Keeping Track

Parcel

Image by Harry Strauss from Pixabay

I wrote a number of posts a few years back about parcel deliveries in this country, but I’m pleased to see that now things have improved immensely.

One area that is impressive is how parcels can now be tracked more precisely than ever. I recently bought some sunglasses that fit over my normal glasses and the only ones that suited were located in the United States. I ordered them and the cost in total including shipping was just under £12, for that this item would travel part way across the US, then the Atlantic and finally up the UK to me. Monitoring the tracking the item moved around the postal network until it popped up in Illinois, finally arriving at Chicago before being loaded onto a plane for an overnight flight to London where it met our postal system.

Even more precise is the system used by Amazon for example that allows, via their phone app, notifications of how near the driver is away from you on a map, so you know that they’re five stops away, on a nearby street so you know not to go out or go in the bath, or to dash back to your house when you’ve just nipped out to the corner shop – maybe the app should have a button that says “just tell the driver to hang on two minutes…”

All this of course is made possible by GPS location tracking and handheld scanners that can communicate with the company so they know in real time where the vans are, and on what van your parcel is sitting. One strange aspect to this is another courier whose drivers are not allowed to deliver a parcel too early, though I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, something to do with them giving customers time slots for delivery. In business knowing when a parcel is going to arrive to within a specific one-hour time slot can help schedule work.

I do find myself occasionally saying, when I get a message from the same tracking system to inform me that the parcel’s been delivered, “I know, I received it, it’s in my hand.”  Still useful to know if you’re not home though.

All this tracking and technology has been helpful in these days of social distancing and contactless delivery where the courier doesn’t take a signature but uses the handset’s camera to show it where they left it on the doorstep instead, usually with your feet in the background – “we know you received the parcel, are those or are those not your socks?”

I’m rarely in a hurry for items, I remember the days of “please allow 28 days for delivery” so next day is a luxury, but it’s still interesting to see the data, to see where it’s been and I suppose it’s still exciting when it’s something nice or frivolous rather than functional to see when it’s close to being delivered.

The Technocats

Ginger Cat

Image by Daga_Roszkowska from Pixabay

For a long time cats have chosen a suitable Human to live with and we’ve either had to let them in or out of our houses on demand, left a window open or otherwise made a small hole in our back doors and fitted cat flaps.

These were fine of course until our cat was followed by other cats into the house, or other cats, being naturally curious and hungry decided to see if there was anything to eat behind this strange little door.  As such the lockable door was invented but still required Human intervention – usually at night.  The option to have the door set to out-only or in-only was unusual as I’m sure the cat would wonder why it had been suddenly trapped indoors, or locked out.

Next came the wonderfully humourous magnetic cat flap.  Our cat had this and we were only one family in many who witnessed their moggy returning home with some random metallic object dangling from its collar and a bemused look on its face.  Short of amassing a small collection of random screws they never brought back anything valuable though.  The other side effect that took some getting used to was when the cat walked too close to a radiator and dragged the magnet clattering along it’s length, usually at two in the morning, downstairs.

Recently though the rise of microchipping of cats for identifying lost pets by vets has created the smart cat flap, the feline equivalent of a hotel key-card, only allowing authorised cats through.  The problem, from the cat’s point of view used to be the magnet not releasing the door quickly enough when in a hurry, resulting in a frantic clattering of the door until the cat’s releasing of the flap coincided with the releasing of the latch.  I imagine the same situation with the chip flaps would be like having to repeatedly swipe a chip and pin card at the supermarket, forward and back in front of the door.

So technology moves on, making things better, but it’s still not as funny as a cat strolling into the room with a spoon attached to its collar and an expression on it’s face along the lines of “what?”

Dirty!

Soil & Trowel

Image by walkersalmanac from Pixabay

I was thinking yesterday that at the weekend I’m going to clean the bird muck off the top of my wheelie-bin as although the bin men and women no doubt see all kind of muck it’s not nice to have to deal with.

This reminded me of the state of uncleanliness that some people are happy to present their possessions in when leaving them with someone else – for repairs, alterations, inspections and so on.

I have worked in two places where I can give examples.  There was once an infamous motor-home taken to a dealership for its annual service.  This was an expensive van, top of the range and when the technician opened the habitation door he felt the need to let even us in the warranty office see it.  The carpets looked like they were 90% dog hair, the air was 90% dog breath, or at least, er, aroma.  The corners and edges of cabinets had been gnawed, hopefully by the dogs and we could only imagine what potentially coated the rest of the surfaces.

Then there’s a regular occurrence whereby someone will bring in a piece of greenhouse glass into the shop to be cut down to replace a broken piece, rather than buy a new, shiny piece.  We don’t mind doing this but it’s inconvenient when the piece they bring in has been sat behind the greenhouse for two decades and has built up a significant, shall we say, patina.  Usually it’s springtime so the moss and soil on the glass will be damp and we have to clean it off before we can use our glass cutters on the glass itself – if not we’d end up with clogged cutters and soggy cutting table.

Personally I couldn’t do that, even if I take items to a charity shop I clean them whether it is a t-shirt or a photo frame, I tidy the car before taking it for an MOT.  As for my bin, well maybe even the cat that likes to sit on it in the sunshine might appreciate it being cleaner too.

The World Wrapped in Cotton Wool

Warning Signs

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

In recent years, it seems to me, our urban architecture has turned into a sea of yellow and red warning signs and yellow and black striped tape.

Today there seems to be a constant corporate fear of being sued that has caused so much of this kind of protectiveness. For example the Royal Mail depot near me has big warning signs at the site entrance warning of a “Trip Hazard” which may be the ends of the lowered pavement where public pedestrians are corralled between railings towards where they collect parcels. Where this public path intrudes onto the roadway a big yellow line and accompanying signage tells the humans to not stray outside the lines lest they be flattened by Postman Pat’s little red van. There are further trip hazard signs and yellow and black tape at the actual entrance to the collection office as despite there being a ramp to one side the straight ahead approach involves negotiating, unbelievably, a normal height step. OMG, get me some climbing gear. Despite all this there are still the big signs saying “Beware of Vehicles”.  When I was young we were taught the Green Cross Code to follow when near roads.

Another example of the idea of “you didn’t do enough to stop me injuring myself” are scaffolding poles – “now padded for your safety and comfort” and also wrapped in yellow and black tape. I wonder whether it was a ploy to support the manufacturers of tubular yellow foam products, maybe they weren’t selling enough as pipe lagging but at some point in the last fifteen years it was decided that every bit of publicly accessible scaffolding needed legwarmers. On pavements the world over there are lampposts, street signs, litter bins, bollards, walls and even doorsteps or whole sections of buildings jutting out into the path of pedestrians yet none of those things are padded for your protection, or edged with wasp-coloured tape. You can’t say that it’s because as a temporary structure people might not be aware that they’re there as even a lamppost is an unknown obstruction to anyone who doesn’t know the area well – and even to someone who is local but not paying attention. I’m amazed that the lampposts and railings aren’t similarly adorned. Yet.

I can see the point of helpful signage, warning of a hidden step, or low beam, or something round a corner that’s not obvious, just as I can see the point of the interlock on my washing machine that stops you opening the door until the water’s gone – it saves you having to mop up the floor, and aircraft doors can’t be opened in flight for obvious reasons – but some things can only exist because companies think they need to protect people from themselves because they can’t be trusted to negotiate the world without explicit instructions. Trains for example used to have windows that could be opened while moving, as could the doors but not any more because someone might try to depart the vehicle at speed, or perhaps just part of them.

So we end up with shops selling luke-warm coffee or cups plastered with warning that the contents may be hot. Microwave meals similarly warning that on removing the item from the microwave the contents “may be hot” – well I would hope so otherwise it’s time to buy a new microwave.

Perhaps the companies have a point, that more people today don’t have or just don’t use common sense, or maybe that people are more willing to sue if they’ve not been explicitly told not to do something.  Either way at this rate there is a risk of missing the hazards because you’re too busy looking at the signs.

Buried Treasure

Record Player

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Back before music downloads were included in the singles Top 40, before downloads at all, we’d buy a song we liked as a single rather than wait for the full album, tempted by the bonus b-side and the CD era even better as they tended to have up to four tracks on a disk rather than the two of a vinyl single. This of course meant lots of B-sides, which after track 2 should have been C and D-sides but anyway since downloading took off you often tend to just get the one song, probably because people just choose to play the single on a streaming service.

There were, and are, though many artists whose leftovers from an album production are that good that they could make up a standalone album by itself, hence the occasional B-sides compilation cropping up.  Elbow’s “Dead in The Boot” is a very good example, as is REM’s “Dead Letter Office”.

There are though artists that have never released the b-sides and rarities collected together, or they’re difficult to get hold of, and I’ve recently found that Amazon comes in handy. In the early 2000s there was a group called Lemon Jelly who produced wonderful electronic and sampled music, often with folk, jazz and other musical influences. Their three albums never seemed enough so I wondered, last year, if any of their singles or EPs were on Amazon. I was overjoyed to find that many were and even better they were even available as MP3s. I was able to buy, over fifteen years after the last album, at least another LPs worth of what to me was new music, all of it as great as the albums I’d already got.

So yet again it’s amazing what you can find waiting to be rediscovered.

The Best Camera is…

Camera

Image by Joshua_Willson from Pixabay

…the one you have with you.

I was walking to the supermarket one Sunday morning. I glanced down a narrow lane between two shops, which leads roughly from the castle to the market place and thought for a second that I was either hallucinating or having a Doctor Who moment for walking down the lane was a company of armed Roundhead soldiers. Newark on Trent, of course, was very important during the English Civil War and we have the National Civil War Centre and regular events reenacting battles and so on.

It was a lovely sunny morning and it would have made a great photo if I’d had my Olympus DSLR camera and long lens with me to get a nice out of focus background, but as I was going shopping I didn’t even have a compact camera in my pocket, and as for the camera in my mobile phone at the time – not even worth considering.

Today as well as my DSLR I have a few compact cameras – my larger zoom one, a slim one that will fit in a bag pocket, and a really pocketable but relatively basic one – and a bridge camera for taking with me in different situations when I know there might be good shots but I don’t want to take the full SLR kit, like when I go out on the mountain bike. I tend to take my old, battered Lumix zoom compact mostly though as it’s a good, dependable all-rounder.

Then there is my smartphone which has a really good camera on it for when I have nothing else with me, though I’ve not really tried anything like the missed Roundhead photo with it.

The phone makers say that the phone cameras can now do anything a DSLR can, that “everyone’s a photographer now” but I’m just familiar with my big camera and know how to quickly get the photo I want from it instinctively using buttons and dials without having to mess around with on-screen controls.

I miss less opportunities now as I can at least get something but there are though still occasional times when I feel that a shot really needs the DSLR and long or fast lens, and those are still frustrating.

The Modern J. R. Hartley

In the eighties the Yellow Pages had a number of TV ads in the UK showing people finally finding some elusive item by using their book to find suitable shops and ringing them. One such ad featured the now famous but fictional author J. R. Hartley searching for a copy of the book he’d written called Fly Fishing. We were never told what had happened to leave him without a copy of his own book just that eventually he found one and was happy.

Today of course Yellow Pages is still with us but the same story could be used by at least three companies. In 2020 Mr Hartley, or his daughter from the ad, would sit down in the lounge with a computer and perhaps search for local bookshops on Yellow Pages itself, or Google, then visit their websites and browse their online catalogues of old books, then perhaps ring them instead.

Alternatively he might log on to Ebay or Amazon type his name or the books and see what appears. From personal experience he’d probably have to save a search on Ebay to get the book but would no doubt get one eventually, having trawled through numerous other books on fly fishing, or containing either of the words. He could, of course, get the Kindle edition but would probably feel that it’s not quite the same, not got that old book smell and tactile sensation. J. R. Hartley would want the real thing, his book.

Strangely though, as sometimes happens, fiction became fact and although J. R. Hartley remained fictional his book didn’t, emerging in the nineties, as people started trying to get hold of a copy – to see what it was all about, into real world bookstores and eventually onto Amazon itself, where I bought a second-hand copy, and where it also now exists as a Kindle edition so it has sort of gone full circle from an imaginary book to a book that exists virtually.

The Ghosts of Software Past

I remember when all software came on magnetic floppy disks, sometimes on one, but later on many and even installing Windows 3.11 required a large number of disk changes, you couldn’t just set it going and leave it like today. I still have a copy of that version of Windows and of Borland C++ which came with a huge box of reference books and a similarly huge number of disks – both the smaller 3.5″ ones and the older 5.25″ ones – you really felt like you were getting your money’s worth. You’d put the first disk in and wait for what seemed like an eternity until the installer would flash a message up saying “Please insert disk 2” and you’d search through the stack if you’d somehow shuffled them and hope that it wasn’t missing – either not supplied, or lost if you were reinstalling. Then the waiting would continue and repeat until disk 10.  Fun times.

Since then we’ve been through CDs and DVDs and now thanks to high speed broadband you can even download a whole operating system in just a few small hours, or so it seemed to me when I did it a couple of months back with Windows 10. At each stage it was possible to shortcut the earlier process by copying the floppy disks onto a single CD, and then later copying whole CDs onto a large USB stick or portable hard drive though Windows can still use a DVD to install.

Because of all the disks, and the boxes in which to distribute them manufacturers in the past couldn’t keep selling old versions of software due to the manufacturing costs and the space required to warehouse them though some companies such as Serif would sell old versions cheaply alongside new ones for a while. Today though with downloadable software they can keep supplying old versions for much longer which is useful when you have old hardware that needs old software. Sometimes you’ll have an old computer that won’t run a 64 bit version of windows for example but new software won’t work on 32 bit windows, the newer version is incompatible with all or part your computer, or, as I found out, you buy an old negative scanner and the software disk that came with it was unreadable and the current version won’t work, luckily though the manufacturer still sells the old one via their website – preventing the new hardware becoming an expensive paperweight, or in the scanner’s case doorstop.  Many freeware, shareware or low cost independent software authors have an archive of old versions on their websites.

In other cases old, usually free, software or device drivers that have been rendered obsolete or the manufacturer has just decided not to continue developing them anymore can still be obtained via individuals uploading and archive copy to a download service. Again this is helpful as some older utilities have been replaced by newer, slower, clunkier “improved” replacements and you don’t have the option of the old program you liked – where the old version is either automatically upgraded or doesn’t come with a new operating system or application. This may also be true for paid for applications so long as you have the correct licence to install them.

Then there are the people who have managed to get really old software to run on modern PCs, like a Windows 3 emulator for that nineties computing experience. I had a Super Nintendo emulator to play games on my PC once but it just wasn’t the same so I bought a second hand real one instead.

When is a Mini not a Mini?

Mini Cooper

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

When it’s a Maxi and the Maxi was not a nice car.

I am not a person suited to the original Austin Mini, I have travelled in one, in the passenger seat and my knees were up round my ears. The car that is still referred to as the “New” Mini is a bit more my, er, size. I can’t stand the thing though, it’s not a Mini and I’m not the only person who has said this over the years.

Born of the trend for cool and “authentic” retro cars it is a product of fashion as opposed to the original which influenced fashion; a small, low cost, simple car, accessible to everyone (unless you’re as tall as me) yet something so essentially cool (in it’s original, sixties sense of not trying too hard to just be) that it was popular with celebrities too. Like the Fiat 500 it was small, cheeky and fun to drive, so I’m told. The new car is bigger, more expensive – a product aimed at, rather than adopted by, the fashionistas, the hipsters, hence the price tag. The size increase of course was due to car makers obsession with the idea that “people want more space” for stuff, more cup-holders, more cubbyholes, more drawers and more speakers, as such it is a pastiche as is the “New” Beetle. The coupe version looks ridiculous but the biggest travesty is the Mini Countryman which is comparatively huge, probably bigger than a Morris Minor Traveller, on the outside at least, less Countryman more Country Estate.  Even the headlights, angled backwards make it look like a mini that’s been in a very stiff gale.

Fiat fared better with the 500, it at least looks like it’s as small as the original though it still can’t really be called a “people’s car” any more and certainly can’t be fixed with parts from a local corner shop. My own car is half-way to a retro design, Citroen took the general shape of a 2CV for their retro effort but left out the pod headlights and the suspension suitable for ploughed fields – though that might have been useful, with the state of our potholed roads today…

There have been other such cars over the years but many of them, in my opinion, show that some things just can’t be improved on and the past is often best left where it belongs.

I Can Keyboard, Apparently

book-3294946_1280

Image by astize from Pixabay

There has been a fashion in language recently that annoys me, unsurprisingly. I don’t know whether it has emerged from the short-form, limited text length of Tweets or laziness or people just having too much to say and too little time. The issue is people leaving out large and often important parts of sentences while at the same time using a noun as a verb.

For example in TV and radio adverts: “I can best friend” “I can family” “I can daughter” “We can football” (Virgin Media) which don’t even describe what you’d be doing, how do you “family”? A while back an advert encouraged people to “Adult like a boss” or something similar, the emphasis being that “Adult” is something you do rather than something you are, maybe the ads aren’t written by adults.

Uswitch used to turn it up to eleven with “U niche hobby, U model aeroplane, U guitar solo, U feet up” – though shortly before I finished this they changed theirs to real English with lines like “You start a new hobby” and “you learn the guitar”. Maybe it’s not just me.

Then there is a fashion for car stickers that say “Because Fiesta” or Ibiza or Trabant. Because what, exactly? At least they say “because” rather than “cos”.

Some names do become verbs, like to Hoover and to Google but “Are you ready to Butlins?“, you might as well say “are you ready to Cromer?” or “Scarborough” for that matter and as for “I don’t gym, I Hustle” – when did it become too much effort to say “go to the (gym)”. Similarly “Time to Travel Republic”.  These all smack of both laziness and the idea that it’s cool to eschew proper language, of marketers trying to conform to the zeitgeist. The Butlins one is accompanied by the slogan “winning at holidays”, a kind of statement which seems to be part of the fashion for aggressive or at least competitive language in which you’ve got to beat everyone else at whatever you’re doing which also could explain the short, snappy lines.

Anyway I’m off for a sit down now. I can Sofa. Because Tea.