letterbox." I went and looked, and they were right!

    Never mind cloud-connected thermostats, online fridges, and the Internet of Things. I've got someone who emails me to tell me when to look in my letterbox...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Bluetooth Made Me Un-picture My Contacts

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    Can software become more complicated and yet still be easy to use? It seems that, unfortunately in some cases, it can - and does so whether you like it or not. I just spent two hours trying to fix the Bluetooth connection between my wife's phone and her car, and discovered just how unfortunate it can be.

    From a standing start only a few years ago my wife has dived head first into our exciting, online, socially-connected world. It took me ages at first just to persuade her that she needed a mobile phone. Now she's fully immersed into the digital delights of tablets, smartphones, email, Facebook, YouTube, and more. And it all seems to merge into some amorphous mass of transient information delivery with a useful lifespan of twenty minutes or less.

    Except for one aspect: contact information. Maybe it's something to do with the combination of Google, Facebook, Android, and Exchange ActiveSync on her phone, but her contacts list grows magically by the day - and every entry is populated with a photo. And entries get magically linked together, with data from multiple sources, so that figuring out how to edit one becomes a nightmare. Even when you do edit it, the stuff you changed seems to get switched back again the next day.

    Most of the time this isn't a problem. She loves that her phone shows her friends' latest photo when they call her, and that the People list has pictures that get updated automatically. I have to admit that it's all very clever stuff. However, her car doesn't seem to agree. Like many modern vehicles it has a Bluetooth hands-free connection for the phone, allowing you to make and answer calls while your phone is in your pocket. It displays all her contact phone numbers, including lists of the top 10 and a search feature. And it's voice-activated as well, so there's no loss of road/eye contact.

    Or it was until it stopped working last week. Now the car just complains that it can't find any phones, and prompts to "start pairing". Being a logical kind of person, I began my fault diagnosis by pairing my phone (exactly the same brand and model) and it worked fine, though it took ages to connect. After a bit of investigation, it seemed that the connection was held up while it was downloading the contacts list. My phone has photos for some contacts (I cloned the list from my wife's some while back so that I had all our "vital numbers" in my phone), and also includes several entries that are auto-populated from our corporate SharePoint because the ActiveSync is to my Microsoft email account.

    Aha! I wonder if it's the photos that are the problem? So I fire up OWA to delete the photos from the contacts as an experiment. But you can't. There seems to be no way other than deleting the contact and recreating it. Next, try "real" Outlook 2013. Again, no option in the Edit pane to remove a photo from a contact. And then I notice the list of "sources" from which the information for each contact is collated. How clever, and how annoying. It was only after a search of the web that I found you have to choose one of the entries in the "View Source" list, where you can right-click the photo and select "Remove picture".

    After half an hour of this multi-step rigmarole I had a list of photo-less contacts (except for the corporate contacts that it refuses to remove). And, back in the car, the phone connected and populated the contacts list in less than 30 seconds. So obviously that's the problem. The car tries to load the photo-populated contacts list that's multi-megabytes in size, times out part way through, and decides that it can't connect to the phone.

    Of course, there's a pop-up dialog when you pair a phone that asks if you want to allow access to the contacts list on the phone. Instead of saying yes, I tried saying no - thinking it would solve the problem. But then the phone becomes pretty much unusable through the voice-activated or in-car menu interface because there's no numbers, although you can answer incoming calls and dial numbers that you can remember. So it seems that you need to make a choice between pretty smiling faces for your contacts or usability in your car.

    Though, according to a recent survey I saw in the newspaper, only one person in ten actually remembers more than one phone number these days because the phone does all the harvesting and remembering of numbers automatically. Which was followed by another report that one in seven people become "highly stressed" if their phone battery runs down, and "would find life almost impossible" if they lost their phone!

    I admit that I worry about losing all the contacts that my wife and I have collected on our phones over time, but I reckon we're reasonably well protected because ActiveSync keeps the lists in our email accounts up to date, and I consciously export the contacts list to a file on a regular basis in case both of our email providers decide we're persona non-grata at some point. But that's just my usual paranoia.

    Mind you, now I regularly have to suffer wife-generated complaints that our DECT house phones don't show the name of people when they call on the landline. If her mobile phone knows who the caller is, why doesn't the ordinary phone? Yes it has a contact list maintained by the base station that's available in all the handsets, and I did spend an evening entering the most commonly used numbers. But how do I justify to her that modern technology still has some wide disconnects, when a simple mobile phone can do everything by itself?

    Maybe it's time to switch over to IP Telephony in our house. I'm sure I've got an old Cisco router that does IPT in my collection of spare hardware. I wonder if it can do ActiveSync with an email contacts list...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Digitally Impecunious Pop Stars

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    It seems that being a pop star is no longer the route to guaranteed wealth. According to several reports I've been reading, stars such as Lily Allen earn peanuts from writing and releasing songs and albums. Should we be feeling sorry for them...?

    The trouble is, they say, that nobody actually buys music albums any more. The twenty highest selling entertainment products last year were dominated by video games and films, with only a couple of music albums making it into the list - and they were "mix tape" compilations. The best-selling albums now have sales measured in the very low (or less than) millions rather than the thirty-plus millions of past years.

    The reason, they say, is that listeners tend to buy just the songs they like, rather than whole albums. A bit like in my younger days when everyone rushed out to buy the latest singles (we called them "45s" in those distant days). Or now they just listen to them for free, or with a subscription to an online "radio" station or streaming service. And I can kind of verify this because my wife occasionally hears a new song she really likes and buys it for less than a pound online. Our music database in Media Player has dozens of entries for artist/album that contain only a single song.

    Maybe it was because my peak record buying days were in the periods we now call "Classic Rock" and "Prog Rock" that I was conditioned to buying a complete album. Often there was no single release from them, or you had to have the whole album to get the full experience and to "understand the concept and follow the story". I still occasionally find new music I like (there are bands out there creating great new rock and prog music). Inevitably I buy the physical CD, rip it onto our music server, and then pack the original away for safe keeping. I suppose it shows just how old-fashioned I am in both my musical taste and my approach to digital media.

    But getting back to the problem of impecunious pop stars, it seems (according to the articles I read) that the only way they can make money is by live performances, touring, and personal appearances. Simply agreeing to sit in the front row of a fashion show, or opening a supermarket, pays enough to keep you in champagne for a year. But the big money is in touring - I guess why the Rolling Stones, Status Quo, and a myriad other aging rock stars choose not to retire. And, of course, most stars have at least one range of clothes, perfumes, or other high-priced commodity to help scrape together a reasonable living.

    So it seems that, in our artificial digital world where almost nothing is real any more, our pop stars can't survive unless they are actually there in person as a real-time, physical entity. Who'd have thought that would happen...?

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Recertified, Un-moused, and Port-holed

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    You can't believe just how fast a year goes by. It seems like only yesterday I was rebooting all the Hyper-V virtual machines because the server certificate for Hyper-V had expired. And now it's gone and done it again.

    The certificate is renewed automatically, but it disconnects the VMs when it does this. Which causes the mouse pointer to go off and hide, and you can see only a quarter of the screen in the VM connection afterwards. Trying to do all that UI stuff without a mouse is hard enough, but doing it at the same time as looking though a tiny porthole, where you can't see most of the screen, is even harder.

    However, rebooting all the VMs is something I try to avoid. OK, so I usually have to do it each month for patch Tuesday (or twice this month with the out-of-band update for Internet Explorer). A reboot all round is a pain because the virtual domain controller can't re-sync Active Directory until I boot up the cold-swap backup DC (one day I'll figure a way round having physical DCs). And the server that interfaces with my weather station and the solar panel inverter gets confused and has to reload all its readings.

    So, this year, I decided there must be a better (and quicker) way to regain control of my VMs. And there is. As described in http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2413735, you just save the VM and then restart it. I'm sure I've tried this before without success, but it worked this year. Perhaps one of the patch Tuesday updates to Hyper-V changed something inside.

    But maybe I should be upgrading to Server 2012 instead. I still have 2008 R2 on most VMs, and even one running Server 2003 (it was two until I got rid of ISA Server). According to a blog post I read this week I have only 450 days of support before Server 2003 reaches end-of-life. Maybe when I get a free week I can look forward to a holiday in the server cabinet.

    Or retire from work and give up computing instead...

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