Category Archives: Thoughts

Royal Fail!

Another moan from yours truly about the state of the nation.

This time it’s the Royal Mail that’s frustrating and annoying me.

In the last two weeks, two separate things have occurred which in isolation would be annoying enough, but when taken together become something quite unpleasant.

First off, I ordered a couple of T-Shirts from a website in the US.  Nothing unusual or unreasonable about that.  These T-shirts cost the equivalent of about £22 once the conversion from Dollars to Sterling had been completed.  They were dispatched, and the next thing I know I had a card through the door from the Royal Mail stating that they were unable to deliver the item to me because there was a charge to pay.

Fair enough, import duty, customs duty, call it what you will, I’m not trying to avoid paying what I should, which was something like £1.50 on the package.  Again, not unreasonable.

What wound me up was the £8 “handling fee” for the Royal Mail to collect and pass on that £1.50 to HMRC.    How can it possibly cost anything like £8 for them to handle that.  Ok, so the cost of a card being posted through my door which at the overinflated retail rates would arguably cost a stamp, plus the cost of the card itself.  5 minutes of time for someone to calculate and write on the card, and put it in the post.  Maybe some costs for back and forth transport between Royal Mail and HMRC, so a couple of pounds would not be unreasonable in my mind, but £8…?

The Second event happened this morning.  We’ve noticed this before, and have commented in conversation, but today the Postman made a special trip to our door to put a leaflet through the letterbox advertising something or other.  This was just a generic leaflet, no address on it, not personalised to us in any way.  It’s the sort of thing I may have delivered once in a blue moon as a paperboy all those years ago.  There was no other mail this morning, just the damn leaflet.  As usual it went straight in to the paper recycling.  Thank goodness for small mercies – it was at least one leaflet today and not the 10-20 identical copies of the same leaflet that we usually get!

I bet the company paying Royal Mail for the leaflet drop aren’t paying the price of a stamp for each leaflet to be delivered!

I am forced therefore to conclude that the Royal MFail is therefore using the ridiculous charges like the “handling fee” to subsidise unwanted spam leaflets like that.  This is unacceptable behaviour in my mind, and while I don’t object to companies diversifying their services to increase profitability, it should stand on it’s own two feet, and not inappropriately dis-aggregate the true costs in other related areas.

PS – Where’s my option to “opt out” of unsolicited Spam from you please Royal Mail?

Virtualised CE – The Next Generation?

I’ve been doing more musing than usual recently on where I think technology evolution in the Network arena is heading over the next few years, and the concept of a Virtualised CE Router keeps popping in to my head.  This entire post is a bit of blue-sky thinking, but it’s not that far away from where we are today.

I think of the idea as a logical next step in the Hybridisation of Virtualisation and Network Function Virtualisation with that of Software Defined Networking.

Virtualisation has already taken over the Data centre, with VMWare and others having the capabilities to provide logically discrete Virtual Switching, Routing, and Firewall instances within the cloud infrastructure, so why not take it to the next step and start to consider Virtualisation for some of the additional services we might want to use?  Indeed the IETF has a draft considering exactly this for MPLS VPN’s.

Current WAN networks follow a fairly traditional delivery model in that the edge of the carrier network is terminated on to a local piece of Customer Premise Equipment (CPE), which in turn is connected to a “Customer Edge” (CE) device usually provided by the Network Operator.   Domestic DSL services follow a similar model.

My vision of a Virtual CE device fits both the conventional WAN solution, and in particular MPLS type deliveries, and a consumer grade DSL service.

Ethernet is increasingly becoming the bearer of choice for MPLS and Enterprise WAN services, either using Copper or Fibre, and terminating on an RJ-45 Ethernet port on the CPE.  Since this is literally an Ethernet service delivery, why not shift the “intelligence” back to the other end of the circuit?  Enabling the Service provider to virtualise the physical and provide a logical instance delivered from a shared hardware platform.  This reduces the equipment that could “go wrong” on a customer site, reducing (but not totally eliminating) the potential need for engineer visits, break/fix maintenance, and ultimately to save costs.  The carrier can also standardise the services that the customer takes, and capitalise on investment in centralised CE equipment.  It would still be possible to use tagged Ethernet to deliver traffic to different Networks/VLAN’s for the more sophisticated requirements, and doesn’t really change the scope for screwups which could cause traffic to be delivered in to the wrong logical networks due to mis-patching, (although I do know of a solution that might help there too! 🙂 )

Extending  this line of thought in to the Consumer market, I think that It has massive potential there too.  It may still be necessary to have an intelligent black box of a sort as a CPE to provide a Layer 2 connection back to the intelligence in the Virtualised CE environment, (using something like L2TP over DSL to the virtual CE router?).  Of course local WiFi breakout services will also still be required (Cisco already have the Meraki Cloud-managed Access Point range) but nevertheless similar benefits around centralisation, management, and economy of scale could apply.  Consumers could still manage their own CE device via a browser, but the carrier could have a far greater degree of influence/control over the make/model of CE device the customer uses enabling standardisation as well as opening the door to many more value-added services that the carrier could provide.  Some possibilities include:

  • Central, Redundant, Backed up Network Attached Storage
  • Media Centre/TV and related services (XBMC/Netflix/Plex/Sky Plus/Virgin TIVO etc)
  • Remote Access/VPN
  • Firewall & Security
  • Shared Access (Data Sharing, Gaming, etc)
  • Content Filtering

Taking those points in order:

Network Attached Storage:   How many high-tech families (read: geeks) have sophisticated home networks with Network Attached Storage capabilities, used to backup Photos/Music/Documents, or other locally stored Data?  This type of virtualisation could allow the carrier to provide (sell!) Exchange or Data-centre based NAS/SAN capacity.

Media Centre:  What about those people using Media Server(s) running on a NAS or dedicated server Hardware?  iTunes or Airplay servers to stream music to a SONOS or similar?   Centralised access to subscription based TV services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, or even inbound access to your Sky Plus or Virgin TIVO?  Local storage (maybe on NAS?) of your own movies using Plex or XMBC?

Remote Access/VPN: I can only predict this area will grow and grow.  I currently have the capability to establish a private VPN connection to my Home Network in order to access data stored on my NAS etc.  As the trend towards the “internet of things” accelerates, I predict that this trend will only increase over time as we access additional home based solutions including Lighting, Home Security, Central Heating, Electric/Gas meters, even Cookers and Freezers etc going forward.

Firewall & Security: We all hear about the latest and greatest zero-day exploit and such, wouldn’t it be great if we could sit back secure in the knowledge that our service provider was protecting us against these threats centrally.  Integrating this measure of control behind an easy to use UI to facilitate:

Shared Access: Already we find the younger generations gaming together within the same house on their respective games consoles with LAN enabled gaming, and of course MMORPG’s are extremely popular too! Why not have the neighbourhood kids playing Minecraft together on a private server that only they can get to?  This is about the ability to selectively extend parts of the Network between entities (on a selective and controlled basis of course).  Want to access that particular music track at home while you’re visiting a friend?  no problem!

Content Filtering: How about being able to deliver different levels of filtering, maybe to different Wifi SSID’s or LAN ports on the black box locally?  How about separate SSID’s for “Adults”, “Teenagers”, and “Children” each with differing levels of content filtering, maybe even logging applied.

And of course that’s before we start entertaining the ideas of Desktop-as-a-service, or the shift of compute workloads to the cloud.  I’m pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before we shift the work behind our games consoles away from black boxes in the home, and just use a virtual-screen display type solution for it all! (nVidia SHIELD?)

I know that much of this can be done today, but it requires a particularly persistant technical person to make it all work, and even then it’s not yet as seamless as we’d all like!   I think that the idea of Virtualising the CE takes us a step towards my vision, and is a potentially lucrative area for the carriers to invesigate.

What do you think?

Reboots Rebooted!

I’ve mentioned this previously, but it never ceases to frustrate and annoy me how our Film and Television Studios insist on “rebooting” or re-imagining an existing film franchise. I am of course focussing my thoughts on the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, since that’s where my tastes lie.

Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Judge Dredd, Godzilla, Star Trek, Robocop, Flash Gordon, Total Recall, Conan, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, The Tomorrow People, V, Dune, – all of which have been rebooted or re imagined to varying degrees of success. Usually with a change in some or all of the principal cast, often with Cameo appearances from earlier incarnations, but most of the time with a re-imagining of the original storyline.

This frustrates me for two reasons. Firstly, as someone who is feeling distinctly middle aged, I usually grew up with the original incarnation of the film or TV programme, and seeing it re-written and produced afresh with new actors undermines the originals I feel.

I don’t mind so much where the storyline picks up later on, or where the original left off, or even before the original (eg Star Wars Eps 1-3). Finding a way to solve a cliffhanger from the last episode or incarnation is where some of the story lines come in to their own, and is not a foreign skill to Scriptwriters, or Storytellers.

However even then, the new storytellers have a dangerous tendency to step away from Canon, and play fast and loose with the old history because they think we won’t remember; Take Doctor Who for instance, which in the new post-Ecclestone era seems to have developed a tendency to ignore much of what went before. The Cybermen were originally from Mondas, and in the later series they re-originated from a parallel universe and were supposedly created by John Lumic from CyBus industries. While the two story lines weren’t totally incompatible, there was really no good reason why a new origin and back story was created.

My Second frustration is that there is no end of Fiction out there which is crying out for transition to Film or TV, which I wish the Screenwriters and Authors would turn their attention to. Some of the best TV in recent years has come from this route, and includes the acclaimed “Game of Thrones” – adapted from George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire“.

Here’s just a few of the candidates that come to mind:
– The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne & Todd McCaffrey
– The Magician series, by Raymond E. Feist
– The Assassin / Fool series’ by Robin Hobb
– The Honor Harrington series by David Webber
– The Troy Rising series by John Ringo
– The Kris Longknife series by Mike Shepherd
– The RAMA series by Arthur C. Clarke
– The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov

There are of course hundreds more. I understand of course that there is an implicit cost to obtaining rights to materials, and some authors may not be so keen to allow their content to be transitioned, based on the experiences of people like Ursula K. LeGuin with her Earthsea series, where she was exceedingly unhappy with the transition to screen.

Of course, not every attempt succeeds, and there are a number of critically acclaimed hits, and an equally extensive list of misses.

I’d point at a number of successes, including:
– The Colour of Magic / Going Postal / The Hogfather produced by Sky
Enders Game – the 2013/2014 film
Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, A Scanner Darkly; All based on novels by Philip K. Dick
I am Legend, and  I Robot – adapted from books and starring Will Smith

Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America, etc – The Marvel Machine is doing a great job of making the most of their intellectual property and transitioning one story after the other to the big (and the small!) screen.

Some of the also-ran’s include:

John Carter – the attempt to transition the “… of Mars” series by Edgar Rice Burrows didn’t wow audiences, although it was an entertaining enough film in it’s own right.
Oblivion – starring Tom Cruise, but based on a book by Joseph Kosinski, it didn’t really draw the crowds at the box office.
Battlefield Earth – based on a book by renowned Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard, this one had strong potential, but the links including the Star John Travolta to the Church of Scientology contributed to low popularity.
Red Planet – an all star cast including Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Terence Stamp wasn’t enough to drag this one up the charts.
Lost in Space – the remake starring Heather Graham, William Hurt, and Matt Le Blanc, failed to engage audiences, despite being an entertaining and well executed update.

Often these films fail because they don’t stick closely enough to the book to satisfy the die-hard fans.

Unfortunately the number of reboots far outweighs the number of original Films & Serials.

So this is a heartfelt plea, to the Film & Television industry. Please PLEASE PLEASE, enough with the Reboots and Remakes, how about putting some effort and time in to some original Scifi and Fantasy?

Do you agree?

A Gentleman’s Grooming Tools

I’ve come to realise something interesting over the last 18 months or so.   I happened to mention it in conversation at work today and several other people agreed with my realisation, even though they only realised when I pointed it out.

Gillette Fusion ProGlide

I am referring to the quality of Mans Shaving Razors currently available.

For many years I have (in hindsight foolishly) fallen for the marketing hype, and persistently bought Gillette Razors.  After all, they are “The Best a man can get”, right?   My Father always used to use Gillette, and to start with I tended to follow suit.

I’m not sure why, but at some point I picked up a pack of Wilkinson Sword blades, probably on offer somewhere or other, and have been using them for quite some time (since Jan/Feb if not earlier) perfectly happily and without issue.

I’ve recently needed to stock up on blades, so I picked up Gillette once again, wincing as usual about the price!  In use I’ve now noticed something which I’d specifically not noticed with the Wilkinson Sword variety.

Wilkinson Sword Hydro Razors

I’ve noticed that I can only use the Gillette ones about twice before they are blunt enough to leave my face feeling quite sore.  The pack of four blades I bought for an obscene sum less than a month ago has just about seen all the use it’s going to, and I’ll be replacing them once again.    On reflection the pack of Eight Wilkinson Sword blades I bought in Jan/Feb has lasted me until mid June, which is significantly longer, and without such a marked decrease in shaving quality.

I don’t want to think about the price per shave I get out of the two packs respectively, but suffice it to say that I get FAR FAR better value for money out of the Wilkinson Sword ones.  Shaving quality is good with both, and while the Gillette ones might “currently” have the edge (pardon the pun) on first use, they quickly tail off in comparison.

So, I will be bying more of the Wilkinson Sword Hydro razors in the future, and deliberately staying away from the Gillette.  That is until the marketing machine convinces me otherwise and the next incarnation of the “Fusion ProGlide Ultra Extreme Power” or whatever Gillette produce next comes along and I am taken in by the marketing and convinced to give them a try!

Do you have a preferred brand of razor?  and have you noticed a similar problem with the Gillette brand ones?

 

Customer Service

I’ve seen examples of both Amazing/Excellent Customer Service, and pretty piss poor couldn’t-care-less Customer Service in the last 24 hours.

My DART Tag

Starting with the negative first, earlier this week I had cause to travel through the Dartford Toll Crossing twice. As a reasonably regular traveler of that route in the past, I long ago invested in a “DART-TAG” to make my life easier, and to save a few pennies.  What SHOULD happen is that as you approach the toll barrier, the equipment there somehow senses the presence of your tag, and so just debits the charge to your account.  In most cases you don’t even have to stop, the barrier is sensitive enough and quick enough for you to just slowly drive on through.  The Tag usually emits a loud “bleep” to indicate it’s been recognised, and you get a nice friendly message saying that the toll had been paid (or your credit was low of course!).  But this time, when I tried it on the way “out” this week, NOTHING HAPPENED.

No Bleep.  No nice friendly message, and most importantly NO ACCESS through the barrier.   And of course the car behind me was right up behind me, meaning I couldn’t reverse to reach the machine’s coin catcher if I wanted to.

I had to go rummaging around in the loose change in my pockets, and rolling about in the car trying to find enough change to pay my toll.  I could see the people in the car behind me getting impatient and exasperated, and then I had to sort of wriggle out of the window and reach over my shoulder and behind me to get the money in the machine.

The return journey was a similar experience, only I was prepared for the eventuality that it might not work and had the cash ready to use.

So as you might expect, I looked at the Tag Website to see what if anything was said about a Tag not responding, and there was nothing.  The “FAQ” seemed quite laughable in actual fact, when you consider the number of tags that must be out there (mine is numbered well in to the hundreds of thousands) it is not outside the realms of possibility that they might just stop working every so often, for whatever reason.   Simply NOT having a “What do I do if my tag doesn’t work” in the FAQ doesn’t really make me think that it’s a wholly reliable solution that never goes wrong, merely that the operators of the service are too short sighted to realise that this is EXACTLY the sort of thing an FAQ might actually be Helpful with.   Instead I resorted to the “for any other enquiries please e-mail xxxxxx” option, seeing as the published telephone numbers all seemingly close at 5.30pm!

Anyway, to my disappointment, it’s been over 24 hours now, and I’ve not so much as had an acknowledgement of my e-mail, let alone an answer to my problem.   If I’d have been traveling through the Crossing again today, it would have cost me £1.50 each way instead of £1 each way with the tag, so I’d have lost more money.  I therefore hold this up as a classic example of (1) how to NOT help your customers via your Service Website, and (2) how to NOT help your customers by responding in a timely manner.  There’s nothing for it but to label this as  BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE.

And then the positive.

I was gutted today to discover when I picked my Kindle up intending to use it, that the screen appears to have broken.

My rather broken Kindle

I can genuinely say that I’ve not dropped it, smacked it, or anything else.  Indeed you can see the plastic surround is pristine and undamaged, as is the surface of the screen itself.   I keep it in a purpose made leather wallet which is also totally undamaged.   When transporting it, I tend to put it in my baggage right next to my iPad which is also absolutely fine, so I have absolutely no idea how this damage occured.

Unfortunately it renders the Kindle quite unusable.  The top/right hand part of the screen stubbornly displays the last “advert” it displayed in Sleep mode before I turned it on, and the bottom/left part of the screen works more or less as normal.

So I called Amazon using the “call me back” facility on the Website.   I bought the Kindle back in March this year, from my local Tesco.  I had Googled “Kindle Repairs” and come up fairly short, so really wanted to ask Amazon if they could offer or recommend a repair service.  However I was astounded by what happened next.

I explained what I’d found, and how I couldn’t explain how the damage had occured, and before I could ask my questions, the operator started asking me a few other things.  When did I purchase the unit?  I wasn’t totally sure, maybe as long as 6 months ago from Tesco, I hadn’t bought it from Amazon.co.uk directly.  No, to the best of my knowledge it hadn’t been dropped, or squashed, or exposed to water.  Yes, I had tried the “cold reset” facility.    Ok then, in that case they’ll dispatch a replacement today on next-day delivery, please send the old one back in the next 30 days.

I was astounded.    Given my honesty and sheer puzzlement over what could have caused the damage, I certainly wasn’t angling for a free replacement.  I was expecting to have to pay for a repair or even replace it at my own expense.   Never did I expect a replacement to be sent out just like that.   No “proof of purchase” required, no quibbles, or messing about.  Just a straight replacement, and I hadn’t even asked!

Of course I wasn’t going to turn it down, so I went from being quite angry and annoyed with the prospect of spending another £150 on a replacement Kindle to elated and overjoyed that I’d be getting a Free Replacement (and a postage-paid label to return my old broken one with!) the very next day.

That in my estimation is going above and beyond the requirements of Acceptable Customer Service in to the realms of the Exceptional.  Well done indeed Amazon.co.uk, you have one very happy customer here!