And Now a Travelling Keyboard

Option key on a third-party keyboard (Logitech...

Option key on a third-party keyboard (Logitech) designed for use with Apple computers. 22x20px|border Deutsch: Wahltaste auf einer für Apple-Computer konzipierten Dritthersteller-Tastatur (Logitech). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I promise that this won’t become a blog about parcels, but here’s one more post.  Ba dum tish!

I’m typing this entry using its subject.  Last week I wanted a new keyboard as the one I was using kept missing large chunks of what I was typing and for some reason I’ve never been able to type properly with it anyway so I went to my local Currys (the UK equivalent of Best Buy) to buy a good, low-cost Logitech wired keyboard…

I had looked on the websites of a couple of local retailers, they were the cheapest, they appeared to have it in stock so I visited on my way home from work.  I couldn’t see any of the basic Logitech keyboards only the more expensive ones so I had to ask someone.  It turned out that it wasn’t “reserve and collect” that was available but “pay and collect” which means ordering it for delivery to my local store.  So I went home, got out the credit card and ordered it.  The confirmation email said it would be three to five working days, definitely available by 29th January.  My fingers would soon no longer be numbed by a lousy keyboard, it was worth the wait.

Three days passed, on the fourth day I checked my emails – no notification that it was ready to collect.  Fifth day, five PM, still nothing so I went to the store again on the way home – it was actually there but they’d had computer problems, I was told, so I hadn’t been sent an email.  So all was okay, I had my keyboard.

This wouldn’t seem preposterous if it wasn’t for where I live.  You see on the outskirts of this town is one of the largest distribution warehouses in the country, in Europe in fact.  It was built a few years back in two parts and belongs to DSG – the parent company of the Currys store I ordered the keyboard from.  Knowing that it would have come from that warehouse and being naturally inquisitive (read cynical) I looked up the package’s tracking number on the courier’s website and found the full details of its travels.

It left Newark, went to the courier’s hub in Birmingham before coming back to Newark.  Using normal roads between the warehouse and the store (it’s effectively a straight line, along the ancient Fosse Way) it’s 1.5 miles, taking about five minutes.  The parcel travelled around 163 miles over about 3 hours total on the road.

In the old days they’d order one in from the warehouse, it would be allocated to the store, as it’s just literally minutes down the road a local van could have brought it down but it seems that in these days of complicated “logistics” that’s perhaps just too easy.

Everyday Dangers

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of F...

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of Falling (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Jared Diamond of The New York Times provides an interesting lesson about how people in the modern world perceive dangers.  After witnessing friends in New Guinea refusing to sleep under an old, dead tree due to the risk of it falling he realised that people have begun to worry more about the bigger, more unlikely risks such as terrorist attacks, nuclear radiation, plane crashes and so on and be less vigilant towards smaller risks that are taken or encountered very often – risks that are ignored because people think “that’s not a problem, I’m careful” while often not being.

I personally have this “hypervigilant attitude towards repeated risks” or “constructive paranoia” – I watch what I’m doing when I’m descending the long flight of stairs outside, I wear well treaded shoes on snow and ice and I’m particularly careful when handling sheet glass; which can literally be lethal, or at least painful as the scars on my hands from unavoidable accidents attest.

As the article states, with access to emergency services and the assumption that help is only moments away the awareness of real dangers has become diminished and unlikely ones exaggerated.

Have a read of the full article, then be careful out there.

[NYT]

The Sound of Silence

English: BMW Mini E (electric vehicle) at the ...

English: BMW Mini E (electric vehicle) at the 2010 Washington Auto Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Electric cars are becoming more popular, widespread and cheaper but safety campaigners feel that they’re too quiet for pedestrians to hear approaching – which therefore should be true too of cyclists, and rickshaws.  They have suggested that electric vehicles should make a noise to alert people to their presence, some kind of siren has been suggested, a beeping noise, verbal warnings.

The obvious thing to do, if they must make a sound, is to follow the lead of digital cameras’ reassuring shutter sound and the way cash machines whir while preparing your cash and perhaps, and this is out-there I know, they could make a noise like a car.  You could even download different engine sounds to make your family hatchback sound like a Ferrari.

That would be popular with the lads who currently put noisy exhausts on their Citroen Saxos.

Still Free After All These Years

36236699I’ve written a few books, I have only ever half-heartedly attempted to get one of them published – thinking that I’m not really a writer, more of the outsider thinking I talked about recently.  Writing these books though was enabled by free software.  I’d had an Amstrad PCW which was a word-processor but I only used it for programming at the time.  I didn’t write stories, despite being told at school by my last English teacher that I was a good fiction writer, because again I feared being laughed at.  By the time I decided to write again I’d moved onto a PC and suddenly I was confronted by word-processing software like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect and so on costing hundreds of pounds.

Thankfully, I got a free copy of Protext 4 for MS-DOS with a computer magazine.  This was a big deal in those days, free software was often written by hobbyists and tended to be utilities, text editors and drawing programs were mostly shareware which you could “try before you buy” and then there was the commercial packages with their eye-watering price tags.  Today my laptop cost less than them.  I used Protext for years, those who don’t remember early nineties computers may be amazed that you had to control the whole thing with the keyboard.  No mouse.  At all.  It was surprisingly quick to use though, no distractions of formatting and pictures, no internet, no emails, just you and your words.

I moved onto Windows word-processing when I worked for a PC shop and got a cheap copy of Lotus WordPro which we used to bundle with the computers we built.  I’m only now moving onto the next big thing – which is something we kind of hoped for but didn’t expect back in the days of ordering a 1.44Mb floppy disk of freeware programs from a paper catalogue.

Big complicated software like Office packages take big teams of programmers or a lot of time, or both, to write and in the old days collaboration was more difficult but now there are organisations like Mozilla, Apache and others who organise teams of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create fantastic free software like the Firefox browser (which I’m using at this moment) and the Microsoft Office-compatible OpenOffice (and it’s offshoot LibreOffice).  These charitable foundations and teams who code for the enjoyment and achievement of it are creating ever more sophisticated software and giving it away for free, only perhaps politely asking for a donation towards their efforts which flies in the face of the idea that people will only create something if they are financially rewarded.  A large number of the coders on these projects are professionals volunteering in their spare time too.

There will always be a market for commercial software as many people and businesses either want or need to use software that has become industry standard no matter how closely compatible the free software is, and often the commercial software just has features that free competitors either haven’t got or can’t have due to patents.  There is also the issue of future updates and technical support though with the use of online forums you can usually get an answer to any problem you have with free software pretty quickly and even updates and bug fixes are generally quick in appearing.

With the advent of smartphones and apps there has been an explosion of free software yet again.  The centralised nature of the App Store and Play Store has encouraged people to learn to code and get something they’ve made out there, just like the old days of PCs, as it’s now even easier to get your app seen and used.  Of course much that appears to be free often isn’t quite free and many apps are also supported by advertising or the dreaded in-app purchase which I’ll write about in a future post.

Sometimes though some people expect free software when it isn’t at all though as other companies have shown giving away old software can be a canny move, introducing people to the brand, giving them skills which can lead to employment using the current version etc.  Serif in the UK have always been good at this, every version of their software I’ve used has been either a free version or more recently a two-version-older copy at a bargain price, and Google’s products like Chrome, Google Earth, even the Android O/S are free because they encourage you to use Google’s search products.  Even Microsoft now gives away many very good pieces of software like Live Essentials and Security Essentials.

So long live free software, what would some of us do without you.

Parcel Farce Part Deux: One Camera’s Journey

English: Lagan Viking Irish Sea The Lagan Viki...

English: Lagan Viking Irish Sea The Lagan Viking one hour and forty minutes after leaving Belfast Harbour is photographed passing the Isle of Man heading for Liverpool. Image made from Portavogie Harbour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often find that I see interesting photos while I don’t have my DSLR with me and while my compact camera does a good job when I saw the chance of an even better compact for half price (£60) on Amazon I decided to treat myself.  I no longer have Amazon Prime so didn’t expect to have to deal with couriers any more but this week I was proved wrong.

My camera was dispatched on Monday from Swansea and was meant to be delivered on Wednesday, some drivers for the courier it was being sent by (Hermes) have a habit of leaving packages outside our building so I was a little apprehensive when I arrived home to find nothing, not even a card to say they hadn’t delivered.  I checked on Amazon and the tracking information said “Possible delay in delivery due to arrival at incorrect carrier facility” – current location of my camera: Belfast.  It had taken the advice to “go west” instead of heading for me over here on the east coast.  Possible delay?  It had crossed the Irish Sea and was on its way to Tipperary for all I knew (which is a long way).

Thursday evening, it still hadn’t arrived.  It was in Warrington, having presumably briefly visited Liverpool.  I know not where it will go next but I am a little annoyed that it’s visiting more cities than I have time to do.

Update:  Saturday morning.  I suddenly thought to check where it was, went to Amazon, the tracking now said it had visited Peteborough and was out for delivery.  At last!  I looked out of my front window a few minutes later and down on the road outside was the Hermes driver just getting my box out of his car.  Perfect timing.

I <3 My Smartphone

Android 4.0.1

Android 4.0.1 (Photo credit: laihiu)

There, I’ve said it.  Ok, so I don’t love it, it’s not like I cuddle it, much.  But as someone who for quite a while didn’t bother to find out what was so smart about smartphones having one is a revelation.  I’ve written before about how useful it is to be able to share information across phone, tablet and laptop but this time I’ll share a few recommendations for apps that I’ve found invaluable to my life.

Interestingly I also found the other day that this little device even makes old fashioned phone calls.  Ha!

As someone who has intermittent memory Android’s notification bar is a joy.  For example, I have a checkup at the dentist next month, it was booked six months ago, I need to book a day off work to go – I don’t need to, it’s just a good excuse to have a lie-in on a Tuesday.  I opened up Google Calendar, added the appointment, added a reminder for the time then opened up Wunderlist and added a to-do list item for booking the day off complete with a reminder which will pop up on Monday morning.  The best thing about all these reminders – I also set them two weeks ahead for birthdays so I don’t leave cards until the last minute – is they persist in the notification bar until you remove them so every time I get a new email or app update I see the reminder too.  It’s pretty much foolproof.

Wunderlist is a well designed to-do list app which supports reminders, notes and nested to-dos and is cross-platform, i.e. it has apps on Android, iOS, PC, Mac and Linux all of which sync via the web – there is also website based access if you’re using someone elses computer.

Regularly is a tool for remembering events that happen predictably and regularly.  You set up a new event, set the interval that it needs to be done, each day, each month etc and then every time it’s due and you’ve done it you add an entry to that item’s log and the counter resets, if you don’t do it the app reminds you that it’s overdue.  Perhaps scheduling a chinese takeaway every month could be a bit too much, not that I have done, honestly.

There are many notepad apps for quick notes, the one I use is OI Notepad, in the end I chose it because it looked nice and had a colourful icon.  It’s useful for quick notes when the phone isn’t connected to the internet.  I could use Evernote which is also installed but I prefer to use that on my Nexus 7 where it has a bit more screen to play with.

Of course there are other apps I particularly recommend such as the Met Office Weather app which allows you to have multiple pages of favourite locations, includes five-day forecasts and even sunrise and sunset times; the Facebook app if you’re signed up which is pretty good now; the BBC’s News app is useful and finally Firefox which I personally prefer to the built-in browser because I use it on the laptop and I can sync the bookmarks between the two.

The always-on nature of smartphones and tablets is also particularly useful to me as I can just quickly look at a webpage or make a note without having to put the laptop back on – usually this happens just before I’m about to go to bed.

It has been said recently that people have now started to use technology to get round the problems caused by other technology, like carrying an always connected smartphone in order to always be able to get work emails, but for me my technology just helps me with my annoyingly poor memory.

Mobile Etiquette – Retail Staff Are Real People Too

Interior Market Decor | Market Decor Design | ...

Interior Market Decor | Market Decor Design | Interior Co-Op Signage | Co-Op Check stand | Grocery Checkout Area | North Coast Co-Op (Photo credit: I-5 Design & Manufacture)

There is a habit going round at the moment that I find particularly rude, as do many others, especially people who work in shops, bars and restaurants.  I don’t know whether it’s more noticeable now because more people have mobiles or because people are becoming more ignorant but the habit is of talking on your mobile while being served and either expecting the assistant/waiter/waitress to wait or just ignoring them like they’re insignificant and not worthy of your full attention.

It happens to me regularly, a customer comes in and I’m entering their order and their phone rings “hold on, be with you in a sec” they say – but to me, not to the person phoning them.  If it really is someone they can’t call back and they explain this and apologise then that’s fine, I’ll wait, go and do something else or make a cup of tea; often there is actually time to make and drink the tea before they’re back with you.  But when they just carry on talking while gesturing at you, waving a credit card and then taking their invoice and leaving while still talking on the phone it makes you feel like you don’t matter.

I was in the supermarket a few months back and the man in the queue ahead of me did this, he didn’t say one word to the assistant on the till, not “hello”, not “thank you” just talking on his phone and as I could hear the conversation clearly, as could half the store and probably people sat in the car park beneath the store, I could tell it wasn’t that important a call.  When he’d gone I said to the assistant “I hate it when people do that”, she let out a sigh and visibly relaxed saying “me too, it really annoys me” clearly relieved that someone understood how she was feeling.

Gizmodo UK recently published a piece about posters created by cartoonist Ted Slampyak highlighting other no-nos to remember, like keeping the volume down, using appropriate ringtones and not avoiding difficult conversations by texting – which is a whole other issue by itself.  One commenter who worked in a restaurant told how he had taken revenge on such an ignorant diner by firstly not going over to take the order until the man put his phone down and then pulling his own phone out and having a fake conversation while taking the order.

Now please excuse me, I have a text.

[Gizmodo UK]

Becoming Too Human?

English: The following is the author's descrip...

English: The following is the author’s description of the photograph quoted directly from the photograph’s Flickr page. “Researchers from many fields will use the new IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility. Photo, courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that Artificial Intelligence still has some way to go.

Last year a computer was given YouTube to look at and it learned how to identify a cat, now it has been revealed that IBM’s Watson computer which famously won a game of Jeopardy on American TV was given access to Urban Dictionary as part of its education in the English language – to enable it to understand the nuances of the language and slang terms.  Unfortunately, due to the level of fruity language in Urban Dictionary and its inability to distinguish normal from profane language it simply learned how to swear, at one point using the word “bullshit” in answer to a researcher’s question.

As commenter Bleary said on Gizmodo UK it would have changed the film 2001: A Space Odyssey somewhat – “My mind…it’s going….I can fucking feel it.”   “Open the pod bay doors HAL,”  “Fuck you Dave”

Hmm, if the computers can’t decide what’s appropriate in polite society what else could they be capable of?…

[Gizmodo UK]

Just as an aside – as I was choosing the image at the top, of IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer I realised that David Bowie’s Blue Jean was on the radio.  Spooky.

Planted Tech

My Garden

My Garden (by Andy Vickers)

I often miss the garden I had where I previously lived, before I moved to the town centre surrounded by concrete, roads, car parks, oh and a river and fields at the back.  Anyway, my garden was a wedge of land with a patio at one end and rows of flowers and plants.  I’d go and buy new plants at the weekends, once I planted a substantial shrub and was livid to find that slugs had defoliated it entirely overnight.

If I still had my garden I could perhaps combine it with my geek side and buy a gadget from Parrot to be released later in the year.  Known for their AR Drones this isn’t a slug-busting mini helicopter with slime-seeking missiles – brings a whole other meaning to the SALT treaty.  The Flower Power device measures sunlight, humidity, temperature and nutrient levels and can be customised to most types of plant so you can individually, and remotely keep track of the conditions your flowers are living with from the comfort of your sofa.

Now, engineers of Parrot, bring me my anti-slug drone.

Retail Tales: Unpleasant and Unhygenic

"Cover Coughs, Cover Sneezes" - NARA...

“Cover Coughs, Cover Sneezes” – NARA – 514081 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been feeling under the weather again this week, which may or may not be left over infection from last week when to be honest I was glad I’d booked the days after New Years as holidays.

This started me thinking about why I seem to get colds, sore throats and so on so regularly, I thought maybe I wasn’t healthy enough, maybe it was bad diet.  The answer isn’t pleasant, it’s shop customers.  Or rather the customers who come in coughing, sneezing and spluttering and leaving germs on my door handles.

When I cash-up I have to go and wash my hands afterwards because of the grubby feeling they’re left with, I know many people who do the same.  I know many people who work in shops and supermarkets who also fall ill regularly.

Working with the public is a minefield of potential contagious illnesses coughed across the counter or handed to you on cash handled by unwashed hands from the last time they went to the loo.  If you worried about it too much it would make you run from behind the counter in search of hand sanitizer – which is handy stuff to have around but doesn’t stop the sneezes, though you could throw it at someone who does fire contamination in your direction, and don’t get me started on the number of people who cough all over you without covering their mouths, as a lady in the shop today told me happened on a recent train journey, the cougher being the conductor.

At the other end of the scale are people who obsess about having every surface 100% bacteria free, being told by adverts that there are more on a chopping board than toilet seats, that if they don’t use all these products they’re putting their kids at risk.  It’s true that you need to be careful with raw food and so on, just follow some basic rules and you’ll be fine, it is now even believed that excessive cleaning and removing all contact with bacteria could be detrimental to health.

The most ridiculous thing I’ve seen though are automatic handwash dispensers, again advertised as being essential for your family’s health.  The adverts say that handwash pumps are riddled with bacteria and every time you touch one you get infected.  True, but it’s handwash, you’re using what you’ve just pumped into your hand to wash off the bacteria you’ve just wiped onto your hand.  If you’re in a public toilet using either kind of handwash dispenser though you’re probably about to then pull open the door using the handle that the person who didn’t wash their hands has just used.  Which brings me back to my counter, my cash and my cold.