I’m quite convinced that the NHS vaccine online booking service was designed for car drivers. Those people with easy access to cars. I’m trying like mad to get an appointment, but there are none available in less than a 15-mile radius at a place which makes it near impossible to get to with public transport. When a location does turn up that’s closer – you MUST arrange the second appointment at the same time and often – in fact 99% of the time – you can’t go back to the same place as the first appointment and you have to travel even further away to get there.

Don’t think I’m ungrateful for getting a free vaccine, but it’s no bloody good to me if I have to go considerably out of my way to get it. I’d be happy to pay £100 to get the damn thing locally (with an option of which vaccine, if possible). But there doesn’t appear to be a way of doing this.

And what also gets me is that the UK government wants to get things as close to normal as possible in June when there are still many people trying to get their first vaccine. Transmission rates will, hopefully, be down because there will be many people who have had the vaccine, but the risk remains – especially with regards to some of the different mutant strains. I have a strong feeling that without further controls, things are going to escalate out of control again – complacency is going to bugger things up.

I’ll keep checking the online booking system daily, as I do, to try and find something reasonably suitable that I can either take public transport to, or an taxi/Uber. But the availability of vaccination centres appears to be incredibly slim.

Apple, my favourite technology company and bruiser of bank balances, has released something that should help me never forget where I’ve put important things such as my keys, wallet and backpack/baggage. And if I do lose them, hopefully retrieve them without screaming blue bloody murder. I am, of course, talking about the all new Apple AirTag.

£64 to ensure that I don’t lose my keys!

The AirTag is a small round device, not much bigger than a 10 pence piece that fits inside a plastic holder. Within the holder lies the magical guts of the beast that provides Bluetooth and Ultrawide Band radios to help you locate it if you happen to misplace whatever it’s attached to. There’s also a CR2032 battery which lasts about a year before it’ll need replacing (and to do so is easy enough, apply some pressure to the shiny side, twist counter cloockwise and pop off the lid – replace battery and pop the lid back on).

And that’s it. It just sits there, idle, until you want to find whatever the AirTag is attached to. In my case, a leather keyring that’s attached to my house keys. If I misplace them, I just need to open the Find My app on the iPhone and if they’re nearby, I can use the iPhone to locate them – it’ll throw up an arrow and distance measurement and I can move around until I find it. Or I can get the AirTag to play a sound.

If I REALLY misplace my keys (which I did do a few years ago – leaving them at home and locking myself out the house, although until I got the locksmith to let me back in, I wasn’t sure whether I had left them at home or had lost them on the way to work), I can place them in Lost mode which uses the network the iPhones and iPads to let me find it on Apple Maps so I can go and retrieve it. Meanwhile, if the device is Lost mode, anybody coming across an AirTag can scan it, and if you allow the system to do, allow the finder to contact you. Of course, this being Apple, privacy is paramount and there are a number of techniques built into the system to prevent people from getting your details or placing an AirTag on you to track you.

It’s an intriguing system and I’ve bought another four to add to my bags and wallet too. Speaking of wallet, I’ve opted to try and Apple MagSafe wallet which allows me to hold three cards in a secure magnetic wallet that attaches to the back of the iPhone. It doesn’t slip off easily and requires a bit of force to remove – but it does save me a bit of pocket space: I rarely carry cash and payments are usually contactless via the iPhone.

A topic of company phones came up recently which had me thinking that maybe I really do need to separate work and personal calls and texts. And maybe I should take a look at the Android ecosystem again, because there bound to be a few colleagues running it and if I am to support them properly, I should be more aware of what’s going on.

So this lead me on a mission to find a cheapish Android device and data plan – preferably away from my current carrier since in the unfortunate (but highly unlikely, yet still probable) event that my broadband and current carrier went down, I could still tether my computer to this new device and continue to work.

I looked at the OnePlus 9 Pro. I’ve good experiences with OnePlus with the OnePlus 3T that I had a few years ago that I bought as a backup phone. The UI was a breeze to use, and I liked using it quite a bit. It was definitely wooing me away from my iPhone, that’s for sure. Plus it took some really decent photos. The downside? Terrible battery life. Barely made it through the day.

I eventually sold the 3T and went back to merrily using the iPhone, and only using the iPhone. The OnePlus 9 Pro, when looking at what it could do and the quality of the images, made it a tempting option. Yet the reviews I’ve been reading and watching suggested that the battery life still wasn’t great. If you’re going to be using the phone primarily for work, you need something reliable in the battery department.

I also looked at the Oppo Find X3 Pro, which had many more positive reviews – especially surrounding the camera. But again, battery life was said to be a bit of an issue and the cost of the device (as with the OnePlus 9 Pro) were getting too close to the ultra flagship phones from the likes of Apple and Samsung.

So I decided to go with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, my first Samsung phone after being left disappointed by the Galaxy Note 5 battery issue. I loved the Note 5. It was an absolutely beautiful piece of engineering, and I’d have probably have completely ditched the iPhone ecosystem had it not been for the potentially explosive battery situation. So back it went and I stuck with iPhone again (until the OnePlus 3T). The thing about iPhones is – to most people, they may be boring – but damn it, they’re reliable.

Anyway, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a lovely bit of kit:

It reminds me why I loved the Note 5 in the first place. A lot of thought has gone into the design, and it feels really good in the hands. More comfortable than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, that’s for sure – thanks to a leaner, taller ratio. And while the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s notch has never bothered me, the single camera punch out on the display makes things look a lot neater – albeit at the price for reduced functionality – the S21 Ultra’s face recognition comes nowhere close to that of the iPhone.

So I’m using the ultra-sonic under-glass fingerprint reader to unlock the phone rather than face recognition (which I understand to be considerably less perfect than that of Apple’s implementation). It’s not brilliant, but it does the job most of the time. Again, we’re nowhere near the accuracy or performance of the iPhone in that regard. What I hadn’t realised was that the S21 Ultra comes with a screen protector installed by default and found the fingerprint sensor more agreeable without it. As the S21 Ultra comes with the toughest Gorilla Glass yet – Gorilla Glass Victus – I’m not concerned about smashing this thing.

Performance is as I would expect from a Samsung flagship, and Android has never been better. I particularly like the always-on display, which doesn’t take up too much battery life. And speaking of which, it’s really good. On standby it slowly drips away and lasts a good 2-3 days without the need for a charge.

The 108-megapixel camera on this monster of a phone is interesting. I don’t think it’s quite as good as the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but with one exception: the zoom (10x optical with a 30x hybrid right up to 100x) is magnificent (ha), as is the close-up mode. I’ve switched to pixel binning, ensuring that all photos taken are 12 megapixels – and besides which, you’ve got limited functionality when taking photos with the full 108-megapixel sensor (at least in non-pro mode).

Integrating an Android device with a Mac was never going to be easy, but I’ve discovered something called AirDroid which takes much of the pain away. It can wirelessly transfer files (such as photos, documents, etc.) to the Mac and vice versa quickly and easily. It should let me read and reply to messages and make phone calls from the Mac desktop, but despite setting permissions on the phone to do so, AirDroid keeps telling me the phone still doesn’t have the right permissions!

One of the main reasons for going with Samsung versus the many Chinese handset manufacturers is that Samsung has really stepped up the game when it comes to Android security updates – and that of the phone’s specific hardware features. And even major new releases of Android! This phone is guaranteed at least three major Android releases during its lifetime. Possibly even beyond that. I think of all the Chinese phone manufacturers, Xiaomi is the only one that releases Android security and feature updates in a timely manner. Alas, the Mi X11 Ultra isn’t yet available in this country – that phone looked to be a serious competitor to the S21 Ultra – and I had considered it.

Overall my limited time with the phone has been a good experience. But there is so much to configure and optimise that it’s a bit of learning curve. The iPhone, on the other hand, is quicker to set-up and configure. That’s not to say it’s not as feature rich as Android, but Apple’s UI team have attempted to put configuration options and features in such a way that you don’t need to keep deep diving into multiple submenus to find them.

I’ve just been reading about the latest outrage at the BBC, and I’ve often wondered how I’d run a complaints department. For example, it’d be much easier to set up an autoresponder on the BBC complaints email address to soothe the complainant that somebody will be dealing with the complaint while you send their incoming emails to /dev/null (a popular sysadmin trick when you really don’t want to be bothered – it’s effectively auto-deleting whatever gets sent there).

But what about actually writing a proper letter, with an envelope, stamp, and everything? Well, larger companies probably use machines to sort and open incoming letters. All you’d need to do is identify all mail coming into the complaints department, chuck it straight into recycling where it’ll be pulped and turned into toilet paper. If you’re REALLY lucky, the complainant will probably be wiping their own arse on the same paper they’ve used to write their complaint on in the first place.

While we’re still in lockdown in one form or another, I’ve been going back over all the photos I’ve accumulated over the years and reminiscing about just how much I loved travelling. My ex-wife (who was, and still is, a travel agent) and I managed to rack up quite a few miles over the the 12 years that we were married.

I’ve taken all of the photos from two of the biggest trips that we undertook, and turned them into a slideshow presentation, using nothing more than Apple Photos and some royalty-free music via an Epidemic Sound trial. If I were smarter, I’d have broken things up a bit and used Final Cut Pro to make the presentation a bit more polished. Apple Photos could really do with a few more extra themes too, TBH. But it is what it is, and I rather like the final result.

First up, Egypt. My mum used to love all things Egypt, and I felt extremely proud and lucky to have been able to travel throughout most of the country, visiting some of the most famous sights and landmarks this incredible country has to offer. While security concerns were at an all time high (a bomb had gone off in one of resorts we visited, Dahab, a few weeks earlier), I never felt unsafe throughout the entire journey.

Up next is Southeast Asia, taking in Thailand, Cambodia and a bit of Vietnam. This too was an incredible experience. Angkor Wat was truly straight out of Tomb Raider (of which our guide was part of the on-set guides for the filming crew for the first Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movie, and I worked on the second film, alas I only got out as far as Pinewood Studios for that).

The Cambodian countryside is so beautiful, yet there are still many mines out there that need to be deactivated and made safe. Alas, the Khmer Rouge’s legacy is still there for all to see. But the Cambodian people themselves are lovely, resilient and welcoming people. I cannot say enough nice things about them.

There are many, many other slideshows I could produce (and may do so) regarding my travels across the globe, but for now I’ll leave you with the two above. And here’s to many more travel adventures when this bleedin’ planet can sort itself out and not keep getting itself put back in lockdown because people are too impatient and/or have a death wish.

Back when Valve was a very active games development company and not just building out infrastructure for other developers and gamers, the big multi-player game of the moment was Team Fortress 2 (or TF2 for short). Hours of fun were had (virtually) running around blasting the other team into oblivion and attempting to push a cart or capture points on a map.

14 years later, the game is still actively played, but its development? Considerably less so. As a full-time Mac user, TF2 stopped working natively on the Mac when Apple pushed out macOS Catalina which prevented 32-bit applications from running (part of their master plan to move to 64-bit only ARM processors, the kind I’m running on now). But that’s okay because relief came from the form of game streaming services such as Shadow.tech and NVIDIA’s GeForce Now.

I’m using GeForce Now because it’ll take a full year before a machine is provisioned on Shadow.tech’s service – that’s how popular it is. Unlike Shadow.tech, however, GeForce Now provides you with a limited set of games (whereas Shadow.tech effectively give you a full Windows PC in the cloud on which you can install anything).

GeForce now only costs me £5.99/month (in 6 monthly installments) and allows me to run pretty much my entire Steam library (Steam being Valve’s game store) in the cloud – with little to no performance hits. My 500Mb/s Virgin Media service is more than adequate for this, and TF2 runs remarkably smoothly – although occasionally I need to keep resetting the display resolution from within TF2 from 1280×768 to 1920×1080.

Now, having not played TF2 for more than a year at this point, many thanks have happened. The entire TF2 network has been affected by ‘bots’ that will join a game, clone an existing user already in the game, and then start cheating their way to victory or play annoying/offensive sounds and generally be a massive nuisance. The only way to get rid of them is to hold a group vote. Occasionally the person holding the vote picks the wrong username and the innocent player is subsequently kicked and banned from the server. I provide an example below – be aware there is strong language from the start. Once the bot has been kicked, the game can resume normally without any further incident.

One company, FaceIT.com, has come up with a better solution (since Valve is unwilling or unable to provide a more viable means of dealing with the problem) in that they severely restrict who is able to connect. The only ‘bots’ are “good” bots that emulate players. Sometimes well, sometimes not so well (one bot “engineer” player set-up a teleporter at the second base of an attacking team to send whoever went through it back to the original base right at the start of the map). But that doesn’t happen unless a player bails out.

In order to play a game of TF2 on FaceIT.com, you just connect your Steam account to it, then join a match. You’re placed in a queue and after a while (it can take several minutes), you’re put into a match of 12 people vs 12 other people. You must accept the match within 30 seconds, otherwise the match is cancelled, and everybody goes back into a queue again. Once a match is successfully connected, you can use a Windows client to automatically connect, or use the TF2 console to connect to the FaceIT.com TF2 server.

As I’m using GeForce Now, I had to provide Steam with an extra parameter for TF2:

-console

otherwise, you won’t be able to access the TF2 console which is needed to connect to third-party servers. I use macOS’ Notes app to make a note of the server, then open up Notes on my iPhone and type in the server connection string manually (because there is no copy and paste between the host machine and GeForce Now’s virtual machine).

Once connected, enjoy:

FaceIT.com has three different regions:

  • Netherlands (EU)
  • Dallas (US)
  • South Africa (or South America; didn’t select to check as it’d mean I’d have to join match) (SA)

I found that I get the best enjoyment from Dallas, despite being much further away because the Americans are a lot more vocal and organised. They’re also much more competitive which generally leads to the team banding together in a tight formation, with everybody with their own job to do in order to move the team forward. Besides this, It’s TEAM Fortress 2, not ME Fortress 2. There have been some seriously good and fun games using voice chat.

That said, I have just had one very unpleasant experience (until now I’ve had no such experiences in the 14 years I’ve been playing this game) when I made a mistake by selecting the wrong weapon while in “uber” mode, causing the player who is playing the “medic” to start effing and blinding at me, telling me to “go back to your country” and various other racist (well, I suppose nationalist rather than racism) insults and mocking my accent. A typical Trump supporter, I suppose. Or at least somebody with uncontrollable anger who, if it goes unchecked, is going to seriously hurt somebody one day and will end up in America’s revolving door prison system.

I quit the match initially, made sure to report the guy via the FaceIT.com reporting system (which, thankfully, won’t match me with him again on future matches) – and also reported him to Steam. I went back into the game, muted the guy and while another argument was going between two other players, I just text chatted everybody to just use the Mute function. Thank goodness Valve built the Report and Mute functions into TF2 – they are a genuine lifesaver. But I will not tolerate any form of racism/nationalism or any other kind of abuse against myself or others. As of the 13th April, FaceIT hasn’t taken any action despite assurances on a ticket that they would investigate – but trawling the FaceIT Reddit forums suggest that the ban/penalty system is extremely unbalanced, with people who shouldn’t be penalised being so, and those that should, walking away scot-free.

For me, however, it is too late. TF2 is such a mess and FaceIT needs to do more to match the more competitive, stronger players with each other. The arguments and attacks against players in the text chats are getting worse, and the game is still attracting immature idiots who are still far too competitive for their own good. Now we’re replacing the problem of bots with human super-competitors who bay for blood and God help you if you stand in their way.

The one thing that drives me completely nuts about the whole raft of current legislation against Apple from the likes of Spotify and Epic Games, who accuse Apple of market dominance is that it’s simply not true. Take for example the other day – my company organised a Zoom-based yoga session (which went very well) and the teacher provided a Spotify playlist of music. Spotify. Not Apple Music, not Deezer, not Tidal, not Napster. Spotify.

At Christmas, we were all invited to add our own recommended Christmas tunes to a shared Spotify playlist. Not Apple Music. And it should be pointed out that Apple Music’s does have a presence on Windows and Android devices, so it’s not exclusive to Macs and iPhones. Spotify’s big advantage over Apple Music is that it has a free tier versus a three month Apple Music trial. Plus, ultimately, Spotify has been established far longer than any of the other premium music streaming services.

So until shared Apple Music playlists take over from Spotify’s, I can’t see how Spotify can claim that Apple is being unfair to them. When I used to use their Premium service, I paid for it via the Spotify web site because that makes sense to me – my contract (and account) is with them. Would I like the choice of doing so through Apple? Yes, it’d be nice (and would save time – e.g. it’d be convenient), but ultimately my contract for those subscriptions are with Spotify, Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and I pay for them directly with the video streaming provider. Interestingly, I found that a macOS software subscription to BBEdit to be .. troublesome. Apple’s system kept prompting me every so often to verify the subscription despite auto-renewal being enabled that it annoyed me so much, I just bought the version directly from the software developer.

This leads me to Epic Games. I fail to understand their reasoning for a third party store on iOS. Firstly they say 30% fee per transaction is too much. Yet Epic and other whinging developers who claim Apple is being unfair to them fee-wise don’t contest the likes of the 30% Microsoft and Sony console store fees. These are not open platforms either and strictly controlled by both Sony and Microsoft. If I wanted a fully open platform (or as open as it can be), I’d pick Linux, Windows and Android. As it stands, I’ve found the Apple ecosystem to work for me very well at a consumer and professional level. A lot of developers I work with say the same – practically everybody I know uses a Mac (with Windows being the exception).

While the iOS App Store is not perfect, it still does a pretty decent job of weeding out bad actors, though there are a few prominent cases right now which make Apple look bad – though these are few and far between and potentially a lot of stuff we don’t know about – Apple usually comes to their senses in these matters (listen, I never said Apple were perfect). What makes people think that a third-party store is going to be any better? The case against Apple is strictly a developers’ issue and not that of consumers. Do you think I like having to pay a subscription fee for Adobe Photoshop that ties me into subscribing for a full year? There is no choice of buying it outright. So don’t kid me about consumer choice.

People pick Apple for security and privacy over the likes of Google, a company that ultimately deals with advertising and sharing of personal data (although their Workspace product obviously doesn’t do that otherwise I would have got rid of it a decade or so ago). Having a third-party app store on iOS would make security a living nightmare, and possibly introduce more issues than I care to think about. Assuming for the moment that Epic Games get to put its own store on iOS and there’s a massive vulnerability in their code which could affect data stored on the iPhone/iPad. Or even worse, a piece of code in Epic’s store that, combined with a new vulnerability found in iOS, could cause a major security breach in iOS? And what if it was exploited? Who would you sue (if you’re lucky enough to be able afford to sue)? Apple? Epic? Both?

Then there’s exclusivity. Epic complains about the exclusivity and terms of Apple’s own App Store, but Epic already exerts extensive control over the in-game currency of Fortnite (to the point of compensating people in their own in-game currency after losing a lawsuit over loot boxes – remember, Epic control the value of that currency), the billing methods used to pay for it, and having sole exclusive of any sales of games and products through its own digital shop. Epic (and others) wants to dictate its own terms on a platform that’s been created, managed and supported by Apple, and from whom they have benefited considerably over the years with the macOS and iOS app stores. I firmly believe these companies do not have any entitlement to the iOS or even macOS platforms whatsoever. Epic Games’ behaviour over Fortnite has been appalling, and that’s why I’ve closed my account with them. And I’ve just done the same with Spotify too.

I find companies like Epic and Spotify to be hypocrites. They should be investing in innovation – improving their products and coming up with new ones rather than spending silly sums of money on lawyers across the world. Lawyers are the only ones who going to make any money out of all this nonsense, and I can think of much better things to spend that money on.

For those of us that signed up to DIsney+ first thing last year – it’s renewal day! And the only opportunity to get the discounted price before the price increases hit us next year. But alas, my payment has just bounced and attempts to update the card on the Disney+ web site is being met with technical errors galore, and I’m currently sitting on the phone to Disney+ technical support for 18 minutes and counting not getting anywhere. Pressing ‘1’ to get them to call back isn’t working either.

Update: I managed to through to an operator who didn’t tell me much as why things were not working properly; he did tell me, however, that there is a 10 day grace period in which the account will be kept active. They will keep trying the card on file, so presumably, they will attempt to take payment tomorrow (which is fine, though I’d prefer a button that grants Disney to take the damn money already).

I suspect Disney+’s payment processing and web site have gone into a bit of a meltdown with annual subscription renewals and I suspect there are a large number of payments that have failed. Even giving Disney+ another card (which definitely has enough funds), it’s still failing on the web site – telling me that payment failed. No activity in the banking app. Nada. Zip. Kaput.

It kind of makes me wonder what kind of performance testing Disney+ did prior to the launch renewal day.

Whenever I read something like this – MPs and Peers say protests should be allowed during lockdown – my blood boils. It seems to me that in the past two decades, maybe more, we’ve put the onus on our rights and needs. Yet how many people are actually thinking about their obligations to the community as a whole rather than their own needs?

The coronavirus spread decrease is slowing in the UK and increasing in the EU. It won’t be too long before cases begin to rise in the UK again – despite the vaccine rollout programme which is now likely to see delays in my age group getting it due to delivery issues. With the government apparently promising no more lockdowns, this is – I think – somewhat likely to lead to another lockdown. Or the government just won’t care and let it overwhelm the NHS again. That 21st June deadline for all social measures being lifted is looking increasingly likely as if it could slip. And don’t get me started about winter and the flu.

Let us as a species not muck this up any more than necessary. Wear a mask. Be careful. Be sensible. Don’t mix with large crowds. Don’t take the piss. Having spent the past year almost entirely indoors, I would dearly love to get out and about and it keeps being spoilt by stupid, selfish people who think other people don’t matter. This is particularly apparent when the virus infection rate rises again after the easing of previous lockdowns (motto: One for one and one for one.)

Yes, we need and require the right to protest as well as many other things. But for goodness sake, let’s be sensible about it. And make sure it’s the right time to do so. We also have a plethora of online social media and communications tools that can do the job just as well. However, one cannot protest if one becomes seriously ill (or dies) after catching this blasted virus at a rally. A virus that’s still very much alive and well and doing much better than us humans.

This little slice of the web is now proudly hosted on an AMD-powered server in Frankfurt. Although if my hosting provider was ever to provide ARM64 servers, I’d move to that. I’ll never host with AWS, Google Computer Engine or Microsoft’s Azure platform because they’re just too expensive for a little blog like this.

I used a WordPress plugin called UpDraftPlus Premium to backup and restore this blog to the new server. I used my own scripts to install and configure Nginx, PHP and MariaDB, then all I needed to do is drop in a basic install of WordPress. From there, it was just a case of installing the UpDraftPlus Premium plugin and activate it (for the Premium features), then connect it to one of the cloud storage services (in this case, Google Drive), rescan the backup store, pick a date, and then restore everything (though I’d avoid reinstalling WordPress core if you’ve already just installed the latest version).