A personal experience about the role of software in sustainability

A bit less than two years ago, shortly after arriving in Singapore and with the perspective of a life of intense work-related traveling, I purchased a phone from a local telco company.
I picked a device in the premium segment expecting that this way I would be covered in terms of frequent security updates at least for the duration of my contract.
Phone life was pretty much uneventful with me accepting updates as soon as offered and quickly forgetting the matter afterward.

Until a few weeks ago when, one sunny morning, I got an email stating my smartphone was no longer authorized to access corporate resources because it was on a security patch older than 3 months.
The first though was I had somehow missed the patch, but I checked and the phone said I was on the latest. Which indeed was more than 3 months old as per the email message.
As I added fruitless calls to fruitless calls and chats and forum reading I grew more and more unhappy and the only silver lining was that being unable to travel freely made the problem an annoyance rather than a disruptive event.

Since then I had the opportunity to think about two things:
1) how software maintenance plays a key role in sustainability and saving natural resources
2) how different markets are treated differently by the same vendor.

If Covid-19 hadn’t grounded pretty much everyone in Singapore how would I have coped with the crippled communication functionalities of the smartphone?
Because using the smartphone as an hotspot for the computer is often inconvenient and sometimes is not viable at all.
I’m pretty sure I would have ended up purchasing a new device in a rush while the old one was perfectly working except for the lack of the security patch and of an estimated release date for it to help me plan my next course of action.
The end result of that would have been an unhappy customer, wasted resources and no guarantee that the problem wouldn’t resurface again in a couple of years on the new device.

While trying to find how to solve my problem I discovered that my phone model in other countries, for example Italy, hadn’t moved from monthly to quarterly security patch releases.
The temptation to download a foreign firmware was strong, but the risk of bricking the phone or, even worse, ending up with a hacked firmware containing a backdoor was too high.

Now I wonder: maybe the market in Singapore is too small to keep investing on frequent patches even for premium phones?
I’d rather not have to pick and choose between the risk of not getting security patches and the risk of not having a local warranty.

After a couple of weeks a patch was released in Singapore and corporate access was back as before, but a regular traveler could really afford the risk of being back to the same situation in 3 months time?
What the vendor is teaching me, and every one of their customers, is that cheaper, more frequent purchases are a better money allocation strategy to remain covered by the security patches.
And if this is a bad strategy for our planet… is not really their problem, just bad luck for the environment and the future generations.

Google maps killed my earlier habit of blogging here about places and food

When I started this blog a fair share of the content related to my travel and food experiences around the world.

Formally blogging is, in my opinion, a fairly involved process to ensure not only the content is relevant, but also the writing is at least properly structured. This, together with the fact that blogging is not a job for me and I have other hobbies too, led me to write only for significant experiences rather than always.

The excitement of writing was drying up over time (it is easy to see in the posting history) when the mechanism to contribute to Google Maps became available.

Albeit reviews on Maps tend to be shorter and a bit “twitter-style” the mechanism to contribute them is so convenient that I ended up being much more active than I was before.

An added stimulus to keep writing there is the monthly feedback showing the level of visibility of my contributions: reviews on Google Maps have a visibility that this blog never reached nor was ever going to reach while keeping its nature of a small side project.

If you are interested in keeping up with my reviews you should be able to find them here

I the end Google Maps contributions might be considered the last nail in the coffin of my writing, but I rather like to look at them just like an evolution of it and a greater value for the community than the earlier model.

Smart car software update: chronicle of an unacceptable journey.

I recently posted about my very unsatisfactory experience with service personnel while attempting to get a few problems fixed on my Renault Megane.
The mechanics had no clue about how to fix them, but a factory reset of the on-board computer (like on current personal computing devices) did the trick.

I inferred from this fact that updating the software, again like in personal computing devices, was the way to go to avoid facing the same problems in the future and started my long journey to accomplish this.

I followed the manufacturer instructions and downloaded the software downloader on my notebook, inserted in it a 8GB USB flash drive previously initialized in the car and, after a byzantine procedure requiring web interaction to select the updates that then the application would fetch, I started downloading.
Again. And again. And again…

What looked strange is that the download counter made it to the full size, but then continued!
After a few dozens attempts all failed in the same way and with no success in sight I decided to get in touch with the country support.

As a reply to my first contact I received a cut&paste of the standard procedure.
This is a fairly common practice in every sector and makes a lot of sense because most people is not reading the manuals.

Unfortunately I was already following the standard procedure so I replied back with more data including the fact that to get 5.4GB of updated maps the tool had downloaded already over 113GB (from a non-Renault domain) without success.
The solution proposed was to use a larger flash drive.
I could not obtain from them an answer about why to get 5.4GB an empty 8GB drive was not enough.
And a 16GB drive was not a fix for the problem anyway.

During the fruitless exchanges with the support I kept attempting the download until it finally worked. On the 8GB drive.
I believed that even if this was not communicated to me they had fixed whichever issue there was and I was happy with that.

A few months later I found out that it was just one lucky astral alignment.
The situation is back where it was: tens of downloads attempts needed to get an updated version of the maps and failed downloads leave the flash drive in an inconsistent state where the car tries the update anyway only to fail after a few minutes.

I was guessing in my earlier post that the challenges I faced were due to the time needed for the knowledge to move from the top of the manufacturer organization to the service people.
But from my experience attempting to do the software update it looks like I was wrong: even at the country level the manufacturer appears unable to support the smartness they are putting in the vehicles.

According to the discussions I had with a few colleagues in the office other manufacturers have a much smoother user experience.
In my opinion Renault really needs to evolve quickly to stay relevant.

Smart cars without smart mechanics in the long run are not going to work as a business model.

A few months ago I started to drive a 4th generation Renault Megane in the (Italian) Bose trim:
in this version you get almost as many gadgets as possible.

While they all work driving the car is a very enjoyable experience for the vehicle class, but as soon as problems started to appear and I was looking for a fix, I realized that the support personnel was left behind in the product evolution.

After a few months the electric massage seat and the lumbar support stopped to work, some time later the rear cam did not disengage anymore as soon as moving forward, after some more time parking sensors stopped working and also the lane assist stopped to produce the sound feedback, finally the HUD was resetting the position to default every time I was turning off the engine.

I an attempt to get the issues resolved I have contacted 3 different mechanics from the official support network getting vague statements about what the problem could be, but all of them agreed that it would take multiple days to get it fixed. One stated “for electric problems you need to plan at least a 3-days stop”.
I tried contacting the online support describing the issue and all I got back was the link to the list of services.

None of the mechanics offered a replacement car during the troubleshooting and repair even if the vehicle is well within the warranty period: very upsetting.
I started planning the right time to bring the car in when I could stay without it for an extended period of time when, by pure chance, I ended in a menu of the car computer that offered a reset to factory defaults.
Having some past experience with consumer electronics I decided to trigger it counting on the fact that worst case if the car stopped completely I could call the service to pick it up free of charge.
With my surprise all of the problems I was having suddenly disappeared.

How it is possible that not only 3 authorized services had no clue about this basic troubleshooting, but also the online support did not come up with the advice to reset?

In my opinion putting cars ahead of the support structure is not a safe bet.
Not for the for the manufactured nor for the consumers.

Dell 6430u updated to bios A10

Two days ago I did a new bios update on the notebook.

The process worked fine as usual and, again as usual, did not fix or improve the issue with the fan noise.
After 36 months with it I have to bear it for only 12 more months until the notebook is due to refresh.

A positive note about the 6430U: it does no longer trigger the security scanner in the Ben Gurion airport. Whatever the chemical that was there it is now completely evaporated.

Miracle Istanbul Asia

The bed was very uncomfortable for my back, to the point that after 8-9 hours of sleep I was still tired and waking up with a strong back pain.
The background noise level was significant due to the nearby highway: likely the rooms not facing the road are better in this respect.
To top up the bad experience the room had a shower with a strong smell of mold every time I opened the water.

Overall it was not a miracle for me.

My first (long) trip in the far east

I recently came back home after spending 20 days on a business trip that touched Bangkok, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo.

The limited time available and the need to carry over my business objectives severely limited my ability to fully appreciate the different cities.
I only had some time during the week ends (when I was not using them to move from one country to the other) and after the office time.

Walking around in Bangkok and Beijing was very easy.
Thanks to the availability of the city maps for my Nokia phone I never had issues to find specific places and the public transportation (boat, skytrain and tuctuc in Bangkok, subway in Beijing) was very affordable and not difficult at all to use for a foreign person.

Moving around in Seoul and Tokyo was more problematic, mainly because of the lack of offline maps on the phone (I had both a Symbian Belle and WindowsPhone8 devices).
I hoped to use an online service, but it turned out that the prepaid sim card available in Korea work only for local people or foreigners with a permanent or long stay visa.
Having no offline nor online map led to a limit in the freedom of walking around in Seoul and this got worse in Tokyo as the rain season had just started when I arrived thus making random searches for places very inconvenient.

Language was a barrier in many cases because only a small percentage of the people was able to communicate in english: this is not uncommon in Italy either; it is not a specific issue of the far east.
Yet communication somehow happened: pointing at items and using google translator (when there was some wi-fi coverage) helped a lot.

Even with all the limits of not being a full-time turist it was a very interesting and exciting experience and I would be happy to be able to get in that area again in the future.

The cook matters. In large Japanese restaurants even more.

I’ve posted in the past here about my positive experience when eating at Akai Hana in Rancho Bernardo.
When reading some negative comments I was very surprised as they were not matching my experience and I was unable to imagine how it was possible.
This changed one day last July that I was there alone, but accepted a table anyway contrary to my habitude of eating at the sushi bar.

I ordered a few of my preferred types of sushi and because I had no one distracting me from the food I had the time to focus on it.
I noticed several differences in the cutting and the assembly of the sushi compared to the way I was used to in that place, and the taste was not matching what I had just a day before.

I guess that the large difference is tied to the way the food is prepared in a Japanese restaurant compared to Italian restaurants where I’ve never experienced such a major swing in the taste of the food with the exception of changes of ownership.
While in a large Italian restaurant you find a number of people working in the kitchen the preparation of an individual dish is seldom a one-man process end-to-end and the chef supervises the activity of all the cooks so that the end result for a given dish is always the same.
This likely is not the way it works in the kitchen of a large japanese restaurant due to the nature of the sushi preparation.
For sure this is not happening when eating at the sushi bar where the cook is preparing the sushi and sashimi (and several other dishes) end to end without external collaboration.

Lesson learned: I’ll keep waiting for Hiro-san when eating at Akai Hana: they are very kind and let me have my hot tea while waiting.
I suggest that anyone going there gives them a second chance if not satisfied with the dinner at the table and wait for the sushi bar with my preferred cook.

Swatch out, Skagen in.

I’m not a big fan of watches and I can live without one most of the time when I’m home.
I can check the current hour on the computer screen, on the alarm clock in the bedroom, in the car dashboard, on my mobile and so on.

There it is a situation where I don’t have access to any of them: when I fly.
For most people this is relatively infrequent but for me it’s the opposite, so I feel the need of a wristwatch and it has to be the least intrusive possible: the thinner the better, the lighter the better, no need to remove it when taking a shower. Not too costly is another nice addition.
The Swatch skin was a good fit for my needs and when I started with my current job I swapped the battery of an old one that was in a drawer for a few years and started using it.

The watch was working ok for a while until one day it started to get water in and then the front glass (plastic actually) unglued completely.
I believed that this was due to the fact that it was pretty old and the plastic and glue likely degraded.

After a few months I was in Amsterdam at the airport with some time to kill and there was a Swatch shop with a few skin available: I picked up one and took my airplane to go back home happy with my purchase.
The happiness lasted only a few months as the watch soon demonstrated the same problem with the front plastic popping out: I contacted the Swatch assistance in Italy and found out that they were not planning to support under warranty my watch purchased in another EU country.
The almost new skin went to the trashcan and I decided to never purchase a Swatch again in the future.

I learned to be careful when purchasing outside my country: even if on the paper the international warranty is provided if the item is of limited value the effort to get the item serviced may be worth more than the item itself.

Unfortunately I was left with the issue of getting a new watch and after a bit of research I decided to try a Skagen Titanium without date.
It’s a bit thicker and heavier than the skin but still very light especially considering that it has a real glass and is completely made of metal.
After six months of continued use it’s still like new (actually better as the wristband is now more flexible) and I’m quite happy with it.
Funny enough I paid less for it in Italy than I was asked for in Denmark where the swatch is produced.

Honda Civic 1600 i-DTEC: first contact

Yesterday I picked up the new car and I made a hundred kilometers inside Milan and on the streets of the Brianza area.
Not many, but enough for a first impression.

The engine is very “electric” in the power output, no excitement (unlike my former 170cv Alfa Romeo 147), but in fact is present when is needed.
It provides a clearly superior performance compared to the 1500dci in my 2008 Renault Laguna: today it has 100,000 km, but I don’t recall it being different when new.
All of the stories that Honda told to the car magazines on the reduction of internal engine friction must be true: the engine brake is almost non-existent even in comparison to the 1500dci.
Fuel economy, even with the brand-new engine, seems very interesting (5.6 liters per 100km at the moment)
The start & stop is not intrusive: kicks-in if you are in neutral with the clutch disengaged and not moving. You do not need your foot on the brake as, for example, on the Mercedes class A (tried yesterday the 200CDI)

The visibility in the rear mirror is almost nonexistent for the maneuvers, but adequate for the march.
Parking sensors are installed and welcome (even if I need to turn them off to enter my garage or they will drive me insane) and the rear camera appears quite accurate.
Also convenient is the repetition of the directions from the sensors in the camera screen.
At the moment I find it difficult to take measurements of the front: the car is almost all behind the driver and the bonnet (hood) is very short. The uncommon shape of the dashboard also requires a bit of practice to figure out where the car ends.

The driver seat seems comfortable, but with the standard velvet upholstery is too hot even with the air conditioner on.
At least in the Italian summer (outside temperature during the test was 34 celsius)
Seat comfort to be verified in a long trip.

Suspensions are fairly soft and absorb well the harshness of the road.
The combination with wide tires (225mm, the main source of noise ) leads to a dynamic behavior that inspires me little confidence at the moment: the car body moves quite a bit for a european car.
The steering wheel is very light and uncommunicative (again for a european car).
For now, on the whole, the Laguna with Dunlop SportBluRespose and shocks 100.000km-old has a better dynamic.
On the dynamics the former 147 with sportpack and oversize rims is clearly unmatched, but this is true also about the high level of discomfort when driving provided by that Alfaromeo.

The shift stick (is a manual car) requires a little of attention to get the gear in.
A short lever in a forward position invites more to a relaxed driving than to the search of fast shift performance.
The Laguna’s shift command was perfect from new and is better than the civic even after the relatively long use.
Judgment in this area is suspended pending the completion of the run-in.

The satnav: at the moment I’m not in love with it and I prefer the tomtom with IQroutes, but perhaps with the use I’ll change my mind.
Is good to have the GPS antenna on the roof because it provides good reception.
The navigator is integrated with the radio and the screen is shared with the rear camera and with the video input.
The repetition of turn directions (pictograms without map) on the screen of the trip computer inside the normal driving viewing area (without taking his eyes off the road) is a nice addition.