Themes – Light and Dark

I’ve added a theme switcher that allows you to change between a light and dark theme.

Before adding this functionality, the default theme was dark. As you may now be able to tell the default is a light theme! I much prefer a darker theme myself but I know most people prefer a lighter one.

The toggle can be found in the very top left of the site, next to the menu across the top of the banner. This will eventually be updated with some CSS so it looks better but for now it appears to work, however it does need some more testing which I will do over the next few days.

If you configure dark mode, a cookie will be set to remember your choice. I don’t yet have the Privacy page finished (don’t tell the GDPR police!) but more details on this cookie will be found there once it’s done.

I can’t promise this feature works on every browser yet but I’ll iron out the kinks as I find them and make it more efficient to boot. If I do anything interesting I’ll document it in a future post.

Sunrise, Sunset

I never get tired of the view here. I want to set up a static camera and do a timelapse over a year of wild variety of sights we get. Every day is something new.

The most special times to view the horizon are absolutely the sunset and, if I’m awake early enough, the sunrise.

Sunrise from the back garden. I’ve had to zoom in a bit here to not get most of the trashy garden in the shot so it’s not the best quality
A sunset from the front garden. I may have done a bit more editing here than in the last image, but only to more closely represent what my eyes saw. Doesn’t do the view justice!

Magical.

Tech Support Management: Projects, Respect, and PlayStation 4’s

I am incredibly privileged to work with a team of technical support folks who not only get along very well, but actively support each other on a daily basis. As the manager of this team, it is my duty to ensure they are being supported in every way possible by the workplace itself as well as the other teams within the organisation. This is a very delicate balancing act that I have yet to master.

Often, this ‘support’ means answering questions, taking responsibility for issues or working behind the scenes to enable the team to do their job effectively. A lot of the work I do (that isn’t GDPR related, and there’s a lot of that) is aimed at improving the quality of the work we do as a team, which in turn improves the quality of work the rest of the organisation is able to achieve.

Unfortunately, this kind of ‘enabling’ work that I or my team do is often invisible to both the organisation ah large as well as the team itself. It can take many meetings and a long time to get anywhere in management as everything on the organisation level often happens too quickly to react to, or takes such a long time that any progress that is made is barely noticeable to anyone not involved. Either way, this work is often isolated into individual projects, each of which requires lots of careful thought and consideration before any work can be started.

The first step in any project is to figure out if it is even worth it. Whatever the idea or project is, you have got to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. These reasons are varied, it could be cost saving or efficiency improvements, or the introduction of something new, such as a product, feature or resource.

Understanding the purpose is key to progressing into the planning stages. These plans could outline the single task required for the implementation of smaller projects or building a fully fledged project plan for larger endeavours, such as to introduce new technology or rebuild some core infrastructure. Whatever it is, planning is important, takes time, and happens invisibly to anyone not directly involved.

Working in the public sector, money is often the deciding factor when it comes to projects or general progress and change. Producing an effective budget is something that I am constantly improving on. It sucks up quite a lot of my time, however at the end of the day all that everyone else sees is a number that they can spend up to. It’s my job to make sure these numbers stay within certain bounds and do not change too much, and to also keep an eye on the state of things to see if any cost savings can be made. Doing this is quite time consuming and can often be invisible to the casual observer.

So there’s an idea for a project that you believe will be good for the organisation, those teams that it directly affects know that it will be great to do, and with luck you know that the money will be there (as it’s always worth getting buy-in from the finance team first!) The next step is trying to convince everyone else in the decision making chain that your idea or project is worth both the time to bother actually implementing as well as the money you want to spend on it. Working towards this “yes” from each person often requires background tasks, sometimes these involve the team in ways they don’t recognise, too…

Quite often I’ll ask my team to perform a string of seemingly unrelated jobs or to focus on a certain type of issue in order to affect the outcome of some discussion about a project I know will occur in the future. There’s an element of “keeping certain people happy” which unfortunately ties in to this, too, but I try very hard to treat everyone as equals, and certainly avoid treating anyone as inferior or less important. As anyone who has worked in a technical support role will know, this is a very difficult thing to do. That one customer who always brings you snacks and tasty treats? It’ll be near impossible for your team to not give them preferential treatment. That other customer who is constantly rude and abusive? Incredibly hard to work with and support effectively.

But that’s my job. Give the treats to the team, take the abuse so it doesn’t hit my colleagues. And get all the invisible management/planning/budgeting stuff done to enable the continual improvement of the organisation as a whole. Oh, and again, there’s a whole boatload of GDPR stuff to deal with, too.

It is difficult, tiring work. I am by no means perfect of course, but I like to think I’m generally successful in doing my invisible work. I always strive to improve and do better for the team and the rest of the organisation.

Unfortunately the team doesn’t often see what I get up to day to day. I’m often out in meetings or deep into spreadsheets, only to occasionally request work from them, seemingly for random reasons or for no reason at all. I’ve been on the other side of this and I know it can be quite frustrating. Communication with the team is key here, and I am always looking for ways to foster this within the team, but especially when it comes to myself communicating with the team members about what I’m up to and where all our work is heading.

Having their respect and support is important to me and I encourage open criticism, however it is very hard for me to measure how well I am doing with the team. It’s one thing to complete projects, but knowing that a team of people are happy with me (or not) is something I have yet to really figure out. It’s something I worry about quite a bit, actually.

So it came as a shock to me on the last day of work in 2018 when I arrived to find that the team had secretly set up a treasure hunt in the workplace filled with riddles and puzzles.

The team had come together and planned this months ago, contributing towards a gift, then working on the clues over the last couple of weeks and setting it all up without any indication to me that it was happening. All out of hours, I should add! After the dozens of clues and puzzles, the final clue led me to a box with a wrapped up Christmas present in it.

That present? It was a PlayStation 4 with four games. Yeah.

It blew me away. It was the last thing I ever expected anyone – let alone the team at work – to gift me. Despite my initial refusal to accept it, I now have it connected up to the 11-year-old 720p 40″ TV (which is now due an upgrade to at least a 1080p model thanks to the PS4) and have been enjoying it every single day of the holiday period.

The four games are:

  • The Last of Us (remastered)
  • Uncharted 4
  • Red Dead Redemption 2
  • Shadow of the Colossus (remastered)

To top it off, my partner has known about this for months and got me God of War for Christmas. She somehow kept it secret the whole time. I had no idea this was happening, even up until holding the thing in my hands. It still blows my mind that anyone would do this for me.

Clearly, I must be doing something right!

I’ve had a PS3 since release, but it died around six months ago. Not that I played any games on it anymore, it was a glorified Netflix box. Normally my gaming was done on a PC, however that too had suffered from age. The newest component is at least 4 years old so it’s not able to run modern games too well, but the PSU has also failed and I haven’t yet replaced it.

I used to play video games a lot, however since moving out I’ve been rather preoccupied with all the renovating and cleaning. I still dabble, though. I’ve been playing a little bit of Borderlands 1 & 2 and The Witcher 3, which I have been running on a borrowed laptop. Since the PS3 died, Netflix was being run through Firefox on Linux Mint which I installed on my partner’s low-to-mid-end-at-release laptop that’s ageing quite rapidly.

As you can probably guess, this has now changed. I’m still a PCMR at heart, but the ease of playing on a console and the fact that it’s the only reliable access to gaming I have, PLUS the fact that it’s the most modern bit of technology I own, means that I am now back on the gaming scene. There are a lot of current gen games I’ve missed out on, plus some really awesome looking PlayStation exclusives that I can now play.

I suspect, though, that this gaming will be infrequent once the holiday period is over. I will still make time for it of course!

In fact, I plan on writing reviews of the games I play on here. They may not all be modern games, nor will they be overly professional or likely to contain anything new, but I have plans for a “media review” feature for this site that has now opened up quite significantly in scope with the addition of modern video games. There’s no better time to start than now!

The first game review will be Uncharted 4 as I have already completed it.

If any of the team from work eventually come across this: thank you. Now get back to work 😁

New Year, New Life

2019 is going to be a very interesting year!

The Misconfigured Switch

I love reading technical post mortems from big-name organisations or experts in their respective fields. If you’re interested in reading some, here’s a list. They’re fantastic insights into some very complex and highly technical issues.

I investigated an odd issue recently involving a misconfigured switch which caused some very abnormal symptoms. I don’t think this qualifies as a legit post mortem article as I don’t have the niche expertise in any particular field to produce one, neither do I have in-depth knowledge of the network within which the issue occurred, but it’s about as close as I’ll be able to get to one at this time.

Here’s what happened.

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The Fireplace: Part 4

The fireplace is now dry, and we’ve had the chimney cleaned.

As the fireplace was drying it produced some cool patterns. You can see where the plaster is thickest by how it dried.

This pic was taken before the plastering work was complete
Drying
Almost dry

As for getting the chimney swept, it was over very quickly. I expected it to take several hours but it ended up being done within one hour. Messy, dirty work though. Lots of old, black soot and other detrius came tumbling out.

Now that the dirty work is complete we just need to get on with painting and get the stove installed. Not long now!

Sealing a door

So we’ve got a leak.

Occasionally we’ll notice that the floor by the front door is wet. We are currently living on a concrete floor at the moment as we decorate and prepare to install new flooring. Yes, it is cold. Anyway, it’s good that we’ve been hesitant with finding the right kind of laminate/LVT. If we’d rushed into fitting a floor we would have likely needed to rip some of it up to deal with this issue. The only problem is that I can’t identify where the water is coming from.

Originally I was suspicious that the leak was coming from the door itself, running down the front and getting in under the seal between the door and the frame within which the door sits. I have checked the seal and although it isn’t in the best condition it does seem like it would do the job.

We have a somewhat protected porch area where the door is set in slightly, and up a step. Unfortunately the guttering isn’t fitted properly so water does drip out from between two sections, then hits the floor which results in the water splashing up against the walls and the door itself.

Green = Corner section       Red = Leaky bit

I managed to pull the straight section to the right of the green box in the above image across just enough to clip into the corner section (green box in above image) and seal it with some Roof & Gutter Sealant (red box.) It looked like it was going to hold, so I had hoped this would stop the splashing, which would in turn stop or at the very least lessen the leak.

Whilst this has indeed fixed the gutter leak and improved the situation significantly, we’re still finding water coming in when the wind blows it in just the right (wrong?) direction.

So, what next? Well, the step up to our front door was clearly laid by an imbecile. It slopes towards the door, meaning whenever it rains we get a puddle of water sat literally on our door step. Ideally you want the water to flow away from your property, not toward it.

This concerned me, so now I am worrying that the water is coming in under the actual frame of the door (rather than under the door but above the frame) and have sealed up the entire front, plus some of the brickwork that looked a bit suspicious.

You can see the grey sealant along the wall and across the bottom of the door frame.

I sealed this a little while ago but only just took the pic. If it weren’t for the horrible weather it’d be much cleaner out there, promise!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that stopped anything, so I changed tack. I placed a large sheet of paper up against the base of the door frame and the wall, but under the door itself and not on the floor, to try and isolate exactly where the water is coming in.

After the next batch of rainfall I could see the concrete under the door was wet, but the paper was dry. Looks to me like it’s coming in from under the doorframe itself. This is an issue for sure as I have sealed the entire of the externally facing door frame at this point. There must be a crack somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t find it.

I may need to get an expert in to have a look. I hate problems I can’t fix. This is one of those unknown unknown times – I don’t really know what to look for, or where to look. If we get someone experienced in I’ll watch them figure it out and potentially fix the problem in moments. Once I’ve seen it done, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to replicate the fault finding process for this particular issue. Bit too late by then, though, eh?

Google Night Sight

A short while ago Google released an update to their Camera app which adds in their Night Sight feature. It is essentially a low-light camera. It takes several photos in quick succession and combines and enhances the batch to produce one image.

I’ve recently been playing with it and it is surprisingly good! Check out some of these nighttime pictures, taken during a long late night walk with nothing but a fairly bright moon sometimes hidden behind the clouds using a Pixel XL.

I want to say those spots are stars but I’m pretty sure it’s an artifact. Possibly from the building at the bottom of the image
Night time sheep!
The moon behind some clouds
A car driving towards me in the distance

The only issue is the blurryness. Due to the nature of how the feature works it can only really be used on a still subject. Any movement within the frame or of the camera itself will make for a blurry image. Some of the images above probably suffer from this. Still, can’t complain! I like the feature a lot.

Davis update

I use the “Davis” theme on this site. It’s minimal and plain and has a built in dark-mode, which I’ve set as the default – my preference to be honest, eventually I’ll add a theme changer like on the old site. It does everything I need it to so far! I will eventually extend it but for now everything I need is there.

An update recently came out for it (1.13 >1.14) which changed a few things. The header in the banner across the top changed, as well as the headers used in posts. They’re now more standardised and “correct” according to the HTML spec, which is great. Unfortunately I decided to update the theme before realising these changes were implemented and it messed up a couple of my custom CSS rules.

I think I’ve fixed the issues now, but it goes to show that even on something as simple and minor as this blog, you should test your changes in dev before pushing them to production!

Council Tax Reduction

In the UK we have a Council Tax. This is used to pay for local services and other manintenance, including things like law enforcement, cleaning of public spaces, disposal of waste and so on.

Each residence, with some exemptions, in England and Scotland is placed into one of eight bands (A through H – Wales has nine bands) which determines the rate you pay per year. It’s generally an effective way of measuring wealth and taxing on it, though it does have its problems.

One issue we encountered here was that we believed we were in a band that was higher than it should be. One odd component of the Council Tax is that the band you are placed in is determined by the value of your property in 1991. There are several issues with this, the most obvious being the fact that a significant number of properties were not even built in 1991 (or 1993 when the Council Tax came in) so calculating these can be tricky, though there are established ways of doing so.

Our house was built before 1991, however there were no sales of the property in or around that time, which makes determining the band quite difficult. At some point, likely 1993, the local council placed our property in a similar band as properties near us. Unfortunately, those properties are worth much more than our own. Some are larger, and some are similarly sized (though many have been extended) however they all have more land than ours.

We decided to try our luck after reading through the relevant MoneySavingExpert page and what do you know, we’ve had our band lowered, saving us over £300 a year!

Initially they were hesitant. They advised us that the band wouldn’t change unless we could point at a very similar property in the same area with a lower band, or provide a quoted price for the property that was generated in 1991 (which is impossible for most people to do!)

Though there are similarly sized properties nearby, there are none that are configured in the same way as our own (single storey bungalow) however there are some similar properties a bit further afield that are clearly in a lower band.

Luckily for us, this was good enough after appealing and resulted in us being placed in a lower band.

As someone who wants to achieve FIRE, lowering monthly outgoing is a critical step towards bringing this future even closer. Being able to permenantly reduce one of our larger bills is a great feeling and I would urge everyone to check their band. It doesn’t take long and you may end up saving a large wad of cash every month! Your local council is not going to lower it for you, so it’s worth putting the effort in sooner rather than later.

One bonus to doing this, if for some reason you need to be convinced to save money for the rest of your time at your current home, is that your local council should refund you the extra you have been paying since you moved in (or since 1993 if you have lived there for that long.)

We’ve only been here a year so is likely to only be around £300 or so, but if we had been living here for a few of decades it could be many tens of thousands. For us, it’s a nice little unexpected bonus. Hopefully it’ll arrive soon, we’ve got a lot of expensive renovations to be getting on with and that will certainly help.