Archive for the 'Rants' Category

Twenty’s Plenty?

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

Note: this is an old post- originally drafted nearly a year ago, but recently I’ve been reminded of it by the surprising results of a poll, showing that 80% of people want a default 20 mph limit, and the also interesting observation here.

On to my old post:

I was all ready to go into a full, frothing-at-the mouth rant about something that seems to be gaining ground: Twenty’s Plenty, a campaign for the default speed limit to be 20mph, not 30.

Instead, I’ll try to give a reasoned argument. I’ll set my stall out here: I’m a driver, I speed at times. I’m also a cyclist and pedestrian, like I’d imagine a lot of people are.

I think many speed limits are too low. Some are too high- tiny residential estate roads with a 30 limit, for example, but many main roads are crippled with a low limit: many urban roads around towns were built with a 40 limit, which has been lowered.

I also think that 20 limits have a lot of merit, but feel strongly that that is far too low for a default. 20 limits are fine in areas where no sane individual would be doing much more anyway: housing estates, shopping areas, near schools, for example, but the 30 mph limit is entirely appropriate for a great many roads. I’m sitting writing this looking out at a road that has a 30mph limit that is generally exceeded a little- a residential road that happens to be a B road, and carry a reasonable amount of traffic- and the only thing that seems dangerous is the occasional nutter at 60+.

My big concern is that if 20 is the new 30, we’ll see it on almost everything. I’m also concerned about some of the things presented on their website.

What’s wrong with 30 mph?
Well the 30 mph limit was actually brought in as the national speed limit for built-up areas in 1934. Prior to that the 1903 Motor Car Act designated a specific category for the Motor Car. It also raised the speed limit to 20 mph. The Road Traffic Act of 1930 abolished the 20 mph limit for cars of less than 7 people. This led to such an increase in road deaths that just 4 years later the 1934 Road Traffic Act introduced the 30 mph speed limit in built-up areas. Whilst in 1934 this may have been an acceptable limit, the huge increase in the number of motor vehicles on the roads has created a huge imbalance in vulnerability between pedestrians or cyclists and motor car users.

This is happily forgetting that while, yes we have much, much greater traffic density, at the time of the 30mph limit being increased, a typical car was the Austin 7, a car with cable brakes, initially only operating on the rear wheels. If you drive even a 1960s or 1970s car today, you’ll find the handling, grip levels, and stopping distances are vastly inferior to today, as is the pedestriam safety should you hit someone.

As to vulnerability of pedestrians and cyclists, they’re always much more vulnerable- and vehicle drivers will always need to remember this: the aim should be not to do that at all, I would suggest.

What are the benefits of 20 mph?

Whilst the safety benefits may justify 20′s Plenty on their own, there are additional real benefits for lower speeds. Traffic noise drops considerably, as does pollution. Your street becomes a far more pleasant place to be and this encourages people to walk or cycle instead of using the car.

Pedestrians, as a rule, will (or should) be on a footpath, except in a pedestrianised area, which should, of course, be devoid of vehicles, and personally, when I cycle, I find that cars at 20mph (in a traffic-calmed street, for example) are very awkward: their speed is far to close to mine, so far too much time is spent closer to a moving car than I’d like- in a 30 limit they’ll be past and gone. As to the noise and pollution, I’d like to see some hard facts there: 20mph may necessitate use of a lower gear, *increasing* noise and emissions- most medern cars will just pull 30 mph in 4th gear, but 20 will definitely need 3rd.

I’d also suggest that those people that are going to walk or cycle will already do so: people that want to drive will continue to do so.

It’s a complex, difficult situation.

I’d personally have more support for 20mph as a limit if it’s applied sensibly, and limits are reviewed wholesale, and meaningful data is recorded and acted upon, not just an unconsidered reaction.

I’m also of the opinion that many people would like a 20 limit in their own roads, but not anywhere else, and I think this observation is quite revealing:

tweet-20

This is anecdotal evidence that most drivers want to travel above the 30mph limit, and definitely above 20, which again, is somewhat at odds with the survey’s results.

I’m really thinking here that we’re seeing a “it’s OK for me to drive at above 20/30, but anyone else doing it is a dangerous lunatic” and “it’s Ok to drive above 20/30, except in my road, where it’s dangerous”. I’ve also noted that more than one prominent supporter of 20mph limits seem to be non-drivers (and indeed, non cyclists), which I’d say probably makes it hard to make an objective judgement about what constitutes the best balance of speed, emissions, and safety, though given the alarming lack of awareness of the laws of physics governing a ton and a half of car, it’s clear that there’s plenty of drivers that can’t, too.

People, huh?

Looking at figures, oddly, there’s a suggestion that there’s been an increase in casualties in 20mph limits, and slight reductions elswhere, but the problem here is that we don’t know if this is simply because there’s more 20 mph roads to get injured in. There’s a fairly clear indication that there’s less severity of injury, as you’d expect. It’s my opinion (but this is only opinion) that traffic-calmed areas or very low speeds cause pedestriams to take more risk, but that the lower traffic speeds mean that the chance of an collision resulting is much lower, and that if it does, then injuries will be less severe.

The second link above draws the distinction between 20mph limits and 20mph zones: Zones have traffic calming such as humps, chicanes, and road markings as both physical and psychological devices, limits alone don’t have these- it’s clear the zones are much more effective, and these are usually in narrow, dense streets where it’s quite clear that 30mph would be unacceptably risky.

The problem here is that the data isn’t clear and uniform, there’s conficting and incomplete data, which seems to be no way to make a decision. The debate rages on…

Spam School

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

The other day, I was unpleasantly suprised by this email in my inbox:

Spam, spam, spam and spam

Spam, spam, spam and spam

Most spam is pretty generic, and gets culled by Spamassassin without me ever seeing it, but this one stood out as it didn’t hit the filter (sneaking under the radar with 3.9 points of spamminess), and it had an attachment that wasn’t a zip file containing a virus.

As you can see, it’s from Pat Jewitt, whose email address is pat@qe.org, for all you hungry spambots out there.

Pat seems to be registrar of Queen Ethelburga’s School, who are busy promoting their expensive service by spamming me. I took exception to this,

Screenshot from 2014-03-27 18:21:42
as I have no prior relationship with them: for a start, I have no children.

No answer for several days, so I kept trying. Then tried again:

Not Giving Up

Not Giving Up

This was a reference to my UCE policy here.

The mail originated from a netblock goegraphically right for the school, and appeared to be from a legitimate email server for the school too:


Received: from mta3.mail-qe.org ([185.7.151.53])

So this seems to be a fairly blatant bit of spamming from the school itself that they’ve done fairly decisively, rather than handing off to a third party. The links were all correct, not passing thorugh a linkbait or click-thorugh referrer too.

I eventually got a response to my question as to if I should send a bill:

Very Professional.

Very Professional.

Charmed. I’m sure. Do they have a vacancy for a PR officer?

After a few questions (read from the bottom):

Screenshot from 2014-03-26 22:38:20

They changed tack. You’ll note my questions, and the link I posted, refer to this legislation and indeed this definition.

Hmmm...

Hmmm…

Now, in my opinion this sounds like a clear breach. I’ve had no prior contact with this organisation, they have bought my email address from some shady spam company, and are now spamming me with completely irrelevant mass-marketing junk.

At worst this may be illegal, though I should stress I’m not a lawyer. At best, it’s poor netiquette and a pretty unpleasant way to behave.

It’s quite telling that there’s a unsubscribe link, labelled “If you consider this email to be SPAM please report abuse click here” as well as an unsubscribe- this is almost as if they know they’re doing wrong. (The unsubscribe is required by law, I believe). Also, both links are a http request to the sending server- again this looks like they have gone out of their way to set this up themselves.

The school looks to be a well-funded, expensive organisation, just a pity they see fit to tarnish their reputation by buying email addresses. There are ways to market yourself without upsetting the nerds.

At this point, many of you might be thinking that there’s a quick fix: delete the damn email and forget it. I nearly did that, but here’s a thing: I spend my day job working with mail systems. Many of these would be simpler, and more reliable, were it not for all the kludges that we have to implement to stop this rubbish. DNSBLs, sender ID, authenticated SMTP, restricted relays, spam filters, and all the other bits that make mail harder and more complicated are all because of this.

The next time you go onto a wifi hotspot and can’t SMTP mail, or you get an email bounce with a 550 error, or dissapear with no non-delivery report, that’ll be why. Spam is delivered partly at cost to you: using your bandwidth, your disk space, and your time.

If you have a company email server, you pay someone to guard you against this shit. Your ISP and mobile phone provider pay people to do the same. Commercial spam filters cost thousands of pounds to run.

Question is, do I inform the ICO?

Shocking Misinformation

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Something annoyed me this week. That in itself is not unusual: I’m a grumpy, middle-aged man, so annoyance is a regular event, but this annoyed me because it was a myth and oversimplification that I’ve heard repeated as gospel, when it doesn’t atand up to examination.

It started as a tweet, retweeted into my timeline, pointing at this webpage. You can find it on feckbook, too.

All bar adapters are rated to 13 amps and that means its all they can safely take. So if you were to plug in a TV, video, lamp and satellite box your pretty safe as that = 12 amps in total.

I’ll just come out and call this. It’s bollocks, even ignoring the poor grammar. Oversimplified, unscientific, made up bullshit. Don’t believe me? Look at this from the Electrical Safety Council. I’ve substituted a DVD player for a VCR, as VCRs are obsolete:

Screenshot from the ESC's overload checker showing well under a 3A load.

Screenshot from the ESC’s overload checker showing well under a 3A load.

Curiously, they link the ESC calculator from that page. They also, of course, will come and inspect, for a fee…

The site is making a good point: poor electrical safety causes fires, but let’s get a few things straight:

1. Just because something has a 3 amp fuse, it doesn’t mean it draws 3 amps. The 3A fuse is generally there to protect against a dead short in the cable, should it be damaged. In fact, at 240V RMS, the lamp in the example, even if it has a now obsolete 100W GLS bulb, will draw in the region of 0.63A. Here’s a clue: the maximum load of a 13A socket in the UK is over 3000 watts, and most appliances will tell you their ratng in watts. The first examples given on that page will typically only draw a few hundred watts all together, so there is no way on earth you’ll overload a 13A socket with them.

If there were any truth in what the site was telling us, then commercial PDU strips like this one would not be allowed- it has 10 BS1363 outlets, and has a normal Bs1363 plug with a 13A fuse at the other end.

A commercially available, and safe, PDU with 10 outlets

A commercially available, and safe, PDU with 10 outlets

2. Multi-way adaptors are fused with a BS1362 fuse (max 13A) if they have more than 2 outlets. This is so that you cannot create a “tree” of unfused adaptors to connect many appliances to an outlet with no fuse.

3. The wiring system in a UK house is designed such that any considerable overload will blow a fuse or trip a breaker: the wiring regulations specify that the sizes of cable and the connectors should withstand an overload up to a point where a fuse or breaker will trip.

If you want sensible advice or discussion on this, try The Electrical Safety Council or this discussion on the IET forums.

More generally, the ESC have general advice on adaptors and extensions here. Personally I’ve seen scorched, overheated multi-way sockets, but this is usually due to poor manufacture or damage, rather than simple overloading.

It is true that a fuse will not blow at a moderate, sustained overload- so the advice from the ESC should be followed: they know what they’re on about, unlike the website linked at the top of this post.

Fat Cat

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Hat-tip to BrownhillsBob:

BrownhillsBob's blog about the latest excess of Walsall MBC. Click to visit the site.

BrownhillsBob’s blog about the latest excess of Walsall MBC. Click to visit the site.

The story speaks for itself, except that if I’ve ID’d the car correctly from this photo, then it’s a Jaguar XJ LWB Portfolio, starting at £70,975. Even if I haven’t, the range starts at over £50k.
[edit]
The E&S story quotes £50k excluding VAT. Would Walsall MBC pay VAT on a car purchase, or are they exempt?
[/edit]

I’ve submitted an FOI request to confirm this, plus some other stuff.

Read Bob’s blog now. Read about the cuts to jobs and services in Walsall (Bob does that kind of thing better than I do), and get angry.

Something Somewhere

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Time for a whinge: another mobile data whinge, but I’m going to pick on someone here.

Vodafone.

I’ve been a customer of theirs for many, many years now, after a falling out with Orange over a several hundred pound bill and threats of baliffs, and before having a smartphone, I was fairly happy with them.

There was always the noticeable failure of any coverage in the local pubs, and the odd wobble near work but otherwise things worked.

Things were different with a smartphone: the total lack of any data throughput near home unless on wifi or using a sure signal really began to annoy, and it only just about working seemingly anywhere I go (Pelsall and Rushall regularly, and also when on holiday) really annoyed. Vodafone then pushed me over the edge (hah!) with a tweet promoting their 4G rollout in Birmingham (which is one of only two places I’ve seen genuinely good 3G performance):

Screenshot from 2013-09-17 19:50:44

They replied:

Screenshot from 2013-09-17 19:52:59

I’ve been there, done that (Voda’s techies were very nice, and explained that yes, coverage was poor there….). At this point, some Lichfield followers chipped in:

Screenshot from 2013-09-17 19:57:37

Which makes a bit of a lie out of Vodafone’s statement, at least locally.

My whinge here is the same as before: The networks will push the latest & greatest, and we’re all told about the massive benefits of mobile data, but the substance doesn’t meet the facts, and big, rich companies aren’t investing. On holiday recently, we struggled to get any service for a good proportion of the time, and data was useless.

So then. I’ve had enough. Vodafone will be dumped at end-of-contract. I already have a Three PAYG SIM, and will try GiffGaff (who are a MVNO for O2, like Virgin are for EE/Orange/T-Mobile) and any others I see fit. First trial of Three sees very impressive coverage here, but it may not be so good elsewhere.

For the comments: Who is the least shit mobile operator? For a while, at least, I’m prepared to go SIM-only, and maybe buy a handset if needed.

“Clean Wi-Fi”

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

They’re at it again then.

The politicians, despite being met with indifference over the wholesale filtering of domestic Internet connections, our right honourable overlords now wish to promote “good, clean, wi-fi” in public spaces.

Whatever the fuck that means. No porn, maybe? The conspiracy theory types will say this is just the thin end of the wedge for censorship. We could have all sorts of content considered ‘unclean’.

I’ve already discussed that providing wi-fi for public access can be hard, and this is a further obstacle. It’s unclear what the term “wi-fi provider” defines- it could be anything from the biggies like BT Openzone down to my local friendly garage or pub who have chucked a Netgear domestic router in for customers to use.

I’ve already said how hard it is to do filtering properly, and you don’t have to take my word for it.

It’s a bit easier to do on a larger scale, with some enterprise-grade hardware and a subscription, but this costs thousands of pounds a year, and still isn’t 100% accurate.

The domestic routers a lot of small potential wi-fi providers use are the same sort of stuff we all use at home. Here’s my router’s filtering setup page:

router setup page

A typical domestic router’s filtering setup: dependent on manual entries. Click to embiggen.

It’s reliant on maintaining a list of dodgy sites and entering them. Other routers can block based on DNS hostnames, but this, once again, relies on manually keyed blacklists. This is not going to encourage the provision of free wif-fi if people have to stump up time and money, or face legal problems if they don’t.

Here’s a wild idea: if you’re a parent, talk to your kids about the content available on the Internet (the chances being, if they’re teenagers, they can probably teach you a thing or two). Don’t devolve parenting to tech, and if you really have to, do it on the device, where you have control.

True Grit

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Given the poor weather, with heavy snow, recently, it’s not surprising that gritting has come to many people’s attention, and, as BrownhillsBob comments on his 365 tumblr, there’s some real nastiness and misinformation.

I’ve lost count of the number of people insisting every side road is gritted, and that Walsall MBC haven’t gritted main roads, and blaming the council for their own shortcomings as drivers.

Let’s get some things straight:

* Walsall MBC do many things badly. They also so some things well; bin collections and gritting are things they do well most of the time.

* Despite the bullshit perpetrated by some, Walsall MBC’s gritters were out and about on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (18-20 Jan). I saw them around Walsall Wood on several occasions, on one occasion coming by just in time to help free a truck stuck on Walsall Wood canal bridge.

* On Sunday morning, the A461 was slightly slippery, but perfectly passable for a clumsy twat like me to drive a car I drive rarely on summer tyres without hitting anything, or even coming close. I’m no driving god (by a long shot) but the usual technique of leaving a lot of room, maintaining momentum where possible, and using the controls gently seems to work.

* Generally, you have a choice to drive or not. If you’re unable to control a vehicle in slippery conditions, well… don’t. Your 4×4 won’t beat physics, either, as won’t those winter tyres I keep banging on about (but both will help, and having winter tyres on a 4×4 will shock most people). It’s your responsibility to drive safely, within reasonable margins- so if it’s snowy or icy, you should expect slippy roads, and drive to the conditions, expecting others to slide. Alternatively, you could just make up “facts”, accuse the council of “dereliction of duty”, and complain. If it’s life or death, then it’s pretty certain you’ll have had some driver training. If your usual route isn’t gritted, choose an alternative that is.

* Grit isn’t magic. It lowers the freezing point with salt, and aids grip and breaks up ice and snow with the actual gritty bits. To do this, it needs time, and crucially, some traffic to grind it in. Additionally, it can only cope with a certain amount of snow.

* Gritting resources are finite. There are only so many staff and trucks, and a lot of roads.

I’ll gladly lay into Walsall MBC online (and I’ve done so before), but this is just silly. The gritting teams are doing a good job.

Drowning in Superfast 4G Hype

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Less than 24 hours have elapsed since yesterday’s rant about the 4G hype and already there’s some bullshit piece in tonight’s Express and Star showing the cutting-edge, well researched, informative and technically accurate that publication has an unenviable reputation for, saying that the lack of 4G will cost the UK economy £120 million, according to “a study” (and then it fails to mention who commissioned the study [edit- reading the article again, Ebay commisiioned it], or any data whatsoever). It then quotes Ebay as saying that “slow connection speeds, payments timing out, and network reliability” were barriers that would be “effectively eliminated by 4G”

E&S Article

From the Express and Star, 31-10-2012. Unmitigated bollocks.
Click to embiggen.

This is starting to look like a Daily Mash Story with bold assertions, quotes from imaginary experts, and meaningless, unqualified stats.

I’m now drowning in bullshit. As my dear friend Andy points out there’s so much marketing crap here, and as a tech who is asked to provide solutions to people who read this shit, it’s wearing very thin.

Does the lack of mobile internet really cost sales? Maybe a few. A smartphone is a crappy way to browse Amazon or Ebay, with small screens and no proper keyboard. I’m sure a smartphone app will improve this, as would using a tablet, which may well have mobile data capability, but £120 million? really? Will people not just wait until they’re at home/work/Starbucks?

If 3G was actually available everywhere, it would do just fine for present-day Internet shopping, being about as fast as many people’s fixed-line ADSL. Of course given time, bandwidth requirements will rise: the Internet of the 90s coped on 33.6-56Kbit/sec, whereas now even 10 times that seems sluggish, so we will need 4G one day, and yes, installation should start now, but it’s not a requirement right now, and a good job too, because it will take a good while.

4G will not magically fix poor coverage, and will, trust me, cost a lot of money to implement.

I do find the tech industry very frustrating: the false promises, the use of tech terms as (inaccurate) buzzwords, the assumption that a “new” technology will magically make everything rosy. The shiny adverts, and the shiny-suited salesmen that perpetuate the myths. It must be very confusing for those of us that don’t have a deeply cynical view…

Gee-up

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

This morning’s BBC breakfast was full of hype for the launch of 4G data. In theory this sounds great: mobile data has changed our world, from smartphones and tablets to remote telemetry, data logging, and security applications without the need for cabling. We can, at least in theory, stream movies or music, read our email, telework, and tweet a load of shite from anywhere. The networks are now crowing about their superfast performance, their fibre backbones, and anything else they can spin into saying how great they are.

One problem: this is all still radio. Radio needs masts, and residents hate masts, even before the electrosensitivity loonies get going. Without masts, and even with them sometimes, depending on environment, coverage suffers. Plus of course, masts, and the backhaul all cost cash too.

This means that, practically, in some areas, the current 3G/2G connectivity is non-existent or so slow to be practically useless: down the road in WS9 9LR coverage is so poor for Vodafone that voice calls and SMS messages barely work, and data is unusable. Walsall Wood may not be a huge metropolis, but it’s not a rural backwater either, and the same applies to suburban Pelsall and Rushall, where you can find similar holes.

I was complaining about this seven years ago, when 3G data was a niche product.

If you go into the centre of Birmingham, you can easily see 3Mbit/sec: faster than some home broadband, and fast enough to run an entire office from (trust me, I have done it), but outside the city, coverage can have some huge holes: this is why, for example, NXWM’s trial of wi-fi on buses didn’t catch on: the only way to backhaul the data from the bus is over 3G, and by the time you have a busful of people, and the router keeps dropping out, it becomes painful- the same applies to the West Coast Main Line, and that has a fixed route.

In summary: Phone networks: stop bullshitting us. Cut the shiny marketing, bullshit about fibre optics and other tech terms littering the adverts: just make the existing 3G service work before you try to flog us the replacement. Let me be able to tweet bollocks from the pub, or fire up my VPN from a house in Pelsall that doesn’t have broadband.

NB: I’m only picking on Vodafone here because I have more experience of them, and because they’re ‘Best Network’ of the year as voted by Mobile Choice Consumer Awards. They all have the same problems, in different places.

Communication Channels

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Something struck me the other day: I’ve become almost obbsessive about communicating online, in one form or another: I buy online almost whenever I can, because I detest brick-and-mortar shops.

I bank online, manage my household energy accounts online, talk to people online. At work, I prefer communication by email, and the thought of someone phoning up “for a chat” fills me with dread, to be honest. Phone converstations, even with my better half, are short, and convey information mostly.

I suppose this is to be expected in one way: the nature of my work often lends itself to email, and email is a great medium to queue things: stuff can be dealt with at a good moment, rather than interrupting thoughts. It’s a great medium for facts too. Of course, it has it’s problems, and I’m probably painfully more aware of them than many people.

Hpowever I do find the countless ‘death of email‘ articles frustrating, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.

I find companies that don’t enable online communication very frustrating: I don’t want to talk to your representative (or anyone, for that matter): I don’t want you to try to sell me crap I don’t want, I don’t want to be called sir, and thanked every 5 minute for my call by someone in a remote call centre who doesn’t actually care. Most of all, I want to do stuff when I think of it, quickly and efficiently, be that whatever time or day of the week. If I want a chat, I’ll meet a friend in a pub, thanks.

This week has seen one organisation that are reluctant to handle email (an NHS department), but do so with a tone that suggests this is a bit too hard, and one that simply doesn’t respond (an insurance company), so now I’ll have to spend a lunchtime talking to people I don’t want to, in an open-plan office…

I realise I’m sounding like the stereotypical uncommunicative geek here, but people that know me in real life will (hopefully) confirm that I do like to talk, preferably in a pub. I do seem pretty phone-averse though: am I odd in this respect?

I’d be interested to hear any other thoughts on this, though I realise my data will be skewed here: people reading this are more likely to favour electronic communications.

Anyway: back to the death of email. This is widely predicted by a certain class of social media consultant (specifically, the ones that are full of shit: you may wish to peruse this article, as it prompted this post). Email is still the business ‘killer app’, the basic form of ID on the Internet, and the best way to get a wide range of information to a small number of recipients. For a good analogy, think of the ‘paperless office’ widely predicted not so long ago. It’s bullshit. Social media has it’s place, but it’s intrusive, disjointed, immature (technology wise), and in the control of US corporations to one degree or another.

My prediction: email will last another 30 years, at minimum, in a recognisable form: It’s existed in a recogniseable form already since around 1965. So will the written word, the printed word, and the telephone (despite the fact that landline use is declining, and teenagers seem to communicate entirely by SMS). Fax will probably die sooner, but it still has legal significance that email does not. Thoughts anyone?


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