Why is In-Car USB Reading so Poor?

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Car MP3 Technology, apparently
Car MP3 Technology, apparently

Why is it so difficult for car manufacturers to make cars that play MP3s?

Today’s hire car was an almost new Vauxhall (Opel) Meriva. It has a USB slot so I plugged my USB pen drive in it, “no data recognised” said the dashboard, “you can unplug the device.” There was nothing special about the device, just a plain USB pen drive with a handful of folders in the root dir and in each folder a handful of MP3s with a M3U playlist file. It’s difficult to imagine what could be simpler, so why is General Motors’ entertainment system not able to cope with this?

I’ve had similar problems in other new cars too. I know cars have a long development cycle and therefore we can’t expect all the very latest gadgets in them but there have been cheap commercial MP3 players that can cope with a few folders and MP3 files on the market for more than 10 years. There really is no excuse now.

In contrast my previous hire car was a Volkswagen Golf. Whilst initially annoying that I had to copy my “driving” MP3s to an SD card as this is preferred to a USB slot, the Golf had a neat little menu structure and worked very well.

Yes, there is another argument – most car manufacturers seem to have got Bluetooth integration working, so why don’t I just pair the car to my phone and play music from my phone? Because I want to change the music occasionally. DragonForce isn’t really ideal music when you rock up to the back of a huge traffic jam, perhaps Bat For Lashes or Portishead. Although if mounted to something it’s not technically illegal it wasn’t technically illegal when I wrote the article for me to operate my phone whilst driving it’s still fiddly to use and the voice command is good for a laugh but nothing more.

A simple menu structure and simple easy to use controls beat trying to fiddle with my phone hands down. I really don’t understand why it’s so difficult for some manufacturers to provide it.

Compare and Contrast: Glastonbury vs. Silverstone

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In 2013 Glastonbury and the British F1 Grand Prix fell on the same weekend. They’re both enormous events, but the there are some very notable differences. This article in The Guardian gives us a few pictures of the aftermath of Glastonbury – I’ve cheekily linked one of the images to give an illustration.

Glasto cleanup

It is true that charities recover usable equipment from the Glastonbury camp sites for less developed countries but there doesn’t appear to be a hell of a lot of usable equipment in the pictures. I suspect that most of the tents etc. might have been usable when the original occupiers left them with that noble intention, but it looks like a herd of drunken elephants have stampeded through since then.

This however is one of my pictures. It was taken a few minutes before we left Whittlebury Park Camp Site having spent the weekend at the British Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Whittlebury Park after F1 GP
Whittlebury Park on Monday

Is that one single abandoned chair I can see?

It seems rather perverse to me that a festival synonymous with charity and environmentalism could leave such a mess whilst one more associated with reverse barely leaves a trace.

It’s All Neneh Cherry’s Fault

Reading Time: 4 minutes
By the time I've finished with a hire car...
By the time I’ve finished with a hire car…

I felt totally like a rabbit caught in headlights last night when a school-friend asked me to share some of my music with her. Usually when someone asks me what kind of music I like I duck the question, it’s easier that way. I think Duke Ellington put it best “There are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind”, but that’s hardly a useful answer.

The real answer is that it’s all Neneh Cherry’s fault. You see in 1989 I was 14 and I thought I knew the music I liked, I’d started with Rock and Roll (as in Elvis and Chuck Berry) and gone through a bit of a heavy metal phase and by then I was confident that I’d found what I liked in the goth / industrial and general post-punk scene.

I certainly didn’t like “rap music”. Then I heard Buffalo Stance and I did like it, which was all a little confusing. Manchild though was the one I couldn’t deny – I loved that track. This was highly inconvenient, people who wore excessive amounts of black and sat around graveyards talking about middle class contemporary poetry didn’t like Neneh Cherry.

The basic problem was that in 1989 there was still a very strong sense of (youth) culture and counterculture in the UK. Choices had to be made, the music that you liked and the fashions you wore defined you as either mainstream or counterculture. The latter was the harder path, random physical attacks against people purely because they were goths, punks, grebos etc. were pretty common. If you were counterculture you had to learn to talk fast, to fight and to run. So we were naturally suspicious of anything that was too far away from the culture that we identified as ours.

Neneh Cherry was firmly beyond the pale, Neneh Cherry was the sort of music that blasted out from a car stereo whilst the occupants decamped to beat someone up for no better reason than daring to wear different clothes to them.

In being insular, even paranoid we gained a lot of protection in sheer numbers. We could have clubs with strict door policies for instance. On the downside it also led to a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding. We thought we were being intelligent and indulging in superior culture but we were missing entire swathes of what was actually great counterculture purely because it didn’t superficially appear to be like our counterculture.

Going even further, it’s not just counterculture we were missing out on. Whilst some (thankfully quite limited) elements of the fans of mainstream culture might be knuckle-dragging degenerate thugs that doesn’t imply that there is anything actually wrong with their culture.

I’d like to say that I had a eureka moment and suddenly realised all of this when I first heard Manchild on the radio. Sadly that didn’t actually happen, what Manchild did was to start me on a journey of listening to ever more diverse music. I’d find an act I liked then try to find similar acts – before there were massive databases of artists on the internet it was actually quite difficult and exciting to try to find new music that you liked. I got to know the staff at the better local record shops quite well and I used to buy different music magazines pretty much at random. Eventually I was forced to agree with Duke Ellington, that “There are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind” and that what label or genre some music journalist or promoter wants to hang on it is no guide as to which kind of music it is.

So what is my music? Even if I had the first idea where to start I’m faced with another problem – it’s shifting sand. It can change between morning and evening. I can listen to an artist solidly for months and then not be able to stand the sound of them for years for no apparent reason whatsoever.

I’ve come to love the chaos that is my taste in music – I am fundamentally a scientist so most of my day is spent dealing with logic and reason and most of my hobbies are pretty heavy on this too. Having something that defies all logic and reason, that is pure feeling and emotion is really important to me and I find that in music. I don’t need to write a peer reviewed paper to listen to Professor Green. I don’t have to calculate the load bearing capability of Alter Bridge. I don’t have to qualify or quantify the beauty of Gabriel Fauré’s composition. These things can just be, there is no logic, no justification and there is no need for any – right now at this moment I like these three things, they speak to me, they make me feel emotions that I want or maybe need to feel. Ask me again in 10 minutes and I’ll tell you a different story. It might involve Bob Marley, or Nuclear Assault, or the Unthanks. Perhaps it might even involve the great Duke Ellington himself.

The only thing I know right now is that it’s going to be great finding out.

Googling for Cold Callers

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Missed PPI Cold Call
Missed PPI Cold Call

I missed a phone call earlier – I’d just stepped out of the office for 5 minutes and when I came back in I had a missed call.

I hate missing calls, because my mobile is the main contact for all sorts of services. A missed call could just be an irritating sales call or it could mean that someone’s just ordered themselves a new Ferrari using my credit card details.

So I’ve taken to Googling the phone number. There are a lot of nuisance call prevention web sites out there and they’re pretty good at filtering out cold callers.

There’s not much chance of me calling this one back, it’s a PPI (re)claim company and not only do I not entertain cold callers but I’ve never had PPI.

Seed: From Student to Skilled Professional

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Seed Software Logo

As a senior professional in what might be termed the wider software industry I’ve worked with a lot of new graduates. On average I estimate that it takes 6 months for a new graduate to become an effective developer.

This is mostly because there is so much more to being a good developer than just writing code. Yesterday was James Croft’s last day as an intern at Seed, in his blog he takes time to thank us and gives a short précis of how he believes his year at Seed has helped him.

In The University we do the best we can to provide our students with knowledge of the working world. The University of Hull has an excellent reputation for producing well rounded, very employable Computer Science graduates. This is important, especially now that students are being asked to contribute so heavily and so directly towards their degrees: the employability of graduates is key to choosing a university and a course. A degree is an investment and you want to know you’re going to get a return on that.

I’m proud to be a member of the Computer Science Dept. at Hull, but no matter what we present in formal learning we’re never going to be able to teach what it’s like to be a software developer. That’s where Seed Software comes in.

Fire AppliancesWe run a professional software development practice from right within the Department of Computer Science. We’re not playing at it either; Seed is not an academic’s idea of what a real software house would look like. Most of the software we develop is in use by the Fire Service. Currently 15 fire services in the UK use our software, ranging from risk management applications to the very systems responsible for taking calls, selecting and mobilising fire engines and assisting the crews by providing communications and information at the scene.  Commercial software development doesn’t get much more critical than this.

So how does this benefit our students and where does James fit in? James worked with us as an intern – he took a year out of his degree (between second and third years) in order to work with us. This is a paid position, we don’t expect people to work for nothing and there are several positions available. Currently we have 2 intakes, roughly one before and one after each summer.

Students can also work for with us part time as a module in their MEng or MSc programme.

I couldn’t write a syllabus for what Seed teaches, but I see how our students and interns grow over their time with us. Some come in over-confident and quickly realise that the real world is far more complex than they had imagined. Others come in lacking confidence and realise that they actually do have the required skills. Seed often puts people outside their comfort zones, being a good developer is so much more than sitting behind a computer and writing code. It’s about teamwork, it’s about communication, risk evaluation, it’s about prioritisation, estimation, strategy, presentation, politics. I could go on.

That’s what we do in Seed, we take students and we turn them into real world software professionals. As a professional business person myself I would employ every single intern that we have ever had in Seed, perhaps not as they started with us, but by the end of the internship all have proved that they have what it takes to be a valuable asset to our industry.

So I’m proud to be a member of the team at Seed, proud of what we do and of what we’ve achieved and I genuinely look forward to the future, to making Seed even better and more effective as we ourselves learn and grow.


Norris, I Have a 12″ Black Plastic Disc with a Hole in the Middle…

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Ariston RD110 Turnatable
Ariston RD110 Turnatable

I’m the lucky owner of rather a good turntable – I came by it almost by chance some 20 years ago. Despite the advent of CD and MP3 I kept it primarily because I own quite a lot of music that simply has never been released on CD. That isn’t why I dug it out of the store, and it’s not because I needed something “vintage” to go with the enormous tiger striped beanbag.

I dug it out of the store because I wanted to listen to music. I’m not going to pretend that vinyl sounds “warmer” or in any way better than CD or MP3 because it’s a plain lie. OK, so with a top quality deck and a brand new pressing you could in theory get better quality than a CD but that’s just not how it works. Dust happens, scratches happen, wear happens and you can hear all of it. So why listen to an inferior reproduction system? Because putting on a record is a ritual, you don’t put on a record to play in the background. As Pooh Bear says that “When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen,” when you see someone putting on a record you can be pretty sure that they’re going to Listen to Some Music.

So I’ve been working through my record collection and rediscovering the world of vinyl and how much more flexibility it gave artists and record producers. There are coloured records, shaped records, picture discs and there’s enough room  in a 12″ pack to neatly fold all sorts of things, but especially posters. Then of course there are gatefold sleeves and the whole world of cover art. I used to have a wall display that was made out of record covers – 12″ of square cardboard is large enough to make an impression. The cover art of a record really matters, I’ve bought a fair few of them on the strength of the cover art alone.

There are a few less well known charms too, like run-out groove etchings. One of the most famous that appears on a lot of records, is this.

A Porky Prime Cut
A Porky Prime Cut

“A Porky Prime Cut” is the signature of renowned record cutting engineer George Peckham. Quite often the band themselves get in on the act too, often with weird and cryptic messages. One of the most notorious is the run-out groove etching on the Sisters of Mercy’s 1983 Temple of Love original 12″ single. I think we can safely assume that they were not fans of the temperance movement.

Sisters Temple '83

Clearly it’s not worth buying a load of vinyl and forking out a small mortgage for a top quality record deck. Vinyl is easily damaged, it wears out, it’s inconvenient to store and to play and it weighs a ton. But it has a charm than CD and MP3 simply don’t have and for that reason alone I love it.

Linux Equilibrium

Reading Time: < 1 minuteSomewhere in YorkSEED Software is fairly heavily Microsoft orientated. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Linux, indeed I started my career as a *nix developer. In 2000 though I was looking for my next career move and there just weren’t enough opportunities in the *nix world, so I jumped ship and became a Windows developer. Since then Linux has had to take a back seat.

However I recently ordered a new NAS and a Raspberry Pi. This means that I currently have;

  • My main workstation (Windows 7)
  • A backup workstation (Windows 7)
  • A SQL Server (Windows 2008 Server R2)
  • A Windows 8 Test Machine
  • A Windows 7 Test Machine
  • A Windows 7 laptop

But I also have;

  • A Linux dev / test machine (running Gentoo)
  • An Android smartphone (HTC Wildfire S running Cyanogen)
  • A (Linux based) ADSL router
  • A backup (Linux based) ADSL router
  • A (Linux Based) NAS
  • A Raspberry Pi

For the first time since 2000 I have got as many Linux machines as I have Windows, possibly more as there are other pieces of hardware that I have which could also be Linux based – I’m looking suspiciously at my TV for starters…

The downside of all this is that I think I may have just blown any pretence I might have had that I am not a geek. Hom hum, I can live with that!

Google’s Web Cache – Not Good For Bloggers

Reading Time: 2 minutesParis UndergroundI’ve stopped Google from caching this blog, it’s the only logical option.

Things change, circumstances change, events happen, our opinions change. The web though appears timeless, an article written 10 years ago can easily crop up in a search today and nobody reads the date. The advice that one might have given 10 years ago however may be entirely contradictory to the advice one would give today. The opinions expressed before the current recession may be entirely at odds with today’s. The conclusion we inevitably come to is that being able to edit and delete an article is really rather important.
Not only this but from a purely selfish point of view we might need to delete or edit articles – imagine writing an article that praised a particular company only to find out later that your own company was being taken over by one of their competitors. If the first time your new managers hear of you it’s because someone is telling them you’ve written an article supporting the opposition that stain is going to be difficult to remove from your reputation.

Articles can hang around in caches for a very long time after they’ve been taken down or edited on the original site. I’ve found myself writing articles and not publishing them simply because of this – I think to myself that I may change my mind about the subject at some point, or that the article is pertinent only to the world that exists today. So it’s a no-brainer for me and I would suggest any blogger, if you want to say anything that you may ever have cause to change or delete later, you have to try to stop it being cached.

Oh No, Snow!

Reading Time: 3 minutes

What to do in snow [image credits unknown]
Why does Britain – particularly England – grind to a halt at the first flake of snow?

Some of it, of course, is down to people being pathetic but the fundamental reason is clear – we’re just not set up for it. However one has to question whether we should be. Snowfall in the UK varies wildly depending on where you are but it’s a rare year that we have more than 2 weeks which are seriously disrupted by snow – 3.8% of the year. How much do we really want to invest in such a small percentage of our time?

Other (similar) countries don’t grind to halt because they have enough snow to make investment worthwhile. Finland is under snow, depending on where you are,  for between 3 and 6 months of the year.

To make this clear we’ll look at some of the cheaper and reasonable precautions one can take.

  • Get some long life / tinned / frozen food in.
  • Make sure you have a good supply of fuel – wood, coal, gas, oil etc.
  • Most people have a garden spade, it’s useful to have one in the car (whether this be the garden spade or a “travel shovel” specifically for the car).
  • Carry a couple of pieces of old carpet and perhaps planks of wood in the car. Maybe even specialist grip mats.
  • Make sure your screen wash is full and mixed up correctly for winter. You can buy concentrated screen wash at good motor factors, mix it up as per the instructions for winter.
  • Make sure you have proper boots that can cope with snow (good wellies will suffice).
  • Get some grit-salt in for your path and/or drive. It’s not expensive. You can use dishwasher salt or even table salt but they tend not to come in big bags for a couple of quid. If you haven’t got (enough) salt then sand, grit or even ash will help. It freezes into the surface making compacted snow more grippy.

These reasonable precautions won’t cost much. Motorists in Scandinavia however use Winter tyres. Even if you have a modest car that’s £300 and unless you’re going to pay someone to change them twice a year you can add the cost of a second set of wheels to that.

What’s more unless you do a lot of miles the tyres will probably perish before they run out of tread which just wastes money. They do make a real difference to driving on snow (in fact they have specific snow tyres in Scandinavia which are even better). For 4% of the year though where they make that real difference is it worth it?

That’s one simple investment we could make in our own cars but it highlights the issue rather well. Similar disproportionate investment would be required in much of our infrastructure if we were going to just carry on as normal in the snow in the same way that Scandinavian countries do. For 4% of the year it’s simply not worth us making those investments. It’s actually more cost effective for us to just to do the best we can with the limited resources available.

The key to dealing with snow in the UK is planning. We know it’s going to happen for a few days a year and the weather forecasters are rarely caught out by it, so plan in advance. Businesses should also be aware of the problems and should have plans. It’s all common sense.

Halfords We Fit

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Someone’s changed more than the wipers…

UK motor factors Halfords are running adverts for their new “We Fit” service and I absolutely hate them. There’s one common message – that even the most basic of car maintenance tasks is beyond the ability of the average motorist. This annoys me intensely because I firmly believe that every motorist should be capable of such simple tasks as changing bulbs and windscreen wipers – it’s part of understanding the vehicle that you’re driving. What’s more these things aren’t difficult. They require very little actual skill, just care and attention to detail.

However there’s a calmer part of my mind that says these adverts are actually good. I’ve seen the results when people thought they knew what they doing too many times and some of them have been pretty horrendous. Now I know that large chains don’t have best reputation for quality of workmanship but I’d still rather that vehicles using our highways were maintained by someone who’d had some form of training. That way there’s slightly more chance that the oncoming light in the freezing fog is actually a motorcyclist, not a car with only one light working.