Updates needed

raw data snapshot

raw data snapshot (Photo credit: MelvinSchlubman)

Do you think CT scanners in hospitals pop up messages in the middle of a brain scan telling the operator that there is a software update available? When was the last time your car stopped and flashed up a message saying software update needed? What about your TV? Or your satellite receiver? Probably never.

What about your computer? It seems like I get a message several times a week telling me that something needs an update. If it’s not the operating system, it’s the office software or the virus checking software or maybe a plug-in for my browser. It drives me nuts!

I have a laptop at home and a machine at work. Between them, I probably update some piece of software every day. On one day last week, my laptop needed an update as did the office software running on it and the flash player in the browser oh, and Adobe Acrobat Reader. Not only that, but my iPhone joined in the party and decided that what I really needed was an inferior maps application, so along came iOS6.

It’s a mess. All the time you spend updating all these software components compromises your productivity. Not only that, but all this change is risky. Software vendors seem to have improved at testing their updates, but even so, you always feel like you are taking a gamble when applying all these updates. At the end of the process – will you end up with a working machine or a nice looking brick.

And why does the software update process have to be so damned invasive? OK – so Acrobat may need an update – but do you think that I really want to know about it when I’ve just opened a document? Some update mechanisms allow you to specify options such as how often to check for updates and how to apply them – which is an improvement, but why do I have to do it separately for every application on the system.

I like the update system for apps on the iPhone and iPad. No painful pop up messages when you are trying to do something, just a little number hovering over the corner of the app store. If you are curious, you can go and see what the updates are and what they do. You can choose when to apply them – like when you plug your phone in for the night to charge. All in all, a very elegant system.

When can we have it in OSX and Windows? A single central source of software updates for the entire machine. No piece of software would be allowed to apply software updates any other way. Simple, elegant and non-invasive. Perfect.

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The freedom of wifi

English: This is a 1987 Madge Networks Token R...

English: This is a 1987 Madge Networks Token Ring 4/16Mbps switchable Network Interface card. It can be slotted in any ISA compatible bus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Look behind pretty much any office computer these days and the chances are that it is connected to the network by an ethernet cable. I can remember when the connectors on the end of ethernet cables were round and when there were other competing network types.

The way ethernet protocol works is rather like a drunken barroom conversation. Your computer waits for a gap and then shouts whatever it wants to send. If someone shouts at the same time, your machine will stop shouting and wait again for a gap. All in all, it’s a terribly impolite conversation.

IBM used to have a network protocol called token ring. That was much more polite. There was a token that whizzed around the network. If a computer on the network wants to say something, they have to wait for the token to come round, grab it and then say what they want to say. Every computer waited it’s turn and there was no shouting. The downfall of the token ring network was speed. Being polite is not as efficient as shouting. Token Ring was harder to set up as unlike ethernet, a token ring network had to be “started up” to get a token into the network.

Wi-Fi Signal logo

Wi-Fi Signal logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that we have 3G cellular networks and wi-fi, there is no need for a wire at all, which is just as well. It would be incredibly dull if you had to plug a cable into your mobile every time you wanted to do a google search or look at where you are on a map.

Most hotels will charge you for wi-fi access and it seems like the posher the hotel, the higher the cost. I don’t know how a hotel receptionist can keep a straight face when they explain to you that not only does your $250 room rate not include wi-fi, but the charge is $25 per day for access. I have no objection to anyone making a living, but I do object to profiteering.

Of course some places offer free wi-fi, but it is rarely free in both senses of the word; cost and freedom. More and more, free wi-fi will require you to register. Often, they will need you to click on a link in an email to confirm your email address. Sometimes, they will even send you a completely random user ID and password – something you don’t have a hope of remembering. If you are on a mobile, it means you are going to need to hunt around for a pen and paper to make a note of it.

Not only that – but many of them will kick you out after a predetermined time, which means that pretty much every time you go to use the Internet – you have to go through the whole palaver of logging back in again. If you are going to offer free wi-fi – please make it completely free.

The rise and fall of the apple empire

Roman Forum and surroundings

Roman Forum and surroundings (Photo credit: KayYen)

History is littered with stories of civilisations that have grown in stature until they are too big to sustain. Once the edges are so far from the heart, people forget what it was all about and the empire implodes more dramatically than it grew. We studied two of them in history at school; the Greeks and the Romans.

Today, in a way, it’s difficult to imagine Greece having that much power which is ironic because they probably have more influence on the fate of Europe than any other country right now. The same goes for the Romans. As I was growing up, I was fed on a diet of World War 2 films and commando comics. In these, Italians were the guys with rubbish equipment who spent half their time retreating and the other half surrendering.

We British have had our imperial moments, but we are very much in decline as far as empires go. One by one, the countries that were once coloured pink on my ancient, dented globe have decided that they want to be independent of British rule.

The same thing is happening more and more to big companies now. If you travelled back in time a few years, Nokia and RIM were unstoppable in the mobile phone market. Today, they seem to be in terminal decline. When I was growing up, the word Kodak was synonymous with cameras. It looks like they will wink out of existence once they milk the last bit of value out of their patent portfolio.

There are some eternal survivors out there. IBM have been in trouble before but bounced back. Microsoft had a near death experience when they dismissed the Internet as a fad before waking up and smelling the coffee. Apple have been on the ropes before in the years between Steve Jobs leaving and rejoining, but today they are going from strength to strength.

But Steve Jobs is no more.

I have just upgraded to iOS 6, and although, in general, I am a fan of all things Apple – I am not happy. As part of iOS 6, the once fantastic maps app powered by Google has been replaced by an app produced by Apple. It is inferior in just about every way you can imagine. Yes it has 3D views of the major cities in the world, which is a neat trick where it works, but it feels like a gimmick you play with for half an hour and forget about.

Steve Jobs would never have let it out the door. I can’t help but feel that this is the turning point in the fate of Apple. Of course they have huge resources upon which to draw as did the Romans.

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If you throw away half your stuff, you’ll end up with twice as much left as you think

Cluttered shed

Cluttered shed (Photo credit: UnnarYmir)

Both myself and my wife are inveterate hoarders. Neither of us can throw away anything. This is not a good combination, because what happens is that you fill up your house and then you start to look for elaborate storage solutions to deal with all the clutter. You think you’re being organised, but all you’re doing is turning your house into a Tardis. Somehow, you squeeze in twice as much stuff into your house as really ought to fit.

Of course this persists until some kind of traumatic event. For many people, it’s a house move. Moving house is one of the most unpleasant experiences I think I’ve ever had, but if there is a good side, it’s that it forces you to reassess your belongings because one way or another, they either have to make the transition to your new abode, or they need to be discarded. I’ve had my fair share of house moves when we were growing up, and when we moved into our current home, I vowed that we would never move again.

So for us, the traumatic event this time was not a house move, but a flood. If the entire ground floor of your house floods, somehow, you need to get rid of everything damaged by the flood – including the carpets. Discarding the carpets invariably means disturbing everything that lies on top of them. It’s like a house move without the transition but with all the trauma.

Cluttered shed

Cluttered shed (Photo credit: UnnarYmir)

We have been busy. My Volvo holds a hell of a lot of stuff, and we have filled it again and again. Car boot sales, the local recycling centre, the charity shop and the storage place. You name it – we’ve tried it. And yet, by observation, you would never guess. The house still looks cluttered. I’m starting to wonder if every time we leave the house with a car full of stuff whether burglars are breaking in and leaving more.

This morning, I looked at my bookshelves in my games room and made a quick calculation – I’ll need 4 large archive boxes to store all that stuff. No – hold on a minute, better make it 6 to be safe, or should it be 8? Sod it – I’ll get 10 large archive boxes. After a whole day of back-breaking labour, I came to the crushing conclusion that I was going to need another 10.

Maisie was helping. She took to throwing stuff into the boxes with gusto. Thankfully, there wasn’t too much damage. If you are going to ask for help with such a gargantuan task – my recommendation is not to ask a 3-year-old. They will enjoy the experience, but you probably won’t.

That’s it – I’m not buying any more stuff ever. But I did get an email today with a link to something tempting…

Too much baggage

English: This image is licensed to use under t...

English: This image is licensed to use under the terms outlined below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had only just started secondary school when my headmaster once overheard me calling our needlework teacher, Mrs Morrison, a nazi. She was ridiculously strict and if you were no good at needlework (I was terrible), every lesson came with a guarantee of a good tongue-lashing.

The headmaster was furious and took me up to his office. He asked me if I knew exactly what a nazi was. The sum total of my knowledge of nazis at the time was that they were the bad guys in my commando comics. At the end of the conversation, I knew exactly what nazis were and I also knew that Mrs Morrison had been a resistance fighter in France during the war. I have never been so ashamed.

The luggage police at the front of the queue on budget airlines remind me of Mrs Morrison sometimes. They have their luggage gauge and they are not afraid to use it. Anyone whose bag doesn’t fit or is too heavy is going in the hold for some extortionate fee or is it the luggage – I can never remember. On normal carriers, they seem more relaxed about hand luggage. Some of the cases I’ve seen people take on to a plane are absolutely enormous.

There are lots of good reasons for travelling with hand baggage only. It can save you money on a low-cost airline. You know the airline can’t lose your bag if it’s safely stowed above your head. It saves time at the other end, but the main reason is that collecting luggage is the most mind-numbingly tedious activity known to man.

You hike the mile from the gate into the terminal, then queue up for ages at immigration before arriving in the baggage hall. You walk over to the screens to find out which carousel is yours only to find that your luggage still hasn’t appeared. As you wait for the luggage from your flight to start spewing forth onto the carousel, a rugby scrum of people will build up. No matter how close you stand to the carousel – someone will stand in front of you blocking your view.

If I built an airport, I would offer a service to text the passengers as their luggage appeared. I would also provide a relaxing environment in which to wait. I might even offer food and drink. Entertainment would be laid on for people as they patiently waited to receive their text message. I would also offer a service whereby you could leave a forwarding address and I would courier your luggage to you so you didn’t have to wait.

Everyone would want to fly from my airport. Even Mrs Morrison would be happy.

I thought slavery had been abolished

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling ...

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling it child slavery) in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to popular belief, the British did not invent slavery. We certainly brought it back into fashion in the 1600s but slavery has existed in many different forms since before written records began. To be fair to us, we did our bit to bring it to an end too. Only slavery wasn’t eradicated at all and unfortunately anything up to 27 million people still exist in some sort of slavery today.

No reasonable person would agree that slavery is a good thing and yet still it exists and is widespread. No-one is openly condoning the practise, but there are shades of grey. Many people (like me) who condemn slavery will quite happily go into a shop and buy a smart phone or a tablet.

Allegations often crop up about the appalling working conditions in the factories that make such devices and yet Apple have sold 2 million of the new iPhone already. It’s not quite slavery by the purest definition of the word, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite right.

We turn a blind eye because it happens such a long way away. There are many labour laws that prevent it but if it happened in Western countries, we would be up in arms. If we were subjected to the same conditions in our workplaces, then industrial relations would be at an all time low.

I don’t think that technology companies are the only ones at fault. I would imagine that working conditions are poor in factories producing almost everything that’s on sale in our shops today. For the most part automotive manufacturers have a pretty good record, but what about all the components that go into making a car?

Sometimes poor pay and conditions are justified by saying that conditions are poor everywhere else in that particular geography. Effectively, that is what the people who come from that region are used to, so it must be OK. I imagine the British Captains that picked up some African tradesmen and swapped them for tobacco and coffee thought something similar.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the Western governments need to come up with a scheme whereby any goods on sale would need to display a rating which would indicate the conditions in which those goods were made. Many of the countries that contain such manufacturing centres are highly corrupt so the assessments would need to be impartially carried out. Such a scheme would cost a lot of money to implement and would almost certainly increase the cost of the goods themselves as working conditions in the factories are inevitably improved.

Somehow with the Euro crisis high on the agenda and the rising economic might of China, I suppose they have bigger fish to fry, but I hope we look back on the abolition of such working practises in the same way as we look on the abolition of the slave trade in the 1700s.

The time has come to say goodnight…

Danger Mouse (TV series)

Danger Mouse (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Entertainment on an aeroplane has come a long way since the first time I flew, but even so, it’s amazing how many times I find myself flicking through umpteen channels struggling to find something to watch. I try the documentaries first, but they are usually ones I’ve seen before. I then try the movies, but often find nothing I fancy. My secret is that I then turn to the children’s programs.

I was pleasantly surprised to find an episode of “In the Night Garden” on one particular flight. The guy sat next door to me looked at my strangely, so I leaned over and told him “This is the one where Iggle Piggle gets in Upsy Daisy’s bed”. Strangely enough, he didn’t speak to me for the rest of the flight.

When we were growing up, there was a fraction of the children’s TV programs that there are today. There were only a few channels and the schedulers of the day squeezed the entertainment for the young between the chat shows of the afternoon and the news at six. It was formulaic at best, typically starting with something for younger children, followed by a cartoon, then maybe some drama and rounded off by John Craven’s Newsround – a kind of round-up of the news for youngsters.

If you want to make yourself feel really old, change the office wi-fi password to the name of your favourite children’s program from your youth and then despair at how many people are too young to remember it. I couldn’t believe hoe many people in our office hadn’t heard of Grange Hill, a kind of school based soap opera – required viewing for any school child in my younger years.

Despite the limited viewing, there were some classics. Dangermouse was my favourite cartoon – and I loved his faithful sidekick Penfold who was forever coming out with “Crikey!”, “Crumbs!” or something similar. Jackanory was an unlikely formula. A star-studded cast read out children’s stories. If you haven’t heard a scary story narrated by Tom Baker – you haven’t lived.

These days, there are umpteen channels dedicated to children’s TV day and night. Nickelodeon, Nick Junior, Cbeebies, the Disney Channel are just a few of the stations on offer. In case you missed something, most of them have a +1 channel too. Not only that, but children can catch up on iPlayer. And if that weren’t enough, most programs are also available on YouTube. It’s a wonder that kids get any homework done these days.

If I get the opportunity, I like to watch the bedtime hour on Cbeebies with Maisie. It’s worth watching if only for the song that finishes it off;

The time has come to say goodnight,
To say sleep tight, ’til the morning light.
The time has come to say goodnight
at the end of  a lovely day.

We’ve had so much fun today.
Tomorrow’s just a dream away.
The time has come to say goodnight
at the end of a lovely day.

What will archeologists make of the here and now?

trowel

trowel (Photo credit: turtlemoon)

It has been a while since I visited the dump – sorry, municipal waste processing plant. The last time I was there, all the metal containers were for household waste. You parked up, selected the container closest to the car, and lugged everything you wanted to dispose of up the metal stairs and over the side. Today, things have changed. The first clue is the name. It has changed to the household waste recycling centre. The second clue is the sign outside which explains what goes where.

No longer is every container for household waste. There is but one such container and it has a guardian. Many climbed the steps to the household waste container, but few were deemed worthy by the guardian. They were dismissed with such mystical words as “no mate – electrical” or “sorry mate – that’s timber”.

Sometimes I thought he was being cruel by waiting until the poor soul had struggled up the steps with something particularly heavy or awkward before making his assessment. But no – he took his job very seriously and sometimes he needed a closer look before deciding whether to consider the item worthy of entry into his household waste container.

It was a bit bewildering at first, but the operatives were incredibly patient and when asked (for what must have been the hundredth time that day) where something went, they politely pointed in the right direction. I’m all in favour of anything that makes our meagre resources go further and the less stuff that ends up as landfill, the better.

If we get really good at this though, the future archeologists of the world are going to struggle. I once took a part-time archeology course and they live or die based on what they manage to dig out of the ground. If we become so efficient that we recycle absolutely everything, there will be nothing to dig up. I guess graffiti, the modern equivalent to cave painting might give them a few clues, but otherwise, they will be stumped.

It doesn’t help that so much of what we live and breathe is now digital either. Formats change so often that given enough time, any form of media will prove impossible to read. Books and paper degrade too, so it’s highly unlikely that an archeologist will be digging up a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in a thousand years, although what they would make of a society who read such literature is hard to say.

The volume of data we produce and the rate at which it grows is unbelievable. We currently measure that data in exabytes, but how long until that becomes zettabytes or yottabytes is anyone’s guess. The ironic thing is that if we recycle everything and all media is left unreadable, a future archeologist might conclude that we were no more advanced that our stone age ancestors.

The inconvenient science of science fiction

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside,...

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside, Iowa, reading “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk March 22, 2228”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

150 years ago, Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon. 5 years later, he wrote about a powered submarine. Arthur C Clark wrote about GPS long before it ever became a reality. Captain Kirk used communicators to get Scotty to beam him up. Spot the odd one out.

Well, we’ve been to the moon and we have countless submarines creeping around the world packed with missiles waiting to unleash Armageddon. Most people have GPS in their smartphones which they also use as portable wireless communication devices. All of these things that were dreamed up in the realm of science fiction have since become true. Unfortunately, transporter beams have yet to be invented. We’re not even close.

In some Star Trek episodes, they talk about how transporters work. They transfer the subject’s substance or matter into energy, send it to another place and then turn the energy back into matter arranged according to the pattern. When something goes wrong, they “pull back” the subject to their starting point, only sometimes, they don’t make it. It all sounds terrifying and I certainly wouldn’t be keen on trying out early prototypes.

But how likely are they to happen?  I once asked a hulking great Jamaican barman on a cruise ship whether the crew ate the same food as the passengers. With a deep-throated roar of laughter, he told me “same meat, same fish, same vegetables – different chef, different recipe”. In other words, just transferring matter is not enough, the pattern in which that matter is arranged is crucial.

We have a pattern for the human body. Twelve years ago the first draft of the human genome was published. Our DNA is incredibly complicated with 25,000 genes and 3 billion chemical base pairs arranged in a double helix. In a recent update, scientists announced that what they previously thought was junk DNA is actually crucial to the make up of the human body.

A tiny unwanted accidental change in the pattern could be enough to render the subject blind, deaf or worse. It would seem to be a pre-requisite that this work is completely finished before transporter technology could be feasible for transmitting humans. But what about simpler matter? Using something I don’t claim to understand called quantum entanglement, scientists in Copenhagen have transported  matter 18 inches. Physicists in the Canary Islands have used the same trick to transmit small payloads over 89 miles.

Scientists admit that the same trick won’t work for humans, so something fundamentally different will need to be discovered to make transporters viable. Looks like we will be stuck with planes, trains and automobiles for a while yet.

The romance of travel

"A fanciful view of future airship trave&...

“A fanciful view of future airship trave” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I watch an old Indiana Jones film where they sneak their way onto an airship, I always feel a pang of jealousy that they are using a mode of transport that I probably never will. Modern aircraft feel so claustrophobic with their closely packed seats and tiny windows. The only way to stretch your legs is by dodging the trolley dollies and the toilet-goers in the extremely narrow aisles.

Airship gondolas are always depicted in films as luxurious, spacious affairs with uniformed attendants serving dinner at large tables. Because the gondola hangs below the airship, the passengers have an unimpeded view through the large picture windows. Progress is sedate and dependent on the wind direction, but I can’t imagine a more pleasant way to travel.

I really wouldn’t mind if it took me days to get somewhere. Fit wireless internet and you could even work up there, although if the films are anything to go by, you might get interrupted by the odd murder or gun-toting Nazis looking to take over the world.

I’m not sure I’d feel quite so nostalgic for travelling by ship. If I was travelling on business, according to company policy I’d be in steerage. According to Wikipedia, steerage means limited toilet use, no privacy and poor food. Sounds a bit like economy class on most airlines. The only trouble is that ships are slow. Living in cramped conditions with poor sanitation and loads of other people for extended periods of time leads to disease.

Steam trains hold a special place in my heart too. If I could get aftershave that was eau de steam train, I would buy bottles of the stuff. I simply can’t imagine a nicer smell. There is nothing like the drama of a big steam train pulling into a train station amid clouds of sweet-smelling steam and then pulling out again to a gradually increasing clamour of puffing.

I remember when trains had compartments and really comfortable seats. You also had a reasonable chance of sitting on them too. Trains seemed to be much less busy back then.

With the exception of personal transportation, like the motor car and motorbike, it seems that although transport has become much more efficient, it has also become much more cramped and uncomfortable. When are we going to see a new transport development that takes us back to travelling comfortably without breaking the bank?