A kick up the 80s

November 22nd, 2015

We’ve been away, unshiunto Lanzarote. Winter sun, so while you lot were enjoying the dark, cold, wind, and rain, we were relaxing, drinking and eating. My usual irrational fear of a disaster of some type didn’t happen this time, and largely things were nicely uneventful, with the worst thing to happen that I managed to break my Kindle e-reader. Happily, between some dead-tree books obtained locally (it’s good to go somewhere frequented by English tourists) and my dear better half loaning her older kindle some of the time, I got sufficient reading material; I don’t read a great deal, apart from on holiday…

I did look at obtaining a new Kindle locally, but local gadget shops are famed for fakes and scams, and the packaging looked wrong, so I didn’t take the chance, having narrowly escaped a dodgy camera seller back in 2009. With new device purchased (hint: Amazon will offer a discount on a new one if you’ve broken your Kindle, even when it’s over 3 years old)

Anyway, the 80s thing? I have never heard so much 80s music in one place before; every bar was playing Internet/Sky radio stations, and the 80s soundtrack was constant. Odd. Is it the demographic?

Not So Swift

October 19th, 2015

I bought a Swiftcard, because it seemed like a great idea. I’ve been waiting for it to be valid on National Express West Midlands, simply because those are the buses I use the most, and finally, it is, so I bought two cards (one for my better half), and off we trotted (well, I hobbled) to get a bus.

The Pay As You Go card is simple; it replaces cash. You top it up with credit, allow auto top-up if you want, and then buy a ticket, but instead of hunting for change, you slap the car on the reader, and tell the driver what you want. They press the right keys, a ticket is issued, and the cost comes off your Swiftcard. Not before time, as most buses in our area do not give change, and the price of two all-day tickets means notes get involved unless you have close to 10 quid in coins, and notes get jammed in the coin chute.

So, the theory is Swiftcard fixes this.

I’ve now used the card three times. The first time, the driver just didn’t know what to do, so just let us on. The second time, attempting to buy 2 tickets, we were charged for one, and the driver thought the top-up receipt (top-ups happen automaticatally on buses, or you can use a terminal at bus stations, or an Android device with NFC and the app) was a second ticket. On the third occaision, the bus was quiet, so I explained how it is supposed to work to the driver, and he worked it out :-)

Clearly, at least at National Express, no one has told the drivers, and I’m not alone.



The system’s great, and in my experience, the tech all works, but they really need to train the drivers, who I’m sure will be just as frustrated. It’s also interesting that just as we get our electronic cash-replacing card, London’s Oystercard gets phased out, replaced by contactless debit cards.

Diesel & Whine

October 18th, 2015

I was feeling like I’d missed out on the requisite quantity of dieselboners this year, so I was pleased to note that Aston Manor Road Transport Museum had their final running day of the year today, even if I did have to befoul my computer with their Facebook page to confirm it.

Sssh. Don’t tell anyone, but I originally learned of it from here. Obviously, I have this sent in a plain wrapper, rather than purchase in a shop and have to wrap a copy of Razzle (link is work-safe!) around it.

Anyway, off I went. My usual bike-parking place was a bit trickier than normal, as the easy spots to lock a bike were occupied (it’s a old-style bike shed, as the museum is in an old industrial unit, but only the extreme ends have anywhere to lock on to), but I overcame that with a bit of juggling about, and soon enough was on a Daimler CLG5, with the oddly off-beat sound of a 5LW powering it. Back at the museum, I grabbed a botulism burger, had a quick wander around, and a look at this Volvo Ailsa (odd in being front-engined), of which there were a couple running in the West Midlands in the 80s, though I don’t recall them.

Volvo Ailsa V1, ex London Transport, at AMRTM October 2015

Volvo Ailsa V1, ex London Transport, at AMRTM October 2015

Much more familiar, and a step back to the 70s, is the Bristol VR. Common enough, even if the Fleetline was the usual choice for WMPTE. Another Gardner, but an extra cylinder this time and a semi-auto box whining away, being driven with more care than I remember back in the day, when the in-service drivers seemed to take pleasure in a huge lurch at every gearchange. The semi-auto box doesn’t have a clutch, but also has no logic or interlocks to control changes, so a fair bit of skill is still needed to drive one well: matching of revs to road speed and a blip of the throttle on a downchange, but it’s notable that this 1976 bus keeps up with modern traffic well, where the old Daimler notably can become a rather nice rolling roadblock.

So then, another sad note of the time of year: no more old buses, along with the dark nights and cold :-(

Near Beer

October 8th, 2015

We’ve been away, to Seaton, as I didn’t fancy a long drive to Scotland just yet, so the M5 beckoned.

We’d been here before, around 20 years ago, and fancied staying in Beer (because Beer) then, but lack of parking drove us out to Seaton. This time we chose Seaton for it’s size, flat terrain, and public transport: I’m much less of a keen driver than 20 years ago.

It’s a nice town, Seaton. A wide promenade, with a good view,

Seaton Promenade

Seaton Promenade

lots of benches (useful when you’re trying to regain walking distance), and independent pubs, cafes, and restaurants- remarkably chain-free, if you can ignore the Tesco behemoth with attached Costa coffee. We had a seafront property, which was great, and a short walk to town.

I’d mentioned public transport: we actually managed to not use the car all week, between walking around town, the tramway, and buses, we got about. The buses were the X53 Jurassic Coaster, and the 899 local service run by AVMT. Both weave their way through small roads, but the 899 at times goes down roads where the greenery hits both sides simultaneously in places, and in others the space each side was measured in inches, and you get to see some nice small Devon villages. Like Beer.

Sadly Beer wasn’t the best place to drink, which made our choice of Seaton to stop in all the better, even if the best meal of the week was in a hybrid Italian/Thai in Beer.

We were interested that Sidmouth, which 20 years ago, in our 20s, we’d discounted as God’s waiting room, and dull, was lovely, with at least one great pub, a nice hotel where we had drinks brought to us by a very smartly dressed waiter (and for less than a tenner), and a bit of a slightly upmarket, but lively feel. I think both us and the resort have changed…

School of Hard NOx

September 23rd, 2015

Oh dear, VAG seem to have cocked up, huh?

The fact that the EPA in the US caught them gaming the system with emission testing is interesting, and given that they face a huge fine, and the CEO Martin Winterkorn, having recently ousted Ferdinand Piech from his role, has now resigned.

I’m more interested in the tech. Simplified, it all hinges on EGR. It’s a common trick to disable EGR in a tuned diesel- in many ways it’s a huge pain in the arse, reducing efficiency, and therefore power and economy, and being prone to clogging up intakes, so with an EGR delete, your diesel will do better MPG, perform better, and not get so claggy. Also, as a diesel runs with excess air, if you don’t run EGR, you produce less particulates (soot), which is good.

The disadvantage comes with NOx production. No EGR means more NOx, which is one form of pollution generated by internal combustion engines, with health and environmental impact. This, and other pollutants, are regulated by EU Directives in Europe, and the EPA in the states, and cars that do not meet the standards cannot be sold new.

So, there’s a balancing act: try to keep particulates down, power and MPG up, but don’t create too much NOx.

Some diesels do this with AdBlue, but VAG have claimed to be able to meet the latest standards without the extra complication, cost, and space of the kit needed to inject it, managing with just a DPF. Nice trick.

Trick would seem to be the operative word, and you have to admire it. We’ve seen how networked cars are now, and that meant a clever algorithm was able to detect when the car was on a rolling-road being emmission-tested, and crank up the EGR, lovering the NOx output. On the road, EGR is reduced, so up goes the power and MPG. WIN!

How the conversation at Wolfsburg may have gone. From CommitStrip, click for original.

How the conversation at Wolfsburg may have gone. From CommitStrip, click for original.

Trouble is, that’s specifically not allowed by the EPA (PDF, 2.35MB), leaving VAG with a big headache stateside.

This does set me thinking if the diesel car boom could be ending: in particular, the UK’s CO-based taxation favours diesels, but as the amount of emissions gear required to meet the regulatory standards increases, the performance of the engines comes down and the complexity increases, and so therefore does cost. In one way, VAG’s (rather elegant) trick was actually good for the consumer, reducing costs and increasing performance, while seeming to meet all required standards. In another, it’s a cynical attempt to evade emissions law, risk public health, and increase profit. For sure, the fix is going to be painful for both VAG and its customers in the US: it remains to be seen if they have a problem in Europe too.

Let’s Rock

September 10th, 2015

Or not.

I’m back trying to find something listenable in the car. It’s not been long enough for a repeat of HHGTTG, and I’d settled on Planet Rock: music I liked, and less obnoxious DJs than mormal.
Bauer Media have gone and spoiled it all, by giving the FM frequency to Absolute Radio, with its focus on 90s, slightly rockish pop (so that means fucking Oasis and U2 when they got shit, for a start, FFS). What a shitfest.

I could spend a hundred or so quid on a DAB radio, another hundred and fifty on the bits to fit it (new fascia panel, fixings, antenna, CANBus harness, ISO cable), and take lots of trim out and have DAB, to enjoy Planet Rock in a 80Kbit/sec mono stream, of course, but why in the name of $deity would I do that? My car also lacks bluetooth, aux-in, or a CD autochanger, and the other choices are as grim as ever, so remembering 2 CDs a day it is, or the sound of tyres/wind/diesel engine.

The Jeep Hack – the full horror

August 25th, 2015

Full details have now been released of just how the Jeep hack I mentioned here was carried out, and there’s a video (long, but worth it if you’re interested):

A article on Hackaday, and a white paper (PDF, 4.3MB) explaining how it’s done.

There’s two things to draw from this- that the researchers are very clever, and that the people that designed Uconnect are either naive, stupid, or foolhardy. That sort of thing is fine if you’re experimenting with code, less so if you’re developing code that can be exploited in a fast-moving 2-tonne chunk of metal. Since the video is long, I’ll pick on a few key points.

1) The “random” passphrase for the inbuilt wifi hotspot is fairly predictable.
2) Port 6667 (DBUS) was left exposed to the internet on the 3G connection, and the system calls availble there were exploitable.
3) Services were running as a superuser, so they didn’t have to work out privilege escalation.
4) Firmware updates have no signing to check validity.
5) The radio had a connection to the “drive” CANbus.

added together, that’s pretty scary.

Time to review InternetofShit.

In the PC world (and in that, I’m including Mac and Linux), the devices you have may have a life of 10 years, and in that time, these days, they will be regularly patched, so silly vulnerabilities get fixed. Also, generally speaking, things controlling dangerous machinery aren’t always connected to the Internet (though that is becoming less true as time goes on). A car will have a longer life, and probably be rarely patched, especially by the time it has it’s second or third owner, who is unlikely to take it to a franchised dealer. How about a fridge? Mine is 20 years old now, and had it been possible to buy an Internet-connected fridge then, do you think the manufacturer would be supplying firmware?

Just because you can connect something to the Internet, it doesn’t mean you should.

The root of the problem

August 23rd, 2015

The other day, I did something a bit unwise, and power-cycled my Volumio music player, and it failed to return to life. Eventually I got it hooked up to a TV to see what was wrong, and predictably:

Give root password for maintenance (or press Control-D to continue)

Unix and Unix-like systems don’t like having their power shut off without a clean shutdown, and the Raspberry Pi seems particularly prone to corrupting the root filesystem given a bit of provocation.

Now, generally, using fsck is like using chkdsk on Windows. It might fix things, or it might break them more. Not a big issue with what is quite a small image on an SD card, so breaking out dd soon should fix that: the music is on an external drive, and there’s very little config to do.

Except it didn’t. I wrote the image, and tried again. Many times, with new SD cards, even with a USB-microSD adaptor in case the laptop I was using had a duff SD slot, and also tried my other Raspberry Pi. each time, it failed. After much fscking about (literally) I realised the one thing I hadn’t changed. A Raspberry Pi runs off a micro-USB phone charger, and instead of the usual, decent quality one I used where the Pi is installed, I used a cheap nasty one that was handy. Evidently it wasn’t stable enough.

With it booting correctly and back in place, back to the music, and I’ve just discovered another great thing. As Volumio is based on MPD, you can either use the (very nice) web interface built-in, or connect a client like Cantata:

Cantata's interface- plays the music, gives info.

Cantata’s interface- plays the music, gives info.

or one of the multitude of others,and control from a phone, tablet, or PC.

I can’t help but wonder how many commercial jukeboxes are using this stuff in the backend…

#100pubsin2015: Walsall phase 1

August 16th, 2015

As we’re sadly behind schedule on 100pubs, we’ve had a concerted effort of late, and now we’re getting close to the halfway point, with an epic effort yesterday in Walsall. You can see the individual pubs here. Yesterday’s exercise had a few guests joining us, a tactical avoidance of the Walsall nazi fuckwit march, and a mere sociable gallon of beer, something I’ve not managed for some time. There’s still enough pubs in town for at least one more trip though…

Horny Cock

August 12th, 2015

Now I’ve got your attention, you’ll be disappointed.

The current roadworks on the A4124 have pushed a good bit more traffic over the amusingly-named Black Cock Bridge. Anyone that knows the bridge knows that it’s fearsomely steep- slightly less so than the pre-1994 Clayhanger Bridge, but still steep and narrow, and blind at the summit (this side is slightly less steep than the other):

This means that, except at night, it’s an appropriate place to use a car horn.

My recovery from surgery dictates that I should try to walk a reasonable distance each day, and a walk to the bridge and down the towpath is both not too inconvenient and fairly pleasant, but with the extra traffic it has revealed to me just how many people are both incapable of using the horn correctly, and indeed of realising why others might do so, and it is, as one might say, boiling my piss too a disproportionate degree.

For the record, as there’s not room for two cars to pass, the idea is to approach at a speed you could stop in, sound your own horn once, maybe twice, and listen for the same from the other side, so that only one of you passes the narrow bit, and causes the minimum of noise nuisance. This might mean, for example, muting the stereo.

The idea isn’t to approach fast, sounding the horn repeatedly, with a mobile phone held to your ear, just for one (twattish) example.

A few years ago, residents near the bridge wanted the bridge closed when a long-lost consultation took place, citing danger and noise. I had little sympathy, given that the bridge has been there longer than them, but really, with the number of idiots I’ve heard of late, I can hardly blame them.

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