Sunday 27 November 2016

Lunch at Reubens

Every two years, the class of 1959, Grocers Company School, get together for a reunion. This reunion celebrated 50 years since we all left school. Of the original 105 children, 20 elderly men came to the lunch.

I had chopped liver, salt beef with latkes followed by lockshen pudding and coffee, with a bottle of wine to help it along. The talk was a mixture of catch-up on "what I did after school", "where is he now" and current events; it was an excellent lunch, and we're all grateful to the organisers.

I discovered something that I'm amazed I didn't know. I had thought that I was the only person in my year to go to Cambridge - I was wrong. Laurence Moody (a second cousin of Ron Moody) did English at Jesus. But A) at school we mathematicians, who regarded ourselves as la creme de la creme, didn't mix with the arts types, B) he was at a different college and C) there was no Jewish Society, although I'm not sure I'd have joined if there had been.

A great day out!

Saturday 26 November 2016

The nativity play

I don't think I've ever been to a Nativity before, although ladysolly thinks I must have. I have a poor memory, so maybe she's right, I don't remember.

I was invited to grandson.1's Nativity play. Naturally, I went.

We got up at 7am to get to London in time for the start. And because there's a major traffic obstruction at the junction leading to the nearest tube station, we had to go to Gerrards Cross train station to get into London, then a Taxi to St Michaels church. We arrived in good time, and joined the line of parents outside the church. For some reason (no room in the church?), they didn't allow us inside, so we all froze in the cold and blustery weather.

Ladysolly trotted off in search of coffee; I found a niche against a wall and tried not to think about my feet turning to ice. We'd arrived *far* too early.

Ladysolly came back with two large cups of hot coffee, which helped a little, then daughter.1 turned up, then daughter.2. Grandson.1 was inside the church, getting ready - he had a speaking part.

Ladysolly and I were huddling together for warmth, which helped a bit, and then they opened the church doors and we all went in; it was nicely warm inside. And impressive.

It's a huge building, with stained glass windows ...

and an organ ...

The audience was pretty big. I suppose they had a good idea of how many would attend, and the place was filled.

The play started. The heroes of the story were Sam and his friend Mouse. A dozen children filed down the aisle to the front and gave us the first song. They were dressed as Wild West cowboys, which slightly surprised me as I thought I knew the story, and cowboys aren't in it.  Because I don't think Wild West cowboys existed 2000 years ago, but hey, what do I know about this - other elements of the story are more improbable. So the cowboys sang a hoedown, and then Sam and Mouse explained that Sam's job is to keep the stable clean - he works hard and isn't appreciated.

The play progressed - short lengths of dialogue were interspersed by teams of kids, class by class, trotting down the aisle to deliver their song. Some of them were dressed as sheep, some as horses or camels,  there was an excellent team of angels and the story unfolded. Mary (well played by a little girl who I'm sure was jewish) and Joseph (who from his name Kei Endo would probably be japanese, so possibly Shinto) arrived at the inn and were told by the innkeeper (played by Vikramaditya and I'd guess Hindu?) that they were full, but they could have the stable. Sam's stable.

So they bedded down there, and I think I might have missed an important part, but suddenly there was also a baby (whereas in my experience it takes the best part of a day for a baby to appear), and Mary was uncomfortable because the hay was prickly so they went outside and saw a star, and that's when the three wise men (actually two wise men and a wise woman) appeared, with grandson.1 as one of them, carrying a huge gold brick.

The gifts were gifted (and a song sung) and Mouse had the idea of replacing the prickly hay with softer hay, so the family would be more comfortable. Hence the title of the play.

I suspect that the author of the play might have confused hay with straw. Straw can be prickly, but hay is dried grass.  But never mind.

The play concuded with the song "Christmas is for you", which I agree with, then the headmaster thanked the staff, the parents, the musicians and everyone else who helped for all their hard work. Then the vicar thanked god, who hadn't actually done anything, but I suppose that's the vicar's job.

After the play, we all went to the Science Museum, where I renewed my friendship with the Newcomen steam engine, Puffing Billy and the Rocket.

Thursday 24 November 2016


So here's the question. Should you tell your children that Santa Claus bring presents if they're good?

A recent article in the Lancet discussed this, without, of course, coming to any conclusion.

I think it's easy. Yes, you should tell your children that Santa Claus bring presents if they're good, because when they find out that you're lying, it teaches them the valuable lesson that not everything that other people say is true, even people in authority. And in particular, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and claims about invisible, immortal, all-knowing and all-powerful entities should be treated with a considerable pinch of salt.

This Christmas, give your children the gift of scepticism.

Another tech support scam

This one was slightly different.

The call was, of course, from David at "Windows Technical Department", a company that has often called me in the past. And it was about malware on my computer, of course.

I decided to play "upstairs, downstairs". This is the game whereby my phone is downstairs, but the computer is upstairs. No, I don't have a mobile phone. No, it isn't a laptop. Yes, I can bring it downstairs.

So David waited patiently for five minutes, then I spoke to him again to tell him the good news. I've brought the monitor down, now I need to get the big box. He hung on for another five minutes while I got the big box, then I asked him how to plug it all in. He explained that to me, and another five minutes passed while I did that, and I got back to him and he asked me to switch it on.

"I don't have a power point here. I'll have to get an extension."

Another five minutes passed while I did that, then I plugged it in. "Are you connected to the internet?" he asked. "No, the internet connection is upstairs." "Do you have Wifi?" "What's that?" "Can you connect to the internet now?" "Yes," I said, "hang on, I'll do that."

Ten minutes went by, with me giving him an occasional piece of encouragement, as I humped the computer, monitor and keyboard upstairs again. Then I proudly told him "OK, it's connected to the internet now." "What do you see." "Hang on, I'll go and have a look."

I think at this point he realised that we were back with the original "upstairs, downstairs" problem. He changed tack.

"What do you use the computer for?" "Oh, stuff," I said, vaguely. "Email?" "Yes" "Online shopping, Amazon, Ebay?" "Yes" "Online banking?" "No, that's too complicated for me."

He consulted with someone in his office. "We need to upload security to your system, we can do that via your IP address. It will cost you £2 for five years, and that will cover your computer even if you buy a new one." "Well, that sounds very reasonable, let's do it." "You'll pay with credit card." "I don't have a credit card." "Debit card?" "I don't have one of those either, can I pay you by cheque?" "The amount is too small for a cheque." "Can I pay you cash, then?" I'm kind of hoping he'll give me his address, but it didn't work. He's hoping I'll give him a credit card number to steal from, but that didn't work.

He hung up. I managed to waste an hour of his time, so that's a dozen other people he didn't try to scam. Caller ID said "01467646309" but that was fake, of course. However, if you google that number, he's obviously been a busy little bee.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

The night I met Tetris

It was 1991. I was working in the virus lab on a bunch of stuff sent in by various people.

Each candidate file got copied to my "infectable" computer, an old IBM PC clone without a hard drive. Then I ran the COM or EXE file. Then I ran my "goat" files, several tiny programs that only existed to get infected. Once one of more of them were infected,  A) I knew that it was indeed a virus, and B) I had the virus isolated in that infected file.

By a year or so later, I automated that process, using Novell Netware 2 to store the candidate files and feed them one at a time, as if from a hopper, onto the infectable computer, run the file, run the goats, filter off any that changed, re-image the infectable computer and on to the next candidate. It made things a lot faster and more efficient.

But in 1991, I hadn't automated things. So I ran the candidate file. And that was the first time I encountered Tetris.

Three hours later, I was still playing the game.

Friday 18 November 2016

Homeopathy doesn't work

You'll probably remember a few blogs here on this topic - ranting against the money that the NHS wastes on this, and against the support of this snake oil by Bigears. Well, the US government has decided to support me on this. In future, homeopathic "remedies" have to have a label that says "This product doesn't work" or similar.

I expect the vendors will find ways to wriggle round this, and consumers who don't bother reading the product packaging will continue to be duped. But probably the biggest way they'll get round this is by using the same method used by cosmetics and other advertisers; they'll truthfully use the "8 out of 10 cats" line, as in "8 out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas", or "reduces the appearance of wrinkles".

So we have to continue the struggle against snake oil.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Another birther

You might recollect the rumour that Obama wasn't born in the USA. It was false, of course, but a leading light in publicising the rumour was Donald Trump.

Now there's a rumour that Trump was born in Pakistan.

This, of course, is also completely unfounded, and it's already been debunked by Snopes.

Did you know that the word "irony" isn't in Websters US dictionary? Or the word "gullible".

One more cache.

It was a suitably dark and windy night as I parked and set off. Not knowing exactly what I'd need at GZ, but knowing that I wouldn't want to trek all the way back to the car to get what would be necessary, I chose a wide selection of special equipment from the assortment that I usually carry in the car.

I read in the logs that a telescopic ladder would be useful, but mine is pretty heavy and I didn't fancy humping it half a mile. Instead, I took my grapnel and the rope ladder, as well as the reaching tool that extends my arm reach. I took a length of nylon rope and a strong magnet - some caches can be "cheated" by using a magnet. In case it was the kind of cache where you have to apply liquid to make the cache appear, I took a two litre bottle of water, and a strong head torch. And several other items, which I probably should not disclose here. I didn't bother with the ghost repellent, because, well, I don't believe in ghosts.

So I loaded up my rucksack (a wheelbarrow would have been helpful) and headed off into the night.

It was at that point that it started to rain.

But hey, I'm a cacher, a bit of wet doesn't discourage me. I pressed on.

By the time I got to GZ, the rain had turned to snow. Snow is both cold, of course, and wet, because when it settles on you, it melts. But hey, I'm a cacher, a bit of cold and wet doesn't discourage me.

I hurled my grapnel up into the darkness, and after a few tries, it lodged on something. Batman always gets his lodged first time - let me tell you that in reality, it isn't like that. So I tied my rope ladder to the grapnel, and started the ascent.

And then I saw the first lighting, and a couple of seconds later, heard the thunder. Sound travels about a kilometer in two seconds, so the the thunderstorm was a fair distance away, and I judged it safe to do the ascent.

I should have known better. Thunderstorms move, and this one was no exception. As I straddled a branch, I comforted myself with the thought that if it hit the tree, I'd probably be OK. Probably. At least I wasn't on that metal telescopic ladder! I reached for the cache, only to find that I was a couple of feet short. But I had my reacher tool! And with that, I was able to grip the cache and get it out of its niche.

And then I dropped it.

At GZ, the grass is long and the undergrowth is gnarly. And I was getting cold, wet and miserable. At least the thunderstorm had passed, so I was no longer worried about electrocution. And after a long search, I finally laid hands on the little blighter, and was able to sign the log.

The reast was easy. Or at least, it should have been. The grapnel was already in place, so getting up again was easy, and I used the reacher, careful not to drop the container, to place it back into its niche. And with that done, I sighed with relief - job done.
And it was at that moment that the owl, unused to human beings lurking in trees, flew past and complained "Woo Woo".

You remember I told you that I don't believe in ghosts? That's an evidence-based belief, based on having no evidence in favour. But when you're up in a haunted tree and something goes "Woo woo" in your ear, that isn't the time for careful reflection and the discounting of old wives tales.

Fortunately, I was already so wet from the rain and snow, that any extra liquid wouldn't show. I slunk back to the car, and drove home to a hot bath.


Out and about

I found a nice circuit just southwest of Milton Keynes, and invited SimplyPaul to join me in going round.

We parked at the village hall at Thornborough, and set off, on foot. We didn't go by bike, because the whole route was on footpaths, and I was expecting several stiles.

It went well, and we found all the caches; 22 in all, no DNFs. But by the time we got back to the cars, my legs were giving me grief, and I decided to wimp out of the second circuit.

Near the end of the circuit, we saw these great gates.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

The news

How can I find out what is going on?

The newspapers are all very obviously biassed. We used to take the Telegraph, but that deteriorated so much that only the Matt cartoon was worth reading. We take the Times now, but that's almost as biassed as the Telegraph used to be. I can't think of any other newspapers that might be useful.

Apparently, a lot of people now get their news from Facebook, a place where anyone can post anything no matter how incorrect. Or Twitter, which is the same but briefer.


I think that many people have a particular field of expertise, and you can compare what the media say, with what you know is right in your field. When I first did this 25 years ago, I was really surprised at how incorrect the newspapers were. And how shallowly they investigated, and how readily they believed random people. It's the same now, only worse, because it looks like the newspapers are getting a lot of their information from Facebook and Twitter. See above for what that does.

I suppose I have to accept that I can't know what's happening, and hope that at least I can get a good grasp on stuff that happened 50 years ago.

Monday 14 November 2016

NHS email

The NHS email system hit a rock today.

An unnamed IT staffer sent a test email to a list containing 1.2 million NHS employees. Some of those emailed back to the list with "please take me off this list" or "Did you make a mistake"; each such email resulted in another 1.2 million emails. And some people had "Acknowledge receipt" with mean that just reading that email sent another email.

You can imagine what happened to the email server. It's called an email storm. It's not easy to sort out; you have to filter out emails about the email storm and delete them unsent. It must have been a nightmare for the IT staff.

But what I'm wondering is, how was this even possible? How do you set up an email list of 1.2 million people; you aren't going to be typing them in one at a time.

And when you hit "send", why did the email system allow it through? If I were designing the NHS email system, I'd put an upper limit on the number of people that you could send an email to. Which would be less than a hundred.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Piqued, peaked and peeked.

I understand that I'm tilting at windmills here. But.

I really am fed up with the misuse of the phrase "piqued my imagination". It seems to me that hardly anyone gets this right. It's either "peaked" (18,100 hits on Google) or "peeked" (4,150 hits). I'm glad to report that "piqued my imagination" got 47,800 hits, so all is not yet lost.

At least "peaked" means "reached the highest point", and there's some excuse for getting it wrong. But "peeked" means "had a quick look at".

I have similar beefs with "loathe" and "loath", which mean *completely* different things. Also "diffuse" and "defuse" which also have very different meanings but are often confused. And "horde" and "hoard".

"Decimate" has completely lost its real meaning, and the words "disinterested" and "uninterested" appear to have merged.

Am I the only one who cares? Yes, I know that English words change their meaning, and "gay" doesn't mean what it meant 50 years ago. But I don't think that this is a mutation of meaning, I think it's just inadequate education and lack of care. If you're going to make the effort to use latin-derived and/or uncommon words, you should also make the effort to get them right. "Journalists" are the worst; if your profession is the use of words, you have an obligation to use them correctly. But in the era of blogging and online media, everyone seems to think they're a journalist.


I've pretty much given up on the difference between "due to" and "owing to", which it would seem that very few people can distinguish.

Thursday 10 November 2016

Not a great day

Today wasn't a great day.

FIrst, I had a call from TalkTalk (TT); my last invoice wasn't paid.

We investigated. The bank wouldn't honour the Direct Debit (DD), and they said that it was because the amount was greater than the funds in the account. But we run a "sweeper" account, and we have on occasion paid out more than in the account in the past; for example to HMRC. And because it's a "sweeper", there's funds in the account that is swept to/from, so the bank isn't taking any risk in honouring the DD. After a lot more talk to the bank, they retreated to a different reason; Talktalk used a DD number that hadn't been approved.


I've been paying TT by direct debit for a couple of decades now, because they were billing me for the DSL lines. But it seems that for the new 100 mbit line, they made up a new DD number and tried to bill that. When it didn't work, they didn't bother to tell me. And the bank didn't bother to tell me of a failed attempt to do a DD. So I explained to the bank that it would have been nice if they'd told me about what they presumably considered to be a fraudulent attempt to charge a DD against my account. And they told me that they don't do that. Which means that a random criminal can do DDs on you and you'll never know that there's any fraud being attempted. So this all came as a bit of a surprise.

After about two hours of phoning TT and the bank, we came up with a solution; I paid TT by credit card (which will cost them more than a DD would, but they seemed to be happy) and TT will set up a DD for the future.

Job done.

The next thing was a visit to the dentist. Last time I went, to patch up a chipped tooth (chipped on a plum stone, would you believe) the dentist took four x-rays of my teeth (top and bottom, left and right) and on examining them, she recommended two fillings and an extraction.

Fillings aren't too bad, but an extraction? Ugh!

Not as bad as it sounds. The extraction is for a fragment of tooth that was just floating free of the jaw. The first filling wasn't too bad, except she used the vibrating drill as well as the water jet drill, and that really isn't nice. The second filling needed local anasthetic, and because my jaw was totally numb, I hardly felt a thing (more vibrating drill). And then she did the extraction, using a tool that looked like a tiny spoon, followed by tweezers, and it was a small but very jagged piece of tooth that wasn't doing anything useful but could have caused a problem one day. So then I chomped on a wadding until the bleeding stopped, and I should be good by the time I have supper. She's a good dentist. And they're taking on more patients, if you live anywhere near Amersham, I can recommend Hill Avenue Dental.

The third thing was a penalty notice for ladysolly parking in the Chalfont and Latimer tube station car park. Fortunately, she had kept the receipt that the machine gives you. Actually, there's no luck involved; it's pretty obvious that it's a good idea to get and keep that receipt. So I took a picture of the receipt, logged in to the NCP web site and put in an appeal against the fine, on the grounds that the parking fee had been paid, and we had proof via the receipt. I don't know how they made that cockup. Computers, eh?

So, as I said, not a great day, but I do feel that in all three situations, I came out on top.
And tomorrow is my birthday!

Wednesday 9 November 2016

The bubble

Every post I see on Facebook is unhappy at the Trump victory. All of them. Yet I know that about half the people in the US don't feel that way.

This means that I'm seeing a *very* biased sample.  This means that I'm mostly out of touch with how Americans feel. That's probably not too important, since I don't live in America, but it's made me think. There's probably other matters where I'm in an echo chamber of people who think like I do. Brexit, for example.

But it isn't just politics. There's other subjects where I'm in an echo chamber - computer security, for example. Everyone I see posting on Facebook thinks that computers are very insecure, and that this is important. Yet I think that most people don't agree, or at least don't care.

Which echo chambers are you in?


My first post on the US election was about a year ago. I won't say I made a great forecast, because I didn't. I was sad when Hillary displaced Bernie, and I'm sad that the USA has made the choice they have, but it's their country, so it's their choice.

So now they have a Republican president, a Republican Senate and a Republican House of Representatives, which should mean that the Republicans get to do whatever they want. Plus they can appoint a strong Republican to the Supreme Court, which means that the Supreme Court might not be any kind of obstruction.

So what will they do?

I expect them to reverse everything that Obama did, of which the biggest was "Obamacare", the Affordable Care Act. Which isn't anything like the National Health services that we have in most Western countries, but was a kind of baby step in that direction. What will replace it? I would guess Trumpcare, which will be completely different from Obamacare and yet pretty much the same.

The Great Mexican Wall will mutate into some yards of actual bricks, but mostly a virtual wall of rules and regulations. The "Mexico will pay for it" will be implemented as some tariffs on imports from Mexico, which they will then claim is paying for the "wall".

The "total and complete ban on muslims" will mutate into a careful examination of immigrants (which, of course, they already have) and the "get jobs back into America" will turn out to be a tariff on goods from China.

There won't be a mass migration of Americans to Canada, because that was always just talk, and unless life becomes seriously awful in America (which I don't think it will) there will be no incentive to up sticks.

Things won't get better for the people who voted for Trump, because the forces that are killing manufacturing industry in America can't be Canuted out of existence.


Barclays ePQD

Barclays Merchant Services have an online system called ePDQ. When I want to do a refund, or if I want to check on whether a payment went through, I log into their system to see. Recently, they changed their password system.

Formerly, a password had to be at least 8 characters, of which one was numeric. And you had to change it each month, and you weren't allowed to reuse previous passwords for 6 months. Now it has to be at least 10 characters, of which at least one must be upper case, one lower case, one digit and one special character. And you can't reuse previous passwords for 12 months.

So I was happily cycling around 6 similar passwords; now I have to cycle around 12 passwords, and since there are 12 months in the year ...

So I complained. I complained about two things. A) I used to be able to search past transactions for the one I was looking for. Now, I can only search over a period of 30 days "to improve efficiency". But that doesn't improve efficiency, it reduces it. It means I have to do, for example, six searches instead of one. That's going to consume more of their computer time, and more of my time. B) The second thing I complained about, was Security Theater.

Security Theater is when an organisation does something that looks like security is improved, but actually it does nothing useful. Increasing the length of passwords, and adding special characters and so on, is useful against brute force attacks (where the password is guessed by trying all possible combinations). But a much better defence against brute force attacks would be to enforce a period of time between attempts to log in. So if you made a mistake in the password, you couldn't try again until four seconds have elapsed. If you get it wrong again, 8 seconds. Get it wrong again, 16 seconds. And so on. Or even, only allow three attempts, and you can't try again until tomorrow.

But brute force isn't actually how passwords get compromised. Compromise happens because people reuse passwords on multiple sites, or because they're asked to memorise such a long and complex password that they have to write it down, for example, on a post-it note stuck to the monitor. Duh.

A much better way to ensure security is to use two factor authentication. So, for example, on the HMRC site, I log in with my username and password, it sends a code to my mobile, and I have to type that code in. Two factors; the password, and possession of the mobile.

Another way to do this, is to issue the user with a small device. You log in, you get given a six digit code, you enter it into the device, it gives you another six digit code, you feed that into the web site. Two factors, the password, and possession of the device.

And that's what Barclays Online services do. I have the device, it's called a PINsentry. If Barclays Bank have understood this, how come Barclays Merchant Services haven't?

So I got called today about my complaint. The call started off badly, she didn't know my name. So I've been called by someone, I don't know who, all I know is they are claiming to be BMS, and now she wants me to reveal the information she needs to do the "security check". Naturally, I refused until she was able to prove to me that she really was BMS; fortunately she was able to do that.

So I've also requested that we use a password system so that next time I'm called by BMS, the caller is able to give the password that reassures me that she's not actually some scammer after my personal details.

Tuesday 8 November 2016


I first learned about Swarfega more than 50 years ago. And I can't remember how I learned about it, which probably means that it came from my parents, which probably means my father, although since he died when I was five, I'm guessing that there was a tin of it at home.

When you work on a bike or a car, your hands become black with oil and grease. Soap helps only a little; to get your hands clean again, Swarfega is the way. I suppose there must be other products, but Swarfega is the one I know about.

You get a splodge of it out of the tin (now a plastic tub, or a pump-action bottle) and rub it all over your dry hands. Then you rinse, and magically, all the greasy dirt rinses off.

There's also an orange version, which A) has a nice orangey smell and B) contains a sort of gritty gritness (actually bits of corn grit, and therefore biodegradable) that helps scrub your hands.

I use both. You can get it cheaper on Ebay.

I recently dismantled the hub gears of my bike; the inside grease had become black and sticky, and my hands were really filthy with it. Swarfega made them sparkly clean again.


Friday 4 November 2016

Apsley forest

I went out with SimplyPaul yesterday. We did three circuits; Charlie's 3rd loop, Charlie's 6th loop and Charlie's 4th loop.

By the time we finished the last circuit, I was cream crackered, and my back was hurting - the state of my back has been my limitation for a long time. But I'd solved the starting point for a night cache, and it had taken me a couple of hours to do the necessary jigsaw puzzle, so I really wanted to do it.

So we drove to the jumping off point, hopped over a stile and set off. I saw the first fire tack immediately, and that was a comfort.

Following the trail of fire tacks went well at first, but they weren't close together. And at one point, I missed the turn, and continued forward. Then I saw a point of light in the distance, and reassured by that, pressed on. I saw the point of light a couple more times, and we carried on. Then I saw the point of light move. And then a second point very close to it. It was a pair of points of light. A pair of eyes. A deer.

Cursing the deer, we turned back, and after retracing our steps, found where we should have turned off.

After that, we were more careful, and although we had to cast about at times, we found the trail, until eventually we found the final, which was, of course, not far from the starting point.

Then on to an event in Milton Keyes to meet lots of other cachers, old and young, old and new.

A good day out, with about 50 finds and 2 DNFs.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

The US election is increasing American stupidity.

I read "The Daily Beast", it gives me a very one-sided view of US politics. But this:

"Say you’re a Donald Trump voter and, with just six more rotations around the sun until Election Day, you want to contribute your hard-earned money"

I'm aware that many Americans think that the universe is 6000 years old, and that some think that the earth is flat. That the moon landing didn't happen and that 9/11 was done by the US government. But here's a "journalist" under the impression that the earth rotates around the sun?

Well, of course, it does. This takes a year. The US election isn't six years away, it's six days. This idiot thinks doesn't know that the apparent progression of the sun across the sky, is because the earth spins on its axis, not because it "rotates around the sun". And if there's anyone proofreading these articles, they didn't catch this bad idea.

Stupidity must be infectious.