The never-ending hunt for cycling tech

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…

Nextbase dash cam

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:

A rainy Friday night in Oxfordshire

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.

23 and me

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.

Gaming chairs and ironing boards

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.

My desk at home

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:

X-Rocker gaming chair in blue

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.

Monzo has served its purpose

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.

Tech support call

Earlier today, I fielded a tech support call from a relative. They’d been forced to sign up to one of my least favourite things, a “customer portal” which is clearly a better and more secure way of fetching documents than having them e-mailed.

“I signed up but now it won’t accept my e-mail address and password!”

Watching them via TeamViewer, it became apparent that the relative was doing that classic “civilian” thing of Googling for “CompanyName login” rather than remembering or using a bookmark for the portal’s login page.

And what was the top hit on Google for this particular company’s name with “login” after it?

The WordPress login page for the back end of their website. Branded similarly, it looked close enough to the actual portal login page to confuse.

Car insurance

Occasionally, when having a few pints with my team after work, we talk about all the things we’ll build when we’ve made our fortune and are just doing software development for fun. A decent network file system, a good e-mail client (yes, I have read the book about the years spent developing Chandler), holiday and HR tracking that doesn’t totally suck, …

I think it’s time to start dreaming about branching out and reforming other industries, though. Last week, I got an e-mail saying my car insurance was due to renew. It quoted me fifty quid more than last time, which seemed like a suitable slap in the face for another accident-free year.

So I spent twenty minutes of my life typing details into the two big price comparison websites, plus the one big independent insurer who won’t participate in them, and eventually found it cheaper somewhere else. So I purchased it.

I then phoned my existing insurer to cancel (because their website is completely broken and won’t let me log in) and got offered a matching price.

Gaaaaaaaaaaaah.

I told them as politely as I could manage to jog on. Having wasted all that time shopping around, I’m stuffed if I’m going to play their game.

We desperately need an insurer with the balls to offer people their best price in the automated renewal. Yes, I don’t doubt that there is a nice profit to be made from the nine out of ten people who lack the time or energy to argue with an automatic renewal for a slightly higher price, but surely there’s an alternative profit to be pursued from customer loyalty?

I’ll let you know when I raise some venture capital and found the above.

SFP for the Mikrotik

My Mikrotik router continues to Just Work. Unfortunately, it has five ethernet ports and I have six things I want to connect to it. So to get that one extra port, I’ve had an old 24-port switch (which I had lying around) sitting in the cupboard, sucking up power and generating heat for the sake of tying three ports together.

No longer!

SFP module providing a sixth ethernet port

As you can see in the picture, I’ve taken advantage of the Mikrotik’s SFP slot to insert a module which provides one more copper ethernet port. SFP is more normally used to provide fibre interfaces, but you can use it for normal gigabit ethernet too.

I first tried this some years ago, procuring the cheapest copper ethernet SFP module I could find (I think it was made by Cisco). Unfortunately this particular standard isn’t very, and it didn’t work. So I eventually gave in and bought one made by Mikrotik themselves. This plugged straight in and provides 1Gbps to my NAS. So the 24 port switch is finally retired and things are a bit less toasty in the cupboard.

Advanced Installer

If you need to produce a Windows installer for your software, my advice would be to forget the ancient NSIS, bypass the disappointment of WiX (yes, it’s free, but it requires a lot more work for the same results in my opinion), prise open your corporate wallet and spring for Advanced Installer.

The pricing is somewhat robust, especially if you want the editions which will do things like IIS setup, but the reason they can charge that much is that it Just Works. Typically, an installer is something you’ll spend a couple of weeks setting up and integrating with your continuous integration, and then you won’t touch it from one year to the next after that.

This being the case, having a comprehensive UI for modifying it is much much better than faffing about writing “code” or XML which you’ve forgotten all the details for by the time you next touch it. To be clear, though, Advanced Installer does produce plain-text files which you can check in to version control and then feed to its command-line mode to build yourself an MSI or an EXE.

Security needs to be easy for mortals

Narrator: It isn’t.

Two short stories from a long weekend…

The success story

Microsoft are a bit stingy (in my opinion) by not including Bitlocker (the option to encrypt your disks) in home versions of Windows 10. It’s 2020, and this stuff should be on by default for everyone. Privacy matters.

Having said that, I sprung £40 for a nice reader offer in PC Pro, upgraded my new personal laptop to Windows 10 Pro, and found it had encrypted the drive for me – no need to turn it on specially. Nice! This encouraged a spot of optimism which lasted until…

The less successful story

I finally got round to buying a second Yubikey this weekend – with a second one set up (and kept in a very different place to the first), it should be possible to start relying on this and no other method of two factor authentication. A “security key” like this is much nicer than TOTP codes from your phone, not least because you don’t have to scroll through 40 of it (and you can’t be socially engineered into disclosing it over the phone or by e-mail).

I got it working, but it was quite a battle. LastPass is happy to let you register multiple Yubikeys, but it won’t start prompting you to use one on your phone (via NFC) unless you disable other 2FA methods first. Their UI and documentation are not great at explaining this.

For extra “fun” I then loaded up my air-gapped computer for working with my PGP master key (also known as an old Raspberry Pi – old enough not to have WiFi). In gnupg, writing private keys to a “card” such as a Yubikey is a destructive option which removes them from your keyring on disk. Fortunately the tutorial I used in the first place anticipated this, so I had a back-up of my secret key. However, it turns out that re-importing this doesn’t “un-stub” all the keys you wrote to the card. You have to completely wipe it from the keyring and import it again.

Then you run into some misbehaviour with pin/password prompts and have to Google for a config setting to fix that.

Then you discover newer Yubikeys require a longer “admin PIN” than your older one.

Then you discover the default tutorial on Yubico’s website doesn’t anticipate you having sub-keys for all three of encrypt, sign and authenticate, thus your first attempt wrote the wrong keys to the Yubikey.

Finally, you think it’s over, and you discover that GPG doesn’t really cater for the idea of multiple “cards” having the same keys on them, so you need to hack up a script to delete its knowledge of which card serial number has what secret keys on it, and run this either on a schedule or when a USB device is inserted.

I got there in the end, but given what a battle it was, I suspect the other people in the world with a twin-security-key setup like this are a select minority indeed. I really hope someone is making this stuff dead simple so it can be sold into the corporate world – then maybe one day home users will expect and demand it, and it will just work. Should give us all more time to harvest bacon from the passing flying pigs.

I haven’t even got to discovering how many of the small group of sites which support U2F allow you to have multiple devices registered, but no doubt most of them limit you to one…