The reason the High Street died

In the UK the major shopping district is colloquially called ‘the high street’. Other countries may call it the CBD (central business district – but more generally this is the office and skyscraper part of a city), downtown, or simply ‘the shops’. My local town here in the UK has one named The High Street and this isn’t unusual for England as it is the most common street name. With the advent of online shopping in the early 2000’s and the rise of Amazon there was much consternation at the plight of bricks-and-mortar shops on the high street. TV programmes that aimed to remedy the flight away (notably ones featuring Mary Portas – ‘queen of shops!’) were common, there were government grants and industry worked with academia to study the issues – I know, because in my professional life I took part in one such study.

But the shoppers continued to flock to the online retailers and everyone was puzzled. Discounts, robo-shoppers (visit store to peruse, shop online cheaper), price matching and all manner of techniques were put forward. Card networks offered to analyse patterns and events were held in target towns. Yet, from my personal and anecdotal experience I’d have to point at one major reason why people are turning away from shopping in person especially at the larger out-of-town warehouses.

Rudeness.

I’ve just come back from picking up some items from one of the large chain vendors here in the UK, and my experience was stomach-turning. I struggled to the checkout with a large TV and no-one offered to help. We had a gaming console plus assorted other items and our purchases were a sizeable part of £1000 – so not insignificant. At the checkout the assistant immediately started up-selling product insurance and when I declined insisted on asking why? He also wanted to know my street address and email, and when I also refused those insisted that the purchase would not go through without them. Actually, the store already had them as I have an account in their online shopping system and had reserved the console earlier. But what shook me was the general abusive approach taken to the sale; countering my every decline, challenging my refusal to take insurance, insisting on more personal detail and so on. As we struggled to lift the items from the counter he stepped back and turned away – not even offering to hold them while I took some to the car. Perhaps it was just me, or a latent racism on their behalf – but this retailer as a whole has a ‘bad’ rating on Trustpilot with five-figure negative ratings. I felt unwanted and used.

Recently another large out-of-town shopping warehouse has gone bankrupt and when I read forums on Toys-R-Us decline many people mentioned the shambolic store layouts and disinterested assistants. If shopping is all about experience, as many retail consultants believe, then it is important that shoppers feel great about what happens to them, not abused. I’ve spent long enough in the cut and thrust world of business and even time in retail as a IT consultant, so I understand the pressures and analytics which drive certain behaviours. Scanning time for checkout operators, forced meet-and-greet, up-sell and cross-sell all sound good on powerpoint but in reality shoppers are looking to feel good and have an enjoyable experience, not just acquire goods out of necessity.

I’d have to identify rudeness as a major reason why the in-store experience puts off many shoppers in England, especially in the larger chain stores. Contrast this to a recent bookstore – surely an endangered breed if ever there was! – and the utterly other experience of an assistant looking people in the eye, asking how they were and did they enjoy that type of genre, wishing them well with their purchases and offering to go the extra mile and lookup stock if needed. You felt warm and appreciated and even though I seldom purchase physical books now, I have repeatedly gone to that store simply to browse. I felt good, I felt human, I felt wanted.

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Adventures in waterproofing 3D prints

I’ve started printing 3D vases which look really nice in metal filaments.

3D prints are prepared by making the shape in software and then ‘slicing’ it into layers which can be understood by the printer. Usually this means that several layers are placed on the bottom, the side walls are built up by multiple passes of the print head, the top is a repeat of the bottom and the middle bits which are not seen are filled by ‘infill’ in special patterns. All this makes for strong objects.

There is a special mode of slicing which ensures that the print head never lifts off the work being printed, and never ‘retracts’ the filament nor moves backwards. This is sometimes called ‘vase’ mode and makes the print into a long spiral all the way to the top. There are few objects for which this works properly since it makes the sides only one layer thick and there is no infill. On vases or drinking glasses, cups this is ideal however and with the proper sized nozzle and good filament the results are great.

One issue is that usually these are not waterproof. Filament and deposition manufacturing by their nature leave microscopic holes in the print and while tuning the slicing parameters and the printer can have some effect, generally it is just luck when things hold water.  I’ve decided to look into lining the inside of objects to see if their water-tightness can be improved and so far I’ve read or seen of a few ideas:

  1. A wax or waxy substance rubbed into the surface then allowed to dry,
  2. liquid latex, of the type used for face painting,
  3. PVA wood glues of different types,
  4. general purpose epoxy resin, sometimes used in the fibreglass manufacturing industries. One I have found is called ‘Epolam,
  5. acrylic conformal coating used in the electronic industry for coating PCBs,
  6. … or general spray paint coatings.

Of these, the conformal coating sounds good but is very expensive. I’m going to try some of the other ones first to see if they are effective and attractive, starting with the cheapest which seems to be the wood glue and liquid latex. I wouldn’t want to mar the appearance of a beautiful vase by having a thick visible coating, but I also don’t want that vase to leak.

Redemption

The roots of the word ‘mortgage’ mean something which is paid until complete. Some macabre definitions float around the internet including those which take the old French or Latin and read them in English, which is always a dodgy way to interpret languages. I saw ‘death-pledge’ being touted as one due to ‘mort’=death and ‘gage’=pledge, which sounds too simplistic.

Different countries also have other expectations about how to finance buying a house – I was surprised to learn in Turkey that colleagues of mine there would take a loan from the property developer, and repay in a matter of years rather than decades. I’ve always lived in countries where the loans are taken through financial organisations and paid over decades with low interest rates that compound because of the extreme length of time involved.

The process of removing this debt is called ‘redemption’ and is removal of the pledge-until-payment and release of the deeds which show title in ownership. While that is nice, it feels a little medieval and reminds me of the long history of land title and ownership. Real land reform is quite rare and has mixed outcomes, not always helping either the rural poor nor the lower classes. I do admire the land reforms in Scotland which include returning tracts of land to common or community ownership.

It is nice as I redeem my own house to learn of the different ways that governments and rulers – some quite surprising – have redistributed land and tried to encourage greater wealth and ownership.

Two thirds

Pie

I left work almost to the very day when I had lived equal time on two different continents. The first half was spent growing up in different parts of Australia, while the second half has been spent getting married, raising a family and working in England. Is this my half-time, or do I have another third still to come?

I can look back at my early life with nostalgia, regrets, fond memories and laughter. The second seems to have been more of a grind, due perhaps to the efforts of raising a family and “doing time in the big city”. I didn’t enjoy work – not in the sense that I hated every minute of it and I had great colleagues and fun times, but the sense of purposefulness was missing. I really couldn’t see the point of it and the repetitiveness became a grind.

It was remarkable to realise that my life changed radically at exactly the same amount of time from when the first had occurred, and it was a moment of serendipity for me. Personally I don’t have great ambitions nor aims for what happens next; perhaps it will be the the third season of my life, the autumn before the winter or perhaps it will be a new era of discovery.

Whatever comes, it will examine it with interest.

Pruning grapes

I have a grape arbour over my back patio. My father loved grapes and grew them for many years in Australia and I’ve inherited his love of the grapevine, if not yet his skill in keeping them pruned.

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Grapes have the advantage of growing very well in early spring and covering an area in shade leaves, while dropping during the winter and allowing light to come through. This is good for our north-facing house as we don’t get a lot of light during the winter months. However, it brings with it a couple of issues: the first is the sweeping necessary to clear away the fallen leaves which for a few weeks each year adds a little burden. The second is more tedious and involves dropping and dead grapes littering the patio and becoming squashed underfoot. The yellow jacket wasps which at this time of the year are missing the hatched grubs feeding them (look it up!) and searching for sweet material, infest the bunches and make a real nuisance as they buzz around drunkenly.

We can’t yet use the grapes as they are largely sour. This is because I haven’t mastered the art of pruning grapes to bring out the best flavour. Hopefully, with the vine trained over the large pergola which forms the arbour, I will now have the space and time to create some sweeter grapes!

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I cleared away approximately three bags full of  solid grapes – last week when I took the other half of the arbour to the recycling centre I think the staff wanted to try them! I advised against it, but have no idea what happened when I left…

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The tidy-up has produced a large mound of grape trimmings which awaits a trip to the green waste bin at the local recycling centre, and then on to actually pruning using the rod and spur (also called the cordon) system. Hopefully this will produce better tasting grapes next year, along with a covering over our outdoor patio during the summer months.

Parametric modelling

I’ve been using a number of programs to design 3D parts. While there are a number of very good commercial offerings these are very costly and my budget does not stretch that far. Autodesk is a particular favourite as they seem to provide quite a number of tools in this space including photogrammetry, mesh modelling and parametric CAD. Their TinkerCAD is pretty good. I’d love to use their stable of tools but as a maker and hobbyist they remain largely out of reach.

Instead I’ve been trying the free and opensource tools and they very in ability and usefulness. While Blender is perfect in the mesh modelling space and my son is pretty good with it, like a lot of comprehensive tools you need to devote the time to make it become familiar. For a while I’ve use FreeCAD and some of it is pretty amazing, but as there is many ‘ways’ to accomplish the same thing it can get confusing at times. I’ve made a few models using it.

Support

Recently I’ve started using OpenSCAD and are really enjoying it. OpenSCAD is a little unusual as it is a programming language of sorts and you do not operate in a WYSIWYG mode – instead creating the model in your mind and then translating this into distances and objects. A great tutorial on OpenSCAD is over here. Its power comes from using geometry in a Cartesian reference space to combine, intersect, and subtract objects to create your model. I find it very powerful and easy to use as I can easily visualise 3D objects.

I’m building an enclosure for my 3D printer and will keep a record here, while making the objects available on Thingiverse for others to use.

3D prints everywhere…

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I’ve started printing lots of things with my 3D printer, maybe too many things! There were the normal table top figurines, busts of film characters, and printer test prints but then the bug really caught hold and I am in the midst of building a veritable mini-factory of sorts. Here’s my project list:

Projects

During the build of the 3D scanner, and while waiting for the parts to arrive from China, the US, and Europe I started another and began to get confused which project was which. Time to focus, methinks. The scanner is almost finished in its first incarnation and I’ll be able to use it for my future activities.

The end point of all this is to set up a mini-process line where I can produce small trinkets and sell them in my church’s Christmas fair in late November. We’re fund raising for a new building which involves mortgages, loans and long term commitment to a large community building, hence the fund raising.

How do you rotate a PDF?

Searching the internet for information on how to manually rotate a PDF finds lots of frustration. The reason I have done is this that my scanner produces pages rotated 90 degrees, and the times I have searched the internet over previous decade the answers have depressed me:

  1. Buy Adobe Acrobat Pro,
  2. Send your document off to an online service – dodgy if you value the information on that PDF,
  3. Download a program to do it, again suspect as you cannot examine the source code or understand the provenance of some programs,
  4. Buy a Mac, as the Preview preview on a Mac can do permanent rotation, and save the rotated document.

A lot of those ideas are bad for different reasons. Acrobat Pro is expensive for simply rotating a PDF; online services, even those that promise not to peek at your document, do have control of it; running strange programs isn’t recommended at all; and the world of Macs are wonderful and expensive.

There is a simpler way.

Some of the raw material in a PDF is in a format which describes the document in plain text, while some is in a binary format. The binary bits are best left alone, but the plain text parts are easy to edit in a good editor. I used Notepad++ but there are others such as Sublime Text or Atom. I realise that this is “download a program from the internet…” dressed up in different words, but these well-known editors main job is to faithfully edit things and save them without collateral damage. I also use them frequently for playing with programs that I write, so I trust them.

Within the first few lines of a PDF you will likely find a line like this:

/Rotate 0

Save a copy of the document first, then edit this line to some other multiple of 90 such as ‘180’ or ‘270’ then save the document. Multiple pages will have their own rotate declarative, so find those as well and change. On viewing the document now the page(s) will be rotated clockwise that amount of degrees. Job done!

Day Zero

Today is an amazing milestone in my life. Today, I am worth nothing. Not worthless – just nothing. If I add up all the liquid assets in my accounts they offset completely the debts I owe.

That is a good thing.

Debt is easily available in the UK and leveraging that availability leads to indebtedness. As an Indian colleague said to me as he moved back to India years ago: “most people here in England are on the tick” – which means that most people live on credit cards and other domestic loans for a long portion of their lives.

Once understood, it can be controlled and I found a program called You Need A Budget particularly helpful, a bit like a row of cookie jars into which you put your allowance each week and when a jar is empty then you stop spending. Their four basic principles are awesome. Using it for 5 years gave me a good appreciation of where my income was being spent, and that enabled me to accurately estimate how much I’d need when I retired.

Of course I am worth more than nothing – liquidate all the assets I have (investments, car, house, family …) then they would add to more than nothing but at least in liquid terms I am breaking even right now. That’s a great sense of relief, and allowed me to retire early. I’ve joined the FIRE movement big-time. Having started paying down all personal loans in my 40’s and moving to the YNAB budgeting system has given me the data needed to accomplish this and see life beyond the payslip.