Author Archives: David North

Hozah / Oxford Park and Ride

Actually, it was three and a half years ago, and a different car park. However, the fact that there is finally a fully automated ANPR option for paying for the Redbridge Park and Ride in Oxford can only be a good thing.

So, does it work? Yes. It’s frustrating that there is no indication on the signage of whether you’ll pay the “convenience fee” or not – in this particular car park, you do. However, for the sake of not having to queue up for the machines and thus being able to arrive a couple of minutes later, plus being able to pay with Amex (points/cashback to be had!), I reckon it’s worth it.

Now we just need every other car park in the world to support this, and life will be sweet.

Netgear JGS524PE

If you attempt to do anything described in this post, it is at your own risk. Please don’t electrocute yourself, and be aware you’ll be voiding your warranty.

Noisy new piece of networking kit

This, as many readers will know, is a switch. You stuff cables into it and it connects together the devices on the other end of them (laptops, PCs, printers, WiFi access points, cameras, …) to form a network.

This particular one is destined to take over at St Columba’s, where it’s replacing an older model which I salvaged from a skip in 2012 – so it doesn’t owe us much. The nice thing about this new one is that it supports Power over Ethernet (PoE). This is exactly what it sounds like – the switch sends power down the network cable to the device at the other end, which is handy in our case, because the WiFi access points are both high up on walls/ceilings and nowhere near power sockets.

At the moment, we use PoE injectors, which means that in the cabinet with the existing switch there are extra power bricks, cables, etc – messy, and very demanding on the number of wall sockets. All that should get cleaned up now, but there was a problem…

I fired the new switch up on my desk at home to configure it, and was immediately disappointed by the amount of noise it made.

OK, so much rack-mount IT kit is a lot worse. But since this thing is supplied with rubber feet for desktop use as well as the rack-mount kit, I was rather hoping it would be quieter.

In a perfect world, this wouldn’t matter: all the cabling in the church would terminate in the basement or another room nobody ever goes in, so a few fans wouldn’t be an issue. Meanwhile back in the real world, it’s all under the desk in our minister’s vestry. So even this level of fan noise would present a problem for some users of the room.

I’m not the only person to take issue with this; Google found various suggestions including a YouTube video by a fellow Brit who wired some extra resistors in to reduce the speed of the fan, and hence the noise, in a similar model. I might try that, but for now I’ve indulged in the dubious fix of disconnecting the fan. The switch is rated for operation in temperatures of up to 50 degrees – not usually seen in Britain – and since fewer than half the ports, and less than half of the PoE budget will be in use, I’m going to chance it.

This upgrade also paves the way for some other PoE devices, specifically door lock controllers. I’ll write about those as and when the project goes ahead…

Andrews & Arnold

Waiting for the order to complete…

I’ve written here before about ISPs. For the past couple of years, my internet at home has been from BT, and, well, it Just Works. Getting rid of BT’s less than perfect hardware was the final step to making it all shiny, and apart from having to reboot the modem once every couple of months, it all seems to behave. In those two years, BT, like the rest of the market, have given up on pricing 40/10 FTTC differently from 80/20, so my connection now runs at 80/20 for no extra cost. Monzo tells me I’ve averaged just under £30 per month to BT for the duration, which is pretty good going.

However, with vague plans to move this year, I didn’t want to start another 12 or 18 month deal. So what to do? Well, I’ve decided to stump up the premium and start a 6 month deal with Andrews and Arnold. The main two reasons for paying the extra are:

  • For a one-off £42, plus £1.20/month, they can port my landline number off onto VoIP without breaking the phone line/broadband it’s attached to. As far as I can tell, nobody else on the market has this, and I decided it was worth the cost to be able to keep the landline number a handful of older relatives still insist on calling, but redirect all the calls to my mobile at my cost. I’m looking forward to when my aunt calls and I’m at the pub – “Sounds like you’ve got a lot of people in your flat, David”. “Er, yes”.
  • Mental health. Only a theory at this point, but I’m hoping the generous but not infinite 300GB/month download limit imposed by A&A will put a stop to some of my more extreme Netflix binges and force me to go outside more.

The switch isn’t due for another month (timed to coincide with the end date of my BT deal), so I’ll report back on how it all goes.

Update, 15 January – so far, both BT and A&A have behaved perfectly, sending e-mails/texts about the changes. It looks like the broadband will move on the installation date I picked, and the phone line three days later (which makes sense, because A&A only do phone lines to support their broadband).

Receipts: still waiting for a shiny new future

Let’s begin the first blog post of the new decade with a rant. I do try and be constructive towards the end, though, so bear with me.

I have the dubious honour of being responsible for spending a fair bit of “other people’s money”. Like many people, I file expenses at work – most months are fairly quiet, but sometimes I travel to London or abroad for conferences and client visits. And as regular readers will know, I’m also treasurer for various charities (well, just the one at the moment).

Naturally, in both cases, there has to be a receipt for every penny spent. In the business case, the auditors want to see ’em at year end, and you might also need to show them to HMRC if you want to offset your output VAT against your input VAT. (Oh, and the boss obviously needs them to sign off your expenses, though once you’ve reached the stage of being trusted with a corporate credit card, this is usually a rubber-stamping exercise).

Meanwhile on the charity side, the audit (or independent examination in simpler cases) will also need access to the supporting evidence for all outgoing payments.

In a perfect world, one would acquire receipts and file them away neatly as the transactions rack up. Thus, at the month/quarter/year end when the reckoning comes, you have them all to hand. Sadly this was rather easier in the good old days when 99% of the receipts were physical pieces of paper – you just fished them out of your wallet and stapled them together.

Now, though, e-mailed/electronic receipts are increasingly the norm, and most organisations large and small have moved to scanning even the paper ones and disposing of the originals. This ought to be progress, but it can turn pulling all those receipts together into a painful and long-drawn-out process.

There are two things we need to make this less painful:

  1. Companies should send invoices/receipts by e-mail. Don’t send me an e-mail telling me I have a receipt, and forcing me to go download it from your portal (or even worse, tell me nothing and leave me to go and check). E-mailing me the object itself means that I can set up automatic rules to forward your e-mail to receipts@our-clunky-but-servicable-expenses-system.example.com, or save them into the Dropbox folder where we keep these things. As it is, in far too many cases I end up having to wade through and download things at month end, which is time consuming and tedious.
  2. We desperately need some sort of standard for passing receipt information back via a card transation. In my ideal world, every transaction on the company card would beam all receipt information (vendor, items, VAT etc.) directly onto the entry in the expenses system, meaning all I have to do is a quick manual check before clicking submit. This is clearly within the relams of possibility, and I hope Visa, MasterCard and Amex are thinking very hard about how to make it happen.

Obviously, upgrading every point of sale system in the world ever to submit this sort of data is not a trivial task, but how about starting with payments processed by websites and other online services? No physical POS equipment to worry about, add an API call, sorted. Heck, start by sending just a PDF, forget about making it structured. Have a way for the card to tell compatible tills the e-mail address where it wants the receipt sending.

Here’s hoping we see some movement on this in 2020, and this is one of the last times I spend a very dull hour dredging up the past year of receipts for the walking club from old e-mails etc.

First week with the Samsung Galaxy Watch

Uh-oh, a shopping accident

As regular readers might recall, I bought my first smart watch just over three years back. All other things being equal, I was hoping to get another three years out of it at least, but sadly, it has a flaw. The charging dock has three little retractable pins sticking out of it, and these must engage with contacts on the back of the watch. It has now reached the stage where even with lots of licking to make a better contact, and fiddling with the dock, it doesn’t charge properly one night in three. And that’s just not good enough for something I rely on to get me to my meetings on time at work.

So, an excuse to see what’s been improved in this area since 2016. A spot of browsing suggested that Samsung’s Galaxy Watch is the one to go for if, like me:

  • You don’t care about fitness tracking features (if you do, buy a FitBit)
  • You don’t own an iPhone, or indeed anything made by Apple (if you do, buy their Watch)

A downside that I could spot even before looking at one is that it’s Yet Another Fragmented Ecosystem (it’s not Android, it’s Samsung’s own thing, with Samsung’s Own Payment Thing which is less widely supported than Google Pay…).

Still, I had a play with one and I was impressed. You can rotate the bezel to flip between screens and scroll, which makes it much more usable (for example) when wearing gloves. It’s an idea I never knew I wanted until I tried it.

There are two variants, 42mm and 46mm. 42mm is the same as my old Huawei Watch; the bigger one felt like having a saucer strapped to my arm so I gave it a miss.

You’ll have gathered by this point that the sight of the thing was too much for me, and I ended up buying it. (Incidentally, I found it cheaper on the high street than online!)

So far, I’m well chuffed. The alleged four day battery life is obviously with the screen in auto-off mode; as far as I’m concerned, a watch which I have to wake up before it tells me the time is a deal-breaker, so I have it in always-on mode and it lasts around 36 hours of heavy usage (or so I extrapolate).

Unlike its predecessor, the charging dock is completely wireless, so it shouldn’t fail mechanically in a few years. It does lose a point for having an LED on it, which I don’t like on any device I keep next to my bed.

Samsung Pay works quite well, and is sometimes more convenient than getting out a card/my phone. It works especially well on the London Underground, but only because I’m left handed and thus wear my watch on my right arm.

I also managed to find a watch face app which shows a nice compact view of upcoming calendar events (this was a bit of an unending quest for the old one – several came close, but misbehaved over time). And finally, it has not only a microphone but a speaker, meaning you can actually make and take phone calls on it, and wander around shouting at your wrist like you’re in Star Trek. The quality isn’t great, but it’s passable!

This one, though, is going to have to last nine years to get my average back up…

They don’t make ’em like this any more

Built-in obsolesence? My grandfather would have considered it dishonourable.

I’ve recently inherited my grandmother’s microwave. This baby dates back to the early 1980s (Granddad managed a branch of Currys, y’know), and while it’s in working order, any writing on the front declaring its wattage has long since worn off.

The manual (yes, she’d kept it all those years) claims it’s 1100W, and, impressively, a quick measurement with the digital power meter confirms that it still draws that plus a bit extra for the turntable/lights/control circuit.

Here’s to never letting anything go to waste (one of many things she helped teach us)!

San Francisco takes its toll

In a tedious post-script to my American trip, I finally got an e-mail confirming my account with Bay Area FasTrak was closed.

The Bay Area is home to many of the world’s biggest names in computing, and none of them were hired to build the all-electronic tolling system for the Golden Gate Bridge. You have to sign up for an account (in advance) even if you just want to pay a one-off toll for your rental car*, and then all the online settings to close the account fail to work and you have to phone them. Whereupon they can only suspend the account and cause it to close a month later.

Meanwhile, the website is terrible, and I was told it takes up to 72 hours for your crossings to show up (it’s at least that). 72 hours! Clearly, somebody has to drive out to the bridge and change the tapes by hand, then bring them back for a basement full of interns to type the number plates up.

If the Americans want my advice, have a chat to the people who built the system for our Dartford Crossing. It just works, and makes yours look like the mid-90’s embarassment it clearly is.

*Or you can pay the rental firm a silly number of dollars per day for the privilege of renting an electronic toll tag. But nuts to that – while tedious, this experience saved me about $50 that I spent on steak instead. Canny consumers 1, car rental firms 0.

Re-kindling the Kindle 4

They don’t make ’em like this any more.

Earlier in the year, I went to Brighton for the weekend, and frankly, I wish I hadn’t bothered. It’s not Brighton’s fault; it seems like a nice city and has several good restaurants and at least one excellent bookshop; I’m sure I’ll be back.

However, for various reasons, I was tired, cranky and morose. It was far too hot, the cheapest room at the Metropole lacks a decent amount of natural light and is a silly shape, the trains were tedious enough to make me wish for the concrete embrace of the M25, and mid way through the trip, I managed to put my seven year old Kindle 4 in a back pocket and sit on it.

Needless to say, this was not a good idea, and the screen ended up busted because of it.

Ah well, you say. Seven years was a good innings, now stop complaining and buy yourself a new one. Trouble is, I don’t want a new one – partly because I can’t believe Amazon are still charging the same headline price as in 2012, and partly because I don’t want a flipping touchscreen. I’ve used my parents’ touchscreen ones and I find the page turning gestures unnatural and pointless. I just want the same device I’ve been used to for the better part of a decade, with buttons for turning the pages.

Well, fortunately I managed to bag one on eBay which was allegedly boxed and never used (unwanted gift or something). “New old stock” is the way to go here – I tried a second hand one first, and the battery life was terrible – I’ve no idea what the previous owner did to it, but eventually the WiFi died on me as well.

Get ’em while they still exist. There’s even an option to sync collections from your old, busted, one if you dig deep enough into the menus.


Travel tips

Some of this post was inspired by Andrew Godwin’s travel equipment 2019 article.

Fresh back from my long USA trip, which was followed by two shorter domestic ones, I thought I’d write up a few Rules To Live By when it comes to travel. In addition to the personal stuff, I’ve done an increasing number of short-haul 48-72 hour business trips over to continental Europe in the past year too.

Keep a permanent “travel set” of as much as you can

Obviously, this one depends somewhat on your budget. But let’s start with the basics: things like toothpaste and toothbrushes aren’t going to cost you any more (in the long run) to keep an extra set of. Probably the biggest win with all my trips this year has been having a permanently packed washbag: it lives in my hand-luggage-sized suitcase and saves me having to grab anything from the bathroom except perhaps my electric razor.

The next thing, as per Andrew’s post, is plugs and adapters. I still have a mixture of USB-C and micro-USB charging on my devices, so I carry a mix of cables plus a plug which goes into the wall or into a car “lighter socket” and outputs a couple of USB ports. I also carry a UK power strip, which means I only need the one EU/USA travel plug adapter to ensure I have four UK sockets available (watch the total current on this one – it might not be a good idea to run a hair dryer off such a setup). This is also the antidote to cheaper or un-modernised hotels which don’t have enough sockets and/or have the only one in completely the wrong place in the room.

Since I rarely go far off the grid, I carry just the one small USB battery pack which is pocket size, and suffices to top up my phone in the event of an extra-long or extra-phone-heavy day. Activities like camping tend to be UK-based and involve my car, in the back of which there’s a car battery booster which also has USB ports and a big capacity.

Work are also generous enough to provide three power bricks for my company-issue laptop: one for my desk at the office, one for home and one for travel. Don’t be shy about asking your employer for the same; if they’re smart about their procurement they ought to have spare adapters lying around the place anyway or be happy to have more.

That’s about as far as I’ve got, but I’m pondering keeping some clothes in the suitcase too so I can just grab it and go for the short trips and weekends.

One other tip for the travel set: go to your local Boots (or whatever) and buy toothpaste, contact lens fluid, etc. in small enough sizes to get them through airport security as hand luggage. It’s cheaper to do this on the high street rather than get ripped off at the airport. You can even keep it all packed in a transparent plastic bag to make going through security as quick as possible.

Be religious about not packing too-big fluids in your hand luggage: inevitably, you get away with it about two thirds of the time, then it all gets confiscated right before you need it most (why yes, I did lose my sun cream at Newark, and I am bitter about it not being a problem on at least three flights prior to that one).

VPN

I haven’t got as far as a travel router yet – second best on this is to ensure you have data coverage on your phone, and use it as a hot spot. I do have a cheap and cheerful one on order though, as it would be handy to be able to use a Chromecast etc. with hotel televisions.

One thing I did make extensive use of in the USA was my UK-based VPN (lots of providers are available; I run my own). In addition to securing all the traffic from my phone and laptop when on hotel WiFi, this also ensured I could access the UK versions of sites including the BBC News without adverts or an American slant.

Books

It’s got to be the Kindle (or equivalent e-reader device). Lugging paper books around is a good way to damage them (all books are sacred!) and they’re heavy.

Entertainment

I have a cheap-as-chips Amazon tablet, which is perfect for downloading entire series onto from Prime Video or Netflix (go find that option, it’s surprisingly little-known and really handy). This plugs the gap when insufficient internet prevents streaming live.

Luggage

After hauling a venerable suitcase around the states which is rather heavy in its own right (when empty), I’m considering investing in something modern and carbon-fibre. For all my Europe trips, though, it’s hand-luggage-only all the way.

USA 2019: Day 24

New York, NY / Newark Liberty International Airport, NJ – Thursday 31 October

On my final day in a damp and unispiring NYC, I had a mooch round Central Park, did some shopping in Rockefeller Center, took a few pictures of the UN (which looks even worse in real life than the Space Shuttle did) and finished up with spaghetti and meatballs.

(time passes)

You join me writing up these last few blog posts at Newark Airport. Will Virgin Atlantic double down on the earlier, pleasant, experience of the outbound journey? I’ll be sure to update this post when I’m home.

Update: a somewhat older and creakier aircraft, but otherwise not bad. We even landed early(!)

Postscript: US SIM card

It may have been rather overpriced, but my Lycamobile SIM never missed a beat. Obviously, California is big enough that there are places with no cellphone signal at all, including stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway. However, signal permitting, I had all the data I could eat in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Jersey and New York. Once I’d worked out the number, I could also make and receive calls, despite it being billed as a data-only SIM (handy for making restaurant reservations). In fact, the only thing it wouldn’t do was send outbound SMS. I’ll buy a full fat one next time, since the prices were near identical. I’m kinda hoping that eSIM will have made all of this better next time I have an extended trip over the pond.

Postscript 2: Money

Use Monzo everywhere. The end. I was disappointed that American Express (American!) charge non-sterling transaction fees on UK Amex cards, so I didn’t use mine after the first few days (unless doing bookings via hotels.com or similar where they routinely charge the card in GBP). Monzo is great, and having real-time tracking in pounds and pence is handy for budgeting. The only things to watch out for are that US restaurants take several days to settle card transactions for the amount including the tip (but the Monzo app even explains this now), and that Monzo relies on “online authorization”. So if your retailer’s card machine can’t phone home (e.g. you’re in a national park in the middle of rural California), you need to use another card.

The only thing you can’t (or shouldn’t) use Monzo for is car hire – because they need to “preauthorize” the damage deposit, you really do want to use a credit card, not a debit card, otherwise they’ll literally take the damage deposit out of your current account and not give it back for days after you return the car.