Category Archives: Life

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.

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.