Review – Cities:Skylines (PC)

Before we talk about Cities:Skylines, I have to ask… do you remember Sim City? It was great to start with. I enjoyed the early editions, putting hours into the early editions, spending days working on Sim City 3000 and then started to get disheartened with Sim City 4.

As for Sim City (2013)….. I read the reviews and never even bothered.

So I was apprehensive when I bought Cities:Skylines a few years ago based more on the hype and the stills than actually watching any gameplay. You will already have seen the professional reviews, but I wanted to sink a few hours into it first, buying some of the DLC’s and expanding my Cities:Skylines to more of what I hope Colossal Order wanted the game was meant to look like. 500 hours of play later (a mere scratch on the surface of some players) and here we are.

Cities:Skylines is Available on PC and Console

If you are a PC gamer then the game is available via Steam. You can pick up Steam codes from outlets such as Amazon for less than you can on Steam (at the time of writing £23 on Steam and £6 on Amazon) as you can the expansion downloadable content (DLC).

The game was also released on XBox One earlier this year, and more recently on PS4. Some elements of the PC game, such as the Steam Workshop, unfortunately do not apply to the console editions.

Before I Got to Cities : Skylines

Not surprisingly, I came to C:S via other strategy games. What really pushed me towards buying the game was that I was already playing the Cities in Motion games published by Colossal Order and Paradox Interactive.

Cities in Motion (and CiM2) was good, but I desired more. Without getting into the deviancy of additional assets and ‘modding’ I felt like I was always wanting more…. you did not really get the chance to influence the development of the city, no way of creating huge sprawling districts that matched the timetable.

Now I am a big C:S fan with a growing library of subscribed assets from the Steam Workshop; something you can not do on the console versions of the game.

Steam Workshop is a place where you can subscribe and download things to enhance your game. In most cases simply subscribing to the asset or mod will allow Steam to do all the hard work.

In The Beginning…..

Your job, if you can handle it, is to build a city from scratch… quite literally.

You start with a selection of maps, the range of which depends on which of the downloadable content packs you have also purchased – we will come to DLC’s later – but they all have stats on essential features:

  • How much water there is, in the form of rivers, lakes and the sea
  • What natural resource there is; farmland, oil, ore and forests
  • The percentage of the map that you can build on
  • The option to switch to left hand drive traffic.

When you have selected your map, you load into a 2km x 2km square in the center of the map. The base maps that come with the game and the expansions have a highway running though the starting square with a T-junction to help you on your start.

Once you get into the game, you will find Steam Workshop mods that allow you to unlock 9, 25 or 81 squares from the beginning, depending on the actual size of the map.

Build, Build, Build – Spend, Spend Spend

You have to start, as with any new city; building the roads, allocating space along the road to residential, commercial and industrial, and setting up the first cheap and cheerful electric and water supplies.

Cities:Skylines does not offer much money to start with,  so a single wind farm turbine and dumping water waste in the river will just have to do.

Of course, you have to plan that in advance and not put your first hamlet far and away from the water. You also have to remember that not only do you have to buy and build these things, but you also have to pay for the upkeep of it. Spend too much on roads and you get crippled with the maintenance costs.

So already we have to make sure that we build the first few homes and businesses with access to the highway, close to the water and with enough potential to not get broke.

Thankfully you will find the first people moving into your new city relatively quickly. Just make sure that you can keep them happy and support them without pricing them out of the county.

Build the Support

Along with building the residential estates, you also have to build the support infrastructure. Police, Fire, parks, public transport; the list is long.

You also have to consider the lives of your new citizens, they need hospitals when they are sick and cemeteries when they are dead. They need trash collection and to stop getting sick and to be told to recycle more. Of course, recycling is not quite embedded in the game, so someone has created a recycling center on the workshop.

The problem with building the support of course is that someone has to pay for it. Your job is to set the budget, by way of some incremental sliders that take into account, power, water and garbage, transport, education and more. Be careful though, spend too little and your Cities:Skylines citizens will move out. Spend too much though and they will be very happy, but eventually very broke as you will have to raise funds to pay for it.

Where is the income to pay for all this then? As you grow your new city through the target populations, you can move on to managing the finer points in life. The one thing you can not avoid in life or death is taxes and this city is no exception – set the tax levels, raise or lower them in specific districts and encourage the factories to move in by …. overlooking… a few planning regulations.

You can also set policies for your city planning or for you citizens. Such delights on offer include encouraging recycling and bike cycling, conserving power or water; each for a the low-low payment of a few pennies per citizen. You have to careful what you pay out for.

City-wide or District-by-District

As you grow your cities you can allocate them as districts using a brush tool. After renaming them you can individually manage the taxes and policies on the more micro-managed basis and let’s you dedicate resources in a less than blanket fashion.

The one thing that – disappointingly – not managed by the game sans mods is that the districts can not explicitly manage their own services. So if I was to place a hospital or a refuse dump in a district that I have marked out; I can not limit the ambulances or bin lorries to serve that district only.

There are, of course, mods for that.

DLC – The Official Expansions

Over the last 2 years Cities:skylines has seen a number of expansions in the form of paid for DLC as well as free updates.

The latest DownLoadable content will be available in the fall, called Green Cities; but this is what is already available:

  • After Dark – Added day and night cycles, leisure and tourism specialisms for commercial buildings, prisons and taxi services
  • Snowfall – Added winter and weather, heating systems and trams.
  • Natural Disasters – Exactly what it says on the tin, with earthquakes, meteors and tsunamis. also included was the first look at scenario mode.
  • Mass Transit – Monorails, airships and cable cars were the order of the day along with new in-house transport hub options and updates to the ferries and road management options.

All the Cities:Skylines DLC are available on Steam and Amazon

Modding via The Workshop

I have mentioned this a few times, so lets have a quick review of how good the community filled Workshop really is.

Rush Hour

One of the mods that I have used for some time is Rush Hour. This changes every way that the citizens work and play; making the schools work during the daylight hours, the lorries deliver to factories far less at night and changes the day and night cycle to last 24 hours instead of a number of weeks.

That means that you will find your bus stops full of people at 8am, they go to lunch at lunchtime and you could run a separate night bus network if that was your poison…. well I say you could but there will still be a few people prepared to wait all night for the bus to work.

Traffic Manager: President Edition & Network Extensions

These two mods are complete game changers in my opinion. Some of their features have become baked into the games development updates and if Colossal Order wanted to take the vast amount of concepts and make them into a DLC then it would sell.

These two mods completely change the way you can granulate your traffic strategy. You will get traffic, you will get traffic jams and you WILL get evil, hideous sprawling car parks of moving traffic when you play:

These two mods though help you fight it, then make it harder for yourself.

Firstly Network Extensions 2, which for the core part was a range of different types of road layout that you could use. The mod introduced asymmetric roads so you could have 4 lanes in the dominant direction and 2 against the flow. You could turn a dual carriageway into a dual carriageway with a turning lane and more.

Traffic Manager: President Edition takes this idea one step further. It introduced timed traffic lights, the ability to remove traffic lights altogether (now also integrated into the core game) and manage lane control at important places like roundabouts.

Lane control at Roundabouts, you say?

Oh god yes. Citizens in your city will be stupid. They will prefer the slow lane all the way. Using TM:PE you can change this so that you can have a consistent three lane roundabout all the way around and lane 1 can be set to leave the roundabout or be left clear for traffic to join.

Usually… if there are three lanes all the way around the traffic will simply use lane 1 regardless!

Your Personal Social Media Channel

…. and then we come to the complaints. The Citizens always like to complain. Thankfully you can find out about things using Chirper, the little blue bird that will give you deja-vu as it tells you about the water being contaminated or the fact that trees can help the noise pollution.

Hint; noise pollution will probably be better solved by moving the damn noisy wind farm right next the housing estate.

Cities : Skylines is Your City Builder

Now you are already saying “this kid only had 500 hours in, what does he know?” but it is the game I keep going back to.

Sure, it does not have the sophisticated transport network, it does not have school buses or night buses… well, not really.

Sure the idea of having meteors hitting the city as a natural disaster seems…. unnatural.

The citizens fact that the in game “social media feed” talks rubbish and the city has a mass death wave every few years is an issue.

Where there is something that the community finds missing, you can be assured that the workshop has a solution. It might not be YOUR solution, but it is a solution to head int he right direction. Paradox Interactive have listened to the more vocal user-base and have taken on board what is attracting uploads to the workshop; so I can only hope that they continue to support the game for many years to come.

But Cities:Skylines is more than half way there to being the next 10 years of city building like EA and Sim City did for many years before it. Long live Paradox Interactive, even if it only expands now with more paid for DLC.

Have the PIP Goalposts Changed?

With own experience, the outrage on social media and now an article in the press; I wonder if the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and ATOS have changed the goalposts for Personal Independence Payments (PIP).

There seems to be just so many different claims of payments being rejected either in part or in full. Many then successfully appealed, for some of the strangest reasons.

‘Your Not Disabled, You Can Walk On Your Hands’

So the article that has me thinking about this today is from The Independent;

Julius Holgate, from Hackney, north London, fell into debt and resorted to selling his jewellery and other belongings to survive after he received zero points during his Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessment in January.

The DWP said Julius was able to climb stairs using his arms and therefore had “mobility” so he could work. Source

This gentleman is a double-amputee affected by a “clerical error” at the Department for Work and Pensions and through a generic tick-list of tasks based on evidence that is provided by sub-contractor ATOS.

This is an easy Government get out, it was the contractors fault and they are not directly responsible, yadda, yadda.

Has the Criteria Changed?

Back in the days of the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition, there was a Government policy paper on welfare reforms.

Some of the elements of this are still in development. Universal Credit is in trial stages and infancy, while the introduction of caps on the amount of benefit that can be received continues to be adjusted. The section that is relevant to this discussion though is:

PIP helps towards some of the extra costs because of a long term ill-health condition or disability. It’s based on how a person’s condition affects them, not the condition they have. Source

The Disability Living Allowance that it replaces was more aligned to being a benefit meeting the additional costs arising from disability. Notice that there is a very subtle wording difference in that the new benefit only commits to helping with ‘some costs.’

Certainly if you consider yourself unable to cope with work, you don’t (and we don’t) apply for the Employment and Support Allowance. We are lucky that with my wages and what was my wife’s DLA we can make ends meet, albeit with a lot of cost cutting. ESA and fitness to work assessments are apparently just as bad and visual impairment and nystagmous is still

How Can This Be Interpreted?

I think this interpretation is important. If you spend out on adaptations to your home for a disability; it seems that this means that you will no longer need any money to help you. I wonder whether this really basic and flawed theory is what is now pushing eligibility.

For Mr Holgate, this may be the clerical error that led to his initial refusal; he stated he could make it up the stairs using his hands so it was deemed that he needs no further help. It appears that someone has seen sense.

I was thinking how that would affect our family life. We have had the Daily Living component of DLA rejected for a PIP claim, despite the report seemingly talking about a completely different claim at times.

Our report stated that no assistance was needed for preparing a simple meal because we have a mandolin for preparing ingredients and magnification to read instruction on packets. The facts pointed out that even then most use by dates and many instructions are still too small was ignored, similarly the statement that in a large number of cases, to keep a varied and healthy diet, I prepare many meals for my family before I go out to work.

It does not seem to occur to ATOS that buying and continually using a slow cooker, because that can be the easiest way to cook a simple meal, means it has to be replaced more often. Nor do they realise just how specific microwave or oven has to be to cater for someone who s all but blind.

It also does not seem to occur to the DWP that being able to use a timer does not mean that the chicken breast will be cooked through, when it has been in the oven.

More Evidence

This is not something new, you can see in social media the number of claimants that have bizarre refusals;

 

The Government Has Made PIP a Shambles

It has off-costed third party contractors into a role where they have no accountability but make hundreds of millions of pounds of decisions a year. It then appears to have forgotten a core of why the Personal Independence Payment is there, to help disabled people adjust to being an included part of the community.

The vast majority of PIP claimants don’t want to profit from their disability; just don’t want to fall deep in debt trying to cope with it.

Is the National Minimum Wage Working?

I have deliberately left this post about the National Minimum Wage until after the General Election because it is ranting rambling and I did not want anyone to accuse me of cheating their vote.

I don’t often write about politics, especially not the National Minimum Wage. I try not to discuss politics much. Apart from my wife, no-one really know which way I voted in the EU referendum. Even now, some hours after voting, where I put my is between me and the ballot paper.

All around me, people are saying it was the best thing since the white sliced loaf and people everywhere are prospering because of it. When you question it though, you are simply a moron:

I don’t get it. So someone correct me!

National Minimum Wage basics

So the basics are quite simple. Back in the late 1990’s the Government decided that it was going to state a minimum wage for all paid employees across the country.

Over the years there have been numerous increases. Employers are required by law to increase the rate of pay for minimum wage employees, with any employees that spend years hovering just above this wage being increasingly captured into it’s net.

There is no requirement for employees to deserve the pay increase, no need to work hard for it, or show performance.

What I don’t get about the NMW

The minimum wage has never really sat well with me. We are in a country of commercialism where industry largely relies on the supply and demand, and the payment of taxes. So why, all of a sudden, are market rates not working?

If people are getting paid £2 an hour, then the coats of the local economy will reflect that. If a country of people being paid £2 an hour, the wider economy will reflect that.

People paid £2 an hour will not pay £4 for a beer.

If no-one wants to pay £4 for a beer then the price of beer will have to fall; remember though, the company paying £2 an hour has less overheads than one paying £7.40, so there is an off-cost.

People are Scared to Speak Out

Is it that the people who are working the shop floor are worried about losing their jobs? An entire company of staff all complaining they are not paid enough but not prepared to do anything about it? Of course when we were back in the 1970’s, the time that many blue voters want to forget, the shop stewards had a role; fair work for fair pay or the shop floor walked out.

Thatcher broke the unions, in step one of the plan to stop people taking charge of their own future. Now the mere act of daring to take any form of industrial action is viciously attacked, particularly when it’s the junior doctors or train drivers.

Very few workers now have a voice strong enough to take action. So instead they loudly complain that there are massive numbers on zero-hour contracts (via The Guardian) or take their vengeance out on the soothsayers of doom about the NMW.

Zero-hour contracts…. oh yes that will be self-employment.

A Plausible Future – One Wage For All

I was doing some sums. Over the last three years, the National Minimum Wage increased by 3.1%, 7.5% and 4.2%. Last time I checked I would have had to go on strike to get anything more than RPI and it will be a matter of 7 years before I am on National Minimum Wage.

Slowly, more and more people will hit the minimum wage threshold, police officers, fireman, paramedics, nurses, all being paid the same as a shelf-stacker in a supermarket or a commercial building cleaner.

I am not saying that these roles are not important and there are some amazing people that stand out in their workforce and should be on bigger and better things; but what is then to stop the Government of the day nationalising the entire country, paying everyone the same wage for a plethora of jobs? One Universal Credit anyone?

A Probable Future – Discontent

Can you see the skilled public sector professionals taking this? The NHS is continuing to teeter on the edge of a complete relations failure with Junior Doctors as the NHS forces through new contracts and Junior Doctors leave the NHS (via the Daily Mirror) and earlier this year nurses threatened to strike over a tiny 1% pay increase (via Sky News). Think about that for a moment; the NHS consider nurses to not be suitable for a similar pay increase to that enforced by the National Minimum Wage.

I know I was laughed at, when my trade union asked what we should negotiate for in our next pay review. I said we should aim for the same increase as the NMW.

A Plausible Look at Cost

With any increase in costs, a company is going to look at displeasing the shareholders, or displeasing the consumer.

Supply chains are huge. Raw materials, raw material transport, manufacturing, packing and transport to retailers, retailer distribution, the shop front. Six companies having to pay more for staff, six chances for the cost along the chain to increase.

So inevitably for that small increase in your pay, you could be paying far more out for the same product.

…. but there is more….

  • The more you are paid, the closer you get to the tax-free allowance limit, or indeed the more tax you pay
  • If you are claiming carers allowance, at £10 an hour you will now be limited to 11 hours per week to be able to claim it
  • Likewise those on income-based benefits will have to cut their hours to keep qualifying, or potentially lose the cash handouts
  • You will also have to pay more for basic foodstuffs as well as luxury goods.

Why Do We Have NMW?

Is it to make you feel good about having more money for a shorter amount of time?

Or is it really a way for the Government to quietly fill its coffers? One last thing to think about:

  • If you are paid more, the Government will get more back in Income Tax
  • If you no longer qualify for benefits, the Government will keep it in their bank
  • If the cost of goods go up, the Government will get back more in VAT
  • If the cost of Your Living goes up, the Government will simply raise the National Minimum Wage, get more back in income tax, in VAT and get less benefits

IS the National Minimum Wage Working?

Yes…. if you are the Government.

What To Cut First ? – How PIP Leads to Change

I am look at the spreadsheet. Where do I cut £300 a month from without it breaking anyone’s heart.

The Department for Work and Pensions have decided that the wife is no longer entitled to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and have cut her DLA off. Apparently, being mostly blind, partially deaf and nystagmus making her ability to concentrate massively reduced; she is independent enough to not need financial assistance.

That means that I now have to make some choices. It will probably be Virgin Media getting the chop; 5 year old will lose most of her cartoons and won’t understand why, I won’t be able to try and kick start an income streaming gaming for cash anymore and the spiral will begin.

The ATOS Interpretation

So the crux of the issue comes down to a few things, such as:

The claimant claims to have difficulty in working out when food is cooked, however can use a timer on the oven to tell her when it is cooked; therefore she can cook a simple meal.

Of course, the timer on the oven can check whether that chicken fillet is cooked in the middle. It can tell when a plate is dirty and allow a short person to levitate in order to complete food preparation at a worktop.

The claimant can hold attention with the interviewer and maintain eye contact, however can not see more than 1m away in distance.

Yes, but this is the communication section of the assessment, the failure to point out that I had to repeat the question in terms that could be understood and then I spent more than double the time of my wife answering the questions because she did not know how to.

Oh – and ATOS and/or the DWP invented a claim about washing, grooming and toileting. I mean completely invented, the NO Assistance Required was clearly ticked, the face-to-face assessor was clearly told that it was not a problem, yet the DWP stated that claimed issues with washing and bathing appeared to be unfounded.

So What Options?

Well first and foremost we are appealing the decision. Someone has thoughtfully suggested contacting our MP as well – after June 8th of course.

Getting A Job

The obvious one is to sign on and get a job. My wife has not worked for 4 years, since her disabilities stopped her continuing work as a nursery nurse, something she had done for 15 years. So for a mid-30’s to re-train, okay, but:

  • any job would need to be within school hours
  • any job would need to pay for childcare of an under 1 as well as making up the missing money
  • any employer would need to be flexible to the regular (at least weekly) calls from school to investigate a head injury around a 5 year olds ventricular-peritoneal shunt

So that is massively restricting to start:

  • text based work would have to be minimum of 26pt font
  • VDU based work must be suitable for a screen 800×600 resolution
  • customers will have to speak up into the right ear in order to be heard

You can see the massive number of jobs just jumping out at you now. The job center rubbing their hands together at the unemployable list.

Because PIP  has been refused, there is no entitlement to Educational and Support Allowance either.

Working from Home

Again a lot of the options involve me getting involved. For example something like Avon, Betterware, etc involves people writing orders on very small order forms in small writing; try to read spidery handwriting through a powerful magnifier with nystagmus!

Delivering phone books and the like is a great idea, until you factor in that being blind means no driving licence, so lugging boxes of leaflets or catalogs onto the bus with a pushchair and screaming baby?

Home-based data entry is another great idea, except to get any actual money you have to be efficient at doing it. Most data entry companies rely on more than 800×600 screen estate these days and the concentration levels of the nystagmus would be prohibitive – trust me, we have tried it!

Me Earning More

The other obvious one is for me to get another job. Indeed I was told that I should get a second job such as (and I quote directly) “data entry or something, that you can do while you are at your other job doing nothing, it might be less than minimum wage but it will be something”

Good Idea

So what I am going to do is find a second job, that will take me not only further into the higher tax paying bracket, paying back a larger percentage of child benefit that we get for the kids and risk losing my first job by doing it at work.

For those wondering, I earn around £53k a year, for a job where I make one slip and I could be on a manslaughter charge of a few thousand commuters…

So, to earn that £300 I am likely to have to earn around £700 extra a month gross. An extra two or three shifts every month to reach that, and in punishment, my children will have to give up all of their child benefit payments.

We Are Out of Ideas

We apparently just have to sit and wait and hope that an appeal is successful. I would have to put in another 30 or 40 hours a month, us having to get the wife a job that pays less than the childcare for a child, or just paying the mortgage, eating and … not much else.

I know you are reading this, saying ‘but you earn more than £50k, how the hell can you be poor’ but it’s really is that mediocre wage between getting every penny on the dole and getting every penny as a rich Tory. We are entitled to nothing, if we are foreclosed on our mortgage because we start struggling we are entitled to nothing, Education and Support Allowance and Job Seekers Allowance…. nothing.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like: Demand Responsive Buses?

An elderly yellow Optare Solo passes me by, occasionally, off on a meandering trip to the countryside. All around it the other buses are bright and clean, with free wi-fi and some with USB charging for your phone, but not this one elderly bus.

They all work from the same bus depot, but the problem is that the service it operates on probably makes far less money. For those that live in Hampshire and the New Forest, I suspect you have occasionally also seen the ‘Cango’.

The problem is that the Cango does not really work. It is a great idea that did not work with the times and develop to be an essential demand responsive bus service. The question is though, why didn’t it?

A Demand Responsive Bus?

Why Not? Around here there are really only a few different type of bus service:

  • Frequent commercial and profitable buses. Running at least every half hour and customers only having to walk a few minutes to find a bus stop
  • An hourly service which is more community desired. Sometimes run with council support to the fringes of the town
  • The rural service that runs a few times a day, or only a few days a week

Actually, in that rural service section there is one around here that runs once a week, on a Wednesday, giving  just 90 minutes in town to do business and go home.

So Here is an Example

In the New Forest there is a pre-bookable service that operates Monday to Saturday. There are two types of bus stops on the service; Green stops where buses will stop and Yellow stops in villages which must be pre-booked.

Travelling between two green stops is easy – you turn up and go. Travelling from a Green to a Yellow, a Yellow to a Green or between two Yellow stops requires booking.

This is all great, but this is also where the system falls down; bookings are not really that flexible.

  • You have to phone between 7am and 9am on a Weekday to book, although that can be for a booking either in advance or on that day
  • or have to phone at least a day in advance for the first service of the day, because it departs from it’s first stop before 9am
  • and have to phone at least a day in advance to book for a Saturday as the telephone only operates on Weekdays

Not surprisingly many of the former Cango services in Andover and Basingstoke now operate simply on a fixed route.

The Problem: Cango is Not Everywhere

There are so many villages though that are increasingly cut off from public transport. These are hamlets so small that they might not even have a village shop, some will just have a church or a public house. The residents of the village may change, but with the lack of transport it won’t be young families unless they can all drive.

You remember that once a week bus service? Not 10 years ago there was a morning town bound commuter service and an evening return journey as well; people moved knowing they could get the bus to work.

But Is There A Solution?

I think there is.

Private Hire cars are demand responsive like the Cango. Yes they are more immediate, you can usually phone and get a car in minutes, but the principle is the same.

So why can’t we apply the same principle between a service like UberPool (the car sharing edition of Uber) and a demand responsive bus service?

What is UberPool?

So the principle of UberPool is simple. You request an Uber, you allocate it to UberPool and another rider and divert the car to pick them up and head in the same general direction as you. When I did a quick G<search> of UberPool it touted savings of up to 25% when you do this.

Of course you don’t get to pick who you ride with and only 2 people may pool together; so they could be an obnoxious person with a hygiene problem.

This means multiple pick-up and drop-off management on a small scale is possible and indeed Uber already offer it.

Expanding the Pool

So if you expand the concept, adding in some timing points for example, you could run a demand-responsive and real-time bus service.

Welcome to Basingstoke and Newbury. There is a direct bus between the two which runs mostly via the A339 and stops in Kingsclere village. North of the A339; Thatcham, Baughurst and Tadley have a frequent bus service, but the villages to the south don’t.

It would not take much work to work out which of these villages could handle a minibus. In fact from memory, many of the villages have handled 53 seat school coaches for years, on private contracts.

So you could have a service programmed that would depart Kingsclere at a time, maybe meeting a bus coming in from Newbury, and have a pre-determined time arriving in the center of Basingstoke; but with a defined “roaming area” within the area south of the A339. If Uber can allocate people to cars, then surely you can allocate people to a bus?

As Flexible as Uber

Even after the bus sets off, just like Uber diverting cars to passengers the GPS can guide the bus. If someone requests a pick-up that means the service would not get to Basingstoke in time then it would have to be rejected; but over time people would realise that you still need to book a little time ahead. It would not need meticulous pre-planning though.

It should not be too difficult to use destinations to allocate space on a bus with some creative bin-packing, managing the number of spaces available on the service.

Unlike Uber of course, the roam zone as we could call it is defined. Maybe on the way into town there could be pre-set stops you can alight to catch connecting regular buses or – in Basingstoke’s case here – get on or off at the Leisure Park.

Mixing Uber with CityMapper

CityMapper were trialing their technology in Central London recently and this apparently included real-time data collection for a better demand responsive basis.

So you do not need to rely on bus driver recollections to work out whether some services need two minibuses, or whether there are specific times of day that are popular in specific villages, the data is already provided.

In fact, could this even be tied into calling Uber style cars to match the demand when the need arises?

The Problem is Regulation

This is a bus service at heart. Has anyone ever tried to do something new with a Government department? It can be like drawing blood from a stone getting past a panel of civil servants.

Yes there are already demand responsive services like Cango, but demand responsive with unadvertised duplication and limited seating restricted by an app? There is an Uber for that, and no Government department seems to like Uber at the best of times.

Now, if I had the skills and money I would already be trialing it. I am no Uber or Citymapper though, just a crazy idiot with a strange idea… oh and I just gained an extra hour a day (average) on my hands.

As One Door Closes…

So it has been one of those turbulent weekends of sorts.

After 6 years working exclusively at a national level, with about 10 of the 15 years before that at a local one, I no longer have anything to do with hospital radio. Well I say no longer, you never know what may be around the corner with either a hospital, a radio or a combination of the two.

A Quick Summary of my Hospital Radio

You know, it has actually been interesting as well as a little bit fun. I remember going into Radio Haslar in Gosport as a teenager, getting put straight into a slot on a show of 50’s and 60’s music, and having more than a  little crush on the studio manager. She was probably about 10 years older than me she was a country mile out of my league.

Portsmouth

I went to University, came back for a year and juggled shows with working nights at a casino. I went back to university and then returned to Portsmouth Hospital Broadcasting, where over a number of years I went from a weekend slot to Chairman. I left PHB to allow it to move into it’s new premises at a PFI funded hospital under new leadership, a move away from Portsmouth was imminent for me and lots of changes is bad for any charity.

National

It was then that I started working with the HBA on a national level. I had been to one of their autumn conference events, which incorporated their Annual General Meeting some years prior, and soon I found myself their new Minutes Secretary at bimonthly Trustee Board meetings. It was strange really, I was nothing to do with the management of the Association but I was allowed to have a say. Maybe that was their first mistake.

During a communications review, I was asked to lead on preparing an Internal Communications paper. I wrote the paper, talking about how the HBA did not communicate within itself and presented the paper; to be told they wanted a paper about communications with their members… to this day I still argue that members are customers and customers are external.

The Newsletter

As part of the communications review I was asked to take on the new to launch Members’ Electronic Newsletter. I was given a vague remit along the lines of ‘it should be targeted to the management of our member hospital radio stations’ and so it became about the changes to charity law, the fundraising and grants lists and less about the really cool reports from station which appeared in the organisations seasonal magazine.

The Website

With the departure of the long standing webmaster the HBA then wanted a new website. A good idea and followed through, if not a bit haphazardly from me at times, although at the end of it there needed to be a new webmaster.

There wasn’t, I carried on blubbering along and worked on what I could figure out. I desperately needed a local environment to do some of the more detailed items, but alas after hundreds of hours of trying, I simply could not get a copy of the website installed on either a XAMPP stack or a VirtualBox machine.

Of course I was the only person who had this problem. “I have managed it, why can’t you, I will show you one day” was the response I would ever get to asking for help with it.

That meant that some fundamental flaws could not get patched as quick as I would have liked. No-one who should of, particularly cared though.

So What Now?

It’s time for me to take stock. I will probably pop back up somewhere in due time. I miss working locally to get things done for the benefit of others, which I made the mistake of leaving behind.

It probably won’t be back in hospital radio though; the scene has changed, the people have changed and their expectations have certainly changed. Some hospital radio stations reacted on the future, a bit like when Apple first packed an iMac behind a 4 inch screen, others have slowly wasted away, like the BlackBerry OS.

Me, I will take the slow walk through the market and pick and taste what takes my fancy, something I have not done for many years. One day though, I will meet the next Grant, or the next Iain, or even (as I mutter God Forbid under my breath in the nicest possible way) the next Nigel; who kept me there as long as they did and pushed me to firefight until the end. If I ever meet managers like those three, I will be willing to fight.

I will miss it, I already do.

 

Keeping Your E-mail Safe with a Contact Form

When was the last time you were worried about an e-mail attachment? Last weekend? Today? When did you last publish your e-mail address?

This was a question posed to me recently in the wake of the ‘WannaCry’ attack, that recently took out companies large and small and demanded $300 from each and every computer. You can be sure that there are a few BitCoin sellers who have made a profit from the last week or so; BTC was at an all time high against more traditional currencies in most markets.

At this mornings latest, there were over 40BTC residing at the known addresses published as part of the ransomware. Before the latest spike in the price of BitCoin that would be worth some £35,000 to £40,000.

But wait… there’s more. Even if you pay the ransom, along with the ransome are is DoublePulsar, a backdoor which does not get removed (to be confirmed) when you pay up. 

What remains to be seen however, is whether any of the computer users that just bury their heads in the sand have actually lost any data, this ransomware attack threatened total deletion of your documents, archives and videos if the payment was not made in 6 days.

So The Connection to E-mail is?

The payload for the latest massive ransomware attack, like so many others, was distributed by email. In most cases the format is an infected attachment which you might open, an executable file, a Word document with dodgy macros, the possibilities are multiple.

The question is though, how often do you expect them? I know I get a PDF weekly from one of a small group if people with my work schedule, I know I get a monthly invoice from my hosting provider, but very few that I would expect from an unknown sender.

So why would I solicit anything more than a text based message as a first contact?

I certainly do not want to be entertaining someone sending me a huge audio file, a game crack in an .exe file or some dodgy film; so why would I let them fill up my 2GB mailbox or 30GB G-Allowance with it?

A Safe Alternative is Always Easier

One thing that I have always been an advocate of, especially in one of the charities I work for, is using online storage. If you are paying for it, even more so, but thankfully this particular charity was awarded a Google for Nonprofits subscription. If you are working within a non-profit organisation you may be eligible for Google for Nonprofits too.

The charity has a sizable number of accounts and access to Google Drive, a whole 30GB per account to be shared between your mailbox and your file storage.

Why would you not want to keep control of your controlled documents? simple answer is to upload them to Drive and share a view-only link. You can limit who can see, who can edit, whether you have to be logged in with a particular domain; this is not a guide to the GSuite so we won’t digress from there.

If you are more of  a OneDrive convert then they have much the same functionality available. There are also a huge number of alternative providers out there, including delivery and download mechanisms.

Contact Forms

So contact forms can save you from an embarrassing visit to your LocalBitCoin vendor. If you set them up correctly you won’t notice the loss of functionality, but obviously you don’t want to necessarily be setting up huge hosting environments just to have a contact form. a mid-ground decorum is always the right way forward.

What I Have

I set most of mine up to only allow a name, email address and a message. There are one or two exceptions of course, I have a small number of contact forms on a charity website that allow for Word documents and PDF, others that allow images.

The most time I spend doing this is with Drupal and using their Webform functionality.  You can set up text fields and areas which are exactly what the say on the tin, you can set file uploads in both format and size:

You can also specify where the files are stored on your server and who has access to it. 

Think of it this way. I have a theoretical event to take scanned booking forms for. They can be stored on a secured section of the website for either the organisations management, the event team, the event booking person or any combination; to have access. 

Of course, it would be more logical to host the booking form itself as a webform if you have a payment mechanism in place… Let’s not digress. 

It’s Not Just Big Websites

It does not surprise me when I see single page, small business websites where the ‘for more information’ is a plain text email address.

The thing is many of these websites are built with website builders like Wix, which provide contact page templates.

Work as a one-man builder? A couple of photo upload slots would be ideal to prompt customers to include pictures of the work required. The last time I looked for quotes I provided an imgur folder with 5 or 6 pictures.

WannaCry about Round 2?

For those of you that have been worrying, keep worrying. The latest round of hacking is set to continue as the list of 200,000 WannaCry victims will be added to as a temporary fix gets circumvented.

On Friday, unless you have been hibernating in the deepest Amazonian forest all weekend, you will have heard about how the NHS was “targeted” and how an accident “saved the NHS”. No-one really mentioned the Vodafone impact, how Telefonica was hit and many more.

The truth is of course that a massive cyber assault has taken place against anyone who was brave enough to not update their computers, or not wise enough to not trust the Internet as computers across the world became locked down. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a variation of Friday’s attack, itself a variation of what was attacking honeypots at the start of March 2017; is already in the wild. Companies around the world are hurriedly patching computers ready for the start of the working week just a few hours away.

The Basics of How You Got Hacked

If you are on Windows and you did not update your computer in the March 2017 Microsoft update, then you could be vulnerable.

Microsoft patched the vulnerability, known as EternalBlue in its MS17-010 patch, deploying under Microsoft Vista Service Pack 2 and later. The exploit itself was published within a release of alleged NSA tools by the Shadow Brokers and Microsoft has critically reacted in record time. That does not mean that small and large businesses around the world ever took note, or trusted Microsoft updates at the same time though.

The Trojan encrypts a vast array of the files on your computer. For most of you, this will include files such as:

  • Archives
  • Video files (.avi, .mp3 for example)
  • Documents (.doc, .pdf for example)

On The Plus Side….

…. they are not actually after your information, they just don’t want you to get to it either.

The program that infects your computer, known as a worm, encrypts your data so that your computer can not get to it. This means that programs will not run and files will not open, unless you don’t pay the ransom and it decides to delete them. At the same time your computer is broadcasting the very same replicated virus across the Internet, through your e-mail accounts as attachments and hoping for more victims.

The Cost

Did you hear that the price of BitCoin has been sky-rocketing this week?  The ransom for your computer trove of information is apparently $300 of Bitcoin. It is anonymous (largely), difficult to track (largely) and that makes BitCoin the perfect currency.

Whether the ransom being paid has actually resulted in the unlocking of data is yet to be seen. Some variants of this theme in the past have continued to demand more currency, even threatening to wipe computers all together.

You also have to remember the double edge sword of the cost of BitCoin. If the hackers behind this have a large amount of BitCoin at their disposal, bought cheap and sold expensively… say to pay a ransom… double profits all round for the hackers.

They have the added bonus as well of getting the BitCoin back in their virtual wallets, you bought it from them, to pay them after all!

So What Can You Do?

Firstly, and most importantly, update your computer if you have not already. Also update your antivirus, especially if you have a set update routine such as the start of every month – this aggressive virus is still a current and evolving threat.

Information is available if you have Windows XP, Server 2003 or Windows 8 (rather than 8.1) which are technically out of support.

If you have any other build of Windows, then check this post on Reddit which lists the updates you should be looking out for on your Update History.

If you are not infected, backup, BACKUP, BACKUP.

Commonsense Best Practice

  • Right Now you should be questioning every single e-mail that gets to your inbox. Even if you know the sender, are you expecting an attachment from them? If in doubt, ask them if they sent it.
  • DO NOT enable macros for any document you have been sent unless you can absolutely verify it’s source and authenticity.
  • If you realise you are infected isolate the computer, disconnect your Ethernet cable and turn off wireless networking. You may not save all of your data but you might just prevent your computer broadcasting it to someone else. There is no guarantee that a new variant will not broadcast the Trojan far and wide.

If You Are Already Infected

Help is at hand (no, this it not a tout for business) if you know what to do.

Paying The Ransom Might Not Work

Even if you pay the $300, there is nothing to say that files will magically unlock. It is well known for these kind of attacks to simply take your money and do nothing… or even demand more!

Although you can not stop the damage your computer may have, you can reverse some of the damage it has already done.  At the moment, encrypted files can not be decrypted although the likes of Symantec and co are working on it. You should, after clearing your computer of the virus, restore the files from  back-ups.

You do have back-ups, don’t you? One of the simplest forms of doing this is using OneDrive or Dropbox to regularly back-up your Documents, Pictures and Downloads folder.

SpyHunter

There is anecdotal evidence that the SpyHunter software has been effective for removal. It’s free edition can tell you if it believes you are infected, but you need to pay $40 for it to remove anything. I am not linking the software here as the claims are not verified, but you can find the software on any search engine.

D.I.Y.

Head over to ValueWalk where there is an excellent guide to entering Safe Mode on your computer and do what you can to remove the virus.

Alternatively head over to Bleeping Computer.

So Until Tomorrow

Start backing up your computers, no-one know who will be first to open the attachment entitled YourAWinnerOpenNow.doc.pdf.exe and start round two.

…and just remember

This is alleged to have been a direct result from a National Security Agency (NSA) toolkit. The NSA use ‘illegal’ backdoors into software just like hackers. In the UK, the Government wants to force everything to have a backdoor – a backdoor that will be just as open to the right hackers as it is to the Corsham Computer Center.

 

My Compromised Skype *embarrassed face*

You know it can happen to anyone, right? You load up a program you have not used in a while and BAM! you find you are spamming everyone on your contact list. Today I have turned on *embarrassed face* Skype to find a friend sending me the inevitable 

I guessed something had gone wrong earlier this morning. I had an e-mail from the Microsoft Account Team telling me that my account might have been “accessed” and I should change my password. You know as well as I do that there are many good e-mail scams out there and so I resisted clicking the link and logged into my Microsoft account independently.

Microsoft let you access recent recorded activity of your Microsoft account, along with a glossary.

It will ask you to confirmed your account by sending an e-mail or a text , to be fair I found using a text message faster and easier, although – disclaimer time – your mobile phone provider may charge you for it.

Uh-Oh Skype Got Accessed

skypeaccess1

Now for those of the uninitiated let me give you a hint. If you want to hack my accounts, I am a very firm Marmite person when it comes to anything from Apple… I will only use it under protest.

So as you can see, I have a Skype account, which was accessed from Brazil on Sunday. There you can find the detail of what accessed it and where it thinks that it was, unfortunately I am not very experienced in tracing the IP to either a ISP or company.

You will also see I locked down my account before writing this blog. This was because I reacted to the Microsoft e-mail and changed all my passwords before looking at what happened.

A Quick Idea – Check Your Settings!

So what I think my failure might have been was to forget a small setting on my Skype software. Enabled by default – or so it would seem – Skype can load a preview of any web links that are sent. Now this is great if you have a contact list where only your contacts can , err, contact you; but when one gets infected, you can see the inevitable chain reaction.

Skype Settings Preview

So this is what I have turned off. I found it, on my Windows 10 edition of Skype Preview, simply in the first settings page. As you can see I have now turned it off. I am not sure, but I would expect that the Baidu link, which when sent to me even had my username in the URL, was previewed in Skype which somehow gave it access.

Now I Don’t Use Skype

I use to use Skype back in the day when it was popular, I even had one of those funky Skype phones that you plugged into your computer using USB. I don’t use it anymore though, I can easily get a cheap “burn” SIM for a mobile phone and I have a couple of old Blackberry handsets in the house.

If you must know – an old Torch 9800 (touch screen, with a full keyboard hidden under a slider) and the Z10 (all touch screen) 

So, I really don’t need Skype anymore; I tried to remove it.

Problem 1: Skype is Connected to My Windows Account

Can't Unlink Skype

Problem 2: Cancel Skype and You (Apparently) Cancel Your Whole Microsoft Account

Let's Cancel Everything

Problem 3: I have Windows and Office 365 connected to that Microsoft Account

That is the problem with the joined up digital infrastructure though, you need to be able to add and remove subscriptions, like my old XBox Live – unsubscribed for a while – and Office 365.

…. and while I remember

Make sure, for the Meaning of Life, that you have kept your account recovery up to day! With my own problems, I heard from a friend yesterday (he is probably now thinking “That pillock is no friend of mine”) that he was spending his evening on Microsoft Live Chat because he could not get into his account… and his recovery e-mail was now defunct.

I feel; been there on other accounts before and had an ex-girlfriends name as the recover password.

Update: The great customer service at Microsoft meant that in order to recover access to the Microsoft account; my friend had to buy the expired domain and re-create the recovery e-mail. Additional cost for what should be an easy to solve problem.

So In Conclusion

  • Check your Microsoft / Apple / Android activity
  • Change Your Passwords regularly (I do that at least once a year anyway)
  • Don’t click on Skype links from me
  • Turn off Web Preview (for every damn thing)

*embarassed face*

Publishing From FitBit to Facebook

When I invested in my FitBit Blaze four months ago I wanted to do one thing; shame my body into shape. I wanted automation to stop me intervening in the process of telling all my friends how bad I was at eating, boozing and not exercising and it looked very promising. The problem is that FitBit was not as social as it is cracked up to be, and that was a dilemma.

What I am going to do here is show exactly what FitBit can, and can not, embarrass you with. I will also tell you how to get the rest in place.

Social Media and the FitBit Dashboard

So I use the FitBit dashboard mostly on my Samsung Note4 smartphone but you can use it on any Android device as well as a Trusted Windows App – I am not sure if it is ‘Trusted’ in the same way as Apple screen apps in their AppStore; but hey, it’s all marketing gimmicks.

Don’t Rely on Your Apps

The first really confusing issue that you can not manage your social media accounts through either the Android or the Windows Apps. What you have to do is log in to your FitBit account though the good old trusty web browser and in my case Google Chrome.

So I am going to skip through all the process of logging in and showing you how to do that… if you have a FitBit and you are already using an App of some kind then I am not going to teach you how to suck (healthy, good for you and great sunny-side up) eggs. The URL that you need to edit your sharing settings is

https://www.fitbit.com/user/profile/share

and you will come to a screen like this, albeit without my Twitter account information…. of course:

Sharing on the FitBit Dashboard

At this point you can go ahead and link your FitBit account to your Twitter and hey presto, select a daily or weekly tweet and it will be posted automatically to your Twitter account using the script that it shows you. Here is one of mine from recently:

Thankfully I don’t think that anyone really reads my Twitter account as I know some of my followers are FitBit users themselves, but they have never thought to become friends on my FitBit. It is kind of embarrassing when you still struggle to reach the dizzy heights of 10,000 steps on a daily basis!

Don’t Rely on FitBit at all!

Have you noticed what is missing though? Facebook! Apparently you used to be able to connect the two accounts together and automate the embarrassment process between your exercise ad your friends. I have as few interested friends on Facebook as I have on Twitter, so lets work out how to annoy them all.

Most importantly you are going to need another third-party software to help you, called IFTTT.

IF This Then That

IF This Then That (IFTTT) is a free web service that for the very basic can help you automated a few things, but for the more complex can help you automated your whole life and make things not only more productive, but give you more time about more things to be more productive about… still with me?

Good!

So, if you want to delve into the world of productivity and automation with IFTTT then have a good rummage as there are over 200 different channels (aka connectable apps and devices) that may interest you from your e-mail account and social media, to MailChimp, BMW and GE Appliances…. yes all that home automation you hear about taking over the world is almost all on IFTTT!

A Simple IFTTT Recipe

So what we want to do is post some FitBit information daily to our Facebook account. Well I do, so that is what I am going to show you to do. Just like with FitBit Dashboard, you need a new account for IFTTT, it does not need to be a matching e-mail address or the same password as you will be connecting your various accounts very shortly.

First Screen of a New IFTTT Account

If you are brand new to IFTTT then this is what you see. It looks really easy and you might want to explore the random first recipe that it generates for you (mine was IF the weather forecast says it will rain tomorrow THEN e-mail me)

The place where we want to start though is at https://ifttt.com/channels because we already know that we want to create a recipe with our FitBit and our Facebook accounts.

So to demonstrate how to connect your accounts, simply type FitBit into the search bar on the channels page and click on the FitBit icon when it appears and it will either already see your FitBit profile on your Windows App, or prompt you to connect with a bit Connect Button:

IFTTT & FitBit Connect

If you have not previously logged onto FitBit on your computer and allowed it to remain logged on, nor you use the FitBit App; then you will need to log on to your FitBit account and authorise IFTTT to work.

Likewise you need to connect your Facebook account to IFTTT, authorising it to post to your wall so that it can publish what you want everyone to see…. or not.