Pillock in a Reasonably Priced Car

The driving lessons continue.

This week I drove from Dunsfold Aerodrome to Guildford, and then through Guildford’s horrendous one-way system back to Dunsfold where I executed a reverse manoeuvre, albeit initially missing the reverse gear, and nearly ploughing into my employer’s security gates – but apart from that, it was nearly perfect!  Is there any more room for an eighth presenter of Top Gear?

My ability to regulate speed is much better this week, but I still need to work on keeping an eye on signs and road markings.  But I was much better than last week.  I more or less kept within the requisite speed limits this time!  But it still needs a bit more work.

But what I need to work most on most of all are roundabouts.  Roundabouts – the most horrible thing ever to happen to motoring.  I kept getting the lane change wrong, along with timing for changing lanes, plus dealing with the whole M-S-M, and speaking of signalling – it was all over the place with me either fiddling with signals (wrongly) during the manoeuvre or giving the wrong signal.

The worst part was joining the A281 in Guildford.   Three lanes.  I had to keep to the middle, but did I?  No, I did not – not without intervention from my instructor Paul, who has the patience of a Saint.  And I kept mucking it up on other roundabouts too.  Even when it was a small roundabout with one or two exits.

Oh, and I didn’t M-S-M properly when positioning to turn right in the middle of a busy road (which has space for that very purpose).  So I need to remember that.

One more thing: to get out of Parking mode on an automatic, one’s foot has to be pressing the brake pedal.

I’ll get the hang of this darn driving thing one day.  In the meantime, a sobering TV show that reinforces the need to watch out for hazards is ITV’s Car Crash Britain: Caught on Camera.  One could argue it’s exploitative, but I see it as an educational supplement as to what one could potentially face while driving.

A good reason never to use your broadband ISP’s email service..

Once upon a time, Google offered internet service providers a branded version of Gmail and associated Apps.  For a while, all was good. Then Google decided it no longer wanted to offer the service and gave the ISPs a deadline to get the hell out of town.

Unfortunately for some, this has proven to be a complete and total farce. Virgin Media (who happen to be my broadband provider of choice – no, seriously, and I’m currently happy with them) appear to have flummoxed their own email service after migrating away from Google.  One issue has been Virgin’s spam filters blocking legitimate mail.  Now an argument has broken out over spoofed emails.

(But don’t worry, Virgin Media, BSkyB also had problems moving away from Google – although they migrated to Yahoo!)

Let me tell you something.  Managing email is bloody hard work.  It has increasingly been made difficult over the past two decades with the increase in spam, phishing and malware.  And when you’re dealing with poorly designed/implemented email clients (Outlook stands out as being one such culprit despite having some fairly decent features) on top of that, you’re asking for trouble.

And this is why many broadband ISPs outsource their email service to third parties such as Yahoo!, Google, etc. because they know full well that it takes a lot of effort to manage and maintain many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of email addresses.

I’ve been running mail servers for close to 20 years.  And I can tell you that, even managing small number of people/mailboxes, it can be mad.  Back at the Moving Picture Company – around 2002 – I migrated mail from an ancient 486 machine running an obsolete OS to a more modern and updated OS and upgraded Exim.  SpamAssassin was moved to its own server because the thing was a PITA when it came to using resources.  When you’re scanning lots and lots of incoming email, it pays to offload these resources to other machines.  Add Mailman to the mix to provide mailing lists for individual projects, and already you’re juggling a delicate service.  Things were made more complicated when Microsoft Exchange was brought in for business services.  It was expensive, required specialist knowledge, and a complete pig.  I proposed the much cheaper MDaemon (if you were going to run a Windows mail server, you might as well use something decent) which offered pretty much the same features at less cost and fewer resources.  But nope – MPC management thought Microsoft were wonderful and kissed their bottoms to kingdom come.

At Imagineer Systems, I faced the open source Zimba mail server.  It offered calendaring facilities and a reasonable web interface.  But boy, was it a resource pig.  It ran as a virtual server under Xen on a server based in the US and despite upping resources, it was still a pig even for a small company such as Imagineer.  So I persauded them to move over to Google Apps.

I’ve been a Google Apps for Work customer since around 2007 when it was first a limited feature beta.  I even spent a little while as a Top Contributor on the product forums helping out users of the free version.  But when Google started to add premium features for prices I’d couldn’t believe (seriously, it’s one of the lowest cost mail systems out there – plus you get collaborative word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. included). I use a web browser to access my mail.  I read mail and compose mail from within my browser.  I’m practically online all the time, but there is the option to read mail offline if I wish.  I also have access to standard mail protocols such as IMAP and POP3.  I tend to use Gmail’s own iOS app on the iPhone.  For the iPad Pro, I use Apple’s own mail client because Google are extraordinarily slow at updating all their iOS apps to use the higher resolution of the iPad Pro.

But even before Google Apps I’ve had my own email address at this domain and have hosted all my own mail myself.  I’ve gone through so many ISPs over the years that it’s made it necessary to do so.  And this is the problem.  If you’re unhappy with your ISP and you want to move – you’ll lose access to your ISP mail.

One of the biggest problems with ISP email – as well as the ability to scale and keeping everything running smoothly – is that one can’t use additional security features such as two factor authentication.

Even if an ISP offers webmail, I’m pretty sure they won’t offer two-factor authentication when logging in.  Do ISPs offer brute force protection for their accounts?  Many people are likely to be using exceptionally poor passwords.  And even more likely won’t change them every few months.

So people need to look into:

  • Buying their own domain.  A domain doesn’t have cost more than £5 per year, and in some cases it can be cheaper or even free.
  • Finding an email hosting provider.  There are few hosting providers that specialise in just hosting email.  You’re more likely to find a web hosting company that can provide you with your own server (probably running the excellent cPanel/WHM control panel system) for which you can run your own web site and email addresses.  Some provide a simple web hosting service, but you’ll need to look around to find what you need.  People can struggle if they take out their own server.
  • Using a password manager.  Use different passwords for different services (the password manager should be able to generate secure passwords – you shouldn’t need to remember them all – just the master password for your password vault).  Change passwords regularly.  Use two-factor authentication wherever possible.
  • Use Google Apps for Work.  Doesn’t have to be used for work!  You could start off with just one account and add more with the flexible option.  Prices are around £4 per user per month.  Includes 24/7 support.  And no adverts unlike regular Gmail.  Offers two-factor authentication too.

Poop! Poop! Driving along, singing that song..

Yesterday I had my first driving lesson after a 20 year gap.

Starting off right by the Top Gear Test Track at Dunsfold Aerodrome, I was instructed to drive my way up to Shalford (just outside of Guildford) and take the back roads back to Dunsfold.  All this in an automatic Ford Focus.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  It felt odd, but strangely natural. The pedals (just two of them) took a bit of getting used to what with my size 12 feet, but I’m sure I’ll be able to regulate acceleration and braking mix much better as the weeks go by (occasionally I did let the car drift by itself – automatics tend to do this thanks to their more complex transmission system).  It also felt very odd only having to use one foot (to avoid hitting the brake and gas pedals simulatenously) to do all the work.

I will say this: my decision to take lessons in an automatic was the right decision.  We had a bit of a discussion with the instructor (a former policeman) who told me that most new lorries (and other larger vehicles) are now fully automatics.  Not that I intend to apply for an HGV licence and buy a lorry or massive van anytime soon..

We took on roundabouts (usually taking the 2nd exit – I managed to screw up the first one, but only because I assumed the second exit was going back on ourselves – everything else was fine after that), junctions, narrow roads and narrow bridges.  Had a

I  had a little bit of trouble judging how close we were to a row of parked cars on a narrow lane, but nevertheless no one (or thing) was harmed as I pootled by. Otherwise I kept within the road markings.  And usually within the speed limit.  Usually.  A couple of times I went about 5-10mph above the speed limit (encountering one of those signs that tells you that you’re going too fast), but soon managed to get back within the limit quickly.

I do need to work on looking out for the speed limit signs – some of them are pretty small and out the way along the backroads of Surrey.  Similarly, I need to brush up my junction markings – since these can mean different things.

All in all, it was a great lesson!  I’ve got a great instructor in Paul, and he kept me talking all the while driving (but also ensuring that I was keeping my eyes on the road, speedometer and mirrors).

I even got to do a bit of reversing at the end of the lesson, in order to turn the car around in the company car park.  Not sure I can manage the full intricacies of parking properly at the moment, but I feel it shouldn’t be too difficult – and that was something I was worried about.  Hoping I might be ready for the test within 20-30 hours worth of lessons instead of the 40 I was planning.  I’ve already block booked 10 lessons, so it’s all go from now on..

In which I visit Oxfordshire and find it most agreeable..

Last week I took some time off work to go visit Bicester (pronounced “bister” and not “bi-cest-er” as I originally thought, because I’m an idiot) and it was the very first time I used Airbnb, the website that connects hosts with those looking for lodging.

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Need a place to stay in and around Bicester? Then let me recommend to you Bicester Heritage.

There have been plenty of horror stories with Airbnb in the media, but almost everybody I’ve personally spoken to has always had something positive to say about it.  I decided that I’d start off with staying somewhere that looked professional rather than somebody’s own home.  I chose to stay at the Bicester Heritage Crew Rooms.  Specifically, I stayed at the Bowen-Buscarlet room – the largest of the rooms available.

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My home away from home for two nights. The Bowen-Buscarlet crew room at Bicester Heritage

Bicester Heritage is well positioned.  It’s a former RAF base which is now home to the restoration, storage, and enjoyment of classic vintage cars, motorcycles, and aircraft.

As I don’t drive yet (my first lesson starts next week!), I had to take a taxi from Bicester Town train station (cost is £6 without tip).  Ten minutes later I was there, and making my way through the security barrier, I was greeted warmly and taken to the room which is situated behind the Pump House.  The Pump House recently played host to the film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.  The building was used in the sequences in which Turing is building his Enigma code-busting computer.

Building 82 (The Pump House) at Bicester Heritage, as seen in The Imitation Game.
Building 82 (The Pump House) at Bicester Heritage, as seen in The Imitation Game.

Bicester Heritage very much reminds me of where I work – Dunsfold Aerodrome.  Both offer excellent filming potential, although Dunsfold doesn’t offer any form of accommodation.  Speaking of which, I was hugely amused by the books from Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond within the bedroom and living areas.  Reminded me of a certain TV show that is filming next door to where I work (albeit with a change of staff).

The Oxfordshire countryside is absolutely beautiful.  I went up to Woodstock, home of Blenheim Palace to walk through the park (since the main house and gardens are shut until mid-February).  Absolutely stunning.  I’ve bought an annual pass in the hope of returning later this year.

The town of Woodstock. Great village, with plenty of little shops and great places to eat and drink. Also: churches.
The town of Woodstock. Great village, with plenty of little shops and great places to eat and drink. Also: churches.

It was a beautiful day, albeit rather cold.

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The park itself is an ideal location for dog walkers and for long walks. Capability Brown sure knew how to landscape, and this is reflected in the beauty surrounding the palace.

Overall it was a wonderful two days, and I expect to be returning to Bicester a fair bit over the coming weeks and months.  Being able to drive will certainly help (~1 hour by road versus ~2 hours by train).

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Bicester Town train station. Takes about 50 minutes to get into central London (Marleybone Station).

If I’m to drive, I’d better knuckle down and make sure I commit the following material to my brain:

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Facebonking across the universe, boldly going forward because we can’t find reverse..

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook.

On one hand, I detest that most people (and companies) treat it like it was the internet and that it was the ONLY thing out there.  As such, the whole notion of “net neutrality” goes right out the window.  Remember, that a single corporation controls it all and as such if you value your data, product or brand, be aware that Facebook can do whatever they damn well please.  At any time.

So there’s that.

Then I hear about all the family and friend spats that happen on Facebook. This person unfriending that person because they did x,y and z.  So that puts me off as well.  I’d rather stay right out of that sort of thing.

But on the other hand, if there is one social media to unite them all, it’s Facebook.  Many of my friends are on FB and not Twitter or Google+.  Google+ is a lovely social media platform, but Google doesn’t really seem to know what to do with it, and it’s all a bit of a mess if the truth be told.

So I’m going to give Facebook (or Facebonk as I affectionally call it) another go.  If any of my regular readers are on Facebook, my profile is here.  I make no promises to how long I stay around, but I’ll try my hardest this time not to lose my patience with Zuckerberg and chums.

One of the benefits of Facebook is that I’ve already been able to reconnect with family.  So that’s a positive side already.

(Note to Facebook iOS development team – how about fixing it so that the iPad app makes full use of the iPad Pro resolution – at the moment it’s like looking at an app for somebody with bad eyesight.)