Category Archives: Life

ApacheCon North America 2017

I’ve spent the past week out in Miami for ApacheCon, and thought I’d share a few things.

Getting there

We flew direct out of Heathrow on BA. Eight hours in cattle class world traveller is never going to be a fun experience, but BA do lay on a decent quality and quantity of food and drink even in the back. Getting through US Customs was a bit of a pain, but even though the automatic system diverted us for extra review, it didn’t take very long (obviously we’d applied for our ESTAs and had them approved before going).

America

It’s worth reading up on US tipping culture before going (and noting that you need to write the amount on the bill when they bring it if you’re tipping by card). I’d not been to the states before, but with that knowledge pre-consumed, it was all pretty much as expected. The Americans are a lot more patriotic than us, and have their flag all over the place, including at the airport and some impressively huge ones hanging off buildings. On average, I found the customer service and general standard of friendliness higher than in the UK.

120v

American sockets put out 120 volts, not the 240 we’re used to in Europe. Every device I took with me was labelled as coping with either, and did, but it’s worth checking the label before you plug it into an adapter.

Money

It’s worth looking up the sales taxes for the state(s) you’re visiting – be aware that, often, none of the prices you see quoted will include them.

Chip and pin is present in some places, but a lot of retailers are still using the old magnetic stripe, meaning they can wander off with your card and come back with the receipt for your payment (Monzo works everywhere as you’d expect, and it’s handy to have a card you can load just-in-time and see instant notifications for when the security is rather slacker than in the UK).

Uber (yes, I know, contentious stuff) Just Works if you’ve got an account created in the UK (and if the city you’re visiting is covered, of course). They may have a sketchy reputation in some quarters, but it’s damn useful being able to set up your work card and charge taxis directly to it without having to faff getting a receipt from the driver and claiming it as out of pocket expenses. Indeed, armed with this capability, cash was barely necessary for the whole six day trip.

The event

I’ve been to ApacheCon in Europe twice before, but not to the US. I got the impression there were a few more people and tracks of talks than we had in Seville last autumn. The standard of the speakers was generally very high (I hope I didn’t lower the average too much) and there were an interesting bunch of vendors giving out swag and potentially useful information about their products and services. We also did some good networking and had lunch every day with what one of my colleagues aptly titled “POIzone”, a bunch of Apache POI and Tika commiters, several of whom I met in person for the first time.

My talks

I did three talks, one on Containers: Not Just For the Cloud? (Slides, video), one on Apache POI and the challenges of working with a 16 year old Java codebase (slides) and a lightning talk on a recent side project (video – starts at 2:41).

All in all, a fun and educational week, but some jet lag to overcome before getting back to reality on Monday.

Voice calls need to grow up fast

So I’m out in Florida for ApacheCon, and it’s been a really fun and useful trip so far. But it got off to a shaky start. After over 8 hours in a tin box flying from London, we get to the hotel in Miami, check in – mercifully brief – and do our best to stay awake until 10pm local time before crashing out. We arrived a couple of days before the conference proper, so plenty of time to adjust.

Picture the scene: 4.30AM local time, the rasping sound of someone sawing wood as I adjust to Florida time.

> Bzzzzzzzzzzz < > Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz <

Hello?

Hello, sir. Are you aware your credit card was used in America?

Would that be the same “America” that I filled in the “notify overseas travel” form on your website for a week ago?

At the end of this three minute conversation, I was £3 poorer. Thanks EE.

The truly tragic thing about this exchange (apart from HSBC’s inability to interface with their own systems) is that, back when I was at school (over 10 years ago), I remember reading a piece in PC Pro by Jon Honeyball about this exact situation. He talked about wanting a phone system smart enough to look up his diary in Outlook and tell the caller “it’s 4.30 AM local time where David is, press 1 to wake him up if it’s desperately urgent, but beware of his reaction”. Ten. Years. Ago.

What’s even worse is that this almost exists. Andrews and Arnold have some really cool products including the ability to port your 07 UK mobile number to their VOIP service, which includes the fabled time zone announce feature. OK, so it doesn’t integrate with my calendar, but I’d be quite happy to script that or just set it manually for trips like this one.

So why haven’t I ported my mobile number to their service? It would allow me to use SIP to pick up and make calls over the internet when abroad (this works surprisingly well using WhatsApp, so the bandwidth does exist), cutting out horrendous roaming charges, as well as having the time zone announce and other features.

Unfortunately, there is one crucial piece of the puzzle missing which makes me reluctant to go VOIP+Sip2Sim for my mobile: by default, SIP sends passwords in plain text (updated after twitter conversation with RevK) using a challenge-response and a digest, which feels more vulnerable than simply using TLS on the signalling. This is just about bearable on a fixed-line home or work internet link, but feels risky on a semi-public WiFi network like the conference one here (especially considering the potential financial consequences of a leaked set of VoIP credentials).

AAISP, please fix it so I can drag my mobile number into the 21st century.

Cycle camera

I’ve started cycling to work regularly again, and got myself a helmet camera. This is one of those annoying areas where there are cheap items made in the far east, or very expensive items made by more recognised brands. There doesn’t seem to be anything in between.

So, I took a punt at the cheaper end, and here it is:

img_20170422_095710

As you can see, the only part of their fixing accessories I used were two velcro straps; the camera feels most stable and doesn’t un-balance me when it’s strapped tightly to the middle of my helmet.

So, what do the videos look like? Here’s a thrilling clip of my commute yesterday morning:

I had no idea I moved my head so much when cycling, but it’s not bad quality – certainly good enough to get a number plate in the unpleasant event of someone cutting me up or knocking me off. I might try it on the handlebars next.

Needless to say, the camera does not claim to have any night vision at this price, but on lit streets, it’s possible to make out registration numbers of most overtaking cars if you step through the footage frame by frame.

Configuring it involves a txt file which it writes to the SD card, but once you’ve set the date and time, there’s not much else to worry about. The battery doesn’t last very long, but it only takes a couple of hours to charge over USB, so not bad. The inbuilt microphone just picks up wind noise when any sort of motion is involved.

Obviously, the £40 cost of the camera is then bolstered by buying the biggest micro SD card you can afford. At 90MB per minute of footage, it soon fills up. The way it records in chunks (maximum 10 minutes each) is a bit silly, but there are plenty of tools on Linux to concatenate the chunks together again.

AquaMail

I’ve been a long-time user of K-9 mail on Android, but the combination of the dreaded doze (“syncing disabled”) bug and various bits of clunky UI persuaded me it was time to move on. AquaMail, on first impressions, is rather nice. It lets me set the Archive folder, and can Archive things in a couple of taps. It also has a better approach to folder management, not showing the entire list in most places, but rather the folders you’ve actually used. Well worth a few quid for the pro version.

screenshot_20170414-111751

The Stuff Should Just Work Epiphany

It doesn’t apply to everyone who works in the IT industry, but as most of us get older, we lose our tolerance for things which don’t Just Work, at least in our home lives. When you’ve spent all day working with new and sharp-edged technology, you really want to come home and have your appliances act like appliances, not like computers which misbehave and need debugging. Having said that, a related phenomenon I’ve experienced over the past year is that when you are promoted far enough to stop doing coding for a living, you may have a resurgence of interest in hacking around with stuff in your spare time…

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.