Category Archives: Life

Cheaper isn’t always better

Getting data abroad on EE pay as you go has always been a miserable experience, assuming you’re too disorganised to sort it out in advance. You land somewhere foreign, you just need a few MB to get Google Maps up and find your hotel, and if their captive portal even manages to load, it’s sorely lacking in a button which says “shut up and take my money”. They also apply rather mean time limits – yes, you can have 75MB of data, but it only lasts 24 hours. WTF? I wanted that much for the whole trip.

For longer trips abroad, none of this matters as you can simply buy a local SIM at the airport. This is especially easy for me with my OnePlus Two, as it has twin SIM slots so you don’t miss out on the odd text or urgent call from home.

However, for just four full days on the ground in Seville – much of it spent in an underground hotel conference centre with excellent WiFi – what to do?

Google Maps is really good these days at downloading the surrounding area while you’re on WiFi, which almost solves the problem, but not quite.

However, I remembered that I have an AAISP SIM in my second slot. In addition to its clever SIP pass through, it can also do data roaming. The prices are high – 10p/MB – but it’s pay as you go, billed in arrears by direct debit, and you can set hard limits at their end as well as on the phone itself.

This worked out really nicely, and I used 28.98MB over the four days. Which means I saved 11p vs paying EE their £3, and probably a lot more because I would have needed data over more than a 24 hour period. Well done AAISP.

Memo to self: must ditch EE for someone less annoying.

Amazon Echo

I’m not often one to buy the latest gadget without letting them work the kinks out, but I read and heard enough good things about the Amazon Echo to give it a go. If nothing else, it’s a decent Bluetooth speaker for my lounge for the price, and the rest is a futuristic bonus.

Alexa, you don't look out of place on the coffee table

Alexa, you don’t look out of place on the coffee table

Setup

The packaging is quite nice. Once unboxed you just need to connect the power (proprietary, not USB). Then you plug details and connect to WiFi and your various accounts via their app, which worked first time on Android, though it’s a bit cluttered.

Playing music

This is mainly what I got it for, and is rather neat. You can tell it to play artists, albums or playlists from Spotify or Prime Music, and it can even hear you over itself when you say “pause” or “stop” or “shuffle”.

News and traffic

It’s a bit of a gimmick but quite neat to have the news read out to you. I’ve only asked what my commute was like once, and it gave me as good a time and route as Google Now ever does. Disappointingly it understands but refuses to answer queries about how long it takes to get to other places, claiming not to know your speed.

Hive integration

This is a “skill” provided by the Hive developers. It works, but has a couple of flaws – it always seems to end up back in “off” not “schedule” after a boost done by voice, and I could do without a machine saying “good call, it’s hot in here”.

IFTTT

The glaring omission from the UK version of the Echo is support for IFTTT (If This Then That), which would allow interfacing with lots of other services. By the looks of it, it would also allow me to bypass the dodgy Hive skill and make the heating do what I want. Sort it out, Amazon. It’s allegedly coming soon but a date wouldn’t go amiss.

Verdict?

” I spoke to the future, and it listened more convincingly than ever before “.

Monzo

Monzo is something I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while, and having been at the top of the waiting list all summer, I was straight off the mark when they finally launched on Android on Thursday.

At the moment, they’re providing pre-paid debit cards (chip and PIN + contactless) with a really nice app and an API. I handed over my initial £100 top-up late Thursday, they posted my card on Friday (notifying me through the app, naturally) and it arrived today: so far, so efficient. The fact that these are non-personalised pre-paid debit cards helps, as they don’t need to stamp your name onto the card: they can just take one off their pile, note the numbers and post it.

The card is a loud orange/pink colour, but that’s more than made up for by reliably instant notification on my phone (and watch) of transactions being made. As others have blogged, the phone often buzzes with the notification before the retailer has even handed the card back to you. As someone increasingly frustrated by the way some transactions take 3-4 days to show up on the app for my credit or debit card, this is much more like it and appropriately 21st century.

They also don’t charge extra fees for usage abroad; they simply pass on the MasterCard exchange rate. This is another serious annoyance of both my credit and debit cards, and something I look forward to trying out when I travel to ApacheCon next month.

The API also promises the possibility of being able to securely and in near-real time pull details of payments into my budgeting app instead of having to wade through a pile of receipts and enter it all by hand at the end of each week. I haven’t tried that yet, but will report back.

They’re aiming to get a banking licence and run a full current account in this style – a delicious prospect, though I hope they’re thinking about the details as I can imagine instant notifications of every standing order and direct debit on the first of the month being information overload.

Hive door sensor

Since launching Hive for heating remote control, British Gas have rolled out quite a lot of other products which work in the same app and use the same router-connected hub to talk to their end. They all feel quite pricey for what they are, but I decided to try the door/window sensor. Here it is attached to my front door with the supplied sticky pads:

Hive door/window sensorAt the moment, it’s limited to doing push notifications to your phone when the door opens and/or closes; you can specify time ranges within which you do/don’t want the alerts. It’s interesting to see a log of when I leave for work and get home, and given that I’m not the only one with keys to North HQ (I have cleaners), it’s useful to see any other comings and goings.

The alerts are usually (but not always) instant, and show up nicely on my Android Wear watch too.

First week with the Huawei Watch

My Huawei WatchI have myself a Huawei Watch (W1). This is one of those areas of tech that I’ve been quietly sitting out, but having read a few reviews and seen a few friends finding them useful, I decided to have a go.

General impressions

It’s quite handy to have around. My phone (OnePlus Two), like most modern smartphones, is quite a large object, and not one which I carry around the flat with me at home. I also prefer to leave it on my desk at work when in meetings elsewhere on the same floor. All of which means that reminders for my next calendar event, texts, notification and incoming calls often go unnoticed.

The watch fixes all that (as long as I’m within bluetooth range of the phone), and is a nice discrete means of picking up on the important stuff. You can see the caller ID and answer calls using the watch, but you still need your phone to talk into and hear the caller out of. It’d work really nicely with a headset, though, and means you don’t need to dig the phone out of your pocket to hang up on an unimportant call.

The watch also does voice-activated stuff, triggered by the “OK Google” magic phrase. Simple things like creating reminders or sending a text can be done all on the watch – it’s really nice to be able to shout “OK Google, text Bob Smith saying I’ll be there in five minutes” when stuck in traffic, without taking your hands off the wheel or doing anything illegal (driving without due care still applies, of course).

More complicated actions (like a Google search) open the relevant app on the phone, but it can still be a timesaver.

I’ve bought the Pujie Black watch face for it, which allows lots of customization and means I can see a nice visualisation of the day’s calendar and instantly check how many events/meetings I have left today. It also shows both the phone and watch battery status.

It has all sorts of fitness and step tracking stuff which I’ve yet to really get to grips with.

Battery life

Conveniently, the Saturday after I got it, I went to London and went out all night, finishing up with breakfast at midnight [not something I’d do every weekend, but it was kinda fun to do it once]. The watch still had 60% of its battery when I plugged it in to charge at 2AM after unplugging it at 8AM the previous day. And it’s not as if it had had a light day: I’d been showing it off to people and playing with it for much of the time. So that’s quite impressive and suggests it could go two light days without charging.

Downsides?

It’s too soon to tell if the battery will wear out rapidly, but hopefully by the time it does, mobile phone repair shops will be able to swap it out using a soldering iron and a steady hand, much as they can for most phones with an “unreplaceable” battery.

Navigation isn’t quite there yet: the screen is too small and the Google Maps app too immature to be useful, so I reverted to my phone. No doubt it will improve.

As with one’s phone, it takes a couple of very carefully enunciated “OK Google”s before it picks you up. Unless you’re describing the voice capabilities to a friend in a noisy pub, in which case it works perfectly and starts sending the text message you were using as an example.

As with the phone, all the speech processing is done in the cloud, so it stops working if your phone lacks a data connection.

The charging dock is proprietary (and at £29 for a spare, I’ll have to remember to take it with me when I travel) – shame it couldn’t be micro USB or USB C, but I can see it being aesthetically difficult to fit a port of any size into the watch. It has three discrete contacts on the back which line up with pins on the dock when it magnetically snaps in. The dock itself is USB powered, which fits nicely with the fact that I’ve replaced lots of double socket face plates in my flat with USB charging ones.

It requires bluetooth on the phone to be always on, which inevitably affects battery life.

Overall, I’d say Android Wear is worth a punt, and this variant has the advantage of being a classy looking watch in its own right too.

Station parking

I’ve parked in the long stay at Didcot station a few times recently. It works well enough, but in common with the Oxford park and ride car parks, and many others, the payment mechanism feels clunky.

First time in, you fire up your phone, bash in a long series of numbers to give it your registration and card details, and pay. Second time, I think they’re slightly too paranoid – they remember the location and car (good) but want the last three digits off the stored card (sigh).

What really grinds my gears, however, is that all these car parks have enforcement based on ANPR. So why can’t I go to a website, bash in my car’s registration number, my card details and my mobile phone number, and tick a box saying “charge me and text me whenever I park at one of your sites”. No faffing around on the day, just turn up and park.

It couldn’t be because that would eliminate a revenue stream from mistakes and over-payment based on guesses about return times … now could it?

Classing up the kitchen, part 2

Following on from my first post on this, behold my classed up kitchen with LED worktop lighting:

IMG_20160717_213240

Looks great, instant-on, uses less power than the old fluorescents and leaves lots of space under the cupboards for the radio, hooks to hang things on, etc. I had to use superglue on the LED strips to make them stay put as the adhesive on them wasn’t up to it – but no real surprise there.

Classing up the kitchen, part 1

Since my kitchen radio is older than I am and has various bits missing, I got myself one of these to mount under the cupboards to replace it. This should also help reduce the amount of stuff on the surfaces and make it easier to clean. Of course, this is the obvious time to replace the flickery under cupboard fluorescents and their bulky fittings with a few metres of LED strip. Testing:

IMG_20160707_230817The hard part is going to be cleaning a decade’s worth of grime off the underside of the cupboards to make the surface clean enough for the LED strip to stick to, but the result should look properly classy. Update to come when I’m done…

The imminent demise of Sixxs?

As a long-term user of SixXS, I got an e-mail earlier this year about how I should stop using a tunnel for IPv6 connectivity and ask my ISP for IPv6. And they’ve got a point. After all, now that major bandwidth hogs such as Netflix and Facebook have IPv6 enabled, those tunnels must be shifting some serious traffic.

Having said that, Netflix have recently started proclaiming Sixxs is a “proxy service” which they can’t allow because it lets you pretend to be in the UK wherever in the world you are. Which is fair enough if tedious, and has forced me to move my TV-connected devices onto my guest WiFi network, where there is no IPv6.

I would call my ISP, but EE has been swallowed by BT, who seem to have finally got their act together on IPv6 – if the date comes true. But I’ll probably have migrated off to A&A by then.

Are EU ready for this? I’m not. Or perhaps I am…

Sorry, folks, but the time has come for me to write about the EU referendum…

Twenty-three days to go until the EU Referendum, and I still don’t know which way I’m going to vote. This might come as a surprise to my friends, many of whom consider me a hopeless evil right winger who is “obviously going to do the wrong thing and vote leave”. My sister finds it very unhelpful, as she apparently considers the opposite of my political decisions a good guide for her own.

Here’s the thing: almost all the information I have received (without asking for it) has been a bit dodgy. First there was HM Government’s leaflet about why we should stay, complete with pictures of imports from China. The sincerity of this “government publication” was also undermined by the way senior members of the governing party are campaigning for the other side. The Tories have been fighting each other about Europe since before I was born, and they seem no closer to resolving their differences now than they were in 1988.

Then there was the leaflet from Stronger In Europe, carefully printed to look like some kind of official expert opinion rather than propaganda from one group. Most of the faces on it, as trade unionists of one sort or another, were not people whose opinions I give much weight to. But aha! Martin Lewis, there’s someone whose views I’ll trust. Except it turns out he didn’t give them permission to use that quote, and isn’t explicitly backing either side. Bother.

Dr Boris Adryan’s article on The Register today was interesting, if a bit rambling, but I find it hard to take anyone seriously who asserts that “to get into Oxford and Cambridge, you need to have money and the ability to speak and handwave in a very articulate way … you better had [sic] training from an expensive school and come from the right family background”. As I’ve written here before, my personal experience is that this just isn’t true. I’m sure some class-based elitism still exists in corners of Oxbridge, especially in arts subjects, but the scientists were definitely being admitted based on ability when I started, a decade ago this autumn. And if that ability is more frequently found in richer areas of the country, that’s more a reflection on our school system than Oxbridge.

Back to the subject. I instinctively dislike the EU. Its existence above government and outside the laws of any one nation allows it to behave in a similarly distasteful manner to some government departments in the UK, especially when it comes to not being held properly accountable for fraud and material error in its accounts. Companies have to be accountable to their shareholders and obey company law in their country of incorporation, but government departments and the EU can do what they like (comparatively).

I also feel like a net contribution of £163 million per week (source) is an awful lot of money, and I have no clear idea of what it’s funding. A fraud rate of 0.2% means £326,000 a week of our money is being wasted, though to be fair, I’m sure our own government is wasting much more.

NATO has done well at keeping the relative peace in Europe in recent history, and it would be a shame to upset all the other members at just the same time as Russia seems to be rattling its sabre the loudest since 1991.

Immigration is, in my book, largely a positive thing, and with our ageing population, having a net inward flow of young workers seems like a good idea. I think successive UK governments have done a pisspoor job of managing immigration, but that largely seems to be their fault, not the EU’s – as is the severe lack of housebuilding and the price bubble it has caused.

TTIP scares me, and the EU’s participation in the negotiations is a large black mark against it.

One of my pub one-liners about the EU is apparently out of date: the tampon tax is set to be scrapped, so at least someone in Brussels or Strasbourg is applying a bit of common sense.

All things considered, I’ll probably vote to stay. I’ll have to pinch my nostrils with distaste as I do so, but I doubt whether Britain is going to achieve a better quality of life for anyone if it leaves, and our own government will almost certainly waste any savings made.

Perhaps the biggest fault lies with Us The People, and we should be more politically engaged in holding both our government and the EU’s feet to the fire over issues which matter to us. I’ve got a bet on that turnout in the referendum will be lower than the last general election. And I really hope I lose it.