WhatsApp is a phone app which lets you participate in group chats with your contacts. It also does voice calls and video, and it’s encrypted, which means it should be impossible for WhatsApp or others to read the content of those chats and calls.
Signal is another phone app which does all those things too.
So why am I boring all my friends into swapping WhatsApp for Signal?
Well, the main reason is that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and they’ve recently made changes to make it easier for them to hoover up your contacts list and share it with Facebook. So while the messaging bit itself gives good privacy, having the app on your phone can not only compromise your own privacy, but also that of anyone whose phone number you have stored.
Signal is a pretty good functional equivalent, operated by a non-profit rather than a giant advertising business, so give it a try.
As mentioned here previously, the rise of USB-C is a good thing, and hopefully means an end to needing different proprietary chargers for different laptops.
And indeed, I now have both work and personal laptops which can be juiced over their USB-C ports.
The business of connecting a laptop up on my desk was still a bit clunky, though. This is the sort of USB-C dock I’ve been using to date:
There are two major shortcomings of this and similar ones – the first is that it doesn’t have enough USB type A ports (mouse, keyboard, webca-oh bother, I’ve run out). The second is the silly short piece of cable hard-wired into it. As you can see on the above one, in most real world usage, you can’t avoid the dock hanging off that cable and it starts to separate.
Recently, then, I sprung a hundred (!) of my own British pounds on this thing:
That’s a suitably terrible in-situ photograph, but you can see it on Amazon.
Does it do the business? Well, so far I’m impressed. It solves both my issues with the Anker, providing two USB-C ports for in and out, and both long and short cables to use with them. And it has the extra USB-A port for my webcam. So using this, I can disappear the dock and nearly all the mess down the back of my desk, and connecting a laptop to webcam+power+keyboard+mouse+2 monitors is reduced to 1x USB-C and 1xHDMI to plug in.
It does take a few disconnect/reconnect cycles (on first use with any given laptop) before Windows settles down to recognising the device and correctly powering the USB-A hub in it, but once this is done it all seems to work smoothly from that point onwards.
The indicator LEDs on the network port are perhaps unnecessarily bright, but better too bright than too dim, and as mentioned it can be disappeared behind the desk anyway.
Now all I need is a version with twin HDMI ports (is that even possible with the bandwidth of USB-C?), and I can reduce it all down to a single cable.
Update the Anker also ran hot enough to cook bacon on, and I’m pleased to report the new one does much better at heat dissipation. Warm to the touch when in service, but no more than that.
Like most of the world’s office workers, I’ve been based at home for the majority of 2020. And one thing that’s been bugging me is connectivity to my desk.
I have a pretty decent VDSL internet connection courtesy of A&A, which tops out close to the theoretical max of 80 megabits/sec down and 20 up. However, it comes into the flat in the opposite corner to my desk.
WiFi is perfectly possible, but video calls do sometimes stall and break up.
Ethernet over mains with the powerline adapters is a bit iffy, because unfortunately the socket in the “comms” cupboard is on a different ring to the ones in my spare bedroom/office. (Does a two bedroom flat really need two separate socket circuits? The builders of this one clearly thought so.) It sort-of works, but not at sufficient speed to max out the internet connection.
Obviously, in an ideal world, the flat would have data cabling to every room – I have friends in more modern new builds which have that as standard – but this place is a bit too old for that.
It does have telephone sockets in every room, wired in Cat5, but of course because it’s just being used for telephone, they’re daisy-chained rather than connected in a star topology. So it might be possible to joint loads of them together and get a data connection from one point to another – equally, it might be possible to break all the phone sockets and get deeply frustrated.
I did entertain some brief fantasies of rodding data cables through the hollow ceilings and walls, but there’s realistically zero chance of getting across the flat without cutting some holes that would have to be made good afterwards.
Finally, though, inspiration struck. There is one form of cabling which is connected in a star topology back to the cupboard with the phone line in it, and serves points in every room…
TV cabling! Rather ridiculously, every room in this flat except the bathrooms has a TV aerial socket. Of course, the builders didn’t wire them up correctly – when I moved in, this splitter had the inputs and outputs the wrong way round:
… but I fixed that long ago, even though I only have two TVs connected (including the bedroom one I never watch). I also worked out which feed was to which room and labelled them up, which came in handy.
So, then, could I use them to run ethernet? A bit of rummaging on Amazon, and I’m pleased to report that the answer is yes!
This is the “transmit” end in the cupboard – I’ve disconnected the spare bedroom’s coax cable from the TV splitter and brought it out of the bottom of the junction box, since there wasn’t quite room inside for the EoC transmitter:
These devices cost me £72.99 for the pair from Amazon – not cheap, but not outrageous. I also bought a couple of adapters to change the connectors on the units from BNC to a standard UK satelite presentation, which matches the connectors on the cables in the junction box. For the other end, I bought a cable which takes standard UK TV out of the wall and presents a Sky-type male coax connector.
Once it was all connected up, my laptop reported a 100mbps connection and could talk to the router straight away.
Since these devices don’t claim to do gigabit, 100mbps is fair enough. I can certainly get close to maxing out my internet connection:
Other things to note? Well, these devices are targeted primarily at the CCTV market – they are supposed to make it easier to upgrade old coax based CCTV to modern power-over-ethernet systems. With that in mind, the “transmit” end requires power over ethernet to run – fortunately I had an old PoE injector to hand.
It alledgedly sends power down the coax and out of the other unit. I don’t have any power-over-ethernet devices handy to test that claim with. However, I can confirm that it needs PoE to transmit data at all, so there must be active electronics in both ends doing the encoding – not terribly surprising.
All in all, a bit of a result for the money spent – less than £85 in total, and no irreversible alterations to the flat. Ten minutes and a screwdriver to set up.
It would start getting pricey if you wanted to join more than two points together (you’d need a pair of the devices for each link, and running more would really need a PoE switch at the distribution end), but for this particular job, a wired connection from the router to my office is all I wanted.
Inspired by the work of others on YouTube, I’ve decided to try my hand at a spot of “vlogging”. I’ve even sprung for Movavi’s video editing tools, which are quite easy to use and make a reasonable fist of the job even on an £800 Windows laptop. No Apple gear here – at least not yet!
This particular video is about some of the tools I keep in my car – regular readers will recognise one which has been covered here before:
If you’ve just returned from six months living in a cave, it turns out there’s some sort of pandemic going on out there. The world has ground to a halt and our rain-lashed, Brexit-addled little island is heading back into a lockdown from Thursday.
Remember that invoicing system I wrote for the church? Well, all hiring of the place obviously halted with the first UK lockdown. And no sooner had I written a 16 page risk assessment about re-opening than lockdown 2 was announced!
The good news, though, is that we’ve kept in touch with our regular customers … mostly because I’ve been apologising to them for incorrectly issued bills on a monthly basis.
I thought I’d finally fixed the problem last month by removing all future bookings from the Google Calendar. Unfortunately, despite having deleted all the incorrectly issued invoices from September, I didn’t remove their bookings from the calendar.
And guess what? My code for billing a customer up to today looks for all bookings since the last one on the last invoice we issued! Logical, easy to write, makes sure nothing falls down the gaps.
This time, I think I’ve settled its hash by moving all the “wrong” invoices onto the zero tariff rather than deleting them behind my system’s back. The customers are getting notably cross, so hopefully that’s sorted it for 1 December.
I’ve written here before about my cycle cam. It’s a cheap and cheerful bullet camera which I strap to the top of my helmet. You can find it for sale in many guises, but if it has “Sport DV” written round the lens, then it’s the same one, more or less.
However, having now broken two of them, I know it has a couple of weak points. On my first one, the button for turning it on and off failed. They improved the design of that bit on the second one, but knocking it off the shelf onto the floor whilst attached to the charging cable caused the micro USB socket to snap off from the circuit board.
Even without this fragility, the thing was quite irritating: the battery life is only a couple of hours – not a lot if you’re cycling 90 minutes a day on your commute. You can swap batteries, but there’s no provided means of charging one outside the camera, and every time you do that, the clock gets rest and your videos have the wrong time code on them.
Finally, the footage is literally pretty shaky – no fancy stabilisation in this price bracket.
I’ve Googled long and hard looking for something a bit diferent, and I liked the sound of the Cycliq Fly 12. Expensive, but much more like it on battery life and robustness, plus higher quality video.
Unfortunately they seem to have exhausted stock everywhere in anticipation of bringing out a new model in November. I’ve pre-ordered it (at a cost considerably more than I spent on my first bike!), and will let you know if it’s any good…
In the good old days, I drove a Golf GTI. And like all impetuous young fools in souped-up Golfs, the last thing I felt like doing was recording my own youthful exuberance to be used as evidence against me.
Times change, though, and since the GTI sadly fell to bits, I’ve traded “up” to a small and sensible Ford. And I’ve witnessed enough truly awful driving – some of it involving cyclists – that I’ve started to want a record.
Which brings me to my recently acquired Nextbase 422GW.
Installation was a breeze, though this was less to do with the camera and more to do with the fact that the previous owner of my car had already run the right sort of USB lead to behind the rear view mirror, and attached it to a piggy-back connector on an ignition switched fuse. This saved a lot of faffing about removing trim and trying not to trigger the air bags.
Since it has a light emitting screen on the back, you want to put it behind the rear view mirror on the left, so you can’t be distracted by it while driving.
Once it’s in place, it’s pretty much fire and forget – it will “wrap round” when the SD card is full, and hopefully you won’t need or want the footage after 95% of journeys.
When you do, well, there’s an app for that. Although quite slick, it’s let down badly by its inability to maintain a connection to the camera – it starts off on BlueTooth and then tries to switch to WiFi direct. I found I could only get it vaguely stable by disabling the setting for WiFi direct. Even then, more than a casual poke around last night’s footage is best done by yanking the SD card or the entire camera and connecting directly to a PC/laptop.
Finally, even if it works beautifully, at over 200MB per minute of footage, it takes forever to download.
Snce this model has GPS in it, the app shows you the footage side by side with a map pinpointing your position, and it can also superimpose your speed and position on the video:
If you want to examine the footage on a bigger screen, you can save videos to your phone, and from there, upload to Dropbox or Synology or wherever. Uploading to YouTube is easy:
YouTube has downgraded the quality, but the original is easily good enough to make out the number plates on all surrounding traffic.
The only thing to be aware of is that it does record sound, so you might want to make passengers aware of that. This also means your terrible taste in music will be audible on the footage.
Although I got bored of fighting with the app and didn’t get you a sample, the night vision is pretty decent too.
Update, 25 October – forget about the mobile app – pull the entire camera or the SD card out of the car and use the desktop app. Works much better.
Last month, I spat in a tube, which was then shipped to California.
There are various services out there which will aim to find your long-lost relatives and tell you a bit about your health, but 23andme appears to be the biggest, so I gave it a go.
I wasn’t impressed when their app told me that it “wasn’t available in my region”, but falling back to the website to register my kit worked. It took the best part of a month for results to come through.
The ancestry stuff is straightforward. This being the biggest such service, it would be surprising if it didn’t find some distant relatives of mine – I got a wide range of likely third and fourth cousins scattered across the world. At some point I might transcribe my family tree into it sufficiently to see if we can confirm the connection. Nobody closer was unearthed, though (perhaps that’s a good thing!)
And the health side of things? They’re at pains to point out that nothing they provide is medical advice, and the site very sensibly insists on walking you through a mini tutorial on how to understand the results before revealing some of the more serious medical indicators. The thing I most enjoyed (reminiscent of GCSE biology) was the long list of recessive traits/diseases, i.e. things which you can carry and pass on to your children if your partner is also a carrier. In my case it turned out that I have none of the ones tested for, which is potentially quite reassuring.
It does cost a few quid, but you can halve the price if you don’t go for the health stuff and just stick to ancestry.
I very rarely worked from home during BC (Before Covid), but obviously all that has now changed. I do have quite a nice set-up here, with a big curved desk and a pair of decent Ilyama monitors plus a keyboard and mouse on a USB-C dock.
However, after two eight hour days on the cheap and cheerful Argos office chair, my back was killing me, so it was time to spring for something decent to sit on. When it comes to office chairs, the spectrum seems to jump from sub-£100 rubbish to £300+ for an Aeron or other well known and fancy brand.
Fortunately, the conclusion I and several of my friends came to is that there is a third way: gaming chairs! Something marketed for teenagers to spend all day playing Grand Theft Auto in turns out to be just fine for doing office work in, and costs between £100 and £200. Mine was a Sunday delivery from Argos, and the amount of dust on the box made me suspect it had been at the back of the warehouse for some time.
Bolting it together was a bit of a faff, but perfectly possible single-handed, and here it is:
After the best part of six months working in it every weekday, I can confirm that it Just Works. Took a few days to get used to it and adjust everything, but the level of support for the back and neck is excellent. And the bolsters and fake leather give me a tingle of nostalgia for the seats in my old Golf GTI
Of course, if you want to be really healthy, you could take a tip from an old friend of mine and improvise yourself a standing desk using an ironing board and a stack of books (yes, really). I’ve tried it and it works surprisingly well, but I can only manage an hour or so at a time before wanting to sit down again.
The author gets cranky and identifies a random weekday in August 2020 as the day the music died for Monzo.
Monzo has long been the most promising of the UK challenger banks for me – I first wrote about them here in 2016, and I’ve been a current account customer since they launched it (not just a secondary account, either – my salary gets paid into it).
Lately, though, I’ve been increasingly feeling that Monzo have served their purpose: I can’t name a single feature they’ve added in the last eighteen months which has made life better for me (what on earth are all those developers doing all day?), and their existence has now forced all the “legacy” banks to overhaul their IT and start cloning all the features Monzo had first.
Meanwhile, they chickened out of implementing pay-in-a-cheque-by-photographing it (only a minor annoyance to me, but their reasoning felt disingenous: they said a only tiny fraction of their customers had ever paid in a cheque. No wonder, when you have to post it and wait ages for it to clear!)
Most recently, and what may be the last straw for me: the really useful feature of being able to see the sender’s bank details when someone sends you money has been withdrawn with no explanation (apart from some vague waffle about privacy). This was really handy for all sorts of reasons, and would have been doubly so for business accounts (if they ever got round to lanching those for charities, which I do the money for several of!)
Oh, and there’s still no Samsung Pay support.
Next time Monzo puts a foot wrong, I’m likely to give up and switch back to one of the high street banks. A real shame, but when the challenger stops challenging, it’s just another bank.