Two wheels missing

September 20, 2015

For the first time in nearly five years, we are a bikeless household. No, we haven’t abandoned life on two wheels – it’s just that our two old faithful Raleighs went in less than a day on Gumtree (note to self: ask more next time) and our replacement eBikes have been delayed a week. Yes, you read that correctly. We hired eBikes for a day on holiday in Austria two years ago. It was amazing – pedalling effortlessly up (for us) impossibly steep slopes, happily overtaking superfit Lycra clad ‘serious’ bikers (as I don’t speak German I don’t know what they were calling out as we sailed past. Possibly ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’?).

Anyway, we have decided to take the plunge and move to eBikes. If you haven’t heard of them, you ride them just like conventional bikes, but if the going gets tough (uphill) then clever electronics progressively kicks in an electric motor to help things along (more info on this site). Most eBikes are designed so you don’t need tax, insurance, etc., and to comply with legislation the bikes are limited by their electronics so the power assist stops at 25 kph (15.5 mph).

There is a bewildering range on the market, not helped by the fact that we are coming to the end of the ‘bike year’ (from 1st October) and dealers can tempt punters with all sorts of wonderful new features on 2016 models (or sell off 2015 models at discounted prices).

What amused me most was the increasing emphasis on software. Connect your bike’s control system to your smartphone via bluetooth and you’re at the mercy of wacky software designers. For example: key your desired heart rate into an app, and the bike will provide the right mix of power assist / gear changing to ensure the old ticker keeps pumping at precisely the desired rate.

However, as an ageing IT guy, what really caught my eye on one manufacturer’s specifications was “a service interface through which software updates can be applied to your bike“. Now, I will give it two weeks’ maximum before hackers crack that interface, and start posting software “updates” on the web. First target? well, there’s that annoying 25 kph restriction for a start…

An alternative, low cost, detector for people with ES

July 28, 2015

Maslow_revisitedIf you’re a user of social media, you’ve probably seen one of the many humorous takes on Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs – updated to include ubiquitous internet access via WiFi (like the example on the right).

While the spread of WiFi – and wireless technology generally – is welcomed by most, it’s bad news for the minority whose health is adversely affected by WiFi and other forms of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) – symptoms range from the minor to the completely debilitating.

One of the problems for people living with this condition of ElectroSensitivity (ES) is that the tools for detecting EMR in the house have mostly been laboratory grade instruments, with price tags to match (UKP hundreds). These instruments can be hired by the week, but it’s useful to have something in the house permanently

So I was interested to find the DIY Elektrosmog-Detektor on sale in Germany to hobbyists for just EUR 19.90, and sent off for one. The kit duly arrived in the post, packed in a cardboard box that also serves as the case for the assembled unit. Anyone who has dabbled in electronics and can solder a dozen or so connections should be able to put one together. It worked first time for me, although my soldering skills are pretty rusty these days.

In my tests, the Elektrosmog findings agreed with the results from the expensive electric and magnetic field detectors I had hired in the past. All the household “problem children” were detected – WiFi, DECT phone, wireless mice, the bluetooth display unit for the solar PV, even the coffee grinder that is radiating away (and wasting electricity) even when not in use. The sensitivity of the Elektrosmog was pretty astonishing – it even managed to detect the tiny magnetic pulses produced by the stepper motor in a quartz wristwatch, producing an audible ‘tick’ once every second.

The one problem I did have was that the very comprehensive 60-odd page manual is entirely in German. I have translated for my own use the key thirty or so pages describing how to build and use the unit. If any English speakers would like to try an Elektrosmog and would like to download my side-by-side translation, you can find it here. If you find any errors, please let me know!

How super is super-fast?

August 25, 2014

After much delay, we had a message from TalkTalk to say that “superfast broadband” was now available at our house, and that we could sign up to their “Fibre Medium (up to 38Mb)” service for an initial fiver a month.

The words “up to” are not designed to fill people with confidence, so I thought I’d monitor some before and after speeds. I know there is some scepticism about on-line speed checkers, so I decided just to use TalkTalk’s tool. It is quite fiddly doing things ‘properly’ – plugging the laptop straight into the router, and disconnecting everything else (laptops, tablets, TV box, oh, and of course the WiFi printer…). Plus the fact that you get a different result every time you run the test…

In the end I decided to take three measurements one after the other, and plot them as one bar on a graph, to show the range of speeds measured at the time – the ‘before’ readings. Our upgrade was delivered on 4th August, with a new wall socket and a new router. TalkTalk state that it takes time for their routers to optimise themselves for a new line, and to leave it a week or two to settle down (?). Fair enough, I did this, and took some ‘after’ readings. The results are shown below.

The measurements show a clear improvement. On average, the speed is about three times faster, and the “up to 38Mbps” is a pretty fair description.

However, there is still a big variation between the best and worst in each set of three measurements. This may explain why it doesn’t really feel much different for average web browsing – the line speed may not be the limiting factor. I don’t do mega downloads, so I don’t notice any difference there.

However, one thing that is now usable is BBC iPlayer via our YouView box (also from TalkTalk). We sat and watched the first episode of Dr.Who from the previous day yesterday evening, and it played from start to finish faultlessly. This is something that was impossible pre-upgrade – the service was simply unusable at any but the quietest time of the day (and I don’t want to watch old episodes of Dr.Who on a weekday afternoon).

Our country. Give it back.

June 4, 2014

Yes saltireOn a visit to Scotland, it’s impossible to avoid the issue of the referendum on Scottish Independence, due to take place in September. The media explore endlessly every possible ramification of a ‘Yes’ vote. It all feels very odd – is this really what the birth pangs of a new nation should feel like?

When my grandparents’ generation set up the Irish Free State, they didn’t debate endlessly whether cross-border issues might work for or against their advantage. For them, it was simply a matter of “It’s our country. Give it back”.

I’m sure the same is true when the people of India gained their independence – they didn’t agonise over the pros and cons to their economy of membership of the British Empire. No, they simply said “It’s our country. Give it back”.

If the people of Scotland truly wish to join the independent nations of the world, then on September 18th, all it needs is for enough people to put their hands on their hearts and say: “It’s our country. Give it back”. Everything else can be worked out afterwards. In fact, for Scotland to earn its place as an independent nation, nothing else should matter.

Move your money

May 12, 2014

For over a year now, most UK banks and building societies have offered to take the hassle out of moving current accounts from one provider to another. On an agreed date, they agree to swap everything over. One day you’re with your old provider; on the next, you’re with the new one. According to the glossy publicity, painless.

I look after finances for some elderly relatives, continuing to use whatever current accounts they used themselves. However, one of these banks has recently changed its terms and conditions so that its current account is no longer attractive, so I thought it was time to switch. I’ve had excellent service from my local building society, so I thought I’d give them the business.

switchSetting up the new account was easy. Although I do virtually all banking over the internet, opening an account online for another person under a power of attorney is a real pain. Using a local branch was brilliant. It took half an hour or so one lunchtime, and the account was up and operational.

The big switch is now set for next week (at a time when there’s not much happening in the account). Now, I can believe that the banks can easily swap over the balance and all the outgoing payments (standing orders, direct debits). They have all the necessary information under their control.

But the headline statements about the switch say the banks will also swap over all the incoming payments too. This is much more challenging – getting pension payments, interest payments, etc all swapped over by the people making the payments.

Reading the small print very carefully, what the banks actually say they will do is: every time they they receive a payment into the old account, they will immediately forward it to the new account – for thirteen months. They will also tell the organisation responsible, and ask them to make the change. So it isn’t quite as seamless – or as guaranteed – as it appears at first sight.

And there perhaps is the flaw in this whole process. Will notoriously bureaucratic and inefficient organisations like the Department for Work and Pensions play ball? Time will tell.

In the mean time, let’s see how the switch goes next week. And if you are tired of banking with a company whose values are at odds with your own, have a look at Move Your Money to motivate you to switch!

Big bang theory

November 18, 2013

AEG D77000GF-M with shattered glass doorWe were sitting enjoying dinner last night when we were startled by a loud bang and the sound of breaking glass in the kitchen. To our amazement, the glass in the oven had shattered for no apparent reason – the oven was switched off, and the top oven had only been used for warming plates. A little research later showed that this is not as rare an occurrence as you might think. However, it was also a good demonstration of the first law of guarantees – you guessed it, the extended warranty lasted for three years, and we bought the oven in January 2010.

A quick hunt for spare parts for this oven (an AEG D77000GF-M) didn’t show any obvious candidates – you can buy every conceivable part except for the one you need. More research required…

Well, what a surprising way to spend an evening

October 25, 2013

Life is full of surprises. I had settled down at home for the evening yesterday, reading the local newspaper, when right on the very last page I spotted a note:

The celebrated power and melody of rock foursome Wishbone Ash can be heard in Kendal tonight (Thursday).

I couldn’t believe it. Not the Wishbone Ash? This was one of my all time favourite bands in my student days. I never managed to see them live, but I have this tradition that any time I upgrade my hi-fi system, the first thing I do is to give their album Argus a blast to see if the money has been well spent (I originally bought it as an audio cassette – remember those?)

Wishbone AshOf course, I had to go. Never in my wildest imagination did I expect to hear this one time mega-band play here in Kendal. I haven’t been to a rock concert in decades, and I had to look up Bootlegger’s website to check out where they were.

So, here I am, 18 hours later, with just a residual buzzing in my ears when it’s quiet to remind me of the experience. Yes, there’s only one member of the original band left, but it’s Andy Powell, guitar and vocals – arguably the hardest part of a band’s sound to replace. The only anachronistic member was the drummer, who looks as though he wasn’t born when Wishbone Ash were in their heyday.

And I suppose that sums up the experience. Andy made a comment along the lines that it’s hard to select material for a concert when you’ve four decades to choose from, but there’s no doubt what the predominantly middle aged audience was there to hear. Andy introduced one of the classic tracks with the words: “Here’s one we recorded in 1972” … you could see the fans doing the arithmetic – yes, that was 41 years ago.

Don’t believe them – nostalgia is what it used to be – and some. Guys, thanks for a great evening. I look forward to hearing you next time you’re in Kendal – even if you’re using your bus passes to get here.