Thinking of doing The Knowledge? You may want to think again.

The archetypical London Black Cab or Hackney Carriage has been a regulated fixture in the City of London since the time of Oliver Cromwell in 1654 when The Fellowship of Hackney Coachmen was founded, later to be superseded by Parliament, the Public Carriage office and now amalgamated into Transport For London.

The thing that makes a London Taxi unique is that you can hail an available cab in the street, or climb aboard at a taxi rank and you'll be taken efficiently to your destination by a highly trained and tested driver and charged fairly according to the taximeter on the basis of time and distance.

Originally back in the 1600's the form of transport available was a horse drawn carriage which would carry nominally either two or four people. The horse was the common motive power behind the cab until the introduction in 1897 of electric cabs which started the move towards mechanisation. The limited number of electric cabs were discontinued a few years later due to problems with safety and reliability (and to think that we regard electric vehicles as a new concept now) and in 1903 the first petrol powered cabs were introduced to London. From this point the horse, noble beast as it is was destined to be put out to pasture (sorry for the pun).

The driver of a modern London Taxi has to train for typically two to four years in order to learn over 45,000 streets and landmarks in the city and environs of London and the best routes from one part of the city to another and no satnavs are allowed in the test. This includes some pretty obscure landmarks as well as the better known and main hotels and theatres etc. For example FatBoys Diner here at Trinity Buoy Wharf is one of the designated landmarks, and we often see people on motor scooters with their maps in front of them driving up to have a look and learn the location. More obscure landmarks include the only Nazi Memorial in London which is outside no. 7 Carlton House Terrace, off Pall Mall; which is now the Institute of Contemporary Arts but used to be the German Embassy in London.  

Traditionally once you've put in the hard slog of learning the roads and points of London then you'll have put a lot of miles on your moped (and likely been through a couple), physically enlarged the memory centres of your brain and after your final test can apply for the coveted London Taxi Driver's green badge and qualified yourself for a job for life that can reputedly earn you up to £100,000 a year depending on the hours you put in.

Unfortunately for the traditional hard working London cabbie, like the horse that pulled the carriage until about 100 years ago, there may well soon be one less organic entity involved in taking passengers from one part of the city to the other.

We think the perfect storm is brewing so far as this goes, and it is on a trajectory that looks to be unstoppable. Already we have social and connected Satellite Navigation in the form of products like Waze which are free for Android and iPhone users, and in the purchase of which Google invested over a billion dollars for good reason. Companies like Google are big investors in the automated vehicle and every time someone navigates with Waze, they learn most efficient routes, average speeds for the time of day, incidents to avoid,  source and destination hot spots and much more. This accumulates to more knowledge than all the London Cabbies put together could comprehend. Right now it is useful for commuters to be able to get from A to B quickly and if it is free who is going to pay for a TomTom again? Part of the reason that it is free to use is that we are all helping Google to build their route information knowledgebase and data maps - so maybe we should be the ones who are paid to use Waze!

So the electric car, the connected car, the autonomous car, the Internet of Things, the cloud of route knowledge will all converge to make for a future automated taxi service that is on a par with, or better than, the current London Black cab service.

The difference between data, information and knowledge is in the processing and application. If you recall how IBM's Big Blue supercomputer beat Chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov in 1997 this was a demonstration of brute force computing beating the same skill in a human. The same computing power multiplied and brought to bear on applications like transport will be as evolutional as it might be considered transformative.

Current state of the art in automated vehicles is still at relatively early stages, but the rate of evolution of the systems and vehicles is very substantial; such that the break out from research to production we think will be less than 5 years. It could be around 2020 or 2021 that hails the full introduction of the automated taxi to take you from one place to another in London.

The future of the black cab as we know it now - with a jolly cabbie - is thus somewhat grim unless they can evolve into the role of tour guide etc. However we'd suggest looking at how many are still driving horses and carriages in the same way. It is fun for tourists, but it is not economical transport.

We would go as far as suggesting that TFL (part of the UK government) should accept no new entries for people to start to learn 'the knowledge' from 2017.  At the very least they should be given a firm equivalent of a Government Health Warning. We'd light-heartedly suggest they apply a sticker to the registration papers for the Knowledge to state:

'WARNING:
This qualification is as likely to lead to employment as a Media Studies Degree'.


This would be fairest for current taxi drivers who will thus dwindle in numbers over time as they continue until retirement if demand holds that long.

Many people will defend the London Black Cab, but given the choice: If you want to get from A to B and an automated taxi will take you there as quickly, possibly more safely, for a lower cost, ultimately people will vote with their wallets.

I started writing this post in June 2015, after a barbecue with friends where one of the guests had just started on the Knowledge. I was too polite to share my thoughts then, so hopefully am making up for this now. I'm sorry it has taken me over a year to get back to complete it.  In this time, the number of people who will have started their Knowledge training will have been around 1,000 (or at least that many pass their final exam annually - more start and never get to the end). This may be a thousand people with lots of investment in training ahead for not much reward down the track compared to previous generations.

The London Taxi is just one example of the impact of the scale of digital transformation in all areas of life that is ahead. We can't change what will happen which is almost predestined and luddites don't win, but if we can foresee the change, we can be forearmed. Some would say 'if you can't beat them, join them'... so if you're thinking of doing the Knowledge, we'd likely suggest that a similar amount of time spent learning computer programming might be a better long term investment. It is sobering to consider that the company that makes Black Cabs - London Taxis International, now owned by Chinese firm Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, is rumoured to be already planning ahead for designs of driverless Black Cabs - and if they're not, they certainly should be else they'll be left behind by the competition.

At Onega we spend a lot of time keeping up to date with IT trends and keeping on top of the latest releases and news. We work with companies who are at either end of the digital spectrum to enable their businesses to be competitive and to use IT to a competitive advantage. More and more IT is evolving to be an integral part of a business as opposed to an add-on function. We must all look forward and anticipate that 'if this can be automated, it will be' and you're either on the road or sitting at the side of it in life.  There are some exceptions but on the whole we can't deny the progress of the future.

Water, water, everywhere, it's all we have to drink.

Day 7/10 of Onega's H2Only stint and this was my morning cuppa...

It's not too bad; we've had at least one 'Oops, I forgot' moment and Nicola and Ben bought a pass to celebrate her birthday with something a little more exciting.  All forgivable when the £12 'fine' has been donated to RNLI.  

Cake for Nicola's birthday gave us the opportunity to taste coffee without drinking it.   This backfired somewhat when we really, really wanted a cup of tea to wash it down with!  Most impressive so far has been Aneil's visit to the pub on Friday evening when he dutifully ordered nothing but water.  Our 10 days end at 5pm on Friday when we hope to celebrate reaching our target.

Thank you to those who have donated on our Just Giving page - all in aid of the RNLI and the invaluable work they do.  

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

Onega Goes H2Only

We talk quite a lot about our coffee machine.  In our defence, it is a thing of beauty, producing a mighty fine brew - the carpet to the kitchen is wearing thin because of it.

A few weeks ago, Krunal made a very bold suggestion; that some or all of us take on the H2Only Challenge – an RNLI fundraising initiative involving a pledge to forgo all drinks bar water for 10 days.  One or two immediately suffered withdrawal symptoms at the mere thought of it but 8 of us decided to give it a go.   Whether there is such a thing as a selfless good deed is debatable; our first thoughts focusing on the health benefits and difficulties we may encounter.  All about us.

Except it isn’t all about us.  The RNLI had a very busy week last week – with bad weather around the coast, they had numerous well-reported emergencies to deal with – sadly with the loss of six lives throughout the UK.  This is just the work we hear about. In truth most of their weeks are very busy; it just doesn’t always make the headlines. 

If you’re quick, you can still catch two episodes of the BBC’s documentary series on the RNLI: ‘Saving Lives at Sea’ on iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07l1z87/episodes/guide

10 days without coffee, tea, wine, beer or fizzy drinks is going to be a challenge, but we're determined to go H2Only and raise as much as we can for the RNLI. Their lifeboat crews and lifeguards know all about staying strong. They do it every day – dropping everything to go out on the water and save lives. Your support will help us stay strong too, so please give as much as you can.

Bear with us if we're grumpy on the telephone for the first few days - you can always make us feel better by sponsoring us!   Thank you.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

(Remember that, if you’re a UK taxpayer, choosing the Gift Aid option means the RNLI will get even more from your donation).

If you wish to take the challenge yourself, you can sign up here:  https://h2only.org.uk/#

What3Words - A Unique Address for Everywhere on the Planet.

Here in the UK we have a great addressing system, with street names, house numbers, post codes etc. which works very efficiently... most of the time (I'll explain that in a moment). Thus it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that over two thirds of the world don't have a comprehensive system of addressing and in some cases, very few formal addresses at all.

The UK system is not perfect... take for example Onega's office at Trinity Buoy Wharf. The UK Post Office changed our postcodes a couple of years ago so that where we used to be E14 0JY, we are now more correctly E14 0FN. All good and well, but many delivery drivers find that their satnav takes them to the wrong place because the database on the unit does not correctly locate the new (not so new now) postcode. Hence we have to brief everyone to use E14 0FN for mail (else letters may be sent back as 'address not recognised') but for car / truck / bike deliveries to use E14 0JY to ensure they get to the right place. Understandably couriers have anti-fraud checks for changes in delivery addresses so you have to go through a number of hoops there.

So what's the solution? Well, one would be to use GPS grid co-ordinates for all addresses, but these are not easy to remember and one wrong digit can take you to a different country. A very interesting solution has been designed and implemented by What Three Words - what3words.com . They have split the whole planet into a grid of 3 by 3 metre squares and developed an algorithm that allows for just three words to describe any of these uniquely. Simple but pretty awesome and some examples help to explain how it works.

Right now I'm at EMFCamp2016 which is a UK hacker / maker camp taking place in fields in the grounds of Losely Park in Surrey (thanks for letting us use your beautiful venue). There are a couple of thousand of us here learning, sharing and having a great time. Due to the nature of the event much is dynamic so not everything is where it is on the printed maps etc.  Empty fields don't traditionally have addresses but thanks to what3words, they now do.  You can browse the map on the web via https://map.what3words.com/  There is an app for the iPhone and Android smartphones to allow you to find your what3words address on the map and find where others are. So here at the festival, my tent is at finger.intelligible.ridge which you'd find in the app or at https://map.what3words.com/finger.intelligible.ridge and Milliways (the restaurant at the end of the universe - or in this case at EMF2016) is at glory.hill.reds etc. 

If you remember David Brabban's original 1980's computer game Elite, this included a universe of star systems created in 32k of computer memory, all generated by a computer algorithm to come up with names for all the planets etc. This allowed for much more scale and efficiency than if the planets were just named in a list (which also would not have been possible at the time due to memory limitations). The reason for mentioning this is that it's likely that this may have influenced the development of the what3words system. The 3 x 3 grid across the planet equates to 57 trillion squares. To store all these as a list with the three word address and co-ordinates that they relate to would take more capacity than the average hard drive has, even in a compressed form, so the solution is to have a word list and an algorithm to map words to co-ordinates. This is what what3words does and fits everything into 10 Mbytes of java code, which will fit happily  on most mobile devices / smartphones etc.

The software is accessed over a web API (web integration) and has been designed so that the words are:

  1. Safe dictionary words (you're not going to live at floppy.eagle.dildo but if you're at floppy.eagle.disco you are in Longbranch, Washington).
  2. Not easily confused with each other - meanings / variations carefully assessed to make sure like sounding words avoided.
  3. Similar word combinations are far apart so risk of confusion is minimal.

The system has been taken up globally and, for example, may well become the prime addressing system in Mongolia, giving many locations their first address ever. There are many, many uses for this and in the hobby of amateur radio could be used for location to be given accurately and quickly for competitions etc.  I bet Alan Turing wished that he'd have had what3words when he buried his silver bars, never to be found again!

So now at Onega we can give delivery drivers or visitors a new address. Our office covers a fair few of the 3 metre by 3 metre squares so we can give them Empire.reduce.nation , Monday.grow.thin , interestingly our accounts department is under puppy.costs.snake , meeting room is under major.home.foam and kitchen is heavy.flops.coffee . The entrance though is at worker.point.organs so now you know how to find us!

You can see Onega's Solar install at clown.liner.lamps ..

The apps are not perfect yet - they rely on location reported by your phone and when I go back to my tent here at Electromagnetic Field 2016, it is showing up as risks.casual.scout which is 3 squares away (despite having a good GPS location and clear sky). Thus I'd not use it for an exact food delivery to my tent just yet, but it would get the delivery bot (or person) close enough for calling.

The new system looks like a winner and one of those things that make you wonder why no one has done it before? The timing is right for this and for connecting the world as we slowly but inevitably become one connected society. 

What is your what3words address? 

Many Thanks to Daisy.r for the photo at the head of the page.

How Did That Happen? I Just Bought a Late Soviet Era Water Tower in Latvia.

Last Friday was my birthday and some weeks back, a colleague had suggested doing something fun for the day and the thought grew on me. Indeed, I thought I would treat myself to a rare day out of the office – but what to do? Whatever I did one requirement was that there should be an element of ‘daft fun’ to the day.

Some of the options I considered were:

1.       Learn to parachute / skydive that day? (that would be fun, and full of adrenaline) – a high candidate and catching up with good friend Richard recently I was regaled with stories and his approaching 500th jump.

2.       Would I spend the day in the Radio Room of HMS Belfast? (Fun, and a great day & most rewarding not only working the radio but also teaching and enthusing the next generation about Morse code etc. )

3.       Visit the British Library – something I’d been meaning to do for some time to investigate the resources available, acquaint myself and spend the day contemplating, learning and writing etc.

4.       Spend the day at London Hackspace. I don’t get there half (or 1%) as much as I’d like. Great friendly and creative atmosphere where things get pulled apart, hacked, and made better etc. Many new skills to learn and plenty willing to share their mastery of said skills with others. A veritable trove for the autodidact with an engineering bent.

5.        Just spend the day catching up on sleep and being gloriously slothful for a day.

…. But then whilst browsing the web, and looking out of interest at the state of the Latvian property market (as you do), I came across an advert for forthcoming auctions from the Latvian Privatisation Agency which caught my eye. This specific ad was for a water tower in the district of Jurmala (translates to Seaside), which is about 20 minutes outside Riga and consists of connected villages and towns along with about 30km of unspoilt beach on the shore of the Baltic Sea.

For those that may not know, whilst was born and raised in England, I’m also half Latvian by birth on my mother’s side and have an interest and fascination with the country. I have spent a number of very enjoyable holidays in Latvia since university days, and have witnessed much of the rapid progression that has come since the country’s independence post communism. It is hard to describe but Latvia, with its people and countryside have a great draw for me. In particular I have a thing for slightly overgrown wild Latvian meadows, which I consider to be one of the greatest things of beauty on God’s earth. In Latvia the pace of life is a little slower than the UK and the seasons have clear definition. In winter there is snow, in summer there is sun and yes; this is probably a rose tinted oversimplification.

Since working in the city of London and particularly starting a family, we’ve not been over for quite some time. Last time I went the currency was the Lat, now it is the Euro etc.  From time to time I browse the web and look at Latvian property (real estate) web sites to day dream about a nice farm in Latvia and leaving the rat race behind. Approx 150 years ago everything in our lives would have come from within about 20 miles of where you were living and I find that the idea of a return to a more basic existence has a certain ‘grass is always greener’ appeal. Fresh air, healthy and hard manual work, and enjoying the fruits of your labour etc. Reality however would likely be very different, and besides; after 5 minutes of browsing a task is complete and there is more work to do.

The particular object of the water tower caught my attention though. It was not unique, but a good example of late soviet architecture, where form and function are equally celebrated. Who doesn’t like a good tower or folly?

The water tower was listed as 40m high with a capacity 40 cubic metres of water. Alongside the tower itself, its attendant guard house (basically an insulated shed in poor condition) and the small plot of land where it stood, and it was to be sold by auction on 20th May. I had a read on the particulars, which stated that the property was poorly served technically (no electricity, drainage, gas or – bizarrely for a water tower no water supply either!), and that the guard shed was in poor condition. The tower did appear basically sound though – having been built in approx. 1980 of steel reinforced concrete - they are built to last, and designed to support the weight of the water at the top which is one tonne per cubic metre.

I had a look at the location on Google Earth and StreetView which are very useful tools. These showed the tower, and the location clearly. The setting at the side of the lake was obviously photographed in summer as there are plenty of locals enjoying the environs of the adjoining small lake, and it is very scenic indeed. Slightly down from the water tower also next to the lake were the ruins (mostly intact) of an old mill (windmill?), which dated from the 18th century.  I was obviously interested and found myself looking over the particulars. The documents described the best suggested use of the land as to add to an adjoining property, and I wondered if Grand Designs had reached the Baltic yet.

It is hard to visualise what a 40m high object looks like. A quick search on the Interweb reveals that. for comparison; 40m is the height of roughly a 12 storey building, the same height as the US space shuttle vertical on the launch pad, and a tad taller than the height of the statue of Christ that looks over Rio de Janeiro (when pedestal included), about the same as 9 stacked double decker busses, and 5 m less than the height of the statue of liberty. Quite high then.

Not for any particular reason or purpose, I thought ‘who would not want a tower like that in a beautiful lakeside (albeit post industrial behind) location close to the sea?’ The auction process required advance registration and expression of interest in a particular auction listing. So out of interest, I registered my interest. Thinking about the auction process, I didn’t rate my chances though. I know how people get carried away in ebay auctions (been there), and also that water towers have many purposes in the latter day world – including for use as telecoms towers for the mobile phone networks etc.

Thus I felt that the probability of actually winning an auction against bidders with unlimited pockets would be somewhere from low to nill. In fact, thinking about it rationally (before you say it, you are probably thinking that the concepts of rational thought and 40m high late soviet era water towers is an oxymoron and I’d wholeheartedly agree), I’d not really be able to bid at all, as with family, living etc. it’s hard to justify splashing out money you don’t have on what is effectively a folly. I was curious though. I considered that it would be interesting to see how the auction process worked for future opportunities down the line, and who would end up the owner of this fine tower? So – the auction being set for the day of my birthday, and the prospect of a slow day in Riga also appealing in and of itself,  I booked the flight out.

Ryanair do a flight from the UK to Latvia which leaves at about 06:50 uk time,which takes about 2.5 hours and arrives thus at Riga International Airport (RIX) at approx. 11am local time (timezone +2 from UK time).  There is a return flight that leaves RIX at 21:30 in the evening, and thus a day trip to Latvia is entirely practical and thanks for to Ryanair economic also (Fares start at about £35 one way) – just a very early start to the day considering you have to get up and get to the airport in good time before the flight.

So I’d booked the day out of the office from work – got everything urgent done and let people know that I’d be away for the day, and then set off bright and early on my trip. I say I’d let everyone know I’d be away for the day, and that I had, diary filled in, colleagues mailed, and set Out of Office, but I didn’t say where I was going. I guess sometimes I’m rather shy about things, and considered that if I told people where I was going and what I was planning to do, I’d likely be poo pooed, and ribbed for it – ie ‘you’re going to fly 1000 miles to watch someone buy a water tower? Isn’t that a bit daft?’ – well, yes it probably would be. The plan was also to enjoy a pleasant day in Riga besides this, which would be one aspect to the day but only one small part of it. I’ve known friends to do similar things when going for driving tests to avoid the unwelcome pressure of ‘did you fail again, isn’t that X times now?’ etc. And I admit it was daft in the first place so didn’t really need others to tell me what I already knew.

Arriving in Riga at the end of a pretty smooth flight, Riga was bathed in sunshine and a pleasant place to be. As I was in for the day only, I was thankful not to have any luggage and only my work laptop bag with chargers for phone etc. On arrival I found that there had been some issues overnight with one of our upstream Internet connections which are redundant, but maintenance with one provider had had knock on effects with our routers, which was thankfully quickly resolved by a colleague Matthew in the office. Murphy’s law does dictate that the day you’re out of the office things like this happen but great to know everything in good hands.

From Riga Airport, you can catch the bus to town for EUR 2, which is not quite as quick as a cab, but as I was in no rush, and just there to enjoy myself for the day, that’s what I did and headed into town. I had a wonder around the old town, via Doma Laukum (Dome Square) etc. all was quite as a I remember it but with some evolutionary changes as you’d expect. Progress is progress, but I still think that KFC, Starbucks and McDonalds & now Pizza Hut are a little out of place in Riga alongside the more traditional shops and hostelries.    From the old town I wondered through the park by the National Opera House (Latvia has a very strong opera), enjoying the sun, the walking and the air. When you don’t have 101 things on your to do list and bustle to get things done, time itself feels more relaxed.

On the plane on the way over, I had a read of my PDF download from the night before of the ‘Riga in Your Pocket’ guide to the town where they have good reviews of where to go and where to avoid for a visitor or expat in Latvia. I stopped at a small Latvian Café  - ‘Cafe22’ where the food looked good and the wifi was free. Lunch was an excellent beetroot compote and then a Latvian pancake type dish which was also delicious and costing a very reasonable EUR 4.1 including a bottle of water.

After this was close to time to visit the Latvian Privatisation Agency in their building just down from the national art museum. I was not too sure how this would work with language etc. as I can order a beer and stop a taxi in Latvian, but not much else. Thankfully (and to my slight shame) many if not most Latvians speak excellent English.

There is an oft over used phrase ‘you have to be in it to win it’ – which to my mind equates to advertising for things like the national lottery, of which you have about 1 in 14 million chances of winning, so may as well read ‘you’re almost certainly not going to win it’…. But in this case it seems I struck lucky as it turns out that in fact I was the only person who had registered an interest in the water tower, and that the board of the Latvian Privatisation Agency had written a letter to this effect two days earlier but not bothered posting it as it would not get to the UK in time. As the only interested party, the building was effectively mine. Barring a small matter of payment – a grand total of EUR 5.17 had to be paid for taxes. Helpfully and to make paperwork less of an issue; the Latvian privatisation agency had paid this on my behalf to the district authority in Jurmala, and that I could repay them in 30 days, but no, they could not accept cash now. The staff were delightful, efficient, and answered a host of questions such as might be asked by a naïve first time buyer of Latvian Water Towers.   It turns out that this was also their first time privatising a water tower, and they were curious to see who would be interested in this. I’m pretty sure I’m down as the ‘mad Englishman’, which is likely true. Gift horse & mouth etc. so with a few signatures the water tower was basically mine. I do still have to file a document with the Land Registry, and pay another EUR 7 or so in fees for that, but that would not be possible the same day, as many state institutions work a short day on Friday (I did say that the pace of life is a little different in Latvia and no bad thing).

 So – wow – I guess I just bought a water tower sight unseen. How cool is that? What to do with it, what state is it in etc. ? I’d not actually particularly thought of those questions until then, as I didn’t really believe it myself until this point. Next, there was only one thing to be done – I resolved to skip my trip to the art museum and took a taxi to the tower. The Tower was down as being in Jurmala, which is the district (just) but more accurately is in an area called Sloka, which is a short way on from the main tourist centre of Majori / Jurmala town centre. Nicola and I had taken the train to Sloka years ago and walked to the campsite there where we stayed in simple huts on a fun holiday doing lots of walking on the beach etc. The area is quite wooded and not so densely populated, so you are a long walking distance from the hub of activity and thus at the more tranquil end of the sands. The water tower was (is) inland from the sea somewhat, but in view of the river Lielupe and next to the lake. I’ve never been to Ibiza, but I understand that there is the party side, and then the rest of the island which is actually quite beautiful and unspoilt. So it is with Sloka.

The taxi was a luxury, but the trains can be infrequent and I was keen to behold the tower and see what I’d just let myself in for.

In the property market they say that much is about ‘location, location & location’ and I think the location of the tower is pretty good, but judge for yourself and see what you think, as we’ll run through some photos below:

The tower itself:

Here is the tower. 40m high and holds 40 Cubic Metres (40,000 litres) of water which would weight 40 metric tonnes. Looks in need of a bit of a trim of the bushes at the bottom and a lick of paint at the top.

Detail of the lower half. You can see the the scale a little more effectively here (or get an idea) as the guardhouse (basically an insulated shed) can be seen to the right, and other former industiral buildings behinds which are between two and three stories high themselves. The guardhouse was last manned in 2002 from the papers inside, and has a desk, an armchair, and a print of Lenin on the wall ahead of you. It is quite amazing that despite only being help closed by a bent nail, that everything is in tact inside. The tower itdelf has an open entrance currently, but no known accidents in the last 14 years which is probably due to it being fairly obvious that it is to be treated with respect. Health and safety probably dictate that early actions should be a door, fence and a warning sign at least.

View of the top half of tower. The paint is usefully about the same colour as the rust, but fresh paint is called for at sometime which will be fun on the trapese. The steel water containers can be climbed down into via internal ladders from the top, though these have yet to be explored. The water bearing steel containers balance on a small concrete step so that centre of gravity transmits down the tower walls whilst looking ever so slightly improbable.

The view of the lake from the bottom of the tower.

Seperate view from the bottom of the lake. If you look at Google StreetView for the area you'll see people enjoyin the lake in summer and apparently people enjoy diving in it also. Navigate a little down the road and you can see the remains of the old windmill also.

Immeditely inside the tower if you look down you see water. I don't know why but this surprised me somewhat. Whereas you'd logically think that a water tower should contain water, somehow I didn't expect it at the bottom. It could be that this goes down for a few inches (having gathered and been held here) or much further (coming from source) - to investigate further.  

In this photo, you can see the ground level platform to start the climb to the top. To the right is the big water pipe that goes to the top, which either takes water up or down. At the bottom of the picture you can see some of the welded joins in the steel reinforcements in the concrete.

This is the view inside the tower looking up. There are a series of steel ladders going up, and platforms between the levels. I'm not sure what grade of steel was used for this part, but it is all fairly chunky and bar the visible corrosion relatively solid. To climb to the top you just go up up via about 5/6 platforms. Climbing to the top is certainly good exercise!

Ever wondered what the inside of a soviet water tower looks like from the top looking down into it? If so then this is your lucky day and the answer is (at least partly) in the picture below. Helpfully there is a ladder to descend the depths of the inside of the tanks. Given that I did not know the state of corrosion on the ladder bar the first bar which looked quite shiny, I decided that best not to venture down for now lest I languished at the bottom of the tank forever if a step broke. Resolution to investigate further later with caution and a harness secured somewhere solid at the top.

The good stuff: the above is part of the view from the top of the tower. What a view. The road and lake are in front, and you can see the river Lielupe in the background behind the trees.

Further to the left you can see the ruins of the old windmill on the banks of the lake.

Another view from the top - apparently the lake is popular for diving amongst other activities in the summer.

For scale - taxi and people walking along below.

Further round nearby fields, houses, industrial and small holding units.

To the rear of the tower are a number of post industrial units. The site used to be one complex for logistics and other operations before before the end of the communist regime from what I understand.

A short video also panning from the top.

 

So that's the tower for now.

I should have taken some more pictures and more of the guardhouse at the bottom etc.

So next questions include:

  • What should be done with the tower?
  • What's the best way to tell your wife you've just bought an ex Soviet Water Tower in Latvia? Answer: Have a very lovely and understanding wife who understands people can do daft things sometimes (or all the time) & immediately stepped forward as tower Health and Safety officer having since having listed about 47 ways the tower could kill you :-)
  • What would the rest of the family think?
  • Who is the best and most competitive insurer for Latvian Water Towers?
  • Would this make the ultimate AirBnB?
  • As a keen ham, what type of Yagi antenna would you best put up top?

etc.

These would have to wait for now though as I only had limited time and also had a keen sense of self preservation in not wanting to push things too much as to limits and risks.

Returning to Riga I visited the old central market, cooled my heels a while and picked up some finest Laima chocolates etc. to take back for home and office before taking the bus back to the airport for the return flight.
 

I was thinking of having a T-Shirt made:

It might say: 'I went for a day trip to Riga and all I got was this late soviet period 40m high steel reinforced concrete water tower with observation platform by a lake with views of the river Lielupe and the Latvian Countryside, complete with guardhouse (shed) with an armchair, desk and proudly displayed print of Lenin.' :-)

To be continued...

 

Sharks and Saints - Domain Rights on .co.uk and .uk

One of the many services that Onega offers clients is assistance with domain registrations and acquisitions. This can be a minefield but there is usually a common sense solution and balance in this; as to which are the appropriate domains for an organisation to own or register and to protect branding and reputation alongside trademarks etc.

We recently helped a client to buy a domain that matched the initials of their company name from a broker, to go alongside their other domains. In this case it was a four letter .co.uk domain that we helped to purchase.

This all went smoothly, transacting via undeveloped.com and the timeline on this was as below:

Negotiation - 7th Jan 2016 - Several offers and counter offers back and forth, thankfully managing to secure the domain in a small but happy spot where the offer was just affordable to our client and just acceptable to the seller, so all could proceed.

Purchase - 7th Jan 2016 - We paid for the domain directly so that things could move ahead and to seal the deal. Thus the .co.uk domain was now secured for our client's company. The purchase was for a .co.uk domain for which no .uk had been registered (so rights were still vested in the .co.uk domain for this).

Transfer - 27th Feb 2016 - This was the date that the domain came across to our client in the form of a transfer to their GoDaddy Domain Registration account, and from where we immediately updated the contact details to be correct for their company contacts, to ensure a valid Nominet registration.  The delay was partly down to us as the broker process was a little different from some others in this case (we normally do a Nominet tag change to the ONEGA tag as we are a member and registrar / tag holder with Nominet); whereas in this case a GoDaddy account transfer was the process used which was fine and smooth when done.

So far so good.

Fast forward a few weeks. We then came to register the .UK domain as part of good management and to realise the new and trendy higher level domain registration for our client.

It is worth explaining here for anyone unaware, that as a holder of a .CO.UK domain, you have a 5 year 'sunrise' right to register an equivalent .UK domain. Thus if you have (in our case) onega.co.uk then you also have rights to onega.uk. Here at Onega, we primarily use our onega.net domain but hold the .uk domains for secondary purposes and domain protection alongside our UK registered trademark of 'Onega'. After the 5 years which starts from the .uk domain launch date to the 'fully open' period, then anyone can potentially register an equivalent .uk address. This 5 years started on 10th June 2014 so protection ends and open season begins at 10am on 10th June 2019. Thus we recommend that clients with an active .co.uk domain exercise their right and protect their .uk domain with a long registration now (the cost is trivial) . It's also good contemporary branding to do this and use the domain.

Back to our narrative... we found that when we came to register the domain for our client as per best practice, that now it transpired from the .UK Whois data that the .uk domain had been registered by the seller of the domain under their own details on the same day as the transfer finally occurred (17th Feb)... hmmmmm....

It was our understanding and is common practice that when the domain of the .co.uk was purchased, that this would include the rights to register the .UK address. We were a little disconcerted to say the least when we discovered this registration, as we'd consider the domain and related rights effectively owned from the point of agreement and payment - the transfer being a formal process in the completion as would occur in the land registry work related to conveyancing and sale of a house.

Next course of action was to read up on the rules and check our position. Nominet has a good Q&A on the .UK domain rules, which we consulted; we also checked the Terms and Conditions of the domain broker. The Undeveloped Ts&Cs did not contain anything mentioning related domain rights. Nominet's Q&A is well written although it did not have anything specific on this case, but it did remind us that .UK registrations should normally be available for the .co.uk owner (who was our client at the time of the seller's registration though not reflected in Whois yet), also that these registrations can be referred to the Nominet Dispute Resolution Service if there is a disagreement on a registration. 

The majority of domain disputes are amicably settled but having a fair procedure for resolution as a formal path available is a good comfort should it ever be needed. Our next action at this point was to get in touch with the domain broker, through whom the purchase had been agreed, to raise the issue with them and also to contact Nominet DRS informally to ask about case history and precedent on this.

Nominet DRS were very helpful on our call and we learned that this issue has come up a small number of times already and is likely to come up again in the future as the .uk domains become more established. No cases of this type have yet to get to binding adjudication, but some have been through the DRS procedure which commences with mediation on the issue and thus far all have been settled at this stage. The outcome has so far been, in all cases that we are aware of where the complaint has been followed up in the DRS case, that the .uk domain has ended up being transferred to the complainant (who is normally the .co.uk rightsholder). Resolution at this stage avoids costs escalating for all parties in the process.

This was useful to be aware of and to better understand the position and case histories. At this time we heard back from the sales domain broker and they reasonably disclaimed involvement in a case not exactly related to the actual domain purchased and recommended that we contact the seller directly.

We did contact the seller with a professional, respectful while reasonably formal mail on the subject at hand - setting out the brief case and asking for an amicable agreement on this.

I'm delighted to be able to say that in this case, the seller called back within the hour and the domain has now been transferred to our client at no cost. The seller had apparently sought to register the domain to protect it from abuse by anyone else, though arguably that should not have been an issue as only the .co.uk owner can make the .uk registration. In any case, the situation has been resolved without further escalation. The seller was delightful to deal with and I'm happy that this was just a simple miscommunication issue rather than anything more.

What have we learned or been reminded of from this?

1) Don't make assumptions - in this case there was no discussion either way on the question of .uk domain rights in the negotiation process. It would have been better in retrospect if we had have explicitly said 'for the .co.uk domain in question and any rights vested in that registration' so that we made sure we were specifically reserving these rights.

2) Ideally domain brokers should be clear in their terms as to whether any rights vested in a domain are included in the sale or not. It would be fair and reasonable for a seller of a .co.uk domain to sell the .co.uk domain but reserve the rights and register in advance the .uk domain if they explicitly state that they reserve this right.

3) Most disputes are amicably dealt with and it is always best to try this route before looking at invoking a formal process.

4) The online reputations of Domain Sellers and Brokers are very important to them so as far as possible most will adhere to best practices.

If you need any help on domain matters please don't hesitate to Get In Touch and we'd be happy to discuss how we can help. 

Thanks to Ryan Espanto for the circling sharks photo.

Scheduling International Conf Calls this time of year

When the clocks change for Daylight Saving it is enough trouble to remember ourselves and to reset the clocks around our homes and offices to the new time with the hour offset forward or back.

One more thing to remember though, that we learned from last year, is that the clocks change in different places around the world on different dates for Daylight Saving. Generally, countries that are geographically close often change on the same date but this can vary from country to country and within a country.

For 2016 the main dates to note are:

Sunday 13th March:  Daylight saving (DST) starts in North America and Canada

Sunday 27th March :  Daylight Saving starts in most of Europe

Sunday 30th October:  Daylight Saving ends in most of Europe

Sunday 6th November:  Daylight Saving ends in USA and Canada

The Southern Hemisphere is different as you'd expect from the seasonal reversal:

Sunday 16th October: DST starts in Brazil

Sunday 21st February: DST ends in Brazil

Remember too that some countries (Japan etc.) do not have DST at all which is an issue if you do in yours!

... and some are more complex again - for example Greenland changes on Saturday 26th March for most of the country and back again on the Sunday 30th October unless you are in the region of Ittoqqortoormiit which starts on Sunday 27th March and ends on Sunday 30th October or on Thule Air Base which follows the US dates of 13th March and ending Sunday 6 November!

If you are scheduling conference calls on the telephone or Skype / Skype for Business / Webex / Lync / GotoMeeting / Powwownow etc. then be mindful and careful especially as there is the two week gap between the clocks changing in Europe and USA. 

You can find full details of when the clocks change in different countries at http://www.timeanddate.com/time/dst/2016.html .

Hopefully this blog entry will save you or some of your meeting attendees from missed schedules and maintain your productivity.

Onega March 2016 Planned Engineering and First Focus on DNS

This is to let you know about some March Planned Engineering and Service Updates - and our fist 'Bono Pastore' Focus area. Please see the background and overview of the program at http://www.onega.net/blog/2016/03/2/bono-pastore if you're not yet aware of this.

Our first best practice focus is going to be on DNS (Internet Domain Name Services) and making sure that clients systems (as well as our own) are in-line with best practice in this area.
 

In business terms:

DNS is the system that allows us to register Internet domains for our organisations and to browse the web and send emails with friendly names like www.bbc.co.uk www.onega.net and fred@onega.net etc. So much uses DNS that we often take it for granted much of the time – and well implemented so we should.

Being such an important system, we want to make sure that client implementations are optimal in three key areas relating to DNS:

Domain Registrations – This is the administration of your domain and the registration of it. We want to help make sure that all the details related to your domains are up to date, correct & appropriate, not due to expire any time soon etc.

Internal Resolution – This is how client and server computing devices carry out Internet resolution so that you can connect to the Cloud quickly, reliably and safely (see  Secure DNS Services for more on this).

External Resolution – This is how people find your organisation and services on the Internet – to know where to send you email, browse your website and communicate via electronic means etc. It is important that this service be provided robustly and reliably.

Our object is to conduct a review to ensure that these aspects of DNS are all well implemented across our client organisations.

The next steps are:

We will be in contact with clients over the coming weeks to ensure that we run through your DNS configuration with you. Don’t worry if you’re not technical – we are happy to take care of those parts. We have a checklist which we’ll complete with you so that we capture the key information about your domains, and identify any areas that need attention so that we (you or us as per preference and can work to resolve these and get them checked off.

For clients under Onega managed services contracts we'll liaise with you and do most of the running on this to help make sure your DNS is good and documented. For clients with whom we have PAYG agreementswe can agree with you who will do what with the aim that we make sure all our your services are robust.

Expect us to be in touch soon then about next steps and starting the process. If you are not under contract with Onega (or not sure) and would like to engage in the DNS best practice review process then please do get in touch and we’ll be happy to add you to the review rosta.

For reference:

Internet DNS Best Practice Policy – http://intwiki.onega.net/index.php?title=Internet_DNS_Configuration_Best_Practice_Policy

Organisational DNS Checklist - http://intwiki.onega.net/index.php?title=Organisational_DNS_Checklist

For information on Secure DNS Services:

http://www.onega.net/blog/2015/6/4/the-importance-of-using-secure-dns-servers

If you don’t have a login for the Onega’s Policy and Procedure wiki then please get in touch and we’ll setup access for you.

Technical changes that will occur on Onega Infrastructure:

Tuesday 22nd March 2016 12:00 (Midday) GMT - We will be changing the configuration of our two legacy DNS servers 81.3.75.71 and 81.3.75.72 to no longer act as recursive resolvers. Thus any computers or servers that are using these servers for DNS will need to be updated to use alternate (eg Secure DNS) servers before this cut off date.

Tuesday 12th April 2016 12:00 (Midday) GMT - We plan to turn off these two DNS servers - thus any zones hosted on these servers will need to be moved before that time.  We have new servers in place to take the zones and migrations will be done as part and in conjunction with the best practice review process – the new DNS servers being more best practice compliant than our legacy servers.

Why are we making these changes?

In short, so that we also comply with our own guidelines for Best Practice, but in more detail:

1) Comply with best practice - Recursive DNS Servers (ones that do lookups for client PCs) should be split off in role from ones that host DNS Zones.

2) For best security and maintain best performance of the service - Recursive resolvers can be abused in DNS Amplfication attacks (see https://deepthought.isc.org/article/AA-00897/0/What-is-a-DNS-Amplification-Attack.html if you're interested to learn more

3) So that we make sure all clients are resolving securely to the Internet and to retire an older Windows Server 2003 DNS Server which is coming towards end of life.

What happens if I don’t have best practice DNS?

We don’t want to scare anyone but if you don’t comply with best practice then you risk (in the worst case):

  1. Losing your domain or having it suspended.
  2. Not being able to access the Internet
  3. Not being able to send or receive email
  4. Clients getting redirected to phishing or competitor’s websites and email going the same way.
  5. Being unprotected at DNS level against infected websites.

The above are worst case scenarios but we aim to greatly reduce the risk of occurrence by complying with best practice with regards to your domains.

Once we've been through the review process with you the outcome should be that we can all sleep easier knowing that the DNS aspect of your IT is in very good order.

A Kodak Moment

I recently had the good fortune (if that is the right term for it) to inherit a couple of vintage (1950's and 1960's) cameras. One is a Kodak Retina 35mm Rangefinder with a classic leather case like the one pictured above the post here. The other is an Ikoflex twin lens reflex camera (the type that you see people looking down and into to compose a picture - see http://www.zeissikonrolleirepair.com/page04.html if you'd like to see what these look like). The cameras may or may not work and the Ikoflex takes film that is no longer manufactured but they are lovely as works of precision engineering if nothing else.

The thing that most struck me though was one of the leaflets that were with the Kodak Camera. This was a leaflet that was published in 1981 and was a 'helpful hints' type instruction which explained how to take photographs of your television screen to best record memories of the British Royal Wedding that year between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. The hints included making sure you did not use the flash as that would cause wash out of the recorded image and on best distance for focus, exposure times etc.

This was all very interesting but mainly it made me think about how much things have changed in such a short space of time. My first thought was 'Why take photos of your TV?' but then I reconsidered and back in 1981, only very very few people had VHS video machines; which had been introduced in 1978 at a cost of £799 which is equivalent to over £4,200 as we write in 2016.

Fast Forward to today (sorry for the pun) and the VHS recorder is now seen as obsolete equipment that you likely have one of in your house if you've not moved in a while, but equally likely to be gathering dust. So in 1981 very few had a VHS recorder, it then became pervasive until recently when hard drive recorders and streaming services have taken over and, now that analogue TV transmitters have been turned off in favour of digital FreeView services, your old VHS recorder would not be able to tune to any of the channels it used to. The digital age has crept up on us in the same way that you don't particularly notice a child growing day to day, but Aunty always says 'My how you've grown!' when visiting. Small steps have made for big change and sometimes it pays to step back and consider this.

It is the same everywhere; things change and continue to change and the pace of change will only increase. I was at a client's offices at a West London architectural practice a few weeks back and talking to one of the chaps there whilst looking at (and fixing) a problem on a computer.  We got on to drafting tables and the nefarious tools and rulers that go with these and how the whole process of architectural practice has changed over a similar time frame, to the use of modern CAD workstations that allow for 3D visualisations of how a building will look that can now be sent for review in a 3D PDF, for example. Have a look at http://www.pdf3d.com/gallery.php if you've not yet seen one of these; there is a certain 'Wow!' to them which mainly comes from our conditioning that a PDF should be a representation of what is on paper.

We digress though; the key is to look forward and we can see a lot of how things will change a little at a time still to make the future. One of the big 'take aways' that I got from my time at university was that we should plan not for what is possible now, but for what will be possible in the future. This is probably one of the greatest insights that I got from any of my lecturers, in a university workshop . At the time we were studying streaming media techniques in what was then the age of the modem and 56Kbps Internet connections if you had the latest tech; so the concept of streaming media seemed somewhat academic as the accessible technology of a modem would give a particularly poor experience and be far from economic. To use a modem to download a 30 minute program that we now enjoy in real time 'on demand' with bandwidth to spare would have taken about 6.5 days to download back then continuously at 56kbps and then you'd have needed a high-end computer to play the files (if you had enough hard drive space for them!). Point made here; I apologise that we are looking back again when we should be looking forward.

What will the future hold? Some we can see, some we can't. The trick is to find the gaps and fill them to be part of making the future.

Cue some insight and predictions...

Generally if you can imagine it, progress and technology dictate that it will happen and much of what is to come is not terribly hard to imagine.

In the 1960's and 1970's Science Fiction writer Arthur C Clark defined his three laws related to predictions:

Clarke's first law:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Clarke's second law
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Clarke's third law
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Here at Onega we like to understand first principles and the history of technology as much as the present day implementations of these and in turn this allows us to connect the dots and see some of this, some such projects we've worked on and some we continue to work on.  

Technologies that may sound fanciful like gravity power for cars (we call this Hybrid Gravity Drive) are in fact practical and possible today and is most likely to be introduced to the masses by the likes of Toyota to our everyday drives well before 2020.  

The times we live in continue to witness some of the most significant changes ever witnessed in history and this will continue unabated in rate of change in the immediate foreseeable future. How we each choose to embrace this is up to us...