The office is wherever I am

This is a surprisingly practical setup. In this shot (taken with my iPad, because using the phone would have required a mirror) I am on a conference call while also reviewing some slides in PowerPoint. The AirPods mean I don’t get tangled up in wires, and the little stand means I have my hands free to drink coffee or whatever.

It’s not quite as good as doing it all on the iPad’s big screen, but the phone does get connectivity absolutely everywhere, and it’s much less of A Thing to set up in a café than an iPad, let alone a MacBook. I got a wifi only iPad, because I would use its cellular modem about once a month if that, and it’s simply not worth it. And for reasons best known to themselves, my phone provider doesn’t offer tethering as an option on any contract I would be remotely interested in.

Hello Frankfurt!

Frankfurt looking very Blade Runner-esque this morning, with the tips of the banks’ towers lost in the mist and low cloud.

This is the start of a new experiment with sharing photos here, as opposed to social media. Let’s see how long it lasts.

More of Me

I have not been posting here nearly as much as I mean to, and I need to figure out a way to fix that.

In my defence, the reason is that I have been writing a lot lately, just not here. I have monthly columns at and IT Chronicles, as well as what I publish over at the Moogsoft blog. I aim for weekly blog posts, but that’s already three weekly slots out of four in each month taken up right there - plus I do a ton of other writing (white papers, web site copy, other collateral) that doesn’t get associated so directly with me.

As it happens, though, I am quite proud of my latest three pieces, so I’m going to link them here in case you’re interested. None of these are product pitches, not even the one on the company blog, more reflections on the IT industry and where it is going.

Do We Still Need the Datacenter? - a deliberately provocative title, I grant you, but it was itself provoked by a moment of cognitive dissonance when I was planning for the Gartner Data Center show while talking to IT practitioners who are busily getting rid of their data centers. Gartner themselves have recognised this shift, renaming the event to "IT Infrastructure, Operations Management & Data Center Summit" - a bit of a mouthful, but more descriptive.

Measure What’s Important: DevFinOps - a utopian piece, suggesting that we should embed financial data (cost and value) directly in IT infrastructure, to simplify impact calculation and rationalise decision making. I doubt this will ever come to pass, at least not like this, but it’s interesting to think about.

Is Premature Automation Holding IT Operations Back? - IT at some level is all about automation. The trick is knowing when to automate a task. At what point is premature automation considered not just wasteful, but actively harmful?

Photos by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Stick THIS in your carry-on!

Airline carry-on restrictions: WTF?

On my last few trips I’ve noticed a marked uptick in the probability of pax being pulled up for a check of their carry-on bags, leading almost certainly to those bags being gate-checked.

I travel a lot, and mostly for short trips - meaning one to three nights away, often with multiple stops in between. This means that having my luggage checked dramatically increases the chance of SNAFUs. Therefore I own a super-light roll-aboard, pack sparingly, and weigh it before departure to make sure I’m below the stingy 8kg limit.

Lately, even this level of paranoia has not been enough. I have had my below-weight roll-aboard gate-checked because my rucksack was “too big".

Now this is a standard 20L day-pack, not some expedition-grade monster, and it contains a MacBook, an iPad, their retinue of charger bricks and cables - and that’s pretty much it. Sure, there are usually some mints and a stick of lip-balm rolling around the bottom, but it’s not like I have a tent and a sleeping bag in there. Yet, this is apparently outside the regulation size for a “personal item".

My question is, what do airlines think a “laptop bag" should be? The only way I could lose any significant weight would be to lose the charger cables, and that would negatively affect the usefulness of the laptop just a bit. Meanwhile, women’s handbags are never checked, despite the fact that my wife carries a bigger and heavier bag when she goes shopping than I shoulder for travel.

There is some sort of assumption here about what a laptop bag is that I’m not sure airlines get.

The paranoid assumption would be that they are trying to make us pay extra for checked bags. I do indeed often travel on hand-luggage-only fares, but it’s not to save money. In fact, it’s the other way around: I never check luggage unless I am forced to, and therefore I take advantage of these (very slightly) cheaper fares.

The real problem here is people - monsters - putting two bags in the overhead lockers. Regardless of size, this is a jerk move. Unless you’re sitting in an emergency-exit or bulkhead row, where you have to, don’t do this, period. Your roll-aboard goes in the overhead locker, and your personal item goes at your feet. If it doesn’t fit, that’s a clue you’re doing it wrong!

As for airlines: enforce what matters. If the limit is 8kg and someone rocks up with a bag that’s practically spherical and straining at its zippers, and which weighs in at 15kg, that’s fair game for a gate check. In fact I would argue that such blatant fare evasion would be worth a paid gate check, but I don’t want to give airlines any ideas!

However, if someone has a rollaboard that fits in the cage, doesn’t abuse the weight limit, and has one more bag that they keep “at your feet or under the seat in front of you", as the announcement puts it - let it go. Seriously, those people are good customers who don’t cause trouble because their entire ambition is to get through the airport as swiftly and efficiently as possible. They have the equipment and experience to do this; all they ask is that you work with them, rather than against them.

This has been your First World Problem for the week.

The Internet of (Insecure) Things

Back in 2014, I wrote an article entitled Why the Blinking Twelves is an Internet of Things problem in the making. If you’re not familiar with the idiom of the "blinking twelves", allow me to enlighten you:

Back in the last century, digital clocks with seven-segment displays became ubiquitous, including as part of other items of home electronics such as VCRs. When first plugged in, these would blink "12:00" until the time was set by the user.
Technically-minded people soon noticed that when they visited less technical friends or relatives, all the appliances in the house would still be showing the "blinking twelves" instead of the correct time. The "blinking twelves" rapidly became short-hand for "civilians" not being able to – or not caring to – keep up with the demands of ubiquitous technology.
One of the most frustrating things for techies about the "blinking twelves" was that nobody else seemed to care or even notice the problem that was driving them nuts. How could people not see the blinking twelves all around them, and do something about them?
It took Windows for the problem to become obvious. Windows computers, brought a much higher level of technological complexity, the computer needed regular maintenance and people rapidly realised that updates and patches were required at regular intervals if their computers were to remain functional and secure.
The problem that we are facing is that technology has already begun to spread beyond the desktop. Even the most technophobic now carry a phone that is "smart" to a greater or lesser degree and many people treat these devices much like their old VCRs, installing them once and then forgetting about them. However, all of these devices are running 24/7, connected to the public Internet, with little to no management or updates.

In the three years since I wrote that article, the number of Internet-enabled devices has simply exploded.

I know, it’s from Business Insider, take it with a large grain of salt - but the trend is unarguable.

Here’s the problem: all of those Internet-enabled Things are cheap, and therefore based on existing components, including software. Most software, at least below the level of the specialised RTOSen found in nuclear power plants and the like, is built around the assumption of regular maintenance and updates provided by knowledgeable operators. However, once these Things are deployed in the field, where "in the field" often means the home or office of people who are not IT professionals, it is a given that they will not receive that level of care.

When something like Krack hits, the odds are good that manufacturers for many devices will already have disappeared without providing patches. Even for devices from more stable vendors who do provide ongoing support, maybe the device is obsolete and replaced by newer versions with incompatible architectures. But even supposing that all the stars align and the patch is available, it will still not be deployed widely - because of the "blinking twelves" problem. Non-specialist owners will not know or care to update their devices, and so the cycle continues.

Our only hope is that we are saved by our devices' obsolescence, as the lack of updates eventually prevents them from functioning at all. Maybe this won’t be the final straw, but soon enough the figleaf in every click-through agreement about the software being "provided as is" and "no warranty of merchantability or fitness for purpose" will be ripped away, in favour of the sorts of consumer protection regulations that these same devices would be subject to if they were not Internet-enabled.

The alternative is that in the Smart Home of the Future that we keep being promised, troubleshooting steps really will require us to close all the windows, exit, and start what we were doing all over again.

Me, I’ll move to a cabin in the woods.

Photo by Heather Zabriskie on Unsplash

Living in the Future

So far this week my phone got me on a plane:

Around London by Tube and train:

Got me coffee, dinner and some light shopping:

Let me summon a car to my exact location, and pay for the trip:

Oh, and I wrote and published this blog post on my phone.

And I think I also made some phone calls, all while keeping on top of email, using social media, reading books and magazines, listening to music and podcasts, and finding my way around.

Tell me again how phones are overpriced and boring? 🤔

You may have noticed that none of those images are of my actual phone, or of my own boarding passes and credit cards. That is because I am not a complete idiot. Yes, people really do post pictures of those online. No, it is very much not a good idea.

Algorithmic reality

What if all of those earnest post-Matrix philosophical discussions were more on point than we knew?

One of the central conceits of the Matrix films is that the machines simulate a late-twentieth-century environment for their human “batteries"…

Oh. Spoiler warning, I guess? Do we still need that for a film that came out in 1999? I’m calling it - anything from last century is now fair game.

As we were: all the humans live in a simulated late-90s world, complete with all sorts of weird and wonderful mobile phones, before we decided collectively that all phones should look like smooth rectangles of black glass.

This of course had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the late 90s were contemporaneous with when the films were being made, and therefore cheap to film, and everything to do with the late 90s apparently being recognised as the pinnacle of human civilisation.

Here’s the thing: what if the Wachowskis were right?

The twenty-first century is no longer the domain of a purely human civilisation. We are now a hybrid, where baseline humans are augmented by artificial systems. I don’t think we are heading towards a Matrix-style takeover by the machines, but this is going to be a significant change, and one that is hard to fully comprehend from the inside, while it is happening. Also, once the change has happened, what came before will be fundamentally incomprehensible to anyone who comes of age in that future world.

The world they will inhabit will have bots and algorithms the way we baseline humans today have commensal bacteria in our guts. Our guts have enormous structures of neurons, second only to the brain itself:

Why is our gut the only organ in our body that needs its own "brain"? Is it just to manage the process of digestion? Or could it be that one job of our second brain is to listen in on the trillions of microbes residing in the gut?

Algorithms will begin to play this process too, as more and more of our cognition occurs outside our own biological minds. These off-board exo-selves will feel as much a part of us as our “gut feel" does today - but they will fundamentally change what it means - and how it feels - to be human.

We can see the beginnings of this process already: we drive where the algorithms tell us to drive, we exercise the way the algorithms tell us to exercise, and we even date whom the algorithms tell us to date. We buy films, music, and books that the algorithms recommend, go on holiday where they suggest, and take jobs that they set us up with. In the future, what other decisions will we hand over to algorithms - unquestioning and unconcerned?

The algorithms and bots may not be out to enslave us, but they do see things dramatically differently than we do. For an example, take a look at this map:

This is a snapshot of a map of the continental US doing the recent solar eclipse. The traffic algorithm has no idea of what an eclipse is, but it does know that something weird is happening: people are stopping their cars in the middle of roads across a wide strip of the US.

Famously, an algorithm figured out a teenage girl was pregnant before her dad did:

An angry man went into a Target outside of Minneapolis, demanding to talk to a manager:
"My daughter got this in the mail!" he said. "She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?"
The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.
On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. "I had a talk with my daughter," he said. "It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology."

And that’s not even the creepiest thing algorithms can do. They can identify your face, even when you hide it with a scarf to go to a protest - (unless of course they can’t ), and they can tell your sexual orientation from a photograph.

This is why DRM, privacy, and user control in general are such important topics: we are talking about our own future exoselves here. There are perfectly legitimate reasons not to want to broadcast your identity and all your particulars to all and sundry, especially in a world which is unfortunately still filled with prejudices against anyone who doesn’t fit in with the majority. And if something that is guiding your actions and your very thoughts belongs to a corporation that makes money from people who want to influence your actions and your thoughts, where does that leave you? About as enslaved as those human batteries in the Matrix, I’d say.

I’m a straight white middle-class dude, cis-het or whatever, and basically so square I’m practically cubic, so all of this is very far from affecting me personally. I’m at the very bottom of Niemöller’s poem - but I have friends and relatives who are much higher up, so I have both personal and selfish reasons for wanting to make sure this is done right. Personal, because don’t mess with my friends, and selfish, because as the Reverend Martin wrote, if we don’t fix it early, by the time it gets to causing problems for me, it will be way too late to do anything about it.

And of course there are all sorts of other aspects of this new future that we are building which all too few people are thinking about. Future historians will refer to these decades as "Digital Dark Ages": our history will be lost behind gratuitously incompatible file formats and DRM to which no living entity (human or corporate) has the keys any more. I was able to flip through my grandparents’ pictures and read a great-uncle’s book; as things stand, my grandchildren will not be able to have this experience.

The late twentieth century may indeed go down as the high-water mark of the purely human civilisation. The technologies that would make up the new world already existed - I played a full VR game, with goggles, 3D mouse, and a subwoofer in a backpack rig, in 1998 - but they were not yet fully joined up, and only vanishingly few people appreciated what would happen when they would all be connected up.

I have no intention of standing athwart history, yelling Stop - but we do need to think carefully about what kind of future we are building, and where it will take us. If the first couple of decades of this scary new century have taught us anything, it’s that the defences of “oh, that’ll never work" and “nobody would ever do that" are no defence at all, in cryptology, civil liberties, or anywhere else - if, indeed, they ever were.

Check In and Chill Out - Part Two

Yesterday I wrote about travel tips for road warriors to survive the holiday season. Today, I wanted to share some advice for less frequent travellers.

There are a few simple tips that can make time in the airport much less stressful for everyone, but they are the sort of thing that I had to learn through experience, instead of being able to refer to one source for all the information. Here is my attempt to gather some useful tips in one place.

My first piece of advice is about preparation. I wrote about luggage and packing; choosing the right bag and packing it right will make the whole trip more pleasant, but especially that bit at the airport where you will be spending quality time with your chosen piece of luggage. Of course if you only take one or two trips a year, it's not worth going for the high-end road-warrior stuff. I buy Tumi because it's the only brand that stands up to what I put my luggage through, but I'll be the first to admit it's expensive and its looks are, uh, challenging. It's still worth shopping around for decent luggage, because the wrong luggage can mess up your trip before it has even properly started.

Check in online! Your airline will tell you when the check-in window opens (usually either 24 or 72 hours before departure). Make yourself a calendar reminder, especially if you are travelling in a large party and want to sit near each other. Check in online, and save your boarding pass to your phone. Basically, you don't want to go anywhere near an airport check-in desk if you can help it, especially during holiday season. Even if you have luggage to check in, there are separate baggage drop desks, where the lines should move faster - but again, everything is slower during holiday season, so give yourself plenty of time.

Your airline’s web site will also give you the opportunity to fill in required passenger information, known as APIS. This usually means your passport number and its expiry date. Note that you may also need to fill in a separate document with the government of your destination country, such as the ESTA for the USA. This is also required even if you are only going to be in transit through the US, so don’t be caught out!

Your airline will tell you what its policies are for carry-on and hold luggage. Follow these to the letter, because they do check, especially at holiday times. If you have a connecting flight, especially if it involves a different airline or a change from international to domestic, different policies may apply. Don't be That Guy (or Gal) frantically repacking luggage at check-in, then shuffling through the security checkpoint looking like the Michelin Man because you're wearing seven layers of clothes that didn't fit under the weight limit. Yes, I speak from experience!

If your itinerary involves connecting flights, it’s worth making sure whether your bags will be checked straight through to your final destination, or not. For instance, if you make a connection inside the US, you will have to clear customs, retrieve your checked bags, and then go back through the check-in process all over again. You should allow extra time for this, and also note that the US domestic flight will almost certainly have different rules (lower weight limits, perhaps smaller number of items) for checked luggage than the international flight.

Security checkpoints will have the same policies regardless of airline: no liquids over 100ml, all liquids packed in a transparent bag, total volume not to exceed 1L. Some airports will provide the transparent baggie, but not all, and some will charge you for the privilege. Best to pack your own baggie at home, or simply avoid the problem by packing all your liquids in your checked luggage.

You will need to take large electronics out of your carry-on bag, but this means different things depending on where you are. It used to be simple: in the US, only remove laptops; in Europe, also remove tablets. Cameras? Best to ask. Now, that US policy might be changing.

Empty your pockets - of everything, not just metal. These days, most airports have millimetre-wave scanners, not just metal detectors, so it’s best simply to take everything out. To speed things up, put the contents of your pockets into your carry-on, together with your belt, watch, etcetera. This way, when you get through to the other side, you can grab your bag and go. Sort your pockets out later, without holding up the line or getting jostled by a thousand other people.

You may be able to pay to access Fast Track lanes even if you are not a frequent flyer or flying business class. At this time of year, that's probably a good investment. Check your departure airport's website; they often have deals, especially if you also pre-pay for parking (something else you need to allow time for, because all the parking lots are full and you'll end up two miles' walk and a long shuttle bus ride from the terminal).

Once you're through security, keep an eye on time. These days, most airports don't assign gates until quite close to boarding time. Don't hover in front of the screens waiting for a gate to be assigned! Your airline or airport's app or website should give you updates, so you can find yourself a corner in a bar or café to wait in comfort, instead of standing around in a crowd of bewildered tourists. There are also dedicated apps that will put a flight board right on your phone. If you’re worried about roaming, most airports have free wifi, at least for a time. Here’s a tip, though: park yourself right outside the frequent-flyer lounges, and you may be able to sneak onto their unlimited wifi instead.

Flights are full at holiday times, so there’s no way around it: boarding will be a scrum. If you have assigned seating, you only need to deal with that scene if you need to ensure space for your carry-on, in which case, yes, queue up early - or pay for early boarding, if your airline gives you the choice. On the other hand, if you checked your big bag in to the hold and you don't need space in the overhead bins, there is no downside to remaining seated and boarding the plane after the worst of the crush is over.

Once on the plane, be prepared to move smoothly. Know your seat row, and head there straight away. If you’re on a larger plane, there might be two aisles, but cabin crew will direct you to the right one as you board. When you reach your row, get out of the aisle promptly, stow your carry-on in the overhead bin, and sit down. Do remember that there is a special place in hell for people who put more than one item in the overhead lockers, or put their luggage above a different row than the one they are sitting in.

The one exception is if you are sitting in an emergency exit row. You should be notified of this during check-in, but there are a couple of nuances that are worth knowing about. First of all, you do indeed get extra legroom, but you have to be "able-bodied" by the airline's definition, to assist in an evacuation should it be required, so if you're pregnant, elderly, or in any way disabled, you may be asked to move. Secondly, you cannot have anything with you at all - handbags, jackets, everything has to go in the overhead lockers for take-off and landing. Finally, space in those overhead lockers might be limited precisely above the emergency exits, so make sure that you board early if you need to stow a lot of stuff.

My best advice to both seasoned road warriors and nervous travel newbies is just to relax and go with it. Me, I'm going for a driving holiday. See you when I get back.

Photos by ANDRIK ↟ LANGFIELD ↟ PETRIDES, Tom Eversley, Ashim D’Silva and Bambi Corro on Unsplash

Check In and Chill Out

Or, How To Survive Travelling for Business During Holiday Time

I'm a member of a tribe, seasoned road warriors who spend far too much time in airports, as my wife can attest (sorry love). We recognise one another from our Tumi bags and purposeful stride through the frequent-flyer lane. As part of our survival strategy, we develop an intimate knowledge of how to get from one terminal to another at CDG with a minimum of stress, where to get edible food in LHR, and how long it will take to get to different gates in FRA. We know whether you should pick up duty-free in AMS or in JFK, and in which season you should avoid ORD. We breeze through security, everything neatly laid out in trays, with no wasted motion.

All of this hard-won knowledge works very well for ten months of the year, but at holiday times, our turf is invaded by hordes of people who are not as used to travel as we are, sand in the gears of our smooth progress through the Aerotropolis.

What is to be done

First of all, there is absolutely no point in getting stressed out. Planning is key, and even so, SNAFUs will happen. Yeah, plan for those too.

Part of the preparation process starts before you even leave home. Choose the right bag, and pack it right.

Arriving at the Airport

Once at the airport, the thing to remember is that at this time of year, there are simply more people than usual in airports who are not used to flying. Inevitably, this causes delays - both at security checkpoints, and everywhere else, as they wander around indecisively, or suddenly realise that they need to be somewhere else. All this means is that the rest of us just have to be that much more prepared, including by simply leaving ourselves more time.

Getting frustrated at people who hold up the security checks because they have liquids in their carry-ons or whatever won't get you through any faster. This happened just in front of me at security in MXP earlier this week, when the guy in front of me started berating the guy in front of him on his third trip through the metal detectors. Of course the tirade didn't help at all; it just got everybody on edge before their journeys had even properly begun. And yes, this was the priority lane; at this time of year, it's no defence, because infrequent travellers with business-class tickets are mixed in with the frequent flyers with their loyalty cards. In fact, many airports allow passengers to purchase Fast Track passage separately from their ticket1.

Instead of getting stressed out at the Muggles in our midst, see if you can smooth things along, perhaps by giving directions, or helping parents (whose hands are always full by definition) with their luggage. Sure, nobody likes a screaming baby on their flight - but guess what is most likely to set the baby off? Seeing Mummy or Daddy all stressed out. Send some good vibes their way - and hey, if it doesn't work, that's what noise-cancelling headphones are for.

Air Side

If you don't have lounge access, or your airline or alliance doesn't have a lounge where you are, bear in mind that terminals are very busy at this time of year, so don't assume you will be able to find somewhere to sit - let alone charge devices. Charge everything before you leave, and carry extra batteries. If you have the luggage space, a spare shirt & change of underwear is probably not a bad idea either, just in case you end up delayed or rerouted unexpectedly.

Finally, passport control is (even more of) a nightmare at this time of year, with long queues probable, especially in smaller regional airports. The holiday season represents a massive surge in numbers for airports that are often all but empty for the rest of the year, and because border checks are the one function that cannot be staffed up by students on work-experience or zero-hours contracts, they cannot easily flex capacity in response to increased passenger numbers.

Again, experience helps (know where to stand on the bus to be first through the passport check, fill in your landing card or whatever while still in the plane), and that frequent-flyer card may get you in the FastTrack lane here too, but ultimately, you just need to allow extra time. Catch up on the emails you missed while you were in the air, call your family back home and tell them you miss them, research dinner options in town, and simply wait your turn. There is nothing you can do to speed the line up, and any attempt will just stress you out.

Business travel is stressful enough without adding to the stress. Give yourself extra time when heading to the airport, finish listening to that podcast while you stand in line, go over your prep materials one more time while you wait to board. Check in and chill out.

Photos by Angelo Abear and Glen Noble on Unsplash

  1. Some airports even offer their own loyalty programmes, with perks including lounge and Fast Track access, as well as various discounts. The Milan airport system has a pretty decent programme, as do many others. Just the rewards from parking at the airport keep me in points for when I need them, for instance to get the whole family into the lounge when we travel as a unit.