Category Archives: Life

Digging up the road

Virgin Media’s work in my street reminds me of the poor state of broadband in the UK

A few weeks ago, I awoke to find my street being dug up by several pneumatic drills simultaneously. We’d seen the markings sprayed on the pavements some time previously, of course, but I had no idea what they were. Couldn’t be cable TV – Virgin Media, as far as I knew, never laid cable of their own – they just bought up all the other companies who went bust under the cost of doing so.

It turns out I was wrong, though, as our road now boasts a shiny new cable TV cabinet, and connection points for every house and block of flats. There was an outraged article in the local paper about how this work was done with zero notice to residents; we were indeed given no notice, but given that I was gone for work on all but a couple of days when the work was taking place, I didn’t mind too much. I can understand those who actually spend their days here being upset, though.

Given that this street was built less than ten years ago, it seems a bit screwed up that Virgin are digging it up now – surely they should have tried to co-operate with the developer at the time and saved making a mess of our pavements after the fact?

Whatever the ins and outs of that, it feels rather sad that the cables being pulled are presumably copper coax rather than fibre. Come to that, it feels backwards that BT are still laying copper and not fibre to new-builds. For all their clever research on delivering data at high bandwidth over copper, surely having fibre to the individual houses is the only long-term solution.

One of my neighbours is quoted in the article saying he’d be surprised if Virgin got custom from his neighbours. For sure, I’ve never been a fan in the past, but the offer of a 200 megabits per second connection for £44 per month is hugely tempting – particularly when all the providers operating over BT’s infrastructure can’t match that speed, and most of them are participating in a race to the bottom where competition on price leaves no money to spend on providing a decent service.

If our pavements start sinking, of course, I might decide otherwise.

Cyprus

So I’m back from my holiday, not with much of a tan, but feeling suitably relaxed. Myself and a couple of friends went to Cyprus for five days and four nights.

Getting there

Cyprus is a long way from the UK – it’s about the furthest European destination you can fly to, and it took over four hours on the plane each way. Still, the combination of Norwegian Air on the way out and EasyJet on the way back did the job.

Places to stay

The apartments we stayed at were pretty good for the cheap and cheerful end of the scale – I’ve added my review to that site, so I won’t repeat it here.

Things to do

I bagged The Rough Guide To Cyprus and the Lonely Planet guide to Cyprus from Oxford central library, and they did us well for museums and other sights to see, as well as general background.

Food

We were surprised at how cheap the food was – if you avoid the obvious tourist traps and the presence of KFC, McDonald’s et al, you can get some nice local stuff for not very much a head – certainly cheaper than eating out in most of the UK. The guide books came through for us here again. The portion sizes and provision of free extras like bread were all nice touches.

Misc

We were surprised when stepping off the bus from the airport at how poor many neighbourhoods looked – even in the developed, beachfront, touristy part of Larnaca, you didn’t have to go far to find crumbling buildings and poorer businesses crammed in next to the more modern and western ones. Still, the people were all very friendly, and English was almost universally spoken.

Hive active heating

I had the horrible old boiler in my flat replaced recently, with British Gas doing the work. As part of it, they installed a Hive smart thermostat. This has a few blingsome features, but the main reason I wanted it was to gain remote control of my heating from an app on my phone. Living alone and having irregular comings and goings, this ability could be quite a nice money-saver (or, a means to come home to a warm flat rather than a cold one). I can’t say much about it yet, having had it installed in the hottest week of the year with no prospect of needing central heating until October.

However, a few bits and pieces do come to mind:

  • My version of the Hive “hub” (the bit that plugs into your router to do the internet access) is powered off a mains cable which ends in a USB plug – although they supplied it with a normal UK plug on the end of that, it seems quite happy to take its power from the USB port on the back of my router, which saves taking up a socket.
  • They clearly expect you to configure via the Android or iOS app, not the website. For example, I can’t find a button on the website to copy a day’s schedule from one day to the next, whereas the app has that (as does even the nastiest digital heating timer from the 90s).
  • The ability to specify different temperatures for different time periods is kinda neat.
  • The alerts are a bit dumb. I’ve had several e-mails this week warning me that my flat is exceeding 25°C. However, given that it’s the hottest week of the year and the heating hasn’t been on for a month, this is not terribly useful. What really grates about this is that their app has an icon showing the weather and external temperature – but they’re obviously not making much use of this information.
  • The geofencing feature is a disappointment. I want it to turn the heating on and off, not just alert me, since I’m a one-person household and usually on my bike and unable to respond to the alerts when travelling. However, despite the lack of an official API, they do have control by text message. So perhaps when winter sets in I’ll write an Android app to fill in the missing features. Watch this space…

FLOSS Unconference 2015

I had a good time at this in London yesterday – some interesting talks in the morning including one about Linux Capabilities which I’ll definitely be lifting some ideas from, and a couple of my questions (“Why don’t developers and sysadmins like each other?”, “What did you do with your Raspberry Pi?”) were discussed in the afternoon.

I thought I’d be in a minority as a developer, but in fact it was about two-thirds dev and one-third sysadmin. Some of us considered ourselves both, of course.

Unfortunately I was feeling quite wrung out after a long week and decided to make a dash for the early train home, but I’ll definitely be back at similar events in future.

Sometimes it’s just too easy

My church, being a modern and forward-looking organisation, keeps its rotas in a spreadsheet on Google Docs. Last week, I was asked if it was possible to send a text message to the victim volunteer the night before they’re due to do their rota’d job. In the good old days, this would have involved an old PC, a brick-like Nokia mobile phone, some difficult to source cables and some low-level serial commands. And in 2014? I put it all together in less than an hour using Twilio‘s SMS API. I picked up $25 of credit in a promotion at JAX London 2014, and that should last us the best part of a year.

Let’s take another example. Five years ago, I would have relished building my own computer controlled central heating timer, using a Raspberry Pi (if such a thing had existed) and some relays. But now? You can get Hive installed for £200, and it has the website and the app for your phone all ready to roll.

Progress is usually a good thing, but in our world of software-defined everything in the cloud, I do wonder if I’ll ever find an excuse for a project where I do the hardware bit too.

EE’s bargain basement broadband

Having recently moved into a new flat, I found myself back on the market for an internet connection for the third time in as many years. There’s no Virgin Media infrastructure in my street, which suits me fine as I wouldn’t touch their services with a bargepole (you either love ‘em or you hate ‘em, and my personal experience has been less than stellar). So it came down to the trusty landline.

Fibre to the cabinet (BT Infinity and other such services) is available here, but good old-fashioned ADSL claimed it could deliver speeds of up to 11.5Mbps downstream. Since I live alone, and this is fast enough to stream Netflix in the maximum resolution my TV can display, it seemed worth a punt. Plain ADSL has undergone a big price collapse in recent years – the EE deal I got, paying the line rental up front and factoring in the £100 Amazon voucher I’ll get after three months, works out to cost £2.50 per month. There’s always a bit of a worry when buying such a service that there can hardly be a profit margin, never mind money to spend on customer service, but the reports online seemed largely positive.

I placed the order online on the day I moved in, and heard nothing for a week. I then eventually got a call to tell me that I’d mis-typed my bank details for direct debit during sign-up. I was impressed to find a Sunday shift manning the phones who could correct this, but less impressed when I chased three days later to be told that the fix hadn’t happened. Things were eventually sorted and I got a text with my expected activation date. Then I got another text two days later telling me that date had slipped by four days. I wasn’t amused, but I cut EE some slack since I suspect these dates are at least partly at the whim of BT Openreach, who ultimately own most of the infrastructure involved.

I was rather more impressed with the delivery of my router – the online tracking for it wasn’t the best in the world, but they did automatically re-deliver on a Saturday after failing to find anyone in during the week. Of course, the fact that the BrightBox router is cleverly designed to fit through a letter box doesn’t help when you live in a flat guarded by an entryphone system.

On my installation date, I got a text telling me my service was live. Sure enough, I found a dial tone on my line when I got home. I don’t plan on using my landline much, but it is worth noting that EE throw in weekend calls with this deal, and that they provide caller ID as standard (BT’s website suggests that they still have the cheek to charge for this in some circumstances – surely they’ve paid for the infrastructure involved by now and charging extra for such a basic feature is a bit shameless in 2014?). The microfilter EE sent me appeared to be a dud (no dial tone on my phone once it was plugged in) – but as you might expect, I had half a dozen of them in my spares box anyway. Having plugged the supplied credentials in, the BrightBox sprang into life and provided me with an internet connection.

Speed tests show my line running at about 11Mbps down and 1Mbps up, which is about as good as it gets for ADSL. I suspect having a new-ish (7 year old), fully underground line helps here, and I also suspect that the mile or so of backhaul connecting my street cabinet to the exchange must be nearly new too.

EE BrightBox router
I gather that what I’ve been sent (see above) is the BrightBox 1 (Fibre customers seem to be getting the BrightBox 2 as standard issue). It works pretty well – the WiFi signal reaches all corners of my not very big flat. The web interface is basic, but all the functionality you need is there. You can even run multiple WiFi networks with different names off it (up to 3) – provided you understand terms like SSID, VLAN and DHCP, you can set up a properly separate guest network. For sure, a one-click option for this would be nice for the less technical user, but seeing this sort of feature at all in consumer grade kit is really nice, and I don’t mind the technical terms.

After a couple of weeks, the connection seems fairly stable and reliable, and I’ve yet to see Netflix skip a beat (it takes a little while to buffer, but it’s fine after that). Not a bad service at all, considering I’m spending more on a monthly basis on just about anything else.

I’ll probably upgrade to some sort of fibre service after the 12 month deal ends, but hopefully by then the same price collapse will have spread there, particularly with the advent of non-engineer installs for such products.

Motorway driving

I drove from Coniston to Oxford today. It took far too long, mostly because both the M6 and the M40 kept bunching up and slowing down. Often, the cause of delays on the motorway isn’t an accident – it’s too many cars driving too close together. One driver dabs their brakes, the next one does the same, and the whole stretch of motorway slows down.

I don’t consider myself the best driver in the world by any means, but it always shocks me that nobody seems to have heard of the two second rule, nobody obeys speed restrictions posted on the overhead signs (except on the “managed” motorways where these are backed up by speed cameras on every gantry), and people persist in changing lanes into too-small gaps. Often doing the right thing can leave you being tailgated and flashed at and feeling significantly less safe for trying to obey the rules.

I can’t help but wonder if a second driving test for those wanting to use motorways would be a good idea – but it would have to be applied retrospectively to be of proper use, which would be rather difficult practically and politically.

Here’s another thought – could we have camera enforcement to prevent tailgating?

Of course, an even better idea would be significant police presence on the motorways – I saw one marked patrol car in 300 miles today.

Cheap GPS

No, not that cheap GPS. This one:

IMAG0164I bought myself a Garmin Dakota 10 last year to use for road cycling. It does a great job for that – crucially, the basic UK road map it comes with is good enough that if you pre-load your route into it, you can usually see which way to turn at a junction without having to stop and consult your paper map. This really helps keep up the momentum. It also happens to run on AA batteries, which is handy as I carry a full spare set of those to feed my bike lights anyway.

However, setting off last Friday for a weekend in the Lake District, I threw it into my backpack just in case. It turned out to be extremely useful as we climbed Weatherlam in near-zero visibility caused by fog. You have to dig in to Settings > Position Format:

Settings screenWhat to select for OS map referencesAnd select “British Grid” and “Ord Srvy GB”. Having done so, you can add the “Location” field to the compass view, and it will tell you your OS grid reference:

Compass screen with OS grid referenceIn the above example, “SP” is the OS grid square, and the two rows of numbers are the X and Y references within that square (I’ve blacked out most of the numbers so you can’t see where I live).

This is very useful when your best efforts at map-reading start to come unstuck on the ground. Some semi-jokey remarks were made in our group about it being cheating, but I wouldn’t go out without a GPS now – it could literally be a lifesaver if you get lost or stuck, and you can get one for less that £100.

Obviously, the reference is only as good as the accuracy of the GPS (on mine, you can tap the bars showing the satellite signal strength to see how many feet/metres it thinks it’s accurate to) – but I certainly found the first three digits of each co-ordinate to be close enough for my purposes. What you have to be wary of is placing too much reliance on the difference between readings taken a few minutes apart, because the inaccuracy could be big enough to make it seem like you’ve gone the opposite way to what you actually did.

The compass, incidentally, is useless – slow to update and very dodgy [Update: A friend writes: The compass in cheaper GPS units often isn’t a dedicated chip.  It only works based on your direction of travel as reported by GPS co-ordinates.  So you need to walk in a straight line for a few yards with the GPS unit held in front of you for it to do anything resembling the right thing.]. Just use a proper magnetic one instead.

Also, I can heartily recommend having a laminated OS map. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment”.

London Gatwick? Obviously not.

I spent last week walking in Austria. And jolly nice it was too – the weather was near-perfect, the hotel was a lovely little family-run establishment with great food, and the company (my parents) was excellent.

The only thing which threatened to mar my much-needed holiday was that it formed the meat in a sandwich, the stale bread either side of which was London Gatwick Airport. On the way out, on 21 June, I arrived, checked in my luggage, breezed through onto the plane … and sat there for an hour after we were supposed to take off. First, the plane had apparently been over-fuelled. Second, our bags took ages to emerge from the terminal. From my seat at the back of the plane, I eventually got to watch the first few being loaded … before the staff downed tools and disappeared, apparently owing to us overlapping a shift change.

Returning last night, I got off the plane (after it taking ten minutes to find a bridge for some reason), congratulated myself on having a biometric passport which allowed me to bypass a large queue … and then spent a full hour waiting for my hold luggage to emerge from the plane. Personally, I was only mildly annoyed – armed with 45 minutes of free WiFi, I sat on an empty luggage conveyor belt and ploughed through much of the e-mail backlog which had built up during my week away. Others around me, especially those with small children and/or a taxi waiting with the meter running, were not amused. And rightly so. Half the vending machines didn’t work, it was far too hot, and the announcements over the PA system all seemed to be about a total lack of progress.

So in answer to all the ads around Gatwick about where we should build Britain’s next runway … based on my personal experience, the answer is Heathrow or Manchester. Or, even better from a selfish point of view, let’s expand the hilariously -named London Oxford Airport.

TalkTalk Business, the good and the bad

Last year, the assimilation of Be into Sky prompted us to have a think about our internet provider at the church. We have a single phone line into the church office, rarely used for calls but often used for internet.

Prompted by the attraction of having one bill to pay, and not paying as much for line rental as we were to BT, we moved both phone and internet over to TalkTalk’s business offering. They did send us a router, but I just plugged their account details into our existing one and left everything as it was. The switch-over was refreshingly simple – because they were providing the landline too and plugging it into their equipment at the exchange, faffing around with migration codes for the ADSL wasn’t necessary.

For six months, all seemed well – our ADSL was fine and running at 9mbps, and the phone line we never used was presumably OK. Then a couple of weeks ago, the real test of the supplier started when the line developed a fault. Our ADSL wouldn’t stay sync’d and was running at a third of its usual speed with massive packet loss.

I was pleasantly surprised to get hold of a human being in support on a bank holiday Monday, and even more so when he was prepared to take my word for it, without arguing, that I’d tried replacing everything my side of the master socket and even used the test socket* to eliminate a possible fault in our equipment. The only annoyance was a classic call-centre screw-up – the automated system picks up, asks you to key in the phone number you’re calling about, then puts you through to a human who … asks you for the phone number you’re calling about. Pretty shaky for a telecoms company…

It all went a bit sideways from there – I explained that the church building isn’t manned continuously, so if he was going to get BT Openreach to send an engineer, he needed to (a) call me back and say when that would be, and (b) make damn sure the engineer had my mobile number. Neither of those things happened, and I had to call back two days later to be told an engineer had been sent and failed to gain access to the premises. I was told an engineer had been re-booked for Thursday between 1 and 6. I duly spent my Thursday afternoon sat in a chilly church with no WiFi, and phoned to tell them nobody had turned up. I was told that I had been misinformed, and they’d failed to re-book the engineer. Suppressing my anger, I asked them to try again and make less of a hash of it. This time, I got the 8am to 1pm slot on Friday morning, and thankfully BT’s man arrived by 8.15.

He swiftly identified a junction box just inside our property (but before the master socket) which was full of water. One replacement later, and everything is fine again.

I’m not sure who to blame for the screw-up over sending an engineer – perhaps such problems are an inevitable side-effect of being TalkTalk’s customer on BT’s piece of copper, much like the loss of accountability between Network Rail and the train companies.

What else? I wasn’t impressed by TalkTalk’s free router – the web interface has a noticeable delay on all operations, and it’s slightly lacking in features (e.g. you can configure the DHCP to always give the same IP address to a given device, but you can’t specify which IP address). The fact that the £20 TP-Link one I got from Argos is better is a bit of a clue as to how much they spent on theirs.

* Un-screw the faceplate from your master socket, and you’ll find the test socket behind it.