I’m not that keen on gardening. It seems to me that you can spend ages making the garden look nice and then, only a few years later, you have to do it all again.

Sometimes it’s more frequent than that.

The latest re-modelling involves the removal of stuff. I’m quite good at this, although I’m a bit of a blunt instrument and I’ve been known to generate a lot of “collateral damage”. Today I was carefully programmed with the items to destroy and left to it.

Pro tip: If you are removing something substantial from your garden, don’t cut it down to ground level before trying to dig out the roots. Leave a nice long stalk to use as a “handle” to give you some leverage on the stump. I did this, but the person who’d chopped down a whole bunch stuff before me hadn’t. As a result I had a happy five hours digging round the tiny bits left, chopping and sawing roots and using appropriate language.

I’ll tell you one thing though, if you think I’ve had a bad day, the objects of my attention had a much, much, worse one…………

Being polite pays off

I’ve started saying please to my electronic devices. This is not because I’m super-polite (although I like to think I am). My reasoning is that if you put “please” on the end of a request the device can tell that you’ve finished your command, and that it needs to go off and work out what it means and then do it.

From my completely unscientific testing I’ve found that it does slightly improve accuracy and response. Which is nice. I might start saying thank-you next.

Drain Unblocking Etiquette

Truly an amazing device

Truly an amazing device

Arrive home on Valentine’s Day to hear the three little worlds that can change your life: “The toilet’s blocked”. Oh well.

The thing with tools like drain un-blockers is that you can only find them when you don’t need them. And so it was on this occasion. Fortunately we have awesome neighbours who are much better at keeping track of their stuff than we are. They were able to lend me a device like the one above. It really is wonderful. You pump air into the reservoir and then release it into the blocked pipe using the trigger. After a couple of blasts we were good to go. And all in time for tea.

What with me being so flushed with success (as it were) I kind of lost track of the fact that I’d borrowed next-door’s sink un-blocker and stuffed it down our toilet. I’d washed it carefully and all, but still….. So it was on to Amazon to track down a clean replacement. It arrived today and I’ve dropped it round. Now, between us we can just about handle anything.

Back in Harness


One of the things I really miss about working at the university is standing up in front of people and telling them stuff. I’ve tried it on busses and trains and it just doesn’t work in the same way, what with the shushing and the telling me to sit down and shut up.

But in a week or so I’ll be back at the university for a short run, talking about digital electronics. I’m doing a bit of teaching for the Mechatronics course and I’ll be regaling an enthralled audience with tales of boolean algebra, De Morgan’s Theorem and Karnaugh (first name Maurice) Maps.

I’m going to enjoy it, I’m not sure what the audience will think…..

Buying train tickets is harder than it should be


I hate it when things make me feel stupid. Buying train tickets online seems to be one of these situations. I wanted to buy some tickets to go from from Hull to London on Saturday. My normal approach (use the phone) was thwarted by the error message “Ooops. Something went wrong” when I tried to complete the purchase.

So I headed off to the web. And was met with the above. This is the page for Hull Trains, but lots of companies use the same UI, so I’m not happy with them either.

Questions abound. Why are the prices not shown? What do the buttons on the top actually mean? Why is the page called a Mixing Deck? And what on earth happens when you press the “Lowest fare finder”? Ugh.

After a bunch of experimental clicking and tweaking I finally managed to select the same trains that the phone wouldn’t let me buy. And I was told that there were no tickets available at that price. So “Ooops. Something went wrong” actually means “I’ve told you about some tickets that aren’t actually available".

So, train people, just a word here. When I go to a site to buy some tickets I want a list of journey options with a price next to each one. And I don’t want you to show me journeys that, for marketing reasons, you’ve decided not to sell me any more.

Negotiator Rob


Sometimes I manage to surprise myself. Like today, when I was buying some new tyres for the car:

BMW Sales Person: Names Price
Rob: Names Lower Price
BMW Sales Person: “I’m afraid that would mean we’d have to sell you the tyres at cost price.”
Rob: “Hmm. I can’t see a problem with that”.
BMW Sales Person: “Yes, but that would mean that we would not make any profit on the sale.”
Rob: “Still searching for a problem for me, still not finding one”.
BMW Sales Person: “OK then”.

Now, I realise that “cost price”, is an interesting phrase, and that somehow the garage will be making money on the deal. But at least I didn’t take the first price that was offered. And for me that is a great step forward.

The Virtues of Virtual Machines


I spent a chunk of today building a brand, shiny, new, Virtual Machine on my PC. Each time I do this I’m impressed by how easy it is.

I want to record some installation videos and I want a clean machine to do that with. Also, it’s wonderful to be able to wind back the machine to pre-install state so that you can have another go.

I had to work quite hard to get the machine to let me create a local user, and not link up to an online account, but it is still possible to do this.

Achievement Unlocked: Sofa Mended

What with today being the start of a new month, I thought I’d do just one of the things I thought I’d get done last month.

I’ve mended the sofa.

This just required a bit of patience, a sharp screwdriver, a big bag of stuffing, and a staple gun.

First step was to take the sofa to pieces and then unstaple the cover from the frame. It turns out that a sofa that looks like it has three separate cushions is nothing of the sort. Once you’ve undone the cover you can just peel it back and take a look at the cushions. In my case it was simply a matter of putting some more stuffing on top of the cushion that was getting a bit tired and then stapling the cover back into position. Although I did also have to replace some of the webbing straps as well, cue for more staples.

If you’ve got a sofa that is going soft, it does seem to work as an approach. And I’ve got a lot of stuffing left over which I’m not sure what to do with. And I don’t want any suggestions….

Fit Family


I’ve started taking keeping fit a bit more seriously. I’m using my Apple watch to track my efforts and I’m trying very hard to make sure that I “close all my rings” each day.

Let me explain. The Apple fitness system (to which I am now a slave) measures three parameters each day: how many times you stand up, how much you move and how much you exercise. You get targets for each of these and during the day a growing arc is displayed that represents your efforts. When the arc closes on itself you’ve “completed a ring” and can go back into couch potato mode.

The stand goal (of 12 stands a day - one per hour) can be a peculiarly tricky one to hit. Too much lazing around early in the day can result in you having to stay up to 11:00 pm at night just so that you can get the final stand in. The watch goes ping at 10 minutes to the hour to tell you to stand up at least once (it’s scarily surprising how often I have to reminded to do this) but if you’re deep in a piece of code you can easily miss that.

Recently other members of the family have linked their Apple fitness regime to mine, so that we can compare our progress. This is going quite well, if only as an instructive lesson on how devious people are at “gaming” a system. One member of the family has adjusted his “move” target to a level where simply getting out of bed and raising one eyebrow will count as a days’ worth of activity. Another has discovered that you can start a workout (and thereby gain exercise credit) at any time, which allows time spent watching athletics on telly can be made to count as keeping fit. And I have perfected a sequence of arm waving that works beautifully in convincing my watch that I’ve stood up and taken a walk.

I guess this means that we are all now “lab rats” dancing to the tune of a faceless corporation.

But at least we’ll be slightly fitter lab rats.

Voice Dictation in Microsoft Word

My lovely Surface Go is running Office 365 on the back of my Office 365 subscription (which I reckon is amazing value by the way). The copy of Word on that machine has recently sprouted a microphone button which allows you dictate directly into a document. I had a play with it, and it works really well.

Well enough to make me want the feature on my main desktop. Getting this to happen was not the easy thing that I expected it to be. I thought that just upgrading Office 2016 on my machine would just work.

But it doesn’t.

You have to use the Install option on your Office 365 subscription page. This might be because the dictation feature uses the cloud to perform the conversion, and only Office 365 users can do that.

Anyhoo, it works well on both of my machines. Even if you try using silly accents….

Sticky Scroll Wheel

If you don’t think that the little wheel on your mouse that lets you scroll up and down is important, just try working on a program without it.

It turns out to be rather difficult

My mouse scroll wheel failed today. So I changed the batteries in the mouse, then I moved the radio receiver closer to the mouse. Neither of these worked.

So I just blew hard on the wheel. Result. I’m reminded of the fun I’ve spent debugging over the last couple of days. And I’m also reminded of a saying that seems to work when programming, mending mice or even (and this is a reference to fun had years ago) fixing water leaks.

The fault is never where you think it is.