Remote Selling

Auction

Image by succo from Pixabay

I watch the BBC’s Antiques Roadtrip which, for the uninitiated features antiques dealers and auctioneers travelling around the UK and Ireland buying antiques to sell, hopefully for a profit, at auction. In between spending cash the experts visit interesting local places along the way.

I thought that this year’s series wouldn’t be possible due to Covid-19, because of closed antiques shops and auctions not being allowed due to social distancing but another online innovation and the production team’s ingenuity has saved the day.

Auction houses have, of course, accepted commission bids and phone bids for some time but over the course of the Roadtrip’s twenty previous series more have accepted live online bidding.  Having an audience of not just potentially a couple of hundred in the room but thousands across the world benefits the auction house and sellers alike, often the online bids well outstrip what those present in person are willing to pay.

In the case of the Roadtrip itself there is still plenty of opportunities for Covid-safe shopping but social distancing has meant that we are now treated to our experts travelling in separate cars and sometimes by bike and then sitting on the edge of a field or car park watching the auction on tablets, losing a little of the atmosphere of the past, with the auctioneer in an empty room talking only to webcams and assistants on phones, but at least we still get our entertainment. 

It’s even thanks to the internet that I can watch it at all as it’s shown when I’m at work and I watch it later on iPlayer.  As such as they watch the auction on their tablets I watch them watching it on mine, if you see what I mean.

Sometimes I Surprise Myself

Gift

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I’ve recently received a little padded envelope, I knew it must be something I’ve bought on Ebay but I could not for the life of me remember what it was. I knew it must be one of those little cheap gadgets or decorative items that fill Ebay, Amazon and so on and are all too easy to buy but which one?

It is one of the unexpectedly pleasant side-effects of having a poor short-term memory, lacking concentration, or visiting Ebay or Amazon while mildly inebriated, or all three: being able to give yourself a surprise gift, not just at Christmas but all year round, as long as it’s not too expensive that is, or too large – it’s less of a nice surprise to be greeted by an unexpected Jacuzzi or life-size toy Tiger if you don’t have the space to appreciate it.

The best thing though is if you happen to have it delivered from the other side of the world too, that way you also have about a month to forget what you’ve bought while it’s sitting on a slow boat from, well, you know where…

Simplicity is Not Always Easy

Wood type

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Often an organisation or business will unveil a new logo, branding or slogan which is met by members of the public saying, like they also do when a footballer misses a goal, “I could do better than that” or “my six year old could do that with a packet of crayons.”
Such was the case with the London 2012 logo and the Scottish tourist board’s slogan of “Welcome to Scotland” which was ridiculed for its apparent simplicity – comments like “they spent hundreds of thousands on consultants and all they come up with is that, it’s bloody obvious.”

While it’s true that the end result is simple and obvious it was no doubt also the result of a long period of consultation on the wording of the message, then the design of the presentation of the message. Just because the end result seems obvious doesn’t mean it was from the start, hundreds of slogans were probably trialled on the public and expert groups and it could have been that something like “Get High on Scotland” combined with a talking Haggis could have been more memorable, made more of an impact and was now the slogan, the public would never have been aware that “Welcome to Scotland” had even been considered.

If a branding is seen as complex, showy, clever or edgy then the critical public feel that the money that was spent has been used, like it in some way involved more work, like a simple design would have been knocked out in five minutes between lunch and a few beers paid for from the budget. Was Kentucky’s slogan “Unbridled Spirit” which derived from the state’s big industries of horse racing and distilleries worth more just because it was a play on words and as such “a bit clever”?

Such armchair experts have never designed a logo. The last one I designed passed through numerous stages as it had to contend with people who really wanted to hold onto the old logo and then it evolved from two separate proposals that had elements combined into the final design. And I’m not even a professional designer.

Of course not all designs are successful, Nottinghamshire County Council’s “N” logo was dropped quickly due to negative public reaction, but again this was partly because the logo didn’t really symbolise the county but also because many people thought that the design’s simplicity indicated a lack of effort, that it was a waste of tax payers’ money. Combine this with the often repeated “it was just done on a computer” – by which they also mean “with no effort” (because the computer does all the work, of course) and the simpler logo will always seem worse value. I have encountered clients who insist on filling every square millimetre of an advert space with pictures and text because they think that white space is wasted space, I’ve been told that “customers want to see lots of pictures” and “the logo needs to fill the space” and so on, with my suggestions that white space helps to guide the eye around the ad and a cluttered design looks unprofessional went ignored because, well what would I know? As for distorting logotypes to fill a space so much that the end result would make the original typeface designer cry, don’t get me started.

There’s a video online that is a cartoon of a conversation between a designer and client in which the client keeps wanting to add more colour, more complexity etc, my takeaway phrase that I’ve used often was from the designer: “unbe-f***ing-lievable.”

Oh For Fax Sake

Apparently the NHS is the biggest purchaser of fax machines in the UK. “What?” people cry, “why are they wasting tax-payers money on last century technology, it’s a scandal.” No it’s not, it’s because, fundamentally, it just works. Two machines connected by a phone line, you can send a message in seconds. In the pre-mobile days there were all kinds of fax-based services, one example that I’ve recently seen reminded of via a 1996 back issue was Fortean Times magazine’s FortFax service that allowed you to dial up and request articles be sent back to you.  

Of course though time and tech moves on and email has largely replaced faxing as I think people see it as obsolete because it’s an old technology, it’s monochrome and it’s paper based but at least modern ones use proper paper rather than the crinkly, fading thermal paper of old.  In addition companies only tend to have one fax machine so it’s inefficient to go to the machine to send a fax and have someone regularly empty it’s in-tray, so to speak.

For text you can, of course type out an email but it’s often still slower than writing out a fax unless you’ve been on Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing recently. The main advantage though is if you want to send a drawing as to email it you’d have to scan it, attach the scan to an email, type the email explaining what the drawing it and then send it to someone who has to open it, assuming they have the software to open the scan if it’s an Adobe document for example, then print it if they need the hard copy. With a fax you draw it on the paper, type the fax number and send. Simple and classic. I’m only moving, reluctantly, to scanning and emailing because the fax machine’s on its last legs.

I have found, admittedly that Email does has its advantages, like traceability and searchability and using templates for common emails like orders, quotes etc speeds up the process somewhat but it depends on individual circumstances. At the end of the day if it were still working and the people we sent faxes to still used faxes themselves then we’d still be using it – it seems that the fax has become a still useful, but niche, technology.

One day, like vinyl and 35mm film, it’ll become fashionable, probably amongst hipsters and their like, as an analogue, “authentic” communication method and there’ll be an app to send digitally crinkly and barely readable facsimile faxes, perhaps.

Disks to Downloads, DOS to Dust

Storage

Image by succo from Pixabay

This is another of my “young ‘uns today don’t know how lucky they are” articles, cue the wavy picture and harp music…

When I started with computers you didn’t install anything, nothing had any permanent storage to speak of and software had to be loaded from a cassette or floppy disk every time it was used, as such task switching, a matter of a fraction of a second now involved making a mug of tea.

Move on to the nineties and PCs had gained hard drives and Windows but there were still computers such as Amstrad’s PCW that had a one-at-a-time way of working, the operating system came with whatever you were running because at that time it was what was called a Disk Operating System (DOS), hence MS-DOS. A DOS had a command line into which you typed commands to copy files, delete them, format disks, and other functions. There were reference wheels and cards for all these now archaic commands, I still have mine, unsurprisingly, and if you look you can still find them in Windows though strangely the commandline now runs inside Windows whereas once Windows ran from the commandline.  

Anyway, because PCs, unlike other computers with a specific operating system written for its fixed set of components, have a multitude of differing hardware the OS had to be tailored to each computer and so came along device drivers – programs added to the OS to operate them. Windows, like all modern OSes do more than operate the disks and as such are bigger and more complicated.  Early on displays were pretty much the same and used the same convention for displaying blocks of text, the same applied to printers but soon things became more complicated and later new developments such as CD-ROM drives worked in new ways that the OS was never designed to cope with and more drivers were required. These things were a nightmare to use, you had to manually edit configuration files, decide which part of the limited memory to load the drivers into, and when larger memory became available which went far beyond what the OS originally worked in you needed drivers to operate the higher memory which you could then populate with other drivers and then also use programs that knew if the extended memory was present that they could use it, if you’d configured it correctly. Do this all wrong and nothing would work because nothing had enough memory to work.

No wonder people were terrified of computers, it seemed to be a black art. More like a pain in the art.

Somewhere I still have a copy of PC Today magazine from the middle of 1991 which featured the brand new MS-DOS 5.0 on the cover. In the days when Operating Systems came in shiny cardboard boxes with a manual that listed every command and could be repurposed as a door stop after you upgraded.

Windows improved the situation somewhat but still relied on many of the DOS drivers for CD-ROMs etc until Windows 95 and Windows NT finally relegated the old DOS to a legacy subsystem to run old software, a PC within a PC, a Virtual Machine, though the configuration files still remain for those of us who know what they mean to tweak and those who don’t to Google. As we moved into later eras through 16-bit into 32-bit so memory could just be continuous so at least one problem disappeared.

It was with joy that the time came when Windows would automatically install a new piece of hardware’s drivers from a CD-ROM, except that sometimes it would be allowed to find the drivers itself and others it had to be told where to find them, depending on what the driver and software were for. It was still a huge improvement. In pre-broadband days though you still had to do some work to install the OS. You’d install Windows on a blank PC to be confronted by default drivers which meant a screen display with huge fonts and buttons that could be seen clearly from the next room and no space on the desktop – the dreaded 640×480 resolution (my current monitor has a roomy 1440×900 pixels). From this starting point you had to install the proper video driver so you could see what you were doing, the sound card so you could hear it beeping in complaint and hear the cheery startup sound that was the first thing to find itself disabled in the settings, and anything else unusual. Often this wouldn’t go according to plan and you’d see yellow warning triangles in Device Manager and have to start again – removing and reinstalling drivers, until you had a working PC but less hair.

Today you just download a copy of the Windows 10 disk from the internet, burn it onto a DVD pop it in the drive (or use a USB stick), go into the computers BIOS (basic input/output system) settings – the only throwback to the old days – tell it to boot from the external disk and set it going. As long as you’ve provided it with an internet connection via a wireless or wired network connection it’ll install, use whatever driver it can to connect to the outside world, download all the correct drivers and a couple of hours later you’ve got a working PC. Mostly. It only needs help if you’ve got obscure or old hardware it can’t find drivers for but even then the right ones are often only a download and install away. This is all possible thanks to all the manufacturers working together to try to make the disparate bits of a Windows PC work together.

I should say at this point “other operating systems are available” but these such as the various Linux distributions are similarly streamlined these days.

Beyond the operating system installing software has become even easier, not even a disk is required – I’ve recently installed Norton Security with nothing more than a piece of cardboard with a number on it and a broadband connection.

See, not everything about the older days of computing are better, I do like some progress too. The geek in me though does miss the shiny software boxes.

Too Smart For Their Own Good

Kettle, Boiling

Image by Ken Boyd from Pixabay

Why do we need “smart” fridges, kettles, toasters. I like some technology to be dumb.

On Red Dwarf the smart toaster ends up in the rubbish compartment, because it’s annoying.

Considering the limited useful life of the average smartphone or tablet, before updates and so on force it to become slow and unsteady or it just fails altogether why do you want one attached to, and controlling your fridge. Ok, so it can keep track of what you need to buy, it can show you recipes and play music – so can your phone or tablet that you no doubt also have. My fridge-freezer is over three years old, I know this because it was here when I moved in, lurking in the kitchen as though waiting to see who’d turn up next. It’s seen the departure of the spare freezer and the replacement of the mouldy washing machine that had also been left here. The manufacturer is defunct now but the fridge-freezer still works, it has one control and keeps stuff cold, if I want to know whether I need more milk I have a cunning method – I open the door. There has been talk of smart fridges being able to tell you whether you have the ingredients for a recipe – fine if they’re all in there, for mayonnaise or eggs and bacon perhaps – but again, just look in it. Similarly they say you could scan things in and it’d help with monitoring diet – so what’s next a fridge that criticises my food purchases. I’m not having an appliance judging me for buying an eclair (or two) or for eating them both withing two hours.

I also prefer critical gadgets like alarm clocks and door locks to be low tech too – my clock radio is analogue and short of a power-cut will wake me up with modern miserable pop songs every morning without fail, having not crashed and rebooted, losing it’s settings overnight. I don’t want my door to unlock with my phone, a key only fails when it snaps – much less of a regular occurrence than the wifi or bluetooth not working. And I know the digital locks have a manual backup but that, in a way, just proves the point – they have to have the backup so why not just use the backup in the first place, a key needs no batteries. The car has a remote but there’s a flip-out key attached to it.

The internet of things has some uses, remote heating control and alarms or video door-viewers for example, but considering I need to fill the kettle with water and the toaster with bread I feel that the simple controls on both are enough, I do like the hidden blue progress lights on the toaster – only visible when in use, they are the funkiest thing I’ve seen on a kitchen appliance.

So much is tech for tech’s sake, a case of look what we can do, and as the more complex a device is the more likely something will fail. I wouldn’t want to buy a new expensive smart kettle every couple of years, or find I can’t have a coffee because the manufacturer’s gone bust or the API is no longer supported, I don’t want to wait for some toast because the toaster’s upgrading its software.

And so again it’s time for a decidedly low-tech cuppa. Goodnight.

Portable TV

Television

Image by 동철 이 from Pixabay

In the past the term “Portable TV” just meant the set had a handle and was small enough for one person to lug into another room, it wasn’t truly portable as it still had to be plugged in, to the mains if not an aerial. Today though, again through the multipurpose devices we call smartphones, TV is everywhere.

Again the sheer volume of output sees people feeling the need to watch wherever they are and mobile networks, of course, trumpet this as a virtue of their 4G and upcoming 5G networks – you can binge watch the new series that supposedly “everyone” is watching on the train, on the way to work, on the toilet, or all three. The previous menace of people not watching where they’re walking because they’re texting or facebooking or tweeting has now become people not being present in the real world because they’re watching fictional ones instead. Similarly on holiday people want free wifi everywhere so they can watch boxsets that it would be cheaper to simply spend a fortnight watching at home.

It’s not all bad though. With digital TV and internet streaming came catch-up services which I use regularly. Often the Cricket or Formula 1 clash with other programmes and as such I can sit later and watch it on my tablet or stream it to my TV via the Chromecast, or even watch two things at once such as the British Touring Cars and F1 British Grand Prix which due to the current back to back races were on at the same time. In the recent hot weather I’ve enjoyed being able to prop the tablet up somewhere cooler than the living room and watch the Cricket highlights – by which I mean the kitchen, not the downstairs toilet. Another advantage is while streaming either live or catch-up is being able to transfer the programme from the big TV back to the tablet and take it into the kitchen while making something to eat and still keep watching. Sometimes of course it’s nice to be able to lay on the sofa and prop the tablet up on my knees and watch the cricket highlights, QI or something similar in even more comfort than normal, especially in winter when pyjamas, a dressing gown and blanket may be involved as well.

When internet TV started I wondered whether broadband would have the bandwidth to cope, it seems to, even on the mobile networks and even on my 4Mb broadband at home I can stream effortlessly and in high quality.

There used to be an image of a family gathering round the TV of an evening, now they might watch the same thing in different rooms, even different houses and still chat about it on social media. Strangely though during and since the lockdown I’ve found myself turning the TV off more and reading, listening to music while looking out of the window or just, as the summer allows, the breeze and the sounds of nature outside. Some people seem to revel in the constant availability of entertainment but I’ve found it overwhelming and as much of it is repeated relentlessly I’ve become more selective and have felt better for it – this blog has certainly become better for it.

For someone like me it’s bliss to turn off, to be quiet, knowing that the now ever-present telly is there, if and wherever, I want it.

The Joy of Clouds

Cloud and Tree

Image by Bessi from Pixabay

When I was at school thirty years ago I learnt all about mainframe computers and binary code, today they probably teach kids about how to use templates in Word to do everything for you and how to get emoticons on their iPads. When I left school I was sent on a YTS scheme placement at a letting agent whose computers were green-screen dumb terminals connected to the aforementioned mainframe-type network. These terminals didn’t store data themselves but stored what you entered on a central server computer, and we had to enter data from index cards onto the computer and write the record number the terminal gave you on the card, if you forgot you had to ask everyone else what numbers they had in order to work out which number you’d missed.

Since then we’ve been through a long era where the data you’re using is either held on the computer you’re sat in front of or a local server which creates a problem of having to transfer data to a new computer when the old one becomes too slow or losing it altogether when it dies completely. Then there is the problem of the software that accesses the data – constant upgrades, new file formats etc. The solution is cloud computing and is amazing. At home I use gmail which I can access from my PC, laptop, phone or tablet, at work we use Office 365 for email which removed the problem of having all our email on an old and creaky email server and even worse problem of some machines downloading the emails so they were not on the server at all. Now a new PC just means a download of a decent browser and log-in. I can even access my work emails from home if necessary – when we’ve had internet outages for example.

Even accounts software is moving online now so businesses can have the added security of not having all their eggs in one vulnerable server, so to speak, with the same benefit of being accessible anywhere, even from a phone app. There is the risk of hackers but that’s the same with a local internet connected server and usually the company providing the software will have good security on their servers, you’d hope.

The downside is often that unless the service is advertising funded the you’ll have to pay for a full-fat version of the service, free users will have limitations – such as the Evernote I’m writing this on which limits me to two computers. Before this limit was introduced I could start a post on my tablet, edit it on the laptop in Norfolk and finish and post it from the desktop at home. Now it’s just the laptop as a sofa based solution.

All these modern “terminal” solutions have removed the need for an all-for-one computer holding everything, I can put my best photos on Flickr, my writings on Evernote and so on, all backed-up online and accessible anywhere. Other services such as Google, Siri and Cortana enable you to bring a map up and then send directions to your phone from your computer, or send them to anyone else. I can instantly take a photo of something I need to describe and email it from the same device to whoever needs to see it.

Some software still, for me, works best as what was called a native app on a computer – such as a standalone word processor, spreadsheet, desktop publishing app or photo editor due to how web pages are constructed but as web languages continue to evolve and new technologies blur the lines between web pages and apps further maybe it will finally become unnoticeable. The idea of Software as a Service is how Microsoft distributes Windows 10 now, charging for new licences for each new computer but an existing PC will always have the most up to date version until it stops working. Web based office suites, online word processors and so on, are the basis of the likes of Chromebooks – where everything is stored and runs online and perhaps this is the way computing is going, software will never be out of date your data will never end up in a format you can’t open but you have to keep paying a subscription to access it, unless you accept banner adverts whenever you’re editing your latest monthly report.

Cloud computing has its advantages but also potential pitfalls, privacy is a concern for some but as so many online services have just shut up shop, with users’ photos and so on disappearing into the ether you do wonder whether the convenience is entirely worth it. It may be, but only if there’s the option to download your documents and use them without an internet connection, as you can still currently do with the likes of Evernote and OneDrive which synchronise locally automatically. Most importantly I’d prefer to be able to create home backups against a hacker holding everyone’s data to ransom, a mouse chewing through a power cable in a datacentre or a massive solar outburst wiping out the internet – in which case, however, we’d have much worse to worry about.

So cloud computing is the future but like tightrope walking it’s better with a safety net.

We’re Jammin’

Traffic Jam

Image by torstensimon from Pixabay

Or not, perhaps.

I’ve just been reading an old Aircraft Annual from 1962 I picked up for a couple of quid in a charity shop a couple of years ago – I have quite a backlog of such books – and in it was an article about the latest developments in traffic monitoring from the UK’s Automobile Association (today’s AA). They were using light aircraft to fly over various main roads, the approaches to special events and so on to then help patrols and local government organise the traffic and provide warnings of delays.

Since then of course we’ve had, the world over, aerial traffic reports, most famously in US cities where the “eye in the sky” reporter is part of news programmes, often as an aside filming crimes and car chases. There are also police and highways agency cameras monitoring certain stretches of motorways, feeding reports to local and national radio stations, which became even more useful with the advent of RDS (Radio Data System) radios which could not only tell you what you were listening to but automatically re-tune to another station giving traffic reports while you were driving. This was fine if you needed it but annoying if you were part way through a favourite song or perhaps a drama like The Archers and suddenly find yourself redirected… “So what happened to Matt’s cows then, was it aliens? Well, you see.. There’s heavy tailbacks leading onto the A45…”

Now of course we’re streaming our favourite music and the often derided “snooping” of Google and Apple’s servers, beaming back our phones’ GPS and mobile signal based locations to HQ allows their Maps software to determine if the phones are on a road, moving, likely to be in a car and how many of them are within, say, twenty feet of each other. Once it sees a big group of slow moving hardware going the same way it can determine that there’s a bit of a hold up and plots it on the maps it sends back to you as a red line on the road. This seamless collection and analysis of crowdsourced data is another one of the wonders of our connected times.

Who’d have though back in 1962 that fifty years later you could have a small box in your pocket that could tell you where to go, how long it’ll take and if there’s a big queue in your way. I wonder if they could, one day, do the same for supermarkets.

It’s Old And Clunky, But It Works

Some time back a customer was surprised to see some software we use which is clearly, based on its buttons and layouts, from the days of Windows 95. He was even more surprised by our MS-DOS based booking and diary system. Old it may be but I can tell you it’s much more efficient than Windows software.

Everything is done with the keyboard and once you get used to it it’s lightning-quick – use the page up and down keys to select the week, then the arrow keys to select the day, while seeing a complete overview of current bookings, then hit enter, hit insert, hit enter a few times to move to the time fields and enter them, hit F1 to go into the customers list, just start typing the name until it finds the right one, or hit insert to enter a new one. Once the customers details are in use the left and right keys to go to the notes section or the phone numbers section end enter those, select File to save it, hit Escape to go back to the diary. Everything done in seconds without even moving your hands away from the keyboard.

I’ve used Windows booking systems and the ones I’ve seen involve clicking on different tabs, moving to the right button to save, etc, etc. Like so many things the more modern (the more “feature” filled) is also less efficient.

For those of us of the DOS generation it’s perhaps why websites and apps are frustrating, because of their multitude of buttons and tabs, replacing the keyboard combinations that we used to know by heart – including the ones used in Windows such as CTRL+B for bold text, CTRL+C and CTRL+V for copy and paste, automatically hitting CTRL+S to save the document while in the middle of typing and so on, actions that became second nature, reflex actions. Admittedly many, if not most of these shortcuts still exist in modern software but so many functions require the hunting and pecking actions of mouse or touchscreen. One example in Windows is when I upload photos to Flickr I append an ” f” to the filenames and it’s much quicker than clicking each file to highlight it and then click again to put the cursor at the end to just press F2 to edit the filename, END to go to the end and then CTRL+V to paste the pre copied ” f” to the end, then hit ENTER and DOWN ARROW to the next file.

My first book was written in Protext on my old IBM 486DX PC, the one with the perfect clicky keyboard I wrote about a while back. I learned word processing using Microsoft Works on things like Amstrad 1512 PCs and similar, and indeed taught people to use these same systems later. Protext 4 was a freebie on a computer magazine in the late nineties, Works tended to be bundled with PCs back then the way a trial of Office 365 is today. It was basic in todays terms but like the appointment system it was quick and easy to use for getting words into some semblance of order. Formatting it was a different matter but as this was still the era when most choices of typefaces and emphasis (bold, italic etc) were down to what the particular printer you were using has installed it wasn’t really much of a consideration – generally the aesthetics of word-processed documents were secondary to the words.

As with so many things which become rediscovered this simplicity and efficiency in software has now, of course, become the latest big new idea in the form of distraction-free text editors that have simple, uncluttered interfaces that allow you to type words and nothing else, some even have aped the interface of old that we oh so gratefully, naively, ditched as soon as WYSIWYG appeared and even have monospaced text.

The other advantage is that simpler software has, in theory, like a basic car with less gadgets, less to go wrong or slow you down.

So, in essence, though we didn’t know it at the time, us children of the seventies were, in terms of productivity, ahead of our time, no?