Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Good tech, bad tech

Random thought for today was on tech ...

Tech is getting ever deeper involved in our lives nowadays, to the point where we'd struggle to do anything without it. My recent pet subject (cars!) shows this to the nth degree, as cars have gone from purely mechanical carburettors and pumps and pulleys and chains to computer control, sensors, motors and all sorts of weird stuff that wasn't invented 10 years ago let alone strong enough to put in a car.

And now there's things like laser spark plugs coming through development ...

Some tech's good, some tech's a waste of time. Cars used to be pretty bombproof, albeit rather temperamental and never really at 100%. Nowadays, the computers keep the noisy bits working at top efficiency but if something ickle breaks ... Problems.

Phones are another example - my latest phone does everything. You could probably hook up a keyboard and screen and use it as a full computer. I could use it as a satnav instead of the clunky iPaq I use now. But ... with its tiny screen and short battery life, I'm not sure I'd want to use it as a satnav. Plus it's not much good for its primary function (it's a PHONE!) when it's being a satnav. Oh and you need a mobile phone signal and available data on your allocation.

Had a play with tech today - and it surprisingly went ok. We have an IT system at work that is much derided (they keep adding stuff before it's ready) but its major achievement is that we can log in from any site belonging to our organisation and get the access we expect. (That's if the hamsters have been fed of course) Could have done with a bit more tech to help out though, as I was jumping between doing notes and clicking a button to make the slides go. A wireless mouse would have been handy.

People go for the shinies ... but don't really consider "Is Shiny Better ?"

Wireless seems to be the next big thing. And it does have its place. Thing is though, that "place" isn't everywhere. Why have a wireless keyboard and mouse if they're used with a desktop type PC that doesn't move ? No point, plus the wireless stuff has limits that aren't an issue with a simple wire.

Connectivity - wireless uses either Infra Red (light we can't see) or radio. Put more than one of those together and you get interference. One IR device triggers off another, one radio causes mysterious jamming. I have to occasionally hit the reset button on my network stuff to make the iTunes audio streaming work ok.

With my wireless mouse (no longer in use), it was actually more restrictive than a wire because it used a sensor with a limited view that needed to keep its IR eye on the mouse. That's tech Gone Bad.

Batteries - most wireless kit works off batteries (duh !). The trouble there is that Strange Things happen when the batteries go down. Like a mouse or keyboard that goes to sleep (usually at the worst time) or a Totalbiscuit headset that deafens him because of those Strange Things.

Some tech is good, some tech is bad.

When you're buying stuff, always ask yourself whether what you're getting is :

Actually going to be of use.
Going to be reliable
Still be in use in 6 months (I don't use my PDA as a PDA any more, just as a satnav)
Too much or just enough

Shiny is good but too shiny can blind you.

And I think you're probably guessing by now that an early start and 4.5 hours (240 miles + lunch) on the road today means my capacity for rational thought is deserting me.

Signing off. Enjoy the shinies ! But don't waste your cash on stuff that's too shiny to be actually useful.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hanging tough

Thought I'd put a post in t'other day but it appears to have been eaten ... (or I didn't post it !)

Been struggling lately - I'm into Day 8 of a damaged back. I had 4 days of struggling to move at all which has moderated down to just being stiff with occasional flashes of Ow.

My back is one of my long term injuries, the ones that never really healed. I originally damaged it by trying to bowl too fast for too long, before my body was really ready for the loads I was putting through it. I've never been one for overdoing the training and it's the training that conditions you for using the muscles and techniques in games. So I get injured a lot. The problem in my back hits the lower lumber area (the bit just above your bum) and the issues it causes run down into my legs.

It's one reason why my left leg likes to tense itself up, the nerves controlling the leg get caught up in the restrictions when my back gets awkward one me.

But - after flaring up on Wednesday last week, it finally started releasing on Saturday night allowing me to go back to work on Monday. Despite what you hear about civil servants, there were no sick days involved with the Friday being annual leave :-). In fact, I've not had a sick day in probably 5 years. I don't get bugs too often, plus I'd rather struggle in than mope at home. Moping for me leads to a negative circle where I just feel worse.

I'd much prefer to be in to catch a grin from the Snow Queen, The Boss, Queen B, Mrs Sunshine, Lady P, Aphrodite & Athena and all the rest. Like the Raccoon plus the Scottish Go-To-Girl who I had the chance to grin at yesterday, usually it's just figuring things out over the phone. Yep, there's a few new codenames in there as we've moved around a bit and joined in with another team.

It's still a good place to be, although the old team has broken up somewhat as the organisation and project evolves. We've consistently kept on top of things over the years because we pull together as a team to crack problems professionally. Leaving it to someone else is not considered an option !

Yep - struggle with the back and all, plus I'm approaching the need for another easy chilling out week. No move yet for a car, I'm still waiting out the garages who are not wanting to admit to any prices. Hell - I have time on my side this time and in 6 weeks (End Aug, Start Sept) cars get cheaper because that's when the registration plates change.

No cricket at the moment, with the tiredness it's not a good idea as that's when you get injured. The back is a liability plus I have a wound on my leg (possibly a carry over from last year's shin thing) that only decided to start healing this week.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Thinking cars again

Been thinking about cars again as I look to change what I drive again ...

Despite temptation from seeing the soft tops my sister tends to drive, I've had a steady stream of medium sized fairly normal cars over the years. Not actually too many cars considering, although it always seems to be the brakes that go wrong. So, what have I had ?

First up, 1982 Fiesta 950pop.

This is the car that I should have learned to drive in, although there wasn't much volunteering to take me out on the roads. Maybe they'd been watching me play Revs (driving game on BBC Micro). Not much really to tell about this one, it gave all it had, which was limited. However, it was off the road for a few months due to a broken brake master cylinder. That's the widget that turns foot pressure into braking effort. And another bit of time off the road due to being rear ended by someone in Sheffield, first time I'd gone any distance on my own. Meh.

Anyway - a puny 950ccs engine made it good for only 78mph, after a year it got upgraded to a significantly better Astra Mk1 1.6 litre.

Which was yellow. Which kinda added to the charm. It also had so much rust on the front valence (the bit under the bumper) that I'd say it had a beard. A 90bhp engine combined with Old School design (really light, minimal protection) meant it went nice n fast. Which worked out to a sub 10 second 0 to 60 time and decent overtaking power. It was a true wolf (ok, maybe wolf cub) in old banger clothing. It could also double as a van for the uni hall shop, one time having about £700 worth of sweeties & drinks in the boot. Enough to make it go Grindy over speed bumps.

This one was easy and cheap to fix, with me fixing most of what went wrong on it. Which to be honest, was a fair bit. However, despite what broke it just kept on ticking. It sadly had to go though because encroaching rust meant it was falling apart from the inside out. It died well, literally in a pillar of flame. It was sold on to a colleague/friend of my dad's, who was doing welding on it. In his garage. With the car window open. Cue welding spark hitting seat and WHOOMPH !

Cars (and sofas) are made differently these days.

The Astra got me through university (cheaply) and then we did somewhat of a reshuffle of cars due to :
Mum's Belmont was making her arms fall off,
Sister's Astra GTE soft top had just had an engine blow
(when people get nervous about "cambelts", this is why - broken cambelt tends to = dead engine)
Me needing something reliable as I started working

So I took over my mum's Belmont SRi, my sister borrowed my Astra until she got something better and my mum really got the short straw by getting a nasty, NASTY little Peugeot. (I know - I drove it once or twice when I couldn't avoid it). The Belmont was the first car I bought with my own cash, having got a "You're just starting working" loan from the bank :-).

The Belmont was a really sweet car. It was the last of a dying breed, being catalytic convertor free. I have to say, I'm not a supporter of catalytic convertors. They destroy fuel economy and hamper power. They eat precious metals and have a limited life. They're unnecessary. Anyway, 1.8 litre fuel injected for 130bhp made something pretty nippy and it did over 45mpg without trying.

But (there's always a but). I got the car a year after tearing up my shoulder and got it from my mum because she was having major issues with the heaviness of the steering (no power steering). So I had to switch to something lighter. I think there was a bit of "it's not my car" in there too, with me wanting to choose & buy my own.

That "My Car" was a Rover 420 Exec Limited Edition. Which translated to it having a couple of extra toys and leather seats. This was slightly slower than the Belmont but seriously gobbled petrol. It got a 32mpg average. It was also horrendously expensive to keep on the road, with bits falling off all the time. I drew the line at Alternator Number 2, which was a genuine Rover part which failed after only 18 months. That's on top of a pair of broken valves which cost £1000 to repair. And there was a lot more than that which broke.

Yep - horrendously unreliable, which is one reason why the new MG is most certainly not on my list of potential cars.

The Rover nightmare lasted a bit longer than I'd hoped, as I'd set my heart on the Ultra Shiny Ford Puma. It's a small sports coupe based on the Fiesta fitted with a bigger engine and improved chassis. It took a while for a Puma to come to the used market though, people tend to hold on to them because they love 'em.

Ahh - Silver Puma, ultra shiny and totally awesome. Handled everything I asked of it, including a house move. More speed than the Rover, plus 38-42 mpg. A hatchback gave it plenty of flexibility too. Loved that car but after 80k miles, it was pretty much done. I'd bought it at 20k miles and the breakages started happening at about 65k. I finally let it go at 85k miles, when it was getting near the scrap heap. The brakes were almost gone, plus the body was starting to rust.

Hence a bit of an emergency buy, with me switching the Puma for a Focus ST170. That's the sporty version again, a little bit faster on paper but not really feeling that. The Focus has done well again, staying reliable except for a broken inlet manifold.

But - I'm feeling those itchy feet again, looking for something different. What shall it be ? CR-Z is out of the running (it wants to be a Puma but is UGLY and not fast enough). Prius is curious but I have misgivings over the chassis, it's looking like little Lexus at the moment but that depends on the garages having a reality check over what they're asking.

To the webpages !

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Been reading ... Surface Detail

Been waiting for this one for quite a while and it definitely didn't disappoint.

Latest finished book is Surface Detail, the latest Culture novel from Iain M Banks. Despite the disappointment of Matter, I was hoping for great things from this one. And it lived up to that too.

I find the most enjoyable action scifi books tend to be those that go somewhat like a rollercoaster, where you have no idea whatsoever what's coming next. What's in this one ?

The central theme is Death and what comes next. The Culture universe is sufficiently high tech such that many sentients are walking around with "soulkeeper" type devices, designed to preserve their mind state. The purpose, to give them a bit of backup in case they die (when they're "recanted" into a new living body) or to guarantee them a trip to the Afterlife. With the Afterlives being simulated virtual realities.

Trouble is, in the Culture universe there's a lot of Afterlives ... including Hells.

Won't say much more about the plot cos of Spoilers (mental picture of a River Song waggling a finger) but will say that this is a Culture novel back to its best form. Lots of Science Fiction on show here and plenty of Culture. More than a few ships including a highly psychotic warship who enjoys his work far far too much.

And what really puts the magic in, a significant part of the story is told from the point of view of a non Culture person who in partnership with one of the Ships narrates the book. It keeps the Science Fiction tech readable and out of the Technobabble domain.

Most Highly Recommended, although I wouldn't choose this as the first Culture book you read. That honour falls to Consider Phlebas because it introduces the Culture universe. Excession is also a major Culture highlight.

So that's Surface Detail, which will be added to the "Likely Read Again" list.

Next book is by Charles Yu, titled "How To Survive In A Science Fictional Universe". I'm only 80 pages into this 233 page book and I'm having thoughts that it's channelling a bit of Wanted. That's a film that co-starred Angelina Jolie. It had its moments (most of them with Angelina's character) but was crippled by a streak of extreme self loathing. This book has a fair bit of that self loathing.

Struggling through it in the hope there's a good book in there trying to get out. I suspect it's suffering from the contrast with Surface Detail.

SD : fun and with technobabble translated by that narrator partnership
HTSIASFU : self loathing and with technobabble turned up to 11.

I shall finish it, if only to give a fair "I've actually read this" opinion to people I know are curious about it ...