Brüno (2009)

Brüno (2009) at IMDb

Stomach cramping through awkwardness and laughter. Lots of easy targets but that’s because American culture makes it so easy. Between racism, homophobia, celebrity culture, fundamental Christians and Rednecks, they make easy pickings.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles are genius. I love anything from Larry anyway (Seinfeld, Dilbert, Curb Your Enthusiasm). Loving Snoop Dogg, too. Typically underplayed.

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary (2018) on IMDb

Gabrielle Byrne plays an incredibly patient husband as the awesome wife Toni Collette has a breakdown and becomes drawn to Spiritualism and the true destiny of her son.

Creepy and homely. You never know when a witch is walking amongst you.

Really neat cut between day and night over the landscape. What’s a horror film without either a distressed young girl in a shower or a quick flick through a book about Spiritualism for a bit of exposition?

Sputnik

Sputnik (2020) at IMDb

Not a fantastic fantasy/horror and it would be ideal for low anxiety/turn off brain at the end of a day watching if it weren’t for the intense concentration on the subtitles from the original Russian. I have no problems with subtitles but my gosh do they speak fast. Separating speech and facial expressions from words really does expose the skill of the actor.

Ex Machina

Nathan is instantly unlikeable and perhaps unworthy of trust. It can’t be healthy for anyone to exist in the remoteness like he does. What’s more incredible is not how much he has achieved for himself, his wealth and creature comforts, but how he has managed to obtain all that with very little actual work. Never does he “nip out” for a quick bit of work. No meetings. No distractions. Just beer.

Definitely interesting, testing the testers and a brilliant spin at the end.

What we should have learnt from lockdown

Before we start, let me preface this with the certainty of knowing we’ve had a torrid time. People have died, livelihoods lost, businesses have failed, mental wellness has suffered and a lot of money has been lost both now and in the future in our pension plans.

That said, we’ve had a lot of good things happen, and it’s important to realise this – and wonder why we weren’t able to enjoy this during normal times:

  • Quieter roads and neighbourhoods The island’s roads have been almost deserted. The silence was marked. We could actually hear birds. Air quality was improved.
  • Free music from Indie discos to 24 hour house music marathons Although the underlying reasons are deeply concerning, particularly regarding the survival of venues and sustenance of music professionals, the availability of free music has been astonishing. That availability has been converted to financial aid in the form of donations. A recent 24-hour DJ marathon by United We Stream raised over £100,00 and attracted over 4 million visitors.
  • Realisation that art forms a real benefit to our well-being From free music from music stars and DJs to major releases that would otherwise be trapped in cinemas going straight into people’s homes, the industry has reacted to consumers’ needs and people have realised that art (music, film or drama) can provide immense benefit to one’s mental wellbeing and forms a vital role in society.
  • A realisation we don’t need to be in an office to work Every morning, thousands of people head off in their car to central business districts to be in the same room. The costs to the planet are immense in terms of travel, power, air conditioning requirements and compromise to formerly green areas. Although co-location has massive benefits, we saw that it isn’t needed.
  • Support networks being established, reconnecting with our neighbours Back in the day, we used to know our neighbours. We were concerned if we didn’t see them for a few days. During lockdown, we were helping with shopping, keeping in contact and reconnecting with the older generations.
  • A material decline in CO2 emissions We’ve seen a marked reduction in CO2 across the globe, which is what we need to realise for climate disaster to be averted.
  • Reduction in use of cash A lot of businesses started to accept cards and the contactless limit was increased to £45. This will hopefully increase the speed of acceptance of cards and reduce the friction merchants needed to go through to have their own card payment options.

What can we learn?

It would be nice to think we can develop these lessons instead of picking up where we left off.

  • Quieter roads and neighbourhoods The change for the island’s road was transformative. Suddenly they became safe. It became easier to recognise true trunk routes for traffic and those that became trunk routes through laziness of drivers from going round the block. Neighbourhoods divided by roads can become one again, by reducing traffic flow. Our children could play out again (were they allowed to).
  • Recognise the arts It’s easy to forget the value of the arts, but we’ve all collapsed in front of Netflix (or whatever) after a day at work. Music plays an integral part in helping our mental wellness. We’ve all got favourite tunes that “lift us up”. Both we as consumers and the publishers need to realise that the landscape has changed. Streaming has to benefit both the consumer and the artist. Studios need to publish their content into the home. There is still a place for cinemas, but their role will inevitably change away from the box-multiplexes we’ve suffered of late.
  • Reliable and robust internet During lockdown I had to ask my family not to use the internet for streaming. This despite supposedly having silly expensive broadband which is shocking in quality and reliability. The internet can replace cars, offices and anachronistic business practices if it’s invested into. Roll out of fibre is an excellent first step but this has to be universal and affordable.
  • Be human We were suddenly all facing the same problem: how to stay safe. We were facing the same problems before (how to pay the mortgage, what food to buy, how to educate our kids, etc.) but somehow we didn’t recognise our mutual struggle. Let’s build on our new relationships and respect for each other, including those working to help you such as shelf stackers, etc. Tesco employees were just as essential as NHS nurses in the shakedown.
  • Use this time to build on our sacrifices and get CO2 down We sacrificed a lot during lockdown, not least of which was our ability/right to individually contribute poisonous gases into the air within a metal and plastic box because we didn’t want to walk. Our relationship with food stores changed, suddenly they started coming to us. It was the bus equivalent for food: One van to many people instead of many cars to one shop. But, the drop we saw above is already being reverted by countries on their way out of their own lockdown, for example, China. The curve is on the way back up.

There’s a lot of Socialist ethos in my ideas, and I am no Socialist. However, I recognise that the free market has created a lot of insular selfishness within people and a more egalitarian structure to society, with climate as a driver, could offer real benefits. If it took a global pandemic to get here, so be it. It should be easy:

  • Replace cars with more public transport, more buses, more frequent
  • Increased home delivery options from food upwards, but we need to address the Amazon problem
  • Reduced global travel and holidays, staycations are perfectly fine
  • Focus on local where possible, buy local, stay local, recirculate money

I know I’ve been exceptionally lucky, I have friends and family who have supported me and my family and been considerate in our support for them, where we can. Everyone’s struggle is different and personal. The New Year is just an arbitrary point in a solar calendar, but it is a line in the sand that we can look forward from. So long as the authorities don’t screw it up and people don’t get daft,

What Apollo 11 teaches software project deployments

In this 50th anniversary year of the first moon landing, everything seems to be talking about that achievement and those first steps. Including the BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast, which goes into some detail into the final moments as the crew Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin separate from their command module, manned by Michael Collins, through powered descent and onto the surface. Using interviews, archive footage and those all important communication loops, the podcast goes into some detail into the trials of those final moments, including fuel shortages, missed landing sites, computer overloads and communication failures.

At each of those steps, mission control had two options: Go, or No Go.

  • Fuel shortages were known, calmly acknowledged and communication optimised by removing noise from the communication loop except the essential fuel status reports.  They continued, basing their Go/No Go on a stopwatch which guestimated remaining fuel. Response: Optimised communication and a secondary control when the primary control appeared unreliable
  • The landing site was overshot because the horizontal progress of the landing module was too fast, Neil Armstrong took manual control to ensure that even with the guidance computer, a safe landing site could be used. Response: Manual oversight by a human being, who’s often better able to effectively respond to unfamiliar circumstances (though after significant training/experience).
  • The guidance computer repeatedly had “1201” and “1202” alarms mid-descent. These were raised automatically by the guidance system because the computer was unable to schedule/execute fast enough. Through rapid analysis, mission control quickly identified their cause and allowed the landing to continue despite experiencing 4 of these. Response: Pre-planned response*, better to use time before the mission that during it.
  • Communication was patchy. On top of the voice control was the all important data feed which sent essential telemetry back to Mission Control. No telemetry meant not enough data to safely continue the mission. However, whilst each Flight Controller was given the option to raise a No Go and abort the landing, each had enough confidence in what they did have that the landing was allowed to continue. Response: Intuitive confidence in known systems based on expertise and assessment of risk.

* Technically, these alarms weren’t pre-planned for, but others were. In this case, the 1202/1202 alarms were quickly analysed and a response returned.

Each example of failure here was failed forward. Risks were analysed and accepted. The risk of aborting was deemed higher than continuing. If they had to abort, although they’d practised and simulated, that scenario could never be robustly tested. Instead, they chose to acknowledge the variables they did know and work with those, mitigating if required.

Apply that to an IT project. Whilst I’ve never been involved in such a dramatic “Go/No Go” scenario, nerves can be high and failure can be damaging. When things don’t look right, the same call still needs to be made: do we rollback?

No.

In almost every situation I’ve been involved in, the risk of rolling back has been greater than “fixing forward”, that is, thinking on your feet and rapidly mitigating and fixing issues as the business operates. Past a certain point, too much has changed and you risk the real possibility of losing what has happened between deployment and the “Go/No Go” decision.

Fix it forward in the short term

Whilst one should still answer (almost humour) requests with “yes, we have a back out plan” to settle management nerves, another question that should be asked about a potential failed deployment would be “have you got a fail forward plan?”. What are the most likely outcomes of the deployment that may have failed? How will you spot them? Will you spot them quickly enough? Is there resource allocated to monitor post-deployment status and react outside of Business as Usual (BAU)? Is there a strong communication channel between users and potential problem solvers?

After deployment, a retrospective would allow not only the deployment to be analysed, but also the responses to the deployment, successful or not. A team can learn from the before, during and after in this retrospective to increase the likelihood of success in future deployments – including the ability to fail forward, accepting, managing and mitigating risk as you go.

This fail forward approach would probably strike fear in any project manager, though this approach can fit within an agile project very well, if the risk is accepted and handled. Whilst it would be ideal to test every possible scenario before a deployment, even within an agile framework, you cannot predict everything. As such a managed/phased roll out could slowly increase the risk, with rapid fixes and response plans ready in the wings if required. Each release is risky, but smaller change deployments can be smaller risks than rolling back a large change.

But, the people who can solve problems fast aren’t necessarily close enough to the front line to be able to respond to failure. Indeed, some standards mandate that developers should not be allowed anywhere near a production – or even a test – environment.

Continuous deployments in the long term

Of course, fixing forward should never become a standard element of a deployment task. This post is about recognising its role in still being able to deliver value in a failing deployment by recognising, accepting and managing risk. But this has to be balanced with an increasingly regulated commercial environment, requiring teams to accept restrictions and requirements imposed by the likes of the US’ FFIEC, Surbanes Oxley or the EU’s GDPR. Technology, project methodologies, workflows and processes are increasingly able to provide the opportunity to provide a greater level of comfort before a roll out, commonly known as “DevOps”. Using Containers helps manage the test and deployment environments and configurations, Continuous Integration separates developers from test platforms and Test-first development patterns help identify failure before it gets into source control. All of these aspects point to an Agile approach to software development and project delivery.

If an environment can provide not only the usual technical requirements:

  • Test-first development
  • Continuous integration from release branches, proven by testing
  • Automated deployments into environments, eg. test, pro-production, production

… but also the essential cultural requirements:

  • strong communication and trust between developers and administrators
  • emergency workflows/pathways that permit exceptional project responses, circumventing change controls in order to expedite responses
  • acceptance of management and trust in the first-responders – often developers

… then one could shoot for the moon – or rapidly built, automatically test proven, integrated code deployed into a production environment.

Plex and DVR

I’ve been an enthusiastic user and supporter of Windows Media Centre over the years, spending a lot of money for an optimum set up that is able to command WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor). Of course, it being a standout solution that “just works”, Microsoft decided to kill it – much like other awesome tech like Kinect, Windows Phone/Mobile, Silverlight, etc. So we needed an alternative that could provide media streaming of music and films we have on our home network and schedule recording of FreeSat content – all that across the house. Until recently, that was a big ask, requiring technical know how and patience which I simply do not have.

I’ve been using Plex as a media server for a while, not altogether impressed but it has seemed to be a consumer friendly (if sometimes tempremental with connections) solution that was rich and intuitive enough to be able to possible achieve WAF. When I heard that they started supporting DVR (the missing piece) for OTA (over-the-air) television, I thought I’d give it another go on the same machine previously used to run Windows Media Centre. Officially, Plex doesn’t appear to support FreeSat, but on the off chance I thought I’d try adding a LIVE TV / DVR configuration. Imagine my surprise when my device was recognised! (Note that you need a Plex Pass to enable LIVE TV / DVR support.)

The key was that my FreeSat card (a TBS 6981) appeared as a Hauppauge WinTV-quad, which Plex is compatible with. All I had to do was set it up. By selecting options in these three entirely anonymous drop down lists – a frustrating and disappointing user experience.

After trying a few obvious combinations, it became clear that with a channel scan that takes a minute or so before failing, I’d be there for the duration. After confirming that I was actually getting a signal through my FreeSat cable by patching it into an old Humax receiver, I downloaded DVBViewer and used that as a means of quickly identifying the settings. Or rather, trying to figure out what the drop down lists meant.

Using some very basic FreeSat knowledge, I knew that we use an Astra satellite at 28.2 degrees. That was easy. But what about the other fields? One related to the LNB type and one to the what I can assume is the selection of the individual LNB within the quad-LNB I have.

Mapping these settings into Plex resulted in a grand total of 4 channels. None of which I could get. Odd. Tried it again, worked fine. Go figure.

Next came mapping guide data to the channels. This is an incredibly onerous task and immensely dull and can be particularly frustrating if the user interface isn’t optimised to the task, which Plex isn’t. You can’t sort or filter, it’s difficult to see what’s what within a small window and the similar design of the buttons can make it easy to accidentally re-scan the channels – as I did – and lose everything – as I did.

Everything seemed to work after stepping through the process. Firing up a Plex client on my mobile phone and web browser showed “LIVE TV” and I could tune into channels.

There are some limitations, though.

  • You can’t time-slip, so watch whilst a recording is in progress. I used to use this all the time to watch the news slightly late.
  • Not every client has a guide, which makes it excruciating to find programmes.
  • Not all apps have LIVE TV and DVR functionality. My Panasonic TV doesn’t, for example. (yeah, I know. My FreeSat is patched into my PC because the set is only FreeView)

It’s definitely got promise, however. Plex is pretty polished and things do mostly “just work”, which ticks my box.

 

Lego pieces

Manx with children: Lego

Lego piecesIt’s school holidays so we have to find things to amuse and occupy our son. I’m keen on making sure that the line between using Manx at school is blurred into the home because research suggests that it is possible that children see their second language as being only for use in a school setting.

We try to use Manx in settings where it can be readily and easily applied, like getting dressed, going to the shops, etc. A holiday activity would be building Lego.

Counting and identifying pieces

Count pieces you need in Manx, nane, jees, tree, kiare, quieg, shey, shiaght, hoght, nuy, jeih …

  • Peesh beg – Small piece
  • Peesh mooar – Large piece
  • Peesh ruy – Red piece
  • Peesh gorrym – Blue piece
  • Breek – Brick
  • Hoght peeshyn – Eight pieces
  • Breek kiare-chuilleig – Rectangle brick
  • Breek kiarkyl – Circle brick
  • Kiare taggadyn – Four studs

Building

  • Cur eh ayns shoh – Put it here
  • Cur eh er shen – Put it on there
  • Coontey y taggadyn – Count the studs
  • C’raad t’eh goll? – Where does it go?

Navigating instructions

  • Toshtal dy jesh – Left to right
  • Jeagh er y jalloo – Look at the picture
  • Duillag sniessey – Next page

Feedback

  • Jeant dy mie – well done
  • Yindyssagh – Wonderful
  • Shen eh – That’s it
  • Prowal reesht – Try again

I’m not an expert by any stretch, but if this helps blur the gap between Manx at school and English at home, then it’s all for the good. If you think any of this could be improved, do let me know in the comments.

Amazon are evil, and you’re letting them be

Which tech. company has the biggest impact on our lives? Twitter? Meh, it’s now passé. Facebook? Full of … well, people. Google? It gets you to where you’re going, be it via their Search or Maps. All of the above trade in your data. The biggest risk is your reputation or a surprise Trump election (which hasn’t actually been as bad as we’d thought). Amazon, on the other hand, has real implications on our economy, and we’re allowing it to get more powerful.

Dishonest Customer Service

Their Customer Service is dishonest. Twice I’ve been promised recompense, twice nothing, they’re more keen on getting positive feedback for individual representatives. It makes you wonder where their priorities lie. By measuring the satisfaction with their overly-friendly reps, they’re not actually measuring the effectiveness of their reps. The way to solve this is to ask 5 days or so after contact for feedback, not immediately afterwards, with the representative almost pleading for a positive review as they close the call.

Gig economy to reduce costs

Everything about Amazon is cost. By shaving where they can and investing in what at first appearance looks like ridiculous technology (such as using drones to deliver, starting their own delivery infrastructure) As part of this, they use the gig economy courier Hermes. Hermes themselves save costs by not employing the same level of professional as other couriers. They don’t need that lower layer of distribution. They rely on the gig economy, unprofessional couriers in your area who use their own vehicles and time to meet that last leg of delivery. These people don’t have the same level of checks or rights as an employee. They are measured on successful deliveries, but this is not necessarily guaranteed. Our delivery agent deliberately marks packages as delivered when they haven’t. These people are essentially uncontactable when you miss a package or need to query something, because there is no “hub” or depot you can contact. No accountability.

Aggressive competition

I’m a believer in free market economies and competition can drive prices down and quality/range of service/products up. This is doubtless the case with Amazon. To the point that it has become detrimental to not only those bricks-and-mortar stores that we’re used to hear about struggling (RIP Toys’r’Us and Maplin, hope you can make it Debenhams, John Lewis, Mothercare and the rest), but also other online retailers. Through their “Marketplace” strategy, smaller retailers can supply their goods through the larger Amazon site (saving a tonne in hosting, development, maintenance, security), which is brilliant. Except the terms of that agreement is that retailers often cannot compete with their own position on the Amazon store, resulting in traffic to their own sites declining. It’s now too easy to “Click Once” on Amazon.

My purchases over these last couple of months have been from the retailers themselves, rather than via Amazon. For a few moments extra time to research, it is possible to find the same products with an improved level of attention to customer service. It’s almost embarrassing as a consumer, having follow-ups and almost-pleading messaging on sites to keep you and have you return. So far, I cannot say I’ve had a negative experience.

Overbearing employer

The plight of Amazon workers is well documented. Their rights are minimal, their satisfaction around the same. Huge warehouses with awesome technology looks good, but there is inevitably the need for humans to pick, package and post items. The rights of a worker even reportedly impinges on basic bathroom breaks. Now, they want to track their employees hand movements. Workers also avoid going to the bathroom. This race to the bottom for employees and their rights inevitably means there will be redundancies.

Prime: Pay to Pay

Amazon have managed to create a scheme whereby you pay a subscription to get benefits such as quicker/cheaper postage, films and music streamed, access to e-books, etc. A lot of benefits, for sure. Look deeper and you find it’s not that good a deal. So what if you have to wait an extra day for your package? So what if it costs slightly more, just batch your order. Try finding a film on Amazon Prime, you’ll probably have to pay for it (again). That’s right, you’ve paid £7 a month to pay another £6 for Office Space. Just pay the £7 for the BluRay and keep it. (You know, because they can withdraw that title at any time they like even after you’ve bought/rented it). Work it out. £7 a month is the same as a BluRay/DVD a month you get to keep. They have become so arrogant that they’re willing to lose sales by limiting accessibility to actual disc content to Prime subscribers. Then we get to the confusion between Amazon Prime Music and Amazon Music Unlimited.

Alexa

Only 5 years ago, if you’d have been offered a gadget that listens to every word you say and now even has a camera next to your bed, you’d express concern. Apparently, not now. We are definitely in a data economy, whereby companies are competing for our data. Now we are paying money to put gadgets into our homes to give these companies even more data. What is the real benefit here? A few gimmicks such as “Daily briefing” or home automations are less than convincing. It’s not even particularly good, with requirement to use “trigger phrases” and structured questions so we’re still a long way away from natural language recognition. Every demo I’ve had of Alexa has ended up with failed requests and frustration.

Jeff Bezos is now approaching richest man status and is literally going to go to space on your money. From what was a really useful source for text books at university has turned into the default choice for sourcing and buying products. It is globalisation on a micro-scale. Bricks-and-mortar stores, other online retailers and employees have already started to accept their loss. They’ve used supposed competition to build out the infrastructure but who ultimately suffers? You, the consumer. The fact you haven’t realised it yet is a bonus.

Would the last user of Windows Mobile please turn out the lights? (2/3)

If you haven’t arrived here from what brought me here, you might want to start there.

Without rehashing what came before, in leaving Windows Phone I find myself at odds with my ecosystem and being pulled back in to Google’s data black hole.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Windows and what it was/could have been. UWP and Windows 10 and x86 apps on ARM are exciting. I dislike Android and respect myself too much to buy in to Apple.

Call me old-school. But I can’t be alone. For a phone, I just want it to be fast, good looking, be easy to use (so a physical keyboard) and be reliable and secure. The industry is careering towards exactly the opposite. Apps suck battery power and require Octa-core performance, all phones I can see are just slabs, no phones (bar one) have a physical keyboard instead relying on increasingly “smart” (annoying) autocorrecting on-screen keyboards and the most secure platforms (Windows Mobile, BlackBerry) are essentially dead in the water. Even the respected brands for build quality and security, Nokia and BlackBerry, have failed and are now retooling as façade-brands whilst the same Far-Eastern-manufacturing-factory-drones as everyone is using are charged with trying to maintain the trust, build quality and heritage of former platforms – but cheaper, much cheaper.

So, I switched.

The industry has failed me, producing nothing interesting, differentiating or exciting. It’s all just a bunch of black slabs differentiated only by the marketing wrapped around what is otherwise the same phone.

Except, maybe BlackBerry. BlackBerry have moved to Android (probably a smart move) and they’ve tried to transition the established trust they have developed in their brand (key of which is security) towards what is the most insecure platform available for mobile phones. They’ve sort of succeeded, too. Add on a physical keyboard and you get to the BlackBerry Priv. Alas, it looks like this was the first and last phone users could trust for build quality, as their production is now handled by the same Far-Eastern-manufacturing-factory-drone previously mentioned. But this isn’t a Priv review.

But, it’s a struggle.

I don’t know how you people manage on this platform.

  • No Live Tiles. Widgets and tiny overlays on a grid of icons just don’t come close
  • You have to turn your screen on to see the time, no ‘Glance screen’
  • Fussy, inconsistent UI. Notifications about everything, delivered inconsistently. Only sometimes do I get told of my email, more often I get told I unplugged my headphones (yeah, I know, because I just did it with my own hands)
  • I’ve had to reboot every day. Rebooting was almost unheard of with Windows Phone 8.1, though became a regular requirement for Windows 10 – but not daily.
  • Things just stop working. APN settings, my primary email account four BlackBerry Hub. Then, they start working again.
  • Settings, settings, settings, everywhere. With great configurability comes great confusion.

About that Priv …

  • Poor screen in daylight. Almost invisible.
  • The radios (particularly Wifi and Mobile Internet) aren’t that great. I seemed to get better reception for both on my Windows Phones.
  • Headphone socket on the bottom of the phone. Even worse, just to one side. Result is I have to put my phone in my pocket upside down to listen on headphones and can’t expect to extract it without the lining of my pocket.
  • Going back to wired charging is like going back in time. And Micro USB to boot.
  • But, …
    • It is secure. So secure I had to factory reset when I locked myself out after forgetting my unlock pattern!
    • The slide is reminiscent of the old Nokia N95-2 (one of my favourites)
    • The BlackBerry software is neat, particularly the Hub. All the things in one inbox. It’s how I like to work. One app to rule them all, and in the inbox combine them.

Next job, trying to recreate my Microsoft ecosystem comfort zone, in someone else’s world