Thursday, December 28, 2006

ADSL Update

Attentive readers will know I've been suffering ongoing woes with my ADSL connection: slow downloads, intermittent disconnections, highly variable speeds.

On the day I left London to travel up north to visit my family, my connection was totally broken. It appeared that BT had just disconnected me. They weren't being malicious; it was part of the "fix", apparently.

According to my ISP, they had finally accepted there was a fault and were in the progress of performing a "lift and shift" on me. This isn't quite as unpleasant a procedure as it sounds and is, I understand, the process of disconnecting my line from one connection into their systems and moving it somewhere else.

If my ISP is to be believed, the reason for my multiple-day lack of connection was that they had "lifted" me before a suitable place to "shift" me to was available.

Anyhow, I was away at the time so didn't really care.

Upon my return last night, imagine my delight when my router was in Sync and thinkbroadband was reporting a download rate of over 5Mbps. Joy of joys!

I'm going to give it another day and, if it's still working, will call my ISP, thank them and tell them they can close the ticket.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


I am in Liverpool (visiting my parents and siblings) and have deliberately not brought my laptop home with me. Therefore, I am cut off both from my work email and from my feed reader. I thought it would be more painful than it is. Logging onto the computer without having a list of articles pre-downloaded for reading is a strange experience, though.

We bought my father a laptop for his birthday (which is tomorrow) and I have set up a wireless network for them so he can print and surf the web from downstairs.

So far, I have also avoided getting into any heated political arguments. I thought I was going to explode today when I read one of the most hypocritical passages ever seen in an article (in The Independent - where else). I managed to contain myself, however, and took my mother's advice. I've sent them a letter. That'll sort them out...

Virgin Trains

I have unexpected news to relate: I travelled on Virgin Trains on Friday 22 December and they didn't suck. Indeed, the journey was swift, comfortable, pleasant and punctual. Given the number of passengers wanting to travel before Christmas and the extra load thanks to problems at the airport, I think they deserve a round of applause.... well done Virgin!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Jingle Cats

Yes... I know.... linking to YouTube videos is soooo last year. But sometimes one just can't help oneself...

Tipping Etiquette

Readers, your help with a dilemma, please.

The development I live in has staff (building manager, three regular porters, groundsman, two cleaners). They're friendly, have been very welcoming and are very helpful.

What is the etiquette for tipping at Christmas? (Not whether but how much and in what form?)

Any rules-of-thumb?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Wireless USB

Please can somebody implement this idea for me?

I do most of my work and web surfing and blog reading from my laptop. Plugging in USB devices (memory sticks, printers, iPod) is a pain in the neck.

I want to have a device with several USB ports and with ethernet or wireless connectivity. I want it to work such that when I attach a USB device, it communicates with my laptop and provides the illusion that the device has been inserted directly into the laptop.

Let's call this imaginary device a Wireless USB hub.

Typical use-cases would be:

  • iPod docking station permanently plugged into this Wireless USB hub. When the iPod is plugged into the docking station, the Wireless USB hub would communicate with my computer, which would believe the iPod was plugged directly in, and iTunes would kick into action and synchronise my music
  • My printer would be permanently plugged into the Wireless USB hub. My computer therefore thinks the printer is directly attached. I can therefore print wirelessly.  (Note that Apple's AirPort Express offers this limited use case and does it quite well).

At a conceptual level, this shouldn't be too hard to implement...  Let's imagine a naive implementation of USB Plug'n'Play functionality in the operating system.  You insert a USB device and, after some magic, a function (in reality, probably lots of functions) are called on the operating system by the appropriate driver(s). The operating system may return results or perhaps invoke some callbacks or do some asynchronous magic.  The usual. A similar thing will happen once the device is fully recognised and is in use. 

The trick is to intercept these calls and fire them over the network to software performing the "mirror-image" functionality on the other side. And vice-versa, of course.

Now, I can envisage problems with latency, throughput and perhaps even mangement of state. But nothing that isn't insurmountable.

The reason I'm confident is that it appears somebody has already done it:

But it seems this solution is focussed very much at the corporate market and costs more than I want to pay. I've emailed to ask if they have a consumer version. If not, they should do!

ADSL progress

It appears that this is the week of ADSL positivity. First, Andrew reports that PlusNet are sucking less than they once did. And now, I can exclusively reveal that there is progress on my broadband, too.

After taking 54 hours to update a "flag" on my record to allow my ISP to book an appointment, BT finally decided that sending an engineer round might be a reasonable way to determine where the error on my line was located.

There is, of course, a problem when a problem is intermittent... what do you do if it isn't actually happening when the engineer comes to visit?

This is the dilemma I faced yesterday: my connection had been rock-solid for hours by the time the engineer arrived and was performing pretty well.


He plugged in his equipment and got on his mobile to the exchange. The opening conversation wasn't promising... general comments about the lack of any visible problem.  Just as I thought I would be hit with a £50 charge for claiming a fault when none existed, the noise on the line kicked in and the engineer saw what I have been seeing for weeks: the signal to noise ratio collapsed, the router lost its sync and he agreed that something was wrong.

He called me up a few hours later to say that he had gone to the exchange and run the same test there - and had seen the same problem so he believes the problem is with a piece of equipment in the exchange (a "line card"). He has opened a ticket to get it replaced, he says.

So, who knows... perhaps I'll get a stable broadband connection soon...

How exam papers are really marked

Via the ASI blog, an explanation of how exam papers are marked.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I haven't lost it...

Ben (a regular commenter on this blog) observed when we went round to his for lunch at the weekend that the shortest day of the year (21 December?) is not the same as the day with the latest dawn or earliest sunset (which was a few days ago, apparently).

At work today, somebody linked to an explanation. I didn't get to read it because it started off with an analogy about clocks that made me realise I hadn't done any mathematics for ages.

The example invited the reader to consider a regular analogue clock - one with a big hand and a small hand. The question was: assuming it starts at 12noon, at what time will the hands next line up exactly?

It's clear from inspection that it'll be somewhere shortly after five past one... but when, precisely?

I decided to find out.

After a bit of fiddling about, here is the solution I came up with. What I'm interested in knowing is: is there an easier way?

  • Let t be the time since noon in seconds
  • Let b(t) be how far the big hand has rotated at time t
  • Let s(t) be how far the small hand has rotated at time t

We can see the following:


s(t)= 2.pi.t/(3600*12)

So, when the hands are aligned, they must be at precisely the same angle.

Thus, at alignment, s(b)=b(t)+2.pi.n, where n is an integer.

To see why we need the 2.pi.n term, consider that the big hand may perform several full circles before it aligns with the small hand. Therefore, we have to consider the case where the alignment occurs without any "extra" loops, when the big hand has looped once, when it has looped twice, and so on.

Thus, cancelling where possible, we get

t/3600 = t/(3600*12) + n

Rearranging, we get

t = 12*3600*n/11

For n=0 we get the trivial result.

For n=1 we get t = 3927 3/11, which means the answer to our question is: five past 1, 27 and 3/11 seconds.

So there we have it.

(Actually, now I come to think about it, there are eleven alignments in any given hour 12-hour period, so an appeal to symmetry would yield the same result... i.e. an alignment every 12*3600/11 = 3927 3/11 seconds. Sigh...)

[UPDATE 2006-12-15 15:58. Thanks to Lee for spotting the error... there are not 11 alignments per hour; there are 11 alignments per 12-hour period.]

[UPDATE 2006-12-15 16:01. Talk about pedantic... apparently it is necessary to multiple the numbers by 12 as well as make it clear in the text. Good grief!]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

London's Toytown Train Station is suddenly all grown-up

It appears that Marylebone has sprouted two new platforms.

I was there last week and I can't say I noticed them. Where have they hidden them?!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Wireless Router Configuration Misery

The ongoing ADSL saga took a new twist yesterday evening. In addition to the ADSL side of things continuing its flakiness, the router decided to start playing up: it started freezing spontaneously.

The last time it did this, I traced it back to MSN Messenger - the D-Link 604+ firmware couldn't deal with it.

This time, however, I could find nothing to correlate the router's hangs with. The problem became worse and worse as the evening progressed (last night was a night in, after a late night on Friday).  I turned the router off before going to bed in case the problem was caused by overheating. No such luck: it froze within five minutes of turning it back on.

And so, this afternoon, after lunch with friends in Soho (at The Endurance... the best roast pork I've ever had in a pub... highly recommended), I popped over to PC World on Tottenham Court Road to pick up a new router. I had pre-ordered it this morning and, thanks for the "collect at store" system was able to get a 20% discount on the in-store price (meaning I paid less than most other online retailers were showing once you took into account delivery), was able to get it home today (no waiting for deliveries) and was ushered to the front of the (ten-long) queue to pay for it. Result!

Or so I thought...

I have just spent two hours of my life that I will never get back trying to set it up :-(

It all went so well to start with... it took less than sixty seconds to get it connected to the internet and to surf the web via ethernet. Getting the wireless set up, however, was a whole different proposition.

My first mistake was trying silently to "swap it out" so that the systems that relied on the old router (two laptops and my Apple Airport Express) wouldn't even spot the difference.

This meant enabling 128-bit WEP encryption.

One of the laptops connected just fine - which gave me confidence that I had configured it correctly. Sadly, laptop #2 and the Airport refused to connect. 

Laptop #2 could see the router and was able to try to connect. Sadly, it never got past the "obtaining IP address" phase... the router would just not serve an IP address.

Utterly maddening.

I'll spare you the details of the various things I tried to get it to work.

In the end, I gave up on my clever-clever attempt to switch the routers seamlessly and reverted to the more reliable approach of getting the basics working before trying to get clever.

It goes without saying that turning off the WEP security on the router and all the clients fixed the problems immediately.

Once this was done, I went back and turned security back on - but opted for the superior WPA (which my previous router didn't support). Updating the clients one-by-one resulted in a gratifyingly positive result.

An initial review of the evidence led me to believe that the router (a Belkin F5D7633uk4A) had a defect in its WEP support. Sadly, I think the problem is more subtle than that: the algorithm it (and the software on the first laptop) used to convert a text-string to a hex-string for the WEP password was different to the algorithm the Airport and Windows uses. How utterly stupid :-(

Is this really true?

Via Tim Worstall, I learn of a company (which employs tens of staff) that will shortly be put out of business as a result of a chain of events stemming from an inspector "misinterpreting" a form.

The article really does reward reading.

I'm not sure what's more scary: the prospect of having to fight such a faceless, intransigent bureaucracy or the thought that one's government would ever stoop so low as to pass a law designed solely to put a law-abiding, compliant employer out of business.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Important Magnet Update

Attentive readers will remember that I dropped my keys down the lift shaft last week.

This is the offending gap:

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Since the day of disaster, I have made some progress.

On Wednesday, my friend Ben lent me a magnet that he had extracted from an old hard drive (don't ask). Thanks to how it was packaged, it had the valuable property of providing a strong magnetic pull along one plane, with far less magnetism in other directions. This gave me confidence I would be able to lower it down the lift shaft without it sticking to the sides.

This is the magnet:

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The magnet is hidden between the two triangular-shaped pieces of shiny metal.

Full of confidence, I tried to use the magnet on Thursday evening. Unfortunately, even given its casing, it still had too much of a tendency to stick to the sides of the lift shaft and I didn't want to get it jammed.

I was ready to give up.

On Friday, I joined a conference call where I was due to talk a client through a project plan for a piece of work I am hoping they will engage us to assist them with.  I was somewhat surprised when the first question I was asked was "have you got your keys back yet?"!

A useful conversation ensued and the questioner, Martin, pointed out the rather obvious (in retrospect) fact that I could stick the magnet on a rigid pole to give myself far more control. Perhaps all was not lost after all!

I couldn't try this out last night as we had friends over for drinks.  Upon arriving back at home after lunch at a friend's today, however, we stopped to say hello to the porter. By chance, it was the same one that was on duty when I first lost my keys last week.

He amazed us by going into one of the back rooms and bringing out a three-metre long piece of wood, with a screw sticking out of the end that he had obtained for us. Fantastic!

We now had all the pieces we needed... a sufficiently long stick, a magnet and time.

A couple of minutes - and several layers of parcel tape - later, the magnet was adhered to the stick and I was poking it through the gap.

The keys were back in my possession almost immediately.


Upon returning the stick to the porter, he told me he had called Otis during the week and they told him their standard charge for retrieving keys is £150.  Ouch...

So, does anybody have any suggestions on what would be an appropriate way to show my gratitude?

Yoghurt Update

I observed in November last year that excess hygiene in hospitals was probably just as bad as insufficient hygiene.  The problem is that washing hands religiously and removing most bacteria just leaves a huge space for those left behind to multiply.  Given that the ones left behind are likely to be the nasty, hardy, scary ones, this is a problem.

The recommendation, only half humorously, I gave then was for doctors to wash their hands in yoghurt.

Regardless of the solution, whatever we're currently doing still isn't working:  Iain Dale has a story of another patient killed by MRSA, courtesy of the NHS.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sending letters to the Isle of Man

I asked on one of the internal forums at work and nobody knew the answer to this. Or, rather, nobody answered within 15 minutes of my asking...

So here goes: if I want to send a letter to the Isle of Man (from London), what stamp should I put on it? Is a regular first-class stamp OK?

[UPDATE 2006-12-06 10:31] I was too impatient. A colleague points me here - it seems a first class stamp should do just fine.

Steve Forbes

I had a busy day on Monday. As well as a client meeting in Preston and my nightmare train journeys, I had to be back in London to a deadline in order to make another business meeting.

Following that particular piece of stress (the return train was also delayed), I just had time to whizz across to London's Clubland (that's St James's, not Vauxhall...) to attend a talk being given by Steve Forbes, the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes magazine and two-time candidate for the Republican nominee for president. I went along with Andrew, who has also blogged about it.

Although my primary reason for going was the topic (his argument for the introduction of a flat tax), I must also admit that the chance to hear someone who got pretty close to running for president speak is not something that happens every day.

My mind is not made up on the flat tax and I'm not sure he advanced any arguments I hadn't already heard. However, the evening was still a big success and this was down to his mind-bogglingly large knowledge of economics and politics around the world.

The depth of his knowledge was astounding. He out-argued knowledgeable Brits on subtleties of early-eighties British politics and was able to give wide-ranging answers to questions that compared and contrasted the situations in multiple countries in multiple continents without sounding like he was showing off or trying to make cheap points.

The event itself had an interesting format. The host (from The London Junto) clearly knew a lot of people in the audience (e.g. Eamonn Butler from the ASI) and brought them in from time to time to add their perspective. I didn't warm to that approach at first but, with hindsight, I could see that it added a dimension to the discussion that is lacking when the audience is entirely anonymous.

All in all, an interesting evening.

[EDITED 2006-12-08 09:16. I spelled Eamonn Butler's name incorrectly - now fixed. He has blogged about the event here.

IP addresses by capita

Via the Adam Smith Institute blog, a fantastic diagram showing the distribution of IP addresses around the world, adjusted for population.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


I'm sure my readers are more knowledgeable about ADSL than I am so let's see if you can help me out.

In short, the connection is slow and highly variable. Here is a graph of upload and download speeds over the last week:

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You will observe that both upstream and downstream speeds are ultra-variable.

I have one telephone socket, which is of the type where the front faceplate can be removed to reveal another, hidden socket behind it.  The back of the faceplate has a plug in it such that when the faceplate is attached, the faceplate is "plugged in" to the "secret" socket.   I believe this socket is known as an "NTE5" socket. Look at "Part III" of this document to see what I'm talking about. (There are no wires attached to the back of my faceplate, which I assume means there are no extension sockets in the flat)

A sample screenshot from my router's "Line Condition" screen shows the following:

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You will observe the following:

  • The downstream attenuation is high
  • The number of errors ("FEC", "CRC", "HEC") that are being dealt with per second is horrific
  • The router claims that it is getting a downstream rate of 5120 Kbps. That may well be the speed it has negotiated but the errors are ensuring I get nothing like that.

Here is what I have done so far in an attempt to improve the situation:

  • Moved the router from the kitchen into the living room in case there was electrical interference in the kitchen
  • Stopped using the dimmer switch in the living room as I read this can cause interference
  • Re-routed the power to the router so that it is as far away from the phone line as possible
  • Tried disconnecting and powering-off the cordless phone
  • Bought a new micro-filter
  • Plugged the micro-filter directly into the "secret" phone socket
  • Upgraded the router's firmware
  • Spoken to the building manager to understand how the phone cable gets into the flat. He says that it is taken from a "distribution point" in the fire escape.


I have also spoken to my ISP several times and they have asked BT to check the line several times. BT reports no fault but the ISP agrees that there is a lot of "noise" on the line and that the number of errors is abnormally high.

So, given all this, what do you suggest I do?

My inclination is to request that a BT engineer comes out to do some tests (downside: I'll be charged £50 if they find no fault). 

Can anybody suggest anything else apart from that?

Monday, December 04, 2006

I was wrong... there really *are* excuses I haven't heard before

I should have known my trip to Preston today would be problematic when I heard that the Waterloo and City line was closed due to "excess dust on the platforms".

Yes, really:

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Luckily, my route didn't require me to use it but it was clearly a warning sign.

My long distance trip, on Virgin Trains, started out well: by booking ahead I managed to get a first class ticket for less than half the price of a walk-up standard class ticket (and, crucially for expense purposes, for less than all other advance purchases).

However, as soon as we left Crewe, things went very wrong.  Network Rail had decided that having four tracks was excessive and that one was more than sufficient.   So we spent ninety three minutes stationary whilst trains in front of us and trains coming the other way took turns to use the single piece of track.

By the time I arrived at my client, it was time to go home!  I changed my plans to take a later train (I got the ticket office staff to allow it even though my ticket was inflexible) and booked a cab for as late as possible from the client to the station. Even so, this meant that I had far less time with the client than I would have liked.

I'm really not sure if there's a lesson in any of this but excuse of "dust on the platforms" is one I'll always remember.  I'm sure there's a poem about this.....  "For the want of a vacuum cleaner...."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

We need more magnet shops

No... not kitchen designers but shops that sell magnets.

I popped over to see the porters this afternoon because a micro-filter I ordered on Wednesday evening hadn't arrived and I was wondering if they had signed for it but forgotten to tell me (they hadn't; it just hasn't arrived yet).

As I stepped out of the lift on the way back to the flat, my keys fell out of my hands, slipped through the gap and landed in the pit at the bottom of the lift shaft.  ARGHHH!!!! 

This is not an immediate problem (I'm using the spare access fob and keys now) but it's a pain in the neck.  I returned to the porters and asked if they had access to the lift shaft. Unsurprisingly, only the lift maintenance company do and Otis - get this - did their annual inspection yesterday. So only 364 days to go until they return :-(

Now I am not the kind of person to give in and if Otis can't help me then I'll help myself.

So, let's consider the facts:

  • The keys are at the bottom of the lift shaft, which is about two metres lower than the ground floor.
  • The gap through which they fell is about three centimetres wide
  • I have no access to the pit
  • An analysis of the spare set of keys suggests that neither they nor the entry fob are magnetic.
  • The key ring may be magnetic (the spare set's key ring is but I changed the key ring on the stranded set which means I don't know for sure)
  • If I shine a torch through the gap, I can see the keys directly below. Apart from the keys, all I can see is some dust and lots of red elastic bands.... Tsk, tsk Royal Mail.

So, what are my options?

  • Lower a long, thin stick with a hook on the end through the gap and attempt to capture the keys.
    • Problem: I may push the keys further out of reach
  • Lower a long, thin stick with glue on the end and attempt to get the keys to stick to it
    • Problem: knowing my luck, I'll end up gluing the stick to the side of the lift and or sealing the doors shut or something
  • Lower a long, thin stick with molten wax on the end and touch it to the keys. Wait for the wax to set before lifting them out
    • Problem: actually, this may not be as foolish as it sounds...
  • The wax idea but with jelly
    • Problem: I don't have any jelly, silly
  • Lower a long, thin stick with double-sided sticky tape on the end. Attempt to capture the keys.
    • I'll probaby capture the dust long before I capture any keys.
  • Lower a magnet on a string. Capture the keys. Reel them in

Given the options, it strikes me that the magnet approach is best.

And this is where I am tearing my hair out... I can't find one for love or money!!!

I started by searching the flat:

  • There is one in each of my nice speakers. I don't want to ruin my nice speakers.
  • There is one in my guitar's practise amp (aside: what role is "practise" playing in that sentence? Is it a verb? An adjective? I do hope I shouldn't have spelled it with a 'c'). I don't want to break my amplifier.
  • There are three magnets in the bathroom cabinet. I tried prising one out with a knife. I almost cut off my finger :-(  
  • I thought about wrapping some metal-cored garden twine around a screwdriver and plugging it into the mains as a make-shift electromagnet before deciding against and realising that I couldn't remember whether an electromagnet needed AC or DC.

Realising that there were no useable magnets at home, I walked to Canary Wharf. The staff at Robert Dyas couldn't help. Waitrose had none. Neither did Tesco or Marks and Spencer or Boots or anyone else. Arghhh!

So, readers, I implore the entrepreneurial amongst you: open a magnet shop. For the love of all that is decent in this world, we need more magnet shops!