One of my photos

Bye bye branches

July 2nd, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Life, Technology

I had an interesting email from Barclays today, inviting me to take part in a trial of paying in cheques via online banking.

Interesting because this is exactly the feature I was saying they should have when I last received a cheque from somewhere. With online banking capable of doing most things and cash available from ATMs everywhere, the only reason I ever had to go into a bank was to pay in cheques, which is quite rare now, but a bit of a pain.

Last time I did it I was wondering why we can’t just take a photo of the cheque with a smartphone and pay it in through the banking app on the same phone, and that seems to be exactly what they are trying.

There is a downside to all this. It removes yet one more reason to go into a bank and so can’t bode well for the prospects of bank staff. It will certainly make it easier to cut down on the number of branches or the numbers of staff.

Despite being enthusiastic about how convenient this could be for me I will not take part in the trial for practical reasons. I get cheques so rarely that the trial will probably be over before I get one, especially since only Barclays cheques are part of it, but I hope it works and gets expanded to cover any cheques.


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Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore

June 14th, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Life

We arrive at books by many different routes. It may be that a cover catches our eye in the shop, or a review in a magazine sounds good, or somebody recommends it. I came to this book by a bit of a backwards route. I very much enjoyed a book called The Reader on the 6:27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent and the publisher’s blurb for the book said that it was like “Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore meets Amélie”. Now I had never even heard of the 24-hour book, but I thought I should give it a go purely on the basis that if people who liked it would like the book I just enjoyed so much then I should like it too.

OK, so publishers have been known to exaggerate or even lie when pushing their books, but it was worth risking the few quid on downloading it. It turns out that I did enjoy Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, even though it really isn’t anything much like the book that was being compared to it.

The Penumbra book is actually sort of like what the Da Vinci code might have been if it had been written by Douglas Coupland and was not about Jesus at all. At first I felt a little guilty reading what looked like it might be a hymn to printed books on a Kindle, but it soon turned a bit technological.

The bookstore of the title is one with a tiny but eclectic and carefully-chosen selection of books for sale, but a massive amount of mysterious books on the higher shelves are only borrowed by mysterious customers. The hero of the book  is a recently-unemployed website designer who starts to investigate these mystery books, which leads to a 500-year-old secret society dedicated to cracking the secrets of life.

At this point it turns into a sort of quest for the hero, who treats it like a real-life dungeons and dragons game, adopts the role of ‘rogue’ and enlists the modern-day equivalents of a wizard and warrior to help him. By this time it is all getting a little complicated but compelling.

After the conclusion of the story there is a bit of a postamble (if that is a thing) which briefly describes what everybody went on to do and seemed to set everything up for a series of sequels, so I was a little surprised to find that the book was followed up by a prequel instead – Ajax Penumbra: 1969, which I immediately downloaded and read.

The prequel does explain a few things from the first book. It is more of a novella than a proper book, being extremely short, but I defy anybody to finish Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore and not want to read the prequel too. Or anything else that Robin Sloan decides to write, because he has a very readable style and seems equally at ease describing historical details (some real, some invented and some a bit of a mixture) , modern technology, and the possibilities for the near future.

By the way, reading it on a Kindle turned out to be very appropriate indeed.

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Feeling at home

June 11th, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Life, Politics

You know how it is when you walk into a place for the first time and it immediately feels comfortable? You just feel at home there for some reason. Well I have had that sort of feeling twice in the last week with council matters.

The first time was when I went down to see the IT department and we went though to the server room. For a start, it was like walking onto the set of the IT Crowd, but then affection for that show is mostly down to the accuracy and familiarity of the the set. As soon as I set foot in there it just felt like my old server rooms at London Underground, even though everything is now rack-mounted and several generations better, it just felt the same. And the store room full of assorted spare parts and old kit was just like the old IT stores in Telstar House.

The second time was today when I paid a visit to the depot in Metcalf Way. In most ways it is totally different to the train depots I used to spend a lot of time in. For a start there are no trains or rails, but it did have the same ambience, the marked out walkways, the hi-vis vests everywhere and the smell of machinery and oil.

Unfortunately I am likely to be spending much more time in the committee rooms than in depots and server rooms, but I’ll have to try and find excuses to keep adding a bit of variety.

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Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends

June 3rd, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Politics

It is now about a month since the elections, when I re-joined Crawley council. I left the council (involuntarily) about ten years ago and it has been a little strange being back in the town hall for two main reasons:

  1. All the things that have changed
  2. All the things that haven’t

Both are lists too long to even attempt to write out in full, but it is not just like stepping back into my own past; in some ways it is like stepping back into the past generally. Partly that is because of my own experience in changing work environments, and subconcsiously forgetting that not everywhere is like my workplace. Also forgetting that my own workplace only went through a massive change about five years ago and conveniently forgetting that the things I find so quaint and old-fashioned in the council were still around in my company quite recently.

For example, people in the town hall still have offices, which are crammed with shelves and cupboards full of paper. I have got used to a place with over 2000 employees where not a single person has their own office even if they are a managing director or HR director, and we routinely scan documents and put them on a server rather than in a filing cabinet.

And yet at the same time the council are doing things that we still only aspire to at work – like delivering payslips by PDF instead of expensive secure printing.

It is not too much of a culture shock though. Many of the staff are still the same ones who were there before, as are many of the councillors of course, so it feels halfway between starting at a new school and going to a reunion of your old school.

So far the biggest disappointment has been the discovery that the council computers only have Internet Explorer on them and no option to use Chrome or Firefox, although the disconcertingly large number of Tories in the chamber runs it a close second.

I don’t intend to start writing loads about politics or the council here, and will probably revert to writing about prog rock, comedy and the usual stuff soon enough, but this has been too large a change to my routine to go unmentioned.

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Programming flavours

June 3rd, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Technology

This evening I came across a great passage in the book I am reading. The passage is about programming languages, the book isn’t. Not really anyway.

But, of course, the point of a programming language is that you don’t just read it; you write it, too. You make it do things for you. And this, I think, is where Ruby shines:

Imagine that you’re cooking. But instead of following the recipe step-by-step and hoping for the best, you can actually take ingredients in and out of the pot whenever you want. You can add salt, taste it, shake your head, and pull the salt back out. You can take a perfectly crisp crust, isolate it, and then add whatever you want to the inside. It’s no longer just a linear process ending in success or (mostly, for me) frustrating failure. Instead, it’s a loop or a curlicue or a little scribble. It’s play.

I have never thought about programming those terms before, but I really like the comparison. I don’t think I have ever seen code described in such a poetic way.

The book itself is about a bizarre book shop, and books so I feel slightly guilty reading it on a Kindle instead of on paper.

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In the McThick of it

May 31st, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Politics

The SNP sitting in the Commons.

The SNP sitting in the Commons.

Since they had their spectacular success in the recent general election, the SNP have supplied two very potent images.

One was when they all turned up for the Queen’s speech wearing matching floral buttonholes and the other was the debate where theygreatly outnumbered all the other parties.

That second one was strange because the chamber is almost empty and yet they are all squeezed together in the section they have settled in, despite there being plenty of room for them to spread out if they wanted to.

Both of these images, especially the second one, just made me imagine that all the SNP MPs actually live together in one giant house, and do everything en masse. Surely it is only a matter of time before somebody does a The Thick Of It-style sitcom anout the SNP and if they do I think it should have the surreal flavour of the old Vic & Bob sketches about Slade, where they all shared one house.

I have this mental image of all 56 of them going to the supermarket together to stock up the kitchen, having a big yellow double-decker to ferry them to and from Parliament, and either phoning Dominos to order 56 pizzas (with extra toppings for Salmond’s) or trying to book a table for 56 at the local Bella Pasta.

If somebody at Channel 4 does not commission such a programme then there is something very wrong with the world.

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Pop Quiz

May 21st, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Music

A quick question. Here is a quote from Music Week in 1973

Peter and Mary were almost pushed off stage; girls fainted in the traditional fashion, floodlights and coppers’ helmets were knocked over – and you could hardly hear XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX singing for the fans’ frenzied screaming.

What is XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX replacing?

Hint: you know the first thing you thought of? It isn’t them.

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But I did go to Specsavers!

May 19th, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Life

Came home from shopping the other day and only then noticed that I had picked up a tub of mango pieces (which I am not keen on) instead of pineapple (which I am very keen on).

And this is a couple of weeks after going to Specsavers!

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Technology nil, Skuds 2

May 19th, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Technology

I got my user ID and password for the Town Hall network today, so I popped in after work and got myself all set up so I can now get to the emails from home. That is going to make everything a lot easier from now on. I think I got to it in the nick of time, before the backlog built up too much. Only 44 emails since the account was set up the other day.

When I got home I had a much tougher challenge – sorting out Jayne’s World of Warcraft account. What made it even more fun is the fact that I have never played the game. The situation was that the program that apparently runs everything,, would not run. The Blizzard support people had said it might be a US version and it would be best to uninstall it and re-install the EU version so I tried to do that and soon ended up in a real vicious circle.

The program would not uninstall. An error message said that applying the patches to bring it up-to-date first would enable the uninstall. Already it was sounding a bit strange – upgrading software just so I can delete it. I tried, but the upgrade failed, saying there was something wrong and that the best solution would be to uninstall the whole thing. Catch-22!

I tried everything that Blizzard suggested and still no joy. I had basically given up, but noticed that AV had been turned off, and was out-of-date anyway. I downloaded some new AV software, installed it, and straightaway it detected some threats and removed them. Nothing too serious, just some adware crap. On a hunch I put back all the system settings I had changed and rebooted the PC, after which everything was fine and World of Warcraft was back in working order. As a bonus, there are a lot fewer pop-up adverts in Firefox now.

Yet again, having the lucky touch seems to trump technological knowledge :)

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Not lost in translation

May 19th, 2015 · Posted by Skuds in Life

Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

As I have mentioned before, one of my favourite things is to get hold of pre-publication proofs of new books, especially if they are well-written and a pleasure to read. Last week I read just such a book – The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent.

Apart from anything I think the writer deserves a prize for having the most French name imaginable.

One of the best aspects of the book is the unpredictability of the story, which is something I always like. For me it has the sort of feel that the film Being John Malkovich has, where everything is just a little bit quirky. The difference is that everything in this book is at least possible.

Because a large part of the enjoyment depends on those little surprises, I won’t spoil the pleasure for anybody else by giving any of them away, except for the starting premise. [Read more →]

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