Wednesday 30 September 2015

VAT sync

I pay my VAT on Feb, May, Aug and Nov. When VAT Moss came in, it started on January 1, so that gets paid on March, June, Sep and Dec. If you don't know about VAT Moss and you sell services online to EC countries, you need to find out about it.

This means that I have to calculate my VAT six times per year, when it used to be three. And the calculation is a lot more complicated, because when I pay VAT, I have to calculate only the sales to the UK for Feb to May, but when I pay VAT Moss, I have to calculate sales to EU countires (excluding the UK) for Jan to March. So it's annoying that now I have to work out VAT twice as often, and it's doubly annoying that they are out of phase by one month, which makes it even more complicated.

So I had a brain wave. And I called HMRC on 0300 200 3700.

After a very long time on hold (I didn't time it, maybe half an hour?) I got to talk to a person, and she was very helpful. I can't change the dates when I do VAT Moss, but I can change the dates of VAT. You log into the HMRC VAT site as usual, go to "Change registration details", then "VAT return frequency", and then you choose "march-june-sep-dec". Simples!

So, after a careful conversation with my book-keeper, I'm going to do that. There will be one or two more complicated returns to do, but in March of 2016, I should be all synchronised!

We're improving our service so it's more flexible for you

This was the heading of a letter that I got from my bank recently.

There follows a list of all the great things that they're improving - I get to talk to a "team" instead of just one person. I can ring direct, no need for phone menus. Open all hours. Based in the UK. And so on.

So I called them.

After some back and forth, it turned out that they had nothing to do with "merchant services" (accepting credit cards), only ordinary banking. So the nice chap I spoke to transferred me to another number.

That, of course, was busy, and I got hold music. Then I spoke to a nice lady, who told me that I was talking to the wrong people. I explained that I had two letters, one from her people - devoid of any phone number - and one from Barclays, which did have a phone number, and who I therefore called. She said she'd put me through to the right people.

More hold music.

Meanwhile, I read the letter from the Merchant Services people.

"We're making some changes to our pricing and introducung new pricing plans. This will simplify how we charge you and give you greater clarity around what you pay for."

I translate that to "We're raising the price."

And the hold music continues ...

The music is nice, but wouldn't it be even nicer if they told you how many people were in the hold queue?

Eventually, I got through to a nice lady who was able to answer my question, which was "How much more will I be paying?"

It's about eleven pounds.

 ... update ...

I got a phone call from my bank. They've raised a complaint about the phone issues, and to settle it, they're paying me £30, which I hadn't asked for, but which I've obviously accepted!

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Top twitter

A web site I like posted a list of the top 20 most followed Tweeters, and at the top was Katy Perry, with 76 million followers.

I don't know who she is.

I don't want to know who she is.

I must be getting old.

Monday 28 September 2015

Flu jab

Once again it's the time of year for thinking about getting inoculated.

I've decided not to, because I don't come in contact with many people. I don't go into London, except once every week or so, and then I don't get into crowds. Mostly when I go out, it's caching, and it's just me and the elements.

Ladysolly, on the other hand, mingles a lot; playing bridge you get to meet a lot of people, so she's planning to get jabbed.

Sunday 27 September 2015

Boiled beef and carrots

Corbyn has appointed Kerry McCarthy as the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and ural affairs. And Kerry thinks that meat should be treated like tobacco, with a public campaign to stop people eating it.

Whereas my view is that vegetables should be treated like tobacco, with a public campaign to stop people eating them.

So maybe we can come to a compromise.  I won't tell you what to eat, and you don't tell me what to eat.

Saturday 26 September 2015

Wireless woes

Ladysolly complained to me that although wireless access was working downstairs, it wasn't working upstairs.

The setup is this. I have a wired network all over the house. Connected to this is:

Downstairs, a TP-Link wireless router, and a repeater. That gives me coverage for all of downstairs.

Upstairs, another TP-Link wireless router.

I think what's happened, is that the upstairs router has partially failed. When I connect to it and ping the outside world, I get 25% packet loss, which is strange.

I think I've had this problem, intermittently, for a while.

So I connected up a Siemens DSL access point that I got off Ebay for a fiver a few months back, and set that up. It works fine, except that A) I can't tell it to use DHCP in the range 192.168.etc.etc, and B) I can't tell it which gateway to use. I want to tell it which gateway, because I have one which is a fast DSL, and one which is my reliable 2mbit leased line.

So I also connected up a Buffalo, which is several years old, and I can tell that which gateway to use. But not which DHCP to use. So I let it use the DHCP that it wants to use, and heaven knows how it decides. I don't think it matters much, because we'll only be using a handful of wireless devices at any one time.

So I've just bid on Ebay for a Netgear wireless access point. I have a lot of faith in Netgear gear, it's heavy and clunky and works.

And now the wireless network seems to be working. Ladysolly can access the internet from upstairs, but now she's complaining that she can't access her google email.  I'm thinking that this isn't really an issue for my network, because if she can access the internet, and problems after that aren't within my reach. She rebooted, and it's fine now. Which reminds me of a joke.

A statistician, a physicist, an engineer and a programmer were driving along in a car, and the car stopped working.

The statistician said "The maximum likelihood problem is that we've run out of petrol"
The physicist said "The engine has stopped, and we dont know why"
The engineer said "I'll open the bonnet and diagnose and fix the problem"
The programmer said "Let's all get out, wait a minute, then get back in"

Friday 25 September 2015

Mepal meander

I went up the M11 today, north of Cambridge. First I did a bunch of caches around Mepal, then back to the car for lunch and a battery change. then a whole bunch of caches around Sutton. I did 34 caches, but a *lot* of DNFs.

Thursday 24 September 2015

Breaking the fast

I went to daughter.2 yesterday, for the "breaking the fast". On Yom Kippur, observant jews fast all day; that's from sunset to sunset. I haven't done this since I was about 14; I'm a gastronomic jew, which means that I like Ashkenazi food, go to weddings and funurals, and tell people "I am, thank god, an atheist". When we arrived, there were nibbles (crisps, olives and artichokes), which I tucked into at once, while the people who had actually fasted looked on, hungrily. I see this as me helping them by increasing their penance. And then cake (carrot and lemon). And the smoked salmon beigles; after I had one, ladysolly told me to leave the others for the others.

Then 7:15 came, and the others could break their fast, which they did with gusto. And then the main meal, which was salmon cutlets, and goujons, And small potatoes. I ate rather a lot, of course, and then she brought out dessert, which was cheesecake and pistachio ice cream, and I cannot resist either of those.

As a result, I was more than somewhat stuffed, so when ladysolly offered me lunch today, I declined - I'm still recovering from last night. And given that we don't usually eat until a fair bit after 8pm (and I missed breakfast), it turns out that I'll be fasting today. One day late. I feel sure that God will forgive me, because it's a lot more than he usually gets from me.

One ring

My mobile rang once, then stopped. One missed call. Strange! So I Googled the number that called me, 0844 648 0255.

Apparently, this is their usual thing; one ring and that's it. If you call them back (I didn't) you A) incur the cost of an 0844 call, which gives them revenue and B) you get asked if you "had an accident recently, that wasn't your fault".

So it's two scams for the price of one. Neat.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Thrapston thrash

I thought the weather today, in this area, would be dry. But it rained the whole time I was driving north to Thrapston, and it was still raining when I parked.

So I decided to go on foot, instead of on the bike, because rain is a bigger problem on the bike.

As I plodded along, I kept thinking how much faster this would have been on the bike. And I got wet. Only a light rain, but sufficient!

There were a few good tree climbs, and one I didn't do because everything was wet and slippery, and I couldn't see how far I'd need to go.

I got back to the car at 13:50 and had lunch. By then, it had stopped raining, so I got the bike out for the afternoon run.

24 caches done today, and a few DNFs.

Monday 21 September 2015

Pig gate

For me, the most interesting thing about Pig Gate, is its absence on the Daily Telegraph.

Oh, you haven't heard about Pig Gate?

It's an unsupported allegation by someone who has good reason to hate David Cameron, and has written a biography of him "Call me Dave", that Dave put his dick into the mouth of a dead pig. This was when Dave was an undergraduate at Oxford.

Well, fairly amusing, although I don't really believe it, even though it's obviously possible, and as an undergrad at Cambridge I got up to some pretty strange things.

But the most interesting thing, is that although the biography made the front page on the Daily Telegraph, there was no mention there of the piggy element of the story.

Saturday 19 September 2015

Colossal Cave

My programming epiphany consisted of two programs - Space Invaders and Colossal Cave.

I first encountered Space Invaders in 1976 in Tokyo. It was a dedicated machine, you put money in to play. What help there was, was all in Japanese, which was Double Dutch to me, but I didn't need a manual, it was obvious what you were supposed to do and how.

I met Colossal Cave at about the same time. It was on an HP 3000 that the company I worked for had just installed to replace the PDP11-45. Colossal Cave was a text-based adventure game. Again, no manual, you had to work out how to use it. And it was designed so that you could. You can get it for your Android phone.

The big thing that I learned from these, is that it's possible to write software that doesn't need a manual, that's obvious in how to use it. We all take this for granted today, you see toddlers playing with smartphones. But in 1976, software was dificult to use.

Today, the expression "user friendly" has died out, because everything is user-friendly. In 1976, it was a very new idea, and most software was user-hostile. You had to type the right command, or the software would exit ungracefully with a remark like "Bad input", giving you no clue as to what you've done wrong.

When I got an IBM PC, one of the first programs I implemented was Space Invaders (my take on it was called "Cash Crisis"), using currency symbols for the screen display, and each level was progressively harder until in the last level, the invaders were invisible, and as far as I know, only one person even made it to the end of that - one of my daughters. Another of the first programs I implemented was the Colossal Cave adventure.

You can also get it on your Raspberry Pi.

apt-get install bsdgames

So now you can experience 1970s gaming for yourself.

A clock?

Ahmed Mohamed made a digital clock, took it to school, teachers over-reacted, police over-reacted and now the whole USA is over-reacting.

Of course it's bad that a 14 year old kid gets arrested for showing off his neat project, but that's an obvious consequence of a "zero tolerance policy", which means, guess what, tolerance is thrown out of the window. It's inevitable that a zero tolerance policy will lead to a lack of tolerance (duh) and to really stupid decisions.

But apart from the over-reaction of the teachers and the police, what I'm seeing now is an over-reaction by the rest of the USA. They're treating him like he's some sort of electronics genius.

Try google. You can buy a kit for making a digital clock for £3. It really isn't that big a deal. With modern electronics, it's an LED display, a couple of ICs, a crystal and a few assorted components.

When I was his age, I built:

A crystal radio, using parts salvaged from broken TVs
A transistor radio, which was my crystal radio, two transistors, and more parts from broken TVs
A valve tester (this was 52 years ago, valves were more common than transistors).
A amps-volts-ohms meter (building your own is cheaper and more fun than buying one).

And then I started to get fancy. I built a couple of analog computers, a machine for playing (and winning) a game called "hex", and a digital computer made from Meccano (I worked out how to do an OR gate, an AND gate and a NOT gate) that could reliably add one and one and get two. Meccano was also the hardware base of most of my electronics projects.

Meanwhile, of course, I was doing chemistry. You could buy a pound of sodium chlorate at Boots (they thought it was weedkiller, I knew that it was one component of an explosive, the other component being sugar). Nitrogen tri-iodide, an explosive so unstable that once it dried, a touch would set it off (ammonia from Boots, they thought it was a household cleaner and iodine, which they thought was a disinfectant). With bleaching powder (calcium hypochlorate) you could make chlorine gas, with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) you had an alkali so powerful it would burn your skin, it was easy to get the components for gunpowder. I never took any of that into school, I wasn't stupid.

And physics. I made an electricity generator, a steelyard balance, an electric bell.

But I did take some stuff into school. I made a little box using a metal mustard tin, and a layer of aluminium foil on one side, insulated from the tin. And there was a switch on the side of the tin. This would be left on my desk, and some curious classmate would pick it up and switch the switch. The battery inside would send a surge through the primary coil, the secondary coil amplified the voltage, and you get an electric shock in your hand. Only a small one, though. But if you made the mistake of switching it off again, the back-emf would send a mighty jolt.

I didn't get expelled.

I built a machine that could follow a white line; I used a post office uniselector and hardwired the terminals to provide the logic for the machine. I built a machine that would come to you when you whistled at it, using the components of a tape recorder and lots of meccano (and I made a cover for it so it looked like a dog).

And when I went up to university and discovered the delights of tinkering with a bicycle.

What put paid to all this was a) bridge and b) girls. And when I left university, I found myself at Marconi-Elliott at Borehamwood and they had an Elliott 503 and because they owned the machine, I could use it as much as I liked, which was a *lot*, and I got enchanted by Algol (which is a lot like Turbo Pascal, and a lot like Perl) and I spent the rest of my life playing with the greatest toy ever invented, the digital computer.

A clock?

Friday 18 September 2015

Is adblocking theft?

Some people would like us to think that it is. Their argument is "You agreed to look at ads, in exchange for seeing the content on our site, and now you're reneging on the deal. So it's theft."

First of all, I did not agree to look at the ads on your site. I didn't even agree to let my browser display the ads on your site. I'd say it's the other way round - you're shoving unwanted ads at my computer, which costs me bandwidth. So you're stealing, or at least attempting to steal, from me.

I do understand that you've decided to use a business model whereby you think that your content isn't good enough for you to be able to charge for it, so you'll get money from adverts. My suggestion is that you should improve your content sufficiently that I'm willing for fork out a few dollars.

And I have a very real problem with adverts. The one and only time that my computer has been infested with a trojan, was when I was accessing "The Register", an excellent UK-based tech news site. But they outsource their advertising, and my computer (running Windows 98) was infected by something it got via an advert.

After half an hour trying to get rid of it, I decided to just reformat the drive and reinstall. And then I thought, while I'm doing this, I won't reinstall Windows, I'll put Linux on.

And they aren't the only ones.

It's called "malvertising". In 2012, it was estimated nearly 10 billion ad impressions were compromised by malvertising.

Ten billion!

So why would I open up my computer to this risk? I mostly tend to visit well-known web sites, which I would tend to trust. But the attack vector isn't the web site I'm intending to visit (such as The Register), it's the adverts.

And that's the first reason why I block adverts (I use Adblock plus).  And I block flash and java, also to improve security. And I also have a long list of sites that are redirected to via my hosts file.

The second reason, is bandwidth. Modern web pages include a lot of stuff, because they're trying to make them look "designered". They try to make them look like magazine pages (and sometimes in doing that, they designer them so much that my browser can't properly render the page, and in extreme cases it crashes). If you add the often large adverts to this, then you get web pages that take a lot longer to load than they need to.

And the third reason is that the ads won't do anything even if they display on my browser, because I'm not going to buy anything from them. If I want something, I'll usually go on Ebay (or a few other useful sites) and find it there.

I've heard people complaining about Facebook ads too. Again - I just don't see them. This might be because Facebook has analysed my thoughts, and has realised that it would be a waste of their time to push ads at me. But it's more likely that one of the things I have running, is blocking their ad.

And it isn't theft. I know you want me to buy your products, but my lack of desire for the products that you want to sell me, is not theft.

Why I don't use ATM machines.

I've never used ATM machines, because I don't see how they can be made secure. If you really have to use one, then use one that's in a bank (preferably *inside* the bank, not on the outside).

And a recent article by Brian Krebs shows you why I feel this way.

It's partly the ease with which a large number of ATM machines have been compromised - the crooks get all your card details, and after that, anything that you had in your bank account silently vanishes.

And it's partly the very relaxed attitude that people who look after ATM machines, take in regard to security.

My favourite phrase

Ladysolly has just told me that my favourite phrase is "I don't know".

I can believe that. There's so much I don't know. There's so much that I even don't know abojt the existence of huge areas of human knowledge that I've never even heard of.

I've noticed that I don't know a lot more than most people. Other folks have some great areas of knowledge that I can't even understand how they can possibly know what they say they know, which makes me even more ignorant.

And I'm not ashamed to admit when I don't know something - admission of ignorance can be the first step towards enlightenment. After all, if you already know all about something, there's no incentive to find out more about it.

I don't know that there's a Tooth Fairy; nor do I know that there isn't. Isn't that an appalling degree of ignorance? And the same is true of the Easter Bunny, the Great Teapot, unicorns and gods. There's an immense number of gods that I don't know whether they exist or not, although I'm inclined to be sceptical about whether they could possibly all exist; surely most of them, and possibly all, don't exist. But I don't know.

Fortunately, many of the things I don't know, aren't important. Some of the thngs that I don't know, can be looked up in books or on the internet - for example, I can never remember the exact syntax of the perl substr function.

So I don't think my deep ignorance is important.

But I don't know.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

The Flitch Way

I've cycled the Flitch Way three times before; this is the fourth, plus I did the Takeley Train, and a bunch of caches in Hatfield Forest.

There were a lot if interesting caches today. Two were fake bird boxes, in two I had to guess (or deduce) the settings of a combination lock, I had to open a puzzle box, I went fishing twice. It's nice when it isn't just micro-under-a-brick.

Because the caches were so good, I left two hard drives and a gigabyte memory stick.

39 caches found today, and three DNFs.

Monday 14 September 2015

Public libraries

When I was a kid living in Stamford Hill, I joined the Stamford Hill library.

To me then, it looked huge; in retrospect, it was quite small. But it certainly had a lot of books.

At first, I read books from the children's library; Swallows and Amazons, Dr Doolittle, Biggles and loads more. Then I wandered into the adults library, and found the non-fiction areas. Maths, physics, engineering. And then adult fiction - Three men in a boat, PG Wodehouse, A A Milne. The rules said I was allowed three tickets, but I was (and still am) a fast reader; I read a *lot* of boots. The librarian recognised this, and let me have ten tickets, and I swapped books every week.

I got into science fiction, Ian Fleming, crime, adventure. I read "Keeping up with the Joneses" and 1066. Atkinson and Searle. Even now, ladysolly and I find that we read the same books, from that same library.

Then I discovered that I could also join Tottenham library, just a short bus ride away. And then Hackney library. I had 30 tickets, so I only needed to visit the library every two weeks.
It never took me long to choose the next batch of books, there was so many possibilities. How do you carry 30 books? I used my sister's old folding pram.

Today, with rather more disposable income, I buy my books from Amazon. I still enjoy a trip to Foyles, except that the weight of books I can carry home is limited. And there's tons of free books on the internet,

But I think it's really really important for there to be free public lending libraries, financed out of general taxation, so that people on low income (like we were) can plunder the trasure house of literature.

Sadly, there don't seem to be many who agree with that.

Razor repair

I do enjoy repairing things. So when my electric razor stopped working, I saw that as an opportunity, not a problem.

I found that it worked when I held it upright, but not if it was at an angle. That sounds like a loose connection, so I dismantled it. Sure enough, the connection between the switch and the battery was loose, so I tightened it up and the razor works fine now!

Saturday 12 September 2015

Kentish capers

A trip to Kent. I went via the Dartford Crossing, because I do like going over that bridge, and this is my first time since then abolished the toll booths. I was already paid-up online. First I did a loop of 30 caches, "Out in the sticks". Some of the finds took me rather a long time, but persistence paid, and I found them all.

Then another 15 "Fruitcake's Folly", again I found them all. But for the last few caches I had to go through a path with brambles on both sides, and I did get a bit scratched.

I picked up a few extras between the two circuits for a total of 49 caches.

And then the problem came.

I set off home at 5:30, which shoujld have got me home by 7:30. But I didn't get home till 9:30.

I went down the M2, then the A2, and then I should have taken the A282 to get over the crossing. But just as I got to the place where I should have turned off to the A282, my satnav crashed! And in the ensuing confusion, I stayed on the A2, which took me into London.

With no satnav, I decided to take the A205 (the South Circular) because I knew that would get me home, but the traffic was dreadful. I crossed the Thames at the Battersea bridge, and found the A40. So eventually I got home. And by the time I got back, the satnav had eventually rebooted successfully.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Peterfield plod

Out today on the bike, to Peterfield. I did caches 1 to 13, including several not in the series for a total of 22. Then I biked two miles back to the car for lunch, coffee and new batteries. Then out again for the rest of the series.

Doing it this way added about five miles to the total travelled, but that extra distance is all on tarmaced roads, so I can whizz along at 15 mph. For the loss of 20 minutes, I get to have lunch in comfort in the car, and I don't need to carry enough batteries for the whole day.

To get the series bonus, you have to find eight picture clues. I found five of them, but decided to try for the bonus anyway, by making some guesses. My guesses turned out fo be good enough, although I had to wander around in a wood for a while. But I found the bonus!

Then I completed the circuit and got back to the car just in time to drive home. 46 caches done today, and one DNF (actually it was a tree climb that I decided not to attempt).

Saturday 5 September 2015

More pies, more pies!

I have a couple of dozen Raspberry Pies. I dont know exactly how many, because I use them for all sorts of odd jobs. Three of them are driving my displays of time-temperature-alertcount-gardenview. One drives the robotic arm, one controls the "night mail" cache puzzle, several are name servers, mail servers and suchlike. They cost £16, and for that, you get a full-size computer (just add keyboard, mouse and screen) in a credit-card sized package.

One of the reasons I like them, is that the draw just a tiny amount of power. A full-size computer pulls 300-400 milliamps, that's 75-100 watts. The Pi draws less than 3 watts. And now there's the Pi 2, with twice the memory and six times the processing power (I suspect that in actual use, I won't get six times). And it pulls 2 watts. They cost 50% more, but that's only £25 compared with £16.

The power draw is important, because I pay a lot for electricity;  each kilowatt consumed in the Data Shed, has to be extracted via the air conditioning, which doubles (or more) the power draw, depending on the outside temperature (in winter, the aircon does very little).

I power them from an ordinary PC power supply, fed through a small device that reduces the voltage to a steady 5.6v, and that connects to a USB hub, and several Pis can be powered from that hub. I don't bother with a keyboard or screen; each Pi is connected via an ethernet cable into my network.

So in my latest project, I've been pressing into service every Pi that I can find that's not doing anything. That only gives me a handful, so I decided to get more.

I've ordered five Pi 2 Model Bs to add to the stable.

Friday 4 September 2015

Motherboard problems

I used to think that the parts of a computer that broke, tended to be the mechanical parts, like the fans, and if a CPU fan dies, the CPU overheats and the system crashes.

Power supplies also seem to have a finite life. I guess that's because they have to control a lot of power, things get hot, and that shortens the life of components.

And, of course, hard drives. Some hard drives I've bought in the past are terrible, lasting less than a year. Others are golden, lasting a couple of decades!

But I'm finding a fourth problem - motherboards.

There's a type of Foxconn motherboard that I bought a long time ago - maybe about 10 years ago I bought a lot of them, because once I find a motherboard that has the characteristics I need, I like to standardise on it. So I have a lot of these. They use the Intel Pentium chip, 775 pinout.

Now they're failing, in fairly large numbers. Ten years sounds like a long time for a computer to work, but I don't see why it shouldn't still be working 50 years later. It's very obsolete, of course, but if it's fast enough for the job it's doing, that's not a problem.

Until it fails.

So I'm busily replacing them with another board I bought a lot of, made by Gigabyte. Again, bought about ten years ago, and I've had them in boxes ever since. They're so old, the CMOS battery on each of them is dead and has to be replaced.

I also have a bunch of motherboards that take the Intel 478 pinout CPUs. These are even older than the Foxconns, and they're starting to fail too. I only have a couple of mobos that I can use as replacements, and I have several CPUs now without motherboards. So I went on to Ebay, and found I could get Intel motherboards (and Intel make quality mobos) for a mere £8 each, so I bought four, which was all the vendor had.

The reason for all this activity - I'm doing a big data processing job. And I currently have 22 computers sharing the processing!

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Andover revisited

I went back to Andover today, to do the recently-posted "Andover half marathon". I chose a place to park that let me cut the 50-odd circuit into two parts, and when I got there, I found that it was the same place I parked last time I went there!

In the morning, I set off and did 22 caches, including a puzzle I'd solved nearby. Then I biked a mile back to the car for lunch, coffee, new batteries, and then set off to do the other 31 caches.

1 DNF and 53 find. A great, but tiring, day out.