Archive for failure

Dragons’ Den Series 6 ends

Posted in Noteworthy, TV, Venting with tags , , , , on September 8, 2008 by Apollo

Monday nights have taken a dive from tonight as the sixth series of Dragons’ Den came to an end on BBC2.

The series makes a fascinating insight into the reasons behind making a business investment, and I’m sure those that with genes that programme them to be “employees” rather than “employers” must watch in disbelief each week (if they watch) as so many deserving applicants are turned out of the Den to the words “I’m out”. One example was the inspired, but misguided, effort by one father and son pairing to gain investment in the form of sponsorship for the lad’s motor racing career. While they spoke a good deal, and the initiated not having to place their own cash at risk would probably have wanted to jump at the deal, which promised the investor a sizeable cut of the driver’s future earnings (and gave examples of drivers like Schumacher and Hamilton who have risen to make millions per year), the wily Dragons saw the fundamental flaw in the plan which would have sucked them into further, huge investments in subsequent years in order to make it to that final promised return, IF the lad has fulfilled his championship promise. A look at the BBC’s Dragons’ Den web site comment area showed that many of those offering negative comments on this deal just didn’t get the idea, and couldn’t (and probably never will) comprehend the fundamental basics of a real business investment.

While I’ve been watching Dragons’ Den since series 1, I’d still only claim a basic understanding of their thought processes. I’m getting better, and probably get 90% right when predicting the outcome, but that remaining 10% can still be something of a mystery. I do know where I go wrong in some cases, and that’s when I let myself be ruled by personal bias rather than business logic. For example, just like some of the Dragons’ who pop the phrase “I’m out” almost instantly of someone bring in a proposition that is alien to them, or they object to on ethical grounds, I do the same if something has anything to do with the curse of Celebrity, or Designer Labels. Involvement in either of these areas would make me lose sleep at night, as I consider both to be fundamentally evil, ripping money off people by selling them impossible dreams that only a literal handful of the millions it cons.

Attention will have to shift to Tuesday nights now, and the Abysmal American Inventor series we’re getting on Five now. This is so dreadful it makes compulsive viewing – and is probably a pretty good definition of “car crash TV”. You just keep watching it to see when the disaster will happen.

American Inventor airs over the period of an hour, but the programme could easily be halved in duration if they made it serious. I don’t want to home in any of the individual offerings or I’ll be typing all night, but the show could use the time saved to show us what happened at the exit from the studio – where the men in white coats should be waiting to collect some of the inventors, slip them into jackets with no holes at the ends of their sleeves, and deposit them in rooms with nice, soft, padded wall. They should also stop wasting time with folk who come along with daft ideas, and can provide no other justification for winning the $1 million than that they are broke, are ill, have ill relatives, are dying, or something similar. This reduces it to little more than embarrassing begging. While everyone should have a chance, and – believe it or not I would fight for everyone to have that chance – that right comes with the responsibility of coming along with an invention that is at least partially serious, and that means, for example, not a stick that you insist on calling a wand, and try and convince the judges that they can defend themselves from wild animals with.

It’s a shame there’s so much rubbish in American Inventor. Without it, it would make a pretty good show, instead of something to watch each week for no other reason to see how dire it can be.

The first series managed to end on a serious note, with a device for automatically extiguish Christmas tree fires – I’m not going to go hunting to find out how the current series will end, and can only hope that it manages to come up with something equally worthy, and not a stick, or a song, or…


Backup your backup

Posted in Noteworthy, Tech, Venting with tags , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2008 by Apollo

hard driveHaving managed a network, backup of data is not something I have to think about very much. You just do it, end of story.

On a corporate network it’s easy, and automated software will do the job. All you have to do is remember to change the tapes in the right order, and it will even tell you which tape to use. If you’re big enough, you can even have that automated as well.

Personal backup needs a bit more discipline, and the dangers are more likely to arise from an actual attack on your PC/disc by something deliberately malicious, or more likely, finger trouble on YOUR part leading to deletion or overwriting of an important file or directory. Failure of a hard drive is fairly unlikely, I’ve only seen one genuine case while handling dozens of PCs in a corporate system. I also recall one chap visit me for something else causing his laptop a problem. When he went to show me his problem, I was amused to see him thump the laptop whenever he opened a file – apparently he was so used to doing this he didn’t notice. The drive wouldn’t spin up when accessed (I dismantled and refitted the casing which was twisted, and jamming the drive spindle). The only other case of drive failure was a server, which we were obliged to run 24/7. This held a database that everyone used all during the working day, and we couldn’t run any routines to move its position on the hard drive. After about two years, the network software reported data errors – just a few a day, but every day – when we investigated, sure enough, it was the main database. Our guess was that the disk surface was beginning to break up and fragment, with pieces of the coating becoming detached. Even though this carried on, the server software was able to cope, moving copies of suspect data to ‘safe’ areas of the drive, and this carried on for over a year (when we could afford a new server) without any actual corruption of the data being detected by the users.

I use an ancient PDA, tiny and weak by modern standards, BUT, it does what I need, and stores critical data remote from my main PCs (or is encrypted where it is copied to them). One reason I like it the fact that it has a clip in module that allows memory cards to be used with it, and the module has automated backup firmware built in, so the card backs up the PDA content with no intervention needed once scheduled. This has run fine for years, until last week.

The backup uses the most battery power (it uses cheap NiMh AAA batteries, not LiIon that cost more than the PDA to replace), and if I’m not about to watch the power level, can kill the PDA if it flattens them. Not normally a problem, the PDA operating system is stored in ROM, and contents are backed up to the memory card. Fit freshly charged AAAs, reboot the PDA, restore the backup, and off we go.

Well…not this time.

When the batteries died, the took the memory card with them, and it was as dead as the proverbial dodo, and unreadable too, being unrecognised by any car reader I own. A quick flit around the web showed that all the ‘Card Data Recovery’ programmes only worked for image files, and any decent ones want money – no shareware (unless to prove they could recover the data, but won’t unless unlocked after you pay for them). I did recover some pics I’d transferred to the card, but the data just didn’t appear in any of these so-called data recovery programmes.

Then I remembered one of my card readers had been supplied with a CD-ROM claiming to have loads of useful software on board for free. With nothing to ‘lose’ I thought it was worth a try. The downside was that everything was in German, with no other language options, so I was flying blind. I took a ‘best guess’ at the options, and let it go to work on the card – unlike the other recovery programmes, it appeared to work on the card itself, rather than recover data and copy it to another location, leaving the card unaltered. When it was done, the card appeared to have a number of files restored, so it was out of the reader and into the PDA. Remarkably, even though I hadn’t been able to follow what it had done, the free software had indeed restores SOME of the data. Oddly, it had not restored any of the image files that the others had found (and there were around 1,000 images on the card), but had caught the data that they couldn’t see.

Once I’d had a chance to look closer, I saw that the recovered data was from last October – not really a problem, as the info changes very slowly on the PDA, and most of the important stuff is archive material anyway – so very little went adrift.

Ironically, I had started to use it more frequently in recent weeks, and had planned to install its manager software on my laptop as a result, but hadn’t got round to it. If I had, then it would have been mirrored on the laptop, and even the loss of the backup would have been a non-event. Well,it’s done now. I also knocked the automated backup schedule from daily to weekly, and alternate cards (I’ve got plenty) each week, so even if does blitz one if the batteries die, I’ll only be one backup behind.

Live and learn – even when things are being done ‘right’, you can probably still do them ‘better’.

Modern rubbish?

Posted in Tech, Venting with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2008 by Apollo

Clothes ironThe term Modern Rubbish is bandied about quite freely sometimes, and in this context refers to modern engineering design.

In truth, modern designs are usually very good, and avoid the excessive over-engineering that took place in the past, meaning items were heavy, wasteful, inefficient, and not necessarily the better for it. Modern designers usually have to minimise all waste in an item, and engineer in both strength AND weakness in appropriate places – take survival cells and crash zones on modern cars for example. However, I think many of them are losing out, and are over dependent on computer analysis and simulation, without the hands-on experience of materials that the old engineers had. Witness the ‘surprising’ rapid failure of a number of bridges due to the loss of a single stressed component in recent years. This shouldn’t have happened if the designs were truly simulated with the required accuracy, and had sufficient safety factors built in. It’s been more luck than anything else that no-one seems to have yet been killed by these modern, supposedly optimised designs.

This struck me the other day as I went to finish a task that I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks. This involved using a clothes iron to both dry and iron flat a number of large plans and maps which had suffered from being rolled up for years in a damp/wet store. An hour or two a day has both dried and restored them to reasonable flatness, and the last few were to be completed yesterday. The exercise has already worn the non-stick coating on the sole plate down to bare metal, and after say 20 hours, the iron stopped heating yesterday, with only three sheets to finish off.

Not much good for a supposedly quality item from market leader Tefal, I decided that a £5 Tesco item would be replacing it – couldn’t be any less short lived, could it?

While waiting for the next trip to the shops to come around, I decided to have a look at the dead Tefal – why had it stopped mid-session?

Getting into it was the first problem – modern security fixings instead of honest nuts, bolts and screws – good job we have a full set o f security bits. Next, having removed the ‘screws’, nothing would move. After breaking one knife blade, I found the seams, and brute force eventually convinced the moulded-in clips to release the first cover. This revealed some more ‘screws’ (and one hidden down a hole) which allowed the previously immovable parts to separate.

Now I was puzzled, the fuse was ok, and a quick test showed the element was ok as well. The wiring checked out, yet the thing didn’t heat. There were only two possibilities – the thermostat (temperature control), and the overheat protection device. The thermostat clicked away quite happily, and the overheat hadn’t been tripped. Time to follow each connection until something electrically dead was found.

Well, after a mere 20 or so hours of use, I found that the contacts on the thermostat were burnt out – not much of an advert for the quality of supposed quality market leader Tefal.

Resurfaced contacts saw the iron re-assembled and working a few minutes later, but I wonder how long it will last, and when it will have to come apart for the contacts to be seen to again?

It all depends. I may just have been unlucky, and a bit of dirt got between the contacts and carbonised as they arced, so it won’t recur for some time. Alternatively, some whizz-kid in Tefal’s design department buried his or herself into the datasheets, worked out how often the contacts would switch over the life of the product, determined it was not something anyone would keep for very long, and selected a cheap set of contacts that would last the life they predicted, and to hell with anyone that might not consider the thing to be ‘disposable’ after the warranty has expired.

Modern Rubbish?

I think more a case of Modern Rubbish Inexperienced Designers (building down to a price).