Monday, 24 October 2016

Back to the Essex Way

I did the whole of the Essex Way a few years ago, and it was good. This is a revival of part of that series, so I decided to do it.

There were 15 caches along the route, and then I did a dozen more in Epping. I had lunch back in the car, and then went back home.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Another big bang

30 years ago, I worked in the City, pretending to be a stockbroker. I say "pretending" because I was never able to work out what I was supposed to be doing. As far as I could tell, my task was to make up stories that would persuade people to either buy or sell shares, and surely it couldn't be a crass as that? For a long time, I thought there had to be something rational underpinning it all, but eventually I decided that I couldn't see anything. And not long after that, I stopped being a stockbroker.

But while I was there wearing pinstripes, leather shoes, no braces and trying not to laugh, the Big Bang happened, 30 years ago, 27 October 1986. The floor of the stock exchange became deserted, all trading was electronic. And then we had the Michael Fish hurricane on the night of 15-16 October 1987, which was followed by Black Monday, October 19, 1987, the day that A) stock prices plummeted by several percent and B) trading volumes plummeted to a tenth of previous levels.

What followed was a series of amalgamations between brokers, jobbers, banks and other assorted spivs and barrowboys. The City adjusted to the new rules and carried on as before, except they didn't need so many people (including me).

It's all electronic now.

Think about that for a moment, because if everything is electronic, it really doesn't matter where people are located. Except that where they are located, affects what rules and regulations they have to comply with.

With the EU, there's a single market. So if you can trade in one country, you can trade on an equal basis with the other 27. If you're authorised to be a bank in the UK, then you can equally be a bank in 27 other countries.

And then Brexit.

Suddenly, if you're authorised to be a bank in the UK, you aren't authorised to be a bank in 27 other countries.

So, imagine you're on the management board of a large bank that trades internationally. If you're based in the UK, you aren't authorised to do financial stuff in the EU. The obvious solution is to relocate. And you're not going to wait until the day before Brexit Day.

We don't know yet what Brexit means. Yes, Brexit means Brexit, ho ho ho. What a useless definition. There's an important question - will the UK still have access to the single market? Because the cost of that, will be the abandonment of control over immigration from the EU to the UK. And some people are saying that the referendum vote to leave the EU, was a vote to stop uncontrolled immigration from the EU (although that certainly wasn't on the voting slip that I put my X on, so I don't know how people can say this).

If Brexit means control over EU immigration (and, by the way, Theresa May wasn't able to control non-EU immigration when she was Home Secretary, so what hope of doing so in future?) then it means leaving the single market, because the EU isn't going to let us eat the beans and leave the brussels.

And if we leave the single market, then the City will up sticks and move. Probably to Germany, maybe to Brussels. Or possibly to Ireland, where they have an educated english-speaking population very near to London.

Now you might think "Good riddance, it's the banksters who caused the financial crisis", although actually it was the politicians who caused it by insufficient regulation of the finance industry, because you can't expect banksters to refrain from chasing profits. But actually, we'll be just as dependent on the banks in future as we are now, because banking is a necessary service in any economy.

The difference will be that the taxation revenue that the country gets from the financial service industry, will also relocate.

And the City London contributes £67 billion per year in taxes to the government's handbag. Which makes even the famously non-existent $350 million/week on the side of the Brexit bus look puny.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Internet preservation

The internet has become important. If a situation arises whereby I cannot do my VAT return, civilisation will fall. And I'm not being sarcastic here; if I, and everyone else, cannot pay our taxes, cannot access our banking, cannot use our credit cards, then the problem is immense.

The recent attack on DYN, was an attack on the DNS infrastructure of the internet. My experience was that my inability to access the HMRC VAT-paying site, was a DNS problem. I know this, because I tried to use nslookup on the domain I was trying to get to, and DNS didn't work.

The attack was caused by a DDoS. A zillion compromised computers were all accessing the DYN site, which was thereby unable to cope with the load. Clearly, this issue needs to be dealt with, because if I can't pay my VAT, the government can't function.

It's rare that I would say that government has to take action - I much prefer governments to be inactive, or incompetent, or both. I've been lucky with that so far. But in some matters, government action is actually needed.

For example, food safety. Before regulation, you could add anything you like. You could add water to milk, which at least doesn't make it less safe. You can add brick powder to chilli powder. And you could add all sorts of poisonous things to food.

The market can't fix this; it has to be legislation. So we have food safety legislation all over the world now; the things you eat are safe, and if they aren't, someone can go to prison.

The electricity that magically emerges from your wall; it has to be 240 volts and 50 hertz. If one day it came out as 1000 volts, that would blow all your fuses and ruin many appliances. So it's regulated.

But I'm not advocating that the internet be regulated, because that's probably not possible. It is, however, possible to regulate the sale of appliances.

Electricity can kill. I've had a couple of 240 volt electric shocks, and that was only in one hand, and it hurt. A lot. So the safety of electrical appliances is regulated. For example, anything being used outside the house, has to be protected by an earth leakage circuit breaker. That's to stop people from killing themselves with electric lawnmowers.

Likewise cars; there's a legal safety requirement, and an annual test for safety. And gas appliances, and so on and so on.

We need the sale of internet-connectable appliances to be regulated to meet a minimum safety standard. For example, there should not be hardcoded passwords that leave an entire brand of products vulnerable. Right now, internet-connectable appliances (such as "smart light bulbs", cameras or toasters) aren't required to have any internet safety. The thinking is, why would anyone hack my toaster? The problem is that if you hack ten million toasters, then you have a bot army that can DDoS the internet into a smoking hulk.

Unfortunately, we have in charge of our governments, people who haven't a Scoobie. So this probably won't happen until the problem gets so bad that we're devolved back to pigeon post.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Four Pies

In my office, I have four Raspberry Pies. On runs the Geocaching Robot Arm, one monitors my front garden and road outside, one drives a seven inch screen (which wants a 12 volt power supply, isn't that handy?) showing me a continuous update of the usage of my 100 mbps line, and the fourth one drives a 17 inch screen that shows the details of line usage.

I've just reorganised the way they're powered. Before, it was a mish-mash of different power supplies, reflecting the fact that these systems have evolved over the last few years. Now I've rationalised things.

I have a computer - a rather small box, which I used to run several terminals on the same screen. A few years ago, the power supply in that failed, and because it's such a small box, it can't take a standard PSU (ATX power supply). So I put a standard ATX power supply on top of it, and led the wires inside. This is what is technically known as a kludge. What I realised just yesterday, was that the same ATX power supply could be used more widely.

I have another computer that I use as my main workstation. Several months ago, the power brick failed for the monitor (a lovely big 27 inch screen, 2560 by 1440 pixels). I looked on Ebay for a replacement power brick, couldn't find one, then realised that all it wanted was 12 volts. The answer is obvious. So I take 12 volts from the ATX supply, and it powers the monitor just fine, meaning I won't need to shell out a couple of hundred pounds for a replacement monitor.

The big change was the Pies. I'm using PoE, Power over Ethernet. In an ethernet cable, only two of the four pairs are used for data. The other two pairs just aren't used for 100 mbit ethernet, only for gigabit, which I'm not using in my office.

So I bought a bunch of PoE splitters, £1.24 per pair on Ebay. I'm using four of them, they're connected to the 12 volt line on the power supply, and to an ethernet switch.

At the other end of the ethernet cable, I put the other half of the splitter, so now the same cable is carrying the ethernet data, and the power. But hey, you're thinking, that's 12 volts, and the Pies want 5 volts. If I sent five volts down the ethernet cable, by the time it got to the Pies, the voltage would have dropped, and since the lengths of cable are different, the voltage drop would be different. So I put 12 volts down the line, and at the end where each Raspberry is, I put a voltage converter  with included voltmeter, to step the 12 volts down to 5.25.

The Pi wants less than 2 watts (under half an amp at 5 volts). So the 12 volt line will be transmitting under 0.2 amps, and the PoE spec says it can handle 1 amp. Still, I put a 5 amp fuse at the end where the PSU is, and that's carrying four Pies and the screen, which I reckon would be about 2 amps total - I had a car fuse that blows at 5 amps, left over from a bike project.

So now all my cabling is nice and neat, and I've dispensed with three power supplies that have gone back into my box of bits.

I can't do my VAT

It's that time of year again. Four times per year, I have to fill in the VAT form that tell HMRC how much money they're going to take from me to waste on things other than beer. So I went to the HMRC web site and  clicked on "start now".

After a long pause, it redirected me to and I was told "Site unavailable".

So I tried to ping it. Nothing. So I checked that the DNS was resolving, with "nslookup". Nothing. Clearly, something catastrophic has happened (I'm trying not to rejoice prematurely); maybe some benevolent deity has hurled lightning at the HMRC computer, which I imagine as being a Sinclair Spectrum, sitting in a dark cupboard. I can dream, can't I?

I abandoned the attempt to do my VAT, and went back to it a while later. Either they've fixed whatever had gone wrong, or else they rebooted the Spectrum. I logged on, they sent the 6 digit code to my phone, and I filled in the VAT form. They owe me, because I pay EU non-UK VAT via the VAT Moss system, and I shudder to think what's going to happen after Brexit, because whether the Brexit is hard, soft or medium, you can bet your bippy that it will be different and I'll have to change my software and procedures to accomodate it.

My VAT is done for another three months.

... later ...

I think the problem was a massive DDoS attack against a DNS provider..

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

300% utilisation

I knew that I had a problem when my bandwidth monitor started to tell me that about three times as much data was flowing along my line as was possible. Obviously, the monitor had to be wrong.

I very quickly tracked the problem down - the system drive on the main server was failing. Lots of read and write errors. And that's very annoying, it was a new install; I opened the plastic wrapper on the drive a couple of weeks ago.

And then things got worse.

I tried checking the cables, I tried rebooting, nothing helped. Clearly I had to replace the drive.

First, I switched the load onto a backup server. That's very easy; I just change a couple of lines on my firewall, and all accesses are directed to the backup server.

Then I tried to replace the drive.

My first idea was to use a 2.5 inch Sata SSD, because the server (a Dell Poweredge R805) has a couple of slots at the front for 2.5 inch Sata drives. But the server wouldn't acknowledge that it was there, and when I opened up the server, it was obvious why. The slots for the drives were there, but there was nothing connecting them to the mainboard. I'd need an interface card, and it would have to be a Dell branded card, and the cost would be astrological.

So my next thought was, replace the drive with another new drive. I then spent an hour on that. There's only one Sata connector on the mainboard, so I used that for the DVD drive I use for installing Linux. The drive to install on, would be connected to an interface card that lets me put Sata drives on a PCI-E interface. But that didn't work, because the Linux installer refused to recognise the drives.

And then things got really tricky, because I had to leave to go to a family event. My aunt Kit died a few days ago, at the age of 99, and she was one of my favourite aunts, so we went to the funeral and then back to her daughter (my cousin) for a major nosh-up. So for the next six hours, my backup server carried the load (and hardly anyone noticed).

When I got back, I had a plan. First, I connected the DVD drive to a USB port. Then I removed the PCI-E cards, so all I had was that DVD drive, and the drive I wanted to install Linux on, connected to the motherboard Sata port.

That worked! And several minutes later, I had Fedora Linux version 24, 64-bit on the hard drive. So I replaced the PCI-E cards, connected up the other drives, rebooted and everything was fine. And I have a list of things to do to configure the server the way I want it, and a copy of all the files that I needed to do the configuration.

So about an hour later (plus a couple of hours messing about fruitlessly before the family event, plus six hours at the family event) the server is up and running nicely.

Monday, 17 October 2016


Trump has started to claim that the election is being rigged.

And a poll has revealed that 41% of voters think that the election could be stolen from Trump (73% of Republicans believe that, and 17% of Democrats).

So what's going to happen when Hillary wins? Will Trump gracefully acknowledge defeat, and wish her well for the future? My feeling, based on how he's behaved over the last year, is that he won't. He'll scream that the election was rigged. Because the alternative - that he's a loser - isn't acceptable to him.

So what will the 35% of the electorate that voted Trump do. Will they accept defeat gracefully? I hope they do. But there's other things to consider, which are difficult for we British to comprehend.

The first is the existence of 300 million guns in private hands. One nutcase with a gun can do quite a lot of damage; a million people with guns can do a hell of a lot of damage. And there's a lot of Americans who believe that one important reason they are armed, is so that they can stop government doing bad things.

The second is the American attitude towards revolution. They glorify the events of 1776; they call it "The Revolution". The last time we British had a revolution was 1688, and most people won't even have heard of it, it was so politely done. 

The third is that there's a fair number of Americans who want to revisit their civil war, only this time they want it to end differently.

So would Trump incite violence? He has form. He promised to pay the legal fees of supporters who attack protesters at rallies. "There may be somebody with tomatoes in the audience. So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell—  I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise. It won’t be so much ’cause the courts agree with us too."

And then in another speech: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd began to boo. He quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” For we British who might not be able to decode this, Second Amendment is the right to bear arms. Meaning guns.

Trump is probably not stupid enough to call for a revolution explicitly. But he could say things that some people will interpret as a call to arms; something that he can deny meant that.

This could get messy.