Category Archives: Life

I hope USB-C catches on

A small connector for a lot of power and data

New laptop, new docking station. But not the proprietary plastic tray of olden times; we’ve been trying out these new Anker USB-C mini-docks at work. I’m really impressed by mine: one cable to plug in when I get to my desk, and I have power and networking, an external monitor and mouse, and an SD card reader. Oh, and a USB port left over which charges my phone even when the laptop isn’t on the dock.

It does get properly toasty when the full set of ports are in use, but that’s not entirely a surprise.

The other nice thing about these are that they can be used with recent Macbooks as well as PC laptops, and if the interface lasts, they’ll be re-usable for the next generation of laptops too rather than tied to one model.

Saturday night car maintenance

Spot the difference

After my success last year with the side repeater, I was defeated by the door lock module (the garage I gave up and paid a large amount to told me I’d done everything right except buying a too-cheap replacement part which was a dud). However, I pulled back ahead to 2-1 against the car tonight with a swap of the third brake light. All ready to not be an advisory when it goes for MOT on Monday.

CrossCountry trains: a badly communicated shambles

So I’m catching the train south from Macclesfield to Oxford – something I’ve done plenty of times over the past eleven years. I don’t usually go for the last direct train of the day, but on this occasion, I did. 1949 out of Macclesfield, 2215 into Oxford. It’s direct, which is important when you’re lugging a large suitcase and some Christmas presents.

Things did not start well at Macclesfield, with the train arriving fully 45 minutes late and listed as going to Birmingham New Street. Unfortunately I have an 8AM Tesco delivery arriving at North HQ tomorrow, so giving up and trying again in the morning wasn’t something I wanted to do. So I dig into the National Rail app and discover I can still make it to Oxford by walking from Birmingham New Street to Moor Street, taking a local stopping train to Banbury, waiting for half an hour, and taking a local stopping train to Oxford – arriving at 0015. Properly tedious, but I do need to get home tonight, so I dig out a mince pie and prepare for the worst.

Sure enough, we get to Birmingham, the train terminates and they tell us all to get off. But on getting off, the signs on the platform make it look like the front half of our train is continuing to Reading (like it should have done all along). So I get on, sit in an empty first class carriage, and watch the signs on the platform switch from “expected now” to “delayed” and then the train moves off…

Panic. Am I about to end up in a depot somewhere in the Midlands, trapped on a train all night?

Moments later, the driver confirms we’re off to Reading as expected, and will make Oxford a mere 45 minutes behind schedule (time to re-arrange my taxi for the second time, sigh).

Why they couldn’t have communicated the train’s ultimate destination properly from the start, I have no idea. I was half minded to wait on the platform, in which case I could still be there, fuming that the train I wanted had gone without me because it wasn’t labelled properly.

Nought out of ten for communication, seven out of ten for still managing to get the train through the same night, and one compensation request coming up…

Update: I filed my compensation request from the train, using its own WiFi. Southern (who I bought the tickets via) do have a nice online process including uploading photos of the tickets, but why do I have to take any action? Given we have a national database of what trains were or were not on time, the statutory compensation ought to be refunded via the same means I bought the tickets through, automatically and without me having to do anything. I feel a letter to my MP coming on.

Giving things up for January

2018 should be an interesting year – I turn 30 (just two more years until a really significant round number). To kick it off, I’m giving up a few things for January…


Nothing surprising or controversial about this. I’ve done “dry January” for a few years now, and I find it helps me lose a bit of weight, save a few quid, and best of all, it reduces my alcohol consumption over the rest of the year by lowering my tolerance through the month off.


From 13 January in the UK (and the rest of the EU), the law will prevent merchants from charging extra for payment by card. I nearly exclusively use debit or credit cards these days anyway (Monzo is great), so now seems like a good time to try and run on them 100% and see how it goes. I find it much easier to budget if I have a full list of what I spent where, and obviously a card and a decent app allow that to be assembled automatically rather than from receipts. As recently as six months ago, there would have been a few blockers to my attempting this – but now that the buses and all the parking meters in Oxford take cards, it should be straightforward.


While digging through my Amazon history to pull some receipts for an expenses claim at work, I was mildly horrified to see how much I’d spent personally with Amazon in 2017. I won’t go into details, but taking a month off supporting one of the giants of capitalism should be good for my soul (and wallet).

I’ll report back in February on how all this went…

Monzo leading the way, but what about business and charity banking?

A good blog post today from Adrian Kennard on Monzo. I, too, have recently got on to the full Monzo current account after having the pre-loaded debit card for a year or so. And it’s impressive. Being a proper current account now, it has a sort code (albeit one which various companies are taking their time to recognise as “real”) and an account number, and it supports BACS and faster payments in and out. These provide a good example of the hidden corners which Monzo doesn’t shy away from implementing, e.g. giving access to the sender’s sort code and account number so you can send money back to anyone who has sent it to you.

So that’s my personal banking all sorted and properly 21st century, though I’ll be waiting for Monzo to implement the current account switching service before I move fully  over. Which just leaves some other pots of money I manage: St Columba’s URC and the Oxon 20s and 30s Walkers. These are banked at CAF Bank and Unity Trust Bank.

There’s nothing really wrong with either of these – both offer bank accounts to charities, the main difference to personal current accounts being the requirement (by law) for multiple signatories to sign each cheque* or approve each outgoing BACS payment. But seeing Monzo pushing the frontiers reminds me of what both CAF and Unity are missing:

  • No apps or mobile websites. Both have rather clunky online banking websites which have to be used on a desktop/laptop. Being able to initiate/approve payments on my phone whilst waiting for a bus would make my life as a volunteer treasurer a lot easier and mean people and suppliers waiting shorter times for their expenses payments.
  • No real-time movement. At CAF, outgoing payments after 4pm don’t leave until 9am the next business day, and don’t always appear instantly at the other end. Incoming BACS payments do seem to appear instantly during business hours, but I’m not sure about the rest of the time.
  • Can’t see into the hidden corners. There’s no visibility of the sender’s account details on incoming payments, which is a pity, as 90% of the people I pay expenses to in both cases have paid us in the past, and it would be neat to be able to send money back to them without having to ask for their account details over an insecure channel such as e-mail or SMS (or a piece of paper).

There are some people (e.g. Starling) who seem to be taking steps in a Monzo-like direction of modernity for business banking, but nobody seems to be doing it for charities. Given that CAF are now charging for their accounts (£5/month), I’d be up for paying £25/month to fund the development of more modern IT and features. But given how little of what I suggested at one of their focus groups a few years back has been implemented, I’m not holding my breath on that.

For the walking club, I could conceivably move to a challenger bank with no way to pay in cash or cheques, but St Columba’s will need some way of paying in the physical contents of the collection plate for a while yet…

*Naturally, there is no longer any such thing as an outgoing cheque for any organisation whose money I run, but we do get the odd incoming cheque still.

Maple Manor Parking @ Gatwick

Since Google gets stuck in an infinite loop asking me to log in to leave a review, I’ll leave a few notes here instead.

I booked 7 days’ parking and a hotel room before my early flight through Holiday Extras, and it all went reasonably well – pick up of the car was fine, and it was waiting for me on my return. It had a few extra miles on it (about 25, from memory) – not excessive as they do make it clear they park the cars off-site. However, the battery was flat as a pancake and I had to call out a tow truck to jump start me.

The car has a central locking fault which I have yet to get fixed, so it’s quite possibly my own fault that it drained its battery inside of a week. I find it hard to believe that it went flat on the run back to the drop-off point, so the parking staff clearly gave it a jump. They could at least have taken 10 seconds to text me a warning so I knew to call out the tow truck when I landed, thus avoiding most of a 50 minute wait after midnight. Even better, a missed business opportunity – they could have offered to stay with my car with a battery booster on hand, e.g. for £20 (or even £40), and I would happily have taken them up on it. Four out of five there, chaps.

My radio and seat had been fiddled with, but this didn’t bother me nearly as much as many other reviewers – and they had used a floor cover to avoid getting mud in the car.

Outside broadcast

I’ve been away with a few friends this weekend to Ledbury, which, in case you were wondering, is near Hereford. In other words, it’s the heart of cider country, and very close to the source of Stowford Press, my favourite on a night out (or in). So no prizes for guessing what we all did on Saturday morning.

This weekend was also my first chance to try out a recently acquired gadget, my IMuto 30000mAh battery bank. It’s not light, but on a weekend away where I was driving anyway, taking it along was no great hardship. It takes forever to juice it up from 0 to full (about 3 days using the USB sockets in my flat), but once juiced, it’s capable of charging my OnePlus Two overnight at least three times, and simultaneously taking care of my Huawei W1 smart watch. Really useful to have along on a trip, though it does have an annoying habit of cutting off power to the port if the device stops pulling for a moment (this happens with the watch when it hits full, and means it’s dropped off a couple of percent by the time I wake up – but the watch is far longer lasting than the phone, so no great shakes). This should be the antidote to hotel rooms with not enough sockets, though the house we rented on this occasion actually had plenty of power bars for the modern traveller.

Call forwarding for the walking club

My walking club makes use of some clever technology which at least one other group has asked us about, so I thought I’d write it up here…

We list all our upcoming walks on our website, and there’s usually one every week. We like to publish a mobile phone number for the walk leader so people can check the rendezvous and ask any questions. However, leaders are sometimes less than thrilled at the idea of having their mobile number on the internet. Our website had all sorts of hacks built into it – displaying the numbers as images and removing them after the event had passed – which were holding up our move to a more off-the-shelf CMS.

That’s where I came in. The idea was to publish a single phone number for all walk leaders which forwards to the right person for the given week – no more privacy concerns and everybody happy.

This is not new; it’s the sort of thing VOIP providers have been able to sell you for years on a “normal” geographic phone number like 01865 xxxxxx. However, publishing that on the website would cause all sorts of confusion; people most often call on the morning of the walk when we’re already out on the ground, and would be put off calling a “landline” number because they’d think it was a home number.

This is where one of my favourite tech companies comes into its own: Andrew and Arnold now sell normal 07xxx mobile numbers on VOIP.

For the calls, it’s dead simple – just use a web page to specify the “target” number (or numbers plural if you’re feeling adventurous):

This works completely seamlessly and even passes through the original caller’s caller ID to the target phone. It costs £1.20 per month for the number plus a per-minute cost for forwarded calls, which is currently 3p per minute for UK mobiles. That makes it very cost-effective for a cash-strapped walking club – the whole thing costs us less than £30 per year.

We also make use of the “time profiles” feature to limit calls to 8am through 8pm after an incident where someone called unreasonably late.

Texts are a bit messier (although in practice we find people rarely use them). But it’s an 07 number and people expect to be able to SMS it, so we made it work. Unfortunately you can’t seamlessly forward texts (because AAISP don’t want to allow “forgery” of texts “from” the original sender, which I can understand). One option is to e-mail them somewhere, but the method we use is to have them sent to an HTTPS page which I host, which in turn uses IntelliSMS to send a text a bit like this:

Clicking the sender number on most phones allows the reply text to be started pretty easily.

Golf Mk5 side repeater replacement

LED side repeaters built in to the wing mirrors may look cool and be more aerodynamic, but after 11 years and 101,000 miles, the one on the left of my Golf GTi failed. And unlike any other light on the vehicle, you don’t just buy a bulb from Halford’s for £2.99 and swap it over in five minutes…

These instructions, although eight years old, worked nicely. Having the new part in my hand (GSF Car Parts, twenty quid plus delivery … annoyingly, this is something EuroCarParts up the road from me don’t stock) I could see that it included two of the trickiest plastic tabs, so I snapped the old ones off with my screwdriver rather than trying to un-tab them.

It cost me 45 minutes of my life, but to save the £75 or more a main dealer would have charged, worth every penny.


3 SIM meets the OnePlus Two

Out (and back in) with the old, in with the new.

Three’s new pay monthly SIM took quite some bedding in to the OnePlus Two. It needed nearly 24 hours, multiple reboots of the phone, and finally booting the phone with just one SIM in it before all sprang into life and started working.

Having been through all that, this is where having a dual-SIM phone comes into its own, because I can start using data via Three right away and keep taking calls via EE until my number port goes through.