It’s that time of the (new) year

When 2020 rolled in, the inevitable questions about resolutions began to circulate. I pretty much gave up making those a few years ago, replaced more recently by more achievable wish-lists, but over the last couple of days one of those questions in particular is still bouncing around in my head:

What would make 2020 a good year?

There are so many things going wrong in the world right now that are distressing, and in many cases frankly dumbfounding. These seem to be mostly driven by the kinds of people who are motivated by greed and self-interest, the kinds of people I want to have absolutely nothing to do with. So how do I escape, where do I go, what will I do, and will my loved ones want to come and do that whatever that is with me?

Quite a big challenge to fit into a new year’s resolution. Let’s break it down some…

First, what to do? Buying and selling? Making? Creating?

The first two of these require cash upfront and a solid plan and an identified customer base. Making has the additional demands of actually being skilled enough to create physical things for which there is a demand, or a demand can be established. And both require significant effort in marketing, sales (neither of which are really my forte) and all the other trappings of those more traditional business models.

I don’t currently have a grasp of anything that I could buy and resell for profit, so that’s a non-starter for the time being. I did try that with robot kits and accessories about 20 years or so ago and learned a lot from that experience, but I don’t intend to go back to that anytime soon. I’d very much like to be a maker/seller, but that’s not where I am right now and there are so many very talented people out there making beautiful, unexpected things every day.

So can I be a creator? That feels like a better fit with what I know and do, so it seems like it could be a natural progression. Let’s think about it some more.

Problem 1: Money

I’m going to need this in quantities that I just don’t currently have, and it seems that the clock is running down faster than ever.

I have a job with an organisation that I am genuinely proud to be a part of, and the work itself is usually satisfying eventually, but it isn’t ever going to make me enough cash to make any significant changes. And with the self-inflicted disaster that is Brexit now only a short time away, the plans I did have will die along with our EU membership.

Solution: Become independently wealthy

There are a couple of ways I can think of to attempt this, both of which need lots of time and energy, and while I’ve already made a start on those ideas, they’ve been slow going.

The first is game development – and while my efforts thus far are not going to have any tangible effects on the solution, the knowledge I have gained, and continue to acculumate, is undoubtedly going to be useful. But, do I want to be a game developer in the traditional sense? Not really, no. It’s something I want to do but as and when I want to, not because I have a deadline or some other employer to keep happy. If I could invent the next Flappy Bird or something then things would definitely be on the right track in this area. Meanwhile I’ll keep experimenting and learning.

Next is writing, and again I’ve got a couple of irons heating in that particular fire too. At this stage it’s more about the practice and figuring out my own style and I’ve already learned a lot from what I’ve done so far, not least that I don’t think that I think like a writer. I imagine things out of order, almost like scenes from films, capture them and weave the ones that work into the story, keeping the others nearby in case they fit some other use case. Maybe I’ve just been a software developer for too long and need to find more traditional storytelling structure in order to move this along.

But I’m having some fun with this too – writing up the exploits of lunchtime D&D sessions at work, for example.

Problem 2: Location

Should I stay or should I go? (I’m not going anywhere if my loved ones don’t feel comfortable with the move, by the way)

I think it’s fair to say that I’m fed up with the UK’s politics and agenda. I love the country’s geography and variety, but I think we’re an embarrassment on the world stage these days, and I really want not to be associated with that any more. But where to go?

My language skills are a bit poor, but I think I’d pick that up as a result of just being in another country. I’m concerned that even getting a foot in the door, especially within Europe given recent stupidity on our part, will be particularly challenging. Adding my advancing years and lack of a degree into the mix is also going to complicate matters. For any kids reading: work hard at school, learn everything you can, even if it seems like you’ll never make use of the things you’re being taught. You’ll be giving your future self many more options if you do.

Solution(s): A fast-track route to a degree through an online university/course? Language apps? A stronger portfolio of work done/published?

None of these are impossible – it’s (I think) a lack of time that’s problematic. I’ve already made public some of the game dev work I’ve been doing, and have set up a site through which to share the writing projects too.

As for exactly where to relocate to, that’s for a much longer conversation yet to be had.

Problem 3: Time

This is the killer. As the years pile on, time – in terms of available, quality concentration time – is ever more scarce. However, now that the shortest day of the year is behind us and the days begin to get longer again, I’m hopeful that the brighter evenings will help to stay alert for a little longer and allow me to stretch my day out more than is possible through the winter months.

Solution(s): Work from home more? Work less than five days per week?

The former of these is potentially easier to implement but it has to be compatible with demands of work, and those change from time to time so it must be flexible, perhaps making routines a little more difficult to establish.

The latter would be ideal from the perspective of having reliably structured time available, but there are ramifications in all directions: income, obviously, would be decreased, which then has an effect on pension contributions – something that is already in need of some boosting from somewhere. Everything that is pro rated through work would be proportionally reduced, and those effects need to be considered and calculated.

There may be one other possibility: a sabbatical. As a one-off thing when one or more projects are close to completion, this may be viable to provide necessary focus and opportunity to wrap it/them up. However, this would be unpaid, so again many calculations are needed before pursuing this line of inquiry.

Ultimately, while I’m still working for an employer, any and all of these will depend on their approval.

Finally, and most importantly of all, everything here needs to be compatible with my family and their expectations. Many conversations have already been had, and I’m immensely grateful that I have their full support.

So, 2020, are you going to be the year that some or all of the above starts to resolve itself, in a new year’s resolution kind of way?

 

Doors in unusual places

image

Ok, that’s an interesting place to put a fire exit. But it gets more intriguing as we zoom out…

image

So what’s down there? As usual an innocuous thing has caught my attention and now I’m curious. Thanks Granary Square developers!

Oh my God, we've killed the high street!

The great Internet shopping migration

The high street is looking very different these days. The stores I’ve grown up with, or got used to seeing on practically every high street or in any given shopping centre are disappearing at an alarming rate, apparently all victims of an evolution of a society of bargain-hunting Internet shoppers. Myself included.

Of course you could argue that these businesses should have seen the problem coming and responded much sooner than they did, it’s not as though Amazon, Ebay and the like are particularly new in the retail landscape. But maybe these brands hoped to protect their staff by holding out, waiting to see if the tide would turn, but once they’re on the downward slope I guess it’s just too difficult to find the finances to react quickly enough when they start to slide.

So with the continuing shift towards streaming on-demand music and movies, download-only (and crowd-funded) games, e-books, mail order or online auction houses and more recently still, 3D printing technology, where does that leave the remaining iconic high street brands?

And some of those that are left don’t seem to be doing so well when it comes to upping their game in order to compete with the online giants. I recently experienced WH Smith’s attempt at an online ordering service but everything downstream of the actual ordering process (which was average to begin with) just got worse. Store staff didn’t know how to interact with the online section of their business, they couldn’t tell me when my order was going to arrive, they couldn’t supply from store stock and replenish from the online delivery (unless I paid for the items again – which I had to do in the end), and they couldn’t cancel the online order. And neither could I it turned out – at least not without emailing the online support people and explaining the whole saga to them at least twice. However, once they had received and understood my predicament they did sort it out quickly, but by then my confidence in them was (and is) about as low as it could be. So I probably won’t try that again, which is a real shame because they might just iron out these wrinkles and develop a robust online-to-store solution, but I’ll never know until someone tells me they had a much better experience.

The Post Office could also learn a thing or two from Amazon. I recently discovered the joy (and that’s not really much of an exaggeration) of the automated drop-off point that Amazon installed in a local shopping centre. This thing is fantastic. I can order from Amazon, and they’ll pop my item(s) into a locker that is accessible by a unique collection code that they email me when the item has been deposited. I can then drop by and pick it up whenever it suits me, as long as the centre is open – which is generally between 08:00 and 21:00 weekdays, and all weekend. How much better is that than queuing in the rain on a Saturday morning before 12:00, maybe almost a full week after the item you wanted was substituted with a “while you were out” card?!

Anyway, this all makes the skeptical half of my mind wonder, what will the landscape look like in the future? Cinemas seem to be holding out so far. But even there, the ongoing reduction in prices of large-format TVs offering outstanding high definition (and lately 3D) picture and sound quality, and with huge data storage capacity and interactive services built-in, surely it won’t be long before the likes of Odeon, Vue etc. are feeling the pinch too?

But what will the new generation of smart shoppers and consumers of all things digital and non-tangible, do when we find for reasons natural or artificial that the infrastructures we’ve come to depend on are suddenly and irrevocably removed? Will it be like the scene in Surrogates when people begin shuffling into the street again after their preferred virtual existence is shattered by a total meltdown of the technology, and for the first time in a long time, look at what’s really out there for them. And will they subsequently be disappointed that they’ve let everything disappear from under them?

Where might it all end? Presumably there will always be a subset of society that does not have or want access to the Internet, mobile devices or whatever ubiquitous technology that the rest of us find ourselves enjoying / using / expecting without question. The separation of “haves” and “have-nots” whether by choice or circumstance will become ever greater.

In the meantime, the next version of (insert thing here) will be waiting just around the corner for us, ready to blow our minds. Again.

 

Designed (not) to last?

While standing on a packed commuter train a few days ago, it struck me just how many mobile devices there are around the place. Pretty much everyone has one. Some folks have two or more. But what really surprised me was how many of them had cracked screens or otherwise looked to be in a very poor state.

smashed iPhone

It was while contemplating the tattered state of so many people’s personal tech that I found myself wondering: might these devices be designed to break quickly and often?

I mean, there aren’t many moving parts are there? Actually none in most cases, and as far as I know, nothing that could be life-threatening to your beloved gadget.

So then modern technology that’s built using better-than-average components in a VLSI (very large scale integration) package might be expected to last for years – or at least as long as the weakest component’s MTBF (mean time between failure).

Clearly any tech giant producing must-have devices and shipping them out to millions upon millions of consumers would have a tough time if they were using unreliable parts simply because of the number of returns and repairs they’d have to deal with. But accidentally damaged devices are a different barrel of monkeys altogether, right? They have value – either because insurance companies (or uninsured individuals) cough up cash to have them fixed or, and this is the thing that set off my conspiracy circuits, pay for, or wait it out until it’s free, an upgrade to the next must-have device.

Thus designing stuff with edge-to-edge glass that looks sleek and lovely and shiny on the shop shelves helps to get them into people’s pockets. From where, at some point, they get pulled out and in a moment of cold horror, tumble unstoppably groundward to meet their fate.

So designing stuff with a built-in lifespan would be unethical, un-ecological and unsustainable (although it seems to be increasingly acceptable that we should expect to replace or upgrade pretty much everything every 12 to 36 months these days – from toasters to Toyotas), not doing this would presumably reduce the depth of the pool into which the tech makers cast their lines hoping to snag significant hauls of ever-eager consumer-fish. Blimey, I didn’t see that metaphor coming at all!

Anyway, if they can’t (or claim not to) engineer lifespans into their products, then how do they keep that pool deep, and full? Easy – make stuff we can break without really trying too hard. And with the mobile electronic device explosion proceeding at an unabated pace driven by insatiable consumer demand (or at least the belief that the next thing is so much sleeker, better, faster, stronger that you can’t live without it) it ain’t gonna slow up any time soon.

I have an iPhone 3GS. It must be at least 4 years old now. It’s been in a protective case and had a screen protector on it ever since I took it out of the box. It looks tatty on the outside but remove those protective layers and underneath it’s in a very good condition. In fact apart from friction marks where the case has hugged it tightly, it’s in pretty much mint condition.

That’s why, when the battery finally made it unusable (remember – MTBF), rather than upgrade I decided it was worth attempting that “not user serviceable” repair. Needless to say it took a bit of wrestling to persuade it to reveal its inner glory but eventually the big clumsy human won. Out came the old battery and in went the new (for just over £3 – delivered from China, not the £40 I was quoted by a shop in East Finchley). Since then it’s been like new again. Well nearly – remember I said clumsy? I managed to break one of the tiny ZIF clips that connect the screen ribbon cable to the mainboard, and my blu-tack replacement isn’t really up to the task so the earphone doesn’t work any more. But the rest of it does, and anyway who uses a phone to make calls these days? Well, I can but need to use the loudspeaker or headphones – so not a total disaster.

I’ve had a MacBook Pro for a couple of years now. It was second-hand when I got it – and it was about 11 months old then. I’ve since opened that up and doubled the RAM and have recently been considering a second or bigger hard drive, but after that, there’s not much more I can do to it. Even so, I don’t really want to have to upgrade for some time yet, even though the new lineup sound soooo much better than mine.

So what’s the point of all this then? Well, it seems that we’re taking less and less care of stuff that is expensive and valuable. We’re happy to replace things (especially our personal gadgetry) at shorter and shorter intervals, and we expect new shiny things to fill our pockets or bags whenever we want them.

Why not slow down a little? Upgrade to every other product release instead of every single one. Is the iPhone 5 really so much better than the 4s? The iPad 3 over the iPad 2? Sure – retina blah screen size blah 4G etc etc. Really? That much better and life-changing?

When did you last upgrade something? And how long had you had it before that? Did you even give a second thought to what might happen to the old one? Did you care? Do you now?

Sure I degraded my phone’s feature set a bit when I put in a new battery, but it should last a while longer yet, and I can probably pass it on when I do eventually give in and buy something new. And then I’d like to keep that and look after it for as long as possible.

Rant over.

 

 

RaspberryPi where art thou?

Is this possibly the most thinly veiled delivery of bad news I’ve ever seen?

I’m glad you asked because yes it absolutely is… (emphasis mine)

Dear JUSTIN,

Breakthroughs. Exhilarating, but rarely without hiccups.

A few days ago [12 days ago actually Farnell!], the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced a small manufacturing delay. A component in the Pi is being reinstalled. In the grand scheme it’s small potatoes – but we know it’s frustrating for Farnell element14 fans and customers.

Congratulations – Farnell element14 will deliver your Pi to you around early May.

We’re a proud partner of the Pi, and the sense of adventure it’s bringing to the tech community. We’ve all come to feel part of the Foundation’s big project to bring computing to all. Online, the response has been superb.

Thanks for your patience and understanding so far. Enjoy your Pi.

Farnell element14

A quick summary of the past 3 weeks

Went to Cornwall. Visited the Boconnoc Steam Fair (already posted a couple of pics from there). Played inflatable laser quest. Rode a not-so-merry-go-round. Played in a fun house. Bought wetsuits. Bought bodyboards. Went in the sea. Realised I’m not as light as I used to be. Had beach BBQs. Had a birthday. Visited the monkey sanctuary. Built and painted Warhammer figures. Watched DVDs. Ate too much. Drank too much. Had a great time with friends. Beach bonfire. New telly. Relocated old telly. Visited Liskeard and Cawsand. Nearly visited Looe for the second time.

Went back to work. Got stuck in to project that had been keeping me busy before I went away. Glad to say it’s still legible to me (in that I hadn’t completely forgotten it). Made my first unsupervised scala modification. Tested, built and deployed. Didn’t break it.

And so in to the weekend. Helped build a few geodesic dome panels. Hoping to be free to put the rest of it together. Enjoyed lunch and dinner. Looked for badgers. None showed up. Watched more DVDs. More experimenting with scala.

Back to work today (Monday 15th). Wasn’t it a fantastic morning? Second unsupervised scala mod checked in and deployed. Still not broken. Yay. Hoping my luck holds up.

Phew.

Will add pics when I’ve prepared them so watch this space. If you’re at all interested.

 

 

Monday's creative minute

You know how sometimes you see something that you’ve seen a hundred times before only this time it somehow catches your eye differently?

I took this photo this morning as it made me think of pre-historic forests in mist. No idea why that may be but I figured I’d capture it. I haven’t seen it up-close yet as I’ve only used my phone so far so I can’t promise much in the way of quality photography!

Anyway, see if you like it…

 

 

– I demonstrate my individuality by not using a sig. Oh, wait…

Cat

Hidey cat

Hidey cat

Not so much

Not so much

I shouldn't be doing this!

I just found a photo of me from school when I was somewhere between 15 & 16 years old:

 

 

 

 

and comparing that to a photo of me that is much more recent:

 

 

 

 

has made me realise that I really need to turn off the computer and catch up on some much-needed beauty sleep!

 

 

 

Old dogs and new tricks

It’s been an intense couple of weeks thus far, new names, faces, operating systems, technologies and languages to investigate. Yet strangely I’m not feeling anywhere close a grey matter meltdown situation yet. Quite the opposite really, the stream of new inputs is pretty constant and it’s great to be learning again.

For the first time in a long time, I’m enjoying going to work.