Mange Tout, Rodney

Reading Time: 2 minutes

What’s in a name? What if mispronouncing it were part of a secret language? Decades ago, I encountered exactly that. It didn’t end well.

Tech background: the Postgres database system was built to replace Ingres. Postgres is portmanteau of Post-Ingres. When SQL support was added, they did it again and we got PostgreSQL. Many people call it Postgress, some add the SQL part in some way.

If there is a pronunciation of PostgreSQL that’s wrong, it’s Postgree. I can understand the confusion, though, so when the management team started saying that I tried to be nice. As the company’s foremost database geek, I figured if I dropped “Postgress” into conversation a few times they’d catch on. After all, if the management of a technical business mispronounces technical words, that doesn’t promote confidence in the business – and we were all pulling in the same direction there, right?

We were not. If anything my “help” made matters worse. I even started to hear the overall technical lead call it Postgree. So I invited him out to the car park for a polite word.

“It’s a management thing,” he told me, “it’s one of the ways they distinguish if you’re one of them.”

Omitting much for the sake of brevity, A them and us culture had developed (or perhaps was deliberately fostered). It included a secret language used by the management team. They were perfectly aware that all the buzzwords they were using were ridiculous and that they were, indeed, mispronouncing PostgreSQL. It was a tool which allowed them to talk openly but still exclude people from the conversation.

It won’t surprise you to know that the business struggled, in many ways.

I met up with someone from there a year or so back, “We’re dead,” he told me, “COVID has killed us.” The company couldn’t recruit technical people, which he firmly blamed on the rise in remote working. What he had wrong was that the company couldn’t afford to pay enough.

It’s true that some people focus only on the wage slip. It was a factor. Most of us are far more complex: we want job security, job satisfaction, camaraderie, things that make the course of the day a more pleasant experience.

That company still had a toxic culture. Nobody wanted to work there, but options in that region – before COVID – were limited. Now tech people had much more choice, they were choosing not to work there.

In a market where good people are excruciatingly difficult to attract, if you want to build a successful business you have to build a positive and progressive culture, make somewhere people want to work. It’s a necessary investment that’s good for all of us.

Let’s Talk About Wednesday

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I love a hypothesis. Even silly ones. It’s not about the outcome, it’s all about the journey. Just like Strictly Come Dancing. A while back I was trying to explain how my mind works, “basically,” I joked, “I’m Wednesday Addams”.

I am not Wednesday Addams. I’m a middle aged professional from a pleasantly leafy area of rural England. But writers rarely pluck a character out of nowhere. Even Pinky and the Brain were based on real people. Somewhere there might have been a real Wednesday…

Before I go any further I have to add a content warning. This gets really dark, really fast. Right after this kitten picture.

Read more

The Kids Aren’t Alright

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“You’re brave”, I was told many years ago. Had I battled a terrorist with a narwhal tusk? Had I smuggled a Soviet dissident through Checkpoint Charlie in the boot of a Trabant?

No, I chose not to have kids. For a moment I struggled to contemplate how this could possibly be brave.

Then I remembered I was not normal.

There are two things parents commonly tell me. The first is that “I love my kids, but if I had the chance to go back, knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have them.”

Those same people, moments after telling me in a quiet corner that they think they made a mistake, can often be found discussing the joys of parenthood with other parents. We live in a culture where it’s socially unacceptable to regret having children. Of course, this isn’t a simple matter, few parents would want their children to know they regretted having them. Nobody can blame a parent for maintaining the pretence justified by that alone.

The other thing parents often tell me, whether they regret having children or not, is that they’re not entirely sure why they chose to have them. The most common theme is that “it’s just what you do, isn’t it?”.

Is it?

The Herd

The herd is useful, tradition is useful. The chances are that if something is a standard or has been done a particular way for centuries then there’s a good reason for it. Many people have decided they know better, ripped up the rule book only for it to be an unmitigated disaster and before they know it things are back to pretty much how they were before, only with slightly different names to try to cover up the failure.

The herd, of course, has a plan for your life. You start by playing a few games, then do a bit of education, find a job, find a partner, raise some kids, find some hobbies then retire.

Going against that plan is the harder road. There’s safety in the herd, masses of animals all doing the same thing. Any animal that does something different is a cause for concern to the rest of the herd. It might do something that puts others in danger. It might even be a predator in disguise.

Rarely does anyone ever ask the question why someone chose to have kids. Dare not to have them and we get the nagging and the constant leading questions, “When are you two going to get round to having kids?” And the stories about the great aunt that ran out of time and always regretted it.

If you want to add a horse tranquillizing quantity of alcohol, then apparently we would have made great parents and it’s people like us who are responsible for reverse Darwinism, if that’s actually a thing.

Some people, of course, always wanted to have kids: it’s a strong part of who they are. I couldn’t be happier for them, but that’s not everybody. On the flip side, there are those people who are resolute from the start that they don’t want children.

But there are those in the middle and they’re the vulnerable ones…

Blackberry Smoke / One Horse Town

I find that an incredibly sad song, about how a society can railroad you into a career, into marriage, into parenthood before you’ve had a chance to think and whilst you’re still naive enough not to know better.

Then you’re trapped.

To work out how to escape this, I want to reverse back up to that leading question which I was asked in so many different forms over the years, “When are you two going to have kids?”. If your social group, your family, your friends, even your colleagues expect you to have children then the first thing you have to do is separate your personal, true thoughts from those of your community, your family and even those closest to you.

We are all different, it is not a duty or responsibility to have kids, you don’t owe it to your family or anyone else. This is about you and your feelings alone. It is entirely worth taking the time, alone, to work out exactly how you feel.

I can’t emphasise this enough: it is your call.

If you have a partner, of course they’re important, but don’t allow someone else to override your own feelings on this. You can never truly reverse having had children. If having kids is a deal breaker, then the deal is broken. Going your separate ways now might be painful, but it’s better than spending the rest of your life with children you don’t want.

And please don’t let anyone tell you that you’ll change your mind when you first hold the baby. It does work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

The decision not to have children is, mostly, the less permanent one. Sure, if you’re a woman the point where it pretty much becomes permanent is a lot earlier, but you don’t have to close the door forever at age 18. None of us can predict the future that well. If you don’t feel that you want kids now then that’s fine.

The problem is not you. The problem is other people…

People are Weird.

Unless you tell them differently, people tend to assume that you’re broadly the same as them. Not wanting children is such a defining aspect of life choices that it can upset people’s notion of who you are. People can get weird about that.

Sometimes people choose their perception of you over who you actually are. They start trying to mould you to their perception, not the other way around. Or to put it another way, they’ll tell you you’re making a mistake and you’ll change your mind. This, clearly, is their problem, not yours.

Some people’s own visions of their lives, particularly those who want kids, can also involve you having kids. They expect you to run parallel lives, which can mean they feel betrayed. They’re betrayed by their own assumptions, but it doesn’t always come out like that. Again, not your problem.

A common response is an overly-assertive demand to know why. That’s not always easy to answer, because the truth is often simply that you don’t feel any need or desire in that direction. That is justification enough; if anything the people who need to give the better justification are those who chose to have kids. You don’t need to explain further.

There are any number of emotional responses that can come out from people whose world you’ve just upset. The one thing I can say for sure is that you won’t lose any friends. There’s a small chance you might find that some people you thought were friends are really just acquaintances, but the earlier you find that out, the better.

The last thing to mention is that some people are pretty persistent. The in-laws who ask literally every time you see them; they exist. Some friends will also ask as often as they think it acceptable to do so. This, of course, is a type of bullying and you’re totally justified in telling them to back off, or referring them to the reply given in the matter of Arkell vs. Pressdram.

Remember, it’s a huge decision to make and it’s your decision alone. You don’t need to justify it to anyone else; “I just don’t want to” is the only response you need to make. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Flying Wine

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Remarkable, isn’t it, how good your local supermarket is at keeping your favourite wine on the shelves? You might assume they have a huge stock somewhere, but they don’t. They fly the wine in.

Land in the UK is expensive. Stock rooms in supermarkets are space that’s not selling goods, if they could get away with it, stores wouldn’t have stock rooms at all. And those enormous buildings by the motorways are distribution centres, not warehouses. They don’t really do any warehousing at all.

The old business model was to buy in bulk from abroad and warehouse in the UK, feeding it out to stores as required. It turns out that it’s now cheaper to leave wine with the producers around the world and then fly it in pretty much directly onto the shelves.

The key business drivers are the balance between cost and responsiveness. This is how, when some celebrity is pictured drinking “Herbert’s Herbgarden” supermarkets can ensure they have enough of it on their shelves at competitive prices. That’s important, because if they’re out of stock customers are going to go to competitors and they’ll buy more than just a bottle of wine there.

From a consumer point of view, this is a demonstration of the free market working perfectly. Competition between the major supermarkets has forced them into some of the most economically efficient and streamlined supply chains in the world. They might make big profits overall, but they’re only making a tiny percentage on each item.

The free market is a hugely useful tool, but it’s worth saying this twice; it naturally finds what is economically most effective. It doesn’t care at all about people or the planet. In particularly, the free market is extremely effective at finding ways to use more energy. Right now, because less than 20% of our energy comes from renewable resources[1], that’s a very bad idea.

If we want to make the free market beneficial to society we need to twist it, we need to tip the playing field in our favour, make the free market do things that secure our future rather than wreck it.

Herein I have a problem: I’m an engineer, not an economist. I don’t know how to do that. One thing is very clear, however.

What I’ll do, then, is I’ll put an idea to you and you can tell me if it’s silly, OK?

Let’s start with three pertinent facts:

  • Wine doesn’t perish quickly. I’m told that mass production wine should be drunk within 2 years of bottling.
  • Local wine shortages are not critical or even particularly damaging to society or humanity. If Tunbridge Wells is short of wine for a week, it will cause nothing more than moaning. And there’s a lot of moaning in Tunbridge Wells already.
  • Europe produces a lot of wine that can be shipped overland very efficiently.

So, why can’t we substantially increase tax on shipping wine and other similar luxury non-perishables by air?

Then we could use that extra revenue to fund sustainable shipping methods? Surely someone is going to give me a really good reason why we can’t, why we haven’t?

That would give supermarkets and consumers the choice. If they want to keep their entire range in stock all the time, they could warehouse wine from more distant regions. They could choose to fly the wine anyway, at additional cost. Or they could choose to cover any gaps by shipping alternatives overland from within Europe.

Moreover this is all really just a symptom of something I hinted at further up; our view of energy usage is seriously skewed:

  • We’re very conscious about our direct, personal energy use and largely ignorant about our indirect energy use. We diligently recycle, then impulse-buy a t-shirt from China completely unaware of the enormous amount of energy it takes to make just 1 piece of clothing and ship it across the world.
  • We get our focus drawn into clean energy and forget that – right now – reducing the total energy we consume (mostly indirectly) is more effective.

The Climate Emergency is in the public consciousness, we know that things need to be done. So far we – as Western society – have been very good at telling people what they can do directly, but there is very little awareness of our indirect effect.

We need to tackle consumerism, we need to tackle throw-away culture, artificially short design life, etc. We’re fighting an uphill battle here; the Free Market is ever so good at selling us things to reduce our energy usage, but to get anything done it relies on profitability. The messages we need to convey aren’t profitable except in relatively niche ways.

What we need to do is keep the conversation moving. Point out that supermarkets fly wine and how ridiculous that is, how idiotic fast fashion is. Write blog articles, social media posts about indirect emissions / carbon / energy. The point here isn’t to get people to take personal responsibility – although everyone that does is a bonus – the point is to shove this issue up the political agenda so that politicians actually have to start thinking about how to restructure the economy to reduce our indirect energy consumption and our indirect emissions.

[1] Somewhere North of 30% of the UK’s electricity is renewable, but we do burn a lot of fossil fuel directly, so our overall energy percentage is much lower.

Government and Personal Accounts Don’t Mix

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The UK Minister for Food recently made a gaffe about using a personal phone. He might not realise how big a gaffe it was, however. His comments were part of a wider debate about the UK’s Home Secretary having admitted to using her personal email account for government business. Whilst government business should be carried out using government (approved) equipment and services, there’s a big difference between making a phone call and sending an email.

The TL;DR, phone calls are pretty secure but email absolutely is not. Read on, I’ll explain, as succinctly as I can.

On the surface of it, using one type of communication device or technology might seem much like another. In reality the technology underneath and the security of them varies drastically.

Telephone Calls are Reasonably Safe

Your common or garden telephone in the UK is considered pretty secure. Your land line is connected to an actual cable that goes to a cabinet in the street. That cabinet is connected via real cables (or optical fibre) to the telephone exchange. You call is then routed from there around a network owned and operated by BT[1], eventually working its way to the destination. It’s pretty difficult for a rogue actor to get access to that pipeline. They either need to tap the wire at one end or they need to get into BT’s secure network.

Mobile phones are a little more vulnerable. It is possible for a snooper who’s physically near either end to listen in to the radio signals between the phone and the mast and hear the call audio. Also, as more organisations get involved in anything so the risk of a compromise within one of them grows. A call routed from Vodafone through BT to EE is more vulnerable simply because there are three organisations involved.

There have been incidents where large telephone networks have been hacked, but it is relatively unlikely that unfriendly foreign organisations are listening in to telephone calls in the UK.

Naturally, government business should be conducted on government (approved) devices. There are many reasons for this, but let me give you just three:

  • People tend not to encrypt or adequately access protect their phones. Both can be enforced by policy with a government phone.
  • Although it’s difficult to intercept an actual telephone call, some smart phones have been hacked to record audio and even video and relay that to rogue actors. Again, organisations can set policies to try to reduce this risk.
  • If a government phone is lost it can be remotely disabled immediately.

Email is Horrendously Insecure, End of Story

The basic protocol the internet uses for email is now more than 40 years old. It was developed when The Internet was a very different animal to what it is today. There have been a number of security updates since then, but there are still some big holes.

One obvious problem is data at rest. Email is a store and forward system, when you send an email from your phone or computer it goes to an email server which then tries to work out what to do with it. That email server stores your email. Because email is not an end-to-end encrypted protocol, the mail server has access to the contents of your email, as does anyone who was sufficient rights (whether legitimate or hacked). I once demonstrated this to an unbelieving manager by changing emails that he sent.

What’s more, when data is written to storage it has a funny habit of hanging around. There are systems to try to make sure that deleted data is really deleted but not everybody uses them, the result being that it’s sometimes possible for a hacker to retrieve emails that passed through the server a long time ago.

Now let me take another angle, if you can receive emails, that means you have an email server somewhere that’s acting on your behalf. That email server is open to The Internet. If you’re I could connect to the email server at, say “Hi, I’ve got a message for foo” and under the original protocol your mail server wouldn’t even check who I was. Almost all do now check, but the checks aren’t 100% fool proof and it’s still possible to send emails that appear to be from people they’re not.

As sender and receiver, we also have no control over the path that the email takes. The vast majority are simple, I’ll send my email to the mail server at which will look up your server at and directly transfer the email. As long as both email servers are uncompromised and the link between them uses an up-to-date strong encryption that’s relatively secure.

But there’s no guarantee that will be the route that gets taken. It could end up going through an email server in Russia. It could go between two servers that aren’t using strong encryption or even any encryption at all.

There’s a whole library of different techniques and different ways that email can be compromised, intercepted, altered and faked. If it’s done well, as an end user it can be impossible to tell if it’s been compromised. Even experts can’t absolutely tell if a message has been observed by a rogue actor on its journey, or if it’s been left on an insecure server somewhere for a hacker to pick up at a later date.

A final note here, one of the reasons that it’s important that government officials (including Ministers) to only conduct government business using government (approved) devices using government accounts is because they’re monitored and logged. This is a completely separate reason why a government official using a personal account is a serious issue; it opens the person up to the allegation that they were deliberately avoiding scrutiny. There are times when Ministers need to do secret things, but there are protocols for that. Avoiding scrutiny is a pretty good sign that a government official is working in their best interests, not ours.

WhatsApp et al are Comparatively Secure

A lot of newer messaging apps are comparatively secure compared to email. This is because they’re end-to-end encrypted. Your phone (or web client) encrypts the message and only your intended recipient has the key to decrypt it. It doesn’t matter how many servers or other pieces of network equipment it passes through, they could all be compromised, it wouldn’t matter because they don’t have the decryption key, they can’t view the message contents.

Having said this, there is information in the metadata; an attacker who did manage to compromise the network might be able to see who the message was from, to, when it was sent, when it arrived, how big it was etc. This kind of information can be extremely useful, but unless a hacker can crack the encryption, they can’t view the message itself.

Of course today’s strong encryption can be cracked by tomorrow’s mobile phone, so just consider that if your data does get stored, someone in the future might be able to crack it.

Do be very aware that not every messaging service is end-to-end encrypted. Twitter direct messages, for instance, are not. Their contents are also stored by Twitter indefinitely. Not only could the Twitter organisation exploit the contents of your direct messages, a data leak could easily expose your direct messages to threat. If you’re a government official there’s a reasonable risk your entire twitter DM history could end up on Wikileaks.

Wrapping It Up

For the vast majority of business and government needs, the good old telephone is plenty secure enough, but make sure that you comply with your organisations usage policies and don’t bleed your professional communications across into your personal accounts.

For the majority of business, email is fine. The reality is that millions of emails are flying around all the time and only a handful have anything interesting or valuable to a hacker. Emails are also, generally, pretty secure within the organisation itself. If you’re sending an email from your professional account to the professional account of someone else in the same organisation, that should be relatively safe.

Do be aware that if you’re sending information to people outside your organisation there’s a chance that email might be compromised. There’s a small risk that anything bad will happen, but it is there nonetheless.
A top tip is to remember that the telephone is comparatively secure. If you receive an email message that you are in any way concerned about, or you suspect anything not entirely straightforward, call the person.

Again, do not bleed professional stuff into your personal accounts. That’s a big no-no. Don’t, for instance, send a document to your personal email because you can read it better on your phone that way.

Newer messaging apps can be more secure, but check that they’re end-to-end encrypted and using a encryption technique that’s currently considered secure. You might be surprised how insecure some of the common platforms are.

[1] Yes, there will be people reading this and the words “well, technically, it’s not that simple…” will be on the tips of their tongues. I know; there is always a balance to strike between being technically accurate and boring the vast majority of readers into a stupor. You might consider T-REC-H.248.1 a little light reading before bed, but you’re a very, very niche minority.

Motor Sport: The New Bastion of Bigotry?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

If there’s one industry that’s pale, male and stale, it’s the automotive industry. That’s why I was impressed to see Gareth Thomas at the Ford Motors stand at Goodwood Festival of Speed talking about the prejudices that still exist in the industry and how it can move forward.

Sure, there may be an element of rainbow capitalism going on with Ford and the #verygayraptor, but the fact that Ford is pushing this message into the pick-up market is an indication that we really are making progress.

In motor sport however, we seem to be going backwards. In the past few weeks we’ve had a driver using homophobic and grossly racist terminology on a game stream, a former driver being racially derogative about a current one and spectators at the Austrian and Hungarian Grands Prix being reported for homophobic, misogynistic and racist behaviour.

In the past few years, Formula 1 and motor sport in general has spoken strong words, but it’s now starting to sound like it’s all talk.

Just before Festival of Speed, Formula 2 driver Jüri Vips had his contract with Red Bull suspended (and later terminated) after he used racist and homophobic language in a live game stream.

With someone whose first language isn’t English there are always some who leap to the defence that the person may not have understood the impact of their words. Sure, when the term itself is considered offensive, but there’s more to it than that. It doesn’t matter that much how offensive the terms are, it’s the fact that you are using race and sexual preference in a derogatory context that are the real problem.

It also emerged, over that same weekend, that former F1 driver Nelson Piquet (Snr) had been racially derogatory toward Lewis Hamilton. In response Piquet issued a statement which essentially said that the word he used isn’t considered offensive in Portuguese, so we should all get over it and move on.

Again this misses the point. Let me make 3 statements:

  1. Paul Smith is an overly aggressive racing driver.
  2. Paul Smith is a white racing driver.
  3. Paul Smith is an overly aggressive white racing driver.

Spot the problem?

There are plenty of contexts where it would be valid to talk about his driving style or his race. The contexts where it would be valid to bring both to the fore at the same time are very limited. So why has someone deliberately chosen to mention Smith’s race, in what is clearly a criticism of his driving style?

It might seem pernickety, but this is something people of colour have to deal with all the time. Positive contexts rarely include their race, whereas negative ones do. It’s racist propaganda, but because nothing offensive or incorrect is said the significance of the bias can be easily missed.

It’s even a tactic explicitly used by racist groups, deliberately trying to associate negative images and negative stories with particular races. A few years ago there was a rash of new “news” web sites and social media pages which largely carried celebrity gossip and negative stories about people of colour.

Because nothing directly derogatory is ever said about someone’s race, the operators claim they’re not racist. The reality is that they’re operating at a more subtle level, applying a bias to what they choose to report in order to portray people of colour in a negative light.

This is why Piquet’s defence plain doesn’t work and why Vips is in such deep water. Regardless of the language used, they both demonstrated prejudices.

Hamilton’s response is as it generally is these days; he’s a mature, thoughtful and eloquent man.

For too many years there has been a kind of standard procedure in motor sport; if you’re caught saying something bigoted, you issue an apology, state that your “unfortunate” choice of words doesn’t represent your true values… blah, blah, blah and everyone nods quietly and moves on.

But we’ve been giving the message long enough now and loudly enough that nobody can pretend they haven’t heard it. So when, if not now, are we going to move from “that’s naughty don’t do it again” to “here’s a 5 year ban from attending any F1 event in any capacity”?

In Piquet’s case it’s hardly his first offence. He knew exactly what he was doing, appealing to a certain demographic who might have a racially based preference, in particular, for the driver who is current dating his daughter.

Vips is a little different. Young people do say stupid things, things they know are stupid, things which genuinely don’t represent their principles, for a variety of reasons. I’m open minded on this; his language (sadly) wasn’t atypical of Call of Duty streams in general, so I could believe that he meant nothing other than to vent frustration. However, other drivers also play Call of Duty and they’ve avoided crossing the line.

This means the burden of proof now has to fall to Vips. In his cut-and-paste, obviously written by someone in marketing statement he assures us that the sentiments he expressed do not represent his true values. Fine, if that’s the case then he’ll understand the seriousness of the issue and be prepared to take meaningful steps to demonstrate what his true values are. He has the platform to do that. In fact he has a great opportunity to take ownership of the issue and to demonstrate real leadership on it. However, right now it looks like he’s just trying to keep his head down and is hoping it’ll all blow over. We just can’t continue allowing people to do that. We have to face these issues, not let people keep sweeping them under the carpet.

Just as I was doing what was supposed to be the final edit of this article, ugly events were reported at the Austrian Grand Prix. It was good to hear Naomi Schiff, in this weekend’s pre-race show, call it out directly for what it was, racism, misogyny and homophobia. We need more people prepared to tackle these issues head on and not just talk in general terms about “unfortunate behaviour” and sweep it under the carpet again.

It now transpires that there has been another clutch of incidents reported at the Hungarian Grand Prix and senior figures are reporting a sharp rise in online bigotry – and there does seem to be a pattern forming. It does seem to all be centred around one particular team and coming from the supporters of one particular driver.

Yes, it’s good to see Mercedes and Hamilton take such a positive lead, but when they’re the ultimate target of most of the bigotry we can’t expect that to be effective. Most of the teams and many of the drivers have, in fact, issued strong statements. The response from some has been notably weak, which doesn’t help.

Yes, it’s good to see media organisations like Sky TV being stronger than they previously have.

Yes, it’s good to see the new “Drive it Out” campaign from the FIA and F1 management.

Words do have a lot of power, but they only get you so far.

It looks like we’re facing a new wave of bigotry in motor sport. We need to put it down immediately; we cannot afford for it to take hold. That means more than just words. As Hamilton says “Time has come for action”.

The Truthiness Horizon

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Truthiness is a concept most of us heard about associated with Trump’s first presidential campaign.

Stephen Colbert uses “truthiness” on the debut episode of The Colbert Report

The concept is simple, whether you tell the truth doesn’t actually matter that much; what matters is how believable what you say is. People in general don’t check facts, especially when those facts confirm their pre-existing biases.

This forces us to face up to something rather uncomfortable: in a debate, telling the truth only matters if your audience is well informed. If the audience is not well informed, it’s often possible to construct a false narrative that sounds more convincing than the actual truth.

We know this, we’ve seen it in action.

I want to introduce a new concept: the truthiness horizon.

It’s when someone is faced with a level of detail on a subject that’s so far removed from their own knowledge that they can’t even tell if it’s plausible, let alone true – so they reject it.

Sounds crazy, right? It is, but if the person has a pre-existing bias it can happen really easily.

Nobody Knows How a Smartphone Works

One example from personal experience: a friend of a friend asserted that nobody understood how a smartphone worked. I’ve worked in digital electronics, optoelectronics, radio and software so I do know, reasonably well.

“Go on then”, he asked, “how does the display work?” I started explaining how an AMOLED display worked. He asked some very odd questions. After a while he just folded his arms and said “Nah, you’re making it up, nobody knows this stuff”.

At first I thought he was joking, but he got quite angry and abusive, maintaining the theme that I didn’t really know and I was just making stuff up to sound clever. This is an extreme (and irrational) example, but it demonstrates the point very well.

People get emotionally invested in their opinions, when you make a challenge you’re starting on the back foot. People’s first reaction is to preserve ego, to look for ways they can discount your challenge. We all do this, but we hope that professional people override that initial emotional reaction and consider the wider argument objectively. Not everyone is professional, however.

The person here started with the premise that nobody knew how a smartphone worked and was always looking to maintain that state. The questions he asked weren’t intended to get more information, they were intended to find gaps in my knowledge and prove that I didn’t know how a smartphone works.

His problem was that I do.

My problem was that at some point I crossed the truthiness horizon. I sounded too authoritative to be credible and an alternative narrative popped into his head. He reasoned that the chances of meeting a friend of a friend who genuinely had such in-depth knowledge were vanishingly small, therefore he could safely conclude that I was making it all up to try to sound impressive.

There was only one teensie-tiny problem with this line of reasoning: it was bollocks.

At the time I didn’t really understand it, I just laughed it off and told him that one day not listening to people who knew what they were talking about would get him into trouble.

On reflection, however, I don’t think this is really all that rare.

Bullshit Baffles Brains

There’s an old army saying, “bullshit baffles brains”, or to put it another way, if you need to convince someone of something but you don’t have a good argument, just make up a load of complex stuff that you know they won’t understand. There’s a good chance they won’t want to lose face by admitting they don’t know what you’re talking about, they’re not in a position to argue against it, so their only option is to go along with it.

Data overload is another, related technique. You dump a huge load of correct raw facts on someone you know hasn’t the time or the expertise to interpret them. Then you tell them it means something it doesn’t. They’re in full possession of the facts, they presume that you wouldn’t lie to them because they could find out the truth – if they tried.

My proposal of a truthiness horizon is based on the hypothesis that these and similar techniques are now so engrained in our society that people are basically wary of any situation that appears opaquely complex. Such a stance might well help them in daily life, not being sucked in by bogus investment schemes, etc. A side effect, however, is to make them vulnerable to manipulation through truthiness.

There’s a balance to be found here and I don’t believe we’ve found it.

Right now, if you are an expert or significantly knowledgeable in a particular area it’s good to keep this in the back of your mind: people might disengage not because they don’t understand, but because they don’t believe.

Baxi Solo 3: The £2 Microswitch That Cost Me £65

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Somewhere, etched into the very fabric of the universe, it says “your boiler will only fail if it’s subzero outside”.

Somewhere else it also says “if you start a blog about software development, your most popular articles will be about home maintenance”. Nevertheless, I figure I must be doing something right, so when my boiler went weird again it was time to put a colander on my head and pray once again that it was something simple and cheap.

This house has a Baxi Solo 3 (mains gas) system boiler. The advantage of these old system boilers is that they’re as simple as a boiler can be. You put cold water in one side, it does fire and contributes to global heating, you get hot water out of the other. All the rest is just making sure it doesn’t blow up or fill your house full of gas or emissions.

My boiler was being extra safe. It did fire up, but it also did an awful lot of sitting around doing nothing whilst the demand light beamed longingly at me.

The Solo 3 follows a pretty basic sequence:

  1. If there’s demand, it checks the thermistor on the output pipe.
  2. If the thermistor temperature is less than the configured position on the heat adjuster knob, it checks the air pressure (via the air pressure switch) in the flue.
  3. If the air pressure is good, it tries to start the fan.
  4. If the fan starts, it will cause a change in the air pressure in the flue. If the air pressure switch changes, it will try to operate the gas valve.
  5. If the gas vale operates and all else is well, it will fire the boiler.

If you’ve popped over to the Baxi website and have downloaded the manual this might surprise you, because it differs from the “Fault Finding” flow chart in section 11. The flow chart omits the fact that it checks the air pressure switch before it attempts to start the fan.

If any of the conditions change whilst it’s running, it shuts down the burner and returns to stage 1. This is quite normal with the thermistor, it heats the water until it hits the configured temperature, then it shuts down. The water in the system cools as it goes through the radiators, when it drops (significantly) below the configured temperate, the boiler starts again, moving to stage 2.

It’s also worth mentioning that there is an overheat detector which can also shut everything down. It has its own light on the left hand side of the control panel. That can be eliminated from enquiries very easily.

My boiler had demand for heat, but the fan wasn’t starting – or at least it wasn’t starting reliably.

The first thing to eliminate is the thermistor. The manual tells you how to test it with a multimeter, but that means removing the cover and you can get a good indication without doing that:

  1. Set the temperature control knob to minimum
  2. When the boiler does fire up, wait until it stops again
  3. Turn the temperature control knob up

If the boiler fires up again, it’s a relatively sure sign that the thermistor is working. It’s not 100%, but it’s a good indication. I was lucky, the test worked, so I could be fairly confident it wasn’t the thermistor.

I knew the fan could work, but was there a fault with it? The first thing I needed to know is if it was getting power. That did mean opening the boiler up.

At this point I have to mention two things.

  1. In the UK there are regulations about working on gas installations. There’s certain work can only be carried out by Registered Gas Installers.
  2. I’m not a Registered Gas Installer, but I am an trained and apprenticed electronic technician with experience in working on mains power control circuits.

I asked a friend of mine, who is a Registered Gas Installer, what his opinion on the regulations was. This is rather a tricky area, not only do opinions between Registered Gas Installers genuinely differ, they are also professionals and have to consider their professional responsibilities. There are Registered Gas Installers who will tell you that you can’t even take the outer cover off a boiler. I can see some justification for this; a little carelessness with a screwdriver can have fatal consequences.

In my friend’s opinion what I did complied with the regulations, because I didn’t change the installation or touch anything to do with the gas or control of the gas. Basically this is the disclaimer: if you’re following what I did from here, don’t blame me if you end up getting dragged in front of the beak and I’m certainly not accepting any responsibility if you gas yourself or anyone else or cause any explosions.

This is gas, it’s poisonous on the way in, poisonous on the way out and if you get it wrong it goes bang and can take out your whole house and a neighbour or too with it. Always err on the side of caution and if you’re unsure about anything call a Registered Gas Installer.

To test the fan I needed to take the covers off. The procedure is laid out quite clearly in the manual.

What the manual doesn’t make clear is that to remove the outer case you have to hitch it up a bit to get the rear flange out of two slots at either side of the top. Be very careful removing the outer case, it’s cheaply produced, there are gaps between folds and potentially sharp flanges that could snag and damage cables, etc.

The fan is obvious and easy enough to test with a multimeter. I made sure everything was clear and there were no trailing cables or exposed contacts that I was likely to touch or get caught up in, then turned the power back on – permanent live first then switched live. The demand light came on, but the fan wasn’t getting any volts. Since I knew it worked sometimes, that made it rather unlikely it was a fault with the fan itself.

I then turned the power off. It’s only my cats that are likely to get electrocuted, but that’s not the point, exposed mains connectors are a bad idea.

The next thing to consider was the air pressure switch. That’s obvious too. On its left, staring me in the face with 3 wires attached, was a microswitch. It had 3 terminals, meaning it was probably a SPDT type – a common terminal would be connected to one of the other two depending if the plunger was depressed.

The problem was that I didn’t know which terminals should be connected or not connected in either state. There’s a general stereotype for these, but you can never be 100% sure without either the manufacturer’s data sheet or testing it. Fortunately it had quite a lot of information printed on it and after digging through a few online archives of Chinese data sheets I was able to find the information I needed.

The common terminal is the one on its own, on the bottom of the switch (left in the picture above). Depending on the position of the plunger, it’s connected to one of the other terminals, referred to as “Normally Closed” (connected when the plunger is out) and “Normally Open” (connected when the plunger is pushed in).

There was another problem, however. Was the plunger pressed or not? Visually, it was difficult to tell. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t hurt to know what state the switch was in, so I checked the contacts. It was “NC”, normally closed.

This is where a little experience comes in useful. It’s a harsh environment and the switch was clearly old. Sometimes the contacts wear, sometimes the switch action gets a bit sticky. I gave the switch a few smart taps with the back of an electrical screwdriver and tested it again. It had changed to “NO”, normally open.

I popped the inner cover back on, turned the power back on and the boiler fired up right away. I repeated this experiment a few times and got exactly the same result every time.

It was probably the microswitch, but I couldn’t rule out the diaphragm, not without taking the whole air pressure switch apart. The most sensible thing to do was to order a complete new pressure switch and replace it.

There’s a note of caution here, the manual lists the part as 246054 but you’ll find that difficult to get hold of. Baxi has discontinued that part. I was able to find an updated part number from the Baxi web site and get it ordered from a major (and reputable) parts supplier. The manual has enough information in it to make replacing the air pressure switch a straightforward job. I don’t have anything to add, other than the fact that – on my boiler – someone had stuck the tray that contains the fan and the air pressure switch in place with a blob of silicone sealant so it was tricky to move.

I now have a properly working boiler and I certainly saved upwards of £60, maybe even over £100, that calling out a plumber would have cost.

It annoyed me though, with VAT and delivery the air pressure switch still cost me nearly £65 and I know the microswitch alone would have been less than £5. I hate unanswered questions. If I didn’t find out, it was going to nag at me. Could I really have fixed the boiler for less than £5?

The microswitch was held in by a plastic rivets. If you’re careful, you can gently heat an old pair of pliers and squash the rivet heads inwards, then extract the microswitch.

Um… yeah, that will have been the problem; the switch was so old and worn that when I got it separated from the mount the plunger simply fell out.

It seems that Toneluck don’t produce that exact microswitch any more, but you can get switches with the same form factor, similar operating force, the same temperature range and electrical ratings for about £2.50.

In conclusion, yes I could have fixed my boiler for less than £5. I’m not unhappy with the outcome, however. There are two reasons for this.

The first is simple, I now have a brand new, updated part in my boiler. I shouldn’t have to worry about the air pressure switch for some years to come.

The second is a little more subjective, it’s opportunity cost. Let’s assume that a Registered Gas Installer would correctly identify the problem and fix it for £100 in labour (plus £65 for the part). Instead, I spent a few hours (all in all) getting to the bottom of it, ordering the part and very carefully making the replacement, with lots of reading of manuals and double-checking because, you know, gas go boom. If I’d spent that time working, I would have made more than £100.

I could say that I did it because I enjoy the challenge and there’s a little bit of truth to that. The greater truth is that I did it because of instinct. I grew up in a world with very different economics, where spending an entire weekend saving a call out charge would be considered time well spent.

I’m very conscious that I came from that world: it actually means a lot to me. I’m also conscious that there are an awful lot of people still in that world and that, right now, that number is growing every day – as Jack Monroe’s now infamous twitter thread so adeptly explains:

Ed: Unfortunately Space Karen has fucked up twitter so, at the moment, I can’t like directly to Jack’s Tweet. So here’s a screenshot linked to the text. Please give Jack Monroe a follow, however. She’s always interesting.

Woke up this morning to the radio talking about the cost of living rising a
further 5%. It infuriates me the index that they use for this calculation, 
which grossly underestimates the real cost of inflation as it happens to 
people with the least. Allow me to briefly explain.

This time last year, the cheapest pasta in my local supermarket (one of the 
Big Four), was 29p for 500g. Today it's 70p. That's a 141% price increase 
as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.

This time last year, the cheapest rice at the same supermarket was 45p for a 
kilogram bag. Today it's GBP1 for 500g. That's a 344% price increase as it 
hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.

Baked beans: were 22p, now 32p. A 45% price increase year on year.

Canned spaghetti. Was 13p, now 35p. A price increase of 169%.

Bread. Was 45p, now 58p. A price increase of 29%.

Curry sauce. Was 30p, now 89p. A price increase of 196%.

A bag of small apples. Was 59p, now 89p (and the apples are even smaller!) A 
price increase of 51%.

Mushrooms were 59p for 400g. They're now 57p for 250g. A price increase of 
56%. (This practise, of making products smaller while keeping them the same 
price, is known in the retail industry as ‘shrinkflation' and its insidious 
as hell because it's harder to immediately spot.)

Peanut butter. Was 62p, now GBP1.50. A price increase of 142%.

These are just the ones that I know off the top of my head - there will be 
many many more examples! When I started writing my recipe blog ten years ago, 
I could feed myself and my son on GBP10 a week. (I'll find the original 
shopping list later and price it up for today's prices.)

The system by which we measure the impact of inflation is fundamentally 
flawed - it completely ignores the reality and the REAL price rises for 
people on minimum wages, zero hour contracts, food bank clients, and millions 

But I guess when the vast majority of our media were privately educated and 
came from the same handful of elite universities, nobody thinks to actually 
check in with anyone out here in the world to see how we're doing. (Fucking 
terribly, thanks for asking.)

Every time there's a news bulletin on the rising cost of living, I hope 
that today might be the day that that some real journalism happens, and 
someone stops to consider those of us outside of the bubble. Maybe today 
might finally be that day.
(But seeing I've been banging on about this for a decade now, it's probably 
not going to be. Thanks for reading anyway, I appreciate it.)

And just to add:
 - an upmarket ready meal range was GBP7.50 ten years ago, and is still GBP7.50 
 - a high-end stores 'Dine In For Two For GBP10' has been GBP10 for as long as 
   I can remember.
 - my local supermarket had 400+ items in their value range, it's now 91 
   (and counting down)

The margins are always, always calculated to squeeze the belts of those who 
can least afford it, and massage the profits of those who have money to spare. 
And nothing demonstrates that inequality quite so starkly as tracking the 
prices of 'luxury' food vs 'actual essentials'. 

To return to the luxury ready meal example, if the price of that had risen at 
the same rate as the cheapest rice in the supermarket, that GBP7.50 lasagne 
would now cost GBP25.80.

Dine In For GBP10 would be GBP34.40.

We're either all in this together, or we aren't.

(Spoiler: we aren't)

Now, picture if you will, the demographic of the voter who has kept the 
current Party in power for the last 11 years. Imagine the Chancellor having 
to explain to them that their precious microwave dinner now cost almost four 
times what it did yesterday.

Yeah, didn't think so.
I mean of all the things, the Prime Minister claiming that he's cutting the 
cost of living while the price of basic food products shoot up by THREE 
HUNDRED AND FORTY FOUR PERCENT is the one I'm properly angry enough to 
riot over.

If my experience helps a few people not have to make the choice between heat and food, then all of my time, including the time it took me to write the article, was – without question – worth it.

One Step Forward…

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Up until very recently I hated Yoga. I did it through gritted teeth. Then I discovered this one weird tip that could change your life forever.

I know, I should give up trying to write clickbait and stick to what I’m good at – but the weird tip thing is true.

The tip is to accept that you’re a beginner.

That was a hard pill for me to swallow, because I’m one of those super-annoying people who seems to pick stuff like Yoga up. I can feel people rolling their eyes as, 5 minutes after trying something new, it seems like I’ve been doing it for years.

Yoga wasn’t like that. It took a hell of a lot of effort and just basically hurt. It was not the relaxing, fulfilling experience that was pictured on the packaging.

I did not find myself magically transported to an empty beach in the tropics. It did not spark joy.

Two weeks ago I bit the bullet and signed up for a beginner programme, 20 minutes a day, a gentle introduction. There’s been a lightbulb moment in pretty much every class so far. If there was something I could do wrong, I pretty much was.

Suddenly now I get it. I understand it. It works for me and I actually look forward to the next class.

This article isn’t about me, though. It’s about pride. It’s about assumptions. It’s about having the fortitude to swallow that pill and accept where you really, truly are and that the road to where you want to get to might be longer than you’d want.

It’s even about having the humility to accept that, at some point, you might have been further forward than you are today.

I know every cheesy self-help book or blog says it, but it is true; even a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

We need to have the courage to make that step, to understand what it means, to consolidate that position – even if it is a way back from where we wanted to be – and to be prepared to take the next step and the next step.

We need to learn that it doesn’t really matter where we’re starting from. The only thing that matters is that today we can smile, knowing that we are a step forward from where we were yesterday.

Dry January

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Blame legendary DJ Stuart Maconie. It’s his fault.

I was listening to him talk a few years back; he was explaining that he didn’t think he drank a lot until he and his doctor worked it out. Turns out it was a lot.

A few weeks back I wondered what effect COVID had had on the amount of alcohol I was drinking. I knew the answer, I just didn’t want to hear it.

James Bond would tell me to lay off the sauce.

When you live in a rural area you get used to the fact that pretty much everything requires travel. Not drinking becomes the norm when you go out because the chances are you’re driving.

On the flip side, if you’re home of a dark evening there’s often not that much to do, so you open an improving book and pour yourself a glass of something degenerating.

Then COVID comes along and suddenly the few things that were open are shut. For lockdown #1 it didn’t matter; we got to laugh at people fighting over toilet roll in the supermarket and everyone knew COVID would all be over by the summer.

If the entire world had coordinated and shared responsibility, it might have, but that was never going to happen. So here we are two years later staring down the barrel at Omicron. Life never did get properly back to normal and it certainly isn’t going to for a while yet.

The NHS recommends that you don’t drink more than 14 standard units of alcohol per week.

A small glass of wine, a standard shot of spirit or half a pint (284ml) of average beer is a unit. Your modest Claret with dinner, followed by a diminutive glass of port as you retire to your wing backed chair by the fire will see the NHS smile warmly upon you.

Trouble is, a small glass really is quite small and my pouring arm is awfully twitchy. Very few people ever pour themselves a small anything.

Then there’s the night you’re staying in and having a few drinks with your partner and the other night when your friends pop round for a few quiet beers quite a few beers…

Now, the NHS isn’t daft, the doctors know that few people are going to stick to 14 – it’s really just a bit of psychology to give people a sense of proportion. Nobody really knows what a safe limit is anyway. Opinions and recommendations across the world differ. Everyone is sure of one thing, however: even a small amount can be dangerous. Less is better.

Having assured concerned friends and relatives that the economy of the Douro Valley is not, in fact, dependent on my patronage, I’m doing Dry January this year. For me it’s a bit of a cultural experiment. By going a month without drinking at all I’m hoping I can find some new ways, ones that don’t rely on a side order of sauce.

Hopefully I can then take those forward from February and get back to something more like how it was before COVID-19.