Total System Failure

cropped-matrix1000x278.pngAs anyone who knows me will know I love my cars, well actually probably not my own cars but more the mythical cars that I don’t have to fill with kerosene or keep the windscreen wipers topped up and I’m just useless when it comes to walking the big end every Sunday (Fnarr!). In short I’ve loved them ever since I can remember, I suppose being surrounded by these luxurious marques from day one hasn’t really helped. My last foray with ‘that car’ however left me with a bitter taste for a certain brand of Bavarian automobile and so when faced with renewing my car this year (the deciding of which takes place over a geological time scale) it was in reality a two horse race between the much beloved Mercedes of Stuttgart (by me at least) and my less favoured but probably more practical Swedish workhorse Volvo. In the end I felt that I got more for my money from the Volvo marque and so then it just came down to models. The decision making process was long and laborious and then suddenly I found myself in the middle of  a car lot in Birmingham at midday on a Sunday with 20 minutes to spare. 60 minutes later I was like an insurgent running from the scene of an explosion, revolution in the air I’d left my bomb of a BMW ticking away silently on the other side of the road as a part ex. Yes, I knew the runflat warning would go off within 3 days when the pressure was fine, yes I knew that the one day that the runflat warning didn’t go off would be the one day that you had four punctures. I knew that at best you had 30 minutes before the radio would get too hot and spasmodically cut out interfering with the Bluetooth for the phone as it did so, I also knew that interfering with the Bluetooth was not an issue as the phone integration was so awful as to be unusable anyway. I long ago gave up using it as people would assume I was Davros halfway across of time and space, stuck in an empty pineapple can calling to warning the human race that just as soon as I fight my way out I’m coming to kick ass; in a metaphorical sense of course… Davros having no legs . Yes I knew that ride comfort was in fact merely two unconnected words that somebody at BMW had heard when they accidentally walked into a Mercedes showroom, I also knew the damn thing wallowed so much my fiancée had to take an apple on every journey just to avoid throwing up… good job we have a chocolate Labrador which are of course renowned for being able to find apples in the desert, bygones…  After 2 years of the worst ownership experience I of course I knew that it was horrendous on fuel, even when driven frugally and even when compared to an E class estate which could probably carry all of the spare parts the BMW would require in a year and yes I knew that the i- drive would crash every week normally coerced into doing so by the radios aforementioned behaviour. I was also aware that it was in need of four new tyres and a service and it had been at least 6 months since the air suspension had gone… again…..again.

In short my sedition was leading me very quickly to a better place, a world where the shrapnel from my ‘blow for the brotherhood’  would not find me. Happy with my new acquisition I headed home and once back in the land of constant precipitation I monitored the website of the company who had purchased the BMW in question waiting to see if they could make a swan from a pack of swan vestas…. One week later the curse appeared, it looked good enough to sell but I could see a grimace on the face of the car… as if puffing its chest and holding its stomach in as a pretty girl walked past. I continued to monitor and the price tumbled before I was informed by the guy I bought it off that it went to auction which is always bad news for someone!

Anyway I appear to have digressed somewhat as I was actually attempting to relate a story of total system failure that happened this weekend as I drove from Cornwall to Devon. This was to be clear in the Volvo and not the ‘dirty bomb’ which was busy somewhere up in midlands earning someone an overdraft. Back to the story. It was Sunday, it was sunny and I left Cornwall knowing that there was something badly wrong. I had been in  traffic that morning and heard a strange noise from under the bonnet, a little smoke I thought and possibly a funny smell (that wasn’t me this time)…. The symptoms then stopped so I imagined, though didn’t quite believe, that I must have been mistaken. 2 miles down the road I pulled up for diesel and then my day started.

A red triangle appeared with the text “Power System, Service Urgent” and the battery warning light lit.

I did what anyone would do, filled up with petrol thinking “am I being optimistic with this 10l /20l / 30l/ 40l and before I knew it I had a full £60 of potentially useless diesel behind me. But the car started and more hopefully there was no warning anymore. Buoyed on by this we headed to the supermarket where upon arrival the warning reappeared. Now I’m a patterns kind of guy, it’s my job really to look for them and the first thing I saw here was that ‘maybe it just doesnt like arrivals’ I mean, some people say the journey is the thing. Bygones.. I elected for best of three, went to do a spot of shopping and then returned to the car hoping my new smoothie maker would have some zen power over Volvo charging systems… sadly a few minutes later I discovered it did not and it was then that I made the first sensible decision of the day which was to return home while it was light. I was fairly certain that the rather sparse message was in fact telling me that my alternator was brokedy-fucked and the last thing I wanted was to have a reliance on lights for the journey which consisted of a 40 mile trip, nearly 50% of that on dual carriageway. In retrospect, ignorance was bliss. So I left a sunny Cornwall in lonely silence… no music and the window half cranked down both of these to avoid using power from battery… I felt like that guy off of Apollo 13, Tom Hanks I think his name was!!! My senses were heightened and I was concentrating heavily on any signs from the car that it was struggling. None such appeared, until they did of course. I managed to clear the dual carriageway and hit the town of Launceston which is when gravity started to apply her brakes to my, at this point, untethered optimism. First the power steering gave in…. which is lucky because I’ve always wanted to have arms like a gorilla. Manouevring through the town was tricky especially at mini roundabouts, I mused that back in the day most cars did not have any Power Assisted Steering and that mini roundabouts are merely a product of our blasé approach to steering nowadays; it was at this point that the power assisted brakes chimed in that they too were a bit tired and were going for a little lie down. I was far from a winning line in dashboard bingo (full tank of fuel remember!) but things were starting to light up nicely and as I basked in the glow of dashboard lights warning me of an unfolding disaster it hit me for the first time that journey…. doubt. 2 miles passed and I had safely negotiated the town with steering that felt like two bricks tied to a broom handle. I had analysed the road ahead and decided on a route that would keep me clear of any more towns, it was now a clear run of about 15 miles to my house with only three junctions… two of them i could crawl over and final one I would have no choice but to stop at. I needn’t have worried about the future so much, it was the present that currently had knives for me. The first sharp instruments heading my way were warnings about the traction control and stability program which at the current time were not high on my list of worries and neither was the warning stating my electronic brake was not functional. What was more concerning was the fact that the storm clouds were gathering, very literally. Praying to a deity I have no belief in I asked for a break in the clouds Before running straight into a downpour, just a little one, nothing to write home about. You just switch your windscreen wipers on and….

Shizz. No windscreen wipers, I hadn’t bargained on that but luckily the wind started to shift the film of water on my screen; after a second or two the windscreen was sufficiently clear for me to see the torrential downpour I was heading into. My prayers it seem did not go unanswered, ‘him up there’ just failed to make the terms of the ‘break’ clear as within seconds I could see very little through the spattering thick film of greasy hammering rain; I did the automatic thing of flicking the wipers back on only to remember that I’d already forgotten I had none. To add insult to injury I was also getting soaked because as you may recall I left with the window down; not down far enough that I could look out of the window to improve my driving visibility but plenty enough to get a good soaking all down my right side. I thought about pulling over  but there was always the doubt that I would stall the car or such so I quickly talked myself out of this option instead opting for driving more slowly, I knew this would keep me in the rain for longer but I hoped that I would have some visibility. I looked down to check my speed because one does that when driving blind through a frickin rain storm and was surprised to see my speed reading precisely 0mph. The speedometer was the latest victim of my current woes but seemingly the rev counter was working perfectly, except…. then it wasn’t. The dashboard lights seemed a little dimmer as did my prospects for getting home. The dog, meanwhile,  was blissfully unaware of circumstances, I could hear snoring from the boot (its an estate, I’m not that cruel) and given that I had kidnapped no one I surmised it was her; Little did she realise how much of a walk she would get out of all this. It was at that point that I noticed the central computer die, now as I’ve said earlier this was no hardship as I’ve owned a BMW and this was just normal service; The lights on the dash were getting dimmer and dimmer and dimmer (although I could still see the range with my current tank of diesel was up around 950 miles which was nice to know).

In short, I was struggling. I then came to the brow of a hill and approached the first of my three junctions. It was at this point where I questioned whether any of my external lights were working, indicators being a legal requirement in this country I thrust my arm out of the window and approached ‘The Junction’.  This was not as easy as it seems, power steering gone two arms were required for turning, no indicators however meant that I needed some indication to the car behind and then…. Just as I thought I could apply the accelerator to cross the junction a car came from the opposite direction and forced me to make a split second choice… I could try and negotiate uphill through the afternoon traffic of a town with 2 single width passing places (this was never going to work) or I could slow a little more and attempt to take the junction after the approaching car had past, hoping above hope that the engine did not reach idle point and stall…..

The RAC took 90 minutes to arrive and I am now the owner of a brand new alternator, which is nice…..

But what of it I hear you say, what relevance to a tech blog? What actually took my interest apart from the comedy value was how the degradation in systems which at first appears to be random was in fact carefully stage managed and orchestrated by the engine management software. The power levels in the battery had a very direct impact on what electrical systems would be made available to me at any given point during the ongoing system collapse allowing me to make as much of the journey as possible in relative safety (and total naivety). What I witnessed was actually a masterclass in service architecture showing us that complex systems can be written in such ways that individual service failures should lead to a gradual degradation of availability rather than just a total system failure.  What the dog witnessed was a 100% increase in walks taken that day, in fact I think she may be blogging it as we speak…


This must be Thursday


Image courtesy of

It was not a Thursday at all (Reality is frequently inaccurate), but it was March 11th and something within me jangled, deep inside my DNA… A memory of something, something important. Now, I don’t have a brain as big as a planet and so sometimes, no… OFTEN, I forget things. What was it… Which airport did I have to not turn up at, or which airport would look out of place around me if I had managed to get there (which if you were to ask my eldest daughter absolutely never happened!). Nope.. I was not on airport duty today, pretty places that they are. Maybe instead there was a bill that I needed to pay, it would indeed be a strange month where that bloody BMW (Break My Wallet) did not cost me a left testicle for some part that seems to work without exception on all other cars made… ever, but not the BMW. Currently half of my procreative potential is being put down as collateral against a particulate filter, the sole job of which it seems is to stick its hand into my bleeding pocket and extract a Fender Precision sized wad of cash from my wallet. So…Huge garage bills? probably but I’m saying no on this occasion (I’d far rather be happy than right any day). In the same breath I wasn’t actually lying in a field in innsbruck, dead drunk and dreaming the whole episode and nor was I a puddle thinking that this is an interesting world I find myself in; so what was it? It was probably nothing, don’t panic. My thoughts drifted back to work and to my workload for today, it was composed mainly of a deadline which was not going to be hit. It was then that it hit me…

Deadlines….“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” It is of course well noted that the only thing that moves faster than time approaching a deadline is of course light, and in turn nothing travels faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” I realise that there is the potential here for a paradox if say we have bad news about a deadline? Would it be faster or slower than the speed of light? and what would happen if we turned the lights off? or replaced them with those energy saving bulbs? (you know, the ones that results in you carrying a torch into the room just so that you can find the thing you were actually looking for). I think I may have digressed a little.

March 13th… A quick check of my calendar and the internet confirmed it for me. It was that time of year again when Hitchhikers across the world try to think of some new way of saying Happy Birthday to a man who has been merely resting for nearly 15 years. I thought that this year it would be the least I could do to just blog a little for the great man as my output of late has not been high and what better to end my writers block (or lack of time more like)  than a short entry about Douglas.

To put a bit of a twist on this I thought that it might be a nice idea to see just how far I can take his quotes, so I will drop them in at random points and let the public see if they can discover the joins. So without further ado, Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

But of course, I’ve cheated. The more astute of you will have noticed I’ve been dropping them in left right and centre already, in fact most of that previous paragraph was just an excuse  to get away with the ineffable quote. At this point you’re probably thinking “Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now”. My response would be “you’re turning into a penguin. Stop it.”

I distinctly remember the first words of Douglas that I ever read, Yes I had seen and heard H2G2 on the TV and radio but my first introduction to the real mind of the man was the opening of “Mostly Harmless”, the fifth book in the hitchhikers ‘trilogy’. The phrases were spread across 4 double pages and the act of turning the pages made the words ring in my head as I transitioned from one to the next


“Anything that happens, happens.”



“Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen.”



“Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again”



“It doesn’t necessarily do it in chronological order, though.”


And with that final line I knew that I was hooked for life, it was the humour that had lurked deep in my brain for all those years and for the first time in my life a brain from another monkey using only twig technology had used the words, the phrases, the cadence and the delivery of an assortment of words that seemed naturally formed to my mind. To this day I still find the opening chapter to “Mostly Harmless” to be the most perfectly crafted piece of humour I have ever read. Its very geeky yes, I first read this at a time when I was not involved with technology so I guess that shows how my inner geek was a potential force waiting for its turn to express itself in my life.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happens as is often the case. Life continued and I felt richer for the words of Douglas. I moved onto probably my favourite works which were the Dirk Gently series of books, I could identify with the main character not as myself but as a friend of mine from school. I am still friends with this person on Facebook but I interact little with them, purposely so. I like to imagine that that their life turned out exactly as Dirks did, any less would be a crushing disappointment and so I am happy to suspend my belief, happy to continue believing that ‘Dirk’ did indeed dress in that mac, drive an old Jaguar that was hopelessly broken and based many critical decisions on an IChing calculator with a blue button marked red. I’m also happy to believe that ‘Dirk’ could not surface in the morning without his fingers tracing a path through a shit pit floor to search for that first cigarette of the day. I’m content with the view that he really did study at St Cedds, Cambridge, denying all knowledge of exam results whilst feeding himself well on others beliefs that the better he was fed the more likely he would sleep talk accurate exam answers. And moreover I would be crushingly disappointed if I were to discover that he never had a stand off with his Elena (the cleaner) about cleaning the fridge that lurked; a standoff that would eventually lead to the destruction of his house by an eagle trapped in the kitchen resuming its previous shape as an RAF Fighter jet.

There was a line from the Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul which for a long time was the motto of me, “Fifteen seconds later he left the house, Five hours late, but moving fast”. On occasion even the time of five hours was well and truly exceeded to which my old boss in the West Midlands would testify. This is no longer the case, I seem to have gotten earlier… at least comparatively early if not actually on time.

Its not the only phrase that has stuck with me though, others that I still on occasion use include


“Tell it to the monk”



“You live and learn, at any rate, you live!”



This phrase  I would love to be able to use, although I think I would need a change in career in order to pull this one off!


“It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.”



The latest addition to my armoury is an old one but never more true I think than in these days of high and constant technology in every single sphere of our lives.


“We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.”



I loved the BBC adaptation of Dirk Gently, I remember chatting to Douglas’s daughter online around the time of his 60th Birthday party which sadly due to a bout of flu I was unable to attend. Polly told me that he was just her dad and that she was just too young to appreciate his works at the time and that it was only now (then) that she could start to appreciate them. She was however a fan of the BBC adaptation  and she felt sure that her Dad would also have loved it. She knew him better than most. Personally I think that he would have too although…. An Austin Princess? Really?

And then there was, “Last Chance to See”, a dated book… not in terms of the writing style but dated in terms of the length of the near and past extinction lists that was discussed. This was a book dealing with the most troubling of issues in our world, that of our impact upon the environment and yet it was humorous and almost hopeful. Perhaps this was a mistake? The situation has certainly not improved in any way shape or form, maybe his wife was on the money?


“He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher… or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.”


So, how has this tribute worked out for me, well… It  was not what I was intending to write but in the words of Dirk Gently (when following random cars in order to get a sense of direction):-


“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”


Oh, and for those of you who are interested, how many references did I manage to get in? The answer is of course…..


“A nice number that you can take home and introduce to your family.”



Cemeteries of London

Now as those nearest and dearest to me know if there is one thing guaranteed to bring tears to my eyes (that does not involve a sharp toe and my MOST personal possession) it is the merest mention of Douglas Adams. Seemingly I cannot talk about my favourite author without a choking voice and mist in my eyes. Every year I remember the anniversaries, his birth, his far too hurried death and of course towel day…. Rapidly approaching. I generally remember them by a simple status on a virtual wall somewhere on the Internet that was built with Douglas in mind. He will of course never see it and that’s fine, it’s enough that I know he still has a place in my world.

It was with this in mind that I recently had the opportunity with my fiancee and middleish daughter  to visit his grave at Highgate Cemetery. I did not know what to expect. I must confess I hadn’t given it much thought until we arrived… What I was not prepared for was just how much it moved me, I literally broke down and it was only through a gargantuan effort that I managed to not sob like a baby at the grave of a stranger, a man who only touched me only through his words. I don’t understand why I feel like this, and I don’t want to.

“If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.”

I laid my gift, a digital watch, on a towel that someone else had left at his simple and understated grave. I think he would have thought the watch ‘a pretty neat idea‘ to steal a line from h2g2.   I later found this YouTube video, seems like I’m not the only person for whom this line resonates!

On some level of existence that may become clearer to me one day, when I’m old or dead, there will be a explanation for my feelings. Until then I feel privileged to have his work and words in my life.

And the Battle Continues…..

time bombSo, the attritional count of removing a battery from an E61 BMW reads thus…. 20 minutes examination under the bonnet to find that my car was either magic or had a battery secreted somewhere else….. In the boot as it happens, shame…. I’ve always wanted to go to Hogwarts.

Anyway I digress, on with the attrition….. I cover panel, 2 screws, I fastening bar 2 bolts the awkwardness for which no wrench has ever been designed… 1 lost bolt due to said awkwardness, later recovered. 2 ‘flip-open’ covers and I use the word advisedly as I had to wrestle the f****s open to expose 3 bolts which came off with ease (surely some mistake?). oodles of wires…..1 odd little lever type stabilising device and then 1 extra long bolt to hold battery stable in a compartment where to be frank its not really going to go very far!!

I still have a VW Passat and removing the battery is a simple 3 nut job, 4 if you include me…..

So has the complexity of the BMW battery set up made life better for me? Factor in not being able to open boot as the battery was dead thus meaning that removing the cover which requires the lifting of the spare wheel cover is a job for houdini. Factor in being faced with the scariest looking (red!!) thing I’ve ever seen attached to a battery with the exception of a small bomb and factor in that I had to resort to youtube for a tutorial and I think you have the answer. I am also vaguely aware that I haven’t put the damn thing back in yet!